THE NEW SALVATION BY WORKS
While there is much to admire in a generation that wants to get things done,there are some things we need to unlearn if we are to have a healthy sense of what it means to be a child of God
Today’s working population is dominated by baby-boomers - the people born between 1946 and 1963 - and they are coming in for some uncomfortable criticism in this era of austerity. Having avoided the trauma of war, baby boomers grew up in an age where further education was funded, jobs were secure and housing cheap. Compared to the hardships their children are facing in these three core areas of life, they have been privileged. It is, however, lazy and unreflective to caricature them as a selfish generation, as if this distinguishes them from others. It is also too tidy to separate out the generations like strands of a garment, as if we are able to isolate ourselves from the experiences of others.
Baby boomers tend to be focussed, task-driven, goal-orientated and pre-occupied by targets and measurements. We can see this effect in public policy alone. They also find their worth by achieving things; it gives them meaning and identity. If they can’t achieve, they become restless and disheartened. I should know; I am one of them, even if I only sneak in at 1962 and feel more like a sports-addicted slacker, perpetually slumped on the sofa watching ball games. While there is much to admire in a generation that wants to get things done, there is also much we need to unlearn, if we are to pass on to the next generation a healthy sense of what it means to be a child of God. I am thinking especially of the way our addiction to achieving things has become a modern version of justification by works.
Scripture speaks presciently into this urge. ‘He saved us’, it says, ‘not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy’ (Titus 3:5). We are justified by grace and find utter, irrevocable acceptance with God because of who he is, not by virtue of what we have done. It is noticeable how categories of deserving and undeserving have entered into our vocabulary again during these straightened times, and these terms have come out of the mouths of baby boomers in particular. We like to class people as deserving of help or as undeserving of it. The prominence of this talk has deepened the grooves of self-righteousness to which we are prone. It is nice and comfortable to place ourselves on the right side of this debate, as a way of boosting our self-esteem, but this is dangerous terrain for a Christian to inhabit.
The Gospel speaks only of undeserving people finding the grace of God. We are flawed, but God is merciful; we are weak, but God is generous. There is nothing we can do for God that will deepen the acceptance we have with him. When we bring a child into the world, we don’t begin to love him or her when they start to achieve well at school; we love them without condition, from the moment we feel the first stirrings in the womb. There is a place of poise, a ground of holiness that people can find where nothing can add to or take away from the sense of acceptance they feel in God. We talk about people being ‘grounded’ today. It’s a good choice of word, for it echoes the teaching of Jesus about developing faith. We abide in God; achieving stuff is secondary.
Many Christian ministers, lay or ordained, inhabit a different world to this in practice. They feel a weight of expectation and a murmur of criticism which keeps them on their toes, forever trying to find acceptance by what they do. The sad thing is, living largely in an age of church decline, rather than growth, we feel judged by our failure to foster sufficient growth and so re-double our efforts and our guilt without realising these are weights that God bears for us: my burden is easy and my yoke is light (Matthew 11:30). The first task of mission is to find ourselves in God and rest there. It is from this place that we can help lead our churches into godliness, from where the Gospel is perfectly pitched.
The letter to Titus understood this. It speaks of being justified by grace, not outcomes. When a community of Christians inhabits this place, the outcomes will flow like a river downhill. Three times, Titus 3 talks about good works. We do not prove ourselves by these good works, they emerge naturally from living in the grace of God, like a stem with roots in the spring soil.
We may have much contemplation to make around this truth. When we read of justification by grace, not works, we imagine this debate had traction in the early Church, where some believers were tempted to find their way through keeping the law, and during the Reformation, where Luther nailed not just his thesis, but the pernicious sense that we earn our place at the table with God. Yet the spirit of justification by works has re-branded itself today in the alluring colours of tasks and goals. Today’s world fosters shallow lives where speed is mistaken for progress and busyness is confused with growth. People are being stretched thinner and long to imitate a different life. If all we offer them is the same lifestyle they already have, but with a perfunctory ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen’ thrown in at the end, they will look for other roots in which to grow.
The legacy of the baby boomers will be contested for several decades to come, yet their strange addiction to a new justification by works may well be overlooked. Where we have often failed, perhaps others might learn.
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