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.





George Herbert: “The Agony”

28 03 2013

Much to dwell on, particularly this time of year.  The final paragraph is a fine thing to keep in head and heart come Thursday evening.

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.





Martin Luther: Good works flow from love and joy

18 03 2013

For where the Gospel is truly in the heart, it creates a new man who does not wait until the law comes, but, being so full of joy in Christ, and of desire and love for that which is good, he gladly helps and doe good to every one wherever he can, from a free heart, before he ver once thinks of law.  He wholly risks his body and life, without asking what he must suffer on account of it, and thus abounds in good works which flow forth of themselves.

-Martin Luther, Church Postil 2.2 76





Martin Luther: The Great Work of the Christian

14 03 2013

Challenging words from the good doctor:

A truly Christian work is it that we descend and get mixed up in the mire of the sinner as deeply as he sticks there himself, taking his sin upon ourselves and floundering out of it with him, not acting otherwise than as if his sin were our own.  We should rebuke and deal with him in earnest; yet we are not to despise but sincerely love him.  If you are proud toward the sinner and despise him, you are utterly damned.

-Martin Luther, Church Postil 2.261

 





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





My philsophy of ministry (that I stole from Horatius Bonar)

20 12 2011

When I first started preaching regularly, one of the things I heard from time to time was “why do you preach the Gospel every Sunday? When are we going to move beyond that and get to discipleship?”  I tried from time to time to provide a satisfactory answer and I have long desired to write a small outline about the Gospel and how it fits into our understanding of not only how we become Christians, but how we grow spiritually.  Thankfully, I ran across ch. 10 of Horatius Bonar’s The Everlasting Righteousness, which spells out more clearly than I ever could the philosophy of ministry that we seek to embody.  Take the time to read the excerpt below.  I’ve linked to the whole book as well as to this crucial chapter below. 

We are justified that we may be holy. The possession of this legal righteousness is the beginning of a holy life. We do not live a holy life in order to be justified; but we are justified that we may live a holy life. That which man calls holiness may be found in almost any circumstances,–of dread, or darkness, or bondage, or self-righteous toil and suffering; but that which God calls holiness can only be developed under conditions of liberty and light, and pardon and peace with God. Forgiveness is the mainspring of holiness. Love, as a motive, is far stronger than law; far more influential than fear of wrath or peril of hell. Terror may make a man crouch like a slave and obey a hard master, lest a worse thing come upon him; but only a sense of forgiving love can bring either heart or conscience into that state in which obedience is either pleasant to the soul or acceptable to God.
False ideas of holiness are common, not only among those who profess false religions, but among those who profess the true. For holiness is a thing of which man by nature has no more idea than a blind man has of the beauty of a flower or the light of the sun. All false religions have had their “holy men,” whose holiness often consisted merely in the amount of pain they could inflict upon their bodies, or of food which they could abstain from, or of hard labor which they could undergo. But with God, a saint or holy man is a very different being. It is in filial, full-hearted love to God that much of true holiness consists. And this cannot even begin to be until the sinner has found forgiveness and tasted liberty, and has confidence towards God. The spirit of holiness is incompatible with the spirit of bondage. There must be the spirit of liberty, the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. When the fountain of holiness begins to well up in the human heart, and to fill the whole being with its transforming, purifying power, “We have known and believed the love that God has to us” (1 John 4:16) is the first note of the holy song, which, commenced on earth, is to be perpetuated through eternity.
We are bought with a price, that we may be new creatures in Christ Jesus. We are forgiven, that we may be like Him who forgives us. We are set at liberty and brought out of prison, that we may be holy. The free, boundless love of God, pouring itself into us, expands and elevates our whole being; and we serve Him, not in order to win His favour, but because we have already won it in simply believing His record concerning His Son. If the root is holy, so are the branches. We have become connected with the holy root, and by the necessity of this connection are made holy too.
Forgiveness relaxes no law, nor interferes with the highest justice. Human pardons may often do so: God’s pardons never.
Forgiveness doubles all our bonds to a holy life; only they are no longer bonds of iron, but of gold. It takes off the heavy yoke, in order to give us the light and easy.
The love of God to us, and our love to God, work together for producing holiness in us. Terror accomplishes no real obedience. Suspense brings forth no fruit unto holiness. Only the certainty of love, forgiving love, can do this. It is this certainty that melts the heart, dissolves our chains, disburdens our shoulders, so that we stand erect, and makes us to run in the way of the divine commandments.
Condemnation is that which binds sin and us together. Forgiveness looses this fearful tie, and separates us from sin. The power of condemnation which the law possesses is that which makes it so strong and terrible. Cancel this power, and the liberated spirit rises into the region of love, and in that region finds both will and strength for the keeping of the law,–a law which is at once old and new: old as to substance (“Thou shalt love the Lord with all thy heart”); new as to mode and motive. “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus bath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2); that is, The law of the life-giving spirit which we have in Christ Jesus has severed the condemning connection of that law which leads only to sin and death. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh (i.e. unable to carry out its commandments in our old nature), God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit” (Rom 8:3,4).
The removal of condemnation is the dissolution of legal bondage, and of that awful pressure upon the conscience which at once enslaved and irritated; disenabling as well as disinclining us from all obedience; making holiness both distasteful and dreadful, to be submitted to only through fear of future woe.
Sin, when unforgiven, oppresses the conscience and tyrannizes over the sinner. Sin forgiven in an unrighteous way, would be but a slight and uncertain as well as imperfect relief. Sin righteously and judicially forgiven, loses its dominion. The conscience rises up from its long oppression, and expands into joyous liberty. Our whole being becomes bright and buoyant under the benign influence of this forgiving love of God. “The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come” (Song 2:11,12).
Condemnation is the dark cloud that obscures our heavens. Forgiveness is the sunshine dissolving the cloud, and by its brilliance making all good things to grow and ripen in us.
Condemnation makes sin strike its roots deeper and deeper. No amount of terror can extirpate evil. No fear of wrath can make us holy. No gloomy uncertainty as to God’s favour can subdue one lust, or correct our crookedness of will. But the free pardon of the cross uproots sin, and withers all its branches. The “no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” is the only effectual remedy for the deadly disease of an alienated heart and stubborn will.
The want of forgiveness, or uncertainty as to it, are barriers in the way of the removal of the heart’s deep enmity to a righteous God. For enmity will only give way to love; and no suspense, however terrible, will overcome the stout-hearted rebelliousness of man. Threats do not conquer hearts; nor does austerity win either confidence or affection. They who would trust to law to awaken trust, know nothing either of law or love; nor do they understand how the suspicions of the human heart are to be removed, and its confidence won. The knowledge of God simply as Judge or Lawgiver will be of no power to attract, of no avail to remove distrust and dread.
But the message, “God is love,” is like the sun bursting through the clouds of a long tempest. The good news, “Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins,” is like the opening of the prisoner’s dungeon-gate. Bondage departs, and liberty comes. Suspicion is gone, and the heart is won. “Perfect love has cast out fear.” We hasten to the embrace of Him who loved us; we hate that which has estranged us; we put away all that caused the distance between us and Him; we long to be like one so perfect, and to partake of His holiness. To be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), once so distasteful, is henceforth most grateful and pleasant; and nothing seems now so desirable as to escape the corruptions that are in the world through lust.

Read the whole thing here

Read the book here





Thomas Watson: Christ “Fastened to the heart”

20 12 2011

Who can tread upon these hot coals, and his heart not burn?  Who can cry out, with Ignatius, ‘Christ my love is crucified!’?  If a friend should die for us, would not our hearts be much affected by his kindness?  That the God of heaven should die for us, how should this stupendous mercy have a melting influence upon us!

The body of Christ is broken, is enough to break the most flinty heart.  At our saviour’s passion, the very stones did cleave asunder: ‘The rocks rent’ (Matt 27.51).  He that is not affected with this has a heart harder than stones.  If Saul was so affected with David’s mercy in sparing his life (1 Sam 24.16), how may we be affected with Christ’s kindness, who to spare our life, lost his own!  Let us pray, that as Christ was cruci-fixus’, so he may be ‘cordi-fixus’- as he was fastened to the cross, so may he be fastened to our hearts.

Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Supper (Banner of Truth Trust) pg 30-31