Friday, January 26, 2007

Now What? Moral Progress?

Luther’s simul (simultaneously sinner and saint), according to Forde, eliminates the notion of moral progress, even (or should we say, especially!) for the Christian. This, in turn, also eliminates the notion of the so-called 3rd use of the Law (which I will describe and discuss at another time). These are two of the major theological flash-points which I think make Luther so radical and his theology so unpopular. It is where Forde’s idea of a more radical Lutheranism parts company not just with popular Catholicism and Evangelicalism, but also, it would seem, with modern-day Lutheranism.

So what is this really all about? It is about the so-called “Christian life” or the doctrine of sanctification. It is about the “Now what? question. I am a Christian saved by grace, now what am I to do? Well, the Christian bookstores are filled with ideas, as are almost all Christian Bible study guides, Sunday morning sermons, and so, we might think, the Bible itself.

But for Forde, the Biblical teaching regarding sanctification can only be understood in terms of a completed justification through faith in Christ, and Paul’s simul found in Romans 7. Thus the believer’s state of being righteous by grace is total and cannot be improved on by us. And the believer’s state of being unrighteous is also total, and similarly cannot be made better by us, since it has been crucified with Christ and is dead. So our righteousness is total and our unrighteousness is total - all at the same time. In such a state of affairs, there is no movement from one to the other possible.

This simul is difficult to come to grips with. We would prefer the idea of movement, and our human effort in cooperating with that movement. We take to the idea of spiritual disciplines, buckling down and somehow growing. We enjoy the psychological rewards that come from seeing at least some improvement. Even our failures encourage us - just try harder next time. We have no problem giving God half the credit, because certainly it would not happen without him. But it certainly also would not happen without us. That just seems logical, and even Biblical.

But the Bible does not so much talk about our progress as it talks of absolutes. And the absolutes confront us in ways that make a mess of our talk of progressive sanctification. We read such things as “The one who practices sin is of the Devil.” (I John 3:8) Here we must invent different levels of sin (willful and unwilful) in order to deflect the passage away from us and on to someone else. It does not fit a scheme of Christian moral improvement. Or how about “Pray without ceasing.” (I Thess. 5:17) Praying 99% of the time falls short of the mark. What makes us feel satisfied with slight progress here? What would be the Biblical basis for gritting our teeth and aiming at a mere 50%?

The simul, which grants us the perfect righteousness of Christ from the moment we are justified through faith, and yet also acknowledges the continuing full wretchedness of our sinful nature (of the devil), seems to bring passages like this to life. They are not just theoretical concepts or goals, but the actual reality of our everyday life, and there is no need to interpret the life out of them. They can be allowed to mean precisely what they say.

But what are the practical implications of such a way of being and thinking? If the simul were really true, are we not still confronted with the question of “Now what?” If moral progress and spiritual growth are no longer necessary. what are we to do? Luther answers this question, I think, in his doctrine of vocation - an area which I have yet to study in much detail and which seems too often overlooked in the church, perhaps because it seems too earthly. But earth happens to be where we live, and, given the state of the nation (and others), it would not seem that difficult to find a job that needs doing, and just do it. Such a simplistic sanctifiction theology could put the Christian bookstores out of business, but it might be worth the risk.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man, this stuff is good. I can't wait until I'm in a phase where I can read this type of stuff. Right now I just enjoy the freedom of not learning about it, but it'll be cool to read it more later! Thanks dad! You da man!!