A friend wrote in response to my addition, at the end of my most recent newsletter, a quote from Robert Farrar Capon. My friend asked about how I see the relation between Capon’s picture of what we might call the absolutism of grace and, on the other hand, the call to the spiritual disciplines made by people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Here’s my reply:
I think you’re right to be attracted by both parties, because, properly understood, the two parties are talking about two very different things. Capon is talking about our ideas of finding favor with the Lord — about the universal human belief that we can and should earn our favor with the Lord, and that those of us who more successfully practice the various virtues will have more favor from the Lord that those who do less. (There’s a kind of implicit scarcity model at work here: God only has so much favor to go around, so we want to get more for ourselves, leaving less for our neighbors.)
What Capon wants us to understand is that our favor with the Lord is completely the result of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Completely. Because of what Christ has done for us, because of the favor that he has earned for us, then we can be confident that we will be received on the last day. (I’ve reason to believe we all will be received at Graceland.) We are therefore free and the question then becomes: What do we do with our freedom?
And this I think is where the disciplines come in. We practice the various spiritual disciplines, not in order to earn God‘s favor, but in gratitude for having already received it. We practice them because we want to draw nearer to the God who has saved us, or let him draw nearer to us, and because we want to be like Jesus. We want it, we don’t have to do it in order to earn our salvation. Jesus already did that. So if we don’t practice those disciplines today, God isn’t frowning on us. And if we know he isn’t frowning on us, that “when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” then I think we have more incentive, not less, to do better tomorrow. It’s less terrifying because our salvation does not hinge on it.