Friday, May 16, 2008

Eustace, Aslan, and Becoming Better People

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of Our Daily Bread, the daily devotional produced by Radio Bible Class. I often will link to the web version of readings I've found particularly meaningful on a given day. But I must confess that I found today's reading a bit disconcerting.

Writer Dennis Fisher begins by recalling an incident from one book in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's an incident I myself have used to illustrate what happens to people when they submit to Christ's authority over our lives. As Fisher explains it:
In...The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund, Lucy, and their spoiled cousin Eustace are summoned to help on a quest in the Eastern Sea. Along the way, Eustace is tempted by enchanted treasure and turned into a dragon. The desperate dragon accepts the help of the great lion Aslan, king of Narnia. But Eustace can only be freed by allowing Aslan’s claws to painfully tear off the dragon’s flesh.
So far, so good. Eustace submits to painful reconstruction of his life, beginning with the destruction of the being he had become, so that the new Eustace could emerge.

Aslan, it should be pointed out, is a figure of Christ in Lewis' novels. The process that Edmund undergoes then, is a bit like the process of "daily repentance and renewal" that Martin Luther discusses in The Small Catechism. It comes as part of Luther's discussion of Baptism, which he says should be daily affirmed. "What does Baptism mean for daily living?" Luther asks, using the question-and-answer form. He answers:
It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance [repentance is a word which, in the Hebrew means to turn back to God and in Greek means to change one's mind]; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.
The point? We can submit to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. But only God can make us new. We cannot decide to be better people or better Christians. The Christian life is about God's grace--God's charitable acceptance of sinners who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives--from beginning to end and beyond.

It's with this reality that Paul wrestles in Romans:
I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:19, 22-25)
In Lewis' parallel universe of Narnia, Eustace was "saved" by Aslan. And each day, given his obvious natural inclinations toward being selfish, he could only be "saved" by Aslan, no matter how good his intentions.

That's why Fisher's summary sentence about Eustace's encounter with Aslan so rubbed me the wrong way. "Grateful for his deliverance, Eustace chooses to become a better boy." Aaaarrrggghhh!

This reflects a fairly common line of thinking among Christians these days. Several years ago, I read a book by a prominent evangelical pastor. I found the book helpful until I ran into a sentence that said something like, "Our salvation depends solely on God's grace. But after we're saved, everything depends on our works."

Wrong! Paul's words, the confession of a man who by the time he wrote his letter to the first-century Roman church had been a Christian for several decades, indicate that we never stop depending on God's grace. I cannot decide to be a better person. I can only, like Eustace did with Aslan, submit to the authority of God the Holy Spirit, Who, as Luther puts it elsewhere in The Small Catechism, "In this Christian church day after day [God the Holy Spirit] forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true."

The most I can do to be saved from sin and death is let God the Son, Jesus Christ, save me.

The most I can do to maintain my relationship with God and to grow in faith and holiness is to let God the Holy Spirit have His way in my life.

Our will is an imperfect thing. We can want to be better people. But only the God to Whom Jesus teaches us to pray, "Your will be done," can make us better people. And even the most devoted of Jesus' followers will only, in this lifetime, see through a mirror dimly. But one day, by God's grace and God's grace alone, we will see God face to face.

Maybe it was unintentional. But today's Our Daily Bread devotional made it seem that we can resolve to do what only God can accomplish.

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