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.

Why Did Christ Die?

Was it because sin is so heinous or because humans need a cosmic flannel graph to illustrate God’s displeasure over sin (I don’t think he is weeping about it)? Machen thinks the former:

The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented sinners as righteous in God’s sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness before the judgment seat of God. But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin. The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life He brings those for whom He died. The Christian, on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, not only has died unto sin, but also lives unto God. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But what if God can change you apart from the death and resurrection of Christ?

In the midst of this crisis, (that went on for more than a year,) I came across the teaching of Martin Luther and his followers, who, when confronted with the same apparently insoluble problem, issued a ruling that was, essentially, against God. Human nature was hopelessly corrupt, top to bottom and god Himself has no power to alter it. They described the human soul as a dung heap, over which the grace of God falls like a deep covering of snow, that changes nothing of the underlying corruption.

This nauseating and plainly wicked doctrine – essentially nihilistic – so infuriated me that I realized in a flash that it was an insult, not to me in my failings, but to God’s infinite perfection and power. My very fury at this insult made me understand at last what the Church had always held: that it is not my power, but the power of God that will change me into this “perfect” new thing. This promise was true, and it had much more to do with Him than with me.

If God can change us, why would he need to send his son to die on the cross?

But if Machen and Luther are right about the extent of sin and the irredeemable character of fallen humans apart from an alien righteousness imputed to them and received by faith, then what incentives do people have to be good?

We cannot “earn” God’s love but, alas, too often we reject it. And it is up to us to use the gifts God has given to us—including our inherent rationality as well as the Church and the aids to faith and reason it provides—to orient ourselves to the good. Through hard work we can develop our character (habits of virtue or vice that go far toward determining who we are) such that we will recognize and say “yes” to God’s will. The saint does not achieve salvation through mere right conduct, but the saint’s conduct, both spiritual and physical, help him to surrender fully to God and do His will. In doing the right thing for the right reason we orient ourselves toward what is right and thereby recognize and accept God.

. . . Good works help develop within us habits that enable us to distinguish between good and evil; good works make it more likely that we will choose the good, even when it brings with it pain and death. This, I submit, is not some prideful claim to earning one’s own salvation, but rather a recognition of both the dignity and the weakness of the human person. We have within us an impulse toward the good, which we too often ignore. We have written on our hearts a knowledge of God’s will, which we also too often ignore. By both thinking and doing right we can embrace the good, opening ourselves to the grace offered by God—who is beyond our full knowledge but who has created within us a soul capable of recognizing His will.

If we have goodness, or an openness to the good within us, why exactly did Christ have to die?

Somethings don’t develop or change. Christianity doesn’t make humanism Christian.

Lord, I Know Already, Help Me Do

What is the purpose of preaching? Is it to increase knowledge or provoke akSHUN? Randy Nabors thinks the latter:

We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information; we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

But what if the average Christian believer is someone who is prone to think either that sin, temptation, the devil, and the flesh have overwhelmed him the previous week? What sort of sermon does that person need? A call to obedience? Maybe. But can such a call make sense to someone who knows how sinful and weak he is? Might the person in the pew need to hear about God’s work in sanctification even if it is a tad didactic?

Or what about the average believer who lives life like a pilgrim, someone in exile, hardly in command of his affairs, but weak, frail, and in need of a reminder that God has saved him and controls all things?

In other words, Nabors seems to think of Christians as people who are in control of life and need simply to be hectored into living Christian lives. He doesn’t seem to allow that Christians come to church thinking that they believe, but are tempted to unbelief precisely when they take life and its duties into their own hands.

From DGH on The Divine Acceptilatio Submitted on 2015 02 25 at 10:43 am

Mark,

During this season (for some) of Lent and (for others) Fifty Shades of Gray, I wonder about the title of your post. Acceptilatio doesn’t sound Latin or learned. It sounds dirty.

But that’s a mere quibble. I am glad to know that you acknowledge that our sins (doh!) works are flawed and God accepts them despite how much they fall short of his righteous standard. But why is it so hard for you to say the j-word?

Because God accepts less – often, a lot less (i.e., “small beginnings”) – than perfection from us because of his Son and for the sake of his Son, who is glorified in us.

Is this fair? Doesn’t God accept us because of Christ’s righteousness? I mean, if being glorified in us is the standard, then what about my cats? God is glorified somehow in them. What about Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t God glorified in him sort of like the way God was glorified by Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery?

So why do you have such a hard time saying “justification.” You seem almost as reluctant to say it as George Washington was to utter “God” (he liked divine providence, Great Parent, Supreme Benefactor but seemed to gag on God).

Again, the Belgic Confession which you also seem reluctant to quote puts the relationship between justification and sanctification so well:

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification– for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure” — thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”

Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.

Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior. (Art. 25)

A piece of advice here — your posts on the law, obedience and sanctification toss some of your readers back and forth and undermine assurance. Do you really want to do that?

One other point. You write that God is always please with us, a point that seems to conflict with other posts you’ve written about the punishments believers receive in this life for disobedience:

God accepts imperfection because he is a gracious Father, who has a perfect Son, who sends his Spirit into our hearts (Gal. 4:6). Why are we called righteous and good? Why are our imperfect works acceptable and pleasing to God? The answer: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So does this mean that we now don’t have to worry about the sort of retribution that God’s people faced according to the Psalmist?

Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies,
but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers;
they twisted like a deceitful bow.
For they provoked him to anger with their high places;
they moved him to jealousy with their idols.
When God heard, he was full of wrath,
and he utterly rejected Israel.
He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt among mankind,
and delivered his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
He gave his people over to the sword
and vented his wrath on his heritage.
Fire devoured their young men,
and their young women had no marriage song.
Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows made no lamentation.
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
like a strong man shouting because of wine.
And he put his adversaries to rout;
he put them to everlasting shame.

He rejected the tent of Joseph;
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,
but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves. (Psalm 78:56-68 ESV)

If you now think that saints in Christ no longer face this kind of treatment because of their sins, I’m happy to know that. But again a word to the wise, this post doesn’t seem to cohere with your recent advocacy and rationales for obedient faith.

Gratitude and Motivation

The good (loaded term?) folks over at Gospel Reformation Network state the following:

We deny that gratitude for justification is the only valid motivation for holiness, making all other motivations illegitimate or legalistic.

I am not sure how many critics of neonomianism or flattening insist that gratitude is the exclusive motivation for good works. But if you think about better and worse ways to seek holiness, why do you have to warn about gratitude?

For instance, if you sought to follow a program of good works according to the Confession of Faith (16.2), would you be in danger of becoming self-righteous?

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

If I set out to prove (we are in the realm of evidence here — is this a courtroom, a science lab?) that my faith is alive by doing good works, don’t I wind up drawing attention to me, myself, and I? I am not saying that this is what the Confession is teaching. This paragraph is not necessarily prescribing motives for godly living. It is describing the reality of good works and how to understand them in relation to affirmations about justification by faith alone. But if you were to look at this paragraph for a motivation for sanctification, it could certainly lead to the kind of Protestant work ethic that Max Weber made famous: Protestants do good works to prove that they are elect, as if Protestants don’t already have assurance of salvation from resting in the righteousness of Christ.

What then is the problem with describing the Christian life, as Heidelberg (86) does, as one of thankfulness?

Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

It seems to (all about) me that whenever I say thank you for a gift, a serving of a meal, a gesture of kindness, or a routine act of service (even one for which I am paying), I take on a spirit of humility. By saying thanks, I am recognizing that someone has helped me, that I am in debt to someone, and that I need assistance. That sounds like a pretty good way to pursue holiness. Conversely, if I am trying to prove my goodness, do I say thank you to the waiter, Comcast serviceman, or bank teller? If I am trying to show evidence of righteousness, don’t I have less of a reason to say “thanks”?

Inquiring minds want the Obedience Boys to think this one through.

(All about) My Sanctity

What if I wrote a post or two about my good works? Say I commented on a trip from Hillsdale to Ann Arbor in which I slowed down to allow a slow truck to merge on to I-94 in front of me instead of gunning it to pass on the right a car in the middle lane that happened to be annoying me (but less than the driver stuck obliviously in the passing lane)? Would that count as a sign of sanctification?

What if I blogged about the check I wrote yesterday and placed in the offering? If I happened to note that I might have been able to buy a new set of golf clubs with that money but instead decided to support the ministry of the word in the local church, would I get credit for holiness with those folks who like to observe how much they love the law?

Or what if I posted something on the hospitality my wife and I extended to an OPC family who dropped their son off for the fall semester? Would this gain me credit in the sanctification spread sheet?

Or perhaps, could it be that talking out loud about our good works is a tad unbecoming and may be an indication of not making great strides in the pursuit of holiness?

So then if I write a lot about sanctification instead of my good works does that make my reflections about me any better? Or would I be open, like the fellow who talks a lot about how to have a godly marriage even while constantly belittling his wife, to the potential challenge of hypocrisy? After all, just because I blog about the importance of sanctification doesn’t mean that I am any more sanctified than the next blogger. Nor does my pointing out the import of sanctification come any closer to helping me myself to be holy.

In which case, are some subjects better left unmentioned given the distance between the topic that the person mentioning it?

Do the Obedience Boys Know Their Catechism?

Amid the flurry of posts about justification, sanctification, and antinomianism, attention to the Shorter Catechism has been missing. When you look there, you receive a very different impression of the law and good works than the obedience boys, Mark Jones and Rick Phillips, give.

At the birds-eye-view level, the Catechism teaches twice that God requires something from us. The first comes with the introduction to the Decalogue:

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.

For neo-nomians or the antinomianphobes, this looks encouraging. (It also seems to make the theonomists and neo-Calvinists’ hearts swell since it would seem to encourage efforts to implement God’s revealed will in all walks of every square inch.) See, God requires obedience from us and teaching the import of law and good works is only going along with what God requires.

But then comes the kicker. After discussing the requirements and prohibitions of each and every commandment — this is the catechetical speed bump that poses a barrier to covenant children ever learning the sacraments — the catechism soberly reminds where these requirements end: the wrath and curse of God.

Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word and deed.

Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?
A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

This depressing experience with the law is why some of us lean on the grace side of things. Sure, the law is good and important and it reveals God’s holiness and our own standard for holiness. But any attempt to keep it post-fall will result in God’s wrath and curse (which is also kind of a downer for thinking about implementing God’s revealed will in politics, the cinema, or plumbing).

But then the catechism goes on to talk about the remedy to our misery:

Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

I have always found it remarkable that these Puritans did not include the law or good works in this answer. This doesn’t mean that they did not affirm the third use of the law. Nor does this answer say that “faith and repentance are necessary for salvation” (even though that’s basically what Paul told a certain jailer). But for the basic problem of sin and its consequences, the remedy for the human predicament (we are talking salvation, here) is faith, repentance, and attending the means of grace. In other words, to escape God’s wrath and curse, our obedience — in terms of obeying the law — is not going to count for much anything. Instead, what we need to do is trust in Christ, grieve over and turn from our sins, and continue to sit under the Christian ministry to have our faith strengthened and to prevent self-righteousness.