Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gospel Faith Alone: The Negative Gospel

My last post, surveying the ways I and other evangelicals often get the all-important concept of "faith" wrong, probably didn't raise many eyebrows. It wasn't supposed to. My own working definition of faith, like that of many others, is a mixture of what I pretty firmly consider the "true" definition of faith (as trust), and the three wrong ones that have become prevalent, especially faith-as-belief-of-facts. In other words, my misconceptions about faith did keep teaching and preaching of "the gospel" from making as much sense to me as they should, but this is because I misunderstand "faith", not necessarily because others do. It's very much a plank in my own eye that I have to remove (and again, it is also in many other peoples' eyes, but that is not my biggest concern). So, as I recognize them, these misconceptions shouldn't create any difficulty in believing "the gospel" as I hear it, only in understanding it.

The Negative Gospel

The difficulty in belief (for me) comes in not with what kind of faith is preached, but how it is so often preached. The mistake builds off the doctrine of "faith alone" or sola fide, one of the five Latin solas of the Reformation, and the salvation narrative that builds off of it, which goes something like this (and should sound familiar):
The bad news of the gospel, without which the good news makes no sense, is that we are all dead in our sins (Rom 6:23, Eph 2:1-2). "Dead" doesn't just mean "unaware", or "far gone", or that that we need some help, it means lifeless, powerless, dead! We can do nothing to make ourselves righteous before God and gain salvation (Jhn 15:5). And so God would be totally just to condemn us for eternity.
But the blessed news is that though we can do nothing, Jesus has already done everything on our behalf, on the cross (Eph 2:4-7). He lived a sinless life (Hbr 4:15) and died an atoning death (Rom 3:21-25), so there is nothing we have to do to gain His righteousness except to accept it by faith (Rom 3:22, Eph 2:8-9). Jesus saves us from trying to save ourselves; we can stop trying to earn our way to God (which was never possible anyway; Gal 2:16) and rest in His completed work for us. It is faith alone that justifies, not any of our works, and the life we now live in Jesus we live by faith (Gal 2:20), not by works.
It sounds great, doesn't it? Though we are powerless in ourselves to take any steps toward the righteousness God requires, Jesus has already done for us what we could not do for ourselves and secured an eternal righteousness for us. We cannot earn it, we can only stop trying to work for our own salvation and rest in what He has already done. This is good news both for the one who doesn't know Christ and is endlessly trying to make his life matter by sheer effort, and for the Christian who is trying to live an endless series of rules, checklists, "three simple steps" to be a good person rather than a relationship based on faith alone.

But what if it isn't everything? What if the gospel is bigger than this common description of it?

Here's what I mean. If there is one thing Christians in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions believe in more fiercely than justification by faith, it's justification by faith alone. Luther was so certain of this exclusivity that he introduced the word "alone" into one such translation of Paul, arguing that he was merely bringing Paul's own emphasis into German. This kind of emphatic assertion usually comes hand-in-hand with an equally emphatic denial of our own powers to "earn salvation", "make moral progress", "justify ourselves", "become good", and so on. In a game of theological oneupmanship, this denial gets stressed more and more heavily; to let up for even a moment on our thorough corruption and moral bankruptcy would be to go easy on sin, leave open the possibility of some kind of human-driven Works-Righteousness, and embrace semi-Pelagianism. Right?

This arms race leads toward a gospel that seems more defined by what it is not—legalism, or "salvation by works", or "religion"—than by what it is. I call this diminution of the gospel the Negative Gospel. It is the gospel reduced to its own rebuttal to one particular constellation of heresies, namely "self-justification", "works of the law", Pelagianism, or late medieval Catholic soteriology (which are all erroneously believed to be the same thing), which must then be considered to be endemic to all humankind, virtually equivalent with sin itself. It may be very effective at freeing people from following rules to gain credit with God (besides, perhaps, the rule to constantly deny your own moral capability and emphasize that it's all from God), but after that—what? A negatively defined gospel can't give an answer. And for this reason, it is dangerous.

A disclaimer. The Negative Gospel is not a doctrine or system of theology, it is a distortion of one. This means that no one intentionally subscribes to it, and it is rarely held in "pure" form like a classical heresy (e.g. monophysitism or the nondivinity of Jesus). So although the examples I give may sound like theologians I've heard, please don't think that I'm trying to attack them or label them as proponents of it. There is no Negative Gospel "camp". It is something that we are all susceptible to, to varying degrees. It is arguably centered somewhere in Lutheran or Reformed theology, but this doesn't mean any given Lutheran or Reformed theologian espouses it, certainly not completely.

With that said, let me give roughly four reasons why I want to stop negatively defining the gospel by its opposition to "works-based righteousness", and hope that you will too.

It undermines the importance the Bible places on works

In many ways, the Epistle of James is the ugly stepchild of the New Testament. Its emphasis on the necessity of works doesn't fit into the above scheme of "justification by faith alone" with its attendant denial of our works having anything to do with our justification, and often people don't know what to do with it. Specifically and especially, 2:14-26:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
In his preface to the book Luther, though he saw much of value in it, expressed his dislike for it and personally did not consider it to be the work of an apostle, saying that it flatly contradicted the writings of Paul and the rest of Scripture. Christians today don't consider so disparaging a book in the canon to be a viable option, and so we find ways to integrate it with what Paul seems to be saying. The result of this is something along the lines of, "James of course knew that justification is by faith alone, but he was saying that justifying faith, if it is genuine, will produce Christian works and a changed life as evidence." Or, as the adage goes, "Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone"; that is, it is necessarily accompanied by works (which nonetheless do not themselves justify at all, insufficient as they are!).

I don't think this is consistent. It seems to be saying, "Faith alone matters for our justification, but works matter too", a contradiction concealed behind layers of rationalization. If our actions are judged as not reflecting "saving faith" and we sincerely retort, "No, my faith is genuine," we reach an impasse. Are we justified or not? If we prioritize the inward experience of faith, we seem to contradict James; if the lack of outward works, we seem perilously close to "works righteousness", having to prove our salvation by doing things. James seems to be describing a cooperation between faith and works (faith being "completed" by works; works demonstrating our faith and playing a role in our justification), not the antithesis that is usually drawn in our rush to condemn "salvation by works".

An image that is commonly used to describe how God works through us with His spirit and His righteousness despite our insufficiency is that of someone blowing through a straw. The straw merely channels the energy of the blower, and no one says afterward, "What a great straw!" This image, and the perspective of God's righteousness over against our inability even as believers that it conveys, seems at odds with how Christians are very seriously called to pursue holiness ourselves (see Paul's race analogy in 1 Cor 9:24-27 and Phil 3:12-16, or his exhortations to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:7-16), as well as what the New Testament says about our receiving praise or commendation from God.. How do these things make any sense if we're just passive, sin-laden vessels through which God works righteousness that is exclusively His? Isn't He just praising Himself in a bizarrely circumscribed way? Can a straw train itself to be a better, less holey straw?

Or, since we're such huge fans of Romans, consider Romans 2:6-8: "6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury." Then verse 13: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified." 26-27: " 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law."

If we have such great reverence for Paul, we should listen to him when he clearly says that there will be a final judgment according to works. We do not honor his words or the point he's trying to make by skipping this chapter, saying that he's speaking hypothetically about someone being rewarded at this final judgment when it can never really happen, explaining that since Christ's righteousness is imputed to us we will really be judged by His works, or by inventing a second judgment in which people are only rewarded for their good works (see 2:8) which happens after the "Bema seat judgment" that decides peoples' eternal destinies and is based on faith alone. None of these explanations does Paul justice.

Still not convinced? Here are some other gems from Paul:
  • Romans 14:10b,12: "For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God...So then each of us will give an account of himself to God."
  • 1 Corinthians 4:5: "Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God."
  • 2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."
  • Galatians 5:21, after a long 'sin list': "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."
  • Ephesians 6:8b: "whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free."
In none of these passages is there a hint of two separate judgments, or of our deeds not actually mattering because we get Christ's instead. If works never enter into God's judgment of us and this point is really so crucial to the gospel message, we have to go against Paul to find it. To assume these things is to miss a point he makes repeatedly and hear from him something he is not trying to say.

A better analogy than the straw might be that of an infant being weaned off milk, growing up, and in all ways taking after his father, one which is used by Paul (1 Cor 3:1-3, Eph 4:13-16), Peter (1 Pet 2:2), and the author of Hebrews (Hbr 5:12-14). In all of these passages it is used to describe holistic growth into spiritual maturity, not only in the sense of individual moral development (a concept to which none of them seem to show any aversion), but of the whole church growing in love, unity, faith, and knowledge of the Truth. I will not exegete each passage individually, but will simply point out how this image of not just the individual Christian but the whole church as a child maturing seems to assume a much more active role for us than that of someone blowing through a straw. A straw receiving praise from its blower is absurd; a child receiving praise from his father is natural and beautiful. Of course we still depend on God in this process, and so Paul says we are taught by the Spirit (2:13) and that our growth is made consequent on the gifts of Christ (Eph 4:7-16), but it is a stretch to believe that Paul and others didn't envision some kind of active involvement on the believers' part.

And after that, I can't but say a few words on the role of sanctification, or the believer's "growing into" holiness in increasing resemblance to Jesus. This growth is paralleled with human development in the passages described above, and is also the goal of the "spiritual disciplines" or "pursuit of holiness" that are mentioned in the same circles as "justification by faith alone". Of course very few would say that sanctification isn't real or important. But neither will you hear anyone saying primarily (as the main point of a sermon, gospel tract, biblical commentary, etc.) that Jesus died so that we could be sanctified, become conformed to His image, and be holy like His father, and secondarily that He justifies us or saves us from our sins by grace through faith. But the reverse is quite commonplace. We have separated out justification/salvation and sanctification, making the former absolutely essential, worth preaching and teaching about constantly, and the latter something different that hopefully happens afterward, but if it doesn't that's fine too, because Jesus already dealt with our sin and we are already perfectly justified by His imputed righteousness and nothing can take that away. Could our fear of works be to blame for this focus on what must be believed over what must be done?

I'm not saying that this negative portrayal of the gospel is logically incoherent. I have heard it explained in numerous ways that make logical sense. But making logical sense is not enough. It's a theology that seems to be based on conflicting principles. We shun spiritual passivity (as in the parable of the talents; Matthew 25:14-30), yet prevailingly seem to prize it as a virtue, the antidote to works-based righteousness. We insist that the only works that matter or are sufficient are what Christ has already done for us, and simultaneously emphasize the very intentional practice of "spiritual disciplines". No matter how much these things are made to make rational sense, they have never "clicked" for me.

It is dualistic 

Let me be as clear as possible what I mean here by dualism. I don't mean moral dualism, as in the postulation of equal and opposing entities of good and evil (though Scripture also rebukes such ideas), but something more like ontological dualism, the Platonic dichotomy between the material and the spiritual, or between God and man, His actions and ours. I'm applying the term to the disconnect, critical in the Negative Gospel, between what God does and what we do. These things are zealously believed to be utterly incompatible, or even at odds with each other. It seems as if we try to outdo each other in how much of a contrast we can draw between the utter ineffectuality of our own deeds and the perfection of God's. So it's not about what we do, it's about what He has done. Our total incompetence versus God's all-sufficiency. Our stubborn rebellion against His relentless love. Our constant unfaithfulness versus God's faithfulness, and so on.

In this mindset of dualism, our actions and God's are thought of like portions of a pie; if we contribute anything to our salvation from ourselves, that means God doesn't get the whole pie, which is supposed to be the worst offense against the gospel since antipope Pelagius started selling indulgences to help people get their best life now (or something like that). God's standard for righteousness is set so high that any effort of our own is seen as not just hopeless, but counterproductive and a threat to our total reliance on His sufficiency. So Luther supported infant baptism partially on the grounds that there is no better demonstration of God's role as author of our justification than His producing faith in an infant who is unable to believe the gospel, or even understand it. So Calvin, in his Institutes, seems almost eager to deny that any shred of our good actions is really from us; the implication is that this would somehow threaten God's sufficiency. See this excerpt from 2.3.6 (emphasis added):
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them,” (Eph. 2:10). [Paul's] meaning is to show in this way that our salvation is gratuitous because the beginning of goodness is from the second creation which is obtained in Christ. If any, even the minutest, ability were in ourselves, there would also be some merit. But to show our utter destitution, he argues that we merit nothing, because we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has prepared; again intimating by these words, that all the fruits of good works are originally and immediately from God. Hence the Psalmist, after saying that the Lord “has made us,” to deprive us of all share in the work, immediately adds, “not we ourselves.” That he is speaking of regeneration, which is the commencement of the spiritual life, is obvious from the context, in which the next words are, “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” (Psalm 100:3). Not contented with simply giving God the praise of our salvation, he distinctly excludes us from all share in it, just as if he had said that not one particle remains to man as a ground of boasting. The whole is of God.
This dualism, this implication that any effort to "be good" ourselves is basically counterproductive to our believing that the good work we do is only God working through us, is probably the biggest way that the Negative Gospel contributed to the passivity of my faith. It seems to not only not answer the question, "Okay, I'm saved by grace alone; now what am I supposed to do?", but to deny that such a question should even be asked. Yet no matter how many times I reminded myself that it's not about what I can do, but what's been done for me, I still had to do something. Because God gave me a will, I simply can't be a passive bystander to my own life. The vision of the Christian life this gospel presents is quite literally unlivable, because it self-consciously disconnects our salvation from how we live.

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright presents a surprisingly satisfying definition of "worldview" that I enjoyed. It includes not only answers to the fundamental questions of life, origins, and meaning (which are too often made into the whole of what a worldview is), but also an overarching story in which the holders of the worldview live and through which they view reality, symbols (such as artifacts or events) that express these stories and answers, and praxis, or "way-of-being-in-the-world". Depictions of the gospel are generally presented as answers to questions of first importance, and Christianity as a whole does not lack for symbols (the cross, baptism, communion, church holidays...), but often the story aspect is deemphasized (more on this later), and its dualistic ways of setting our actions against God's undercut any stable basis for a praxis. If everything essential to our salvation and Christian life has already been done, it's hard to be sure what to do next.

The Incarnation is the most decisive rebuke to this kind of dualism that God could ever have delivered. God becoming a man annihilated the sharp distinctions the Greeks threw up between matter and spirit just as His death destroyed the curtain in the temple, a Jewish symbol of the holy separation between God and man (Mat 27:51). What clearer symbol could there be of God restoring His tarnished image in fallen man so he could willingly serve Him and continue His work, just as God made Adam His "deputy creator" in the Garden? (Gen 2:19-20) Our active, willing participation in God's redemptive work does not destroy or steal God's glory, but heightens it.

Philippians 2:12-13 is the clearest depiction I see of how union of how this union works out practically in the believer. Paul tells the Philippian church, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Before the section I quoted, Calvin cites verse 13 to emphasize God's agency, but conspicuously leaves out verse 12, cutting Paul off mid-sentence as it were. In light of Paul's use of the reflexive pronoun "your own" and the then-recent reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, it seems more likely that he is writing of God's power and purpose being exercised through human will and work, not replacing them as something altogether separate.

For more support of this same concept from Paul, see also Colossians 1:29: "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me", or 1 Corinthians 15:10: 'But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." I'm not simply trying to prooftext, but to show a real and repeated dynamic that Paul mentions, of God working His power through our own effort, not apart from it. This is how I believe God can use our works in conjunction with His grace, over against exclusive formulations like in the Negative Gospel that tear the two asunder.

It neglects the work of the Spirit

The key to this this union in which divine and human wills cooperate without the limitation of either (which, after all, is what is meant by the term 'synergism'), is the fact that God sends His spirit to dwell in us. The Spirit is the reason why God's all-powerful will working in us does not trump or override our own responsibility, and why our exertion of effort to "work out our own salvation" does not threaten it. He is the reason why there is an alternative to strict monergism besides plunging into Pelagisnism, uniting the two in ways too mysterious for me to comprehend. He is the means of our sanctification. He is the third member of the Trinity, and sadly the Negative Gospel largely ignores His crucial behind-the-scenes role (except, perhaps, to give us assurance that we have been saved by grace through faith apart from anything we do) in favor of making as much as possible of the work of Christ.

In his book Justification, N.T. Wright repeatedly points out this fact. The Spirit, he says, is the reason why we can bear good fruit for God, the reason why the final judgment according to works isn't a foregone conclusion for those who are in the Spirit. The Spirit undercuts our-works-versus-God's-works dualism and makes a biblical theology of works possible. As Wright notes, this is a paradox, but a paradox that we must live rather than trying to "solve" theologically (which, to use one of his analogies, tends to lead to 'solving' the puzzle by throwing half the pieces back into the box!). I'd do better by simply letting him speak for himself:
The pastoral theology which comes from reflecting on the work of the spirit is the glorious paradox that the more the spirit is at work the more the human will is stirred up to think things through, to take free decisions, to develop chosen and hard-won habits of life and to put to death the sinful, and open apparently not freely chosen, habits of death. (164) 
True freedom is the gift of the spirit, the result of grace; but, precisely because it is freedom for as well as freedom from, it isn't simply a matter of being forced now to be good, against our wills and without our co-operation (what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-man out of the Pauline term synergism, 'working together with God'), but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing that one is doing it oneself and that the spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing what I am doing. (164) [He does caricaturize monergism here,but look at the last bit (emphasis added to it), which I consider the best summary of true, biblical synergism I have ever heard.]
From one point of view the spirit is at work, producing these fruits (Galatians 5.22f), and from another point of view the person concerned is making the free choices, the increasingly free (because increasingly less constrained by the sinful habits of mind and body) decisions to live a genuine, fully human life that brings pleasure—of course it does!—to the God in whose image we human beings were made. (167)
It is by the energy of the spirit, working in those who belong to the Messiah, that the new paradox comes about in which the Christian really does exercise moral free will and effort but at the same time ascribes this free activity to the spirit. (209) 
The more the spirit is at work in someone's life, the less they will even be thinking about their hard moral effort, their work for God's kingdom, as 'earning' anything or 'qualifying them for' anything, because the more they will be looking away from themselves and celebrating the unique triumph of the creator's love in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. (210)
I'll also let Paul speak for himself. In Galatians 5:16-26, after he exhorts the Galatians to stand firm for their freedom and resist circumcision, in order to love each other rather than serve the flesh:
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 
24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Of course there is much I could make of this passage, but it's plain that Paul sees the work of the Spirit (accompanying and leading us to the aforementioned freedom) as the key to dethrone the flesh from our lives. Again, another favorite passage, Romans 8:1-13 (with the end of 7 for context):
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. 
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Notice the close collaboration between Christ and the Spirit (it's almost as if they're part of the same Trinity) in verses 2-4, the mention of the "Spirit of Christ" in 9, and especially the conflation of Jesus' resurrection and the life-giving work of the Spirit in verse 11. Clearly, at the very least, you can't have one without the other. The Spirit transforms those in Christ to be like Christ. So let's stop treating human works, human effort, and human responsibility as a boogeyman and glimpse how, through His spirit, God uses and transforms them so that we will see they were His doing all along.

The role of the Spirit is crucial to articulating a better, less anemic theology of works than that of the Negative Gospel. I mentioned that Paul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews all use the analogy of a growing child to describe the growth of a Christian in faith and maturity. Jesus' insistence in John 3 on being born again can even be seen as a prelude to this: when we enter the community of believers, we are "born again" as spiritual infants, living on "spiritual milk" rather than solid food. In this rebirth, our old self is united with Jesus in His death (Rom 6:3-6) and our new self grows into the likeness of Jesus as part of His body, the church (Eph 4:15-16). Of course all this growth is the Spirit's doing even as it involves us.

So, through this simultaneous, concurrent action, God gives us a new heart that responds to Him, and so we willingly respond to His lead, just as He intended. God does get the glory, but it is the glory of a father watching his son take his first steps, rather than "depriving him of all share in the walk" by carrying him around indefinitely. We bring glory to our Father (not ourselves!) by growing into mature sons and daughters of His kingdom, rather than by effectively remaining sacks of flour in His arms or by burying our talent in the ground (Mat 25:24-25) and passively letting Him "take over". To anyone who would answer that such a synergistic view makes the Christian life dependent on human effort or gives us something to boast about before God, I charge that you don't understand the holy paradox (or mystery, if you will) that is the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

It flirts with a classic heresy

I couldn't find the right word to describe how the Negative Gospel, which so strongly deemphasizes the role we ourselves play pre or post-salvation, could affect the church. Then I remembered one: antinomianism. (Hint: "anti" = "against", "nomian" = "law") This article on antinomianism by Kevin DeYoung introduces a bit of its historical context, describing it thus:
The antinomian impulse was one which maintained that good works were not necessary for salvation, that God delights in all Christians in the same way, that God does not see sin in the believer, that the moral law is no longer binding for Christians, that law and gospel are diametrically opposed in every way, that to strive after holiness smacks of legalistic effort, that we should not speak of spiritual duties or spiritual progress, that the subject of spiritual activity is not the believer but Christ. Clearly, antinomianism was much more complicated and went much deeper than a simple indifference to sin.
He then quotes J.I. Packer, who offers some more insights into its perversion of the gospel (emphasis added):
The common ground is that those who live in Christ are wholly separated from every aspect of the pedagogy of the law. The freedom with which Christ has set us free, and the entire source of our ongoing peace and assurance, are based upon our knowledge that what Christ, as we say, enables us to do he actually does in us for himself.
So now we live, not by being forgiven our constant shortcomings, but by being out of the law’s bailiwick altogether; not by imitating Christ, the archetypal practitioner of holy obedience to God’s law, but by burrowing ever deeper into the joy of our free justification, and of our knowledge that Christ himself actually does in us all that his and our Father wants us to do.
Clearly most theologians would disagree with antinomianism's disregard for the moral law, but I can't see how many of these things are perversions of the gospel, at least not the Negative Gospel. "What Christ, as we say, enables us to do he actually does in us for himself"? "The subject of spiritual activity is not the believer but Christ"? "We live...upon our knowledge that Christ Himself actually does all in us all that his and our Father wants us to do"? I've heard statements that very close to these, from some fairly big-name theologians. Clearly there is no slippery slope to antinomianism, or at least little awareness of one as there is for "religion".

Is it really surprising that so much of evangelical Christianity struggles with antinomianism? This is exactly what I observed in the early church in my post on negative theology. Polarization leads to excesses of some things and absences of others. If you think of legalism and antinomianism as two extremes on a spectrum and try to get as far away from legalism as you can, where will you end up? The more the gospel is defined by its opposition to the Great Enemy of legalism/"religion", the more it will creep towards antinomianism. We strive against legalism so strenuously that we risk making it the new center of the gospel, rather than Jesus.

Conclusion/The need to dig deeper

I am now at risk of falling prey to the mistake I just pointed out—"doing theology" to deny what is false rather than to express what is true. Unfortunately, due to the breadth of my critique and the extent to which I have been immersed in these formulations of the gospel, there is a good deal of tearing down still left to do, and it will be a while before I get to doing more than scratching the surface of what the gospel is if not anti-legalism. I hope that I've managed to articulate some kind of a healthier theology of works along the way, because this post is eight single-spaced pages and doesn't need to be any longer.

First, I must proceed deeper and poke at the assumptions that give rise to the Negative Gospel. This will be the subject of the next post. For now I will tease you with the question: could Paul's statements of "justification by faith" be serving some purpose other than to say that we "get right with God" by faith alone, apart from works?

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