True Spirituality – Section 1 – The Law and the Law of Love

This is the second in a series of posts analyzing Francis Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality.  You can find the first post here.

If we’re going to talk about what it means to live the Christian life, a life of true spirituality as a Christian, then we have to acknowledge that the only way such a discussion has any value is if those engaged in it are actually Christians.  It makes no sense to explore what the Christian life might look for anyone other than a professed Christian.  The challenge then becomes what is the definition of a Christian?  There are certainly no shortage of options.

Is being a Christian defined by your membership and participation in a particular expression of the Body of Christ, like the Roman Catholic Church or a Baptist Church?  There are folks in both those parts of the Christian body that would answer yes to this question, but I disagree that such positions are Biblically supported.  I can appreciate Rome’s argument that they are the one true Church because of apostolic succession, but apostolic succession isn’t a Biblical definition of what makes one a Christian, though it certainly is a nice tradition to be able to point to.

The Biblical definition of a Christian is one who looks to Jesus of Nazareth as both the human son of Mary and the divine Son of God, through whom alone we receive forgiveness and therefore reconciliation with God the Father.  Put more simply, I believe that my only hope of reconciliation with God the Father despite more moral guilt is the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.  Nothing I do or say can improve upon or add to what Jesus did.  I can only accept it as being done for me, or I can reject it.  Accepting it makes me a Biblical Christian.  Rejecting it makes me something else.

All of this is wrapped up with that concept of moral guilt just mentioned.  I’ve not met anyone – of any philosophical or religious bent – that thinks they are perfect, completely free from flaw or moral guilt – a violation of some universal or personal standard of behavior.  Everyone I’ve ever talked to has been willing to admit that they aren’t the person they think they should be, let alone the person others think they should be or that any particular philosophical or theological tradition thinks they should be.  We all fall short.

Some will  say that there are no greater ramifications to this than a limited sense of disappointment or harm to others, that there is no Higher Power to be offended by these failures or that any possible Higher Power simply isn’t offended.  For such folks, the idea of the necessity of a Savior is confusing and complicated.  What do I need to be saved from?  What are the long-range ramifications of my moral failings?

The Bible asserts that there are long-range ramifications that can potentially be eternal.  The Bible asserts that there is a higher power, and that our moral failures and corresponding moral guilt is first and foremost an offense against this God, and only secondarily an offense against ourselves or others.  Your real problem isn’t your love of gossip, or your uncontrolled temper, or your lust or greed or whatever – your real problem is that these things are an offense against a holy and perfect God, the creator of all things including you, and the definer as well as the embodiment of the moral law you have violated (whether accidentally or intentionally).   Your lust may be a danger to yourself and others, but it is first and foremost an offense against the God who created you as well as the others that may be involved in your lust.

Having violated this moral law, having offended against the demand for perfection issued by a righteous and holy God, I have no way of making up for my violations.  I can neither stop them completely, nor in any way make up for past violations.  Saying sorry doesn’t cut it.  And I have nothing to offer the all-powerful Creator of the Universe in exchange or compensation for my offense.

Therefore, if there is to be any hope for reconciliation, it must be initiated by the very God whom I offend, and on his terms alone.  The Bible gives us the unlikely good news that God has indeed initiated this very thing, and details the specifics – accepting the death and resurrection of the perfect and holy Son of God as a gift to me, despite my sinfulness.  In faith, I receive the offered perfection of the Son of God and dressed in his blood-soaked clothes, I can stand before God and be pronounced holy and perfect and clean.

This is the starting point of the Christian life – my acknowledgement that such is my predicament and such is my hope and confidence for salvation.

I would argue this has nothing to do with emotion, though emotion may well be appropriate  at the moment these truths break through to one as real and true.  It doesn’t matter whether I feel saved or not.   What matters is whether this is my honest profession of faith.  Am I trusting God and his Word to me or am I not?

You can’t just act like a Christian, you have to be one, and being one requires your trusting the promises of God rather than rejecting them in favor of some alternative.

All that being said, what we have said is that accepting the promises of God the Father in God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit is the beginning of the discussion of and actual living out of the Christian life.  But it is only the beginning.  Schaeffer compares this to our physical birth.  Our physical birth is necessary as the condition for our existence in the physical world.  In that respect it is the most important aspect of our lives because it is the absolutely essential starting point of our lives in this world.  But from another perspective, it is the least important moment because once it’s done, it’s over with.  New things become of primary concern once we have been delivered into the physical world.

So our spiritual birth through profession of faith in Jesus  as our Lord and Savior is both the most and least important part of our Christian life, depending on your vantage point and what it is that you want to talk about.  Just as nobody would claim that, once being physically born there is nothing more to living life in the physical world, nobody should claim that the moment of placing one’s faith in Jesus for forgiveness of moral guilt against a perfect and holy God is the end of the story of the Christian life.  Theologians distinguish this act of putting our trust in Jesus as our savior as justification, and the living out the Christian life now made possible because of this faith as sanctification.  Being broken and sinful (despite being forgiven), we are ever tempted to switch these two around, putting the cart before the horse and making the living of a Christian life a prerequisite for saving faith in Jesus.

The question for the new (and old) Christian is what next?  For an adult convert to Christianity this may most often take the form of a list of things once considered acceptable but which are not acceptable now that this person claims is a follower of Jesus.  But the Christian life is not simply a matter of Thou Shalt Nots.  Naturally there are those Christians who realize this and may react against the list of requirements and insist that they should be done away with.  This might be appropriate, unless what one is really getting at is the desire to do the things prohibited by the lists of Thou Shalt Nots.  If your ultimate goal is just making the Christian life easier, or more palatable to non-Christians, you’re headed down the wrong path just as surely as those who make the Christian life all about following zealously the Thou Shalt Nots.

Luther dealt with the Law and the Christian life in this way:

A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to  none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.

That is because behind the Law – the Ten Commandments and every other instruction from God to his people whether universal or particular –  there is a deeper Law, the Law of Love.  The Law that says my ultimate concern is less the minute attendance to the Law, but how my attendance to the Law expresses love towards God and neighbor.  Jesus was rather critical of the Pharisees who gloried in their self-righteousness but lacked love for others (Matthew 23:4).  The Law is not given to make us miserable, but rather to show us how to love our neighbor and our God.  The spiritual life of a Christian should be a realization of this more and more, which of course transforms the reason why we seek to obey the requirements of the Law.  Not out of peer pressure or a sense of self-righteousness, but because we trust that in observing the Law, we are more apt to be loving God and our neighbor.

Thus obedience to the Law is always primarily an inward, internal thing.  It may well manifest itself externally, but this is not a good indicator of the inward rationale.  I may not kill someone, but that doesn’t show whether I really love them or am simply afraid of going to prison.  So as we consider the Christian life and Christian spirituality, we need to distinguish between an external, loveless adherence to the Law (which Jesus was constantly criticizing others for) and an adherence to the Law motivated primarily by love for God and love for neighbor rather than out of fear or a desire to be accepted by others.

To move towards this is to intentionally cultivate a trust and reliance on God for all things and in all things.  The ways that I sin against God and against others tend to happen when I am not trusting God and resting in his provision, but rather out to procure for myself, on my terms, what it  is I think I need or want.  Thus the Law against coveting is really the first Law broken before any of  the other nine are!

The Christian is called to trust God’s promises that as St. Paul writes in Romans 8 for those who love God all things work together for good.  That means both in my blessings as well as in the areas that I wish were different.  Both in my victories as well as my struggles.  Both in my satisfaction as well as my malcontent.  If I don’t have something that I think I ought to, or that I really want, I have to trust that, rather than resorting to sinful means to procure it, I need to trust that  God the Holy Spirit is perhaps using my lack or want for his purposes, which are always good (unlike mine!).

In the Christian life, therefore, each moment I have a decision to make – will I give thanks to God for his good gifts, or will I focus rather on what I don’t have and cultivate a sense of bitterness or entitlement that quickly leads me to coveting sinfully and then sinning in thought, word, or deed?  Part of Christian spirituality then is to deal with life moment by moment, opting intentionally to trust that whether I am particularly pleased about something or not, God the Holy Spirit is still capable of working all things towards good.  I am never justified in sinfully violating God’s will in me.

Another way of saying it might be this:  The Christian confesses a faith and trust in an all-mighty and all-knowing God, and also an all-loving God.  God has created every individual in the context of a struggle between good and evil.  Every Christian is called to resist evil as they are enabled, to fight against it in their particular context or vocation.  But trust in such a God means that we ought to trust him to put us where in this struggle He knows best.  And that we trust that his decision is not arbitrary but ultimately for our best and good.  This should assist us as we strive (like St. Paul) to be content (trusting of God) in all things.

Finally, if we are to begin describing the Christian life we can’t simply speak in terms of what is forbidden, the Thou Shalt Nots.  Rather, we must speak both in those negatives but also in positives.  Not only what we in our sinful brokenness are restrained from but the blessings we are promised, the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit and the fruit they produce in our life.  The Christian life cannot be described simply by what we don’t do, but I think that for many people (Christians included) this is the first way we think of it.   I’m a Christian so I don’t fool around before I’m married.  I’m a Christian so I don’t kill people.  These are all well and true, but they are external aspects of an internal spirituality, and they are ultimately only part of the story.  If the negative aspects of the internal Christian life – the Thou Shalt Nots have an external  manifestation, then it should be equally expected that positive, cultivated aspects of the internal Christian life will also have external manifestations.

 

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