(This response to Jonathan Mitchican has received its own response! Click here for “The gospel ain’t about you, but it is for you.”)
In a recent post, Father Jonathan Mitchican took on our colleague, Jordan Hylden, as well as Joel Osteen, and, implicitly, many of us who are skeptical of a theology “that makes it seem as if the Christian life is not actually a part of God’s Good News in Christ.”
Echoing countless Christians throughout the ages, Mitchican rightly worries about Pelagianism. I appreciate his critique of what he dubs “Osteenism.” Yet, against Hylden’s prescription for particular categories of preaching, Mitchican argues for the standard Lutheran homiletical diet of law and grace, with the balance skewed heavily toward grace. I suspect fans of Lutheranism find Mitchican’s account familiar and a sufficient and successful answer to Hylden. In what follows, however, I argue that Mitchican’s account would benefit from a dose of Aquinas and Hooker. For, other than a commendable passing endorsement of holy living, Mitchican’s account of the law, gospel, and grace leaves little room for Christian ethics. Moreover, my suggestion is that it does so because it echoes Luther in positing a false dichotomy between law and grace and by misidentifying us as the subject of the gospel.
There is so much that can be said on this topic that I must limit my scope to a few key points. The essence of my argument is that by clarifying what we mean by the terms grace, law, and gospel, we can see more clearly why Hylden is spot on in calling us to an emphasis on the holy life.
In this debate, Hylden channels the view of James, whose legacy to the Church Luther described, early in his career, as “an epistle of straw” (Martin Luther, Preface to the New Testament, 1522). Just as Luther later developed and clarified his thinking so as not to drive a wedge between James and Paul, Mitchican would serve us well by clarifying his prescription in such a way that Christian ethics is not shoved to the side as though it is possible to pry grace apart from Christ’s call to a holy life (James 2:26).
Mitchican’s prescription is grace, grace, grace.
I quite agree, though I infer we mean different things in our use of the word. Mitchican does not define the term, but, like Luther, he seems to locate it within the semantic field of freedom and gift. Indeed, in my teaching, I’ve noticed that most folks have thought little about what grace precisely is, and so will offer “free” and “gift” as gestures toward definition. That’s often sufficient for the work before us. But if we move to distinguish grace from law, we need to say more about what we mean by both.
I propose that grace is simply the real presence of the Christ through the work of the Spirit. This is consistent with Luther’s insight that grace is not a substance but the donation of Christ himself in the heart of the believer. Grace is free in the sense that Christ eternally gives himself to us, irrupting into time and space to reconcile and reunite us with the eternal. As Mitchican notes, we contribute nothing to the fact of Christ’s real presence to us. Christ’s real presence is purely divine action upon us.
Each Christmastide, we take time to remember that “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). This reminds us of an important aspect of our story: The created order encountered grace — the real presence of the Christ — in history prior to the advent of our Lord Jesus. Though the only Christ we encounter is eternally the humiliated and exalted Son, that Word was made known to us historically in creation, the calling of Israel, the prophets, the psalms (Luke 24:44), and finally in the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth (BCP, Eucharistic Prayer B). In whatever form we encounter it, the Word was, is, and will always be the real presence of the Christ.
This provides essential background for clarifying what we mean by “law.” Mitchican seems to think of it as the opposite of grace or at least as something quite different from grace. He defines law as “God’s commands for how we are to live.” That strikes me as a sterile reduction of the law, for it fails to capture the Jewish sense in which Torah is the Word itself. It also fails to capture the essence of God’s Word as the dynamic and personal address which meets us in our particularity, guiding us always to our destiny of communion with God.
Torah is God’s Word, God’s Address, God’s Instruction. In our performance of Torah, we encounter the shekinah, the presence of his glory, and our performance is correlative, not causal. What we translate as “law” (from the Greek nomos) is not merely a compendium of moralistic commands. It is the answer to the essential question, “How do we rightly worship so that we are at one with you, Adonai?”
God’s answer: Your spiritual worship consists in performing my Torah, my Instruction (Ex. 19-20: Mic. 6:6-8). When we perform Torah, we are drawn into the real presence of the God who dwells in Israel’s midst (Ex. 29:38-46). To live Torah is our spiritual worship.
Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker both captured this thick spiritual sense of the Word that is our Instruction in framing their accounts of our world in terms of the Eternal Law. The Eternal Law is that which draws all things to maturity, eternally governing and sustaining the created order. All things, from voluntary agents like angels and humans to involuntary agents like plants and rocks and trees and certain parts of the animal spectrum, receive their identity and are drawn toward their telos by the Eternal Law.
Our governance by the Eternal Law is neither optional nor merited. It is integral to the created order, for the identity of all created things is entirely received as a consequence of the divine self-establishing through which God determined to be the one who eternally creates and sustains his creation (Gen. 1:2; John 1).
Of course, this Eternal Law is none other than Christ our creator and sustainer himself. The gentle pressure all humans experience, which guides us to become fully human, is the experience of the real presence of the Christ. It is grace. That is, our experience of the Eternal Law is grace. It is the real presence of the Son addressing us, shaping us by judging us, transforming us into the friends of God we are called to be.
From this we can see that law and grace are not at all in opposition. It is not that we experience either an abstraction or a physical substance called grace and then respond with holy living. Rather, we encounter the Eternal Law that is grace itself, and that encounter draws us iteratively over time into recognition of and personal fellowship with the humiliated and exalted Son, who, through the course of a lifetime, schools us in God’s dynamic and personal Word, transforming us by the renewing of our minds. Jesus tutors us, drawing us to our telos. And, once again, this new holy life — in which we discover ourselves set apart by Jesus so that grace becomes visible — is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1-2). We cannot extricate our holy living from our worship; they are identical.
We see this fact in all of Jesus’ life, but especially on the Cross. Is worship about you and your needs and wants and desires? Is worship about your need for justification? No! Jesus addresses us from the Cross, teaching us what authentic worship is. And it turns out that worship consists of our self-offering to our creator so that the king’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. Worship is our reciprocal response to the king’s address: “Take my life, Lord. Use me, Lord. Consume me, Lord, in service of your mission to bless all of your creation.”
Worship just is our reciprocal act of self-offering which corresponds to the divine self-offering. Whatever we do in the community we call “Church,” if we do not offer ourselves in correspondence to God’s Instruction, it is not worship. Worship is action and not just any action. Worship is movement toward Christ, uniting with him in his sufferings in order to bless that which and whom he loves (Phil. 3:10). The name we give to the journey such movement creates is “holy life.” We cannot separate our worship from the holy life. The holy life is our worship. Everything else fades away, like the grass (1 Peter 1:23-25).
Which leads me to the gospel. What is it?
Mitchican says the gospel is “the proclamation of God’s free gift of his Son on the Cross, which justifies us before God even though we are unable to meet the demands of the law.” Certainly that is recognizable as a traditional description of the order of salvation. But is the announcement of our salvation identical with the gospel? That is, is the gospel primarily about us, as Mitchican seems to imply?
I think not. Rather, the subject of the gospel is God, and what God is doing in the world through Jesus the Christ. As N.T. Wright puts it, the gospel is the proclamation that “the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” The gospel is the good news that Christ’s entire life — including his action on the Cross that teaches us what true worship is — is vindicated. Jesus, not Caesar, is king of the world. That means that the kingdom of God has indeed drawn near, that the Day of the Lord is now, and that God is acting to liberate the created order from its estrangement (Luke 1:46-56).
The gospel’s salvific implication for us is not the main point but a by-product of the gospel: we receive the gift of a new identity. We are summoned to be Easter’s agents. To make possible that ministry, we are delivered from bondage, acquitted, and invited to follow Jesus in making God king (Eph. 2:1-10). How do we do that? By offering ourselves sacrificially in thanksgiving in the form of cross-shaped lives (Gal. 2:20). Holy living that makes grace visible.
I agree with Mitchican that what’s needed now in our preaching is much more gospel, and I suspect Hylden does, too. But the gospel we must preach is not a self-centered story about our salvation, but rather is about God’s reign as king of the world through Jesus Christ. God is faithful! When God is king, God’s justice, God’s charity, and God’s peace transform the world. In the fulfillment of time — when God’s reign is fully realized, the barrier between heaven and earth will be no more, for all of creation will have learned what the angels already know: that only the Lamb is worthy of the worship that is our reciprocal self-offering (Rev. 21). But in the present aeon, Christ addresses his creation, judging it, shaping it, drawing it to him, for he is the telos of the Law (Romans 10:4). And we have a role to play: Jesus summons us to join him in his mission and our ministry. We are called to be heralds of the king (Isaiah 40:9). What a holy vocation!
These clarifications of the meanings of grace, law, and gospel help us to see more clearly why Hylden is right. The time is ripe for a preaching ministry that equips the saints for the holy life which is our spiritual worship.
The featured image is a detail of a thirteenth-century painting on the ceiling of St. Michael’s Basilica, Hildesheim. The photo was taken by Flickr user Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons.