This post is taken from the current Cor Deo website. Please offer any responses there. Thanks!
The stir for this entry comes from Martin Luther. What caught my attention is a revisit to Tuomo Mannermaa’s intriguing work, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification (Fortress, 2005). Luther, according to Mannermaa, held that a believer’s experience of Christ in saving union is crucial to faith.
The reason for mentioning this is that most Lutherans today—those who embrace the Formula of Concord—treat the believer’s legal standing with Christ as primary and his indwelling as a follow-up benefit. As such a believer’s justification is distinct from union with Christ, and union is treated as a benefit of faith and salvation.
But Mannermaa, a Lutheran scholar, views this arrangement as “alien to the Reformer” (p.41). The nature of righteousness is, instead, a matter of the soul being transformed by Christ’s presence so that Christ’s union and the soul’s justification is the same event. The shift away from Luther’s view, Mannermaa suggests, was Philip Melanchthon’s work.
I would add that this dismissed Luther’s immediate and experiential faith in favor of a more rational and disaffected arrangement. Luther’s view was derived from the biblical language of marital union in which Christ’s initiative is the defining event of salvation: the divine lover comes and wins his beloved’s heart and that inaugurates faith as a response.
What follows from this pursuit and response? Let’s turn to Luther’s own words in “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520—taken from his Three Treatises, 286-87).
“The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.”
This last feature—the common possession of good and evil—was critical in Luther’s use of the divine-human marital exchange to explain the ontology of justification in Bible terms. Every other feature of salvation flows out of this exchange. We return to Luther:
“Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his.”
The clarity and simplicity of this understanding overturns the layers of legal and metaphysical conjurings that grew out of medieval scholasticism—most of which were put in place for the sake of non-biblical premises. These included the idea that God’s radical difference-in-being as Creator from the creation—incommensurability—precludes such a union. There was also a belief taken from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (who merely articulated human common sense) that God requires humans to be free moral agents who play some role in achieving salvation. Both notions are reasonable but biblically wrong-headed.
What Luther had experienced in his own conversion and found anchored in the Bible is that any and every moment of human salvation reveals God’s Heart moving the human heart to respond. How? By the work of Christ’s wooing Holy Spirit who pours out God’s love in that person’s heart.
When we turn to the Bible to measure Luther’s view that faith is our experience of and response to God’s love we find support in every direction. In the Old Testament the marital motif is common—usually with God’s heart being broken accompanied by his promise to restore a bond of love—as in Isaiah 53-54, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 16, all of Hosea, and more. In the New Testament Luther’s key passages of 1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5 make sense of the final wedding supper of the Lamb in Revelation.
This, in turn, sets up an expectation that faith involves the ongoing experience of God’s love—what Paul presumes in Romans 8—with intimate features such as the Spirit’s witness that we are now free to call the Father “Abba”. There is also Jesus’ celebration in John 17 of his love for the Father that he intends to be the shared experience of all true believers.
What, then, of claims by many notable Christian scholars that faith is a disaffected and will-based effort by grace-enabled souls?
A good question! It reflects, in part, another marriage: of Aristotle’s philosophy to Christianity, which Thomas Aquinas facilitated. It may also reflect the rationalizations by professing Christians who are still resisting the Spirit’s wooing call—as in Paul’s kicking against the “goads” of Christ before his Damascus road conversion. Real faith always works through love—a real love as is found in sound, affectively rich marriages.
Luther and his kin, of course, must not be accused of promoting a spiritual tautology—the experience of experience—as if mere experience is a proper ambition. The only source of proper Christian experience is Christ himself, and to know him in a Heart-to-heart bond is to love him.
If any readers haven’t experienced this love I invite you to pray for eyes to see him and for ears to hear his gracious voice: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If you do pray, be assured—as in John 3—that Christ’s Spirit will have been stirring you already and his newfound presence that follows will feel like a breeze stirring the once still forest of your soul.
Pray and see for yourself.
Here’s a question that rarely surfaces these days but it still needs to be asked: How many professing Christians will Jesus receive as his own on judgment day? And how many will be told, “Depart from me, I never knew you!”?
Along with this basic two-sided question let me ask a related but more applied question: How do we live as Christians in light of Christ knowing us? What sort of spirituality comes with this “knowing”?
First let’s set a context. As Christians we all hold assumptions about God. Let’s consider two starters.
The first broad assumption is that God has a personality profile. At one end of the range of personhood options we may see him as placid: as one who maintains nature but does little else. Or he might be just the opposite: an engaged activist devoted to ruling and shaping everything in creation. And with that he may be viewed as self-concerned—seeking glory from the creation—or as other-concerned and devoted to sharing his glory freely in lively relationships.
Unending possibilities and permutations exist, of course. My point here isn’t to chase comparisons but to be reminded that our picture of God reveals whether or not we know him. Christ’s disciples—those who really knew him in the first century—were very different from the religious leadership in the way they responded to Jesus. They knew him; the Pharisees and Sadducees were only acquainted with him.
If truly knowing God is critical to eternal life we eventually need to ask, “Who, from Christ’s point of view, is a Christian?” He defines the conversation, not us. And our focus on Christ is what defines a Christian: he displays divinity to us in human terms.
Another assumption is that humans exist and relate to God in a life-shaping manner. Humans, for instance, may want to ignore God or, perhaps, to determine God’s existence in a “make-believe” way. This suits a placid version of God.
Alternatively God may be fully in charge of things. A version of this God has us reflecting his brilliance back to him as mirrors of his glory—so our connection with him can be impersonal and utilitarian.
Or we may assume—having been told by Jesus that when we have seen him we have seen the Father—that the nature of his bond to the Father by the Spirit is God’s clearest point of self-disclosure. And it also defines the way he created us. In other words, we were made ‘like’ him—as relational beings made in his communing, communicating Image.
Now, back to our first question. What is it that assures us that Jesus will acknowledge us in the Day to come? It will have everything to do with how our relationship with Christ shares in and reflects Christ’s relationship with the Father. This may sound a bit strange so please stay with me!
As we noted already, our being depends on God’s being. So when we meet God in the New Testament Jesus is standing there. He tells that he and the Father are one. And he wants us to trust him in the same way he trusts the Father. We’re called to love him just as the Father loves him. We’re called to be holy just as he and the Father are holy. We’re called to rely on the Spirit just as he relied on the Spirit. In a summative invitation we’re even called to “kiss the Son”—see Psalm 2—in our heartfelt devotion. It reminds us of the Father telling us, “This is my beloved Son!”
Another guiding text is John 17 where Jesus celebrates the union and unity of the Godhead. This is where God wants to take us. Jesus made it clear: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The Father and the Son are one, and their sharing and giving expresses God’s overflowing love: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Which leads us back to the second question: how do we live the Christian life? The answer in the Bible is that God’s own relationship is the environment of our eternal union with Christ. We are brought into his eternal communion as family. And, what’s more, that relationship has already begun.
Think, for instance, of the Spirit’s invitation for us to call God “Abba”—Daddy—and our place with Christ at the Father’s right hand. The Father’s passion for his Son includes his passion for us—as we’re now called “children of God” and the “bride of Christ”.
How, then, should we live? As responders and repeaters. That is, as responders to God’s love so that we love him in return; and as repeaters as we share the love we receive with our neighbors. Is it a life of duty? No—realizing that Jesus was delighted to follow his Father—we also delight in God’s care for us.
What about those who promote faith as a duty, and treat the affections—whether God‘s or man’s—as sub-spiritual? Maybe they don’t even know God. Whatever the case let’s not take them to be our spiritual guides. Look, instead, to Jesus to tell us more, in his Word, of what it means to know him better.
I’ve been reading Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite (Coakley & Stang, eds.). The “re-thinking” in the title caught my attention. Most of us have never had a first thought about Dionysius so the idea of a re-think is odd. Never mind, though, whether we know him or not. It’s very likely that he has helped shape the way we think.
Who is he? To be honest, we don’t know. He’s never been identified by a real name or linked to a particular setting. Our best guess is that he was from Syria and was perhaps a monk. What we do know is that his writings first appeared in the early sixth century and he presented himself—falsely—as Paul’s Athenian convert, a philosopher mentioned in Acts 17:34.
What historians have sniffed out is that he drew on the teachings of a pagan Neoplatonist, Proclus (410-85), who drew, in turn, from Plotinus (c. 205-270). For that reason he’s referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius, or Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite: a religious fraud.
He became a significant figure in medieval Christianity because most intellectuals from the sixth through the fifteenth centuries thought he really was Paul’s convert from the first century era. So if any bright thinker from long ago wanted a more philosophically informed version of Christianity, they needed to read and understand Dionysius. What they were actually digesting, however, was a warmed over version of Plato.
It’s not as if Neoplatonism was something new. Plotinus—who was born in Egypt and taught in Rome—was important to early Christian thought even though he wasn’t a Christian. He portrayed God as “One”—the supreme reality—who extends outward in dual emanations of Spirit and Soul. Each later returns into the One—something like a solar flare that erupts, then returns into the sun.
This triadic version of the One helped set up Christians, including Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, and others, with some useful concepts for thinking about the Trinity. But most of these church fathers also knew enough—although in varying degrees—to dismiss sub-Christian elements of Platonic thought.
That’s where Pseudo-Dionysius makes the story more interesting. Even though his portrayal of God drew from the well of Neoplatonism—with its many distortions—he was considered to be trustworthy. Readers believed he actually represented the Apostle Paul’s “deeper” teachings. That meant his writings weren’t filtered by the kind of appropriate skepticism the writings of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus all received.
What followed was an embrace of key notions of Pseudo-Dionysius that still have a place in Christendom today. In Eastern Christianity Maximus the Confessor adopted that theology in laying the foundations for the liturgy of Greek Orthodox faith today.
In the Western Church led by Rome John Scotus Erigena (c.815-c.877) promoted Dionysius by providing his own translation of his writings from the original Greek into Latin. With this exposure by a well-known language Dionysian spirituality gained a footing in the West and became the core of Catholic mysticism. Others who followed in this tradition included Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius Loyola, Jesuit founder—whose Spiritual Exercises set the model for most of today’s methods in the spiritual disciplines.
What are the main notions of this mysticism? Two items stand out.
First, there is the Dionysian view of God as absolutely One—a singularity or monad—seen as a shaping Force rather than a personal being. Listen to a part of this Dionysian vision:
“The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion.” [Mystical Theology, ch. 4, 1040D]
This speculative set of negations differs dramatically from the lively and positive portrayal of God as Triune, existing in eternal communion: a God who “is love” and who is ultimately revealed to us in the person of Jesus: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” [John 14:9-10]
In Dionysian spirituality, by contrast, the focus is on the One as ultimate. The Son, with the Spirit, are lesser and temporary emanations from the One—more iconic & modalistic—meant only to offer access to the pure experience of unknowable divinity. God, in effect, uses the Son to draw seekers into his great Unknown realm. Simply put, Jesus is not central to this mystical religion; he is merely a means to the end of experiencing God.
The second key notion of Dionysian spirituality is that the One is passive—essentially a non-conversant being. In Platonic terms the One is the Form in which all particular forms or ideas exist—so that all the things we perceive as “real” are merely shadows of the ultimate forms in the One. The relation of humans to the One is a pursuit of lesser figures back into their Source.
It is an ascent of the mind, but not through the mind’s activities. Instead the mind must be quieted in hopes of becoming aligned with the ultimate Mind. It sets up a paradoxical “knowing” of the Unknowable One by a three-step ascent: purgation, illumination, and union.
The Bible, by contrast, presents a conversational God. In God’s Triune communion we were known even before the creation (Ephesians 1:4). The title for the Son, before he became man, was Word (John 1:1)—the revealer of the Divine Conversation. The motivation of this Conversation comes to us as God’s love through his Son (John 3:16).
I’m just scratching the surface here. What’s the takeaway? Paul’s supposed disciple, Pseudo-Dionysius, was actually a disciple of Plotinus and a promoter of Neoplatonism’s non-Christian One. As such he offers the promise of a Divine Stir—of an ineffable union with the unknowable One—and turned faith into an effort to ascend “into” the One through spiritual disciplines.
Okay. I understand. But I’ll take the Bible’s actual version of God: the Father, Spirit, Son God who pursued me and captured my heart. I love him because he first loved me. That’s a proper stir.
Paul wrote of two competing laws in Romans 3 as he scolded some of the Jews in Rome for the moralistic demands they placed on Gentile believers. In his view a “law of works” set up self-focused “boasting” about the role we have in faith:
“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Ro. 3:27).
I preached on Romans 4 this weekend (Good Shepherd Community Church, Oregon) and I saw that Paul’s discussion of Abraham placed the patriarch as the ultimate model of the “law of faith”. The challenge, however, was to unpack what the difference is between works and faith. So I offered a homey parable to explore the point.
A son came home from university for the weekend. After breakfast he put $5 on the table as he got up.
“What’s that?” asked his dad.
“It’s what I owe you for breakfast,” replied the son. “And in my bedroom I’ve left you $20 as last night’s room rental.”
The father frowned. “But you’re our son—you don’t owe us anything.”
“I knew you’d say that,” the son answered, “because you’ve always tried to make me dependent on you and now it’s time for me to be independent—to be a true person.”
“What led to this?” the father asked.
“In my course on personal development Professor Diablo taught us about the law of true personhood: to be an ‘authentic person’ I need to be independent so that’s my new law of life.”
His father looked puzzled. “But what about the ‘law’—if that’s the language you want to use, ‘of the family’? In a family we’re always depending on each other—that’s what love does.”
“Sorry, Dad—or, maybe I’ll just call you Jim from now on,” said the son, “I see myself as an independent person and that’s the law we’ll all need to recognize from now on.”
The son left the room and Jim, his saddened father, went to his study. He was a very successful accountant so for the rest of the morning he did what he knew best.
At noon the family enjoyed soup and sandwiches and the son, once again, put down a $5 bill. But this time the father had something to say.
“Hold on, Harry, we’ve got something more to talk about here. Since you’ve chosen to live by Professor Diablo’s law of life instead of our own law of a bonded family, I did some homework. Ever since you were born your mother and I have been investing in you and by your new law the bill has come due. So you actually owe us $282,532 including interest and I’d like that as a lump sum by tonight. Or if you prefer monthly payments I can set up a financing plan with interest of less than 10%.”
“But if you were willing to live by the law of a caring family your mother and I will be happy to view it as a gift. Just let me know by dinner time if you don’t mind.”
I ended the parable with the son’s response open. My hope is that listeners will recognize the relational basis of faith: God is a loving “promiser” whose grace elicits the response of faith. In other words faith isn’t a duty—a token payment of our will—but a moment that comes when our hearts become aligned with God’s heart as took place for Abraham in Genesis 15. God took him outside to count stars and promised, “If you’re able to number the stars, you’ll see how many offspring you’ll have.” He believed God and God counted that faith as righteousness.
So Abraham’s faith was based on the promise of a coming seed—a single offspring among the many—who would be the blessing to the nations. In wider reading we can presume it referred to the woman’s “seed” in Genesis 3:15, meaning the one who would come to defeat the Serpent’s seed. That blessing-seed ultimately came to be born as Jesus.
For Abraham to be “counted righteous” in Genesis 15 because of his simple faith was crucial for what Paul taught about justification in Romans 4. This faith came before any moral regulations—epitomized by circumcision—appeared. In fact was many years later that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of devotion, in Genesis 17. So in Romans 4 Paul’s point is that the duty of circumcision in Genesis 17 is not to be conflated with the promise of Genesis 15.
I hope the parable helps us see God’s plan from a Father’s point of view.
This entry repeats my entry at the Cor Deo site. Please post any responses there. Thanks!
What role does the Holy Spirit play in our salvation?
I ask because most formal conversations about salvation feature the Father and the Son while largely ignoring the Spirit. This Spirit-light tradition features the Father’s saving plan for the Son to die as was planned from eternity past. On the cross the Son redeems us by his atoning death as he propitiates sin—that is, he accepts the Father’s wrath against sin in our place. We deserved to die but he died for us and gave us his life.
This sets up a three-step progression. In his vicarious death Jesus bears our judgment. The Father is then satisfied. We, then, are granted salvation through faith. So God is the planner; the Son is the sacrifice; and all who believe are granted eternal life through Christ’s sacrificial death.
This sketch, while sound, is too limited: it misses God’s heart. God made us to share his love and that aspect of salvation is central. The eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit was offered to humanity, beginning with Adam and Eve. The first couple then spurned that love and chose, instead, to love the deceit that they could “be like God.” We can be sure that God was grieved by their hardness towards him: their bond with God, by the Spirit, was broken.
Salvation, then, is the restoration of the elect to the communion Adam once shared with God, a restoration generated by the Spirit —“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
But this raises a question: is the promise in Ezekiel of the Spirit’s coming to be “within you” an altogether new feature of the God-Man relationship, or is it a restoration of what was lost in Eden? Nothing in the Genesis account answers that question directly but we do have some items to consider.
First, we read in Genesis 1 that the creation of Adam and Eve was in the image of God. The Trinity is implicit in the plural features of “let us” and “our image” and the reciprocal account of the “male and female” dimension of the one “Man.” That is, in each case—in God and in Man—we find plurality. So in later Scriptures when the triune communion of the Father-Son-Spirit God is unfolded to us we can look back to Genesis for precursors: for clues that tell us that this relational reality was already present in the beginning. The Spirit would have been present “in our image” just as, earlier, in Genesis 1:2 he was present as a creator.
So, too, we can presume that God didn’t reshape his own being for the sake of our human functions so when we find a parallel feature in God’s being and our being we can be sure of God’s priority in that parallel: we were made to be like him, not the other way round.
I mention this in light of 1 Corinthians 2 where the Spirit is said to search out the “thoughts of God” on our behalf just as each of us have a distinct “spirit” in our makeup that “knows a person’s thoughts” (verses 10-11). In other words God’s Spirit does the work of searching and then communicating God’s inner thoughts—and this would always have been true of God. So who received the Father’s deepest thoughts in eternity past? The Son. And as the Son’s Spirit he also would have revealed the Son’s thoughts to the Father in return.
In other words the Spirit is the communicating presence in God: he actively facilitates the intimate communion of the Father and the Son. And he also stirs and maintains our communion with God and with each other—with representative texts such as Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 12, among others, in mind. Our spirituality relies on the presence of the Spirit. Our creation in God’s image included a human “spirit” as the place where God’s “Spirit” dwells and engages us in God’s life, love, and communion.
So it was that Jesus in John 3 told Nicodemus that any efforts to be engaged with God while functioning as a Spirit-less person was absurd. He needed the restoration of what Adam abandoned: the presence, life, and communion of the Spirit. Apart from the Spirit he was dead towards God.
Salvation, then, relies on the coming of the Spirit to dwell in the human spirit: “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” in the manner of marriage when two are joined as one (1 Corinthians 6:16-17). And in that union the Spirit’s role is to communicate the deepest thoughts of Christ to his human partners, something Paul summarized in Romans 5:5—“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
So when we think of salvation we need to think not only of the Father and the Son, but also of the Spirit. He’s the one who shares God’s life and heart with us, and then shares our hearts with God in return.
Enjoy the communion!
Righteousness—and how to achieve it—is at the heart of Christian faith. But what, according to the Bible, makes us righteous? Another word, justification – “to be made righteous”, refers to the same issue: how do we come into a proper standing with God?
In Christianity at least three ways of determining righteousness have been promoted: an applied measure, a legal measure, and a relational measure. Applied righteousness is easy: any conduct that satisfies God’s demands makes a person righteous. Legal righteousness is broader: if a person has been judged guilty for his sins God is free to offer a reprieve by dismissing the legal charges against him.
Martin Luther, for instance, used this understanding when he spoke of Christians having an “alien righteousness” through faith in Christ. In his view a given believer is granted the full moral standing of the Son—absolute righteousness—through faith, even though the believer’s conduct still falls well short of Christ’s applied righteousness. In other words a person’s applied righteousness isn’t critical; the Father’s forgiveness in Christ through faith is what counts.
This debate was central to the 16th century Protestant Reformation as the Roman Church dismissed Luther’s claim and insisted that Christians must work to achieve actual righteousness through a “faith formed by love”. And the Roman version of love was will-based—a function of self-determined obedience—rather than an affective love. Spirituality, then, grows as a responsibility of the seeker rather than as a response to God’s love. God, in their view, is a righteous judge who demands that his followers rise to his ethical standards. Conduct that falls short remains under God’s righteous wrath.
Luther, on the other hand, believed that God is a lover who draws us into the affective bond of the Father and the Son. Love, in turn, is a shared delight and response to a loving God by his beloved ones. And the devotion of love—our faith—is what changes us to be more and more like the Son in our daily conduct. Our hearts follow after the heart of the one we love.
With that historical sketch in mind I was struck with Paul’s discussion of sin in Romans 3. There the relational righteousness of God comes into focus. The chapter famously declares that all humanity is morally broken: “None is righteous, no, not even one; no one understands; not one seeks for God” (verses 10-11). So human righteousness, by this measure, is nonsense and pretense. No one, apart from Christ, ever achieves actual righteousness.
What catches our attention in the following verses is Paul’s resolution of the problem: of “how the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
What’s striking is how Paul set out the problem of sin in the earlier verses of the chapter: he began by framing sin as a problem of faithlessness in verse 3—“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” Next, in a restatement in verse 5, Paul set out the same concern but with a new term in place of faith-concerns. “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? . . . . By no means!” The two expressions are parallel so that unrighteousness is aligned with faithlessness.
Faithfulness and faithlessness are terms that press us towards a relational rather than a legal focus, but the two are coordinate concerns. Think, for instance, of the refrain that comes with so many broken marriages—“The spouse was unfaithful.” In such cases God’s law is certainly broken but the deeper issue is the violation of love.
And that refrain, as it relates to God and his people, jumps off the pages of the Old Testament in any rapid reading of the Bible. Jeremiah, for instance, treats it as a central theme in his warnings to Judah: “You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD. . . . She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore” (Jer. 3:1 & 8).
The contrast between the faithful husband-who-is-God and his faithless bride, Israel, is played out again and again in the Old Testament. Hosea’s marriage to faithless Gomer is the vivid picture of God’s anguish over his faithless creation.
In this book the prophet goes beyond Israel to address the faithlessness of humanity as a whole: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:7). But God persistently refuses to give his bridal people away to their predilection for evil and promises to draw back at least some to himself: “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jer. 32:40-41).
Here’s the point: we will do well to reflect on God’s real “heart” and “soul” desire for us to have a love relationship with him that is sound. We aren’t meant to give our hearts away to the love of success, wealth, security, and the like—to self-love—but to be wholly devoted to Christ. This is what we were made for. And this is what ultimately defines righteousness rather than mere law-keeping. Laws only confront broken relationships; they don’t build faithful hearts. Luther was right in his emphasis on God’s role in restoring us. We won’t ever do it on our own.
So faithfulness and righteousness is the fruit of love. The gospel is God’s call for us to turn back to him, to hear his expressions of faithful love. That alone will stir us to love him in return—both wholly and faithfully.
The spiritual formation movement—popular among many Christians today—has certain attractions. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, inaugurated this theme as he promoted a disciplined spirituality in his Spiritual Exercises.
Spiritual Directors applied these exercises to aspirants during quietist retreats. Loyola, a former soldier, meant to spread the Catholic faith—and to suppress the budding Protestantism of his day—with a paradoxical blend of steel-like duties and mystical devotion. To a critic it works only at one level—in creating spiritual compliance—but not as a pathway to genuine spirituality.
Why not the latter? Because it presumes an ability to change ourselves from the outside-in: as something we initiate and control. It calls for us to be godly by our own efforts. But achieving self-produced godliness is about as likely as our walking to the moon.
Yet spiritual formation is sound if what we mean is the Spirit’s work to change us from the inside-out. Think, for instance, of what Jesus said in John 15: a fruitful branch needs to be attached to a vine. And only a healthy tree will only bear good fruit. Ezekiel also spoke of God’s work in changing hearts of stone into living hearts. It’s why Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be born again. Real transformation relies on God, not man.
But before going there let’s note a possible third option: can we, perhaps, work on changing ourselves by using God as a resource? Isn’t faith a cooperative effort between God and humans: a call to “work out your own salvation” while also acknowledging that “God is at work in you” as Paul stated in Philippians 2:12-13?
Okay, but the underlying question is still whether God initiates that transformation or we do. Is God our assistant who helps us to be more spiritual through grace, with grace treated as a spiritual commodity? Or is the Spirit’s presence, expressing God’s love to us, the basis for every spiritual change?
So it’s an “either-or” option. And a given answer brings us back to an ultimate question we’ve considered before: is grace a ‘who’ (the Spirit united to our spirits) or a ‘what’ (an infused disposition for good)? And, with that, what is the focus of our faith? Are we looking to Christ or to self?
That’s critical: we rely either on ourselves or on Christ for the work of transformation. If we look to Christ then we rely on him not only for conversion but also in our ongoing growth. Paul worked with that assumption in all he wrote, including the full elaboration of the text cited above: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (verse 13).
Another source for answering the question is 2 Corinthians 3-4. There Paul dismissed moralistic efforts—the outward compliance to religious rules—and explained, instead, how the ministry of the Spirit transforms those in whom he lives. The Spirit, also called “the Lord” to underscore his unity with Christ, is the one who transforms us from “glory to glory”.
The context of this text is striking. Paul compared the glory that Moses experienced centuries earlier with the glory we now experience. What Moses experienced was external and soon faded. What we have is inward and grows over time.
What makes the difference? Exposure to God’s presence. Moses was exposed to God’s tangible glory in their face-to-face meeting and Moses walked away with a luminescent glory of his own. But it was a residual and diminishing sign of having been in God’s presence; not a perpetual reality.
Paul’s point, then, is that, unlike Moses, believers in the new era of Christ now have God’s continuing presence in us by his Spirit—and the product of this union with Christ is a spiritual glory in the soul of every believer. It’s not seen in this era as a tangible quality but as a transformed heart. The power of that transformation is the love of Christ that engages us and changes us to be more and more like the one we love.
The pathway towards biblical transformation, then, doesn’t feature our discipline but our delight. Our role is to see Jesus as he is: as our loving savior. So when God’s wooing Spirit opens the eyes of our hearts we begin to be formed to be like the object of our gaze: like Jesus himself.
This article is our current Cor Deo blog. Please offer any responses there: thanks!
The Jesus who shows up in a bold, fast-paced, Bible reading is remarkably demanding and incredibly delightful. He overwhelms us both in what he offers and in what he asks for.
The problem is that we’re not ready for it. So much so that there’s good reason to ask how many followers of Christ actually follow him. For all who truly meet him the world changes.
Let me offer just a tease of what I mean and then invite you to read for yourself—take any one of the Gospels and read it through in one sitting. Then see what you think.
First, what is it that we find Jesus offering us? In a word, everything. As God’s eternal Son, he has always been with the Father and shares the intimacy and full identity of deity. That means we have “God with us” in every sense possible and the Gospels offer that reality as the bedrock of existence. In Jesus we meet the source of life—our creator and sustainer.
But mostly he comes to us as revealer: he wants us to know his Father whom he loves and who loves him—and he sends his Spirit to communicate this to us in a Heart-to-heart whisper as we read.
How, in specifics, does this revealing take place? The Spirit shaped the composition and now uses the story of Jesus to draw us to the Son and to the Father. The Son’s life story includes his forgiving human sins—something only God does. His rule over the creation is expressed in his many miracles that show his power over weather, water, demons, food, diseases, and death. All of which is God-level ministry.
But his point in doing miracles wasn’t to show off his power—though that’s a byproduct—but to reassure his followers that he and the Father are one: Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus, so that when we see Jesus we see the Father. And this is all communicated by the Spirit to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. God is the source of everything and he gives himself to us in the Son in a marital bond that allows us to become family.
So far, so good. Many church people look to Jesus as the ultimate resource: the giver of good stuff. So we can read a gospel like a miner looking for diamonds amid lots of earth; and we can come away with an ability to ask Jesus to heal us, to help us, to comfort us, and to please us. We like what he seems to offer. But, to be honest, he seems not to be very accessible with his miracles these days. It’s a problem we don’t like to talk about.
And this is where the spiritual hill gets very steep. To know Jesus is to be converted by him, and not to convert him to be our servant and resource. The real problem with Jesus is that he expects to be treated as God and not the other way round!
Let’s recall that sin is any effort to replace God as the lead figure in life: our ambition to “be like God”. And to the degree that we treat Jesus as our personal resource but refuse to say, “not my will but your will be done”, we miss out on the conversion he wants us to experience.
This is where Gospel reading gets hard. The problem with Jesus is that he doesn’t care for what the world offers. He actually hates it. People who are successful in this world, for instance, are viewed by Jesus as failures—because the dream of being “like God” seems to be working for them when, in fact, their success usually reveals a relative independence from God.
Jesus’ work, by contrast, was mainly among those who were “un-like God”—whose lives were in a state of moral collapse. Jesus, with an ironic dig towards the “we’re-like-God” crowd, made the point clear: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
So the problem with Jesus is that he’s not very attractive to people who look in the mirror each morning and find a very attractive person standing before them. But when we find the moral image of our lives to be unspeakable—something we can’t bear to look at—we start to find a much more attractive Jesus when we read. He loves us, calls us, and embraces us even when we’re unlovely.
And then he makes us lovely from the inside-out. What a Savior!
Let me ask a question that is mostly unspoken among Christians today: Is God troubled by the broad lack of response to him that we see throughout history? Or, more to the point, does the Bible ever address the question?
Here are some of my preliminary thoughts. Your own thoughts and comments are invited as well.
First, we find that Bible writers regularly presume sin to have been an unwanted intrusion on the creation. Some theologians—“supralapsarians”—will debate this claim but the Bible just isn’t on their side. Throughout scriptures we find that God didn’t make humans in order to destroy us, but is willing to give us over to our sin and to death forever.
A classic expression of this is found in Genesis 6:6—“And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” The context for this was human sin, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” It was only by the faithfulness of one man who continued to walk with God, Noah, that the end of humanity was sidestepped. A very close call!
Another place is 2 Peter 3:9—“The Lord . . . is not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Efforts to moderate or mitigate this text aren’t convincing: God meant for humans to have eternal life but things went desperately wrong starting with Adam.
Yet another text, Acts 13:46, also includes a call for repentance and presumes God’s desire for all to be saved, “Since you [Jews in Pisidian Antioch] thrust [the gospel] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we are turning to the Gentiles.” In other words our picture of predestination must be shaped by a reality that God desired for more to be saved than actually are. And the fault rests with the unrepentant and exists only because God won’t force his love on us.
God’s willingness to receive repentant sinners isn’t in question, then, but human interest in turning to God certainly is! The supreme text here is Paul’s use of twin Psalms (14 & 53) in Romans 3:10-11 to assert the depth of human sin as complete and inclusive: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” In other words, all of humanity is dead towards God.
This fits what Jesus taught Nicodemus about the need for all to be born again/from above by the Spirit whom Adam had dismissed in Eden and, with that dismissal, embraced his living death. And it also fits Paul’s premise in Ephesians 2:1-3 that we were “all” once dead in our sins so that only those predestined to salvation are saved.
Here’s a key point: we aren’t disabled by sin and spiritual death; instead we are disengaged. The problem is that our hearts are dead (or “hardened”) and the heart is the single motive center of the soul. The heart is our processing center where we were once connected to God as we responded to his loving initiatives. The Spirit had once poured God’s love out in Adam’s heart but his sin grieved, quenched, and drove the Spirit away.
Thankfully the story doesn’t end there. Ever since Adam’s fall God continues to woo us, prod us, and call us—loving us even to the point of sending his Son to die for the world. But humanity loves darkness and evil rather than God’s light and love.
So the problem of sin as human disaffection towards God is rooted in self-love; and our apparent “freedom” is affective—a freedom to not love God. Authentic love, we know, can never be forced on an unwilling participant. And only the most overt wooing of Jesus—as illustrated in Paul’s conversion and the conversion of the Samaritan woman at the well—converts us to a new affection for God. Yet for all who suppress that wooing and prodding God’s stern judgment stands: “God gave them up to dishonorable passion” and to “a debased mind” (Romans 1:26&28).
Let us return now to our starting question: what about the numbers of those who respond to the good God (very few) and those who spurn his love (very many)? Is God troubled by it? Yes and no. He is grieved by our love of the creation rather than for him, our Creator; but he is satisfied with the relational inheritance he draws out from among those enslaved to self-love. He draws them by his even greater love and he then washes and cleanses his bridal Body to become the Son’s eternal spouse. The beauty of authentic love eclipses the loss of all that Adam’s spiritual disaffection spoiled.
Here’s the point: God’s relational ambition is for quality, not quantity. One bride for one bridegroom for all of eternity. That’s God’s plan, the Son’s delight, and the Spirit’s ministry. One is enough.
In the deeply immoral and anti-Christian environment found in Europe and North America today concerned Christians leaders and communities are offering very different responses.
Some seek to engage unbelieving societal leaders in ongoing conversation with an ambition to redirect cultural mores and values through personal presence and winsome reason. Others move in the opposite direction by isolating themselves—aiming to remain pure by separation—while abandoning fallen society to its evil. Still others seek to overmatch and convert unbelievers through academically driven efforts that trumpet truth and expose all that is false and unacceptable.
We can label these approaches as the Engagers, the Entrenchers, and the Embattled. To a sympathetic eye—in sharing a common longing to see God’s kingdom lived out on earth—each approach seems reasonable. But by both Bible and pragmatic standards each is misguided and ineffective.
Ineffective in that the world is unmoved by the versions of faith being offered. And, even more, a cursory review finds Engagers liable to accommodation and syncretism; Entrenchers tend toward cult-like isolation and personality-driven enclaves; and the Embattlers regularly drive off all but a narrow and compliant segment of society. Each is unbiblical in that their approaches are not to be found in Christ’s ministry or in the book of Acts.
The movement leaders themselves are certainly sincere and devoted—and their basic orthodoxy is almost never in question if we track their doctrinal checklists. And each operates with an impressive moral earnestness. But something very important is missing in each case: Christ’s love. The focus, instead, is on human initiatives and values while Christ is moved into the background.
When we look at Christ himself we find that his earthly ministry displayed the Father’s love to a fallen creation. The Father’s ambition was to honor the Son for revealing that love by his redeeming death on the cross. The Spirit’s ministry is to pour that love out in the hearts of all who are drawn by the Father and captured by the Son. The church, in turn, offers this relational continuum to the world.
Paul spoke of this more than once with one of the clearest expressions found in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16—“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, and to the other a fragrance from life to life.” The remarkable phrasing—“aroma of Christ to God”—speaks of the bond between the Father and the Son. This bond is the mutual delight, glory, and joy of the Godhead that the Spirit places in the souls of all believers—an aroma of divine love—that is the proof of God’s continuing presence on earth.
It is the fragrance of this love that discriminates empty scholarship from living relationship—as in John 5:42 when Jesus dismissed his audience of Bible teachers for missing the love of God while they delighted in their own academic glories. It also reveals genuine faith—as in Christ’s declaration in John 13:35 that authentic disciples are revealed by their mutual love.
The aroma of God’s own intrinsic love is the ultimate source of division among all humans: it creates animosity in some and desire in others. The elect are displayed as they are drawn to salvation by the Christ-to-God fragrance present among his followers: a life-to-Life attraction.
The binary division of death-to-death and life-to-life responses to the aroma of God’s presence in authentic believers reflects a binary spiritual reality: a malignant spirit rules the hearts of all of Adam’s offspring (as in Ephesians 2:1-3), but the Spirit of God creates new hearts among those he draws away from his enemy’s enslaving desires.
So by ignoring the distinctiveness of the Christ-to-God bond in believers the Engagers miss how offensive the aroma of God’s love is to all who are perishing—for those it offends rather than invites. Instead the Engagers press ahead with public relation skills that may actually reduce or dismiss Christ’s distinctive fragrance.
Among the Entrenched the option of becoming the fragrance of God to nonbelievers is dismissed outright. The compassion that characterized Christ and his followers is missing among them—and so is the biblical prospect that some in the world will be drawn to Christ by the sweet smell of real life and love among true Christians. Jesus and his followers were always in the world, but never of the world. Their hearts guarded them, not their social barriers.
And the Embattled seem not to grasp the role of hearts and love—qualities they view as too subjective and unreliable—while missing the reality that God presents himself as the one who “is love” (1 John 4: 8, 16). That is, God’s mutual devotion defines what love is, and not some sort of longing for emotional impulses. But his love is certainly not less than emotional.
What, then, is a proper faith—a faith that will attract many in the world to come to Christ? As Paul put it so well, it is a life of “faith working through love” and that love is the overflow of God’s spreading, fragrant, delightful presence to his people. It is a heartfelt delight rather than a disaffected duty. It is found among those who have tasted and seen that God is good.
For all who have tasted his loving kindness here’s the Bible’s invitation: share it freely and share it often wherever you go! Only this sort of faith can change the world.