TP Theology

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Susan offered a thoughtful yet playful post on Wednesday, sharing some of her thoughts on the TULIP acronym, focusing specifically on the doctrine of “total depravity.”

If you feel so inclined, you can check out the conversation that ensued, including my response to Susan’s post in the comments section.

Now skipping ahead to “P” (I’ll save UlI for Susan or someone else who may want to jump in and I will most likely be done with this subject after this post). While I believe total depravity inadvertently implies an overly pessimistic view of humanity as almost or completely  destitute of any good despite being made in the image and likeness of God, I am convinced that at least at the popular level, the term perseverance of the saints too often lends itself to high and lofty self evaluation.

For instance, let’s take a look at The Heidelberg Catechism. This a Sixteenth Century confession (or historic expression) of the Christian faith, beloved by many a reformed Christian. Including me! I can’t wait to explore the riches of this document with a congregation. The Heidelberg Catechism has three major sections: Misery, Deliverance and Gratitude (or sometimes for mnemonic retention: guilt, grace, gratitude).

It is the section on gratitude that deals most forthrightly with perseverance of the saints. This is where we talk about what reformed Christians and most evangelicals would typically call sanctification. It’s what our Eastern Orthodox Sisters and Brothers most often call theosis (being (re)made more in the image and likeness of God each day). And it is what St. Paul most often called life in Christ or life in the Spirit. And let me start by saying there is some great stuff here! My Presbyterian friends might say that the chief end of human beings is to enjoy and serve God forever. And the good news is that forever doesn’t start when we die! Jesus declared, “The Kingdom of God is at Hand.”

So this brings me to the first problem I have with framing our life in Christ mainly in terms of our perseverance out of gratitude to God . In some reformed circles and perhaps in even more evangelical circles, the new life becomes optional. You and I make intellectual decisions that affect “where we’ll live when we die” and the rest of the Christian life is kind of like choosing  colors of paint for a new home.  Charles Stanley, TV evangelist, senior pastor of a megachurch in Atlanta, GA and two time president of the southern Baptist convention writes,

“Once a person places trust in Christ’s death as the payment for sin, he or she immediately becomes part of the body of Christ… Faithful or not, any person who has at any time had a saving faith is a permanent part of the body of Christ… Even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy… believers who lose or abandon their faith will retain their salvation” (Stanley, Charles. Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? Nashville: Oliver Nelson, 1990).

Now, I hope the problems with this are self evident. If not, The Heidelberg can quickly clear this up at least for reformed folk:

Q&A 88
Q. What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A. Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.

We cannot die to ourselves and go on living as if we ourselves are the center of the universe. So I think Pastor Stanley, though he might have some great intentions has some bizarre teachings that could have potentially disastrous effects. But I still don’t think “gratitude” is enough of a motivator nor perseverance a radical enough of a descriptor for talking about the new life offered to all in Christ. Just look at some of what St. Paul had to say…

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17). We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Paul appeals to a slave owner, Philemon to receive his former slave  Onesimus as a beloved brother in the flesh and in Lord (Phil. 1:16). And in one of his most radical passages there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all who are in Christ (Gal. 3:28-29). In fact Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” 165 times and the similar phrase “in the Spirit” about 20 times.

I sometimes wonder if we are not reformed enough. Do we let the love in our tradition for systematic theology, our need to compartmentalize things – like justification, sanctification and glorification – get in the way and obscure deeper truths at the core of reformed theology and all christian theology at its best? Truths like God’s steadfast and abounding love. Truths like all of life is a gift from God: though we bear the indelible marks of sin and suffering, no human being – not even Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein or George Bush – is completely depraved, absent of any reflection that they are made in the image of a God whose very nature is love.

But conversely, since every aspect of our being has been wounded by sin, sickness, pain, brokenness and suffering we must depend upon God daily to to call us and provide for us a mutual indwelling: Christ in me, I in him, an indwelling that enables us to live deeper into this life where there is now no condemnation. We must depend on God to carry us when we can’t even crawl, to gift us again with faith when we are too hurt or angry or apathetic to even spend the energy it takes to doubt, to be our strength when we are simply to weak to go on, to preserve us when we simply would otherwise not persevere.


4 thoughts on “TP Theology

  1. You lost me at comparing Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein to George Bush (even if it was meant in jest it still doesn’t translate well to formal writing). Trust me, I was no fan of Bush either but insulting him will alienate half the people on this board.

  2. I think that the Heidelberg Catechism places the emphasis on understanding Perseverance of the Saints in light of God’s grace. The doctrine gets a fuller exposition in the Canons of Dort where the emphasis is always on the absolute love of God – to which you allude.

    I do agree, though, that we tend to draw too sharp of a line between ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification.’ This, to me, is what the New Perspective on Paul is all about – keeping the Law was never about ‘getting in’ (or even ‘staying in’!) to God’s love – God made his covenant with Israel and there was no way Israel could get themselves out of it (nor should they have wanted to!); the natural response flowing out of this (gratitude being just one of the many reasons) is to live in accordance with the covenant. So too with Perseverance of the Saints. We are ‘in’ by the sheer grace of God. Salvation is not and never has been about ‘earning’ our way in. PotS is about God remaining faithful to his covenant promises.

  3. I agree, Wayne. We humans are often so stubborn, we won’t let ourselves be “re-formed” by God. We claim the benefits of salvation, then insist on taking back control of our lives so we can live the Christian life on our own terms. I think that’s what Pastor Stanley was referring to, by his mention of believers living as unbelievers.

    If someone claims to be a believer but lives as though they aren’t, are they truly saved? If they are, then their meager mustard-seed faith will, indeed, get them into heaven. However – is that the purpose of faith in Jesus?

    I think the purpose of faith is to live – in the here and now, on earth, while alive – in a new relationship with Christ. The getting-into-heaven part is like a frequent flier perk. Nice, but not why you signed up in the first place. Or at least, that is how it is for me.

  4. Could not agree more, Wayne. It’s the actual execution of living “in the Spirit” or “in union with Christ” that makes it so hard. But it is what God calls us to. If we claim to believe, and yet our lives don’t reflect that, it’s “cheap grace”.

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