Vocational Sacraments: Formed by How we Form

cuban-2535931_640Part five of a series.

On my list of four things we can learn from the sacraments about vocation, the third is:

My daily work is a means of grace.

“Means of grace” is a phrase used differently by different traditions. The goal in this series is to avoid getting too bogged down in differences over the sacraments, but here we come to a point where differences are unavoidable. What is at stake in those differences will become clear below. However, to stick as close as I can to the purpose of the series, let me back up a bit from this phrase and approach it from within what I hope is a consensus on the spiritual importance of daily work.

Looking at how our daily work provides a material manifestation of the Spirit’s work, we paid a lot of attention to the frontier between the natural and supernatural. That frontier is, as Dallas Willard insisted, at the heart of spiritual formation. Since the fall, our natural way has been to live as if our spirits are controlled by our bodies rather than the other way around. The whole point of sin is to deny that we are responsible for what our bodies do, and thus (because we pretend our bodies are in control) also not responsible for what our spirits do, as our spirits are under the influence of our bodies. In fact, our spirits control our bodies, and therefore control themselves, whether we acknowledge this or not. This is why deception (of the self- and other- variety) is at the heart of sin. This self-imposed hallucination that we are not responsible for our bodies is simultaneously the heart of our rebellion against God, the heart of our corruption and dissolution, and the heart of our darkening or foolishnes.

You can also put the whole thing the other way around. You can say we rebelled against God, and then God, as both a punitive and protective measure, imposed death on our bodies and spirits. We then, in our rebelliousness, coped with this situation by adopting the self-imposed hallucination that we are not responsible for what we do. This way of putting it is equally true, and it highlights aspects of the fall – its moral and even its cosmic-political dimensions – that are less central to spiritual formation, but are nonetheless important to it as context.

Either way, Willard is right that the struggle to find our way back to the way of life and the personal character God intends for us is largely a struggle to reclaim responsibliity for what our bodies do. We “reclaim responsiblity” both epistemically and operationally. We acknolwedge that we are responsible, which involves confession and lament of sin, and we also behave as if we are responsible, which involves repentance from sin and dependence on God. John highlights all these dimensions of sanctification in his first epistle, where he summarizes the way of God as “living in truth.”

Just as we tend to become like what we worship, we are also formed by how we form. As I sculpt nature with the chisel of my work, God is sculpting my heart with the chisel of his work. As God uses my work to bring the power of his holy love to others (Luther’s famous vocational formula “your neighbor is a mask of God”), God also uses my work to make me more and more into the kind of person for whom such holy love is the normal and natural way of life.

Here is where we get to the means of grace, and our differences. Whatever else we may think, I believe Christians would all agree that 1) sanctification is part of our total redemption by God’s grace, 2) sanctification is accomplished by means, 3) the efficacy of these means is provided by God’s redemptive grace. This is what I understand the phrase “means of grace” to refer to.

I think (he said, tentatively, glancing furtively around him to note the location of the nearest exit) we also ought to be able to agree that 1) how we do our daily work is something that needs to be sanctified, 2) whatever other spiritual disciplines are involved, changing the way we do our daily work is something that primarily happens while we are working, and therefore 3) daily work is itself one of the means by which God’s redemptive grace sanctifies us.

The hitch lies in the meaning of “redemptive” in the phrase “God’s redemptive grace.” Last time, denying that work is itself a sacrament, I said: “However transformative Christ is for the Christian’s daily work, work itself is the legacy of Eden, not of Bethlehem, Calvary and Pentecost.” Work is not intrinsically redemptive in the way preaching the gospel is, or carrying out the ordinances specially related to the gospel – like the sacraments.

This is why, to draw an example from my own tradition, the Westminster Longer Catechism (Q. 154) says that all God’s ordinances are means of grace, but the phrase referes “especially” to the word, sacrament and prayer. Magisterial Protestant traditions relate sacraments to the word differently than Roman Catholicism, but we join Catholics in affirming a primacy for the sacraments alongside the word in God’s redemptive grace. Daily work is thus not, for my tradition, “especially” a means of grace, although it is a means of grace.

But (he said as his non-mgisterial brothers and sisters were rising in protest) whatever primacy the sacraments have is only a redemptive primacy, not a primacy in the order of creation that redemption is restoring. They are primary as means of redemptive grace, but not primary as divine means across the board. In other words, the purpose of grace is not to replace nature but to perfect nature, and the sacraments have primacy in the perfecting process but not in nature as such. (The word, by contrast, will undoubtedly have primacy in a restored nature as well as in the process of restoring, although special ecclesial preaching of the word will no longer be necessary in a redeemed world.)

Daily work, that inheritance of the whole human race, takes center stage six days of the week. On Sunday, it should humbly take a seat in the pew, so the special things of redemption can be exalted. But then the special things of redemption must walk down the aisle to daily work and say, “friend, go up higher.”

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