Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Absolute Failure of Moral Effort

Tim Keller, in his lectures on preaching, paraphrases a famous story from Spurgeon:
One day there was a gardner and he grew the biggest carrot he ever grew. And he brought it to the King and he says, “O Sovereign, this the greatest carrot I have ever grown or will ever grow. I want to give it to you as a token of my esteem and affection because you are a great King and I have always loved you. I just want you to have it.
The King discerned his heart and was touched and as the man turned to go away he said, “Wait a minute. You know, I own the land next to your garden and I want you to have that land. I want you to have twice the land you had before because you are an excellent man and an excellent gardner and I want you to be twice the gardner you were before.” The man went home rejoicing.
But there was a nobleman in the court and he overheard this and he said to himself, “My gosh, if you get five acres for one carrot... hmm...” 
So the next day he brings the King a horse and he says, “Oh Sovereign Lord, I raise horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever raised and ever will raise and I want to give it to you as a token of my esteem and affection. I have always loved you.” And the King discerned his heart, read him, and says, “Thank you very much.” He picked up the horse and began to walk away with it. The nobleman sits there dumbfounded and the King turns around and says, “Let me explain. You know that gardner, he gave me the carrot. But you were giving yourself the horse.”
Keller paraphares Spurgeon as saying:
If you are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked in order to get into heaven, you are feeding yourself. You are not feeding them. You are doing it for yourself. You are not doing it for God and you are not doing it for them. You are doing it out of pride and out of fear.
Keller continues in his lecture:
And that is why the Belgic Confession is right in saying, unless you know your good works cannot do a thing to get you into heaven, unless you know you are utterly accepted right now, you can’t do a good work. Here is a great dialectical tension. Until you know your works are not any good, they are not any good. As soon as you realize that they are not any good there is at least a germ of something real, which is, you are doing it for God’s sake. You are doing it out of faith. You are not doing it out of fear that you are going to lose something or out of pride (now I know I am better than other people).
Therefore, moral effort... fear and pride, works righteousness, restrains the heart from doing bad things but doesn’t actually change the heart. Moral effort is merely jury rigging the evil, pride, fear, and selfishness of the heart to produce moral behavior out of self-interest.  It is only a matter of time before that will collapse.


JamesBrett said...

i like the idea that we should always act out of concern for God and for others. and i'd prefer christianity to be as spurgeon suggests: if you're doing it for you, you're not doing it for God or the least of these.

but even Jesus seems to play on this desire of ours to do what's best for us -- when he encourages us to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth. we might have preferred him to tell us not to store up treasures at all, but simply to do what is right with no concern for what we will get out of it. [paul also writes often concerning doing what's right now in light of what we'll one day receive.]

there's also a lot of scripture about judgment by works.

i'm not suggesting works apart from faith will save. but i'm just wondering if selfishness in works really "breaks the deal."

Dave said...

@JamesBrett, re-read those scriptures and I think you will find that anytime the scripture, particularly in the new testament, tells us to DO something, it is often, if not always, in response to what Jesus has done for us. That is, "since Jesus has done this, your heart response should look like this..." Paul is VERY clear, particularly in Romans, that the law, including any DOING directives in the new testement, is there to show us how impossible the task is.

Where preaching has fallen short in the last 20 years or so (all I really know experientially) is that IF it preaches through a book, it never preaches the end of the book in light of the beginning. This does Paul's letters, in particular a dis-service. Because he STARTS with good theology and ends with how this works itself out in real life. This gets preached as theology and works, not theology and example. Again, my experience. And I've challenged MY pastor to be careful in this.

I could go on and on about this. Passages about abiding in Christ and walking in the spirit as well as historical evidence that the "spiritual greats" we've known from history not becoming "great" until they "got" this (including Edwards.)

Also isn't it interesting that in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats that the Goats thought they were doing all the right stuff and couldn't get in, and the Sheep had no clue they were doing the right stuff, were in fact doing all the right stuff, and got in. I wrote recently that I wonder if the "Goats" in the crowd that day, hearing the new list of things they were supposed to DO, went off and started DOing all that stuff?

Selfishness in works makes the works "filthy rags." I'm not even sure the King, seeing the man's heart, would have taken the horse at all.

Anonymous said...

This subject matter gives necessary reminders to me that my motives matter. As far as the scripture that refers to the treasure in heaven...it does not become my motive...it simply states truth in regard to the law of cause and effect. I'm new to this site. I am reluctantly posting. I do not know if my mind goes into the depth of thinking that it should. I thought I'd share one small and simple perspective on the subject of moral effort. If the best that I can do is like filthy rags next to Jesus Christ...than for me to anticipate any treasure at all...I must conclude that it is not in the "doing" but in the abiding.

JamesBrett said...

@dave, i don't mean to sound as if i believe works will save.

rather, i only intend to say that good works -- which are involved in judgment -- are good works, even if there's some selfishness involved.

most of paul's directives certainly do come in light of what Jesus has accomplished, but this doesn't change the fact that he argues we should train our bodies IN ORDER TO GET a crown that will last forever. (1 cor 9:24-27) and this is certainly not the only place he speaks of rewards for the christian whose work stands firm or who keeps the faith or who runs the race well, etc. paul is constantly speaking of rewards as incentives for the christian life.

again, i'm not suggesting works will or can save us. i'm only saying that Jesus and Paul urge us to indeed look forward to a reward while making everyday decisions in the here and now.

[on another subject, i'm not sure how i interpret the story of the sheep and goats: i lean towards a judgment based on how the pagan nations treated the least of the christians sent to them (mt 10, lk 10). but i'm not stuck there.]

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I wonder if it's possible to obsess too much over one's motives.

Am I doing this for God or for myself? I better not do anything until I get this vital matter straightened out.

3 days and 8 hours later, I'm still wondering....

Anonymous said...

as I read this I thought of the guiding principle behind free-market capitalism: treat people well in order to increase your bottom line. This principle allows capitalists to think that the market is guided by altruism when it is really greed. I say this not to bash on capitalism (I live in a capitalist country myself), but more to highlight that it does not have unreserved endorsement of biblical theology.

The other thought I had was: the attitude of the gardener is the same attitude I imagine the good and faithful servants having in the parable of the talents (in Matt 25).