Monday, April 24, 2017

Lessons Learned in Reformed School

Ken's sermon yesterday was based on James chapter 2, the "Faith without works is dead" chapter.  It helped me figure out how my faith had gotten so wrapped around the axle for so many years.

The sermon was reassuring.  James has proven to be a tough book over the centuries.  Martin Luther himself didn't believe it belonged in the Bible -- "an epistle of straw" was his dismissive epithet.  The conundrum is essentially this:  after verse after verse of Paul writing about salvation through faith alone, James comes along and suggests maybe you should doubt your faith if it is unaccompanied by works (obedience to God's law).  Ken's analysis (hope I'm not distorting it) is that we should view works as evidence of faith, not as its prerequisite -- faith leads to works, not the other way around.
That said, it's easy to set up an impossible standard for yourself, based a broader application of James' words than what he specifically intended.  In James' day, rich Christians would show up at church bringing plenty to eat and drink for themselves, but then refuse to share anything with the poor and hungry.  James thought this practice was disgraceful, and said so.  But even faithful Christians have sins they skirmish with on a daily basis -- the better the Christian, so it seems, the more subtle and dangerous the sins that afflict him.  Christ's perfection eludes us, and will keep doing so until He cleans us up for eternity.

The Reformed Presbyterians I hang out with these days have a term they apply to this cleaning-up process:  sanctification.  It's a lifelong process, and it's not always a linear one.  (Paul blames much of it, at least, on the war between the spirit and the flesh -- in so many words, your flesh knows it is doomed to die and would like nothing better than to take your spirit along with it.)
Now, a quick rewind back to my childhood.  I became aware of and convicted of my sins around the age of seven or so, give or take, and was baptized in our independent Baptist church.  I remember the recipe for salvation was simple:  just ask the Lord to come into your heart and save you.  All well and good.

However, I did not understand the concept of sanctification.  Nor do I recall, ever, a single word preached on the subject.  My memory could be faulty on that score, or I may have been too young to grasp it.  But for whatever reason, that important concept managed to slip through the cracks.  Instead, I believed that, as a Christian, I will no longer want to sin.

This led, quite naturally, to decades of self-doubt and inner struggle.  Even as a child, it gnawed at me constantly.  It started with me committing some sin -- I lied, or swore, or stole from my dad's poker winnings.  (Yes, I did that on more than one occasion; Pop was a good poker player.)  Then came remorse for the sin.  Then came the question:  why would you do this if you're a Christian?  Maybe you're not a Christian after all...?  I thought, wow, I must have really messed up that prayer, and maybe I need to pray it again -- this time, with feeling.  But then another thought arrived quickly at its heels:  is my faith so poor that I have to pray for salvation twice?  Won't the Lord be angry at me for doubting Him?

I expected the sanctification process to be instantaneous, and when it wasn't, The result?  As the younger folks would say, total buzzkill.  I went from doubting my salvation to disbelieving it almost completely.  I never doubted the Lord's, but felt like the worst possible Christian, a complete phony.  I still went to church, but it was torturous and not very assuring.  There's a Gershwin song from one of his musicals ("Girl Crazy", I think) that contains the perfect lyrical description of the way I felt about church:  "They're singing songs of love, but not for me."  The scriptures offers us many thing, including messages of hope and peace, but all I ever heard were the condemnations.

I wonder how many others have abandoned the faith altogether just because they couldn't resolve this dissonance?  The only way I could function was to put it out of my mind entirely, and be assured only that, some day, I was probably going to Hell.  I can't be the only person who has ever gone through all that.

Gradually, over the decades since I came face to face with that appalling dilemma, I was brought back.  Who or what brought me back? Well, the short answer is the Lord Himself -- after all, that's an important part of Reformed theology ("irresistable grace").  But in terms of specifics?  I was always intellectually intrigued by Christianity.  I devoured anything written by C.S. Lewis, for example, and loved to read debates between Christians and atheists (we Dises are a verbally contentious lot and love a good argument).  That was a start, at least.  Lewis is a good read for someone who feels moved to embrace Christ but thinks doing would betray his intellectual principles.  However, I had the opposite problem: I was fine with Christian belief intellectually, but had trouble with believing it applied to me.  So something else was needed.

Then, I married a Christian woman.  It really disappointed Debbie when I wanted to skip church on Sunday, so I attended not because I wanted to, but because I felt I should.  This exposed me, of course, to scripture, which is a means of grace.  It will change you, but not if you don't hear it.  I found myself placed, out of  my love for my woman, where I needed to be.

And then, we discovered our present church.  Pastor Wally played a huge role.  He'd look at me, smile, and say, "Cheer up!  You're worse than you think!"  Wally was an excellent teacher, and we took a class he gave for prospective church officers, working through the Westminster Confession -- I used to call it "Reformed School."  Our elders really do try to teach us good theology.  Our church doesn't consist of perfect people proud of our perfection; we're just struggling sinners who have faith in the Lord's promises, and try to help each other with our struggles.

And there is certainly nothing special about me.  That's a good thing.  It means the scriptures aren't singling me out as the only man since the dawn of Creation to whom the Lord's promises don't apply.  They most certainly do.