If you weren’t able to make the women’s retreat this year, reading someone’s blog notes about it is almost as good, right? Not by a long shot, of course. You missed the collegiate peaks, the Mt. Princeton hot springs, laughter, fellowship, hot coffee, delicious meals, and hearing the eloquent Gwen Westerlund deliver the talk herself. Need I say more? But allow me to reconstruct the talk based on what I learned, more for my own memory that anything else.
We are addicted to justification by works.
Yes, it’s true. Even died-in-the-wool, Westminster-catechized, reformation-celebrating protestants find our hearts misunderstanding the gospel at times, even if it’s our 50th year of walking in the faith. Gwen started by explaining how most of us understood justification by faith for the moment of our salvation, but struggle to understand its role in the rest of our Christian faith.
As we grow as Christians, both our understanding of our own sin will grow and so will our understanding of God’s holy law. At this point, it is the default of the human heart to want to do good works in order to salve our consciences and help God out. What God wants from us instead, is to grow in an awareness of Christ’s atonement on the cross: of all He paid for there. In a nutshell, He wants us to grow in our awareness of His grace, resting more and more on Him.
This magnifies Him and His mercy. But we want to add something and contribute. We understand that we came to Christ by His mercy, but now we want to stay in His favor through works.
The irony here is that obedience to Christ flows naturally from a heart that understands grace, whereas a heart that is trying to earn God’s favor through works will struggle with obedience. Here’s an illustration. What if you were walking along one day and your little child fell into a rushing river. What if a total stranger jumped in and saved your child for you. Is there anything you would not do for that stranger or for his family? Would he not have your undivided devotion? Would you send him a thank-you card every year on your child’s birthday out of slavish devotion and guilt, or with a heart overflowing with gratitude? When someone does something heroic for us that is totally undeserving, selfless, and unexpected, our hearts become devoted to them in gratitude.
The first of Luther’s 95 Thesis states that the Christian life is a life of continual repentance. Gwen exhorted us to not only repent of sins, but to repent of everything we have done with the motive of earning God’s favor or adding to Christ’s work. She listed a number of different masks we can wear in order to atone for our sinful hearts. We could trust in legalism righteousness, Christian-freedom righteousness, doctrinal righteousness, schedule righteousness, money-management righteousness, over-achieving righteousness, mercy-ministry righteousness, etc. Anything that is good and right, when combined with a heart that has forgotten grace, will turn into a resume designed to impress God and make Him feel like he got a good deal out of saving me.
A heart that understands grace not only has obedience and loyalty flowing from it, it is also ready to show grace to those around. Whether to a husband, children, neighbors, or church-members, grace causes us to have patience with the failings of others. A heart that is bound up in works-righteousness constantly sees the faults in others. Most often, we pick a kind of righteousness that comes most natural to us. If we are naturally bookish, we pick doctrinal-righteousness. If we are naturally compassionate we pick mercy-ministry righteousness. As soon as we someone who isn’t doing as much as we’re doing in our righteousness of choice, we are quick to judge them.
Ephesians 1 is the ultimate works-righteousness buster.
It would have been a lot if Christ had only redeemed us from our slavery to sin (v. 7). He’s done that and he’s forgiven all our sins as well (also v. 7) But He has gone beyond both of those marvelous acts and actually adopted us into His very own family and secured to us an inheritance as sons (v. 5, 11). [Sons is intentional here. Both men and women will be treated as sons in that both men and women will receive the inheritance that a son would receive.] And even more than that, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit as a down-payment, or a taste of what is to come (v. 14).
Our deepest spiritual need, whether we’ve been a Christian for one week or 60 years, is to dwell, focus, meditate, understand, grasp, realize, digest, and believe all that Christ has secured for us on the cross by his substitutionary death, his resurrection, and the sending of His Spirit. And after that, to repent of any good things we have done out of a motive to impress God. And finally, to funnel our gratitude and the joy of our salvation into a life of joyful service, knowing that we can never do enough to earn God’s favor, and that’s okay—we already have it.
Note: This isn't meant to be an exact copy of Gwen's notes. It's only a recap of what I learned. Here is a recap of last year's retreat.