In a Cyprus setting properly suited to the standing of Sergius Paulus, Barnabas and Saul were invited to talk about Jesus.
We don’t know how or why the meeting was arranged with Paulus, a Roman proconsul, but it was certainly a good opportunity for evangelism. Was the meeting stirred by a connection this figure might have had years earlier with the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate? Or had the Roman centurion, Cornelius—now assigned to the security forces of Caesarea Maritima—been a connection? Or was the story of Jesus now a front-page item?
What we do know is that spiritual resistance was already present when Elymas, a Jewish “false prophet” and dabbler in magic practices, tried to redirect the conversation. What he was doing there isn’t explained—you can read about it in Acts 13—but his intention was clear: he was “seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”
Saul, also called Paul, had enough of it: “filled with the Holy Spirit [Paul] said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?’”
When I read this text recently the imagery struck me. Paul presumed the paths of the Lord are straight and easily traveled. Faith isn’t birthed by a complex process. It’s straightforward.
What do straight paths involve? I’m not sure about all that Paul had in mind but I suspect his portrayal of God as good and lovely was central. God is not hard to trust once we see him for who he really is. Second, his Son, Jesus, brings us to the Father by his reconciling death on the cross. Our faith then unites us to him: to both his death and his resurrection. And we are now alive in Christ, waiting for the day when we will join him in eternity.
There might be a better way to frame it or to express it, but the point is that the message points to a lively relationship and not to the complexities of creedal formulations or theological packages.
Examples of Elymas abound. I recall once sitting in on an exchange where a pastor was talking about the love of Christ to a couple of men who were young in their faith. They were captivated. Then a third man interrupted the flow by asking the pastor, “So what do you think about the Millenium mentioned in Revelation—is it likely to be a real stage in history?”
I was instantly grieved. Not because of the question itself—it would certainly fit in some settings—but not here. What I recognized immediately was a straight path suddenly being made crooked. And I suspected right away that the questioner was simply showing off. Once the pastor offered a brief answer—short in order to get back to the other two men—the Millenium specialist started to dominate the scene. And the love of Christ was no longer in view.
Was the interrupter worthy of the rebuke Paul gave Elymas the magician? Probably not. But the effect of his question was similar: the rapt attention of the first two listeners evaporated when the third man spoke. He shifted the focus to the competing views of Amillenialists, Premillenialists, and Postmillenialists. And a conversation that had been aimed straight at Christ was suddenly very crooked.
To repeat myself, I don’t mean to suggest that complex theology is useless. There’s a time and a place for it. But what does concern me is that the love of God, revealed in Christ, and poured out in our hearts by the Spirit doesn’t get the attention it needs in too many theological circles.
Perhaps more people should listen to what Paul told Elymas: the straight path of the gospel doesn’t need to be made crooked. And even in Christian circles clever people who aren’t yet captured by the love of God should learn to be quiet.
This repeats an entry offered on the Cor Deo site. Please post any responses there. Thanks!
Everything starts with God. But who is he? What is God like?
Dionysius, the self-professed convert of Paul, has helped shape one point of view. The true Dionysius, noted in Acts 17:34, isn’t known to us beyond his cameo Bible reference. But a much later figure who borrowed the name and identity of Dionysius is critical to the question. He was able to offer a version of God that still has broad credibility by using his ‘borrowed’ affiliation with Paul to speak with New-Testament-like authority.
Today this figure is known as Pseudo-Dionysius. He was, in fact, a 6th century philosopher who did much to import Neo-Platonism into Christianity. His actual inspiration wasn’t Paul but Proclus (410-485) who relied, in turn, on Plotinus (205-270)—both of whom were not Christians.
This is tedious stuff for non-historians, I’m sure, but the question of what God is like is important. And Pseudo-Dionysius plays a larger role in our modern conception of God than most of us know. This, in turn, calls for a bit of patient curiosity, so please track with me as we note three other important figures.
A Greek Orthodox leader in the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor (580-662), was quickly convinced that Pseudo-Dionysius was the actual New Testament convert of Paul. He, in turn, did much to shape today’s Orthodox liturgy—of worship-as-ascent—based on what he took from Pseudo-Dionysius.
Another convert was the Brit, Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c.815-c.877), who carried Dionysian views into Latin-speaking realms. His efforts helped develop Roman Catholic mysticism that, like Orthodoxy had already done, followed the Dionysian call to a three-step ascent into God. This was the pathway of purgation, illumination, and union: an approach to spirituality that is gaining momentum today.
A third major convert to Ps. Dionysius calls for special notice: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas is important because he offered the most elaborate and compelling blend of Greek classical theology/philosophy—with Aristotle as a guiding light—and medieval Christian faith.
A number of recent scholars—promoters of Post-Reformation Protestant Scholasticism—have shown that today’s Reformed theology is a slightly enhanced reprise of what Thomas once taught. And they’re right. For many—but not all—in the Reformed tradition today it’s as if the early Reformation never occurred. Thomistic themes still reign in defining faith.
To be clear, the evidence is compelling that Martin Luther and John Calvin were repelled by the Thomistic package and meant to overthrow it—and many Puritans, including Richard Sibbes, agreed with these reformers—but that’s another story.
What we want to note here is that Thomas relied heavily on Aristotle for his methodology and his ethical framing of salvation, but many of his most significant assumptions about who God is came from Pseudo-Dionysius. A formal historical study by Fran O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, charts this.
For the sake of space let’s take up just one feature: the question of where our assumptions about God begin. Where did Aquinas start—as do many Christians today—in thinking about God? He followed Ps. Dionysius by portraying God as utterly different from the creation. So much so that God is ultimately beyond reach. Here is Aquinas speaking in the Summa Contra Gentiles (as offered in O’Rourke, 54-55):
“. . . he [God] is super-eminent over other things and set apart from all. And this is the ultimate and most perfect limit of our knowledge in this life, as Dionysius says in the Mystical Theology, ‘We are united with God as the unknown.’ Indeed, this is the situation, for, while we know of God what he is not, what he is remains wholly unknown.”
Aquinas, with Dionysius, adopts an incommensurability of knowing: a complete resignation about ever knowing God as he really is. Instead we are left knowing him only “through his effects” as the One who causes all that is, but exists outside all that is.
What kind of God emerges from this starting point? One very different from the God who offers himself in the Bible!
Let’s spurn philosophical speculations about the nature of being and essential divinity for a moment and ask what God reveals about himself at the beginning of Scriptures. If we allow God the privilege of disclosing whatever he/she/it may want to disclose of [him]self we find a startling reality: “Us”.
As in the one God saying in Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And then, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
What we can start with is a single God who exists in a wondrous communion as “Us” and that this “Us” generated another “us”—that is, humanity, including the readers of the Bible. And the fact that God birthed us out of his own communion tells us of his priority to engage us in some sort of commensurate bond of knowing and sharing. And his name is Jesus who now reveals his Father by the ministry of his Spirit.
There’s much more to say, of course, but let’s be sure we start where we’re meant to start. With a God whom the Elder disciple was speaking of when he twice said in 1 John 4 that, “God is love.” This love is the bond in the originating Us who now shares it with any of us who receive his love and respond.
If only Thomas had started with the Son—who offers real Love as an ultimate starting point—in place of Ps. Dionysian and Neo-Platonic speculations about the unknowable One, many might have a more satisfying and winsome faith today.
Thankfully it’s not too late to reconsider: to enjoy the God who is known as a Triune Us and who tells us he loves us.
Acts 1 presents us with Christ’s promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit and chapter 2 tells us of his arrival. We get the impression that the Spirit was uniquely commissioned for the New Covenant ministry to empower Christians in ministry.
And with that, as many have presumed, his appearances in the Old Testament can be treated as unusual—ad hoc events, as in Saul’s filling and later loss, and David’s filling (1 Samuel 11&16) or in special moments of empowerment for Israel’s elders (Numbers 11) and also in some of the Judges.
It’s clear that something about the Spirit’s ministry changes between the Old and New Testaments—the book of Acts, for instance, presents him as God’s communing and guiding presence in every aspect of church life. No book in the Old Testament displays such ongoing activism by the Spirit.
Which raises the question about the Spirit’s ministry in Old Testament saints—of those deemed righteous by God—as seen in Abraham and others. Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus that the Spirit is the agent of new life—in being born again (John 3)—and Peter also affirmed new birth, presumably by the Spirit’s use of the Scriptures (1 Peter). So we need to ask whether this is a continuing biblical reality from the beginning of Scriptures and onward.
Abraham, the patriarch, offers an answer. In Galatians Paul made the point that salvation is by the Spirit—“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). It’s almost an offhanded comment, perhaps pointing to widespread 1st century Church awareness of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit’s work in new birth.
To press the point, Paul tends to mention the Spirit’s ministry as a given—a belief that everyone in the audience already grasps—rather than as a point to be expanded. In Romans 5:1-5, for instance, he anchors his comments on applied faith with a causal “because” that reveals the Spirit’s crucial role: “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” He also goes on in Romans 8 to make the Spirit’s ministry pivotal to his discourse about the applied side of faith in chapters 5-7.
What catches our attention in Galatians is that Abraham is central to this reality. And more than that, his faith is seen to be a ministry of the Spirit; and his faith, in turn, is the exemplar of faith for everyone at any time and anywhere: “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7).
Verse 7 was set up by the rhetorical question Paul raised for the Galatians that tied 3:3—“Having begun by the Spirit . . .”—to Abraham’s role in 3:7. He asked in 5&6, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you . . . do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?”
The “just as” suggests that the work in New Testament saints is aligned with Abraham’s faith: both are the Spirit’s work. So, too, later in Galatians Paul returned to Abraham in an allegorical reading of Sarah’s son, Isaac, as a divine counterpoint to Hagar’s son (Ishmael). Isaac is called “him who was born according to the Spirit” (4:29). Paul’s point may only address Sarah’s need to have her body prepared by the Spirit in order to bear a child, but the “just as” seems to suggest more.
Why raise the issue? Because, as I wrote last week, the church hasn’t done well in tracing the Spirit’s ministry through her history. And one key insight to gain and retain is that the Spirit brings life in both the Old Testament and in the New.
Without that certainty we can slip into the notion that some sort of spirituality once existed without the Spirit—and if it happened before, perhaps it can happen again.
The answer is, no: both in the Old and New, the Spirit gives life, and he uniquely brings God’s heart and life to sinners so that they and we are back to life—as in the dry bones of Ezekiel. There are certainly new dimensions in the Spirit’s New Testament role, but regeneration isn’t one of them.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 worked hard to summarize a sound understanding of the Triune God in the face of Arian error. They explained how Jesus, the Son, exists in eternal relationship with the Father. In a final document they added this truncated final object of proper faith—“And in the Holy Spirit.” The Father-Son reality was their main focus; yet the lack of substance in their mention of the Spirit reflected an uncertainty about his being and work.
The Council of Constantinople in 381 addressed the Holy Spirit more fully by describing Him as “the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets.” A much better summary.
My own theological heritage was more like the theologians of Nicaea than the theologians of Constantinople—wary of the Spirit—as they minimized the Spirit’s role in the church. I suspect it reveals an enduring reaction to the overstated focus on the Spirit found in some Christian traditions. The errors of past—as in the teachings of Joachim of Fiore, or the prophets of Zwickau, or the radicals of Munster, or the Familists of England—still haunt the church. Some are still promoting these excesses. But folly must not cause us to retreat from what the Bible tells us of the Spirit’s ministry.
Let me raise three issues for conversation.
First, all Christians affirm the Spirit’s place in the Trinity as a necessary feature of faith. This goes beyond the mere title offered at Nicaea. We must adopt, at least, the biblical premise of Constantinople: the Spirit is our Lord and he brings God’s life to believers. This is the truth Jesus offered Nicodemus in John 3. Without the Spirit of God there is no eternal life—a person is dead in sin until the Spirit comes and brings God’s life.
One can draw from this that in the day Adam sinned he died as God had promised—“in the day you eat [the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die” versus Satan’s claim, “You will not surely die.” Here Satan deceived Eve, and Adam then joined her in eating and dying. The Spirit—the source of Adam’s life—was grieved by this rejection and departed from Adam.
When Adam died so did all of his extended offspring: since the fall no human has ever been physically birthed with the Spirit in his or her soul. His role as the means of spiritual life ended in Eden and now must be reengaged. As Jesus put it to Nicodemus, “that which is born of the flesh is [merely] flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
So Christ, by the Spirit, now stands outside human souls—unloved and uninvited but still speaking his own words of love. What Adam once enjoyed—God’s love, joy, peace, and more—is still available, shared in quiet whispers. But our human appetite to be independent—to “be like God”—carries us in an opposite direction.
Second, the Spirit communicates God’s heart so that he is effective in drawing some, but not all, back into the life Adam despised. This is our new spiritual life. John Calvin captures this:
“He [God] wills to work in us. This means nothing else than that the Lord by his Spirit directs, bends, and governs, our heart and reigns in it as in his own possession. Indeed, he does not promise through Ezekiel that he will give a new Spirit to his elect only in order that they may be able to walk according to his precepts, but also that they may actually so walk.” [Institutes, 2.3.10]
The richness of the Spirit’s activity in believers is what makes the book of Acts so lively and also so promising: lively in its portrayal of the Spirit’s past initiatives, and promising in what the range of the Spirit’s role can be among us today. What we must remember is that the Spirit’s ministry is always self-defined by what Jesus shared – “he [the Spirit] will bear witness about me.”
The third reality of the Spirit’s ministry is that he changes us from the “inside-out”. The spiritual life relies on the Spirit and not on our old and fallen habits of trying to “be like God”. Paul all but shouts this in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 when he wrote that the Spirit moves us “from glory to glory”—into an ever-increasing likeness to Christ who is the Image of God. He uses the gospel to win our hearts with God’s love and then to reshape our hearts into an alignment with God’s heart.
How does he do this? By pouring out God’s love in our hearts. It’s like a breeze coming into a forest that was once still and dormant in death: with his arrival the wind of the Spirit brings a wonderful animation that all can see and Christians will enjoy.
This repeats an entry offered at Cor Deo. Please offer any responses there. Thanks!
Of all the questions we may ask few are more important than the simple query, “What really matters?” What should be our greatest priorities in life?
The question presumes that priorities shape the way we live—that some options are more important to us than others. A corollary for most people is that we can examine and change our priorities. So we ask, “what’s important here?” in order to consider our options.
Maybe our priorities do belong to us. Or, maybe they don’t.
I realize, of course, that the ability to define our own priorities is treated as a truism of life. I may, for instance, decide to abandon the immediate pleasure of drinking sugary drinks in favor of long-term health benefits. Or as I mature I may decide to take up fine arts and painting because I’ve begun to enjoy aesthetic creativity.
But it may be that this apparent freedom blocks our ability to see the bigger biblical reality. The Bible presumes a single guiding spirit to be at work in shaping our priorities—one Spirit is holy and his competitor is unholy (see Ephesians 2:1-3). One is from above; the other from below. One is Christ-focused; the other is self-focused.
This is a topic already traced on this site before now so I’ll just recall that the Bible sets out a binary opposition of “two masters” from beginning to end. And mastery by either of these two competing masters is spirit-derived.
And it’s in this context that Jesus called his disciples to an unlikely life: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Jesus is laying down a hard line: the cross was a hideous death device. So with this in mind think about whether you prefer choosing torture and death instead of comfort and security.
We might be able to conceive of the possibility as an “in theory it could happen” sort of prospect but I think most honest folks will agree that even Christians—often very discretely—treat Christ’s call to bear a cross daily as so much nonsense. Our real concern is to seek personal security and comfort. Yet the main ambitions of self-concern, no matter how innocuous, are not priorities for Christ.
The context for Christ’s view is based on his eternal experience of communing with the Father: he knows just one proper destiny. And every human is moving either toward him or away from him. So when we speak of priorities we need to remember that they exist in the context of reaching one destination or the other.
It also means that our apparent freedom only operates within the confines of our destiny. It’s a bit like a passenger on a cruise ship: when the ship is under way a given passenger has freedom within the available deck space but the ultimate option ends at the ship’s rails. The ship’s captain actually defines the direction and destination.
So the “really” in “what really matters” is a bottom line or boundary: something central to our identity has a final say in what’s acceptable or unacceptable. For most of us, as suggested above, the ultimate goal is our personal security. The “cruise ship” of life has a destination of personal welfare in view and any version of “God” needs to support that benefit.
It’s here that Paul followed Christ’s radical call when he announced, “I am crucified with Christ” living by “faith” in Christ. For him “what really matters” was to know Christ and to make him known. Paul teaches, then, that an ambition to please the Lord is the one great priority of life. All other ambitions belong to the “world” and the “flesh” in that their underlying devotion is to self and not to God.
A quick read-through of the Bible will underscore this theme. In Psalm 2, for instance, the dividing line between the nations that “rage” against God and a proper place with God is a desire to kiss the Son. In John 5 the religious scholars of Christ’s day were condemned—despite their Bible training—because “you don’t have the love of God in you.” And in John 8 a group of erstwhile believers in Jesus were exposed as frauds because they resisted key features of what Jesus was teaching. Jesus went right to the heart of the issue: “If God were your Father you would love me.”
Love is what matters most. And we love God as a response: he first loved us and we return that love. This is not to focus on love in itself, but to engage God’s love and to live with him as the ultimate object of our love.
The ungodly spirit gains control of the world by promoting self-concern in place of Christ-concern as the ultimate measure of life and meaning. Call it self-love. God, in response, sent the Son to die to that world and the Holy Spirit to woo us away from the ambitions that self-love offers.
In sum we learn that apart from him we can do nothing. And once his winsome love is present nothing else really matters.
Bible reading can make a reader uncomfortable. This morning, for instance, I came to Zephaniah 1:12.
“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’” [ESV]
The marginal reading explains that “complacent” translates the literal Hebrew word for “thickening in the dregs”. In other words these men were like the debris or lees of wine-making that settles out to become a thick, gooey mat at the bottom of the wine container. Ugly stuff.
Today’s common version of God can also be dreg-producing. God—often reshaped as a foggy notion of Nature or Evolution—is a distant and perpetually passive figure.
Most of the men in Jerusalem would have been religiously active—worshipping but with a cynical detachment. So much so that in another book God warned them, “Stop bringing me all these meaningless sacrifices!” He wanted hearts, not empty gestures.
The bigger problem of this dreg-like behavior is its depiction of God. God is just a token figure and his standing is hardly different from the weekly trash collector: a faceless figure who comes by to empty the bin and who then disappears for another week. All we need to do is haul the bin out in the morning and bring it back in the evening.
This misperception is easy to come by. God is busy shaping every moment of every day but we never see him. He has every hair on our heads counted and knows all the words we’ll speak today even before they’ve come to mind. He’s engages us in every moment of life from birth to the grave. He shaped us in the womb. He invites us to live out the good works that he prepared beforehand for us to enjoy. He also promises a future day when we’ll speak with him about all we’ve done in this life. But, for now, we can’t hear his voice or see his face.
But we can read his heart—which he shares freely in the Scriptures—and there we discover all we need to know about all we need to know. And for now, we learn, he wants us to live by faith rather than by sight.
This, I’m sure, reflects his purpose to reverse what happened in Eden when Satan took advantage of God’s temporary absence to challenge what God had told Adam. In place of God’s truth Satan’s offered Eve and Adam the great deceit that “you can be like God.”
God now reverses this: while he is again absent he offers us his word. He is still absent yet he wins our hearts with the truth that only he is God, that he is trustworthy, and that he loves us. He undoes what Satan did in Eden by reversing the outcome of the process Satan once used.
And it starts with his love. He loves us. All he does reveals his love. He loved the world before the creation, knowing it would reject him wholesale. So in love he sent his beloved Son to reveal his love and resolve our sins at the cross. In love he allows us to test Satan’s lie and then to flee back into his arms after we tasted the bitter dregs of death. He created us in order to care for us. And he invites us to love him in return.
Dreg-like-living ignores all of this. God becomes a distant good luck charm to us, useful when he’s needed but easily ignored for much of life. Satan still insists that God’s sole use is to help us succeed in our own ambition to be like God—to build our personal security, status, and self-satisfaction. But God’s word tells us otherwise.
This is where it’s important to grasp the love and hate language of the Bible that is parallel to Zephaniah’s reference to God doing good or ill. God’s good is for those who love him; who respond to his prior love for us. Ill comes to those who hate him with an irrational hatred.
God promises us that this phase of history—the era of the rebellion—will soon end and that in the next era we will again enjoy walking with him as our divine companion. But first we get to live by faith rather than by sight. And this oft-uncomfortable life of faith isn’t for the complacent.
What does it mean to be “in Christ”?
I recently surveyed a book about Paul’s use of the theme in the New Testament. His regular references to believers as people in Christ help explain what union with Christ represents. The book was meant for an academic audience—tracing complex Greek grammatical issues in the underlying text—yet it was still relatively accessible and insightful.
It was also disappointing. What disappointed me was the author’s lack of attention to the Spirit as context for the topic. The Spirit’s role in accomplishing salvation and subsequent growth among believers is central. Ignoring him is a bit like writing a book on car engine operations without ever commenting on the role fuel plays in making the engine run. In union with Christ the Spirit is the agent of that union: the one who brings Christ’s presence into the soul. Yet the book never made the connection.
Paul, for instance, scolded the Corinthians for their divisions (in 1 Corinthians 1) and, especially, for their misplaced boasting. They were focused on their own performances rather than on Christ who saved them: “And because of him [Christ] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1:30). It offers a classic case of how being “in Christ” brings about salvation.
Then immediately following this Paul spoke of his own ministry as a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4) so that his experience offers a model for the Corinthians of God’s remarkable self-disclosures offered “through the Spirit”. The Spirit engages believers in a Spirit-to-spirit bond so that the “spiritual person” now has, with Paul, “the mind of Christ” (2:14-16).
Paul continued his instructions to the spiritually inept Corinthians with a warning against building a community based on performance rather than on the foundation Paul gave them from the start, “which is Jesus Christ” (3:11). He expected them to understand how faith is applied: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (3:16).
The importance of the Spirit’s indwelling is that it accounts for union with Christ. Paul says as much later in the same epistle when he rebuked the church for apparently condoning the use by some of cult prostitutes. Listen to how Paul frames the problem as a violation of our marital union with Christ:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written [in Genesis 2:24] ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” And, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17; 19).
Here’s the point: our union with Christ is based on his giving us his own Spirit—that is, the Spirit of God—who is in a marital union with the believer’s spirit.
The blind spot in making this connection—a blindness more common to Western theologians than to those in the Greek tradition—is in failing to trace the economic functions or roles of the Godhead in the Bible texts. Jesus too often is made to be a legal solution to the problem of sin as law-breaking—with God as the angry judge ready to pour out his wrath on all such law-breakers. Jesus agrees to stand in our place, if we are among the elect, and he takes our judgment on himself. In this arrangement the Spirit’s role is largely dissolved and the meaning of union with Christ is treated mainly as a legal function.
But not all in the West have such a limited view. The 17th century Puritan, Richard Sibbes, stood among a large cluster of Reformed pastors who elevated the Spirit’s union with a believer’s spirit as the key to our being “in Christ”—as did John Calvin and Martin Luther in earlier days.
So what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that I share his Spirit and, as such, I am as a bride to him and he is as a bridegroom to me and to all who have the Spirit and are, collectively, the body and bride of Christ.
Lot’s to think about here! And lots of reason to worship the Father-Son-Spirit God who loves us.
This post is also offered on the Cor Deo site: please post any responses there rather than here. Thanks!
Let me offer a magnet parable.
A man bought an industrial grade mobile magnet—a smaller version of what one sees in the auto crushing business. He was proud of himself for being both noble and practical. He was noble because he planned to use the device to clean up his town. It was practical because the soda and beer cans he planned to collect all had value: each included a small deposit in the purchase price that could be refunded once it was returned.
With his magnet the man was certain that he could collect hundreds of cans in the time it took others to collect them one at a time. He also knew of a number of littered roadways and overflowing trash bins that were certain to generate quick cash.
But it didn’t work! As he drove around with the magnet head hung out over the side of his truck all it ever attracted were bits of scrap—leftover fragments from auto accidents, screws and bolts, nails and wires—but not a single beer. This was an absolute mystery because he made sure to let the magnet hover over the conspicuous cans. But even then they never moved!
Finally it dawned on him that the magnet wasn’t strong enough: he needed an upgrade. The problem, however, was his cash flow. It had taken all his spare money to buy the first system so any upgrades would have to wait. Next then, in order to rebuild his cash reserve, he adopted a new approach: adding heavy-duty glue to the face of the magnet.
Before long he put out his sticky-glue-swabbed-magnet and it worked. Wherever he found cans by the road he pulled his levers in the truck to maneuver the magnet over the can and lowered it until he made contact and the aluminum can was his!
The modification had its drawbacks, though. For one, it wasn’t easy to remove the cans from the magnet because of the glue—they all needed to be done by hand, one-by-one. And, even more, he had to pull off the grass, mud, plastics, and ceramics that the glue also collected. And then the recycling stores didn’t welcome the sticky cans! So it wasn’t long before the mucky magnet was sold on EBay—at a huge loss—and the project came to an unhappy end.
A question, of course, is why the man ever thought magnets would attract aluminum—the stuff such cans are made of—since magnets only attract the ferrous metals like iron and steel.
You might be wondering, why such a nonsensical parable?
Here’s why. Because God has given us a similar principle: he will be attractive to some people but not to all. And we can’t tell beforehand who will be drawn to him and who won’t be, but the difference can be discovered in time by the principle of spiritual attraction.
The principle is made explicit in John 8 and 17—to name just two spots—so that we know that God’s word is attractive to those who will join his eternal family. In fact there’s a sorting process going on right now: his teaching is attracting God’s family but not everyone finds that family attractive. So when Christ’s words are offered in a given setting some will respond like a steel bolt drawn to a magnet, but others won’t be stirred in the slightest.
The attraction is God’s love. In John 8:31 Jesus said as much to a group of erstwhile disciples. The basis of true discipleship is a spiritual kinship birthed by God’s work in hearts—a point made in John 3 and elsewhere.
The process is always word-based. Listen to Jesus: it is only by abiding in “my word” that someone becomes a disciple. He went on: “If God were your Father, you would love me” and “The reason you do not hear [my words] is that you are not of God” (John 8:31, 42, 47).
In John 17 Jesus spoke to the Father with the same principle in mind: Jesus offered the word the Father sent him to share and it produced two opposite responses. Some came to him and believed; but others hated him and his disciples. “I have given them your word [speaking of the disciples] and the world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (17:16).
What was Christ’s aim in offering his divisive word—a word that attracts some and not others? To identify those in the world who love him: “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (17:26).
What, then, can we take from our parable?
This much at least: some churches today have replaced Christ’s word with swathes of attractive activities and it seems to work. Lots of people can be collected.
But what defines such churches? A love for Christ and for neighbors? Or a love for the lively enjoyments being offered? From our gospel principle we learn that that latter—those who aren’t captured by Christ’s love as expressed in his word—are being collected for all the wrong reasons.
So let’s get out the divine magnet of God’s love as revealed in his word and see what happens. I predict that the glue-covered folks won’t be impressed, but the real children of God will leap to the source and clamor for more. Try it and see!
Jonathan Edwards, 18th century pastor and scholar, made two points about Romans 8:6—“To be spiritually minded is life and peace”—in his “Treatise on Grace” (Works, Yale ed., 21.178): “(1) That this divine principle in the heart is not called spiritual, because it has its seat in the soul or spiritual part of man, and not in his body. It is called spiritual, not because of its relation to the spirit of man, in which it is, but because of its relation to the Spirit of God, from which it is.”
And, “(2) It must be observed that where this holy divine principle of saving grace wrought in the mind is in Scripture called spiritual, what is intended by the expression is not merely nor chiefly that it is from the Spirit of God, but that it is of the nature of the Spirit of God.”
Let’s consider these two points, first by clarifying what he had in mind, and then by asking what his reflections might offer us in the 21st century.
The first point seems clear enough: the biblical expression “spiritual” speaks of having the Spirit actually present in a Christian. And with that it doesn’t fit some of today’s usages—as in saying that someone holds to an Eastern form of “spirituality”; or that an inwardly reflective person can be considered more spiritual than others. Edwards takes it, instead, to denote a person’s union with Christ that occurs when the Spirit is united with a believer’s spirit.
His second point needs a bit more context. In his broader discussion Edwards distinguishes the Spirit’s works in believers from the Spirit’s general works in humanity that aren’t a function of union—such as a conviction of sin, or “common grace, common illuminations and common affections.” In other words Edwards distinguishes the Spirit’s working presence in believers from the Spirit’s work in all humanity.
So, does this apply to us today?
Yes, indeed. For one, it demolishes the shared Modern and Post-modern sense that spirituality is something we humans generate, shape, and apply.
In the Modern era Rene Descartes believed that his exercise in radical skepticism and his axiomatic insight, cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—treated human rationality as the canvas provided by the Spirit for humans to then explain all that exists. Baruch Spinoza quickly hijacked this Cartesian premise by concluding that all of Nature is divine and Spirit is the impersonal force within it. In each case God was dismissed as a reliable and personal communicator and the Spirit reduced to a shadowy presence.
Post-modernity—with its even more radical skepticism—pressed for a new level of spirituality by presuming that everyone is spiritual in wholly personal and unique ways, again without God’s voice in play. Thus each and every person has a right and responsibility to express a personal spirituality with a freedom that no one else can question. Privatized spirituality reigns as absolute.
Edwards may not have anticipated this full progression but he was alert to how important it is to get the Spirit-and-spirituality right. We must recognize that only God’s Spirit shapes true spirituality. Another “spirit”—not the Holy Spirit—works in the “sons of disobedience” as in Paul’s warning in Ephesians 2:1-3, but the true Spirit will, by contrast, be overt and obvious.
One application of Edwards for today comes in asking how the Bible expects us to be more spiritually minded. Is it our effort, or the Spirit’s inward transformation? If we take Edwards’ insights seriously we may want to dismiss projects in “spiritual formation” that rely on human duties rather than on the Spirit’s ministry. We would also challenge any promotions of privatized spirituality as literally misguided—as coming from another source than God.
What Edwards did identify as the evidence of our being spiritually minded is “a principle of divine love” (21.180). In his Treatise on Grace this divine love is represented as the outflow of the Father’s love for the Son. The Spirit expresses this love to and through believers as God’s “distinct personal agent”. This is his Spirit-to-spirit union, and the love of the truly spiritual believer is the signal that this union is present and active.
All this may be too much of an 18th century way of explaining things, but as we read the Bible ourselves I’m confident we’ll find that Edwards was very much on target. And with it we will enjoy Paul’s promise of life and peace.
Mike and I celebrated over breakfast a week ago and I handed him his segment of small chain, four links long. I like to do that whenever I finish a one-on-one Bible read-through with a friend.
The links represent elements of what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:2—“and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” There is the “me” and “you” and “faithful men” and “others also”—four segments of a progression in the “grace that is in Christ Jesus.” The actual number should go on and on, of course, but four links are a fine starting point.
Art was my prior chain link. At some point it dawned on me that he—my high school youth pastor—had given me a treasure: a guided pathway into God’s heart. I met Art a few months after I first met Jesus. Art’s delight in knowing Jesus was as great as my own, but he was already twenty years ahead of me in the journey so he was easy to follow.
What meant so much to me about Art was his unreserved and undiminished delight in Christ. He was forever citing Psalm 34:8—“Oh taste and see, the LORD is good!”—always expressed in such a natural way that it was clearly his own thought and not just some Bible thumping.
How was this a pathway for me? Art retained his responsiveness to the end of life and shared it wherever he went—his first love was fresh to the end. So whenever I think of the parable of the sower and the soils—as in Matthew 13—I have Art in view as a “hundredfold” sort of believer.
That sort of fruitful spirituality stands out among so many people in churches in whom the word may have stirred a momentary response but is then plucked away by Satan, or left to shrivel, or choked out by career concerns, or discarded when faced with societal scorn.
Going back to the chain imagery, Art was the sort of link meant for an aircraft carrier anchor chain in a storm. And with Art in mind I had a pattern to follow. He was never a scholar, a great churchman, or a prominent presence in any crowd. He was, in fact, virtually pushed out of his work as a youth pastor when some of the elders wanted him to direct the church bus ministry, including the maintenance work, along with his youth work. As far as they were concerned he had too much time on his hands: all he ever did was meet with students and hold Bible studies. In looking back I wonder if those elders would have known a chain link from a tire wrench!
That brings me to the point of this entry: the world needs more links. Christianity is facing a crisis but not the sort of crisis many seem to think we’re facing. I know of folks focused on doctrinal purity, led by brilliant men who are building fences to keep out any who are theologically impure. So they offer fence posts in place of chain links.
That sounds great—and the ancient Pharisees thought so too—but if these purifiers aren’t reaching the crowds of unloved people who have already been led into impure doctrines for lack of shepherds with Christ’s heart for the poor, lame, weak, and misguided, then we have a problem. True purity is always accompanied with repeated invitations, “Oh taste and see, the LORD is good!” And with invitations to read the whole Bible, again and again, so we can get to know our Lord better!
There are others in Christendom who know how to mimic what the world offers in social terms—to be together, to be special, to be entertained and excited. But what happens when the music stops and the lights go out? Are the crowds then left to plug into the nearest electronic device as a bridge to the next event? Are they actually still individuals who don’t know what it is to love others—to live selflessly as Jesus did on the cross for their sake? Or are there links being formed so that when the worship ends a conversation begins and a Bible opens? We only start to have true worship when earbuds are replaced by chain link relationships.
So here’s a calling for the New Year: be a multiplier. If you’ve been the wrong sort of soil until now, ask God for a new heart. If your heart has been hard he’ll answer the prayer and you’ll soon find yourself embracing Paul’s words to Timothy: linking the “me” and “you” and “faithful men” and “others also” as a joyful progression found in the “grace that is in Christ Jesus.”