24th August 2005

Blog :: What's Really Scandalous?

I previously wrote about Steve Brown's book A Scandalous Freedom and promised a continued review. In the process I'd like to explain some of the ideas I've been thinking about lately.

First to the book.  I don't think I made clear the nature of my fundamental disagreement with Brown's thesis. While I pointed out that his (inferred) definition of freedom is not the same as the Bible's usage of the term, I didn't explain where that misapprehension led him.  Where it led him, is Chapter 3: The Perfection We Desire ... and the Forgiveness That Sets Us Free. Again, you can tell where he's going by the chapter titles, but let me give you some of the flavor of it.

Are you getting much better than you were?  In other words, with all the teaching you've received about obedience, holiness, and sanctification, is it working in your life? ... If you are a reasonably good citizen, fairly active in the church, don't do the "big" sins (at least, publicly), and try really hard, you have to admit, if you're honest with yourself, that you aren't getting much better.
Now let me give you my confession: I'm about as good as I'm going to get, and I'm tired of trying.

Brown goes on to explain that he isn't against sanctification, he just understands that it doesn't come from our effort.  In fairness, I have to say that this chapter is actually pretty nuanced in presentation.  Later on he says (with sanctification in view) "The only people who get better are people who know that, if they never get better, God will love them anyway."  His focus then, I think, is not so much on trying to persuade people that they cannot be more Holy, as it is to persuade them that Holiness does not come about through our own pride in our own efforts to be more holy.  That's a statement with which people across the spectrum of christian thought on the role of holiness and ongoing sanctification in the life of the believer can probably agree.

But I'm starting to feel uncomfortable with the thrust of his arguments. Too much of this chapter seems dedicated to freeing Christians from the tyranny of trying and liberating them from the burden of unmet expectation. Much of this chapter sounds a lot like Mike Wells (about whom I'll have more to say at some point in the near future) in that trying is the problem and letting go of human effort and focusing on God is the solution whose adoption may lead (if God so chooses) in our increasing sanctification.

Now I must hasten to say that there is a grain (at least!) of truth in that formulation. Obviously sanctification must involve a supernatural effort by God; Just as obviously it will be difficult for Christians to argue that focusing on God is ever the wrong thing to do. Not only do I think that as a general principle of action (rather than statement of fact) his formulation is likely to be counterproductive, however, I find it very puzzling as a diagnosis of the ills of contemporary American Christendom.

Perhaps it has escaped my notice, but I would not have identified an obsession with holiness as one of the chief ills our time. I do not see many Christians wracked by guilt over their minor flaws as they strive in vain to attain christian perfection. I have noticed an awful lot of Christians who have, apparently, already taken Steve Brown's advice to heart and are sublimely confident that God loves them despite (because of?) their manifest failures. A passing aquaintance with the arguments in Ronald Sider's Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience would indicate that excessive striving for perfection is not, perhaps, an issue too many Christians struggle with.

Christians are, however, wrestling with the questions he raises in this chapter. I suspect most serious Christians will be confronted at some point in their lives with a series of nagging questions: Why am I not becoming more holy? Why can't I defeat this persistent sin in my life? What does it mean for me to be a disciple? I don't know what to do with Christians who aren't wrestling with these questions. With those of you who are, however, I'd like to share a few observations from my recent experience.

First, we cannot give up struggling. I cannot read my New Testament without seeing struggle as an intrinsic part of the Christian life, even a good and positive part. Really. Read the pastoral epistles and count the admonitions to stand fast, to resist, hold onto, pursue, etc, on the one hand, and the admonitions to relax and let go on the other. Note the metaphors used for the Christian life (the athlete, the soldier, the farmer) and meditate on the implications for effort on your part. Grace, despite what Brown says, is not opposed to effort. It is only opposed to earning (This is a quote from and a theme of Dallas Willard's writings).

Second, I am realising that there is a middle path. We are not stuck hoping to attain righteousness on our own strength on the one hand or giving up all effort and waiting for God to make us holy on the other. I have been encouraged and challenged by Willard's focus on spiritual disciplines as training for the spiritual life; lately I have also been thinking more about the absolute necessity of community for the formation of disciples. How quick we are to give up and how vast are the resources available to us that we refuse to make use of. Feeling like you aren't getting any better? Have you prayed about it for more than a few seconds? Have you fasted? Are you confessing the sin that defeats you to another Christian and making yourself accountable to your community of faith?

When I start asking myself these sorts of questions I quickly see that I don't want to do those sorts of things much more strongly than I desire to pursue sanctification. My inability to "get better" isn't a result of my focus on perfection and my own effort. I suspect it has more to do with my desire to let this cross pass me by and wait for a lighter model with some nice padding on the arms. No, for me it isn't Freedom that is so scandalous. The real scandal is, as it always has been, the reality of the Cross.

Posted on August 24th 2005, 01:32 AM