Is Lent for Obedience Boys?

The ying and yang of good works.

Ying:

Lent is the time that we embrace the discipline that is necessary for success in all aspects of life — study, work, fitness and financial management. There is no free lunch. Lent is when we do the hard work necessary to have Easter, like studying before an exam, or doing spring cleaning to keep the house in good order. We have to suffer first in order to rejoice later.

“In every culture, there are ancient stories and myths that teach that all of us, at times, have to sit in the ashes,” writes Father Ronald Rolheiser in a magnificent book of art and meditations, God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, edited by Gregory Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. “We all know, for example, the story of Cinderella. The name literally means the little girl (puella) who sits in the ashes (cinders). The moral of the story is clear: Before you get to go to the great feast, you must first spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, smudged, tending to duty, unglamorous, waiting.”

Yang:

God’s grace — the gift of his Son and his redemptive work — is not something we earn or achieve. It is entirely gratuitous.

The “gift” of salvation is not at all like the “transgression” of sin, as we read from St. Paul on the First Sunday of Lent. So the idea of Lent as a sort of necessary period of spiritual training before an athletic competition or artistic performance is not a fully Christian vision.

Ying:

It remains true, though, that even taking into account the gift of God’s grace, we do need spiritual discipline. That’s the second reason we look forward to Lent. We don’t earn our salvation, but we do have to work it out.

Discipline of our imagination, our appetites and our attachments are all necessary for growth in virtue. We all recognize God’s grace is not some magic that he works upon us as passive objects. We are genuine subjects, who must freely respond to God’s invitation. We don’t earn the invitation to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, but if we accept it, we do have to make the effort to go to the feast and arrive wearing our wedding garments, lest we be found unworthy and cast out.

Yiang:

If there is a danger in thinking we earn salvation, there is also a danger that we simply presume on God’s mercy, treating it as something we are entitled to. Lent corrects that tendency.

Truth:

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Where’s Waldo 2016 Update

Since some of the comments of late are echoing the union-with-Christ-centric reading of Reformed soteriology that animated many posts here, I offer a refresher on Calvin’s understanding of first-importance matters when he was explaining to Cardinal Sadoleto what Protestants believed about salvation. Note first the priority of forensics — this is about sin, guilt, law, legal verdicts:

We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sift his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.

Oh, yes, he talks about communion. That’s not union, at least in the English language I use.

Second, the obedience boys should observe Calvin’s understanding of works in relation to faith:

What have you here, Sadolet, to bite or carp at? Is it that we leave no room for works? Assuredly we do deny that, in justifying a man, they are worth one single straw. For Scripture everywhere cries aloud, that all are lost; and every mans’s own conscience bitterly accuses him. The same Scripture teaches, that no hope is left but in the mere goodness of God, by which sin is pardoned, and righteousness imputed to us. It declares both to be gratuitous, and finally concludes that a man is justified without works, (Rom. iv. 7.) But what notion, you ask, does the very term Righteousness suggest to us, if respect is not paid to good works ? I answer, if you would attend to the true meaning of the term justifying in Scripture, you would have no difficulty. For it does not refer to a man’s own righteousness, but to the mercy of God, which, contrary to the sinner’s deserts, accepts of a righteousness for him, and that by not imputing his unrighteousness. Our righteousness, I say, is that which is described by Paul, (2 Cor. v. 19,) that God bath reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ. The mode is afterwards subjoined — by not imputing sin. He demonstrates that it is by faith only we become partakers of that blessing, when he says that the ministry of reconciliation is contained in the gospel. But faith, you say, is a general term, and has a larger signification. I answer, that Paul, whenever he attributes to it the power of justifying, at the same time restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respect to works. Hence his familiar inference — if by faith, then not by works. On the other hand — if by works, then not by faith.

Funny how far union with Christ was from Calvin’s explicit explanation of Protestant soteriology. Maybe union comes in the Development of Calvinist Doctrine. One man’s development is another’s change.

Make It Stop

Yet another conversion account with these un-Francis like asides from a former Dutch Calvinist:

I also realized that there was actually no real Protestant faith in itself. The Protestant faith was founded on a protest against a faith, the Catholic Faith. Why would I ever want to part of a “church” that was actually no church at all; one that was racked by division and founded on protest!

The blindness that had always covered me was now gone. I saw that there were countless Protestant denominations, and that they all disagreed with each other on at least one important point of doctrine. This defied the very nature of Truth itself, and rendered all of them imperfect. I finally saw that there must be an authority to clear the air, which I now understand is the See of Peter.

But these questions soon evaporated into joy:

Towards the end of the Vigil, when I saw a number of people receiving their First Sacraments, I knew God was calling me to do the same thing. Mother Church was opening her arms out to me, and even though I knew many crosses would come my way if I ran to Her, I could not resist Her love. Family members of mine would shun me, professors would shake their heads as I had received prestigious scholarships in the Reformed Theology department, my future would be so uncertain, and friends would laugh, but it didn’t matter anymore.

Why doesn’t the fine print of conversion include mention of a stop in purgatory?

Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

The faith of the Church concerning purgatory is clearly expressed in the Decree of Union drawn up by the Council of Florence (Mansi, t. XXXI, col. 1031), and in the decree of the Council of Trent which (Sess. XXV) defined:

“Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful” (Denzinger, “Enchiridon”, 983).

Further than this the definitions of the Church do not go, but the tradition of the Fathers and the Schoolmen must be consulted to explain the teachings of the councils, and to make clear the belief and the practices of the faithful.

Temporal punishment

That temporal punishment is due to sin, even after the sin itself has been pardoned by God, is clearly the teaching of Scripture. God indeed brought man out of his first disobedience and gave him power to govern all things (Wisdom 10:2), but still condemned him “to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow” until he returned unto dust. God forgave the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but in punishment kept them from the “land of promise” (Numbers 20:12). The Lord took away the sin of David, but the life of the child was forfeited because David had made God’s enemies blaspheme His Holy Name (2 Samuel 12:13-14). In the New Testament as well as in the Old, almsgiving and fasting, and in general penitential acts are the real fruits of repentance (Matthew 3:8; Luke 17:3; 3:3). The whole penitential system of the Church testifies that the voluntary assumption of penitential works has always been part of true repentance and the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, can. xi) reminds the faithful that God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt. God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin, and this doctrine involves as its necessary consequence a belief that the sinner failing to do penance in this life may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off eternally from God.

Venial sins

All sins are not equal before God, nor dare anyone assert that the daily faults of human frailty will be punished with the same severity that is meted out to serious violation of God’s law. On the other hand whosoever comes into God’s presence must be perfectly pure for in the strictest sense His “eyes are too pure, to behold evil” (Habakkuk 1:13). For unrepented venial faults for the payment of temporal punishment due to sin at time of death, the Church has always taught the doctrine of purgatory.

Can you really be so happy about the uncertainty that awaits 99.9% of those who have to make, grace-assisted of course, satisfaction for their sins? If perfection is necessary, how can the imperfect ever be perfect? Protestantism may seem like a legal fiction. But Rome’s fiction is moral. Alien righteousness matters and this convert doesn’t seem to know that her welcoming mother church not only rejects but condemns such teaching.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psalm 24:3-5 ESV)

Obedience Boys All

Adam Gopnik explains how Shakespeare was a law-gospel guy:

Shakespeare also believed in forgiveness in a way that we don’t. Really rotten people get forgiven, in the comedies and romances, at least, in ways that still make us uneasy. In “The Tempest,” “As You Like It,” “Twelfth Night,” bad actors get easy outs. Even Shylock isn’t killed. Dr. Johnson thought the moment when Hamlet delays killing Claudius in order to deprive him of any chance of forgiveness was “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” We are much more ostentatiously compassionate and much more effectively vindictive. Small incidents of plagiarism end careers—not a rule that Shakespeare himself would have escaped—and sexual sins can place their perpetrators forever beyond the bounds of redemption. In Shakespeare, rotten people do rotten things, but if they stick around and say they’re sorry they are forgiven. By contrast, we feel everyone’s pain, forgive no one’s trespasses.

Machen Helps Keep Law and Gospel Straight

If he were living, he’d also straighten out the obedience boys:

But what ought to be clearly observed is that that Covenant of Works or Covenant of Life did not offer “salvation.” The word “salvation” implies something from which one is saved. Adam was not lost when that Covenant of Life was given him. On the contrary he had knowledge, righteousness and holiness. The Covenant of Works was not given as a way by which a sinner might get rid of his sin and merit eternal life.

Neither was the Mosaic Law given for any such purpose. It was not given to present, even hypothetically, a way by which a sinner, already eternally under the condemnation of sin, could by future perfect obedience merit the favor of God. And Dr. Charles Hodge surely does not regard it as given for any such purpose.

The root error, or one of the many root errors of the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible seems to me to be the utter failure to recognize and make central the fact of the Fall of man. I know that there are salutary inconsistencies in the Scofield Bible. I know that in the notes on the fifth chapter of Romans there is taught, not indeed the orthodox doctrine of imputation, but still some recognition of the universal corruption that has come from Adam’s sin. But by what a back-door even that much of the central Biblical teaching is brought in! As one reads Dr. Scofield’s notes one does not for the most part get the slightest inkling of the fact that anything irrevocable took place when Adam fell. After his Fall man continued to be tested in successive dispensations. See for example the definition of a dispensation which Dr. Scofield gives at the beginning. That is one of the things that seems to me to be so profoundly heretical in this commentary.

It is contrary to the very heart of the Augustinian and Calvinistic view of sin. According to that view — and surely according to the Bible — the guilt of Adam’s first sin was imputed to his posterity. Adam being by divine appointment the representative or federal head of the race. Thus all descended from Adam by ordinary generation are guilty. They are guilty before they individually have done anything either good or bad. They are under the penalty of sin when they are born. Part of that penalty of sin is hopeless corruption, from which, if there is growth to years of discretion, individual transgressions spring. How utterly absurd would it have been therefore for God to offer the Mosaic Law, to such an already condemned and fallen race, as something which, if only obeyed by that already condemned and fallen race, would bring salvation and eternal life!

Hard to love the law when it doesn’t do all that faith in Christ does.

Personal Sins Require the Cross, Institutional Sins Only Need Policy

Here’s why the talk of systemic sin and social salvation comes up short. It underestimates the gravity of sin and the significance of the remedy. Consider R. York Moore’s case for corporate repentance:

Salvation for American Christians is a transaction between two individuals—themselves and God. This over-simplification of sin does not make sense of systemic, corporate evil, brokenness, and social maladies. American evangelicals reason that if someone is poor, perhaps it is due to his or her individual sinful choices. If someone is denied access to education, perhaps it is because of his or her work ethic or ability to work with others.

Notice that relations between God and man on the sin score card over simplify sin. Never mind that the remedy for my sin only required the eternal son of God to take human form and bear the guilt and penalty of my sin by dying a brutal death. Overly simple? I don’t think so.

Moore goes on to mention ways that healing and restoration “in Christ” may come for the social maladies and corporate injustices of “banking and land development policies [that locked blacks] into cycles of poverty, inadequate housing, and educational opportunities.”

Here are a couple ways to engage the environments, cycles, and systems of injustice that disproportionately impact Black communities.
• Land developers can work with political leaders to create affordable housing that has better potential for wealth creation.
• Policy makers in the banking industry can work toward pathways of empowerment for Black entrepreneurs.
• Law enforcement can pursue racialized quotas in their ranks coupled with substantive ethnic diversity training.

If I follow the implications of Moore’s logic, viewing sin from the perspective of sin and salvation is simplistic because corporate sin is so much more complicated. But the remedy for these structural sins that are so much graver than personal sins comes from a few policy changes that seem inconsequential when compared to the crucifixion.

This is why talk of social sin and social redemption is worrisome. It treats the saving work of Christ as insignificant compared to political reform.

Who’s simplistic now?

The Obedience Boy W-w

Tim Challies leaves out a crucial piece of Reformed Protestantism when he describes The Utter Devastation of Sin:

But is even a tornado a significant enough picture of sin? A tornado is one big system that devastates and destroys, but quickly moves on. As much damage as that F4 tornado did to Ringgold, it lasted for just a few minutes and was gone. Sin is different in that a big sin seems to spawn a thousand little sins. So maybe we need to push the metaphor to near the breaking point to say that sin is like a big tornado that tears through town while spawning off hundreds of smaller tornados, each of which goes in its own direction, causes its own trauma, and leaves behind its own trail of destruction. One big sin is so awful, so evil, so sinful, that it generates a thousand little opportunities to compound the sin, setting off all those other whirlwinds. People can sin in their response—perhaps they try to cover it up or they try to downplay it. People can sin as they process it—perhaps they gossip about the people involved or they make prideful assertions. People can sin in their actions—perhaps they over-react or under-react, displaying either needless panic or thoughtless apathy. The possibilities are endless.

The fact is that sin is awful, unbearably awful. Sin is evil, horrifyingly evil. And sin begets sin. There are endless ways that sin invites sin, that sin promotes further sin, that sin invites the opportunity to sin more, to sin deeper, to spawn off into a massive all-consuming storm. Let this be just one more reason to put sin to death—to search it out, pray it out, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to root it out.

O, wretched man that he is, to borrow a phrase. Wasn’t this understanding of the pervasiveness of sin what drove Luther to the alien righteousness of Christ imputed by faith alone as his only hope? And wasn’t the pervasiveness of sin in his regenerate self what drove Paul to the freedom from the law that he found only in Christ? So why bring up the Holy Spirit and the quest for holiness apart from Christ?

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 7:21-8:4 ESV)

Without Christ, doesn’t putting sin to death place you on the same treadmill as your average Roman Catholic (not really given the soteriological security we see at Old Life from the ex-Protestant Roman Catholics)?

Faith in Christ doesn’t give us a clean slate to be holy now that past sins are forgiven. The active obedience of Christ is also imputed to us in faith. It lets us looking indwelling sin in the eye before turning to look in trust at Christ. Shouldn’t someone who identifies with Calvinism (even of a recent sort) know better?