Christian Life as Ecclesial Life

I want to finish this three part discussion of Salvation and the Christian life by drawing attention to the ecclesial nature of the Christian life.  This also brings us full circle, as we return to the question of theology and ethics.

From a Christian perspective, there are no autonomous subjects.  All of us exist in a relation of dependence upon God.  Yet the idea that we are autonomous selves is often found within the Church, as well as in our hyper-individualistic society.  For example, we often treat the topic of Christian life in a highly privatized and individualistic manner.

For those who are evangelicals: think of how much stress is put on the importance of our “personal relationship with Jesus” in the evangelical tradition.  How about “personal devotions?”  We spend a lot of time talking about (and feeling guilty about) “personal devotions.”  I’m not saying that private prayer and meditation on scripture are unimportant; surely they are.  But compare the amount of stress put on “personal devotions” with the attention that is given to other issues.   I mean, of all the challenges facing the church today, of all the things for us to focus our time and energy on, the one thing that evangelicals are racked with guilt over is “personal devotions”?  And when this is done in the context of a consistent focus on our “personal relationship” with Christ, the Church can seem redundant.

We are still dealing with the question of the chrisotogically determined direction of salvation and its implications for the Christian life.  The Christian life is ecclesial because God’s election of Jesus Christ includes the election of the Church to be his witnesses.  There is no “private” salvation; there is no “individualistic” election to salvation.  God’s work in Christ is not intended to sporadically save independent and autonomous Christians who will live solitary lives of saintliness.  Rather, it is about God forming a people who will give witness to his redemption by their words and deeds.   This may seem like a reduntant point but it needs to be said: the Christian life is an ecclesial life.  We are definitely not autonomous subjects; we are members of a body, who can only function in the context of that body.  In attempting to answer the question, “how now shall we live?” the emphasis is on the word we.

But this is not simply to say that Christians are to value “community” and “relationships” in the abstract.  Again we must look to Jesus Christ as the concrete and particular revelation of the truly human life.  We are dealing with the particular God revealed in Christ; this should lead to a very particular Church – a particular kind of community, not “community” in general or as a value in and of itself.  The particular kind of community in which we live means that the Christian life is a very particular kind of life.  Perhaps it would be better to say it is a peculiar kind of life.  Just as the God of the gospel always cuts against the grain of the world’s expectations, so the life of the Christian community ought to be counter-cultural.   The Church is called to embody the always surprising grace of God in its communal life together, and it should therefore be the context in which a different way of life is enacted and sustained.

Therefore as we think about the question of “ethics” within the context of the Christian life, we must reject the enlightenment suspicion of “tradition-dependent” ethics. Christian ethics is explicitly tradition-dependent, because the Christian lives and moves and thinks in the context of the Church and attempts to do so with the Church.  The Christian believes that the commands of God are directed to the Church, not to autonomous individuals.  Ethics, therefore, is always ecclesial.

The task of Christian ethics, then, is not so much about abstracting “timeless principles” that can be applied to any situation, as it is about seeking to inhabit an understanding of God and the world that is shaped by the Church as the people of God, attempting to be a living enactment of the story of the gospel.   In the end, Christian ethics is about what is real, and what is real is Jesus Christ and the gospel.  If the gospel is the true story of God’s history with humanity, then Christian ethics can be described, as Hauerwas puts it, as living as if Jesus and Trinity matter; living as if the gospel is reality.

There is no such thing as “ethics for anybody.” We all stand in a tradition, and cannot exist as  “autonomous individuals.”  Ethics, then, must be received and nurtured in the context of the Christian community.

This too is part of the direction of our salvation.   We are saved for communion with God and with our fellow human creatures.   We find this in the new humanity which Christ has inaugurated.  We participate in it now as an anticipation of its full realization in the new Kingdom.

Salvation and Active Obedience

[continuing from my previous post]

Just as God’s freedom makes our freedom possible, we must also say that God’s action makes human action possible.  God’s action always precedes our action.  Our action is the always a gracious response to the prior action of God.  God takes the initiative, and we respond, with a genuine human response, a response which can only be given as an echo and answer to the definitive action of God in Christ.   This is why it is said that God’s action and our action are not in competition with one another.  It is not as if we must choose to either believe that it is God who acts or it is human beings who act in salvation.  Human action is only possible because of God’s action.  And human action is not able to encroach upon God’s action.

But we must go further than this. We’re not speaking here of the simple affirmation that God has created all things, therefore we would not exist and could not act if it weren’t for his creation.   When we speak of God’s action we are speaking of something concrete and actual: Jesus Christ.

The action of God on our behalf is the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.   Jesus, in his truly human activity, is the basis for the new humanity, in which we are included and toward which we are being moved by the Spirit.  Thus “human action,” as was the case with human freedom, does not refer to some neutral form of agency, or some latent potentiality which we can choose to direct toward whichever ends we choose: truly human action means a faithful response to the gracious action of God, as concretely manifested in the human life of Jesus.  Truly human action is action which is conformed to the likeness of Christ.

What about the fact that human beings, including professing Christians, don’t act in conformity to Christ?  Human actions which do not conform to the likeness of the new humanity in Christ are not evidence of an “agency” or a “power” that humans have over and against God.  They are rather evidence of the weakness of the human response; they are deficiencies in human agency; they are a kind of inhuman aberration.

Therefore, because God has acted, we can and must act.  The action of God on our behalf in Christ is ordered to our conformity to Christ and our realization of God’s intention for an active human covenant partner.  God has not acted so that we will not have to act at all; he has acted in Christ so that we will act in a truly human way.   Our action in conformity with Christ is not the basis for God’s justifying and sanctifying action on our behalf; rather, our action in conformity to Christ is the goal of God’s justifying and sanctifying work on our behalf.

I want to add one more layer to this description I’ve been giving of the character of the Christian life: the Christian life is a life of obedience.  Here is where those who are nervous about works-righteousness get particularly nervous.  How can Christian life be about obedience?  Isn’t the whole point that we cannot obey, and therefore we can only throw ourselves on the mercy of God?   Well, yes, if we are talking about the question of our standing before God.  None of us is capable of obedience to God in our own strength.  Nevertheless, if we keep the directional nature of salvation in mind, and the christological determination of salvation’s direction, we must say that the Christian life is a life of obedience.   God has determined that he would have a free, active covenant partner who responds to his gracious commands in obedience.    Jesus Christ is that covenant partner, and we who are “in Christ,” saved by Christ’s faithful obedience, are being conformed to his humanity and formed into obedient children.

The obedience of Christ is, I think, an undervalued theme in the New Testament.  I think in our concern to affirm the divinity of Christ in the face of historical criticism we have tended to shy away from a full appreciation of Jesus’ humanity.  But it is clear from the scriptural witness that Christ, in his humanity, had to go through the genuinely human struggle of obedience to God.   The obedience Christ offered in his life on earth was not something which came easily to him. His obedience was not “automatic;” and he was not removed from the genuine human trial of obedience.  The reference point for this discussion, of course, is the garden of Gethsemene.  There was real struggle, described in Hebrews as a process of “learning obedience.” What is intended by that text, I believe, is a description of the way in which Christ had to gain first hand experience as an obedient human being, in order that he could offer a perfect sacrifice on our behalf, and also in order that he could be our perfect, sympathetic high priest: one who understands the trials and temptations of human life and yet was able to overcome.  He is the “author and perfecter” of our faith – the trailblazer in a sense, who has in his humanity paved the way for us to participate fully in God’s covenant.

If Christ in his human life lived obediently, then surely our lives, as an echo and response to his, will be lives of obedience.  There will be struggle.  There will be real effort on our part.  There will be moments of decision in which we are called by God to answer a specific demand and act in accordance with his will.  But once again, none of these efforts, struggles, or decisions will be or ever can be the basis for our standing before God.  Our efforts are not the presupposition for God’s grace.  God’s grace, seen in the obedience of Jesus Christ, is the presupposition for our obedience.  Again, our obedience is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the goal.  Once again we must also say that it would not be enough to simply affirm that the obedience of Christ makes our obedience possible, as if Christ had simply restored a potential for obedience in us that we then can choose to use or not.  Obedience is our direction.  Obedience is our determination in Christ.  Our salvation is directed to obedience as free human action.