Spirit

The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part 3.2) – New Creation and the Individual

A dense and layered truth rests in a person’s hands when he or she scrutinises the resurrection. It is for this reason that I have required several posts in order to delve into it and explicate its “manifold significance” (to borrow from my title). Following my exploration of the interweaving connections between resurrection, justification and sanctification, my last post on this topic was an examination of the victory of Christ as a paradigm for a new order, indeed, a new creation. That, as I have said, takes place on a multiplicity of levels. Having looked at the model and first step of new creation, it is now time to turn my attention to what it means for individuals. Using the creational motif that I have employed previously (and which the Bible itself uses as an overarching theological theme to help elucidate the redemptive work of God), I shall attempt to offer a glimpse of the ultimate goal of justified, sanctified Christian life, of which the resurrection is the pattern. The New Testament is replete with references to resurrection, new life and the consummation of salvation as they pertain to individuals. And, although a comprehensive look at what the NT says on the matter is impossible, no account of resurrection as the fresh creation of believers can be considered faithful to its witness without a cursory glance (and hopefully more) at the statements that compose it. The NT, both explicitly and implicitly, makes the astonishing suggestion that those who have been united to Christ will participate in his resurrection. It has not simply secured our initial justification; nor has it merely provided us with new, spiritual life in the present. Rather, it takes up both those stages of a Christian’s salvation, and completes them in his or her total reception of new life. It is something Scripture depicts as a recapitulation of the original creation of humanity; and yet, it passes well beyond the first fashioning of God’s image-bearers to a kind of existence that is beyond death, chaos and decay. I want to make all this plain, but in order to do that, I must also challenge popular notions of Christian hope: not so that long-cherished beliefs are destroyed, but so that the actual truth of a person’s resurrection – according to the riches of Christian theology – may become clear. I shall say more in due time.

But first, traversing over old terrain is, perhaps, necessary. As I noted in earlier essays on this topic, a person is neither justified nor sanctified if Jesus is still in the grave. In like manner, no one has escaped death if Jesus himself – the true man and humanity’s representative – did not triumph over it. The notion of new creation is but a forlorn hope without it. As the Apostle Paul emphatically states in 1 Corinthians: “…if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15: 17, 19). But if Jesus has been raised from the dead (and I believe he has), then this life is not the end. The present creation will pass away, but only so a new creation can take its place. And those of us who are “in Christ” and united to him will receive the blessed gift of new, incorruptible life. To put it another way: death could not maintain mastery over Christ, for the Creator and source of all life could never be held by it. In like manner, all who belong to Christ will share in that same release, precisely because they share in his paradigmatic act. Such is the strength of this fact that Jesus himself could call believers “…sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).

We must examine more closely the connection between Christ’s resurrection and the new life accorded to those who are united to him. Romans 6:1-9, which I surveyed previously, is a good place to start. After dispensing with the hypothetical argument made against his case for salvation through the grace of God, Paul speaks of believers having been baptised into Christ’s death (v.3). If that be the case, Paul effectively asks, then a person has been separated from sin; it no longer has mastery over them. Just like Jesus, we who are “in” him (that is, united to him spiritually) are raised to “new life” – something Paul emphasises in verse 4. That new life has been secured by Christ’s death and resurrection; we cannot isolate them. It is because of the triumph of the one man, Jesus (which I examined in the previous essay on this topic), that any one of us can be said to have new life. Death to sin is, by itself, meaningless. In commenting on this passage, I. Howard Marshall puts it this way:

“…the baptized could be said have died to their old life in which they were under captivity to sin…But this would be no freedom if the believers were simply dead rather than passing through death into a new sphere of existence” (New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, p.317).

That “new sphere of existence” is patterned on the inaugurating work of Jesus. He died his death to sin, but because he has been raised from the dead, never to die again, death cannot have mastery over him (Rom.6:9). We who are united to him in his death are thus united to him in his life.

To be sure, this certainty is a future expectation (though it emphatically commences in the present). Still, the point is that it will happen. What has already begun in the life of a follower of Jesus will be completed, consummated – radically fulfilled – by the same Spirit that brooded over the waters as he preserved God’s original creation (Gen. 1:2; cf. 8:11). What was subject to decay and death will be immersed, if you like, in immortality. What was perishable will become imperishable. What was vulnerable to the fatal effects of sin will be impervious to them. One day, a believer’s body will leave behind the fetters of mortality for good, and death will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). Incidentally, it is here that a connection between individual new creation, justification and sanctification becomes apparent. Having already spoken of resurrection’s importance to these stages of the Christian life, I will not detain readers with a detailed recapitulation. Suffice it to say, if justification is God’s judicial act of counting someone righteous, what could better reflect the consummation of that initial decision than one’s final resurrection, one’s new creation? In the Gospel of John, marked as it is by a creational-redemptive framework, Jesus himself touched upon this. Using the forensic language often linked to justification, he said that those who have “done good” will enjoy resurrection and life at the end (see John 5:29). Similarly, if sanctification is the progressive unfolding of righteousness in a believer – and, with it, the progressive erasure of sin – then the consequences thereof (ie. death) will eventually be vanquished. The notion of resurrection forms the ground and the goal of sanctification, and, therefore, new creation.

At this point, the reality of the larger narrative of new creation, and its relevance to the individual, has simply been implied. But, as these passages suggest, the paradigm of Christ’s life cannot be understood apart from the notion that his resurrection was the first step in God’s efforts to re-make his world – to redeem it from death, and to inaugurate, in effect, a new creative order. The fate of individuals sits snugly within that project. Nevertheless, we do not have to travel far in order to see how explicit the idea is at certain points, particularly in light of the prominence of the original creation as a theological motif for many of the NT writers. One might easily point to John 3, which famously has Jesus exhorting Nicodemus to be “born again”. The phrase itself evokes images of new life, in keeping with John’s overall theological scheme. But we may also look to places such as 1 Corinthians 15, Hebrews 2:5-9, or even 2 Corinthians 5:17 – a verse which uses the precise phrase “new creation” – to see how the concept has woven its way into the structure of apostolic thinking. To take just one example: 1 Corinthians 15, to which I have already alluded. Before Paul embarks on an extended discussion on the necessity of the resurrection of believers, he sharply contrasts two, paradigmatic men. On the one hand, lies the first Adam; on the other, the second Adam, Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45-49). The former, Paul says, was of the earth – mortal, finite, vulnerable to corruption. The latter, however, was of heaven – immortal, infinite, free from spot or blemish. The point is that the apostle deliberately invokes Adam as a motif, in order to draw a contrast between two “creations”, or “reigns”. The first man was the head of a humanity prone to sin and death, as the Bible’s opening book points out (cf. Gen. 1-3). The latter man was, and is, the representative of a humanity that will enjoy his likeness (cf. v.49).

Talk of new life, even resurrection, is all well and good. However, it is important to speak about what kind of life this will be, for even the notion of resurrection can be misunderstood. When the authors of the NT speak of new life, they do so with a degree of specificity. It is not the case that Paul and others were envisioning some vague kind of existence beyond the material world. To do so would have negated the goodness of God’s creative work, and undermined the thematic power of the original, material world. Ancient Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul; popular, present-day renditions of the afterlife imagine disembodied spirits enjoying some manner of heavenly joy in the hereafter. But if we look to the Apostle to the Gentiles for a moment, we find him speaking deliberately of resurrection. As N.T. Wright has commented, the term was only ever used to denote “re-embodiment, not…disembodied bliss”. Indeed, in Rom. 6:5, which we have already surveyed, Paul states that those of us who have been united to Christ in his death will certainly be united to him in his “resurrection”. Erroneous imaginings of ultimate Christian hope notwithstanding, resurrection was seen as a bodily, material phenomenon. It was certainly a new mode of existence, to be sure. But that newness was viewed as emphatically physical. Christ’s triumph over death only makes sense because his resurrection was bodily in nature. In the same way, those of us who have escaped the old life, held in bondage to sin and death, will take on new bodies. New life will be transmuted, but it will definitely remain physical. By the same token, if new life remains physical, then it will definitely be transmuted. As Leon Morris has said:

“The Christians thought of the body as being raised. But also transformed so as to be a suitable vehicle for the very different life of the age to come” (New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, p.1010. Emphasis mine).

If the resurrection of Jesus – being bodily in nature – is the ground for the new creation of the individual, then it seems that our redemption will follow his representative act. As I have noted, he is the pattern. He is the “firstborn from amongst the dead” (Colossians 1:18). And if that be the case, then our resurrection will be like his; “we shall be like him”, as it were (1 John 3:2). Paul’s letter to the Romans is once again instructive.  In chapter 8, we find the apostle talking about life in the Spirit. In the present, the Spirit changes and transforms a believer’s spiritual and moral life. In the future, though, all of one’s life will be transformed, including his or her body. It will be a complete and total change. We might look at 8:11, for example. Once more, Paul suggests that the new life of a Christian is patterned on the resurrection life of Christ. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will certainly “give life to” one’s “mortal body”. Nothing in this verse implies an escape from the body. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite: an enlivening addition to the present “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). It may constitute a radical transformation, but one that does not abandon the material realm. We should not think that it would be otherwise. And, with Paul’s multiple allusions to freedom, redemption, and creation itself (cf. Rom. 8:19-25), it is clear that for the apostle, a believer’s ultimate hope rests in a renewed creation – that of God’s world, redeemed from the bondage of death, and of those who will receive bodies fit to dwell within it.

 *          *          *

The drama of God’s redemptive activity, being played out on the stage of history and creation, is also being played out in the life of every believer. New creation will occur, not just on a cosmic scale, but on an individual one, too. What will happen universally is happening now, in the present, in the lives of believers. The triumph of the resurrection means that the old creation is passing away. All this is through Jesus Christ, who was the primary agent of both creation and new creation (see John 1:1-3). His own resurrection was the climax of his redemptive agency, and constitutes the model for believers. Those of us who have embraced that triumph will participate in his triumph, and, as members of both the old creation and the new, we have the unique privilege of seeing that sanctifying transformation happen in our midst. Christ’s resurrection body served as the first sign of new creation. Our own bodies, having already been enveloped by the Spirit, are also signs that the old has gone, and the new has come. We may still be vessels of broken clay, living in an ambiguous period between the announcement of God’s reign, and its final coming. Nonetheless, if new creation is a reality, then it is a reality that begins as a seed within each believing individual. That seed – that new birth, if you like – anticipates the wider renewal that will embrace a groaning world, as it waits on tiptoe for the children of God to be revealed. That, however, is the subject for a future post.

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Prayer and the Divine Community

Over the weekend, I traveled to a small, isolated cottage near Mansfield, Victoria. The rustic charm and secluded setting made thinking – so often a harried and interrupted process – quite a joy. Rarely does one get the chance to think and reflect in such a relaxed way, without feeling the need to attend to more “practical” matters. Such contemplative times are to be prized, all the more so because they often bear fruit that does not grow in less fertile surroundings.

As I was reading a spiritual classic (by A.W. Tozer. If you haven’t read anything by him, please rectify the situation now), I began to reflect upon certain aspects of my spiritual life. Following Tozer’s words, I wondered whether my conceptualization of various areas of Christian discipleship has been inadequate. More than once, I have been struck by the deep and abiding intimacy he enjoyed with God. Inhabiting Tozer’s world has, I believe, taught me to think afresh various dimensions and spiritual disciplines pertaining to the Christian faith.

Prayer is one such dimension. My thinking regarding prayer instinctively (or unconsciously) assumed some kind of separation between the believing individual and the God to whom he was coming. Not that that separation was judicial or legal, mind you. I am talking about a Christian – someone who had already been justified before God, based upon his faithful reception of the atoning work of Jesus. But I still thought of prayer in terms of coming to God, as if there was some distance one had to travel in order to reach that point. It was as if God was “over there” or “out there”, and it was up to the Christian to make the trek across time, space and the cacophony of everyday life to reach Him who had already welcomed him.

I don’t know exactly when the thought came to me (it’s often like that – a thought can bubble away in the subterranean reservoirs of a person’s unconscious before welling up to the surface, almost fully-formed). Regardless of its origin or length of genesis, the thought was clear: prayer constitutes one’s participation in the divine community that has eternally existed.

I want to unpack this, just in case I haven’t made myself very clear (entirely likely, given my propensity to use several words where one will do). This insight regarding prayer rests upon an acknowledgement of the personhood of God as a divine community and a divine communion. More specifically, what I am referring to here is the Trinitarian community of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although God is one, it is part of Christian dogma to say that he is not austerely alone. Rather, there exist within the godhead three persons – hence, the notion of the Trinity. We can speak of “they” because of the three-fold distinction. But we can also speak of “Him”, for the three persons are eternally and ontologically one. Whilst there is distinction in activity, it would seem correct to say that there is none when it comes to essence, will or accord.

That deep and mysterious unity is something that is incomparably unique. It is, one might say, uniquely unique, and can be only faintly approximated in God’s church here on earth. Inadequate language and analogies notwithstanding, it is enough for us to say that the Triune God is composed of a communion of divine persons. It is a deep communion that links and envelops each of the three persons of the godhead, and has done so before the creation of time itself. There was never a time when the three persons were separate (Christ’s representative death being an exception, but even there we face the paradox of God and Christ working with one, mutually glorifying accord to achieve the ends for which the cross was set). Moreover, the unique nature of the union within the godhead means that it is a perfect community and communion – one of unparalleled depth, complete harmony, pure love and eternal endurance.

It is in this Trinitarian relationship that a Christian is immersed. Let’s not neglect the fundamental fact of the Christian having been saved into God’s kingdom, reconciled and united to him through the Chief Mediator, Jesus, and the life-giving Spirit that he has sent. Thus, even the foundational act of initial justification involves all three persons of the Triune God. Further – and this is crucial – it can be said that salvation involves one’s entry into the divine community of love that has existed eternally. We are brought into that fellowship by an act of sheer, unmerited grace. John 14:15-20 speaks eloquently about the mutual inhabitation, and mutual participation, that takes place when one receives the life of God. Not only does that person receive the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit; he is drawn into the mutual indwelling of Father and Son (v.20). The depth and breadth of intimacy is something that unfolds over time, to be sure. Nevertheless, it is the kind of intimacy that God has had within himself eternally; a pure, unfettered knowledge that this divine community possesses, and into which one enters upon reception of the Gospel.

What does all this have to do with prayer? As I said, I seemed to have thought – almost instinctively – that the act of prayer meant “coming” to God in a way that assumed some prior separation. And, to be sure, there is an element of “approach” involved in prayer (that, however, seems to be related more to the manner or attitude one adopts when in a prayerful posture). But if it is true that a person saved is a person inhabiting the fellowship that exists within the godhead, then it should impel us to recognize that there is no separation to overcome or traverse when one strives to pray. A person saved already lives within that divine community, walking and living as part of that intimate fellowship. John 14:23 speaks of Father and Son making their dwelling in the believing individual. Already, the evangelist has spoken of Jesus being the new temple of God; here, he seems to be making the startling suggestion that the one who participates in Christ is, by extension, the dwelling place for the Triune God. Thus, not only does a Christian inhabit God; God, in all of his Trinitarian glory, inhabits the Christian (and the church, by the way). Prayer is simply the natural outworking of one’s principled participation within that eternal body. Through prayer, a Christian takes part in a divine conversation that is self-existent and timeless. It does not require him to make a trip in order to find it; he is already within that revelatory fellowship of love, whether he recognizes it or not.

Prayer is certainly communication with God. But it is communication that is grounded in one’s gracious entry into an already-extant communion that is incomparably rich in wisdom, knowledge and love. A person who has declared Jesus to be his Lord and Savior does not have to move to approach God; he is already, by virtue of that epochal act of divine mercy, a member of this fellowship. Prayer rests upon this truth, and declares its reality.

God does not need a person’s fellowship or his prayers. He is self-existent and self-sufficient. The fellowship he enjoys within himself cannot be added to by the participation of his image-bearing creatures. Nor can they help along his redemptive project. But through his grace, God has elected to draw these vessels of broken clay into his loving embrace, and has granted them a place at the table of divine communion. And, more than that, he has graciously allowed those he has welcomed into his presence the opportunity to take part in his project to redeem his creation. Here prayer takes on an intercessory character, but one should never think that God needs it. Both communion within the fellowship of the godhead and intercession for this world are privileges that a person simply receives – the contents of which have already been determined by the One who initiated that process of reconciliation. Consequently, just as the Christian does not have to anxiously strive to enter into fellowship with God in order to pray – precisely because he has it all the wrong way around – so he does not have to strive to think of the will of God and pray it. Being a member of this divine community allows one to receive the knowledge of the Creator-Redeemer, and pray according to a will already established. God’s gracious efforts to restore his creation will be consummated one way or another. It is a mark of loving-kindness that he allows people to take part in driving that vision forward. Prayer is one (very vital) element in that. Just take a look at Paul’s words in Romans 8. There, he not only talks about coming into fellowship with and by the three persons of the godhead; he also speaks of “groaning” in the Spirit, as the sons of God yearn for the liberation that is coming, and has come, through the “firstborn” Son.

For those of us who already follow Christ, the practical implications are numerous. No longer do we need to struggle to enter into God’s presence in order to pray, for we are already enveloped – saturated – within the folds of the divine communion. We wrestle, of course. Sometimes the sin and frustrations of this world do make it difficult. But our wrestling should nevertheless be grounded in and founded upon the prior knowledge that we already exist within the heavenly fellowship. That mutually inhabiting fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit is the one community that is complete in itself, to be sure. But God’s grace in allowing us to enter into it should induce us to joyfully admit the privilege of prayer, rather than railing against the time it requires to engage in it. We do not have to overcome any kind of separation between ourselves and our Redeemer, and any entry into God’s sanctuary is simply a matter of acknowledging a reality that is rooted in the Gospel and began when we gave ourselves to God. Moreover, the fact that we are already members of the Trinitarian community means that the prayerful life is not just a fantasy, or a special honor reserved for a few. It is instead a living reality that we need simply enjoy and declare. It is something we can experience at all times, for the mutual inhabitation of which we are a part exists for as long as we follow Jesus, who represents in himself the union between God and man. Prayer builds upon, and represents in declarative form, the intimacy that we already possess. As we give ourselves to God, his Spirit comes around us, and wells up within us, so that we are fit and able to participate in the eternal and unfathomable depths of the divine conversation. This is why the otherwise strange image of God’s Spirit praying to the Father through us makes sense. It’s also why praying the will of God, by the Spirit, to the omniscient Father, also makes sense. We are drawn into the deep and abiding union of the Triune God, the likes of which is gloriously complete; we participate in a project to redeem God’s world, not because we are worthy, but because he is gracious. And we exercise the reality of our position in relation to these two truths through the gift of (Spirit-impelled) prayer.

Romans and Worship

(Caveat: this post is largely for a Christian audience. Nevertheless, I hope that those who are not Christians may still profit from it).

My past few blog posts have sought to engage with some ideas current at the moment – medical ethics, domestic politics and the effects (good or otherwise) of social networking. In this post, however, I wish to explore a topic that may appear to be more personal, perhaps more devotional, in character and complexion. Nonetheless, it is still a vitally important topic, especially for Christians who seek to found their lives upon godly truth. It could even be said that the topic to which I refer is actually a very public thing. Though it most certainly is personal, it is not thereby private. Indeed, as I hope to show, what I want to look at in this post stands over-against everything else that Christians do as disciples and pilgrims in this world, framing every dimension of our lives.

I am here talking about worship, for worship forms a central part of the Christian’s life. We should never doubt this, since to worship is to express, enact, dramatize and reflect the truth of God. But why is this important? Why should God want to be worshiped? Moreover, what is the connection between worship and truth anyway? These questions have been rattling around my mind for a little while, and in order to provide a semblance of an answer, I shall turn to the book of Romans.

It’s strange that I should look to this particular part of Scripture to shed light on these questions. Paul’s letter to the Romans reads more like an elaborate theological treatise than it does a missive to a particular congregation dealing with particular issues. Nor is it the first book one thinks of if one wants to develop some kind of biblical understanding of worship. Psalms, for example, might seem to be a more appropriate contender. That said, behind and beneath the lofty themes of universal sin, the achievement of the cross, justification, sanctification, glorification, resurrection and God’s sovereignty, one will uncover another strand in Romans – less overt, to be sure – dealing with the theological importance and rationale of (proper) worship. Now, I shall spend a bit of time following the thread, so please bear with me. Hopefully, it will be worth it!

The strand begins in the very first chapter of Paul’s epistle. After a preamble, where he outlines the purposes of his letter, the apostle goes on to survey the dreadful, and universal, condition of humanity. Romans 1:18-32 is a broad-brush diagnosis and description of the problem of human sin. At the end of this section, after having offered us his theological analysis of the origin and evolution of human depravity (to which I shall return), Paul lists a number of sins that characterise the human condition: greed, malice, gossip, slander, ruthlessness, and the like (vv.28-32). Not that every person has been guilty of all these sins; but Paul’s point is to suggest that their very presence in humanity is evidence that it has gone awry.

As I said, Paul does offer an explanation of sorts. The sin we witness around us, the unrighteous acts – whether earth-shattering, or more “trivial” in nature (though sin is never really trivial in nature) – find their ultimate source in the rejection of truth. Specifically, it is the rejection of the truth of God that has led to the corrupt human landscape that Paul surveys. The notion of truth and related concepts are important for Paul in these early sections of his letter. In verse 18, as a way of commencing his diagnosis, Paul speaks of men (read: humanity) actively suppressing the truth (of God). Then, over the next couple of verses, Paul develops his point, by suggesting that the knowledge of the true God, though it has been apparent (vv.19-20), has been spurned by humanity; people have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, worshiping instead “created things” (v.25). Despite the pretence of wisdom, those who have engaged in such acts (which means all of us) have in fact departed from ultimate reality – namely, God. And with that departure has come a darkening of thoughts, of hearts and of feelings (cf. v.21). Estrangement from God has also meant estrangement from his truth, with both mind and will mutually corrupted and mutually corrupting.

It’s a rather heavy way of beginning a letter, but it is the necessary ground for what Paul wants to say later about the majesty of God’s salvific plan. What ought to concern us at the moment are a couple of points that emerge from Paul’s polemical opening, the relevance of which will become apparent as I proceed. First, truth (and its loss) stands at the heart of the human problem, as Paul sees it. He refers to this predicament in a variety of ways: the exchange and suppression of truth; the futility of thinking apart from, and in opposition to, God; “foolishness”; the acceptance of lies; the false claims of wisdom made on the part of sinful humanity; and the loss of divine knowledge. This constellation of words and concepts, all found in Romans 1:18-32, constitutes a theological package that Paul uses to explain the problem of human depravity and spiritual need. In effect, the truth of God has been rejected, spurned, arrogantly dismissed. Humans have arrogated for themselves the position that God rightfully occupies, and have attempted to claim for themselves the wisdom that belongs to him. Rather than perceiving themselves and their position in God’s creation correctly, people have turned from him – the source of all truth – and have followed tantalising, yet spurious, substitutes. Indeed, Paul says as much in verse 21, linking the refusal to give God his due as God with the degradation of thought, heart and will alike. This is no mere refusal to accept an intellectual proposition. Rather, Paul correctly declares that a loss of truth has degraded humanity on a multiplicity of levels. Depraved thinking leads inexorably to depraved behaviour – which is exactly the link the Apostle makes in v.28 (…”he [God] gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done”).

Second, Paul implicitly suggests that the rejection of God as the proper object of worship did not thereby mean that humans worshiped nothing. Not at all. On the contrary, Paul is canny enough to see that once God is displaced from that proper position, other things – “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v.23) – ended up filling the gap. A person’s pattern of thinking, and thus the actions linked to it, never occurs in a void. It can either be framed by God’s truth or it can be framed by veneration of something else. In the society in which Paul wrote, physical idols would have been most dominant. Greco-Roman culture was replete with an entire galaxy of gods that were honoured and worshiped. In our own day, there are many such “idols” that vie for our attention. They may not be made of gold or wood or stone, but they exert a similar influence over people, dragging them away from the true God who created them. Paul is perceptive enough to realize this fact – that rejection of God’s truth does not entail the birth of a new kind of humanity, or the elevation of people to a new moral or sapiential plane. It simply means the replacement of one god with another. Similarly, Paul knows that this idolatry is indissolubly linked with the loss of true knowledge that I spoke about a moment ago. What is witnessed externally is invariably a reflection of what occurs internally, within a person. As thinking is transformed, so too is belief and action. These dimensions, concurrent within a person, go hand-in-hand.

So, what are we left with? Paul offers us a diagnosis for the universal condition of sinful humanity. He will spend the next few chapters unpacking both the problem and the solution, ending with the climax of his high theological drama in Chapter 8. Strange as it may sound, I want to skip over Chapters 2-7, in order to focus on what Paul says in the eighth Chapter of his epistle. The intervening sections outline the process by which God responded to humanity’s predicament, but for my purposes here, I want to concentrate on the telos, the end-point of that process. For it becomes clear that the grave problems the apostle outlined in the first chapter find their ultimate resolution in this particular section of Paul’s missive. Chapter 8 is the counter-point and the answer to Chapter 1, helping to frame what lies in-between. Indeed, it almost reads like a deliberate reversal – more than that, a redemptive elevation of God’s creation to something beyond that which it was prior to sin’s baleful effects.

In Chapter 1, for example, the apostle referred to humanity being able to perceive God’s reality through the material, created order (vv.19-20). In Chapter 8, he writes that creation itself eagerly awaits the revelation of God’s newly created people (v.19). Rather than worshiping it, God’s redeemed will lead creation into a new era of freedom, so that it, too, may experience the liberation God’s renewed image-bearers will experience. That renewal takes place within the wider context of the advent, the bursting forth, of God’s new creation. Further on in Chapter 8, Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that those saved by God will be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Jesus)” as a part of their salvation (v.29). This seems to be a deliberate, counter-posing allusion to his earlier description of humans giving up their worship of the true God for created “images” (v.23). Those saved by God will no longer worship created things, thereby being conformed to them. Instead, they will be shaped according to the image and likeness of Christ, thereby attaining the glory that humanity has always sought (albeit through rebellious autonomy from God). In other words, humanity exchanged God’s glory for the idolatry of the created world, which included “mortal man”; through the coming of Christ, the true man – who is simultaneously the image of the immortal God – God’s image-bearers may take possession of the glory that they had lost (v.30; cf. 1:21, 23).

What has all this to do with worship? It might sound like a powerful statement of God’s gracious and redemptive activity in this world, which culminates with the sacrificial work of Christ. But at what point does this story link up with the notion of proper worship? The answer lies in the first couple of verses of Chapter 12. After digressing to make some (important) remarks on the implications of the gospel for unbelieving Israel, Paul turns his attention to the practical and ethical implications, for believers, of what he has written. There, he writes:

“Therefore, I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer 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…” (Romans 12:1-2b).

Many of the themes I have already canvassed have been compressed into these few short sentences by the apostle. Worship, conformation to external conditions (whether good or ill, degrading or redemptive), right thinking, and so on, are all present. If Chapter 1 was the outline of the problem, and Chapter 8 the final, climactic outline of the solution, then the commencement of Chapter 12 is the first step in the practical, ethical consequences for believers. No longer are they to participate in the idolatry Paul railed against at the beginning of Romans; no longer are they to be shaped by the world (as it exists in rebellion against God) or created things; no longer are they to allow the effects thereof degrade thinking and corrupt action (a la Rom. 1:28-32). Using the language of sacrifice, Paul urges his readers to devote themselves to God as an act of worship and to allow him to renew their minds (note the passive “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, which indicates an activity initiated by God). His readers are to offer themselves wholeheartedly to Him. All of this stands in stark, and deliberate, contrast with what Paul spoke of in Chapter 1, and is the direct consequence of what he declared in Chapter 8.

As Christians, then, our worship is to be directed to God. That much is obvious. Also obvious (though no less important) is the conviction that worship is an act of gratitude, to be sure. Paul says that we ought to do this “in view of God’s mercy…” (12:1), which implies a thankful attitude. But my point is to suggest that worship is a more layered, more multifaceted, phenomenon than some might assume. Firstly, it is a way of standing against the universal (human) reality of sin and untruth, as Paul so clearly intimates. Secondly, it is a marker, a sign, that we are renewed people, led by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Our worshipful acts not only oppose and challenge the overt and latent forms of idolatry by which sinful estrangement from God is manifested; they also constitute declarative acts, by which we say that we are redeemed and being redeemed daily. Everything Paul wrote about humanity in Chapter 1 is to be deliberately counter-posed by Christians worshiping the true God and being conformed – nay, transformed – to God’s true image, Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously the pattern of true humanity. It is a prophetic witness, flowing out of the work that God has performed to undo the universal effects of the situation Paul has already discussed. Through it, we too participate in the undoing of the primal sin of idolatry, directing ourselves, our lives, our bodies, to the One who created us. As renewed people, who will take their places in God’s new world, our worship is a revelatory act, which springs from the revelation that we have received. Not that we possess it in its totality. Nonetheless, we rest our hopes upon Him, for we trust in his promise to complete the work that he has started. As we Christians give ourselves to God, we do so in an anticipatory sense: through worshipful acts, we enact and experience a foretaste of the liberating truth of God, which will inhabit and envelop his creation with the consummation of his salvific plan.

Finally, then, our worship of God – which flows out of, and is a response to, the initiating steps he took to rescue us from our sin and idolatry – further enables us to escape the corruption of thought and will that has characterised idolatrous humanity. It is, in itself, a means of change. Having been brought from the realm of sin and death into the realm of holiness and life, we can now take our proper places as God’s true image-bearers, offering our entire lives in service to him (rather than the world as it now stands). That is why Paul can so readily link worship with the renewal of mind and thought. It is also why transformation is to be seen against the backdrop of human depravity. If the original human problem was characterised by the spurning of God’s reality for idols, and the resultant loss of divine knowledge, then its opposite is characterised by worship of the One who is actually God, leading to the reclamation of truth, the vanquishing of sin, the purification of the will, the redemption of bodies and the ennobling of a sanctified mind (contrast Rom. 12:1-2 with Paul’s earlier talk of a “depraved mind” in 1:28). And if some suggest that worshiping God, regardless of its apparently beneficial effects, is simply an exercise in divine ego-stroking, then one can point them back to the comment I have already made: that worship occurs universally, whether God is the object or not. If we are meant to be framing our lives around God, and have been created for that express purpose, then to do otherwise is a denial of our nature (apart from a denial of who God is).

So, worship is not simply something in which we engage on a Sunday morning because it has been determined by tradition (though corporate praise is a vital part of the life and witness of the church). Let us not forget that Paul exhorted believers to offer their whole bodies – not just their voices – to God. Indeed, worship is inescapably ethical in character. Still less has the practice of worship been instituted by an insecure god who needs to be glorified. Rather, worship – for Christians, that is – constitutes an all-encompassing embrace of God’s reality and truth, in conformity to our true natures, and against the backdrop of the rejection of divine truth. In this scheme, we allow ourselves to be moulded by the wisdom that was always meant to shape humanity. At the same time, we also offer a prophetic critique to, and of, a world that pursues a multiplicity of false gods and deities in much the same way that the subjects of Romans 1 did. I can think of many, even in the city of Melbourne: aside from religions that deny the reality of God (as he truly is) and the revelation of his truth, people are enraptured with consumerism, materialism, post-modernism, sport, success (however defined), hedonistic living, and so on. They are ultimately futile, for they do not lead to the God with whom we have been created to have a relationship. They certainly cannot lead us into his new world, for they cannot erase – and in fact, reinforce – the very problems that have alienated us from him in the first place.

Two final points. First, I have not yet offered a portrait of what God’s truth actually is. It’s all well and fine to critique the false claims to truth that abound in this world. But what is the truth around which we are meant to revolve our lives? I’ve already hinted at it, but it bears repeating in a more explicit way. God’s truth is embodied in the One to whose image we are being conformed – Jesus Christ. Of course, truth, whether divine or secular, is intellectual, cognitive, conceptual. Paul’s references to the mind and to thought would be meaningless without this basic understanding. Belief in the nature of God, and in how he has revealed himself, is a vitally important aspect of worship. But truth, in a biblical scheme, is also deeply personal. Jesus Christ is God’s personal truth enfleshed. In him, we see what God is like and how we are to live. In him, we witness the pristine revelation of God and the abiding image of true humanity, co-mingling and co-existing. And, as the Jesus of John’s Gospel declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Earlier in that book, Jesus counselled a Samaritan woman to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24). Bring these two verses together, and what do we have? A call to worship God, to devote oneself to him, through and in the truth made incarnate in Jesus. When we read the Scriptures, which proclaim Christ hidden and revealed, we begin to see what God’s truth – and hence, the truth about who we are to be – actually looks like.

Second, we do not come to God of our own volition; neither can we worship God merely as we are. It requires the abiding presence of God’s Spirit to reveal, enliven, encourage and inflame. Paul speaks of the importance of being led by the Spirit in the eighth chapter of Romans. Before talking about Christian disciples as God’s redeemed, liberated people, the apostle offers his readers two ways: the way of the flesh; and the way of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:4-12). It is the way of the Spirit that leads one into the truth of God (which is to say, the very character and presence of God himself). And when we arrive at Paul’s statement about worship at the beginning of Chapter 12, he says explicitly that it is a spiritual act. Such a declaration dovetails nicely with John 4:24, which I surveyed above. The fact is that true worship of the true God can only be accomplished in the Spirit. It can only be achieved when a person’s life is saturated in Him. Not only so, but it requires the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about receptivity in sinful people. Word and Spirit – God’s wisdom and intimate presence – work in unity to bring about a newly created people, who are saturated in his truth and worshiping in it.

* * *

We rightly celebrate, and dutifully declare, God’s truth to a sinful and broken world. However, let us not forget (those of us who are Christ’s followers) that the reason we have access to the Father, and have been empowered to imitate Christ, is the fact of his (Christ’s) own sacrifice. Indeed, his sacrifice makes possible our own acts of devotion before God (which is part of Paul’s point in Rom. 12:1-2). I have referred several times to Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans in connection with the redemption of God’s people. But what I said there is only possible because of the act of oblation that Christ himself performed on our behalf. Sure, Paul speaks about being set free from the corruption of this present world. He speaks about being led by the Spirit as the mark of truly redeemed people. Yet that has only come about because of the epochal work of Christ on the cross, who allowed God’s condemnation of sin to fall upon his own person (8:3). Given the reality of this great act of divine mercy, which is simultaneously the revelation of the truth of the triune God; and given that our goal as Christians is to be conformed to the likeness of the Christ who embodies that truth, in life and in death, there is only one question: why would we not worshipfully participate in this redemptive process?

Weekend Musings

This article is quite unlike the ones that have been posted of late. It does not concern issues out there in the public sphere; nor is it a rigorous analysis of the topic in question. Instead, it represents a couple of insights that I gleaned from Scripture last weekend, and as such, this post will undoubtedly exhibit a more informal character.

Both insights I gleaned whilst reading the Gospel according to John. I have been studying this book for some time, and have been repeatedly struck by its remarkable theological density. However, during the course of studying Chapter 15, two particular points – both of which are essential elements of a vibrant Christian life – leapt off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes. However, before I delve into those truths, I should set the scene. The fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is largely about two things: the love that ought to exist within the fellowship of believers; and the inevitability of hatred and hostility that will meet believers as they seek to minister to the world. What’s more, it comes in the midst of a very private and intimate gathering between Jesus and his disciples, and everything he says in this passage is for them. He begins by likening his relationship with them to a vine and its branches (v.1). He then proceeds to counsel his disciples to remain in him in order to bear fruit (v.4), before commanding them to follow his commands – chief of which is the command to love one another (vv. 9-12, 17). Finally, he warns them of the inevitability of opposition to the message they carry and embody – a message that saw Jesus himself persecuted and despised, but only so that they would be prepared. Within what I have just written lies the two truths that have given me pause for thought and have led me to reflect on my walk as a disciple of Christ.

The first truth relates to the metaphor Jesus uses at the commencement of the chapter. His use of the “vine-branches” image (with God as the gardener) is an apt description of the deep interconnectedness of the church: those who are united to Christ receive their power from him, and it is necessary to remain in him (ie. endure in union with him) in order to, as he put it, “bear fruit”. That much is true, and I (usually) have no trouble abiding by, and celebrating, this great image. Paul’s image of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), which is a complementary way of understanding the interrelationship between Christ and believers, also comes to mind. We are many, but together – joined with Christ and held together by the Spirit – we are one. Putting aside any temptation to break out into song at this point (remember the cheesy ballad, “We are one, but we are many”?), both images convey the deep intimacy that exists between Christ and his church, transcending time, space, geography, culture and language. It is a mystical union that brings us into the closest of relationships. So far so good. But what I failed to appreciate (even if I did formally recognize) was that the image John presents to us – that of the vine and the branches – not only implies intimacy or connectedness between Christ and believers; it also implies intimacy and connectedness between believers themselves. A branch is automatically connected to all the other branches of the vine if it is connected to the vine itself. Similarly, a part of the body – the foot, say – is implicitly connected to all the other parts by virtue of the fact that it is a member of the body.

And so it is with us. Not so profound, you might say. That may well be true, but how many of us live in such a way that betrays our own purported spiritual independence? This is significant, since I have detected such a tendency in myself, and that is why Jesus’ words struck me so deeply. For too long, I have attempted to grow spiritually – to bear fruit, you might say – without the aid of the body. Sure, I have been a part of the body. I am a faithful member of a local church. I have taken part in all kinds of ministry there over the years. But I have never truly allowed myself to be fully and freely shaped by that community; to be sharpened by other disciples, as iron sharpens iron. I have always kept a distance, believing myself to be of such spiritual stature that I could get on in life without the enriching aid of a vibrant spiritual community. But recent events have taught me otherwise, and the frustrating inconsistency of my spiritual walk of late has slowly brought me round to the idea that the body of Christ – his church – is a necessary context within which authentic Christian spirituality may flourish.

The image presented in John’s Gospel confirmed that; in order to bear fruit, one must remain in Jesus, but his love and his presence are made manifest in the lives of other believers, to whom one is also connected. Only then, when we take full stock of that truth, will a constantly vibrant and enlivening life of discipleship become a reality. That is something that I need to learn, living as I am with a kind of  rugged individualism. The fact is, I cannot exist without the community of God, and nor was I ever meant to. I might think that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to strike out on one’s own without the ministry and support and spiritual nourishment of other Christians, but this passage has made me realize that I am simply engaging in a self-defeating exercise. Remaining in Christ and remaining in the body cannot be separated; to cut oneself from the latter is to (eventually, but inevitably) cut oneself off from the former. At that point, the failure of one’s efforts to maintain a spiritually vital life apart from the embodiment of God’s presence in his church becomes a fait accompli and no fruit will be forthcoming. I wouldn’t say that I’m in danger of that – far from it – but my spiritual growth demands the humble embrace of the ministry of others.

Paul’s image is also instructive, and it spoke to me as well. The picture of the body he uses is interesting, since in order for a particular member (again, we can use the foot) to function as it was meant to function, it needs to be connected to the body. A foot is not truly a foot if it has been severed from the body; conversely, it has be attached to the rest of the body – connected to tendons, ligaments, bone, etc. – in order to fulfil its function as an aid to walking. In a similar manner, I can only fulfil my function within the body of Christ – thereby becoming what I was created to be – when I live in deep interdependence with others. The presence of a spiritually stimulating environment, apart from the natural benefits I might accrue, brings me into contact with the embodied Christ. We are social animals, and have been created as such. Moreover, we – I – have been redeemed into a community, in which true identity is found. Any attempts to grow in isolation (and I should know, since I have been doing that for some time) constitute, as I have said, a self-defeating project.

The second truth that influenced me concerns Jesus’ later words about the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel. He counsels his followers to prepare themselves for such opposition, as he himself did (v.18). Not all will receive what they have to say, and they will face the prospect – sometimes constantly – of lethal hostility. All this is on account of the name of Jesus (v.21). That in itself is an important point, since those of us living in the west like to try and maintain some kind of civility, and to imagine that discussions and conversations are conducted with mutual respect and peaceful understanding. But this is hardly the case elsewhere, for Christians from many parts of the world face horrors that we scarcely give credence to – all for the sake of Christ. But what really impacted me was the fact that I was guilty of not taking this warning seriously enough. I kept it at arms length, implicitly confining it to the pages of an historical document whose cultural and chronological distance from my own situation had been exacerbated by my own tendency to reduce it to the object of theological and intellectual games. As I read this passage, I realized that Jesus was speaking to my own situation, and to the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel in my own environment. And it struck me that for some time, I had not always allowed the text of Scripture – God’s Word – to speak to me. This passage opened me up to the stark truth that I had kept a distance between myself and all of Scripture. Reading Jesus’ words about opposition and hostility to the gospel, whilst trying to avoid such a situation in my own life, suggested to me that my efforts to understand the Bible did not always mean that I was listening. I may have developed a true understanding of the meaning of the passages I read; but did I allow them to speak to me? Was I allowing the Creator and Redeemer God to transcend time and space, and bring forth the significance of his Word for me? Unfortunately, I could not always answer in the affirmative.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with studying the Bible in order to glean the theological meaning of the text. There is nothing wrong with expending intellectual energy discovering the intended meaning of a passage, its immediate and biblical context, and its theological and ethical implications. These are necessary elements of good, honest Bible study. But if it does not set one’s heart on fire; if it fails to actually speak to the one who is reading it; if it does not transform and shape and mould someone into the likeness of Christ, leading to faithful discipleship; then it has not truly been read or understood. This is something that had, for me at least, receded. Those words, spoken by Jesus and recorded by John, were not meant simply for the former’s immediate circle of followers, but for all Christians down through the ages. And those words – like all the words of Scripture – ought to carry with them a Spirit-filled power that crosses the chasm of time and culture to change us in our own situations (diverse as they are) today. That is something that I learned, and it is a lesson worth repeating.

These truths – the essential nature of the Christian community and the immediacy of the Word – may be known instinctively by some of you, and I celebrate that. I am a little slow to learn at times, I must admit. But it just goes to show that if you open your ears for just a moment, God will speak. You just have to make sure you’re actually listening.