Working Out Salvation
By Audrey Stallsmith
In my previous article, I talked about self-denial, the things we give up for the sake of our faith. Nonbelievers tend to think that Christianity is all about renunciation, making it a negative religion.
But we know that our salvation is based, not on what we don’t do, but on what Christ has done. We apparently aren’t, however, communicating that very well to the rest of the world. Perhaps because too many of us don’t act on what we say we believe.
For example, let’s imagine two women whose husbands are serving in Iraq. The first woman married her husband after a very brief relationship and barely got to know him before he was shipped overseas. Because many of her acquaintances will disapprove, she doesn’t even let them know that she is married. In fact, she leaves off her wedding ring when she goes partying on the weekends.
Since she feels guilty about what happens on those weekends, she talks to her husband very seldom, and then only about trivialities—so that more embarrassing subjects won’t come up. As a result, he’ll become less and less real to her until, by the time of his return, they are virtual strangers.
Although the second woman also wed after a brief courtship, she communicates with her husband by e-mail or phone as much as she can. They discuss any major decisions to be made, and occasionally quarrel over them. She keeps his photo in a prominent place, and brags him up to all her acquaintances. We can deduce that the second marriage has a much better chance of surviving. That wife has, by concrete actions, made her husband constantly more real to her.
Our relationship with God is different, of course, being that of subject to King or child to Father rather than of more equal partners. But the first woman is much like many nominal Christians. Although they occasionally attend church, they rarely do anything to demonstrate their faith, and many of their acquaintances are even unaware of it. They also avoid any discussions with or about God, for fear they will have to address all the things they are doing that displease Him. Then they complain that he remains a distant and hazy figure—an abstraction--to them!
“Belief that has no practical result,” as Stephen Brown points out in If God Is In Charge, “ceases to be belief; it is fantasy.” Or, as James demands in his epistle, “Are there still some among you who hold that ‘only believing’ is enough? Believing in one God? Well, remember that the demons believe this too—so strongly that they tremble in terror! Fool! When will you ever learn that ‘believing’ is useless without doing what God wants you to?” (James 2:19-20a)
The church has quarreled fiercely over the years about faith vs. works. But, as James contends, the two can’t really be separated.
That first woman may profess until the cows come home that she loves her husband. But, if he finds out what she has been up to in his absence, he isn’t going to accept her protestations. Our real beliefs—like our real loves, as George MacDonald notes in Creation in Christ, are those that we live by.
Some of you feminists may hold that the second woman is actually the weaker—the more needy—of the two, because she relies so heavily on her husband. But true love demands a large measure of vulnerability and trust. That may be why so many have trouble “finding it” these days, because they prefer to remain partially detached—just in case things don’t work out! So it usually is we “needy” believers to whom God is more real, because we are actually leaning on Him.
Although some like to call us “dreamers,” those of us who admit our dependence are, in fact, more closely connected to reality than nonbelievers. We are simply acknowledging what they prefer not to--that none of us mortals would survive for a nanosecond without God’s constant attention. Even though we can’t see the source of our life any more than the rest of the world can, we are constantly talking to or about him, and making bumbling attempts to carry out his instructions. So, naturally, He is more real to us than He is to those who choose to ignore Him.
Sometimes we fear, however, that He will become disgusted with our wobbly attempts to do the right thing. But do fond parents give up on the toddler who is just learning to walk? No, they crow over every faltering step he makes.
Chesterton writes that we find a child’s blunders “almost as marvelous as his accuracy” because “any words and any antics in a lump of clay are wonderful.” Like any father, God is proud of our feeble endeavors to please Him, because they prove our love. “His ‘well done,’” as Charles Colson states in Who Speaks for God, “depends not on our successes, but on our obedient faithfulness.”
So what we can’t do is make a commitment and expect our life to remain the same. Let’s say the first woman in our illustration decided to marry at a time when she was feeling insecure. She wanted someone who would always be there for her. But that husband’s always being there shortly began to get in her way! So, she was actually relieved when he shipped out.
She is much like the nominal Christian who, as George MacDonald writes dryly, “would have that as a possession which must possess him.” “Nominal” actually means “in name only.” And, although the new bride may have taken her husband’s name, she doesn’t make any serious attempt to consider what he wants when it is opposed to what she wants.
Now she may say that her husband is too far away for her to feel anything for him. But, as MacDonald points out, “Action must precede feeling, that the man may know the foundation itself of feeling.”
In other words, feelings must be founded on something. We may think that we have always loved our parents and siblings. But that love is actually based on years of actions, on their proving to us over and over that they have our best interests at heart.
Some new fathers feel guilty if they don’t sense an immediate bond with their new baby. But why should they? They haven’t done anything for that child yet. The mother, on the other hand, has endured months of discomfort to give that infant life. Has, in fact, carried it inside her for all that time. So she is more likely to feel an immediate connection than the father is.
There is, after all, only so far that “book knowledge” can take us. We can find written instructions for almost anything. But we won’t really understand how to make bread until we get our hands in the dough. “Get up, and do something the Master tells you,” MacDonald urges. “So make yourself his disciple at once.”
“Upon obedience our energy must be spent,” he notes in Getting to Know Jesus. “Understanding will follow. Wait until you understand everything,” he adds irritably, “and you will never understand anything,”
Too often, when I see something I know to be wrong, I say to myself, “Somebody should do something.” What I really mean is, “God should send somebody more qualified than me to do something.” But, if nobody who fits that description is stepping up, I may have to conclude that He expects me to get the ball rolling.
“The only true practicalness,” McDonald advises, “is to let your labor extend as far as your imagination can reach. . .He cannot give to them who will not do.”
“But how,” you may complain, “can I know for sure what God wants me to do? He doesn’t speak in a booming voice from heaven.” But he shouldn’t have to. He has already showed all of us what he wants in the person of Christ.
“His doctrine,” Fulton Sheen writes of our Savior in Life of Christ, “was Himself. . .The truth that all other ethical teachers proclaimed. . .was not in them but outside them. . .The Way becomes lovable, not when it is in abstract codes and commandments, but when it is Personal.” When it is made flesh and blood, in other words. In The Forgiveness of Sins, Charles Williams agrees that Christ was God “exposed and exhibited.” The Son showed the world, for once and for all, what the Father’s Spirit really looked like
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes in Ethics, “To ask about the will of God is not to ask about something hidden. . . it is to ask about what has become manifest. . .” Although it’s now a cliché, the question, “What would Jesus do?” can clarify things wonderfully. But only, of course, if you've taken enough interest in what Jesus did to deduce how He would react in your situation.
For instance, we don’t see him haranguing sinners about their sin. In most cases, the only people he addressed sharply were those who believed in their own righteousness rather than in God. Such as the “church people” who, in one of Christ’s parables, walked wide around a man who needed their help. People who didn’t practice what they preached.
A person who doesn’t do what he or she purports to believe is, in a sense, divided from him or herself. And, as Soren Kierkegaard writes in Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, the man who is not a unity “is never really anything wholly and decisively; he only exists in an external sense.” In The Waiting Father, Helmut Thielicke agrees that “depression always has its roots in such a divided heart. Only the simple and the singlehearted are happy.” Almost all frustration and anxiety,” Stephen Brown notes “come from a refusal to be what one is.”
“The error of the Pharisees,” Bonhoeffer posits, “[lay] in their failure to act. . .A hearing which does not at the same instant become a doing becomes once again that “knowing” which gives rise to judgment and so leads to the disruption of all action.”
It was, of course, Christ's love, not his judgement, which made prodigals want to change. No doubt the Pharisees muttered among themselves, “We’ve told those people for years that they are sinners. Did they listen to us? Oh, no. But they come and weep all over His feet!”
Jesus showed us that God is love and love is what he requires from his followers. Too often, we are afraid of getting in any way involved with “the lost,” for fear they will smirch our reputations or tempt us away from the straight and narrow. Forgetting, too conveniently, that we were once among their number ourselves.
The person concerned only with saving his own soul, as Bonhoeffer points out, “sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this.”
If--instead of saying “somebody should do something”--we make ourselves that somebody, we may be dumbfounded at how much we can accomplish with God’s help. Even though we whine that there aren’t enough hours in the day, we can always find space for things we really want to do. “For that which absorbs men’s time when they complain about the lack of time,” Kierkegaard insists, “is irresoluteness, distraction, half thoughts, half resolutions, indecisiveness.”
Or, as Thielicke puts it, “The man who wants only a bit of God always finds God to be only a brake, an impediment, a pain." (Just as the woman who wanted only half a husband found him to be a nuisance.) "But he who wants God wholly learns that he is the source of power.”
We must draw on that power, however, if it is to do the world or us any good. There is not much point, after all, to a lamp that is kept plugged in but never switched on. For “a Christian who is only quiet,” as Thielicke concludes implacably, “is. . .nothing but a dud. He is dynamite that fails to go off.”