Over the past year I’ve been spending time in volume one of Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. I’ve appreciated his blend of scholastic rigor and pastoral application. The following recently excerpt spoke to me:
“It has been one of Protestantism’s temptations to turn faith into a meritorious work, whose quality or quantity God rewards. Justification by faith has sometimes been turned into justification on the basis of faith. Only absolute surrender, we are told, gets absolute help; only total commitment receives total power; only an empty vessel can be filled. But these mystic-gnostic adjectives, all of which focus on us and on the quality of our inner doings (or undoings), are so many salvations by works and are to be rejected, and the focus is to be placed on Jesus.
“We used to criticize old Catholicism for making salvation a matter of exterior works; rosaries, indulgences, novenas, satisfactions, pilgrimages, confessions, and the like. But Protestant works can be even more excruciating because they have to be performed within, where it is harder to tell how we are doing. Complete emptying, yielding, abandoning – and all other “completes,” “fulls,” “totals,” and “absolutes” – can be cruel when imposed by uncompassionate [and I would add ‘well-meaning’ – Withers] teachers on eager candidates. Jesus loves trust in Him, praises it, and helps it. But he does not tyrannically demand it of us in large, not to mention entire measures before he helps. These stories [Matthew Chapter Eight] teach that Jesus helps because he wants to help. Jesus himself coaxes a more entire devotion from us in almost every encounter with him – this is the nature of friendship. But entirely is the fruit of a friendship, not the requirement of it.” [Bold print mine.] (The Christbook, Matthew 1 – 12, Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004, Eerdmans; page 408).
I wish that I had read these words decades ago and understood them. They are words I should probably memorize – for they have the quality of companionship – a reminder that Jesus is who we are to be about and that Jesus loves trust in him and that Jesus loves to help.
I can’t count the number of church services I’ve been in in which the test of success or experience has been a trip to the altar – more commitment, more surrender, more desire – more, more, more and yet more. How much “more” can I produce for God to do His work in me and use me?
And yet, the same temptation exists outside the “come to the altar traditions” – for the message often is that if we will do things a certain way that Jesus will respond, that if we will just get an inner attitude adjustment that Jesus can use us or bless us – God’s reaction is dependent upon our action we are taught.
What children we can be in attempting to manipulate God – will we never learn that He is a Father unlike any father we have ever known…including the best of earthly fathers? Will we never learn that Jesus is a Friend unlike any friend we have ever known…including the best of friends?
Bruner writes, “But entirely is the fruit of a friendship, not the requirement of it.” Oh, for others to know Jesus so that He may draw them into an entire friendship in His own time and in His own way – nothing else will do; and let me flee from any temptation to provide a substitute for friendship with Jesus. May I come to trust Jesus to teach me to be His friend, to know Him in friendship – to deliver me from the idea that I need to achieve some higher state of being or produce more devotion in order to induce Him to love and care for me.
If I provide a substitute for Jesus in the lives of others then I make them dependent upon me or upon my provision of the substitute. I become essential for their spiritual lives – they need me – they do not need Jesus. I may say that I am pointing them to Jesus, but am I? Am I like John the Baptist in saying, “He must increase but I must decrease”? Or are those words lip service?
Jesus calls us friends (John 15); will we allow Him to be our friend – or will we insist on defining our friendship with Him on our own terms and conditions? Make no mistake, friendship with Jesus includes obedience (John 15), but it is an obedience enabled by abiding in Him (the Vine and the branch – John 15), an obedience that is the fruit of friendship. Friendship with Jesus is not predicated on us giving ourselves entirely, completely, totally, fully to Him – friendship with Jesus grows as we recognize that He gave Himself entirely for us. He gave for us what we can never give for Him – everything.