November 18, 2017

Good Works Week VI: Free to Love

Field with Ploughman and Mill, Van Gogh

Field with Ploughman and Mill, Van Gogh

And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.

– Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans

* * *

I’d like to wrap up our week of talking about “good works” with some summarizing thoughts today, hoping I won’t show myself to be the fool that Luther talks about above.

FIRST, If you know anything about Internet Monk, you know that we love to talk about grace and to put our emphasis on what God does for us in Christ rather than on what we do “for” God. We stress this because so much Christian faith, especially the evangelicalism from which a number of us emerged, is characterized by a moralism and activism that is not rooted in a Christ-centered approach to spirituality.

The “soterian” gospel that is so common today is individualistic, narcissistic, and methodistic. Its focus is on “me” and “what I must do” to “connect with God” and be “wholly devoted” to God as I develop a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Grace gets credit for leading sinners through the door of salvation, but only after we make the choice to follow Jesus. And after that, it’s all about learning the instructions in the Bible and conforming our lives to them.

The pattern is Law/Grace/Law.

  • God’s laws show us God’s perfect standard and help us understand we fall short.
  • When we admit we fall short and respond to the message of grace — that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins and shortcomings — we become disciples and get started on the path of learning to obey God’ ways.
  • The job of the church and its pastors and teachers, then, is to teach us those laws and instructions and exhort the congregation to follow them.

We here at Internet Monk think there is a better description of what the gospel and living in the gospel is all about, a way that is all about grace from beginning to end.

  • The gospel is the good news that, in Christ, God’s Kingdom has dawned and God’s will is beginning to be done on earth as in heaven.
  • God created the world as his temple and made people to live in his blessing. People forfeited that blessing through disobedience and were sent into exile, separated from God, themselves, and each other.
  • God chose Abraham and his family (Israel) to be the means by which his blessing would be restored to all the earth. He entered into a covenant with them in the days of Moses and gave them his Law so that they might be his holy nation, a light for all nations. However, they in turn failed to keep God’s covenant, and Israel was exiled from the land God had given them.
  • After God graciously restored Israel from exile, Jesus was born and presented himself as God’s promised Messiah, the King who would bless Israel and the world with salvation. Jesus was faithful to God where Israel had failed. He died and suffered for the sins of Israel and the whole world. He rose again from the dead, defeating the powers of sin and death that had kept humankind enslaved and exiled. He ascended and was enthroned as King of all. He poured out his Spirit upon the church, the renewed people of God in Christ that they might spread this good news to the ends of the earth. He promised to return, raise the dead, and consummate a new creation in which heaven will be united with earth and God will dwell in the midst of his people forever.

Christian spirituality consists of taking our place in this Story.

Indeed, to be a Christian means to trust that Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the Story and that everything revolves around him. Our life is in the gospel, in Jesus Christ. That means we must relate all doctrines, all teachings, and all Christian practices to this Story.

And so we come to the teaching of “good works.”

If we keep the Story in mind, we realize that we who are Christians today play the part of the redeemed, forgiven, cleansed, Spirit-filled, renewed people of God in Jesus Christ.

“We are his workmanship,” says the apostle in Ephesians 2:10, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

  • His workmanship. Created in Christ Jesus. This eliminates any possible understanding that “good works” on our part have anything to do with our salvation, our justification, our acceptance by God. That work is his and his alone. Pure grace.
  • Good works which God prepared beforehand. Even the good things we do as Christians were planned ahead of time by God and are not due to our initiative or origination. Pure grace.
  • That we should walk in them. Christians get to actively participate in good works that God mysteriously uses in the development of the Story. It is our privilege every day to discover what “God has prepared beforehand” and join with him in his mission to bless and restore the world. We walk in God’s works — even our activity is described in terms of God’s gracious involvement in our lives. Grace, grace, grace.

One problem with the way many people talk about Christian activity is that they don’t immerse it in this sea of grace and Kingdom vision. They leave us on our own with our “Christian responsibility.” Since Jesus did so much for us, shouldn’t we do all for Jesus?

In contrast, read this excerpt from a liturgy for baptism in which I participated recently:

God, who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism. By water and the Word, God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ. We are united with all the baptized in the one body of Christ, anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and joined in God’s mission for the life of the world.

Yeah, that’s it. Even “good works” are all about grace.

Morning: Peasant Couple Going to Work, Van Gogh

Morning: Peasant Couple Going to Work, Van Gogh

SECOND, another problem with Christian discussions of topics like “good works” is that we tend to make them too spiritual, too separated from life in the real world. When listening to Christians talk, I sometimes get the idea that we have risen a step or two above other human beings.

  • There are gnostic tendencies toward insider-ism and elitism that imagines Christians are in a special category, set apart from their neighbors.
  • There are docetic tendencies among us. We think of “souls” and “spirituality” rather than the day-to-day lives of embodied persons who live in communities in relationship with others.
  • We harbor many modernist prejudices, rationalizing and categorizing and just generally thinking that what is most important is the world of ideas, theological systems, and moral philosophy. We imagine that success for Christianity means winning arguments and making sure all of our doctrinal “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” crossed.

But then we read about simple NT saints like this: In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need” (Acts 9:36 CEB). The true way of Jesus is right here in the portrait of this woman: a gracious, loving, compassionate person who was sensitive to the needs around her, who responded out of her faith with generous love toward her neighbors.

Tabitha is a reality check, and she brings us back to the verse with which we began the week: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

The “good works” Christians are called to do are not actions or projects that fall into some special category. They are, rather, the simple, ordinary acts of neighborliness, kindness, and helpfulness that all people understand and appreciate. Giving a cup of cold water. Visiting a lonely person in the nursing home. Preparing a meal for a bereaved family. Providing child care so that a friend and her husband can get a break. Participating in a charitable event for a good cause. Reading to a child. Listening to a friend’s problems. Volunteering at a local hospital. The list is endless, constrained only by a lack of creativity and vision. “Good works” is not just about doing things, it’s about living well, loving your neighbor as yourself.

Anyone can do this. One doesn’t even have to be a Christian. These are human acts and we do them because we are members of the human family and everyone recognizes their value. The world does not need Christians to stand apart and do extraordinary things. People around us just need Christians to be good neighbors, loving well in the ordinary ways that life requires.

To be sure, Christians have some different reasons for showing love like this. Our faith in Christ has united us with God, who is love. He cares for us and for our neighbors more than any of us could ever imagine. Filled with his love, how could we do anything other than live lives of love?

The other part of this perspective is that, even though the love of Christ dwells in Christians, believing people are sinner/saints. We remain limited, broken, wounded, self-centered people. We have different personalities, different settings, different experiences. All these things (and a thousand others) can limit our psychic freedom and capacity to love.

This, I believe, is one reason why Jesus doesn’t simply save individuals but is creating a people. We need each other as well as the Bible. We need relationships and communities of support in which we can heal, grow, learn, and be formed in Christ so that love may flow more freely.

* * *

Thank you for an excellent week of discussion.

Go now. Trust in Jesus Christ, and you are free to love.

Comments

  1. “The job of the church and its pastors and teachers, then, is to teach us those laws and instructions and exhort the congregation to follow them.”

    We don’t do that.

    For us, “Christ is the end of the law…”

    In freedom, (Gal. 5:1) we are free to love…or not!

    After the absolution is given…there is NO, “Now you must get out there and do this, that, or the other thing.”

    Where is the rest? We are able to relax, in Christ.

    And then we are free to live our lives. And free to do all the works that are there before us…with no one goading us or some well-meaning law-banging preacher breathing down our necks.

    • Maybe I don’t do a very good job of explaining it.

      Try this, then, for 4 min. :

      http://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/chapter-5.mp3

      Fast forward to the 28:30 mark and go to 32:30 ish

      I’m not makin’ this stuff up.

    • Steve, with all due respect, your comments this week reveal a theology that has not integrated good works into grace and faith in Christ the way the NT does.

      • Just a different understanding of how those good works come about.

        We feel they come about naturally…inspired by grace. Not when told that they need to be done.

        • But why did Paul tell us to stir one another up unto good works? There is a place for exhortation that does not fall under “breathing down our necks.”

        • Final Anonymous says:

          Steve, I am going out on a limb on this board and say I am one who sympathizes with your viewpoint here.

          I am quickly irritated when I have to deal with a slightly arrogant, set “apart” (read: “above”) attitude from preachers in the pulpit who feel the need to frequently exhort and stir up the congregation with their own view of what constitutes good works, CM excluded of course, so far ;).

          Especially from a pastor who knows little more than my name, if that. Especially during those times in my life when getting to church at all was an exhausting good work.

          And especially since the rate of return is so low. Out of the thousands of sermons I’ve sat through, I’ve been comforted and intrigued by many, but can only remember one — ONE — that inspired a process of long-term works-related change in me. Maybe I’m exceedingly rebellious (it’s possible) but it also seems to be the norm — or even high — for the people around me.

          I guess as adults we just don’t like being told what to do. And I assume if God created us, He knows that, and knows how to work around it (enter the Holy Spirit).

          I realize the other side of this is that I have a hard heart and need to learn to the listen to the authorities God has placed in my life, blah blah blah. If so, He’s obviously got a long way to go with me.

          • If it’s any comfort, I sympathize with you too, FA. The grace-less exhorting you describe is exactly what I criticize in this post.

          • Final Anonymous says:

            CM, I caught that. I liked the post; I just don’t see the sentiment actually practiced very often in churches today.

            Actually, I just realized something; even when I do see it, I am skeptical, waiting for the — in my mind, inevitable — day the pastor gets frustrated with the progress of this ministry or that fund and loads on an old-fashioned “good works” sermon again.

            Feels like I might be treading backward into the wilderness yet again.

        • Danielle says:

          Steve, I don’t know if I am sizing up your intent correctly. But it seems to me that you are so concerned with any discussion of good works being misinterpreted, that you want to pass over the discussion entirely. You want to discuss Christian freedom, then come to a screeching halt.

          I suspect that your position would be better served by reflecting on how good works can be discussed in the context of Christian liberty.

          The statement that one can go home and do *anything* one wishes is perhaps not quite the right way do this. I think that kind of statement may be helpful in a particular context, if you are speaking to someone who has previously been so bound up slavery to codes of rules and fear of judgement that any discussion of requirements is apt to paralyze them. Such a person has to break free of their terror and begin to heal certain wounds before they can handle any further discussion. (I would make the same argument for Luther’s famous comment to “sin boldly.”)

          If I were to try to take a stab at what it Christian liberty means, I might take this tact: If one has assurance of forgiveness and God’s overwhelming mercy, then a person is free to love boldly (that is, riskily), and to embrace and exercise elements of one’s humanity that were inhibited before by various fears or oppressors (including religious ones). Drawing off of IM’s discussion of Beck’s book on purity and mercy, I might say that one gains the freedom to risk contamination by being reckless with mercy. This freedom is not the freedom to do literally anything with no consequence of any kind, but compared to the kinds of bondage to which we are accustomed, from religious systems and other sources, it might seem that way by comparison. Such a person might look like a libertine to critics, when they are in fact embracing their and others’ humanity and seeking its restoration. Such a person, even in blundering badly, is doing something beyond what they might have done, while bound and gagged.

          I don’t know if any of this is helpful… they are just thoughts.

          • Very good thoughts, Danielle.

            We’re not so much afraid of the language of “good works”, just getting them confused with the gospel.

            The gospel is a statement of what has been done for us (as we fail in our duty to God and one another).

            We don’t (as I stated above) want to be like the cow who gives a good bucket of milk (freeing someone by announcing the gospel Word), and then kicks it over (putting them back under the yoke of the law)…by laying on them something (in addition to that gospel) that they should, ought, or must be doing.
            There’s no rest in that sort of preaching.

            We feel that resting in Christ will result in the inspiration ‘to do’…whatever form that may take.

            Thanks, friend.

            • I guess the apostles weren’t so confident in the gospel then, huh? Otherwise most of the NT would never have been written. You know, all those imperatives? All of that instruction? Exhortation? It won’t do any good saying that those parts fall under “law,” because they most certainly don’t, except in your own theological formulation.

          • Robert F says:

            Who is this “we” you often speak of? Ironically, when you speak that way, you remind me of my former bishop, John Shelby Spong, who, honester-to-God as he was and is, routinely and anachronistically spoke in the royal “We” when issuing statements in his office as bishop, ex cathedra, you might say. It’s the way popes used to speak. Why do you speak that way? Are you an oracle?

          • Danielle says:

            I think Steve’s “we” is his church.

    • During the 30 years I was a Southern Baptist, I can’t tell you how many times (hundreds at least) I’ve heard preachers say ‘Now you must get out there an do this, that, or the other thing’ – usually ‘soul winning’, since the blood of all our lost friends will be on our hands if we fail to witness to them. It’s all about the very ‘legalism’ you deny and decry.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Yeah. I think they ripped off Ezekiel for that little gem.

        “If You Don’t WITNESS to the Heathen and they die Unsaved, GOD WILL HOLD *YOU* RESPONSIBLE!!!!!!!!!”

        And “God WILL hold YOU Responsible!!!!!” is Christianese for threat of Eternal Hell. So God has his Hell gun to the back of your head with one up the spout and the hammer back 24/7, until you either burn out or go crazy.

        Ever hear of WRETCHED URGENCY?

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      After the absolution is given…there is NO, “Now you must get out there and do this, that, or the other thing.”

      That’s how God works, but I have yet to see one church community, regardless of denomination, that has been able to go longer than one month without having someone say that in their benediction.

      • I think that telling people what they must go and ‘do’…after the benediction…is like the cow who gives a good bucket of milk…and then kicks it over.

        • No , I think the church has always recognized that it is the natural and right response to having had God nourish us in Word and sacrament. “Go in peace and serve the Lord!”

          • My mistake, Mike.

            I meant “after the absolution”.

            Our pastor’s usual benediction is, “Go in peace. You are free in Christ.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “Justification by FAITH FAITH FAITH Alone!”

          Was it Paul or James who said “Tell me of your Faith and I will show you my Faith by my Works”?

          i.e. telling the FAITH FAITH FAITH types “Put your money where your mouth is”?

          • I believe it was James. I don’t personally believe in “ethereal” faith – as in, some magic idea or substance which God gives us that exists in the abstract. Again, I may be completely alone in this, but I believe faith is good works. If you really actually do believe God, it changes how you respond to things. This is why in Hebrews, when it talks of all the people of faith to go before, it lists…their works. Paint me a heretic, but that is how I understand the NT.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            More like the two are intertwined and synergistic to the point that if you pull them apart, you damage and/or destroy both.

            Again, St Paul was ragging on those who separated the two and went Works all the way.

            St James was primarily describing the proper use of works, and secondarily ragging on those who just sat back and had FAITH FAITH FAITH.

            Regarding St James, one of my writing partners (the burned-out preacher in PA) has told me that pastors’ widows in his denom routinely have to eat out of dumpsters. But they’re told “Be Warm and Well Filled; I’ll Pray For You.” THAT is the type of “FAITH Alone” attitude St James is ragging on.

          • Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Steve,

      what you quoted was from the example Chaplain Mike gave, of “The ‘soterian’ gospel that is so common today” – with which he does not agree. Did you read to the end of the post? The whole rest of the post is about how the reality of the Good News is actually something different, and much closer to what you believe.

      I feel frustrated because I would like to have a real conversation with you, Steve. I guess a lot of the time I come here and say the same thing but with different words. I guess most of the other “regulars” do that, too. But we’re trying to have some kind of an exchange of communication between persons on the basis of respect and even love. That means trying to understand where others are coming from by what *they* say – not be imputing doctrine, motives, etc. to them. Otherwise there is no exchange, no meeting of persons – only machines mouthing the same phrases back and forth.

      There is more to your life and the lives of the rest of us than that. I would love to meet a more fuller Steve-the-Person than the one with the hammer of Luther always pounding on the nail of Law….

      If we were sitting across the table from one another having coffee, this is what I would say, and you would see tears in my eyes. Sending you a virtual hug.

      Dana

      • Dana Ames says:

        Steve,

        I would love to know what you do for fun 🙂

        Dana

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Otherwise there is no exchange, no meeting of persons – only machines mouthing the same phrases back and forth.

        Orwell called it “duckspeak” — reciting a Party Line without engaging any neuron above the brainstem. Stimulus –> Response, Stimulus –> Response.

        There is more to your life and the lives of the rest of us than that. I would love to meet a more fuller Steve-the-Person than the one with the hammer of Luther always pounding on the nail of Law….

        Even Luther would have stopped for a couple beers now and then.

        • Even Luther would have stopped for a couple beers now and then.

          Probably the quote of the day…

          • Christiane says:

            well THAT makes sense . . . my husband (baptised Lutheran as a baby, and of German heritage) ALSO has no problem stopping now and then for a beer . . .

            it’s in his DNA, I guess 🙂

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Some years ago here at IMonk, there was a round-table about church potlucks and how they differ by denom. In Lutheran potlucks, the most important part is “Who’s bringing the beer?”

  2. Just prayed today’s collect: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires,
    so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect.

  3. “We imagine that success for Christianity means winning arguments and making sure all of our doctrinal “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” crossed. But… The “good works” Christians are called to do are not actions or projects that fall into some special category. They are, rather, the simple, ordinary acts of neighborliness, kindness, and helpfulness that all people understand and appreciate… “Good works” is not just about doing things, it’s about living well, loving your neighbor as yourself. Anyone can do this. One doesn’t even have to be a Christian. These are human acts and we do them because we are members of the human family and everyone recognizes their value.”

    This is a sore point in some portions of Reformed thinking. I remember hearing the contempt some teachers poured on people like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, etc – for *this* very reason. “See? Any heathen can do ‘Good Works’. But does that please God, since they are not Christians! NO! Only CHRISTIANS (especially, the unspoken caveat was, Reformed Christians) can get the Gospel (again, the unspoken caveat was that ‘Gospel’ meant theology) right! So obviously the Gospel theology is more important than ‘Good Works’!”

    At the time, I didn’t see this as the snare it was, and is.

    • The distinction between two kinds of righteousness may be useful in this context.

      Also, recognition of this distinctive calling and work: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9

    • Yep. It seems that ‘theological precision’ is the measure of spiritual maturity (and even salvation itself) in some quarters, particularly the one you mentioned.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        As you can tell from my snarks, the image I have connected with that is classic Communists with their emphasis on Marxist Ideology. (And probably ramped it up to become more Marxist than Marx.) Same dynamic, different focus. Cults don’t need to be based on a religion; in the 20th, Marxism had quite a run as a Political Cult. (Which is a real kicker, as it was based on an economic system analysis. But Marx the Utopian Prophet ended up eclipsing Karl the Victorian systems analyst.)

        • HUG, only about an hour ago I was reading something from Thomas Merton about that.

          He said, “This kind of fictional thinking [that we can solve everything by destroying our perceived enemy] is especially dangerous when it is supported by a whole elaborate pseudo-scientific structure of myths, like those which Marxists have adopted as their ersatz for religion

          That quote is from the chapter “The Root of War is Fear.” It dovetails with the quote you’ve sometimes posted from “The Moral Theology of the Devil.” Something about being absolutely right and proving everybody else absolutely wrong.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Well, Pope John Paul II (a veteran of Cold War Poland and the Warsaw Pact) approached Communism as a Christian Heresy.

            Chesterton wrote once that Christianity was a dynamic balance between opposing doctrines, “any one of which in isolation could lay waste a world”. Marxism was just a secularized version of the prophetic doctrines of Woe to the Rich and God’s concern for the Poor taken in isolation.

    • I matriculated at TEDS in the early 2000s. We were taught that while unbelievers could do what appeared to be good works, these works were ALWAYS done for selfish reasons (because humans are completely depraved). We were further taught that only Christians could do good works for the right reasons, and so therefore, the only good works acceptable to God were done by Christians.

      I really disliked that theology then, and I still dislike it today.

      • I think we Christians (often for good reason) are hung up on justification and view everything through that lens.

        However, I think God delights when any act of love is performed, no matter who does it or for what reason. That doesn’t mean such an act makes a person righteous before God or earns any kind of merit that makes God beholden to that person. We have to move past this inability to think beyond our binary theological categories sometimes.

        Part of loving our neighbors means being able to praise and commend them for the good things we see in their lives, things that deserve unqualified respect, things that may indeed be more “godly” than characteristics in our own lives.

      • I suspect that if we (Christians) do manage to perform at good work for the “right” reasons (according to this definition), that it still occurs almost by accident. You know, Romans 7 and all that jazz.

        What is most problematic in that line of thinking is that an action or an object has no inherent value in it’s own right. A thing cannot be beautiful simply because it is, indeed, beautiful. It’s beauty become entirely dependent upon how it is used – for God or against God. Therefore nothing is good in itself, but only useful or not useful.

        This seems perverse and a totally ignorant of the doctrines of creation, incarnation and resurrection.

        • Dana Ames says:

          Indeed.

          Dana

        • Well, I for one find it impossible in my own life to only be motivated by selfless “good” reasons. There is always some selfish motivation in there.

          • Christiane says:

            but that’s where love comes into the equation:

            one really good definition of love is that it wills good for the ‘other’ as ‘other’

            instead of ‘quid pro quo’, this is an unselfish kind of love that requires nothing in return
            . . . that is why doing something for the sake of others without receiving ‘credit’ is more respected than people who keep ‘resumes’ filled with their ‘volunteer activities’ in order to use these to make themselves credible in an election or on a job hunt

            unselfish love IS Christian love . . . it mirrors ‘grace’ because it is freely given for the good of the ‘other’

            this kind of love makes it possible to love the unlovable . . . and that is profoundly ‘of Christ’, is it not ?

      • Vera, I’ve heard that sort of thing too, that only Christians can please God with works acceptable to Him, that all else is false love. Something about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit upon “us” and not upon “them,” as if the Holy Spirit can be contained.

        To me (and to you, I think) this contradicts the whole idea of grace as well as the doctrine of imago dei, that we are created in the image of God.

        I hope this was a minority opinion at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, perhaps a leftover from somebody’s youth group days. Trinity is a good school and has even produced the likes of Chaplain Mike.

        • Danielle says:

          My alma mater is Trinity College, which is the undergraduate college connected to TEDS. Generally, I would say that the college humanities faculty would argue push back against that argument. I don’t know about the Biblical studies courses, or about TEDs. It is a fundamentally theological argument and so it is more at home in that context.

          I would expect to find it raised by students, or in chapel.

          Certainly the assumptions underlying the argument surfaced. For example, I can think of several occasions during my college years when students wanted to know whether an author was a Christian, before discussing the content of a book. Knowing the person’s affiliation was necessary so that they would know in advance whether to praise everything the person wrote, or take a critical stance. To this subset of students, if the author was a Christian, it was safe to explore and offer praise. If the author was not, or from a suspicious Christian tribe, then it was necessary to critique and keep one’s distance from the content. This was largely about safety from damaging ideas, but that behavior is also meant to guard against the kinds of questions that are raised by realizing that some of the world’s greatest poets are not evangelicals, and some of history’s best people not either.

          Anyway, this arc of questioning is the beginning of the detrailment of what most humanities professors consider a productive class discussion, and I am sure they wished it would stop happening.

          One professor assigned a book to his class, then wisely refused to reveal the religious views of the author. He then grinned like the Cheshire Cat all term. It was delightful to see.

          • Safety from damaging ideas. I know what you mean. My alma mater is Gordon College, and I’ve done some study at Gordon-Conwell Seminary too. While at Gordon I majored in history, and through that read some Marx and some Nietzsche (got good at banging out Nietzsche’s name on an old Remington manual typewriter, and can spell it to this day). I literally got headaches reading Nietzsche, he was so foreign to the Christian faith and so hateful to it, until I started to feel sorry for him and also to realize that some of what he was saying made a lot of sense. At any rate it was all hyperbole, wild accusations against Christianity, shrieking parables of anti-Christian caliber. But, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, I can pick a few things out of that and point to God’s grace. But it takes a little effort. And I think Nietzsche’s Madman parable should be required reading of every seminary student (I mean, you want to know the culture that you’re up against? This is it, and he was a hundred years ahead of his time).

            The biggest problem I have is with believers who don’t take any such effort, and throw everything out that isn’t American middle-class Republican evangelicalism. And white.

            I will confess though, that on the other hand I’m guilty of throwing out wholesale a lot of stuff written by believers if they show a really narrow hermeneutic and claim stuff that ain’t necessarily so. We’re supposed to know better. One little cultural slip that causes a theological blunder and I’ll put the book down (or keep reading, but only to take notes and so later to denounce the thing. So I’m no better).

    • Michael says:

      So obviously the Gospel theology is more important than ‘Good Works’!”

      The real irony is that rather than exchanging legalistic works-righteousness for grace, you just exchange one legalism for another. The good work that earns your salvation is having perfect theology.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “Perfect theology”?

        Purity of Ideology, Comrade.
        PURITY OF IDEOLOGY!

      • Danielle says:

        As Eeyore noted, “a snare” is the perfect descriptor for this.

        Just as the moralist can only maintain his position by pretending he never errs, the ideologue can only maintain her position by pretending that everything can be known, and that she knows it.

        The trouble is, you either remain completely delusional or life intervenes in these fine fantasies. In my case, I bit off the idea that intellectual surety was of the highest importance (without quite realizing it, I defined faith as knowing propositions that are true & submitting to them). Why wouldn’t I? I was imbedded in a context in which faith was very much thought to be heart matter, but used theology and “worldview” to mark off the community’s boundaries. And I was young, intellectual sort, so apt to want to play the game being proposed.

        That lasted about as long as it took me to run full speed into doubt – and the simple realization that the more you reflect on anything, the more you know what you don’t know.

        The trouble with building a gallows, is that sooner or later someone will hang you on it.

        • Great point, and gets back to epistemic roots, which CM touched on in his brief paragraph above re: modernism. I have often wondered how some Christians justify their (essentially modernist or at least enlightenment) epistemology with Jesus’ words “I am the truth”.

  4. CM, excellent post to round out a week of them.

  5. dumb ox says:

    I quoted the following from Richard Niebur’s “Christ and Culture” a couple years ago. I think it fits:

    “Christianity needed to be regarded as an ellipse with two foci, rather than as a circle with one center. One focus was justification or the forgiveness of sins; the other, ethical striving for the attainment of the perfect society of persons. But there was no conflict between these ideas; for forgiveness meant the divine companionship that enabled the sinner after every defeat to arise again and resume his work at the ethical task.”

    There is no freedom to love without the assurance of forgiveness.

    • with the same lungs we breathe in the justification God provides for us in Jesus, and we breathe out the active love of the Spirit life given to us in each breath. One cannot merely breathe in forever without breathing out.

  6. Another scripture which I think is not a stretch to connect with good works, from the parable of the talents, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Matt. 25:21. Or, to be a little less flowery, “Good job!”

    Good job, CM!

  7. Thanks for this and all the weeks posts. These will be ones to bookmark and refer back to.

  8. Rick Ro. says:

    I gave a little pushback on one of the posts earlier this week (mainly because of my perception of its tone), but this has been a good series of articles on a topic that often veers toward religiosity and Churchianity. Nice job, CM.

  9. What a wonderful quote from Luther!

  10. Just Mark says:

    Chaplain Mike,

    I wanted to say thanks for a week of thought- and prayer-provoking posts. While the schedule at work kept me from participating, I read them all and found much resonance with my own place on the journey.