Oct 1, 2016

A Book That Helped Me Understand My Friends' Legalism (Review of Marry Wisely, Marry Well)

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

This week I read a book that was illuminating in one way but frustrating in another. I received a review copy of Ernie Baker’s Marry Wisely, Marry Well (Shepherd Press, August 2016). The premise seemed promising: the author explains that many young people have asked him whether or not successful marriage is even possible in this age of cohabitation and divorce, and this book is his answer.

His central thesis is that if individuals will commit themselves fully to seeking the wisdom that comes from building a relationship with God, they will be able to make wise choices when it comes to choosing a spouse and will have the relationship skills and habits necessary to build a stable marriage.

The funny thing about this book is that it left me with a better understanding not of the central topic, but of the theology behind the way my non-denominational friends talk about living out their faith. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a book about marriage would provide a clear revelation of an author’s understanding of what it means to be a sinner and what it means to be a Christian. It left me wanting to sit down with my own friends and talk to them about the burden that poor theology brings.

Half-promises

This book contains several promises to the reader. It might be better to call them half-promises. They gave me a window into the mindset of some of my dear friends.  

The author says, “God’s job is to guard, shield, and preserve those who love His wisdom. Our job is to walk in integrity and to be godly. The Lord promises that this wisdom will help us make decisions that are well considered, and He will guard the decision-making process. When you commit yourself to gaining wisdom, you are more able to discern a person’s character and will less likely allow your emotions to lead you astray.”

The first few sentences seem to promise that God will look after us (or, at least, that He will do so as long we we are being godly). The last sentence tempers this promise with phrases like “more able” and “less likely.”

Later comes this question: “Putting it bluntly, do you think that God will bless you with a spouse if you are willing to serve Him faithfully during your single years? The biblical advice I gave to Bill applies to you as well, ‘But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you’ (Matthew 6:33).”

The author does not directly address the answer to his rhetorical question. His book implies the promise that God will give the reader a spouse and a lasting marriage if the reader does his or her own spiritual part, yet nowhere is the promise absolutely stated. What is the most likely effect of this kind of teaching?

I have friends who, when faced with discouragement or the pain of longing for a spouse, are more likely to say “I must work harder to trust God” than “I am weak, but God is faithful.” These friends are Christians with an understanding of God’s love, but they have also been taught to focus on their own need to do better and try harder. They have been taught to keep their feet on the holiness treadmill.

The Holiness Treadmill

It is fascinating to notice the many places in which the author speaks of God but keeps the attention focused on human behavior. For instance, in an appendix, he provides a Psalm 18 study. Here are the first three verses of the psalm:

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
   my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
   my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
   and I am saved from my enemies.

The author then tells readers to ask themselves questions such as, “David says that God is all things to him. What am I allowing to take God’s rightful place? Do I give more devotion, zeal, energy, or passion to these things than to my relationship with the Lord? What can I do to put the Lord in His rightful place?. . . . What could you do to make the Lord your ROCK tangibly?”

This approach--of keeping our eyes not on God and His love for us, but on our own work--is emphasized when the author says things elsewhere like “What is the evidence in your life that you are a follower of Jesus Christ? If you’re not certain, you could review the message of the gospel and commit your life to Christ now.” A Lutheran would say that God’s promise, given in Baptism, is the best evidence. This author wants us to find proof in ourselves.

I have friends whose first approach to Scripture is to use it as this author does here--as a whip to speed their steps in the race for holiness. As a Lutheran, I want to tackle them and get them off that madcap treadmill. To answer this author’s questions: There is nothing that I can do to put God in His rightful place. HE IS in His rightful place, else we would all be damned. He is in His rightful place when we wake up, lie down, and even when we sin. He is in His rightful place when He grants us faith and salvation.

He is our rock and deliverer because He saves us despite ourselves. He saves us continually when we are weak and sinful and full of zeal for all the wrong things. 

Yet if I said this to one of my sincere, committed, Christian, non-Lutheran friends, would it have much impact? Probably not. They would give me a classic “yes--but.”

“Yes, of course you are right! We are saved through grace! Alleluia! But we must also seek holiness now. A Christian who doesn’t care about seeking God’s will isn’t a real Christian.”

It’s not that they are wrong. Yes, Christians are made anew, and by our very nature long to do what is right. True Christians will grow in faith and knowledge of righteousness. Christians on earth also retain our old Adam, and by our very nature are sinners who long to do what is wrong. We sin, and yet, by the grace of God, we desire not to sin. Even Saint Paul experienced this.

What Really Inspires Right Feelings?

Righteous desires and behavior in the Christian are a natural response to God’s saving love. Because of that, my first impulse is to try to talk to my friends on a pragmatic level. I want to ask, “Does it really help our fellow-Christians to constantly focus on what they ought to do instead of the truth that inspires their desire for goodness?” As a parent, I hope my kids will love me; but if I constantly ask them to examine their feelings for me and to improve those feelings just a little this week, what would the likely result be?  

My  friends would probably respond by pointing out, quite correctly, that Christians need to hear God’s law.

Yes, We Need the Law: the Real, True, Deadly Law

At last this brings us to the heart of the matter. Lutherans do not shy away from God’s law. Lutheran pastors preach the law in every sermon. Lutheran Christians confess their sins at the beginning of every Divine Service. My real problem with the message that Pastor Baker conveys is not that he preaches an overabundance of law, but that he actually underestimates its immensity.

When Lutherans hear the law’s demand of perfect obedience, we reflect scriptural language like that of Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 by speaking of fallen humanity as dead and incapable of responding to God. What corpse sits up and commits to helping with its own resuscitation? The author of this book, however, refers to our sin-nature as a “Genesis 3 hangover.” I realize that he’s speaking somewhat humorously, but his choice of phrasing makes sin sound less incapacitating than it truly is, especially in the context of describing what it means to be a sinner in need of salvation.  

In the same chapter he says,
“We have already established that God is King, that we have violated his standards, and that we have a completely natural tendency to go to places other than Him to find the deepest meaning in life. Let me ask you a question: when someone goes against a king’s rule, what is it called? Treason. . . . It is an ugly picture, but we are actually treasonous criminals because of the disloyalty and false worship of our hearts.”

To speak of the sinner this way is not untrue; but without further clarification, it could convey that, just as a person can avoid being a civil criminal by remaining within the bounds of the civic law, so a person could keep God’s law if he or she made enough effort. After all, the author merely says that we have a tendency to seek meaning apart from God. In contrast, Romans 5:10 points out that we are by nature enemies of God.

The Law as Guide

When Lutherans preach about sin, it’s not in the past tense. Our pastors preach about the sins that we commit in the present tense. In a given week we have been greedy, perhaps; or discontent, unkind, lustful, selfish, lazy. From the perspective of the law, there are no “little” sins. Our Lord tells us that to be unjustly angry is to murder in our hearts and that to lust is to commit adultery in our hearts.

To teach the law in a way that leads the Christian to think, “OK, I’ve got this, I’ll start tomorrow,” is to teach a diluted law.

When the law is diluted, it seems reasonable to ask Christians to keep it faithfully. We lose our understanding of how much we need Christ. We become, in some small way, our own Savior. Without the law, we lose the gospel and all of its comfort.

A friend of mine once argued that if a sermon acknowledged that we Christians are going to sin again next week, it would enable laziness. She felt that what we need is exhortation to behave well. I suspect that Pastor Baker, who does not address the possibility that a Christian may seek wisdom sincerely and yet marry someone who turns out to be, say, an abuser or an adulterer, might feel the same. He continually refers to exhortations to right behavior as “encouraging,” because they seem to indicate that we can reach greater heights of righteousness.

This kind of law, whether directed toward Christian living in general or marriage in particular, is a terrible burden, because we humans aren’t very good at being holy. We fail. We mess up. We sin. We cannot possibly be the source of our own hope.

A true exposition of the law leads to despair in our own goodness and strength. That is why our pastors also preach forgiveness. They kill with the law and revive with the gospel. What Christian, after hearing such a message, does not want to die to self and grow in righteousness?

It is only in the context of that understanding that the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to show us, through the law, how we ought to live.

The Book of Concord, a volume put together by early Lutherans to explain what we believe, says this
“For the Law says indeed that it is God's will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, Gal. 3:14, renews the heart. 12] Thereafter the Holy Ghost employs the Law so as to teach the regenerate from it. . . . He exhorts them thereto, and when they are idle, negligent, and rebellious in this matter because of the flesh, He reproves them on that account through the Law, so that He carries on both offices together: He slays and makes alive; He leads into hell and brings up again.”

Yes, Christians do good works. Yet it is not our efforts and our level of commitment that make them good. The same section in the Book of Concord explains,
“But how and why the good works of believers, although in this life they are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, are nevertheless acceptable and well-pleasing to God, is not taught by the Law, which requires an altogether perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ's sake, [1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:4ff. 23]. In this way Christians are not under the Law, but under grace, because by faith in Christ the persons are freed from the curse and condemnation of the Law; and because their good works, although they are still imperfect and impure, are acceptable to God through Christ; moreover, because so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God, not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts; however, they maintain nevertheless a constant struggle against the old Adam.”

As this passage says, we Christians rejoice in the freedom of the gospel. We keep our eyes on Christ, whose true righteousness makes us righteous.

Pastor Baker’s book is clearly meant to help and reassure young people. I do not disagree with his contention that a stable marriage is indeed possible. Yet when I hear my friends talking about their longing for a spouse, I would rather point them to God’s grace and mercy--the grace by which even we sinful human beings can build blessed marriages--than tell them that their achievement is dependent on their own commitment to God. After all, they (and I) are sinners. Thank God that Christ commits to us!


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After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.

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