Mystical Union: Understanding Works

7 August 2011

We are often fond of saying that justification is a gift, and sanctification is a lot of work, which is true in one way.  But what we often mean by it is that we do nothing in justification, and then sanctification is quid pro quo all the way.  That needs a rethink.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul says that salvation — by which he means being made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places — is not of works, lest anyone should boast.  Boasting is excluded by God’s grace.

Thing is, this is also true of sanctification, is it not?  We don’t buy our way into spiritual blessing in this life any more than we buy our way into the family to start with.  Everything we have  — everything — is given by God.  “What do you have, that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

Why, indeed.

God blesses us in sanctification, to be sure, but it’s not a quid pro quo type of transaction, any more than justification is.  Sanctification is hard — very hard, at times.  But it’s hard because we’re sinners, and it runs counter to our nature to cooperate with God instead of rebelling against Him.  God is seeking to give us His blessings, to pour out far more than we can imagine, but there are certain relational blessings He simply can’t give us without our cooperation. You can give a rebellious 2-year-old a hug whether he wants it or not, but you can’t give him the experience of a good hug unless he’s willing to receive it.  If he fights you, you may succeed in getting your arms around him and squeezing, but relationally speaking, it’s hardly the same experience, is it?

Sanctification is, above all, a relationship with the living God.  Like all good relationships, it requires that we be willing to receive the other person.

But is this so different from justification?  As long as a person insists on working, on taking his destiny into his own hands, on keeping Jesus out of the picture, then he cannot be born again.  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to be called sons of God….”

The difference is in scope more than in kind.  But we ought to expect nothing else: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”


Mystical Union: Eternal Life is a Dimmer Switch

31 July 2011

When we begin to talk about eternal life (or for short, “life”), we often adopt binary language — you got it or you don’t, end of story.  Then, as a separate issue, we discuss the matter of sanctification. There is, of course, a reason for this.  In the End, there are only two places to be, and two sorts of people to be in them.  Those who have life will live on the New Earth, where God will dwell with His People, and those who have chosen death will die in the Lake of Fire, eternally quarantined away from the God they so despised.  Among the folks who live on the New Earth, some of them will be spiritual giants like Deborah or Peter, men and women who receive great reward.  Others will be…how to put it?…largely spiritual failures.  People who, like Samson, might have shown a great deal of early promise, but frittered it away.  There is a sense in which these are separate issues, the one decided in an instant of faith and the other worked out over the course of a person’s whole life.

In deference to that separateness, many folks will drop “eternal life” language entirely when they start talking about sanctification.  Growing up, I can’t recall ever hearing anyone use “eternal life” language in connection with walking with God: “life” was always about justification, never sanctification.

This gets into your hermeneutics, and you begin to read any passage that discusses “eternal life” or “life” as if it were talking strictly about the new birth, which is a serious problem.

But a growing number of commentators have begun to realize that Scripture doesn’t quite speak in that way.  In many passages, eternal life isn’t something you get when you die; it’s something you have now (e.g., John 5:24).  So there is a growing desire to respond to those passages, but at the same time a great fear of impairing justification by faith alone by confusing justification and sanctification, and the result is an odd blend.  These folks discuss the new birth in terms of having eternal life, and then discuss sanctification/growth in terms of experiencing eternal life.

This is a quantum leap forward from where we were, and we should applaud it.  However, it doesn’t quite go far enough to really be following the way Scripture speaks of the issues.

In brief, it’s not enough to talk about having/not having eternal life, and then, separately, experiencing eternal life.  That’s helpful, but it’s not the way the Bible talks.  The Bible talks about not having life, then having it, and then having more life (e.g., John 10:10).

Here’s the difference.  The “having/not having vs. experiencing” model is like a conventional light switch and a blindfold.  The light is either on or off, but how much you experience the light depends on something totally separate — the blindfold.  Maybe it’s on good and tight, and you can’t see a thing, even though the light is on.  Maybe it’s slipped upward just enough that you can see down along the sides of your nose.  Maybe it’s gone cockeyed, and you can see out of one eye, but not the other…and so on.  The light being on is one concern; the blindfold is another, entirely separate set of concerns.

The “not having/having/having more” model is like your basic dimmer dial switch like you might find in a suburban dining room.  Turn the dial just a little, and you’ll feel the click as the switch goes from ‘off’ to ‘on.’  But there’s just a trickle of current flowing; you can barely see the light.  Keep turning the dial in the same direction, and the flow increases, the light gets progressively brighter.  On and off are still distinguishable states, but it’s all on one continuum, not two totally separate issues.

Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.  He gives us a gift in the new birth, and sanctification is, in this sense, a distinguishable, but not separate, affair.  It’s getting more of what you got to start with.

Mystical Union: Knocking the Bottom out of the Swimming Crib

24 July 2011

During the summer, people generally prefer to swim outside.  Although it is common to swim in pools these days, old-school swimming facilities usually depended on natural water features: ponds, rivers, and oceans.  An ideal natural swimming location would have clean water, a gradually sloping, sandy bottom, and very little current.  Such places existed, of course, but they weren’t as common as one might hope.  In response, waterfront staff developed a variety of work-arounds to allow swimmers to safely use the water in the absence of perfect conditions.

In situations where the water was very deep, or the current too fast-moving, one of those work-arounds was called a swimming crib.  The crib was basically a very large wooden crate, ballasted and tethered to function sort of like a ‘swimming pool’, immersed in the lake or river.  (You can see an example here.)  One of the most basic uses for a crib was to provide a shallow area for beginners to swim in water that was naturally very deep.  The lake bottom could be thirty feet down, but a 3-foot crib provided an artificial ‘shallow end.’


One typical take on eternal life is that it’s “living forever with God” — a simplification that I have certainly been guilty of, myself.  The focus is revivalistic, focused on a heaven-or-hell afterlife.  A person who ‘has eternal life’ is ‘saved,’ which means that he’s going to go to heaven when he dies…and that’s pretty much it.

Given that definition, the Gospel of John, which is very, very focused on eternal life, takes on the appearance of being all about whether people go to heaven or hell.  The purpose of the book, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name” is understood to be about taking people who were going to hell and making it so they’re going to heaven…and that’s pretty much it.

This is the theological equivalent of building a 3-foot swimming crib in some very deep, very fast-moving water.  Problem is, what we’re protecting people from, in this instance, is God.


Eternal life has to be “living forever” — otherwise, as Zane Hodges aptly observed, “eternal life” isn’t a very good name for it — but is that all we need to say about it?  Jesus didn’t think so.  “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed to His Father, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”

Eternal life, according to Jesus, is knowing God.  How?  Through Jesus, who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  That’s inexhaustible.  It’s far, far deeper than “going to heaven when you die.”  And while, of course, lip service is paid to this notion, in fact it is largely ignored.  We keep everybody in the 3-food swimming crib of going to heaven, when they could be diving deep into relationship with God Himself.

The solution?  We need to knock the bottom out of the crib.  This will undoubtedly be the occasion for much whining, but we have no right to speak in a way that stands between people and a living relationship with God.

Mystical Union: The Person Who Promises

27 March 2011

Richard has a vaguely Christian background — Jesus died on a cross, like that.  He never really thought about it much, but he lost his job three months ago, and this week he’s not going to make his mortgage payment.  Not knowing what to do, he took a long walk to try to clear his head, and happened to pass by the church on a Sunday evening.  People were going in, and he thought, “What the heck?  Nothing else is working.”

So he sat through the service.  Didn’t know any of the songs, but it sounded sort of nice.  A little weird, to be honest — something about Jesus shining, and a fountain filled with blood.  But they seemed like nice folks.  Then, somewhere in the course of the sermon, the pastor said this:

We were dead, separated from God.  But Jesus came to give us life!  People talk about Jesus dying on the cross, and that’s important, but many miss what it was all for.  He died our death so that He could give us His life — and He gives it as a gift!  We couldn’t earn it, and we don’t have to.  When we believe on Him, He gives it to us.  The barrier between us and God is lifted, and we begin a new life with God that lasts forever.  Even after we die, we go to live with Him.

Richard never heard this before, but for some reason he couldn’t really explain, it felt like someone had hit a gong inside his chest.  It was true; he knew it was true.  Right there, sitting in the back, he believed.


What’s wrong with that scenario?

Absolutely nothing.  Not a thing.  God saved Richard by grace, through faith, apart from works, so that Richard would have nothing about which he could boast.  All the credit and glory belong to God.  That’s Ephesians 2:8-9.


Christ saved Richard so that Richard could be united to His Body, the Church, and join in its labors: doing the good works that God commissioned us to do from the beginning.


What’s wrong with that way of describing it?


It’s Ephesians 2:10.


Jesus has an agenda, and He is carrying it out.  When He saves you, He unites you to Himself, and He is moving His Body with purpose, a purpose that will be accomplished: revealing the manifold wisdom of God to heavenly principalities and powers and growing itself up to match the full stature of Christ, the Head.

It is this Jesus, and no other, that promises you everlasting life as a gift, unto His glory alone.  He can make that promise because His purposes for you will be accomplished, and in the accomplishing He will be glorified.  The promise can’t be separated from the Person, and when you try, you dishonor your high calling, shame the name of Christ, and become a walking contradiction.

Which is to say that it’s bad to try to chop Ephesians 2:10 off of Ephesians 2:8-9.  What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.  So let’s not — not even in theory.

Mystical Union: Assurance or Documentation?

20 March 2011

As I’ve written about mystical union with Christ over the past two months or so, various points of resistance have appeared.  This week I’d like to address one of the big ones.  Some folks feel that this way of understanding relationship with God removes any real ground for assurance of salvation.

Let me be the first to say that if the accusation is in fact true, then it is absolutely damning.  Nobody should be ready to sign off on a theology that destroys any ground for assurance.  I would be the first one to dump it.

In this case, however, it’s just not true.  People who meet God don’t generally question the reality of the experience.  They do sometimes later doubt it — but the doubt generally grows up after they have drifted far from God, in the same way that a man who has been estranged for years from his wife begins to doubt whether he ever really loved her (or she him) at all.  No, at the time that a person meets God, he is generally pretty clear on what is happening to him.  You can see this certainty in Saul of Tarsus, the man born blind in John 9, Moses at the burning bush, and so on.  You can see it dawning slowly in Nicodemus, or bursting all at once into the consciousness of the woman at the well, or Nathaniel, or John the Baptist.  They know.  There’s no ground for doubt.

So what’s going on here?  Why do people feel like being at a meeting where God shows up would leave someone in a morass of uncertainty?

I’m kinda puzzled too.  Some of these people, by their own testimony, had assurance long before they got their theology of assurance sorted out.  I certainly did.  They know this; they give testimony to it.  And yet, they don’t seem to connect it to their theology.  When they talk theology, they talk as if assurance is impossible unless you get your theology of assurance straight.  This is just not true, and it was not true of many of them, for years.

As far as I can see, here’s the problem: these people don’t really want assurance.  They won’t be satisfied with being certain, themselves, that they have been saved by Jesus, nor with you being certain, yourself, that Jesus has saved you.  That is, they won’t be satisfied with the fact of assurance; they want to see an accredited process that leads to assurance.  They want documentability, something they can check from the outside, any time they want.  Something “objective” rather than just something they know.

That means that people have to get their propositions exactly right.

I toured the Osceola County Jail once, many years ago.  A guard explained how they let the inmates out for exercise, and had to log the time, date and duration of the exercise period for each inmate.  “If you can’t document it,” he said, “then it didn’t happen.”  I wondered then whether it was the inmates or the guards who were really imprisoned.

I’m still wondering.

Mystical Union: Alternate Anthropologies

13 March 2011

We’re having productive discussions about how relationship with God works, and I don’t want to disrupt that.  However, we do have a little unfinished business with the moribund corpse of Platonic anthropology, and I’d like to plant a stake in its heart.  I’ve already argued that having the intellect hermetically sealed off from emotion and will is bankrupt — and that intellect-emotion-will isn’t a sound ‘anatomy of the soul’ anyhow.  I’d like to extend that argument a bit further.

To that end, let’s consider another ‘anatomy of the soul’ that might compete with the intellect-emotion-will model.

Being a deep anatomist of the soul, St. Gregory [Palamas] teaches that man’s soul is divided into the nous, fantasy, opinion and intellect.  The nous is the center of the soul, the eye of the soul.  The sense is the non-rational power of the soul, which knows and feels the physical things.  Fantasy is the offspring of the sense; it originates from the sense.  Fantasy receives its images from the sense and keeps them even when the actual things are not present,  Opinion — the idea we have about various things, including people and objects — is begotten from fantasy.  Intellect is the rational power of the soul, which formulated the opinion we have about every issue.  It is evident, therefore, that the nous is the core of man’s spiritual world — the eye of the soul — whereas all the rest of the powers, that is, fantasy, opinion and intellect, depend on the sense.  Thus when one wishes to reach God and acquire the knowledge of God, he must do it only through his nous, and not through his fantasy, opinion and intellect.  They all originate from the sense, which is associated with the external bodily senses.*

My point here is not to advocate for this anthropology; in fact, I think it’s unbiblical in a couple of key respects.

But here’s the challenge: how would you refute it?

Go on, think it over for a second.  I’ll wait.

Got a few ideas?  Good.

How many of your arguments apply equally well to the intellect-emotion-will model?


*Hierotheos Vlachos, The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition.  Translated by Effie Mavromichali. 119.

Mystical Union: When the Blind See

6 March 2011

Once upon a time, Jesus met a guy who had lived his whole life in darkness–literally.  The man had been born blind.  The disciples speculated that it was some kind of curse on his sin, or maybe his parents sin, but no.  Not at all.  He was put there, Jesus said, so that the works of God could be revealed in him.  Jesus went on to say, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  Then Jesus did the craziest thing — He spat on the ground and made mud, and put it on the guy’s eyes.  He told the guy to go away–go wash in the pool of Siloam.

So the guy met Jesus, and Jesus didn’t tell him anything about eternal life or Messiah or dying for his sins or anything even remotely evangelistic, and then He just lets him walk away, just like that.

Jesus didn’t get His evangelism training the same places I did, that’s for sure….

But wait, it gets better.  The guy goes and washes, and suddenly he can see, for the first time in his whole life.  This was a miracle, and once the facts of the case were established for sure, everybody knew it.

They didn’t know how much of a miracle until recently.  Just within the last couple of decades, our doctors have developed the ability to heal certain maladies so that a person born blind might have a chance of recovering sight.  But they’ve run into a problem.  Seeing, it turns out, isn’t just about having functional eyes.  It’s also about your brain learning to perceive the input correctly.  The case I read about was an adult man who had functional eyes for the first time in his life.  Thing is, he couldn’t tell a dark stripe on the ground from the shadow of a curb — and that’s a big deal when you’re crossing the street.  All kinds of little details like that.  There wasn’t anything wrong with his eyes anymore, but apparently it takes the human brain years to learn to see well.

No such problems for this guy who met Jesus.  He washed the mud off his eyes, and it was suddenly like he’d been seeing all his life.  So naturally, they asked him who it was that healed him, and he told them.  Then they asked him to give God the glory and say what a sinner Jesus was, but he just wouldn’t play along.  “Since the world began,” he said to them, “it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind.  If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.”  They couldn’t discredit him, and they couldn’t shut him up, so of course, they cast him out.  What else could they do (other than repent)?

Later, Jesus goes and finds him.  Now, if ever a man was ripe for the gospel message….

All Jesus says to him is this: “Do you believe in the Son of God?”

“Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?”

“You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking to you.”

Talk about seeing the Light….


Another man had the opposite experience.  He was able to see from birth.  But on his way to Damascus,  light shines from heaven and knocks him clean off the donkey he’s riding.

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he said.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

“Lord, what do you want me to do?”

“Get up and go into the city, and you’ll be told what to do.”

So he gets up, but meeting the Light of the World has made him blind, and they lead him by the hand into the city, where he waits three days.  Meanwhile, God calls Ananias to go and heal him, which he does.  When Ananias lays hands on him, scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he receives the Holy Spirit.

On second thought, was he really blind for those three days?  Or was that the first time in his whole life that he could really see?


Consider these two men.  How did they come to be believers?  What happened?

If you’re on any side of the COSF debate: how much of your favored content is missing from these evangelistic encounters? Why do you think that is?

But also think about this: Is there any fuzziness here?  Any ground for a lack of assurance, in either man?