03 August 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto, part 4

This fourth installment marks the end of my walkthrough of Jason J. Stellman's Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet. I appreciate your reading thus far, and I will follow this up with a few reflections in the coming days. Without further adieu:

Chapter 11 simply seeks to demonstrate how “Pilgrim Theology, driven as it is by the doctrine of the two kingdoms, actually carves out some valid space for creation and the goodness of earth and its blessings” (126). Using G.K. Chesterton’s delineation of the two poles that mess this up (“puritans” and “pagans,” broadly understood) as his point of departure, Stellman intends here to show how the two-kingdoms paradigm provides the needed balance between the pagans’ pursuit of earthly pleasure and the puritans’ avoidance of it. He argues, in short, that “if we desire to give authen­tic expression to our citizenship both of this age and the age to come, then we need to beware of enjoying earth too little, as well as enjoying it too much” (135).

One main reason this balance must be maintained is simply because of what God’s Word teaches about this transitory life, which, under the new covenant, “is characterized by sweetness as well as bitterness, by possession as well as longing. In short, the presence of the Spirit within the believer means that the future has intruded into the here and now, and the saint has been granted some ‘already’ to go with the ‘not yet’” (138). If we are to give expression to this “pilgrim dynamic,” understanding this principle is absolutely crucial, according to Stellman. Thus he spends the entirety of the chapter backing it up biblically—mainly through a redemptive-historical reading of Romans 6–8, a lá Ridderbos, Fee, and Moo (if not Wright). If you’re likely to hold this book in less esteem because of Stellman’s exegesis here, then you can skip this chapter with no real loss, so long as you take his main point to heart: “The ever-present sense of ‘not yet’ that frustrates us throughout this age does not negate the dynamic ‘already’ that was inaugurated as our risen and ascended Lord bestowed on His church the gift of the Spirit as an engagement ring, assur­ing us of our future glorification. Because the cross was followed by an empty tomb, we must not fail to incorporate the resurrection into our understanding of Christian living” (149–50). One gets the sense that Stellman has been carefully loading both barrels of a sawn shotgun.

As it turns out, the bullets are rather benign—or are they? The next chapter makes the case for new covenant boasting—“not in the things we achieve, but in the entitlements we sacrifice for the sake of Christ’s kingdom and the cross-bearing lives Jesus challenges us to live” (155). Why might this prove scandalous? Because, Stellman contends, despite the fact that we’ve outgrown the old law (like a young adult does a babysitter), “the new covenant affords us the freedom not simply to do less than the law requires, but to do more. This freedom opens up a new—and largely unfamiliar—avenue of Christian growth for God’s people (though it might not exactly be welcomed with open minds or hearts)” (158–59). Suffering is this avenue, and it’s not to be understood by us Americans primarily in its extreme forms (e.g., torture or imprisonment), which serves to help us “make peace with the concept of suffering [because] we can be cer­tain that we never will have to do it” (ibid.). Taking Saint Paul as our example (if not Jesus), Stellman exhorts us to engage “in a kind of active, rather than passive, suffering,” which means that it’d be “in some sense voluntary and therefore boast worthy” (159–60).

Thus, the whole point of the previous chapter comes into view: being freed in the new covenant by the power of God’s Spirit to fulfill the law of Christ rather than laboring under the law of Moses, it’s now “possible for the Christian under the new covenant to voluntarily suffer by going above and beyond the call of duty and relinquishing his right to enjoy certain blessings to which he is entitled” (160).

And how can I not recount Stellman’s refreshing challenge to his fellow pastors?

Likewise in the spiritual realm, when the pulpit is used as a means of meticu­lous legislation, it may engender conformity driven by fear, but if that were the goal for the Christian life, would not the law have sufficed without needing to give way to the gospel? A minister who turns the pulpit into a bully pulpit from which to micromanage the flock rather than tend it will only retard the natural process by which lambs mature into full-grown sheep. To put it simply, when the pastor never stops telling his people what to do, he is not only failing as a leader by giving his congregants what they want (law) rather than what they need (gospel), he is also making it virtually impossible for them to mature. And only a mature saint will seek the opportunity to boast in willingly forfeiting his right to enjoy perfectly legitimate blessings. (161)

Stellman goes on to offer several other encouragements and challenges to the lay reader, like this: “If you feel that you are wronged, ignored at times, or occasionally taken advantage of, you can demand to be treated fairly and with appropriate sensitivity, or you can look past such things and offer your suffering as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the God who suffered so much for you” (162).

Well, where would you expect a book like this to end? An exhaustive concordance of all the secular pursuits worthy of Christian participation (like, for example, a guide through the best beers from all over the globe)? Think again; the topic is assurance, and the role of the “absolutely central” person of the new covenant, the Holy Spirit (165). What’s the connection? The believer’s life, that one leg he has in the earthly kingdom, is fraught with chaos and tragedy even in the midst of the anticipated return of the king. Thus assurance is a precious commodity. And under the new covenant, Stellman argues, the church’s assurance “should be much stronger than it would have been under the old. This is because the witness of the Holy Spirit is to be under­stood as an authenticating work whereby He gives the believer assurance of salvation not only by directing us to the objective promises of the gospel, but also by means of appeal to the evidence of His own handiwork in the believer’s life” (166).

Stellman does this oft-discussed subject justice, which elevates it from the simply redundant to being actually helpful. As seen in the quote above, he refuses to separate the witness of the Spirit from either the objective promises of God in Christ or the evidence in our lives with which we find that love for God has been poured into our hearts. It’s helpful because it steers clear of divorcing “Word from Spirit, making assurance possible by Word alone without the Spirit’s witness, by Spirit alone without the Word’s promise, or by works alone without either” (170). So many books and sermons about assurance have suffered from precisely this.

But there’s still something missing here, even if Stellman gave it the appropriate attention elsewhere (e.g., xi, xxvii, 5, 8, 12ff., 20, etc.). In a word, it’s the sacraments. Not even an allusion. The best of classical Protestant theology has always held that the regular and ordinary means of grace do provide us with the assurance of God’s favor. How? Because they are graceful signs (not mere witnesses or memorials) of (in Stellman’s words) the “objective promises of the gospel.” That is to say, baptism and Holy Communion, as the visible Word, convey the finished work of Christ. This is why Luther could answer “I am baptized” when faced with doubt; he understood that through the sign of baptism the objective, completed faithfulness of Jesus was promised to him (no doubt authenticated by God’s Spirit). All this might be barely underneath the surface in this final chapter. But the reader wouldn’t know it.

At any rate, Stellman wonderfully ends with a good word about works in the new covenant and how the Spirit’s enabling grace and thus the believer’s foretaste of the future means that the “new covenant saint derive[s] comfort from his works rather than fear” (175). In other words, “the believer’s giving practical expression, by faith, to his heavenly identity in his day-to-day life on earth is anything but a legalistic activity” precisely because “the Spirit’s role is to bring the future into the present” (174). The point of all this talk about assurance at the end of a discourse on Christian life in this time between the times? So that we may have a “measure of certainty in our sighs as we long for the full attainment of what has been promised to us. The gap we feel between what awaits us and what we presently experience—so often heightened by our own sin and shortcomings—in no way threatens our certainty that the God who has made such great and precious promises, and has confirmed them with an oath, will be faithful to keep them” (176).

* Here are parts one, two, and three of this review.


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