You ought to have friends you disagree with regularly. For example, my buddy Morgan and I seem to agree about very little when it comes to the hot-button, theological issues of the day. He’s a progressive Methodist, I’m Reformed. Our rhetorical styles clash, and our forms of argumentation and analysis differ widely. And yet, for all that, I still find myself learning from our little sparring matches. In fact, often it’s precisely for that reason that I find his engagement so helpful. He helps keep me honest.
I bring this up because one of his big themes he’s always preaching is the way that Jesus frees us from our various attempts at religious, self-justification. Within that theme, a regular trope he’s identified is the way some theological types will use their doctrine of God as a way of self-righteously posturing as particularly holy and faithful compared to everyone else.
The way this supposedly works with conservative Reformed types is that we look at the world, see the way there’s a general rejection of the idea that God is a judge, or that he has wrath, or that he would command laws that go contrary to our cultural instincts, and then push back on over-aggressively to prove our own faithfulness. In other words:
“You wanna know how faithful I am? Look at the God I preach. This God is big, HUGE!, sovereign, and full of judgment! His commands are his commands because they’re his commands, and there’s no way I’m gonna stop to explain them if you have a problem with that, because that would be cultural capitulation. And clearly, I’m not a capitulator. I’m one of the faithful as evidenced by the very hard to accept portrait of God I’ve just presented you.“
So if you squint closely, under all of our proclamations of a God who doesn’t just coddle us therapeutically, there’s a self-justifying, chest-thumping motive at work.
Now, of course, a lot of us read something like that and we’re tempted to balk and respond sharply. I know I am. I mean, I’ve written a number of times on the issues of wrath, God’s judgment, and so forth, and I don’t think that at core I was really trying to impress anybody, or even justify my own heart, but speak to an issue of real concern. What’s more, I there is a real, healthy, biblical instinct to push back where you see some truth being sidelined, or abandoned, in order that the gospel might be properly proclaimed. All of that said, I don’t think we (Reformed, especially) should be too quick to write off the possibility of this kind of rhetorical self-justification.
I mean, let me put it this way: haven’t you seen it at work in the progressives? Haven’t you seen that writer, or friend, or theologian going on about the ‘radical’ nature of the God they proclaim? You know the type of rhetoric I’m talking about. They might be writing about grace, or maybe some sort of revisionism on a current social issue and you’ll get this string along the lines of:
“You know what scares the ‘religious’, right? A God of grace. They can’t handle a God who bursts the confines of their petty little religious rules! But God is LOVE! And his love wins out over narrow-minded, gatekeepers of religious orthodoxy. And if preaching about this God and his grace gets me in trouble with the ‘religious’, or the ‘Pharisees’, then so be it!“
Conservatives like myself can look at that and see more than a little chest-thumping going on in progressives priding themselves on how gracious, inclusive, and un-legalistic their God is. It’s courageous to proclaim the message of grace, you know, the way Jesus did despite the objections of the religious establishment. Wouldn’t you have fun placing yourself in the role of Jesus against the modern-day Pharisees?
Okay, so what I’m saying is, if you can see how that can work in the self-justifying God-rhetoric of the left, isn’t there just a chance those of us on the more conservative end of things can fall prey to this too? I mean, surely, if you’ve got a Reformed understanding of the power of indwelling sin, you can’t put this past yourself, right?
So what are the dangers here? Well, I can think of at least two. In the first place, if we’re being tempted to preach a view of God out of self-justifying pride, or anxiety, our hearts are in danger. Pride in all of its forms is a cancer to be rooted out ferociously, but none is so pernicious or lethal as spiritual pride that can defend itself behind the wall of righteous doctrine. Please don’t mishear me. I’m not an anti-doctrine guy. I blog about Calvin, study Bavinck’s Dogmatics every Saturday, and get depressed if I haven’t gotten to read theology for more than a day. And yet it’s precisely because I am who I am that I know this pride is so dangerous and worth examining yourself diligently to root it out. As Jonathan Edwards’ has written,
‘Tis by this [pride] that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . Being proud of their light, that makes ’em not jealous of themselves; he that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes ’em least of all jealous of themselves in that particular, viz. as being under the prevalence of pride. –Some Thoughts Concerning Revival
Second, if this sort of theological self-justification is at work, it can have serious effect on our proclamation of the gospel. If your self-identity is caught up in the fact that you proclaim a strong God, who commands what he commands, and so forth, in order to push back against the culture, you may end up over-correcting and proclaiming a distorted picture of God! The righteous God who judges sin becomes a fastidious, contemptuous God who barely stomachs sinners, and so the real, biblical testimony about his tender love can get sidelined. In our rush to proclaim God’s laws that often correct our cultural logic and don’t instinctively appeal to our fallen reason, we may skip over the reasons he actually does give in Scripture, or miss ways that biblical truth can appeal to certain common grace, cultural instincts. This would be disastrous for our witness in the world.
Just a week or two ago, I wrote about the importance of properly proclaiming “Here is Your God!”, before move to “Thus says the Lord.” In other words, for people to have a proper grasp of the commands and be willing to obey them in holy worship, they must know about the good character of the God who commands them. When self-justification is distorting our preaching, we can’t properly do that. For those of us pastors, theologians, and church-folk who care about keeping a watch on our “life and doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16), then, let us constantly remind ourselves that our proclamation of the God of the gospel flows from our acceptance of the gospel for ourselves. We no longer have anything to prove. We’re justified in Christ and so are in need of no self-justification–not even through our own preaching.
Soli Deo Gloria
I think I get what you are saying.
There is a real danger in that sort of preaching. That’s where the external Word of promise comes in for us…and it’s there for us in the sacraments, also.
It takes it out of our hands. Which is nice.
I’ve noticed the improbability of anyone being a part of a religious community and not becoming religious themselves. If you’re the rebellious sort and fight against this typical human tendency then you’re likely to be a lonely person and not very communal.
It is very important to have people in you life that disagree with you theologically, AND it is necessary to have people in our lives who reject the gospel out right. Those people have been so great for me.
“And yet, for all that, I still find myself learning from our little sparring matches. In fact, often it’s precisely for that reason that I find his engagement so helpful. He helps keep me honest.” The words “iron sharpens iron” come to mind.