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

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.)

Collect of the Day: John and Charles Wesley, Priests, 1791, 1788

From the Daily Office blog.

Lord God, you inspired your servants John and Charles Wesley with burning zeal for the sanctification of souls, and endowed them with eloquence in speech and song: Kindle in your Church, we entreat you, such fervor, that those whose faith has cooled may be warmed, and those who have not known Christ may turn to him and be saved; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.