Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!

Who is Spiritual?

Apparently, we live in an age of increasing spirituality.  Magazines and websites are full of articles explaining how to increase the spirituality that is latent within each of us.  The advice is often connected to the diet we eat, the attitude we have toward others, or the practice of daily habits like meditation and prayer.  If only we could practice patience, tell the truth more, find something to believe in and join a spiritual community, then we would be more spiritual, or so we are told.

We live in a generation that seems to be obsessed with this kind of spirituality – one that is fashionably new, and yet at the same time, rooted in ancient practice.

Everything I have written so far could be written about your natural-food-eating, yoga-practicing colleague.  But it could also be describing someone totally different.  In John 3, Nicodemus came to speak with Jesus.  He was in many ways much more like the impressive moralist of two or three generations ago – that is, someone who looks impressive because of the standards they keep and the things they don’t do.  But still, in today’s terms, he is not unlike a 21st century spiritual leader.

Nicodemus believed there is a latent spiritual life within that can be cultivated and developed if you live well.  He ate a strict diet, had a certain attitude toward others, and was diligent with daily habits not unlike meditation and prayer.  He may have practiced patience, taken pride in his honesty, definitely believed something and been at the heart of a spiritual community.

He really was not a 21st century spiritual man, nor a 19th century moral man, but he was an impressive 1st century spiritual leader and example to others.  Nicodemus was morally impressive, highly educated, significantly influential and personally powerful.  In almost every respect he was at the top of the pile, and I suspect all of us would have been intimidated if we met him.

Jesus wasn’t intimidated, nor impressed.  Nicodemus wanted to talk spirituality with Jesus, but Jesus couldn’t talk spirituality with him.  Why?  Because, despite everything he had learned, achieved, cultivated and developed, he was yet to even begin being spiritual.  Jesus knows what is inside every man, and as he looked inside Nicodemus he saw absolutely no evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God.

This is a massively important point for us to remember – the spirituality of the New Testament is always absolutely defined by the presence of the Spirit of God.  It is not a quality latent in humans.  It is not something our meditating and travelling neighbor can develop outside of faith in Christ.  As Jonathan Edwards writes in his Treatise on Grace, spirituality is not given its name because it is connected to the soul or the spiritual part of humanity, but because it comes from the Spirit of God.  In fact, Edwards makes it clear that people who are not saved are not just lacking enough of the Spirit of God, they actually don’t have Him at all.

Why is it important for us to be clear that true biblical spirituality is completely wrapped up in the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit?

1. Spirituality outside of Christ? We must not be fooled into thinking that spirituality is a quality that some humans can develop more than others, and that they are doing so outside of Christ.  Hopefully you are clear that outside of Christ there is no access to true spirituality. However, there may well be people in your church who are not clear about that.  We live in an age where a certain kind of tolerance is celebrated, and so there will be young and biblically untaught believers in your church who assume all spirituality is genuine – after all, they have been trained by our age to not question the experience of others.  If our churches are going to be effectively evangelizing this generation with its version of spirituality, then we need to help people understand the radical and eternity-changing difference between human spirituality and true Christian spirituality.

2. Confused spirituality within the church?  It is not just how we view the world around us that matters.  We also need to be clear within the walls of our churches, too.  The church reflects its surrounding culture more than we realise.  I wonder how many people in our churches assume that spirituality is a quality that is latent within each person, which can be developed and grown by Christianised versions of non-Christian practices and ideas?  It could be the case that we have lots of Christians investing lots of energy into approaches to spirituality that are inherently missing the point.  For all their apparent Christian devotion, it could be that their healthy living, daily meditation and prayerful practices are more oriented to what they assume lies within them naturally, instead of fixing the gaze of their hearts on the person of Christ by the Spirit of God.

3. The profoundly personal nature of true Christian spirituality. Self-focused spirituality is not a 21stcentury invention.  It is not even an ancient idea originating with Eastern religions.  Self-focused spirituality goes right back to the Fall of humanity into sin.  We have a deep inner pull towards our own independence that goes back to Genesis 3.  We think we are alive when actually we are spiritually dead.  That was Nicodemus’ problem.  And apart from Christ, that is my problem.  In fact, even as Christians, because of our flesh, it is still our problem.

We need to ask God to grow in us a discernment concerning any spirituality that poits our hearts to self, rather than to Christ.  Let us thank God for His Spirit living within us, who always wants to pour out God’s love into our hearts and nudge our hearts to fix their gaze on Jesus. True Christian spirituality is not primarily about a quality within us, but about a person we love.  It is profoundly personal, and Christ will always be the focus when the Spirit of God is at work.

And if the Spirit of God is not at work, then call it what you like, but it isn’t spirituality.