Theology of Works- Part II


I had written on about my own evolving personal “Theology of Works” in another post in response to the NYTimes’ article on Bart Campolo’s loss of faith and establishment of what some have called a “church of atheism”.  Today I continue those thoughts:

Someone critical of my approach to recovery (for herself, in particular) observed that Methodists “worship” John Wesley.  How obtuse can one’s vision and hearing be?  In an effort to not present things that I teach in a dogmatic way, I will often say….”John Wesley observed”…..or “John Wesley’s take on this is”….as opposed to other times when I say….”Scripture says”….or “in Jesus’ Words”…..Other times I will say…..”It’s been my own experience”… or “as I have observed in my own life and the lives of others”……  even “other denominations view this differently and here’s how”.    It is an attempt to be faithful in referencing sources accurately and trying to delineate for my discipleship students those things that are the ESSENTIALS of the Christian faith (which are those things held in common and generally acknowledged in the Apostle’s Creed)  The challenge becomes to define those ESSENTIALS  in one’s own belief system, as even some that I think of as ESSENTIAL, others may dismiss as NON-ESSENTIALS.

Collins observes that John Wesley’s practical divinity, his “axial theme” is displayed in the context of his order of salvation where it finds its outworking and its ongoing coherence.  In general that is the progression (and continuation) of PREVENIENT GRACE, JUSTIFYING GRACE (CONVERSION), SANCTIFYING GRACE (ONGOING WORK OF CONVERSION AND GROWTH IN RIGHTEOUSNESS), AND GLORIFICATION (AT DEATH).

Wesley also insisted that both growth in personal piety and in social piety (or acts of mercy) were evidenced in a life that was advancing in salvation and sanctification.

In reading Ken Collins’ book, “The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace”, I was keen to pursue further his quote from Albert Outler, noted Wesley historian who sought to systemize Wesley’s theology through his defining work on Wesley’s “quadrilateral” of Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience and thereby gain for Methodism greater respect among more intellectually-focused theological systems that disdain the experiential aspect of faith with which Wesley was quite comfortable.

Outler is quoted thus (parenthetical notes are my own): “It is easy for us to miss the originality of this Wesleyan view of faith alone and holy living held together.  Here was a great evangelist preaching up sola fide (faith alone) and at the same time, teaching his converts to go on to perfection (in living out perfect love through demonstration of one’s faith in practical, ordinary grace that came to be observed in the social, relational, dimension of Methodists’ lives both within their faith community and in the larger culture) and to expect it (perfection) in this life!  His critics were quick to notice this strange move and to seize upon it as proof of Wesley’s inconsistency.  Actually, it was yet another of Wesley’s characteristic “third alternative” – maybe his most original one.” ( Collins, p4)

This “third alternative” was the articulation of the “both/and” of faith and works, denying the “either/or” dichotomy of the two.  I believe this is why the book of James, which clearly expresses this “both/and” position for a faith that truly is lived out is precious to many of us who are thoroughly Wesleyan at heart.among

But my own “theology of works” arose not so much from Outler’s systemization of Wesley’s teaching or from the book of James alone, but from my own encounter with and challenge at the hands of the Psalmist’s words in Psalm 37:3-5.  My purpose at the time I encountered the truth of how these two seemingly divergent theological modes – faith and good works- operate was to focus on the element of “trust”.

Psalm 37: 3-5

“Trust in the Lord and do good and you shall dwell securely in the land.  Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Trust in him, commit your way to him, and he will act on your behalf.”

I was focused at the time on discerning the necessity of trusting God, even when I could not see what God was doing in the midst of circumstances.  That was in 2002 as I prepared to lead an Emmaus Walk and was exploring the theme of “trust” for that Walk.

In more recent years, I have thought about that Scripture often.  I even reference it as being among the two or three most important of the “life verses” that inform my faith and express my heartfelt personal theology, ecclesiology, and ministry calling.

“Trust in the Lord AND do good.”  As I am considering once again the influence of Wesley on my own faith and practice in response to this young lady’s accusing and dismissive observation that “Methodists worship John Wesley” (and who quickly removed herself from our program as she found my teaching of the necessity of faith AND “works” incompatible with her desire to simply believe in Jesus and live as she wished to not be her cup of tea.)

As I was reflecting on Ken Collins’ book, it occurred to me that it is our faith in Christ, our justification, our orthodoxy, that ushers us into the kingdom of heaven; but it is by the working out of that faith through our sanctification, which in time that leads to orthopraxy, to “good works” and behavior consistent with Christlikeness (and the correct motivation that underlies them) by which the kingdom of heaven is ushered into the earth.   We become a part of eternity with Christ the moment we believe in him.   Additionally, the eternal things of heaven….the Love of God and all the ways in which it is manifested through us….begin to be a part of our eternal lives IN THE HERE AND NOW, not just when we arrive at the gates of Heaven, as we begin to be transformed into the likeness of Christ in this realm.

The first work, justification, moves us into the kingdom by the imputed righteousness of Christ to us.  The second work, sanctification and the increasing evidence of the fruit of the Spirit within us, moves the kingdom into us through the imparted righteousness of Christ. Imputed righteousness is a gift that is put upon us by God, like a drape over our lives that covers us and gives us the righteous mantle of Christ from God’s perspective.  The imparted righteousness is also a gift, but it works from within as a function of the Holy Spirit’s activity in us, transforming us from the inside out so that we don’t just have the mantle of Christ’s righteousness bestowed upon  us, but we have the working out of Christ’s righteousness, his spiritual DNA regenerating our spirit and soul.   Isaiah alluded to this duality of righteousness in Is. 1:18 when he said, “though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow (a covering that gives the appearance of purity and cleanliness to the landscape);  though they be red, like crimson, they shall be as wool (the very nature of which is white, not just a covering over it.)

Jesus’ prayer model for the disciples, “….thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”  was not simply a reference to our yearning for the end-time coming of the kingdom of God when he would  reign over a renewed earth after some great apocalyptic tribulation.  It was Jesus’ expression of his desire to see his disciples, whose presence with him in that “other place” to which he was going to prepare a place for them was already assured, but to see them learn to live out the values and relationships of that “other place” between themselves and God, among themselves, and between themselves and their unsaved neighbors and even with their enemies here and now.  “Thy kingdom come.”  Here. Now.  In me.  Through me. To others.

The order of salvation is significant.  The assurance of our faith in Christ that comes as we grow in grace through it is also a gift which we, as children of God, should enjoy and delight in.  That assurance and our gratitude for Christ’s work for and in us becomes the foundation on which the motivation for our good works rests.  To try to leverage individuals into the kingdom of heaven by teaching them to “do good”….by trusting that in doing good they will come to encounter the Source of all Good and will be saved is just counter to Scripture, counter to Wesleyan theology, counter to my own experience, and counter to the way in which I have come to understand salvation and perfection of love…imputed precedes imparted.  Always. It’s clear in Isaiah 1.  It’s clear in James, it’s clear in the Beatitudes.  It’s clear everywhere that one chooses to look.  If one wishes to deny the imperative of trusting in Christ for salvation and instead simply wishes to rely upon  “doing good”, the trustworthiness of the good works is unreliable.  It is like “filthy rags.”  The forsaking of faith in Christ by Bart Campolo, as I wrote about earlier, and his new community church of atheism is the result of not understanding that the former is the foundation for the latter.  We can’t “work” ourselves into faith. But true, vital, living faith will naturally evolve into good works that arise from gratitude and a desire to serve others as Christ exemplified for us.   Others can exemplify “good works” alone and hope that people will come to see Christ through it.  but simply relying on “good works” instead of profession of faith in Christ, is not, as Bart Campolo came to honestly profess, not Christianity.

It was this very theology of the role of works that I debated with Bart’s father, Tony Campolo twenty years ago as he expressed an opinion in a periodical that by urging people to good works, “social justice” or “works of mercy”, as the progressive left has preferred to call it, one can move the culture toward a Christian worldview and ethic and even to faith in Christ.   It has never been so, it is not now, and it will never be.  It is a sad counterfeit for true faith.  God has spoken it through his Word to us, it is by faith in Christ alone that we are saved in order that we might do the good works for which he has prepared us.

When a young woman says that “serving others is a joy for her”  yet she shows no recognition of her sin against God or others, has no repentance for her violation of civil and moral law in having used drugs for a year, having driven under the influence, having stolen them through her career in the healthcare field, expresses the opinion that her year of hardcore drug use was the best year she’d ever known, exalts her track marks and her 5 months of jail and rehab-enforced sobriety now as proof of her conversaion and her relationship with Christ,  insists that she is a “good person”,  judges others within the church for their failures and points to their hypocrisy,  and resists any instruction on humility, her view of the order of salvation is clearly backwards.  She is “doing good works”, believes in justice, is compassionate and serves the poor and sick……. She just doesn’t see that she’s not truly saved.  She’s deceived.  And she’s attempting to deceive others.  Her motive for her “good works” is to feel good about herself, to justify herself.

Just like the rich young ruler who believed that he was succeeding in keeping all of the law, but still needed to know how he could enter the kingdom of heaven, she wasn’t willing to set aside the things that made her feel good about herself, surrender to the will of God and follow Christ.

And so it goes.   Some are ready for the truth.  Others prefer to enjoy their own subjective version of the truth, relying only upon their own experience and reason, failing to examine the example of the apostles and faithful believers through the centuries, and certainly not embracing the spirit of the Word of God.  Though the letter of the Law may be on their tongue, the Spirit of the Word does not appear to reside in their hearts and is not evident in their fruit.

This personal theology of the role of “works” is settling much more comfortably in my spirit as I read Ken Collins work on The Theology of John Wesley.  I intend to go back and re-read some of Outler’s historical work on John Wesley and explore further the genius of Wesley’s theology and how he, in fact, used all four criteria to discern truth- Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience- and how we can do the same.