Friday, August 29, 2014

The LORD will save me

At the end of Hezekiah's song we find these wonderful words:

The LORD will save me,
and we will sing to stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
at the house of the LORD (Isa 38.20).

While I was reading and praying, I came across these final words and was inspired to pray to God in thanksgiving for the salvation I have been given. What Jesus Christ did on the cross, he did for the whole world (2 Cor 5.14; 1 John 2.2) and therefore he did for me too! And when Christ was accepted by God and raised from the dead, there in his resurrection was my resurrection too, and when he went up to the Father, I was and am there with him (Eph 2.5-6; Col 3.1-3)! My salvation has been pledged by Jesus Christ himself, and what God begins he can complete as well (Phil 1.6).

It is important to think this way. One thing I appreciate about the Reformed theological tradition, and one thing severely lacking in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, is the focus on the assurance of salvation. It is spiritually devastating not to be sure of your salvation. It is emotionally and psychologically exhausting not to know whether or not you will be saved by God. Every sin invites the fear of hellfire; compounding guilt paralyzes us and impedes prayer and fellowship with the Holy Trinity.

Eugene Peterson reflecting on his childhood and religious upbringing recalls something like this experience:

At the same time, I also recall a lot of emphasis in our church on "making a decision for the Lord," and exercising my willpower in saying no to the temptations that surround me in school and neighborhood. I had many occasions to do that, making repeated decisions for Christ as evangelists and pastors took turns at sowing doubts about the validity of my last decision and urging me to do it again (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 96).

Because the evangelists would always call upon people to make a decision for Christ, the validity of previous decisions was called into question. This left the people in a perpetual sense of not belonging, of not being a part of Christ's body, of uncertainty with regard to their relationship to God. After all, you do not make a decision for Christ if you are already his; you make the decision only if you are not. Eugene and the persons in his church had no sense of the assurance of their salvation, since they were constantly being called to make a decision for the Christ they evidently had not yet effectively chosen.

This is toxic spirituality; it's no good. It keeps us focused on ourselves, always asking whether we have done enough to prove our discipleship or to win God's favor. We will never have done enough; if we could have done enough, we would not have needed Christ. What Christ has done is enough: we are to unite ourselves to him and to begin to participate in that new life, enabled by his Spirit.

But it is important not to focus on ourselves. Even the Reformed can go wrong here by supposing that the condition of Christ's work is our faith, as if what he did doesn't count unless we believe. I posit on the contrary that Christ's work is an actuality for all (cf. 1 John 2.2); our faith is the means by which we perceive it and are transformed by it, but it doesn't appropriate it as if it didn't already count for us, as if (say) our sins weren't atoned unless we believe. The Reformed may make a mistake by insisting on faith alone because oftentimes our faith is weak. More than that, the Reformed premise that works proceed from faith adds to the disaster, since the quality of our works will therefore be taken as a measure of our faith, and consequently of the efficacy of Christ's work for us. Because we find ourselves sinful, we'll doubt whether we really believe; and because we doubt whether we really believe, we will doubt whether Christ's work counts for us.

No, the focus is always on Christ and the efficacy of his work. This work is the atonement for the sins of the whole world, and it will make all people righteous (Rom 5.17-9) -- including myself! Thanks be to God!