Friday, August 26, 2011

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles

Article XIII
Of Works before Justification
Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of His Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

De Operibus ante Iustificationem
Opera quae fiunt ante gratiam Christi et Spiritus eius afflatum, eum ex fide Iesu Christi non prodeant, minime Deo grata sunt, neque gratiam (ut multi vocant) de congruo merentur: imo cum non sint facta ut Deus illa fieri voluit et praecepit, peccati rationem habere non dubitamus.

Fr. Laurence Wells
This is surely the most difficult  article we have yet encountered and may well be the hardest of many "hard sayings" in the Articles in their entirety.        
All of us have known people like a friend of mine.  He is not only a good and generous man, but more than that:  he is self-denying, living out a life of heroic virtue (yes, I know where that phrase comes from), caring not only for his disabled wife but for her elderly invalid parents.  His personal burdens are almost overwhelming.  I am in awe of his courage, and wish I had some measure of his kindness.  One might be tempted to say my friend is the perfect Christian, but that would only insult him.  My friend, you see, is utterly unchurched and seems to be an agnostic.        
Taken at face value, Article XIII appears to say that my friend's admirable way of life and numberless acts of compassion are "not pleasant to God" but have "the nature of sin."  How can such a view be reconciled with even minimal Christian charity?        
To begin, we need to resolve an apparent discrepancy between the title of the article, "Of Works before Justification," and the opening sentence, which speaks of "the grace of Christ and the Inspiration of his Spirit."  Justification in the Articles always has its Biblical meaning of God's once-for-all judicial degree of acquittal and acceptance for sinners who by faith embrace Christ as He is offered in the Gospel.  The "grace of Christ and Inspiration of the Spirit" surely seems to refer, in a loose sort of way, to God's initial invasion of the sinner's heart which the Bible calls regeneration, the gift of new life in the New Creation.  Although these acts of God are distinct, both Justification and Regeneration together divide a sinner's life into a "before" and "after," setting up an indelible line of demarcation, establishing a granite landmark which sin and Satan cannot remove.
Every human being lives on one side or the other of that watershed (signified by the watershed event of Baptism, when we pray that God, of His bounteous mercy, will grant to this person that which by nature he cannot have.") We have already seen that after Regeneration/Justification, we both enjoy and endure an ambiguous existence in the paradoxical status of "simul iustus et peccator."  But what of the fallen creature before that salvific beachhead?       
At this point in our survey we must remind ourselves of the nature of sin itself.  The popular notion that sin refers to occasional lapses from a morally neutral condition, like dark spots on a beige background, is Pelagian and heretical. As we learned in Article IX, Original sin is "the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man," and "in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation."  To invoke the metaphors of Genesis 3, as human beings in our post-lapsarian state, we do not live on in the garden of moral innocence, or even near the gate guarded by cherubim with flaming swords.  Our resultant condition, into which each of us was born, is the tough world of thorns and thistles, exiles from the presence and good-pleasure of the Creator.  Sin is not only leaving undone those things we ought to have done and doing those things we ought not to have done; that phrase from the General Confession in the Daily Office describes the regenerate.  For the unregenerate, sin is a more serious matter: it is our very condition, our dilemma and our predicament.        
Article XIII drives this nail home.  This "fault and corruption of the nature" of every human being is like a deadly poison in an aquifer, a tiny thing which pollutes and ruins the whole system.  The unregenerate man, even at his best, is only a lost sinner.  In his debates with the Pelagians, St Augustine had to account for the virtues of the heathen. Somewhat dismissively, he described those virtues as only "virtutes ethnicorum splendida vitia," no more than "splendid vices," since they were not intended for the glory of God, but only for self-love and human praise.       
So where does this leave my agnostic friend as he daily cares for his querulous and ungrateful mother-in-law?  Shall I congratulate him for the practice of a splendid vice?  Do I suggest, "Don't bother; you are only committing another sin?"  Mercifully, Augustine's followers of a later century introduced a concept which brings some relief.  As we recall "the rain that falls on  the just and the unjust," Holy Scripture offers the doctrine of "common grace," which not only restrains mankind's proclivity to violence and sin, but even enables the unregenerate to perform certain acts less wicked than ordinary, acts of "civil good."  All human behavior is imperfect, but some behavior is better than others, not because of our human nature but only because of God's kindly restraint.  So in the benevolence of the unbeliever, the eyes of faith may see the presence of the Spirit of God, who wills that all men may be saved.

Fr. Robert Hart
Fr. Wells has opened our chapter on Article XIII by looking honestly at the good works of a friend, not unlike the various people each of us know. After all, what we find in this Article cannot fail to bring out the same problem for each honest person who reads it. The most problematic things we find here are that these works we may call, in the lives of individuals, “Before Christ” (BC in terms of one’s own faith), is the idea that they do not please God, and that they have the nature of sin. But, if we understand this teaching correctly, it produces more certainty concerning the love of God and His unmerited favor to unworthy sinners.
            Unmerited is a word I use boldly, inasmuch as no one can save himself from sin and death, as we have seen clearly by now, by even the best and most righteous efforts. If salvation came to you because of merit rather than grace, it might prove true the observation of Mark Twain: “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” If you had to earn sufficient merits against your sins, most certainly, “you would stay out.” Why? Because God is perfect, and His standard is perfection. In his famous argument against Pelagius, this was essential to the teaching of St. Augustine. The Universal Church agreed that it was Augustine whose doctrine conformed to the teaching of the Apostles in the public record of Holy Scripture.
          For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10,11) 

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire...Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matt. 5:20-22, 27,28) 

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)
          If, as we know to be true, “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24),” it is most certain that the old American humorist got it right: “if it went by merit, you would stay out.” And, though I appreciate the entire quotation, it is that first part we need to understand. The salvation we need is absolute, and the salvation God has provided in His only begotten Son meets that absolute need.
          So, let us ask about these points. Why are B.C. works not pleasing to God? Frankly, that is what the rest of the Article answers. Let us then break it down into parts.

First we see, “forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ.”
          But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Heb. 11:6)
It is impossible because he is perfectly just, perfectly righteous, and perfectly holy. This is where Fr. Wells’ point, above, needs to be stated again: sin “is our very condition, our dilemma and our predicament.” The Gospel is about mercy and about grace, because the heart of God is that perfect charity about which the Apostle wrote his famous chapter thirteen in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Therefore, He has provided the cure for our condition and the rescue from our dilemma and predicament: “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12:47).” We need to know that this is our condition in order to appreciate the truth we are presented with.

Then we see, “neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity.”
Again, if good works could make us worthy by the perfect standards of God’s justice, we would always live with uncertainty as to whether we had done enough. Or, we could sin willfully, and then assume that God owes us forgiveness by what we consider a just compensation paid to Him. As we have seen before, we are “unprofitable servants” who merely have done their duty; and that is only if truly we have done all that he commanded us to do (Luke 17:7-10). The good works of charity and of devotional duty to God Himself are commanded; they are required. Therefore, it is no great thing if somehow, at some time, we manage to do the best mortals can do in this fallen state. Failure to do right is simply another sin; so, God owes nothing to anyone for good works. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17)” And, therefore, it is not compensation paid to God if someone does the right thing once in a while.

Finally, “yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
How are they done at all if not as God commanded? The obvious answer is that they are done without faith in His Son. For this reason, no matter how much a feeling of love may be present in actions for individuals, the faith that produces Divine love is absent, that charity that comes only from the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Therefore, the motivation to obey the Second Great commandment of the Law is imperfect. And, if you doubt that this is possible, consider the words of St. Paul: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity (γάπη), it profiteth me nothing. (I Cor. 13:3)” And, if you ask why I speak of charity when the Article speaks of faith, it is because of the impossibility of separating these Divine virtues bestowed by grace: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (v. 13)” “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love (γάπη). (Gal. 5:6)”
Therefore, “the nature of sin” speaks of that helpless state inherent in fallen mankind. The motivation that exists, in even the best works, falls far short of God’s perfection. The good news is that God has provided something far better than anything we could imagine. He is not pleased with anything less than His Son; and it is in His Son that He sees us.


Colin Chattan said...

One way to try to understand this hard problem is to recognize that sin is not just a moral condition but a metaphysical one as well: Sin places us in a state, a dimension of reality from which we cannot escape by our own power - however morally good our actions may be. No matter how beautiful and good any human life may be in our fallen state, it is still embedded in thorns and thistles outside of Eden and will be terminated by the darkness of death and the rolling of the stone across the mouth of the tomb - which the person inside has no power to roll back. Only God in Jesus Christ can release us from this state.

Jack Miller said...


excellent teachings. Theologically solid, pastorally uplifting. You two make quite a team...

thanks once again,

Curate said...