Authoritative prayer is just what it sounds like. It is praying with the authority Jesus said we have. We can ask anything in His name and He will do it, including prayers against our enemy. Richard Foster counsels us in six ways.
First, we should not go looking for the devil under every bush. In the power of God, we learn to take authority over our own flesh. In humility, where we honestly assess our sin and ask the Spirit to search and know us, we pray for the Spirit’s work of cleansing and purifying in our lives. While we don’t discount the devil totally, we also don’t give him more power than he deserves. After all,
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” –Colossians 2:13-15
Second, we don’t need to put on a special voice or conjure up a louder prayer, as if praying this way tells the devil we’re serious. If God’s power is present, then we don’t need special effects.
Third, we have special resources to draw on. Foster says in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home,
“It is common to experience unusual anointing of the Holy Spirit for specific ministry situations. When appropriate we should wait for the power of the Spirit to increase, all of the time surrounding ourselves with the light of Christ and covering ourselves with the blood of Christ and sealing ourselves with the cross of Christ.”
The Spirit, the light, the blood and the cross of Christ. My sense is that many of us would find ourselves out of our element. What does it mean for the power of the Spirit to increase? As with any other spiritual discipline and relationship, practice is key with others who are more experienced.
Fourth, when praying against evil, we pray with gentleness and compassion for the person. We don’t use the circumstance as a chance for display. We don’t go into the prayer hoping to tell a great story when we’re done. Authoritative prayer is not a vehicle for vainglory. (Perhaps this is why we don’t know what to do with TV preachers who go all out with their inflection and volume?)
Fifth, authoritative prayer is not a substitute for the habits of disciplined living. Many times, we don’t need deliverance but discipline. We need to read our Bibles regularly if we want to conquer sin. We need to repent and stand in the assurance of our forgiveness and victory over sin. We need accountability for addiction. Prayer is a huge part of deliverance, but its effectiveness is tied to these other pieces of the disciplined life.
Sixth, Foster, says, rarely do we practice authoritative prayer alone. It is work to be done with others. This allows us accountability and support.
Finally, as we read the book of Ephesians, Christ’s heavenly position of authority, spoken of in Ephesians 1, leads to us being placed there with him in Ephesians 2, so that we can wage war against the principalities and powers in Ephesians 6. I would encourage you to read the book in one sitting and observe how each of these chapters fits with the others.
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.
Up to this point, we have been focusing on the section of the “way of salvation” that is all about putting off and putting to death. We cooperate with God’s grace to have transformed minds, emotions, and wills, and that means putting to death old patterns of thinking, feeling, and choosing. But putting off, in Colossians 3, comes before putting back on new clothes. Paul writes that we must put to death whatever belongs to our “earthly nature” (vv. 5-11) and then says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
But just what are the virtues, and how to they lead us to become people of “Christian character”?
Dallas Willard says, “Our character is that internal, overall structure of the self that is revealed by our long-run patterns of behavior and from which our actions more or less automatically arise” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 142). Character is shown by the thoughts, feelings and tendencies from which a person habitually acts. It is why people run credit reports–they tell a person’s spending habits, ability to pay off their debt, and give a picture of whether or not a person could pay off new debt. N.T. Wright says character is “the pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut into them, you see the same person through and through” (After You Believe, p. 27).
Character doesn’t come overnight. Wright asks, “Did you think you could sit down at the piano and play a Beethoven sonata straight off? Did you think you could just fly to Moscow, get off a plane, and start speaking fluent Russian?” The obvious answer is, “No.” They each take practice. Character is the same way.
Living by the Christian virtues is the way to develop character that lasts and character that leads us to God’s end goal of this life, which is to live as holy rulers and priests in God’s new heavens and new earth. Virtuous living is not just a matter of trying to become a better person. Character and virtue is for you, for sure, for your spiritual formation and growth, but also for God’s plan for His creation. It is for others. A person with a renewed mind, renewed feelings, and a will bent toward God’s is in good shape for what God intends!
Christians have identified seven virtues as the core. They are:
The last four come from Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived 350 years before Christ. Aristotle said they were the four “hinges” upon which the door to human flourishing would open. This is why they are called the “cardinal virtues” (cardo in Latin means “hinge”). Aristotle’s goal for humanity was happiness and flourishing. He believed if you practiced these, you would be able to do just that.
Christians translated Aristotle’s vision of virtuous living because for them, the goal was not happiness. To these four, they added the three primary virtues Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:13–faith, hope and love. Paul also writes extensively about virtue, without using that term, in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3.
Thomas Aquinas, the one who is famous for first listing these seven virtues, defined virtue as “good qualities of soul disposing us to live rightly, which we cannot misuse, and which God works in us without our help” (Summa Theologiae, p. 232). Aquinas says these good qualities dispose us to live rightly. They turn our hearts toward righteous living. They cannot be misused–one cannot have the virtue of wisdom and choose to use it for selfish or sinful gains. Also, God works within us to give us virtue without our help, though not without our consent. He will not work in us against our will or our participation with His will. We must be willing partners in the work of virtue.
Learning virtue is like learning a second language. It requires conscious action and repetition, making mistakes, learning the rules and the exceptions to the rules, memorizing vocabulary, etc. Eventually it becomes second nature to you. But it is possible to learn a language and then forget it. Someone who learns generosity as a child can find their habits as adults squeeze out generosity, and it has to be learned once more. Just as you learn a second language to become “at home” amongst others who speak it, so we learn the virtues to become “at home” in this world. To function as God intends, we must know the foreign language of virtue.
How does God change us if we do not have an idea of the end goal of the Christian life? It’s one thing to experience conversion and to have the assurance that God is your God and you will one day live with Him in eternity. But it’s quite another to feel like you’ve got a grip on where He’s directing you in this life, right here and right now.
Scripture speaks of the goal with a Greek word telos. Here are a few passages where it occurs, though not
- Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
- 1 Corinthians 13:9-13: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
- Ephesians 4:11-13: “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.”
- Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
- Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
- James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
- 1 Peter 1:7-9: “These 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. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
- 1 John 2:5-6: “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
From these passages of Scripture, we can list several things that could be part of the goal of the Christian life. It refers to being “mature” as a result of persevering through suffering, being “mature” as the result of hearing Christ taught, being perfect as God is perfect, the opposite of something that is partial, completeness, and refers to salvation as the end result of faith.
N.T. Wright looks at the Bible and says that the goal of the Christian life is this:
- The goal is the new heaven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world’s rulers and priests.
- This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
- Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world (After You Believe, p. 67).
It is interesting that the NT authors never use telos to describe the picture of the goal from Revelation. And yet the concept of a new humanity capable of living in the new heavens and new earth makes sense. If we agree with Wright, then the assumption is that our maturity here and now is something we’ll need there and then. We are practicing what it looks like to be the new world’s priests and rulers.
This vision of the goal of life encompasses what on one hand many Christians look forward to–eternal life with God–as well as what many other Christians strive for today–the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
How would you define the goal of the Christian life? What do you think God wants you to be/become?
Conversion is what makes the difference between someone who is simply seeking God and someone who has entered into a saving relationship with God. In a former post, we talked about this briefly. Conversion makes a difference, and it is a necessary step in one’s Christian spiritual formation–hear me say that I believe we need to call people to real conversion experiences. Conversion, however, is not the end of the road, as we all know from experience. I’m reminded of Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, where he writes that we’ve become soterians (calling for salvation) rather than evangelicals (preaching the gospel), equating giving people an opportunity to “pray the prayer” with preaching the gospel. But I digress.
The way we call people will impact the way they understand their future life in Christ. It is imperative that we not only make available chances for people to come to Christ in a conversion experience, but also that we adequately explain just what is happening in them.
Conversion is a combination of God’s work and our work. It is, from God’s perspective, all by grace. It is a gift we receive. From our perspective, God’s grace makes possible also the gift of faith. In repentance, we turn from sin and turn to God in faith. According to Wesley,
Saving faith is not belief in the truths of the Bible. Satan believes this and is Satan still.
Saving faith means putting your confidence in the grace of God.
Saving faith means assurance that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again for me.
Saving faith means we rely on this Christ. We no longer rely on ourselves but on Him.
Saving faith means obedience. Wesley said this is obedience to all the commands of God, internal and external; obedience of the heart and of the life; in every temper and all manner of life.
This definition of saving faith is active and alive. It does not see salvation as an act of the past. We might ask, “I’m glad you were saved, but are you saved today?” Perhaps we ought to remember the Greek perfect tense verb as our example: salvation/conversion is something God accomplishes in us in the present that has impact in the future.
Conversion accomplishes four things in us:
Justification: What God does for us by pardoning our sins (Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 55). Romans 3:21-24 says, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Notice how in these verses, Paul talks about the righteousness–being made right with God–has been made possible through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone sinned, but everyone was also justified–pardoned from their sin–by his grace. We would do well to emphasize verse 24 in our preaching just as much as verse 23.
New Birth/Regeneration: “Renewing our fallen nature” (Harper, p. 56). This is renewal of the moral image of God, making us new creations in Christ empowered to live above sin. It is a change in heart, mind, will and action. The natural image and the political image are now also able to begin their renewal. Romans 6:1-4 says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Paul continues in Romans, now talking about how we have died with Christ to sin. Our baptism symbolizes our deadness to sin and the new life that Christ brings. This is not just a new life as someone who now identifies himself or herself as a Christian, as if the newness were solely in self-identity. It is newness in the heart.
1 John 3:8-9 says, “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” God’s seed in this verse refers to Jesus Christ. They cannot go on willfully sinning. This verse is not saying we will never sin again, but our new birth in Christ enables us to live above the power of sin and to actually choose God over sin every time.
Reconciliation/Adoption: The relationship that was broken by sin, between God and us, is restored (Harper, p. 58). We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Through Jesus Christ, God restored a broken relationship with us (and now calls us to tell the world about it!).
Colossians 1:21-22 says, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Note how Paul says we were once “alienated” from God and were enemies. Enemies in our own minds, that we thought of God as an enemy because of our evil behavior. How is this possible? Perhaps we assumed that God would want nothing to do with us and we wanted nothing to do with him too.
Initial Sanctification: Inward and outward holiness begins. God not only calls us righteous but makes us righteous with the righteousness of Christ. In real purity, our hearts are made places where the Spirit can dwell. Romans 6:19b-22 says, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
If conversion accomplishes these four things–justification, the new birth, adoption and reconciliation, and the initial work of sanctification, that’s a lot to pack into a sermon. Most of you haven’t even made it through this whole post it’s so long. My point is, can we reimagine better ways to communicate the necessity and benefits of conversion than a quick call to salvation using the Romans Road? I believe we can, and we must. It will have to involve relationships, and it will probably have to take place outside of our worship services. Does God honor commitments made in those 5 minutes? Certainly. I just think we can improve on it.
In our continuing conversation about what Christian spiritual formation is, we come to the phrase “of being conformed.” Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Notice that this is phrased in a passive tense–being conformed. This means we are not the ones who do the work to ourselves, but God does the work to and in us. Again, this does not mean we have no role, but God is the primary player.
It also means that who we are now is not who are to become. God called Adam and Eve “very good,” but not perfect. Even they had character formation necessary.
Conforming may as well be a four-letter word today. It sounds rigid and constricting to our western ears. In all of our efforts to be God’s people, we even want to control what kind of a person we are becoming in Christ, as if that were possible. Christ calls us to lay down our expectations of who we’re becoming. It’s not about being true to my heart, as if authenticity were all that mattered. Authenticity is better than living out a facade. Authenticity is certainly a good step, but it stops short. If we are to participate with God in our spiritual formation, we must move from seeking authenticity alone to seeking authenticity with surrender of control.
Let’s look at some Scripture.
- 1 Peter 1:14-16: As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
- Romans 8:28-30: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
- Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
- Colossians 3:9-10: Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
In an earlier post, I defined Christian spiritual formation as the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. I also distinguished between spiritual formation as what God does in us during our discipleship, or apprenticeship and following of Jesus.
The above diagram is an attempt to visualize what it looks like to take part in either discipleship or non-discipleship. While I fully recognize the political-incorrectness of trying to label categories of people, by very definition, if there are those who are disciples of Jesus, then there are also those who are not. And while the lines may be much more blurry than this, I hope this helps.
Here’s a brief explanation:
Jesus is the center of all things. This is the message of Colossians 1:15-20, where the Son created all things, is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He has the supremacy over everything because of His resurrection from the dead.
Relationships are dynamic, never static. A person is either moving closer to Christ, the center, or further away from him.
Some are, for lack of a better term, non-Christian seekers. They are people who earnestly want to know more about Christ, may have deep respect for Him, may like Jesus but not the church, or may have a spouse or family member who is a Christian who is pushing them to become one. They are curious about Jesus and His teaching. But they have not had a conversion experience or told Christ to be the center of their lives.
Whether one’s conversion happens instantaneously or progressively (or a little of both) is debatable; the New Testament does describe conversion as encompassing repentance, faith, reception of the Holy Spirit, and a natural next step of baptism. More on conversion in a later post.
A second group can be called Christian disciples. Post-conversion, these people actively pursue Jesus, now given more grace and aided by the Holy Spirit in new ways. They are actively participating in their own spiritual formation.
A third group are those who we might awkwardly call Christian non-disciples. These are they who self-identify as Christians, attend church, who at one point had a genuine conversion experience, but who now are not actively participating in discipleship. They may even be staying at home on Sundays because of a rift with the church, or may simply be waiting for the day when “God takes them to heaven.”
Finally, there are non-Christian pagans. They are far from Christ, want nothing to do with Him, or are ambivalent or agnostic about God. Christian discipleship is not on their radar screen for whatever reason.
The point of identifying where people might be on a continuum of discipleship toward or away from Christ is not to neatly label buckets and then figure out who goes where. No. It is to stress the utmost importance of being a person who engages in discipleship.
The unanswered questions thus far are, “How does God change us? Does God work the same way with each person? Are there reliable patterns of God’s activity that we can count on? What is our role? Are we passive, letting God do all the work? How do we work out our salvation with fear and trembling?”
What do you say after an almost-6-year hiatus from blogging? When I last wrote, my wife and I were moving from Wisconsin to Michigan. My pastoral experience was limited to two years of solo pastoring.