So here goes my first substantial and theological post in a (long ) while:
In my experience, some of my strongest moments of sanctification come in the context of a profound experience of the love of God. That is, my strongest moments of loving God, of loving my neighbor, and of wanting to put to death my sin come in rare those moments when I realize even a bit of the depths of God’s love.
Oftentimes we motivate people to obedience with fear. And the Scriptures can use threats at which we are to rightly tremble. But the Scriptures also motivate us with the deep and exhilarating promises of the gospel, of forgiveness and grace. I don’t want to think through a full-scale theology of motivation for sanctification here (though I clearly need to do that), but I do simply want to note that oftentimes it is the risky love of God that truly changes us.
You see, so many times we take the gospel and pervert it by some sort of conditions. You are loved by God….if. We are so tempted to take the gospel and to make it dependent on our performance for it’s truth. We want to make the reality of God saving us dependent upon his work in us. Matt Chandler talks about his early experience of Christianity as being exactly like this. As he says:
See, they told me that I wouldn’t have those issues anymore once I got saved. I mean, that was the whole premise and framework of the gospel! “Get saved, because then you won’t….” And I got saved and kept on doing. So then where am I supposed to go? Because apparently, Jesus doesn’t work for me.
For the religiously sensitive person, when the truth of the gospel (of God’s justification of the ungodly) is made dependent on our perceived obedience (or lack thereof), this can only lead to despair. When the gospel is presented as condition, it is at this point that the perennial question of the Middle Ages reasserts its ugly head: “How do I know if I’ve met the condition?” aka “How do I know if I’ve truly believed?” or “How do I know if I’ve really loved God enough for him to love me?”
But this must not be the case. You see, when this happens the focus becomes once again on us and ourselves as we struggle to have “enough faith” or “enough love.” We steal the glory from God by again turning inward on ourselves and our own deeds. It is here that we run the danger of taking faith and turning it into simply another work. “If you only believe harder…” If, if, if, becomes the mantra of the Christian life.
But faith is not simply a different kind of work. It is not a new obedience we have to drum up. The gospel is not a new and modified law. No, quite to the contrary. What then is faith? The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 61, puts it well:
“God did not ordain faith to be the instrument of justification because of some peculiar virtue in faith, but because faith is self-emptying and has no merit in itself.”
Faith is not our new work or our new obedience. Rather, faith is the absence of works and the presence of trust in the promises of God in Christ (apart from works). And it only here that certainty can be found.
It is at this point of the self-emptying nature of faith, when we are led outside of ourselves and our own experience, that we can truly glory in the promises of God in the gospel. Martin Luther understood this well when he wrote that the gospel repudiates “the wicked idea of the entire kingdom of the pope, the teaching that a Christian man must be uncertain about the grace of God toward him. If this opinion stands, then Christ is completely useless.” Rather, he said, good theology “snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.” (LW 26:386-7)
And this understanding changes the entire structure of the Christian life. That is, justification by faith alone changes our entire worldview and approach to living. In the words of historian Carter Lindberg, “Justification by grace alone through faith alone thus is a metatheological proclamation. That is, it changes the language of theology from an ‘if…then’ structure to a ‘because…therefore’ structure; from a language of conditions to be fulfilled in order to receive whatever is promised, to a language of unconditional promise.” It is in this understanding that “salvation is no longer the goal of life but rather its foundation.” Christianity is always first (and foremost!) an external proclamation before it is an internal transformation.
This is where a soul can truly find rest in Christ. It is at this point that we can cry out with the apostle, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom 8:33-34)
When the gospel is dependent on our obedience for it’s truth then there is no assurance and no gospel. But when God’s word is allowed to stand as what it is, his promise outside of us, then certainty and assurance can be found.
In closing I offer some words from the Matt Chandler sermon linked above:
And so, I came up and I grabbed the hand and I repeated, “Dear Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner. Please forgive me. Amen.” and I was baptized. And I was loving the Lord. But what happens when you love the Lord and there’s still this lust in your heart that kind of haunts you a little bit? What do you do then? Because where I was, I didn’t even feel it was safe to talk about that because everybody was so busy pretending that they didn’t struggle with that. Like, everybody else just got saved and fluttered about in Shekinah glory all of the rest of the days of their life and I was all stuck in the mud. It’s like, “When do I get my wings?”
What happens when you fall in love with Jesus but there’s still some bitterness there? What happens when you fall in love with Jesus but you still have all these issues? See, they told me that I wouldn’t have those issues anymore once I got saved. I mean, that was the whole premise and framework of the gospel! “Get saved, because then you won’t….” And I got saved and kept on doing. So then where am I supposed to go? Because apparently, Jesus doesn’t work for me. Praise Christ for Romans 8. He goes, “Oh, no no no no. We’ll work through this, but I’m not letting you go in the meantime. Oh, we’ll get there. I started this; I’ll finish this….Don’t give up. Keep walking, keep pressing in, keep confessing. ….I won’t let you go. There is no one who can condemn you. I don’t, and if I don’t, no one can. Who’ll even bring a charge against you? You’re Mine. What court could they possibly charge you in? Everything’s Mine.” You know what He’s talking about? He’s talking about those voices inside of us that constantly condemn us. “Aw, you can’t love Jesus; look at this. Look at this lust you have in your heart that you can’t shake. There’s no way Jesus loves you and you love Him.” God’s here going, “You’re listening to him?