Jason Stellman and the crew continue to debate the merits of an agape or list paradigm, as Bryan Cross described them way back when. What I find hard to fathom is the plausibility of the so-called agape paradigm if human sinfulness really is as profound as Christianity and Judaism have taught. If human beings really are dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul describes them in Ephesians 2, the agape paradigm doesn’t make a lot of sense. We might cooperate with grace all we want, we might do works that show a genuine faith, but what if we still have a sinful nature? This was part of the doubt that haunted Luther.
Rome’s own teaching on the fall would suggest the implausibility of the agape paradigm. The Baltimore Catechism, for instance, is none too cheery about the prospects of human goodness:
45. Q. What evil befell us on account of the disobedience of our first parents?
A. On account of the disobedience of our first parents, we all share in their sin and punishment, as we should have shared in their happiness if they had remained faithful.
46. Q. What other effects followed from the sin of our first parents?
A. Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.
This is not as strong as Heidelberg:
Question 8. Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?
Answer: Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.
But it is not that far off. Both talk about corruption of human nature and an inclination to evil.
The Baltimore Catechism also teaches the need for a perfect savior who can satisfy God’s wrath for sin:
84. Q. What lessons do we learn from the sufferings and death of Christ?
A. From the sufferings and death of Christ we learn the great evil of sin, the hatred God bears to it, and the necessity of satisfying for it.
Again, this resembles the logic of Heidelberg:
Question 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favour?
Answer: God will have his justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.
Where Rome and Protestants differ, then, is whether Christ fully satisfies for all of a sinner’s sin. According to the Baltimore Catechism:
Q. 801. Why should we have to satisfy for our sins if Christ has fully satisfied for them?
A. Christ has fully satisfied for our sins and after our baptism we were free from all guilt and had no satisfaction to make. But when we willfully sinned after baptism, it is but just that we should be obliged to make some satisfaction.
In contrast, Heidelberg teaches:
Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?
Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.
This may seem fairly elementary to anyone who knows the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the extent and depth of sin seems to be a category not sufficiently considered in the ongoing debates about how we become right with God, whether by faith alone or by a faith that has within it charity of love which will produce good works and will unite us with God. Those wonder-working aspects of the agape paradigm do not address the real problem of sinfulness and God’s just demand for a perfect righteousness. We may love till we’re blue in the face, but given our sinfulness and the ongoing sin in believers’ lives, how do we know if we have really loved enough?
Maybe the agape paradigm is right. If it is, we’re all toast.