Thursday, November 17, 2005

Christ and Life

I just started reading Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, and it has turned out to be an inspired choice in preparation for Christ the King Sunday, though I had no such intention when I picked the book up.

In the first two chapters Willard sets up the problem he is trying to address. The problem is that Christians do not follow Christ's teaching. This is nothing new, of course, but it really is an incredible scandal. We look to Christ to "save us from our sins" but we look to nearly anyone else to find out how to live.

Of particular interest given this week's gospel reading is Willard's analysis of what he calls "gospels of sin management" wherein the whole of the Christian teaching is taken to be centered around solving the problem of sin.

On the theological right this is manifest as a wall of separation between what we must do to have our sins forgiven (and thus "receive salvation") and how we should live, with Jesus' primary role being that of providing a solution to the first.

Willard says of conservative Christians, "They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ's merit account to ours, and to wipe our our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true--even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us."

Contrary to this view, we have Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. When I was a greener Christian, I used to twist this all around trying to figure out how to get it to work in a scheme of salvation by faith alone. (Honestly, I still do sometimes.) But what I do far too rarely (and I doubt I'm alone in this) is listen to it.

This parable is the ultimate "clobber passage" for a shallow view of salvation by faith alone and for Christianity as a mere scheme for the forgiveness of sins. It is the rallying cry of liberal Christians everywhere.

But that is particuarly ironic in light of Willard's critique of the theological left, namely their tendency to deny the traditional "personal" nature of God. I say this is ironic because while the theological left loves this parable and pulls it out every chance they get, they tend to reject the opening premise of the parable, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory...." And so while they shift their focus to social sin rather than individual morality, it remains a gospel of sin management apart from the presence of God in our lives.

Willard's criticism of these gospels of sin management may be expressed with an analogy. Our life may be compared with that of fish out of water. According to the gospel of the theological right, if we accept that "Icthus" was filleted and fried for our dryness, then our soul will breathe in eternity (but for now we wither and die). According to the gospel of the theological left, we should all go about spraying each other with water as often as we can, though we must recognize that the idea of an ocean is simply wishful thinking.


Personal Diatribes said...

I have always felt that because we are saved by grace we have responsiblities to do the will of the One who saved us and that includes caring for the poor.

Andy said...

Yeah, that's a common way of looking at it. But do you think it matters as far as salvation is concerned? For instance, you said that we have a responsibility to do the will of Christ, but we could choose not to and not have to worry about our salvation, right?

What Willard is suggesting is that our salvation and our coming together with the will of God are two parts of the same cloth. That is, there's a deep connection. In particular, I think he's saying that being in union with the will of God is a significan part of what it means to have been saved. It isn't all about getting past our sin debt. God gives us more.

LutheranChik said...

"I was saved, I'm being saved, I will be saved."

Luthsem said...

My Lutheran bias usually flinches at contemplation and Catholic and Eastern ways of thinking but lately I'm changing. This does not mean that I am forsaking being Lutheran and going West or East but I am more open to God's radical grace
A must read book is Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr. He is a Franciscan priest.
pg 106- "egocentric question. Where am I? How holy am I? becomes silly questions. If God can recieve me, who am I to recieve myself-warts and all?
my comment: sounds like Luther

Tom in Ontario said...

The parable-like story of the judgment of the sheep and goats isn't a prescription though. It's not a matter of checking hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, prisoner off your list and being a sheep. It's not even a matter of deciding to live a life dedicated to serving those. I'm sure you know, but I'll point it out again, neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea they did or didn't serve the king.

I think our Lutheran way of seeing it is that God acts first. "Salvation belongs to our God and to Christ the Lamb forever and ever." But when God acts, something happens to us. Another Melancthon wrote: "It is also taught among us that such faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should do them for God's sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor before God."

God's grace is more than wiping the slate clean or perhaps even ignoring the fact that there is a marked slate. God's grace transforms us so that a faithful life will produce fruits of love.

"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?"

Andy said...

Absolutely. Willard talks about what he calls "bar-code faith" as if God had some kind of scanner that could detect whether we had "made a decision for Christ" and then tossed us in one bin or another based on the scanner output, regardless of how our life otherwise went.

I've been wondering for a while, George MacDonald did it to me, whether there is any sense in which we can claim to be saved if we are not transformed. MacDonald says, "The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while yet those sins remained: that would be to cast out of window the medicine of cure while yet the man lay sick."

Eric Evers said...

Great post! I've got one little nit to pick... I posted it over at:

Great blog!