Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Convictions and Moral Discernment 2

Continuing our series begun here  and here on moral discernment.  The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic convictions” dimension are Justification and Sanctification, two terms from the Apostle Paul concerning different facets of salvation.  (Again, non-Christian moral systems have rough analogues to these variables.) If we think of salvation as primarily Justification (e.g., Martin Luther or Reinhold Niebuhr) we focus on forgiveness for our sins.  Grace is then understood primary as “unmerited mercy” for our sinful acts.  A theology that plays up justification to the exclusion or marginalization of other dimensions, is not likely to have high moral hopes for people.  Specifically, it would not expect a higher morality for Christians than others.

Other theologies focus more on sanctification or Christian discipleship (i.e., moral improvement), whether understood as a slow process or one that may happen instantaneously.  Some Christian theologies (e.g, some readings of John Wesley or the Quaker George Fox) stress sanctification in a way that suggests that Christians may achieve some form of moral perfection (although for Wesley, this was simply a “perfection in love.”) If this is our focus, then we see grace not primarily as “unmerited mercy,” but as “empowerment to faithfulness.”   

Anabaptists like Menno Simons thought more in terms from the Gospels than in Pauline terms.  Menno did not ask with Luther, “Where can I find a gracious God?” but “How may I be a faithful follower of Jesus?” So, he more often talked in terms of the relationship between forgiveness for sin and faithful discipleship.  For Menno, salvation was not primarily viewed in legal or forensic terms, but (as also with Eastern Orthodox thinkers) in medical terms–as healing from the sickness of sin–or in terms of liberation from captivity.  With that liberation, came the call and grace to follow after. Christians were expected to have much higher moral standards (and, through the Holy Spirit and the help of the gathered church, the power to fulfill those standards) than non-Christians–though never coming close to perfection or leaving behind the need for further forgiveness.

Think back to our last section on the variables God and human nature and it is easy to see some of the many combinations that would lead to differing moral outlooks.  I have a relative who is a member of the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan Holiness group.  Her version of this theology (which I do not claim is normative for Nazarenes) combined a judgmental view of God, a perfectable view of human nature, and a stress on sanctification/perfection to lead to a constant spiritual temperature taking. You will recall others with other combinations.

The next pair of critical variables are differing convictions about love and justice.  Most theologians have stressed Christian love (agape) as the highest Christian moral norm.  Many define such love as “sacrificial,” but others as “equal regard for all” (see Gene Outka),  “mutual love” (many feminist theologians) or “delivering love” (Glen Stassen). 

However defined, it is crucial that love be related to justice.  Justice is understood also in various ways and applied to various dimensions of life:  economics (distributive justice), racial relations, gender relations, civil rights, war and peace, etc. 

Reinhold Niebuhr saw Christian love as sacrificial but almost impossible to live out, even for Christians.  Therefore, it functioned only as a criterion that judged how far from Christ’s teachings our best moral efforts lie.  So, he focused on justice understood as a rough balance of power and of competing interests.  He stressed the difference between love and justice. 

By contrast, Dorothy Day  saw love and justice as intimately related and both as commanded to be lived out in this world. 

Next chapter will finalize the dimension of basic convictions by focusing on the mission of the church in the world.

March 13, 2010 - Posted by | blog series, ethics, moral discernment, theology


  1. Once again, a very good description of how this plays out. I guess I prefer the second set of terms you threw out (Forgiveness and Discipleship, as opposed to Justification and Sanctification), if only because this debate isn’t the proper context for those terms as Paul actually used them, which means we will continue to ignore (whether intentionally or by accident) and/or marginalize what he actually meant by them. And in turn we close the door on what might be the very key to moving past the dichotomy here (a radical reassessment of Paul’s gospel, etc). But again, regardless of the words and their meanings, people obviously think like this.

    Could you throw out some examples of the rough analogues in non-Christian moral systems (as you did with your Nazarene friend)?

    Comment by Michael DeFazio | March 13, 2010 | Reply

    • All religious or moral systems have some concept of salvation (in Hinduism and Buddhism it is salvation from ignorance and desire rather than from sin). There is something that will correspond to forgiveness and something to moral obedience or holiness, etc. and a view of their relationship will be major factor in shaping moral character and discernment.

      Finding the nature of the critical variables in each system has to be done by those who study them, whether from the outside as sort of ethical anthropologists or from the inside as believers in that religion or philosophy. Ahead of time, one can only describe this in rather formal terms and it makes for a “thin ethic.” For thicker description, one needs to have deep participant-observer status in that religion or philosophy.

      Communication between moral systems is possible, but usually difficult and with many misunderstandings.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 3 « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | March 15, 2010 | Reply

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