The yet unfinished work of Christ

Does your Christian tradition teach or imply that it is better to err on the side of faith than works?

Yesterday I posted a quote from MacDonald that indicted the doctrine of imputed righteousness as an inoculation from pursuing personal holiness. As luck would have it, that same morning a web-only Christianity Today article by Jason Hood pushed back against a modern movement in that same direction, strong especially among the most fiercely monergistic Christians, a group whose predecessors 150 years ago were the subject of MacDonald’s critique. Theirs is an attempt to make sure everyone knows first of all that the gospel is all about what Christ has done on our behalf and nothing about what believers can do. To some degree it is this conviction that is behind a trending preoccupation with the concept of “grace” among the New Calvinists, typified by the Sovereign Grace movement. I sometimes think that if these people had any doubt about any of the so-called “doctrines of grace” (the five points of Calvinism), it would be “the perseverance of the saints”, given their fierce warnings about those who momentarily falter from trusting “Christ alone” for salvation.

In particular, Hood writes to target a rhetorical device in which the speaker suggests that being accused of antinomianism is a sign that the gospel-centric preacher is doing something right. Now, figuring out what precisely antinomianism (anti-law-ism) means is a huge undertaking, because it means different things depending on who is charging whom with promoting it. Here in the case of the argument Hood is attacking, it refers to a tendency to reject more rules and guidelines of behavior than is spiritually healthy, to be so anti-legalism that you will stop doing good works at all. Hood cites no less a leading light than Martyn Lloyd-Jones as an example of someone who suggests that being accused of favoring too much grace in this way just might be an indication that one is on the right side of the grace/works divide, sufficiently emphasizing our utter dependence on the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement.

Before reading this article, I don’t think I’d heard that meme specifically, but I have recently heard someone preaching his conviction that being charged with advocating “cheap grace” for emphasizing the wholly unmerited nature of God’s grace is offensive, given that 1) it cost Jesus his life, 2) for the rest of us, grace is free, and 3) it’s a dreadful thing to try to add to what Christ has already done. This is closely related to the idea as above, symptomatic of a faulty view of what the gospel is. In the Synoptics especially, Jesus was hardly a critic of “works-based righteousness”: for instance, in Matthew Jesus is shown teaching that the difference between a sheep who inherits life and a goat who inherits destruction is purely and wholly a matter of behavior. As Hood points out, even Paul was more against works of Torah than he was against good works generally.

I do reject the idea that we must earn salvation by jumping through hoops, and I mourn the fatigue and condemnation felt by those who believe that the proper combination of doing enough good things and avoiding doing enough bad things will make the difference between life and death eternal. My hope rests in the belief that God sees and empathizes with our many weaknesses. Yet I am convinced that the particularly and predominantly Protestant emphasis on identifying with Christ’s work through belief (“faith“) alone, entirely passively rather than on a more active and holistic level, has tended toward a deeply problematic lack of emphasis on what early believers thought was one of the primary reasons He created and saved us: “good works in Christ.”

Hood’s point is that we should not be happy either with appearing legalistic or antinomian, since both are dangerous. In fairness, the Christians under Hood’s critique would be sure to make a distinction between working out one’s salvation and working for one’s salvation, but it is tragic that in their fear of the latter they would be content to be accused of underplaying the former.

Indeed, I’d go farther than Hood did and say that between the two, the more dangerous over-emphasis is on “trusting in the finished work of Christ alone”, particularly when that phrase is used as shorthand for “not allowing our focus on Christ to stray too far from our theology of what the cross and the resurrection did for us”. A mandated necessity to believe the right things is hard to locate in Scripture, but commands to do the right things, one of which occasionally includes believing, is positively ubiquitous in both Testaments. We are advised that the hallmark, the telltale fruit of faith is faith-fulness, the outworking of (rather than fervent belief in) heavenly truths within our world — the institution of the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed as “the gospel”. This single-minded obsession with the “finished work” of Christ on the cross cannot help but distract us from the ways in which Christ’s work remains unfinished, and in an important way began at his death.

An exclusive emphasis on trusting that Christ did this, that, or the other on the cross or through his resurrection produces a stillborn faith. It is a belief in too little, after all, in that it has a propensity to stop us short of believing that one thing that I believe is the most important: what God wants us to believe about how we should live. I am persuaded that, far from it being a dangerous competitor of the work of Christ on the cross and a possible barrier to salvation, a dominating resolution to participate in those works and teachings of Christ before the cross is the most important instantiation of salvation.

When reading one recent testimony at Religion at the Margins, I was deeply saddened: not for the author, who still seeks to imitate Christ despite his loss of faith, but for those who considered his “wayward” theological beliefs to be of more concern than the hurting ones he sought to serve, and still more for those hurting ones who are still being told that their real problem is not “trusting in Christ’s finished work”. Surely the God described in the New Testament who desires that His followers’ character resemble His own would be far more satisfied with an exceptionally ignorant follower, a silly but obedient child in whose life He is able to cultivate righteous attitudes and behaviors but who is somehow under the impression that she serves a Cosmic Platypus, than He would be with a follower who has come to the right conclusions on every aspect of Jesus’ nature and his atonement for us and who even tries to love his neighbor, but who passionately cautions everyone not to attempt to “add to the finished work of Christ” by being preoccupied with doing the sorts of things that Jesus was concerned with during his life.

The overblown fears of “works-based righteousness” and the “social gospel” are insidious because they encourage us to leave undone the nitty gritty work of personal holiness before God, from the hidden negatives, such as not lusting and not coveting your neighbor’s blessings, to the visible positives of our faith, such as alleviating the suffering of those in need. Christianity is a much bigger campaign than many understand it to be: it costs us everything. God shows His grace to the world through our participation in the unfinished work of Christ.

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  • Seems to be about the balance needed between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, or perhaps, one’s “doxy” will determine one’s “praxy.”

    Personally, I do see Jesus’ work as completed. The “Christ” in me, though, is still at work as long as I am breathing.

    • Yes, Paige. I am coming to see neither “praxy” and “doxy” as controlling our Christian lives, not even when in perfectly balanced tandem; rather the “Christ in me”, the birthing of God’s heart within my heart, is what governs both. It is simply that I find doing the right things without understanding to be more valuable than understanding the right things without doing. 🙂

      • “It is simply that I find doing the right things without understanding to be more valuable than understanding the right things without doing. 🙂 ”

        Agreed. It also explains how I can see “Christ” in those who don’t even profess Christ…

      • plymouthrock

        But “in all your getting get understanding.”

        • Hey plymouthrock,

          In wisdom literature, wisdom and understanding do not strongly resemble Hellenistic philosophy or abstract explanations, but practical information on how to live one’s life (e.g. Proverbs!). This is almost exactly my point: if there’s one thing we should make sure we believe the right things about, it’s that kind of wisdom.

  • Seems to be about the balance needed between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, or perhaps, one’s “doxy” will determine one’s “praxy.”

    Personally, I do see Jesus’ work as completed. The “Christ” in me, though, is still at work as long as I am breathing.

  • I read that article on Religion at the Margins. Although my experience was not even close to being that heart-wrenching, it did bring back memories. I wish the author would have gone into more detail about his loss of faith. I’d also would have wished for a “happy ending” to his story – I left with the feeling that he had done some research on Christianity and came to the decision it was all a myth.

  • Tom

    Very well said. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Tom. Just found your site and added you to my blogroll!

      • Tom

        Thanks, Steve. I’ll do the same, though my readership is much smaller than yours 🙂

  • As much as I detest Neo-Calvinism, having been subtly taken in by it some years back, and however much I worry about the Resurgence of Calvinism infecting Evangelicalism everywhere I look I must admit: I can live with a modified TULIP – IMO just drop the L and everyone is saved by grace unconditionally 😉

    Oh, and “A mandated necessity to believe the right things” would be something like Romans 10:9-10.

    • Hi Marc!

      Ha ha — you and I certainly seem to be of similar mind on the Calvinist issue. Several weeks ago I came to a realization of the similarities between universalism and Calvinism, a few crumbs of which I left in a post.

      Yeah, I see your Romans 10:9-10, and raise you an Acts 16.31. 😉

  • LOL – However a “believe that” trumps a “believe in”, the latter being a synonym (as NT Wright argues based on Josephus, Life, 110) for “join in allegiance” 🙂

    Man, I’m digging this blog and especially moved by the “don’t shed a tear” post you linked to…

    • Ah, good point (I am a NPP sympathizer, as well). I was more referring to
      the surprisingly inclusive “you and your household” remark, ignored or
      re-interpreted by most. 🙂