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, Ethics, and Human Freedom

The main source of discomfort with talk of “morality” in protestant theological circles is the issue of faith vs. works.  We are nervous that any talk of morals will lead to moralism, to a reliance on our moral behaviour as the ground of our standing before God.  Of course, the doctrine of justification excludes such a conception of human ethical behaviour.  Salvation is the gift of God, fully and completely, and even the faith by which we acknowledge our salvation must be said to be God’s gift, and not a human work.

So where does this leave the human agent.  Is there nothing for us to do?   I want to argue that the Christian life is an active life of free obedience.  But the key thing to remember is that this activity on the part of the Christian is not the ground of our salvation; rather our salvation, as the gracious gift of God, is the ground for our free obedience.  God’s action always precedes our action, but God’s action does not exclude our action, but rather opens up the space in which we can act as responsible agents, and directs us toward the responsible action which is proper to our existence as human creatures.

We are free to actively obey God precisely because that obedience does not merit our salvation; if it did, we would not be free to actively obey, we would be damned. I’m going to attempt to unpack that statement by way of a positive view of Salvation.  Just as we cannot talk of “freedom” without speaking the goal of human life, so also we cannot talk about “salvation” without speaking of salvation’s goal.  That is, salvation cannot be conceived in purely negative terms, as “salvation from” sin, death and the devil.  It is true that our salvation is a salvation from, but we must also consider salvation in positive terms, as salvation for communion with God and with our fellow human creatrues.

We can be more specific than this, however, because “communion with God and with our fellow human beings” could be seen as somewhat vague.  The direction of our salvation is anything but vague; it is concrete, specific, and particular; it is Jesus Christ himself.   He is “our wisdom, our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” and we are being conformed into his image.  Christ himself is the concrete direction toward which our salvation is oriented.  God has determined that he should have a free, responsible human covenant partner, and in his humanity, Jesus Christ is that true covenant partner. It is in his free obedience that we are enabled and called to respond to God with a free and active obedience of our own.

That is why salvation and ethics are inseparable: human action is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the goal of our salvation.  Salvation has a christologically determined direction; therefore it is ethical. We appropriate this free, active obedience in accordance with the mystery of salvation: it is a gift realized fully in Christ, and yet being realized in history as we are conformed to his likeness.   Thus, if we can speak of “growth in grace” in the sanctification process, we can also speak of “growth in free active obedience,” as we are conformed to Christ, and the Spirit continues to lead us into an ever-greater radical responsiveness corresponding to God’s radically free grace in Christ.

Karl Barth has described God’s freedom and ours in the following terms: “God’s freedom is his very own,” and “Man’s freedom is his as the gift of God.”  The human creature does not possess and inherent, directionless “freedom.” The Christian life is a life of freedom, not because we have an inherent “free will” or capacity for free moral decisions: rather, we are freed to respond freely to God’s grace because God, in his freedom, has chosen that it should be so, and acted to make it so in Jesus Christ. In our own power, we are not free; rather, we are exposed to the tyranny of our own will, with all of its disordered desires.  But God has determined that he would have a free covenant partner, and has acted in electing Jesus Christ as that free human partner.  Our being “in Christ,” our union with him, is the basis of our freedom, a freedom which is an echo and correspondence of his freedom.  This means that we only know what human freedom is by looking to Jesus Christ, as God’s truly free covenant partner.  Our understanding of freedom must be constantly measured against the the freedom of Jesus Christ as the truly free human creature.

This means that a “negative” account of freedom is obviously misguided.  The negative view of freedom posits that freedom is simply freedom from all external constraints and obligations.  To be free is to be an autonomous, unencumbered, self-directed agent, acting in accordance with our own desires.  In this context, any kind of structured moral obligation appears as an impingement on our freedom, and a burden which needs to be thrown off.  Such freedom, however, is illusory because it lacks a goal; it lacks positive content, and direction.  In other words, it is not freedom at all, but a form of slavery to our own misguided desires and impulses.

But this is true not only of supposed accounts of “free will;” it must also be emphasized that the Christian freedom we are discussing here as a freedom which is an effect of God’s grace is not a directionless negative freedom.  That is, human freedom in Christ is not simply a  freedom from negative influences, a freeing of our will which would then lead to a kind of regenerated “free will.”  Christian freedom is not a kind of “second chance” at free will, where God does his part in Christ and now leaves us to do our part with a newfound freedom.

The gift of freedom is directive: its end is conformity to Jesus Christ.  It is a freedom for this goal, a freedom for true humanity, in communion with God and with his creation.  We are therefore being made free human creatures as we are conformed to his image.  Our freedom does not precede God’s work in us and for us in Christ; it is not the ground but the goal of our salvation.

I would argue that this is an authentically Wesleyan position, although Wesleyans are often seen as aligning themselves with accounts of “free will.”   Certainly there are some Wesleyans who have argued in favour of a libertarian concept of free will, but I don’t think that is consistent with Wesley’s own views on the subject.   I’ll have to post separately on this question, to do it justice, but I believe it would be better to describe Wesley’s argument in terms of the freed will of the regenerate, rather than claiming “free will” for all humanity.