Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Importance of Faithfulness (9) (W)

Almost there!

Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love

Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Optimistic about Love
Loving the Whole Person
Loving into Societal Structures
Protestantism was born in a debate over whether a person might gain favor with God by doing good "works."  Martin Luther, of course, argued that we were saved "by grace alone" (sola gratia) only because of God's undeserved favor.  This grace was triggered "by faith alone" (sola fidei), and even this faith was a gift from God.  Ever since the standard Protestant position on "faith versus works" is that we are saved by faith alone, but that once we are right with God, he will empower us so that "works" will follow.

Where Protestants have debated is if the way we live our Christian lives has an effect on our eternal destiny.  Once a person has become right with God, can a person thereafter become "un-right" with God again?  To many Protestants, to say our actions can affect our status with God is tantamount to saying that works are part of our salvation. Others might resolve the potential conflict by saying that if a person were to become a serial killer after "conversion," she probably had never really been a true Christian in the first place.

Jacob Arminius disagreed in the 1500 and 1600s, and John Wesley followed his lead.  To some it will be a weakness, but to Wesleyans it is a strength that Wesley was an Anglican, because the Anglican Church is a moderating tradition in the Catholic-Protestant debate.  One might argue that Anglicanism, along with the Methodism that flowed out of it, stands on a kind of middle ground between the extremes of the Protestant Reformation, with the medieval Roman Catholic Church on the one side and the high Protestantism of Luther and Calvin on the other.  The Wesleyan tradition is thus well-situated to incorporate the strengths of both Christian streams.

For Wesley's part, it was surely God who empowered us to have faith.  But that same empowerment to choose also enabled us to walk away from him.  Our "initial justification," our initial reconciliation to God might be by faith alone, regardless of our works.  To put it in current language, "all sin is sin" when we first come to God.  But Wesley rightly read Scripture to teach that "final justification" will take into account how we have lived, our "works," if you would. The Bible does not teach that "all sin is sin" after we believe.

Here we return to the Wesleyan orientation around the heart.  Our walk with God is a relationship.  In a relationship, our actions toward another person matter.  Of course what matters even more is our intentions toward another.  If you forget your spouse's birthday, you have sinned against him or her.  But this "sin" is quite different from having an affair.  It represents a whole different level of intention.  So also, our "works" have a varying effect on our relationship with God, depending on our heart.

The Wesleyan-Arminian position here is logical, but it does not come from logic.  It comes from Scripture.  Once again, scholarship on Paul has of late been coming to grips with statements like 2 Corinthians 5:10, a verse directed at Christians: "All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (NRSV).  Romans 2 says exactly the same thing: "He will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury" (2:6-8).

And the fact that Paul himself did not consider his eternal salvation assured confirms his thinking on this subject: "I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.(1 Cor. 9:26-27).  Similarly, he says in Philippians, "I want to know Christ... if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own" (3:10-12).

It also turns out that this way of thinking about the importance of faithfulness in the Christian life fits well with the meaning of "grace" in the New Testament world.  Grace was patron-client language, relating to informal arrangements where someone without resources (clients) received gifts from those having an abundance (patrons).  The recipient did not earn such grace, although it often came with certain expectations.  We could rightly say, though, that the gift was not earned and, in a sense, came without formal obligation.

But if a client were to behave badly toward the patron--if they dishonored the giver--you can rest assured that the grace would not continue. In the same way, we are not surprised that God's grace in the New Testament comes with certain expectations.  Nor are we surprised to find that one can insult God's grace (e.g., Heb. 10:29) such that it is "used up," in a sense (e.g., Heb. 10:26). Hebrews, as the rest of the New Testament, places an expectation that we continue in faithfulness to reach the goal of entering the land of “Canaan.” We have become partakers of Christ and remain partakers of Christ only if “we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (3:7, NRSV).

Wesleyans thus believe that God-empowered faithfulness is essential for the Christian life.  One cannot simply pray a prayer of half-hearted reconciliation and then think that God will shower blessings without accountability or recourse.  An eternal relationship with God requires the same elements that human relationships require.  And if human relationships often fail because of infidelity or neglect, we should not be surprised to find that neglect or unfaithfulness to God is a path toward separation as well.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Where does this leave the atheist or agnostic that doesn't believe in "God"? Would the "new Universalism" take care of such as these?

I find semantics or language games all that religious doctrine, deononimational distinctives are. Why?

Because bottom line is how we live in accordance with what we deem to further human flourshing and socitial benefit. Human will disagree about these things. And the disagreements will further investigation and learning what is best and what is not...

JohnM said...

For me this is one of harder to follow points of Wesleyan doctrine. Wesley himself is hard to follow because he didn't appear to stand pat over his lifetime, but seems to have been always willing to reconsider and change course. Please understand it's not so much a question of "how could you guys think that?", I'm just not quite sure what Wesleyans believe about what would and what wouldn't result in a person becoming "un-right" with God again. Is it a matter of what, or why, or how much, or how long, or is that entirley the wrong line of questions we should be asking?

I don't get the impression a Wesleyan would say salvation is a slippery bar of soap you can try to hang onto but probably won't. Obviously though, you don't believe O.S.A.S. My understanding is Arminius himself was undecided on the subject. I am too, but I lean more toward the Free Will Baptist view (possibility of deliberate apostasy) though I was raised in a solid eternal security tradition. That doesn't exactly seem to be the Wesleyan postion either. Wesleyanism seems to me a bit ambiguous on this point, but I do realize it may just be me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

If one believes that human develop and change over their lives, then how can one be faithful, in the same sense, as before? How are others judging faithfulness? It seems if one judges based on scripture, it would be a dubious endeavor...

How one understands their faithfulness will be determined by the stage of development, interests (gifting) and commitment of value. No one outside the individual can determine that for them. They have to give freely of themselves within the community of faith. The community of faith does not presume upon them...

FrGregACCA said...

Great post as Lent nears. BTW, all the Churches celebrate Pascha/Easter on the same date this year, so as the Western Churches begin Lent this Wednesday, the Eastern Churches using the old date for Pascha also begin it tomorrow, Monday (technically, tonight at sundown).

Here's the problem: "how to gain favor with God" is the wrong question. God loves us, loves ALL of us, with an infinite and eternal Love. Because of that, God "desires that ALL be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth".

Somewhere along the line in the West, salvation became a matter, first and foremost, of escaping the wrath of God. As John's gospel makes clear, God's wrath falls, not because of sin per se, but because people refuse to accept the remedy for sin, the Divine Physician "of our souls and bodies," Jesus Christ Himself, and what he prescribes.

So salvation, in and of itself, is NOT about avoiding the wrath of God. It is about being rescued from the world and the devil It is about the corrupt "flesh" being healed of sin and its effects. It is about dying with Christ so that we might rise with him to newness of life.

But we cannot do this, enter into this process, if we do not trust God. We will not call upon God if we do not trust God, and we certainly will not, as Mary asks of us, "do what He tells you".

The original sin, the effects of which we all suffer, was to doubt that God is good, that God is love, and we all, to one extent or another, still carry that suspicion around with us. However, faith, radical trust in the goodness of God, IS righteousness, and the closer to God we become, the more we learn to trust in the goodness of God.

Thus, the "works" we do, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, are exercises in faith, designed to bring us closer to God, to increase our faith, to help us get out of ourselves and to enter more deeply into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

And, at the same time, our engaging in these disciplines also makes the world a better place. If more Christian people gave more alms (including things like volunteer time), there would be less need for government involvement in, and support of, social service. If more people fasted regularly (in all respects, not just food), there would be more resources available for alms-giving.

When it comes to prayer, well, there is a notion common to both Judaism and Orthodox Christianity which states that God refrains from finally judging the world, from age to age, because of the prayers of three righteous people in each generation. Who they are, of course, is known only to God.

Within Orthodoxy, there is also the saying that a monk (or nun) saves his or her family for seven generations.

Also, here is a post from another blog which addresses some of these same issues (Yes, I'm cross-posting Ken's post over there too.)

Today is Forgiveness Sunday for Orthodox Christians. I therefore ask your forgiveness, and I, for my part, forgive all.

"May God forgive us all."

davey said...

A problem I find with saying Christians need to do works to be righteous is that it doesn't seem to make enough difference from Jews who had to do works to be righteous. What need of Christ, then?

Ken Schenck said...

John, I'm not sure that Wesley waffled on this particular subject, although you may know something that I don't. Wesley varied in how likely it was for someone to be "entirely sanctified," although even there he never varied on its possibility.

I suspect that knowing the point of a person definitively leaving God is potentially no more or less ambiguous than knowing when a person definitively comes to God. It could be a clear cut moment or it could be less clear when the Spirit came or departed. I suppose it makes sense to think that those who truly come to Christ are not likely to leave.

FrGregACCA said...

Davey: Jesus says, "Without me you can do nothing." Jesus does not say, "With me, you need do nothing."

To be sure, Jesus has done all the heavy lifting. He has broken Satan's back. He has redeemed death by dying. He has conquered death, making the way to new life by way of resurrection.

In the sacraments/mysteries of Christian initiation (Baptism, Chrismation/confirmation, Holy Communion), we become members of Christ: "I am the vine, you are the branches." We are reborn. We become, as St.Paul writes, a "new creation".

However, and this is about "already-but-not yet",we still live in the here-and-now, and we will still die. We still must struggle against the world, the flesh, the devil. Therefore, as St. Paul and the whole New Testament makes clear, we must "put to death the deeds of the flesh". We must "make our calling and election sure". We must "purify ourselves".

Or, to put in another way: you have broken your leg. You have had surgery. The cast has come off. You still perhaps must take some medication. Now, you are faced with Physical Therapy, with doing daily workouts worthy of Packer stars Aaron Rodgers or James Stark.

Would you then ask, "But what about the doctor?" No. The doctor has done his/her part. Now it your turn.

However, in the case of us and Christ, we are members of Him, literally parts of His mystical body. We do nothing, nothing at all, without Him, without being empowered by His Holy Spirit.

Salvation begins with an event, but it is very much a process, and if we ignore that process, we shall be like the seeds which fell upon shallow soil.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Every believer must remain in a particular paradigm of understading to be considered "faithful". What does that paradigm consists of? Obviously some sort of faith commitment. AND THEN, one approaches other endeavors. This is remaining true to using philosophy for the purposes of the Church's interests....

Otherwise, one begins with reason in a particular discipline to understand "the world and all that is therein". Reason will lead to understanding reality based on investigation, not speculation. Philosophy can correlate to empircism, but must be evaluated by empirical evidence.

The question is really not about faithfulness, unless one wants to paint a paradigm of faith in a text or tradition, irrespective of reason/evidence. Whenever one affirms such faith, there is no way to dissuade or offer other ways of understanding what transpires, because the believer is remaining faithful to traditonal understanding of "Providence". Everything will be interpreted in that way.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Maybe a better analogy is the one the pastor gave in his morning sermon, today. He used fences as a way to express things we want to keep out and things we want to keep in. He warned that when we build fences, we necesarily wall ourselves off from the "outside".

A believer must wall himself off and protect himself because he defines himself by such speculative faith claims, irregardless of what science or anyone else says. In fact, these might be "of the devil" because they are not based on faith so radicalized. It is jumping in the dark because one believes that God will catch them. He trusts that God will remain faithful to him, irrespective of what he does. But, there are certain laws that seem to work regarding the natural world, which irregardless of being a believer or non-believer "work". These can be common sense or formal educational information. But, their veracity has nothing to do with faith. It has to do with reality in this world, not another one.

Ken Schenck said...

Congratulations Angie on your granddaughter's dedication today!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

:-). The dedication was a faithfulness to our family..Now, I'll leave it up to Becka and Kris to make their own mistakes :-)....we all do, as this is the human condition. I just hope they find support for their efforts (of course, Wim and I will offer whatever we can) that will help them along the way. I remember when Hillary Clinton wrote "It Takes a Village", and many conservatives disliked that book... Today, in church was a reminder that it takes community.

davey said...

FrGregACCA: The point I was trying to make was not that we needn't do anything, but: The Jews were called, a special people, given all sorts of helps to behave, but in the end God wouldn't 'save' them unless they kept Torah. It looks to me that Paul makes out the New Covenant to be different than that: though indeed Christians are supposed to get ever better at behaving, the New Covenant has an aspect of sureness of 'salvation' about it that the Old didn't have, and not just because of having (perhaps) 'extra' helps, but a guarantee.

FrGregACCA said...

Davey: I understand that this was the popular understanding of the condition of salvation among Jews during St. Paul's time. In fact, there was a saying: "If one man were to keep the entire Torah for 24 hours, Messiah will surely come."

However, besides the issue of earning salvation in this way, there is the question of what salvation IS. For the Jews of the First Century CE, it was commonly understood to mean, in the words of the disciples in Acts 1:6, "the restoration of the kingdom to Israel".

For us as Christians, however, who have no earthly city, but who are wanderers and sojourners, salvation is first and foremost about being healed, being recreated in the image of Christ, being incorporated in Christ by way of his mystical body the Church: in short, "partaking of the Divine nature". IOW, salvation is existential and therapeutic.

So, while Christ has indeed done all the heavy lifting, and continues to do so by the work of the Holy Spirit, we also must act in order to fully appropriate this gift of new life: we must "obey the good news".

Or, to put it another way: justification/rebirth is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit (via the sacraments). It is monergistic. Sanctification, however, is synergistic.

With that understanding in mind, I can agree that Christ guarantees our salvation if we choose to "endure to the end". That guarantee, however, is not legal. It is far stronger than that. That guarantee is found in the Divine Love, which is nothing other than the Divine Nature, itself. Thus, for example, we read that "God desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."

God's desire to save us, to be in communion with us now and forever, is infinitely stronger than we ourselves can ever want to be saved. THAT is the guarantee of salvation, the faithfulness of God, a fidelity grounded in Love and transcending all law.