Continuing in Lent
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
I wrote about grace in Getting Ready for Lent by clarifying the good news of the Gospel. "God saves us. And God saves us through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth." That's grace.
I wrote about effort in Practicing Lent. I made it clear that, "Practices are wisdom and not righteousness."
I assumed that it would be understood that effort—or practice, or exercise, or spiritual discipline—is clearly connected to faith and grace in our reception of the Gospel.
In other words, the salvation that we take hold of as we trust Jesus is a salvation that takes hold of us. We are to respond to the grace of the Gospel. The grace of the Gospel takes hold of us most reliably through planned exercises that lead us to put on the person and character of Christ. That's what the practices are for.
It might be helpful to clarify that this is the case, that these practices are really necessary and logically connected to salvation by grace through faith.
This clarity may unsettle us if we are too comfortable in the popular idea of grace that makes us passive consumers of salvation.
"We are not only saved by grace, we are paralyzed by it. We have lost any coherent view of how spiritual growth occurs."
This is a pointed observation by Dallas Willard. And it's point is to get us moving with and into grace. He continues (emphases mine),
We have been taught that grace means “you can do nothing to be saved.” Such thinking has been extended to “you can do nothing to have spiritual growth.” So spiritual transformation occurs, according to this thinking, in one of two ways – inspiration or information. Inspiration means that in one golden moment, one great experience, you will be transformed. I don’t want to criticize experience. I have had many wonderful experiences with God, but they don’t transform you. The other view, information, is the means whereby you pour truth into your head and suddenly you are transformed. Inspiration isn’t going to do it and information isn’t going to do it. The only way human character is transformed with grace is by discipline and activity.
Maybe you need to re-read that paragraph a few times. Maybe you need to argue with it for a few weeks or months. That's okay if you do. I did.
And I have found that discipline and faithful response to grace is a sure pathway. Along this pathway we find sound information and even invigorating inspiration. But the spiritual growth that discipline and faithful response to grace will produce won't depend upon acquiring more information or seeking effervescent inspiration.
Spiritual growth through discipline and faithful response to grace depends upon the presence and promises of Jesus.
Jesus taught and promised: “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, NET). And he also taught and promised, "Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Fatherʼs commandments and remain in his love" (John 15:9-10, NET).
Let's put these teachings together. Notice how "follow my teaching" and "obey my commandments" are the conditions, or the "if" part of each sentence. These are our part of discipline and faithful response to grace. Our practices follow Jesus' teaching and obey his commandments.
And notice his promises: "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free"; "you will remain in my love." The life that comes from and is found in Jesus' love and the freedom given by truth is received by faith and patient spiritual practice.
Practices like silence, solitude, and fasting. Practices like study, worship, and thanksgiving. These exercise are effort, but they do not earn us anything. They receive the free gift of the grace that is the Gospel.
This brings us to a great, foundational idea.
This is another Willardism and one that I hope we either learn for the first time or embrace more deeply this Lent.
And the way I hope we learn it is by failing to keep our Lenten discipline perfectly.
(Maybe you need to re-read that sentence, and argue with it some.)
We're about 10 days into this Lenten season. And if you haven't picked up what you gave up, or if you haven't slacked on what you planned, then I hope you will soon.
And when you do, remember this: your Lenten exercise is wisdom not righteousness. And remember this: your relationship with the Father depends on Jesus' obedience, not yours.
You see, grace is opposed to earning. And grace is also opposed to perfectionism—not perfection, but pefectionism. There's a difference. And that difference is why Jesus' yoke is the easy yoke.
So don't be afraid to fail. And don't be afraid to try. For grace has found us and we are simply finding it back through discipline and faithful response.