Wednesday, March 15, 2006
(from out of blue) John Stamper!
(excerpt taken from a comment by John Stamper)
I think the key problem for so-called evangelicals (so-called because they are often light years from the early Evangelicals’ very radical understanding of sin and forgiveness, grace and the Law, and especially the bound will) turns on what we mean by REPENTANCE. Because what a lot of times these neo-evangelicals will say is that, on the contrary Paul Zahl, we DO welcome sinners… REPENTANT sinners that is.
Now don’t get me wrong – repentance is an absolutely crucial part of the Christian experience. (C.S. Lewis once said that what modern day people want is “not so much a father in heaven but a grandfather in heaven, a senile benevolence that wants nothing so much as to see young people having a good time.”) Repentance, wrath, sin, accusation, judgement, law – this Christian vocabulary has got to be kept and even SHARPENED, precisely against the accomodating spirit of the age. But I think we need to also turn back to the early Luther and Cranmer, for whom it was so crucial, and hear the language, particularly REPENTANCE, in the way it radically attacked the natural man’s thirst for glory, the way it UP-ENDED “common sense” and “reasonable” theologies.
Common sense and Reason say that we repent of SINS. Plural. Acts. And so repentance becomes a meritorious act of the self-disciplined will, the glorious human will freely choosing (with a little help from some grace) to turn from Bad Actions (or Bad Thoughts, Bad Feelings) and successfully resolving not to do these anymore. We may fall off the wagon later, but the key thing is achieving in the moment that successful self-induced resolution. After all, what could it mean to say you were in a state of repentance WHILE YOU WERE STILL DOING THE BAD THING? That’s crazy… right? It’s folly.
But if we think of the problem as fundamentally a state, not actions springing from a state, and most crucially a state in which we are bound and from which we will not be delivered in this life – if we are not judged by God for what we do, as your dad says, but for who we are – then everything begins to be seen differently. Repentance does very much still involve a 180-degree turning, but not fundamentally one of action – not turning away from bad things that I do, but turning away 180-degrees from belief in myself and turning solely to the Cross, clinging to the Cross alone. Repentance becomes a place of perceiving one’s own wretchedness, a place of true self-awareness and grief and abhorence for what one is, and throwing oneself totally on the mercy of Christ. That is exactly the sense that a drunk can be flushed to the gills, reaching for the bottle and also repentent. Actions may indeed alter later after repentance, but if so that happens via the sanctifying work of the Lord which, along with suffering, always remains a mystery, and His sanctifying work from saved person to saved person differs according the secret counsel of His own good pleasure and in His own time, a Work that CANNOT be used as a litmus test to detect those who have “truly” repented. This is folly to a theologian of glory (who necessarily privileges the Free Will and its capacity to choose its actions) but to a theologian of the Cross, who correctly sees himself in a state of paralysis regarding his ability to choose the Good, it is the only thing that makes sense.
It’s also in this scheme of Luther and Cranmer that we find the radically counterintuitive (but very Biblical and indeed Pauline) idea of forgiveness PRECEDING repentence. Our hearts are hardened – we need an inbreaking Word from without BEFORE we can see as we ought, and love as we ought. Not because we successfully repented first, but because we experience the Word of forgiveness first. THEN we are broken open raw and can admit to what we are. The woman with the oil is broken open by the complete acceptence of her by the man Jesus just as she is, a whore; THAT sovereign action of the electing forgiving Jesus reducing her to wordless grief and tears where all she can do is kiss His feet. (And most crucially, there is no suggestion in the text that she subsequently joins the Young Ladies Christian League and stops plying her trade.) It is the experience of Saul of Tarsus: not because he repented first, but because the bleeding Christ whom he was persecuting loved him and chose him and forgave him; THAT reduces him to wonder and repentence. And this experience becomes a formal part of the Book of Common Prayer: where AFTER receiving absolution we are able to ask for “true repentence.”
So for me what a lot of this turns on is what a modern day evangelical means by Sin (a singular state or plural actions) and therefore what we think God principally cares about. If sin is primarily a plural thing, then we have moralism: God’s primary aim is to improve our behavior (thoughts, feelings). If sin is primarily singular, then God is not primarily concerned with what we do, but with saving us from the Grand Delusion of thinking we can live in any state but utter dependence on Him.
And of course, as Fitz likes to point out, these issues are not primarily intellectual, as if the doctrinal error is a matter of the mind. Hawthorne’s Puritans (no less than the Christians PZ criticizes) are not cruel and prideful to the poor adulteress because they believe the wrong theology; they believe the wrong theology because of the opportunities it gives them to be cruel and proud and self-righteous. “Faith is a rectitude of the heart” as Fitz says.
Posted by John Zahl at 11:09 PM