A few years ago I mentioned my discovery of, and reproduced in large measure, C. S. Lewis' essay 'Three Kinds of Men,' found in his book Present Concerns. Perhaps the two most important pages I have read outside Scripture (see also here); at least, I can't think of anything that would rival it. Lewis says there are not two ways to live: living for oneself vs. living for God. Rather there are three: living for oneself, living for oneself by being good, and truly living for God by enjoying him. Since then I've found a similar way of thinking in Thomas Aquinas, F. B. Meyer, and Soren Kierkegaard. Jonathan Edwards gets at the same reality in his own way, though not with the clear threefold taxonomy as these others. I was delighted tonight to discover a similar way of understanding obedience (and a similar taxonomy) in Luther.
In 1521 the reformer preached a sermon called 'The Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences,' found in vol. 44 of LW.
He says there are 'three kinds of conscience and three kinds of sin, as well as three kinds of the good life with three kinds of good works' (235). The first kind 'is concerned only with outward works' (235). 'As a result of this kind of teaching, people become hardened and blind' (236). '[T]heir holiness is circumscribed by their five senses and their bodily existence. And yet, this very holiness shines brighter in the eyes of the world than does real holiness' (238). This is the Pharisee, the person who does the right things but with a rotten heart.
The second kind of person has a well-developed conscience. It understands 'humility, meekness, gentleness, peace, fidelity, love, propriety, purity, and the like' (239). Such people, however, 'set about them in the wrong way' (240). They 'maintain a pious posture not out of their own desire, but because they fear disgrace, punishment, or hell. . . . And this false ground is so deep that no saint has ever fathomed its bottom.' Such people have a sensitive conscience, unlike the first kind, but they follow it not from godliness but self-love. Luther then prepares to transition into the third kind of person. 'God does not just want such works by themselves. He wants them to be performed gladly and willingly. And when there is no joy in doing them and the right will and motive are absent, then they are dead in God's eyes' (240). Luther explains that none of us can rise above this second kind of person of our own ability.
The third kind of person is different not in externals but is qualitatively different in the heart--this person wants to obey. They are characterized by two realities, says Luther: self-denial and the Holy Spirit. He then concludes: 'When the Spirit comes . . . look, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad, and loving heart, a heart which is simply gratuitously righteous, seeking no reward, fearing no punishment. Such a heart is holy for the sake of holiness . . . and does everything with joy' (241-42).
The helpfulness and profundity of all these thinkers is their articulation of that middle way, between all-out rebellion and glad gospel obedience, of (where we all live) begrudging obedience that obeys like paying a tax, hoping that afterward we'll have some money to spend on ourselves, and failing to see that such 'obedience' is just as much a rejection of the gospel as open rebellion.