Category Archives: ordo salutis
While I’ve chosen to skip over a post on growing in grace as a part of holiness, remember that we’ve said that holiness is not a static place one arrives at, only to then live in that state until death. Not even close. God will continue to purify and cleanse a person’s heart and mind, making him or her aware of areas of sin. I like to think of choosing to cooperate with this further growth as just one way that a person wisely avoids getting set in his or her ways as they age. There is no place for a snarky, belligerent, crotchety person in the kingdom of God.
And then there’s death. I probably should have written more about this. Suffice it to say two things:
1. Death has always been, theologically speaking, the Christian’s enemy. Christ conquered death on the cross and in His resurrection because it was an enemy that needed conquering.
2. Death is not simply a transition from this life to the next. We do not say, “O happy dagger!” as in Romeo and Juliet. We always grieve, even if it is in hope.
Glorification is what happens to us at death. While this can be a tricky subject since none of us has ever died and come back to tell of it, Jesus has died and has been resurrected.
Steve Harper writes, “The issue of our ultimate glorification is based on the responses we make to the presence of the kingdom. It is the activity of the kingdom that makes a real connection between time and eternity” (The Way to Heaven, p. 97). When Jesus came and inaugurated the kingdom–God’s real rule and reign here and now–He forced you and me to reckon with it, to either accept and enter the kingdom or to reject and oppose the kingdom. Our entrance now means that heaven one day is our great reward.
We get a glimpse of what our future life will be like from Him, as well as other descriptions in the Bible. And while we won’t spend a ton of time examining what happens after we die, here are a few things we can know for certain will happen at death:
- We will await the general resurrection in the presence of Christ.
- We will, along with every human being, undergo judgment and the resurrection of the righteous or the wicked. We will be given incorruptible bodies capable of living in the news heavens and new earth. Incorruptible means we will no longer be subject to the enemies of sin, death and the devil.
- We will be like God. This is the Eastern Orthodox Church’s doctrine of deification. 2 Peter 1:3-4 says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Peter’s words here speak of life in the present as an anticipation of the future–notice the language of promises, which implies future fulfillment.
- We will be fully restored in all aspects of God’s image: the natural, political and moral.
- We will live and reign for eternity with Christ on the new earth, which has been united with the new heavens.
Remember that this is all part of God’s plan for us and that our current spiritual formation is leading us to this point.
The distinctive mark of John Wesley’s theology has always been his theology of holiness. Wesley spoke of “Christian perfection.” By this he did not mean sinlessness or that we would be made perfect in this life. The adjective “Christian” modifies the meaning of “perfection.” Let’s first define what holiness is not:
- Holiness is not absolute perfection. The Christian is still tempted, still able to sin. It is not as if we are exalted to a state of absolute judgment or knowledge or performance.
- Holiness is not superiority. He or she is not a super Christian, as if holiness is only for the select few pastors and missionaries.
- Holiness is not immunity from life’s problems. We will never reach a point where we are exempt from suffering or from Satan’s tempting.
- Holiness is not a static (non-moving) experience. Wesley taught that a person could be made holy in an instant, like conversion, but this instant is never separated from one’s entire walk with God. It is part of the process, not the end goal of the process.
Steve Harper, commenting on Wesley’s theology, says holiness is singleness of intention. This is in contrast to what Dallas Willard mentioned about duplicity of the heart. We are no longer duplicitous and deceitful but only will and desire what God wills and desires. This emphasizes that being is just as important as doing. Our primary intention is to love God with all our heart and to love others.
Harper is helpful in an illustration as to how this can be called perfect love while still leaving room for sin:
“When each of my children were small, they had the bright idea to bring Mommy some flowers. Never mind that they plucked the flowers from the bed Mommy had worked hard to cultivate. Never mind that they may have even taken flowers from the neighbor’s bed! Their one desire was to please Mommy and to show their love for her” (The Way to Heaven, p. 84).
He then goes on to say how his wife did not reject their gift but gladly accepted it and put the flowers in a vase. We cannot hope to match God in actions but we can hope to match Him in intentions. Our controlling desire can be God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Perfect love, however, starts with the heart and motives and our actions begin to line up with them.
Second, holiness is power over sin. Wesley did not believe there was ever a time when a person had to sin. God’s grace is always greater than the lure of temptation. And if you think about it, this is really matching one’s singleness of intent to action. When given the choice of sinning or loving, we can choose to love each time. This doesn’t come automatically–note how we’re talking about holiness toward the end of the ordo salutis–but with God’s grace and our practice.
Third, holiness is radical dependence on Christ. This is the idea in John 15, where Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing. I find this facet of holiness the most intriguing and most emphasized in contemporary holiness circles today. We use phrases like “fully devoted disciples” or “wholly surrendered to Christ.” The surrender, both instantaneous and ongoing, becomes the focal point, but we soon lose sight of God giving us power over sin. We get tired of ongoing surrender, wondering if our hearts and hands will ever synchronize. If holiness is radical dependence on Christ, then the act of surrender ought not be the focal point, but the One we surrender to ought.
Fourth, holiness is equipment for ministry. We are set apart for service to God. Holiness is always a social experience: it always fleshes itself out in love for others expressed in service with other Christians. There is a reason why Harper listed this last, and why I agree with the order. Namely, it is dangerous to skip straight to empowerment for ministry because that tends to be an easy disguise for any number of intentions that are unholy. We serve out of who we are; we serve out of the Spirit’s power; and we are eager to serve because in service we can display Christ’s love.
Adding a section on the means of grace is really related to things like the spiritual disciplines and other catalysts God uses to grow our faith. It is speaking of those things we can consistently count on God to use in our lives to give more of His grace to us, whether we are aware of it or not. The “means of grace” is very much a Wesleyan phrase that John Wesley used to describe one of the ways God works in us.
Wesley writes, “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16). He later lists in the same sermon that the “chief” means of grace are prayer—corporate or personal, searching the Scriptures, and eating the Lord’s Supper. God has chosen certain avenues and activities by which he gives grace. Many of these are the spiritual disciplines that we have talked about earlier.
Wesley also wrote in this sermon several clarifying statements as to what is meant by the means of grace.
- The means of grace must be tied to the end, or goal, of Christianity. If they are not part of loving God, they keep Christianity out of the heart rather than bring it in.
- If they are separate from the Holy Spirit, they cannot profit us. There is no inherent power in the means of grace, but only by the Holy Spirit at work in them do they profit us.
- The means of grace cannot atone for sin. Only the blood of Christ can offer forgiveness for sin.
- A large number of Christians abuse the means of grace to the destruction of their souls. They believe there is merit in them that will cause God to favor them even though this is not how God gives us His favor.
The means of grace can also be called sacramental, because the sacraments–communion and baptism–are also outward signs of an inward grace. So we might say that prayer is sacramental. We might say marriage is sacramental or that raising children is sacramental. It is not that they are sacraments, but that God uses these relationships as a way to change us.
As I have taught this ordo salutis at my church, we have exposed ourselves to the spiritual disciplines. Evangelicals regularly emphasize such disciplines as Bible reading and prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and community. They may even encourage other forms of spiritual discipline without labeling them. As far as I know, it is only since Richard Foster’s release of The Celebration of Discipline several decades ago that evangelicals have started to embrace the broad spectrum of spiritual disciplines as valuable.
Spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. They are part of the “path of disciplined grace” as Foster says. This does not mean they are the sole means of grace, but any discussion of the avenues God has appointed to distribute His grace to us would be severely lacking without mention of them. They are, as Dallas Willard says, wisdom not righteousness. In the disciplines, we do not earn righteousness but become wise toward the ways of God.
Galatians 6:8 says, “Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Richard Foster comments, “A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines–they are a way of sowing to the Spirit…. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 7).
G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy something to the effect that we falsely assume that something consistent does not have life in it, such as a clock. We are wrong. Consistency is actually a sign of life. He gives the example of children who say, “Do it again,” to parents who get tired quickly and then says God may be much younger than we. Our inconsistency gives away the death within us. The spiritual disciplines are, if anything, the consistent way to let God breathe life into us.
Inward disciplines are those that one does in solitary that no one knows about. These are those Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6 where we must be careful not to get our reward from people observing our deeds of righteousness. Outward disciplines are ones that one does where there is evidence of the act. They are not necessarily done alone—in fact, some of them seem to require a relationship with others. But they are not done intentionally with others. And corporate disciplines are those done together with a consistent group of other Christians. The adjectives describe a person’s relationship to those around him while practicing the disciplines.
Think of it like raising a child. A child, as he grows up, learns new things that will prepare him for life. He learns how to set an alarm clock and wake up early, how to manage his money, how to behave around the opposite sex, how to respect his elders. All of these practices are new at one time but, in time, become a part of who he is. Eventually, he is one who wakes up early, one who can manage his money, etc. And, in time, he becomes a person who wakes up because it makes him a better businessman. He manages his money because it enables financial freedom.
We practice the spiritual disciplines not only so we can be people of prayer, etc. but people for whom prayer provides an avenue for God to change us. If we want to be people of character, of virtue, prepared and ready to rule and reign as people reflecting God’s image in the world, then we must subject ourselves to this path of disciplined grace. And we must remember that change will take time.
Dallas Willard gives correction to those who would complain about the difficulty of the disciplines, as if following Jesus were simple and easy. “Ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden [that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11]. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide. We become unbalanced and are unable to handle our lives” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 7).
Here is a list of some of the basic spiritual disciplines taken from Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.
Andy Stanley says that one of the five things God uses to grow our faith is personal ministry. What we’re talking about here is serving in ministry, mainly within the church, but also outside of the church. If transforming our bodies is to become a priority, then we must begin to use them in tangible, new ways to serve others.
I’ve called this one of the catalysts toward spiritual formation. Scripture is full of references to the attitude we must have in our personal ministry.
Matthew 20:25-28 says, “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We are not to be like the rulers, or benefactors, of the Gentiles, who in Jesus’ day were among the wealthiest 3% of the Roman world. They gave tons of money to cities and expected praise and adoration and power in return. Rather, Jesus calls us to embrace the shame of a slave.
Romans 1:25 (on how we used to serve created things instead of God) says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
In this verse, we are reminded that our personal acts of service and worship in this world can be directed toward created things–money, other people, our jobs, social status–our equivalents of idols. When we do this, we participate in keeping the image of God in us marred and broken.
1 Cor. 12:4-6 says, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
I love this passage. Gifts, serving and working are all paralleled here by Paul. In the various gifts and service that we find within the church, there is the same Triune God at work. God distributes the gifts. Notice that God is not only at work in the act of working, but also in those who are doing the work. This is one reason why faith sticks in teens and new Christians when they choose to serve in a local church. God shapes them in the work they do on worship teams, in kids ministry, at food giveaways, and in working with the homeless.
Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
These are such oft-quoted verses, especially at ordination services. And they should be, for they speak of the importance not only of the ordained minister, but of God’s people at work in service. I think of aging as an apt metaphor. As people age, those who stay physically active as much as possible tend to stay alive longer (a generalization, but one with empirical evidence). So it is in the Christian life. Those who continue to serve in the church trek onward in maturity in Christ, while those who sit on the sidelines miss out on the corporate spiritual formation God seeks to do in His people, the church.
For the early Christians, a relationship with Christ was even more about making a change in their social groupings than it was individual, personal salvation. Becoming a Christian had sharp consequences as they would be shunned by their Jewish brethren. While ethnically Jewish, they chose to believe in Jesus the Messiah and thus separate themselves from family members and close friends. Unless whole families converted.
This is why we read of Christians calling one another brother and sister in the Bible. They had become a new family, God’s family, and they needed the social bonds and friendship made possible in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, our picture of human relationships prior to coming to Christ has been affected by such things as rejection–just ask any student about the loss of a friendship or the way kids bully others at school–verbal abuse, wounds, fear, pain, the desire to belong, etc. We remember that John Wesley said that after the Fall, the political image of humanity was marred. We no longer related well with each other. We must re-learn what it means to love one another again.
The Bible says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). Love is essential. And yet love is so misconstrued as either a feeling we have or as something we are allowed to withhold from some and yet give to others.
Love is the will to seek the good for another person. It is always a choice we make. We remember that God’s vision for the world is one where He loves every person, and where we, bearing His image, love every person as well. This type of love transcends ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, color of the skin, history, prejudice, politics, emotions, social standing, etc.
We are called not only to love our neighbors but also to love our enemies.
Dallas Willard writes, “Spiritual formation, good or bad, is always profoundly social. You cannot keep it to yourself. Anyone who thinks of it as a merely private matter has misunderstood it…. Strictly speaking, there is nothing ‘just between me and God.’ For all that is between me and God affects who I am; and that, in turn, modifies my relationship to everyone around me” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 182).
Some may buy into the myth that “my personal relationship with God” is also a private one. Don’t. As Andy Stanley has said, “It may be personal, but it’s public.”
Part of spiritual formation is both our call to love our neighbor as ourselves as well as our wisdom in changing the people with whom we allow in our “inner circle.” Some Christians have mistakenly taught that becoming a Christian means forsaking one’s non-Christian friends. This is the wrong approach, for God has now positioned you in their lives as a witness for Him.
Joseph Myers wrote a profound book, The Search to Belong, on the ways in which people choose to belong to groups and to one another. He said that people belong in four different ways: public, social, personal, and intimate. In each space, we know people in different ways. He says we will only ever have one person in the “intimate” space, and that our capacity to belong to others in the other spaces grows (i.e., we’ll have more people in the personal space, even more in the social space, and a huge number in the public space). Here is how he defined each of these “spaces”:
Public: These are people we meet at public places, like the waiter at our favorite restaurant or the gas station attendant. They may be people we only know by name. We need more people in this space than any other. Public belonging is about connecting through outside influences–we’re all Tigers fans, all parents whose kids go to the same school, etc. People in this space don’t generally exchange personal information, and if they do, they move to a new space. People may want anonymity in this space but they don’t want to be strangers; it’s all about feeling like you fit in.
Social: Social belonging is what you think it is: It’s about small talk over coffee and donuts. This is the relationship you may have with your neighbor. You chat about the weather each time you see one another getting the mail. In this space, we know people just well enough and are perhaps evaluating whether or not we want to become better friends with them. These are the people you greet at church but don’t know much more about. You’ll have less people with whom you relate in these social ways.
Personal: This is the space that starts to get affected the most when a person becomes a Christian. It is here that we ask the question: Is it okay with Jesus if I still spend as much time with my close friends as I used to? Personal relationships are ones we share the details of life, the private stuff that maybe doesn’t get shared with too many others. These are relationships that many people term “intimate” but this is a misnomer. We are only capable of being intimate with one person–our spouse (if we are married, or another close friend if single).
Intimate: This is where we share the “naked truth” with another and are “not ashamed.” We fully trust this person to keep our secrets, to like and love us for who we are, and to never leave us. Intimacy is not only a sexual term but an emotional and informational term as well (The Search to Belong, pp. 39-51).
Thus, we seek to have a Christian spouse and a larger group of Christians in our personal friends, while maintaining relationships with others.
We can think of spiritual formation influencing relationships with our spouse, our children, our extended families, our neighbors, our close friends, our co-workers, strangers, people at church, people who have wronged us, and people who no one else seems to care about. There is not one person that we cannot love like Christ loves, though it will take his help and the help of the church.
Robert Webber writes, “The church and its worship are sources of nourishment precisely because they embody God’s story and witness to God’s divine embrace and constantly keep God’s vision of a restored people and renewed earth before us” (The Divine Embrace, p. 220). We do not attend church on Sundays because we must, but because in the church, we remember God’s plan for us and our world. Worship, Scripture, prayer and the sacraments together with other Christians form us into God’s people.
Dallas Willard points to Romans 12:9-21 gives a great list of the ways our gatherings should look:
- Letting love be completely real and sincere (v. 9)
- Abhorring what is evil (v. 9)
- Clinging to what is good (v. 9)
- Being devoted to one another in family-like love (v. 10)
- Outdoing one another in giving honor (v. 10)
- Serving the Lord with fervor and diligence (v. 11)
- Rejoicing in hope (v. 12)
- Being patient in troubles (v. 12)
- Being devoted constantly to prayer (v. 12)
- Contributing to the needs of the saints (v. 13)
- Practicing hospitality (v. 13)
- Blessing persecutors instead of cursing them (v. 14)
- Being joyful with those who are rejoicing and being sorrowful with those in sorrow (v. 15)
- Living in harmony with one another (v. 16)
- Not being proud, but fitting in with those considered “lowly” (v. 16)
- Not seeing yourself as superior or wiser than others (v. 16)
- Never repaying evil for evil (v. 17)
- Having due regard for what everyone takes to be right (v. 17)
- Being at peace with everyone, so far as it depends on you (v. 18)
- Never taking revenge, but leaving that to whatever God may decide (v. 19)
- Providing for needy enemies (v. 20)
- Not being overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelming evil with good (v. 21)
Willard says, “Just think for a moment what it would be like to be a part of a group of disciples in which this list was the conscious, shared intention, and where it was actually lived out, even if with some imperfection” (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 195-196).
What are the experiences, positive or negative, that you say have shaped you the most? I once had a pastor give an exercise where we wrote our forming moments on sticky notes and then placed them next to results from a Meyers-Briggs test, a spiritual gifts test, and a StrengthsFinder test.
This is perhaps so obvious and yet easily overlooked–God uses our daily experiences to shape us. The loss of a job, the birth of a child, a marriage, a tragedy, a crisis of faith, a powerful worship service, a time of devotions, a conversation with a friend, etc. All of these and more can be used by God to change us.
It is our job to begin viewing life through different lenses. What if God wants to use something but we’ve not opened our eyes to the possibility?
Let’s take an example from Scripture, from the life of Peter. What were the pivotal circumstances in his life?
- Being born a Jewish boy into a home where he was raised to love God, to know the Torah, to take part in Jewish rituals and feasts, etc.
- Becoming a fisherman, presumably like his father, as sons learned the family business.
- Being called to follow after Jesus (Matt. 4).
- The healing of his mother-in-law
- Calling Jesus the Son of God and then being rebuked by Jesus (Matt. 16)
- Witnessing the transfiguration with James and John
- Denying Jesus 3x
- Being forgiven by Jesus (John 21)
- Preaching his first sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2)
- Dreaming on a rooftop and meeting Cornelius (Acts 10)
Peter’s pivotal circumstances before meeting Jesus paved the way for him to follow Jesus; His pivotal circumstances as a disciple prepared him for leading the early church.
Peter’s first letter gives us another clue as to one of the most pivotal circumstances we experience: suffering.
- 1 Peter 1:6-7: 6In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
- 1 Peter 3:17-18: It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.
- 1 Peter 4:1-2: Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin. 2As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.
- 1 Peter 5:8-10: 8Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your fellow believers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.10And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
Our suffering results in genuine, steadfast faith in God. While Peter spoke of suffering specifically for being a Christian, our present sufferings can be used in the same way. When we are faced with pressure at work, the loss of loved ones, broken relationships, financial difficulty, etc., God can provide the strength we need to face the suffering and come out of it having passed the testing of our faith.
It’s time to get back to the ordo salutis, or way of salvation. It has been a month since the last post on this.
I’ll be honest, the idea of trying to change my physical body is counter-intuitive. Isn’t spiritual formation something that happens in the unseen, hidden places of the heart and mind? How can changing my body do any good?
Dallas Willard says,
“For good or for evil, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life–a strange combination of words to most people. One can immediately see all around us that the human body is a (perhaps in some cases even the) primary barrier to conformity to Christ. But this certainly was not God’s intent for the body. It is not in the nature of the body as such. (The body is not inherently evil.) Nor is it even caused by the body. But still it is a fact that the body usually hinders people in doing what they know to be good and right” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 159).
We must remember that our bodies are not in and of themselves evil. We are never told in Scripture to escape them. They are part of God’s good, physical creation. Jesus did not come to us as a spirit, but was the Son of God incarnate, in the flesh. And this is part of the contemporary confusion. There are two Greek words in the New Testament that get used to say “body” and “flesh,” and they mean different things, generally speaking. Body is “soma” in Greek and simply refers to our physical bodies. Flesh is “sarx” in Greek and may refer to one’s physical body, as in John 1:14 where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It may also refer to our sinful nature, or the tendency to act in sin rather than act in accordance with God’s will.
Flesh (sarx) in the NT
While “flesh” in Paul’s letters is not strictly a word that refers to our sinful nature, here are places where it does (see also Romans 7:5; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 3:3; 6:7-8; Ephesians 2:3).
- Romans 8:5-13: “5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. 7The sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. 12Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
- Galatians 5:13-26: “13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
To be “in the flesh” as in Romans 8 refers to someone who is not indwelt by the Spirit, who cannot fulfill the Law of God, and who therefore cannot please God. Flesh in these passages is not physical flesh, as in 1 Corinthians 6:19, where the body of flesh is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is the means of glorifying God (6:20).
Ben Witherington III writes, “The tension in the Christian life is not between old person and new person (for the old person has been crucified and is dead and buried), but rather between Spirit and flesh” (Grace in Galatia, p. 377). He advocates translating sarx as “sinful inclination.” “In other words, I think Paul is talking about the prompting within human beings for their sin (their inclination to do that which they ought not to do), not the resulting effect (a corrupt nature)” (pp. 377-378).
Paul views the death of the flesh as something that has already happened in the death of Christ. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its passions (Gal. 5:24). The flesh–the human powers of living that are bent to sin–is based in the physical body. Those whose minds are set on the flesh will do what they want to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Romans 8). But those who are in Christ will not let the desires of the flesh reign in their bodies but will live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Notice how in Romans 8 the sinful nature, the flesh, is something we can “live according to.” It can be the thing that drives us, that we obey, that we live by. Its opposite it the Spirit (v. 9). We are “in the Spirit”. Even though our bodies are subject to death because we at one time had lived according to our fleshly desires, our bodies will be brought to new life by the Spirit. The Spirit will give life to our bodies. The question is, will this life happen now or only after we die? Paul’s view is that this will happen at the final resurrection after we die. Thus, our bodies will not be completely renewed in this life, and yet they must undergo spiritual formation just like the rest of us so they are no longer slaves to the fleshly desires we have.
The flesh is not the same thing as the body. While we must deal with our flesh’s desires, we do not treat our bodies in the same way.
One of the ways we use our bodies for good or evil is in our body language. For example:
- We give stern looks to people who cross us.
- We cross our arms in anger, to distance ourselves from another.
- We give people “the finger.”
- We dress our bodies provocatively to attract attention.
- We hide our bodies in shame by dressing in large clothing or sunglasses.
- Our facial expressions show sarcasm, envy, jealousy, etc.
- Our eyes, mouths, etc.
You can see into a person’s heart by the way they walk into a room or look at you. The issue is that not only do our minds begin to develop patterns of thinking, but also our bodies interact with those patterns of thinking and feeling by how they set. Our bodies reinforce, then, our spiritual formation for good or ill.
Training Our Bodies in Anticipation of the Resurrection
Our bodies will one day be resurrected bodies. Heaven is not a place for disembodied souls. The body will be redeemed fully at the general resurrection. Because we anticipate its redemption, we must train it today.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 says: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
We cooperate with God’s grace given to us by choosing to no longer offer parts of our bodies to sin. Romans 6:12-13 says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.” Whereas we once found it quite easy for our bodies to engage in sinful activity–it doesn’t take anything supernatural for us to take part in fornication, greed, covetousness–we now submit our bodies to Christ and His Spirit.
Dallas Willard says we can do four things for the spiritual formation of the body:
- Release our body to God. This is what Paul means when he says, “present our body as a living sacrifice to God” (Romans 12:1). Specifically pray about each part of your body and ask God to take charge of it and to begin giving life to each part.
- No longer idolize your body. Stop worrying about what will happen to it with age and sickness, stop spending so much money on making it more beautiful, etc. Take good care of it with diet and exercise, but do not make it an idol.
- Do not misuse your body. He says this means not using it as a source of sensual gratification outside of the sexual relationship in marriage and not using it to dominate others. This means not using it in brute force to intimidate, or using it in sexual ways to manipulate or seduce. It also means not overworking it.
- The body is to be properly honored and cared for. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-15a, “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” This is part of Paul’s argument for them not to engage in sex with prostitutes. For us, while this may not be a temptation, we are called to treat our bodies like they are members of Christ (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 173-174).
Like everything else God is trying to do in us, the transformation of our bodies anticipates the day when our good bodies are resurrected and perfected. We train them now not in despair because they will disappear one day, but because God will use the very physical material of our current bodies to create our new ones, just as He did with Jesus.
Mildred Wynkoop wrote, “What one believes about human nature and God’s grace will have a direct bearing on the kind of Christian life one experiences” (qtd. in Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 65). I think we’re finding that out already in our study of how God changes us. Knowing the way God desires to work in us, and believing He will, has great bearing on our further growth in Christ.
The Wesleyan doctrine of progressive sanctification basically says that as we are Christians, we continue to receive more of God’s grace, enabling us to grow. Thomas Oden writes, “During the entire time that sanctifying grace is continuing to work—throughout life—the believer is daily called upon to confess, repent, and pray for forgiveness. The new birth begins a life that grows in responsiveness to unmerited grace and presses on in the way of holiness” (Classic Christianity, 657).
This is an important topic–we grow in grace. Normally, when we talk about spiritual growth, believers assume we mean taking another class to grow in knowledge. And yet knowledge is only part of the equation, and knowledge without grace means nothing. Now is probably a good time to explain grace a bit.
Grace has to do with at least two things:
- God’s unmerited favor given to us as a gift. This is the grace we speak of at conversion/salvation.
- God’s power enabling us to live the Christian life. This is the grace we speak of afterward.
John Wesley taught that we grow in grace out of a sense of assurance. Romans 8:16-17 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (TNIV). Assurance is possible that we are indeed God’s children, saved for a glorious inheritance. Satan would try to make us doubt and fear God’s love for us and our standing with Him. Assurance is not a rest-on-your-laurels kind of thing, as if God’s assurance means we sit back and wait for heaven one day. For John Wesley, assurance only dealt with one’s present relationship; it was not a guarantee for the future. Only continued obedience and faithfulness could take care of the future. Assurance says, “How amazing is my Savior, Jesus!” He has made His home in me and He intends to stay.
Progressive sanctification really is simply what we’ve been talking about all along–renewal of the mind and of the heart/will, changing our narratives, etc. And it encompasses things we’ll talk about in future posts. The point of understanding that what we’re experiencing now is “progressive sanctification” is that we understand that all of our work to partner with God in response to His grace is both a necessary and natural step for us to take. To take a class and gain knowledge is necessary and natural. To read blog posts is nice. To surrender your will to God is necessary and natural, and only enabled by grace. And so on and so on.
Too often we approach besetting sin by trying harder to conquer it. We determine never to do it again, we pray for God to deliver us from it, we set our will against it. But the struggle is in vain as we eventually fall back into the same patterns of sin. Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (NASB).
What he’s saying is that observing the rules of not handling or tasting things may sound great as far as trying to beat our bodies into conformity with God’s will, but in the end, they have no power. Willpower will have a show of success for a time but cannot produce lasting change. Jesus alluded to this when he spoke to the Pharisees: “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:34-36, NASB). The will, originating from the heart, is what matters. If the heart has not been circumcised, been given newness of life by God, then we can try as hard as we want to do good, but in those careless moments, who we truly are shines through. If we are full of compassion, that will shine through; if bitterness, that will shine through.
Richard Foster quotes Heini Arnold, “As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever” (Celebration of Discipline, 5). Foster also writes, “When we are dealing with heart work, external actions are never the center of our attention. Outward actions are a natural result of something far deeper, far more profound.” It is quite ironic that the very thing that seems like a good plan–confronting sin head on–is what entangles us all the more.
There is a difference between attempting to continue on a journey of spiritual formation alone, by forcing change by your own will, and joining God, who can begin to help transform your will so it aligns with His.