Monday, January 23, 2012

Trying to do Jesus' Job for Him

In prepping for my Hebrews study, I was struck by how often we in America put things backwards. For example - how often have you heard someone admonish someone to be more "Christlike" -- implying that by our own work and efforts and strivings we become like Jesus.

I translated Hebrews 2:16 thusly: For indeed it is not angels whom He delivers, but He delivers the seeds (spermatos) of Abraham.

In my notes, I explain how I use the awkward in English "seeds" to point out that this is plural, where as the promise is given to the singular seed (Christ), as Paul points out in Galatians.

Christ becomes man... and then, as He as a man has suffered and died and risen and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation - He makes us to be like Him.

The Seed of Abraham makes us to be seeds of Abraham.

It is not that I must make myself more Christlike -- rather, in giving forgiveness and making me holy and righteous, Christ Himself makes me to be like Him. In giving me eternal life, the Risen Christ makes me to be like Him.

It's always Christ's activity - He is the One who comes down to me to lift me up unto Himself.

Why do we spend so much time trying to do Jesus' job for Him? He works for us in the Gospel... why do we rush back to the law and try to do His job for Him?


Matt Cochran said...

Though it often does in American Evangelicalism (and you are right to call them out on it), admonishing someone to be more Christlike does not necessarily imply that it's by our own work/efforts/strivings that we become more like Jesus.

Christ makes us more Christlike--our entire beings. This includes our work/efforts/strivings. We do not become more Christlike by these works, but these works of ours are made more Christlike by Him. It is Christlike to try and be Christlike--this is a tautology. And so I am thankful when appropriately admonished on that count, for I believe Christ when he tells us that "The Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives." It is not a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head (that has been removed by grace through faith); it is a blessed gift of God.

Why then do we spend so much time trying to do Jesus' job for Him? Because he blessed us by giving us his work to do. You do his work when you forgive your flock. I do his work when I feed my neighbor (1st article gifts). We both do his work when we try to do his work which he gave us. No pressure. No do-this-or-else. Simply a loving response to the gracious gift of the cross which naturally motivates us to what we've been given to do.

While I recognize that you broadly addressed "we Americans" in this post, I bring this up because I've noticed a tendency of Lutherans to treat every other Lutheran as though they were really American Evangelicals in Lutheran clothing. While we truly need precisely this admonishment of yours from time to time, it has a different effect on those of us who actually believe in faith alone--especially when we hear it over and over so consistently without anything else to balance it. In particular, it makes us feel like God is saving somebody other than ourselves--like our salvation is far removed from our real lives. After all, I'm the one who works/efforts/strives in loving response. So what exactly is going to be raised on the last day? Some Lutherans are so desperate to keep works away from salvation that the worker doesn't seem like the one who is saved anymore.

For the sake of the faithful, I would admonish Lutherans to paint with a more precise brush. The Apostles weren't afraid to admonish Christians to be more Christlike. Neither should we be. American Evangelicalism admonishes without teaching sufficient theology to interpret that admonishment correctly, but the solution is to do both, not to skimp in the opposite direction.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Let me just note your language - slightly critically. You write: "You do his work when you forgive your flock. I do his work when I feed my neighbor (1st article gifts). We both do his work when we try to do his work which he gave us. No pressure. No do-this-or-else."

Note how Paul phrases a similar idea - "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building."

Paul tends to constantly downplay his own works, his own efforts - yes, they are done, but what's the point of that - we are to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him Crucified - rather than that focus on what I have done let us view that which Christ has done - even though the world sees it as foolishness.


Secondly - You know - I said absolutely nothing about "Lutherans" here. I was not making a statement for or against "Lutherans" or other "Lutherans". Nor was I trying to call out "American Evangelicals". This wasn't about labels or groups - I was speaking to an idea. If it hits home - it hits home. If it doesn't hit, good. But this isn't a matter of being "specific" or trying to label group X or Y -- it's an observation about common patterns of thought that probably aren't the best. That's all - take of it what you will or won't.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Also - when do the Apostles admonish to be "Christlike" -- the closest you get is where we are told that we are imitators... but even that is slightly different.

When the Law is taught, it is focused upon the neighbor, not upon Christ. Works of the Law are focused upon your neighbor - show them love, be focused upon them (and what you do to the least of these brethren of Christ you do to Him).

Our works should be focused on benefiting our neighbor, not shaping us.

Matt Cochran said...

Well, criticism does occasionally happen when you post ideas on the internet. If you are crafting a different kind of blog, then I apologize for being a poor guest here.

To offer a small explanation, you are Lutheran, your audience is mainly Lutheran, and your post concerns "Americans" being told to be Christlike. While that's not exclusive to American Evangelicalism, it's most common there. So I don't think your post is exactly in a vacuum.

In any case, I was just speaking an idea to an audience--which, I would note, is something different than a label. If it hits home, it hits home. If there's no need for it to hit, then great.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Well... my post wasn't in a vacuum - it was addressed primarily to people living in America.


While much about this country can suck, I wouldn't say that we are "in a vacuum"


Actually, I didn't think you were addressing an audience... I figured you were addressing me, as you were sort of trying to correct me. So let me pose a few questions.

1. You write "It is Christlike to try and be Christlike--this is a tautology." Actually... does Jesus *try* to be Christlike. Is it something that Jesus tries to do - does He wake up and say, "What Would I Do?"

I mean, I will agree that it is a good thing to be disciplined - but is our discipline and instruction best focused on trying to mimic our own conception of what Jesus is like (because historically, especially both today and throughout the middle ages) you have tons of devotional material that is focused on an "imitation of Christ" that ends up focusing on man made works... instead of what God Himself teaches and commands. I'd personally rather focus on the 10 commandments and understanding how they apply to my life than trying to be "Christlike".

2. You write: "Why then do we spend so much time trying to do Jesus' job for Him? Because he blessed us by giving us his work to do." Is it that we are doing Christ's work for Him, or is it that Christ is doing His Work in and through us?

This is an important distinction that I think you are missing. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. I am His workmanship. He is the potter and I am the clay.

When I baptize, is it more important that *I* baptize, or that the Word of God is at work in the word which I have been given to speak?

One approach keeps the focus on God - the other focuses upon my acts.

Which is proper - well, we're doing the Transfiguration this week - consider these verses: And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,[a] with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Peter wants a focus on his actions (which are fine and laudable) - the Father wants the focus to be on Christ and listening to Him. I think that should probably be our focus as well.

Matt Cochran said...

I thought your post appeared unbalanced and was delivered to an audience that can sometimes be unbalanced in the same way. My post was an attempt to provide the other side that seemed to be missing. So there was correction (in a sense), it was a direct response, but it was not only a direct address.

Regarding your questions:

1) Because Jesus is fully man, I fully believe that being Christlike took effort on His part. That's simply the kind of beings humans are. We don't get to choose or make ourselves who we are, but being who we are involves effort.

In your post on Ryno, you are correct to note that we become Ryno-like through practice rather than mimicry. At the same time, practice is, itself, Ryno-like because no matter what kind of inborn talents he has, he became great through rigorous practice. Likewise, as Christ grew in wisdom and stature, I have no doubt that He perfectly learned things and perfectly formed habits through perfect practice--including regarding the practice of the 10 commandments.

2) Our experience is that we do Christ's Work. The correct interpretation of that experience is that Christ is doing His Work in and through us. This is the important distinction I think you are missing.

When you baptize, it is indeed more important that the Word of God is at work. However, if you don't actually raise your arm and dribble some water on the infant while proclaiming that Word, you aren't actually baptizing. These actions don't force Christ's hand or do His work for Him; He's simply doing what He promised to do through these actions. When Christ is working through you, He is working through your work, not coincidentally with it. It's not you doing it, but it is through your doing that Christ is doing it.

In short, I believe that, given proper theological instruction, we can focus on Christ without seeming to pretend that large swaths of our lives don't really exist.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Regarding 1 -- Yes, Christ put "effort" in - but what was that effort focused upon? Was it focused upon "self improvement" or "growing" -- or was it focused upon the neighbor?

Or to put it this way - you mention the 10 commandments -- consider the second table. Do the 2nd table focus you upon yourself and your growth, or do they focus you upon serving your neighbor.

Luther described sin as being "incurvatus se" - curved in upon the self.

Regarding 2 - If the correct interpretation of the experience is that it is Christ doing His Work in us and through us... why do you wish to draw a focus back upon our experience instead of it's proper interpretation?

+ + + + + + + + +

I believe that we can focus on Christ in ALL aspects of our lives - indeed, you cannot understand your life truly without being focused upon Christ. Only way things make sense are in His light.