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Between Legalism and Lawlessness: A Foundation for Understanding Virtue and Holiness
Reviewed in the United States on May 19, 2017
What happens after you believe?
Since the beginning, there have been two, great, warring factions within Christendom seeking to answer that question.
One demands obedience to a list of rules: legalism.
The other claims that grace makes all rule-following null and void: lawlessness.
And then there is a middle road: the via media.
This isn't the easiest path to take. It's effortless to simply run off into the ditch of legalism or lawlessness.
It would be easier for me to hand out a list of rules when someone comes to faith in Christ: "Do pray, do read your Bibles, do come to church when the doors are open. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't chew. And don't date folks who do. Follow these rules and you'll be A-Okay!"
Or, it would be just as easy to tell those who come to faith: "You're saved and nothing will change that. Even if you completely quit believing in God or become a mass murderer - don't worry. It's all under the blood."
It's easier to maintain the extremes. That's why they're so popular. Unfortunately, neither of the extremes are true - or biblical.
So what is?
N.T. Wright paints a picture of the middle way between legalism and lawlessness in his book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Wright notes the two extremes we've already mentioned and he's upfront throughout that he points to a middle way.
In the very first chapter, he observes that "many Christians have so emphasized the need for conversion...that they have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about." I couldn't agree more with this sentiment if I tried.
Too many Christians - especially in revival traditions - view the ultimate moment of the Christian life as the moment they first bowed their knee to Christ. But this is like watching baseball and getting all excited - shouting until you're hoarse - the first time your team gets a hit. Hitting the ball is great. But if he's out before he gets to first place - or really, if he's out before he gets home - then all of the excitement and joy is vain.
The ultimate moment of the Christian life isn't the first moment we bow our knee. It's the last breath we take, in union with Christ. It's the moment we cross 'home plate'.
And yet, for most of us, there's a huge gap between that first bowed knee and that last breath in Christ. What happens in that time? What should be taking place?
Legalism says that this time is taken up with keeping all of the right rules (though most legalists can't even agree on which rules are the 'right' rules).
Lawlessness says that this time is taken up with waiting for heaven and, perhaps, telling others about God's great grace.
But is that it? Are those our only tasks on this earth between conversion and death?
God didn't create us merely to follow rules. Neither did he make us to simply enjoy his gifts. When God formed Adam, he gave him a job.
"Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it..." (Genesis 1:28).
God created man as a royal-priest.
As Wright writes, "God placed Human in the garden to reflect his image into the new world he was making - that is, to be the means, present and visible, whereby his own care of the garden and the animals would become a reality" (pg 75). This royal-priestly role for man is found scattered throughout the scriptures - in both Old and New Testaments.
For example, when God delivers Israel from Egyptian bondage, he tells them, "you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Later, Peter picks this verse up and applies it to the Church (1 Peter 2:9). And Revelation tells us the same thing: "He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father" (Revelation 1:6).
So, to be human means something. It means being created in the image of God, and with a particular task. And ultimately, that's what Christ is redeeming us to.
Jesus' didn't die just so we could go to 'heaven'. He died so that we, as human being, could be what God intended.
This is why Paul writes, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since we have this ministry..." (2 Corinthians 4:1).
God has restored our capacity to image him rightly. And he has given us a ministry - a service - a task: the role of royal-priest.
A quick aside: I probably should have mentioned this sooner but this book is not filled with 284 pages of practical tips on growing in virtue or holiness. Wright penned this book to lay a theological foundation for understanding why we should want to grow in virtue and holiness in the first place. So if you come to it looking for practical advice, you won't get much. The last chapter is the only place in the book that deals heavily with practice. But that doesn't mean this book isn't worth reading. It is. If you closely follow the argument that Wright constructs, your understanding of the why will be deepened. And as the why is deepened, your desire for the what will grow as well.
"God's future is arriving in the present, in the person and work of Jesus, and you can practice, right now, the habits of life which will find their goal in that coming future" (page 103). This is the heart of Wright's thesis. And I don't know about you, but it excites me.
Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom. And he's calling all people, everywhere, to enter and live in it today. But how do we become Christ-focused people? Without Christ, we're hopelessly lost in pride and idolatry. And going to an altar - bowing my knee for the first time - doesn't perfect me. Old habits need killing. Unhealthy desires need eliminating. And attitudes that used to be acceptable are not any longer.
We need to learn the language and culture of our new nation: the Kingdom of God.
If Wright uses the first half of the book to explain what we're called to, he spends the second half of the book discussing how we live into that calling.
In these chapters, he examines Paul's understanding of the spiritual-transformation made possible through Jesus' death and resurrection. He sums up many of the ideas here when he compares cultivating the fruit of the Spirit to gardening.
"The key is this: the 'fruit of the Spirit' does not grow automatically...Oh, there may well be strong and sudden initial signs that fruit is on the way...But this doesn't mean it's all downhill from there. These are the blossoms: to get the fruit you have to learn to be a gardener. You have to discover how to tend and prune, how to irrigate the fields, how to keep birds and squirrels away. You have to watch for blight and mold, cut away ivy and other parasites that suck the life out of the tree, and make sure the young trunk can stand firm in strong wings. Only then will the fruit appear" (page 195-196).
Throughout these latter chapters, he highlights the importance of the three Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love), the fruit of the Spirit, and the necessity of unity within the body. These make up the Kingdom of God's primary language and culture. Our life on this earth - between now and eternity - consists of growing in these things.
My own description of the Church as a 'laboratory of love' fits nicely with the way Wright describes the Church in these chapters. We learn Kingdom-culture there. And we practice the things that we will spend an eternity engaged in.
Wright also stresses the twin foci of worship and mission. We need to return to these again and again because we tend to move to one extreme or the other.
Wright ends the book with a chapter entitled, 'The Virtuous Circle'. Here, he delineates the five activities that he believes will contribute to our growth in Christian virtue and maturity.
The five include scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices.
This chapter is helpful and provides a needed practical viewpoint. However, the scripture/stories/examples all sort of flowed into one another. Many of the stories he mentions are stories from scripture. Though he does stress the value in other stories as well - including those that have no Christian background. I tend to agree with him here (though I can imagine others wouldn't). I would also include the telling of testimonies in this category though Wright doesn't explicitly mention that.
Wright's focus on the community of faith is a necessary prescription for the anti-establishment movement that has swept so many people into thinking they can live as Christians alone. The problem isn't 'church'. The problem is that too many churches aren't acting like churches.
Wright makes a valuable statement about what church should be here: "a community that is practicing the arts of being a royal priesthood, a working and worshipping fellowship for whom faith, hope, and love are being learned and exercised in the service of God's kingdom" (page 275). If Christians would all catch a vision like that (and then live into it), people would be clamoring to join in what God is doing.
In his section on practices, Wright notes the basic activities of the Christian life: communion, baptism, prayer, giving, and the reading of scripture. Amen and amen. I can't say more on that front.
There may have been a few things I disagreed with as I read but they were incidental to the main thrust of After You Believe (for example, replacing 'man' with 'human' in many scripture references; nothing wrong with it, it just sounds weird).
A month or so ago, I finished reading Matthew Bates's Salvation by Allegiance Alone. After You Believe is a great follow-up to that book since many of the threads there weave throughout Wright's book as well.
As is usual, I love Wright here. He's a gentle guide who takes your hand and walks you through the scriptures, one thought at a time. Like a pyramid-builder, Wright lays down one idea after another, until he finishes his task. And once finished, the reader comes away with more than just a few tips and tricks for greater spirituality. He comes away with why spirituality is worth pursing in the first place.
God calls us to so much more than mere rule-keeping or basking. He calls us to live in eternity today.
The question for us is, will we answer the call?