_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 5 – Covenant
Posted by joespencer on June 22, 2012
I mentioned in my first post that the discussion concerning grace that begin in the late 1980s but came to a kind of culmination in 1992 with Believing Christ was unique in that it emphasized a covenantal understanding of grace—in that it emphasized the idea that the individual and Christ are bound together, such that grace and works are in some sense interwoven. It is in chapter 3 of Believing Christ that Robinson lays this out most clearly. He already—as I noted in my last post—begins to articulate this in chapter 2 through his several analogies, particularly those that emphasize a kind of joint venture (bank accounts, marriage, etc.). Chapter 3, however, which is simply titled “The Covenant,” is dedicated to this more exclusively.
This is crucial stuff, then. And yet it’s here that I’m going to have to begin to get more critical of Robinson’s approach to grace. This chapter illustrates some of the biggest missteps we can make in trying to make sense of the atonement.
From the beginning of the chapter, Robinson sets up the difference between two covenants—that on display in the Old Testament, and that on display in the New Testament. Paul goes to great lengths in especially his epistle to the Romans to make clear that there is less a new or different covenant than a restoration or reinvigoration of the original, Abrahamic covenant. But let me leave that aside and deal just with the ideas as Robinson sets them forth.
The covenant relationship, as he explains, is meant to make for the possibility of justification. Robinson explains this word as follows:
Justified has a strong courtroom or judgment nuance to it and emphasizes the “not guilty” verdict. To be justified, then, is to be declared by God to be not guilty, to be free from any taint of sin and to be acquitted of all our obligations toward him. Thus, being justified is logically equivalent to being declared worthy of the kingdom and presence of God. (p. 37)
There’s a lot to be worried about in this brief explanation. Robinson is unquestionably right that there is a juridical sense to the word “justified,” but the ancient Jewish concept of “not guilty” was quite different from our own. To be exonerated in court in an ancient Jewish context did not at all imply that one was “free from any taint of sin,” nor did it mean that one was “acquitted of all [one's] obligations.” Indeed, it’s crucial to note that the word “justify” would be better translated “make righteous,” and that “righteousness” was in Hebrew thinking an emphatically relational concept. To be righteous was not at all a matter of being free from any taint or free from all obligations but was, precisely, to be rightly oriented in one’s obligating relations—whatever taint one might have. To be righteous: to respond appropriately to obligating relationships. To be pronounced righteous in a court setting was therefore not to be absolved of one’s erstwhile indebtedness to an abstractly forceful law, but to have one’s right relationship to the social and religious complex of Israel affirmed. Robinson is right that this amounts to “being declared worthy of the kingdom and presence of God,” but that’s because Israel was God’s kingdom and the place for His presence (in the temple).
But again, let me just work, for the moment, with the ideas as Robinson sets them out. He goes on to explain that there are, according to the two different covenants, two different ways of being justified—two different “plans” between which one can choose, as it were, if one seeks justification. The first of these is “justification by law.” Robinson explains:
Theoretically, one way of being justified, of receiving a “not guilty” verdict from God, is to keep all the commandments all the time—never to commit a sin and therefore never to be guilty. This called justification by (keeping) the law or justification by works. (p. 38)
This first possibility is, Robinson affirms, “valid in theory,” though it “fails in practice to address our real human needs in our actual predicament” (p. 39). The problem, naturally, is that we sin.
The second path to justification—one that works at the practical level as well as the theoretical, according to Robinson—is “justification by faith in Christ.” He explains:
In the new covenant of faith, perfect innocence is still required, but it is required of the team or partnership of Christ-and-me, rather than of me alone. Because Christ and I are one in the gospel covenant, God accepts our combined total worthiness, and together Christ and I are perfectly worthy. As a result, in Christ I am clean and worthy today. (p. 43)
In this second approach, “knowing that we cannot do everything that the law demanded from us, … we agree to do all that we can do. We agree to give our Savior our best effort, to give him everything we have” (p. 48). Note here the echoes of both the parable of the bicycle (“to give him everything we have”) and of 2 Nephi 25:23 (“to do all that we can do”). Since we sin and can’t be justified by law, this arrangement allows us some leeway, makes it so that we have only to do the best we can, our best effort—and no more. Our utmost is still required, but we agree to allow the Savior to make up the difference.
Those are the two possibilities, according to Robinson. Part of what seems to be implied here is that we can choose between these two options, and that repentance amounts to switching our vote from the first to the second option. When we insist on doing everything ourselves, we’re proud and arrogant and boastful, believing we can make it. But we just don’t get it. Repentance is that process through which we make the second covenant and after which we begin to keep it. But if we don’t keep the new covenant, we revert automatically to the old covenant, and we’re held responsible for everything we’ve failed to do.
That, I think, is what Robinson is saying. (There’s one more major element here, but I’ll come to that in a moment.) Now, how does this picture hold up?
I’ve already said that I’m nervous about the idea that there are two different approaches at all, two different covenants, one old and one new. (Indeed, isn’t the covenant supposed to be both old and new at once? Or that, at any rate, is what I hear in “new and everlasting.”) And I’ve already said that there are real problems with the way Robinson understands the basic concept of justification. What, though, of the rest of the picture? Well, first, I think we should be very slow to accept the idea that, even theoretically, there is a program of justification by law. That’s not how the Law of Moses understands itself, and no Jew would describe its role in justification in terms like those Robinson uses. It’s not that there is a theoretical possibility of complete and perfect obedience, according to which we wouldn’t need the Savior, but that we just can’t do that because of our fallibility and finitude. It’s, rather, that there’s only the supposedly second or new covenant.
What, then, of the new covenant Robinson describes? Is that at least an accurate picture? Again, sorry to say, I think the answer has to be negative. The first description of it that I quote above sounds in many ways right, but that there’s a problem becomes clear when Robinson goes on to provide the second description that I quote above—that the new covenant is rooted in our agreement that we’ll do our best effort. The problem with this is that it reproduces what Robinson and others displaced by trying to talk about covenant in the first place! Arguing against the idea that grace is just what makes up the last part of the road once I’ve fought my way through the first part, Robinson and his predecessors talked about covenant, about the joint effort to walk the whole road together with Christ. But here Robinson’s language slides right back into the there-are-two-parts-namely-mine-and-His terms of the displaced model. In the end, Robinson seems only to have modified the displaced model by making our stretch of the road a good deal shorter than others before him had assumed.
As I noted above, I think that there are two things that are pushing Robinson at this point in what I’m arguing is the wrong direction. First: the parable of the bicycle. Robinson does modify his predecessors in that we pay only sixty-one cents, not eighty dollars, toward the hundred-dollar bicycle. But that modification is not a genuine change of model: there are still two parts to salvation, and my own—my “best efforts”—precede and motivate the other part (grace). Second: 2 Nephi 25:23, Nephi’s talk about being saved by grace “after all we can do.” Now, both of these influences on Robinson’s thinking here are surprising. I’ve already showed (again: in my last post) that the parable of the bicycle is itself complicated by the other analogies Robinson provides. Were he to have read chapter 2 more carefully before producing chapter 3, he might have avoided this talk of “best efforts,” etc. And I’ll be showing later (in another post) that Robinson’s work on 2 Nephi 25:23 should have kept him from talking about things the way he does here.
In short, then, Robinson’s model of justification by faith is also problematic, is also wrong, I think. What he provides us is not, ultimately, a theology of grace. Grace still comes only in response to our own best efforts—minimal though they may be—and hence grace is something, strictly speaking, earned, for Robinson. That means, to put it in a nutshell, that grace isn’t graceful here, since grace is, by definition, what comes unearned or for free.
But perhaps Robinson goes on to save all this a bit later in the chapter when he talks about “attitude”?
The crucial consideration for determining whether or not we have a valid covenant is not necessarily our relative performance or even our “goodness” as we humans judge goodness, but rather our attitude—the desires of our heart. (p. 51)
Doesn’t Robinson make the right move here? He claims—does he not?—that it isn’t so much our best efforts themselves that motivate grace, but rather our right attitude toward God. Does that solve the problem? In the end, I don’t think it does. Actually, I think talk here of “the desires of our heart” is profoundly symptomatic. But I’ve got to spell that out a bit.
The problem I’ve been trying to spell out in this post so far is that, though he says he does otherwise, Robinson still gives us a model in which we are saved by works. Grace comes into the story not in connection with salvation, but in connection with judgment: if we make the right covenant, then it’s still our best efforts—our works—that motivate salvation, but those works will be judged mercifully, gracefully, with an eye to our weakness and inability, etc. To put Robinson’s model in a compact formula: we’re saved by works, but we’re judged by grace. This formula summarizes what I hear more often than not being taught in the Church: we’ve got to do works to be saved, but we should trust that a loving God will judge us mercifully. That’s Robinson’s formula as well.
But the scriptures emphatically teach this differently. The scriptures never claim that we’ll be saved by our works—always and only that we’re saved by grace. And the scriptures never claim that we’ll be judged by grace—always and only that we’re judged by our works. In a word, then, it’s necessary, theologically, to reverse our usual formula, the formula that Robinson works out at length in this chapter. It’s not “saved by works, but judged by grace,” but “saved by grace, and judged by works.” We’ve got to figure out what that means.
We’ll be figuring that out for the remainder of this series of posts. But with this much clear for the moment, I can explain why I think Robinson’s recourse to attitude—to “the desires of our heart”—is symptomatic of trouble rather than a turn in a promising direction.
If we’re convinced that salvation is warranted by our works, our best efforts, then we inevitably worry that our works won’t be good enough. What if I haven’t done my best, even with the dawn of the second covenant. If I’m bound by the second approach to do all I can do, and I haven’t done all I can do, then am I not damned all the same? Realizing this, we grasp desperately at the few passages in scripture that talk about the desires of our heart—those passages that say that we’ll be judged according to our works, according to the desires of our hearts.” We pretend—boy, how we pretend!—that that means that wherever our works aren’t enough, our desires can go the rest of the way. In his 1989 book on grace, Millet states this explicitly: “This principle means that when we have done all that we can, our desires will carry us the rest of the way” (Millet, By Grace Are We Saved, p. 79). All talk of “the desires of our heart” is meant to secure the “judged by grace” part of the formula once we’ve put our trust in works to save us. So, at any rate, it seems to me.
So I don’t think Robinson pulls out of the problem here at the end of the chapter. It seems, rather, that he stays in the same difficulty all the way through. But this will have to become clear in <a href=http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/06/27/_believing-christ_-revisited-6-grace-works/my next post. In the next chapter, Robinson has a good deal more to say about being “saved by grace,” as he calls it. All this will have to be worked out there.
In the meanwhile, I’ve had to be the bad guy, bearing the bad news that what Robinson sets out here isn’t nearly as graceful as he says it is. But there’s good news coming: we are saved by grace. We’ll just have to work out how that happens.