The Right and Wrong Way to Be a Pastor

jesus_save_after_each_level_icon820Justification and how we are saved is still very much a live wire in Christian dialogue today, as I think we have proved on this blog several times over. Nevertheless, while there are very real differences between how Roman Catholics and Reformational Christians of various sorts understand this doctrine, the divide is probably not as wide as we make it out to be. After all, if there is one thing that can be demonstrated by the Joint Declaration on Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, it is that we are able to talk about justification using the same language when we want to do so. Everyone agrees that salvation comes uniquely through Jesus Christ and we all agree that this is rendered to us uniquely through grace and by faith, though there is significant disagreement about exactly how to define these terms. So where then does the heart of the disagreement lie?

It is easy to get lost in the small details and miss the big picture here. If we want to truly understand where the division takes place, we have to take our eyes off of the abstract theological concepts and take a good hard look at the facts on the ground. The division lies, ultimately, in how we pastor our people.

Feeding the Sheep

A parish priest is first and foremost a pastor. The Risen Lord asks Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When Simon Peter replies, “You know that I do,” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). This is not a word to all Christians. It is specifically a word to Peter and the other apostles, a word which then is carried to their successors, the bishops, and which they share with their presbyters. Those of us who don the clerical collar are to feed the lambs of Christ. And Christ has been very specific about what we are to feed them. We are to give them the Gospel. We are to give them Christ for the sake of their salvation.

We feed the sheep through the celebration of the holy Mysteries, through the cup of Christ’s Blood and His Body broken, through the water of regeneration, through the words of absolution, through the Word preached and taught from the pulpit, and through the individual contact with each person, standing with them in the midst of both their celebrations and sorrows to speak God’s Word into the room.

Real Words With Real People

But how do we approach it? What do we say? This may seem like a secondary question, a matter not of content but of style, but surely it is the opposite. If the entire congregation on a Sunday morning is people who are apathetic at best about their faith, what should the pastor say to them from the pulpit to change that? What word does he bring to the man about to undergo an operation, or the couple who has been living together for three years with one child already and another on the way who have finally decided to get married, or the mother of a child who has died before there was a chance to baptize him? What hope is there for the habitual sinner who cannot seem to escape slavery to her favorite sin or the skeptical teenager who has been bought and sold by the culture three times over already and sees you as just another in a long line of people with their hand out?

These are not idle questions. The way we priests answer them makes up not only the fabric of our ministry but the entire tapestry of spiritual life on the ground in a parish. As a priest, every time I show up in one of these settings, every time I open my mouth, I am taking someone’s eternal soul into my hands. Therefore, the doctrine of justification is not abstract. It is the beacon that I use every day in my life as a parish priest to let me know whether I am near or far from leading people to the path that leads to righteousness. If I do not have justification clear in my head, I risk leading the sheep of Christ off a cliff instead of into His waiting arms. I risk poisoning the sheep instead of feeding them.

There is a common usage in today’s Episcopal Church of the term pastoral that is highly misleading. We say, “Oh, Father Smith is very pastoral,” when we mean that Father Smith is very nice. He has a gentle way about him. He makes people feel good. Likewise, we call the ministry of making people feel good pastoral care. But this is not what it means to be a pastor. Being nice is all well and good, but the pastor’s task is to speak the Word to you. It is to ensure that you receive the Word of eternal life. Sometimes that will make you feel good. Other times that will make you feel miserable. The parish priest has to determine which Word you need when and to apply it.

How to Beat the Gospel Back Out of People

So how does this tease out the differences over the doctrine of justification? Quite simply, it is the difference between preaching the Gospel that points only to Christ or a new kind of law that points people finally back to themselves. The temptation with the room full of apathetic, going-through-the-motions Sunday morning pew sitters is to yell at them, to tell them that unless they get out there and start loving God and their neighbor, God is going to smite them, so they better get to it. Equally, the temptation when one has a sinner sitting in front of them is to say, “Change your ways, or else!” And there is a certain warrant for that, at least at first. It is true that there must be a kind of conviction that takes place, which means that sin must be confronted and the conscience must be awakened with the application of the law. But the conversation cannot be left there or else there is no cross and no good news. So we say, “Jesus died for you. Your sin is forgiven. You’re made new in Him.”

So far, so good. The priest who wishes to bring people to Christ stops right there with the truth of the Gospel held out before his people like a golden key to unlock all the mysteries of heaven. But the priest who denies the doctrine of justification, or who accepts something akin to the Roman version, is apt to go on, to say, “Now that you know what Jesus did for you, get out there and stay pure, never falling into your old ways, doing good things. You are God’s hands and feet in the world. He’s relying on you to make the difference. He needs you to apply it in your life. He’s made it possible for you to be saved, but now you have to live that out through your own good works.” And once you have done that, the whole project is lost.

The People Left Out

If justification and sanctification are not just God’s work being done in and for me by Christ, but also my work of responding to God and giving Him my best, then ultimately I am left with despair, because the very best that I have will never be enough to vanquish my sin or to fill the big empty hole that lives inside of me. And I will always be left to wonder whether I really have it, whether I am a real Christian or not, whether I am really saved or just in the queue where they give out salvation to all the good little boys and girls. Furthermore, this presents a real challenge to the person who simply has no capacity to respond to the call in the ways we might encourage, the person who is schizophrenic, the person who suffers from some form of neurological deficiency, the baby just born who does not yet have reason and recourse to do good works, the elderly person with dementia who is never quite the same from hour to hour. If justification is not just God’s work for them but their work with Him, where do they begin? What hope can they possibly have? The standard answer is both unbiblical and unsatisfying. “God only holds us to the standard of our own capacity.” Well, then, why does God bother to hold us to any standard at all since none of us have the capacity to come to God of our own free will, given that we start out “dead in our sin” (Ephesians 2:1-5)? But if our salvation is God’s work alone, there is both hope and comfort for people in all conditions who can look to their Baptism and know that Christ has saved them, who can look to the Word that has been preached in their hearing and know that it brings faith.

crucifixion

The Joy of True Justification in Christ

If we preach self-justification to our people, regardless of what name we give it, we rob our people of the pearl of great price. Richard Hooker says it beautifully:

Such we are in the sight of God the Father as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly, or phrensy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this: that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.

The Word that Christ has given to His apostles with which to feed His sheep is the Word that we who are not righteous have actually been made righteous, that we who are sinners have been made saints, because Jesus Christ has switched places with us. He has not only taken our punishment, He has filled us with His holiness that we might be seen by the Father as the very image of the Son. Thus, Hooker again says:

Although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man who in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin, him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it, and accepteth him in Jesus Christ as perfectly righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law?

It is more than just forgiveness. It is more than just a second chance. It is more than we can ever hope to achieve through moral shaming or bucking up. What Christ has done for us is to make it as if we were deserving of His share, not in an artificial way but in a real way. And that good Word, given to the sinner who has become convicted of his or her sin, is quite enough to change the heart and cure the soul. But we don’t believe it. We think there has to be more, so we apply extra bits. There are a variety of ways these extra bits come out, be it the added works of Rome, the added testimonies and declarations of faith of the Evangelical, or the added social justice and healing of the world of the Liberal. In all cases, it is no longer just Christ. It is Christ plus [insert extra item here]. As soon as we make it Christ plus anything else of our own making, we are doomed.

Christ is not a possession. His grace is a gift that runs through the hands of the priest like water, into the waiting parched mouths of the people of God. We need not add anything to the mix to make it better. We need only to open our hands and let the living water run through, to open our mouths and drink.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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19 Responses to The Right and Wrong Way to Be a Pastor

  1. Michael says:

    “We need not add anything to the mix to make it better.” I would be interested in your interpretation of

    http://bible.cc/colossians/1-24.htm

    In any event, when you discuss the “Roman version” you are clearly engaging a strawman.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I’m afraid that I fail to see the point you are trying to make with that verse from Colossians. It is certainly not an encouragement for us to add things to the Gospel, particularly given the immediate three verses which come before it.

  2. LauraC says:

    Gosh, if I had ever heard any of this in my 30+ years of attending an Episcopal Church, I might still be there–I miss the liturgy. I’ve been away now for almost 20 years. Now I will admit that my teen years were sketchy on attendance and even when I was there, I was not always engaged, but if you had been in my confirmation class back in the 1970’s you wouldn’t have even known that we were talking about Christianity. If you will come and be an Episcopal priest in Monroe County, New York I will come back to the Episcopal church (although I would still have troubles with the denomination). I am attending an Anglican church’s monthly evensong service to feed that piece missing in my church life, but you know what–it’s not really enough.

    • LauraC says:

      Just to be clear: I’ve been attending several evangelical churches since I left the Episcopal Church.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Hi Laura,

        Thank you for your message. I appreciate your vote of confidence in me! Your experience is not unlike that of others I’ve met. But the heart of the Gospel is still to be found. Perhaps there is a good parish somewhere near you? I’ll pray for God to open opportunities for you to once again receive the grace found in the liturgy.

  3. Fr. Stephen says:

    I particularly loved the last paragraph. I often struggle with balancing challenge and comfort in my ministry, because I see so much complacency and cheap grace in the church. In myself, not just others. I get frustrated because I don’t see the results I want. You gave a timely reminder of who does the heavy lifting in ministry. That helps. Thanks.

    Stephen+

  4. Pete says:

    Not that I don’t appreciate your article, and not that any of it is wrong necessarily, but it’s easy to take this and run off in the wrong direction. Justification is not the “is all, end all” of Christian faith, and our participation in the cross doesn’t stop at the point where we’re justified. There are also, as the Romans say, works for us to do (Eph 2:10). There are, as the Evangelicals say, testimonies and declarations (1 Pet 3:15). And as the Liberals say, it is not enough to hate greed and lust without also hating the social systems of consumerism and sexual commercialism that make them so easy to promote (For that one, see any part of Matthew, really).
    Just a note.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I don’t disagree that there is work for us to be done as Christians, but how we understand justification affects how we understand that work. Are we working for the sake of the kingdom, opposing evil in the world, because we’re filled with love for God and for our fellow man or because we think that this is how Christians ought to be? We may start with the latter, but if we never get to the first than our good works will be for naught. Good works are good because they come out of the heart that has been healed by the Gospel. They are not the Gospel themselves. The second we get that confused, we lay a heavy burden on our heads and poison our good works in the process.

  5. Thank you for what is obviously a heartfelt post, Fr. Jonathan. I appreciate your emphasis on the fact that our salvation is God’s work, not ours. That being noted, I wonder what discipleship and adult formation look like in a parish in which your proposal is implemented: would it be all justification, all the time? And you seem to give short shrift to the traditional Anglican position espoused in Article XII: “Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.” And then there’s all those references to action after justification in the New Testament, encouraging folks to love, forgive, pray, obey, go and do likewise, etc.; why cannot a priest (or other teacher) utter those same commands today if they are biblically founded? In your stress on justification as gospel, I fear that you may have washed out the “baby” of sanctification with the “pelagian bathwater.” Without proper biblical formation concerning what life as the body of Christ looks like, it seems like the risk of antinomianism in the pews would be pretty high.

    Grace and peace,
    Bill

  6. formerlyanxiousanglican says:

    Thank you for what is obviously a heartfelt post, Fr. Jonathan. I appreciate your emphasis on the fact that our salvation is God’s work, not ours. That being noted, I wonder what discipleship and adult formation look like in a parish in which your proposal is implemented: would it be “all justification, all the time”? And you seem to give short shrift to the traditional Anglican position espoused in Article XII: “Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.” And then there’s all those references to action after justification in the New Testament, encouraging folks to love, forgive, pray, obey, go and do likewise, etc.; why cannot a priest (or other teacher) utter those same commands today if they are biblically founded? In your stress on justification as gospel, I fear that you may have washed out the “baby” of sanctification with the “pelagian bathwater.” Without proper biblical formation concerning what life as the body of Christ looks like, it seems like the risk of antinomianism in the pews would be pretty high.

    Grace and peace,
    Bill

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Bill,

      I think my response to Pete above largely covers the same concern that you’re sharing. The issue is not whether or not we’re going to do and encourage good works, but what place those works hold in relation to the Gospel. As Article XII rightly points out, good works “spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith,” they do not cause that faith. Our encouragement of good works can only come in the midst of a proclamation of the Gospel. Works cannot create faith, nor by them can we sanctify ourselves. Sanctification is an important work of Christ that continues within us, but it is still Christ’s work and not ours. If what we preach is “Make yourselves holy” all you will see are people making themselves miserable or puffing themselves up on how holy they think they are.

  7. Stephen says:

    “that man hath sinned and God hath suffered”.

    It is nearly impossible for that statement to be fully taken in and understood.
    And yet, it is the very essence of our Christian Faith.
    It shows the depths of God’s love for each of us. Not just collectively, but individually.
    Simple in it’s pronouncement, difficult to completely grasp, and profoundly humbling.

  8. Todd Stepp says:

    Concerning the Joint Declaration . . . as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene serving as a pastor in the United Methodists Church (both World Methodist Council denominations), I would just mention that the World Methodist Council has also joined in with the Joint Declaration. Cf., http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/meth-council-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20060723_text-association_en.html – For what it’s worth.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thank you for that additional bit of information. It does often feel like we never get anywhere on teasing out precisely where the division lies because we use so much of the same language to talk about justification, but it is also good to know that at least we’re all in the same ballpark. Our divisions over justification are extremely important, but they do not make us into separate religions.

  9. Aaron M says:

    You seem to take a penal substitutionary view of the Cross, and your view of justification follows from that. Have you thought about any other ways we could think of salvation beyond individualistic terms like this? I consider it a real problem, mostly because many Protestant Christians use the Cross to dump their affluent white guilt in socially proscribed ways, instead of having Jesus transform their lives. Is the Cross about us feeling better, or making new people? (and I would think your views of Roman Catholicism are straw men, the number of Roman Catholic saints attests to the reality of their preaching of the Gospel).

    – A former Eastern Orthodox catechumen, now seeking

  10. Aaron M says:

    It also occurs to me that if you don’t accept the Roman Catholic/Protestant idea of original sin, that there is no problem with God accepting the incapacitated/disabled person or newborn baby and saving them. Again, what are we being saved from? God’s wrath? I would submit that’s a medieval idol. If we imagine God as angry at a newborn baby or a helpless person, perhaps our theology and preaching is just wrong? On the other hand, maybe we are being saved from spiritual darkness and death, which is very relevent to the plight of those in need.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Aaron,

      If I may, let me try to respond to both of your comments at once, as they’re obviously interrelated.

      “Penal substitutionary atonement” is not a phrase that I usually use precisely because it leads to a great deal of confusion of the manner you are describing. Certainly, Christ’s death on the cross is in our place, substitutionary in that sense, and it does take away our sin, which means also taking away the punishment for our sin, but I am not someone who is greatly married to the Anselmic notion of satisfaction, as if it is merely God’s wounded pride that requires Him to punish somebody, so might as well be Jesus. Rather, the justification of sinners is about God’s love of sinners and it is a free gift that the Son offers up to the Father, not an evil, angry attack on the Son by the Father.

      One of the things that I find frustrating in modern Eastern Orthodox caricatures of western Christianity is the way in which atonement theology is painted as some kind of monstrous exchange. There is not a hint of that in the Reformers and very little to be found even in Anselm, yet the myth continues to be perpetuated. The east argues as much as the west does that creation was poisoned by sin and that this is the cause of death and evil in the world. There is nothing individualistic or bourgeousie about that. It is the truth that makes the Gospel what it is, the sweetness of new life in Christ. When we are made one with Christ, through His sacrifice, it is not some kind of fake oneness. Sanctification flows from it just as much justification does. This is why Anglicans like Lancelot Andrewes and more modern figures like Michael Ramsey can describe salvation in terms that are very similar to the Orthodox concept of theosis. Nevertheless, there is a judgment that is rendered and an exchange that takes place. And one of the weaknesses I see in Eastern Orthodoxy, at least at this point in time, is the utter reluctance of modern Orthodox theologians to even explore the question of how God’s justice intermingles with His love and forgiveness. It is a massive blind spot, and one that makes it hard for me to take as seriously some of the other perhaps valid criticisms of western theology that Orthodox apologists might have to make.

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