Faith of the Forsaken

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages several groups of interlocutors in discussions about justice, what it is and whether it is always desirable. Socrates will take a long time to answer the question of what justice is, but he maintains that it is intrinsically valuable. It is always better to be just than unjust. One of Socrates’ friends, Glaucon, wishes to know whether Socrates really believes so.

Glaucon proposes a test. Consider two people, one man perfectly just, and the other perfectly unjust. The unjust man is a virtuoso in his profession and all the external advantages of wealth, friends and power; the just man is the mirror opposite. Glaucon proposes an additional twist, since some of the disputants have claimed that it is better to appear just to others than really to be just. The unjust man is so clever that he is able to convince all onlookers that he is in fact a just man, so that he is lauded and rewarded by all, not only for his deeds but also for his virtue. On his dying day he is enthroned on the praises of the multitude. The just man lives a mean life and is thought unjust by all. Though he does no ill, he is taken for a monster. Universally hated, he is scourged, racked, bound, his eyes gouged out, and finally impaled. What benefit, Glaucon demands, did that man derive from his justice?

Glaucon poses the question hypothetically, but for Plato the issue is factual. The just man deemed unjust is a mildly exaggerated picture of Socrates, his beloved teacher. In Plato’s eyes, Socrates was a godsend, a man of singular wisdom, pure devotion, and unshakable conviction—a just man. Yet, he aroused the ire of the Athenians and was accused of corrupting the youth of the city. Throughout the trial, he refused to compromise his principles or flatter the jury. Sentenced to death, he refused to escape, even though his friends had made arrangements and begged him to flee.

Even as Plato penned Glaucon’s question and Socrates’ answer, he was answering a deeper question burning in his readers’ minds. Knowing all that happened to Socrates, why should anyone want to follow in his footsteps? How can anyone take up the mantle of Socratic philosophy when it seems to have died with him? Appeals to fame, glory, riches, or comfort are ruled out by the historical facts. Justice is its own justifier. The just person is the one who reorients his desires so that nothing is more desirable to him than justice itself. That just man is impervious, because whatever else may be stripped away from him, he retains his justice to the end.

Christianity, no less than Platonism, must give a reason for its existence. Judging from the shelves of Christian bookstores, the prevailing evangelistic strategy is to convince unbelievers that Christianity will make you happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Recently, I saw two books sitting next to each other whose titles may sum up the contemporary Christian experience: Your Best Life Now for Moms by Joel Osteen and 10 Lessons from a Former Fat Girl by Amy Parham. Such an approach may be effective at recruiting followers. The sophists who opposed Socrates were numerous and confident.

Yet, anyone familiar with the historical claims of Christianity will notice a discrepancy. Jesus perfectly exemplified his own teaching. He healed the sick, championed the marginalized, and taught God’s truth. At the end, he was betrayed by a comrade, abandoned by friends, cursed by his people, mocked by his enemies, nailed to a cross, and forsaken by God.

Nor was Jesus’ fate entirely unique. He warned his disciples that they were not above their master, that they too would face persecution. The author of Hebrews devotes a segment of his work to praising faith. After listing magnificent deeds done in faith, he (or she) abruptly changes tone:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Poverty, torture, even death are potential consequences of fervent faith? Glaucon’s challenge echoes in our ears. What good was faith to those saints? What benefit was faithfulness to Jesus?

The Christian answer contains two elements. The first is righteousness. Man was created to walk in perfect righteousness, and in doing so to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Thus, the worst ruin that can befall a man is the loss of righteousness. John Calvin spoke of the twofold grace of union with Christ. In justification, each Christian is immediately reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to his account.  This righteousness is always external to us, divorced from our performance.

But the second grace is sanctification, the process by which our bent, broken souls are restored to an unfallen state. In this process, each believer takes up his or her own cross and walks in Christ’s footsteps. As we are betrayed and abandoned, we take comfort, knowing that we can remain faithful to those we love. As we are maligned, we may speak truth. Tortured, we may heal. We may die hated, but we do not have to die with hate in our hearts. Cursed, our lips may speak forgiveness. Spurned by God in every visible way, we trust him still. Ours is the faith of the forsaken.

The second part of the Christian answer is resurrection. The world returned a guilty verdict on Jesus Christ, but Heaven would not let that stand. The resurrection overrules the world’s judgment and displays the just man as he is. Christ was “raised for our justification.” His verdict reversed is the source of our verdicts reversed and our eventual resurrection. In heaven, there are streets of gold, food in plenty, and the complete lack of misfortune. How then are we not back to the sophists’ argument that one should pursue justice (or faith) for material rewards? The two pieces of our answer, righteousness and resurrection, are not co-ordinate but consequential. Resurrection presupposes righteousness, and not merely because God says so. The message of Eden is that paradise is of no good to unrighteous people. Sooner than later, by greed, pride, and hatred, it will be ruined, and again begins the cycle of Paradise Lost. Paradise is only as good as the people who inhabit it.

In this fragile age between ages, Christians are strangers and pilgrims. Many will find wealth, comfort and happiness by practicing their faith. Others, by the same faith, will meet with unspeakable ends. We can promise unbelievers nothing but righteousness and resurrection. Who would accept such an offer? Those into whom the Spirit of God breathes, convincing them that Christ’s righteousness is all that matters.

Published in: on August 22, 2011 at 8:05 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Machen, Two Ages, and Galatians

J. Gresham Machen wrote a series of articles on the book of Galatians for Christianity Today. His explanation of justification would now be called “Lutheran” or “old perspective.” Proponents of a “new perspective” emphasize Galatians as a story of the dawn of a new age, a new state of affairs inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ. Some of them reason that an eschatological reading of Galatians necessitates modifying the “Lutheran” doctrine of justification, which is individualistic and misleading. Machen notes the eschatological orientation of Galatians, yet maintains its harmony with a traditional doctrine of justification.

The doctrine of the two ages was a well-known Jewish doctrine at the time of our Lord and of His apostles. Ultimately the doctrine had an Old Testament basis in such passages as the prophecy in Isaiah 65: 17-25 regarding the new heavens and the new earth. The later Jews were quite in accordance with Old Testament teaching when they looked forward to a new and glorious age which was to take the place of the present age of misery and sin.

But at this point an important difference enters in. The difference is that according to the Jews a man must be either in one age or in the other, whereas according to Paul (and really also according to Jesus) a man, through Christ, can already, here and now, be free from the present age and a citizen of the future kingdom. In one sense we look to the future for our salvation, but in another sense we have it here and now. Outwardly we are still in the present evil age, but inwardly we are already free from its bondage.

The double aspect of salvation—in one sense, future; in another sense, present—runs all through apostolic teaching, and is quite basic in true Christian life of all ages. Here in Galatians it is especially the present aspect of salvation that is in view. “You have already been made free from the present evil age,” Paul says to the Galatians; “what folly then it is to return into bondage! Christ died to set you free; will you then do despite to His love by becoming again slaves?”

It is a freedom, first of all, from sin—freedom from its guilt and freedom from its power. But the freedom from sin brings also a freedom from this whole evil world. What cares the true Christian what the world may do; what cares he what ill fortune, as the world looks upon it, may bring? These things hold the unredeemed in bondage, but over the redeemed man they have no power.

The Christian does indeed live still in this world. It is a travesty on this Pauline doctrine when it is held to mean that when he escapes, inwardly, from the present evil world by the redeeming work of Christ the Christian can calmly leave the world to its fate. On the contrary, Christian men, even after they have been redeemed, are left in this world, and in this world they have an important duty to perform.

In the first place, they do not stand alone, but are united in the great brotherhood of the Christian Church. Into that brotherhood it is their duty to invite other men by the preaching of the gospel; and they should pray that that preaching, through the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit in the new birth, may be efficacious, and that the great brotherhood may expand yet more and more.

In the second place, Christians should by no means adopt a negative attitude toward art, government, science, literature, and the other achievements of mankind, but should consecrate these things to the service of God. The separateness of the Christian from the world is not to be manifested, as so many seem to think that it should be manifested, by the presentation to God of only an impoverished man; but it is to be manifested by the presentation to God of all man’s God-given powers developed to the full. That is the higher Christian humanism, a humanism based not upon human pride but upon the sold foundation of the grace of God.

But these considerations do not make any less radical the step of which Paul speaks. It remains true that the Christian has escaped from this present age—from this present world with all its sin and all its pride. The Christian continues to live in the world, but he lives in it as its master and not as its slave. He can move the world because at last he has a place to stand. (30-32)

New perspective exegetes have offered genuine insights, but as a rule have exaggerated their own novelty. A thorough survey of commentaries on Galatians would show that many older Protestant commentators did indeed recognize the redemptive-historical dimensions of Galatians, but insisted they serve the doctrine of justification rather than the other way around. As in a fine musical piece, so much hinges on where the accent falls.

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,