Friday, November 21, 2008

Steinbeck and Christian Perfection

If you can get through it, John Steinbeck's East of Eden is a massive dive into the human condition and the need for grace amid our seemingly unlimited appetite for depravity. His story of Aaron and Caleb Trask and the characters they encounter is so profound that one of my homiletics professors in seminary, a giant man by the name of Ellsworth Kalas, assigned it as required reading as preparation for our work in the pulpit.

There's a powerful exchange deep in the heart of the book in which Adam Trask, the brothers' father, is reflecting on the passage in Gen. 4:7, where the Lord God is counseling Cain--moments away from slaying his brother--on his jealousy. The elder Trask has come across a different translation on the verse commonly expressed as, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

The different take on the scripture expressed by Steinbeck's character, based on a particular exegesis of the word "timshel" in the original Hebrew language, is you may master it. (Steinbeck, writing in the era of the King James Version's enduring popularity, actually uses the phrase 'thou mayest.") This implies a stronger sense of power made available to human beings when compared with the admonition, "you must." Human beings, Adam Trask asserts, have free will in their choice to be liberated from brokenness and separation from God and one another.

This changes everything, the father declares to his son Cal, and gives a new wellspring of hope to those conscientious enough to feel the weight of their disconnect. Struggle as we might against that sin nature, we can be confident that, if we persevere, we will have the shattered image of God within us restored once again.

I'll leave it to biblical scholars to debate the translation of Gen. 4:7 and Steinbeck's hermeneutical credentials. But one particular figure in Christianity, Methodism founder John Wesley, also had a very positive bent toward the ability of people to be fully transformed and no longer encumbered by sin. Wesley, author of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, was a strong proponent of "entire sanctification," the God-initiated, grace-driven process whereby a person becomes fully free of what Wesley called the "body of sin."

This was the highest level of the Holy Spirit's work in a person's life, according to Wesley. The bottom rung of activity centered around what he called "prevenient grace," unmerited favor that is at work before a person even responds to God, the "wooing" of the Spirit in desiring a relationship. As the heart's soil becomes more fully cultivated by this grace, a deeper measure of conviction flows forth known as "justifying grace." This is the window of time where a person becomes convicted of their brokenness, and makes a decision that Christians in western culture typically refer to as "born again" or "gettin' saved." They surrender to the love of Christ and enter into a relationship, becoming cleansed of the guilt of sin as well as its nefarious power.

Wesley noted that a person might still stumble into sin from time to time after this point, but that such backsliding is to be the exception rather than the norm. The journey, he said, is now one of going deeper into the things of God, more fully allowing grace to "sanctify" thought patterns, behaviors, habits, motives and the like, the fruit of the Holy Spirit as described in Gal. 5:22 blooming more and more as the character of Jesus Christ gradually interwines with the strengths, gifts and unique contributions of the individual.

In today's churches and popular Christian discourse it is rare to hear of Wesley's emphasis on entire sanctification, as my friend Andy Miller of Providence Publishing Corp. recently noted in a conversation with me. I think he is right. We have a plethora of wonderful study materials, programs, books and other endeavors that do tremendous good in the life of congregations and in the service to the poor and hurting. There are great sermons being preached every Sunday in pulpits across the west that help people change for the better.

But I wonder if we are ever to reach our full potential as Christ-followers if we do not have a mindset that we can not only do great things because of our faith, but that we can become completely Christ-like. As Paul wrote in Col. 1:28, his aim was to "present everyone perfect in Christ." As the disciple John wrote in John 14, those who receive and believe in Christ are given power to become children of God.

I find that I need to re-read Wesley on a frequent basis to be reminded of the core of what my denomination in which I am ordained, United Methodism, was originally all about. The Methodist revival was a spiritual, social and economic earthquake for 18th century England. It stoked the fires of the "Second Great Awakening" when it spread to America. It made the church relevant to contemporary needs.

Furthermore, in moments when I recognize the stark reality that "sin crouches at my own door" or despair over poor choices I have made, the promise of "you may" gives me hope and healing and helps me to continue on the journey toward the promise of perfection in Christ.

Which is the ultimate authenticity I am after.


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