05 November 2008

Righteous Freedom

{This originally appeared as an editor's Coram Deo (the only one I've written) in Tabletalk 28.4 (April 2004): 2}

The early sixteenth century witnessed a reformation regarding the role of Jesus’ goodness and faithfulness in redemption. But moments such as these — moments of clarity — rarely last that long. Within a generation, the righteousness of Christ was forced once again to share the stage with human goodness.

Such decline in doctrine is by no means remarkable, and it should serve to remind us of an unfortunate truism in this fallen world. John Calvin knew it all too well. Hinting at his anxiety over the future of his home church in Geneva, he wrote, “It is not strange that today the authority of God’s servants, whom he has furnished with excellent and wonderful gifts, protects and preserves the church. But once they are dead, a sad deterioration will promptly begin, and impiety now hidden will erupt without restraint.” 

Sad words, indeed. Today, we face this same dilemma, as there are those who place the proper emphasis on Christ’s righteousness, while at the same time many sneak a works-based righteousness through the back door.

For this reason, now is a good time to devote an entire month of
Tabletalk to this foundational and profoundly practical doctrine. From Christ’s humble service to his redeeming faithfulness, each article this month strives to direct us toward our only sure hope in redemption: the righteousness of the living Savior. Without his work alone on our behalf, we could not even cast a shadow upon the threshold of the invisible church, let alone cross it. 

Underlying this work of Christ in our stead is the inexhaustible grace of God. Redemption is not to be viewed as a single, specific instance of religious conversion. It is the whole Christian journey, and it is accomplished and applied by nothing less than the grace of our covenant Lord. 

Those who challenge this idea that God irresistibly draws believers to himself contend that he would not demand repentance from us if we were not already able to do it without special grace. Surely, they say, God would not hold us responsible for something we cannot do. The Reformers, however, taught differently. They, like Saint Augustine before them, entreated God to command whatsoever he will and grant whatsoever he commands. They recognized that their reliance, their sole foundation, rested upon sovereign grace.

Join in our study of this life-enriching doctrine as we seek to live
coram Deo and shake-off the cold, iron shackles of our churches’ Pelagian captivity. 


John Schaefer said...

Sorry Chris, but I just can't shake a feeling that somewhere along the way the gap between ideology and practice has been crossed over too easily. How exactly does belief affect behavior and vice versa?

I ask this because I see some contradictions here. For example, it appears that Calvin sees some magic at work. If people stop trying to be righteous but... let Jesus be righteous (as if that's impossible?), then somehow they will be righteous. But the second they stop not trying to be righteous and start trying to be righteous, then they they start being unrighteous. Are you interested in the actions of real people, or is this just a theoretical question of your own? (and also distinct from the theory of the people who are acting...)

Of course, we're probably trying to do different things here. I'm really interested in verifiable data, things that can be measured reliably. Actions fall into that category, as do beliefs, so I find it easy to start measuring and testing. But I have trouble understanding why theologians feel they can improve on this process.

Chris Donato said...

Hi, John. Thanks so much for your thoughts here.

It seems you've put a finger on one of the more frustrating aspects of doing theology. I agree with you, almost entirely. Yet I can't go the whole way toward an inductive faith. Some things just can't be measured reliably. In some sense, "magic" does indeed exist.

That said, I think you'd agree that belief and actions are totally reciprocal. We do what we believe, and we believe what we do. But there's a necessary first step. Speaking Christianly, this means that by the power of God's Spirit, we're transformed and thus enabled to respond accordingly.

So, again, you've put an appropriate finger on the apparent contradiction, but I think underlying my discussion here is the inevitability of righteousness on the part of the Jesus follower. But this short piece merely intends to focus on the actual righteousness of Jesus, which is in effect to say, "Don't worry about your own righteousness, at least not initially." That's when the "magic" happens…

John Schaefer said...

Sorry for letting this go so long. I forget about my comments until you post again and bloglines tells to check!

We do have different perspectives on this issue. It might be that you are taking responsibility for the faith of others, in a pastoral role, which carries its own rewards and risks (something about a millstone comes to mind), whereas I am much more selfishly seeking to describe and understand the faith of others on their own terms. I feel like my approach has a more tangible connection to some sort of verifiable "reality" but that's just me.

Overall no doubt we agree, but I must take issue with this:

"That said, I think you'd agree that belief and actions are totally reciprocal. We do what we believe, and we believe what we do."

Absolutely not. I can cite numerous examples where this is not the case, where some sort of dissonance between belief and practice is the norm. Our beliefs seem almost self-contained and internally consistent. When they do relate to actual practices they follow them--the beliefs change to more closely reflect already existing practices.

Chris Donato said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, John.

I certainly do agree there is dissonance between belief and action. In fact, I'd say that that's often the case. BUT I can't say that it's 100% the case, nor can I say that actions always precede beliefs. I too see verifiable instances of reciprocity.

From a sociological (well, you, from an anthropological) perspective I must agree with you. But then there's the pastoral role of which you speak, and I am thus forced to take the metaphysical off the shelf because, well, after all, I'm not interested in just doing statistics. Less tangible? Yes. Alas.

John Schaefer said...

My classic example is the Tucson Garbage Project, documented by National Geographic back in the 1980s. The researchers went through a neighborhood conducting interviews about alcohol consumption, and residents estimated their alcohol consumption. They then measured "empties" and found the estimates were much lower than the actual. People lie, their lies are tangible, and they can be measured exactly. Wouldn't this be useful to a pastor interested in the actual behavior of church members?

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