By J. I. Packer
To begin at the beginning, taking nothing for granted, is always the wise way. So the first thing to do is face up to the basic question: Does “right living” matter anyway? Is the moral quality of a Christian’s personal life important?
To this question you would, of course, expect all believers to reply “yes,” for any other answer would sound shocking. But if our “yes” were motivated only by a desire not to shock nor lose face, it would be a self-serving declaration that neither honored God nor expressed Christian insight. Historically, some of those who said what amounts to “no” were digging deeper than some whom we can imagine saying “yes.”
Take, for instance, the antinomian gnostics of the first century, of whom we catch glimpses in John’s letters, in 2 Peter, in Jude, and in Revelation. “Gnostics” was their own name for themselves (it means “knowing ones”), and I call them “antinomian” (anti-law) because their theology led them to dismiss God’s law as a rule for their conduct. They held that salvation is entirely for the soul, not the body, and consists in knowing divine secrets that function like spells (many New Age ideas are similar here). And Jesus is the pioneer gnostic, they said, whose teaching, when properly allegorized and augmented, easily yields the knowledge in question. The law is a guide for people without knowledge, they said, including conventional Christians; but those who “know” are guaranteed eternal happiness, never mind how they live.
On moral issues, therefore, the heat was off, and gnostics could afford to be casual. Loose living could be fun, and certainly wouldn’t injure one’s soul if one knew how to handle it. So wouldn’t it be kindness to share this insight with hidebound Christians who were entangled in the restrictive apostolic understanding (misunderstanding, in the gnostic view) of Jesus as redeemer from sin’s guilt and power? It was this “kindness” that John, Jude, and Peter had to counter.
The gnostic mindset lives on. Around the church’s fringes still prowl people who claim some higher revelation of the “real meaning” of Christianity. They see their knowledge of it as excusing them from the moral restraints by which ordinary believers think themselves bound. The substance of salvation for these moderns, as it was for the gnostics, is knowledge as such—not moral change. We dismiss them (I hope) as pathetic dupes of Satan, self-deceived victims of weirdness and pride; but if you have never felt the pull of being offered happiness through inside knowledge, with relaxation of present moral struggles, I am surprised.
Does “right living” matter? For another one who in effect said “no” take Martin Luther. Of course he was a right-living man, who wished others to be the same; but he thought that to directly press the demand of God’s law on Christian consciences would entangle them in that legalism from which the gospel of justification by faith was meant to free them. Therefore he would not do it. His famous word that begins Pecca fortitor—“sin robustly, but believe more robustly, and a thousand debauches will not hurt you”—does not mean that he thought righteousness unimportant; in fact, he always taught that true faith produces spontaneously. Yet because he would not risk reviving legalism, but dwelt instead on the Christian’s daily need of Christ’s cleansing blood and imputed righteousness, so as to be always simul justus et peccator (righteous [in Christ] while at the same time a sinner [in himself]), Luther has gone down in history as having a weak doctrine of sanctification and being opposed to the law.
Was Luther’s stance right-minded? Calvinists upbraid him for underemphasizing the use of the law as God’s family code, intended to spur his children on to honor and please their Heavenly Father. But Luther was more right-minded than those who in their zeal for God’s law have reduced the Christian life to a strait-jacketed observance of rituals and taboos—“going through the motions” rather than loving God from the heart. Perhaps, after all, the honors are even. Perhaps Luther’s insight into fallen man’s natural legalism, canonized in the Roman Catholic doctrine of merit, is just as important as Calvin’s valuation of the law as the true guide to Christian conduct. What do you think?
Yesterday I read this, by a contemporary convert to Roman Catholicism “Just a little more effort, I hope, and I may deny myself that extra pat of butter, the third glass of wine, one lascivious thought—and achieve a moment when irascibility is controlled, one bitchy remark left unsaid; and more positively, and a way to make some small generous gesture without forethought, and direct a genuine prayer of good will toward someone I dislike. It is a fairly pitiful ambition …” Well, yes; and not so much because it is small-scale as because it is legalistic and Pelagian. I wish Luther could have counseled this sincere man.
Why should we think personal righteousness important, and make it our daily aim? First, because God commands it. Second, because it pleases him, and gratitude for grace must make us want to please him. Third, because hearty obedience is basic to honest doxology: glorifying God with our lips is hollow and phony unless our lives are right. Fourth, because our own moral transformation gives credibility to our gospel whereas unchanged lives will destroy its credibility; no one will believe what we say about the power of Christ if we ourselves do not show its fruit. To pull the threads together —yes it matters much how we live!
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, January 1987