Love Your Neighbor and Marus Aurelius

In the passage below, the word “as” can mean ‘as though’ or ‘while.’ This is so in the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

Most interpreters take the word ‘as’ to mean ‘as though.’ So ‘love your neighbor as though he were yourself.’ But it might be a useful thought experiment to think of it this way, ‘love [seek the well-being of] your neighbor as you love [seek the well-being] of yourself.’ I’m not saying that’s what the passage means. I’m just saying that it’s suggestive. Below is a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius about doing good by others in such a way that it benefits more than just them:

This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb (melos) of a larger body— a rational one. Or you could say “a part” (meros)— only a letter’s difference. But then you’re not really embracing other people. Helping them isn’t yet its own reward. You’re still seeing it only as The Right Thing To Do. You don’t yet realize who you’re really helping. 

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1657-1661). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

And so such a thought experiment might go: as I do what is best for myself, how might I do it in such a fashion that it is a blessing to others? Or, to put it the other way, how might I do what it best for others in a way that is good for myself and my family as well?

Asking for Wisdom

In James’ letter to the early churches, he makes the claim that God will, without fail, give wisdom to any who ask without doubting. This is a staggering claim. What does it mean? Here’s the main passage (James 1:2-7):

2 Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord. 

There are apparently three conditions for receiving free wisdom from God:

  1. That those suffering through trials should be seeking moral perfection rather than mere relief.
  2. That God gives wisdom to those who lack it is the next. More on that later.
  3. Third, that they pray without doubting.

What does he mean by doubt? In this passage doubt appears to be more than “intellectual uncertainty.” Its more like “entertaining duplicitous thoughts about moral progress.” James elaborates by saying that such a man is double minded and unstable which is basically a hypocrite or a sloth. Or less damningly, such a man is an immature Christian who has little resolve in his pursuit of Christian virtue.

More proof of this may be found in James 4:2-3:

2 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

In other words, unanswered prayer is due to requesting blessings which one will not use for good.

Back to the second condition. It reveals a profound reason we don’t find our requests for wisdom answered. We ask for wisdom which we do not lack. 

Often, as we face life’s trials and moral struggles we know exactly what we ought to do and what would benefit us most. Yet, we act as though we did not know. So we pray for God’s will and for wisdom, not because we don’t know, but because we do, yet, will not obey to the truth already in our minds. 

And so we ask for wisdom and we receive no answer because we ignore our wisdom, buried, as it were, like a coin receiving no interest, wondering why the master has nothing for us.

There is a fine line in the Bible between the fundamental goodness of man’s divine image and inbuilt moral intuitions and man’s deep moral corruption. But part of that corruption is that we look in the mirror of God’s natural and Biblical law and act as though we have nothing to change or as if God owes us specific advice when we don’t practice the wisdom we have.

Sick with sin: is the ‘sin as sickness’ model true or helpful?

It is frequent in Christian circles to speak of sin as a deadly illness or sickness from which we need God’s help, healing, and deliverance. 

The Bible is not unfamiliar with this concept. For instance, sin and righteousness are often conceived of in terms of pure and impure. And pure and impure are often connected to leprosy and other diseases of the body. 

So it’s not unreasonable to think of sin in terms of illness or disease. But, as I’ve read some of Thomas Szasz‘s work on the “illness model” of psychiatric disorders, I’ve had to rethink things a bit. He argues that viewing observable behaviors primarily as illnesses creates several philosophical, legal and practical treatment problems in his own field, psychiatry (Szasz):

  1. Mental illness is a medical metaphor for persistent disturbing behavior.
  2. But it’s not medical in itself insofar as mental illnesses cannot be found on the coroners’ table, in blood tests, microscope slides, or even in brain scans. 
  3. Doctor declarations of incompetence make people’s non-illegal behavior into ‘diseases’ that allow them to be institutionalized by government power only to be released upon their recovery. 
  4. Outside of drug use, psychiatry uses conversational methods of healing more similar to philosophy, education, or religion. 
  5. Identifying too closely with one’s illness can lead to finding excuses for negative behavior as though it were something for which one cannot take responsibility, but are viewed by the patient as endemic to their person. 

That summary of Szasz’s book is too simple, but I think it’s good enough for my purposes here. You don’t have to agree with any aspect of the argument with respect to the fields of psychiatry or psychology. But what is useful is the parallel to the way we speak of sin.

Usually the Bible speaks of sin in terms of human failure to pursue the good (accidentally and on purpose). And most of the time that failure is precisely spoken of in terms of rebellion against the good (on purpose). The exception to this might be Romans 6-8 where sin is conceived of as a sort of cosmic power which has extreme influence upon the human person by nature of the habits they have appropriated into their bodies. 

My read on things is that seeing sin as a disease is useful insofar as we’re speaking of having a problem that cannot be solved solely by the person who has it and if we perceive as a disease for which the patient is still responsible for following doctor’s orders. And Jesus’ orders are to deny yourself, sin no more, seek first the kingdom of God, cut off that which causes you to stumble, and so-on.

But I think that seeing sin as a disease has a few disadvantages, as it distances us from sorry for our misdeeds (they’re just a state I am in), it removes notion of rebellion for which we deserve punishment from the equation, and while it could help us see the need to incrementally change our habits, it tends to decrease the importance of individual sins in the psychic radar of our minds. 

So, is sin a disease? No. Disease is one metaphor among many, but it is perhaps best to define sin the way John does, ‘sin is lawlessness.’ In other words, sin is any deed which goes against God’s law or any habit of being which disregards it altogether. If we see sin as a crime I think there is a much more urgent inner need to repent.

References

Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness. Perential, 1974.

Exceptions to Jesus’ teaching

In a previous post I briefly mentioned exceptions to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

Below, I’ll attempt to show that this is true and why it matters.

Thesis: In the New Testament, there are exceptions to several of Jesus’ teachings.

Corollary: The exceptions to Jesus’ teachings demonstrate that they are meant for everyday existence. 

On Exceptions to Jesus’ Teaching

Knowing that the teachings of Jesus include exceptions is important for several reasons:

  1. It helps us move beyond treating Jesus is a deliverer of banal platitudes that he never meant people to practice.
  2. It provides evidence that there is not a dichotomy between taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he said and finding realistic times when those sayings do not apply (kind of like Proverbs). In fact, the dissolution of this dichotomy might be what helps some people to start putting Jesus’ teachings into practice.
  3. It provides evidence that the teachings are terse expressions of a way of life that was actually reasoned through by Jesus and the gospel authors rather than a pastiche of contradictory ideals.
  4. It helps us avoid the trap of making the Sermon on the Mount purely religious. For instance, there are people who teach that the sole purpose of Jesus’ commands is to make God’s law so impossibly hard (nobody could ever practice the Sermon on the Mount) that people are forced to ask for God’s grace.
  5. It reminds us that Jesus himself taught that certain Old Testament regulations were being misunderstood because exceptions were not allowed in their application in his day: Sabbaths, hand washing, contact with leprous persons, etc. Thus, we might infer that Jesus’ own teachings are meant to be applied as general purpose teachings that can be suspended in light of obvious exceptions.

Examples of Exceptions

Well there are two kinds of exceptions: explicit and implicit exceptions. Perhaps the most well known exception to Jesus’ teaching is the exception regarding divorce. It’s an instance where he explicitly says when his rule does not apply. Implicit exceptions to Jesus’ teaching are made known by his own practice or by the other New Testament authors clarifying Jesus’ meaning. Some exceptions are included directly in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a preliminary list:

  1. Teaching: “But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matt 6:6)
    Exception: “And Jesus declared [in front of everybody], ‘I thank you Father…” (Matthew 11:27)
  2. Teaching: “Give to the one who asks of you.” (Matthew 5:42)
    Exception: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ (Matthew 12:38-39)
  3. Teaching: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
    Exception: ” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  (22)  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)*
  4. Teaching:  “He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
    Exception:
    “…except for sexual immorality…” The exception to Jesus’ harsh strictures of the dissolution of marriage is included in the teaching.
  5. Teaching: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
    Exception: Jesus told his disciples about his fast in the wilderness.

Conclusion

There are more exceptions to the commands in the Sermon on the Mount, but these suffice to demonstrate that the exceptions exist.

In the appendix below are some quotes that might do more justice to the issue than I can. But it should be said that if the gospel authors and the rest of the New Testament portray certain commands of Jesus as having exceptions, then it is precisely in the normal parts of our life that we’re to make those teachings work. Exceptions imply that a normal exists.

Hand-wringing over whether or not a general principle always applies as a way of avoiding it is unwise. The same goes with math. The Pythagorean theorem does not apply to all triangles, but that is no reason to refuse to use it for right triangles. Similarly, Christians who say, “well, you can’t love Hitler…” therefore I don’t have to love rude people is untenable. 

I would claim that the exceptions to Jesus’ teaching show that the Sermon on the Mount is meant for the day-to-day lives of his followers or anybody else who is curious about what Jesus is all about (he gave the sermon in the hearing of the crowds after all). So if we see Jesus as somebody who has really thought through what it means to walk with God, then we have to suspect that he thought through which of his commands (if any) apply in all cases and which do not.

*This particular teaching/exception works like this, “Be the first to reconcile when you give offense…unless you’re the offended party, then be the first to forgive.”

Appendix

  1. Quote from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien

    Relationships must follow the rules. Our confidence in a stable and orderly universe leads us to prioritize rules over relationships, but it does more than that. The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions. When we begin to think of the world in terms of relationships instead of rules, however, we must acknowledge that things are never so neat and orderly and that rules are not as dependable as we once imagined. When relationships are the norming factor in the cosmos, we should expect exceptions.

    In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time. Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries. The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1:9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.

    Consider this striking Pauline example. Paul asserts, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2). He makes a similarly concrete claim elsewhere: “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised” (1 Cor 7:18). Paul was a vocal opponent of circumcision at the Jerusalem Council, where the early church decisively determined that one need not be circumcised in order to be a Christian (Acts 15). This appears to give us a hard and fast rule you can take to the bank; there seems to be no room for exception. Yet in the verses immediately following the Jerusalem Council, Luke tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). Westerners can’t help but ask, “Didn’t Paul say someone who was uncircumcised should stay that way?” (see 1 Cor 7:18). Isn’t Paul breaking his own rule? If we understand Paul’s exhortation as a fixed and universal rule against circumcision, we are forced to make a difficult decision. Either Luke’s account of Paul and Timothy’s mission (and, by extension, the history of the early church) was inaccurate. Or Paul could do as he pleased, even if that meant contradicting his own teaching.

    There is, of course, another option. Luke tells us that Paul’s rationale for having Timothy circumcised had to do with relationships, not rules. Paul was about to evangelize in Timothy’s hometown of Lystra, and Paul decided it was important that Timothy be circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” In other words, even in a matter as sensitive as the value of circumcision for Christian faith, relationships trumped rules. (Randolph and O’Brien )

  2. Quote from The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

    If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his work—as any Roman soldier could require of a Jew in Jesus’ day—I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will. I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I also will not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

    If I know people want to borrow something they need, I will not avoid them and their request, and I may, as appropriate, give to those who ask me for something even though they have no “claim” on me at all—no claim, that is, other than their need and their simple request. That is how God does it, and he invites us to join him.

    Of course in each case I must determine if the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength is, precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God. As a child of the King, I always live in his presence. By contrast, the way of law avoids individual responsibility for decision. It pushes the responsibility and possible blame onto God. That is one reason why people who must have a law for all their actions lead such pinched and impoverished lives and develop very little in the way of genuine depth in godly character.

    If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and leave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things I know I must do, and I must make the decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

    If I owe money to a shopkeeper whose goods I have already consumed, I am not at liberty to give that money to “someone who asks of me”—unless, once again, there are very special factors involved.

    If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

    Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life is kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

    If someone has taken my coat by lawsuit, I or someone else may well have a greater need of my shirt than he does. If not, I give it with generous love and blessing. Or perhaps the other’s need is so great I should give my shirt even if I suffer greatly. But what if the other doesn’t need it at all? Then I won’t impose it “because Jesus said so” and I must keep this “law.”

    In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (Willard)

Bibliography

Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998.

Pastors and Power

Richard Baxter saw, hundreds of years ago, the dangers of cozying up to political power. Ministers of the gospel, if they aren’t careful, will not only sacrifice original thought but also Biblical truth in order to avoid being ostracized, mocked, or disagreed with. Social media has made this quite apparent in the current year. For instance, as the pro-life position has become more and more subject to mockery, less and less Christians are publicly affirming it. I can think of two anti-political pastors (Greg Boyd and Josh Porter) who are “anti-political” as an expression of theology. So, they don’t really talk much about opposing abortion (as a matter of principle one should stay out of politics), but both were happy to engage in making fun of Trump and his voters on Twitter. I suspect that these strategies are more to appeal to people of a left-leaning political slant. And in fact, I’ve known many pastors personally who have taken a similar approach to ministry: mocking openly anybody in their churches that the political left finds distasteful.

Sadly, most positions are held by most people as a matter of tribalism rather than as a matter of truth. This state of affairs ought not be, but it is. As an aside, tribalism is a human default. The prime difference between the Christian and non-Christian tribes is that our chieftain (Jesus) commands us to put truth as our top loyalty (he is the Truth). So there’s a sense in which Christians should have the most disagreements (as seeking the truth entails argument) and the most unity (as we applaud the honest search for truth). Anyway, here is Baxter’s prescient commentary on our own time:

I would not have any to be contentious with those that govern them, nor to be disobedient to any of their lawful commands. But it is not the least reproach upon the Ministry, that the most of them for worldly advantage still suit themselves with the party that is most likely to suit their ends. If they look for secular advantages, they suit themselves to the Secular power; if for the air of Ecclesiastical applause, then do they suit themselves to the party of Ecclesiastics that is most in credit. This is not a private, but an epedemical malady. In Constantine’s days, how prevalent were the orthodox! In Constantius’s days, they almost all turned Arians, so that there were very few bishops at all that did not apostatize or betray the truth; even of the same men that had been in the Council of Nice. And when not only Liberius, but great Osius himself fell, who had been the president, or chief in so many orthodox Councils, what better could be expected from weaker men! Were it not for secular advantage, or ecclesiastic faction and applause, how could it come to pass, that Ministers in all the countries in the world, are either all, or almost all, of that religion and way that is in most credit, and most consistent with their worldly interest?Among the Greeks, they are all of the Greek profession: and among the Abassines, the Nestorians, the Maronites, the Jacobites, the Ministers generally go one way. And among the Papists, they are almost all Papists. In Saxony, Sweden, Denmark, &c. almost all Lutherans: in Holland, France, Scotland, almost all Calvinists. It is strange that they should be all in the right in one country, and all in the wrong in another, if carnal advantages and reputation did not sway much: when men fall upon a conscientious search, the variety of intellectual capacities causeth unavoidably a great variety of conceits about some hard and lower things: but let the prince, and the stream of men in credit go one way, and you shall have the generality of ministers too often change their religion with the Prince in this land. Not all, as our Martyrology can witness, but the most. I purposely forbear to mention any latter change. If the Rulers of an University should be corrupt, who have the disposal of preferments, how much might they do with the most of the students, where mere arguments would not take! And the same tractable distemper doth so often follow them into the Ministry, that it occasioneth the enemies to say, that reputation and preferment is our religion, and our reward.[1]

References

[1] Richard Baxter and William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 14 (London: James Duncan, 1830), 198–199.

Who Should Evangelize?

I saw this quote online today:

It raised an interesting point that I think needs brief elaboration. Here’s the great commission from Matthew 28:18-20:

Matthew 28:18-20 ESV And Jesus came and said to them [the eleven disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Now, in the quote above, he mentions that evangelism was the job of the disciples. And I agree, the great commission was originally given to the remaining disciples. Here are three points:

  1. The disciples are told that making disciples includes, “teaching them to observe all that I [Jesus] have commanded you.”
  2. This means that making new disciples is one of the skills Jesus commands them to obtain.
  3. The word for all Christians by the time the book of Acts was written was, “disciples.” “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” (Acts 6:1 ESV)

So, I think that all Christians are supposed to evangelize at some point (raising up children in the faith, sharing the gospel with somebody who asks a question, or initiating a conversation with a friend, family member or stranger).

Now, the individual who made this point made a few interesting points that deserve consideration because they were intelligently and honestly made:

  1. God doesn’t need evangelists. This is a fact. God needs literally nothing.
  2. God doesn’t want evangelists. This doesn’t hold if it’s true that Jesus represents God’s will and commands people to become disciples who make disciples. If God wants you to obey Jesus’ commands, then he wants you to be an evangelist.
  3. Ask God what he wants you to do. While I think God can supernaturally make his will apparent, God’s will for our lives is clearly taught in the four gospels, the book of Proverbs, and frankly the rest of Scripture. Waiting for specific, personal words from God when God has made clear what we should do in public revelation might leave us waiting too long.
  4. Unless your life is his will it takes some pain. I think that pain can come from doing good or evil. Not all pain is bad and some pain exists precisely to tell us to repent. It all depends.
  5. Unless we rise to his level, we are servants. Jesus makes clear that even among those who are saved, some people know his business and some don’t. Here’s what Jesus said about the matter, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:14-15 ESV)

 

Charles Hodge on Sanctification

Below is an excerpt from Charles Hodge‘s systematic theology textbook on sanctification or moral/spiritual growth. He says more on this process in the same chapter, but here he simply talks about the method of sanctification. Here’s my summary of his six points:

  1. The preaching of the gospel and the Holy Spirit lead the individual convert to Christ, who promises to save his people from sin.
  2. Faith leads to union with Christ which essentially has two effects:
    1. You receive Christ’s merits. His crucifixion is your death and his resurrection is your life.
    2. You receive the Holy Spirit who helps you to grow in love for God and neighbor.
  3. God’s Holy Spirit helps you apply your knowledge of the gospel to your own life, thus transforming your character over time.
  4. God gives you daily opportunities to exercise your graces or the character traits of Christ and you are to look for those opportunities and practice those traits as the opportunity arises. Richard Foster once recommended praying each morning, “Lord, give me an opportunity to serve somebody in the name of Jesus today.”
  5. Being a part of the church community gives the faithful access to God’s grace in very tangible ways: God’s people, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the preaching of the word, etc are means of grace.
  6. Christians should practice God’s presence as they face the challenges of the day.

Hodge on Sanctification

  1. The Soul is led to exercise Faith
    It is led to exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to receive Him as its Saviour, committing itself to Him to be by his merit and grace delivered from the guilt and power of sin. This is the first step, and secures all the rest, not because of its inherent virtue or efficacy, but because, according to the covenant of grace, or plan of salvation, which God has revealed and which He has pledged Himself to carry out, He becomes bound by his promise to accomplish the full salvation from sin of every one who believes
  2. The Effect of Union with Christ
    The soul by this act of faith becomes united to Christ. We are in Him by faith. The consequences of this union are:
    1. Participation in his merits. His perfect righteousness, agreeably to the stipulations of the covenant of redemption, is imputed to the believer. He is thereby justified. He is introduced into a state of favour or grace, and rejoices in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1–3.) This is, as the Bible teaches, the essential preliminary condition of sanctification. While under the law we are under the curse. While under the curse we are the enemies of God and bring forth fruit unto death. It is only when delivered from the law by the body or death of Christ, and united to Him, that we bring forth fruit unto God. (Romans 6:8; 7:4–6.) Sin, therefore, says the Apostle, shall not reign over us, because we are not under the law. (Romans 6:14.) Deliverance from the law is the necessary condition of deliverance from sin. All the relations of the believer are thus changed. He is translated from the kingdom of darkness and introduced into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Instead of an outcast, a slave under condemnation, he becomes a child of God, assured of his love, of his tenderness, and of his care. He may come to Him with confidence. He is brought under all the influences which in their full effect constitute heaven. He therefore becomes a new creature. He has passed from death to life; from darkness to light, from hell (the kingdom of Satan) to heaven. He sits with Christ in heavenly places. (Eph. 2:6.)
    2. Another consequence of the union with Christ effected by faith, is the indwelling of the Spirit. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us, in order that we might receive the promise of the Holy Ghost. (Gal. 3:13, 14.) It was not consistent with the perfections or purposes of God that the Spirit should be given to dwell with his saving influences in the apostate children of men, until Christ had made a full satisfaction for the sins of the world. But as with God there are no distinctions of time, Christ was slain from the foundation of the world, and his death availed as fully for the salvation of those who lived before, as for that of those who have lived since his coming in the flesh. (Romans 3:25, 26; Heb. 9:15.) The Spirit was given to the people of God from the beginning. But as our Lord says (John 10:10) that He came into the world not only that men might have life, but that they might have it more abundantly, the effusion, or copious communication of the Spirit is always represented as the great characteristic of the Messiah’s advent. (Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:16–21; John 7:38, 39.) Our Lord, therefore, in his last discourse to his disciples, said it was expedient for them that He went away, for “if I go not away, the Comforter (the Παράκλητος, the helper) will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.” (John 16:7.) He was to supply the place of Christ as to his visible presence, carry on his work, gather in his people, transform them into the likeness of Christ, and communicate to them all the benefits of his redemption. Where the Spirit is, there Christ is; so that, the Spirit being with us, Christ is with us; and if the Spirit dwells in us, Christ dwells in us. (Romans 8:9–11.) In partaking, therefore, of the Holy Ghost, believers are partakers of the life of Christ. The Spirit was given to Him without measure, and from Him flows down to all his members. This participation of the believer in the life of Christ, so that every believer may say with the Apostle, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20), is prominently presented in the Word of God. (Romans 6:5; Romans 7:4; John 14:19; Col. 3:3, 4.) The two great standing illustrations of this truth are the vine and the human body. The former is presented at length in John 15:1–8; the latter in 1 Corinthians 12:11–27; Romans 12:5; Ephesians 1:22, 23; 4:15, 16; 5:30; Colossians 1:18; Col. 2:19; and frequently elsewhere. As the life of the vine is diffused through all the branches, sustaining and rendering them fruitful; and as the life of the head is diffused through all the members of the body making it one, and imparting life to all, so the life of Christ is diffused through all the members of his mystical body making them one body in Him; having a common life with their common head. This idea is urged specially in Ephesians 4:15, 16, where it is said that it is from Christ that the whole body fitly joined together, through the spiritual influence granted to every part according to its measure, makes increase in love. It is true that this is spoken of the Church as a whole. But what is said of Christ’s mystical body as a whole is true of all its members severally. He is the prophet, priest, and king of the Church; but He is also the prophet, priest, and king of every believer. Our relation to Him is individual and personal. The Church as a whole is the temple of God; but so is every believer. (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19.) The Church is the bride of Christ, but every believer is the object of that tender, peculiar love expressed in the use of that metaphor. The last verse of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “Ein Lammlein geht und tragt die Schuld,” every true Christian may adopt as the expression of his own hopes:—”Wann endlich ich soll treten ein In deines Reiches Freuden, So soll diess Blut mein Purpur seyn, Ich will mich darein kleiden; Es soll seyn meines Hauptes Kron’ In welcher ich will vor den Thron Des hochaten Vaters gehen, Und dir, dem er mich anvertraut, Als eine wohlgeschmückte Braut, An deiner Seiten stehen.”
  3. The Inward Work of the Spirit
    The indwelling, of the Holy Spirit thus secured by union with Christ becomes the source of a new spiritual life, which constantly increases in power until everything uncongenial with it is expelled, and the soul is perfectly transformed into the image of Christ. It is the office of the Spirit to enlighten the mind: or, as Paul expresses it, “to enlighten the eyes of the understanding” (Eph. 1:18), that we may know the things freely given to us of God (1 Cor. 2:12); i.e., the things which God has revealed; or, as they are called in v. 14, “The things of the Spirit of God.” These things, which the natural man cannot know, the Spirit enables the believer “to discern,” i.e., to apprehend in their truth and excellence; and thus to experience their power. The Spirit, we are taught, especially opens the eyes to see the glory of Christ, to see that He is God manifest in the flesh: to discern not only his divine perfections, but his love to us, and his suitableness in all respects as our Saviour, so that those who have not seen Him, yet believing on Him, rejoice in Him with joy unspeakable and full of glory. This apprehension of Christ is transforming; the soul is thereby changed into his image, from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord. It was this inward revelation of Christ by which Paul on his way to Damascus was instantly converted from a blasphemer into a worshipper and self-sacrificing servant of the Lord Jesus. It is not, however, only one object which the opened eye of the believer is able to discern.

    The Spirit enables him to see the glory of God as revealed in his works and in his word; the holiness and spirituality of the law; the exceeding sinfulness of sin; his own guilt, pollution, and helplessness; the length and breadth, the height and depth of the economy of redemption; and the reality, glory, and infinite importance of the things unseen and eternal The soul is thus raised above the world. It lives in a higher sphere. It becomes more and more heavenly in its character and desires. All the great doctrines of the Bible concerning God, Christ, and things spiritual and eternal, are so revealed by this inward teaching of the Spirit, as to be not only rightly discerned, but to exert, in a measure, their proper influence on the heart and life. Thus the prayer of Christ (John 17:17), “Sanctify them through thy truth,” is answered in the experience of his people.

  4. God calls the Graces of his People into Exercise
    The work of sanctification is carried on by God’s giving constant occasion for the exercise of all the graces of the Spirit. Submission, confidence, self-denial, patience, and meekness, as well as faith, hope, and love, are called forth, or put to the test, more or less effectually every day the believer passes on earth. And by this constant exercise he grows in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is, however, principally by calling his people to labour and suffer for the advancement of the Redeemer’s kingdom, and for the good of their fellow-men, that this salutary discipline is carried on. The best Christians are in general those who not merely from restless activity of natural disposition, but from love to Christ and zeal for his glory, labour most and suffer most in his service.
  5. The Church and Sacraments as means of Grace
    One great end of the establishment of the Church on earth, as the communion of saints, is the edification of the people of God. The intellectual and social life of man is not developed in isolation and solitude. It is only in contact and collision with his fellow-men that his powers are called into exercise and his social virtues are cultivated. Thus also it is by the Churchlife of believers, by their communion in the worship and service of God, and by their mutual good offices and fellowship, that the spiritual life of the soul is developed. Therefore the Apostle says, “Let us consider one another, to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another; and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24, 25.)

    The Spirit renders the ordinances of God, the word, sacraments, and prayer, effectual means of promoting the sanctification of his people, and of securing their ultimate salvation These, however, must be more fully considered in the sequel.

  6. The Kingly Office of Christ
    In this connection, we are not to overlook or undervalue the constant exercise of the kingly office of Christ. He not only reigns over his people, but He subdues them to Himself, rules and defends them, and restrains and conquers all his and their enemies. These enemies are both inward and outward, both seen and unseen; they are the world, the flesh, and the devil. The strength of the believer in contending with these enemies, is not his own. He is strong only in the Lord, and in the power of his might. (Eph. 6:10.) The weapons, both offensive and defensive, are supplied by Him, and the disposition and the skill to use them are his gifts to be sought by praying without ceasing. He is an ever present helper. Whenever the Christian feels his weakness either in resisting temptation or in the discharge of duty, he looks to Christ, and seeks aid from Him. And all who seek find. When we fail, it is either from self-confidence, or from neglecting to call upon our ever present and almighty King, who is always ready to protect and deliver those who put their trust in Him. But there are dangers which we do not apprehend, enemies whom we do not see, and to which we would become an easy prey, were it not for the watchful care of Him who came into the world to destroy the works of the devil, and to bruise Satan under our feet. The Christian runs his race “looking unto Jesus;” the life he lives, he lives by faith in the Son of God; it is by the constant worship of Christ; by the constant exercise of love toward Him; by constant endeavours to do his will; and by constantly looking to Him for the supply of grace and for protection and aid, that he overcomes sin and finally attains the prize of the high-calling of God.

Do we need asceticism?

Asceticism is a maligned concept, but it’s cross culturally universal. At its essence, asceticism is exercising to optimize your life for some goal. Everybody is, in this sense, an ascetic practitioner. The problem is that we may not have chosen the goal toward which we are heading or we may be doing exercises improper to the goal.

For instance, in Fight Club men are being shaped into consumerist nobodies whose souls were as empty as their closets and refrigerators were full, but they keep buying things and accepting advice from unfulfilled individuals (advertisers or women who hate men) for designing their lives. They seek meaning, but use the tools of nihilism to achieve it.

In this sense, many people engage in quite severe exercises toward goals they’ve never chosen! People will work at jobs they hate, miss out on their children’s lives, eat food that hurts them over and over to save time, all the while wishing desperately to not make those choices. But the more ancient sense of asceticism is choosing certain severe practices to escape such deadening life paths to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty.

Margaret Miles observed that if we find ourselves attracted to any of the goals of historic asceticism (virtue, happiness, personal power, spiritual growth, a persistent sense of meaning, etc), then we should “take seriously the claim of the historical authors that ascetic practices are the best means toward them.[1]

What were the goals of ancient asceticism?

  1. The acquisition of happiness and virtue.
  2. Control over one’s desires.
  3. Control over one’s thoughts.
  4. Control over one’s body.
  5. A clear vision of God and a deep compassion for the downtrodden.
  6. Partial escape from the symbolic world provided to us by others.

There were others, but these are the ones that are most appealing to me.

A modern asceticism would have to include:

  1. Fasting
  2. Solitude
  3. Physical exercise
  4. Strict attention to money and how it is used
  5. Escape to nature in some form
  6. Various forms of meditation (on Scripture, introspection, mindfulness to learn to control your thoughts/moods, etc)

 

References

[1] Margaret R Miles, Fullness of Life: Historical Foundations for a New Asceticism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981).

 

Are you good enough to be Jesus’ disciple?

When asked why he associated with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus answered:

And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The healthy do not need the doctor, the sick do. Go and learn about this, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-13)

There is a hidden logic behind what Jesus was asked/accused of:

  1. The kingdom of God is about purity.
  2. Any messenger of God’s kingdom would be sure to maintain purity by not associating with evil or unclean people.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is not a messenger of God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ response reframes the issue:

  1. The kingdom and purity are now about mercy.
  2. To be a messenger of God’s kingdom is to extend God’s mercy to others.
  3. Therefore, everybody Jesus calls into his kingdom is a sinner (because those whom he calls are sinners to whom he extends God’s mercy).

Are you good enough to be Jesus’ disciple?

The answer is the same as the answer to this question: Do you do bad things?

Dallas Willard on the Beatitudes

Dallas Willard’s understanding of the Beatitudes:

It will help us know what to do—and what not to do—with the Beatitudes if we can discover what Jesus himself was doing with them. That should be the key to understanding them, for after all they are his Beatitudes, not ours to make of them what we will. And since great teachers and leaders always have a coherent message that they develop in an orderly way, we should assume that his teaching in the Beatitudes is a clarification or development of his primary theme in this talk and in his life: the availability of the kingdom of the heavens. How, then, do they develop that theme?

In chapter 4 of Matthew we see Jesus proclaiming his basic message (v. 17) and demonstrating it by acting with God’s rule from the heavens, meeting the desperate needs of the people around him. As a result, “Sick folk were soon coming to be healed from as far away as Syria. And whatever their illness or pain, or if they were possessed by demons, or were insane, or paralyzed—he healed them all. Enormous crowds followed him wherever he went” (4:23–25 LB).

Having ministered to the needs of the people crowding around him, he desired to teach them and moved to a higher position in the landscape—“up on the hill” (Matt. 5:1 BV)—where they could see and hear him well. But he does not, as is so often suggested, withdraw from the crowd to give an esoteric discourse of sublime irrelevance to the crying need of those pressing upon him. Rather, in the midst of this mass of raw humanity, and with them hanging on every word—note that it is they who respond at the end of the discourse—Jesus teaches his students or apprentices, along with all who hear, about the meaning of the availability of the heavens.

I believe he used the method of “show and tell” to make clear the extent to which the kingdom is “on hand” to us. There were directly before him those who had just received from the heavens through him. The context makes this clear. He could point out in the crowd now this individual, who was “blessed” because The Kingdom Among Us had just reached out and touched them with Jesus’ heart and voice and hands. Perhaps this is why in the Gospels we only find him giving Beatitudes from the midst of a crowd of people he had touched.

And so he said, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’—when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.”

Or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” This, of course, is the more traditional and literally correct translation of Matt. 5:3. The poor in spirit are blessed as a result of the kingdom of God being available to them in their spiritual poverty. But today the words “poor in spirit” no longer convey the sense of spiritual destitution that they were originally meant to bear. Amazingly, they have come to refer to a praiseworthy condition. So, as a corrective, I have paraphrased the verse as above. No doubt Jesus had many exhibits from this category in the crowd around him. Most, if not all, of the Twelve Apostles were of this type, as are many now reading these words. (Willard 99-101)

Works Cited:
Willard, Dallas The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper Collins, 1997)