Sunday, 4 January 2015

Do Good. It Matters.

It's weird, but many contemporary Christians talk about doing good as thought it were a bad thing.

There's a long story lying behind this, which runs right through the medieval theology of merit and indulgences, and the Protestant objection to those ideas, and the Reformers' setting out a fresh theological perspective with grace at its very heart. A story that gets reduced to a few (overly) simple principles: (i) we've all messed up; (ii) you can't earn your way back into God's good books; (iii) Jesus repaired the damage through his death on the cross [please don't ask how - that's a really long story]; and so (iv) it's all about grace not works.

The problem is that works becomes identified first with trying to "earn your way into God's good books" and then, very shortly afterwards, with pretty much any good and virtuous acts we undertake deliberately (rather than random accidents of goodness that spontaneously spring out of our Holy Spirit renewed hearts when we're not looking). We end up rejoicing in the lurid testimonies of wicked sinners as testimonies of grace: "I was a baby-eating, drug-dealing, alligator-wrestling, kitten-murdering Hell's Angel until Jesus saved me! Alleluia!" But we caution folks who've grown up their whole lives in wholesome church families: "Don't forget, going to church doesn't make you a Christian." Well indeed, but then neither does baby eating and kitten murdering. And given the choice, you'd think we'd want to encourage the churchgoing a little.

To our post-Reformation ears, Benedict sounds like he's getting it all wrong in his Rule:

"If we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom, we must run to it by good deeds or we shall never reach it."
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)

Salvation by works, not grace? No, that's just a misreading of Benedict. In fact, just a few lines later he reminds us that all our goodness comes from God's grace at work in us anyway, recalling the words of the apostle Paul: "By the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15.10).

Benedict is simply saying this: Do good. It matters.

It matters that we actively seek to embrace grace and let it reshape us into the likeness of Jesus, who was loving and good. It matters that we seek to be good and to do good. That we look for opportunities to love, to serve, to care, to be kind, to be gracious, to speak up against injustice, to demonstrate integrity, to be honest. It should matter to us, that we live as Jesus taught. It matters to God, who calls us to that kind of life. It certainly matters to everyone else we share this world with, all those who are at the receiving end of our decisions about whether to live well or poorly.

Dallas Willard used to say, "In most churches we're not only saved by grace, we're paralyzed by it." Benedict would have agreed. Friends, do some good today. It matters.

Image: Evert Odekerken via Wikimedia Commons

4 comments:

  1. In his commentary Barclay summed up epistle of James in words something like this 'we aren't saved by works but for works'. Always rather liked that way of putting it

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  2. I like that. Barclay had a really good way of putting these things. Thanks!

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  3. Totally agree with you on this!

    May I ask a question on a similar topic? I've found that there was an urgency to acquire virtue in all the movements I've been reading about (Desert Fathers, Early Celtic dudes, Early Methodists, Benedict's Rule), which seems conspicuously absent on the scene I find myself in. What would you say was the impetus for their urgency? From what I can see, it has to do with remembering final judgment, and also, building on reality rather than falseness. Can you comment on this one please?

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    1. Yes, there was an urgency, and it was often connected with an awareness of judgment - however healthy or otherwise that motivation might be! But it was also fuelled by a desire to be increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ, since those who are most Christlike experience the greatest abundance of life. That is to say, sin is ultimately empty, whereas the practice of virtue is ultimately the most fulfilling way to live. In my experience, we often assume it's the other way around - sin is exciting, and virtue is boring!
      (By the way, thanks for commenting - it's made me realise how long it's been since I posted here. Time to begin again!)

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