Things I'm Learning, Part 1

Yes, I'm still alive. No, I haven't dropped off the face of the earth. No, I didn't love my sabbatical SO much that I chose to make it permanent. (That's retirement, not sabbatical.) For my silence, I can only plead busyness and the start up of fall responsibilities. Oh yes, and ramping up for a teenage son getting his driver's license THIS WEEK. Suffice it to say, I'm back and hoping to write more regularly.

Which brings me to today's subject: "Things I'm Learning, Part 1." Hopefully, the first in an occasional series. Today I'm starting off with the problem of Christian moralism. During my sabbatical, Dr. John Coe's lectures on spiritual formation alerted me to this insidious disease facing Christians. In a nutshell, it is this: Christians, having been saved by God's grace through their faith in Jesus' death and resurrection for their sins, now, sadly, go on to live out their Christian lives in the power of their own strength.

A shorthand for this might go: "Saved by grace, sanctified (made more like Christ in actual living) by works." See the problem? When we do this, we trivialize the crisis from which God has rescued us in Christ. At the beginning of our Christian lives, we've acknowledged that we needed God's help in rescuing us from a life of sinful self-centeredness; now, however, after receiving this life by God's grace, we've gone back to our own resources in order to grow in this life. A clear sign of this is self-reliance ("Tell me what I need to know/do/not do to be a good Christian!"), frustration and self-condemnation when we fail ("Darn, I blew it again!"), and earnest vows to improve ourselves in the future ("I must try harder next time!").

Christian moralism is so prevalent in the Church and in our lives that we may not even notice it (and, worse, we may not even think it's a problem to begin with). But here's the rub: if we really believe that only God can save us, do we still think we ourselves have the capacity, in our own strength, to live out the new life to which he's called us? If so, we either have a grossly distorted view of our own moral capacity (and a pretty unrealistic view of our sin) and/or we kid ourselves into thinking we're already so perfected in our new life as Christians we can straightforwardly live out what God requires. Either way, we set ourselves up for failure and frustration.

So what's the way forward? Despair--that we can ever live as Christ commands? That's too high a view of our sin and too low a view of his empowering presence. Hypocrisy--that we say we agree with his commands but make little attempt to live them out because we know we can't? Neither of these work. The way forward, according to Coe (and, really, the Bible, especially the Apostle Paul) is to fully embrace in faith our status as God's new people by virtue of Christ's work on the cross. At our core identity, we bank on the fact that we are new, despite evidence to the contrary. We consider ourselves in the Latin of Martin Luther, "Simul iustus, et peccator" (simultaneously justified and yet a sinner). This is now our spiritual DNA, our true legacy, our deepest identity.

Following Jesus, then, means becoming practically who we are already are spiritually. We do this, as the Apostle Paul puts it, by keeping in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). The way forward into newness, holiness, or Christlikeness, is by allowing that quiet Spirit who now indwells us to govern and guide our daily activities. It's as though we keep a constant dialogue open, developing the capacity to discern what the Spirit says moment by moment. This requires several things: an awareness of the truth that Spirit has already inspired in the writings of Scripture (Bible study); a willingness to lay down our autonomy and be led (the surrender of the will, perhaps the most difficult thing); and a slower pace of life, so that we may have room to respond thoughtfully to God (an equally difficult thing for many of us). A by-product of these is a humility and dependence on God's grace when we fail (which we will, repeatedly).

So to sum it up, being a Christian doesn't mean that we work harder at trying to be good. Rather, it means that having surrendered our attempts to be good, we trust in Christ's goodness on our behalf (the cross), and we seek to follow him moment by moment by keeping in step with his Spirit. So beware of "Ten Point" programs which are a disguised form of self-help. And, for the heady ones among us, don't confuse information with transformation (as important as Christian knowledge may be, it's only one component of spiritual growth and lasting change).

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