We can never be good enough. No hero or saint comes close. Most of us brush it off, but a saint or a vicar lives in a shadow of the knowledge of inescapable inadequacy.
Most of us if we think about it at all, as we should, bumble through, hoping we are good enough, praying for the promised salvation, or hoping our faults will not be noticed, as if we could hide. A vicar lives in the constant knowledge of the presence of God, which should be glorious, awe-inspiring, joyful; but which in the knowledge of sin is terrifying, inescapable unless with the utter certainty of grace.
An insightful vicar used to lead students around a cathedral; he stopped by a pillar and asked his students about good and bad people, ranked on the pillar. Usually they put Hitler about the bottom and some modern popular saint around the top. He would then ask, “What is the standard God requires?”, to which the students would guess somewhere around the middle of the pillar. The standard though, he revealed, is not the middle of the pillar, not the top: the standard is the sky.
The mediaeval plays put on around villages to frighten the peasants might show a man weighed in a great balance, going to eternal bliss or to eternal fire depending on the fine turn of sin against merit. That is not Christian doctrine though: the standard is the sky: utter sinlessness. That is unachievable even amongst saints; we need forgiveness, and as we cannot earn forgiveness it only works by grace, which is to say forgiveness granted freely by God. We are all at the bottom of the pillar, needing to put ourselves into the hands of God to escape.
It is harder in a mechanical, rule-driven society to accept the position we are in: it should be possible to put in some data and let the computer say “yes” or “no”, and then we can relax. That is the attractiveness of rabbinical law, or the sharia system, or the Roman system of obligations and penances: it is clockwork salvation. It has never been like that though.
For an ordinary man or woman in the pews, we can get away with not thinking about it until Sunday morning, then dozing through a sermon. To live with this as you everyday, you meat and drink, must be either glorious or terrifying. The terror is in the knowledge of ones inadequacy.
No man can male his own salvation. No man is entitled to salvation. All men are entitled only to damnation, and none can climb out of it. To live with that as your daily contemplation might drive you mad, or drive you to find a clockwork salvation, or might lead you to immerse yourself in the scriptures. That will show you to an answer.
The unreformed, Mediaeval plays put on for those who had no access to the Scriptures, they portrayed the Word of God as full of warning and condemnation, but immersed in the whole Bible you find it full of light, love, joy. The picture of God is not in the fierce and gaudy Romanist art, that takes more from thundering Greek Zeus than from the God of the Bible: the picture of God is in Jesus, who could overturn the tables in the Temple when needed, but who would bless and heal and raise the downhearted and the maddened, whose words are full of love for those least deserving of it. In that context of knowledge of those words, reaching from creation to the end of things, the immediate presence of God is no longer frightening, and the knowledge of utter inadequacy is an encouragement to trust.
- By Tom Wright:
- The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- By John Milton:
- Symon Patrick (1626-1707) and His Contribution to the Post-1660 Restored Church of England by the Rev Dr Nicholas Fisher
- By Thomas Hobbes in the Civil War and Restoration era: