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.


Lois said...

The quote about "Run, John, run...", reminds me of the Muslim tradition of cutting off hands for thievery. Legalism without grace condemns us , then requires us to work out or salvation handicapped by that condemnation. Of course, grace empowers us with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to carry God's Word to the "un-living" of this world that by "hearing" they might be saved.

bryan halferty said...

Lois, that's a profound thought. "legalism without grace" always condemns, very true. But grace can empower, it "gives us wings"!

michelle said...
At the end of this table is a comparison to protestant and catholic order. One big thing about this part of history, is how the people did not have access to the Bible, like we do today. Yet when the Word became widespread due to the printing press and King James, people began hearing and understanding the Word of God in a personal way. It was no longer the outward works of the person, and how they reached an acceptance into the religious doctrines, but it became an inward working of God in their lives. John 1:1 "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God." Jesus and his Holy Spirit come through the word of God. Just like Genesis 1:1-3 "In the beginning...and the Spirit moved...and God said." Before we recieve Christ, our spirits are dead, but after salvation, our spirits are alive and we are able to read the Word and have complete understanding!