We can’t all be Michael Jordan – The tension of discipleship

In response to my recent post about the professionalization of asceticism in Late Antiquity, a friend of mine commented:

It’s tempting to lower the bar, but also hard to expect everyone to play like Michael Jordan.

He makes a good point. The life of discipleship is, like most of Christianity, a matter of upholding tensions. We are justified by faith, not works, but works are evidence or at least fruit of faith. God is a single essence but also three persons. Jesus is a single person who has two natures. The Kingdom of the Heavens has broken through into history and is amongst us, but it will not fully come until the Last Days and the return of Jesus.

Discipleship, then, exists in tension. I affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone as articulate by Richard Hooker and, last I checked, Martin Luther (whose teaching bears a resemblance to St Mark the Monk, but that’s a different question). We do not enter into a right relationship with God, or become citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens, or escape Hell, or find our way into the New Heaven and the New Earth on Judgement Day because of anything we have done. Nothing we do holds any merit with God. It is all grace.

But we are called to be Jesus’s lifelong students. We are disciples. Faith without works is dead. Antinomianism, cheap grace — these are not the path of discipleship. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus tells his students to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19 NKJV)

The path of discipleship is figuring out how to live that last bit, seeking to love God and neighbour better and better every day. The tension is that we are already justified by our trust in God and his saving mercy upon us, yet we are still seeking to lead holy lives. Nevertheless, while we cannot become holy without doing something, we cannot do anything without God’s unmerited favour helping us.

The question, then, is how do we help people become better disciples of Jesus without lowering the bar on the one hand (“It’s okay if you sleep with your boyfriend, God’ll forgive you — we’re saved by grace, after all!”) or expecting everyone to play like Michael Jordan on the other (“If you eat meat during Lent you are re-committing Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden”)? Both parenthetical statements are real statements I have heard, not hyperbole!

I am not sure. I think we need to exercise grace on the one hand, but also discernment as we sift through the disciplines to see what will help us grow into greater love of God and of neighbour. What we need, then, is each other: People to encourage us and help us see what we need in order to grow spiritually. Loving community helps maintain the tension of discipleship and foster spiritual growth. This is what the old abbeys or the communities gathered around the elders of the Desert were about.

I wish I could create or find that today.

Grace and labour working together in sanctification (more Richard Hooker)

Hopefully not wrenching this passage out of context, I have just found another bit of Richard Hooker that is germane to the relationship between grace and works in sanctification. It was quoted in David Neelands chapter on Predestination in Brill’s A Companion to Richard Hooker, p. 189. I am going to do something I usually avoid, and give it to you with modernised (i.e. readable) spelling:

For let the Spirit be never so prompt, if labour and exercise slacken, we fail. The fruits of the Spirit do not follow men as the shadow does the body of their own accord. If the grace of sanctification did so work, what should the grace of exhortation need? It were even as superfluous and vain to stir men up unto good, as to request them when they walk abroad not to loose their shadows. Grace is not given us to abandon labour, but labour required lest our sluggishness should make the grace of God unprofitable. Shall we betake ourselves to our ease, and in that sort refer salvation to God’s grace, as if we had nothing to do with it, because without we can do nothing? Pelagius urged labour, for the attainment of eternal life without necessity of God’s grace, if we teach grace without necessity of man’s labour, we use one error as a nail to drive out another. …. In sum, the grace of God has abundantly sufficent for all. –Dublin Fragments, 13.

What I think Hooker is saying is that we need grace to be able to do good. But once we are justified, our labour is a real part of the life of the justified Christian. Sure, our works won’t save us in terms of making us right with God. But they are part of us becoming holier. Those who reject such teaching are replacing one error with another — the idea that the Christian life does not require our labour.

This sort of thinking is what lies at the root of what inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Protestants (he was looking at his own Lutheran tradition) take seriously Luther’s statement that justification is by faith alone. However, we have forgotten that this is essentially the beginning of our life in Christ. The rest — the rest involves, to use Hooker’s word, our labour.

I believe that an excessive focus on the doctrine of justification and a fear of over-reliance on our works has led to what Dallas Willard calls “the great omission.” We need to rediscover how grace works in our hearts to enable us to perform the good works that make us holy. Or how grace works in our hearts to make us holy, using our labour to that end.

We need to reject cheap grace and grace abuse, and recall St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), who said on the way to his martyrdom, “Now I begin to be a disciple.”

Here is the cost of discipleship:

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Audio Adrenaline, the Philokalia, and Assurance of Salvation

I am listening to some of my old CD’s to determine which ones I shall keep and which I shall pass on to the Salvation Army.  Currently, I’m chillin’ to Underdog by Audio Adrenaline, on which you will find the preferred version of the song “DC-10”.*

The song runs thus:

Do you know
Do you know
Do you know where you will go

If a DC-10 ever fell on your head and you’re
Laying in the ground all messy and dead
Or a Mack truck run over you
Or you suddenly die in your Sunday pew

Do you know where you’re gonna go

It can happen any day
It can happen anywhere
It can happen while you’re nappin’ in your easy chair
It can happen at home
It can happen at school
It can happen while you’re scattin’ like a scattin’ fool
Do you know where you’re gonna go

. . .
Straight to heaven
Or down the hole?

A 747 fell out of Heaven
Crashed through the roof of a 7-11
You’re working on a slurpee
Things get hazy
Rich for a twinkie now you’re pushing up daisies?
Do you know where you’re gonna go

This raises the question of the assurance of salvation.  Do you know where you’re gonna go?  Straight to Heaven or down the hole?

When I lived in Cyprus, I spent some time reading the Philokalia, and I found that there was often a fear of Hell amongst these Eastern ascetics, amongst men who lived lives of prayer and holiness, who truly trusted (ie. had faith) in the living Christ.

An example is Evagrios the Solitary, “Outline Teaching on Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life,” who says that one must imagine Hell for fear that one shall, in fact, go there (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, 01 Philokalia, p. 36).  I believe that this fear of Hell, this belief that one may end up there despite a faith in Jesus, is the drive behind much ascetic practice.  By mortifying the flesh, by prayers, vigils, fasts, one draws nearer to God, and by this closeness escape the fires of Hell.

On the other hand, we have excessively assured Evangelicals who live by cheap grace, believing that grace will save them whether or not they sleep around, gossip, booze it up, etc.  Or those who simply believe that they will get into “heaven” because they once prayed a prayer at a Billy Graham Crusade.

The truth lies somewhere in between.  Faith produces good works.  It is the faith that saves, however.  Thus, Evagrios the Solitary need not spend his life with the image of Hell before himself for fear that this is his eternal destination.  However, the Evangelical can take a cue from Evagrios and seek to live a life of holiness.

This is the path of costly grace, the path of obedience to the One in Whom Christians claim to place their trust, their faith.  When we cast all our cares and fears upon Christ, when we start trusting in Him to save us and the world from utter ruin and destruction, then we can start living holy lives.  And then we can live with assurance.

Through faith alone do we know where we’re gonna go.  Trust in Jesus.  Obey His word.

*There is a not-preferred version on Live Bootleg.