Monday, June 26, 2017

Church Write-Up: Scattered Ramblings on Grace and Service

At church this morning, the pastor spoke about spiritual gifts.

Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) was the biblical text that framed the pastor’s message this morning.  See here if you want to read the parable.  In this parable, a master is looking for workers in his vineyard.  He hires people at different times during the day, offering to pay the workers a denarius.  The master pays the workers who were in the vineyard for only one hour a denarius.  Those who worked in the vineyard throughout the day expected more than that, but the master only paid them a denarius!  Those who worked throughout the day got the same amount of pay as those who worked for only one hour.  The master represents God.

The pastor drew a lot of lessons from this parable: that God is faithful to God’s word, that those who worked in the vineyard for only one hour were faithful to their task (as brief as it was), and that there is no place for jealousy in God’s kingdom.

The pastor was a little muddled about what the denarius represents in the parable.  On the one hand, he said that it represents eternal life, since all the workers receive it: similarly, all Christians will receive eternal life.  On the other hand, he seemed to be suggesting that the denarius represents the rewards that believers will receive in the afterlife for their good deeds and service.  After all, the workers in the vineyard have to work for that denarius.

The pastor was explaining that salvation, eternal life, and forgiveness of sins are a free gift that God gives to those who accept them through faith in Jesus, so we cannot earn them by our works.  After we are saved, however, we serve God, and God will reward us in the afterlife according to our service (II Corinthians 5:10).  How this doctrine fits into the denarius is a good question.  The point of the parable is that all of the workers receive the same wage: a denarius.  I can see why the pastor interprets the denarius as eternal life: all believers receive eternal life, whereas rewards appear to vary according to people’s faithfulness, deeds, and service (see, for example, the different rewards in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents).  But the workers needed to work for that denarius, and that goes against the pastor’s contention that we cannot earn our salvation through works.

At the same time, the pastor seemed to be suggesting that the workers being in the vineyard was itself an act of grace: they had a need (for work), they showed up looking for a job, and the vineyard owner gave them one.  They did not have to earn that opportunity.  The master gave it to them freely, and what the master was looking for was not talent but willingness.

I think that the pastor’s model of salvation preceding Christian service makes sense, at least from a practical standpoint.  If I had to do good works and deeds of love and service to be saved, or even to assure myself that I have been saved, I would always wonder if I am doing enough.  That would hamper my service.  By contrast, if I am saved and can be assured of my salvation, that takes a lot of pressure off of me.  I am then able to serve joyfully.  I am running downhill rather than climbing uphill.  As a mainline Methodist pastor told me years ago, we are saved by God’s grace, and salvation is a free gift, but, after we are saved, the fact remains that there is a lot of work to be done: there are people in pain, problems and injustices in the world, and people who need our help.

A text that the pastor quoted is Galatians 5:13: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (KJV).

The pastor also said in the sermon this morning that we should not assume that we are not spiritual enough to serve.  That spoke to me.  Often in church, I feel that others are more spiritual than I am, maybe because they are surer of their beliefs and their commitment to Christianity than I am.  Some people at church this morning were falling over in their enthusiasm for the Lord, whereas my emotions were far less intense!  But suppose that I am saved by grace.  I can serve, even if I am not spiritual enough.  And the service is for the sake of service—-to help somebody else—-not to boost my spiritual standing.

Does the pastor’s model of free grace salvation then Christian service coincide with the Scriptures and historical Christianity, though, or is it a recent evangelical fad, or at least an idea going back to Martin Luther (though people will probably interject that Luther, when properly understood, was not an antinomian)?  I think that a case can be made from the Scriptures that salvation is a free gift, and that we can have assurance of it right now.  Paul says that, when we are justified by faith, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1).  Believers have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13).  But then there are passages that seem to present a less optimistic picture: the unprofitable servant in the Parable of the Talents goes into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Service seems to have been a heaven and hell issue, in his case (and I am open to alternative interpretations).

I have been reading Augustine’s City of God.  It is over a thousand pages, so I will be reading it for a long time!  Augustine believed in God’s grace, in the sense that he thought that he needed God’s forgiveness and regeneration of him.  As I learned over a decade ago in an Introduction to Christianity course, Augustine did not think that God helps those who helps themselves, for his conclusion from the Scriptures and his own experience was that God helps those who cannot help themselves, and who realize that they cannot help themselves!  Many historians have regarded the Protestant Reformation as a return to Augustine.  And yet, here is something that Augustine says in Book II, Chapter 28 (John O’ Meara’s translation) that does not sound entirely evangelical:

“Men have been rescued, through the name of Christ, from the hellish yoke of those polluted powers and from a share in their condemnation; they have passed from the night of blasphemy and perdition into the daylight of salvation and pure godliness.  This fact evokes complaints and murmurs from the malicious and spiteful who are held tight in the close grip of that wicked fiend.  They resent the streams of people who gather in the church in a modest assembly…where they can hear how they ought to live a good life on earth for a space, so that they may deserve to live a life of bliss for ever, and where the words of holy Scripture and of the teaching of righteousness are read aloud from a raised position in the sight of all; those who observe the teaching hear it for their profit, and those who do not, for their condemnation.”

There is grace in there: Christians have been delivered from polluted powers and condemnation with them; Christians have been saved.  They do not have to earn these things, for they already have received them.  And yet, Augustine says things that would not be warmly received in evangelical churches or Bible studies that focus on grace: believers can learn how to live a good life, so that they can deserve eternal bliss.  Deserve?  We can never deserve eternal life, evangelicals will say!  Augustine also affirms that the possibility of condemnation remains for those who do not observe the teaching of righteousness that they hear in church.  That differs from any teaching that says that we have been saved by grace, and how we live after that cannot affect our salvation.

Those are my scattered ramblings for the day.

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