Friday, December 10, 2010

"You are Not Under the Law, but Under Grace": Escape from Mt. Sinai, Part III

[[ Note: This is the third in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of legalism and religion. In the first part I delineated the symptoms of a legalistic heart; in the second, looked briefly, though not for the last time, at the psychology of Pharisaism, and delved for a moment into the conflict at the heart of the Protestant Reformation ]].

When last I left off, we were engaged in a close reading of the fifth chapter of Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, which provides as clear a picture as was ever painted of the inner machinations of works-based religion. A few pages further along into the chapter, he makes this crucial point:

“The difference between the law and gospel doth not consist in this, that one requireth PERFECT doing, the other only SINCERE doing; but in this, that the one requireth DOING, the other NOT DOING, but BELIEVING for life and salvation. Their terms are different, not only in degree, but in their whole nature.”

Here we find another cunning and deceitful subterfuge of legalistic thinking: It invariably masquerades as a doctrine of grace. In this day and in these times it would be altogether too easy for Satan to come out and forthrightly proclaim that the work of the cross was in itself insufficient to atone for our sins, that we stand every moment on the brink of annihilation, and that only the most mortifying acts of penance and contrition can appease the burning wrath of God. For who would believe that? We are Lutherans, all.

Yet here’s what he tells me: “You’re right; you’re absolutely right. You cannot earn redemption. I’m as much a Protestant as anyone,” says Satan. “Eternity is yours now. But how will you keep it?”

And so I find myself having this conversation with myself a hundred times a day:

Q: He’s right, you know. You have your salvation; now what will you do?
A: Well, surely not nothing. Nothing would be contemptible and lazy and ungrateful, and would likely only lead me further into sin. Right? So I have to do something; that’s decided.

Q: What is the purpose of the Christian life?
A: To strive after holiness, surely.

Q: And what is holiness?
A: Why, the doing of things that are right; the avoidance of things that are not right. Purging your heart of its wickedness through fasting, prayer, and obedience. Commitment to the precepts of the Word.

Q: And why do you do those things?
A: Because without holiness no man shall see the Lord. Because only the pure in heart shall see God. Because otherwise how will I persuade Him to answer my prayers, grant me His revelations, and visit my bed in the night with the sound of His voice?

Q: Do you really believe that it’s your obligation to persuade God to do things through the force of your goodness?
A: Well, not when you put it that way. But I have to find some way to earn His attention… I mean, look at my friends, how He loves them…

Q: Earn? Did you just use the word earn?
A: Did I? I meant, win his attention… win it, not earn it…

Q: Practically, what’s the difference?
A: Well, you can’t earn anything, of course, silly; it’s all freely given. But He won’t hear my prayers and reveal to me the joy of His presence if I don’t create a holy habitation for Him in my heart.

Q: Boze, why do you suddenly look so sad and dejected?
A: I… I don’t know. I feel great!

Q: Well, you don’t look great. You look angry.
A: But I’m not angry, I promise!

Q: Oh, it’s understandable. I would be angry too if I thought God loved my friends more than me, that He was more willing to visit them with light and warmth and joy and revelation because they had proven themselves in all respects better Christians than I was, if I thought the Christian life was nothing more than pressing a button a hundred thousand times until you were finally given a pellet, and then doing it all over again the next day, and doing this every day of your life.
A: {{ Sobs }}

Oh, where to begin? Holiness is the result, not the requirement, of fellowship with Christ. Dr. Marshall speaks of those who “would heal themselves, and save themselves from sin and pollution, by sincere obedience. They lay their own obedience lowest in the foundation of their salvation, and build the enjoyment of Christ upon it, who ought to be the only foundation. They would sanctify themselves before they have a sure interest in Christ; and going about to establish their own righteousness, they do not submit themselves to the righteousness of Christ [Rom. 10:3-4].”

What I have been earnestly and zealously attempting to do in attaining the favor of God through hard-earned purity of heart is called “salvation by works of the law.” It is an offense unto God—of all offenses possibly the greatest—because it renders not only the cross, but Christ Himself, of no effect (Gal. 5:1-3). This is the literal truth. “You cannot hide the soul”—and, over time, it occurs to you that something is definitively lacking in your Christian faith. It troubles you, and you ask yourself questions—questions like, Why do I never read the New Testament? Why do I always skip over the passages about the crucifixion when I read the Gospels? Why does everyone else always get so emotional about those passages? Have I been missing something all these years? Why am I strangely attracted to Judaism? How do I know so much about God’s wrath and judgment? Etc…

Moreover, it is no true path to holiness. The only way to holiness is found through Jesus—resting in the presence of the Son of God, through faith, not works—in confident assurance of His goodness towards you—believing, in short, that He is, “and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Salvation by works of the law is actually contrary and destructive to the true means of holy practice. Those means are: the realization of our reconciliation with God by justification; our knowledge of our everlasting happiness; and of our sufficient strength to will and to perform every duty—all of which is only to be found in Christ, by union and fellowship with Him, through faith (not a right of procurement, but an instrument only, like the hand that reaches up to take its nourishment from its provider).

However, Religion makes these practical means of holiness the means and cause of abundant life, when the reality is that that life, having already been placed inside of us, is the actual cause of holy practice. In other words, Religion asserts that holy practice is necessary before fellowship with Christ can be attained; when fellowship with Christ is the only way to true holiness. It tells us, says Marshall, “that it is presumptuous to take him as our own

until we have performed the condition for our right and title to him; which is another kind of saving faith, otherwise called sincere obedience. By this devised conditional faith, Satan keepeth many poor souls at bay, poring upon their hearts for many years together, to find whether they have performed the condition, and whether they have any right to Christ for their salvation, not daring to venture to take him as their own. It is a strong partition-wall, that will certainly hinder the soul from coming to Christ, until it be thrown down, by the knowledge of salvation by grace, without any procuring condition of works.

So that then, as I did, we become frustrated, irritable, angry, hypocritical, and powerless against sin. This is the very progression which the apostle Paul describes in the first chapter of Romans—a passage which we (or at least I) typically relegate to the category of “passages about non-Christians which don’t concern me.” But look at what he says here: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21, NKJV). Again, one of the most readily discernible, most pernicious effects of a spirit of religion is the near-continual recurrence of ingratitude, “that marble-hearted fiend”—for why be grateful when you’ve earned your way yourself? These verses may apply to a Christian no less than an unbeliever. What is the ultimate effect of resistance to grace? He tells us a few verses later: “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies… For this reason God gave them up to vile passions” (vs. 24, 26). Remember now, this is the mercy of God in correction; though of course, if you live a life of works, not grace, it will be hard for you to see the mercy in His judgment. God gives us up to vile affections that we might remember from what a height we have fallen, and repent (Rev. 2:5). In His kindness He allows us to see what our lives would be like were we left to ourselves in our hardness of heart. He loves us too much to let us throw away eternity so lightly.

Salvation by the works of the law is a perverse, corrosive doctrine, which will leave us in more sin than it found us, through the futility of attempting to war against the flesh by means of the flesh. It’s like trying to climb a mud slope to escape a pit; you simply cannot do it, any more than Christian could escape the Slough of Despond on his own, without the aid of Help, and Steps of Grace.

The paragraph that follows might easily have been written for the sake of Ignatius of Loyola—or for me:

Those that endeavor to perform this sincere obedience… shall never be able to perform SINCERELY any true obedience by all such endeavours. Though they labor earnestly, and pray fervently, fast frequently, and oblige themselves to holiness by many vows, and press themselves to the practice of it, by the most forcible motives, taken from the infinite power, justice, and knowledge of God, the equity and goodness of his commands, the salvation of Christ, everlasting misery, or any other motive, improved by the most affectionate meditation; yet they shall never attain to the end which they aim at in such an erroneous way. They may restrain their corruptions and bring themselves to many hypocritical performances, whereby they may be esteemed among men as eminent saints; but they shall not be able to mortify one corruption, or to perform one duty in such a holy manner as God approveth… And what a disappointment… when, after all this ado, the remedy is found to be as bad as the disease, equally unserviceable and destructive to that great end for which they designed it; and that it hath an antinomian effect of operation, contrary to the power of godliness.

Spirit-less, Christ-less rending of the flesh will only lead you deeper into sin. You cannot hide the soul.

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