Marcus Aurelius, Dallas Willard, and New Testament Salvation

Aurelius Salvation[1]

Salvation, which is a life,[2] is to examine each thing entirely [with the following questions]:

  1. What it is in itself?
  2. What is it made of?
  3. What is its purpose?

[It is also] from the whole soul to do righteousness and to speak truth. What more is there except to enjoy life by joining one good thing to another so as not to leave even short intervals between? (Meditations XII, 29, my translation)

One of the most striking claims in the writings of Dallas Willard is that Christian salvation is a life that is entered into by faith. It is not merely a gift to be passively received but rather a sort of life one begins (eternal life) upon becoming a disciple of Jesus.

In terms of the overall theological meaning of salvation in Christian thought, this made perfect sense to me. But I’d never really considered that it could be the case in terms of the usage of σωτηρια in the New Testament era. But right here in the meditations, Marcus Aurelius (who is certainly not thinking of a future salvation or an intervention from a deity) speaks of salvation as a kind of life.

Btw, while the life Aurelius describes is not the Christian life, nothing in it is contrary to what Christ enjoins us to do and everything in it is Biblical. So even if you don’t read Dallas Willard, I hope you learned something from the meditations.


[1] Marcus Aurelius and Charles Reginald Haines, The communings with himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome: together with his speeches and sayings (London; New York: W. Heinemann ; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), 338

[2] I take the genitive to be an appositive or an epexegetical here.

What They Think

One of my favorite books is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. A few days ago I was reading book twelve and was reminded of this:

I am often amazed at how each loves himself more than others, but cares more for the opinions of others than of himself. If a God should appear to a man, or a wise teacher and charge him to cease to think or imagine anything which which he would not make known as soon as he thought it, he would not last one day [without breaking the command]. This is because we have more respect for the thoughts of others about us than for our own thoughts of ourselves. Book XII Chapter IV (This is my rough translation)*

Aurelius Meditations 12 4

Marcus Aurelius, Charles Reginald Haines, and Charles Reginald Haines, Marcus Aurelius, 1916, 324

Is it true? Do we care so much more for what others think about us than what we think?

I once told a group of students before an SAT to get some water, splash their faces, do some pushups or jumping jacks, or whatever it took to wake up before we started the test process. I said that wasting money taking this thing while drowsy was a bad idea. I then said, “Never be afraid to do what makes you look weird to be the best.” Several years later a student contacted me because that line changed how she approached excellence.

I’m all for the idea that peer-pressure can actually be a good thing. But too often we imagine that somebody might think something bad about us. That they might be offended by us. That they might think we’re silly. Most people forget almost every thought they have throughout the day. And most people are terrible at reading others. These thoughts that people may have are just fiction, wraiths, figments in the ether. They’ll be covered by the sands of time or they will never exist at all. Yet, many are ruled by their fear of the thoughts of others. The fear of man, as it’s been said, is a snare.

* Here is a more professional translation: 

4. It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us— or a wise human being, even— and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions— instead of our own.

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 2489-2492). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Rhetorical Assumptions in the Sermons on the Mount and Plain

In Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 are the sermons on the Mount/Plain. There is a lot of debate about the relationship between these two sermons, but what interested me the other day when I was sitting in a waiting room (thankfully I took a legal pad) was what Matthew and Luke assumed would be interesting and would be known to the readers/listeners.*

Now I cannot have certainty about those things. But if we assume that like any piece of written rhetoric, the author had an audience who knew certain things in mind, then we can make some inferences. In all of this it’s important to remember that when we construct a speech, we appeal to what we think will interest people in order to help them find interest in what we think will benefit them (or get them to buy our product). But in an extended speech there might be several subaudiences to which we appeal.

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Assumptions

  1. The readers/hearers were interested in being happy in the sense of flourishing human life. The beatitudes start with the word “blessed” which probably means something more like “in an honored state” or “possessing the best/most desirable life.” In the Greek Old Testament that word seems to function like Aristotle’s word for happiness.
  2. They cared about putting the law of God into practice. Jesus tells the audience not to be afraid of the possibility of him doing away with Moses’ law.
  3. They at least know an oral version of the Old Testament, “You have heard…,” never “it is written.”
  4. They are in contact with the Pharisees (see chapter 6:1-13 especially) or have pharisaical tendencies.
  5. They want honor and rewards.
  6. They find it valuable to “see God.”
  7. They  want to be wise.
  8. They want to be part of God’s kingdom.
  9. Some of them felt spiritually destitute (poor in spirit).

Luke’s Sermon on the Mount Assumptions

  1. Luke’s audience similarly desired “blessedness” or “happiness.”
  2. They may have been more financially successful and willing to infer that they were living the blessed life with God as a consequence of their good fortune.
  3. They knew Jesus was a teacher, but were not themselves as familiar with the law of Moses.
  4. They really wanted to be good people whose lives bore good fruit.
  5. Strangely, in Luke, being like a ‘wise man’ is not a motivation. But the same simile of the builder who uses a firm foundation is used. In this case, the idea is simply of having a life that is not susceptible to the trials of the world. These people wanted unwavering or everlasting life.

I would be willing to say more about Luke’s audience over all, but I wanted to go simply by what we could find in the respective versions of the Sermon on the Mount.

What did I miss?

*I’m of the opinion that by and large these sermons, regardless of the process that lead to it happening, preserve a common public sermon Jesus preached about the kingdom of God before he shifted to primarily using parables before the public. So of course there will naturally be overlap between Matthew, Luke, and Jesus’ audiences desires, interests, and knowledge.

Tools for Christian Leaders by Dallas Willard

I rarely weep.

When I heard that Dallas Willard died, I did.

Few authors have so helped me see Christ, his goodness, and the greatness of his kingdom.

Since his death various essays, talks, and interviews keep appearing in compilation volumes. In Renewing the Christian Mind is transcript of a talk Willard gave off the cuff in which he gave some principles for how to lead in a Christian organization. Here are some of the principles he outlined in my own words (not in the order of the book):

  1. Write regularly. Willard thought it was imporant for pastors to write because it “is one of the surest ways to hone your sense of what you’re saying. (430)” I’d agree with that. Writing has made me a clearer thinking and speaker. Under this heading he also recommends copying things out of books. This is, in fact, one of the greatest tools for learning available.
  2. “Know your Bible. (431)” This should be obvious. But I’ve been teased by pastors and other seminary students for learning the Biblical languages. So, it seems that some people aren’t very excited about this aspect of ministry. And I admit, that sometimes reading Scripture for extended periods can be difficult. But Willard says some challenging things here, “Set aside time so that you can read the New Testament five times in one week.” Whoa.
  3. “Grow in making distinctions for people. (432)” The idea is that simple distinctions can help people understand what you mean, what Scripture means, and offer ‘aha’ moments for people. For instance, the basic difference between affection (positive feelings toward) and love (intending to benefit) can help many people who don’t know what love is.
  4. Grow character rather than acquiring methods. Willard says that “Many people have tried to substitute results for what they lacked: joy, relationship, and character. (432)” His idea is that switching ministry techniques over and over again without being rooted and grounded in the love of God won’t help you or anybody else come to know the gospel.

Anyway, it’s a really cool book. I highly recommend it.

What is Love?

Edward Feser wrote an excellent article about what love is. In it he quoted Thomas Aquinas:

As the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 4), “to love is to wish good to someone.”  Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good.  Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good.

Love, in the sense which Christian doctrine typically means, is exactly what Aquinas quoted from Aristotle, “to wish good to someone.” For Aquinas and Aristotle, “wish” is better understood as “intend.” Love is a movement of the will, not a passion nor a feeling. In the case of loving other people as a Christian this makes sense. To love your neighbor is to intend to give him the goods he needs to flourish (to have success and happiness now and in eternity): companionship, knowledge, assistance, mercy, protection, prayer, etc.

But what does it mean to love God in this sense? Some people, like John Piper, would say that to love God means to have certain feelings about God. But on the analogy of love for human beings, we can love our enemies even if our feelings toward them are quite hateful. Acts of love would be much harder, as positive emotions are a great aid to positive action, but they would nevertheless be possible. And the Bible has several psalms, clearly written as actions of love toward God, but which express intensely negative emotions toward God.

So how do we “wish good to someone” with regard to God? Here is my most basic answer: to love God is to act to further God’s purposes in creation. While God is goodness itself and therefore cannot increase/decrease in goodness, God’s purposes in creation are meant to have progressive fulfillment. For instance, God commanded humanity to tend the garden. God made the garden, but there was further work to be done.

There is Biblical evidence in favor of what I’ve inferred from Aristotle’s definition of love: Jesus said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.(Joh 14:21)” For Jesus the categories of “those who love me” and “those who have and keep my commandments” are convertable. And elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that he glorified God by doing the deeds he was sent to do (17:4) and that he sends his disciples as the Father sent him (20:21). So, to love God is to act in line with his purposes or to obey his commands. This, of course, will include positive feelings. A significant consideration is this: Is it superior to obey a command of Jesus in the face of severe temptation and emotional resistance or in a state of deep and motivating affection for Jesus?*

Here is where things become interesting. Can our love for God be unrequited? We all know that our love for other people can. But in the case of God, the answer is no. Why? Because Jesus tells his disciples that “You are my friends if you do what I tell you. (John 15:14)” While our love for peers, children, parents, enemies, and so-on can be unrequited. There is no such thing as unrequited love for friends, for if the love is unreturned there is no friendship. In our relationship with God, our acts to further his purposes, include simultaneous action by the Holy Spirit on our behalf.

Finally, it is important to note that for the Christian, God’s purposes are primarily contained in the teaching of Jesus. To love God is to put the teachings of Jesus, rightly understood, into practice.

A corollary is that one might say that the highest form of self-love is to obey Jesus, as this would obtain the highest benefit for ourselfs if the gospel message is true.

To simplify the explanation above:

  1. To love is to wish to benefit another.
  2. To benefit God is to wish to further his purposes.
  3. To further God’s purposes is to obey Jesus’ teachings.
  4. To obey Jesus’ teachings is to live in friendship with God.

A final thought

I think that correctly understanding love as a matter of the will can help people who struggle with depression to realize that they do, in fact, love God. Also, as Feser mentions in his post, “…if love is thought to be essentially about having certain pleasant feelings, then the quest for love naturally comes to be understood as essentially a matter of finding someone who will generate in oneself pleasant feelings of the sort in question, and showing love to others comes to be understood as essentially a matter of generating in them pleasant feelings of the sort in question. [author’s italics]” Thus, in the case of loving God two errors can occur: to love God is to give myself good feelings about God or upon realizing how impossible this is to do consistently, to give up on the idea of positive emotions in relation to doing God’s will. Also, understanding love as intending the good of others assumes that there is such a thing a objective good that reliably benefits other people. The modern obsession with feelings (which are obviously good, important, and natural) leads of a sort of nihilism with regard to love. If it’s always loving to generate positive feelings in ourselves and in others, then because our quite plastic grey matter can learn to find positive emotions from all sorts of disordered events, can lead us to consider the most dastardly things loving.

*I think that it’s a trick question. If one has love as a virtue (good habit), then it will ‘come easy’ but individual deeds do not lose their value for being done in a state of temptation, depression, melancholy, or even momentary resentment.

Science Fact of the Day #4: Francis de Sales and the Science of Performance

In a 2004 study, it results were discovered which “suggest that self-compassion is associated with adaptive motivational patterns and coping strategies in academic contexts…”

Self-compassion “involves being open to and aware of one’s own suffering, offering kindness and understanding towards oneself, desiring the self’s well-being, taking a nonjudgmental attitude towards one’s inadequacies and failures, and framing one’s own experience in light of the common human experience… ”

Now, this is a fairly early study of self-compassion as a psychological model, but more recent research seems to confirm the results or at least fails to disprove them.

Now, in my own opinion, there are times for being harsh with yourself. But that’s in relationship to immediate experience like finishing a set in the gym, making yourself finish a hard assignment, show up to work when depressed, or some such thing. Being “hard on yourself” post failure makes no sense. The cake has been baked, you can’t get the ingredients back.

Anyhow, Francis de Sales had interesting insights into this subject a few hundrew years ago:

“So too when we have committed some fault if we rebuke our heart by a calm, mild remonstrance, with more compassion for it than passion against it and encourage it to make amendment, then repentance conceived this way will sink far deeper and penetrate more effectually than fretful, angry, stormy repentance.” (Introduction to the Devout Life Book III Chapter IX)

He goes on to say:

“…do not be surprised if you should fall. It is no wonder that infirmity should be infirm, weakness weak, or misery wretched.”

De Sales observed that it’s important to frame your experience in terms of common human experience. And because of that he recommended that we show ourselves compassion when we fail. He didn’t mean to ignore our failures or to overlook them, but “with great courage and confidence in God’s mercy to return to the path of virtue which you have forsaken.”


Interesting Insight from Charles Finney on Justification

In the lecture on justification in his Lectures on Systematic Theology Charles Finney uses the distinction between legislative, judicial, and executive functions of government to consider the doctrine of justification:

Justification is the pronouncing of one just. It may be done in words, or, practically, by treatment. Justification must be, in some sense, a governmental act; and it is of importance to a right understanding of gospel justification, to inquire whether it be an act of the judicial, the executive, or the legislative department of government; that is, whether gospel justification consists in a strictly judicial or forensic proceeding, or whether it consists in pardon, or setting aside the execution of an incurred penalty, and is therefore properly either an executive or a legislative act. We shall see that the settling of this question is of great importance in theology; and as we view this subject, so, if consistent, we must view many important and highly practical questions in theology.

Now, I’d never even considered that such a distinction in the roles of government might apply conceptually to the kingdom of God. But it seems to make some sense. For instance, while obeying the law gives life, the Bible also teaches that nobody will be justified by works of the law (for all sinned according to Romans 3:23). It also teaches that justification comes by faith, by grace, through Christ, and strangely enough, to those who are obedient to the law (Romans 2:13).

But with the exception of Romans 2:13, the meaning of which is contested, most other passages about justification (being declared righteous by God or the resumption of a properly ordered relationship with God) treat it as a rather personal reality (through grace, by faith, in Christ, etc). It’s not about whether or not somebody has done as much good as they can, because no matter how much good is done, guilt is still guilt. In Finney’s taxonomy, the judicial office of government is purely that of determining whether or not the law has been broken by this or that person. So for him, as far as the law goes, there can be no justification for anybody who has done anything wrong, ever (Romans 3:20 seems to say exactly this). But as far as appeal to the law-giver (legislator) or the branch of government responsible for action (executive) justification, pardon, and reconciliation are possible. So sinners cannot, by any means, appeal to the law for forgiveness (though the Law of Moses offers conditions of pardon, these do not come through the system of elders/judges). But sinners can appeal directly to the law-giver and king of God’s kingdom for forgiveness: a gracious and kind God.

But I’ve never seen this taxonomy God’s role in justification in a Bible commentary and I’d never noticed it from reading Scripture. This doesn’t mean that Finney is wrong, but it’s just gone unnoticed for a while, now.

Any thoughts?


Being happy about good work and good works.

In Christian circles we can often come across as weird because we obsess over questions that make little to no sense to outsiders.

Here’s one: “Is it okay to be happy about accomplishments?”

To the average non-Christian the answer is: “Duh, of course it is.”

But for Christians the answer can get super complicated in a hurry.

But let Paul’s words uncomplicate it:

Gal 6:3-4 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (4) But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.

Don’t admire your greatness with reference to comparison. Admire it with reference to yourself.

But here’s the thing. Many Christians might feel/think that having a sense of joy from personal accomplishment is a form of arrogance or pride or sign of too little admiration of God. But, the same Paul who said what is above said this a few short sentences later:

Gal 6:14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

A lot can be said about what 6:14 means (it has to do with how Paul takes pride/joy in the Christians in Galatia…whether in their acceptance of the Jewish law or their acceptance of the way of Christ…read 6:12-15 to see this), but on the surface it is plain to see that there is no contradiction between finding joy in God and what God does/has done and finding joy in what you do/have done.

So, be happy about what good you’ve done. And be happier that God has done something that goes beyond even your best deeds and does away with those you’ve done that are evil.

Roles of Imagery in Our Worldview

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how rhetoric, advertising, and imagery in general can influence our view of the world.

This got me to thinking about the nature of suggestibility and achievement as well as the relationship of false expectations to achievement.

The research on these subjects is pretty vast, so you’ll just have to look it up (I’ll probably post a bibliography in the bottom).

Anyway, suggestibility is the state of being primed to accept an idea without argument or coercion.

In one study, easily suggestible students were told that a cognitive game with no known effects on IQ would increase their intelligence and it did. Teachers typically want students be convinced of inferences through argument but of their abilities through suggestion (arguing a person in a state of self-doubt into a state of confidence is difficult). “Won’t you be able to do this if you try it?” “Imagine yourself as the kind of person who regularly does her homework. Do you like that version of yourself? Try doing your homework.”

In Christianity we are primed to resist temptation based on the believe that our personal history was interrupted, not just in at our conversion or baptism, but miraculously through the life of Jesus Christ. While there are certainly spiritual realities behind all of this, the simple idea of “considering oneself dead to sin” really does help one to resist it on the human level. Research shows time and again that consdering oneself up to a task predicts one’s ability to achieve said task.

On the other hand, having false expectations can be very unhelpful.

For instance, I think that movie montages, commercials, and the concept of diet pills have convinced people (without argument or coercion) that their weightloss and exercise problems can be solved easily and quickly.

But, as every Rocky fan learns, doing 400 pushups after watching Rocky II won’t get you in shape unless you watch the movie every day.


Here’s a problem in evangelical culture, then. The idea of a giant, “Aha!” moment conversion in which one instantly stops sinning, has deep knowledge of God, complete wisdom, and insight into evangelical taboos is a common enough notion. It’s not evident in the way that people treat new Christians usually (although, I ‘ve seen it happen and it isn’t pretty). But it is evident in the way many Christians feel inadequate, not simply because they fall short of God’s glory, but because they look at Paul or Peter’s example in Acts and think their faith must be too small or some such thing, when in fact they are in a process.

So in one case, having the image in mind of being dead to sin can make one less susceptible to temptation. But on the other, expecting the Christian life to identical to that of Jesus or Paul by instant transformation is an expectation that does not match reality.

I think that conversion probably needs to be spoken of in images more akin to what the Christian life actually is:

  1. The beginning of a life long journey (an exodus?)
  2. The starting point for the process of naturalization into a new kingdom
  3. Adoption into a family with little to no knowledge of family customs
  4. Enrollment in school (discipleship)

Anyway, imagining oneself as one truly is, a person with all the resources available to them that Paul or Peter had is not unwise or unhelpful or untrue (2 Peter 1:3-11). But such imagining must be accompanied by the same thing Paul and Peter did: daily effort. Paul’s apparently instant moral transformation was build upon a lifetime of “exercising to have a clean conscience before both God and man.(Acts 24:16)” This continual state of self-management probably explains Paul’s quick adoption of Christian moral norms. Many people have untrained moral habits upon conversion, so following Christ is a process of learning supernatural and natural virtue all at the same time!