Re-Imagining Radical Discipleship (Part I)

16 04 2013

In two short posts, rather than critique some of the “radical” books we brought up a few weeks ago I think I’d rather re-imagine them a little bit, hoping to (in some small way) contribute to the conversation as it plays out among friends, church members, and visitors.

There has been a steady stream of literature introduced into the Christian marketplace offering substantial criticism of modern day, North American Christianity.  I would say that the so-called “radical” books fit well within this niche, as they all, on different levels offer critiques at what the church in North America has produced or for that matter failed to produce.  So far so good.  On these points I find it hard to disagree with them.  To be blunt (and brief!), I think North American Christianity is theologically shallow, materialistic, and not particularly Christian.

The first two should be easy to understand.  The last may need some qualification.  When I say that North American Christianity is “not particularly Christian,” I mean the link between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the practice of many North American Christians (and their churches) is not entirely apparent.  The link could be entirely detached, as it appears to have been with the Episcopal Bishop M. Budde, who called the resurrection of Jesus an “outlandish proposition” (!) or it could be the more subtle detachment but more Jesus and Bible friendly moralistic, therapeutic, deism of much of the Evangelical world.  After all, reducing Jesus from the incarnate Son of God and necessary atonement for sin to some exemplar for a better career, a more proficient parenting, or the key to time management has just as little to do with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as Bishop Budde’s denial of such things.  They appear different in full bloom but they come from the same seed.

If this is the current state of affairs, and I believe it is, what then is the fix?  What the “radical” books suggest, that I wholeheartedly endorse, is discipleship.  But what does this word “discipleship” mean?  Perhaps it means teaching others about Jesus.  This is discipleship.  On this front, recovering some old school catechism, a strategy advocated by J.I. Packer, couldn’t possibly be a bad thing.  Discipleship could also be teaching people to do, or not do, certain things.  This too is a good thing.  Whereas praying, Bible reading, serving the poor, sharing the faith, etc. come quite naturally to some, others must be taught the hows and whys of such things.  That is discipleship.  But discipleship, particularly the radical kind of discipleship I think we want to see, is more than simply knowing and doing the right things.  I would suggest a truly radical discipleship is also, if not primarily, about loving the right things.  This is where I think we’re coming up short.

In the old days (like 1500 years ago) people thought quite a lot about why they did the things they did and why they thought the things they thought.  Within the Christian tradition, knowing and doing are not activities in an of themselves but rather were the fruit of the deeper, more substantial activity of loving.  So for example, Gregory of Nyssa describes love as the “inherent affection towards a chosen object” that “attaches” one being to another through affection (On the Soul and the Resurrection).  Love doesn’t just attach emotion, but it attaches the whole being (emotions, thoughts, actions, etc.) to the object.  Similarly, Augustine describes love as that which “allures and unites us” to the things we love (Confessions IV.XIII).  If you ask the old dead guys, they’ll tell you that your thoughts and actions are dictated by your love.  What you love you think.  What you love you do.

It may be worth pausing for a moment to answer at least one objection.  We are after all, rational creatures are we not?  Loving is not central, thinking is!  Well, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps you have friends with children.  Perhaps your friends think that everything their children do is blog worthy, exceptional, unique, and magnificent.  But you and I know better!  We know that “little Johnny” is not blog worthy, but rather he’s a little devil!  So how is it that the parent‘s thoughts about the child are so distorted?  It is quite simple actually.  The parents love “little Johnny,” and their love has shaped their thoughts.

The point is argued well by Freud and later C.S. Lewis.  Freud called belief in God (thinking) a “collective neurosis” that was really a longing for a father (loving).  So the longing (loving) shaped the believing (thinking).  This appears to be a damaging obstacle to those of us with faith.  But years later Lewis showed this argument to be a bit of a double edged sword.  Lewis argued that unbelief in God (thinking) must be “an admirable gratification of one of our strongest impulses” (loving) because it gives us permission to live without fear of judgment or any higher authority (see Lewis, “On Obstinancy in Belief).  All that to say, you think what you love.  You do what you love.

If love is as central as what we argue above then perhaps the formation of the heart, not simply our thoughts or our behavior, ought to be the chief concern of a would be disciple maker.  So then, how is love formed?  Consider the following from Richard Sibbes:

Things work upon the soul in this order: 1. Some object is presented. 2. Then it is apprehended by imagination as good and pleasing, or as evil and hurtful. 3. If good, the desire is carried to it with delight; if evil, it is rejected with distaste, and so our affections are stirred up suitably to our apprehension of the object. 4. Affections stir up the spirits. 5. The spirits raise the humours, and so the whole man becomes moved.

-Sibbes, The Souls Conflict with Itself

What’s he saying?  You see something, then you imagine if it is good and pleasing or evil and hurtful.  If good and pleasing, you love it and attach yourself to it and pursue it with mind and body.  The more you perceive the goodness and pleasure in something, the great attachment it has over you.  So if we want people, mind and body attached to God, what must we do?  It seems obvious and simple . We must hold God up to be our highest and most pleasurable good, activating the imagination and firing up people’s love.

The English reformer, Thomas Cranmer, knew this well.  Consider the following:

But if the profession of our faith of the remssion of our own sins enter within us into the deepness of our hearts, then it must kindle a warm fire of love in our hearts towards God, and towards all other for the love of God, —a fervent mind to seek and procure God’s honour, will, and pleasure in all things, —a good will and mind to help every man and to do good unto them, so far as our might, wisdom, learning, counsel, health, strength, and all other gifts which we have received of God and will extend, —and, in summa, a firm intent and purpose to do all that is good, and leave all that is evil. (Cranmer, quoted in Null’s Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance pg 185)

Perceive the goodness of God in the remission of sins, says Cranmer, and it kindles a warm fire of love in the heart.  Once this is done, everything else (might, wisdom, learning, counsel, health, strength etc.) falls into place.
For a short post, I’m out of room to discuss method.  But I’ll leave you with one or two thoughts to leap off of from here.  When we teach people to think rightly about Christ, or when we teach people certain distinctive Christian behaviors we must aim at the heart.  The goal is not right thinking, nor is the goal right doing, the goal is right loving.  We must ask “how can I convey this information in such a way as to increase love and delight in God?” or “how can I teach this practice or behavior in such a way that love for God is increased?”  Starting here is a hard road, but I’m convinced it bears good fruit, and warm hearts in the long run.





The account of Augustine’s conversion in his own words

20 12 2011

The account begins with Augustine in despair over both his sins and his sinful condition…

I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”  Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard Doubtless from Ponticianus, in their earlier conversation. how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”  By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine, Confessions Book VIII Ch. XII





Augustine on Sanctification: Good Works Flow From those Who Have Become Drunk on God’s Mercy

20 12 2011

What a wonderful little passage on the well that Christians draw from to produce their good works!

This holy meditation preserves “the children of men, who put their trust under the shadow of God’s wings,” so that they are “drunken with the fatness of His house, and drink of the full stream of His pleasure. For with Him is the fountain of life, and in His light shall they see light. For He extendeth His mercy to them that know Him, and His righteousness to the upright in heart.” He does not, indeed, extend His mercy to them because they know Him, but that they may know Him; nor is it because they are upright in heart, but that they may become so, that He extends to them His righteousness, whereby He justifies the ungodly. This meditation does not elevate with pride: this sin arises when any man has too much confidence in himself, and makes himself the chief end of living. Impelled by this vain feeling, he departs from that fountain of life, from the draughts of which alone is imbibed the holiness which is itself the good life,—and from that unchanging light, by sharing in which the reasonable soul is in a certain sense inflamed, and becomes itself a created and reflected luminary; even as “John was a burning and a shining light,” who notwithstanding acknowledged the source of his own illumination in the words, “Of His fulness have all we received.” Whose, I would ask, but His, of course, in comparison with whom John indeed was no light at all? For “that was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Therefore, in the same psalm, after saying, “Extend Thy mercy to them that know Thee, and Thy righteousness to the upright in heart,” he adds, “Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hands of sinners move me. There have fallen all the workers of iniquity: they are cast out, and are not able to stand.”  Since by that impiety which leads each to attribute to himself the excellence which is God’s, he is cast out into his own native darkness, in which consist the works of iniquity. For it is manifestly these works which he does, and for the achievement of such alone is he naturally fit. The works of righteousness he never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain and that light, where the life is that wants for nothing, and where is “no variableness, nor the shadow of turning.”

From Augustine’s “The Spirit and the Letter” 11.7





Augustine’s on Nature and Grace

19 12 2011

Below is an excerpt from the introductory section of a work written by Augustine that God used to help lead me into a deeper understanding of God’s grace and my own sinfulness.  I first encountered this work at the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford in 20I’ve attached a link at the bottom where you can click through and read the whole thing.

The book which you sent to me, my beloved sons, Timasius and Jacobus, I have read through hastily, but not indifferently, omitting only the few points which are plain enough to everybody; and I saw in it a man inflamed with most ardent zeal against those, who, when in their sinsthey ought to censure human will, are more forward in accusing thenature of men, and thereby endeavour to excuse themselves. He shows too great a fire against this evil, which even authors of secular literature have severely censured with the exclamation: The human race falselycomplains of its own nature! This same sentiment your author also has strongly insisted upon, with all the powers of his talent. I fear, however, that he will chiefly help those who have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, who, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God. Now, what the righteousness of God is, which is spoken of here, he immediately afterwards explains by adding: For Christ is the end of thelaw for righteousness to every one that believes. This righteousness of God, therefore, lies not in the commandment of the law, which excites fear, but in the aid afforded by the grace of Christ, to which alone the fear of the law, as of a schoolmaster, usefully conducts. Now, the man who understands this understands why he is a Christian. For If righteousness came by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. If, however He did not die in vain, in Him only is the ungodly man justified, and to him, on believing in Him who justifiesthe ungodly, faith is reckoned for righteousness.  For all menhave sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His blood.  But all those who do not think themselves to belong to the all who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,have of course no need to become Christians, because they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick; whence it is, that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

click here to read the whole thing.  Read it carefully and follow the logic.





Augustine: On the Incarnation

19 12 2011

This is not only a clever bit of Christology, but it is also a powerful argument for the orthodox claim that salvation is found exclusively in knowing Christ. Note for Augustine, it is in the knowing that we are saved because only Christ does man  (Jesus) mark a trail for men to follow.  Only Christ as God can mark a trail to our salvation.  Thus, it is only in knowing the God-Man, Jesus Christ, that we can come to salvation.

It is a great and very rare thing for a man, after he has contemplated the whole creation, corporeal and incorporeal, and has discerned its mutability, to pass beyond it, and, by the continued soaring of his mind, to attain to the unchangeable substance of God, and, in that height of contemplation, to learn from God Himself that none but He has made all that is not of the divine essence.  For God speaks with a man not by means of some audible creature dinning in his ears, so that atmospheric vibrations connect Him that makes with him that hears the sound, nor even by means of a spiritual being with the semblance of a body, such as we see in dreams or similar states; for even in this case He speaks as if to the ears of the body, because it is by means of the semblance of a body He speaks, and with the appearance of a real interval of space,—for visions are exact representations of bodily objects.  Not by these, then, does God speak, but by the truth itself, if any one is prepared to hear with the mind rather than with the body.  For He speaks to that part of man which is better than all else that is in him, and than which God Himself alone is better.  For since man is most properly understood (or, if that cannot be, then, at least, believed) to be made in God’s image, no doubt it is that part of him by which he rises above those lower parts he has in common with the beasts, which brings him nearer to the Supreme.  But since the mind itself, though naturally capable of reason and intelligence is disabled by besotting and inveterate vices not merely from delighting and abiding in, but even from tolerating His unchangeable light, until it has been gradually healed, and renewed, and made capable of such felicity, it had, in the first place, to be impregnated with faith, and so purified.  And that in this faith it might advance the more confidently towards the truth, the truth itself, God, God’s Son, assuming humanity without destroying His divinity, Homine assumto, non Deo consumto. established and founded this faith, that there might be a way for man to man’s God through a God-man.  For this is the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.  For it is as man that He is the Mediator and the Way.  Since, if the way lieth between him who goes, and the place whither he goes, there is hope of his reaching it; but if there be no way, or if he know not where it is, what boots it to know whither he should go?  Now the only way that is infallibly secured against all mistakes, is when the very same person is at once God and man, God our end, man our way.   Quo itur Deus, qua itur homo.

From Augustine’s The City of God, XI.2

the thought is expressed almost word for word in Chrysostom, but since I can’t remember the reference I must resort to what Calvin and Luther often do; “Chyrsostom somewhere says…”  Anybody know the reference? 





Dante, Sin, Repentance, and Desire

19 12 2011

One of the things I’ve learned through my reading of Scripture and my experience of the Christian life, is that spiritual growth is not so much about restraining old (sinful) desires but about gaining new, godly desires.  But in order for this to happen, our desires must be changed and this is the root of the Christian concept of repentance.  Repentance is not merely a conscious turning away from the world towards God, but on a deeper level it is exchanging old desires for new ones.  The new desires are not sinful but Godly, and they are to be enjoyed.  So the Christian life is not so much about restraining desire, as it is about indulging desire (the right desires!).  But how do we understand this?  And more importantly, how do we go about doing it?

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno contains a treasure of Augustinian theology wrapped in stunning verse after stunning verse. It also has much to say on the nature of sin, deisre, and repentance.   So we will turn to his most famous work,  The Divine Comedy, but particularly to the inferno to help us understand the complex interplay of sin, repentance and desire.

In the passage below we find our travelers in the eighth circle of hell (also in the eighth bolgia) with the “evil counselors”. The evil counselor we are here concerned with is Count Guido Da Montefeltro.[1] He was a “man of arms” who laid down the sword to become a Franciscan monk.Unfortunately, Pope Boniface VIII, who Dante describes as the new “Prince of Pharisees” persuades the new monk to use his old skills as a warrior to help him persecute a Christian land that he was hoping to acquire.  He does so with these words:

“Your soul need fear no wound; I absolve your guilt beforehand; and now teach me how to smash Penestrino to the ground.”[2]

With the assurance that the power to forgive sins rests with the Pope, our monk goes on to counsel him how to defeat his fellow Christians to acquire land and wealth for himself.  Thus, the monk becomes a “false counselor.”

For the purposes of the discussion we wish to have, “sin, repentance and desire” what happens next is far more interesting.  St. Francis, hearing that one of his monks is in Hell, goes to Hell to rescue him.  However, Francis is turned away at the gate.  We read of the account starting at vs. 109:

“Later, when I was dead, St. Francis came to claim my soul, but one of the Black Angels said: ‘Leave him.  Do not wrong me.  This one’s name went into my book the moment he resolved to give false counsel.  Since then he has been mine, for who does not repent cannot be absolved, nor can we admit the possibility of repenting a thing at the same time it is willed, for the two acts are contradictory.”[3]

What is important to notice about Dante’s theology of repentance is how closely it is tied to his theology of desire.  First let us notice what repentance is not.

1.  Repentance is not a turning to God to gain forgiveness

2.  Repentance is not a turning to God to avoid punishment

The essence of repentance for Dante is that the human will is turned towards God and away from all things that  are not God, or “no God” as Barth would say.  The repentance described above is a turning away from sin to gain forgiveness, or to avoid punishment, but it is not a turning towards God for God’s sake.  It is a turning towards God for something else.  The point being, at the end of the day, our monk still does not desire or will after God.  If fear of punishment were removed, he would still sin because that is his desire.  This excludes any possibility of repentance.

Genuine repentance (and genuine Christian discipleship) is not about restraining sinful behavior, it is about changing desires.  Hundreds of years later, it is Martin Luther who helpfully draws the distinction between restraint and a new creation.  He writes:

Every law was given to hinder sins.  Does this mean when the Law restrains sins, it justifies?  Not at all.  When I refrain from killing or from committing adultery or from stealing, or when I abstain from other sins, I do not do this voluntarily or from the love of virtue but because I am afraid of the sword and of the executioner.  This prevents me, as the ropes or the chains prevent a lion or a bear from ravaging something that comes along.  Therefore restraining from sin is not a sin of righteousness, but rather an indication of unrighteousness…This restraint makes it abundantly clear that those who have need of it- as does everyone outside of Christ- are not righteous but unrighteous and insane, whom it is necessary to tame with the rope and with prison to keep from sinning[4].

– Luther, Commentary on Galatians 1535  vs. 3.19

The problem for Luther is that restraint, like Dante’s false repentance, is not done voluntarily but under coercion.  The heart is not changed, it is corralled.  What then is the remedy?  For Dante, as for Luther, the remedy is a new heart, with new desires, and a new will.  One that can voluntarily turn to God.  How then is this accomplished?  We catch a glimpse from the source of both men’s thoughts, that is in Augustine who commenting on John 6..44 “No man comes to me unless the Father draws him”, writes:

Do not think that thou are drawn against thy will.  The mind is drawn also by love… “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart” (Psalm37.4).  There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet.  Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” –not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight, -how much more boldly ought we to say that man is drawn to Christ?…Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say.  Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such and he knows what I say[5].

– Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel

The important thing to highlight about Augustine, especially in terms of repentance, is that God replaces our desire for worldly things by luring us away from them by showing us Himself, which is infinitely more lovely, infinitely more valuable, and infinitely sweeter than all our other lusts and desires.  This is the Christian’s experience of Rom 2.4, “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”  When God shows us his kindness, it is an irresistible beauty that compels us to repentance.  For Luther especially, this kindness is demonstrated most clearly on the cross, and nowhere is it more beautiful, or more alluring, than the savior who suffers for the ungodly.

When God draws men and women to himself, by showing himself to them, they begin to desire him.  So they repent.  Their repentance is both voluntary and genuine.  Rather than sinning freely and repenting grudgingly, they not repent freely and sin grudgingly.  So it can be said that their will has changed, their desire has changed, and their heart has changed. May God draw you and I daily by the beauty of the crucified Savior, away from the things of this world that we might desire him, and have our desire!


[1] Canto XXVII

[2] Canto XXVII.97

[3] Canton XXVII.109

[4] LW. Vol 26 pg 308

[5] Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel Tractate XXVI.4 NPNF vol. 7 pg 169