The Impossibility of Obedience

Charles E. Gutenson

Over the course of the last few semesters, I’ve been engaged in teaching a set of classes that focus on Christian practices — those practices that we engage for the purpose of being formed into the people of God. There are practices that focus on our internal formation and others that focus on our communal formation. All aim toward our being formed for relationship with God and others. It was serendipitous that I come across this passage from Jacques Ellul at the same time:

People were [are] being required to act as if they were [are] true Christians when very likely they were [are] not. This is the opposite of the biblical revelation. Here there is knowledge of the revealed God, faith in his love, acceptance of his will; and only on this basis is there an attempt to live in a way that corresponds to the love of God and his will. But there is no formulation of a “Christian” morality that is independent of faith. The Bible decrees no universal morality. It summons to conversion, and it then postulates a desire to live in harmony with God. Constantly in what became Christendom, however, and effort is made to achieve objective conduct without reference to the spiritual life, without the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. (The Subversion of Christianity [Eerdmans, 1986], 41)

What Ellul suggests here is worth pondering. In the biblical revelation, in the biblical narratives, we are introduced to God, a God who desires to make himself known, who desires to be known primarily by his love. Through those biblical narratives, we find ourselves formed into a people who can trust and love God in return and, thus, come to accept his will for us. This is not simply a matter of following a set of rules, but rather a matter of formation, of being made into a particular kind of people, people able to love God, to trust God, and thus, to live out the life of faith. That life of faith is not predicated on acts of the will aimed at complying with a set of rules, but rather on the long and consistent engagement in a set of Christian practices that form the habits needed to navigate life in a way faithful to God and God’s intentions for humanity.

This takes time and consistency and discipline, things we humans often have in short supply. What are we to do? Rather than using the biblical narratives to guide us into the formation of Christian virtues through engaging in Christian practices, we attempt to short circuit the process by creating a moral code, a universal morality that lays out, in black and white, rules for our behavior. We convince ourselves that we can mold ourselves into compliance by sheer acts of the will, thereby obeying God’s commands — or, at least, obeying the moral code we have constructed from the narratives. But here’s the rub, according to Ellul, and I think he is right: apart from our formation in Christian virtue through engaging the Christian practices, it’s impossible to live up to any moral code we might abstract from Scripture, which bears any resemblance to what Jesus actually says we are to do and to be. This isn’t hard; it’s impossible.

What happens next, Ellul says, sadly rings too true:

Very quickly the church found intolerable and inapplicable features in what Jesus Christ demanded and proclaimed. [Ellul then cites two examples — the call to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect and the second when Jesus says to “go and sell all that you have….”] The way opens, then, for the sapping work of theologians of all kinds, and then of lawyers, in an attempt to explain that Jesus wanted to say something other than what is written…. (42)

We are unwilling to admit that we cannot live up to the moral code that we have directly abstracted from the biblical revelation. This, of course, would undermine the whole idea that we can short circuit formation through the creation of a moral code and the adherence to that code through our own power. What other option do we have than to rationalize modifications to that code that make it at least appear attainable? Never mind that the gospel is eviscerated in the process and that the miracle of formation that God intends to work in us, through the Holy Spirit, is traded for a pale imitation. The biblical narratives call us to conversion of life, to adherence not to am impossible set of rules, but adherence to a way of being and living that forms us into a people in whom what Yoder called “little miracles of the Holy Spirit” can empower us to do the impossible, namely, to love our enemies, to imitate Christ, to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. A lifelong commitment to the practices that form us into the people of God is not for the faint of heart, but there is no shortcut to the depth of transformation, the impossible level of transformation, that Jesus calls us to.

Posted Nov 09, 2015

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