Monday, December 18, 2006

Advent, Justification by Grace, Life of Faith

Yesterday's Gospel reading promised the coming of the Lord with "winnowing fork" in his hand. To my eye, Jesus did not repudiate that picture -- although he complicated it some. And that raises my perennial Advent question: When the Lord returns, what will he be looking for, what will he expect, what will he do?

Lutherans of a classic stripe seem content with their answer: If you simply allow Jesus to love you, it doesn't matter what you've done, who you are, why you have lived the way you have. As long as you don't put up a big "no" to him, he will usher you into his Father's kingdom.

I, of course, as a Lutheran, don't have total problem with that formulation. But I'm waiting for those "classic-stripe" Lutherans to deal with the Baptizer, the Sermon on the Mount, and all the rest.

I have recently discovered Paul Althaus' classic (I think) little monograph (in the old "Facets" seiers published by Fortress Press), Divine Command. I have happily learned that my view of the on-going validity of the Ten Commandments and of the commands of Jesus toward love of neighbor, justice in the marketplace, and the like has bona fide Lutheran bona fides.

I intend to set out some thoughts on Althaus' thesis in the near future, so for today, I'll simply make a comment and offer a quote. Lutheran talk about "justifiation by grace through faith" refers to "achieving salvation" -- i.e., it addresses what needs to be done to overcome the rift between being human and being acceptable to God. The Lutheran answer, consonant with the whole of Holy Scripture and most of the Great Tradition, is "nothing; God has taken the initiative to love us even in our most profound unlovablility."

Lutherans, unfortunately (and of course, not ALL Lutherans), stop there. All that matters, apparently, is day by day reassuring myself of my personal salvation by repeating the mantra, "I am saved by God's gracious loving act." The question which ought to occupy preachers, teachers, parents, and us is never addressed -- viz., "So what?" or "What are we to do with this?" or "Where do we go from here?" Those are questions of "sanctification" or "growth in grace" or "theosis" (I suppose). And the stereotypical Lutheran response is "Well, it pretty much doesn't matter, because your works don't matter."

That is an inappropriate response to questions of how to live if those questions do not rise out of questions about earning/meriting/keeping God's love, as Althaus makes clear (and as I shall try to explain later) and as this citation from St. Symeon the Theologian (thanks to Pontificator for the reference) also makes clear:

If we desire the kingdom of Heaven we must have great care and diligence and willingness in practising the commandments of God. In order to be saved, it is not sufficient to believe in the true God and to be Orthodox Christians. We must also fight “the good fight”, live “worth of the vocation we are called”, tht is to say perform Christian acts since we are baptised Christians and we are honoured with the name of Christ.

Let us not think that we shall be saved by faith alone. Faith without works do not benefit in anything. Of course the Lord said “he that believes and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned”, but He also said this “not every one that says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. If one would be saved by faith alone then everybody will easily secure salvation. Because “the devils also believe and tremble. As the body with out the soul is motionless and lifeless so faith without works is dead. Let us hear St. James the brother of God, who very lucidly stresses “what does it profit, my brethren, though a man says he has faith, and has no works?

Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, depart in peace, be warmed and filled; not withstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone”. After these it is obvious that we must have works together with faith.

For this reason whoever believes in God and his providence shares out his money to the poor, hoping that he will receive “a hundredfold wage” and will inherit everlasting life. Whoever believes, struggles to be humble, repents for his sins, he is meek and peaceful, hates injustice and loves justice, because he remembers the verse from the Psalms “he who loves injustice hates his own soul”.

He who believes endures without grumbling every temptation in order to be crowned with the crown of the incorruptible glory. He is prudent and does not molest himself. He, who truly believes, is not lazy and negligent of prayer, does not condemn anybody and does not follow the “broad road”, but the “narrow and sorrowful road”. He does not love the world, neither parents, nor brothers and sisters nor wife and children, more than the Lord. Those who believe love the Lord and hate evil acts. They do not bear a grudge against his brother and do not return evil for evil. They do good to those who treat them badly, they bless those who curse them and they bear patiently those that persecute them.

Those who believe do not practise hypocrisy, flattering or person favouritism, because in all their activities they are straight, honest and sincere. They have no pride and are not magnanimous for the sake of praises and flattering that others give them. They detest the world of sin, following the exhortation of Apostle Paul “no man that war entangles himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who has chosen him to be a soldier. And if a man also strives for mysteries, yet he is not crowned, except he strives lawfully”.

Those who believe never lie, they are not greedy, they do not have Holy Communion without having confession, they do not condemn others. In brief, they follow carefully and steadfastly the way of the commandments of Christ and they have faith in Him, not in words but “in deeds and truth”. Do you now see how, those who believe live? So how can we consider somebody as faithful if he is poor in works?

If we truly believe, let us fight sin and abandon every evil that we have been doing so far. Let us struggle with willingness in order to be ready to stand before the Lord on the fearful day of Judgement. Let us wake up from the sleep of negligence. Let us correct our thoughts and let us drive away the evil thoughts. Let us try to fulfil the commandments of God, in order to be crowned by Him and to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

-- St Symeon the New Theologian


*Christopher said...

Althaus is still very much used in Germany as what I would find to be a Lutheranism with its Melanchthon intact, moderated, thoughtful, and careful with regard to either/or claims. I've been told by any number of Lutherans "We don't believe in sanctification", and I'm not quite sure they've read their Luther well enough with the insistence on love of neighbor, works of love, etc. I think what I appreciate about Lutherans is that reticence to claim to know that this or that sanctifies, getting caught up in piety of various sorts, rather than a concern to live life well.

lee said...

I always thought the beauty of the Lutheran perspective was that it's precisedly because you're justified by faith that you're free to attend to the needs of your neighbor.

Luther puts it the best that I've seen it in the Freedom of a Christian:

"Lastly we will speak also of those works which he performs towards his neighbor. For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely, as Paul says, "None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord" (Rom. xiv. 7, 8). Thus it is impossible that he should take his ease in this life, and not work for the good of his neighbors, since he must needs speak, act, and converse among men, just as Christ was made in the likeness of men and found in fashion as a man, and had His conservation among men.

"Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object — that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbor. Thus the Apostle commands us to work with our own hands, that we may have to give to those that need. He might have said, that we may support ourselves; but he tells us to give to those that need. It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he may be enable to labor, and to acquire and preserve property, for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ."

In a sense, to worry about my sanctification can ironically end up being quite self-centered. JBGTF, on the other hand, is supposed to take us outside of ourselves, and into the world of the neighbor.

Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

Dwight P. said...

The rub, Lee, is that your construal works well in the context of Pelagianism, but it falls apart in the face of antinomianism. And it is the latter that is the great (or at least, greater) issue of the day. "Don't worry; be happy and do what you want" -- a rank paraphrase, I grant -- just does not square with a "plain" reading of Scripture.

And if you think that I'm rattling the Luther-an cage, you ought to follow the "trackback" to Pontificator's blog. (He's my favorite, you know -- no offense intended for my other brother and sister bloggers.) He quotes a biblical scholar who really wants to shake things up -- and it's most troubling even to me!


Dwight P. said...

Oh, one note: In case Pontificator sees this again, I'm relieved that I gave him credit for the Symeon quote. I regularly steal his ideas, expressions, insights -- imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, so thievery is the most sincere expression of envy.

Dave Deavel said...


Come join us at the Twin Cities Chesterton Society some time. We meet the last Tuesday of the month at the University Club in St. Paul. We're not all theologians, but we're a bunch of serious Christians (mostly Catholics) who like to read Chesterton and talk about the things that matter.

Dave Deavel said...

One more thing. We don't meet in December.

John T. Meche III said...

I would very simply say that it is by grace alone through faith alone that we are saved, and that has everything to do with God and nothing to do with us. There are those who profess Jesus is Lord and they do the will of the Father who is in heaven, and there are those who profess Jesus Christ is Lord and they do not do the will of the Father who is in heaven, and they go to hell––not because of a lack of
works, but because of a lack of faith demonstrated by the fact that they had no works.