I’m a faithful reader of Steve Scott’s blog “From the Pew”. Steve writes about Christianity from the perspective of a layman and struggles with many of the same issues that I do as a churchgoer and believer. Two recent posts were intriguing to me. In one, Steve wonders why the Lord’s Supper is so skimpy and formalistic:http://fromthepew.blogspot.com/2007/02/jesus-stuck-in-my-molars.html. In another, he suggests that the doctrine of “justification by faith” has become a kind of gnosis: http://fromthepew.blogspot.com/2007/02/reformed-gnostics.html.
I’m with Steve on the Lord’s Supper. Once a month, our church hands out little cubes of white bread and mini shot glasses of grape juice, and we celebrate “communion”. I reckon we “commune” with Jesus and one another every time we gather and that we might do better to have an actual meal together, during which we would remember Jesus and the sacrifice of His Body and Blood. The ritual itself seems like an afterthought.
I’m not so sure I follow Steve on the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”. He does not seem to view it as central. I am a firm believer in the sufficiency of grace and that repentance and right living flow from grace, not the other way around. No amount of righteousness or law abiding will ever render any person deserving of salvation. On the contrary, we don’t “deserve” it, not one of us. There is nothing any of us can do to earn it, and if we become loving and faithful followers of Jesus, it is the Holy Ghost at work within us that brings this about.
This point is central for me. The grace of God frees us from the power of sin and enslavement to purity codes. It in principle allows us to live in perfect freedom and unity in Jesus and not subject to any earthly authority. I recall a discussion with a Baptist acquaintance who argued that my conception of grace did not provide an adequate basis for social control of the people! I don’t reckon Jesus was about granting some men power over others. I concede that my view of things undermines claims to authority, but I don’t have a problem with this.
There are lots of “Christians” who reckon that they have earned their salvation and that they are, therefore, justified in imposing their codes of righteousness on their fellow man. They are entirely comfortable declaring who is in and who is out, who deserves salvation and who does not. They regard my idea of a completely sufficient grace as “promiscuous” and a scandal. This leads them to authoritarianism and enslaves them to impossible standards of righteousness in the confines of which they can scarcely move. Their Jesus is wrathful and judgmental and unrecognizable to me. Their religion has little resemblance to mine. They might as well be followers of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs, such is the magnitude of the difference as I see it.
A problematic aspect of my view of grace is that it does not necessarily translate into the individualistic type of Christianity that has become so prevalent in America. If the emphasis is on “personal salvation” or a “personal relationship” with Jesus, the focus tends to be on self improvement and self criticism, and this gets you back to codes of righteousness and measuring how much Bible study and quiet time you squeeze in. If the emphasis is on the community of believers, on the gathering and how we love one another and interact in unity, then my view of grace is easier to absorb. We love others as ourselves because they are ourselves, our being one in Jesus. We are siblings in Jesus and stand in perfect equality one to another, the highest calling’s being to serve not to rule. What could be less loving than self righteous condemnation of our neighbors and fellow believers? Doesn’t self righteous condemnation minimize the sacrifice of Jesus?
If I understand Steve right, he is problematizing an attitude about the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” wherein the faith itself becomes secondary to knowledge of the doctrine or is replaced by this knowledge, in which case the knower of this knowledge can go about his business more or less untouched by it. The knower can know the doctrine and yet decline to live the faith, comforted in the assurance of his personal salvation. I confess that this may well be one of my failings. I struggle with a sort of social phobia and have to force myself to get out of my cocoon and enjoy fellowship or seek opportunities to be helpful or supportive of others. A lot of this is because I am tired after work and a long commute, and I fail to recognize how rejuvenating fellowship can be. “Good thing God has extended His grace to me since I can’t be bothered to expend any effort on behalf of my fellow man.” I am grateful to Steve for inspiring me to think this through.