But Won't You Still Go Into Exile?

Tim Challies channels Paul in Romans 7 even if he avoids “oh wretched man”:

I still get angry. I still lash out in anger. I still simmer in anger. I still have desires that stem from anger and suffer the consequences of my anger. And that is just one sin. I still lust and am still jealous and am still thankless and still sin in so many ways. I have died to sin but sin has not yet died within. But here is the difference; here is the change: Sin no longer has dominion. And practically I cannot relate to it as if it has dominion. I have to ensure that my experience of sin is consistent with my theology of sin.

Anger does not own me. Christ owns me. Lust does not motivate me. Christ motivates me. Jealousy does not get the final victory. Christ gets the final victory. The cross stands there as assurance that I have been saved from its power and will some day be fully and finally delivered from its presence. Sin is in me but I am in Christ. And what is in me was put upon him on the cross. He triumphed over it then. He broke its power. And now I just wait, battling all the while, for him to speak the word and bring it to an end once and for all.

But the good news is that he is united to Christ, right? So isn’t the priority of union before justification just as antinomian as the priority of justification to sanctification? Either way, the assurance of God’s favor is a great comfort for believers who still carry around sin. But let’s not conclude that somehow union fixes what justification lacks. The only remedy for sin, before or after regeneration, is not obedience but the grace of Christ.

At the same time, wouldn’t the obedience boys tell Tim that he is going to have to suffer for his ongoing sin? Can he simply get away with all this anger and lust and jealousy? Won’t he experience God’s displeasure?

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Maybe not a Rich Man but What about a Fat One?

If being rich makes it difficult to enter the kingdom of God, how about obesity? This is the debate that some are having over the canonization of G. K. Chesterton:

Whether or not a person was temperate in food and alcoholic consumption is not only relevant, but absolutely central to the question of sanctity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if a person is not temperate in food and drink and the use of other created goods, there is no way they could be a saint.

Remember, a saint possesses not only natural virtue, but supernatural virtue. This means, of course, faith, hope and charity to a heroic degree, but it also means that even the saint’s natural virtues are elevated and oriented towards supernatural ends. For example, a virtuous man has formed the habit of prudence, which is the virtue of being able to identify and pursue the good in particular circumstances; i..e, of making good decisions. The saintly man, however, not only exercises natural prudence, but also demonstrates supernatural prudence; i.e., the virtue of prudence ordered towards supernatural ends, meaning exceptional discernment and good sense in spiritual matters.

Now, since supernatural virtue is a requisite of sainthood, and since grace builds on the natural virtues, it follows that a person who lacks even one of natural cardinal virtues cannot be “saintly” in the strict sense. Natural virtue is the foundation of supernatural virtue; if a natural virtue is obviously lacking, they cannot possess the supernaturalized version of that virtue which is built upon the natural. We may still have an exceptionally virtuous person, but nevertheless one with a major defect that makes it inappropriate to classify them as a saint. A person certainly cannot possess supernatural temperance if they lack even the natural virtue of temperance.

Is this being a bit too nitpicky? Absolutely not. Whether or not a person is a saint is a question of their character and conduct on the most personal level.

As much as the Obedience Boys can come across a more-devout-than-thou (or more likely, more-concerned-for-holiness-than-bad-Lutherans), I am glad they are still talking like Protestants. Indeed, it is a mystery to me that Christians would import pagan virtues into any scheme of divinely revealed holiness, almost as mystifying as the stakes for sanctity being so high not here and now — since you’ll have time in purgatory to burn off sin — but in the afterlife. If only Chesterton had remained a Protestant. He could have been a twentieth-century saint.

You Don't Protest Enough

Mark Shea explains unintentionally why attention to the forensic aspect of salvation is so important and why efforts to downplay that importance by elevating sanctification need great carefulness:

What then does the word “merit” mean in 1990s terminology? In the words of one of the foremost Catholic theologians of the 20th Century (Hans Urs Von Balthasar), the best modern equivalent for what the medieval and renaissance Church meant by merit is “fruitfulness.” (A term Evangelicals are abundantly familiar with from John 15 and other Scriptures.) Now “fruitfulness” (as all Evangelicals know) refers to the outworking of God’s grace in our lives, both in changing us into the image of Christ and in “bearing fruit for the Kingdom” by, say, winning hearts for Christ, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy, etc. None of this (as I learned long ago in Evangelicaldom) is “works salvation” but is simply the way in which we participate in the divine life, go “from glory to glory” and cooperate with the sanctifying power of Christ. With that in mind, let’s now look at the Trent quote above and see what we can make of it.

The Council says that “the gifts of God are also the good merits of him justified.” Is this saying “Salvation means God does half and we do half?” No. It is saying something far more radical. It is saying that God does it all and we do it all. Following Paul (who urged the Philippians to “work our your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose”), the Council asserts that the fruit borne by the believer is real fruit which is really and truly given by God and therefore really and truly a part of the believer’s life. Instead of seeing salvation as “snow on a dunghill” (a mere legal decree of righteousness which gets us to heaven yet which leaves us unchanged in our inner being), the Council sees salvation as a process which really changes us in our inner being and conforms us to the image of Christ.

If the Obedience Boys, then, are going to talk about what we do in sanctification or encourage us to look to our works for some measure of assurance, they should understand that those who still protest (read Protestants) don’t want a return to Trent:

Trent, then, insists that salvation is incarnational. Just as the Word is made flesh, so (in us) grace is enfleshed in real, solid, tangible change and the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). For the very essence of the saving gospel is that it is to really bear fruit in our lives and become kneaded into our full humanity. Thus, what the Council means is that our good fruit (or merits in 16th Century speak) really are ours as well as God’s great gift. When we, under grace, do a good thing it is really we who do it… because God willed that we do it. (A truth my Evangelical friends believe as much as Trent–when they are not arguing against Rome.)

I don’t know about you (or what tune you use), but I’m not sure how those who put sanctification on a par with justification sing “Rock of Ages” in a good conscience:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

Gratitude As the Basis for Obedience

The title of this post is not meant to echo the Guilt-Grace-Gratitude structure of the Heidelberg Catechism but to indicate that the Obedience Men and Boys should be forever grateful to Tullian Tchividjian for providing a target for those who believe sanctification is besieged in our time. If you look around on the web for information on antinomianism or the sanctification controversy, the only name that keeps surfacing is Pastor T’s, with responses from Kevin DeYoung or the Gospel Reformation Network. Here is one example with a follow-up to a response:

I’ve read with interest debates in the Reformed community on the doctrine of sanctification the last few years. Debates about the motivations and sources of sanctification now are worked through in discussions on Ref21, The Gospel Coalition, and other Reformed web blogs. Tullian Tchividjian has been at the center of these discussions and has received critiques from theologians and pastors such as Rick Phillips, William B. Evans, and Kevin DeYoung.

But if you look at the Gospel Reformation Network’s 5 Questions to church leaders, you have to conclude that a controversy is palpable in Reformed circles over the place of the law and obedience in the Christian life. For instance, to the question, “Is there misunderstanding about Sanctification within the PCA and the broader Reformed community?”:

There is significant misunderstanding among some in the PCA regarding Sanctification. More specifically, there are a number of ministers and congregants who have (wittingly or unwittingly) been deeply influenced by a “Lutheranized” view of Sanctification.

The short answer to this question is yes. With the (proper) Reformed emphasis on grace alone and faith alone, many believers have been delivered from the guilt of performance-driven Christianity. God loves us, and in Christ he freely and fully accepts us. Unfortunately, the liberating message of the gospel has led some within the Reformed community to de-emphasize the responsibility of Spirit-empowered effort to fight against sin and temptation. Like Joseph, we’re to run from temptation (Gen. 39:12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)). And, according to Paul, we’re to sow to the Spirit (Gal. 6:8Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)). Both require considerable exertion on the part of the believer.

Again, with Pastor T and his blog and videos, how would these people know about what is being preached and taught in PCA, OPC, URC, ARP, or RPCNA congregations?

First, how many Reformed or Presbyterian pastors preach doctrinal or catechetical sermons? If they do, then sanctification may be neglected, say like when the URC pastor when going through Heidelberg neglects Questions 88 to 115. Otherwise, most Reformed pastors are preaching through a book of the Bible where the doctrine of sanctification is not mentioned directly any more than the doctrine of the Trinity. If the Bible had a book dedicated to sanctification that most pastors were avoiding — say, the way they generally avoid Song of Solomon — then the obedience boys and men might have a point. But we don’t have much doctrinal preaching in our circles — as far as I can tell by observing the way OPC pastors operate. Otherwise, obedience and sanctification likely come up in the regular exposition of books of the Bible.

Second, how many of us who write on trends in the churches actually get around to other churches? Most of the people talking or blogging about the sanctification controversy are church officers or pastors whose duties don’t allow them to get out much. Maybe you pick up a vibe here at General Assembly, or sense a trend there when you go to a pastor’s conference. But who of us is to judge what pastors are teaching or preaching on such slight evidence? (For instance, not even Mark Jones’ book on Antinomianism has references to Pastor T or Jack Miller or Sonship in the index.)

(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?

Ann Coulter Is Not Sexy But She May Have a Point

The right’s answer to Bill Maher, the lovely, the talented, Ann Coulter seems to have touched a nerve with her post about Dr. Kent Brantly, the physician who contracted Ebola in Liberia and is now (after being evacuated) receiving treatment in Atlanta.

Ann thinks the $2 million spent on the Dr.’s medically air-tight flight will wind up hurting Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian charity that sent him, more than any good Brantly might have done in Africa. That seems fairly commonsensical. The missions committee of my communion needs to live within its budget. Its officers can’t simply flash an OPC Mastercard when a special opportunity arises or when the Spirit is supposed to have moved. For Presbyterians, everything must be decent and in order, which means within budget. I don’t know what Samaritan’s Purse’s reserves are like, but $2 million, if that is the correct figure, does sound like it could put a dent into good-doing in other parts of the world.

But Collin Garbarino believes the example of Jesus may teach a different lesson about Brantly’s situation:

Christianity has always been a little topsy-turvy. The mightiest king in the universe was born in a lowly stable. The second person of the Godhead “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He had “no place to lay his head,” and he surrounded himself with a rag-tag group of fishermen and tax collectors. Jesus could stand as a righteous judge, but he allowed himself to die a sinner’s death. Through sacrifice God saved his people. Through death death is conquered. What’s more foolish than dying in order to live? Christ calls his people to do just that. Take up your cross and follow him.

The thing is, Jesus was born in the stable precisely because his parents didn’t have lots of cash to afford anything better. So doesn’t the humble birth of Jesus in some way back up Ann’s point? Doing good doesn’t allow you to escape creditors. And if Garbarino had gone to Satan’s temptation of Jesus, imagine the conundrum in which he would have found himself. For Jesus could have done a lot more good for planet earth (from one perspective) had yielded to the temptation to bow down to Satan and rule over all the earth’s kingdoms.

But Ann’s post went beyond finances to the motives of missionaries like Brantly — how this became a debate about missions when Samaritan’s Purse is a relief agency is an odd twist.

Of course, if Brantly had evangelized in New York City or Los Angeles, The New York Times would get upset and accuse him of anti-Semitism, until he swore — as the pope did — that you don’t have to be a Christian to go to heaven. Evangelize in Liberia, and the Times’ Nicholas Kristof will be totally impressed.

Which explains why American Christians go on “mission trips” to disease-ridden cesspools. They’re tired of fighting the culture war in the U.S., tired of being called homophobes, racists, sexists and bigots. So they slink off to Third World countries, away from American culture to do good works, forgetting that the first rule of life on a riverbank is that any good that one attempts downstream is quickly overtaken by what happens upstream.

America is the most consequential nation on Earth, and in desperate need of God at the moment. If America falls, it will be a thousand years of darkness for the entire planet.

Ann has drunk a little too deeply at the font of American exceptionalism, but Al Mohler is not happy with Coulter’s raising questions about missionaries motives:

These two missionaries and all the others who have gone as authentic missionaries in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ have not been driven by a mere humanitarian impulse. They have not just gone to help those who are victims and patients. They have gone because they believe that every single human being on the planet is an individual made in God’s image. And they also believe that every single individual on the planet is a sinner in desperate need of salvation. They believe that every single human being on the planet, whether in West Africa or in the advanced Western nations including the US, are in great need of the gospel of Jesus Christ–and that what hangs in the balance is not just the outbreak of a contagion or the future of health but indeed the eternal realities of heaven and hell.

For Mohler, humanitarianism isn’t good enough. A missionary’s motives must be spiritual. They must be pure.

How do you disagree with that, except that most Christians if they are honest know that their motives are mixed (which is why it is so hard to follow the Obedience Boys). Even if I am performing a good work with the intention of being good, aren’t I really guilty of denying the sinfulness that clings to me as a child (though redeemed) of Adam? We are not perfectionists. And this is what makes a show like The Wire so valuable. I put my finger on this last night while watching Brotherhood, a series that comes as close to the feel and sensibility of The Wire without being a mere imitation. In both series we watch characters who are both ambitious (read selfish) and loving. Their ambition takes them to places they should not go — whether they play for the legal or illegal team. At the same time, they belong to families and neighborhoods and that membership sometimes motivates them to use their selfishness in selfless ways. The characters are a mix of vice and virtue.

Well, some might ask, are these shows about Christians? Aren’t Christians different or supposed to be? Well, Brotherhood features an Irish-American family for which the Roman Catholic Church is more than merely a backdrop. But even on Protestant grounds, I’m not sure that the Christian experience is decidedly different from the way these shows present the human experience. We are a mix of holy and wicked. What may make Christians different from the non-Christians of these series (and the real world) — to play by the confessional Presbyterian rule book — is that the latter don’t have holy motives but merely exhibit civic virtue. As the Confession explains — always steering us away from the temptation to invoke “human flourishing”:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (16.7)

But it is also important to remember that the Confession says our good works “are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.” Perhaps this is granting more charity to Ann Coulter than she deserves, but her reservations about Dr. Brantly and other evangelical “missionaries” may be closer to the way that Christians should question themselves (and their good works) than the kind of blanket endorsement that Al apparently renders.

Pagan Virtue or Angel Unawares?

I wonder if the w-wists out there have considered how much travelers to foreign countries need to trust people with the wrong w-w (only two exist, right?). Of course, back in the States we depend on pagans to drive on the right (spatially and legally) side of the road, give us correct change (not for buying a lottery ticket, of course), and remove the plaque from between our teeth. But when you don’t really know the currency or the language, your levels of trust go way up. The airline pilot is a biggie. Baggage handlers sure do make life easier if they make the correct transfers and place the bags on the designated carousel. And taxi drivers, who speak maybe 4 words of English, are particularly helpful when they deliver you to an apartment on an out of the way alley that you know even the best of cabbies in New York City would never know. (Plus, the name of the alley is longer than the alley itself, so long that you can’t even put it in the address field when reserving a taxi.)

And then comes the unexpected graciousness of temporary Italian neighbors. The other night as Mrs. Hart and I went out for dinner (her first night in Rome), I left without my key. Doors in Rome seem to come with latches that automatically lock. So we were locked out of our flat and had no phone. Our computers were inside and so email was out. Plus, the owner of the flat was away in Paris. I had no idea what to do other than break in the door or break down in sobs.

A neighbor, however, came to the rescue. It took about two minutes of hand gestures and pantomime to explain that that we were locked out of an apartment that we were renting for the short term. She called someone who knew our owner, who in turn called our owner, who in turn called a friend who had a spare key, who in turn drove ten minutes to let us use the key. In the meantime, our neighbor had gone out to buy a bottle of water for us while we waited for the key to arrive. Within 15 minutes we were back in business and headed out for dinner. And I was thanking the dear Lord that we did not have to try to use security guards from the institution where I am studying to make arrangements for a lock smith and for alternate housing for the night.

I still can’t believe what a kind providence this woman’s intervention was.

So, given my views of the fall, how do I account for this exceptionally gracious assistance? Common grace seems to be niggardly, as if this person only does something nice because God made her do it. An angel unaware might work and that would allow me to retain a view that pagans really are incapable of doing good.

Or maybe all people have a residue of goodness in them that is the after effect of being created in the image of God. Of course, they cannot do anything sufficiently good to merit God’s favor. But they can recognize right from wrong, the kindness of helping a stranger from the hurtful nature of ignoring someone’s distress.

Then again, I’m sure the obedience boys will tell us how this woman is not sanctified. In which case, I’m glad she can’t read English.

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.

Sanctified Confusion

Can anyone identify the author of these quotations?

First:

The Reasons why God doth promise these two great Gifts of holiness and forgiveness; to sanctifie his people as well as to justify them. There may be these Reasons for their Connexion. First, Both of them have a necessary respect to the salvation of the people of God: A man must be justified if he will be saved; and a man must be sanctified if he will be saved; he cannot be saved without both: he cannot be saved unless he be justified: [Rom. 8:30Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)]… None are justified but such as are called, and none are glorified but such as are justified: [Mark 16:16Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)]… He cannot be saved unless he be sanctified: [John 3:5Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)]… [Heb. 12:14Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)]… Here you see a necessity of both of them in reference to salvation; we many times think that if our sins are pardoned, there needed no more to save us, but we are deceived; for as forgiveness is necessary, so is holiness necessary to salvation; as no unpardoned person, so no unsanctified person shall be saved.

Second:

Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to “imperatives”, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to love God and others. The law, in other words, shows us how to love. Once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that keeping the rules makes us right with God, and in faith believes the counter-intuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces loving action, then the justified person is unlocked to love-which is the fulfillment of the law.

Third:

We believe that by this faith we are regenerated in newness of life, being by nature subject to sin. Now we receive by faith grace to live holily and in the fear of God, in accepting the promise which is given to us by the Gospel, namely: that God will give us his Holy Spirit. This faith not only does not hinder us from holy living, or turn us from the love of righteousness, but of necessity begets in us all good works. Moreover, although God works in us for our salvation, and renews our hearts, determining us to that which is good, yet we confess that the good works which we do proceed from his Spirit, and can not be accounted to us for justification, neither do they entitle us to the adoption of sons, for we should always be doubting and restless in our hearts, if we did not rest upon the atonement by which Jesus Christ has acquitted us.

Fourth:

Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing. For man’s powers without the Holy Ghost are full of ungodly affections, and are too weak to do works which are good in God’s sight. Besides, they are in the power of the devil who impels men to divers sins, to ungodly opinions, to open crimes. This we may see in the philosophers, who, although they endeavored to live an honest life could not succeed, but were defiled with many open crimes. Such is the feebleness of man when he is without faith and without the Holy Ghost, and governs himself only by human strength.

Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise do the works of the First or of the Second Commandment. Without faith it does not call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 16,6: Without Me ye can do nothing; . . .

And A Lutheran Will Lead Them

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.