God's holiness is not an unloving holiness, and God's love is not an unholy love. It is only by keeping these two primary moral qualities of the divine being closely related that we may rightly behold the character of God. (p. 98)
Grace works ahead of us to draw us toward faith, to begin its work in us. Even the first fragile intuition of conviction of sin, the first intimation of our need of God, is the work of preparing, prevening grace, which draws us gradually toward wishing to please God. Grace is working quietly at the point of our desiring, bringing us in time to despair over our own unrighteousness, challenging our perverse dispositions, so that our distorted wills cease gradually to resist the gift of God.
The faithful have no dread of using the traditional language of the church. Terms like incarnation and resurrection need to be explained, not avoided.
Some contemporary theology has been enamored with the heady idea of an imagined freedom that functions without any law or norm or rule of obligation. The technical name for this idea is antinomianism. This yen for freedoms other than Christ's freedom has compounded the problems in pastoral theology. Pastoral practice has at times been exceedingly ready to be guided by this antinomian tendency in theology that implies: if God loves you no matter what, then your own moral responses to God's absolute acceptance make little or no difference; God is going to love you anyway, so assert your individual interest, express yourself, do as you please, and above all do not repress any impulses. It is on the basis of this normless, egocentric relativism that much well-intended liberal pastoral practice has accommodated to naturalism, narcissism, and individualism. It has therefore steered consistently away from any notion of admonition, hoping to avoid 'guilt trips.' But ironically, guilt is more likely to be INCREASED by the lack of timely, caring admonition. For if there is no compassionate admonition, we tend to hide our guilt in ways that make it worse.
God loves us toughly enough not to allow us to be happy with our sins. The recollection of sin rightly brings misery of conscience. How else could moral awareness be saved from sentimentality? The deepest human happiness, we learn, is grounded in holiness - God's holy love and our responsive attempts to reflect it fittingly.
To the extent that we are trapped by the overvaluing, idealizing tendency, we are not free fully to celebrate the limited but real goods of creation. Idolatry by definition is not an accurate assessment of creaturely goods, but an overvaluing of them so as to miss the richness of their actual, limited values. If I worship my tennis trophies, my Mondrian, my family tree, my Kawasaki, or my bank account, then I do not really receive those goods for what they actually are - limited, historical, and finite - goods which are vulnerable to being taken away by time and death. When I pretend that a value is something more than it is, ironically I value it less appropriately than it deserves. Biblical psychology invites us to relate ourselves absolutely to the absolute and relatively to the relative.
A delicate balance is required: keep the penitent tautly close to the point of recognizing sin, and then allow the relief of that pressure to flow through forgiveness. Confession increases this tautness, only to clear the path for release.
Sins of ignorance or infirmity are to be admonished in a different way than intentional sins of malice of intention. The assurance of forgiveness is not to be offered carelessly by those whose conscience is seared, but to penitents who come contritely to the table of the Lord.
Sins that have been completely absolved on one occasion sometimes on other occasions cannot be completely forgotten or set aside. They may continue to have a ripple effect. But it is comforting to realize that they are no longer remembered by God, even if traces remain in human memory.
While the memory of guilt is far from pleasant (like 'wormwood and gall'), it has the curative intent of restoring us into an awareness of the constancy of God's love, new every morning. God's mercy is not spent even with our worst misdeeds.
Christian consciousness experiences itself in a curious sense as LIBERATED TO FAIL, without intolerable damage to self-esteem and without any reduction of moral seriousness. We are free to be inadequate, free to foul things up, and yet affirm ourselves in a more basic sense than the secular moralist or humanistic idealist (who can affirm themselves only on the basis of merits and accomplishments. We are free to choose and deny finite values, free to take constructive guilt upon us and to see it as an inevitable and providentially given aspect of our fallen human condition.All that we have said leads us to the pinnacle of this good news: In Jesus Christ we need no longer be guilty before God. It is only before our clay-footed gods that we stand guilty!
Before whom am I guilty? Myself and my gods. But before God? I would be guilty before God IF God had not disclosed himself as forgiving, taking my place, rendering a verdict of pardon upon me. But upon that IF hinges the force of justification by grace through faith alone. For precisely amid our failure to actualize values we mistakenly imagine as ultimate, God himself continues to perceive us AS IF we were clothed in Christ's own righteousness. The Reformation formula, simul peccator et justus, meant: I am a sinner, deserving condemnation for my idolatry; but from God's point of view I am AT THE SAME TIME pardoned, regarded as if the charge against me were canceled out! the final verdict is thus not the one I give myself or the one that may be given in the courts of law or gossip or peer pressure. Rather, it is what God himself has decided about my situation, how he has regarded and perceived me. Through God's own incomparable initiative, our sin is not remembered against us, even though we may oddly persist in remembering it against ourselves.
Neurotic guilt scans the horizons of the past relentlessly seeking out the most deplorable, hideous, and culpable acts which are least consistent with one's self image. This process is similar to the infinite passion of intensified anxiety for seeking the worst conceivable possibilities in order to alert the whole organism to potential danger.
Does biblical psychology, then, merely ask us to value good things a little less? Does the Bible seek a reduction of guilt by an overall deflation of the currency of moral ideals, so we can live more comfortably with an uneasy conscience? That would exaggerate a valid point. Although the Bible holds that no finite relationship is of infinite value, it does not embrace an extreme ascetic view that the source of happiness lies essentially in the reduction of desire. Some ascetic strategies try to diminish desire and reduce all valuing so as not to allow any loss to become an overwhelming disappointment. According to this view, the less one values created goods, the happier one is.In contrast, life-affirming Christianity hopes that love, desire, and appreciation of limited values can be increased or decreased to the measure of their real proportional value. Jesus does not call for a stark reduction of all finite valuing merely as a preventative measure against disappointment. He calls for a love of good things with an awareness that they exist within the boundaries of birth and death, and are therefore under the judgment of the giver and source of all value (Matt. 6:19-21).
The Christ event did not in that sense CHANGE the will of God, but rather it more clearly expressed God's eternal will toward the whole of history.
If God absolutely and pretemporally decrees that particular persons shall be saved and others damned, apart from any cooperation of human freedom, then God cannot in any sense intend that all shall be saved, as 1 Timothy 4:10 declares. The promise of glory is conditional on grace being received by faith active in love.
The Spirit of God draws or leads the sinner from one phase to another, gradually, in proportion as one is found having a disposition to responsive hearing. Grace flows ordinarily from prevenient grace through the grace of baptism through the grace of justification toward sanctifying grace leading toward consummation in glory. The power by which one cooperates with grace is grace itself. In this way God draws all to himself, eliciting a hunger for righteousness and a desire for truth.
In this sense every serious choice has a tragicomic dimension. For it is impossible to be a human being without choosing, and it is impossible to choose without value denials, and it is impossible to deny values without guilt. That is a very simple though, but it forms the core definition of guilt: an awareness of significant value loss for which I know myself to be responsible. Guilt is the self-knowing of moral loss.
The moment of confession is not merely when one hears another pronounce the words: God forgives you, or 'in God's name I absolve you.' Rather it is that point at which the sinner unfeignedly experiences himself as truly judged and pardoned by God.
One trains the eye of confession most closely on what is hurting. If sin is present it will be aching. Confession begins where the raw anguish of conscience is rubbing against the primordial awareness of God's holiness.
The confessor can nullify the exquisitely seasonable moment of confession by talking instead of listening. When he sees pedagogy and advice as more important than simple listening, he diverts the stream of confession.
Protestants at one time were confident that their free form of confession was a vast improvement upon Catholic private confession to a priest because it is voluntary, demystified, and not routinized. But amid the acids of modernity it has volunteered itself right out of existence. Demystification has dwindled into desacralization. The escape from routinization has become a convenient cover for the demise of repentance. The postmodern pastor is trying to learn anew to listen to the deeper range of feelings of others, without forgetfulness of the Word of God.
The deeper irony is that the evidence of sin that are always found in and around the body of Christ may become indirect intimations of its holiness. It could not be a holy church if it had clean hands, as if severed from its task of saving sinners and healing human hurt.
The heart of the difference between cheap-grace doctrines of guilt-free existence and the Christian gospel is this: Modern chauvinism desperately avoids the message of guilt by treating it as a regrettable symptom. Christianity listens to the message of guilt by conscientious self-examination. Hedonism winks at sin. Christianity earnestly confesses sin. Secularism assumes it can extricate itself from gross misdeeds. Christianity looks to grace for divine forgiveness. Modern consciousness is its own fumbling attorney before the bar of conscience. Christianity rejoices that God himself has become our attorney. Modernity sees no reason to atone for or make reparation for wrongs. Christianity knows that unatoned sin brings on misery of conscience. Modern naturalism sees no need for God. Christianity celebrates God's willingness to suffer for our sins and redeem us from guilt.
It is a fanatical notion that we interfere with the Holy Spirit if we make any preparation for prayer. The theological deficit in that assumption is that the Holy Spirit would not have us reason or use foresight or imagination or fit language. It assumes incorrectly that the only part of us that the Spirit wishes to work through is emotive impulsivity and spontaneous feeling-flow. It assumes incorrectly that the Holy Spirit does not also work through discipline, reason, reflection, and organization.
Faith is not a meritorious cause of election, but it is constantly attested as the sole condition of salvation. Faith merely receives the merit of atoning grace, instead of asserting its own merit. God places the life-death option before each person, requiring each to choose. The ekletos are those who by grace freely believe. God does not compel or necessitate their choosing. Even after the initial choice of faith is made, they may grieve and quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).Faith is the condition under which God primordially wills the reception of salvation by all. “He chooses us, not because we believe, but that we may believe; lest we should say that we first chose Him” (Augustine). Faith receives the electing love of God not as if it had already become efficacious without faith, but aware that God’s prescience foreknows faith like all else.In accord with ancient ecumenical consent, predestination was carefully defined in centrist Protestant orthodoxy as:'The eternal, divine decree, by which God, from His immense mercy, determined to give His Son as Mediator, and through universal preaching , to offer Him for reception to all men who from eternity He foresaw would fall into sin; also through the Word and Sacraments to confer faith upon all who would not resist; to justify all believers, and besides to renew those using the means of grace; to preserve faith in them until the end of life, and in a word, to save those believing to the end' (Melanchthon).
early modern Christianity is often portrayed as an essentially European religion. This is regrettable because classic Christianity has its pre-European roots in cultures that are far distant from Europe and that preceded the development of early modern European identity, and some of its some of its greatest minds have been African.
There are many who occasionally attend church and who are trying experimentally to be Christians, yet are unable to identify well or define accurately the central truths of Christian teaching. The knowledge they have of the Christian tradition may have come chiefly through hymns. Their strong and sincere feelings are not matched with serious biblical or historical reflection on those feelings. Religious feelings are, indeed, crucial to the deeper learning of Christian truth, but they easily become superficial and narcissistic if the mind of Christ is not a mentor to natural religious impulse. The loss of center in Christian education is arguably due to a serious default of pastoral leadership; when the teaching elder does not teach, the effect is felt throughout the entire Christian congregation.
Theology is the study of God. The study of God is simply to be enjoyed for its own incomparable subject, the One most beautiful, most worthy to be praised. Life with God delights in its very acts of thinking, reading, praying and communing with that One most worthy to behold, pondered and studied, not for its written artifacts or social consequences but for the joy in its object.
There is a quality of lightness, easiness, and in some sense blatant unseriousness that pervades Classical Christianity's dialogue with modernity. The Christian intellect has no reason to be intimidated in the presence of later-stage modernity. Christianity has seen too many 'modern eras' to be cowed by this one.
Protestant Christianity, whether in its liberal or conservative garb, finds itself waking up each morning in bed with a deteriorating modern culture, between sheets with a raunchy sexual reductionism, despairing scientism, morally normless cultural relativism, and self-assertive individualism. We remain resident aliens, OF the world but not profoundly in it, dining at the banquet table of waning modernity without a whisper of table grace. We all wear biblical name tags (Joseph, David, and Sarah), but have forgotten what our Christian names mean.
I now understand that I would never have been able to become a plausible critic of the absurdities of modern consciousness until I myself had experienced them. I did not become an orthodox believer or theologian until after I tried out most of the errors long rejected by Christianity. If my first forty years were spent hungering for meaning in life, the last forty have been spent in being fed. If the first forty were prodigal, the last forty have been a homecoming.
His [brother in law Jim Hampson] appointment to the Episcopal parish in Wenham, near Gordon College brought them in close touch with leading evangelical faculty members in their pews and church leadership, including Elizabeth Elliot and Addison Leitch. They were instrumental in drawing Jim and and Sarah into the cutting edge of evangelical intellectual leadership, with friendships with Tom Howard and J.I. Packer. My ongoing relationship with Jim Packer, FitzSimons Allison and many other brilliant Anglican evangelicals would not have happened without Jim Hampson. His early influence on me in my transition from modern to classic Christian teaching was immense. While I was trying to demythologize Scripture, he was taking its plain meaning seriously. His strong preaching led him to become one of the founding sponsors and supporters of Trinity School of Ministry in Abridge, Pennsylvania...
Every experienced pastor knows that what the penitent heart says about itself is much more consequential than well-made truthful sentences that shout from the outside of the inner voice of conscience. No element of confession is more crucial than the discipline of listening. The attentive listener is a chosen agent of divine reconciliation. When the moment for keen listening is offered, take it as an inestimable gift.