Facing Down the Ice Dragon

26 06 2013

In 1933 Lewis published his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, which he promoted to a publisher as a kind of “Bunyan up to date.”  Though in title Lewis is clearly indebted to Bunyan, the Pilgrim’s Regress should not be seen as a simple retelling of Bunyan’s classic Christian allegory.  If left to stand on its on two legs, the work is an intellectual map of the early to mid 20th century West as Lewis saw it, as well as how a spiritual pilgrim might navigate such a world away from and returning to Christian truth.

The novel was widely panned and even Lewis himself was deeply dissatisfied with it for reasons that are persuasive.  For one, the work is too obscure and two, Lewis focused too closely on intellectual movements in a narrow window of history, making many of his points almost immediately out of date.  Nevertheless, the work is one of my favorites both for its rich, imaginative landscapes as well as lyrical qualities.  To add to this, Lewis’ vision for a reasonable, faithful, and imaginative Christian life continues to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians alike.  More than any other reason however, is that Lewis’ treatment of universal human issues, when handled, is exceptional. 

Lewis’ novel follows the journey of two characters as they progress and then regress through his fictional landscape.  John, the main character, represents the Greek man full of pursuits of pleasure and ease.  John’s companion, Vertue, represents the classically religious, if not Pharisaical follower of rules who denies himself even the simplest of comforts.  The two men, to be made whole must endure battle with two dragons, one fiery dragon from the South and one icy dragon from the North.

Vertue must fight the fiery dragon, an “expansive, invertebrate dragon whose fiery breath makes all that she touches melt and corrupt.”  “To her,” says the Pilgrim’s guide, you “must go down that you may steal her heat and be made malleable.”  Lewis’ point, powerfully made through the assistance of story was this:  the Pharisee may keep rules but he has no love for God or for man in him.  He needs heat to melt and heat for passion that he might have passion for both God and man.  In one of the more touching, while at the same time one of the more amusing passages, Vertue returns from his fight with the “fiery dragon” “veritably on fire,” “leaping, running, and dancing.”

As for John, he must fight the “cold dragon” for the opposite purpose.  If Vertue is too hard, with no passion, John is too soft, with no restraint, courage, or perseverance.  He must “go up and contend with him (the cold dragon) that you may be hardened.”  Ice from the dragon travels out of his body, down the sword and into John’s body steeling his spine.  When we think of the nature of sanctification, we may not often think of how necessary “hardening” is.  But necessary it is.  After all, doesn’t the Apostle Paul tells us that we are being prepared to bear an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4.17).  Soft people aren’t prepared to bear such a reward.  They need to toughen up. 

So how does this happen?  In the allegory, the cold dragon is placed before the pilgrim as an act of grace.  In facing down the cold dragon, the soft man is hardened as a gift.  The gift is not only the hardening that comes as John plunges his sword into the belly of the dragon, and the ice travels into his body making him strong.  But there is another gift to be given as the dragon is faced down.  This second gift is the gift of victory over the dragon itself.  The coward goes to battle and prevails and this is a gift of God.  Consider the paradox of the following:

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom 16.20)

God will crush Satan, but he will do so under your feet.  Here is a remarkable gift.  God will destroy the devil, but he does so in part using the coward as a tool.  Thus the coward has a share, as an act of grace, in the victory of God.

So what do we do with this?  When the dragon appears, whatever form he may take, he must be acknowledged for what he is.  He may be an enemy.  He may be evil.  But he is in your path under the sovereignty of a good God who has placed him there to make you strong.  So take up your sword and play the man.  You may lose, as Peter lost on the night Christ was betrayed.  But, as you’ll remember, Peter was the better man for the losing.  In a sense, he was strengthened in the losing for he was a more gracious man after the temptation than he was before.  You may win, as Lewis’ pilgrim does in the allegory, and share in the victory of God as he crushes the devil under your feet and this will make you strong as well.  Whatever happens, the promise still stands that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13.5), nor lose us (John 17.12), will one day complete his work in us (Phil 1.6), and present us perfect before the throne of God (Jude 24).  At least in part this is accomplished, as unpleasant as the reality is, in the facing down of the various dragons that may be blocking our progress.  After all, there is no other way (Acts 14.22). 

 





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.





John Bunyan: Have no foundation (for anything) other than Christ

20 12 2011

Most of visitors at my church never ask me “what are you about?”  They usually show up, enjoy the worship, the preaching, the fellowship etc. and decide to stick around.  Over time, they might become more interested in our guiding thoughts, principles etc.  But recently a vistor made a special appointment with me to ask that very question.  “What are you about?” he asked.  To which I replied, “the ONE thing we are about here is proclaiming and applying the unconditional grace of Jesus Christ to every aspect of our lives.”  It would be impossible to describe the heavy burden we carry to convey the sufficiency of the grace of Christ in all things.  It would be impossible to describe the pain we feel when members of our flock slip back into legalism.  It would be impossible to describe the joy in our hearts when the Gospel is understood, received, and applied by our members.  With these burdens, pains, and joys I pass on an exhortation from the great John Bunyan to REMAIN IN THE GRACE OF CHRIST in all things. 

“Think not that to live always on Christ for justification is a low and beggarly thing,-a staying at the foundation. For, let me tell you, depart from a sense of the meritorious means of your justification before God, and you will quickly grow light, and frothy, and vain; you will be subject to errors and delusions, for this is not to ‘hold the head,’ from which nourishment is administered. Why not live upon Christ alway; and especially as He standeth the Mediator between God and the soul, defending thee with the merit of His blood, and covering thee with His infinite righteousness from the wrath of God and the curse of the law? Can there be any greater comfort ministered to thee, than to know that thy person stands just before God; just, and justified from all things that would otherwise swallow thee up? Is peace with God and assurance of heaven of so little respect with thee, that thou slightest the very foundation thereof, even faith in the blood and righteousness of Christ.”
-BUNYAN, Justification by Imputed Righteousness.





Horatius Bonar: The beautiful paradox of the Christian

20 12 2011
Bonar here beautifully expresses that wonderful paradox of the Christian, sometimes described as Simul iustus et peccator (at the same time righteous and a sinner).  Bonar wisely encourages us to drink deeply from this truth or not at all.  Those who do are the happiest and most holy.
 “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). He who knows this, knows what fully satisfies and cheers. He who knows this best has the deepest and truest peace: for he has learned the secret of being always a sinner, yet always righteous; always incomplete, yet always complete; always empty, and yet always full; always poor, and yet always rich. We would not say of that fullness, “Drink deep or taste not,” for even to taste is to be blest. But we say, Drink deep; for he who drinks deepest is the happiest as well as the holiest man.”

Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Rigtheousness ch. 6





How does sanctification work? The story of Dick and Ricky Hoyt

20 12 2011

I often recite the remarkable story of Dick and Rick Hoyt and apply it to the process of sanctification, that is the process by which God makes his people holy.  To be fair, I didn’t think of the comparison myself but took it from Bryan Chapel’s excellent commentary on Ephesians from the Reformed Expository Commentary series.  Below is a video of Dick and Ricky Hoyt.  Their story begins a 1 min 22 sec.  Following the video I have excerpted Chapel’s words:

Some years ago I enjoyed watching ‘iron man’ competitions on TV.  Watching those who swim, bike and run multiple- marathon distances in the grueling triathlon makes me dream of what I might be able to do if I had more time, opportunity, and a different body.  More inspiring to me than the usual stories of the big-name competitors, however, was the 1999 account of the father and son team of Dick and Ricky Hoyt.  The two have run together in more than eight hundred races.

More remarkable than the fellowship this father and son enjoy is the fact that the now adult son, Ricky, was born with cerebral palsy.  To race, he must be pulled, pushed, or carried by his father.  There is a part of us that might jump to the conclusion that Ricky does not race at all…that his father does all the work.  But tens of thousands of viewers saw the son’s role in this competition when wind, cold, and an equipment failure made progress hard on Ricky, even though his father was the one pedaling the modified tandem bike.  Dick knelt down to his son, contorted and trembling in the cold, as the two were still facing many more miles of race on the defective bike.  Said the father to the child belted to the bicycle seat, “Do you want to keep going, Son?”

The father would be the one enabling and providing the means to overcome, but the son still had to have the heart to finish well.  To the son were given the privilege and responsibility to desire to continue to make progress.  Though the example is not perfect, it explains much of what the Bible teaches about our spiritual battles.  We have a Father who has already given the power to enable us to resist all the challenges of our Adversary.  We can prevail through the means and strength our Father provides, but we must still have the heart to do so.

In light of this need for a heart that beats for him, our God bids us feed on his Word and seek the Spirit that opens our minds to the knowledge of the Savior and renews our will with a compelling love for him.  By God’s word and Spirit we are filled with the knowledge and love of him that give us the desire to run with him (and to him) more than anything else in this world.  The grace he pours into our hearts enables us “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge- that (we) may be filled to the measure of  all the fullness of God” (Eph 3.18-19).

Brian Chapel, Ephesians Kindle Edition (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg 2009) Loc 6464 of 7700





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