Don’t call it “grace” pt. III (or “Disciples of . . .”)
I want to thank Jen and i-Monk (again!) for some really fascinating discussions, done with grace. Looking back at them, there are so many things that I continue to think about. For starters, Lutheran theology consistently gives the necessary and comforting reminder of how wrong-headed it is to try to earn anything with God. That alone is a good enough reason for keeping some Lutheran company on a regular basis.
Having said that, I still can’t bring myself to view all of scripture as either “Law” or “Gospel.” Too many important concepts get distorted when we try to fit everything into these two definitional boxes, and I’m not just referring to the strange situation of trying to call something “good,” “helpful,” “true” and from God to us, but not an act of “grace.” That’s another take-away I have from these conversations, which is also really valuable. To me, the classic symptom of a systematic theology gone awry is when it starts spitting out conclusions that require a real twist of logic, of common sense or of scriptural terms or concepts in order to make everything “fit,” which is what I still see when I look back at some of the conclusions coming out of “Law or Gospel” hermeneutic (“LGH” for short). Specifically, the first, and I think the biggest surprise in my conversation with Jen was her deep concern about my belief that Jesus called people to be his “apprentices” rather than, to use her words, “students of the gospel.”
Now if we consider everything Jesus said and did as “gospel” then there’s no difference. But if only part of what Jesus did is “gospel” as under the LGH, then this thought that we’re “disciples of the gospel” as opposed to disciples of Jesus attempts quite a distortion of the new testament understanding of a “disciple” which is an absolutely central concept, even if it’s been sidelined for several centuries. The first part of this distortion is that the new testament writings clearly and often portray believers, followers, disciples, etc. as disciples of Jesus. Not disciples of one or two doctrines about him or from him–disciples of Jesus–all he is, all he does, all he says. I can think of dozens of passages talking about disciples of Jesus, even a few talking about disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Moses, but I can’t think of any, out of the hundreds, that attempt to shift the concept from a focus on Jesus as a whole, to just ‘the gospel’ (as the term is defined by the reformers). No, the NT clearly envisions that we are disciples of the whole man. Like the passover lamb, we’re to eat the whole thing. I know this kind of integration of commands, teachings, actions, thinking, teaching, example, etc. together into a whole person is disturbing to the LGH. But we were given a whole person to follow, to trust, to love, not a set of propositions or isolated acts, so that we can be whole people. My concern is that while the LGH purports to be Christ-centered, it is actually more selective that that. It’s more “justification” centered; more specifically concerned with our legal status with God than anything else God may be seeking to accomplish through sending his Son. The result, after a few centuries of widespread use, is that we have loads of “Christians” in the West but very few disciples, because discipleship has been largely thrown into the “Law” category and thereby de-emphasized or even viewed with suspicion. How Jesus shapes our life here isn’t “gospel” under the LGH. In fact, even the suggestion that we are Jesus’ apprentices is troubling to sincere and educated Christians. That’s a strong, strong contrast to the gospels.
The second distortion relates to how we perceive ourselves. The term “disciple” is used over 200 times, I believe, in the NT–far more than any other term (e.g., believers, saints, etc.) to describe those who are buying into Jesus. It’s not a term denoting any legal status. It’s a process term within a relationship. It is the scriptures’ favorite word for describing what we are in relation to Jesus. Just think about that for a second. The NT doesn’t chiefly identify believers according to their legal status (calling them “the aquitted” or something like that) though it does use those terms. The NT primarily refers to us as disciples/apprentices–people in a process of listening to, watching, practicing and becoming like Jesus in thought and action. If you want to know a central theme in the NT, if you want to know the most common shape of Jesus’ own invitations to people, then discipleship to Jesus is absolutely key. One might think from evangelical altar calls that the Great Commission was a commission to get people into heaven, to get them forgiven, get them justified. Of course, the commission doesn’t even mention those things. It’s a commission to make disciples of Jesus, which will include those things and more, because Jesus is the source of all of that and more. In fact, it’s within the process of discipleship that forgiveness starts to make working and necessary sense. God doesn’t just want to forgive the sinner and send him back to his way, his life. He wants to give him a new life, along the lines of Jesus’. He wants to train him, transform him, turn him into something resembling himself, have him participate in God’s healing of others as God’s agent, just as Christ was and his people have always been. Of course, forgiveness and all kinds of grace will be essential to that process from start to finish. We need to learn to let our view of ourselves be significantly shaped by that concept (that we are persons in a process toward and with Jesus) and not merely the concept of our legal status, if we want to think of ourselves as the NT writers do. And we need to see how the availability of that process and God’s intentions in it is good news.