Sunday, May 28, 2006

Under Grace or Conscience?

Romans 6:14 "For sin shall not lord it over you, for ye are not under the Law, but under grace."

When we hear this verse in interpretation within the Evangelical movement, it often comes out sounding something like, "…for ye are no longer under any obligation." The general thrust is that nothing is required for our salvation, we need only "believe," giving mental assent to the doctrine of "faith alone" - a tautology for sure. Now, I’m aware of the standard canard to this apparent disconnect between reward and the moral life of the disciple: ‘You are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone’. But innocuous aphorisms such as this never seem to satisfy the New Testament language of obedience, which is critical to Jesus, Paul, Peter and John, your key New Testament voices. After such an interpretation, what's left? Obey what? Whom?

Part of the problem lies in the modern (Lutheran/Calvinist) understanding of ‘grace’ as a status or position as opposed to the biblical understanding of a sphere of personal influence and activity - it is never static. In Protestantism, grace is ‘declared’, in the New Testament, grace happens.

To begin, a person ‘under grace’ is first and foremost a recipient. Being under grace means that God Himself has marshaled all His infinite resources to recreate the one who trusts in Him. To this effect, grace is presence, power, privilege and pain. When Mary came under grace, she did not relax, she bore a son.

While the miracle that brought the Christ is just that, a miracle, it came with an obligation: "Let it be according to your word." This attitude (Faith!) marks the beginning of the Christian life and defines its entire existence thereafter. In grace, the disciple bows the knee to a greater power. As Paul says, "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is working among you (Pl.) both the ‘willing’ and the ‘doing’ for His good pleasure."

What went wrong?

The modern emphasis on ‘personal salvation’ has obscured the fact that all this is for God, not us.

The general force of this originates in Luther’s reorientation of the Faith away from salvation history – a group focus - and toward the conscience of the individual believer. The process involved the re-thinking of all the biblical words and ideas used for the salvation process in a way that radically individualized them. The Call of repentance to the world proclaimed in the Gospel became the call I hear in my heart to come to Jesus. Election was no longer God’s decision choose a people, Israel, and then by way of Christ to include all people, the Gentiles. It is now the selection of my person from all eternity. Even grace is no longer the power, presence, privilege and pain of God’s plan for recreation, but is my personal experience of being free to be myself, etc.

When the individual conscience becomes of supreme importance, truth is the first casualty. Truth becomes what you feel to be true for you, all of reality comes down to you. Thus the endless growth of Protestantism by fission. "Since my conscience is different than (opposed to?) yours, we cannot fellowship. I need to start my own church." Since this type of individual confuses his conscience with God, he never has a problem with calling his new endeavor ‘Christ’s Church’ or something to that effect.

This also has a lot do with why Protestants have so much trouble being others-oriented. (Notice how much of the Evangelical publishing industry is devoted to trying to get them to care about each other!!!) When the conscience is supreme, others exist to be used and manipulated - for ‘conscientious’ purposes, of course! Perhaps this is why the historic Catholic Church, with its emphasis on the obedience characterized by the life of Jesus, had so much early success in producing movements that reached out to others. (At least up until Vatican II, which marked a watershed of change away from the church as a obedience-oriented body toward the protestant idea of the primacy of the individual. Today, the type of disciple produced by either group is hardly distinguishable.)

Radical individualism was the hallmark of Gnosticism. That is why it splintered off into a thousand different sects. Gnosis is private, grace is public. Grace can’t be meddled with, it is what it is. It is conditioned in history in the acts of God and as such can never be reduced to my private experience.

If Martin Luther had really discovered anything critical to our understanding of truth, he would have died for it. Martyrdom, not dissension, is the New Testament impetus for change. When one perishes for Christ, that one becomes as salt, changing the whole complexion of the mix. Luther’s protest was the true sign of an imperialist conscience. Today, all of Europe is atheist as a result of this one man’s selfish stand. The power of his "discovery" is made evident in its utter inability to bring about the faith that he proclaimed. His doctrine dethroned Christ, and crowned every individual.

Only the relocation of grace in history can mend this tragedy.


Anonymous Jaime said...

I have banged my head against this same wall so many times in Bible studies or discussions with other Christians, primarily Evangelicals.
When I hear church leaders talk of the need for another Reformation, I cringe. Haven't we suffered enough from the first one? Not that Luther didn't have some legitimate concerns with the Catholic church, but being correct in some parts doesn't mean all of his thought should be accepted.
We need to recover the idea of Community (Qahal, Ecclessia) that is at the heart of the Biblical Story, or we will lose the meaning and purpose of church, if we haven't already.

1:40 PM  

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