“O Lord, I am not worthy
O Lord, I am not worthy
Only say the word”
— T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
[[ Note: This is the second in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of religion and legalism. In the first post, I defined the spirit, explained the nature of the evil attendant on it, and related my own history with the struggle.
In this post I shall begin to examine the psychology of a works-based faith, and briefly relate how the conflict between grace and works was played out in the Reformation and Counter Reformation ]]
So then, after nearly two weeks of waiting, as I studied and worshipped in the Prayer Room at six on the morning on the day of my twenty-fourth birthday, I finally found it.
The key—the answer to all of my questions—a thorough and perfect dissection of the legalistic heart, the manifestations of Religion, its origins, its symptoms, the peculiar mechanics of the love-frightened mind—and, what was more—a way out. A light shone on my path. I saw a door open in heaven, and the sudden possibility of deliverance.
But there was more to it, more, much more even than that—as I shall explain in due time.
I had been reading Andrew Murray’s little book, Abide in Christ, and I noticed that at the end of several chapters he referenced an obscure but apparently incredibly helpful work entitled The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by a Puritan divine named Walter Marshall. Curious, I looked it up on Google Books—though it had lately been reprinted, I immediately sought out the older scan—and whilst perusing the table of contents I was struck by the title of the fifth chapter: “Those that endeavour sincere obedience, as the condition to procure a right and title to salvation, and as a ground to trust in Christ, do seek salvation by the works of the law.”
That sounded like something that I might have done; so I clicked on the link and began reading—
And was immediately thrust into another dimension—a dimension of inescapable TRUTH!
Look at how the good doctor begins his indictment:
The most of men, that have any sense of religion, are prone to imagine, that the sure way to establish the practice of holiness and righteousness, is to make it the procuring condition of the favor of God, and all happiness.
Why, that sounds great! I thought.
This may appear by the various false religions that have prevailed most in the world.
Immediately, I came crashing down to earth.
He goes on to explain how, not only the idolatrous practices of the heathens, and the absurd, mortifying rituals of the Eastern religions, and the terrified servitude of the Muslims, but the over-zealous work of many a professing Christian, is warped and corrupted by a paralyzing fear of God’s judgment which takes not into account, nor even sees, the measure of His love and grace through Jesus.
This creates a sort of paradox in the soul. You see, being at the deepest levels profoundly aware of the sin and ingratitude and cunning and cruelty and hatred and evil that infests our hearts, knowing that we have fallen so short of the standards God demands, we persuade ourselves that He will treat us lightly if we only do the best we can. We are so horrified of the sin in our members that, strangely, we overlook it, evade it, treating it as a light thing. “Because our own consciences testify that we often fail in the performance of our duties, we are inclined, by self-love, to persuade ourselves that our sincere endeavours to do the best we can, shall be sufficient to procure the righteousness of God.” This suggests, among other things, that there is a direct connection between religious striving to procure the favor of God, and thereby to avoid the dark fires of judgment, and evasive inability to acknowledge wrong—because we seek to shore up our elaborately-constructed and laboriously-sustained self-image when we fail in our performance, not grasping the reality that already and forever we have attained God’s unmerited pardon and favor.
So we strive all the harder, though always in vain, against evil, while at the same time pretending that the evil isn’t really there, or isn’t quite as bad as we suppose. Inevitably, this creates a split in the personality, whereby delusion and hypocrisy develop.
Having established all this in the first few paragraphs, Dr. Marshall proceeds to lay out a complete psychological profile of the religious, works-based personality:
[They] are not brought to hate sin as sin, and to love godliness for itself, though they be convinced of the necessity of it to salvation, and therefore they cannot love it heartily.
Only in the last six or seven months have I discovered that it’s possible to loathe and rebel against sin for reasons other than its arbitrary wrongness. Frequently people would ask me, Why is lying wrong? Why stealing? Why would it be wrong to give your Jewish friends up to the Nazis if they asked? Or, even more personally, Can you explain why it’s wrong to spend the whole time reading when you go to visit someone else’s house? Can you think of a reason it might be wrong to pace upstairs all night when everyone is sleeping down below? And, well, it was just… wrong. Right?
Then, during the summer, Tyler made the important discovery that “The worst thing in every sin is that it is against God” (as someone, I think Tozer, phrased it), that everything is relational, and sin is wrong because sin is relationally hateful. This revelation was inexorably, inalterably realigning. It would seem the law is not an arbitrary set of right and wrong commandments; but a guidepost on the path to love. “Love,” said the apostle Paul, “is the fulfillment of the law” (Gal. 5:13-14). But that was too high, too unattainable for me. I tried to understand what I meant when I told people sin was relationally hateful to God. Did it hurt Him? Was it possible that God had feelings? Could He feel as a man felt? Could He be moved as a man? Did He yearn in pity? Was He grieved like us? If I pricked Him, would He bleed? If I smote Him, would He weep? The record of the Scriptures seemed to indicate that He would—and, certainly, that’s what I was supposed to think, so I thought it—but I could not understand.
The only means they can take to bring themselves to a hypocritical practice in their old natural way, that they may avoid hell, and get heaven, is by their works. And their own consciences witness, the zeal and love that they have for God and godliness, their self-denial, sorrow for sin, strictness of life, are in a manner forced and extorted from them by slavish fear and mercenary hope; so that they are afraid that if they should trust [in] Christ for salvation, by free grace without works, the fire of their zeal and devotion should be quickly extinguished, and they should grow careless in religion, and let loose the reigns to their lusts, and bring certain damnation upon themselves. [They thus] preach little or none of the doctrine of free grace, but rather spend their pains in rebuking sin and urging people to get Christ and his salvation by their works, and thundering hell and damnation against sinners.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. I remember being irritated with Tyler a few months ago because, when I glowingly tried to narrate the life story of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits and leader of the Counter Reformation, he immediately interrupted me to note, “This person sounds very religious.” I admit, in retrospect he does sound very religious. That might, in fact, be putting it lightly. The following passage is taken from the chapter on the Counter Reformation in The Story of Civilization, Volume VI, by Will and Ariel Durant:
An old woman directed him to a cave for shelter. For some days he made this his home; and there, eager to surpass the saints in asceticism, he practiced austerities that brought him close to death. Repenting the proud care that he had once taken of his appearance, he ceased to cleanse, cut, or comb his hair—which soon fell out; he would not trim his nails or bathe his body or wash his hands or face or feet; he lived on such food as he could beg, but never meat; he fasted for days at a time; he scourged himself thrice daily, and each day spent hours in prayer.
Apparently in the midst of his torments he received visions of the Trinity and Virgin, who helpfully explained such matters of consequence as how God could be Three Persons in One, and how He had created the world—but nothing on the cross, or redemption, or grace. I scanned through the rest of the chapter to see if he ever experienced a Lutheran flash of insight, but it seems unlikely: “From the experience of this struggle, almost a year long, he designed the Spiritual Exercises by which the heathen flesh could be subdued to the Christian will.” Alas. It is an unbroken story of self-mortification and self-glorification, right up to the end.
Now at last I think I understand what made the Reformation so important; exactly how much was at stake in the war between Luther and Calvin and the cardinals and popes; and something of the truth of the mystery contained in those words, “By grace, through faith.” Somehow the abiding reality is obscured beneath the avalanche of bloodless abstractions which our high schools teach us. It might have proven more beneficial, if, for the sake of posterity, the Reformation had rather been labeled, say “The Revolution of Grace,” and the Counter Reformation labeled, “Revolution Against Grace.” At least then, you would know right off what you were getting yourself into.
I had been drifting towards Catholicism (and even Judaism, of a sort) for well over a year now; it seems hardly a coincidence that in the rest of this chapter, Dr. Marshall brings the fury of his whip down on the Catholics every time he gets a chance. “The texts of Scripture which [works-based believers] usually [employ] [as a pretext for salvation by works], are either contrary to it, or distant from it; as they might learn from many Protestant interpreters, if their affection to a popish tenet had not blinded them.” Ha!
Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology and Church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, sums it up admirably in this newly-posted meditation on the importance of the Heidelberg Cathechism:
At the pastoral heart of the Protestant Reformation lay the doctrine of assurance, the idea that every individual believer could know—indeed, should know—that God was gracious to them. This was critical because, as the Reformers rightly saw, it lay at the heart of the Christian life, a life which was to be marked not by works done in a servile manner in the hope of thereby earning God’s favour, but rather by works done out of gratitude to God for his grace, and in a spirit of confident freedom…
Of course, we need to understand that the assurance of which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks is not the kind of assurance so common in our Christian culture today: the idea that God is a kind-hearted, sentimental chap, that fallen human beings are not really all that bad after all, and that at the end of the day everything will turn out for the best. Not at all. Reformation assurance is Pauline assurance: in ourselves, we are utterly lost and undeserving; but in his glorious grace, God himself has overcome the mountain that was sin and, against all hope and expectation, delivered us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, a deliverance that is made ours by grace through faith.
It is not for nothing that the saints, heroes, and reformers went to their deaths defending what seem to us abstruse and esoteric remnants of forgotten theology. The subtlest nuance in a person’s thinking, if left unexamined and unaltered, will affect the whole rest of his life. In the deepest, and gravest, and most fundamental sense, what we think is what we are. In determining the course of our thoughts, we determine the world.