“The folly of a man perverts his ways, and in his heart he holds God to blame” –Prov. 19:3
As Albert Mohler reports in a hard-hitting Briefing today, prior to the Oscars last Sunday night the Hollywood Reporter published an article titled “Oscar Winner John Irving Urges Hollywood to Get Political With ‘Outright Bias'”. In the article, Irving, echoing the 1960s philosopher Herbert Marcuse, pushes for his “artist community,” to be “intolerant of intolerance”. “In our community”, he said “tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable”. Of course persons like Irving certainly have their own kind of morality. As sociologist Jonathan Haidt points out, they are like any other human being in that they have their list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
Why they are so confident of their specific lists may be in question — just how does what they push for not simply amount to saying “You disagree with me and so I’m tolerant and you’re not”? — but we can even say that persons like Irving, like Christians, may be capable of getting a bit “meta,” speaking of things like “honest hypocrisy”.
That said, enough about Hollywood “moral awareness,” which, frankly, leaves much to be desired. Let us explore the Christian position, which, in addition to promoting specific ideas of what virtue looks like (from things like the 10 commandments) recognizes that, ultimately, there is a distinctive kind of “meta” life to be lived in this world.
In our Christian life, the layers go deep. As God works us over, transforming us into His own Christ-image, there is a lot that we go through. Romans 7 shows us the struggle of Paul as a Christian, a “sinner-saint” we Lutherans like to say – he speaks about not understanding what he does, not wanting to do what he does, and doing that which he hates – there is clearly a difficult and sometimes bewildering battle raging within him.[i]
All this means that we — in spite of understandable desires for simplicity — can get rather “meta” very quickly.
For example, often we have no desire to do a wrong thing until someone tells us we should not do it – sin “deceives us” in this way. Another example related to this is that the law can exacerbate the sin of [religious] pride and self-righteousness: even if being told “don’t look down on others” does not create a desire in us to do so, we may become proud of being unlike those who look down on others – or even take pride in realizing that we are proud of being unlike those who look down on others![ii]
The main point is not to spend our time digging to get to the bottom of it all — or to come to the conclusion that acts of repentance are futile (otherwise what are customs like Ash Wednesday and Lent for?) — but rather to realize that human beings are thoroughly infected by sin — sin which will not be fully irradiated until the Last Day.
In short, self-obsessed persons all, pure love for God and neighbor evades us and opportunities for “false humility” abound! We have begun to know what goodness is in the deepest sense (Christ and His love!) but we are nevertheless deeply wrong, even if the Lord is often exceedingly gentle with His children in revealing this to them.
What follows is a short reflection along these “meta” lines when it comes to the question of the proclamation of God’s law – His word of judgment based on what we have failed to be, say, and do[iii] – and His Gospel – the giving of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus for those needing and ready to hear this word. This dynamic is often captured in the shorthand phrase “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” (note, interestingly, that this concern also has to do with why Lutherans, for example, treat the topic of predestination much like St. Prosper of Aquitaine did).
Recently, I heard an argument something like this:
“Even though we sin, God always considers us worth loving – and He will always continue to love us no matter what we do or don’t do.”
When it comes to issues like this, there is always a Law and Gospel answer – should one aim to afflict, to comfort, or to do both? And what if instead this person had, terrified by the Law of God, asked: “Does God consider us worth loving despite our sin and will He continue to do so whatever we do or don’t do?”
A statement like that coming from such a person would surely have been worth paying close attention to! That said, that is not the kind of thing I heard. Rather than getting such a question I heard a blanket assertion. Furthermore – to offer more context – this person was actually dismissing, and evidently opposing, a solid Law and Gospel answer I had previously given, and went on to say something like this: “[After all,] you just said this [yourself], and are you going to dispute the judgment of God?”
How to respond?
First of all, we affirm this truth: just because God continues to love us does not mean that we will not be judged in hellfire, which Scripture clearly affirms. The “hard” way of putting matters here is that if we deny Christ or even embrace false doctrine about Christ, we will be damned. A “softer” way of saying this is that even if we embrace some kind of view of Jesus, if we have a “different Jesus” and thereby reject the true One, good and strong enough to save, we reject God’s salvation.
Second, regarding the one who asserts something like the above, it might seem that I am missing something critical: after all, are they not emphasizing grace? Not necessarily – and it actually may not difficult to diagnose that this is the case. What often happens in situations like this is that a person, bolstered by hereitcal things like antinomian tendencies, universalist tendencies, and/or a faulty view of predestination, is attempting to rationalize sins, and therefore, ultimately sin.
I think it does us well to recognize that all of us, devout Christians included, are not excluded from being tempted by these tendencies.[iv] The question however, is what we do with them when we face them – what teachings curb, guide and comfort us in the midst of them? This is of critical of course, because when a person excuses their sins (and thereby their sin), they often find themselves simultaneously reflecting on their lives but not in a good way: they rationalize, telling themselves “rational lies” ; they are, in fact, attempting to justify themselves according to what they have done (but we want to flee from this danger — even at the level of our felt desires and thoughts).
In short, in spite of their “wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin,”[v] or to bolster those who do, they want God to pay attention to the good they are sure they have done. They might say something to the effect that God always looks for the best in his children because of who God is and because His creation was originally created good, but that is really a cover for their evil. What they really mean is that God is obligated to accept them because if He were really loving, He would see the best in them. He would see that there is real goodness in them.
To this, there can only be a….
Maybe we even have the nerve to say something like “God hates the wicked. God damns the unrepentant. Here, there is no equality before God, except in that all are fallen.”
Or, maybe we, noticing an extreme stubbornness, relay to them that God demands perfection from them. After all, we do preach the law to the impenitent. As He spoke through the prophet Jeremiah: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”
Perhaps though, we determine that our opponent is not so hardened. In which case, we might say something like:
“God can’t not hate those who oppose the whole creation He loves (Psalm 145), particularly those who fear, love, and trust in Him. If we are not with Him, we can certainly expect to get run over in His judgment. He will not hesitate to run us through.
And yet, the prophet Isaiah says to “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found”. He also continues to show love to all His offspring, born of Adam (see Acts 17), by doing good to them: giving the righteous and the wicked rain (Matthew 5) and even filling all of their hearts with joy (Acts 14). For He loves us not because there is anything that we have done in the body that makes us acceptable and worthy before Him – able to stand in His holy presence – but because He is good to deeply evil persons. Period!
In sum, God loves His concrete enemies. The concrete wicked. The concrete rebels. Those specific persons – everyone – who have made themselves worthless. He comes for concrete sinners only. Hence, He dies for them all in Christ, taking their evil and the results of their evil into Himself, abolishing sin and death.”
True enough, right!? (yes, yes, I know I got the Gospel in there to!) So we say this to those who think that by their own deeds – or even acts of grace-filled faith, decisions they have made as a result of their own impulse – God will be obligated to receive them.
On the other hand: what if a believer genuinely fears that God will not give them perseverance? In this case, we give the…Gospel answer:
“Do you not want to know and love Him more? Do you not desire to hear His word, love His word, and to even run after His word? And then, in your heart of hearts to run the way of the commandments of your Lord? How do you despise the Word and Sacraments meant to sustain you in your earthly journey? You don’t, for you have known, and know, the forgiveness, life, and salvation granted to you in Christ!”
In like fashion, Saint Augustine, keeping in mind Paul’s statement, “What do we have that we have not received?” also encouraged us by pointing out that it was God Himself was always making the first move:
“God brings it about that we act. The Psalmist says to him: “set a guard, lord, upon my mouth” [Ps. 140:3 (141:3 rsv)]. This is to say: bring it about that I set a guard upon my mouth. The one who said “I have set a guard upon my mouth” [Ps. 38:2 (39:1 rsv)] had already obtained that benefit from God.” (On Grace and Free Choice, see p. 161 here)
…but now, perhaps you say:
But that shows that we have a role to play in our perseverance of faith! This shows that our will and our works do matter!
Well, no one ever said that spiritual justification before God did not simultaneously take place among other human persons, in our variety of circumstances, and completely separated from the fact that we perform all manner of actions in the world! In like fashion, as Luther put it in the “Disputation Concerning Justification”, trying to thread the needle, good works are not necessary for salvation, but to it.[vi] The point, however, is that, by the grace of God given us in Christ, we are justified in the law, in our works, and not by them. We are justified by faith in Christ, which is the thing that makes us want to love his law, run in the desires, thoughts, words and deeds it commands… exist in a life that is wholly godly… (as Luther put it in his Genesis commentary).
For the Lutherans, the point, over and against their Roman Catholic opponents, is that it is a child of God – at real peace with the forgiving King – who does these things.[vii] And it is precisely because of the peace and joy that they have in the Lord that they do these things, all the while saying “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
For the 16th century Reformers like Martin Luther, being fully dependent on God does not mean being under God’s thumb and an unbearable loss of personal freedom! Rather, it means we can trust Him and His intentions because of the spiritual security we have that He is good – particularly seen in the promises that He gives us (ultimately, embodied in Jesus Christ and His mercy – all God’s promises are “yes” in Him!).
Fallen man, and wayward theologians, hate this message. They do not want to be reduced to nothing — to utter ashes.
They ultimately want God to answer to them, as they stubbornly and doggedly make their case for why He should accept them and those they desire to associate with.
No. Jesus doesn’t play that game. He rather says to us” Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
Images: John Irving pic by Elke Wetzig Elya, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; “Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged” by KAZ Vorpal,CC BY-SA 2.0 ; Elder Sophrony, by Jack1956, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; Pharisee and publican, public domain ; Unworthy but not worthless, from http://marieldavenport.com/unworthy/ ; Ash Wednesday by Jennifer Balaska, public domain
[i] And although he is writing about his struggle as a Christian, many have noted that even unbelievers feel the conflict between the standards they hold to and their actual practice of those standards (see the “Honest Hypocrisy” article quoted above).
[ii] Another example: In my own life, I have realized that sometimes, I just start praying what really are good words in a rather uninvolved, “going through the motions”… mechanical way – kind of like a mantra or maybe even “magic words” (At the same time, this Lutheran will insist that there is real importance behind Robert Louis Wilken’s statement that “There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing…”) For me, I am quite sure that even asking God for help can be an unreflective reflex which actually amounts to me indirectly accusing God of not having already helped – of not having given me the impulse, will, or power to simply do what I should. I recognize that we are urged to pray without ceasing (see I Thes. 5:16-18) and that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, under great duress, prayed the same thing three times, for example – but I also recognize that my prayers, even if they aren’t “set prayers” can actually be me being lazy, stupid, and even “passively aggressive” towards God. (I’m also alternatively feeling pretty good about noticing that stuff above, and, when I proofread this, wondering if it’s somehow an indirect form of bragging about my prayer life…. yes, I’ve got issues!).
[iv] Ambrose’s words here come to mind:
“…our heart and our thoughts are not in our power. When they flood in unexpectedly, they confound the mind and spirit, and drag you elsewhere than you intended to go: They call you back to worldly things, they entangle you in earthly matters, they suggest voluptuous pleasures, they weave their allure, and, at the very moment when we are getting ready to raise up our mind, we are entangled in vain thoughts and often thrown down into earthly matters…” (quoted in Augustine, On Perseverance, see p. 231 here)
“I reply to the argument, then, that our obedience is necessary for salvation. It is, therefore, a partial cause of our justification. Many things are necessary which are not a cause and do not justify, as for instance the earth is necessary, and yet it does not justify. If man the sinner wants to be saved, he must necessarily be present, just as he asserts that I must also be present. What Augustine says is true, “He who has created you without you will not save you without you.”1 Works are necessary to salvation, but they do not cause salvation, because faith alone gives life. On account of the hypocrites we must say that good works are necessary to salvation. It is necessary to work. Nevertheless, it does not follow that works save on that account, unless we understand necessity very clearly as the necessity that there must be an inward and outward salvation or righteousness. Works save outwardly, that is, they show evidence that we are righteous and that there is faith in a man which saves inwardly, as Paul says, “Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” [Rom. 10:10]. Outward salvation shows faith to be present, just as fruit shows a tree to be good.”
This, of course, would sync with what is found elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, namely that
“…until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community of Christendom, through which he heals us and which he uses to proclaim and propagate his Word, whereby he initiates and increases sanctification so that we grow daily and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which he creates” (italics mine, Luther, Martin, Book of Concord. Ed. Theodore Tappert. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959; Solid Declaration, Article II, Free Will, quoting Large Catechism, Pt. II, Art. III)
Luther has not only the believer’s active sanctification but passive sanctification in mind here, i.e. justification. In this way our salvation is certainly dependent on, and bound up with, our neighbor’s, as is his with ours – for God has arranged things in just such a way.
[vii] This is why we read in article IV of the Solid Declaration of The Formula of Concord on good works:
“Since, then, it is manifest from God’s Word that faith is the proper and only means by which righteousness and salvation are not only received, but also preserved by God, the decree of the Council of Trent, and whatever elsewhere is set forth in the same sense, is justly to be rejected, namely, that our good works preserve salvation, or that the righteousness of faith which has been received, or even faith itself, is either entirely or in part kept and preserved by our works.
For although before this controversy quite a few pure teachers employed such and similar expressions in the exposition of the Holy Scriptures, in no way, however, intending thereby to confirm the above-mentioned errors of the Papists, still, since afterwards a controversy arose concerning such expressions, from which all sorts of offensive distractions [debates, offenses, and dissensions] followed, it is safest of all, according to the admonition of St. Paul, 2 Tim. 1:13, to hold fast as well to the form of sound words as to the pure doctrine itself, whereby much unnecessary wrangling may be cut off and the Church preserved from many scandals.”
(see quote in context here)
After all, just prior to this passage, the following was said:
“But when and in what way the exhortations to good works can be earnestly urged from this basis without darkening the doctrine of faith and of the article of justification, the Apology shows by an excellent model, when in Article XX, on the passage 2 Pet. 1:10: Give diligence to make your calling and election sure, it says as follows: Peter teaches why good works should be done, namely, that we may make our calling sure, that is, that we may not fall from our calling if we again sin. “Do good works,” he says, “that you may persevere in your heavenly calling, that you may not fall away again, and lose the Spirit and the gifts, which come to you, not on account of works that follow, but of grace, through Christ, and are now retained by faith. But faith does not remain in those who lead a sinful life, lose the Holy Ghost, and reject repentance.” Thus far the Apology.
But, on the other hand, the sense is not that faith only in the beginning lays hold of righteousness and salvation, and then resigns its office to the works as though thereafter they had to sustain faith, the righteousness received, and salvation; but in order that the promise, not only of receiving, but also of retaining righteousness and salvation, may be firm and sure to us, St. Paul, Rom. 5:2, ascribes to faith not only the entrance to grace, but also that we stand in grace and boast of the future glory, that is, the beginning, middle, and end he ascribes all to faith alone. Likewise, Rom. 11:20: Because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Col. 1:22: He will present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in His sight, if ye continue in the faith. 1 Pet. 1:5. 9: By the power of God we are kept through faith unto salvation. Likewise: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”