Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Ayres’

Self-improvement is killing me

December 4, 2015

The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. – St. Paul

We Methodists talk a lot about sanctification. Our emphasis on this doctrine distinguishes Methodism from other Protestant traditions more than anything. Heaven knows, no other Christian tradition besides the Wesleyan movement (of which our Holiness brethren are part) has routinely spoken of “perfection,” the completion of the process of sanctification, as a real-live possibility on this side of heaven.

But we are also children of the Reformation. Even sanctification, we say, is as much a free gift as justification. As with justification, the only thing we offer is our consent, which itself is made possible only by the Holy Spirit.

That sounds nice, I guess. But I think I’m finally able to articulate something that I’ve been sensing within myself for a while: I have twisted this doctrine of grace into something it was never supposed to be: a list of rules, a means of self-justification, a program for self-improvement.

And it is killing my spirit.

I have turned sanctification into the Law all over again. As the apostle Paul describes, the “old man” within me keeps thinking this Law will bring life, but it only condemns me and brings death.

Hence, when I read these words, courtesy of Mockingbird Ministries and the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, about my corrupted view of sanctification, I literally cried:

Sanctification is thus simply the art of getting used to justification. It is not something added to justification. It is not the final defense against a justification too liberally granted. It is the justified life. It is what happens when the old being comes up against the end of its self-justifying and self-gratifying ways, however pious. It is life lived in anticipation of the resurrection.

Sanctification, at least my mistaken view of it, is the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” Yes! “Cheap grace” and “easy-believe-ism,” I say, can easily sneak in the door if we’re not careful! Let’s put a hedge of good works around God’s grace, so we can charge more for it!

Forde continues:

God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…

… as my experience bears witness.

So I’m done with it. God must do the sanctifying or it won’t happen at all. I can’t do it myself. I’m not even sure I can safely talk about sanctification anymore. As Forde says, even talking about it is dangerous and seductive to the “old man” of Romans 6.

But not just Forde… Listen to what John Piper says, in this post entitled “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?” (I assumed the question was rhetorical before I read the article, since we have to contend with the Book of James.) But it isn’t for Piper:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level. You may settle it in a group with some sentences that are biblically grounded, but the reason it won’t be settled experientially is because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…

So it’s not that it isn’t true, Piper says. James is right: faith without works is dead. It’s just that the moment we hear that—that the “faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone”—it awakens the legalist within. So now, having been born again, we climb back on the hamster wheel of works righteousness and try to earn salvation all over again. It’s true: we begin the process of sanctification “in the black” on God’s ledger, but we very quickly find ourselves in the red; then comes guilt; then comes self-condemnation. Satan, who—remember—is literally “the Accuser,” says to us: “You call yourself a Christian? You’re not good enough! You’re too big a sinner!”

Maybe that shouldn’t happen, but it did to me—as it has to many others. Otherwise, why are Forde and Piper and many others talking about it?

I took a class on the theology of Augustine, taught by a conservative English Catholic scholar named Lewis Ayres. Augustine was the chief opponent of the fifth century heresy of Pelagianism. At least a few times during the semester, Dr. Ayres complained about the sermons that his priest preached: “It’s just one Pelagian message after another! Do this! Do that!”

Are we Methodist pastors guilty of the same thing?

Even as I write this, the “old man” within me is protesting: “James chapter 2! Don’t forget about James chapter 2!” I promise I’m not. But the guilt-ridden message of “sanctification by self-improvement” isn’t more likely to motivate anyone to good works than the life-giving gospel of free grace! In fact, even if it could, this very motivation would nullify the good work before it started. Love is freely given, never compelled.

My journey home to evangelicalism

August 28, 2014

This week, I had lunch with a clergy friend, who, like me, is an evangelical United Methodist. Unlike me, he didn’t go to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary like my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology. He heard me say once that while I graduated happily liberal on most theological questions back in 2007, I changed: within a few years, I became a conservative (by UMC standards) evangelical Christian. I had what I’ve called an “evangelical reawakening,” having returned, in many ways, to the evangelicalism of my youth—only far better informed. It was nothing less than a conversion experience.

My friend wanted to hear about my journey. What accounted for the change?

Many things, I’m sure, but below are the three most important. Two of them were seeds planted at Candler itself, in spite of its theological liberalism, which later bore fruit.

Dr. Steffen Lösel

Dr. Steffen Lösel

First, I took a systematic theology class (CT503) that was taught by a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel. Dr. Lösel had us study the work of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He told our class on Day 1 that one critical task of pastors and theologians is to be able to defend the faith. He said that in modernity, we can’t easily separate the work of theology from apologetics.

On that note, he justified belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on historical and scientific grounds. Frankly, this shocked me. I half-expected him to describe the resurrection as some kind of spiritual event that took place in the hearts of the disciples—a “mystery” that we shouldn’t try to solve. But no: while the resurrection was more than merely physical, it was at least physical. The tomb was empty, and the disciples encountered the risen Lord.

He also taught the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. While we shouldn’t be surprised that Christianity shares much in common with other religions—there is, after all, one Spirit performing the revelatory work—the revelation of God in Christ is definitive. Indeed, as Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Moreover, we’re not respecting other religions if we disregard their competing truth claims and say, “All these paths to God are equal. We really believe the same things.”

Dr. Lösel also affirmed the reality of hell and the Second Coming.


Dr. Lewis Ayres

Another professor at Candler planted an important seed in my mind: Lewis Ayres, a Patristics scholar. Dr. Ayres, an English Catholic, was a well-known theological conservative on the faculty (there weren’t many!), which I didn’t know when I signed up for his class on the theology of Augustine. During one lecture he described Augustine’s view of Satan and the demonic realm. At the time, I didn’t believe in a literal Satan, so I objected: “I don’t need the devil to tempt me to sin—I sin just fine on my own! I don’t understand what role Satan or demons play in human sin!”

He looked at me and said, “Just because you don’t understand what role Satan plays doesn’t mean Satan isn’t real!”

I remember being shocked: this very smart scholar, who more than holds his own, intellectually, alongside the faculty at this mainline Protestant seminary, believes in a literal Satan! I’m sure he wasn’t the only faculty member who did so, but he was the only one who admitted that he did—who didn’t speak as if the demonic merely symbolized evil in our world.

The third and possibly most important influence on my evangelical reawakening was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. While acknowledging the debt to resurrection-affirming Wolfhart Pannenberg (Dr. Lösel’s protégé), Wright argues that Pannenberg concedes far too much ground to modernity. Wright’s massive book, around 1,000 pages, explored historical evidence for the resurrection much more deeply. Wright argues that the evidence we possess for the resurrection is precisely the evidence we should expect if the bodily resurrection of Christ happened. Moreover, Wright wrote this and his many other academic books within the realm of critical, as opposed to evangelical, scholarship.

Reading Wright blew me away. And unlike Lösel and Ayres, Wright is a self-identified evangelical. Intellectual evangelicals? To my shame, thanks in part to Candler, I didn’t know they existed!

My point is, once I began to believe—really believe—that the resurrection happened, that the Bible is telling the truth not only about the resurrection but about the exclusivity of Christ, the Second Coming, Final Judgment, heaven and hell, and Satan, and that I didn’t have to check my brain at the door in order to embrace a high view of the inspiration and authority of scripture, I was ready to become an evangelical.

And so I did… and here I am. I can say, along with Wesley, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.” Or at least I’m trying to!

More on the devil from last Sunday’s sermon

September 29, 2011

As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon, I thought of this classic song by the late, great Keith Green called “No One Believes in Me Anymore.” You can count me as a former devil skeptic. Even as recently as seminary, I seriously doubted that Satan existed. And I was slightly embarrassed by the quaintness of the many New Testament passages that made reference to him or it.

Once, when I was sitting through a lecture on St. Augustine’s theology, the professor—an Oxford-educated Augustinian scholar named Lewis Ayres—made reference to Satan. I protested: “I don’t understand why we need a devil. I sin just fine on my own, without any outside interference! I’m certainly not going to say, ‘The devil made me do it.'”

Dr. Ayres replied, “Of course. But just because you don’t understand what Satan does or how Satan works in the world doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist.”

And he was exactly right. What impressed me was that someone who knew much, much more about theology than I do was not embarrassed to say that he believed in the reality of the demonic. Of course it didn’t hurt that he said it with a beautiful English accent!

Enjoy the song. You’ll appreciate, I hope, what a great pianist and songwriter Keith Green was. He died in a plane crash in 1982.