Three stories that illustrate the crisis of grace today.

I was visiting a Texas megachurch that was baptizing 200 people one Sunday morning. A few of the candidates for baptism were interviewed by the pastor on stage, and the script went like this: after the candidate's testimony of new life in Christ, the pastor asked if the candidate believed that baptism saves us. The prompted answer was, of course, no. Then he asked the candidate what does save us, and this time the prompted answer was our faith in Jesus as God incarnate and/or our trust in his sufficient death on the cross. The answers were formally correct, but "faith," it seems, had become a new work. We weren't so much saved by Christ as by our mental assent to a few theological propositions.

I was at another church where the message was grounded in those astounding and miraculous verses that culminate in "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20, ESV). Things were going well until we got to the end, when the preacher said, "Have you experienced grace?" His tone, and the background music that swelled as he prayed, suggested we were not saved by faith in what Christ accomplished but by a certain type of religious feeling we might have.

Third: I was speaking with a professor at a Christian university, and we were talking about the relationship of grace and good works. At one point he said, "We are saved by grace, yes, but after that, the Christian life is mostly about our effort to live a Christlike life."

I pick these three anecdotes for three reasons: First, they are typical of messages I hear in my travels as CT's editor. Second, these were taught by pastors and teachers of the faith, who one would hope would have a deeper appreciation of grace. And third, they represent what have become the three main alternatives for the simple biblical message of salvation by grace through faith.

It is understandable why we're tempted to shift the message of grace to a form of works. The radical grace outlined in Romans and Galatians seems too good to be true. It's hard to fathom that while we were sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8), or that, before we had done anything, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Before we had created the doctrine of salvation to believe in. Before we had enjoyed any religious experience. Before we had reformed our lives.

Let's be fair. In fact, salvation is a doctrine that we will at some point believe in as an intellectual proposition. And normally an encounter with almighty God will result in powerful religious experiences. And, yes, there is a measure of truth that life in Christ is a hard and narrow road.

But in the beginning is grace. In the middle is grace. In the end, "all manner of thing shall be well" (Julian of Norwich) because of grace. What I'm hearing time and again, in every corner of the church I visit, is not the soaring message of grace but the dull message of works—that I have to believe a certain theological construct, or have a certain feeling, or perspire in effort before I can be assured of God's radical acceptance and my future salvation.

This last month we read another dismal Pew survey about how American churches left, right, and center alike (except the Assemblies of God and a few others) are losing members. The reasons for this exodus are many and complex, but one reason may be that we have forgotten the message that long ago made our hearts grow strangely warm. There was once miraculous talk of the impossible possibility that a way had been made to return to Eden. And the angel standing at the entrance did not demand intellectual or emotional or moral visas to get in. The only passport required was one with a full list of all our sins, each stamped over, blotted out really, with the red ink of grace.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.