Let’s begin by making one thing clear. Some Christian communities apply a great deal of pressure on their members to take up the impossible task of making themselves more Christlike. The gospel of self-improvement, of course, is not the Gospel at all. We are not made better through improving our adherence to the Law. Rather, Christ frees us from the curse of the law by declaring us holy and Himself transforms us into His image. He sanctifies us. This sanctification is a gift we receive, not an obligation that we must carry out. Making ourselves Christlike leads to nothing but error and self-righteousness.
That said, we also need to consider the other side (and yes, there really is one). The theology held by such communities is rightly opposed by faithful Christians. Unfortunately, it seems that much of this opposition is falling into the perennial human weakness of avoiding one error so strenuously that they embrace a different error. In The Music Man, con artist Harold Hill, who sold instruments to River City, lowered their practical cost by offering a solution to all the hard work required to actually learn to play an instrument. By using his “Think System,” all a budding musician allegedly needs to do is think about good music, and it will happen on its own. You don’t need experienced teachers; you don’t need practice; you just need a desire to play good music and an imagination. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly work out that way (though the parents were indeed happy just to see their children “playing” in the end).
Unfortunately, it seems that we have a similar system in many churches when we are told things like this:
- You don’t have to try to do good works–they flow naturally from faith.
- If you’re making an effort at being good, you’re enslaving yourself to the Law; let the Gospel set you free from this burden.
- Let yourself be nourished by Word and Sacrament and good works will just take care of themselves.
- Actually trying to be Christlike leads to self-righteousness and should be avoided.
The best lies (or the most damaging poorly phrased truths) always contain a strong dose of essential truth: Good works do flow naturally and spontaneously from faith. We are free from the burden of the Law. It is only through Word and Sacrament that we are nourished and sustained in this work-creating faith. We don’t make ourselves Christlike–Christ makes us Christlike. And indeed, working to be good can lead to self-righteousness.
But here’s the problem: “spontaneously” does not mean “without effort” for a creature whose God-given nature is to work. Naturally does not mean “without instruction” for a creature whose God-given nature is to learn. The sanctified life is not a semi-human life that excludes all sorts of basic steps of living. This pernicious error creeps in among those essential truths when human effort is not merely displaced from a false role as causal agent, but hermetically sealed off from this new life altogether. Those caught up in this error take the theology that provides us with the proper understanding of real life and instead use it to supplant real life. Our spiritual development does happen naturally apart from our accomplishments, but being constantly told to reject any conscious participation in this very development turns a divine blessing into a painful and muddled experience.
Many Christians whose faith motivates them to try and be better at loving God and serving their neighbors find themselves ill-prepared for the task because their churches have neglected to regularly teach the whole counsel of God. When they subsequently ask for preparation and instruction from their church, they are often slapped down with accusations of believing in works-righteousness and told to simply attend on Sundays and forget about anything else. I’ve even heard pastors complain about it being impious for their flocks to desire anything more than showing up on Sunday for the Sacrament. When these Christians study on their own and eventually try to pass on what they’ve learned to similarly confused brothers and sisters, they are sometimes accused of being busybodies who are trying to reign in those “wicked” neighbors who they secretly look down upon.
The problem lies here: Many well-intentioned Christians suggest that because good works flow spontaneously from faith, they necessarily require no effort–that we are not just passive recipients of sanctification, but inert recipients. This, they hope, will keep our own works safely away from our salvation where they do not belong. In reality, however, sanctification does end up involving my own real effort–not because my efforts are achieving sanctification, but because my efforts (along with the rest of the real me) are what is being sanctified by God. Humans are creatures that try. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our trying, and so we try to do good. Humans are creatures that learn. When Christ sanctifies us, he sanctifies our learning, and so we learn to do good. Humans are creatures that want. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our wanting, and so we want to do good. Humans are self-disciplined creatures. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our self-discipline as well, and so we discipline ourselves to do good.
We do these things because we already are being sanctified. We therefore fall into a theological error when we think our trying and learning and wanting and self-discipline are responsible for our sanctification. When we do this, we deny Grace and misinterpret our lives to our own destruction. However, we likewise fall into error when we assume that anyone who is visibly trying and learning and wanting and disciplining themselves to do good is wallowing in works-righteousness. We do a disservice by reflexively turning our noses up at those pastors, teachers, and laity who actually admonish their brothers and sisters to be imitators of Christ. We harm our neighbors when we immediately cast suspicion on Christians who ask their churches for training in doing good. They are not asking anything of their pastors that Christ does not already require of them (see, for example, Titus 2-3). The apostles were not afraid to admonish Christians towards good works. Neither should we be. Telling someone to make themselves Christlike is wrong. Instructing and exhorting them to be imitators of Christ is part of the very Word through which we are sanctified.