Humans are always doing something. Even when perfectly still or asleep, our bodies and minds are physiological universes of activity. You’ve likely heard it said that “we are human beings, not human doings.” Does what we do not make us who we are?
In the Church, there is tension between whether and to what degree adherence to certain beliefs and behaviors flows toward or from our freedom in Christ. To put it simply, do we become free by participating in formation? Is there something we do or say that makes us free in Christ?
Some say Christian freedom isn't freedom if some sort of doing is required. Others object that freedom without some sort of evidential effect is counterfeit. Still others who become free in Christ are not free in the world. How then do we make sense of whether or not we have to do some things and have to not do others? What really is this freedom and how does it relate to formation?
CHRISTIAN FREEDOM IS ONLY EVER A GIFT
As an invitation into dialogue, I offer the contention that freedom in Christ is liberation from the hell of making ourselves good before God. It is preeminent freedom. It is the foundry where all other freedoms are forged. It is freedom that came at a cost only Jesus was willing and able to cover. And He did. It is finished.
The good news is news that is good because grace, like life itself, is only ever the lavish, elated sharing of the Triune God. The love of GOD in Christ is a gift to be enjoyed by every man, woman and child; it is not a carrot dangling ever before us or a loan with an expected return.
What remains in question though is whether or not we will take credit for acquiring that gift. In my understanding, formation is the process, work and risk of dumping our obsession with taking (and requiring!) credit for the freedom and righteousness of Christ. “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21, NRSV). In other words, the only way to squander the gift is to forget and forsake the One who gave and guarantees it.
"Formation is the process, work and risk of dumping our obsession with taking (and requiring!) credit for the freedom and righteousness of Christ."
CONFESSION FORMS US TO FREEDOM
Consider an illustration using a Christian practice of formation: confession. Why do we confess our sins? What exactly do we think is happening when we confess?
Prayers of confession are not for due diligence. They are not for doing penance. They achieve nothing with God. Nothing for atonement, nothing for salvation, nothing for holiness. Confession is simply an act that trains the human mind and body to resist deeply tangled inclinations of opposition to God’s gift of indiscriminate, all-encompassing love.
Do you see the distinction? The act of confessing sin isn't the reason the sin was forgiven. Confession doesn't cause forgiveness. The love and finished work of Jesus causes forgiveness. Confession is the way we learn to convince ourselves that Jesus' justification is better than ours!
Buried under our covert belief that confession causes forgiveness is a false picture of who God is. We tend to think confession is how we get God to forgive us because we don’t think God has forgiven. Afterall, many of us don’t forgive, why would God? In Across All Worlds, C. Baxter Kruger says it this way:
“The Father loves us with an endless love, and He has found us in His Son. This is what repentance is all about; it is a radical change of mind, a thoroughgoing reorientation of the way we perceive God Himself and His heart, of the way we perceive ourselves and others.”
Confession frees us to our freedom by exposing the lie that we are not loved.
Sadly, the invitation to step into the light (1 John 1:7-9) brings to mind a giant condemnation spotlight that exposes guilt. Scandalously, in reality it is more like escaping through the end of a long tunnel into the sunshine where every inch of skin is invigorated with the golden light of life.
"Confession is the way we learn to convince ourselves that Jesus' justification is better than ours!"
Confession is like lunging up through the surface of the water — giving up on the absurdity of surviving underneath — to open yourself to the only thing that can sustain your life.
This is what makes Christian discipleship Christian. It isn’t about checking that each person confesses each sin. It's about a community of faith announcing again and again that the light of life is inviting us to stake everything on the radical good news that “through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things...” (Colossians 1:20, NRSV). All things.
FORMATION IS UNLEARNING
Christian formation then, like detoxification, is the process of being weaned off the poisonous high we get when we think we’ve done something to deserve or preserve the favor of God. “...if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13, NRSV).
Formation is the dismantling of self-dependence, the unlearning of all the ways we used to try to convince God, others and ourselves that we belong on account of our merit. It is announcing and beholding the good news with and for one another as all are absolved of every bondage.
Formation is disillusionment. Formation is what happened when the son who squandered his father’s wealth finally beheld his freedom… when his father’s urgent embrace took his breath away, when he took that first bite of the scrumptious fattened calf and drank the first cup of the delicious red wine, and when he finally returned to his own clean bed, exhausted from the journey and the party, yet filled with wonder that none of his foolishness was admissible in his father’s court of law.
This blog was written by Jameson Allen.
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