The Conversion of the Heart: Christian Theology, Ethics, and Ordination

2 weeks ago 19

The Conversion of the Heart: Christian Theology, Ethics, and Ordination

Evangelicals are currently facing an ethical and clerical question framed in regard to the matter of ordaining same sex attracted but celibate ministers or priests.  I have written on this subject in earlier essays.  This is a matter of how we understand Christian ethics: Is it a matter of moral acts or also of the heart?  Underlying this question is a theological question of the relationship between justification and sanctification.  I would like to offer some dialogue with several Scriptures and what might also be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  It might seem strange to bring in the Catholic Catechism at all for a Protestant and Evangelical theological and ethical matter, but I would suggest that it is helpful.  It is helpful precisely because it understands grace in a way that is not ‘cheap grace’ and because it does capture key elements of historic Christian teaching about a conversion of the heart.  On these matters, the Anabaptist tradition in its understanding of justification as inseparable from sanctification, the Pietistic tradition in Lutheranism, the Reformed tradition in its understanding of justification in terms of regeneration, and the Anglican tradition in its Wesleyan call to holiness would agree.

The conversion of the heart is for all Christians, but it is particularly important understand that ordained persons should be exemplary to others in this regard.  That is, the ordained minister is not an example merely of God’s grace towards sinners but also an example of the work of grace producing the fruit of righteousness.  The Catholic Catechism quotes St. Gregory of Nazianzus in this regard.  Note how the character of the priest is not limited to outward actions but stems from an inward purification:

We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and to where we strive. I know God’s greatness and man’s weakness, but also his potential. [Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God’s image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes’ (Oratio 2, 71, 74, 73: PG 35, 480-481).

The early Church spoke of ‘divination’ as a goal for all Christians in the sense of moral transformation, not meaning humans actually become ontologically divine beings.  Peter makes this same point when he says,

His [God’s or Jesus’] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1.3-11, ESV).

The key language in this long quotation is in verse 4: ‘partakers of the divine nature’.  What is said in the rest of the quote clarifies that this has to do with escaping corruption from sinful desire.  The divine nature’s qualities are to increase in us—this is a development of virtue, having been cleansed from sin.  The calling of the Christian is to set about diligently to practice these moral qualities and become Godlike in character that is expected for entrance into the kingdom of our Lord.  Peter is quite clear that the Christian life is a moral life begun with Christ’s cleansing us and completed with our diligent development of Godly character by God’s divine power in us.  Paul might have spoken of God’s grace at work within us, but he, too, understands that the Gospel of salvation is not simply an outward guarantee of salvation by grace, a forgiving grace, but also a power (Romans 1.16) and equally an inward transformation, a renewal of a once depraved mind (Romans 1.28 and 12.2).  In the Gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (Romans 1.17).  This must not only means God’s own righteousness is made manifest in the Gospel but also that it works righteousness in us through faith in God’s power of salvation, since Paul adds a quotation from Habakkuk 2.4: ‘the righteous shall live by faith’.  Thus, Paul says in his way what Peter says in his way, and they say the same thing.  Salvation is more than just an outward granting of grace through faith but also an inward working of grace through faith—‘faith’ because God is the one working righteousness in us, not we in our own power.

To understand the Catholic view of the need for an inner purification of the Christian, one might note, first, that the Christian is called to love God and to love others.  We might say that we advance from the Great Commandment of doing to others as we would they do to us (Matthew 7.12) to the summation of the Law in terms of love of God and love of neighbour (Matthew 22.37-40).  From this inward disposition follows our actions just as from these two laws follow all the Law and the prophets.  Furthermore, Catholic teaching distinguishes mortal and venial sins.  A mortal sin attacks our love of God and our love of neighbour, is grave (not venial), performed in full knowledge of God’s Law, and is committed deliberately (by our will).  The mortal sin attacks the vital principle of love, and therefore ‘necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1856-1857).

Some Protestants have begun in the right place, with God’s initiative, His grace, a rejection of salvation by works, the saving effectiveness of faith in God’s salvation, the work of Christ, His ‘alien righteousness’ given to us, but they have struggled to understand the connection between all this with sanctification.  So eager to reject a notion of ‘works righteousness’, they have struggled to find a theology of works that is compatible with salvation by grace through faith.  Yet, Paul easily does so in just a few verses in Ephesians:

 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (2.8-10).

The language I choose to use to capture this relationship is to say that God's grace is both forgiving and transforming.  In both cases, it is a work of God in us, not our work.  Paul says it is a gift of God (forgiving grace) and that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works (transforming grace) (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.17).

This understanding of the importance of inward righteousness has further implications to be found in social ethics.  Social ethics needs to proceed from the transforming power of God's grace in the hearts and lives of individuals who have been converted to Christ and are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  However, some Christians reduce ‘social justice’ to focussing merely on social reform through protest or legislation or social work—all outward activities to reshape society.  Public Theology is a recent theological exercise that seeks ways to engage in ethical activities along with non-Christians, as though Christianity provides a motivation for social engagement and perhaps a vision for it, but not much more.  It intentionally tries to 'de-Christianise' social justice so that it is something non-sectarian and public.  Furthermore, the Evangelical focus on conversion and salvation, on the other hand, sometimes leads people to ignore social justice.  Finally, in recent years, ‘social justice’ has become associated with a particular ideology derived from secular or Marxist ideology.  Over against this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly provides a correction.  It says:

It is necessary, then, to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the human person and to the permanent need for his inner conversion, so as to obtain social changes that will really serve him. The acknowledged priority of the conversion of heart in no way eliminates but on the contrary imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions when they are an inducement to sin, so that they conform to the norms of justice and advance the good rather than hinder it (1888).

More succinctly a little later on, it says:

Where sin has perverted the social climate, it is necessary to call for the conversion of hearts and appeal to the grace of God. Charity urges just reforms. There is no solution to the social question apart from the Gospel (1896).

Here, again, we have the language of the conversion of the heart.  The Catechism says, ‘Conversion of the heart was taught by the prophets’ (2581), thus indicating that Jesus’ teaching of a righteousness of the heart is not distinct from the Old Testament but rather a continuation of it.  Thus,

From the Sermon on the Mount onwards, Jesus insists on conversion of heart: reconciliation with one’s brother before presenting an offering on the altar, love of enemies, and prayer for persecutors, prayer to the Father in secret, not heaping up empty phrases, prayerful forgiveness from the depths of the heart, purity of heart, and seeking the Kingdom before all else. This filial conversion is entirely directed to the Father (2608).

This summary of teaching in Matthew 5-7 rightly captures Jesus’ ethic in its distinction from that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  Jesus’ disciples were to exceed their righteousness, not through greater efforts or quantities of righteous deeds but through digging below the surface of external piety to an ethic of the heart.  Jesus did not so much oppose the scribes and the Pharisees for their legalism—though this was a problem—but for their use of the Law to limit righteousness and even to permit sin.  The necessity of exceeding their righteousness (Matthew 5.20) lay in the need for an inner transformation—a conversion of the heart.

A conversion of the heart involves grief over sin and the sinful condition.  One might recall the monastic emphasis on this point, as typified in Athanasius’ Life of Antony.  The efforts to which Antony went to overcome the sinfulness within his heart and mind strikes the Protestant as an almost unhealthy obsession with matters that are wonderfully triumphed over by Christ our righteousness.  Is Antony an example of works righteousness rather than of a piety that grieves over a sinful disposition and inclination to yield to temptation?  Perhaps he is better understood as someone who knew that the Christian life was not merely a free gift but also—and flowing from that gift—a pursuit of righteousness and holiness by the inward working of God our Saviour.

Beyond grief over inward and outward sin—an affliction of spirit—is also sincere repentance.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: ‘This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart) (1431).  What happens when we focus Christian ethics simply on acts?  If we say that someone’s internal disorder (e.g., same sex attraction) may continue as long as that person does not fulfill the disorder’s desires by performing certain acts, we leave the person in their internal disorder.  We also disavow the need for transforming grace or a conversion of the heart, and we deprive them of the necessary satisfaction of internal conflicts stemming from sin that an affliction of spirit and repentance of heart brings, given God’s grace.  Moreover, when we allow sin to remain as an example of God’s grace, we fundamentally misunderstand grace (Romans 6.1), and we provide a model for others to live Pharisaical lives of outward righteousness, dismissing the Spirit’s inward righteousness that Paul, following Old Testament language (Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 4.4), calls a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2.29; cf. Acts 7.51).

Related Essays: 

Evangelicals and the Question of Same Sex Attracted, Celibate Ministers (27 June, 2024)

‘The Character of Ministers in the Pastoral Epistles,’ (13 May, 2024);

'Platonists, Stoics, and Paul on Gender Fluidity, "Side B Christians", and "Conversion Therapy",' (18 April, 2022);

Read Entire Article