Saturday, May 28, 2005

Grace in the Form of Command

It frequently surprises me how much our current theologies, specifically the theologies of lay people, are structured by 16th century thought. Is dividing law and gospel really still the best way to approach things? It's useful, to be sure, but sometimes I think it cuts us off from seeing (or perhaps just from admitting) things that we should see. What follows is an exploration of a gray area of law and gospel. Or maybe it's not gray at all.

Fortress Press has published a section of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics under the title The Call to Discipleship. Barth says that he was tempted to just make this section an extended quotation from Bonhoeffer's Discipleship. The influence of Bonhoeffer is quite pronounced, but naturally Barth has some interesting things to say himself.

Barth describes discipleship in terms of what he calls "grace in the form of command." Now this phrase probably sets off all sorts of alarms in the minds of pious Lutherans. We don't want to confuse law and gospel, and this sounds almost like a deliberate attempt to do so. But those who have read Bonhoeffer may be thinking "Aha!" when they hear this.

Jesus commands and it is accomplished on account of his authority. I thought Barth made the following comparison, but now I can't find it. In any case, this is what I got from reading Barth's exposition: we may draw a comparison between Jesus' call to discipleship, and God's calling the world into existence. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Nobody will accuse the universe of syncretism on this account. Now listen. Jesus said, "Follow me," and Levi followed.

Jesus' call to follow him, though it has every look of law about it, is nothing less than the grace of salvation, accomplishing what it commands.

But there is, of course, a problem here. When God said, "Let there be light," there doesn't seem to be any hint of a possibility that light would not come forth. This is apparently not so with Christ's call to discipleship. "Disobedience to the command of Jesus," Barth says, "is a phenomenon that is absolutely terrifying in its impossibility."

Now I'm not sure what Barth means by using "impossibility" here. Perhaps he means that it seems as though it should be impossible. But experience tells us otherwise, and Barth here is commenting on Jesus' interaction with the rich young ruler which prompts the disciples to ask, "Who then can be saved?"

Barth later says, "The command given is recognizable as the command of Jesus by the fact that it is quite unambiguous. It is required to be fulfilled only as it is given--and one's reception or non-reception of salvation depends upon whether this is done or not."

Now tell me that doesn't set of your works-righteousness tripwires. But I am certain that there is something very important here. I've recently come across this exact same sentiment in the writings of George Macdonald, and Bonhoeffer points in this same direction. God acting in our lives calls us in a certain direction and for definite reason. If our lives never change, then we may seriously ask in what sense we are saved.

Update: It occurred to me this morning that Barth probably really did mean "impossiblity" literally, and this is likely the "I" in TULIP (irresistable grace). So perhaps it's not just lay people who are overly influenced by Reformation era theology. I (as a Lutheran) would still maintain that the terrible reality is that somehow we can resist the grace of God.

1 comment:

LutheranChik said...

Over on Beliefnet we've been talking about "Christians by default" and how to encourage them in discipleship (well, actually, I've been talking about that...most of the responses have been from people in the "I'm saved; they're not; neener-neener-neener" school).

Based on my own experience...I lean more toward the idea that we can resist the Spirit's call to "do something"; which is indeed a frightening prospect. But I think the call is still there; we're just tuning it out, doing the mental and spiritual equivalent of "la-la-la; not listening; la-la-la" when the voice is speaking to us. When I went AWOL from religion -- and became a pretty self-absorbed, inward-turned person -- I really think that's what I was doing.