There I was, in church, listening to the sermon and struck by a discord. The presentation of the basic evangelical message clashed with the message I was mulling over from The Emperor’s Club. Both spoke of a way of life. One offered safety, while the other urged excellence.
I have heard countless times the futility of earning a way into God’s favor, favor which He bestows on us not for any merit of our own but freely. In a common metaphor, our sins pile up like debts on a ledger sheet. God the Father both wiped them out by laying them on Christ and gave us infinite credit by reckoning to us Christ’s infinite holiness. With our sinful nature judged to the cross of atonement, no longer does our moral filth stand between us and the holy God; He Himself cleansed His people and restored a loving relationship between Creator and creature.
Okay, I get this. But what troubles me is when leaders in my Protestant circles conclude, “And now we are free in Christ.” The work is done. We are in. We’re safe. In their desire to warn us away from a natural tendency to earn God’s blessing by keeping His laws, they dance skittishly away from His law altogether. Distancing themselves from a rules-based righteousness, they make little of the need for self-discipline. Many Protestants seem to be satisfied merely with the news that Christians are free from a system of dos and don’ts.
Well, I am not satisfied. Truth is, I am not free. I have yet to know true liberty that comes from wanting what God wants, loving as God loves, doing as God calls me to. It troubles me that I cannot do these things, and I cannot be content in my state. Shall I always be so impoverished in character?
I kept thinking back to the movie we watched on Friday night, The Emperor’s Club. Mr. Hundert, a classics professor at a prep school, engagingly urged the boys to build the kind of excellent character that made great men. Meaningful contribution to the world is predicated upon diligence, a commitment to integrity, and a view toward serving something greater than oneself.
The students became men of good character because they embraced this vision of manhood. Imagine if they had settled for, “Hard work and sacrifice does not guarantee you an important place in society. Just remember that your mother loves you no matter how you turn out.”
My mother does love me and my heavenly Father demonstrates an enduring love for me at the cross. Now what? Now I serve with my gifts. Now I work diligently to improve my character. Now I trust in the same dynamic power that raised Christ from the dead to be raised from my dead ways. Not content to merely be given a place in the arena, I want to run to win.
The thing I love about the classical Greeks (and Romans) is they discovered on their own, apart from revelation from God, the nature of man and how to develop excellent character. Their vision is consistent with the Bible. In some way I don’t quite understand the liberal arts give a man the freedom to do as he ought, to love what he should, to subdue his beastly nature to live wisely and well. The idea that anyone’s position alone gave him ultimate safety was laughable to the best of these philosophers. Every man must earn the respect of his community through good character. Even more, his self-respect is subordinate to his success in self-discipline.
I am in my fifth decade and almost at the end of my home schooling life. I do not feel as pliant and green as I did when I began. Habits have hardened like bends in a lazy tree. I have come late to this teaching!
It really is a blessing to me and my family that we have been working with Classical Conversations. Now in our fifth year, the hard work is translating into a better use of time, an interest in the excellent, a power for persuasion. Not satisfied with successes of the past and not defined by the many failures, we keep moving forward.
I live by my faith, but I add to it my work. While free from the burden of trying to earn God’s favor by keeping countless rules, I bind myself to the labor of mastering the liberal arts, so I may be wise. That is true liberty.