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.


Justification is not sanctification: Foundations for Protestant asceticism

I have been getting into Richard Hooker recently — first, the Learned Discourse of Justification, then a bit of secondary material on his understanding of sin and grace by Ranall Ingalls in A Companion to Richard Hooker. Next will be David Neelands chapter on predestination, then the book by my colleague and almost friend Brad Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: An Introduction (Brad and I would be friends if we knew each other better).

My initial reason for this current foray into Hooker was seeking teaching from deep in the Anglican tradition about the relationship amongst grace, works, and sanctification. What I’ve found on these topics and more I have liked. I told my brother, “Richard Hooker makes me want to be an Anglican.” He said this was good, since I am one.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been having clarified is that the real distinction between justification and sanctification is fruit of the Reformation. At least, I think so. The sixteenth century is full of so many writers and so many academic opinions, I’m sure someone disagrees with me. Anyway, grasping this little thread of conceptual framework explains both how Reformational Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism and how we are able to embrace patristics (as Anglicans since Cranmer on the one hand and Parker on the other have done).

Basically, what I’m seeing is this. There is grace coming from God — when you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. This grace is necessary at every stage of the Christian life, from conversion and baptism to extreme unction and burial. In terms of justification, the only thing we “do” is have faith. We trust Christ and His promises. This faith is objectively strong because Christ is, no matter how subjectively weak it may at times be. This grace makes us, sinners that we are, righteous in God’s eyes.

The fruit of this justification is good works. We live holy lives. And we become holier by the works we perform. Some of my Presbyterian friends shy away from this as “works righteousness”, but it seems to me that the work of sanctification is precisely something that only happens at every moment because of God’s grace, but that the tool in God’s hands is our own works. That is not an image of Hooker’s. Hooker is much less straightforward on this point than I am being.

We can be holy. And God’s grace makes us holy. The means by which grace makes us holy is our own works. Therefore, we must continually throw ourselves upon God’s grace if we wish to be holy, meanwhile working out our salvation in fear and trembling. This is sanctification.

Making this distinction between justification by faith alone and sanctification — both by works, all in Christ and by Christ — enables us to have Protestant asceticism. I am speaking here of what Kallistos Ware refers to as “natural” asceticism — so, not Stylites or flagellants or such things. Rather, frugal spending, simple eating, plain clothing, combined with fasting, regular prayer, regular engagement with Scripture, partaking of the Holy Communion. That sort of asceticism.

We do these things knowing that the works themselves avail nothing. But we do them knowing that the grace that makes them even possible is also at work in us to make us holy by these works.

This perspective sets us free from the Presbyterian fear of “works righteousness”, for one thing. We can freely perform our training (for that is what askesis means), knowing that God Himself undergirds it all. Second, it sets us free from the sort of late mediaeval anxiety that comes from works righteousness — none of our works can provide satisfaction, none of them holds any merit in relation to God.

We are already in a right relationship with God. We perform these works out of love for Him, out of a desire for holiness (and here I mirror John Cassian, Conference 11). In terms of meeting God, entering into relationship with Him, and escaping Hell — it is not by fasting and almsgiving that we are saved but by the Blood of Jesus. In terms of knowing God better, how else than by spending time with Him and doing what Our Father asks? How else can be transformed than by our own deeds?

(I do hope this makes sense.)

Wednesday in Holy Week: “Christ is the Mediator of the new covenant”

Continuing with the BCP lessons for Holy Week, today’s Epistle is Hebrews 9:15-28. Yesterday I gave the lesson in a modern translation; if you’d prefer one, here’s a link to ESVUK. But today, I give you the richness of the Prayer Book’s lessons:

WHEREFORE Christ is the Mediator of the new covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions which were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of an eternal inheritance. For where a covenant or testament is, there must also, of necessity, be the death of the testator; for a testament is of force after men are dead; it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. And therefore the first testament also was dedicated with blood; for when Moses had spoken every commandment to all the people, according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the covenant or testament, which God hath commanded you. Moreover, he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law, almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary therefore that these symbols of heavenly things should be purified thus; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices; for Christ hath not entered into holy places made with hands, which are only figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us. Nor need he offer himself many times like the high priest who entereth into the holy place every year with blood that is not his own: for then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world; but now, once for all, at the end of time, he hath appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement: so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time apart from sin unto salvation.

There is so much richness in this passage, where would I even begin? I think it is especially worth thinking on this year because the calculations for western Easter mean that Passover is today-tomorrow, so pretty close to when it would have been in relation to Christ’s death and resurrection. Now, Passover, of course, is not the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) mentioned here. Nonetheless, Christ dies at Passover as a sacrifice, a ransom for many. To quote the Prayer Book’s Order for Holy Communion:

by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

This week we are entering into the very heart of the Christian Gospel. Keeping things Anglican, I recently read Richard Hooker’s A Learned Discourse on Justification. He says many worthy things there, asserting again and again, ” Salvation therefore by Christ is the foundation of Christianity.” All the other things which may be necessary or helpful for a healthy spiritual life — prayer, fasting, almsgiving, Scripture, the Holy Communion, etc., etc. — are of nothing worth compared with the sacrifice made by Christ to save us.

Whatever we do this Holy Week and Easter, let us throw ourselves at the foot of the Cross, where the blood spilled by God Himself may cleanse us and save us.

Processional Cross, St. George’s Anglican, Prince Albert, SK

Saint of the Week: Richard Hooker

At a small meeting of people from the Presbyterian church I currently attend, a man said (in a grrrea’, rrrrolling Scots’ brrogue) that the Reformation never went as far in England as it did in Scotland. If by ‘Reformation’ we mean producing a national church that little resembles Roman Catholicism, then this is true. But if by ‘Reformation’ we mean putting Scripture high again, placing justification by faith to the fore, eliminating clerical abuses, and various other things, perhaps England went far enough.

Either way, we have folks like Richard Hooker (1554-1600) to thank for it.*

My first encounter with Richard Hooker was his Learned Discourse on Justification. In this, originally a sermon preached in 1585 when he was Master of the Temple, he proclaims justification by faith so completely and radically, perceiving the grace of God to transform us into righteous persons, that he says:

God, I doubt not, was merciful to save thousands of them [pre-Reformation Catholics], though they lived in popish superstitions, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly; but the truth is now laid before our eyes.

Even if someone holds faith ‘but weakly and as it were by a slender thread’, God will smile upon that faith and save the soul at hand.

This stirred up the ire of the Puritans. Of course. Immediately upon working through Hooker’s florid, sixteenth-century prose, I was fond of the man.

Hooker, born in Devonshire, studied at Corpus Christi in Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1579. His first posting was as one of the preachers at Old St. Paul’s (no longer standing) in London, and three years later was rector of St. Mary’s Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire.

HM Queen Elizabeth I took an interest in Richard Hooker and appointed him Master of the Temple Church in London, one of the most prominent pulpits in England, the next year, 1585. His preaching there and then elsewhere as the years went by, as noted above, drew fire from Puritans who were scandalised by the idea of Roman Catholics being saved and who felt that Hooker’s support for further reforms in the Church did not go far enough.

In 1594, as part of his response to the Puritan reaction to his preaching, Hooker published the first four volumes of his eight-volume Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The next year, 1595, he became rector of the parishes of St. Mary the Virgin in Bishopsbourne and St. John the Baptist Barham in Kent. In 1597, he published the fifth volume of the Lawes, but the last three were published posthumously, following his death in 1600.

Hooker helped forge the beast ‘Anglicanism’ into what it historically has been. He saw the value in tradition and chose not throw it all away as the Puritans were urging. Instead, he believed that tradition and Scripture working together with our God-given reason can lead us to a proper understanding of Christian doctrine and the interpretation of sacred Scripture.

This ‘three-legged stool’ has survived in Anglican thought through the centuries, as we seek to understand the Scriptures anew with every generation, as we seek to explain the words of life in new ages. Our understanding of Scripture, exegesis, salvation, and the Church are much affected by Hooker; he helped steer us between the Presbyterianism of the Puritans and the Catholicism of some of his other contemporaries.

Would that we could find a safe path along this historic middle way today, using the critical faculties of our reason as we seek to be creatively faithful to our tradition and the Scriptures.

*See also Saints of the Week Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes.