Sunday, September 09, 2007

Christ, Eternal Life, and Merit

This post continues a conversation with Jeff the Roman Catholic over at Cross-Reference, who has done an exemplary job keeping the conversation peaceful.

By this stage of the conversation on Christ, faith, works, and merit, we have established a few points on which we agree, and it is probably simplest if I begin reviewing Jeff's post with an eye to the things on which we already agree:

  • We agree that, in having Christ, we ourselves have changed.
  • We agree that if there is no visible sign of change, there is cause to question whether we do in fact have Christ.
  • We agree that followers of Christ will grow in our desire to become worthy of Christ.

For all these agreements, the disagreements are still substantial. For convenience' sake I am splitting them under two major headings here: fulfilling the requirements of the law, and merits v. rewards.

Fulfilling the requirements of the law
Of course, we are sinners, so we must repent and ask forgiveness often. -- Japhy
This is what I mean when I say we do not fulfill the requirements of the law. Anyone reading along -- or with any background in the argument -- already knows that Roman Catholics and Lutherans disagree on whether we Christians fulfill the requirements of the law. Jeff did me a kindness by stating the Roman Catholic position in his own words lest anyone suspect me of misrepresenting it.
And as for "the divine law", it is qualified by "according to the state of this life", meaning, as I show below, the avoidance of those behaviors which disqualify one from inheriting the kingdom of heaven. {And hoping I've picked out the pertinent parts below ... WF} Clearly none of us hopes to go the grave as an adulterer or a thief. The commandments of God are not burdensome: the yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light (cf. 1 John 5:3; Matt 11:30). ... Why all this concern with being made worthy? Because there's a whole laundry list of people who won't inherit the kingdom of heaven (idolaters, thieves, fornicators, etc.). Such behavior is not found in a life worthy of God.
There is a disconnect between what Jesus and his disciple John are saying on the one hand (see passages cited) and the idea of fulfilling the requirements of the Law by avoiding a certain laundry list of behaviors on the other. Just as a case in point, notice that the laundry list stops short of mentioning hatred and strife, which appear on some of Paul's list of "such as these shall not inherit", etc. If Rome had taken up Christ's and John's and Paul's and James' teachings on love fulfilling the requirements of the Law and covering a multitude of sins, Rome's position would be on much more solid ground. But the "avoid deadly sins" approach -- hey, am I clear, I'm not defending deadly sins here -- but that approach of simply avoiding certain major sins really cuts short the requirements of the law.

In equating "avoiding deadly sins" with "fulfilling the requirements of the Law," all the most difficult requirements are set aside, all mentions of love of God and neighbor are removed, all mentions of sins of omission are removed. "The requirements of the Law" are then reduced to a rather short laundry list of egregious sins that even conscientious atheists might hope to avoid. It is on these grounds that Lutherans on this matter consider Roman Catholics to be "antinomians" -- those who set aside the Law or are lax with the requirements of the Law. We see a move like this as using the Law to justify ourselves, even though we know that nobody is justified by the Law, but rather through the Law we become conscious of sin and are condemned. In order for the Law to have its proper force against sin and sinners, it must be allowed to do the job of condemning us to death so that our old natures may be condemned and die, with ourselves being crucified with Christ and raised to new life. In this way Lutherans see the Roman Catholic avoidance of being condemned by the Law as badly missing one of the main points of the Law: to anchor that condemnation by which we die to our old selves. Japhy, I don't know where you stand on this next part, but just speaking from experience of conversations with Roman Catholics, as a group you all are awfully skittish about acknowledging that the Law condemns us and we deserve to die; while acknowledging the idea in principle, in practice you all can hardly leave the topic quickly enough. (You share that tendency with a number of other Christian groups.) Allowing the law to condemn our sinful natures to death is a necessary part of true repentance. It is as much a mistake to gloss over that condemnation too lightly as it is to dwell on it too obsessively. The Law has a good and useful place not only in upholding the good as the Noble Fellow's Aspirations, but also in condemning the negative as a scouring pad for our hearts. And I think it is precisely the need to see yourselves as meriting eternal life that leads to that kind of self-justifying move where the law is shortlisted to something loveless and without reference to God, something that even your standard issue bitter despairing atheist can manage. ("You say you love your brother ... Who doesn't do that?") Remember the prayers of the publican and the sinner? The one who went home justified before God is the one who knows the Law condemns him and who pleads for mercy, not the one who imagines that the law justifies him, even though he credits God that he is such a good fellow and thanks God for how many merits he has. Of the two, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" is the better prayer. And as one modern theologian has commented, if the fellow who said "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" is the one who went home justified, then why do we want to send the sinner back the next week with the other fellow's speech in his pocket about what a good boy he has been? Again, I'm not defending sin, but I am defending an honesty about the fact that we are all sinners, that the right grounds for justification is not shortlisting the law until we can self-justify using the law, but that the right grounds for justification is acknowledging that we are sinners and trusting God's mercy.

Trent (Session VI, Chapter XI) said: "no one should use that rash statement [...] that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified".

I think you already answered this in the way I would when you said
Of course, we are sinners, so we must repent and ask forgiveness often. -- Japhy

If it is true that we are sinners so we must repent and ask forgiveness often, then "the observance of the commandments of God" either has to be shortlisted to the point where other groups suspect you all of antinomianism, or it has proved impossible in practice for everyone who finds themselves at confession with something to confess. Again, our major complaints against Roman Catholicism on this point are first the mishandling of the law and second the self-justification of rerouting the road to God's approval so that it does not depend on mercy.

Merits v. Rewards
There is a kind Roman Catholic fellow that Japhy linked in regards to the conversation on merits v. rewards, posting Do we merit eternal life through our good works? Being Roman Catholic, he naturally defends the position that we do merit eternal life through our good works, and considers this not to be anti-grace on the grounds of infused grace. If any of my readers should stop by to visit Vivator, please honor his brotherly attitude. Vivator unfortunately provides a perfect example of what I've referred to as "Bible verse playoff theology" -- where he collects a set of verses that he believes support his position that eternal life is merited by good works, and then uses those passages to "defeat" a verse that he believes opposes his position. As I've posted here before, that approach generally shows that the position held is not built based on all passages of Scripture, but comes from outside and uses Scripture primarily to find support for an opinion already held. Bible verse playoff theology serves to remove part of Scripture from the playing field and is only necessary when a position is not fully Scriptural.

Vivator does not seem aware that his two dueling sets of Scriptures are discussing two separate topics: rewards on the one hand and worthiness or merit on the other. Vivator's general argument is that because God rewards us for such goodness as we have shown, therefore we were worthy of the reward and merited the reward. That actually does not follow. Before in conversations with Japhy I had mentioned the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the precise point of the parable is that the reward we receive from God's hand far exceeds what we have merited: the reward graciously surpasses that which we are worthy of receiving and is beyond what we have earned. There is no need to play off these Scripture passages against each other or to abrogate the force of part of God's word; both sets of Scriptures stand at full force. And this is precisely where Roman Catholics and Protestants disagree on faith and works: whether the reward God gives is something we have actually merited, something of which we are actually worthy, or whether the reward is beyond our merits and worthiness to receive it and is in fact in every way a gift rather than a thing deserved. When a Roman Catholic reads Jesus' teaching about the sheep and the goats, I have often heard the argument from there go along these lines: "Works matter, God rewards us, we merited it with God's help." When a Protestant reads the sheep and the goats, our view takes account of the disproportion between the acts we have done and the reward received, and is more like this: "Christ would grant eternal life for a work of kindness so small as visiting the sick. What a gracious Judge!"

Let me know if you're interested in a play-by-play response to some of the passages you quoted. I wanted to stick with the overall arch of the argument, and most of your quotes were on the desirability of worthiness in a series of different contexts, against which I have no objection.

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