Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Turning The Four Spiritual Laws On Their Head



Like many who came to Christ in the days of the Jesus Movement, I was taught and came to believe that the Gospel was summarized by the Four Spiritual Laws.  These laws in order are the following:
1) God Loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
2) You and all humanity have sinned and turned your back on God
3) God sent His Son, Jesus, to make a way back to God through the cross
4) If you accept Jesus as your personal saviour, you will be saved
There are many slightly different versions of this, but basically they all begin with acknowledging that one is a sinner and separated from God, and end with some kind of acceptance of Christ accompanied by assurance of salvation. 

But what if we got this backwards?

What if, as in the life of St. Paul, we begin with encountering Christ and becoming assured of our salvation, and then grow to accept and know the depth of our sin?  Before St. Paul encounters Christ, he describes himself as righteous concerning the Law.  It is only later in his life that he comes to see himself as the chief of sinners.  

I think many devout Evangelical Christians who have been raised in the theological paradigm summarized by the Four Spiritual Laws find their actual experience in Christ to be quite different from what their theology tells them it should be.  Instead of becoming more sure of their salvation as they grow in Christ, they become more aware of their weakness, failure and inability to love and serve Christ and neighbour as they genuinely desire.  Burnout, depression, moral failure, and just plain giving up are the inevitable outcomes.  

In The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, Fr. John Behr lays out an ancient Orthodox theology that turns the Four Spiritual Laws on its head.  I am still trying to wrap my head around what Fr. John is saying.  I can’t begin to summarize it at this point.  However, based on his lectures at the Parish Life Conference and the preface and first chapter of The Mystery of Christ, I am coming to see that perhaps it is normal to grow in the knowledge of one’s weakness.  Isn’t it St. Paul who states again and again “when I am weak, then I am strong”?  

In fact, I think it is not only normal to become more aware of one’s deep wretchedness as one continues in the Christian way, but it is the evidence par excellence that one is growing in Christ.  As I know more acutely the depths of my sin, I know also more intimately the heights of God’s love.  As the Grace of God shines more brightly, my darkness becomes more evident in contrast.  And although I might easily acknowledge the truth of such aphorisms, that I experience such darkness and sin in myself always seems to surprise me.  “Shouldn’t I be beyond this by now?  Shouldn’t I have outgrown this?  Haven’t I striven hard enough for Christ?” [This last thought leads many into burnout].

But what if we begin with assurance.  What if we begin with Baptism: we die with Christ and are raised in Him.  Christ died for the sins of the whole world--even the sins hidden deep within me that I will only come to know well after years and years of devotion to Christ.  I regularly eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ.  This is where we begin.  Then as we grow in Christ, we come to know the heights of Christ’s love and forgiveness as we come to know ourselves better.  We need not fear our weakness, looking it in the face, admitting its power.  Christ’s love has already made us one of His Beloved.  We are already in the Church, by Grace, through Baptism and Holy Communion (and all of the other Divine Mysteries).  And because we are safely in the Church, we can see our weakness for what it is and cry out “Lord Have Mercy!”  We can confess our sin, our weakness, our doubts, and our struggles.  We can accept that we with the Apostle are the chief of sinners.


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