Christ’s Saving Work as the Foundation of the New Life

July 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

“But when the truth rose, like the sun, from the earth for those who sate in darkness and shadow of falsehood, then righteousness stooped down from heaven and, for the first time, appear to men in its reality and perfection.  We were justified, first by being set free from bonds and condemnation , in that He who had done no evil pleaded for us by dying on the cross.  By this He paid the penalty for the sins we had audaciously committed; then, because of that death, we were made friends of God and righteous.  By His death the Savior not only released us and reconciled us to the Father, but also ‘gave us power to become children of God’ (John 1:12), in that He both united our nature to Himself through the flesh which He assumed, and also united each one of us to His own flesh by the power of the Mysteries.  In this way, the, He makes His own righteousness and life to rise, like the sun, in our souls.  Thus it becomes possible for men, by means of the sacred Mysteries, both to know true righteousness and themselves practice it” (Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 53-54; emphasis mine).

Forgiveness as the Life of Christ

September 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

“…This life of forgiveness, which is nothing other than the life of Christ within us, is our inheritance in the faith. The life of blame, recrimination, bitterness, anger, revenge and the like are not the life of Christ, but simply the raging of our own egos, the false self which we exalt over our true life which is “hid with Christ in God.”

The rightness of a cause or the correctness of our judgment do not justify nor change the nature of our ragings. For none of us can stand before God and be justified – except as we give ourselves to the life of Christ, who is our only righteousness.

The question of forgiveness is not a moral issue. We do not forgive because it is the “correct” thing to do. We forgive because it is the true nature of the life in Christ….In the same manner, the refusal to forgive, the continuation of blame, recrimination, bitterness, etc., are not moral failings. They are existential crises – drawing us away from the life of Christ and Paradise, and ever deeper into an abyss of non-being…”

HT: Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fear Not

April 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

What do I fear?  Lots of things I suppose, depending on the season of life and the circumstances I find myself facing.  I fear looking bad when I lead a meeting or have to give a presentation.  I fear not being able to make enough money to provide for my family.  I fear that maybe my faith isn’t authentic or that the God I embrace isn’t true.  None of these is overwhelming, though the one that’s probably the most real is the fear of financial provision—what if I lose my job and can’t find another good job?  What if I have to work for half of what I make now?  What if I have to take a manual labor job?  I don’t want to do such things and I pray for God’s mercy that I won’t be placed is such situations.

During the Lenten season, which is penitential by nature, the hymns of the Church focus on how we have turned away from God and squandered our rich heritage.  Now while not being literally true (all of the time), all of us, to some degree or another, has turned away from God.  We don’t love God was we should.  We don’t walk in peace and trust.  We don’t believe the Word of God.  We don’t love our neighbor as God desires.  We don’t pick up our cross and follow Christ passionately.  In short, we have wandered from God’s original intent and design for humanity.  Someone once said that the most repeated command in Scripture is ‘fear not.’  If this is true, then fear is certainly a result of our separation from God and never meant to be a part of God’s original vocabulary.  By the grace of God he has shown us the path to wholeness by becoming Wholeness himself.  Let us not fear the One who faced—and conquered—the greatest of all fears: death itself.  Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through His Son, amen.

On Repentance

March 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Justification in the New Testament does not mean a transaction – a kind of deal; and repentance defies mechanical definition. It is a continual enactment of freedom, a movement forward, deriving from renewed choice and leading to restoration. The aim of the Christian is not even justification but a re-entry by sinner and saint alike into communion in which God and man meet once again and personal experience of divine life becomes possible. Both prodigal and saint are “repenting sinners.”

Repentance is not to be confused with mere remorse, with a self-regarding feeling of being sorry for a wrong done. It is not a state but a stage, a beginning. Rather, it is an invitation to new life, an opening up of new horizons, the gaining of a new vision. Christianity testifies that the past can be undone. It knows the mystery of obliterating or rather renewing memory, of forgiveness and regenera­tion, eschewing the fixed division between the “good” and the “wicked,” the pious and the rebellious, the believers and the unbelievers. Indeed, “the last” can be “the first,” the sin­ner can reach out to holiness. Passions are conquered by stronger passions; love is overcome by more abundant love. One repents not because one is virtuous, but because human nature can change, because what is impossible for man is possible for God. The motive for repentance is at all times humility, unself-sufficiency – not a means of justification for oneself, or of realizing some abstract idea of goodness, or of receiving a reward in some future life. Just as the strength of God is revealed in the extreme vulnerability of His Son on the Cross, so also the greatest strength of man is to embrace his weakness: “for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I render glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12.9). To be flawed is the illogical, perhaps supernatural characteristic of humanity in which one en­counters God.”

Read the entire article on Repentance and Confession – An Introduction

Augustine and the Varieties of Monergism

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Synergism is just a Greek way of saying “co-operation,” which in turn is just a Latin way of saying “working together.” Paul uses the corresponding Greek verb when he describes himself and his colleagues as “co-working” (2 Cor. 6:1) with God as ambassadors for Christ, through whom God urges people to be reconciled to himself (ibid., 5:20). Monergism, a much more recent term, means to work alone, having no co-worker. So monergists are those who think that in some respect God works alone.

The crucial question is: in what respect? The standard Protestant view is monergism with respect to justification: God alone renders us just or righteous in his sight, without our co-operation. But most Protestants would add that sanctification is a co-operative enterprise in which our will and work have a necessary role to play, working together with the grace of God. So most Protestants are monergists about justification but synergists about sanctification. And since justification by faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation, most Protestants are also monergists about salvation.

Of course in order to be thoroughly monergist about justification one must also be monergist about the faith by which we are justified, understanding it to be a divine gift resulting from grace alone and not from human work. Luther, in effect, insisted on this type of monergism when he excoriated the medieval nominalist notion of “congruent merit,” according to which sinners work to acquire the gift of “first grace” (meaning roughly, the gift of conversion and true faith) by praying as well as they can, trying their best to “do what is in them” (facere quod in se est) even without grace. The term “synergism” seems to have come into use for the position rejected by the Lutheran orthodox theologians when they reaffirmed Luther’s doctrine in the Book of Concord in 1580 (see especially article 2). Later, Calvinists used it to describe the Arminian position that our free will has an independent role to play in accepting the gift of grace. Synergism, for both Lutherans and Calvinists, means the teaching that grace does not simply cause us to have faith, but rather makes an offer of salvation which it is up to us to accept or reject. Both Lutherans and Calvinists reject this synergism, and thus can aptly be labeled monergists with respect to the gift of faith.

The question of whether Augustine is a monergist or a synergist is more complicated. For one thing, even at his most monergistic, Augustine does not deny that we are active in our own salvation. Augustine is a monergist with respect to the origin of faith, for instance, in that he sees it as resulting from prevenient or “operating grace” rather than “co-operating grace” (his terms). But for Augustine this does not take away the role of human free will, for what prevenient grace does is precisely to move our wills so that they freely will the good. Hence for Augustine grace never undermines or replaces free will. In that sense he is never a radical monergist, as if the human will had no active role to play. On the other hand, he is indeed a monergist in a less radical sense, because for him the gift of faith is wholly the work of God, since even our freely willing to accept God’s gift is a work of grace alone.

So in that sense, Augustine is clearly a monergist with respect to the gift of faith, unlike the Arminians. Ultimately it is up to God, not us, whether we freely choose to accept what God has to give us. However—and here is the real complication—this does not make Augustine a monergist with respect to salvation. The reason why is that Augustine does not have a Calvinist concept of saving faith. For he does not share Calvin’s distinctive new doctrine about the perseverance of the saints, according to which everyone with true (i.e., saving) faith is sure to persevere to the end and be eternally saved. For Augustine, you can have a perfectly genuine faith but not persevere in faith to the end of your life. There is no guarantee that believers will not lose their faith and thus ultimately be damned. Hence no matter how true your faith presently is, that does not mean you are sure to be saved in the end. Consequently, Augustine’s monergism about faith does not make him a monergist about salvation.

About salvation Augustine is a synergist, explicitly drawing a contrast between “operating grace” (i.e., the grace that works in us), which is monergistic in its granting the gift of faith, and co-operating grace (i.e., the grace that works with us), with which we are co-workers in the journey of faith, hope and love by which we come to eternal life in the end. In Calvinist terms, Augustine is a synergist about sanctification like most Protestants, but because he thinks sanctification is necessary for salvation unlike most Protestants, he ends up being also a synergist about salvation—despite being a monergist about faith.

A good illustration of Augustine’s distinction between operative and co-operative grace is the late treatise On Grace and Free Will, 33. Addressing the issue of how a person comes to love God (in Calvinist terms, the issue of sanctification rather than justification) he asks, “Who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will and perfects by his co-operation [synergism!] what He initiates by his operation [monergism]? For in beginning [i.e. in the initial choice to have faith, from which charity springs] He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will.” In Augustinian terms: prior to any co-operation of our will, operative grace produces faith (i.e., a good will) in us, then from faith springs charity, which works together with the (co-operating) grace of God in the journey to eternal life. In Calvinist terms, again, this amounts to monergism about faith, but synergism about salvation.

However, as I mentioned above, there is a radical sense of the term monergism in which Augustine is not a monergist at all. This is the sense in which “grace alone” excludes any exercise of human free will, even one which is wholly a gift of prevenient grace. One reason often given for this radical monergism is a yet more fundamental monergism—call it “absolute monergism”—in which the answer to the question “monergism with respect to what?” is: “absolutely everything.” This amounts to a denial of the existence of what the Christian tradition calls second causes. It means that only God, the First Cause, has real power, and that neither human free will nor anything else in creatures is a real cause of anything that happens.

This absolute monergism could thus also be called “mono-causalism.” It is contrary not only to Augustine and the whole Catholic tradition, but also to the Westminster Confession, which teaches that the eternal decree of God by which he does “ordain whatsoever comes to pass” works in such a way that “neither is God the author of sin … nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1; cf. also 5.2). The point of this teaching, which is couched in the language of Thomas Aquinas and agrees with his doctrine, is that God’s working in all things does not mean that creatures have no power to work, but rather that the creatures’ power, will and work derive from the work of God, and precisely for that reason are real, just like all God’s works. God’s primary causality therefore does not undermine or replace the secondary causality of creatures, including their free will. God has ambassadors, apostles and other servants with a will of their own and work to do, even while he is always indispensably at work in them. The two forms of causality are not incompatible or in competition with one another.

Mainstream Calvinism is thus at one with Catholicism in rejecting absolute monergism. The place to locate the difference between Catholicism and Calvinism concerning monergism is rather in the fact that the whole Roman Catholic tradition since Augustine is synergist about salvation. For Catholicism our works of love (made possible by operative grace in the beginning and aided by co-operative grace throughout) are necessary for salvation. That’s precisely the purport of Trent’s denial of the sola fide: faith alone is not enough for salvation without works of love (Decree on Justification, articles 10-11).

However, there is a division within Catholicism on the point about monergism with respect to faith. Whereas one important strand of Catholic theology, including Aquinas and the Dominican tradition, promotes an Augustinian monergism about faith, another strand, most powerfully represented by the 16th-century Jesuit Luis de Molina, defends a form of synergism about faith. Molinism is thus something like the Catholic form of Arminianism. In the De Auxiliis controversy around 1600, the Pope adjudicated between these two positions, decreeing that both were legitimate and neither side could accuse the other of heresy. This was of course not a relativist move: the two positions are probably irreconcilable, and if so then at least one of them is in error in some way. But the pope’s decree meant that such error is not heresy and does no harm to the faith, so the debate may continue but must do so in mutually respectful terms.

There is of course no one on earth to adjudicate between Catholics and Protestants. But perhaps it will help to be aware, at least, of the difference between absolute monergism and the more modest monergism about faith, justification and salvation which is the legacy of Luther and Calvin.

(Originally published 31 October 2006)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University.

HT: Pontifications

Book Review: Think-the Life of the Mind and the Love of God (John Piper)

November 13, 2010 § 3 Comments

Big Idea

Rigorous thinking fuels worship of God and service to our neighbor when offered in a spirit of humility.  Or in the words of John Piper: “The aim of this book is to encourage serious, faithful, humble thinking that leads to the true knowledge of God, which leads to loving him, which overflows in loving others” (20).

Summary

In all of John Piper’s preaching and writing he strives—with a contagious passion—to unfold and make known the glory of God in whatever context.  In Think: the Life of the Mind and the Love of God Pastor Piper does not deviate from such a platform and does not disappoint in his exhortation and plea that we use our minds to glorify and love God, and love our fellow human beings in the process.

The salvation accomplished and delivered by Jesus Christ seeks to leave no area of creation untouched and unchanged—including our minds.  To love God is to love Him with all our soul, strength, and mind.  To use our minds in the service of God and others is no exercise in passivity.  Rather, we use whatever intellectual ability that God has given us in service to Him and others.  We think hard, we study, we learn from others, we posture ourselves before God and others in child-like humility knowing that whatever learning skills we have ultimately come as a gift from God: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it” (I Cor 4:7).  Piper also dispels the myth that the life of the mind equates to a sterile and passionless faith:

“Thinking is indispensable on the path to passion for God.  Thinking is not an end to itself. Nothing but God is finally an end in itself.  Thinking is not the goal of life.  Thinking, like non-thinking, can be the ground for boasting.  Thinking without prayer, without the Holy Spirit, without obedience, without love, will puff up and destroy (I Cor. 8:1).  But thinking under the mighty hand of God, thinking soaked in prayer, thinking carried by the Holy Spirit, thinking tethered to the Bible, thinking in pursuit of more reasons to praise and proclaim the glories of God, thinking in the service of love–such thinking is indispensable in the life of fullest praise to God” (27)

Piper lists two major challenges to the life of the mind (within and outside the church): relativism and anti-intellectualism.  Chapter eight is devoted to the exposition of seven destructive traits of relativism, but the common thread that runs through all seven is the sin of pride and our desire to define and manipulate the truth, rather than submit to God’s revelation: “The only way pride can be conquered in us is for us to believe the Truth and be conquered by it so it rules us and we don’t rule it” (113).  Anti-intellectualism has plagued Christianity off and on throughout its inception, and the twenty-first century is no different.  There are still those who seek to exalt subjective experience above intellectual endeavor.  It is certainly true that intellectual activity can become dry and lifeless if not approached with the proper posture, but the remedy to hardened intellectualism is not anti-intellectualism but instead “humble, faithful, prayerful, Spirit-dependent rigorous thinking” (123).

Pastor Piper concludes Think with a plea to both thinkers and non-thinkers.  First, to the non-thinkers: 1) be thankful for those who think, 2) respect those who serve the Church with their minds, 3) pray for those who think so they do not become vulnerable to false ideas and go astray,  4) avoid wrongheaded thinking, and finally 5) read your bible with joy (179-181).  Second, to the thinkers: 1) think purposefully for the glory of Jesus Christ, 2) be wise, but be humble like children, 3) enjoy the Word of God like gold and honey, and 4) think for the sake of love towards God and others (181-184).

Finally, several times throughout the book Piper stresses the point that unless we take initiative and seek God’s knowledge, we will not find it.  We need to be intentional in how we use our mind, and it’s in the very activity of thinking that God meets us and grants understanding.  We seek God through His Word and He enlightens our hearts and minds.  A Christian should never think that passivity towards God is the way to intellectual understanding: “We think, and the Lord gives understanding.  We seek it like silver; the Lord gives it.  Not either-or.  Both-and.  Our thinking does not replace God’s grace.  It is the gift of grace and the pathway to more and more” (184).

Evaluation

John Piper writes about the life of the mind with a gritty passion that is infectious.  The call to love God with rigorous thinking is spot on and deeply needed if Christians are going to faithfully communicate the gospel and answer objections to the Christian faith in the 21st century.  In so far as Pastor Piper inspires Christians of all backgrounds to use whatever intellectual horsepower God has given us to achieve such objectives, we should be thankful for such a book.

Criticisms of the book are relatively minor (as it relates to the theme of thinking and using our minds for God).  Anyone familiar with John Piper’s writings will realize he is a staunch Calvinist and this theological bias shows throughout the book.  (For example, Piper defines justification in narrow, Reformational terms: “The only kind of faith that matters in the end is saving faith—the faith that unites us to Christ so that his righteousness is counted as ours in justification” (68).)  Also, Piper has a low view of ecclesiology which is illustrated when he says “the bible is our only reliable access to knowing Jesus truly” (80).  Those of the Ancient Faith (i.e. Orthodox and Roman Catholics) would see this as a truncated understanding since access and knowledge of Jesus Christ comes not only through scripture, but also through our participation in the Church.  It is the Church (and its sacraments) that connects us to the reality of the Holy Trinity.  These minor criticisms, however, should not dampen one’s enthusiasm to read, think about, and internalize the message of Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God.  Highly recommended.

Orthodoxy on Justification

November 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

“In Western theology we often see a distinction being made between justification and sanctification.  And one feels that we are dealing here with two separate stages which are clearly distinguished from each other.  Justification is considered the first stage, the starting point, after which follows the second stage, sanctification.  I maintain that in Orthodox theology the matter is placed on a different basis.  What is stressed in not the distinction between justification and sanctification, but the dynamic character of justification.  It is this very dynamism of justification which constitutes sanctification.  Thus, man can become an infinite being with immense potentialities opening before him.  Through baptism he puts on Christ; that is to say, he participate in the justification which Christ himself created, while finding the way open for him to raise himself ‘unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:23).  Justification is a given fact, but at the same time it is a reality towards which man continuously advances.  It is, in the final analysis, the process towards the unending end of perfection” (69, Constantine B. Scouteris; “Church and Justification” found in Ecclesial Being: Contributions to Theological Dialogue).

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