Wednesday, August 31, 2011

working at being holy

On my way back from Mequon the other night I was listening to an interview on the Catholic radio station.  An author was discussing his new book on the lives of various saints.  And in the course of the discussion a statement was made which caught my attention.  It was about how Christians should "work at being holy."  Such phraseology does not quite sound right (or shouldn't anyway) to the Lutheran ear.  It is a window into a basic difference between Lutheran theology and Roman Catholic theology.  To clarify, it might be worth breaking this down into a few basic areas. 

First, let's talk about sin.  When a man sins against God's law, he does not become a little less holy.  Rather, he turns away from God.  Sin results in not merely physical, but also spiritual death, ie, the soul's alienation from God.  The soul is made for communion with its Creator, and when that communion is broken, the soul is effectively in hell.  We might say this state is a living hell, whether or not it is perceived as such.  As Luther said of Adam's spiritual condition after he sinned, "He was in the midst of death and hell."  Sin does not result in being somewhat less holy; it results in utter unholiness, a rupture in one's relationship with God, which must be repaired. 

What, then, is holiness?  Holiness is the blessed life of communion with God.  It is life as it was meant to be, life in its purest form.  If I may borrow a thought from Saint John's Gospel, it is life in its abundance or fullness.  As I say, the holiness of the soul is the state of being in communion with its Creator, to dwell in His presence.  Now let me add, sort of parenthetically, that we may also speak of being in the holy presence of God, when, for example, we approach the altar and take our Eucharistic Lord into our bodies.  And on that count, it is worth making a distinction.  Entering into communion with God, say, for example, in the Holy Supper, does not in and of itself, make one holy.  For if one is unprepared, then the presence of the holy God will have the opposite effect.  It will harm the one who is unprepared, and confirm his unbelief.  I am reminded of something David Scaer writes in one of his essays:
Unbelievers are kept away from the holy supper because their bodies are receiving what their souls despise, and they are tom apart in the very midst of their existence. Christ's body, intended to join human beings in the depths of their existence with God, becomes destructive of this unity and destines them to the most severe of all judgments. What unbelievers despise with their souls they eat with their mouths and it is joined to their bodies. An act of redemption becomes one of condemnation. They thrust themselves prematurely and unprepared before the judgment throne of Christ.
As with Moses before the burning bush, so with us today.  God draws close to us, and draws us close to Him, yet we dare not approach thoughtlessly or unprepared.

Now, what exactly is the proper preparation of which we speak?  As intimated in the passage above, we are not speaking of some subjective or moralistic preparation.  Rather, faith itself is what grasps the presence of God, and apprehends it.  Looking at the more general question again, we are now able to answer the question of just what makes a man holy.  The answer is simple.  When we hear the Gospel, and receive it in faith, the soul is reconciled to God, and brought into communion with Him.  As Luther writes of the spiritual condition of Adam and Eve after God preached the Gospel to them, promising the Savior:
This text it was that restored Adam and Eve to life and raised them again from death to the life which they had lost by their sin...This text is the absolution acquitting him and us all.  For if this Seed is so strong that He crushes the head of the serpent, He also crushes all its power; so, then, the devil is conquered, and all damage which Adam suffered is repaired.  Adam enters again the estate in which he was before.
Which is to say that no matter what effects of sin we must suffer in this life, by faith in Christ we are even now in paradisal union with God. 

To be sure, some Christians have a stronger faith than others, but it is not a certain level of strength that is required in one's faith for him to be worthy or prepared or able to receive God's gifts to his profit.  We approach in faith, and bare our wounds, our shame, our weakness, which is to say, our weak faith, and what we receive in the Gospel, along with the forgiveness of our sins, is the edifying and strengthening of our faith.  Faith itself is a gift, brought about by the Holy Ghost's work as He employs the powerful instrument of the Word.  And all the gifts He gives us in the Church make us holy, for they bring us into the salvific communion with our loving Father in Christ. 

There is such thing as increasing in holiness in this life.  But it is not anything that I can accomplish by my own work.  It is the work of God in me.

These are just some thoughts in response to what I think is a theologically sloppy mode of expression.  And it is not to say that Roman Catholics would necessarily disagree with all I have written here.  Nevertheless, these matters merit fleshing out.  In fact, they merit more than I am giving them here.


Chris Jones said...

Father Deacon,

I think you are over-reacting.

There is such thing as increasing in holiness in this life. But it is not anything that I can accomplish by my own work. It is the work of God in me.

You needn't go all monergist on sanctification. (Justification, yes, but not sanctification.) For it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness. While it is true that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from [us], [we] could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God, nevertheless if, once converted, we should fail to cooperate, we risk that that the grace of God [might] be among [us] in vain.

I don't know whether that is what the RC fellow meant by "working at being holy," but that is what it should mean, and God forbid that we should fail to do so.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Dear Chris:

Thanks for your comment, and for your kind address. However, and I don't say this to be critical, I cannot think of any way in which I am a father. I could be wrong, but I can't think of any (permanent) deacon who was called "father." The only case I can think of is the Franciscan custom of referring to Francis as "our holy father," but that is because he is the founder of their religious order. God forbid there should ever be any Latifians.

More importantly, while admittedly sanctification has been used in several different ways in theological discourse, I do hold that the purest way to think of our sanctification is that it is achieved by the work of the Holy Ghost. As Luther says in the Catechism, He (the Holy Ghost) calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, keeps, forgives, raises up. The verbs are performed by Him alone.

In the case of a Christian who actually does grow in holiness in this life, and becomes increasingly "saintly," it is a holiness that he cannot recognize. For the holier he is, the more he will be atuned to the sinfulness in him, rather than any holiness. And if he cannot even see his holiness, how much less can he act to bring it about? To be sure, as a Christian, I recognize that I am holy, but that is something that I confess by faith, not something that I actually see in me.

Chris Jones said...

As you may know, before I joined a Lutheran Church I was Eastern Orthodox for about ten years. In the Orthodox Church, where deacons are much more common, and where most of them are what we would call "permanent deacons," the customary manner of addressing a deacon is "Father Deacon." It is a usage which I continue to use simply out of long habit. It is, admittedly, an inconsistent usage, since deacons are not given the cure of souls nor blessed to act as a father confessor to anyone. But still it is the custom, and a hard one for me to break.

Apropos of our disagreement, if your strictly monergist view of sanctification were correct I do not see why the Confessors would have included the language that I quoted in FC SD II 65ff. And in any case, the "work" that is involved in "working at being holy" is no more than the normal spiritual discipline of the life in Christ: regular participation in the liturgical life of the Church; prayer; fasting; resisting temptation and repentance; and regular use of the means of grace. None of these is to be done as a way to "earn salvation," but neither are these things superfluous. They are the way that the Church gives us so that we may keep ourselves open to the work within us of the Holy Spirit.

Or, to put it more succinctly, "working at being holy" is no more than that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise.

Daniel Baker said...

It seems to me that the disconnect is in the implication that human effort is necessary for sanctification to fully occur. It reminds me of the sermon I heard this past weekend telling me that Christ has provided the "solid foundation," but we have to take the initiative to build our house on it. That just doesn't sound right to me; it sounds like something out of the pietist handbook.

I do good deeds, yes, but I do them as natural expressions of the faith given to and worked in me by the Holy Spirit. It is akin to saying that I must believe in Christ to be saved. Yes, I must believe, but that belief is given by God. Likewise, the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do He has also recreated us to do. Our ability to do these things is given by God, not by an inherent choice within us. "We can and should cooperate;" yes, but "by the power of the Holy Ghost." At least, that's how I understand it - I could be wrong.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...


Thanks for the background on Eastern practice. Interesting.

I like your apologia for the "working at" language in your last comment. However, the problem is that the phrase is bad. It gets the accent wrong, as it were.

It would be better to spell out those disciplines and practices you mention, and state what one hopes to get out of them. But that takes longer? It takes maybe a half minute longer, and helps reduce confusion when speaking on the radio to all manner of people.

Instead of saying that I am working at being holy, I would prefer to say that while in my flesh I am completely sinful, at the same time, in Christ I am comepletely holy and righteous.

Regarding the specific exercises, disciplines, and so forth that you mention, interestingly, I would say that with many of them, the Christian has a double motive. In terms of the Old Adam in us, he needs to be hunted down, mortified, taken out, etc., and in terms of the New Man in us, he delights in being with the Lord; in His law exercises himself day and night, etc.

These works that a Christian does, then, are done in one sense not to be holy but to kill the flesh, to receive forgiveness, etc; and in another sense or from another perspective they are done precisely because of my holiness, they reflect it.

Working at being holy implies that I am gradually becoming more holy, and it implies that such growth is due to my work. I say that even though I recognize that the phrase could be given a different twist, as you have done. And the problem with the first of those implications is that, though I admit that it is possible, the last person who would recognize it in a person is the person himself. I gladly speak of my utter holiness in Christ, but I cannot speak about any progress I am making in conforming my life to Christ in this life. For my eyes must be attuned to the sin that is always before me. When I see the progress I am making, then it is no longer progress. And the problem with the second of those implications is that I would be giving credit to the wrong party.

I know you still think I am over-reacting. I think, however, that clarity in spiritual matters is important.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Thanks for your comment, Daniel. We do hear some interesting preaching in the modern Lutheran church, don't we? I see a lot of good with a lot of bad preaching intermingled out there, at least in the LC-MS. The Synodist would say that means we should rejoice in all the good preaching that is going on. The Lutheran, however, should be troubled and wonder what is producing this situation.

The early Lutherans, frankly, would have said that if a man is not up to the mark in terms of being a good preacher, then he would do better to read a good sermon from a postil in the pulpit.