Augustine’s Retractions, Perfectionism, And Fakespectations

In the church, believers ought to find refuge from the ever-present judgment of the social media.

Sinners are to be restored, not ostracized and with gentleness, not arrogant self-righteousness. Embracing the spirit of the Retractions means being honest about our own sins and habits. It means graciously standing with, praying with, and even crying with fellow sinners as they share their struggles with sin. It means recognizing that, of ourselves, we are nothing. The congregation of sinners is no place for false self-esteem, self-realization, and accomplishments. Oprah can peddle that stuff elsewhere. 

 

Secular institutions and even extra-ecclesiastical Christian institutions have always been, in their essence, law. The civil magistrate may exercise mercy—Calvin’s first published work was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (On Clemency), Seneca’s defense of the virtue of mercy to Nero. When a police officer pulls you over for speeding, he may write you a ticket or he may give you a warning. If he chooses the latter, that is a mercy. By law you were guilty. You deserved the fine whatever else comes your way (e.g., higher insurance rates). We are in a covenant of works with the civil magistrate (represented by the police officer): do this and live. School is a covenant of works. When it comes exams and term papers, a just teacher is, for the most part, only recognizing what the student has done. Speaking for myself, I take no pleasure in giving bad marks. Well written exams and term papers are pleasing. Most teachers want to see students learning and progressing but if an essay is poorly written or inaccurate, then that reality must be recognized. Like the magistrate, teachers and administrators may exercise mercy, i.e., they may lessen the severity of penalties but their office is not to exercise grace, i.e., to give to sinners what is not theirs by right.

These are not new realities but this axiom, that much of life is lived in a covenant of works, is portrayed for us as never before on the internet and especially on social (or, too often, anti-social) media. In Belgic Confession art. 37, we confess that, for unbelievers, the final judgment will look like this:

Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

Many Christians live in fear of their lives being played out like a horrible video, at the last judgment. They have been taught to think that they have begun the Christian life and salvation by grace but that it must be completed by works.1 So it is on social media. Recall the poor woman who, before leaving for a trip to Africa, where she was to work with a relief agency and who, trying to be hip and ironic, tweeted that she hoped that she did not contract AIDS while in Africa. The Twitter-rage became so intense that while she was still in the air, she lost her job. With the ubiquity of cameras now, it would not be that difficult to put together an actual video of one’s life moment by moment.

There is an institution, however, whose principle is not works and judgment but grace and forgiveness: Christ’s church. By divine institution there is the preaching of the great Good News that Christ became incarnate for, obeyed for, suffered for, died for, and was raised for the free justification of all his people. She is the only institution authorized to proclaim this message. There alone do we find the sacrament of baptism, in which the gracious washing of new life and the forgiveness of sins is pictured for us and the promise of the same visibly represented to believers. There alone is administered the gracious communion in the body and blood of Christ, where believing sinners are freely invited freely to come, to eat, and to drink, to be nourished mysteriously by Christ’s true body and true blood.

In the church, believers ought to find refuge from the ever-present judgment of the social media. Of all the institutions in this world whether expressions of family or state, the church alone is that society in which Christians are free to be what they are: sinners redeemed by Christ, who are being gradually and graciously conformed to Christ’s image. The church alone is to be the place of unconditional acceptance of sinners by sinners.

Of course, this is not to say that in the church there is no correction. Certainly there is! Church discipline is one the marks of the church. Our Lord instituted church discipline but for believers discipline is an act of grace not condemnation. Believers recognized their sins, confess them, turn from them and seek to die to them. The ministry of discipline is a proclamation of the law to non-believers and with all such administrations of the law we do it in the hope and prayer that the Spirit will use it to soften hearts, to convict the hearer of the greatness of his sin and misery, and to make people receptive to the Good News.

Here is something to consider. Instead of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” how about “What is said at church, stays at church”?

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