Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Slacktivist on grace and works

Slacktivist's latest Left Behind entry is an excellent discussion of grace, works, and salvation and really nails some of the problems I have with how conservative theology often addresses these subjects. I've written on this topic myself, particularly in my Skittles Theology entry, but as usual, Slacktivist presents a better argument.

Jesus makes it very clear that it is God's job, not ours, to distinguish between true believers and false ones. But every time he discusses this distinction -- every time -- he does so on the same basis as in the passage above, on the basis of deeds. Not on mental allegiance to a series of particular propositions. Not on saying "Lord, Lord" or another set of magic words in the sinner's prayer.

Consider Jesus' most expansive discussion of this subject in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The righteous sheep are separated from the unrighteous goats exclusively on the basis of their deeds -- specifically on the basis of how they responded to the neediest, the poor, the hungry, the sick, imprisoned and homeless.

The remarkable, but little remarked on, aspect of this story is that Jesus suggests two and only two categories of people. The first type, the sheep, do his will, but have no idea who he is. The goats, by contrast, know who Jesus is and claim to follow him, but they do not do his will.

We reflexively fill in the other, unmentioned quadrants when we read this story, the ones that contain the categories of people we're most accustomed to thinking of. Surely, logically, we reassure ourselves, there must also be people who claim to follow Christ and do so, and people who do not know who Christ is and do not do his will. But the story makes no mention of such people. This is part of what makes the story so unsettling, a perfect example of what it means to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Wow. I'd never really thought of it that way. Not that part about the sheep who don't know who he is but do his will; I've believed that for a long time. It's similar to C.S. Lewis's take on this topic in The Final Battle from the Narnia Chronicles where Aslan (Christ) tells a follower of Tash (Satan) that he was, in truth, Aslan's follower because he followed Aslan's will and not Tash's, even though he followed Tash's name. However, the idea of there only being two categories, and that claiming to follow Christ is mutually exclusive with actually following him is a new one. I don't think that's really true, and I'm not sure Slacktivist is saying that it is, but it is interesting and unsettling, as he points out, that Jesus, true to form, criticizes the religious first. We are, after all, the ones who should know better.

Perhaps what Jesus was pointing out is that often those who talk about following him the most are the ones too busy talking about it to actually be doing it.



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