Friday, July 13, 2007

Why Be Good

Christianity Today has a very well done essay on the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, and its relationship to ethical conduct. Here are some highlights:

Justification by faith, which gives us assurance of our standing before God, is not just a pastoral doctrine. It goes to the very core of our theological tradition. Martin Luther described it as the "first and chief article" of Protestantism "on which the church stands or falls." It is no surprise then that recent affirmations of justification have attracted evangelicals as diverse as Tom Oden and R. C. Sproul, Pat Robertson and Ron Sider. Still, don't be surprised to see more debates about justification unfolding. Next month's cover story, by British scholar Simon Gathercole, will look at how some evangelical scholars are reinterpreting Paul's teaching on justification.

So what is the "first and chief article of Protestantism"? Scripturally, it goes like this: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Alienated from God, hostile in mind, we practice evil behavior (Col. 1:21). Though we offend his perfect holiness, God acquits those who trust in him and in what he has done for us through Christ: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

Theologically, we understand it like this: In his perfect life and obedient death, Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and became the head of God's new family. We belong to Christ; we belong to this new humanity. Christ is judged righteous, and we who believe are made alive in him.

. . .

Such a radical idea has caused many to think: This is too good to be true. Surely I must contribute something to the process. But we contribute nothing. We don't even contribute faith. With God's gift of faith, we paradoxically deny the meritorious nature of human action and affirm the work of Another. It is not faith in faith, but faith in Christ.

Thus, Protestants from John Calvin to John Wesley have agreed: We have peace with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Another question that has troubled Christians since the days of Paul is this: "Why bother to be good when it seems to make no difference to our salvation?"

Paul has little patience for such an attitude, partly because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in justification. It is not only about getting rid of personal guilt; it is also about taking on a new corporate identity. "We died to sin," Paul says. "How can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:2). We have been baptized into Christ's death; shouldn't we live with him in resurrection life? As members of his new humanity, shouldn't we live like it? Paul's conclusion: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body" (Rom. 6:12).

Simply put, those who are truly justified will lead lives of holiness, knowing with Paul that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).

Sadly, many in our churches have sold the extraordinary gift of justification for the pottage of therapeutic religion. Rather than finding assurance in Christ, some assure themselves they have done nothing so bad as to deserve condemnation.

Even worse, others flaunt their freedom, abusing the truth that Jesus covers a multitude of sins. As Paul said of people who accused him of teaching that we should sin to bring more grace: "Their condemnation is deserved" (Rom. 3:8).
Such attitudes do not exemplify trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who treats holiness with deathly seriousness. They turn the old notions of merit on their heads, treating a priceless gift—Jesus' righteousness—as if it had no value.

The Bible says this type of faith—faith without good works—is as good as no faith at all. It's as dead and meaningless as the selling of indulgences.


Phil Snyder said...

And this very argument is where the issue of sexual expression comes. How do we know what is good and what is not good? How do we know? Traditionally, the knowledge of good or evil behavior is revealed by God - the Author of Life. So, when we want to know how to live our lives, we should look to the Author (or as I've called it in the past, the Designer's Notes). In addition to the words of Holy Scripture, we have the teaching of the Church - the Vincentian Canon - what has been believed by all people in all places and at all times (well, most people, most places, and most times). Before the Church has changed Her decision on what sexual relationship we can bless, TECUSA has already acted. Acting in this manner is not prophetic. It is schismatic.

Phil Snyder

bls said...

"Acting in this manner is not prophetic. It is schismatic."

But of course, women's ordination wasn't.

Right. We know.

Phil Snyder said...

bls - women's ordination (after GC1976) wasn't schismatic because the Anglican Communion (through the ACC) said (in 1968) that the ordination of women was a matter adiaphora. I hope you see the difference. Approval of the instruments of communion were obtained before the first women were legally ordained. The ordination of women prior to that was a schismatic act which should have been punished with sever sentences. However, we were too far into the "be nice" definition of the House of Bishops to do that.

Phil Snyder

bls said...

Here's what I found at "Religious Tolerance," Phil:

"1968 Lambeth Conference: Five resolutions were passed concerning the ordination of women:

* Resolution 34 stated that the theological arguments for and against female ordination are both inconclusive.

* Resolution 35 and 36 asked the provinces and the Anglican Consultative Council to continually exchange their views on female ordination.

* Resolution 37 asked any province that was seriously considering female ordination to not proceed until obtaining the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council.

* Resolution 38 was initiated by Women in the Anglican Communion. It recommended that provinces involve women as much as possible in worship services pending resolution of the female ordination question. 1

That doesn't seem to say what you're claiming here. In fact, the article seems to say that it wasn't until 1978 that permission was given Communion-wide.

In any case, it's irrelevant. There has been exactly one openly gay Bishop consecrated (there have been other gay Bishops, of course). But the reaction to this has been schismatic.

And many other issues - divorce, the polygamy provision for Africans, etc. - have not been thought of as "schismatic." Only this issue has risen to that level - and that's because the people who want schism feel like they can get away with it because of anti-gay prejudice. It's really not difficult to figure this out.