64. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?
No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness (Heidelberg Catechism 64)
Moralism and rationalism are twins. In Christian theology, where you see the one the other is nearby. In this context moralism refers to the doctrine that we are accepted with God (justification) and/or delivered from the wrath to come (salvation) through inherent, personal, intrinsic sanctification (holiness) and righteousness. Rationalism, in this sense, is the notion that in order for something to be true it must be comprehensively understood. In order for a rationalist to believe something it must make complete sense to him. Mystery must be removed. It does not take long to see how rationalism and moralism are related. How should a rationalist go about setting up a scheme to get people (Christians) to be good? He should set up a system whereby either their justification or their salvation is contingent upon their sanctification. This is, after all, how one gets results in the world, in ordinary experience.
Usually, if a boss wants greater efficiency and productivity from her employees, she sets up a system of incentives for her employees. If the boss is of the ordinary, uncreative sort, those incentives are likely to be negative. Fail to meet this goal and x (e.g., loss of pay, demotion etc) shall happen. A more creative boss might set up a series of positive incentives: meet this target and you shall receive y reward (e.g., extra paid vacation, flexible scheduling, company car etc). Whatever the nature of the incentive, the very structure is a covenant of works.
Life beyond the covenant of works is a covenant of works. I started working when I was 10. I delivered newspapers but I quit that in favor of basketball. When I was 14 I took a job a couple of days a week washing dishes in a local restaurant after school until 11:00 PM or midnight. One Saturday morning, after a late shift I overslept. When I woke up I called the restaurant to see if I still had a job. Nope. When I was 16 I took a job making deliveries for a local florist. My first day on my own I didn’t return until 7:00 PM and I didn’t get all the flowers delivered. Another pink slip. A job is a covenant of works. That’s why they call it going to work and not going to grace. It’s about performance, about meeting the terms of the covenant. The terms of every job are: “do this and live.” School is a covenant of works. Term papers must meet certain standards. Mid-terms and exams must be sufficiently correct in order to pass. Civil life is a covenant of works. Break the speed limit and you risk being pulled over and ticketed. Run a red light, cause an accident, and you’re responsible. Break a law, pay the fine. Break enough laws and you will do time. This is why the Apostle Paul says that the magistrate does not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4). The sword is not a symbol of grace but of works righteousness.
Some (but not all) of the fathers and virtually all of the medieval theologians concluded that the nature of God and things is such that he can and may only say of one “just” (righteous) if one is really, truly, inherently sanctified and righteous. So the medieval church set up an increasingly elaborate system to make it possible for sinners to become saints by the infusion of medicinal grace through the sacraments. Between the 9th and 13th centuries she elaborated upon the two divinely instituted sacraments to create five new sacraments. Seven is, after all, the perfect number. She made our voluntary cooperation with grace of the essence of the process of progressive sanctification/justification (they were said to be the same process). She made the final outcome of justification/sanctification/salvation contingent (dependent) upon our performance, our cooperation with grace. In effect, the medieval church said: God has done his part. Jesus qualified himself to be the Savior. He died to facilitate your salvation/justification/sanctification. In baptism we were said to receive initial justification. We were given a clean slate. From confirmation on it was up to us to do our part, to cooperate sufficiently with grace in order to present ourselves to God. In her own way, the medieval church turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. She made the gospel mystery of sanctification by grace, in light of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, into a quite reasonable process of sanctification/salvation by grace and cooperation with grace.
There we see the twins are work: rationalism and moralism. For all the talk about grace and for all the delivery systems of grace (count ’em 7!) our cooperation was still so of the essence of the process that without it we are doomed. This is the same incentive process one finds at work. “We’ve given you all the resources you need but your department just hasn’t produced. I’m sorry but have to let you go.” The traffic cop points to the road markings, speed limit signs, and the traffic controls. They were all there and functioning but you did not do your part. Help is not a covenant of grace. Help is still a covenant of works. The medieval church, like the modern traffic court, ultimately relied on incentives and scolding to get us to be good.
There is a place for warnings in the administration of the covenant of grace but we should be careful as we think and talk about warnings not to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
Next time: When do we start talking about in rather than for?
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.