Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Threat

What follows is the hurricane for the soul, the earthquake of the spiritual life. The three aspects of this devastating reality are: the flesh (or sinful nature), the world, and the devil. Together these three threats can bring a devastation that is more destructive than any natural disaster. In the following section we will spend time developing a biblical & spiritual theology of each of these threats.

The Flesh/Sinful Nature:

What is the flesh? When I first heard the term “sins of the flesh” as a young Christian I thought that something about my flesh was sinful. On one hand I knew that God created me--flesh included. For new and old Christians alike the term “flesh” can be a confusing word. So what does it mean?First off when “flesh” is mentioned negatively in the Bible it’s not referring to our bodies. Rather, it refers to our sinful nature, the remaining indwelling sin in our lives.

The “flesh” or “sinful nature” is a composite of attitudes and actions that are bent towards self-preservation and self-glorification. It’s important that we understand that they are both attitudes and actions. Attitudes are often overlooked as rooted in our sinful nature, more commonly we focus on actions. We have accountability groups for sinful actions, but not for attitudes. Part of the problem is that oftentimes sinful actions are deeply related to broken or rebellious attitudes. Below is Galatians 5:19-21, evaluate what you think is an attitude and what you think is an action:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
When you really look at these verses you’ll see that each attribute of the sinful nature is both an attitude and an action. The actions of “selfish ambition” come from a selfishly ambitious heart.

Also, notice how each attribute of the sinful nature is bent towards self-preservation and self-glorification. We have a “fit of rage” or spread “dissension” when we are worried and anxious about our livelihood or about keeping some relationships, or when we are seeking to glorify ourselves.

Another aspect of of our sinful nature is that it always turns good things into ultimate things. When Paul writes in Galatians 5:17, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit [...]” he uses a Greek word for desire that actually means “over-desire” (epi-themiea). Every pastoral book in the New Testament that seeks to help Christians grow in their life with God uses epi-themiea when speaking of the desires of our sinful nature. The sinful nature, our indwelling sin, over-desires good things and makes them broken and destructive things. It seeks to put God on the periphery and the a certain thing (money, sex, power) in the center. In short, we’re incredibly proficient at creating idols, things we, essentially, worship.

John Calvin has written that “the human soul is a factory of idols.” What he meant was that we are constantly seeking to move God to the periphery and placing the self, with it’s over-desires in the center. Because we continually remove God from the center and place a thing in the center, or ourselves in the center, we are essentially saying that this thing is what I trust in. This thing will give me what I really want. When an idol is in the center, and God on the periphery, our belief in God shifts to a belief in a thing.

Hope is all about what the thing will provide.
Salvation becomes the satisfaction of our over-desires.

Richard Lovelace writes, “The desires of the flesh have something more behind them than [mere cravings]. Our indulgence of these drives has a deeper, underlying motivation: the compulsion not to believe God and to rebel against him. Every vice is therefore more than simple weakness. It has the bitter undertaste of rebellion and the poison of unbelief, which Luther believed was the deepest root of all sin” (Renewal as a Way of Life, 74). When something is an idol it is something we worship; if you are worshipping an idol and living according to the sinful nature then your belief in God is peripheral.

Oftentimes we don’t see how the flesh is operating in our lives, or how pervasive it is. We don’t see any ‘huge’ vices. We think we’re doing just fine. Just as rocks skim over the surface of a lake we ‘skim’ through life without being attentive to the depths of our hearts. One of the most profound statements ever written regarding the spiritual life is the following: [n]early all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. When we dive deep into a thorough investigation into ourselves and God, rather than ‘skim’ through life, we will always find the flesh more active than we at first thought and consequently God’s grace more active than we at first thought. Too often, “We have settled down and gotten used to [our sinful nature]; our consciences are dulled to [its] existence the same way our ears adjust to background noises, or our noses to bad odors” (Renewal as a Way of Life, 78). My guess is that if we truly knew ourselves and knew God fully we would be shocked to see how often God is found on the periphery of our lives.

We will talk more extensively about how to battle against the sinful nature in future sessions but it should be mentioned that any effective work against the sinful nature will not merely focus on actions, but rather the attitudes of our heart. As Puritan theologian and spiritual writer John Owen has written: "A man may beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary; while the root abides in strength and vigor, the beating down of the present fruit will not hinder it from bringing forth more." Any battle against the sinful nature must involve changing the attitudes that produce actions.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Christian Life: Glory, Threat, Responsibility & Work II

What follows is the second in a series written for a Core Class at Mercer Creek Church. If you're not attending feel free to interact/comment. If you are attending I'd love to have this be a follow up to the discussion/lecture Sunday morn.

Here is a link to all the diagrams in the original document that I wasn't able to transfer to this blog post: diagram

The Glory:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18

"Have you been melted with spiritual understandings with the glory that has come to you?" - J.I. Packer

Where Do We Start?

What would cause you to build a damn? Or to build earthquake proof buildings? Previous disasters? Research? Science? Of course. But what would prompt a person to guard herself against the world, flesh, and the devil? How could she even see the threat for what it is in the first place?

In order to see correctly, we need to see God. Imagine this: You’re in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language and know nothing about the culture. How could you know what to do, let alone the threats to a citizen and responsibilities of a citizen. If you’re not a citizen of heaven how could you begin to understand what is at stake for a citizen of heaven. If you’re a citizen of heaven it means that you’ve been born again, have encountered God, and have set out on the journey of understanding the threats, responsibilities, and consequential work common to all Christians.

This has been referred to as the centripetal (inward sending) and centrifugal (outward pushing) aspects of the Christian life. We’re drawn near to God, we encounter Him and we’re consequently sent out to do work for Him--all the while empowered by Him. We see this with Isaiah who “saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted.” So when God asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah responded “Here am I. Send me!”

History tells us that even doubting Thomas, after encountering Christ and touching his scars, traveled as far as India sharing the transformative message of Jesus. Whether it’s Isaiah, Jacob, Noah, Abraham, Peter, or a whole list of others, over and over again, experience of God and knowledge of God lead to the work of God. For every time of “exodus” there is a preceding “burning bush.”

In what follows we’ll examine how Christians, throughout the ages, have understood how we experience God and know God. This will be, in essence, the foundation for everything else we talk about.

Pre-Reformation View

Christians, throughout the ages, have understood the life of following Christ along different lines. Some have seen it as a ladder, in which we seek to ascend to God. Others have seen it as a long journey fueled by a desire for God, and guided by God. Others have seen it as an ark that we occasionally fall out of only to eventually swim back to.

Though there are tons of different metaphors and symbols that have helped people understand the Christian life, over the past two-thousand years a common way of understanding the Christian life has been expressed in the following three stages.

1. Purgation (the action of making yourself pure) - the hard work of fasting, prayer, Bible reading, and service
2. Illumination (to light, or cause to light) - Because of your hard work you begin to see the world as it is. You begin to see the threat, your responsibility, and glimpses of glory.
3. Union (to bring together to two distinct things in unified whole) - Then you have unity with God and assurance of salvation.

This view is common to a period of history often referred to as the pre-reformation period, this period encompasses everything from the early church up to Luther--roughly 1400 years of Christian history.

Returning to our main ideas, this understanding would assume that the Christian life begins with work, and through the hard work of discipleship you begin to see the threats and responsibilities common to every Christian. Through continuing to work you reach the glory of encountering God, unity with God and a sense of assurance of salvation.

This approach to the Christian way of life has significant value. Simply put, discipleship takes discipline. The Pre-Reformation view is not bashful about saying that growth in holiness is a challenge. However, where it fails is in realizing that underlying all of our work, and energizing our work, is God’s gracious covenant love, rooted not in our own work but Christ’s on the cross. Our work will always come up short; as some have said ‘we will not lay down our sword, until we lay down our lives.” We are rebels. Our work needs to rest on the foundation Christ’s work of justification. Our work needs to be infused by the Spirit’s empowerment. Our work needs to be the result of and a response to: grace.

Reformation View

Many, since near the beginning of the Christian church, have seen the above stages of the Christian life differently. Jesus loving church leaders and thinkers like Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux have emphasized not purgation as the first step but rather union. Drawing from theologians and church leaders like Augustine and Bernard (and of course the Bible!), Reformation thinkers such as Luther and Calvin developed an understanding of the Christian faith that was notably different from the dominant pre-reformation view.

1. Union (to bring together to two distinct things in unified whole)- Unity with God and assurance of salvation is given to us on the cross. Atonement literally meaning at-one-ment.
2. Illumination (to light, or cause to light)- Through encountering the risen Lord we see the threat and the responsibility as they truly are.
3. Purgation (to bring together to two distinct things in unified whole) - Our response is to starve our sinful nature and work for God’s Kingdom

This view, common to Luther and Calvin (as well as the Puritans, and early evangelicals) emphasizes God's love as it precedes any activity on our part, as some have said they turned the pre-reformation view on its head emphasizing “union” at the beginning rather than a goal at the end. In this approach to the Christian spiritual life work is the last thing, a response to an encounter with God and a consequential right understanding of the threats and responsibilities facing every Christian.
While, perhaps more familiar, this approach to the devotional life has, at times, given birth to a ‘nominal’ Christianity. People often have a sense that “I’ve been saved so I don’t need to do anything (e.g. tithe, read my Bible, pray, evangelize, care for the poor, etc.).” This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.” His sense was that because grace was purchased at such a high cost it should move us to consequently live reflecting that “costly grace.” We are compelled to live like Christ when we truly see Christ (Eph. 4:32).

Biblical View

A thoroughly biblical view of the Christian life would depict all of life on the foundation of two significant truths: (1) Justification and (2) the indwelling Spirit. Justification isn’t a word we often use. It’s a bit bulky and sounds old fashioned, that said it’s fundamental to understanding our relationship to God. Paul writes in Romans 4:25: “[Jesus Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” This means that Jesus Christ, in His death, paid the penalty we couldn’t pay. He has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, atone for sin. Because of his death we’re justified. Because this is God’s work on our behalf, it cannot be ‘undone’ in our life. It is ‘just if I’d’ not sinned.

Secondly, we have been united to God in His Spirit, we are indwelt by God. Paul writes to the Corinthians: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Bible scholar Gordon Fee says that the Spirit’s fundamental role in our life is one of “empowering” for a life of godliness and growth in holiness. All of the Christian life rests on these two fundamental realities.

As mentioned above, and as the Reformation tradition knew very well, it’s from the place of union with God that we begin to work for God. As the poet William Cowper has written, “To see the law in Christ fulfilled and hear his pardoning voice, transforms a slave into a child and duty into choice.” Duty becomes choice in light of seeing Christ in His love, and being united to Him because of His love. As Jerry Bridges writes, “It is only the joy of hearing the gospel and being reminded that our sins are forgiven in Christ that will keep the demands of discipleship from becoming drudgery” (Discipline of Grace, 21). Further, it is only because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit that we have the ability to obey God with a pure heart. As the author of Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan put it:

Run, John, run. The law commands
But gives neither feet nor hands.
Better news the Gospel brings;
It bids me fly and gives me wings.

But, as the Pre-Reformation tradition knew (as well as many in the Reformation tradition, notably Calvin and those in the Reformed tradition), the life of following Christ is still one of pursuing Christ and growth in holiness--desiring perfection, even if not tasting it. So, as seen in the diagram below, though the entire Christian life rests on the bedrock of justification by God and union with God, we still strive for continued Godward growth.

But I'm Not There...
Many have asked me this question, “So I’ve encountered God, understood His love for me, but I still have major issues. Rather than working against threats and for responsibilities I keep messing up. The threat, like a flood, comes damaging me and my areas of responsibility! What am I supposed to do? Do I grit my teeth and try real hard? Do I make myself feel guilty, hoping that works?” No. Instead of gritting your teeth, or piling on the guilt, return to the cross. Jerry Bridges’ counsel is profound: “We believers do need to be challenged to a life of committed discipleship, but that challenge needs to be based on the gospel, not on duty or guilt. Duty or guilt may motivate us for awhile, but only a sense of Christ’s love for us will motivate us for a lifetime” (Discipline of Grace, 24).

What follows is a way I’ve been understanding this recently:

My baby girl is just starting to say “Dadda”. She doesn’t understand what it means yet, but she says it. I’m guessing it’s because we speak it over her constantly. I am always looking at her, pointing to myself and saying: Dadda! You can imagine my excitement when she first said herself; it didn’t matter that she was looking at her toy giraffe. Another word we speak over her is Zoey, her name. At times I spend near and hour just saying those two words: “Dadda” as I point to myself; “Zoey” as I point to her. She can’t quite say her name yet. She can sometimes vocalize a “Z” sound. I imagine it will take her a while.

Dadda and Zoey are words packed with meaning. The more she grasps the meaning of Dadda and the more she grasps the meaning of Zoey the more she’ll know what it means to be a Halferty.

God speaks fatherhood over us, oftentimes we can repeat the ‘word’ of our adoption, but we don’t quite get it. I’ve been told that for a one year old “Dadda” is often synonymous with “Food” or “Help”. The same is true of us with God. But, as we continue to listen to the God who speaks fatherhood over us, we will grow to further reflect a right understanding of what it means to be God’s daughter, God’s son. When we understand the cost of our adoption, we our moved towards holiness. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).

If you have come to see that God’s grace, expressed on the cross, is true for you then you are His, irrevocably adopted. When you mess up the proper response is not gritting your teeth and trying hard, nor is it heaping guilt on yourself, it’s returning to the cross; it’s at the cross where you can remember God’s love and hear His voice cry: “My son,” “my daughter.” It’s at the cross where you’ll find a love that compels towards devotion and discipline.

The Christian Life: Glory, Threat, Responsibility, & Work I

What follows is the first in a series written for a Core Class at Mercer Creek Church. If you're not attending feel free to interact/comment. If you are attending I'd love to have this be a follow up to the discussion/lecture Sunday morn.


No one builds a dike in Kansas. First of all, it would cost a lot of money. The project would take a lot of work and it wouldn’t be worth it. For a project to be worth the work it requires two things: (1) a threat and (2) a responsibility. There is no significant threat of flooding in Kansas, no responsibility to care for potential flood victims. Therefore, no work to be done. However, a dike does make sense in the Netherlands where there is a legitimate threat of a flood and people to protect, in other words, a responsibility.

A city doesn’t do the work of putting a stop light on an interstate. There is no threat of cross traffic collision, no responsibility to protect pedestrian walkways. Hopefully the idea is clear. For work to be purpose-filled and helpful it has to be in response to a potential threat and guarding a certain responsibility. Work, divorced from threat and responsibility becomes meaningless and leads to burn-out, apathy, and a host of other destructive things.

Oftentimes there are legitimate responsibilities and legitimate threats, but no work is done. When the threat isn’t understood, or is overlooked, when the responsibility neglected, and important work isn’t done chaos and destruction result. 2010’s Port-Au-Prince earthquake is an example; there is a fault line right underneath the country of Haiti--the threat of an earthquake is real, but the buildings in Port-Au-Prince, for a number of complex reasons are poorly built. Threat overlooked. Responsibility overlooked. Work not done. Destruction and chaos. You get the picture.

Why is it Important?
Often I talk with good people in my office who have, for some reason, stopped gathering together in community, haven’t read their Bible in months, aren’t interested being involved in ministry, or tithing. I want to reiterate: they are great people; people I can laugh with... people of faith. As I continue to talk with them I often realize that they don’t really understand the threats to their spiritual life and the responsibilities that exist in their spiritual life. Like an unprotected city they go about life as normal waiting for the flood or earthquake, no protection for themselves and none for the people they are responsible for.

Have you ever felt like that? Bible reading, evangelism, tithing, family prayer, and a whole host of other aspects of the Christian life seem dull and meaningless? This could be a sign that you don’t understand the real spiritual threat and the real spiritual responsibilities in your life. What if you understood that the world, the flesh, and the devil were coming towards you like a tsunami, shaking your life like an earthquake, coming at you like a hurricane? What if you realized the world, flesh and the devil, were making in-roads to your place of work, your family--or other spheres of personal responsibility. What if you were like a city unprepared, perfectly fine but with nothing protecting you from the real threats facing your spiritual life, or your life in general. All of a sudden the work of the Christian life becomes meaningful. My hope is that, through this Core Class, we’d all grow in an awareness of what the Christian life looks life, threats, responsibilities, the work... and all the rest!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Calvin's Spiritual Theology of Ascent

The ladder of ascent has been a repeated theme in Christian spiritual writers over the last 1800 or so years. Folks like Origen, Augustine, Benedict, Bernard, Aquinas, et al, have constructed steps by which we ascend to God, or in Bernard's case descend in humility.

I've been interested with these steps, or stages in the spiritual life since I began to study Spiritual Theology under Bruce Hindmarsh. Under his tutelage I continued to find refuge in the reformed tradition's twin emphasis on Christ's love preceding our love and the Christian's duty to 'ascend' (of course enabled by the Spirit and because of God's grace). Someone once said that in Geneva all men are monks. And C.S. Lewis said that the Puritan's got rid of the "honors" and raised the "pass". You get the idea.

Currently I'm reading Julie Canlis' (a once Regent person as well) great book Calvin's Ladder where she unpacks Calvin's "spiritual theology of ascent"--it's reinvigorating my interest in spiritual theology. Here's a quote from Calvin that stood out:

As Paul, in speaking of the passage of the Israelites across the Red Sea, allegorically represents the drowning of Pharaoh as the mode of deliverance by water (1 Corinthians 10:1), so we may be permitted to say that in baptism our Pharaoh is drowned, our old man is crucified, our members mortified, we are buried with Christ, and removed from the captivity of the devil and the power of death, but removed only into the desert, a land arid and poor, unless the Lord rain manna from heaven, and cause water to gush forth from the rock. For our soul, like that land without water, is in want of all things, till he, by the grace of his Spirit, rain upon it. We afterwards pass into the land of promise, under the honey; that is, the grace of God frees us from the body of death, by our Lord Jesus Christ... But Jerusalem, the capital and seat of the kingdom, has not yet been erected; nor yet does Solomon, the Prince of Peace, hold the scepter and rule over all.