“The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it”

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The villain of the parable, of course, is the Pharisee, who turns up his nose at the pitiable tax collector, saying, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like him,” among other sinners. And we want to throw stones at the Pharisee. How can he be so self-righteous?

Oh, please! I’m just like the Pharisee, with one small exception: As a good Protestant, I believe that everyone, Pharisee and tax collector alike, must be saved by grace alone through faith alone. Once this happens, however—once we are justified and experience new birth through the Spirit—it’s back on the clock for you and me. It’s back to trying harder, to working harder, to proving ourselves to God all over again.

By all means, the balance sheet was zeroed out when we got saved, but every new sin puts us back in the red, and God’s patience is wearing thin. The “clean slate” that we received when we first placed our faith in Jesus is getting filthier by the minute!

We were like this tax collector at one time… But now that we know better, we are without excuse! So thank God we’re not like him anymore!

Am I exaggerating? Barely!

I think all Christians face this temptation to self-righteousness, but I wonder if it isn’t more acute within Wesleyan Christianity: We’re the ones, after all, who place a greater emphasis on sanctification, on the inward change made possible by the Holy Spirit, than other Protestant traditions. We are not monergists, unlike our Calvinist brethren; we are synergists. We believe Christians willfully participate in our sanctification—even though that participation is also only made possible by God’s grace.

My point is, Wesleyan Christianity tends toward the works righteousness of the Pharisee (not that it ought to, or that it needs to, but that it tends to). I think Wesley himself sees this tendency in his commentary on Luke 18:12. Of the Pharisee’s prayer, he writes: “the sum of this plea is, I do no harm: I use all the means of grace: I do all the good I can.”

Did you catch that? If you’re not a Methodist, you probably don’t recognize that Wesley is saying, in so many words, that the Pharisee is following Wesley’s own “General Rules”! 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Attend to the ordinances of God (another way of saying “use the means of grace”).

It’s as if Wesley recognized the danger of turning even the General Rules into “the Law”!

In my own case, this self-righteousness doesn’t hold others in contempt so much as it holds myself in contempt—for the reasons I cite above! “What’s my problem? Why aren’t I a better person? Why am I still struggling with sin?” In other words, why am I not keeping the Law successfully?

So the Law ends up condemning me all over again; it’s as if I’m back where I started without Christ! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

With this in mind, I’m so grateful for the people at Mockingbird. I’ve already sung their praises recently, but their reflections on the classic Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel is absolutely what I need to hear right now.

Already, I can anticipate the objection: Yes, but the Lutheran tendency is in the opposite direction: toward antinomianism, toward moral laxity, toward “sinning more so that grace may abound.”

I believe that’s true as a tendency. (I’m still a Wesleyan, after all.) But the Mockingbird people are unpersuaded, as they explain here. And I fully affirm their last two points, which self-righteous Methodists like me need to hear:

4. The true antinomian is the one who tries to distort the Law. The one who reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) as “Do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” Or who read “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” as “Tithe ten percent” or “Contribute what you reasonably can.” The very people who accuse others of antinomianism are usually the ones who are themselves denigrating the Law. Because if you want measurable spiritual progress or spiritual accomplishment, you’re going to have lower God’s standard quite a bit.

5. The antidote to antinomianism, therefore, is not to sell people on linear, measurable sanctification, but to preach the Law in all its fullness. The condemning voice of conscience should not be smoothed over by developing good habits, but should be echoed in the pulpit and taken to its extreme, as Christ does in Matthew 5. The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it. Anything less—including using it for exhortation—risks real antinomianism.

Oh, Methodist brothers and sisters: Let yourself be utterly condemned by the Law! Let yourself be utterly condemned by Wesley’s General Rules! Let yourself be utterly condemned by your own pathetic attempts at “measurable spiritual progress”!

And then make your way to the cross of Jesus Christ. Remind yourself that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Remind yourself that Christ was perfect on your behalf! Remind yourself that it’s only through his righteousness, and not your own, that you’re saved, and that even sanctification is by grace alone.

22 thoughts on ““The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it””

  1. Okay, but what of other passages? The parables of the talents. “Be ye therefore perfect.” “If any man will follow me, he must take up his cross.” “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (recognize that this one has “for it is God who works in you,” but still we have to “work” as part of the “equation”). “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Peter’s “add to this” list. Paul’s “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble.” In my opinion, we are given a “clean slate” when we come to God and receive his salvation by grace through faith based on Christ’s sacrifice. But I think I must be more Wesleyan than Baptist as to “what comes after.” We can’t “save ourselves” to any extent. But we then must “appropriate” the Holy Spirit living within us to do good works, contingent upon which are our eternal rewards and punishments. Even the parable of the sheep and the goats focuses on what we “do” for others as to “how we end up.” (That one is a little scary! It appears to affect even salvation itself!) I think the Pharisee and tax collector illustration teaches us not to think we have “made it” (“Brethren, I count not myself to have arrived”) and particularly not to have “made it more” than others, “but this one thing I do, I PRESS ON to the high calling of God.”

    1. I don’t think the Sheep and the Goats rules out salvation by faith alone. We will be judged by our works, but the works we do or don’t do are, in part, or mostly, a sign of the faith we either do or don’t possess. Luke prefaces the parable by saying it’s about people trust in their own righteousness. Our own righteousness plays no role in salvation. I grant that our good works play a role in rewards, of course.

    2. Also, it’s not as if the Pharisee were “partly justified,” as if he hadn’t yet made it all the way, but he were moving in the right direction. No. He isn’t justified at all, whereas the man who possessed no good works at all was fully justified.

    3. Your comment has got me thinking (as usual)! I find this article helpful: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/doctrine-theology/justification/justification-by-faith-part-v-judgment-according-to-works-by-brian-schwertley/ It addresses the relationship between rewards and good works. It’s very Reformed. (Obviously, when it comes to the issue of faith and works, I am also very Reformed even though I’m Arminian. Heck, Wesley was also very Reformed in this way!)

      The gist of the article, which reflects classical Protestant thinking, is that even God’s rewards are a gift of grace. Luke 17:7-10 is pertinent. The good work we do is only the good work that God expects of us, no more, no less: “we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). It never “deserves” payment or reward.

      Here’s Calvin himself on the topic. I agree with him. My Wesleyan tradition does as well: sanctification itself, though a “cooperative” effort, is never our meritorious effort but always initiated and enabled by the Holy Spirit.

      “Scripture shows what all our works deserve when it states that they cannot bear God’s gaze because they are full of uncleanness. What, then, will the perfect observance of the law deserve, if any such can be found, when Scripture enjoins us to consider ourselves unprofitable servants even when we do everything required of us [Lk. 17:10]? For to the Lord we have given nothing unrequired but have only carried out services owed, for which no thanks are due. Yet those good works which he has bestowed upon us the Lord calls ‘ours,’ and testifies they not only are acceptable to him but also will have their reward. It is our duty in return to be aroused by so great a promise, to take courage not to weary in well-doing [cf. Gal. 6:9; 2 Th. 3:13], and to receive God’s great kindness with true gratefulness. There is no doubt that whatever is praiseworthy in works is God’s grace; there is not a drop that we ought by rights to ascribe to ourselves. If we truly and earnestly recognize this, not only will all confidence in merit vanish, but the very notion…. Good works, then, are pleasing to God and are not unfruitful for their doers. But they receive by way of reward the most ample benefits of God, not because they so deserve but because God’s kindness has of itself set this value on them” (Institutes III:XV:3 [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960], 1:790-791).

  2. This is the razor thin line between Calvinism and Arminianism. Between God’s Sovereignty and man’s free will. I believe in both.

    My best understanding is that Salvation is monergistic. God does all the work. After all, we are “Lazarus Dead”, not just sick, and a dead man can do nothing to save himself. However, one nano-second after the saving work of God, we join in the synergistic work of our Sanctification. Our part may start very small, and the part of the Holy Spirit very large, but as we grow in our faith, works and love, our share also grows. We go from babies, taking baby steps, to adult Christians moving more and more boldly in our Christian walk. We learn to witness and share and give and answer for our faith.

    Anyway, that’s my take….

    1. I’m also a synergist when it comes to sanctification, but our “contribution” is always infinitesimally small in comparison to God’s contribution. Moreover, getting back to the original blog post, it’s not as if any of us is coming close to obeying the Law. We’re always falling short, even as we still muster good works, enabled as they are by the Holy Spirit. The article I refer Tom to points out that nothing we do puts God in our debt, such that he owes us a reward. Perish the thought! This is why I agree that even the rewards are God’s gifts of grace.

      1. Not exactly. I don’t believe our works, post-justification, become meritorious because God has removed the taint of sin from them (if that’s, indeed, what Gerstner is saying).

        I believe, instead, that inasmuch as we do good work, post-justification, God graciously chooses to reward them in some way. (What that reward looks like in heaven, who knows? The Bible says very little.)

      2. Also, let’s face it: whatever these rewards are, they must pale in comparison to the gift of salvation itself—and heaven. None of us will be grumbling that we didn’t get rewarded “well enough,” that’s for sure!

      3. I agree with Gerstner. I think Swertley is overthinking the issue of post salvation works; those done in the sanctification process, which I believe is a synergistic experience. Jesus said that we would be judged on what we did with the “talents” we had. I think this is specific to this issue. If we “work” to double, or treble, the “yield” then it will be counted as a credit to us. If we bury I our “talent” or poorly manage it, it will be a demerit on our account. How else can one explain Wesley’s view of our rewards in heaven? He very much believed in rewards for how well we did with our sanctification.

      4. I may not understand Gerstner’s point, then, because I don’t disagree with what you say here. I believe in heavenly rewards, too! I’m not sure how we can’t, given the many verses about them.

        By the way, I quoted Gerstner in my sermon yesterday: “What stands between us and God is not our sins so much as our damnable good works!” Love it!

      5. Brent and Grant, I recognize that my own thoughts on this subject may be a little “unorthodox” in some circles. However, I believe that although God makes faith and our good works possible, and calls us to them, we, ourselves, have a “role to play” in bringing both of these “to the table.” Jesus said of Mary Magdalene, “YOUR faith has saved you.” Not, “I gave you the faith with which you were then enabled to be saved because I totally worked all that.” And he often said of people that their faith was what enabled them to be healed. Of course it is God who saves and God who heals, but he does so based at least somewhat on something (however minute by comparison) that he sees in our hearts responsive to his appeal and his “encounter” with us. “I tell you that I have not seen such great faith, no, not is all Israel.” Was Jesus just complimenting himself, for what he had provided to this centurion? Or was he actually pointing out something this centurion had that other persons in the audience–including, presumably, other followers–did not have?

        With respect to works, again, God makes them possible and gives us the “wherewithal” to perform them (“What do you have that you did not receive?”), but it seems clear to me that God is again looking for something from, or within, us in his granting differing rewards to different saints based on their works. Otherwise, why would he not simply grant all saints exactly the same rewards? Is God discriminating against himself? “God forbid!”, as Paul would say in the King’s English. “Will not the Judge of all the earth judge justly?”, Abraham asks. “Will he treat the righteous the same as the wicked? Never!” So, rewards based on works have to result from actual differences among the saints “in themselves” (albeit empowered by the Spirit, and certainly more graciously bestowed than actually deserved standing on their own).

      6. Tom, those are all excellent points you make. However, we may be doing what I accused Swertley of, which is over thinking this.

        For my own part, I have a natural bias against putting too much emphasis on “man’s free will”. My concern is that we make it man’s decision which is final in determining whether God will save us. May it never be!! We are Lazarus dead and wicked from birth. Our ability to do anything good, without God first enabling us, is basic too my understanding. Others think that this view diminishes the relationship somehow; by making us robots?? I just don’t see it that way.

        So I say again; Beware of the pride in making too much of your “Free Will”.l

      7. Well, not to belabor the point, but in the Baptist tradition of “accept Jesus as your Savior,” our part would indeed be pretty “minimal,” but it would still be some action on our part to “seal the deal.” I think we should, conversely to what you say as reasoning that we are “Lazarus dead,” say instead we are like Mary Magdalene, a sinner, but capable of appropriating forgiveness by “coming to Jesus” with our admission of our sinfulness. Why else would Jesus say, “Your faith has saved you”? Just recognizing that we are sinners in need of a Savior may, again, be “minimal” to the transaction, but necessary, and, conjoined with the tremendous contribution of Christ and the Spirit, collectively “sufficient.” I really can’t accept the contrary view that God just “arbitrarily” (from any standpoint that we can see) “picks and chooses” which sinners he will redeem with nothing at all involved in the persons themselves as to whom he says “yes” to. “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” “I tell you that this man went home justified.”

      8. Tom, I totally understand the need to feel that we contribute something. But, God is not arbitrary. God knows what he is doing. The Book says that God knew “the end” before he initiated “the beginning”. When I try and wrap my puny little man brain around that, I just stammer.

        What’s the old saying? Act like it all depends on you, and Pray like it all depends on God.

        I do behave as if it all depended on me. It’s the way God wired me. At one point in my life, I also believed it all depended on me. I now believe it all depends on God. But, I believe that God intends for me to take responsibility for my actions. That’s why there are rewards for what we do with our talents. And that’s where this thread of discussion all started out. It’s God’s plan that will prevail; not man’s.

  3. Also, while it is true that Jesus points out in a “parable” that we are simply doing what we are supposed to do, and therefore not “deserving” of any awards at all, that does not mean that God will in fact refrain from rewarding (obviously), or that God’s rewards will be otherwise than commensurate with the services provided by the servants (as graciously enhanced). Further, we can hardly think that rewards are of little consequence, given Christ’s admonition that we are to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

  4. Brent, I “speed read” the Schwertley article you tagged, and I think it is helpful. However, I note this comment of his (which I believe he is quoting someone else, but apparently approvingly): “Here the point is that we are unprofitable servants. This sentence so patently excludes every possible notion of merit and claim….” Along the lines of an earlier comment to this post, I agree that we have no “claim of right” on God to give us any rewards, but nevertheless that observation does not mean we have no “merit” which God relies upon to grant them.

    As an analogy, I am not obligated to give my children any allowance–they should be thankful enough with free room and board!! However, if I institute an allowance “system” based on whether they perform various “chores,” when they do perform, I am “obliged” to “reward” them with their allowances, based on the system that I chose to set up out of my graciousness. And this is not without regard to any “merit” on their part–I chose the allowance system based precisely on what I thought ought to accompany certain “virtuous” conduct on their parts.

    Similarly with God, I think, he chose out of his grace to create a “rewards system” (I believe from Genesis to Revelation this is borne out) based on what God considered to be virtuous conduct on the part of his human creatures. So in that sense we do “earn” and “deserve” the rewards once we comply with God’s demands. The passage about “unprofitable” operates to remind us that God had no “preexisting” obligation to grant us anything–he set the “system” up solely out of his grace. But surely he also did so because he believed that certain conduct was “meritorious” and should be rewarded. I can’t think of any other reason why he would have instituted such a system. Christ comes with his rewards with him, and “he will reward each according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” So, I am still of the view that by God’s grace we “bring something to the table” with respect to rewards. Evidently, God thinks this is significant because he keeps pointing out rewards and punishments throughout.

    By similar token, I believe we bring something to the table with respect to salvation–even if it is nothing more than to recognize that we “need a Savior.” Coming bearing nothing is still coming (as Mary Magdalene did–actually, in fact, in her case she brought something to show her gratitude). I just cannot avoid the conclusion that God, by his grace, “looks for something” on the part of us human creatures based on which he bestows ALL “rewards”; including, particularly, that SUPREME reward above all of salvation and a heavenly destination. If everything else we might receive should pale in comparison (though evidently in fact important), how likely is it that God would bestow that greatest of all based on “nothing”?

    1. I’m not sure I disagree with anything here, Tom. I like your emphasis on a “system of rewards” based on grace. I would only emphasize that the discussion of rewards does not pertain to the gift of salvation itself, and the fact that we are rewarded, out of God’s grace, doesn’t change the fact that we remain utterly condemned under the Law—apart from Christ’s righteousness.

      As to your last sentence, ask a Calvinist! 😉 I would add two things: that “something” that God looks for is very small, and it’s impossible without God’s first taking the initiative of what we Methodists call “prevenient grace.” We affirm “total depravity”—that left to our own devices we can do nothing to save ourselves. We Methodists say, however, that God leaves no one “to their own devices.” Everyone in the world receives some measure of grace to respond to God’s invitation. Beyond that, yes, the response is ours.

    1. Tim Tennent, the president of Asbury Seminary, once said that Calvinists view prevenient grace like a guided missile, whereas Arminians view it as radioactive fallout from a nuclear bomb. I get his point. 🙂

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