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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