Imagine one day you realize you are a character in a story. You thought your life was your own—that you could come and go as you please; that you had some sway over your future. But then, you begin to hear the voice of your author narrating you in the omniscient third person—explaining your actions, describing your feelings, foreshadowing your future. It dawns on you. You are not your own.
In Stranger Than Fiction, an IRS agent named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) struggles with the fact that he has an author.
How would you feel in Harold’s position? What would it be like to have an omniscient narrator who wrote you into existence, not because you somehow justified yourself by what you could do, but only because your author wished for you to be a part of the story? Imagine if the reason for your life-story was simply the free and gracious choice of your author. In other words, imagine what it would be like to be justified sola gratia—by grace alone.
A One-Way Relationship
Sola gratia was the phrase the first Protestant Reformers used to describe the one-way relationship between God and God’s creatures.
God gives. We receive, passively, like characters from an author.
The Bible reveals God as the Author of the story of the world. God is the Creator, but not merely like a designer. When an author creates, he does more than design. My computer hardware had a designer, but that designer has not touched this machine in a long time. The majority of this “creation’s” lifespan is spent removed from its “creator.” Not so for an author. As long as the story is told, the author never leaves. The author is continuously present in, with and under all the characters, settings, and turns of plot.
An author is a creator, but not in the same way that a mother and a father are creators. A father begets and a mother gives birth to a child. Immediately, the parents interact with the child as a fellow person who is like them in every way—only smaller. They smile. Baby smiles back. They ask a question and soon she answers. There is give and take—a two-way relationship.
In contrast, the author-character relationship goes one-way. The author exists on an entirely different level. Harry, Ron, and Hermione don’t have access to J.K. Rowling. They are not even real in the same way that Ms. Rowling is real. Their author makes them what they are. Characters can’t give anything to their author.
“Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:34–36).
If I confess God as the Author of all things visible and invisible, it changes the way I approach the Creation/Evolution debates. The crux of the matter is not the evidence each side presents. Rather, it’s the conflicting stories each side uses to select, weigh, and interpret whatever counts as evidence. If I bring to the evidence the assumption that the God of Jesus cannot be involved in every aspect of human and natural reality as the Author, then I will tell a story like this, “This must have started with a Big Bang and taken billions of years to settle into such complex, wondrous, life-sustaining patterns.”
It would be a different story altogether if I confessed with Job,
“In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind … if he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open … if he should gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” (Job 12:10, 14-15; 34:14-15).
Job’s belief that God is the Author of all things is the thorn at the throbbing-source of his suffering. If we continue reading the perplexing book that bears his name, he goes on to say,
“God has torn me in his wrath and hated me … God gives me up to the ungodly and casts me into the hands of the wicked … Why do the wicked live … and grow mighty in power? … Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty? (Job 16:7–11; 21:7; 24:1)
Imagine being trapped in a story like that.
Even if you wanted out, you couldn’t escape. You can’t stop being a character in your author’s story. But that doesn’t stop you from trying. You rebel against your author. Now that you realize he’s here—that he’s in, with, and under everything, messing with you, holding you back, dictating your future—you try to fight him. You resist the movement of the story. You transgress the boundaries of your setting. But the more you rebel, the more you hurt yourself. The more you fight him, the more you find yourself fighting everyone around you. And you begin to resent your author. You hate him. But even that doesn’t help.
One day you try something new. You tell yourself another tale: “There is no author. Everything happens by unguided evolution. I must make my own meaning and create my own happy ending. I am Author of my life story. It’s up to me to justify my life as one worth living.”
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God” (Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Thesis 17).
But your author won’t go away. He’s haunting you. He’s hunting you. One minute he’s wowing you with the perfect cup of coffee and a magnificent sunrise—and the next he’s killing off your loved ones. Soon he’ll be coming for you. You can’t get away from him.
Then he speaks. Not about you this time. But to you. He addresses you personally.
Now I’m going to ask you to stop imagining and simply believe. The first thing your Author wants to tell you is that he has a Son. And he loves his Son. The second thing he wants to say is that as much as he loves his Son, that’s how much he loves you. This is, in fact, why he created you—so you could become not merely his characters, but his sons and daughters. He justified your existence not because of what you could do for him, but because of what he wants to do for you—to invite you into an authentically two-way, Father-child relationship of love and trust.
A Two-Way Relationship
To re-create this personal relationship of love and trust between God and human creatures, the Father sent his only Son to become a character in his own story. As a character, the Son suffered all the unanswered questions that you and I suffer as characters in this confusing story. Jesus showed us what it looks like to actively strive and passively suffer as God’s beloved children. In death, he showed us how to express our doubt with Job-like faith, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
In his resurrection, he showed us how faith waits on the Author of all things.
Sola fide was the phrase the Reformers used to describe the two-way relationship between God the Father and his beloved children.
When the Reformers followed the Apostle Paul and insisted that we are justified sola fide, “by faith alone,” (Romans 3:21–31) they meant that we are rescued from our rebellion by hearing in Jesus the voice of our Author, and taking him at his word. Trusting him, accepting his story as our story—this is what it means to be justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
Clips from Stranger than Fiction, directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm (Columbia Pictures, 2006).