Subjective Spirituality: The Romans Riddle

2 January 2018

Paul ends Romans 7 crying out for deliverance: “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this dead body?” Paul begins Romans 12 with a charge: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, *acceptable to God*, which is your reasonable service.” The gap between those two passages presents one of the great riddles of Romans. What happens between the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 12 that qualifies “this dead body” as an acceptable sacrifice?

Mull that over for a minute. 

Paul answers that question in 8:9-11. The body is dead, and will remain unredeemed until the resurrection, but there is a divine thumb on the scales. Despite the body being unredeemed, He gives life to our dead bodies through the Spirit who indwells us.

Once upon a time, knowing that would have been enough for me–I solved the riddle! Yay!!!

But not anymore. I used to be an academic, but these days I’m a pastor and a bodyworker, and seeing people delivered from death is what I care about. I’m very much a practitioner first. So let’s apply it. If we take Romans 8:11 literally—and I don’t see why we shouldn’t—it means that there is a Person who is not me, indwelling me and enabling me to live in a manner that would otherwise be barred to me this side of the resurrection. That is not simply a matter of verbal contemplation; it is as experiential as it gets. So for example, suppose I find myself totally unable to forgive someone. This doctrine teaches me that what I cannot do in my dead body (Romans 7), God can make possible anyway. So I should cry out to God for deliverance, and see what happens.

In God’s providence, I experienced that deliverance long before I ever understood Romans 8.

I had labored to forgive a number of people who had wronged me. I had reached the point where I only had one person left to forgive–and I couldn’t do it. I understood all the doctrine, and I could say all the right words, but it just didn’t work. I hated her in my heart, and that was that. For days I tried. I could not forgive her.

Then, one afternoon, I got down on my knees and prayed a simple prayer: “God, I know you want me to forgive her. You know I want to, but I can’t do it. You have to do this, or it won’t happen.” Then I stood up. I don’t know how to describe what happened other than this: when my knees were on the ground, I hated her. By the time I was standing, the hate was just gone.

God answered my prayer; in Romans terms, the Spirit gave life to my dead body, enabling me to become an acceptable living sacrifice.

On a more recent occasion, I had someone on my table with a severe muscular problem in her leg. As I always do, I asked Jesus to show up and heal what needed to be healed in her. I released the muscles, but when the physical work was over, I could tell that we weren’t done yet. I anointed the area with oil and just held it, waiting. She got tenser, and tenser, and then the dam broke, and she began to sob. I kept holding and waiting. The storm passed, and when she was calm again, I asked for permission to move on. She gave it, and I finished the session. When a client has an emotional release like that, they often don’t tell you what it was about. In this case, she did. As I held that particular muscle, she realized she was harboring bitterness toward a friend who had betrayed her six months earlier. In that moment, she was able to grieve the loss of the friendship, and forgive the betrayal.

I knew almost nothing about my client’s situation; I could never have addressed it in that way. But God worked through me in ways that are well beyond my ability, and enabled her to see something that she’d been unable to see, too.

Another day, I sat across the table from a homeless man named Michael. Michael frequented a corner that I drove by often, and over the past several months, we had become friends. On this particular day, I’d been awake since 4 a.m., so at 9:30 I was having lunch, and buying him breakfast. As we ate, he told me about the several churches he would visit during the course of a week. He liked to go to these particular churches because they didn’t just give him stuff; they let him help out, so he was able to contribute something to them as well. “I go to four different churches, Tim,” he said, “and they tell me four different things about God’s plan for my life. What am I supposed to do?”

I laughed. “What, you want me to be the fifth person to tell you God’s plan for your life? How’s that gonna help?”

He chuckled.

“It sounds to me like you’ve heard plenty of people telling you what God thinks.” I said. “Now, you need to hear it from God.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You might live a life where God will tell you things, but I don’t live that kind of life. God isn’t going to talk to me.”

I smiled. “Michael, you’ve heard about Jesus dying on the cross, right?”

He nodded, and I continued.

“Lots of people know that it happened, but I bet nobody’s ever told you what it means. Jesus was perfect. He took every failing you have, all those things you are and all those things you’ve done that you think are the reasons God won’t talk to you, and He took them all to the cross with Him. When He died, all that stuff died with Him, and He took it into the grave. When He rose from the dead three days later, He did not come out dragging a Hefty bag full of your junk. He left all that behind, dead and buried. God loves you. He’s crazy about you. He wants to talk with you, and none of that stuff can get in the way.”

I could see that he didn’t really believe me, but he understood what I was saying, so I kept going.

“Let’s just try it,” I said. “Give me 60 seconds.” I waggled my watch. “You listen and see if God talks to you. If you honestly don’t hear anything, you can walk out of here and tell yourself that I’m crazy, and you’ve only lost one minute of your life. But what if I’m right? Would you want to miss out on that?”

He thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay.”

I didn’t bow my head or close my eyes. I just talked like God was sitting in the booth right next to Michael (because He was). “God, this is Michael. He doesn’t believe that you’ll talk to him. I’m asking you to speak to him now, and to make it really clear, so he can hear you.” And then I shut up.

Surgeon General’s warning: Asking God to speak to people may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, and anxiety. Of course, I was silently praying furiously for God to speak. Meanwhile, I was watching Michael’s face and my watch, and trying to be calm about it. He looked down at his plate, and sat quietly. 30 seconds passed. Nothing. 40 seconds. Still nothing. I was praying hard: “God, You taught me to do this. I crawled way out here on the skinny branches for You. Don’t You dare let me down.”

With a few seconds to go, suddenly Michael’s face changed.

“What did you hear?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “I have some people that want to help me get off the street. But I haven’t let them because I can’t pay them back. I just had this sudden thought out of nowhere that I need to humble myself and accept the help they’re offering me. That it’s my pride that’s holding me down, and I need to be willing to be humble.” He looked up at me. “Was that God?”

I laughed. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself, buddy.” I told him. “But in my experience, the devil doesn’t usually tell me to be humble, you know?”

I could give many more examples, stories from my own life and others I know. You can probably think of your own, too. (If you can’t, let’s talk. You’re missing out on something important.) But these are sufficient to make the point: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, just like the man said. It even works in intercession, sometimes.
This is, of course, highly subjective. Since the deliverance in question is existential salvation from internal problems, I don’t see how it could be anything but subjective. But the problems were real, and deadly; the salvation is just as real. It’s life in the place of death, as promised in Romans 8:11.

 

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…but He never really does

21 July 2015

“Hey, do you think God could really speak today? Could He reveal Himself to someone with a thought, an impression, a circumstance?”

Sure. Shoot, He could do an audible voice if He wanted to. Nobody really thinks God couldn’t do it. He’s God, after all.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page about that. So last night, when I was praying, God said…”

“Wait. What do you mean, ‘God said’?”

“I mean that He talked to me, and I heard it. Look here in my journal — I even wrote it down.”

“Oh come on! How do you know that’s God?”

“Same way I know it’s my Mom calling when I hear her on the phone — I know what her voice sounds like.”

“You’re telling me you literally heard an audible voice, and you know it was God?”

“No, I’m telling you God spoke to me in my thoughts, and I know what it sounds like when He does that.”

“Don’t be silly! How could you possibly tell?”

*****

Interesting, huh? Here we have a conversation between two Christians, both of whom profess that God can speak to individuals today — to whomever He wants, anytime He wants. But one of them is certain, in advance of all the evidence, that He didn’t speak to this particular guy last night. This is the difference between theology on paper and theology in real life: only one of them actually expects it to happen. Last night, only one of them was listening in the expectation that God might speak. Big surprise — only one of them heard anything.


Three Critical Questions on the Christian Life

18 May 2014

I had the privilege of going to the inaugural facilitator training course for the Paul Tripp/Tim Lane How People Change small group curriculum, several years back. One point that Tripp made over and over has really stuck with me. “If all we needed were principles, then God could have done everything we needed on Mount Sinai. If all we needed were principles, then why did Jesus come and die? Because we don’t just need principles; we need rescue.”

Indeed. I’d like to address that same line of thought at a slightly higher resolution.

1. If Sinai is sufficient, then why Calvary?

If principles/doctrine alone were sufficient, then God could have gotten it all done at Sinai. If that were true, then why Jesus? Because living by principles is never enough. We needed to be saved from ourselves, and this is something we simply could not do for ourselves, no matter how good the principles might be. The seeds of the problem are inside us, and we can’t excise them.

We have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone,” as the Anglicans say. We simply could not resolve the problem for ourselves; it took Jesus dying our death on the cross. We participate in His death, and in this way we are reconciled to God.

2. If Calvary is sufficient, then why Pentecost?

If Christ’s finished work on the Cross was all that we needed, then why send the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the work all done? No, it isn’t. Calvary reconciled us to God, but reconciliation is only the beginning of what God wants to give us. He wants to give us life.

Through our union with Christ, we participate, not just in His death for us, but also in His life. Ongoing participation in the life of Christ is a continuing miracle of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and comes upon us in anointing for service just as He came upon Jesus for His earthly ministry. It is through the guidance of the Spirit that we advance God’s Kingdom here on earth.

3. What does it look like to live Sinai, Calvary, and Pentecost?

If we mess up the first question, we make the moralistic mistake of trying to earn God’s acceptance. Life turns into a never-ending round of “service” that is much more about our need to see ourselves as useful than it is about meeting actual needs. We become the sort of person that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he penned the epitaph, “She lived her life for others. Now she has peace…and so have they.”

If we mess up the second question, then we make the mistake of trying to seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness without taking advantage of all His guidance for us. We’ll operate based on the general principles in Scripture — which (to be fair) give far more guidance than most people think. But the Scriptures also give far less guidance than is needed for the life that God would have you to live.

If we get both questions right, if we live into Sinai, Calvary and Pentecost, then we live a life that is guided by the Scriptures. Our character becomes deeply aligned with God’s character as He has expressed it in the Scriptures. And our lives become masterpieces, unpredictable works of art. Just applying the principles on our own would generate a decent life, but it would never yield the beautiful surprises that come from a living relationship with God.

For example, God used me to help a homeless guy named Michael last year. The biblical principles would lead me to helping homeless folks–the stranger in your gates, the least of these, and all that. But I have no shortage of opportunity to minister to homeless folks, and Michael was not hanging around the places I would usually go to minister. What led me to Michael was that God literally told me to turn the car around, go back to that exit ramp, and give him $5 and a message: “God has not forgotten you.”

I did. As the relationship developed over subsequent conversations, it turned out there were certain truths Michael needed to hear, and then to live. It just so happened that these were the same truths God was teaching me right then.

Was the guidance to engage that specific homeless guy at that specific time biblical? No. It was far more specific than I could have gleaned from the Torah, or from the Old Testament, or even from the completed canon. But it didn’t conflict in any way with Scripture; it just went further than general instructions to the whole Body could go. Was it God? Of course, and the good fruit bore that out, as Jesus taught us that it would.

In other words, to add to Tripp, we didn’t just need principles; we needed rescue. And we don’t just need rescue; we need relationship.


Jamie Smith, 3DM, and the Discipleship Gap

27 January 2013

A while back, I recommended Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom here. Let me repeat that recommendation. If you’re involved in education or Christian formation in any serious way, you probably ought to read it, or at least listen to the associated lectures (which are available free online). In a nutshell, Smith’s big point is that human beings aren’t simply “thinking things” — and so downloading propositional content into our heads, while important enough, is not the whole shebang. Rather, human beings are desiring, imagining creatures, and forming us into the image of Christ involves engaging the whole person in ways that go well beyond simply explaining some propositions.

Today I want to talk about an application of that important truth.

A while back, I was talking with a friend about bridging the gap between hearing a sermon in church and applying it in real life. We often seem to have an awful lot of trouble with that. I noticed this problem a long time ago — I grew up in the church. But the question is, what to do about it?

In the tribe I come from, the accepted solution was good, solid Bible preaching. A series on Ephesians, a series on Joshua, a sermon or three on a Psalm here and there. You could do a series on marriage or finding God’s will or whatever, but you always came back to straight expository preaching. Preach the Word, and all will be well.

And you know what? It worked. Well…it kinda worked. I know a number of the success stories. In some ways, I am one. We learned a large amount of Bible, and we heard someone explain how it could be applied in our lives. In a number of cases, we put the stuff to work, and it became part of the way we lived — which is to say, it worked.

Except when it didn’t. Except when we found ourselves unable to effectively fight a temptation even though we knew perfectly well what we were supposed to be doing. Or when we couldn’t quite see how to fit the propositional wisdom of Scripture into the warped situation we were facing. Or whatever. There were a lot of cases where it didn’t work well enough. If a problem went untended long enough, it got untenable, and then we ended up in need of pastoral counseling.

The lucky ones actually got good pastoral counseling. I was one of those, praise God. In some corners of the tribe, they didn’t believe in counseling. They believed in preaching doctrine, and the rest was up to the Holy Spirit. The people who needed counseling in those churches were in a really bad way, and those churches are some of the most toxic in my experience.

Even in our better churches, though, the problem remained. There was a gap between the good stuff we heard on Sunday morning and our ability to put it to work in our own lives. Something was missing. When I became an assistant pastor, I pointed this out to my boss and asked him if I could tackle the problem in our congregation. He turned me loose on it. So what did I do?

I realized (correctly) that Matthew is a manual of Christian discipleship. So I invited the people who were interested in closing the gap between their intellectual knowledge and their day-to-day practice, and I taught a Bible study on Matthew.

Did you catch that? The problem was that teaching the Bible wasn’t getting the whole job done, and I tried to solve the problem by…teaching the Bible some more. Now Bible teaching isn’t bad, just like water isn’t bad. But offering a glass of water to a downing man is maybe not the best idea ever, and if he objects, lecturing him on how water is necessary to life is simply not an appropriate response.

Which is to say, Bible teaching meets a need, but it is not the only need we have.

***

3DM — an acronym for 3-Dimensional Ministries, or some such — produces some of the most outstanding materials for discipleship that I’ve ever seen. There are some curricular materials, and the truth is, they’re kinda hokey. The hokiness, such as it is, makes the material memorable, but the curriculum is only part of the recipe. The key is a social vehicle called a Huddle — a small group of leaders and leaders-in-training that are being mentored through the process of life-on-life discipleship. The 3DM guys are adamant that you can’t just read a couple of their books and then start a Huddle on your own. You need to experience being in one first before you try to replicate it.

Now the books are kinda expensive, but being huddled by a 3DM coach or joining one of their learning communities (a 2-year process) costs a small fortune. A cynic would be inclined to observe that the 3DM guys are effectively saying, “Sure, you could blow $120 on books, read them, and try to apply what you learned, but it’s not going to work unless you give us a couple thousand more to guide you through it.”

Thing is…they might be right. That’s the way it worked for me.

***

I knew about the discipleship gap early in my career. I tried to address it, but even though I knew the problem was not lack of teaching, I fell right back into trying to teach my way out of it. It would be far too easy to do the same thing with any other material — from 3DM, or Navigators, or anybody else. If I make that mistake, I reduce whatever material I’m using to just another nifty currriculum with some good memory aids — and let’s face it, I can get 3 of those for $5 on the bargain shelf of my local Christian bookstore.

It me a year or so of being led in a huddle by an older, more experienced disciple-maker to bring me to the point where I could replicate the experience, where I was ready to disciple rather than simply teach. Which is to say that person-to-person transmission, in a high-contact personal context, really matters. God made us to learn, not only from the Book, but from the Body.


Mystical Union: The Incarnation

25 December 2011

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.'”

That was true beyond what Isaiah could have guessed.  The prophecy was fulfilled, not by a child whose name reminds us that God is with us, but by a Child who was God with us.  The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

It took us centuries to think that one through.  All the Christological debates back and forth for years, the roads being filled with galloping bishops hurrying from one council to another, all the letters written and polemical sermons preached, were just to come to grips with this simple truth.

Why?

Because it’s extraordinarily important, and being so important, it was under constant attack by the enemy.  The Church was besieged by one idiotic scheme after another: “Well, maybe it worked like this….”  Unfailingly, it would turn out that at the heart of the scheme would lie one of two flaws.  Either Christ was divine, godish, but not really God, in the sense that the Father is God, or Christ was humanish, human in some respects, but not really man, in the sense that we are man.

What difference would that have made?

The center of the Christian faith, the promise on which we utterly depend, is that ordinary human beings may be partakers of the divine nature; that we, frail broken as we are, can come as we are, and enter into the fellowship of the Trinity itself.

How do we know this is true?

Because God promises it, of course, but also because we’ve actually seen it.  Jesus did it perfectly.  The Word became flesh.  He was a man as we are men, and very God of very God, as the creeds put it.

If Jesus was humanish, but didn’t really have all the traits we do, then whence our confidence that the traits He did not assume could be redeemed?  Without that confidence, we have no hope of being redeemed as human beings.  The Fall was permanent; humanity is ruined forever, and salvation lies in becoming something less than entirely human.

On the other hand, if Jesus was only godish, divine, touched by the Father but not of the same nature as the Father, then we could hope to be better than we are, certainly, but we can have no confidence of entering into true fellowship, true union, with God.  We can be good human beings, maybe even spiritual supermen, but entry into the fellowship of the Godhead is forever barred to us.  If even Jesus couldn’t manage it, how could we?

But the Divine Word, true and complete God, became the son of Mary, true and complete man, and in His person bore our every sin and frailty to the cross.  In Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and therefore we may trust that we too can be partakers of the divine nature, and enter into the circle of the perichoretic Triune fellowship, as Jesus prayed that we would:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:  I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

The enemy has not stopped attacking our Christology.  We’ve weathered the storm of doctrinal defections, but having pure doctrine on paper never saved anyone.  It has to be lived, and the tragedy is that we simply fail to rise to the destiny Christ won for us.  We live not only as if the Incarnation did not happen; we live as though it could not have happened.  We settle for giving in to our flaws: “I’m only human,” we say, as though Jesus had not shown us what true humanity can be.  Or we settle for being merely good, moral people, as if Jesus had been merely a moral man rather than very God.  But we are neither called to be showcases of the sins of our flesh, nor showcases of the moral accomplishments of our flesh.  We are called to be the image of God in the world, the Body of Christ, and members of the Triune dance.  We are called to union with God, to know the love of God that passes knowledge, and this is not a thought experiment.  It is a real experience, or it is nothing at all.

Today we celebrate the Incarnation, the ultimate demonstration that such an experience is available to us.  Merry Christmas to you all.


Mystical Union: The Only Alternative to Legalism

23 January 2011

In conversation with a couple of friends this week on these things, I happened more or less by accident on a truth that surprised me, and sharpens the mysticism issue for me a great deal.

Here’s how it happened: in discussing the ongoing person/proposition controversy, we were considering how poorly the Saving Proposition/Content Of Saving Faith positions fare when faced with the burden of addressing a person’s present experience of death.  However well they might do at addressing truths regarding the second death (not well, actually, but that’s another discussion), these positions utterly fail to bring God’s saving power to bear on death right now. Jesus came to save His people from their sins — not just from the Lake of Fire, but from drunkenness, adultery, theft, lying, murder, addiction, and so on.

An eternally secure heroin addict who will certainly go to heaven when he dies has not yet been saved from his sin.  No proposition suggested in the Content of Saving Faith debate will help him.  He needs more than propositions; he needs rescue.

If you insist on sticking to the truth-is-a-proposition approach, then you find yourself stuck in a two-tiered view of the Christian life, in which one needs this proposition to guarantee passage to heaven, and then those propositions to experience life here and now.  In principle, this is the Galatian heresy all over again, and as long as you confine yourself to thinking of truth in terms of propositions, it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Which is why you ought to consider the living Christ instead of just propositions about Him, however true.  A propositional view of receiving eternal life not only fails to meet the real human need for life now, it can’t help lapsing into legalism.  You can refer to a person in a proposition, but you can’t contain a person in a proposition, or transmit a relationship with a person via a proposition.  All you can contain and transmit in a proposition is an idea.  Living by ideas — even the most noble of ideas — is living by Law.  We already know how well that works, and anyhow if Sinai had been all we needed, whence Jesus?

The solution?  Actual relationship with the living Christ, which is to say, mystical union.  Either you live in real relationship with God or you’re just another legalist, living by ideas in your head.


Gordon Clark Refuted in Three Sentences

22 January 2011

Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth.  All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional.  But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.