Augustine’s Retractations, Perfectionism, And Fakespectations (2)

Secular institutions and even extra-ecclesiastical Christian institutions have always been, in their essence, law. The civil magistrate may exercise mercy—Calvin’s first published work was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (On Clemency), Seneca’s defense of the virtue of mercy to Nero. When a police officer pulls you over for speeding, he may write you a ticket or he may give you a warning. If he chooses the latter, that is a mercy. By law you were guilty. You deserved the fine whatever else comes your way (e.g., higher insurance rates). We are in a covenant of works with the civil magistrate (represented by the police officer): do this and live. School is a covenant of works. When it comes exams and term papers, a just teacher is, for the most part, only recognizing what the student has done. Speaking for myself, I take no pleasure in giving bad marks. Well written exams and term papers are pleasing. Most teachers want to see students learning and progressing but if an essay is poorly written or inaccurate, then that reality must be recognized. Like the magistrate, teachers and administrators may exercise mercy, i.e., they may lessen the severity of penalties but their office is not to exercise grace, i.e., to give to sinners what is not theirs by right.

These are not new realities but this axiom, that much of life is lived in a covenant of works, is portrayed for us as never before on the internet and especially on social (or, too often, anti-social) media. In Belgic Confession art. 37, we confess that, for unbelievers, the final judgment will look like this:

Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

Many Christians live in fear of their lives being played out like a horrible video, at the last judgment. They have been taught to think that they have begun the Christian life and salvation by grace but that it must be completed by works.1 So it is on social media. Recall the poor woman who, before leaving for a trip to Africa, where she was to work with a relief agency and who, trying to be hip and ironic, tweeted that she hoped that she did not contract AIDS while in Africa. The Twitter-rage became so intense that while she was still in the air, she lost her job. With the ubiquity of cameras now, it would not be that difficult to put together an actual video of one’s life moment by moment.

There is an institution, however, whose principle is not works and judgment but grace and forgiveness: Christ’s church. By divine institution there is the preaching of the great Good News that Christ became incarnate for, obeyed for, suffered for, died for, and was raised for the free justification of all his people. She is the only institution authorized to proclaim this message. There alone do we find the sacrament of baptism, in which the gracious washing of new life and the forgiveness of sins is pictured for us and the promise of the same visibly represented to believers. There alone is administered the gracious communion in the body and blood of Christ, where believing sinners are freely invited freely to come, to eat, and to drink, to be nourished mysteriously by Christ’s true body and true blood.

In the church, believers ought to find refuge from the ever-present judgment of the social media. Of all the institutions in this world whether expressions of family or state, the church alone is that society in which Christians are free to be what they are: sinners redeemed by Christ, who are being gradually and graciously conformed to Christ’s image. The church alone is to be the place of unconditional acceptance of sinners by sinners.

Of course, this is not to say that in the church there is no correction. Certainly there is! Church discipline is one the marks of the church. Our Lord instituted church discipline but for believers discipline is an act of grace not condemnation. Believers recognized their sins, confess them, turn from them and seek to die to them. The ministry of discipline is a proclamation of the law to non-believers and with all such administrations of the law we do it in the hope and prayer that the Spirit will use it to soften hearts, to convict the hearer of the greatness of his sin and misery, and to make people receptive to the Good News.

Here is something to consider. Instead of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” how about “What is said at church, stays at church”? I do not mean to say that what the minister says is not public or that one should not broadcast sermons or services but I do mean to suggest that the church should ordinarily be a refuge from the sort of judgments that the world makes. I do mean that what is said in confidence between believers should stay there. There is even a case to be made that when it comes to the administration of church discipline that non-members be excused and the remaining members be admonished to treat the administration with due reverence.

The church should be a haven of grace (free acceptance for Christ’s sake alone) and forgiveness. Condemnation belongs to God. Even in the final act of church discipline (excommunication) the church does not send people to hell. Rather, we recognize that a person who once professed faith has, over time, shown himself to be an unbeliever. We are to treat that person as an unbeliever, i.e., we love him and pray that God the Spirit will soften his heart and open his eyes in new life and in true faith. We tell him that he is in grave danger but we do not do so as anything other than those who have been plucked from the fire by the grace of God.

Augustine wrote Retractions because he was, well, an Augustinian. He knew what he was, a sinner, whose intellect, will, and affections were corrupted by sin. He could publish his Retractions because he did not have to pretend to be what he was not. You and I may never need to write Retractions, if only because there would be little use or interest, but the church is meant to be a place where we are freely accepted, where burdens and even sins are shared. It is no mistake that after all that he had written to the Galatian congregation about grace he began the last chapter with these words:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load (Gal 6:1–5; ESV).

Paul too was an Augustinian. Sinners are to be restored, not ostracized and with gentleness, not arrogant self-righteousness. Embracing the spirit of the Retractions means being honest about our own sins and habits. It means graciously standing with, praying with, and even crying with fellow sinners as they share their struggles with sin. It means recognizing that, of ourselves, we are nothing. The congregation of sinners is no place for false self-esteem, self-realization, and accomplishments. Oprah can peddle that stuff elsewhere. I take verses 4–5 to refer to honest self-assessment, to recognizing (as Calvin says in his commentary on these verses) that whatever sanctification has occurred is a gift of the Spirit. Believers are not to compare themselves to one another but each of us is to reckon himself to be what he really is: a wretch freely and marvelously saved by grace alone, through the Spirit-wrought gift of faith, in Christ the only righteous One.

NOTES

1. Read the entire article. The judgement is law and condemnation for the unbeliever but comfort and gospel for the believer:

Finally we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.

Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world.

They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet. For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.”

Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.

The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.”

And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine.

So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

See also Heidelberg Catechism 52:

52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, look for the very same one, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation,2 but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

The believer looks forward to Christ’s return and to the judgment, not because he is sinless or because he he is finishing by works (e.g., cooperation with grace) what began with the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:3). Rather, the believer is looking forward to the judgment because there he will be vindicated and receive the consummation of what has been given and promised in this life.

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