“When I fail in my duty, I readily acknowledge it, saying, I am used to do so. I shall never do otherwise if I am left to myself. If I fail not, then I give God thanks acknowledging that it comes from Him.” —Brother Lawrence
On Reformation Sunday I posted that we need to experience a new reformation. We, like the church in Luther’s day, have lost sight of the important things and have inserted our own rituals, ideas, and errors. Given that today is Reformation Day, I was hesitant to post anything more about the reformation out of concern that it would be lost in a sea of reformation posts. But as I was contemplating what I would offer I remembered yesterday’s Mindful Mondays post and Brother Lawrence. It was a quote I’d read in The Practice of the Presence of God that made it’s way to the surface of my memory. It demonstrates, I believe, the far reach of the reformation. We’ll get to the quote shortly.
After serving in the army during the Thirty Years’ War Brother Lawrence took his vows as a Carmelite monk at the age of 28. He was born nearly 100 years after Martin Luther’s famous act at Wittenburg Chapel of which today is the 500th anniversary, and he paints for us a beautiful picture of a life lived in the grace of God.
The first part of the quote is something we understand: failure. He’s not referring to forgetting to get the garbage and recycle down to the street on time, but rather sin. I think, for the most part, we Christ-followers realize when we have sinned and are willing to acknowledge our sins, if only to God. But we don’t really grasp the effects of sin nor the effects of grace.
Brother Lawrence understood this concept–the total depravity of man–which became foundational to the early reformers. In a nutshell, this is the belief that apart from God we can do nothing but sin. Paul referred to this in Romans 7:18: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (ESV) emphasis mine. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, ESV) emphasis mine.
But Brother Lawrence also had a deep understanding of grace, perhaps deeper than even some of the reformers. When he had sinned, he acknowledged it to God, along with reiterating his inability to not sin. Now some may argue that the language he uses in the above quote stops short of repentance. But Brother Lawrence, in his practice of God’s presence, essentially lived in a state of perpetual repentance. He understood that “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18, ESV). His entire existence was defined by his constant communion with God. One of the greatest theologians of our time, John Stott, reframed Brother Lawrence’s quote when he said that “To attempt to live without him is precisely what is meant by sin.”
Brother Lawrence’s understanding of grace didn’t stop with mankind’s propensity to sin. He joyfully acknowledged that when he did not fail it was only by God’s grace. Repentance, for him, led directly to restored fellowship with God. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV). There was no nagging guilt. The sins were not perpetually playing in the theater of his mind.
“Let us put all our trust in Him. I have no doubt that we shall soon receive an abundance of His grace, with which we can do all things, and, without which we can do nothing but sin.” –Brother Lawrence