The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do, no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18b,19).
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:28-31a NIV).
The Sanctification Gap
When I was a young pastor, full of ideals, studying at a great seminary, wondering what the Lord had in store for me, I used to pray that God would show me where the fighting was the fiercest, the issues essential, where lives were being transformed, and put me right there in the middle of it. It took me a while to understand that alot of that came from arrogance and that I was woefully unprepared for ministry, that I was educated far beyond my obedience, that I was easy prey for the schemes of the Devil.
Still, God in his wisdom and grace gave me a glimpse of the heart of the gospel and the reality of how far the church, in general, was from that strategic center. It tore me apart and I had no clue what to do about it. I, myself, shed away from the battle like a newborn foal afraid of his own shadow. I was weak and untrained and didn’t even understand what God was going to do about it, much less through me.
Yes, I could see that He had his remnant, his people, who were there in the battle. Every church has them. Many of them unsung heroes of the faith, despised and rejected by their own people, their own church, and I soon joined their ranks, not as a hero of the faith, just the despised and rejected part, because I opened my mouth and talked about it. Talk about stupid. I was like a bull in a china shop not even aware of the mess I was making. Although a mess was probably a good thing to make. That’s usually how God gets started, by turning over the tables, but still, it destroyed me (and hardly made a dent in the status quo of the church).
I had no idea that politics and unbelief and arrogance (including mine) was so strong in the church. The stories that Pastors tell when they get together would probably shock most board members and, no doubt, a number of those Pastors would lose their jobs if they said what they really thought about what was going on in the church. But they learnt to play the game and I didn’t, so I no longer belong. I am an outsider. Thank God.
What does all of that have to do with the dynamics of spiritual life? Everything. If there is very little spiritual life among the leaders how can we expect to create a culture of grace? How can we expect to see the Spirit of God move in the hearts of our people? Everything is already lost if the leadership (and especially the pastors) have already chosen politics over prophectic utterance, being nice over being spiritual, following the Board instead of following Christ, protecting their jobs, their families, their careers rather than putting their ministry (and families) in God’s hands and taking the first step down the road on the way to Jerusalem.
We have already spoken about the courage of confession which starts the godly cycle of spiritual life in the leadership and will spread (or not) to the other leaders and the church as a whole as we follow the way of the cross. It is the only way to create a culture of grace, by practicing grace, by living in that grace no matter the cost. But the key issues have to do with the faith-walk of repentance, the second step in this virtuous cycle of the dynamic spiritual life.
The problem with repentance (sanctification) is where to put it. Does it come right after confession? Of course. But can we truly repent without first being forgiven and reconciled? Of course not. It is a thorny issue for most people and how it is resolved will lead either to the cross or to legalism and moralism. Whether we like it or not, we will have to dive into some theology in order to get our heads (and hearts) straight about some key elements of our salvation.
The problem is not with the theology of justification (Jesus is my Saviour) and sanctification (Jesus is my Lord) but rather with our sinful minds and attitudes that pervert the gospel to fit our small thinking about God. In other words, this is something (like love) that you can only know once you experience it. All the dry theology in the world will not reveal it to you. Like a young man who has never been in love, there is no way to adequately explain it until you experience it for yourself. But still we will try.
To help us with this topic, we will enlist the knowledge of Professor Richard F. Lovelace and his book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life – An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (IVP, 1980).
He talks about two models of renewal. One cyclical (like the people described in the Book of Judges) and one continuous (like the early church). Continuous renewal is the goal. How do we achieve it?
There are some preconditions to continuous renewal such as knowing God and knowing ourselves. This has to do with a realistic view of the depth of sin, the effects of the flesh of others in influencing us (the world) and the awareness of spiritual warfare which is the context of our entire existence.
As an aside, I believe that the Biblical concept of sin is one of the greatest proofs for the truth of the Word of God. Getting this right is essential to renewal in the church. We cannot afford to ignore sin but must learn to deal with it in a Biblical way.
Then Professor Lovelace goes on to talk about the primary elements of continuous renewal having to do with the concepts of justification, sanctification, the indwelling Holy Spirit and our authority in spiritual conflict. In my opinion, this is the heart of the matter and it is where we will spend some significant time getting things right. Without getting this figured out and applying it every day, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the program looks like.
Most books, most pastors, most leaders focus on the next part which is the secondary elements in renewal. But doesn’t the title give things away? They are secondary, not primary. They are the result, not the cause. They are important, of course, but why do we all assume that the primary elements are all in place and that we have gotten that right? Couldn’t we rightly assume that if the church is not growing, if it is a shame-based culture, if prayer is absent, if politics are the curse of the day, then perhaps there might be something wrong with our understanding and application of the primary elements of renewal (as well as the preconditions for renewal)? I think so.
The problem is that in a shame-based culture nobody is going to take the risk of talking about the metrics, the measurement, the results of our ministry. We all just assume that everything is good, that we all have good intentions, and that all is forgiven. And the Devil laughs in our faces. How sad it is….
Just to state the secondary elements so that we know what we are talking about, Professor Lovelace mentions an orientation towad mission, dependent prayer, the community of believers, theological integration and disenculturation.
Don’t worry if you don’t get what all that means. You can always read the book later. It’s well worth it. For now, I would only make one comment. I’m not sure that all of those elements (or parts of those elements) are really secondary. Take dependent prayer for example. On the one hand, true prayer is based on an understanding of our authority in Christ but on the other hand, it is foundational to all other efforts in the list of secondary elements for continuous renewal. But that is a discussion for another day.
Talking about the primary elements of continous renewal in terms of justification, sanctification, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the authority we have in spiritual conflict, we also need to make a distinction between the first two and the second two. Without having a Biblical concept of justification and sanctification and the relationship between the two, we will not understand the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the power in spiritual authority that we have in Christ. This is where the Devil puts most of his effort to keep us deceived.
But more needs to be said. Are you saying that we need to have right theology in order to be saved? Yes, of course. Are you surprised? Not right theology about everything in the Bible but right theology, right understanding about some very basic things having to do with the person and work of Christ (the Atonement)? Most certainly. The Bible is clear that you need to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That is the basic confession of faith of every believer. It is what distinguishes cults from denominations, unbelievers from believers, true religion from false.
And it isn’t just about propositional knowledge either. It must go deeper and become relational knowledge. You must bet your life on that truth, everyday and in every way. Very much like falling in love with your husband or wife. When you get married, you are betting everything on your love for them and their love for you. You are building a life together, having children together, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death do you part. It’s the same (and more) with Christ. Of course.
But relational knowledge must also have propositional knowledge. There are truths about God and about Christ and what he did that must be believed in order for you to gain experiential knowledge. Just like marriage. You don’t meet a girl one day and then marry her the next. You get to know who she is first. You spend time together, learn to trust each other, discover love and desire and friendship and all of the beauty of a relationship that makes you one person out of two. It’s the same with God (and more).
So, yes, you have to get this right. And once again, the comparison with love between a man and a woman will help us keep it straight. It is a divine metaphor that God himself chooses over and over again in the Scriptures (with some differences) to teach us how to relate to Him and love Him as well.
Justification is what happens when the blood of Christ is applied to you personally and he becomes your substitute. You receive his righteousness and he receives your sin. Before God you are justified. Once and for all. Your sins are forgiven. When God looks at you, He sees Christ. When you finally stand before His judgment seat, it won’t be because of your performance, your ministry, your behaviour but about your relationship with Christ. Does he stand in your place or not? Do you believe that He will be there with you at the Judgment seat and he will speak to the Father on your behalf? If not, you are simply not justified, not saved.
Justification, therefore, is almost a legal term though it has profound relational overtones. In one sense, it happens in heaven. It is based on an agreement between the Father and the Son in which the blood of the Son is sufficient payment for your sins. You are justified not because of your works or because you have fully kept the laws of God, but because of Christ alone. He is your substitute. He kept the law for you. This is not performance-based but rather grace-based (undeserved favour). It is the foundation of our faith. If we get this wrong, all is lost.
Sanctification (often called progressive sanctification) is what happens next. This is where things get tricky for many people. Although justification is grace-based, they are convinced that sanctification is performance-based. Some even suggest (from a misreading of certain passages in the Book of Hebrews) that we can lose our salvation if our sanctification is not up to par. In effect, that makes justification performance-based as well. And that is unacceptable. But more needs to be said.
Professor Lovelace calls it the “Sanctification Gap” and describes the history of the church, its revivals and periods of deadness largely in terms of how leaders have tried to understand the difference between justification and sanctification in terms of our Christian experience. Calling it “progressive” sanctification seems a natural thing to do since none of us become perfectly holy the moment we are justified. On the other hand, we all know that we will be “presented without spot or blemish before the throne of God” on the last day (Jude 24) and that Jesus, himself, is the “author and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). So progressive sanctification is, obviously, a Biblical concept.
Still, we are often plagued with a “credibility gap” in the lives of Christians. They claim to have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit because they have been justified by the blood of the lamb but their lives simply don’t show it. There isn’t much difference between a fine, upstanding, moral Christian and a fine, upstanding moral non-Christian. Christians lack credibility in their lives because they do not understand the difference between justification and sanctification. They are forgetting what comes in-between…
If justification is what happens before the throne of God, what is it that actually happens to us? Are we different? Is there something that changes in us? Yes, of course. The Bible calls it “regeneration.” Because we are justified before God right now and for all eternity, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is only able to live in us continually, permanently, because we are justified by the blood of Christ and therefore perfect in God’s sight.
Leaving aside the issue of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues and so on, let’s just talk about the “presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It changes us on a fundamental level. We become a “new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17) Paul tells us that, “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13b NIV).
I often tell people, the Holy Spirit is not going to Hell. If he did, hell would become heaven. You are stuck with him so you have to go to Heaven. Period. The question is, how do you know that you have the Holy Spirit? How do you know whether or not you really believe? That came first before you got the Holy Spirit but that isn’t a performance-based behaviour, it is simply experiential. Did you receive the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8) or not? Do you believe that God is there? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and that he is offering his righteousness in exchange for your sins? Do you understand that Jesus is offering you a new relationship with God that will radically change everything in your life (much like having a child or getting married)? Do you accept that you are being “bought with a price” and that you now, freely give yourself as a “bondservant” to Christ and will follow him and serve him for the rest of your life? All of that is included in the word “believe.” Obviously. That’s the way love works. That’s what marriage is. A giving of yourself to the other wholly and completely in such a way that it will change your life forever.
I always remember the movie “Knotting Hill” with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. She is a famous actress prone to bad relationships and he is a simple bookstore owner in Knotting Hill and they fall in love. At one point, she stands before him and tells him, “I am just a girl, standing before a boy, and telling him that I love him” (or something like that). Forget about fame. Forget about the press. Forget about the hurts of the past and the problems of the future. It’s just about one person standing in front of another and saying I love you.
At the moment, Hugh Grant could not say anything. He had no reply. She had hurt him deeply once already and, as he said, “I’m not sure my heart can take the risk of being hurt like that again.” When he tells his friends what had happened, they all consider him “daft” (it’s an English movie) and he realizes his mistake and runs off to find her and tell her how stupid he’s been and ask her to take him back and not leave. All of that happens in the middle of a press conference.
And what was her response? She smiles. (Her smile is famous). Her answer is written all over her face. Love requires a response. It is optional. It is voluntary, but for love to flourish, for love to transform relationships, it must be responded to, there must be belief, acceptance, faith, trust. These are not behaviors or performance. It’s just love responding to love. It’s natural.
Now, the Bible says that we are so dead in our trespasses and sin and we don’t trust God, nor believe in him, nor love him, that it is only when God initiates, when God invades our lives, when the Holy Spirit not only convicts us of sin but also convinces us of his love and offer of grace, that we can respond to his overtures of love.
This is true whether you are a Calvinist or an Armenian, whether you believe that you are predestined, elected, chosen or whether you believe that you also choose, decide, respond. There in that grey area between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, there is a place where we must respond. The Bible is clear about that. Love must respond to love for reconciliation to happen. That we have help by the grace of God, is a given. How much help no one is entirely sure. That he needs to open our eyes to see, to have faith, to trust the offer of grace, is a given. Still, with or without help, a little or a lot, we must respond by believing and acting on that belief. That is not performance but rather love, pure and simple. If you don’t see it that way and you take it as an obligation, then love is absent and you shouldn’t get married, have a child, or follow Christ. We all know that.
But still the question remains. How do you know that you truly believe? In the face of a pending marriage, we ask the same question. How do I know that I am truly in love with this person? There needs to be some evidence.
The question is whether or not you know what to look for.
Without true belief, sincerity of heart, honest confession and a real desire for a new relationship with God, you will not receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of your new creation relationship with God. God is not a fool after all. It must be real and sincere and not just religion, or social pressure, or just for some eternal benefit, a get-out-of-hell free card. And the same is true when people fall in love, or not. Sure in Hollywood there is always a “happy-ever-after” ending. In life, too. Sometimes.
People get married for a lot of reasons. Loneliness. Desperation. Social standing. Desire. Family pressure. Children… and the list goes on. There might be some fondness, some desire, some form of “love” even. But when the going gets tough, when sickness raises it’s ugly head, when financial difficulties hit the family budget, when another woman (or man) pays more attention to you than your wife (who is busy with the children and managing the household), when you are sick at heart about life and have no other comfort than sensuality and false intimacy, then you will know whether or not love is at the heart of your relationship with your spouse. You may discover that you don’t have enough love to overcome your own selfishness and sin. Do not lose heart. God will give it to you, train you in it, increase it if you follow him. But you have to start with the awareness that, by yourself, you simply don’t have it in you. Some? Yes. Enough? No.
And there is no point in saying that you loved her once but not anymore. That is more a reflection of the weakness of your love and self-deception than anything else. If you are truly in love, you will continue to show acts of love throughout your life because love is not performance-based, it is grace-based. It is not based on the worthiness of the other, the benefits received, or the value of the relationship. Love is a virtue. It is about who you are. It is the mystery of the ages. It just is. Like God. You can’t throw it away. It is shared life. It is one-ness. You are or you are not in love. You either have it or you don’t. You will or you won’t act accordingly. Period.
Most marriages fall apart. Most people who call themselves Christians, simply aren’t. They deceive themselves. Love not only expects love in return, it expects love to continue.
God is love. His love is not performance-based, it is based on His character. Because He is love, He loves. He still expects love in return (because that is what love is and how love is experienced in the Godhead) but we are fallen, depraved, rebellious creatures of the dust who have lost all desire for God and no longer have a clue how to love the Divine.
The Bible tells us that God sees us as old, wizened prostitutes who have sold our souls, and our love, for trinkets and need to be taught the ways of love once more. Jesus, as the bridegroom, invades our lives and begins to teach us on an ongoing basis what it means to love Him again.
We need to learn to stop our adulterous behaviour, selling our intimacy for pennies on the dollar, stop our prostitution with other idols, other lovers, and learn to love God again. That is progressive sanctification and it starts with the humble and daily acknowledgment that we desperately need his help to learn to love Him again. And he glories in teaching us the ways of love, the way of the cross.
So, don’t be surprised that there are so many marriages that fall apart, so many people who are more religious than spiritual, so many people calling themselves Christians who aren’t even in the ballpark. Jesus told us that “the gate is narrow and the way hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13 NIV). Just like marriage. Love may be a scarce commodity but God is willing to help.
But how can you tell the difference? How do you know you truly believe?
You need to look for evidence. Just like in marriage. Where is the evidence of a marriage truly based on love? It’s usually rather obvious. That’s not to say that they don’t have problems, but the best evidence is in how they handle their problems. The presence of God in marriage is also important especially in terms of healing relationships through the power of forgiveness based on the cross but that is a topic for another day.
Today we are making the claim that there is evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. That is not a new concept. The Puritans (and somewhat also the Pietists) developed this concept quite a bit but, even then, it got perverted by legalism and moralism. The Devil isn’t stupid after all.
Still, the evidence of the Holy Spirit, when it is understood in relational terms and in the context of the Way of the Cross, in terms of confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation (all relational terms) can provide some guidance. The thing to remember is that these things are all relational and therefore the natural consequence of a love relationship. That is not a performance-based concept but rather a grace-based or love-based concept. That difference makes all the difference in the world.
And we have all experienced that difference.
In every marriage, even with our children, if an expectation of love is turned into an obligation, it ruins the relationship. It must be freely given, it must be freely taken. That is why God is so patient with us, teaching us the ways of love in this dark and difficult world.
His agenda is not to keep us comfortable but rather to use the difficult situations of life and ministry to teach us how to love Him more every day. To become like Jesus who loved his Father unto death. He hungered and thirsted to do his will, to please him in all things. We must learn to do the same. The way is not easy but he has gone before us. So we know the way.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, I am not very good at loving you. I admit it. I only know that I want to. The path scares me a bit but I will walk in it if you will be my guide. Lord, help me to love you and teach others to love you with my example and my words. In your name I pray. Amen.