I’ve been thinking about intercessory prayer in preparing for Sunday’s service. I’ve also been reading the section of Oliver O’Donovan’s magnificent Desire of the Nations that introduces the idea of political authority as revealed in the story of Israel, I’ve also been getting myself properly back into my ministerial work and reflecting on how I would know whether I was “doing well” or even “doing enough”.
In all of this I’ve been reminded again of some core convictions of mine:
- we ARE all sinners absolutely in need of grace
- God is our sovereign Lord and his ways are mysterious to us
- our sin is most of all our refusal to recognise how absolute is God’s claim on us and how non-existent our claim even to ourselves
- the way of freedom for us is the way of total surrender to God especially abandoning our ambition to know or to legislate good and evil
So much of human life is about trying to establish or at least to simulate independence or freedom. We long to be autonomous. This is illusion and foolishness. We are dependent. We have no freedom. We cannot stand alone. Our ridiculous strivings express themselves ultimately in the attempt to impose our power over others, a power that would bend them to a will that if we were honest with ourselves is not our own.
As the apostle Paul puts it our choice is to whom we will be enslaved, to sin and the devil or to God.
A good deal of Christianity, at least since Pelagius’ arguments with Augustine around the turn of the 5th Century, has tried to water down or deny this dependence by saying that our salvation depends to some degree on something we contribute, faith, works, will, something. I am sure this is not so. Faith is a gift of grace like anything else.
Luther and Calvin were right, in this sense, to insist on reviving the idea of predestination, that any who are saved are saved by God because God wills it so.
I’m not an enthusiast for the scholastic and rigid formulations of this insight that culminated in the Westminster Confession and “Orthodox Calvinism”. I do accept that the Spirit works to sanctify us and that we can and should conform ourselves to God’s ways in representing him. I see no value in seeking to distinguish the elect and the reprobate nor in dwelling on hell and damnation.
There’s no reason I can see not to take God’s promise at face value and glory in his gracious forgiveness and work on our behalf.
What I do think is that the anxious affirmation of OUR (human beings, the church, ministers, whoever) great importance in God’s plan is a barrier to the full realisation of what the gospel is; which is that in Christ God has overcome all that stands between us and him. That the Kingdom has come very near, that we can participate in it and that in the fullness of time it will be fully realised and peace and justice will hold sway in a world made new.
This promise is from the only one who can make it happen.
Any efforts of ours are irrelevant except insofar as they express and reflect God’s will, which is discernible to us only “as in a glass darkly”. We are like toddlers who think they are making their own way but whose every step is watched over and taken care of.
That’s the truth of our existence. We have no power, no freedom, no knowledge and no hope apart from God, whose power, knowledge and intentions are beyond the scale of our perception.