Sunday, March 22, 2015

Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: My Paraphrase of Adam Miller's Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans

Those who know me, know that I'm prone to obsessions. It's just part of my personality I guess. I get exposed to one thing that blows me over, some real gold, and I dig and dig in that one area, mining it for all it's worth. I did that when I was younger, with Bob Dylan, eventually owning and listening to nearly all of his albums. I was enamored by Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run. Now, I just can't get enough of Adam Miller. He speaks the language of Mormonism and brings to it something new and original pulling truths from everywhere and anywhere he finds it.

Growing up Mormon, I felt like I've often been in a defensive posture. Proving to others and to myself that I have the necessary levels of righteousness to be considered worthy and accepted and valued. I thought if I could just claw myself up the ladder of righteousness just a little bit higher, than I could finally feel pure, accepted and worthy. In my youth, going on a mission seemed like the impossible goal. I imagined myself sitting on the stand for my mission farewell, totally clean, pure and worthy, finally feeling acceptable to the Lord enough to serve Him.

But oddly, this feeling never came. I entered the mission field still feeling doubts about my worthiness, not sure if I really belonged. I "confessed" to both of my mission presidents while out there, both assured me I was worthy which was a blessing. But this feeling of never feeling quite right about myself persisted both on my mission and when I got home.

But as a Mormon, I was in a defensive posture in another way, in my association with broader Christiandom. I've had many moments both on my mission and off when I've discussed and debated the relative merits of grace and works with my Christian born again friends. Those Christians would accuse us Mormons of trying to work our way toward salvation and we countered back that they were offering nothing but cheap grace. Looking back, I wonder if they had the better argument.

I think there is danger on both sides of this debate, thinking all you have to do is to declare Jesus is Lord and then no matter what you do gets wrapped up in the grace of Christ and real Christ-like living is not actually required. I don't think anyone actually believes this, but I think there is some danger here. And you can read this theological debate when you contrast  the words of James with Paul.

But I think Mormons are too quick to dismiss this idea of grace. Or we misinterpret 2 Nephi 25:23:
 23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
The common interpretation is to believe grace comes next, after we give everything we have. Grace becomes to some a backup plan to be used after we've tried everything else. I think that's a mistaken way to read it. Rather, after all we can do, it will never be enough. Ultimately, it has always been and will always be grace. It's why I think Adam Miller's interpretation of Mormon theology is so important because he argues that grace is foundational to Mormon theology and that it's all over Mormon scripture.

In his book "Letters to a Young Mormon", Adam Miller states in his chapter on Sin:
Being a good person doesn’t mean you’re not a sinner. Sin goes deeper. Being good will save you a lot of trouble, but it won’t solve the problem of sin. Only God can do this. Fill your basket with good apples rather than bad ones, but, in the end, sin has as much to do with the basket as with the apples. Sin depends not just on your actions but on the story you use those actions to tell. 
Miller, Adam S. (2014-01-22). Letters to a Young Mormon (Kindle Locations 145-147). Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Kindle Edition. 
He goes further in hist latest book, in the introduction:
To make sense of Romans, we have to surrender a very natural assumption. We have to stop pretending that the world revolves around us. We have to let God be the center of the universe. We have to stop looking at God’s grace from the perspective of our sin and, instead, let sin appear in light of grace. And this grace is everywhere . God’s work of creation is a grace. His work of sustaining that created world is a grace. His willingness to shape us in his image and let us make our own way is a grace. His gift of the law is a grace. His Son is a grace. And his willingness to stand by us, regardless of our weakness or wanderings, is a grace.
This, though, is what sin can’t abide. Sin wants to be the star of the show. From the perspective of sin, everything is about sin. As Paul describes it, sin is an active suppression of God’s already obvious glory. It’s a rejection of his already offered grace. Sin likes to think that it came first and that grace , then, is God’s stopgap response. Sin acts as if God’s original plan was for us to bootstrap ourselves into holiness by way of the law and then, when this didn’t quite pan out, God offered his grace— but only the bare minimum—to make good the difference and boost us into righteousness. 
Miller, Adam S. (2015-02-26). Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans (Kindle Locations 66-70).  . Kindle Edition.
Adam Miller goes on to "paraphrase" the entire book of Romans not only in his own, modern language, but as a reinterpretation with the intent of pulling out the sophisticated, beautiful theology of Paul's Romans and place it directly into the heart of Mormon theology. It's urgent because I think many Mormons at the ground level get grace wrong, at least I did and do.

And this has been what I've been trying to do. I'm trying to become born again and again and again. It's not, in the end, about me, it's about Christ. My life given to Christ is all that really matters and that's what it means to truly be a Christian. When Adam Miller talks about the law, he describes it as a grace because the law points us to Christ. It's why Christ says that love, both for God and for our fellow being wraps up the law, it's at its foundation.

It's why I think perhaps it's counterproductive to try to white knuckle our way to repentance. Rather we must look at repentance in the way described here in the LDS bible dictionary:
The Greek word of which this is the translation denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Since we are born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God...
But let me get right into it, let me show you an example of what Adam Miller actually did in his book. Just one sample, here's Adam's Miller restatement of Roman's 3:
19– 20 This is harsh, but it has to be said. It has to be said so that you’ll finally shut your mouth about how good you are. It has to be said so that the whole world, without exception, can be brought to stand naked and defenseless before the truth no one can be made right with God by way of the law. The law gives a totally different kind of gift: the law shows you you’re a sinner.
Miller, Adam S. (2015-02-26). Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans .  . Kindle Edition. 
31 Does faith then abolish the law? No, that’s ridiculous. The law can reach its end only by way of faith. The law was never meant for the sake of itself and so it’s impossible to fulfill it just by keeping it. The law was given for the sake of grace and so, as a result, only grace can fulfill it. Be absolutely clear about this. Grace doesn’t grease the wheels of the law. Grace isn’t God’s way of jury rigging a broken law. It’s the other way around. The law is just one small cog in a world animated entirely— from top to bottom, from beginning to end—by grace. 
Miller, Adam S. (2015-02-26). Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans .  . Kindle Edition. 
From Romans 3 King James Version:
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 
 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbidyea, we establish the law. 
There's more in here that I'm still trying to mine. I feel like I've only scratched the surface. I think this is urgent, important stuff and I'm just getting started.