Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why virtue to grace?

The Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde remarked that the Christian life is not an exodus from vice to virtue, but rather from virtue to grace. But why not from vice to grace? Doesn't this seem much more logical? We're saved from being bad people, from our bad habits, and brought into the fold of God's grace. Aren't we? Sort of. The trouble is that we need to be saved from our "good works" as much as we need to be saved from our vices. In short we need to be saved from ourselves; our trespasses are not restricted to obvious vices, but also extend to our most pious good works. Why? Because we imagine that they are, indeed, good works that just might improve our standing before God. Our piety can actually stand between us and the Savior. No one says "I'm too good to go to heaven" but how many people, even those who should know better, think "I'm fine, at least I'm not like that tax collector over there." God's grace, His divine decree that we are righteous, not only forgives our sinfulness but also reveals the depth of our sin. This is the strange paradox in which Christians live. We are simultaneously righteous and sinner. This is does not mean we're trapped in some kind of ebb and flow in which we have days where we are righteous, and other days where we are sinners. No, we're both. All the time. Unfortunately much of Christian teaching today sees the Christian life almost exclusively as a movement from vice to virtue. How many of us have heard people share their testimonies when ran along the lines of "I used to be a [insert particularly egregious sin here which probably involved sex and alcohol and probably drugs too] but then Jesus saved me and now I'm [insert list of virtues here]? What's the problem with this paradigm? If we're so virtuous, then why do we need a Savior?

When Luther wanted to talk about any sort of progress in the Christian life under the imputation of justification unconditionally, he grasped at formulations which stand usual understandings right on their head. The simul iustus et peccator makes it impossible to talk of some sort of moral progress in which one moves from one stage to another achieving a sort of perfection, and where every stage is the platform for the next leap. If that were the case, justification as an imputed, unconditional gift would make little sense. The higher one gets, the less grace one would need, until at last one could get along without it altogether. Justification by faith would be something like a temporary loan to cover the debtor until the debt was actually paid. Then the justification would not longer be needed. "Sanctification" and "good works" would be a matter of progressively paying off the debt, perhaps according to the popular slogan, "Become what you are!" where all the stress is usually on the become (you had better, or else!).

The simul makes all such schemes of progress impossible. The justification given is a total state, a complete, unconditional gift. From that point of view true sanctification is simply to "shut up and listen!" For there can be no more sanctification than where every knee bends and every mouth is silent before God, the only Holy One. And God is revered as the Holy One only where the sinner, the real sinner, stands still at the place where God enters the scene and speaks. That is the place where the sinner must realize that his or her way is at an end. Only those who are so grasped that they stand still here and confess to sin and give God the glory, only they are "sanctified." And there can be no more sanctification than that! ...

The "progress" of the Christian, therefore, is the progress of one who has constantly to get used to the fact that we are justified totally by faith, constantly has somehow to "recover," so to speak, from that death blow to pride and presumption--or better, is constantly being raise from the tomb of all pious ambition to something quite new. The believer has to be renewed daily in that. The Old Being is to be daily drowned in repentance and raised in faith. The progress of the Christian life is not our movement toward the goal; it is the movement of the goal in upon us. --Gerhard Forde Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life