Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On Prescription a.k.a., "Don't Tell Me What To Do!" (the first photo below features the lovely Deirdre, as seen in the Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.)

My friend Will (author of the White Hall blog) recently raised the following question about Prescription:

"Also: what's the problem with something's being prescribed? Jesus prescribed all kinds of things. Preach the gospel, go in peace, sin no more, baptize, make disciples, fear not, do this, etc. etc. etc."

Here's my attempt at answering this question:

Dear Will,

the short answer to your question on prescription usually runs along the following lines: Prescription does not provide a method for bringing about the thing it requires, but, rather (to quote Romans 7) it "increases the trespass," "making sin utterly sinful". It tells the car where to go, but it doesn't put any gas in the tank.

Where there is prescription, there immediately comes the opposite of the thing the prescription intended, and this is what it means for the will to be bound. Knowing better does not equal doing better according to Paul (foolishness to the Greeks), and, if anything, it increases the doing of worse, or, at a minimum, puts the doing of "worse" into the perspective of not being as good as the standard fulfilled.

So the Law (as prescription) brings rebellion and penitance. Paul calls this "the proper use of the law" in 1 Timothy 1: 8, 9. Jesus further clarifies the law in the Sermon on the Mount in his antitheses, by showing that prescription exposes an impossible angling of the heart, one that mere behavioral adherence cannot meet the standard of (i.e., suddenly adultery is not a behavior, but a motive, etc. That portion of the Sermon on the Mount climaxes with: be ye perfect therefore as your Father in heaven is perfect -- good luck!) -- This exact issue is currently being discussed on in the thread under the post called "An Insight from Jeff Dean"; it's a far from settled hermeneutical matter, but what I describing here is the basic sort of Luther 101 position on the matter. I hope those of you who are sympathetic to such a read, can help me to tighten this us if you think I've gone far astray here. Adherants of this position tend to think the bible must be interpreted and/or read through the lens of the Cross if sense is to be made of its text. You get the drift.

Anway, as a result of this awful conundrum known as the human condition post-Fall,...(drum roll) "thanks be to Jesus Christ" who died to on the behalf of us sinners who know ourselves as sinners in light of the fact that we cannot set the record straight in the way the Law demands through our own efforts (i.e., works based righteousness), and God cannot commune with anything less. According to this view, prescription is always basically a big set-up for "repent and believe the Gospel".

If Jesus' command, and any other commandments in the Bible (especially given the nature of human reception of any kind of command as illuminated by Paul in Romans 7 famously) could simply be followed in the way that their imperative nature requires, then why did Jesus have to die, and so brutally at that? In what sense is Grace really grace, and forgiveness really forgiveness and mercy really mercy and love really love if those qualities are not a response to something that requires them? In the same vein, tolerance and love are obviously not the same thing.

Furthermore, if the law can be fulfilled by us, then the Bible often starts to be interpreted as a rule book of some sort, a ladder for us to climb (rather than the story of one who came down and then climbed up on our behalf while we were busy doing our own thing).

Obviously, for those who buy into this read of prescription, the implications are pretty major for how you come to understand the Christian life; the Gospel has to do with a lot more than just conversion, it also has to do with sanctification. Salvation and sanctification become seemingly identical in the view of some. The message one preaches to the Christian is no different than the message one preaches to the non-Christian.

Some Christians try to draw different distinctions as to just how far-reaching the implications of this understanding travel. Does this relationship to the Law altar at the point of conversion? Calvin says yes. Most Christians say yes. Luther appears (at least in his notable Commentary on Galatians, which is the thing that Wesley was listening to when his heart was "strangely warmed") to basically say "No", though that's been well disputed. W. Elert argues strongly against any other interpretation of Luther, and makes for a pretty fun read. My favorite, shared by many, is Gerhard Forde's "On Being a Theologian of the Cross". It is short and really worth reading. I can't plug it enough. Others try to draw lines between different kinds of prescription, that some can be adhered to, while others can't. It's basically the history of Protestant denominational break-down.

The most commonly lobbed criticism of this view that Prescription only works in this strange back-handed manner is "antinomianism", which suggests that being set free from the Law's prescriptive quality through Christ's Cross results in dangerous anarchic freedom, and of the most immoral kind at that. This criticism was not stranger to Paul himself: "Should we sin more that grace may abound?"

For what it's worth, no Lutheran accepts this charge of anti-nomianism ("Certainly not!"), and there are many important and note-worthy arguments, Scriptural verses and passages, plus experiences and testimonies that suggest anti-nomian behavior is not a necessary consequence of such an understanding of the Cross in its relationship to the Law. Some even suggest that such anti-nomian behavior is an impossibility given the profound, heart-changing nature of Grace, that, to the extent it has sunk in, nothing but fruit can be born of it.

It is indeed the case that, to go all the way with such an interpretation of the Gospel is pretty radical; it puts a lot onto the shoulders of Jesus for sure! My father's tag line is: "Low Anthropology, High Christology". Personally, my leanings go pretty much all the way with this one, to the displeasure of many perhaps. Christians seem often to hate this understanding of Christianity. Non-Christians (to the extent they identify with the Prodigal son) tend to love it (i.e., it's irresistable)!

For what it's worth, I think Cranmer bought this view pretty whole-heartedly and my favorite Articles 9, 10, and 11 epitomize this type of thinking. They are especially note-worthy b/c they mention "sin that persists in the regenerate" in almost back-to-back succession with a will that is bound (i.e., not free), and justification by faith in Christ.

Obviously the whole issue gets me pretty excited. But I do hope this helps to lay out the "prescription" matter (as many like me see it anyway) in fairly clear terms.

Guess this isn't such a short answer after all. Maybe I'll post it. Yeah, I think I will, Will. Thanks for asking.

Best, JZ


Dylan Potter said...


You have articulated the point clearly and with great insight. I think that some Christians would accept the low anthropology idea as something which pertains to the unregenerate. However, one thing your dad has helped many of us at TESM to realize is that this same anthropology applies even to Christians. Trust me folks, when you enter parish ministry, you will either accept this, or you will want to quit because you see so many inconsistencies in yourself and the parishioners. Seriously.

I think Simeon wrote a great little piece on the apostle Peter that disarmingly speaks of this issue in a way that those who still cling to a theology of glory may appreciate.

bonnie said...

John, you MUST tell Deirdre to behave.

John Zahl said...

For those wanting to read Simeon's (infamous) talk on "The Peter Principle", you can find it at the following url address:

It's great!, though I like his talk on "the Nazareth principle" even more. I'll try to find that one and post it at some point too.

100, JZ

Anonymous said...

Great talk by Simeon---I love how he fleshed out the chronic nature of Peter's screwed-up-ness.
(but JZ,why was this an "infamous" talk?)
I also think it was such a great point to make toward the end, in naming 2 REAL issues of suffering/sin-sickness, i.e., sexuality and body image. In my experience of small group sharing with people who are willing to pray for real things, these 2 issues come up over and over again. Ministers always use examples of addiction, gossip, lying, etc. (all of which are very real and prevalent but not necessarily the ones that have your eyes clicking in the darkness at 3 AM) The 2 particulars of sexual sin (more with men) and body image (more women) were refreshing little kernels to find in this talk.
An excellent and thought provoking article.
(Although, perhaps, come to think of it, unfortunately titled)

Eric Cadin said...

John, your post is very well done indeed. I think that your shortest paragraph had to most to "say" Could you, or anyone else "unpack" exactly what is meant, implied, refered to within:

"Furthermore, if the law can be fulfilled by us, then the Bible often starts to be interpreted as a rule book of some sort, a ladder for us to climb (rather than the story of one who came down and then climbed up on our behalf while we were busy doing our own thing)."

Particularly the section in parenthesis. That we can't do much I get.


John Zahl said...


I think Dave Browder's post at the following link relates to your question about that particular paragraph. "The Holbein Moment" by Dave Browder

p.s., Does anyone else have a response to Eric regarding my meaning in the paragraph he cites?

In brief, to state it another way: We are saved by works, just not our own (i.e., by Christ's works).


bpzahl said...

While we were (existentially) sitting on our asses and unable to save ourselves from God's wrath, God came down to us in Jesus Christ, and climbed up on the cross on our behalf so that He was nailed (in our place) for ALL our sins. While that was happenning we were still crying out, "We want Barrabas!" We chose the sinful man over the sinless man (that's _my_ idea of "free" will).

Which makes grace ALL the more wonderful - Jesus died for us SO (causation) that we can be ever-righteous in God's eyes.

We were having that whole discussion about Limited Atonement, and I just don't see how that is different to the view that now that we're Christians, we now need to help save our own asses (i.e. cooperate with God). To say that now we have to be existentially responsible for our sins sounds (to me) like Christ's atonement was limited to those sins from the past, and not sins from now.

Lastly, I still don't buy the argument that our wills are now fully fixed and that we have the potential to do (out of our free will) everything God asks us to do. _I_ didn't want to go to Harvard; I wanted to go back to be a missionary in Kosovo! But God made it hard to turn down: I was given a scholarship. Same with (eventually) marrying Simeon. _I_ didn't want to move to England. I wanted to marry someone from Hong Kong! But God also made it hard to turn down: I fell in love! In either of those cases I didn't WANT to do what God told me to do. So the fact that it all worked out wonderfully is all because of God.

Basically, Jesus asks us to take up the Cross and follow him. How many of us actually _WANT_ to take up a cross and be nailed on it? Not me. But I have to - so God does it when I'm not looking (blind spot!) Now I live in England. That's how I know free will doesn't exist; I wouldn't have chosen to live in England!

John Zahl said...

Go Bonnie! (That's my sistah, y'all!)

simeon zahl said...

Amen, Bonnie!

Also, relevant verse to Eric's question:

"No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:13-15).

Nick Lannon said...

Eric, Romans 5 is the cleanest distillation of the "he climbed down" stuff that JZ is talking about. "While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (v6)." "...While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (v8)" That's Christ climbing down the ladder, when our attentions were completely focused elsewhere, i.e. our practicing at ungodliness and sin, and indeed, continuting to do so, as our attentions are STILL focused on these things. The climbing up the ladder on our behalf is the next verse: "Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood..." Justified, in this discussion, is being at the top of the ladder, with God. It's the blood of Christ that gets us there, because, as Dylan and Bonnie so clearly point out, on our own, we continue to be focused on the bottom of the ladder, rather than the top!


Tom Becker said...

Great thread. Loved your comments Bonnie. I heard it said once that most of the major world religions build staircases to heaven that we must ascned (through obidence, ritual, denial of worldly things, etc. . .), but only in Chrisitanty does God come down. Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Some more scripture:

John 1: 50 Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that." 51 He then added, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Gen 28:10-15: 10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

mattie said...

Hi all -

The scriptures cited above are useful for explanation, but they don't really speak to the position that Eric and I maintain. Yes, "while we were" sinners, sinful, dying, horrible awful creatures, Christ died for us. We don't dispute this!

But keep reading Romans! For example, 5:10 "we were (past tense) reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved (i'm bad at grammar, but that's something like future imperative?) by his life."

And, moreover, this ties into 6:11-12: "As to his death (Jesus), he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as (being) dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus."

We are "dead to sin" and "living for God" so I don't think that it's fair to say that we are still "focused on the bottom of the ladder."

It seems to me that it is the blood of Christ that justifies, but Paul says it is also the life of Christ (then, now, and forever) that saves.

Last, Bonnie, Eric & I aren't saying that our wills are "totally fixed," we still sin. But Christ's life and death change the standards and the outcome. Our wills, in Christ, are capable of choosing good. Unfortunately, we just choose evil too often. Through love and grace, Christ teaches us to conform to his will.

Also, you might not want to live in England, but you want to live with Simeon, so you made a choice. No one forced you to move there; you chose between two desires/goods. That is Christian discernment, not bonded will :)


Anonymous said...

Was Bonnie's use of the word "asses" in any way related to the "End Times" picture on this post?

Signed, Just Wondering

eve said...

But, Mattie, WHY do we "choose evil" too often?
It seems to me that the only reason people defend free will, is because they want credit for the times when they "choose" good.
We have no righteousness of our own. Not one bit, not even a teensy, weensy, eensy, little bit, because as soon as we "choose good" or "do good" it is irrevocably tainted by our self-righteousness (however miniscule).

And I think Bonnie's illustration is a good one...yes, she moved, but she didn't CHOOSE to love Simeon and I would say it's the love that caused her to move, not the "Christian discernment." Christian discernment might have led her to conclude that she could do more "good" for the Kingdom, by working in Kosovo---but she didn't have the free will to not love Simeon.

father wb said...

Team --

Impetuously, I commented on the old thread (or whatever you call it). Here is what I said. With a caveat -- namely: I once heard some physicist talking about the images / metaphors in a physicist's head that helps him to understand abstractions of physics (e.g. images of balls floating around and interacting with one another, etc.). I think the same is true of theology. Everybody, I reckon, has some set of metaphors and conceits that help him to understand the gospel (and theology), and without which metaphors humans, psychologically, can't really operate.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is I some of us have different images in our heads than others. One image you used, JZ, that resonates with me is of the Bible as "a ladder for us to climb (rather than the story of one who came down and then climbed up on our behalf while we were busy doing our own thing)."

[A famous example of the deployment of the metaphor of climbing as helpful in translating theological conceits is St. Greg. Nys.'s "Life of Moses" wherein Moses' ascent of Sinai is a depiction of the soul's ascent toward God.]

Anyway, ever since reading Wittgenstein, the notion of climbing a ladder has been a key feature of my conceptual baggage. But I haven't generally thought of the ladder as an image of the Law, or Biblical prescriptivity (to coin a phrase), but more in terms of narrative in general, and the successful use of language in general. On this scheme, the main problem can be enunciated in terms of our inability to SPEAK apart from the Incarnation. This set of metaphors has been a RICH gateway into the depths of the (biblical / divine) metaphor of the Son as the *Word* of God.

Anyway, that is just to say that I don't tend to think of the gospel and christian theology in terms of "law and grace" (though I recognize that those are essential and very biblical concepts), but rather in terms of the linguistic activity of referring to things (as in "this is an apple"). I realize that is a more opaque, and perhaps less overtly Biblical, way thinking about the problem described in the Bible, and the solution provided by Jesus, but its how I tend to think of it anyway.

That's a lot of prolegomena for introducing my original comment (now in the right place) from the older post:

"If you love me, then you will keep my commandments."

Yes, sure, is assertoric, descriptive, propositional, etc. BUT obviously it presupposes a couple of things: (1) that Jesus commanded (prescribed) things and (2) that if we love him (we do), then we will keep keep those things.

All I am saying is that I cannot understand the proposition "If you love me, then you will keep my commandments" without some notion of what a "commandment" is and what it is to "keep" it. And that notion is inextricably linked to obeying prescriptions. Any other interpretation of it, it seems to me, would so divorce these terms from their ordinary sense as to render them nonsensical. I.e. I don't see how I can "keep a commandment" without "obeying a prescription."

Nick Lannon said...

mattie, et al. -

Seems like you're talking about "Christian ethics" or something like it, right? Paul talks about so-called "Christian discernment" in Romans 7, and sees himself as coming up WAY short. Short enough that he asks who "will save [him] from this body of death." This is AS A CHRISTIAN. Romans 7 describes a bound will, in that it is free to choose the evil, every time. Karl Holl talks about ethical action, and how it must be completely divorced from the will if it is to be ethical at all. Indeed, any action done out of any motivation that comes from the self, as benevolent as it might be, has no value in the eyes of God. Holl says that a truly ethical action (and thus, a truly "good" or Christian action) must be so spontaneous and unconsidered that any other course of action must not ever enter into the mind. If Romans 7 describes our wills now, as Christians, knowing the good but only able to do the evil, it describes us as sinners or, as I put it too loosely, "focused on the bottom of the ladder." And if ethical action must be divorced from our wills to be untainted by them, then those actions must come from without, from God.

Nick Lannon said...

a little postscipt about "if you love me..." "you will keep my commandments" must be read as a description of what will happen in the transformed life. If it's not, if it's "if you don't keep my commandments, it'll prove you don't love me" has the answer to Paul's "who will save me?" as: your own obedience.

Tom Becker said...

Father FB -

I just don't see any scriptrual evidence that God's ladder is something we ascend. The divine drama is forever one of God coming down (descending as it were) into the world - Genesis - the Spirit hovers over the waters, God spares Adam and Eve from eternal damnation by expeling them from the Garden so he can save them through Christ, God makes his convenant with Abram (Gen 15) and Himself walks through the pieces (ie if the convenant is broken then God will suffer the punishment regardless of whether Abram's line is faithful), God wrestles with Jacob, God goes before the Isrealites and leads them through the desert, God 'tabernacles' with the people through the ark, etc . . . Pure gospel - a holy God descends to be with his sinful people. Not a lot of climbing going on - esp. in the OT where despite the Israelite's rejection, God comes anyway - be it in person, through a judge,etc . . . Sounds like descending grace to me. ... Word.


Anonymous said...

Father WB--Paul Zahl has a great word for that "balls floating around in your head thing" that influences us---at least, I think so, if I'm understanding correctly...He calls it our "psychogenetic makeup" and it seems to cover a lot of the unique experience/baggage/DNA we carry with us.
Please correct me Z family, if I am wrong in my application of this (to me) very useful term.

father wb said...

T --

Definitely. That's the miracle. We can't do it. So God does it for us. With that I agree. Jesus comes down, and then goes back up -- for us. The coming down is his birth of the BVM, and his going back up (his being "lifted up" in John) is his death on the cross.

But what does he say but that we must take up our cross and follow him? We have to do what he did, but only now it is done by his power... i.e. he does it in us. But that seems to me to describe, on Christian terms, "our doing it." I.e. "Let him take up his cross and follow me."

By dying, Jesus empowers us. He gives himself to us, dies in us, and rises to new life in us. But how is this done? By our dying into his death (that's what Baptism is -- and Baptism is something he prescribed, "Baptize [imperative] all nations"). But, sure, its all grace: because it is the Baptized who baptize. We can't obey his command to baptize others into his death without his death first dying itself in us.

Chicken / egg?

Anonymous said...

Regarding works (prescription), I think that genuine faith always and necessarily results in "works". I think it is a passive outcome, though, rather than something we can do. The second we undertake to do something "in His name" or "for the Kingdom" or "because the HS laid this on my heart" it 's filthy rags. I think the idea must be, to be so wed to His will that we don't see it one way or the other. Maybe the point is that we are not supposed to even consider WWJD but to "fix our eyes on Jesus" and "do what comes naturally." I don't really know, just thinking out loud.

Jeff said...


With regard to Romans 5:

"We will be saved" is simple (as oppossed to progressive) future (as oppossed to present or past) tense, passive (as oppossed to active) voice. This connotes the following:

A action will be begun in the future (as oppossed to one that will continue into the future, which would be progressive case). The recipient of the action (us) will be passively so.

The Greek can be parsed even more carefully: First-person, future passive indicative plural: At some point in the future, our group will be the recipient of an action that is not currently taking place.

Or, to employ the specific verb (with regard to the past-tense verb you cited): "At some point in the future, the Church will be saved, though the reconciliation has already taken place."

Jeff Dean said...

Father WB,

I believer that your comment regarding "keeping" the commandments make much more sense to me now--thank you for your continued effort to explain it! That language is an imperfect tool is clearly illustrated daily on this blog--but that love covers a multitude of sins shows through, as well!

I believe I understand you to be saying that "keeping" a commandment falls within in a matrix of bothacknowledgement and fulfillment.

You seem to be stating that one many acknowledge the commandments and not fulfill them, as James tells us the demons do.

Further, I think we all agree that one who neither acknowledges the commandments nor keeps them might be termed an unrepentant sinner, for whom the New Testament records no grace.

There are, then, two remaining positions. You seem to say that one must both acknowledge the commandments and fulfill them in order to be said to "keep" the Lord's commandments. That is, there must be an intentional effort to meet their ends in order to show love for Christ.

I would counter that one may fulfill the law without acknowledging the commandments. That is, one who fulfills the law without having tried to do so nevertheless shows his love for Christ.

I offer two scriptural examples to support this position. First, in Matthew 15, those who are saved say to Christ, "Lord, when did we serve you?" They fulfilled the commandment without striving so to do.

Further, and more importantly I think, is the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21.

If I have understood your explanation for "to keep the law" (which I hope I have!), then each of these teachings illustrates an example of someone "keeping" the law without attempting to do so, which is a position I maintain can exist.

The question of the letter vs. the spirit of the Law, however, leads me to ask you in turn whether, in your experience, you have ever managed to self-consciously fulfill our Lord's commandments.

For me, that road leads to hypocrisy the likes of which would make y'all puke your guts out.

father wb said...

JD --

Examining my own psychology, I think the best account of what happens is that I love Jesus (I really do!), I worship and adore him and am incredibly grateful for him and for the wanton gift ("consumatum est!") that is his death. I mean here to describe my *feelings* for him. The issue maybe is that I just can't help but understand my actions in light of those feelings in any other way than the way I understand analogous actions in light of analogous feelings. E.g. I love my father and am profoundly grateful for all that he has done for me, and I trust him. And, *after* those feelings (as it were), I want to please him. I want him to be happy with me. So I do things that I think he will like. Its not that I am trying to get him to love me. He already does, and I know that. But I still want to do what he says, because I love him, and I try to do.

All I mean is that all this talk about the un-gospelness of prescriptivity (I'm structuring some pretty interesting usements in this comment), total depravity, etc. -- I mean it just seems so abstracted, so divorced from my own experiences of godly love and the activities following from it in my everyday life.

As far as whether I ever obey God... well, I think I do. A small example is saying Matins this morning. I mean, I had to get up a half hour earlier and what not, but I did it. I did it because I love the Lord and he told me to. It wasn't wholly perfect. But by his grace, to be sure, it was acceptable. I trust. But though its acceptability was "by his grace," yet I just can't see it as anything but obedience to what my Beloved said for me to do.

bpzahl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bpzahl said...

Father WB:

I think it is wonderful that you are able to obey the Lord with your whole heart. It reminds me of Psalm 119, to delight in God's law. Simeon and I used to disagree over exactly what you are describing: I used to always, always feel a profound combination of love and adoration for Jesus in what was a very intimate relationship with Him, so it was real sense of union with God (which I believe Mattie, having converted to Catholicism, is experiencing profoundly, which is great.)

My question is whether such a relationship is sustainable. A little bit of inconvenience here and there (like waking up a little early to go to morning chapel), for the sake of the Lord, doesn't sound or feel like the "take up your Cross and follow me".

My experience with God sounds much like yours, and it sustained through thick and thin. "Desert" seasons were no longer than 2 months, and God always came back with a voice that I could hear. I delighted in Him, had a wonderful relationship with Him, could hear His call loudly, etc. For about 6 years, me and God were buddies. We'd talk to each other all the time, and (with His help) I always did what He asked me to.

Last year I had a spiritual crisis when I did everything He asked me to do, but He stopped talking to me. My job was really hard, being apart from Simeon was really hard, living at home was really hard, feeling totally afloat in Hong Kong was really hard, but I did it anyway (with His grace) because I was certain (cuz He told me) it was of His will. The year went by, and I thought maybe it would be over; He ought to start speaking to me the way He used to, and He ought to start helping me more, and giving me more joy, etc etc the way He used to. Afterall, this was "our" relationship! But He didn't, and several months later He still hadn't.

It's like if you loved your Dad so much and you did everything for him because you loved him, but he just ignored you and didn't say anything to you anymore. He didn't say that he was happy with you. He didn't say anything. How would that feel?

I understand that if you haven't experienced it, it sounds abstract. It sounded abstract to me three years ago!

I certainly don't wish it on you that you have a hard season with God - it sucks! But just as you don't have experience of feeling totally in need, totally helpless, and totally angry at God, many of us have. We call it "total depravity" because we know, deep down inside, it was our pride and our sin that was th eissue. We felt like we had gotten somewhere in the relationship, it had matured, we were better than we had been (all because of God's grace), so we start to ask God for things, and ask ourselves for things. We want God to be a certain way (the way He said he would be, faithful and loving and communicative and helpful), and we wanted ourselves to be a certain way (good and faithful and loyal). Does this smell like a 3-letter word that starts with L?

What I mean is, when there is such an intimate relationship with God, it is *very* difficult, if not impossible, to not distort it. We ask for His attention, we want to feel His presence, we want Him to tell us what to do. When we struggle, we feel that since we _want_ to be helped, He would help. We feel that since we're really sorry, ought to be enough to soften His heart to help us. We start to want to make the relationship about US. We say things like, "But I've been given a new spirit; surely it means I can hear God's voice!" but we don't. We say things like "Now that I have served God for 25 years, surely He will bring me a wife (husband)," but he doesn't.

You speak from your experience, and I speak from mine. There are those on this blog whose experiences will be like yours, and those who have (had) experiences like mine. I understand how real your godly love feels to you - I truly do. That love motivated me to be a missionary in 5 different countries! But I can't say that I have that sort of zeal or love now, no matter how hard I try. All I have is this broken vessel that is _still_ broken.

The Gospel is not a modified Nike ad.


John Zahl said...


I really appreciate the personalized account of your faith that offered us here. I can relate. The only area where I interpret the same type of experience in my own life (where I read the bible daily, am currently working through Joshua) differently is this: In the light of His Grace, I can't help but to obey him. But that obedience, which lines up with the commandments, flows naturally out of my heart in a very unconscious manner, more like a reflex than a choice. This is the stuff that Nick was alluding to in his post re: Karl Holl (who is probably in my top three favorite Christian thinkers, by the way). I find that this "reflex" exists especially strongly when things in my own life are difficult (i.e., emotionally, circumstantially), rather than when things are going smoothly. And so, having a place to go which is to the Father through the Son by the Spirit, which rather oddly brings about more rather than less of the experience of feeling like I have fallen short of the law, which is repentance. This basically means that I am simply a lot more willing to ask God (and other people for that matter) for help than ever I was before I knew Christ. I obviously appreciate Paul's wonderful fruit analogy for this reason, because I understand righteousness to be the fruit born of the Gospel.

Where Lutherans (and Cranmer for that matter in Article 13) take a very bold turn lies in the idea that, any seemingly righteous / loving / holy action that is not born as direct, seemingly reflexive fruit of the Gospel, is in fact, not holy/ good at all, but, rather, "pure evil"! That's where this stuff starts to look bafflingly other-worldly in its line of thinking. The first time I heard that thought expressed, it kind of floored me; I needed alka-seltzer just to begin to even be willing to think about digesting that pill. It's probably one of the most outrageous pills to swallow on the entire theological market... Though the point has drastic and ghastly implications (like that non-Christian charities are doing harm by feeding starving children), it also has some positive ones, i.e., that the Christian need only focus his or her attention on Christ (and, say, not on his/her own apparent degree of sanctification), because all of my life will line up accordingly. This is why Christians of my theological bent suggest that no distinction can be made between justification and sanctification.

Examples of the obvious nature of this kind of Gospel-born, fruity righteousness are easily found where love is present. Thus romantic analogies and parenting analogies often bear out the weight of these ideas. I think of the way a parent wakes up and attends his/her child when it cries in the middle of the night. Or the way a new parent is suddenly willing to change diapers the moment that love for that child is realized, though poop and especially the touching of poop is totally disgusting. In other words, love is the only motivator for right living, but love is only found on the Cross, and, right there, is all the love I need for eternity. The wild and wiley Holy Spirit sets to work, blowing where it will, while I'm awake, and also while I sleep. My life has been apprehended by God's own plan, whether I am consciously aware of it or not. To push the diapar analogy all the way, righteous behavior is basically like poop until love changes our relationship to it.

My hunch is that your Christian life and my Christian life look very similar: for one, we both live with Zahls; you live with David, and I live with myself. 2) We both have Muffin to make things better. 3) You have the L.L. Bean watch that I still want, and will one day have, etc.

The way we understand that very similar life (in the Body) is a little different, but, probably less and less so with each passing day, and even if the theological interpretations don't exactly line up, you'll still hopefully let me crash on your couch, so that we can eat Chinese food and watch Metropolitan with the commentary turned on, right? I sure hope so! JZ

Anonymous said...

Hey JAZ,

Thanks for another thought provoking entry. I would like to offer a suggestion to the above conversation. Y’all have been talking about the nature of prescriptive moral injunctions, and the possibility of human’s keeping ‘the law’. According to the view you describe, “prescription is always basically a big set-up for "repent and believe the Gospel". You says further, “If Jesus' command, and any other commandments in the Bible (especially given the nature of human reception of any kind of command as illuminated by Paul in Romans 7 famously) could simply be followed in the way that their imperative nature requires, then why did Jesus have to die, and so brutally at that? In what sense is Grace really grace, and forgiveness really forgiveness and mercy really mercy and love really love if those qualities are not a response to something that requires them?”

I think there is a problem with totally ruling out the possibility of adhereing to God’s moral requirements. Or, I think that it is a problem to make the anthropolgical claim that qua humanity we are incapable of obedience. If I read your article rightly, and your comments to WB above, that is what you are espousing. But, for one thing, it runs against the narrative structure of the scriptural texts (esp Gn), where God’s commands presuppose a robust notion of responsibility, and therefore the essential possibility of obedience. It makes no sense to talk about the ‘wages of sin’, as per Paul, if responsibility is an illegitiamte anthropoligcal category. The will is not essentially bound. If what you suggest is the case, and humans were/are always essentially incapable of keeping God’s law, it follows that ‘falleness’ is antecedent to the fall, that God’s creation is not essentially good (as scripture claims), and that creation is inherently set against God. The crucifixion then must signify God’s necessary struggle to over-come evil – an evil essential to the order of things. If that is what you mean by ‘low anthropology’ – and I hope it is not - you are no longer talking Christianly. That is gnosticism.

So, in response to your questions, ‘prescription’ cannot be a big set-up which reveals an essential anthropological short-coming. It is precisely our real failure to keep God’s commands, our disobedience, that requires Christ’s brutal self-sacrifice. If obedience is impossible, there is no responibility. If we have no notion of responsibility, we lose both justice and grace. In other words, love is that thing that accepts the consequences of real disobedience and failure. We do not deserve wrath (Rom 1) because we were created too weak to obey. In fact, the opposite is the case. That much, I think, must be maintained in order not to fall into gnostic heresy.

But, perhaps I’ve read you wrongly. What do you think? Correct me if I have mis-construed your position.

See you at 3.

simeon zahl said...

Hi Frank,

Intelligent and helpful thoughts, as always! Two things:

1) You have indeed misconstrued John's position if you think that, because our fallen will is no longer free, that we are therefore no longer responsible before God for what we do. You say "If obedience is impossible, there is no responsibility", as if that is some basic logical necessity. But it is not: it just means that it _feels unfair_ for us to be held responsible. You are assuming nothing less than that there is a third-party idea of justice to which you, a man, can hold God to account. I am reminded, once again, of Romans 9:19-20 ("You will say to me then, 'Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?' But who indeed are you, a man, to argue with God?").

We are very much responsible for our actions, bound will or no. This is because the bondedness, as it were, is of our own choosing. A "low anthropology" asserts not that we are helpless victims of a cruel God who made us as twisted puppets, constitutionally unable to do what is asked of us, but rather that we are so self-obsessed and proud and idolatrous that we so prefer our way to God's way that to expect a person to do otherwise is to be naive about how overwhelmingly strong their desire to be God over and against the true God in fact is.

It is our sin that has, functionally speaking, bound our will-- we "freely" choose, but we freely choose only sin. Thus "bound will" is slightly misleading-- it is a description of the functional reality, not an affirmation of our victimhood. I think perhaps there is also room in theology for belief in a devil who really does bind us, like a "strong man", but this is the secondary, not the primary reality. The main point is that the will is bound first and foremost by our own _sin_, not by our _weakness_. And so we are very much responsible for our state.

This means that we must have a very radical idea of what our Savior is in fact doing: he is not just opening the lock on our prison (though he is also doing that); he is actually saving us from ourselves, from our own will and desire, which are for independence from God at any price, even depravity and death. Romans 1-3 is very very clear on this.

The "bound will" idea most helpful on a pastoral and practical level. It is the compassionate acknowledgement that the person is so far gone in their sin that we cannot expect them to act otherwise, though we do indeed wish they would. It is to treat a rebel as if he were a victim-- in a sense to acknowledge that he is a victim to himself, a la Romans 7. There is great love and compassion in this. But we do sometimes wrongly use the term to blind ourselves to the fact of the matter, that sin is sin, and that that is bad-- very bad. We need a savior to save us from ourselves. The more we comprehend this, the more radical we realize His love for us in fact is.

2) To see Creation and the pre-Fall situation as our theological starting point is a priori to underestimate the Fall. We must instead begin with the reality of sin as we experience it, and as it is both revealed to us and dealt with in the Cross. I believe Moltmann is right to see any theological starting point other than the Cross as idolatrous. Dad actually says this even better, in my view, in the first and last chapters of his "A Short Systematic Theology".

Sin and the Fall will catch a theology that begins with Creation and the pre-Fall state off guard. To cling to anything other than a Cross that meets us in our radical sinfulness is to cling to meaningless abstraction. Genesis must be read in light of the Cross, not the other way round. Only then is it not meaningless abstraction. If Genesis had been enough, we would not have needed a Savior.


simeon zahl said...


I forgot to say that you are therefore absolutely right to remind us how important it is that our own responsibility for our sinful state be maintained. People of John and my theological bent (for instance John and I!) are sometimes prone to forget this part. You are 100% right that "if we have no notion of responsibility, we lose both justice and grace".

In fact, for us in the name of the "bound will" to emphasize victimhood at the expense of responsibility is either a) naive, or b) antinomian. My point is just that bearing full responsibility does not entail a meaningful ability to act differently, i.e. righteously.

A notion of responsibility that is naive about our ability to obey, however, cuts compassion out of the equation. Hence what I said about how we are rebels whom love treats compassionately as if we were victims. And now we're back at imputation! :)

John Zahl said...


I completely agree with Simers. The statement is not that "We don't have a will." It's just that our will is not free." It is bound only in one key sense; it can choose anything except Gog, I mean, God. The profound crux is the we are indeed held totally responsible for the trespass that we cannot avoid. This is what makes Christianity so unique.

But this is not gnositicism, though, yes, I'm way more Platonic in my leanings theologically than most contemporary Christians, but I'm fine with that. I think the situtaion to be much more dualistic than most are willing to except given the profluence of Creation-based theological thinking. It is not my own.

I'm grateful to have Simeon though as he clarified my exact position much more clearly than did I. The thing you are reacting to is definitely shocking, as is the nature of profundity. When I put my finger on this double-bind diagnosis, I felt that finally things were becoming clear for me. It was not my own insight, by the way, nor was it Simeon's. Two guesses as to the source.

See you at 3:30, JZ

Anonymous said...

Bonnie--BLESS YOU for your recent post about a "desert" time. Every word of it rings in my heart; I have a friend who is one of the deepest/most mature Christians I've ever had the privilege to know, and she is going through a time of such suffering right now, it is hard to see God's hand anywhere in it. But yet without having the "feelings" assoc. with God's love and protection, she continues to completely know she is under the shadow of his wing, and rely on His grace,even when she does not feel or see it. She is not "being brave" or whistling in the dark, instead she keeps on
As Christians we sometimes seem to feel the need to wrap our "testimony" up in a nice package with a shiny bow on top and say "I was so sinful and did all these bad things, but now Jesus has come into my life and I'm " (what? saved? fixed? never going to do THAT again"). My experience has been that almost as soon as God removes one area of sin (alcohol, drugs, overeating, etc.) there is another to take its place which I didn't even see at the time. It reminds me of that gopher game at Chuck E. Cheese, where you bash one gopher on the head with a mallet and it causes another to pop up in a different spot.
Anyway we are promised the trouble (John 16:33) and I believe he "chastens those whom he loves" but we don't have to like the refining fire.

father wb said...

(1) Bonnie --

Thank you for sharing all of that. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that my spiritual life was free and easy. I experience desert times just about every day. And I don't think hearing from the Lord has ever been easy for me. Its rather always been a long, slow, painstaking process, filled with blunderings, riddled with misgivings, and discernible as successful only retrospectively. But that's why forming good habits has been essential for me (I am thinking preeminently about the Daily Office and regular & frequent hearing (and now offering) mass). Because the pattern of devotion recommended by the Church are fountains of grace that have never dried up (thanks be to God) and on which I have been assured (divinely) I may rely.

Which brings me to

(2) JZ -

I certainly hope you will continue to crash on our couch. I wish your crashing there was more frequent and prolonged. It is not often that style and wit are concentrated in our living room in that way and to that degree. I've never met a Zahl I didn't love and admire (you too, Bonnie, though I haven't met you yet).

It seems that we have different translations on one and the same experience of the gospel. Yours is German; mine is Latin. And I think this divergence is expressible in terms of different ecclesiologies. My most clamorous disagreements with stuff your dad has written have rotated around an ecclesiological axis. And he has been the first to acknowledge that his is not a catholic (as opposed to protestant) ecclesiology.

It is the "very bold turn" of Luther and Cranmer where I must take my (amicable) leave. Compelling as it may be per se, it is a turn away from the consistent "consensus episcoporum" which I take to express the mind of the Church on matters of theological controversy. And because I believe the Church mediates our salvation by being so united to Christ as to be "one body" with him, I won't pitch my theological tent anywhere but in her bosom. I am Hers, and she is His (Ephesians 5).


(3) Simeon --

Thank you (as ever) for articulating it so, well, articulately. Permit me a final (?) analytical stab at it.

To Frank, you say:

"You say "If obedience is impossible, there is no responsibility", as if that is some basic logical necessity. But it is not: it just means that it _feels unfair_ for us to be held responsible. You are assuming nothing less than that there is a third-party idea of justice to which you, a man, can hold God to account."

I believe you are saying that our depravity extends even to our thinking about responsibility and obedience, and to our notions of fairness, justice, etc. (Hence the "totality" of our depravity.) And that the sense of unfairness with which we tend to regard the facts of God's judgement of us according to our works (Revelation 20.13, etc., passim) AND our inability to perpetrate any kind of works but EVIL ones -- that the sense of unfairness here is rooted in the fallenness and depravity of our judgment about what is fitting, fair, or just.

But do you not sort of pull the rug out from under yourself by so indicting our judgment about what is just, fair, etc.? I mean, how can we trust our judgment about the meta-justice of the Cross if our judgment is so utterly flawed? If the answer is the witness of Scripture, that just pushes the question back a step: how can we trust our judgment about Scripture? If the answer is that it resonates with our experience (Wesley's strange warmth): again, we are totally depraved; why should we trust some strange warmth creeping about in our consciousness?

PS: DZ and I were just drinking coffee and listening to the Killers. We agreed that these discussions are edifying, like oil that runneth down the beard of Aaron. Ecce quam bonum.

colton said...

I made this post on another thread, but since Father wb reposted his thoguhtshere, I thought I would do the saem, seeing as how they run in the same vein:

"Father wb and Jeff,

With regards to the debate on this statement: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" I must side with Jeff. This statement may allude to presciptions (the commandments given), but it itself is not fundamentally a prescriptive statement. It is purely descriptive. However, I think Father wb is onto something here in the sense that Jesus does not shy away from giving us presciptions. He makes descriptive statements such as the aforementioned, but he also says "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind" and "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." As I have expressed before, my opinion is that Christ continued to preach the law (as he greatly clarified what it meant), and our heavenly father truly expects us to keep this law.

But going back to the original quote: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Do I keep his commandments? No; I am not perfect. Therefore, it must follow that I do not love Christ. Is this not a clear, obvious conclusion to draw?

Some may balk at this statement, but, left to ourselves, we are truly enemies of God. I would go so far as say we hate him: "If you are not for me, you are _against_ me." But the good news is that it is _God's_ love for _us_ that matters, not our love for him. Not our salvation, our righteousness, nor our worthiness is based upon our love for Christ. Even as we killed him, mocked him, caused him much pain and sorrow, he loved us. For Christ came to save sinners, not those who love him.

Anonymous said...

WB. . .
given that your main defense against the "big turn" of Luther/Cranmer is a turn towards "Mother Church". . . why not go all the way? (c.f. Al Kimmel) I"m not sure that I understand?

JDK said...

your comments are always a wonderful mix of illustration and insight. . . keep it up!

This is simply a point of clarification that may only interest me and certainly does not add much to the current discussion. . . I'd just like to clarify what is meant by the term "limited atonement".

you wrote:
We were having that whole discussion about Limited Atonement, and I just don't see how that is different to the view that now that we're Christians, we now need to help save our own asses (i.e. cooperate with God). To say that now we have to be existentially responsible for our sins sounds (to me) like Christ's atonement was limited to those sins from the past, and not sins from now

If that were my understanding of Limited Atonement then I'd reject it too! Essentially, the "idea" of limited atonement (because we don't really know) is an attempt to express what Paul argues in Romans 9-11 which is that God certainly has the power to create vessels both for wrath and for glory. Anyway, Limited implies that somehow the atonement wasn't the end of the "work". . which is not what it means in this context. "limited" simply means that, according to Jesus, there are some people that are going to hell and, obviously, the atonement was in some sense, witheld from those people. . .hence the word "limited". . .

From an article on .

To say that limited atonement is not necessary is to misunderstand it. Everyone involved (Five-point Calvinists, four-point Calvinists and Arminians), actually believes in a limited atonement since we can all agree that Christ did not actually redeem everyone who ever lived. According to all evangelical positions, there will be some who end up in the eternal lake of fire. The question, therefore, is not whether there is a "limit" to the extent of the atonement, but rather, what is the nature of the limit and who limits it? Is it limited by God's choice and design or by free human choices? Did God, from eternity, sovereignly determine to whom He would apply the benefits of the atonement, or did God leave it to man's autonomous free will?
In other words, to reject limited atonement is to reject total depravity and unconditional election.

"limited atonement" does not argue that somehow the atonement is limited after

JDK said...

strike that last line. . .

father wb said...

Anonymous -

I'm not sure that's an entirely fair question. (Why don't evangelicals just become Calvinists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. etc.?)

But anyway:

Because grace brought me to Anglicanism (I was born into it), and I have thought, and to some degree still think, that catholicity is expressible in its fullness within Anglicanism - that there has ever been an essentially catholic core to Anglicanism. My assurance of this, however, is being hammered at pretty violently these days, from almost every direction - most especially from the halls of ECUSA power (815), but also from, e.g., the mad rush to confessionalism coming from certain (mostly African) evangelical quarters.

JDK said...

That was actually my "anonymous" comment that I can't delete. . . . .

you wrote:
I'm not sure that's an entirely fair question. (Why don't evangelicals just become Calvinists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. etc.?)

I'm sure you would agree that there is a difference (at least to the RCC) between a denomination and the Holy Mother Church? All evangelicals are, in a sense, united under a shared rejection of the authority of the magesterium. Since you have just envoked that authority in response to the question at hand, why do you think my question was unfair?

father wb said...

jdk -

I'm not sure I'm following you. Yes, I reckon we agree there's a difference between a denomination and, as you say, Holy Mother Church. But its always good to be careful with our terms. I would say the Church is whatever there is one of (our Lord is not a polygamist), and a denomination is whatever there is a myriad of.

I'm not sure what you mean by evangelicals being united in the rejection of the authority of the magisterium. Usually "magisterium" is understood AS the Church's teaching authority. (As you probably know "magister" just means "teacher.") How does one reject the authority of authority? Surely you admit that there is teaching authority SOMEWHERE in the Church? Our Lord, after all, gave the apostles the authority to teach, and St. Paul calls the church the "pillar and ground of truth."

Do you mean that you reject the catholic (and Anglican) notion that bishops are the successors of the apostles in being the locus of the Church's teaching authority?

As far as I know, Anglicanism has never claimed that it is THE One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Though it clearly takes itself to be a part of the Catholic Church. And it has outlined what it takes to be markers of the fullness of corporate membership in the same (cf. Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral).

I just don't think you're right to suggest that my appeal to the consistent witness of the college of bishops as a preeminent expression of doctrinal authority in the Church, is somehow unanglican.

ben said...

just wondering , out of pure curiousity and interest... did you ever go through a period of time where you have you thought about becoming catholic?

Tim Galebach said...

Will, in your response to Bonnie, you mentioned that you've been through desert periods, and the ways in which habits and discipline help you to get through them. I'm curious, from a ministerial point of view, as to what you'd say to someone when the habits aren't helping in the desert? It seems like that was more of the story that Bonnie was telling.

father wb said...

Ben -

All the time.

TG -

I would probably mostly listen to him, on the order of Simeon's suggestion, and as CPE proved was helpful. Then I would tell him to continue knocking in prayer, with the assurance that the door will be opened.

JDK said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
simeon zahl said...


Just a quick response to your very good question from a while back: basically you asked, if we cannot trust our own judgment/ reason/ etc. because of sin, and if the same argument undermines our ability to trust scripture or our own experience, on what ground are we then to stand? Really the question I think is whether, if one holds to as low an anthropology as I do, one can stand anywhere at all (for instance, the Church, too, must be subject to the same doubts in this sense as reason, scripture, and experience).

My gut answer is that there is an answer to be had, not in us, but in God, and that this answer is located from our point of view somewhere in the interplay between faith that God acts and speaks in our lives today through the Holy Spirit (i.e. that he loves us, and that he speaks that love "in a language I can hear" to paraphrase an obscure and not very good Smashing Pumpkins song) on the one hand, and a dark, dark, ever-so-dark view of man and corresponding theology of the cross on the other.

How exactly this works out, and to what degree it can be meaningfully talked about, I do not yet know, though the answer to the latter must have something to do with preaching/ proclamation (in the Gerhard Forde sense).

Suffice it to say, this is basically the topic of my PhD! So, a very good question, I think-- I hope!-- and very close to my heart.

Tom Becker said...

Simeon -
Interesting stuff. I hope I can read your thesis someday!

How do you think the sacrements fit into the work of the Spirit? Something I've been thinking/reading about lately. I know there is a camp that think they are derived by man - or are man's attempy to 'remystify' things, but I don't agree. I line up w/the Lutheran perspective (I think) regarding assurance - that we're assured our forgivness though the preaching of the gospel (word) and through receiving the sacrements (baptism/communion) - all things we can't do to ourselves. I'm not neg. on the charasimatic experience by any means, but I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.