Surplus Grace: Belief, Doubt, and the Ever-Graced Faith

August 22nd, 2017

“Have faith in God!” Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of Mark (11:22 CEB). “You believe in God; believe also in me,” he says in the Gospel of John (14:1 NIV). Holding faith, Jesus suggests, is about laying claim to the hope that what God has promised will come to fruition. This includes Jesus’s own promises—to the disciples, and to us—that he has actually not abandoned us, even when the circumstances of our lives and this world seem to indicate otherwise. “Don’t be troubled,” he says; “I won’t leave you as orphans” (14:1, 8 CEB). “When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too” (14:3 CEB). Faith that holds refuses to give up on promises like this, even when it is colored by doubts or skepticism.

I love the biblical story of the man who holds tightly to faith, desperate for his son’s healing. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” he says to Jesus. “‘If you can do anything’?” Jesus exclaims. “All things are possible for the one who has faith.” “I have faith,” said the man immediately; “help my lack of faith!” (Mark 9:22-24 CEB). This father’s faith is interlocked with doubt, but he refuses to let go of it because he wants so badly for his son to be healed. It is this doubt-riddled faith that drives him to seek understanding; that leads him to seek Jesus; that strengthens him not to be bogged down by his skepticism but to force out an affirmative, if honest, answer to Jesus’s question.

Martin Luther argued back in the sixteenth century that what faith holds onto most directly is not even God’s promises but Jesus Christ himself. “Faith takes hold of Christ and has Him present, enclosing Him as the ring encloses the gem,” Luther says.[1] One of the points Luther is making with this beautiful metaphor is that faith in and of itself has no content. It is not something we achieve, something that can be measured, or something we should get credit for. It is not, in and of itself, something that can save us. But it is absolutely essential because it unites us to the Christ in whom we participate, the Christ who makes us righteous, the Christ who is present to us and who shares with us everything he has. He is the content to which our faith clings; the one in whom we live and move and have our being; the savior of the world and also of each and every one.

Our faith holds Christ, but we also hold faith. One of the million-dollar questions in theology is: do we have the capacity, in and of ourselves, to generate faith? Theologians through the ages have generally agreed that human beings cannot achieve faith on their own. The big debate is whether or not they contribute anything at all. Thomas Aquinas thought that human beings were capable of journeying part way toward God; that God had “built in” to every human creature this capacity. Calvin held that human beings had enough capacity that they could turn in the right direction, but (following his interpretation of Romans 1) he thought that soon thereafter they were liable to create idols rather than to worship the one true God. Wesley thought faith was out of range for human beings apart from God’s doing; at the same time, he thought human beings do have a part to play: they participate with a graced responsiveness to God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying love, choosing whether to accept or to reject God’s extended gift.

The theologian with whom I resonate most on this is Karl Barth. Barth lived from 1886 to 1968 and is part of the Reformed tradition, following John Calvin—but three centuries later! Barth observed that human beings who believe they have the capacity to contribute something of their own to God’s work of salvation were apt to mistake their own agendas for the will of God. His idea was that even our faith is a gift of God. He describes faith, in fact, as a kind of “surplus grace,” explaining that “grace is so truly grace, and so truly free as grace, that it is capable of this superfluity.” More specifically, he explains that grace is responsible for the “distinctive feature of the faith of those whom we see moving toward the miracles of Jesus.”[2]

The faith we hold is the faith that holds Christ, and the faith that holds Christ is surplus grace. It is a faith that will never let us go because it is an overflow of the unconditional love of God.

[1] Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, trans. Jaroslav Pelican and William Hansen, Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), XXVI: 132; also Gal 2:16.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 2009), IV.2, 245–46; see also IV.1, 201.

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