Sanctification, “Celebratory Failurism” and church discipline

Lutheran-friendly Tchividjian in sights?
Lutheran-friendly Tchividjian in sights?

Ever since the Reformation, but Reformers had to fight the accusation of being “antinomians”.  Even the Apostle Paul perhaps seems to give “ammo” to Rome himself (grace is scandalous!), but we dare not go beyond what is written.

There was an interesting article up on the Gospel Coalition blog last week called “Failure is Not a Virtue”.  I am guessing that it is written with Tullian Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson, in mind.  Tchividjian has discovered the Hammer of God and some other Lutheran materials (some I don’t think are that good) and this has made him speak very well of Lutheranism and its proper distinction between law and gospel (see him interviewed by some serious Lutherans here).

I think the article, written by Jen Wilken, is well-done and I encourage you to check it – and the comment section – out.  In the quote below, the part in bold might sound a bit controversial in some Lutherans ears, but I really don’t think that it should:

Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. Through the gospel our God, whose Law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Believers no longer live under the Law, but the Law lies under us as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right, and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of celebratory failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.

Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God, because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.*

“Celebratory failurism” – “the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt” and “our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful” – is an interesting idea. If the article is aimed at Tullian Tchividjian, I am not familiar enough with his preaching to say whether or not he actually teaches this.  In any case, I think that in general, what she writes is true – especially when you consider that our obedience will be perfected in heaven. We do have hope that we can more fully enter into that life God has given us in Christ!  And in spite of failures, we are given assurance of forgiveness and the power to start to overcome again…. In general, I hope that confessional Lutherans would be fully on board with the content of the piece.

This put me in mind of another interesting passage that I had come across:

….an offense like Moses’ striking the rock (when God had told him to speak to the rock) was judged by God from its effects on the community of faith. Yahweh’s word to Moses immediately was this: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Num. 20:12, NIV). Moses’ offense was not only that he sinned against a specific command (thought his was also part of the picture), but that his actions caused Israel to think of God as something less than who He really is. Moses caused Israel to harbor the idea that possibly Yahweh was not “holy enough” to expect total and complete obedience from His servants – or that they could “get by” with something less than total obedience in their lives (Mark Press, “Missio Dei: Transforming Center of Scripture”, Missional Transformation: God’s Spirit at Work: Essays Celebrating the Outreach Ministry of Dr. Eugene Bunkowske, p. 161).

And all of this put me in mind of a recent post by Suzanne Venker, “Yes, Divorce is Very Contagious. A clip:

“In my 2012 book How to Choose a Husband, I wrote the following: “Research by sociologist James H. Fowler found that if a sibling divorces, we are 22 percent more likely to get divorced ourselves. And when our friends get divorced, it’s even more influential: people who had a divorced friend were 147 percent more likely to get divorced than people whose friends’ marriages were intact. Divorce, it appears, is contagious.”

That was the very headline last week re a study from Brown University conducted in Framingham, MA—also by James H. Fowler, as well as Rose McDermott. The authors found that 75 percent of participants were more likely to get divorced if a friend was divorced,and 33 percent were more likely to end their marriage even if a friend of a friend got divorcedHere’s a link to Pew’s coverage of this study back in October 2013.

Researchers call this phenomenon a “social contagion”: the spread of information, attitudes and behaviors through friends, family and social networks.

This finding—not just as it pertains to divorce but its overall message about cultural attitudes—was the theme of How to Choose a Husband. In that book, I encourage people to ignore cultural trends and live an examined life instead.

Now apply this to church discipline, which biblically, is to be done not to condemn a person but to bring them back to Christ.  It seems to me we see here perhaps some other “indirect wisdom” inherent in church discipline. 

Of course we want to be grace and mercy-centered persons – but utilizing “tough love” rightly is not opposed to this.  What a struggle this will be – both to beg God that we really would love the one we must discipline with His love and to stand against those who nevertheless will call us unloving legalists!  Obviously, not an easy issue and it invites more discussion (see my five part series “We are all antinomians now” where I struggled with this and this piece on I Cor. 5 as well, “Judging Jesus Style“).

FIN

*she goes on to write: “Imagine telling your child, “I know you’ll fail, but here are our house rules. Let me know when you break them so I can extend grace to you.” We recognize that raising a lawless child is not good for the child, for our family, or for society as a whole. We don’t train our children to obey us so they can gain our favor. They already have our favor. We, being evil, train and equip them to obey because it is good and right and safe. And how much more does our heavenly Father love us?”

One thought on “Sanctification, “Celebratory Failurism” and church discipline

  1. I agree heartily, Matthew! I tire of hearing and reading responses to calls for serious self-examination that assume any such call is automatically an encouragement to legalistic, gospel-less naval gazing. It is in fact a failure to recognize the proper role of the law and the gospel. The ironic thing is how common it is among the Lutherans I know.

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