CORAM DEO—not before man!
All the degrees I received from British Universities were based on either final examinations (covering all courses over 3 years) or on theses of 60,000 or 90.000 words (whether M.Phil or D.Phil). All my American colleagues received their first degree, and sometimes Master's degree, by accumulating credits, with no final exams of the old British type.
I want to use the analogy from education—earning and accumulating credits in order to graduate—in what follows in order to raise important questions about salvation from God, and, about how we stand, Coram Deo. (Bishop C. Fitzimmons-Allison has an essay on "Coram Deo" in the recent book, By Faith Alone, edited by G.L.W. Johnson & G.P, Waters, Crossway, 2006).
Missing from current controversy and debate
Within contemporary Anglicanism, most observers are familiar with the intense exchange of views concerning sexual morality and this controversy is found also in the other main-line denominations, but perhaps less intensely.
What seems to be missing entirely from debate within the major denominations today are these questions: On what basis will a sinner be accepted for eternal salvation at the End by God the Judge? And, in this context, what is the relation of faith and good works?
Perhaps the basic reason why these questions are not present is that modern Christianity is so attached to the idea of God as immanent—present everywhere in all places at all times—that it ponders little the doctrine of God as transcendent—over, above and beyond us, yet keeping us all in his sight. Thus how we stand before him as the holy, righteous Judge is not in prominence in worship or piety.
The two questions stated above were very prominent in the Church in days past, particularly, we may recall, in the late patristic age and in the late medieval period in the West. Then the relation of faith and works, or believing in the Lord Jesus in relation to doing good deeds, were of supreme and captivating importance. This is seen in much of what St Augustine of Hippo and his immediate successors wrote in the so called "Pelagian" and "Semi-Pelagian" controversies. And, it is most clearly seen in the debates, controversies and Confessions of Faith produced in the sixteenth century by both the new "Protestants" and the "traditional [Roman] Catholic." Anglicans need only look at The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (especially numbers IX to XVIII) to see the stated position of the Church of England in terms of the relation of faith and good works.
Painting with a broad brush, we may claim that three basic positions (with mediating points between them, of course) have been articulated in the Western Church over the centuries from the patristic to the post-modern age. They are present today but unlike former times they are not often consciously differentiated by many people and so it is as though they are there under the surface but not recognized or seen.
1. God helps those who help themselves. God gives us grace, spiritual illumination and inspiration, means of grace, together with the supreme example of Christ and the advice of prophets and apostles. In return, he expects us to get on with the job of (to use the educational analogy) attending classes, doing the work, earning the credits and then graduating as a saved person, to enter into everlasting life. In recent times, this approach has been deeply influenced by secular doctrines of the therapeutic self, the autonomous self and the self as the possessor of basic human rights. So God as Love affirms everyone and by the knowledge and strength of this affirmation each person is to do what God expects of him/her. There is universal salvation for all because God is truly Love.
2. God cooperates willingly and fully with those who desire to know him and receive his salvation. Here, God provides all kinds of help (to use the analogy) beginning with forgiveness of sins to those in the school of Christ, to choose what courses, to do them well and to earn the right credits, in order to come to graduation. Here the graduate is one who is a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and who makes his own contribution to his final salvation by doing what God commands, with the help that God supplies. He stands before God at the End as one who offers his own—though Christ inspired and assisted—righteousness. Like (1) above this approach can be minimally or deeply affected by modern doctrines of the self, as autonomous, therapeutic and possessing rights.
3. God supplies by imputation the righteousness which is needed to stand before God as innocent at the Last Day. That is, he reckons to the believing sinner the mediatorial righteousness of Jesus the Christ and, on this basis, forgives and accepts him as his child/son. This imputation does not remove the necessity of good works but makes them to be the fruit of genuine faith, done out of gratitude and love for God, and not as means to earn credits for graduation in salvation. Faith itself is pure receptivity, wholesome trust in the gracious promises of God, and in response to such faith (which God inspires within sinners) God justifies the repentant, believing sinner. In this approach, Coram Deo, there is no real place for modern doctrines of the human Self!
[Note that the place and use of preaching, administering the Sacraments and other means of grace can take different forms in each of these three approaches.]
Where we are today
Though the historical confessional position of the major Protestant traditions, including The Anglican Way, is that of (3) above, the doctrine proclaimed (implicitly if not explicitly) by the liberal, progressive leadership in the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches is more like that of (1) above, thereby linking with that of the Unitarian Church. There has been such an absorption of modern ideas of the human Self, of community and of bringing the kingdom of God on earth through political, social and economic actions, that salvation is very much "by works" but not primarily "works" in the sense of St Paul; rather, works in terms of doing what is necessary to change policies towards the poor, the marginalized and the outcasts of society, be they in the first or the third world. Even God as God is made to serve this purpose by becoming the God who is evolving with the world—the God in process—and thus in active cooperation with evolving species! In fact, the old-time message of "justification by faith alone through Christ alone" is probably meaningless or even offensive to many of the progressive liberals, for, in their eyes, God helps those who help themselves. In The Episcopal Church the message of the Presiding Bishop, and her specific commitment to the millennial goals of the United Nations as a religious doctrine, seems to fit well into this category and approach.
According to the official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, it is committed to a sophisticated and heavily sacramental version of (2) above. This is well seen in the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent and in the meaning and full use of the many Sacraments for the obtaining of salvation. Here the basis of justification at the End is seen as infused and inherent, given by God for Christ's sake, but yet truly human for it is received and worked out in practice by the forgiven sinner who receives it. So God accepts the Christian at the Last Judgment on the basis of his own inherent righteousness and the fact that he is made righteous or at least "being made" righteous.
Amongst Protestants of an Evangelical mindset, the thought of justification by faith and/with works is abhorrent in theory, but very prevalent in practice. Like the liberal progressives, they have been affected by modern doctrines of the therapeutic, autonomous and rights-possessing Self, and like all of us, they also possess imperfect fallen human natures (from which none of us can escape). Therefore, the temptation is always present—and difficult to resist—to allow for some human merit to have a part in acceptance by God now and at the End. Let us remember that the general context for Americans is high activism: the earning of credits for graduation; the working hard to be successful; and the endemic American themes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, these all conspire to provide the doctrine that what we do—by our good music, successful evangelism, fine testimony, church growth methods, use of communication skills, visitation of the sick, counseling for the divorced, creating our own baptismal covenant, and so on and so forth—is part, if only a small part, of why God accept us, justifies us, makes us his adopted children. Indeed, so much popular evangelism presumes that faith itself is not as St Paul said, "a gift of God" (see Ephesians 2:8-9) but is something that we out of our own volition and strength produce.
This brings us to (3) above—the pure doctrine of "justification by faith alone by Christ alone" issuing in "faith working by love" (Galatians 5:6) and in good works to the glory of the Father. Lutherans once claimed that this is the doctrine by which the contemporary church stands or falls. This claim, though perhaps a little over-stated, contains vital insights and is certainly worth pondering.
Perhaps the time has come again for all of us—and particularly Anglicans in their present crisis of faith and morality, to ask: In what garments shall we stand before God (CORAM DEO) at the Last Day? Shall they be my own (filthy rags) or shall they be those provided in the Gospel by God the Father, that is, the mediatorial perfect garments of righteous of the Savior, Jesus Christ?
And if we answer the way of the Anglican Article XI and of the doctrine underlying the Order for Holy Communion in the BCP (1662) then we need also to ask urgently": How does the doctrine of justification by faith alone through Christ Jesus alone" affect our relation to the Holy Trinity, our worship, witness, mission, evangelism and Christian living?
Finally, when did we last read through Galatians and Romans?
June 10, 2007 firstname.lastname@example.org
[Note, for Anglicans there is a near perfect statement of the relation of saving faith to works done for God's glory in the Homily on Justification that is referred to in Article XI. It is the third Homily in the Book of Homilies of 1547 and was written by Thomas Cranmer. It may be found in the recent edition of The Homilies, edited by Ian Robinson and available in the USA from www.anglicanmarketplace.com and in the UK from www.edgewaysbooks.com ]