Acknowledging Failure IS A Virtue: A Response To Jen Wilkin
I’ve been asked to respond to Jen Wilkin’s post last week, Failure is Not a Virtue. I won’t rehash Jen’s point. You can follow the link and read the post for yourself. There’s lots that could be said. On the surface, it’s not easy to see what’s wrong with it. She quotes the Bible and she makes some valid points. But something is missing. And you can’t know what that is unless you dive beneath the surface and explore her post at a deeper theological AND existential level. So, let me just point out two major “under the surface” points that seem to be the source of the theological muddiness on the surface. When You Fail To Distinguish Law And Gospel…You Lose Both Jen’s concern seems to be a reveling in moral laxity. She calls it “celebratory failurism.” She writes, “Some have begun to articulate a skewed view of grace—one that discounts the necessity of obedience to the moral precepts of the Law. I call this view celebratory failurism—the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. Furthermore, our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.” I have to be honest and say I’ve never encountered a Christian who “celebrates failure.” And I’ve been around for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I see moral laxity in everyone, everywhere. But I don’t see real Christians reveling in it or bragging about it. Anyway, it’s not just the diagnosis that I question. It’s her proposed solution to this “celebratory failurism” which reveals some pretty deep theological confusion. Things get very confusing when you don’t properly distinguish God’s law from God’s gospel. Theodore Beza (John Calvin’s successor) rightly said that, “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is the principal source of abuse which corrupted and still corrupts Christianity.” Both God’s law and God’s gospel are good but both have unique job descriptions. As I mention here, Paul makes it clear in Romans 7 that the law endorses the need for change but is powerless to enact change—that’s not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The law can inform us of our sin but it cannot transform the sinner. It can show us what love for God and others looks like, but only love can produce love for God and others (1 John 4:19). Nowhere does the Bible say that the law carries the power to change us. The law can instruct, but only grace can inspire. We can tell people about what they need to be doing and the ways they’re falling short–instructing, exhorting, correcting, rebuking, preaching “the imperatives”–and that’s important. But we’re being both theologically AND existentially simplistic and naive when we assume that simply telling people what they need to do has the power to make them want to do it. Telling people they need to change can’t change them; exhorting people to obey (which we should definitely do) doesn’t generate obedience. Even God’s command to love him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength is not itself what causes actual love for him. What causes actual love for God is God’s love for us. His love for us is what motivates love from us. The Bible is very, very, very clear that grace and grace alone carries the power to inspire what the law demands. Love, not law, compels heartfelt loyalty. Ask your spouse. Ask your teenagers. Ask your employees. Ask yourself! Too many people assume that championing ethics will itself make us more ethical; that preaching obedience will itself make us more obedient; that focusing on the law will itself make us more lawful. But is that the way it works? With God or your wife or your husband or your children or with any other human for that matter? I completely understand how natural it is to conclude that, given our restraint-free cultural context, preachers in our day should be very wary of talking about grace at all. That’s the last thing lawless people need to hear, is it not? Surely they’ll take advantage of it and get worse, not better. After all, it would seem logical to me that the only way to “save” licentious people is to intensify our exhortations to behave. Therefore, what we desperately need is a renewed focus on ethics, duty, behavior, and so on. I mean, surely God doesn’t think that the saving solution for the immoral and rebellious is his free grace? That doesn’t make sense. It seems backwards, counter-intuitive. Matt Richard describes well how naturally we take it upon ourselves to reign the gospel in when we fear too much of it will result in lawlessness:
I have found that as Christians we many times attribute “lawlessness” to the preaching of the Gospel. Somewhere in our thinking we rationalize that if the Gospel is presented as “too free, too unconditional or that Jesus fulfills the law for us” that the result will be lax morality, loose living and lawlessness. It’s as if we believe that the freeing message of the Gospel actually produces, encourages and grants people a license to sin. Because of this rationalization we find ourselves strapping, holding and attaching restrictions to the Gospel so that we might prevent or limit lawlessness. In other words, the Gospel is placed into bondage due to our rationalization and reaction to lawlessness.
The truth is, that lawlessness and moral laxity happen, not when we hear too much grace, but when we hear too little of it. In One Way Love, I share the following letter I received from a man I’ve never met. He wrote:
Over the last couple of years, we have really been struggling with the preaching in our church as it has been very law laden and moralistic. After listening, I feel condemned with no power to overcome my lack of ability to obey. Over the last several months, I have found myself very spiritually depressed, to the point where I had no desire to even attend church. Pastors are so concerned about somehow preaching “too much grace” (as if that is possible), because they wrongly believe that type of preaching leads to antinomianism or licentiousness. But, I can testify that the opposite is actually true. I believe preaching only the law and giving little to no gospel actually leads to lawless living. When mainly law is preached, it leads to the realization that I can’t follow it, so I might as well quit trying. At least, that’s what has happened to me.
Gerhard Ebeling wrote, “The failure to distinguish the law and the gospel always means the abandonment of the gospel” because the law gets softened into “helpful tips for practical living” instead of God’s unwavering demand for absolute perfection, while the gospel gets hardened into a set of moral and social demands we “must live out” instead of God’s unconditional declaration that “God justifies the ungodly.” As my friend and New Testament scholar Jono Linebaugh says, “God doesn’t serve mixed drinks. The divine cocktail is not law mixed with gospel. God serves two separate shots: law then gospel.” Jen confuses these two “shots” and therefore fails to deliver the REAL bad news which prevents the reader from hearing (and being relieved by) the REAL good news. Jen Is Right…And Wrong The only other thing I would say is that Jen is right: failure is NOT a virtue. I’m not sure, however, that I’ve ever heard anyone say it is. But (and this is very, very important) failure IS a fact. AND because it’s a fact, acknowledging failure IS most definitely a virtue. Not to do so is delusional at best, dishonest at worst. The painful struggle to which Paul gives voice to in Romans 7 arises from his condition as someone who has been raised from the dead and is now alive to Christ (justified before God), but lingering sin continues to plague him at every level and in every way (sinful in himself )–what Luther described as simul justus et peccator. Paul’s testimony demonstrates that even after God saves us, there is no part of us that becomes sin-free—we remain sinful and imperfect in all of our capacities, in the totality of our being, or, as William Beveridge put it:
I cannot pray but I sin. I cannot hear or preach a sermon but I sin. I cannot give alms or receive the sacrament but I sin. I can’t so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are further aggravations of them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears need washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.
So when I say “Because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail”, I’m NOT saying “go out and sin more so that grace may abound.” I’ve never heard anyone say that. What I AM saying is that you ARE failing and that if you are in Christ, your failure does not condemn you (Rom. 8:1). Furthermore, your failure cannot separate you from God’s love (Rom. 8:31ff). So, because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail without fear of being cast out, abandoned. Even our most cataclysmic failures won’t tempt God to “leave us or forsake us.” Perfect love casts out all fear. So, regardless of how well I think I’m doing in the sanctification project or how much progress I think I’ve made since I first became a Christian, like Paul in Romans 7, when God’s perfect law becomes the standard and not “how much I’ve improved over the years”, I realize that I’m a lot worse than I realize. Whatever I think my greatest vice is, God’s law shows me that my situation is much graver: if I think it’s anger, the law shows me that it’s actually murder; if I think it’s lust, the law shows me that it’s actually adultery; if I think it’s impatience, the law shows me that it’s actually idolatry (read Matthew 5:17-48). No matter how decent I think I’m becoming–how much better I think I’m getting–when I’m graciously confronted by God’s law, I can’t help but cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Romans 7:24). Paul’s sobermindedness shows itself when he says things like “I’m the chief of sinners” and “I’m the least of all the saints.” Ironically, Paul’s honest acknowledgement of how unsanctified he was demonstrated just how sanctified he was. In other words, theologians of the cross (as opposed to theologians of glory) recognize that sanctification consists of an increased realization of our weakness and just how much grace we need. You see, this is what happens: the most common way grace is misunderstood is when people confuse it with cheapened law. Think of the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Or think of Jesus’ crushing line in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Grace, for many Christians, is the reduction of God’s expectations of us. Because of grace, we think, we just need to try hard. Grace becomes this law-cheapening agent, attempting to make the law easier to follow. “Love the Lord with all your heart” becomes “try to love God more than sports.” “Be perfect” gets cheapened into “do your best.” J. Gresham Machen counterintutively noted, “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace.” The reason this seems so counterintuitive is because most people think those who talk a lot about grace have a low view of God’s law (hence, the regular charge of antinomianism). Others think those with a high view of the law are the legalists. But Machen makes the compelling point that it’s a low view of the law that produces legalism, since a low view of the law causes us to conclude we can do it—the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think the standards are attainable, the goals reachable, the demands doable. This means, contrary to what some Christians would have you believe, the biggest problem facing the church today is not “cheap grace” but “cheap law”—the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus. As essayist John Dink writes,
Cheap law weakens God’s demand for perfection, and in doing so, breathes life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making. . . . Cheap law tells us that we’ve fallen, but there’s good news, you can get back up again. . . . Therein lies the great heresy of cheap law: it is a false gospel. And it cheapens—no—it nullifies grace.
Only when we see that the way of God’s law is absolutely inflexible will we see that God’s grace is absolutely indispensable. A high view of the law reminds us that God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s perfection, not our progress. Grace, properly understood, is the movement of a holy God toward an unholy people. He doesn’t cheapen the law or ease its requirements. He fulfills them in his Son, who then gives his righteousness to us. That’s the gospel. Pure and simple. Sanctification, simply defined, is love for God and love for others. But what actually produces love for God and love for others? Not the law. Nowhere does the Bible say that the law produces love. Nowhere. What the Bible does say is that love for God and others is produced only by God’s love for us. “We love him because he first loved us.” And this radical one-wayness of God’s love is alone the impetus to realizing the very things that Jen (and I ) longs to see happen in the lives of Christian people. “There’s a thing called Love we all forget…” http://youtu.be/wUTs2WQcnDg