Saturday, June 10, 2006

Mixing Law and Gospel

Tim Bayly has linked to an article by Greg Johnson, a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, called "Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt." The point of the article is pretty simple: you shouldn't read the Bible daily and pray based on guilt (as a Law), but based on grace and Christian freedom. Tim Bayly doesn't like the article at all:

There are things here worth saying, some of which are downright helpful and good. But the admixture of truth and error ultimately renders this piece unsalvageable except as an exercise in the practice of that most-neglected-of-all-spiritual-gifts, discernment.

In the end, he concludes, it is "false teaching hiding behind the cover of 'grace'" and calls on his readers to demonstrate that fact in their comments.

His pupils have responded to their teacher's call for a exposure of the errors with a long comments thread.

Well, I have mixed feelings about one of the issues that has exercised Rev. Bayly: whether the danger of our times is legalism (i.e. too much guilt-tripping over devotional exercises) or anti-nomianism (i.e. too many people at ease in Zion, ignorant of the Bible, don't pray). Since the Small Catechism itself implies a fairly rigorous program of daily prayer and devotions, my sympathies are more with the latter.

But there's one massive error I find in Greg Johnson's article that virtually all of the Reformed commentators accept and even amplify. Unlike Tim Bayly, I'm just going to go out and tell you what it is. Greg Johnson writes:

And I hope we’ve dismissed the idea that prayer shows God how much we love him! It’s not a work, but a grace! But often we think that prayer is something we do to obligate God to bless us. This is the subtlest of errors, for it resembles the biblical teaching. Indeed, it is a caricature of the biblical picture of prayer. Grace-empowered, grace-motivated prayer does bring blessing, but prayer isn’t a work we do that obligates God to give blessing. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Prayer is a means of grace, not a work to merit grace.

Theologians have classically called prayer and Scripture (along with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) means of grace—highways along which the Holy Spirit tends to travel. The means of grace are the normal instruments God uses to accomplish his saving work in and through us. Does prayer change things? Yes, because God changes things, and prayer is an expression of our reliance upon him to accomplish his purposes.

As for this, I'd really say, it is such a confusion, nothing good can be made out of it. Prayer is a work. It is not grace. Nor is it a means of grace. The fact that prayer does not merit grace, can hardly be spun into the idea that it is grace. "Grace-empowered" and "grace-motivated" prayer is still a work -- a good work, one that all the saints will do, but a work.

This confusion is continued by the comment-box posts:

But, it seems to me the answer is never to abandon or denigrate the spiritual discipline, but rather to hold such things forth as the means of grace. Do you want to be close to God? Do you want to enjoy the benefits of relationship with him? Do you want to experience the peace and joy he promises, irrespective of life's irksome circumstances? Then undertake to use diligently the means he has given you to do that.


I agree with part of his statement, prayer is a means of grace. Baptism is a means of grace. Communion is a means of grace. Sexual purity is a means of grace. Godliness with contentment is a means of grace. Preaching is a means of grace. Holding fast to your confession in the face of the gallows is a means of grace.

Ultimately, everything done in faith is a means of grace.


The Problem: Broken homes and grieving parents
Cause: The curse of God on all mankind
Solution: The grace of God through Jesus Christ
Means of Grace (Solution): Preaching, teaching, prayer, Bible study, Eucharist, baptism (etc.)


As others have noted, I find the rigid distinction Johnson continually makes between a "work" and a "grace" to be fundamentally flawed. To be sure, the two words occupy opposite ends of the semantic spectrum, but this in no way requires that the two be mutually exclusive. Indeed, as Dave Curell suggests above, any act done in faith can be considered a "means of grace," and yet that act inevitably requires action. Nor is it correct to suppose that discipline and duty, both of which the author treats similarly, cannot also be means of grace.

No. Prayer is not a means of grace. Greg Johnson and the Reformed commenters simply have the whole thing confused. A means of grace is an action whereby one sinner makes clear to the senses of another God's promise of free pardon. It needs three people: God, the doer, and the recipient. If something is a means of grace, then God promises grace, the doer must enunciate that promise, and the recipient must believe in it. Faith is necessary for the recipient of the promise but not for its transmitter. Indeed the salvation of the transmitter is not the point of the promise at all. Preaching is a means of grace, as is baptism, the sacrament of the Altar, and absolution, because in all these things the pastor (or in emergency, any one) enunciates the promise for the flock, who is asked only to have faith in that promise. But once the flock has had this faith, then they will pray, and their pray will be a good work, a mighty work, a well-nigh omnipotent work. Luther says, about infant baptism:

For the Word of God is powerful, when it is uttered, to change even a godless heart, which is no less deaf and helpless than any infant. [This he says about the efficacy of the Word in itself, but he goes on to speak of the church's prayers.] Even so the infant is changed, cleansed, and renewed by inpoured faith, through the prayer of the Church that presents it for baptism and believes, to which prayer all things are possible. Nor should I doubt that even a godless adult might be changed, in any of the sacraments, if the same Church prayed and presented him; as we read in the Gospel of the man sick of the palsy, who was healed through the faith of others. I should be ready to admit that in this sense the sacraments of the New Law are efficacious to confer grace, not only to those who do not, but even to those who do most obstinately oppose a bar. What obstacle will not the faith of the Church and the prayer of faith remove? (Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in Three Treatises, p. 187; more discussion here).

The scholastic theologians had said that the sacraments can work as "efficacious signs" even without faith in the recipient but only as long as the recipient does not "oppose a bar" of deliberate disbelief. But Luther says, the sacraments must be received with faith to be efficacious, but once so received by the Church, the Church's power of prayer can convert even the most obstinate sinner.

And here, relating to the prayers of the mass, Luther wrote:

I am ready, however, to admit that the prayers which we pour out before God when we are gathered together to partake of the mass, are good works or benefits, which we impart, apply, and communicate to one another, and which we offer for one another; as James teaches us to prayer for one another that we may be saved, and as Paul, in 1 Timothy 2, commands that supplications, prayers, and intercessions be made for all men, for kings, and for all that are in high station. These are not the mass, but works of the mass -- if the prayers of heart and lips may be called works -- for they flow from the faith that is kindled or increased in the sacrament (p. 160).

We must not confound these two -- the mass and the prayers, the sacrament and the work, the testament and the sacrifice; for the one comes from God to us, through the ministration of the priest, and demands our faith [i.e. is a means of grace], the other proceeds from our faith to God, through the priest [here Luther is speaking specifically of the divine liturgy in which the pastor presents his flock's prayers], and demands His answer [i.e. is a good work]. The former descends, the latter ascends. Therefore the former does not necessarily require a worthy and godly minister, but the latter does indeed require such a one, because God heareth not sinners. He knows how to send down blessings through evildoers, but He does not accept the work of any evildoer (p. 167).

Back to Greg Johnson and the Bayly blog commenters: It is because the Reformed simply don't have the concept of "means of grace" in this Evangelical sense, that they then turn the means of grace into something we do to put ourselves in the way of the Holy Spirit (like hitchhikers trying to find the highway with the most traffic so they can thumb the Holy Spirit).

Since prayer is a work, Luther felt no compunction about expecting it, twice daily, morning and night, in the Small Catechism. Likewise the Evangelical tradition has traditionally expected daily Bible reading, and the regular attendance at church. But such things are works, and hence must be nourished by the faith that comes from the promises, spoken to us by a fellow sinner. When so nourished they are, corporately and individually, in our churches and homes, powerful for breaking down the greatest citadels of unbelief.