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God Gives Grace to the Humble So Give Up and Believe the Gospel!

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In case any of you have missed the ongoing discussion on free will between my dear shirt-tail cousin, JoAnne, and I, you might want to look at it. Because I've spent a good deal of time responding to her, I think I'll just blast through the rest of this section. I'm assuming that most of you who are reading this blog are already on board with the Doctrines of Grace and wouldn't profit from more meandering through this section. And yet, there are a few points that I think are helpful for us to remember:

“[Saving] Grace is acquired not by 'doing what is in one' [by just trying your hardest]. It is acquired when we are so completely humbled by God's alien work in law and wrath that we see how completely we are caught in the web of sin and turn to Christ as the only hope.” (61) 

Of course, as Forde points out, the theologian of glory will say. Yipee! Humility is a work that we can perform! But, “the humility Luther has in mind is in no way a human work….[we must say that] humans have no active capacity to humble themselves but only a passive capacity. They can be humbled. Thus…humility is always something done to us…Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”
“The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.” (62)  The theologian of glory always wants to make our salvation about us, about something we can do, even if that “doing” is humbling ourselves. “Thus the impetuous question of whether or not humbling oneself or falling down and praying for grace is 'doing something' can only be turned back on the questioner: 'When you humble yourself and plead for grace, are you making the claim that you are doing something? If so, you are not pleading for grace, but only your own cause. And so you are still lost. Give up and believe the gospel!” (63)

The thought that we have nothing to offer shouldn't bring despair. Rather, despair is the fruit of belief in one's own ability to do ANYTHING sufficient for salvation. [“Theologians of glory are trapped in the 'merit machine' and thus can fight despair only by falling back on their own accomplishments.” 64]  The Doctrines of Grace bring us hope that in all our insufficiency, God is sufficient. We must simply give up and believe that God is that good and that loving. 

And, finally, we'll just think a moment about the nuanced distinctions Luther makes between ultimate despair (the despair of a Judas who believed in his perverse pride that not even the grace of God can blot out his failures.” (66) and utter despair of our own ability. In other words there is an evil despair, one that forces us into ourselves and batters our pride with thoughts of inadequacy. I think that this is the kind of despair that people mean when they say that they “can't forgive themselves.” Aside from the fact that we're not commanded to forgive ourselves, the truth is that we struggle with doing so simply because we really haven't believed the gospel message. We really don't think we're that bad and then when we do something that's REALLY BAD we can't get over it. Why? Because we're theologians of glory and think we ought to be able to do better. Is it in this way that God uses our sin for good, to show us our poverty and need for a Savior?  to free us from our innate theology of glory?

There is another kind of despair (what Luther calls “utter” despair) that forces us to Christ. Paul talks about these differences in categories of worldly and godly sorrow. Godly sorrow always leads to repentance — to running to Christ, to giving up and believing the gospel. Worldly sorrow brings death — the death of a Judas who couldn't live with the realities of his sin. Rather than making us morose, godly sorrow brings us joy and happiness. Yes, I am insufficient. Yes, I am unable to save myself. But I have come to know and believe the love that God has for me and that's all that matters. I believe he loves sinners. I am a sinner, therefore, I'm qualified to be loved by him.

“Ultimate [Judas'] despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so leads to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.” (67) So, we are to despair but not ultimately. 

Now then, where do you see ultimate (Judas) despair in your own life? Are there sins in your life that you just can't seem to forget, even though you've asked for forgiveness for them? For instance, all the times you and I have said, “I just can't believe I said/did/thought that,” we're proving that we still haven't completely given up and believed the gospel. And although we'll never get this perfectly right, we'll never completely believe our poverty of soul, we can ask the Lord to help us give up our striving and self-flagellation and simply believe. 

Like you, I need grace. I need grace to give up on my glory story and humbly believe that Jesus Christ bore my sin and suffered his Father's just and immeasurable wrath for me. And that now, because of all he's done, I stand righteous before his sight — as though I never believed in my own goodness, as though I never struggled with pride and self-reliance. May God grant us all the humility to give up and believe the gospel.

Posted on October 9, 2011