YOU ARE NOT WHAT YOU DO
Do you find that when someone asks you to talk about yourself you immediately offer what you do for a living? At least, you do if you are proud of what you do, or expect that others will be impressed by it. Ever been to a school reunion? Well, I would guess that if you are slightly ashamed of your occupation you probably didn’t go . . . because it reflects on who you are. In modern Western society, we are judged by our work. That we feel pride—or shame—at this point is quite telling. It is our achievements that make us; our lack of achievement leaves us wondering who we really are.
The modern world has made human actions the basic compositional unit of the human self. We moderns understand ourselves primarily as acting subjects—as people who do things. The damaging consequences of this idolization of the acting self are numerous: from an instrumentality in human relationships (they are only good insofar as they provide me with what I need in order to bolster my C.V.), to a removal of the dignity of those who cannot act, or who are limited in their ability to act (the disabled and the elderly in particular). If it is by action that we establish ourselves as true men and women, then what are we to think of those whose ability to act is limited? Can a person who cannot act be truly good, if they cannot express their virtues in action?
No Self-Made People
This where the Anglican documents of the sixteenth century, framed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, remind us so well of what Paul taught us: that human beings are not constituted by their acts at all. That isn’t who we are—or, if it is, we are in a lot of trouble. The gospel of the crucified Christ actually overthrows that path to self-realization! Just as thinking that we are justified by our works is a terrible proud mistake, so is thinking we are most truly expressing and finding ourselves in our human achievements.
The great Reformation doctrine sola fide or ‘justification by faith alone’ explains that it is God who judges, declares, and determines; it is he who calls human beings to themselves. It is he who even gives them to themselves. There cannot be self-made people, not really. The extremity of the cross—that the Son of God would need to suffer so—shows us just what proud failures we are in the business of making ourselves.
What an Extraordinary Relief
God does it all. Even our faith is given to us.
This then is the basis for a true human agency. We are re-created for a new human work—prepared beforehand for us to do (see Ephesians 2:8–10). That is the “freedom of a Christian” (to recall one of Luther’s most famous pieces): an evangelical freedom to do all sorts of good works. Real faith is not an alternative kind of action; although it overflows with all kinds of good deeds. It is only the humble act of casting who you are—your very self no less!—into the hands of God, through Christ Jesus.
What an extraordinary relief it is—a truly blessed freedom—to know what Paul is talking about when he writes, in Romans 8, “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ.”
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of several books, including Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology. https://www.crossway.org/blog/2017/02/you-are-not-what-you-do/