Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grace, Faith, Works, Boast, unto Good Works....

The Reformed churches, it seems, always have some sort of debate raging. The current debate, though it has many other features, largely concerns the place of obedience (or "works") in the Christian life. On one side, some are advocating that the believer's works are somehow included in their justification, not as fruit, but as grounds. This is legalism and needs to be expunged. Ephesians 2:8-9 says "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast."

Yet, as often happens, a response and overreaction by incautious pastors and professors arises on the other side, decrying any place for evangelical obedience in the Christian life. The commands of Scripture are disingenuous --they are only designed to show us that we cannot keep them. Application in preaching or any call to the Christian that he "ought, must, or should" is seen to be legalism. The only answer to any question in Scripture can only be "Jesus has done it all."

Now, we must admit from the first that this is a legitimate use of the commands of the Scripture. The Law is designed to show us our inability to keep it, convict us of sin, and cause us to look outside ourselves for our salvation, and to turn to Christ in faith, disabused of any foolish notion that we can contribute anything to our righteousness before God. This is the first use of the Law.

Yet, this fails to reckon with Ephesians 2:10. Indeed, it seems to me that both extremes of this debate avoid that verse. Both sides miss that the selfsame works that fail us in justification are the works that God expects of those he has regenerated. The New Perspective / Federal Vision side of the debate says the works that Paul eschews there are the ancient covenant boundary markers such as circumcision. We are saved by faith apart from boundary markers, but not apart from "Thou shalt not commit adultery," which is very much a part of our righteousness, they will say. This, of course, is denied us by the context. Paul uses the same word "works" to describe the same things that cannot save, but which are expected of those already saved.

You can see this by simply substituting the word "circumcision" for works. "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith...and that not of circumcision, lest any man should boast." Now, that is a true point, and the Jews probably needed to hear it --Galatians addresses such things. Yet, it is in 2:10 where the argument breaks down, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, unto circumcision, which God ordained beforehand that we should walk in them." It simply doesn't wash.

The other side (we'll call it anti-nomian, or "anti-law") says works play no place in our lives as Christians. To say they do is to deny the gospel. Some will go so far as to say that preachers who preach commands or imperatives (oughts, musts, shoulds) are legalists and denying the gospel or not preaching grace. This is most grievous to the preacher, and I have counseled dear friends who have faced this charge, and I have faced it myself on occasion. Yet, again this fails the Ephesians 2:10 test. Paul's point is, and I repeat myself, that the same works that can never justify very much are expected of us as Christians. This does not mean we never sin, never fail, never make bad choices, never go headlong into sins and addictions with a high hand --certainly we do. It does not mean that even our best acts are not stained by sin and self --of course they are.

The truth is far more encouraging, and it is simply this: God accepts our imperfect obedience, merely by his grace, as a thank offering, well-pleasing in his sight. What freedom is found in those words. My works please my father. What could be better news than that? They don't make me right with him, they don't earn me his love. They are, rather, the product of the love that he has shed abroad in my heart.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Singular Anonymous Letter

John R. de Witt, former pastor of several large churches, is my friend and mentor in the ministry. Recently, he spoke at RTS Charlotte on the accrued wisdom of 50 years in the pastorate. He related an anonymous letter which caused him to reflect upon how he preached. I found it very helpful, and thought it would be helpful both to preachers and laypeople in understanding the challenge and task of the church:

I came to your church sun and brought a young couple with me who are struggling with living a Christian life and are being pulled by the world with drugs, sex and alcohol. Many of the young people you preach to on Sunday morning are sleeping together on Friday and Saturday nights in a drugged, drunken stupor. They don’t really want to live like that but are pressured from all directions and are seeking some alternatives. What an awesome responsibility the church has to reach and develop these intelligent well educated young people. If you and your wife had been this young couple, what would you have taken home with you that would help you to face the world they have to live in this week?

You live in a sheltered world. They’re coming in there Sunday morning crying out for help –if the church doesn’t help them who will? What you said was doctrinally correct: repetitious, but cold. They need to know that God is real and that he is alive and wants to live in them that he is far greater and more caring than any earthly father could ever be, that he hears them and will comfort when their little world is falling apart –that they don’t have to turn to the crutches this world offers them but that Jesus is always there with his big loving arms open ready to love them and listen to their problems –that they can cast their cares on him for he really cares.

There are some young people who listen to you every Sunday who have considered suicide: they’re not getting answers. I’ve worked with them for thirty years. When they learn who they are as God’s child, and as a joint heir with Jesus entitled to all he is and has, that he can supply their every need then he becomes real and they depend on him instead of some psychiatrist that is in worse shape than they are. Second Presbyterian Church draws the young people who will be leaders in this city. Most of them are not getting any help at home. Their homes are broken by the same problems they have. I believe you are the man God has put there. Don’t let them go away with some cold doctrinal truths each Sunday –you will gradually lose them. I agree they need this. But first they need his love guidance and acceptance –they need some answers.