In this the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we have much to be thankful for. This semester, my classmates and I have been reading the writings of Luther, Calvin, and the English Reformers, and it has become clearer to me than ever why reform was so necessary in the late medieval Church. Even Rome herself admitted as much in the Council of Trent, where she seriously grappled with the criticism of the Reformers and, in some cases, adjusted her doctrine and practice according to it.
The fundamental critique of the Reformers was well-founded and much-needed: Rome was asking too much of her flock. The transactional soteriological framework and guilt-laden spiritual environment made parishioners fear that their souls were always “up for grabs.” Luther himself, a Catholic triple threat—priest, monk, and theological doctor—found no solace in the performance-oriented context in which he found himself. And if Martin Luther lost sleep over the state of his soul, how should that make you and I feel? The thought of it makes me shudder.
But one day, rather famously, Luther had an epiphany while reading the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He realized that the “righteousness of God” was not a righteousness that God required us to cultivate within ourselves, but was in fact a gift freely given by a loving Father who wanted to save a people gone astray. Luther—and five hundred years’ worth of Protestants after him—was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, as he realized that he was not ultimately responsible for the redemption of his soul. Everything that was required had already been done by God himself.
While this is, of course, a beautiful and true expression of the gospel, contemporary expressions of Protestantism have tended to emphasize this idea at the expense of developing a healthy understanding of personal responsibility in the spiritual life. We have been so focused on the passive righteousness we receive through the merits of Jesus Christ that we have neglected to ask ourselves how the reception of that righteousness changes us over time. Should we really not expect the lives of longtime believers to look different from those of recent converts? Have we no role at all in our own spiritual formation?
Some of us are becoming more and more convinced that we do. Perhaps, if we seek to emulate the life of Jesus Christ, we ought to “grow in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” as he did (Lk. 2:52, NRSV). For the generation who grew up hearing, “All you have to do is believe,” it would be helpful for us to consider what the effects of belief might be. If we have truly seen with our eyes that Jesus Christ gave his life for and to us, might that elicit some response from us? Would that change the way we live?
In the third chapter of Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, Gerald Sittser shows us a group of people whose lives were changed forever upon hearing the good news. The desert fathers and mothers, who lived in fourth- and fifth-century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, gave up their homes, belongings, and communities to follow Christ as fully as possible. They lived either alone or in small groups of like-minded ascetics, braving the harsh desert climate and making do with few material possessions in order to ensure that they would depend on God for the fulfillment of all their needs. More than anything, their lives were marked by a willingness—and indeed choice—to struggle. They saw this life as a war, an ever-raging conflict with the devil and his demonic forces, and they were willing to resort to whatever means necessary to achieve victory. They fasted, memorized Scripture, and gave what little they had to the poor. Some even did irreparable damage to their bodies by refusing to lie down or eat for several months.
Of course, I am not advocating for severe asceticism. These are extreme cases of “working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling,” and many of the desert fathers are justifiably deemed fanatical. But the question remains: how does the gospel change us? Now that we are free from the sin and death in which we formerly found ourselves, to what end will we use that freedom?
In the chapter, Sittser includes a quote from St. Mark the Ascetic that absolutely floored me when I read it: “He who does not choose to suffer for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by suffering he has not chosen” (74). The gospel gives us an invitation to receive a taste of the renewal we will experience when Christ returns to restore all things. Through his life, death, and resurrection, we have freedom now to partipate in our reshaping and formation—usually called “sanctification” in the Protestant world—that we did not have before we received Christ in faith. In fact, “choosing to suffer” may be considered a contradiction in terms. If we generally understand suffering to mean an aversion to adverse circumstances outside of our control, we will see that an acceptance of those circumstances negates the possibility of suffering at all. The freedom we have received in Christ gives us the choice to undergo pain now in sight of the richer, fuller life offered to us by God.
Choosing to participate in this hard work of spiritual formation does not provide eternal benefits only, but immediate ones as well. Sin is sin precisely because it is destructive. When we turn away from our Source of life, as Athanasius puts it in his On the Incarnation, the only possible consequence is death. This includes death of the body, the soul, the intellect, our relationships—you name it. But a continual refixing of our gaze upon God—or “turning our eyes upon Jesus,” as the hymn writer put it—reorients our desires. With Christ with us, before us, behind us, in, beneath, and above us, we are able to face head-on the destructive patterns of thought and behavior that are killing us. Though of course we will not attain perfection in this life, we may experience that abundant life Jesus wants to give us—life that is not only for the by and by, but also for the here and now.
“Since Christ suffered as a human, you should also arm yourselves with his way of thinking. This is because whoever suffers is finished with sin” (1 Pet. 4:1, CEB). The freedom and the struggle go hand in hand. As we needed Martin Luther in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to remind us of our total reliance upon God, so do we need the desert fathers to remind us that there is progress to be made in this life. The hard work of change is painful, but as we trust in Christ and look to the example set forth by his life, death, and resurrection, we may assured that we are not working for nothing. By the blood of the Lamb, we will overcome.