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Is Christianity Supererogatory?

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Supererogatory is a fancy term from moral theory which simply means an act that while morally praiseworthy, is not morally required.  Think of running into a burning building to save people, at great risk to your own life.  Even humdrum activities can be supererogatory.  If, for instance a parent asked their child to clean their room, and they did that and cleaned your room as well, this would be a supererogatory act.  As a parent I can tell you that it would also be nothing short of miraculous.

We can set aside all the many various iterations and questions surrounding these types of acts.  Shelves are filled with philosophical examinations of all these questions, and seeming paradoxes about these types of acts.  We will only look at a colloquial use of the term and how it may apply to our faith.

The question is, does being a disciple of Christ obligate us to perform supererogatory acts, as commonly understood?  The main thing to always keep in mind is why we try and do good in the first place.  We do what we do because God has showered us with grace upon grace, not in order to gain or earn God’s grace.  All the heavy lifting and work has been done by Jesus on the cross, and the empty tomb that lays beyond the cross.  All we do is trust that God’s word is true, the resurrection is real, and that Jesus Christ is Lord.  This trust and faith gives us confidence in our salvation.  This would seem to argue against the necessity for supererogatory acts.  Or does it?

Our Faithful Response

Ok, we are clear on why we do what we do, as a response to God’s gifts.  However, that does not answer the question.  The one we look to for this answer is Jesus.  He is our exemplar, and our template for what it looks like to live a fully human life.  Where do we find the insight that Jesus has given us by way of His earthly life?  The obvious first answer is Scripture.  Our belief in the resurrection brings us in faith to this book, and should find us using it to learn of the life and teachings of our Lord.  You need not be a biblical scholar to gain insight from this source.  God is not trying to fool His people, the teachings, especially in the New Testament are clear.  I would argue that their clarity is what makes them so frightening.  We can see what we are supposed to do, and how we are to treat one another, and that terrifies us. 

Another place we can turn to is our own hearts.  We trust that God has sent the Holy Spirit into us to help and strengthen us.  Listening to the Holy Spirit can tell us a great deal about what course of action we should take.  We know instinctively in any given situation how we are to behave and how we are to care for one another.  That is why we feel so lousy when we fail to do this.  That is the Holy Spirit at work within us.  Jesus promised an advocate, or helper (John 14:16).  Since Jesus went to the trouble to give us the gift of such a resource-listen!

Another excellent place to seek out insight into how we should act is to look for signs of visible grace.  Be aware of the tremendous witness being given by faithful disciples of our Lord.  There is a world full of amazing stories that enlighten and uplift us.  In being aware of such witness we can see what a faithful response looks like and at the same time be given strength that we can respond in a similar fashion. 

All these sources will show us what an appropriate, faithful response to God’s gifts look like.  So in the end what is the answer?  Must we perform supererogatory acts to follow in our Lord’s footsteps?

The Answer is Yes…But

The central element of Jesus’s earthly ministry was His sacrifice.  It was a sacrifice just to become human and live among us.  This is God in the flesh.  That is itself an amazing sacrifice, and certainly above and beyond the call.  Then there is the fact that as a human Jesus went to His death for us.  Not just any death either.  Jesus died a horrible death of torture and execution in the most shameful manner that age knew; to be crucified as a common criminal.  God is God and He need do nothing for us, yet here is His Son going far beyond the call in an act of supreme sacrifice.  If this is not a supererogatory act then there is no such thing.  Jesus performed the ultimate supererogatory act on our behalf.  Can we ask any less of ourselves?

Since our call is to be like Jesus it would seem clear that yes, we are obligated to perform supererogatory acts in response to God’s gifts of grace upon grace.  That seems clear enough.  So clear, as I pointed out above, as to be completely terrifying.  Yet, there it is.  We are called to go above and beyond the call of duty in the name of our Lord.  We are called to perform acts that can only be defined as supererogatory.  What the rest of the world looks upon as praiseworthy, but not required, we as Disciples must look upon as an absolute requirement.  Such is the nature of our faith.

And Yet, and yet…we will fail to achieve this standard.  It is not likely that we will fall short of the glory of God, as Paul reminds us, it is a lead pipe lock.  God’s standard is perfection.  Jesus in fact lived a perfect, fully human life.  Yes, that is our aim, but we must recognize that the reality will be less than this.  After all, God is God, we are not.

This reality need not lead to despair.  It is simply a recognition of the truth that we cannot, and more importantly need not reach a certain level of “works” in order to gain salvation.  Nor does God expect us to.  He only asks that we do the best we can.  That is all anyone can ask of themselves or anyone else.  Whatever our imperfections, it is our faith, our trust in God’s good and gracious word that sets us free and saves us.  The acts we perform in response is just our attempt to praise and worship God by doing what we can.  It sees our lives as an extended thank you for all that God has done for us.

This recognition of our limits should bring us back to this Good News of the Gospel, that God has given us eternal life as a gift through His Son Jesus the Christ.  At the same time recognizing what the standard is should motivate us to do better than we thought we could.  Aiming for a supererogatory life will take us higher than our imaginations can conceive, even if it does fall short of the glory of God.  We are all dependent upon God’s mercy, anyway, so don’t sweat it.  Our faithful response is to recognize the sacrificial nature of a follower of Christ, and go do the best we can.  As always our belief leads to our (imperfect) obedience.

Praise Be to God

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