Saturday, April 24, 2010

D.A. Carson on a Species of Perfectionism

D.A. Carson recognizes a strain of perfectionism "that owes no connection to Keswick or Wesley," but yet often rears its ugly head in the lives of more orthodox Christians. He appears to appeal to a misappropriation of two ages theology in describing a plausible explanation for this predicament, which he describes as "a species of over-realized eschatology," not intending to lump it alongside the hubris that Paul lambasts in 1 Cor. 4 nor the inanity of the prosperity gospel.

What he describes, it seems to me, is the classic struggle with assurance of salvation, borne out of the failure to make the biblical distinction between justification and sanctification and a low view of the nature of sin, that leaves the believer in despair over what he knows he must do based on what he also knows he already is—but does not do!

Carson offers two considerations:

1.) The narrative testimony of Scriptue to the Romans 7 reality of the sanctified life in the lives of some "heroes of the faith":

"First, the Bible itself speaks to this issue in various ways, and some of those ways are cast as stark antitheses. In apocalyptic literature, for example, there are faithful followers of Christ, and there are diabolical opponents. People wear either the mark of the beast or the sign of Christ; there is nothing in between. Similarly in wisdom literature: one follows Dame Folly or Lady Wisdom, but not both. That is why a wisdom psalm like Ps 1 casts the choice in absolute antithesis: either one does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, stand in the path of sinners, and sit in the seat of mockers, while delighting in the law of the Lord day and night and meditating on it, finding one's life before God is like a wellwatered fruit-bearing tree, or the wicked are simply 'not so.' The Lord recognizes and owns one path, while the other perishes. There is nothing in between. The Lord Jesus can preach in many different styles, but included among them is wisdom polarity: reflect on the antitheses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, over against such antithetical presentations of holiness and sin, of faithfulness and unbelief, are the many narrative portions of the Bible where God's people are depicted with all their inconsistencies, their times of spectacular faithfulness and their ugliest warts. Abraham the friend of God repeatedly tells half truths; Moses the meekest man loses his temper and consequently does not get into the promised land; David the man after God's own heart commits adultery and murder; Peter the primus inter pares, the confessor of Caesarea Philippi and the preacher of Pentecost, acts and speaks with such little understanding that he earns a rebuke from Jesus and another from Paul. In such narratives there is no trace of the moral polarities of apocalyptic and of wisdom. There is instead an utterly frank depiction of the moral compromises that make up the lives of even the 'heroes' of Scripture. In short, the Bible itself includes genres and passages that foster absolutist thinking and others that warn us to recognize how flawed and inconsistent are even those we recognize as the fathers of the faithful. Certainly we need both species of biblical literature, and most Christians see a sign of God's kindness in the Bible that provides us with both. The narratives without the absolutes might seem to sanction moral indifference: 'If even a man after God's own heart like David can fall so disastrously, it cannot be too surprising if we lesser mortals tumble from time to time.' The absolutes without the narratives might either generate despair ('Who can live up to the impossibly high standards of Ps 1?') or produce self-righteous fools ('It's a good thing the Bible has standards, and I have to say I thank God I am not as other people are.'). We need the unflinching standards of the absolute polarities to keep us from moral flabbiness, and in this broken world, we need the candid realism of the narratives to keep us from both arrogance and despair. Most of us, I suspect, muddle along with a merely intuitive sense of how these twin biblical heritages ought to shape our lives."

2.) The objectivity of Christ and His benefits:

"The second factor is how we attach the cross of Christ to all this. The intensity of the struggle against sin easily generates boundless distortions when we do not return, again and again, to God's love for us manifested in the cross. There alone is the hope we need, the cleansing we need, the grace we need. Any pursuit of perfection that is not awash in the grace of God displayed on a little hill outside Jerusalem is bound to trip us up."

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