Friday, June 24, 2005

Born Again and Again

St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis are among the many Christians whose spiritual journey includes a dramatic momentary turning. Modern evangelicals frequently point to these experiences as the moment when these men were born again, the moment of their salvation. Luther even says he felt like he was born again, though it should be disputed whether he meant by that what modern evangelicals mean.

But I think there is something that Lutherans should learn from these evangelicals, and from Paul, Augustine, Luther and Lewis. We should learn something about commitment. Paul, Augustine and C.S. Lewis all specifically relate their experiences to obedience to God. St. Augustine says, "This was the sum of it: not to will what I willed, O Lord, but to will what you willed."

Ever since I read those words in St. Augustine's Confessions I've had a longing for just that feeling. More on that in a moment.

While I fimrly believe that the Lutheran teaching that we are saved throughout our lives and that this salvation is assured in our baptism, I think that Lutherans should learn from evangelicals that at some point you need to actually commit yourself to following Christ. Lutherans, with our penchant for theological precision, would quickly say that we must commit ourselves anew each day. Very well, but we must, nevertheless, commit.

What I've related to this point has been my thinking on the Damascus Road experience for some time now. But now I must come to a confession and with it something that I learned today, though it was something I already knew.

As I mentioned above, I have had a longing to experience Augustine's feeling of "not to will what I willed, O Lord, but to will what you willed" since I first read his account of it. The power of its effect on his life captivated me, and I wished and hoped that God would do something like that in my own life.

And this wish, as wishes do, took on a life of its own within me. I started to look for it in my prayers. With every new feeling of contact with God I began to wonder, "Will this be what changes me?"

I should make clear what it was I was looking for. I am, and have been for some time, a commited Christian. My faith makes a great deal of difference in the way I live my life. In fact, I don't think it would be too immodest to say that faith pervades my life. Some people might even say I am obsessed with God. But I wanted, and want still to be honest, just what Augustine says: not to will what I willed, but to will what God willed. Stepping back it's easy to see that what I was looking for was what Wesleyans call a second work of grace. It's very un-Lutheran of me, I know.

Eventually, I started to try to manufacture something like the experience I was looking for. I'd convinced myself that it wasn't really a particular work of grace that was need but rather my response. I was moved by William Law's statement, "And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it."

So I would decide to become serious about living in the will of God. For a few days it would go well, and I would begin to hope I had finally reached that longed for place. And then I would do something base, something that I couldn't deny came from within me. So I would consider that attempt a failure and conclude that I must try again.

What I saw today is that this is exactly the experience of the Baptist who isn't sure that he "really meant it" when he was baptized before and so goes forward for another altar call and is baptized again.

I needed no doctrinal instruction. I can kick the simul iustus et peccator rhetoric with the best of 'em. Why I didn't apply that to my own life, only my fellow owners of human hearts can know.

Having made this realization, it occured to me that perhaps I already have what I've been longing for. The commitment to Christ that I've been looking for can't possibly be a long, unbroken streak of successful discipleship. It can only be a commitment to keep picking myself up and continue following when I fail.

As Luther says of baptism, "It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever."

All this I already knew, but now I know it in a new way. I've connected with it. God help me, I've become more Lutheran.

And what of my longing for Augustine's experience? I'm not certain of this, but I think that perhaps the longing itself is the experience. Is there really a difference between longing to will what God wills and actually willing what God wills? Maybe. But for now I will resolve myself to be content with longing for the will of God to be made manifest in my life.


Tracy Hopkins said...

I know what you're talking about here; have been there and still am there. When I took a survey of my theological worldview recently it came back as 'Wesleyan evangelical holiness' ,though I'm a Lutheran. As time goes by the longing to do God's will remains but my fretting over it has diminished some, the question being is that progress or not. I hope to believe it is because my trust has increased. I really enjoy reading your postings.

LutheranChik said...

I think I had an "aha" in this regard the other day...I'd been thinking about sharing it in my own blog, but didn't quite have a good "angle," if you will, to tackle it.

Anyhow...long story short: I know someone whom I'm quite fond of, who for awhile now I think has been experiencing a sort of long-term metanoia. And the other evening, as I was in the midst of my prayers and was thinking about this person, I felt a real delight -- I think that's the best word -- in what God is doing. And I found myself praying, "Whatever you want for this person, God, is exactly what I want too." It almost startled me to find myself praying this specifically in regard to this individual, even though obviously I want (or hope I'd want) what God wants for everyone. And I felt -- well, to borrow the famous line from "Chariots of Fire," I felt God's pleasure: "Yes! We're on the same page!" And vice versa. It's very hard to explain. It's like being in a relationship and finding oneself thinking or speaking in unison with the other person; it is a pleasure.