Adversus haereses

It has been said that gnosticism is the perennial heresy. Certainly it shows up in many forms. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our own “Reformed” version. For many Reformed folk, at least here in North America, salvation seems to begin and end with finding a gracious God (solving Luther’s problem). Dare suggest that salvation might be more than this (though surely not less), and they will warn you against blurring the law/gospel distinction.

The “gnostic” ring in this is that it confines salvation to mental discovery of, and affectionate engagement with, a particular thing to be known: God in Christ is gracious. This discovery and engagement are awesome; I wish to take nothing away from that. But if divine grace is merely something to be known and delighted in, as an internal matter, then the whole of salvation lies in such secret (internal) knowledge – and this, unless I am very much mistaken, is the central tenet of gnosticism.

Reading in the letter of James, I have been freshly impressed with how anti-gnostic the biblical gospel really is. Our salvation is not merited by what we do, but it blessedly includes our outer life (our works) as much as our inner life (our beliefs). Notice how James parses this out in the first chapter of his epistle. He sets before us “the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him” (v. 12). This is an object of faith; it is something promised; it is something to be known and believed. But there is a fair stretch of highway between here and there, and James tells us something else to sustain us in the daily battles of the present world: we may resist the deceptive allurements of sin (vv. 15–16) by reminding ourselves that the really good gifts are “from above,” from the Father of lights whose goodness and kindness toward us never change (v. 17). This ever-good, ever-giving God has – note the language – “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creation” (v. 18). This is really important: part of what we are to know and believe, part of the objective truth upon which our faith stands, is that our Father has “brought us forth.” He isn’t simply gracious; He hasn’t simply given us His Son; He has also brought us forth into a new life, a new creation – we are to “know this” (v. 19).

But this “gospel gnosis,” unlike that of gnosticism, is, if I may so express it, just the beginning. It opens up to us a whole new world, in which we are expected to live. If we genuinely know and believe we are a kind of firstfruits of a whole new creation (flowing from the unchanging grace and goodness of the Father of lights), we don’t just sit around and think about it. We live it! We do something with it. We “receive with meekness the implanted word” (v. 21), in order to go out and do the word (v. 22). We visit orphans and widows (v. 27), for example, all the while keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.

Blurring law (do of the word) and gospel (receive the word)? Well, I don’t see James making a very hard and fast distinction here. For him, the busy life that flows from the implanted word is an enormously important part of what it means to be saved (notice I did not say, the basis upon which God decides to be gracious to us and save us). If we moved the busy life into a different position – if we placed it as the basis for divine grace – we would be blurring faith and works in a way neither Paul nor James would countenance. But there is surely some sense in which we must say, if we are to be faithful to either Paul or James, that the “law” here is “gospel”: the new life is part of what we know and believe by faith, and it is no small part of what it means to be saved. And this is as anti-gnostic as can be. Thanks be to God.

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