Something of Eternal Consequence Hangs in the Balance

Thanks to all of you for the conversation related to my last post. I also appreciate those of you who are from Reformed traditions who took my comments in stride and with a grain of salt. I certainly didn't mean to give offense, but I can see how one might have taken it that way. My apologies.

And to be honest, I'm also a bit confused about the theology of my last post. I'm not sure what I was after. That's what you get with blogging and from a blog entitled "experimental theology." I actually can't believe I made an argument for a works based soteriology. Sometimes I say the strangest things...

Having lived with my post and your reactions for 24 hours let me try to articulate and summarize what I think I was trying to say:

I firmly believe that when I get to heaven God and I are going to have a very serious and detailed discussion about how I lived out the Sermon on the Mount (along with others texts such as Matthew 25 and Luke 10). And I also firmly believe that something of eternal consequence will hang in the balance.
To be clear, I'm not sure what all that means. I'm not sure I can tell you what "hanging in the balance" will look like. Nor can I tell you what that "something" is that is hanging in the balance. Eternal damnation? Purgatory? Postmortem sanctification? A slap on the wrist? A stern lecture? A time out?

I don't know how to make the Sermon eternally matter within the traditional soteriological systems (Arminian or Reformed). I don't know how to make the Sermon eternally matter without painting myself into the works-based soteriological corner of my last post.

But I am convinced that the Sermon will matter, in some eternal sense. There will be consequences. As Jesus taught, the standards I use judge others here on earth will come back to judge me. Something, and I'm not sure what, hangs in the balance.

Does this mean that, if I screw up in this life relative to the Sermon, that I'm doomed? I don't think so. The Sermon is too high a mountain to climb. So failure is going to be the norm. But something will happen to me in relation to this teaching. I don't think it will be damnation, but there will be consequences. As Jesus said: "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

Does anyone know how this will look? Not that I know of. Does any tradition have the system that makes all these pieces perfectly fit together? Not that I know of.

But I can't shake the conviction that the Sermon matters. That it will be there at the end. That something of eternal consequence will hang in the balance.

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16 thoughts on “Something of Eternal Consequence Hangs in the Balance”

  1. Well Richard I would suggest you visit Librivox (all respect to these gracious volunteers) and download the dialogue by William Law from an Anglican to a Methodist as it rather neatly argues the case for works from a faith based perspective, showing how the Reformed go astray with their unbalanced emphasis on faith alone as being less than the whole counsel of God. Speaking personally it can hardly be argued that the fruits of this Theology have resulted in more godlike societies, did I not read somewhere that per capita America has more homeless than India, all too easily election becomes stuff you I'm OK. The fine arguments of theologians rarely trickle down to the street as clearly as they imagine them. Peace.

  2. Is it possible that the place the Sermon matters most is in the present world, and only then by derivation in the world to come? For instance, 'saved' by faith or not, if people live by the Sermon the world knows more of God than if they do not. Thus the degree to which we suffer the wrath of being allowed to 'go our own way' (Romans 1) depends largely upon the degree to which we are living the Sermon. In the world to come, will I have eternal salvation and yet also somehow have to face the fact that the suffering of God's wrath is in part my fault? This is almost an unbearable thought, but I don't really see how we can avoid thinking about it, whether we be Arminian or Reformed. Like you said, experimental theology here.

  3. I think this is really where I'm wanting the conversation to go. This whole conviction of mine that the Sermon matters "then" is to make it matter "now." Because the problem, as I see it, is that, for many Christians, the Sermon doesn't matter at either time, then or now. And, sadly, I think the salvation systems developed by Christians are partly if not strongly to blame for this.

  4. "Does anyone know how this will look? Not that I know of. Does any tradition have the system that makes all these pieces perfectly fit together? Not that I know of."

    That about sums it up for me, too, Richard. Approach God, the Scriptures, and life with a healthy dose of humility, because I don't know exactly what eternity will look like. I have the feeling, though, that many of the "understandings" we have about God and His ways are based on our human (read: limited) way of thinking and doing things. I suspect that God is so much bigger and more wonderful than we can imagine :-)

  5. Richard, I think the parable of the talents pertains here; in particular, note that when the third servant is held as the point of confrontation, it's not because of some moral issue, it's more about risk.

    Can Love exist without risking one's self? And yet the ones who are the most reformed, who claim the biggest Love of God, seem to be the very ones who hole up in churches and dogma; all the while living in this tacit sense that earth is the crappy place, Heaven's the good place, and that the goal of Human life is to stay clean and tidy until that day when tidyness is the way of things.

    This prevalent way of Christianity strikes me as the way of the third servant of Jesus' parable.

    The Sermon on the other hand is embodied by the first two servants who risked themselves. The Sermon is saying, "fine, if you want to live a life of managing God, then this is what you have to do (and start cutting appendages). If you want to be truly alive though, you have to step out into the world in Love; and this is what Love looks like; this is what God is really about: living in the risk that Love is.

    This is where piety is so deceptive: it doesn't just create a straw man, it creates a straw life. Piety is Third Servant styled Christianity in that it doesn't go out into the world to invest in our making of civilization with more humanity. Instead it just formulates a group of tasks to work on which have little bearing on real human life yet are held to be the tasks most prized by God.

    Third Servant Christianity--Reformed or otherwise--longs for Heaven as long as it's spoon fed and doesn't have to be accomplished by working at it. What's sorely missed in this Grace and Works discussion is the appreciation that work is the art of making something valuable.

    So I think your instincts about The Sermon are right; I think what needs to be added is the question of "how safe is it for us to risk ourselves and make the inevitable mistakes that entail from being boldly alive?

  6. I was having a phone discussion with a friend (Baptist Minister) and we got onto the discussion of what salvation 'looks like'...
    I directed him to your site and your recent S.O.T.M. comments. It gave us a perfect vehicle to further our thoughts.
    We both LOVE the idea of something, 'hanging in the balance' - it is at once comforting and challenging. Shouldn't faith include both elements?

    Thanks again for airing your theology on here AND for having the humility and integrity to double-back on yourself so quickly when you feel you need to. It's a VERY refreshing trait to have.
    Also, without wanting to cause offence (but ultimately willing to do so in order to make my point...) your initial posts are fresh, vital, intriguing and healthily provocative. This is particularly demonstrated when compared with the often wordy and labourious responses made (my own included!)
    This is fast becoming my go-to site when I am looking for inspiration...


  7. Ah, see, this is something I'm happy to get on board with; that faint disquiet that niggles at you, saying, 'Well, if in the end I'm justified by faith alone, when all's said and done and weighed up by our Father in Heaven on the last day, will what Jesus said that day on the Mount actually make a difference, in the final equation, as it were?'

    I think there's probably a reasonable case for works *mattering* in some way; it would make little sense for Paul and others to talk about teachers being judged more harshly, or some people being saved as 'one escaping through the flames' if there wasn't something 'hanging in the balance' as it were. Do we know exactly what's hanging? Probably not. Is it that important? I don't think so; at least I'm happy to wait until I can find out first hand.

    I also like to think of the 'reciprocal' statements in the Sermon (forgive or you will not be forgiven, judge not lest ye also be judged) as kind of God's demand that you at least understand what He is offering you before you go around claiming you are His disciple. What Christian, fully understanding the extent of God's forgiveness, would begrude their fellow human forgiveness of their own? What Christian would presume to judge in the place of the great Judge of the creation? It's like God is saying 'if you can't bring yourself to forgive others, you have not truly comprehended what I have done for you; come back when you understand.'

  8. Martyn, what is your point? Are we to refrain from a depth of dialog because we can't write as deftly as Richard? I know there's limitations to the blog as a vehicle for working out our thinking when compared to a face to face situation like a coffee house or church building, but I still hope it can be more than a place to toss opinions back and forth.

  9. "Christ does not save all those who say to him: Lord, Lord. But he saves all those who out of a pure heart give a piece of bread to a starving [person], without thinking about him in the least little bit."
    - Simone Weil

    I think the main reason that Protestants have problems with statements like this one, from Weil, is that acts of compassion aren't seen as distinctively 'Christian' while assent to certain propositions or creeds are more decisive markers identifying 'damned' and 'saved' groups. In addition, once I assent to the proper creeds/formulas, the conscience is satiated by 'my faith alone, through grace alone,' and the process of salvation is relatively finished. This is why Stan Hauerwas says that what Protestants ultimately have faith in is faith (assent to certain ideas about God) to save. I guess that, if one grants the Christological proposition regarding Jesus as the definitive appearance of what it means to be human, how can one be considered 'rescued from the sinful condition' when they are vengeful, unmerciful, are too calloused to mourn, uncompelled to sacrifice in answering human suffering, and prefer violence to peaceableness? Put another way --if Jesus is what it means to be in communion with the Father, isn't any soteriological conception that minimizes a Jesus' ethic one that minimizes the problem of human immorality, turning it into a legal record, whose ink can simply be erased with spotless Galilean blood, so that God can now pretend, to Himself, that he does not actually see the reality of a ruthless, selfish person, but a person who is pure, simply because their wolfishness has been veiled in Lamb's clothing)? That's some thin sanctification.

  10. This has got me thinking (again) about the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In it Abraham tells the rich man (who is in hell) not only that he cannot get across the 'great chasm' to Abraham's side but also that 'those who want to go from here to you cannot'. Beside the fact that in this parable it is the beggar and not the rich man who is at Abraham's side, it is incredible to me to picture the beggar, and Abraham (who we'll recall interceded for Sodom and Gommorrah) as wanting to go help the damned man. At the same time, we do see Abraham submitting to God's justice, and putting all the emphasis on the time back down on earth where the chasm is crossable and Moses and the Prophets are spoken and heard.

  11. Ummm, I think I made a few points...
    I will assume you are referring to my comments about the sometimes convoluted replies on here.
    It was only an observation (and not one just apparent on this site to be fair...)
    It just sometimes feels as if people want to hear their own words and in such a manner that does an issue to death.

    I am a teacher - a lot of my kids LOVE to give long and involved answers, even when they are not required. They want to impress Sir more than they want to get to the bottom of an issue.

    In a sense, that's no bad thing - it's just that it's not ultimately the best thing...

    In regard to a blog, I would've thought that it was the VERY place to "toss opinions back and forth".

    Hey, these are only my observations. I am not 'sir' around here ;0) I am a theologian though, so I not advocating refraining from "depth of dialog", just from LENGTH and verbosity of dialog...

    The last thing I want, however, is to detract from the thread and absolutely and categorically NOT to elicit another stream of words... It would be kinda ironic though...

  12. I use the Logos doctrine to imagine this:

    The world is in the balance as God decides whether to create. It's an intractable question, since it takes intelligence to appreciate love, but love cannot be forced. Thus, God cannot make the kind of beings that would make creation worthwhile. But God is loving intelligence. "I will show them perfect love," God decides, "and they can decide."

    Creation was hanging in the balance, and God's faith in Jesus tipped the scale.

    Of course this is gross anthropomorphism, but it seems to focus me on the right things.

  13. I wonder if the consequences you are concerned with have more to do with reward than salvation itself, which is a free gift. I’d like to suggest that they do. This is my own “experimental” theology of reward.

    A paper by N. T. Wright sparks my thought. He wrote, “The works in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist....They are the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation.”

    Wright’s former associate while in Durham, Nijay K. Gupta, explains that Wright meant that judgment “does not look at the number of individual works on a scale, the decision being made by the heavier side. Rather, it is about the demonstration that one truly belongs to Christ and operates in the Spirit of God.”

    My further thoughts are that it is not so much that I need to perform, but rather to what extent am I prepared and able to participate in the life of God, both now and hereafter? The reward is a deeper and richer experience of the life of God, now and forever. These include various individual rewards that come with that, most of them incomprehensible to us today, but some of them begun to be experienced today, e.g., the fruit of the Spirit. How will we be equipped to relate to God and serve with him now, and in eternity in presently unimaginable ways?

    I’m thinking that life now, through the Spirit, equips us for eternity. Eternity is thus affected by skill we allow God to develop in us in the present. Just as a skilled musician undoubtedly experiences a richer enjoyment of music, or a professional athlete has a deeper understanding of a sport, than the average person. Our real “work” is surrender. It seems to me that any worthwhile works are not ours, but God’s works in us as we press on for “the prize of the upward call of God,” Phil. 3:14. The Sermon on the Mount describes a person so engaged. It matters in that way.

    Maybe? Not really?

  14. Maybe what the "eternal balance" is that, in some new era of time, in some new way of having God where everybody can "see" her/him, we every one of us get to go back, right through this age, and undo the damage we have done. Somehow. That makes sense to me. Whatever it happens, it will be love-infused, not the tripe we have lived under in our theologies and doctrines and blindnesses :)

  15. I know the Sermon on the Mountain matters, a lot. I just never thought it matters in terms of "eternal" consequences. Why do you think of it in those terms?

    I am a firm believer in Heaven being union with God through, in and with Christ (I come from eastern orthodox traditions) and that makes any question of Heaven -and all that concerns it in scripture - a question of now, not of the future. I have also turned my back on the ideas of punishment and reward that once defined my local Church's teachings, so I don't think of God as a modern-day judge.

    I understand that this doesn't mean there are absolutely no eternal consequences, and questions of "What will happen when you die" may be important, I suppose, but isn't this somehow much like the other-worldliness that you were writing about in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer series? To divert our attention from this world to another, making our thinking "religious"? And if the "works" we are meant to do (whether in order to get saved or because we are saved) matter because of their consequences for "us" - not for "others" - isn't this a bit too "individualistic" for the Sermon on the Mountain itself?
    You see, in Arabic translations, all those "You"s in the Sermon are in the plural (there's no such thing in English, I know).
    The Sermon is not delivered as a personal ethical code, but a collective commandment. I know that doesn't negate its value as a "personal" sermon, but it does shift one's attention to his fellow "listeners". It is a message to us, not to me. So a questions of how I individually will be judged by it seems a bit strange to me.

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