Amid all the clamor over sanctification (and perhaps the not so sanctified aims of improving one’s own standing by taking down a ministerial rock star), what seems to be missing are the very basic categories that animated the differences between Protestants (yes, that includes — ugh!! — Lutherans) and Roman Catholics. When you consider this debate among Mark Jones, Tullian Tchividjian (hereafter Double T), and Rick Phillips (for starters), it sure does seem that this is an internecine quarrel among experimental Calvinists who are still trying to sort out the ordo salutis, rather than a basic discussion of our right standing before God. Are we right with God by our works? Or are we right with God by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us that comes by faith? Granted, those questions don’t reflect later theological developments. But when you read Rick Phillips’ statement of what’s at stake, a major category is missing:
The matter is not about legalists claiming that the law provides the power to obey God’s commands. Neither is this a fight between Tullian’s defense of the radical grace of the gospel versus those who are afraid of grace. Quite to the contrary, it is precisely the grace of God that is being denigrated, since it is by God’s amazing grace that Christians are not only justified through faith alone but are born again and given the power of Christ to lead new lives (Eph. 1:18-20).
So if the issue is grace and whether it is being denigrated, then what about Roman Catholics who insisted that their view of justification and virtue (what we call sanctification) was just as saturated with grace as the Protestant account? Everyone is claiming grace. What is much less clear is what people are saying about good works and human effort. Phillips and others can claim that the good works that believers do is all of grace. But any believer hearing that gracious account still has to decide what to do with her day, whether to wait for God’s grace (“let go, let God”), or simply get on with it and hope she doesn’t have too many sinful motives dirtying her otherwise useful activities of family worship, dissertation writing, and meal preparation for the pregnant woman in the congregation. That believer also needs to have some idea about whether not to prepare the meal in question is a sign of spiritual declension. Either way, the Phillips-Jones scenario seems to move the anxiety that Martin Luther faced from pre-justification blues to post-justification angst. Have I grown in holiness today? Am I becoming more sanctified and more sanctified? And if I am not, and if sanctification is necessary for salvation, then does my lack of growth in holiness mean I am not saved?
These nagging questions made my recent reading of Gilbert Meilaender’s (the smartest Christian ethicist on God’s green earth) essay, “Works and Righteousness” (paywall alert), particularly refreshing. For in recognizing similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Helmut Thielicke’s Theological Ethics, Meilaender was able to cut through experimental Calvinist introspection and find the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants while also recognizing the tension that lies at the heart of the Protestant account of the gospel, the good news of justification by faith alone.
For instance, Meilaender frames the essay around the question of whether character precedes actions (faith precedes works) or whether actions (holiness) determine character (standing before God). The challenge of Protestantism is to do away with ethics (i.e. antinomianism):
We can also frame the issue in something more like the language of the New Testament, and the encyclical does so. Faith opens us freely and entirely to call God good. “There is no doubt,” John Paul writes, “that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom. 16:26) ‘by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God.’” Of this commitment, St. Paul writes that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” At least in that sense, the character of the person determines the quality of the work.
But what follows from that? Could we also say that any action that proceeds from faith”anything done by one who has made a fundamental choice for God” must be God-pleasing rather than sinful? That hardly seems to follow, but it does make clear the difficulty of relating person and work. For if we hold, as Thielicke does, that the character of a person depends on whether he is or is not in right relation with God, and if we also say that the character of the person determines the moral quality of his works, then we might seem committed to thinking that the actions of anyone whose basic determination is that of faith must be God-pleasing actions.
Thielicke raises this issue very early in his Ethics , and he does so, interestingly enough, when discussing the story”so central to the discussion in Veritatis Splendor ”of the rich young man who comes to Jesus inquiring about what is good. His reading of the exchange focuses on the “person” of the young man. While the encyclical characterizes the encounter as one in which Jesus directs the man toward “a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection,” Thielicke suggests that Jesus aims to free the man from bondage to himself in order that he may be bound to God. Jesus does this through a “movement of concentration” in which imperatives are forms of the command to love God wholly and entirely, not requirements of particular actions.
Particular acts seem to disappear, faith in God occupies the entire moral field, and Thielicke himself sees the difficulty. “We must therefore put the question quite pointedly,” he writes. “Does not all ethical reflection always involve an act whereby ethics really does away with itself by reducing the ethical question to a problem that is essentially dogmatic? . . . In short, does not the solution of the ethical problem lie in the dissolution of ethics?” How we respond to this question will depend on how we understand the claim that a Christian is simul justus et peccator , simultaneously saint and sinner.
One way to understand this assertion “often thought to be the Lutheran way but in reality only one of several ways Lutherans have understood it” is to take it to mean that the believer is wholly and entirely saint and (simultaneously) wholly and entirely sinner. Viewed as one who trusts in the divine goodness and mercy revealed in Jesus, the believer is wholly saint. But viewed apart from that divine goodness, the believer is entirely sinner. The state of the person seems unrelated to his particular actions, for everything depends on the person’s relation to God. The theological task is simply to announce (again and again) the mercy of God that elicits a person’s fundamental decision of faith”leaving us, in short, with what looks like the dissolution of ethics.
Meilaender argues that there is no easy way around the tension that surrounds a faith-centric account of righteousness because we are caught in a conflict that is eschatological (could we get a little help from the Vossians, please):
Ethics always exists in “the field of tension between the old and the new aeons, not in the old alone, nor in the new alone.” To try to say more specifically what the shape of the Christian life should be within this tension would, he argues, be a non-eschatological ethic, something Thielicke associates with Roman Catholicism’s attempt to establish “a hierarchy of moral values with a corresponding casuistry of moral action.” Hence, he does not move very far or for very long beyond an understanding of the simul that he himself has found inadequate. He will accept no static “formula for the unity of the Christian’s existence,” no rules that can ease the tension between the two ages.
So faith alone means the dissolution of ethics, and grace-filled growth in holiness raises the specter of perfectionism: “if we make the connection between person and work too tight, right action may seem to be a condition that must be met in order to attain God’s favor, a tendency not altogether absent from Veritatis Splendor.”
Does this mean that forensic-centric Protestants can make no distinctions between a more or less sanctified life? No. Even a Lutheran can see the problem with an account that recognizes no difference between an adulterer and a husband who is merely tempted by adultery:
a Christian who is faithful to his wife even when experiencing temptation and a Christian who is unfaithful to his wife have the same status before God: They are simply sinners in need of forgiveness. And if going forward is just beginning again, there is no reason to distinguish between them. Each is a sinner, each needs to repent and believe, and each may be right with God. What they do, their agency, seems to make no difference in their relation to God.
But recognizing the tension doesn’t fix it. And the reason may be that bit of eschatology that Meilaender already invoked. We live in between the fall and consummation, and acting like the Christian life is road to holiness may commit the same naivete that John Paul II did, at least, according to Meilaender:
The encyclical exudes a kind of serene confidence about the Christian life that may sometimes be difficult to reconcile with the experience of individual Christians. “Temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them . . . . Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible.” Surely this is true. We would not want to say of baptized Christians that the power of Christ’s Spirit cannot enable obedience in any circumstance. “And if redeemed man still sins,” Veritatis Splendor continues, “this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act.”
What we miss here, though, is some sense of our weakness, of the differences in strength and circumstances that mark individual Christian lives. In the famous refrain of Book 10 of his Confessions ”give what you command, and command what you will”St. Augustine also expresses confidence in the power of the Spirit to enable virtuous action. But in his repetition of that formula we sense something that is also present in Thielicke’s thought”the precariousness of our lives as Christians, the deep divisions that sometimes continue to mark the psyches of believers, our sense on occasion that the best we can do does not measure up to what we ought to do, our sense (so strong for Augustine) that God knows our character better than we know ourselves.
I for one don’t think that Double T (though I haven’t read much) captures the precariousness of our Christian lives. Simply to say everything is forgiven (if that is what Double T suggests) doesn’t wrestle with gravity of sin and its penalty, the idea that my sins sent Christ to the cross. But neither do the “obedience boys,” as Bill Smith calls them, capture this precariousness, that even the best of what we do is inferior to God’s righteous standard and comes mixed with a host of selfish and confused motives.
So perhaps the way forward is to read more Lutheran ethics — not the oxymoron that some experimental Calvinists think it is.