A Clear View of Christ

Let me ask a question: do we think and learn by collecting and affirming every idea we’ve ever heard, so that all we’ve heard grows into a single collection of “truth”? Or do we try to sort out the things that are true from the things that aren’t true? If for instance, someone tells us, “Buy this food supplement and you’ll become strong and fit without ever having to exercise!” And someone else tells us, “You’ll never be strong and fit unless you exercise!” Can the two claims fit together as parts of a whole? Or is one right and the other wrong?

That sort of “right or wrong” polarity sets up the question for this week’s entry: how is Jesus seen “in faith”? Do we determine to believe certain things about Jesus so that we get our doctrinal foundations well established? Or do we come to Jesus as one who tells us about himself, and then discover that in our meeting him he changes the way we view him and ourselves? In other words, is faith a responsibility to be performed, or a response that we experience? Is the focus of faith on our conduct, or on Christ’s initiative?

Last week I wrote about the division that emerged among the English Puritans when federal theology was imported from Heidelberg by William Perkins—with a few others—and many Puritans soon embraced it. But there were some who resisted it because it portrayed faith as a human activity that God rewards with salvation.

Here’s some context for that resistance. The 4th-5th century church leader, Augustine of Hippo, may have done more than any other figure in the Latin-speaking world to portray God as a Triune One who exists in his communion of love. As Augustine read Scriptures and tracked the conversations of the great church councils just before his days, he saw that God’s relational being explains his creation and his conduct. He was appalled by the British moralist, Pelagius, whose theology was formed in the context of duties and contracts: God expects right behaviors and rewards those who make right choices with salvation.

Puritans embraced Luther’s Augustinian insights. Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), as his own career matured, became a leader in this movement. Sibbes called sin “a base slavery” in which our creation design, to love God, is usurped by a love for lesser things. The solution?

“He that cleaveth to the Lord is one spirit,” as the apostle saith [1 Corinthians 6:17]. . . . Indeed, our affections transform us anew. As it is with the fire, it transforms cold and gross bodies to be all fiery; so God and heavenly things work upon our hearts, they transform us to be like themselves [Works, 5.230].

Sibbes was, at times, very clear in citing Augustine—he knew many other Puritans would not agree with him so he anchored his most important points in a rock-like authority. So, like the ancient bishop, Sibbes set out the “chief end” of humans in God’s triune love—the basis for creation. And it is only by entering God’s eternal communion that anyone finds their true end:

As Saint Augustine saith, “Thou hast made us for thee, and our hearts rest not till we come to thee;” as the rivers never rest till they discharge themselves into the ocean. And being not his own end, it is his wisdom and understanding to look principally to that which is his last and best and main end, which is God, and union and communion with God in Christ, who is God in our nature, God-man, the best of all, and therefore it is fit he should be the last [Works, 5:300].

Sibbes, in citing Augustine, addressed God’s purpose in creating humanity. The search for our “hearts rest” is satisfied by union and communion with God in Christ who is our “last and best and main end”. In other words, an affective union with Christ is the basis for an effective spirituality.

Here the question of choice comes into play. Is this union a product of human initiative or a response to God’s initiative? Only the latter answer—a response—fits the full-orbed portrayal of Scripture. Believers are invited to “see” Christ in biblical promises, which is the ground for the formation of a love relationship [Works, 7:423].

We must be wholly moulded anew. . . . “Flesh and blood, as it is, cannot enter into heaven,” 1 Cor 15:50; that is, the nature of man, as it is corrupted; we must have new judgments of things, and new desires, and new esteem, new affections, new joys, new delights, new conversation, new company [Works, 7:257].

At the very beginning of the process of transformation, the question must be raised of how one who is steeped in sin and disaffection toward God can be brought to have “new affections”. Any decisions therefore belong to the person but must be accounted for by God’s grace.

Christ is the focus of spiritual vision, displacing the viewers self-awareness: “By looking to the glory of God in Christ we see Christ as our husband, and that breeds a disposition in us to have the affections of a spouse. We see Christ as our head, and that breeds a disposition in us to be members like him” [Works, 4:271].

So, according to Sibbes, the cause of change is always in the one perceived rather than in the will of the perceiver. This comes, in turn, through a new capacity to see: “God created a new eye in the soul, a new sight which they had not by nature; for even as the natural eye cannot see things that are invisible, so the natural man cannot see the things of God, which are seen not by a natural, but by a supernatural eye” [Works, 7:424].

We agree with Sibbes. Spiritual sight—given the challenges of transformation—calls for the Spirit’s work in overcoming Satan’s distortion of God’s character. One of the primary issues of pastoral ministry, Sibbes believed, is to face “the wicked, poisonful disposition that the devil stirs up” against Christ and his elect [Works, 3:488].

Thus, as lost trust through rebellious unbelief caused Adam and Eve to fall, so a restored vision of Christ’s trustworthiness discloses a person’s conversion and initial sanctification:

They trusted not in God, they began to stagger at the promises, to stagger at the word of God. Satan robbed them of the word. He observes, and continues the same art still, to take the word from us, and to cause us to stagger and doubt whether it be true or no. . . . So Adam fell. Now we must be restored by the contrary to that we fell. We fell by unbelief and distrust, by calling God’s truth in question; we must learn to stand again by the contrary grace, by faith [Works, 3:519].

With the supernaturally restored “eye of faith”, the gradual process of restoration begins through the soul’s encounter with the truth about God as he really is.

The affective (heart-based) must be set against the Stoic (mind-and-will-based) view of the soul. The matter is crucial. If readers affirm the response-based Trinitarian theology, on the one hand, yet still insist that the real task of knowing and engaging God is something we can also accomplish by our willpower, the resulting spirituality will be confused and blind—like driving into a dense fog! The two approaches are incompatible.

As an added note, the marketing industry uses the heart-based understanding of how the soul operates as their basis for doing business: marketing shapes behaviors, not through precise reasoning and firm choosing, but by capturing emotions and stirring responses. Some major figures in modern and even in contemporary philosophy have begun to unpack a response-based approach to life. One of America’s greatest thinkers, Jonathan Edwards, simply cannot be understood apart from a heart-based, affective anthropology. And even some significant research in current neurobiology has shown that we do all our “thinking by feeling.”

As we have said here before, we were made to be lovers because God himself is a lover. We were made as relational beings because God himself is relational. And we were made as responders because God is our great pursuer and he made us as suitable partners for an eternal life of shared love, joy, life, and good works in companionship with God: not because we have to but because we want to. And we want to because we find God—as Father, Son, and Spirit—to be more attractive than any other alternative in life.



  1. Bobby Grow

    Thank you, Ron,

    This is an excellent survey for highlighting what Affective Theology is all about. Sibbes, it seems, in some ways was a man ahead of his times; unfortunately it also seems that so many have missed what he was all about today. Thanks for reminding us of the centrality of God’s love and relationship through Sibbes’ theology, very refreshing and right on!

  2. Alan Hlavka

    Thanks dear friend.

    Oh the joy of His kindness & love. Thanks for being an effective servant who displays Him so vividly.

  3. Chris Laird

    “Is faith a responsibility to be performed or a response . . .?” As a former pastor and a current seminary student, I have begun to think that our Pelagian instincts are incurable (“can these dead bones live?”). We desperately need more voices like yours. Btw your friend Paul Metzger is clearly very fond of you. Thanks for the work you’re doing.

  4. Clive

    Ron, I’ve been engaging with a your couple eager students but affected much by Aristotle and Aquinas. That sets some background. Their dispute with an affection based model is that “its not universal-take the case of someone who intakes a commodity which changes how we behave; to state that the unilateral model is the only way, clearly isn’t true.” So, they are contending that “another” force can operate. I asked my friends, “why did they take the commodity?” They responded, “well because they couldn’t help themselves.” “Why’s that I asked?” “well because their brain has been damaged from birth. In fact, there are clinical studies that show people have been so damaged they don’t even know what they want anymore.”
    Response? Please add a little more on neurobiological examples that convey more of a thinking by feeling in a response.
    As always, Clive

  5. Bruce

    “Is faith a responsibility to be performed or a response . . .?” As a former pastor and a current seminary student, I have begun to think that our Pelagian instincts are incurable (“can these dead bones live?”). We desperately need more voices like yours. Btw your friend Paul Metzger is clearly very fond of you. Thanks for the work you’re doing.

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