Monday, December 05, 2005

Practical Discipleship

"Anyone who is not a continual student of Jesus, and who nevertheless reads the great promises of the Bible as if they were for him or her, is like someone trying to cash a check on another person's account. At best, it suceeds only sporadically."
-Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
As soon as I read the words above, I knew that they were tailor-made to be quoted and commented on. I wasn't immediately sure I agreed, but I did immediately know that I needed to chew on this thought for a while.

One thing that strikes me is that in the thought of standard Protestant orthodoxy, the Protestant intends to cash a check on another person's account -- it's the basic premise of the entire theological system. And I expect that a lot of dogged advocates of justification by faith alone would want to enjoin that argument to Willard, but I think this misses the point.

As a Lutheran I have been rigorously taught not to imagine that my claiming of God's promises depends in any way on what I do. I don't doubt that that is the correct theological response to the question it intends to answer, but we must be careful not to become people whose only tool is a hammer. A fellow Lutheran on Beliefnet (prjp) once pointed out to me, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, that Jesus seems not to be aware of the primacy of justification by faith alone in theology. As such, I think we need to not be too quick to run there either.

In particular, Willard's statement above is solidly grounded in Jesus' words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!"

What is faith? Is it something other than hearing Jesus' voice and responding?

In this regard, I must ask myself, "Was the Catholic Reformation a better answer to Luther than the Protestant Reformation?" I don't doubt that Luther's critique of the Catholic Church was correct. And I do think that the subsequent Lutheran forumlations give correct theological answers to the questions they are addressing. But that's just the problem -- we're too easily caught up in abstract theological questions. Also, I can't but wonder if history doesn't offer the same sort of critique of Protestantism that the collapse of the Soviet Union offers of Marxism.

Imagine a Church predominantly based on the teachings of St. Francis de Sales rather than those of John Calvin!


HereISit said...

I found your "essay" relevant to some thinking I've been doing. Yes, Lutherans believe in grace, faith alone, faith is a gift, etc. And Lutherans, some anyway, are bothered by decision theology, or at least the language used. (I say, "judge that by its fruits.")

And yet...Lutherans seems to add in the Lutheran confessions.

We know that Jesus, not just James, talks about action and service.

In the secular realm, when we feel strongly about something, we show it by our words and actions. It is not enough to think good thoughts about how wrong it is to discriminate against people because of their race. We have to incorporate our beliefs into actions and policies, and/or urge others to do so. If we feel strongly about some issue in the local school, thinking about it and talking about it behind people's backs doesn't help anything. We need to go to meetings, speak up, write letters, volunteer, etc.

How much more should/could this be true of our Christian faith. Jesus taught about helping others, etc. I will be judged and found lacking, I believe, if I only assent to Jesus' teachings in my mind. True faith moves one to action.

It has been said that prayer changes things. Does that mean that prayer changes God's mind? Does that mean that prayer changes the other person, the one we are praying for? I think that the best meaning of that sentence is that prayer changes me. If I pray, "please God, help feed the starving people in Africa." Then if prayer changes "things" I need to see myself in the picture and respond.

I chose HereISit as my blogger name to capture the irony of how easy it is to sit here and write glowingly about anything I want to.

My early Lutheran upbringing never integrated faith into life and action. This is something I've learned more through interdenominational Bible Studies. I'll never be the sort of person who wears my faith on my sleve, but I've been trying to have faith inform my daily life and my spending decisions.

Tom in Ontario said...

The title of your post says it all. Specifically the second word. Talking "Discipleship" and talking "Justification" are two seperate things IMO. One ought to follow the other. I was about to write something about living a "Christian" life but remembered something I read saying that Lutheran theology doesn't use "Christian" as an adjective.

As I commented on another posting, justification produces faith which is bound to bring forth good fruits. Over and over, it seems to me, the confessions stress that our good works or our discipleship is done for God's sake and we ought not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favour before God.

Can you have justification and faith and still be building on sand? Probably. Will that make any difference to God? I hope not.

Andy said...


I like your examples about putting our "secular" beliefs into action. It's a good point of comparison.

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote this: "Any movement or sound is a profession of faith, as the millstone grinding is explaining how it believes in the river!"

(which comes to me via Beliefnet member sorrowful_mysteries)

Andy said...


You're right -- talking discipleship and talking justification are two very different things. I guess what I'm wondering is whether we talk justification too often.

It seems to me that the place of talking justification is when someone is worried about their standing with God. Does God really love me? But I find that isn't too common. I'm reminded of W.H. Auden's poem about Luther:

"'The Just shall live by Faith,' he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who never trembled in their useful lives."

In Lutheran theology we talk about this in terms of law and gospel and wanting to present the gospel to the afflicted and the law to the comfortable, but I think that tends to make it feel cold -- as if we're just trying to rattle people's chains. What we need, I think, is a new expostion of the third use of the law in terms like Bonhoeffer's book on discipleship.

The thing I like about St. Francis de Sales is that he doesn't spend a lot of time answering theological questions. He just sets us on the path to following Christ.

Lee said...

Thanks for posting this stuff, Mel! This is the same kind of thing I often puzzle over.

I wonder if "following Christ" is the best description of the Christian life, though. Rightly or not, the early Christians were gripped by the conviction that something had decisively changed for the human condition because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

In Paul's letters for instance (how Lutheran of me to drag Paul into it!), there's not much talk about "following Jesus," but a lot of talk about living in Jesus and Jesus living in us because of what happened on the cross. The cross is not just a symbol that shows the costs of following Jesus, but Paul says we have died with him, and shall live with him.

I wonder if that intimate union with Christ might help resolve the false (I think) separation between justification and sanctification that we are sometimes prone to?

Andy said...

That's a good point, Lee. I certainly don't want to miss the central point of proclamation of the cross. I think it all rests, as you indicated, on having a right integration of justification and sanctification.

I wonder if the guy at the wedding feast without wedding clothes comes into this.

Bob Waters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Waters said...

There seem to me to ba an awful lot of apples and oranges being compared here.

First, what in the world does decision theology- the denial of original sin and the necessity of God's intervention to create faith as a precondition of ur "choosing" Jesus of our hearts in order for us to become believers- have to do with discipleship? Are you seriously suggesting that we're saved partly by grace, and partly by our own merit? If so... by what possible stretch of language can you consider yourself a Lutheran?

Yes, Jesus and James stressed service- as the inevitable fruit of faith. So, for that matter, did Paul! All of them- and Luther as well- would deny the necessity of integrating faith into life and action." All of them would insist that where faith is present, action will be, too- and that, as Luther puts it, faith is already doing good works before the question of whether good works are to be done is ever asked.

Where the works are missing, faith is missing.

How can it be, hereisit, that your
"early Lutheran upbringing never integrated faith into life and action?" Probably because of defective preaching. In the ELCA, salvation by grace through faith is often presented as a "get out of jail free" card. Antinomianism rarely produces discipleship. And in confessional circles, too, the Law is not preached to believers with the rigor it should be. Also, the social conservatism of orthodox Lutheranism often doesn't inculcate concern about poverty or hunger as a topic of Law preaching the way it does more prosaic aspects of discipleship. In both cases, the problem isn't with Lutheran theology, but with bad preaching.

The answer isn't too confuse Law and Gospel, and "guilt" you into producing an acceptable level of concern. The answer is to let the Law condemn your lack of acceptable concern- your ongoing lack of acceptable concern- and let the Gospel motivate your efforts, not to make a good showing in the flesh, but to let your gratitude for being forgiven your inadequacy spill over into service.

Nothing can be more destructive to either faith or service than the notion that justifying faith can ever be without it.

You don't produce discipleship, no matter what those Reformed "Non-Denominational" types may say.

It's the Holy Spirit that works within us to will and to do. Sanctification is as much by faith alone as justification is- but neither can happen when Law and Gospel are not adequately distinguished and preached.