After spending two chapters, “The Way of Weakness” and “The Way of Renunciation” tearing down our idols of power, prestige, and possessions, Doug Jones turns in the next two chapters of Dismissing Jesus—“The Way of Deliverance” (ch. 4) and “The Way of Sharing” (ch. 5)—to provide their positive complement, attempting to give some sense of our mission as Christians. This mission is a glorious one, in which we, like Christ, “preach the good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,” and in which we do this in real-world here-and-now terms, rather than spiritualizing all this into mere soul-winning. It is a mission in which we are called to call none of our possessions our own, but to share sacrificially with all those in need. Although I will press for greater clarity and specificity at certain points, I would agree that this is a central part of what it means to live as a Christian. But the important question is why? How should we understand what it is we are doing when we do this and why we are doing it? I’m worried that the way Jones answers these questions will actually undermine the practical vision in profound ways.
Let me put this provocatively: I’m not at all sure that the themes of these chapters ought to be described under the heading of “the way of the cross.” The cross is central to Scripture, yes, but it’s not all there is. It’s not even all there is to Christ’s work. The cross is God’s “No” to sin, it signifies all of the brokenness and pain that sin involves and the great cost necessary to cast away that sin and bring healing and restoration; the cross is God’s wrenching rejection of everything that has distorted his good creation. When we take up our cross and follow Christ, this is our sharing in this dying to sin, this is our painful renunciation of everything that stands between us and how we were meant to live. While no Christian ethic, designed for sinful human beings, can afford to neglect this central moment in redemptive history, without which lives of Christian discipleship would be impossible, it should be clear at the same time that this moment cannot be in itself the ground of a Christian ethic. To live as a Christian ultimately means to live as a true human, to live as God created us to live, following in the footsteps of our Head, the Second Adam. It is thus the resurrection, God’s “Yes” to creation, his renewed commitment to a human race that in Christ had died to sin, that we anchor Christian ethics. Obviously, a resurrection-ethic cannot supersede a cross-ethic; a theology of glory cannot supersede a theologia crucis. We are simul justus et peccator, which means that we cannot pretend that we have died to sin once for all and need never worry about continuing to do so, we cannot pretend that we have made our vows of renunciation and need not continue renouncing Satan and all his works and all his pomp. In the experience of the Christian life, the “No” to sin and the “Yes” to God’s renewed creation are rarely separable; to consciously embrace the latter is to consciously forsake the former. And yet conceptually they are distinct, and this distinction is essential. Without it, our own ethical action, our own ministry of love, could never have the character of freedom. Rather than issuing from a heart overflowing with gratitude at the once-for-all deliverance of Christ, our works of love would always be burdened with the burden of guilt, a need to prove by our self-denial that we are following in the footsteps of Christ; rather than issuing from the knowledge that God is pleased with us, they may become ways in which we try to please God.
In fact, this relates also to the hints of Manichaeanism noted in the previous chapter. For the Manichaean, the righteous way of life is intrinsically in conflict with the world, and hence necessarily, not contingently, an act of renunciation. The Manichaean ethic must at all points arise from God’s “No” to sin, not his “Yes” to renewed creation; it can never say, “Live like you were created to live.” But this, I think, is precisely what the New Testament often calls us to. “The way of sharing,” as I will argue in the next installment, should be understood as God’s call to us to live like Adam and Eve were meant to live, not as part of a special work of self-denial in response to sin. To be sure, there are many points at which Jones characterizes what he calls “the way of the cross” as the way that God always wanted his people to live, but the very terminology militates against that. No, the way of the cross must be the way God calls his people to fight the oppression of sin. In practical pastoral terms, this has a problematic result. A Christian ethic founded on resistance to sin can only ever get you so far, and it will have a tendency to fall into the trap of using guilt as its main motivator. If “the way of sharing,” for instance, ultimately means, “Stop being greedy! Renounce Mammon!” then the obsession may arise to figure out exactly what counts as greed, to feel guilty for every manifestation of it, and, perhaps, to stop worrying about the issue once you think the sin in question has been conquered. If, however, the way of sharing arises out of a joyous overflow of gratitude at all that God has given us in creation and all that he has given us in Christ, then it will keep on motivating, even as God keeps on giving.
So it is with his fourth chapter, “The Way of Deliverance.” He begins this chapter with a polemic, which I have mentioned already in Pts. 1 and 2 of this review, against a Christian life built mainly on ideas rather than actions.
“Almost every aspect of modern Christianity,” he begins the chapter,
assumes that the faith is first and foremost a set of ideas to be believed. That’s it. Sure, we encourage some marginal action on the side, but that’s not truly important, not central. Our worship is primarily about explaining and singing ideas, our schools focus on transferring ideas, our evangelism spreads ideas, our apologetic tries to persuade others of ideas, community means chatting with people who share our ideas, our entry into heaven requires holding the right ideas in our heads. . . . (46)
Now, as a critique of American Reformed churches, this hits hard, although I worry that it’s a bit of a straw man if applied more broadly (most modern evangelicalism is thoroughly anti-intellectual, concerned more with “feeling” than “ideas,” and more liberal or Catholic churches are overtly oriented toward social action). But most folks I know are Reformed, so I won’t nitpick that point. This is a much-needed wake-up call; however, it is ground on which we must tread carefully. After all, our Protestant heritage has a lot to say about the relation of doctrine and action—these are not quite the same as faith and works—but they’re close enough to merit careful attention.
Inasmuch as Jones is trying to summon us out of our theological armchairs and urge us to roll up our sleeves and actually get busy saving people, helping people, delivering people—as God does throughout Scripture, and as Jesus does throughout the Gospels—I want to wholeheartedly echo and promote this message. However, it is important that we describe our work of deliverance appropriately—as a response to what God has already done in Christ, not as an attempt to do the same thing that only God in Christ can do. The latter can feel like Pelagianism, guilt-driven works-righteousness, in which we try to do the work of redemption ourselves; the former is liberating, an overflow of gratitude for what God has done for us that issues forth in a desire to imitate him, trusting him for the final result. Indeed, it is precisely because we set forth on the life of doing Christian works already confident of justification by faith alone that we are capable of loving others selflessly, as Christ loved us. If our own works of deliverance stem from an anxious desire to be one of Christ’s redeemed, rather than a confidence that we have already received that gift, selfishness and introspection will creep back into the picture even as we try to renounce them.
Luther has lots of wonderful things to say about this dynamic in The Freedom of a Christian, culminating in this passage:
For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely; as Paul says: “None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord.” (Rom. xiv. 7, 8.) Thus it is impossible that he should take his ease in this life, and not work for the good of his neighbors; since he must needs speak, act, and converse among men; just as Christ was made in the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man, and had His conversation among men.
Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view, and look only to this object, that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbor. Thus the Apostle commands us to work with our own hands, that we may have to give to those that need. He might have said, that we may support ourselves; but he tells us to give to those that need. It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and wellbeing, be may be enabled to labour, and to acquire and preserve property, for the aid of those who are in want; that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ.
Here is the truly Christian life; here is faith really working by love; when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude, in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought; himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.
Jones obviously wants to talk like this at many points in this chapter; indeed, he emphasizes how the mission of deliverance that Israel was called to was a response to the definitive deliverance God had already accomplished for them. And after describing Jesus’s work of deliverance, he says, “Jesus’s death destroyed the power of Mammon and delivered us from the millennia-long domination of Satan’s power. . . so we could be free to create a new kingdom, empowered by the Holy Spirit” (58). This sounds like the Exodus—you have been delivered, you are in the Promised Land, now share this with others. But then he equivocates a bit and starts describing the church’s work less in terms of a response to Christ’s work of deliverance and more in terms of a cooperation with it:
Though Christ’s work definitively broke the power of sin and the reign of Satan, Christ still calls on us to absorb evil from the world. We are imitators of Christ, and just as he suffered and absorbed evil around him, so we, too, are called to take up our crosses and absorb the sin of the world to weaken it, to break it even more, as Christ’s kingdom spreads. . . . Absorbing evil advances the kingdom of Christ. Jesus came to destroy the works of Mammon, and deliver people out of its kingdom, and so does the church. The way of the cross is the way of deliverance” (58-59).
Jones will elsewhere return to this theme, for instance in ch. 20:
We’re not called to lay back and let Jesus set up his kingdom from heaven. . . . When someone hands you a kingdom you have a responsibility to bring it to its goal. Christ’s kingdom is the good news of refuge and deliverance. It is the solution to the problem of evil and injustice in the world. That’s not the Trinity’s job. That’s the church’s job. He handed over to the church the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). . . . We’re called to do all the things he did when he was on earth—deliver, renounce, share, love, perceive, and commune. Like Christ, the church is to feed on evil and absorb it. . . . We are to become sin so that more may have life. That is the way of the cross.
One can see what Jones is trying to do here; certainly we’re not supposed to simply lay back passively while Jesus redeems the world; through his resurrection and ascension, he makes us his co-workers as he brings his kingdom to fruition. But there’s also something deeply troubling about this way of speaking. It’s not the Trinity’s job to solve evil and injustice in the world? Really? If there is anything that only God can do, surely it is to vanquish evil. This is completely out of our power. We’re called to “do all the things Christ did”? But we cannot make atonement for sin. We cannot reconcile sinners to God. There’s a lot of things that Jesus did that we can imitate, but there’s clearly others that only he could do, because only God can do them. How do we hold these things together, then? Well, it seems to me that we have to make a clear distinction between the different offices of Christ, the different works of redemption. The reconciliation that Christ accomplished on the cross was uniquely his, and there is nothing to add to it. His rising from the dead, too, was once-for-all and definitive, establishing the foundation of his kingdom on earth. But now that he is ascended and reigning, we are invited to reign along with him, making this kingdom more and more manifest in the world, inviting more people into its fellowship. We cannot establish the kingdom, but we have been given the privilege of helping advance it. Jones, it seems to me, needlessly blurs these points. To be sure, he will answer that the blurring is intentional; in fact, he specifically rejects the kind of atonement theology I have described here, so as to establish more continuity between Christ’s work of deliverance and our works of deliverance (see ch. 12). It becomes obvious that the blurring we have seen here is no mere slip of the tongue or lack of clarity, but part of the paradigm shift Jones is trying to call us to. But why? It is not clear to me why we need a model in which we help to atone for the world’s sins, in order to reject armchair discipleship and summon believers to energetic, self-sacrificial imitation of Christ. Luther’s account of why and how it is that we live for others remains, for me, the most compelling, inspiring, and motivating that I have encountered. Indeed, it is hard to see how Jones’s proposed alternative, which wants to abandon the standard Protestant articulation of justification by faith altogether (see chs. 7 and 11; obviously there will be more on this later on), will not undermine “the way of deliverance”: instead of our works of love and service proceeding from fullness, they will proceed from a sense of lack; instead of proceeding from gratitude, they will proceed from guilt; instead of proceeding from confidence, they will proceed from anxiety. In each case, the latter won’t get you nearly as far as the former.
With this in mind, we can see more clearly what is going on, and what is going wrong, in Jones’s assertions about “the priority of action over words” that dominate in this chapter.
In place of a preoccupation with words, he says that “The way of the cross . . . involves a reprioritizing of action over words. . . . The way of the cross embraces the primacy of action, of doing over believing” (47). This is frustratingly vague language—it’s all well and good to talk of reframing our “priorities,” but what would this re-prioritization concretely mean?
The difficulty arises in part from the fact that doing and believing aren’t really separable. As Oliver O’Donovan points out in his Self, World, and Time, a sort of introduction to Christian ethics, to act is already to do more than simply to do; it is to do something consciously, thoughtfully, for a reason. After all, to simply do stuff is rather opaque. Say you see a man hand a woman a $100 bill. Is this an act of charity to someone in need? Or an act of justice, in response to some debt he has incurred? Or perhaps an act of bribery, attempting to secure her goodwill or cooperation in some scheme (probably nefarious, but not necessarily)? Or perhaps she is a prostitute and it is the prelude to an act of adultery? We might gain some clarity by filling out our knowledge of the external circumstances, but even a full knowledge of these might leave us with multiple explanations that fit; ultimately determinative, from a moral standpoint, would be what did the man think he was doing when he gave her the $100? Jones himself has already polemicized against the emptiness of external appearances (see the previous installment), so you would expect him to be alert to this danger. And yet he writes,
what if we weren’t allowed to talk about ideas? What if we were only allowed to act without words? A famous slogan, apparently misattributed to St. Francis, but still very much on target, puts it this way: ‘Preach the gospel, and sometimes use words.’ Imagine going further and living with an actual constraint against words in our ministries. Imagine we could only evangelize by actions. (46)
Now, I don’t deny that feeding and clothing and housing a homeless person will be more likely to bring them to Christ than just handing them a tract. But at some point, you will need to use words. At some point they will ask, “Why are you doing this?” and you will need to give an answer. If all we have is action, then there will be any number of secular charities doing similar sorts of service, also motivated by concerns of love and justice, from whom we will be indistinguishable. Now Jones may say he is hyperbolizing, but what is the benefit of the hyperbole? Why not just say that they’re inseparable, that works without faith is dead, and faith without works is dead? (Jas. 2)
Instead Jones tries to claim that the Bible justifies putting one over the other:
God’s anointed would be a man of action more than a teacher (56)
Jesus suggests that we will win the world primarily by love, not words. (46-47)
Again, in his zeal to re-orient our emphasis, he stretches Scripture beyond what it can bear. Was Jesus really more a “man of action” than a “teacher”? Why then do his disciples and others most commonly call him “Rabbi,” “Teacher”? The Gospel of Mark, to be sure, is more action-oriented than teaching-oriented; a rough-and-ready verse count reveals almost 50% more verses spent describing Jesus’s actions than teachings (366 to 246), but in Luke, the ratio is reversed (565 to 388), and in Matthew, the preponderance of teaching is even greater (581 to 346). In John, it isn’t even close. As for saying that we will win the world primarily by love, not words—what about the Great Commission? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Obviously the making of disciples depends upon teaching and preaching. We see this too in the Book of Acts, where sometimes acts of healing provide occasions for preaching, but it is the preaching that is the point, the preaching with which the apostles seem obsessed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they that just impart ideas to people and leave it at that. The churches in Acts are preeminent pictures of “the way of deliverance,” and of “the way of sharing” Jones will discuss in his next chapter. But this is always depicted as a response to the reception of the word, the grateful overflow of good works that follows faith, the imitative deliverance of those who have been delivered by Christ (see for instance Acts 2). See, the connection between doing and thinking is not merely deliberative (that is, that we have to think about how we are going to act before we do it) but reflective; we have to think back on action that has happened in order to understand its implications. And this, again, is the problem with conflating the church’s work of deliverance with Christ’s. Rather, our task is to reflect back on what Christ has done for us, and then, on the basis of what Christ has already done, to share the grace we have received with others. This means that we simply cannot do away with theologizing, however much we may lament the over-emphasis on this among certain churches and traditions. So it is that, although in Christ’s own work the order was often act first, and then teach about what he had just done, in the epistles the order is reversed—talk about what God has done in Christ, and then turn in the latter part of the epistle to talk about what we must do in response.
With all this ground covered, we are in a position to return to Jones’s problematic citation of 2 Cor. 5:18:
“When someone hands you a kingdom you have a responsibility to bring it to its goal. Christ’s kingdom is the good news of refuge and deliverance. It is the solution to the problem of evil and injustice in the world. That’s not the Trinity’s job. That’s the church’s job. He handed over to the church the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). . . . We’re called to do all the things he did when he was on earth—deliver, renounce, share, love, perceive, and commune. Like Christ, the church is to feed on evil and absorb it. . . . We are to become sin so that more may have life. That is the way of the cross.” For Jones, this means that the church is actually accomplishing, through following the way of the cross, the same kind of reconciliation that Christ worked on the cross. We too are sin-bearers.”
But what does 2 Cor. 5:18 actually say, in context?
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The old has passed away; the new has come. Our job is to announce this to the world, as ambassadors. To have the “ministry of reconciliation,” as Paul understands it, is not to co-reconcile with Christ, but to bear the “message of reconciliation” already accomplished.
Only on this rock—the finished work of Christ—can we build any lasting works of deliverance; only as we are set free in Christ can we be empowered to give ourselves as slaves of others.
 Or is there? Jones cites, on p. 58, Paul’s notoriously bewildering remark in Col. 1:24 about “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” There are several ways of attempting to interpret this passage, but whatever we make of it, we ought to assume that it is in harmony with other clear statements in Scripture about the once-for-all sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work (indeed, Paul himself has just emphasized this in Col. 1:19-23; and see especially Heb. 9-10). To attempt to use it as a prooftext for a Pelagianizing concept in which we add to the atoning work of Christ is both theologically and exegetically unsafe.