It’s an intriguing question. Now that I’m a Christian, what should I do? Yes, I know I’m forgiven. Yes! YES! I KNOW I’M FORGIVEN! Now what should I do?
It used to intrigue me a lot more than it does now.
At my university alma mater, the distinction between Law and Gospel was taught nearly this crudely: the Gospel is good, and since the Gospel is the solution to the Law [yes, I recognize the false premise there], the Law must be bad. This is the sort of polarity that is commonly called (at least among particular Lutherans centered in the lower Midwest) “Gospel reductionism.” It has all sorts of nice off-shoots, such as using the “Gospel” to determine which parts of the Scriptures we ought to take as “the Word of God.” Because the Bible is not coterminous with the Word of God, you know? (Notice, the reverse is certainly true: the Word of God is not coterminous with the Bible, because Jesus.) The Bible contains the Word of God. And, of course, hence nearly all of mainline Protestantism.
But now you’ve gotten me off my main point, which is that because Law and Gospel were taught so crudely, I had a hard time thinking about good works at all. I knew that both Jesus and all the apostolic writings commanded that Christians do certain things. But I was being taught that the Law not only always accused, but that it only accused. So these teachers avoided the charge of antinomianism because they still held that the Law had a purpose, but only an accusatory one.
But if the Law has only an accusatory function in the life of the Christian, I was stuck on how to deal with good works as good. Because if good works are the Law, they must actually be bad. See? The old controversies never really go away (see Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration IV:3-5).
There are different ways to approach this problem, both theoretical and practical, but where it actually hits the ground is in preaching. With the above polarized dichotomy of Law versus Gospel, combined with the exhortations to good works in the Scriptures, Lutheran preachers often ended up with a Law-Gospel-Law sandwich: I know I have to preach Law and Gospel, because that’s the fundamental distinction in the Scriptures, but I also know I have to actually preach this exhortation (especially in Paul’s letters), so I will phrase the Law in terms of the Gospel: you now get to do all these good things that you don’t really want to do. This is your response to the good news of the Gospel! Don’t you want to do these good works now?
Still felt like a burden to me; still felt exactly like the Law, but now it gummed you to death instead of tearing your head off with sharp teeth.
The real problem is not that Lutherans had got Law and Gospel wrong (the whole Scriptures is still divided into those two Words), but that we forgot where the Law belongs once you become a Christian. Insofar as you are a Christian, it no longer has anything to say about your relationship with God (unless Jesus didn’t really do it all); now, it can only and always speak about your relationship with your family, friends, neighbors, communities, co-workers, etc. If you can only speak in terms of one kind of righteousness (between you and God), then you are either driving people into despair with your constant exhortations to do good works; or you are replacing your neighbor with God, so that you never actually want to help your neighbor in himself, you only want to serve God through your neighbor (which makes your neighbor expendable and interchangeable; as long as you have someone to serve, it doesn’t matter that the person is an actual person with concrete needs).
From this point, my question is this: Do we really not know what to do? Is that the problem? And the solution is to tell more people what they should do more? I suggest trying that with your children. All you’ll get is little hypocrites, no matter how nicely you tell them what they now get to do. Once you’ve reminded them 85 times that it’s not good to break the Fourth Commandment, I think they probably know what they ought to do. The problem is not that they don’t know what to do, it’s that they, according to themselves, don’t want to do it. And not only do they not want to do it, they will become defensive and argue to the death why they shouldn’t have to do it.
I overstate the case slightly. Sometimes children want to do what’s right. (I had that conversation with my oldest daughter yesterday.) But in both instances, when they want to do what’s right and when they don’t, they know what the right thing is. Once you’ve disciplined the Old Adam after you’ve drowned him (or even if you’re trying to discipline an undrowned Adam), children are not ignorant about what is right. They hear nothing all day long but what they are supposed to do. Occasionally, the advice conflicts (and leaving aside for the time being those examples of schools and others who explicitly and actively contradict parents), but for the most part, they hear consistent messages: show respect, don’t hit, be nice, don’t take what isn’t yours, work things out. The solution, as counter-intuitive as it is to our common, sinful logic of the Law, is not to tell them what to do more and more (I should take my own advice). The solution is confession and absolution, or the two parts of repentance. The solution is to get them to the Gospel, always. No, you can’t just tell them “you’re forgiven” when they are caught in a lie; the Gospel without contrition produced by the Word of God only builds self-righteousness and complacency. Law and Gospel, applied like finely tuned surgical instruments, according to the specific diagnosis.
Which brings me back to the beginning: are Christians really supposed to live lives that look different from an unbeliever’s actions? We naturally assume so, and I grant that Christians ought to live lives different from the general mass of unbelievers, who naturally do what their flesh demands (Eph. 4:17). That is, we ought to live lives in Christ that are fundamentally opposed to our lives outside of Christ. And I grant that in a fundamentally decadent culture, not lying, cheating, and stealing will in themselves be enough to set a Christian apart. But when we come to the specific actions that Christians are to do, I can’t see that they are any different from how we’d want a virtuous pagan to live (regardless of whether any actually live that way). In other words, which of the following things require Christ to do externally (ad hominibus)? Don’t murder? Don’t steal? Don’t hold grudges? Don’t lie? Bitterness, undue anger, slander, etc.? Which of these things would, say, virtuous pagan philosophers reject? None of these are specifically Christian virtues, except perhaps to forgive as Christ has forgiven you. But at that point we are in a different realm, the single realm where the truly Christian life is played out: the communion of the saints in the holy things. The only truly and particularly and explicitly Christian actions I can see are: hearing the Word of God, receiving His sacramental gifts, and worshiping Him in return, two of which are completely passive, and the third is simply returning to God the praise for what He has already done.
I’m open to correction on this, but is there any single action that is done by a Christian that we would not want to be done by an unbeliever, because if everyone did such things the world would be a better place? And which of those things would not be commended by a thoughtful, atheist philosopher? Don’t the atheists have it correct on this point, when they (unfortunately) whittle the Christian faith down to its moral content? Isn’t this also part of the cause of the attrition from Christian churches, that people who have been told over and over to live a particular kind of “Christian” life find that they can do it without even being a Christian?
Christianity is not about morality, and anyone who says it is might as well give up the mirage of Christianity altogether, and simply teach how to live a good life (cf. Osteen et al.). There is not, as far as I can see, any particularly Christian ethics.
What ought Christians do qua Christians? Hear the Gospel, receive the Sacraments, and live toward your neighbor in the best way you can, according to their needs and your means. Not complicated to say (though, of course, carrying it out against the desires of your sinful flesh is a completely different animal). You are pleasing to God in Christ, so do what your neighbor needs. No calculating, no motive-checking, no hesitation, no measuring of sin as if it were a substance you could separate from your sinful flesh or reduce to a manageable level. You have good works, your neighbors need them, God commands them.
I suggest that if people are not doing good works toward their neighbors, it’s because they are not receiving the good works of Jesus, the fruit of His cross and resurrection. In other words, they don’t really believe the Gospel, and that sort of superficial faith (not really faith at all) is what James condemns. True faith in the Christ who has done everything does indeed produce good fruit, but the branch must be connected to the Vine.
What should you do? Pretty much what you would have done if you were a virtuous pagan; but now you know that Christ has redeemed your entire life, your “good” works and your bad. Live your life, for Christ’s sake!