Tuesdays with Uncle Athanasius: Why is Repentance Not Enough to Save Us?

AthanasiusAthanasius (c.297-373), my favorite early church father, fought heretics with all of his soul. I am brought to tears reading his glorious writings. Please indulge with me each Tuesday, as we cozy up at the feet of Uncle Athanasius.

Uncle Ath?

Yes, kids?

Is repentance all it takes to be turned back from our corruption in sin, or was something more necessary?

Well,

As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning.

Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case.

What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.

My favorite uncle. Christologically delicious!

Thanks for reading,

-Justin

Athanasius, On the Incarnation, chap. 2, sec. 7, http://www.ccel.org.

Moral Improvement is Not Why God Saved You

If you’ve been around American evangelicalism at all, you might have picked up the idea that God saved you in order to put you to work for Him. Justification is that glorious moment of favor that God gives to those who are for the first time believing in Christ, but it quickly fades into a life of hard work, moral improvement, and careful discipline in spiritual matters. Sound like the Christianity you know?

If so, I’m so happy to tell you this: you don’t know Christianity. Here’s the secret to seeking the joy that God intends for His kids… well, let me give the mic to a maestro of grace:

From Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith,

As John Murray helpfully explains, progressive sanctification depends not only on justification but on God’s once-and-for-all act of claiming us as saints. For many Christians, the change in subject from justification to sanctification roughly corresponds to God’s work for us and our work for God, respectively. The result of this assumption, however, is that for a brief moment at the beginning of the Christian life the focus was on Christ and his blessing of justification that was received through faith alone—itself, in fact, a gift of God. But then the rest of our life is a matter of striving for moral improvement. “Having begun by the Spirit,” Paul asked the Galatians, “are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Sanctification, like justification, has its source not in the “works of the law” but in “hearing with faith” (Gal 3:3 – 5). [1]

Were you saved by grace through faith? You are. Striving for moral improvement as a matter of willpower and personal commitment will either land you in the hospital, or you’ll quit Christianity (though you’ll have never actually internalized the real grace of God), or if you can pull it off and become a moral person, you’ll have something to boast in, and you’ve become a nasty little canker on the tongue of the church.

No. No, no, no. Our only strength and hope in the Christian life is to look to Jesus – learn Him, be filled with Him, seek Him in all things. And friends, for heaven’s sake, don’t run from God when you’ve sinned… run to Him.

This blog will re-visit this subject frequently. There is much need in the Christian community for these reminders of grace, for the constant removal of the chains of moralism. Be free[d] in Christ!

Thanks for reading,

Justin

[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 650-1.

Your Jail Cell is Unlocked, Silly

You find yourself crouched in the dank corner of a narrow cell – the unmistakable outline of steel bars covering the front side. Faint fluorescent light buzzes into your eyes, keeping you awake in the deep sweat of night. What will I do with myself now? your brain asks you. You don’t know. How did you even get here? Where is here? You must have done something wrong. Horribly wrong, from the feel of things. You shift your weight – it’s uncomfortable to sit on your haunches without moving, but somehow the very back corner of the cell feels safest.

There are footfalls coming. Terror. You feel yourself getting smaller, shrinking by willpower. Can’t.. be… seen. Must hide. So guilty. Are you going to send me to the executioner? you wonder. Why do you feel so guilty? The sound of footsteps stops. Voices. Two men are talking about something. They’re talking about you. You hear your name. The details are muffled; it seems they are still a way off from your cell. You hold your breath – what are they saying? Why is your skin so clammy? You break into an uncomfortable soaking sweat that makes squatting in the corner feel even guiltier.

Here come the footfalls again. Heavy shoes. Is there anyone else locked up in here? It feels empty. Your own personal prison, maybe. You wouldn’t dare utter a sound – could be dangerous people around. Voices again, with the footsteps this time. You feel your heart beating like a tympani drum, taut, deep, booming. They might hear it. Shhhh. Stop that.

The figure of a policeman appears in the fuzzy light outside of the bars. Your heart catches in your throat – you can’t see the eyes, but you feel them. Examining you. Checking your thoughts. You’re paralyzed in the grip of his gaze. The other man peeks around at you from over the examiner’s shoulder. A word is mumbled. What was that? What are they saying about you? You caught a syllable, but not enough to piece anything together.

Then you notice it: the cell door is open all the way. When did that happen? The policeman shifts and takes a few steps toward you, into your space. You can see his face now. What is that? A young man – he looks… friendly? Who is this?

“Rrrr” you croak. You meant to say something. His friendly face is now in full view as he bends down in front of you. “Rrrr, rrrRrRrrr…” you try again. Only noises. The other man now is standing over behind the policeman, looking down at you. Your lungs are burning with pent up words. You fearfully meet his gaze. Friendly. “RRrr.. whhh… wwwhhooo?” You’ve said a word now. “Who.” The iceberg of fear around your heart breaks apart a little bit. These men haven’t come to hurt you. They can see your fear, your guilt. Your sense of doom, even. But your fears are melting. What is that now? More than friendliness? Their eyes are full of… care for you? Care? For you? You feel so guilty – so dirty.

A hand is on your hand, which is still greedily gripping your shin. A moment of terror returns, but is instantly vaporized by the warmth and softness of the policeman’s hand on yours – he is speaking. What? I’m sorry, what are you saying, sir?

He pauses, and speaks again – “well?”

“Well”? Well what?

“Why are you here again?” He smiles.

What is this? Are you dreaming? You begin to recall something, like seeing the faint outline of a road sign through a hazy night fog. You’ve been here a long time. A very long time.

“Whh… where am I?” Both men chuckle softly.

“Forgotten again?” asks the policeman.

The policeman fills your view, crouching now himself – right in your face. His eyes are full of light… “how many times do we need to find you in here before you will believe us?” His breath is sweet, you notice.

You look up at the other man. Judge’s robes. File in hand. Your name on the file. A stamp across your name. “Cleared”.

“That’s right,” says the policeman. Now you’re remembering, aren’t you? Your hands loosen from your legs, you blink wildly. You’ve been here before. Many times. All the time. The policeman turns his head to look at the judge. They seem to exchange something without words as he stands up again, and both men look back down at you – you’re feeling like the corner of this cell is the very silliest place in the world to be crouched.

“You don’t belong in this prison,” the judge says to you – his voice is also warm, friendly.

They take you by the hands and begin to lift you to your feet. All sense of doom and fear is faded: an embarrassing memory now, quickly losing any last bits of a hold they had on you just a minute before.

What were you doing here, again?

The judge slings his robe over your head – you had been naked. “Why do you keep losing your clothes?” he asks gently, a hand now on your shoulder. “Let’s go home, son (daughter).”

The Silliness of Re-imprisoning Yourself in the Cell of Guilt

My dear Christian, what are you doing in that unlocked cell of guilt? The Law has no power to condemn you any longer – it is rendered powerless over you because the Judge has declared you innocent. You are cleared of all charges. The Law is now your friend, your guilt is a feeling that truly indicates true sins, no doubt, but it is no longer your proper home. It is no longer the place for you to live.

Why do you insist on living here?

Why do you insist on living here?

The Judge of the universe sent His Son to bear your punishment. He willingly became your sin and guilt, and executed your death for you. Your death has been executed in the body of Jesus Christ (1. read again and internalize 2. repeat 3. give thanks!).

You are free to live in the Judge’s home now, wearing His robes (Matt. 19:28-9; 1 Cor. 6:3).

Don’t be caught trembling like an amnesiac in the prison of guilt, whose warden is surely the Deceiver. All he has as a power against you is a lie. He accuses, you point to the cross of Christ.

Be freed! That door is unlocked, silly.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Rom. 8:1-4 ESV

“Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man [Jesus] is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Acts 13:38-9 NKJV

Need I go on, or is your amnesia lifting again? Return to the cross!

Thanks for reading,

-Justin