Big Salvation Words: Repentance

And so we come to my final big salvation word: Repentance. In case you haven’t figured it out, this little collection of essays are a Lenten meditation. It might seem odd to choose the word “repentance” on this day after Easter. “Shouldn’t you be talking about victory, or new life, or bunnies?” you ask.

Ah, but in truth I am talking quite precisely about our new life in Christ that is made possible in Christ’s resurrection. For millennia those intimate with the spiritual practice of the church has said unequivocally that the Christian life is a life of repentance.

Once God’s divine life and light begin to flow into our being the secret corners of our life begin to be revealed. Once the light is turned on, we see that we need to change. Once we are given the gift of new life, we have the ability to change, or more precisely, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit within us.

And so I repent: I begin to clean out the cobwebs in the corners I have carefully avoided for much of my life. And as I clean out the cobwebs, I find another secret door that I have forgotten about. As I open it and God’s light shines in, I discover that I need to repent all over again. This leads to more inner hallways and doors, more spider webs, and alas, more repentance.

Said in this way, it all sounds rather dreary. But in fact, it is the most joyful thing a Christian can do.

Sometimes we are seduced into thinking that the Christian life is mostly about “fellowship” (ie, coffee and croissants at the coffee shop with my church buddies), “service” (ie, serving meals at the local homeless shelter), spiritual growth (reading Christian blogs, listening to Christian podcasts, reading the Bible), and thinking good thoughts that will chase out the negative thoughts.

None of these are bad things, but too often we settle for the good and never get around to the best things. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9f). This can only happen in the midst of repentance.

I remember renting my first apartment, a dark, dingy thing that was dirty and bug infested, but something I could afford. I was pretty depressed. But a group of college friends came over and helped my roommate and I clean it up. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down and new bright curtains were put up. Light bulbs were replaced. The carpet was cleaned. Wash buckets of pine-smelling cleaner were handed out. By the time we ordered pizza that evening, we were shocked to discover that we actually had a nice little apartment.

That is a picture of true Christian repentance and the resulting authentic Christian joy. Christ is risen. His light shines. Make the most of it. Amen.

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Big Salvation Words: mercy

If you’ve been paying attention for the last month or so as I’ve considered a variety of “big salvation words,” you might realize that asking God for mercy implies much more than, “A little help, please?” At the root of mercy is the double edged sword of divine help through the process of God unmasking everything I am and have ever done (as the Samaritan woman discovered at the well). After a severe warning about disobedience, the Letter to the Hebrews describes it this way:

Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from morrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:11-16)

When read in context, this final verse inviting us to God’s mercy sounds much more ominous than when it stands alone. So far in this series I have mostly talked about the back side of divine activity in the world – judgment, wrath, the fire of love – and now as we turn to the front side, we find exactly the same themes coming to the foreground.

Mercy is not the act of God accepting us as we like to imagine ourselves, it is God accepting us as we are so that he can transform us into his likeness. Ephesians says that there is a necessary process of putting off the old nature and putting on (or being renewed in) the new nature (Eph 44:17ff). I’m quite sure that none of us understand just how devastating “putting off our old nature” is going to turn out to be. We have an amazing ability to view ourselves in the most positive light possible and the result is that we underestimate just how difficult the transformation will turn out to be.

In Walter Wangerin’s dark and beautiful novel, The Book of Sorrows, a follow up to The Book of the Dun Cow, one of the characters, a bastard beast who is half snake and half rooster (ie, old nature and new nature) comes to the point where he needs to shed his snake skin and become a rooster. The process is is itchy; it is painful; it takes a long time; it’s smelly; and he becomes dismayed and regrets the process:

Welcome to divine mercy.

God is in the business of saving us, but he is not in the business in saving that particular persona that we are so fond of, that we show to our friends in order that they will think we are a nice person, nor is God in the business of saving our work persona, which exudes excellence and confidence to our boss. God is in the business of stripping off the snake so that he can save the real me that buried deep beneath my various personas and self-delusions.

The practical effect is that if I want to actually experience divine mercy, I need to actually experience my true inner self which is wicked, deceitful, and (here one can add any number of other synonyms for sin) …

Mercy is truly all glory and light and happiness. Divine mercy doubly so. But that light is at the end of the tunnel of repentance. In short, deep inside your secret self, you desperately want divine mercy. Furthermore, you should absolutely pursue divine mercy; you should pray, asking God for his mercy. But beware. The road to mercy fully and absolutely embracing us is arduous. Pray this prayer with your eyes wide open. Pray this prayer with the knowledge that Aslan is a wild Lion (in Lucy Pevensie’s famous words in the Narnia Chronicles). As the aphorism goes, “Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.”

Big Salvation Words: “Redemption” pt. 2

chrisfarleyquotesIn the previous essay I explained why our “redemption” is a bit ironic (and therefore in quotes). In this essay I want to consider a second reason why we might want to keep those quotation marks around this Big Salvation Word. A cynic might look at the Christians all around and say that salvation is pretty meaningless because the Christians are no better than everyone else. Even Paul is frustrated by this reality. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

Our redemption has the odd character of having arrived while at the same time being something that will arrive in the future. Our redemption is complete but not yet consummated. As a result, we live out our faith in a strange “already but not yet” existence in which we are saved, but not yet, we are victors, and yet suffer under the bondage of sin.

In order to sort out this strange state of affairs, Protestant theology has typically divided salvation into three phases: justification (past tense, we are saved), sanctification (perfect tense, we are being saved) and glorification (future tense, we will be saved). Our seeming bondage to sin can be slowly overcome (we are being saved) and will ultimately be revealed at the consummation of all things (we will be saved). But this division is problematic.

Let’s be clear that any attempt to fully describe our salvation in limited human categories is bound to fail because salvation is a divine act the fullness of which lies beyond our grasp. The classic Protestant division of justification, sanctification, and glorification attempts to describe things from the perspective of linear time but fails to account for the reality of God outside of time and the possibility that God’s acts are not linear in the same manner that our human perception of them are.

It is this idea of God outside of time that Karl Barth focuses on. Consider the three days in the tomb. Why did Jesus spend three days dead? Christ needed only a few moments in death to defeat death. It wasn’t literally a three-day struggle from which he emerged victorious. The three days in the tomb is not for God’s sake it is for our sake. If Jesus would have died on the cross and then been resurrected while the Centurions were removing him from the cross, everyone (including the disciples who pretty much doubted everything at this point in time) would have assumed that he never died at all but only swooned. Three days, on the other hand, was evidence for us that he was truly dead. But seen from the perspective of Christ in the tomb, “the sacrifice which redeems the world is already as completely behind him as the grace of God the Father in his reawakening is before him” (CD IV/1, p. 323).

Similarly, there is no conceptual need for a time of the Church, the period from the mighty acts of salvation (death, resurrection, ascension, coming of the Holy Spirit) to that time when Christ will ultimately come again in the consummation of all things. Salvation has already arrived and is completely behind us, yet we wait to be saved because our salvation remains before us. Rather than seeing the time of the Church as progressive (past, present, and future salvation), Barth describes it as an overlap of two times (p. 322).

Because of these “two times,” there are two things happening simultaneously. On the one hand we are saved; we are alive; we have the sanctifying Holy Spirit living within us. On the other hand, we are engaged in a pitched battle against Sin and Death. The battle is a holding action, but it is not one that we can actually win (although, in the overlapping time of the future, it has already been won on our behalf). Rather we battle away, waiting for that time when the overlapping time of the past comes to a final end, and Christ ultimately and finally and triumphantly defeats Sin and Death.

Our goal, when viewed from the perspective of two overlapping times, is not sanctification, that is to get better and better, but rather to continue the fight. Some days we make progress against the enemy and some days the enemy makes progress against us, but our fight is a patient one, as we await the overwhelming force of Christ himself.

I grew up in a Christian tradition in which sanctification was a big deal. When I became a Presbyterian I discovered it was not a focus of theirs. John Calvin, while on the one hand embracing the doctrine of sanctification, was, on the other hand, rather cool toward the actual process of it. Karl Barth managed to get to the heart of Calvin’s nervousness in a way that Calvin was never able to express well.

If we live our Christian lives with only the progressive idea of redemption in mind, we can begin to be seduced by images of grandeur, that we can actually defeat (in the sense of a final defeat) the devil once and for all, that we can finally overcome our passions once and for all, that we can be holy, and faithful, and loving and joyful, once and for all. And when we fail to do this, we then tend to drift toward John Bunyan’s famed slough of despond and begin to think of ourselves as failures.

If, on the other other hand, we live our Christian lives keeping the idea of the two distinct times in mind, we then do all the same things such as fight evil, work to overcome our passions, become more like Christ, but we understand that there is nothing particularly progressive about it. It’s a day to day slog yesterday being pretty much the same as tomorrow. But we do this within the context of Christian hope, with the sure understanding that this time is coming to an end and our true Victor, Christ, is coming. Life ceases to be a slog and becomes a matter of faithfulness buoyed by hope, even when we see no progress.

And so it is that “redemption” remains bracketed off. It is here, but not yet here. It is accomplished but yet we wait for its arrival. It’s not fully accomplished and so it remains “redemption” awaiting the time that our Savior removes the shroud of the quotations marks and we will be able to gaze upon him face to face.