I remember coming out of seminary and thinking about a few things. I know that sounds funny. You’re probably thinking, duh, you should be thinking. Over the years since I graduated from seminary, I’ve actually read the Bible more than I did while in seminary. Let me refine that. It’s not that I didn’t read the Bible during seminary but Bible reading in seminary, for me, was an academic exercise. I was studying the Bible, not absorbing it, not digging in, not spending a lot of time meditating on the whole of Holy Scripture.
I came out of seminary understanding what hermeneutics was and being able to tear verses apart word by word…and missing the forest for the trees. I fear that scholasticism has not done us any favors in Christianity, at least not in a tangible, lived reality kind of way. I’ve said this a lot recently, but I feel like modern Christianity is much less biblical and holistic in its approach than our forebears. Rather, modern Christianity is a direct product (I believe) of a rationalism that has emerged since the Enlightenment.
Let me dial this in a little. I want to specifically talk about salvation. I’m going to critique the position that I once held. I was taught and came to learn that salvation was, largely, a forensic thing. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The picture of salvation that was painted for me was that of a courtroom where God was the judge and I was the defendant. Evidence was presented in this heavenly courtroom of my sinfulness. All my past misdeeds were trotted out and placed on gruesome display for all to be shocked at the hideous filthiness of my actions. In the closing arguments, the prosecutor (who signified Christ) would stand up and say to the Judge, “He is guilty. But don’t punish him. Punish me. I have taken his punishment.” He atoned for my sin. Sound familiar?
Or another picture painted for me was that, because of my sin, a debt was owed to God as the Judge. It was a debt that I could not possibly pay. There was such a stark difference between the holiness demanded by God and my sinfulness that I would never be able to pay that debt. So, Christ paid my debt. He propitiated on my behalf. Sound familiar?
Our sins have been forgiven. After all, the Apostle Paul tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). If we have been forgiven by our faith in Christ, we get to go to heaven when we die. Sound familiar?
By the way, all those things are true. Our sins have been atoned for. Yes. Our debt has been paid. Yes. Our sins have been forgiven. Yes. When we die, if we have been forgiven and our faith placed in Christ, we get to go to heaven. Well…sort of.
All those things are true.
I want to suggest to you that our view (mostly Protestant and most modern Catholics) of salvation is so shallow, narrow and truncated that we have failed to grasp what is going on when we say salvation. I want to suggest to you that a patristic and biblical view is much more than merely forensic justification.
Go back to the beginning. In the beginning, God created the human race. Life as we know it began in the Garden with a man and a woman joined to their Creator and each other in an intimate union and perfect harmony. They were living in a state of perfection, unashamed to be who God made them to be, walking in the cool of evening in fellowship with their Maker. All their needs supplied. All was as it should have been. Then they sinned. The union was broken.
Then God made a covenant with Abram. Let’s think for a second about what a covenant is. A covenant is a union of two parties for a specific purpose. Look at Genesis 12, 15 and 17. Look at the language used there, specifically in Genesis 17. God makes a promise to Abraham. He says that He will be God to Abraham and his offspring. Abraham, in return, was to be faithful to God. Notice that it is God who initiates, and Abraham is to be faithful in response.
Over and over throughout the Old Testament, the reason that God gives for punishing His people is unfaithfulness. Some examples:
Psalm 78:10-11, 40-42, 56-57, 59-62 (the psalmist says God left where He dwelt among His people, which we will come back to)
2 Kings 17:7-8
The book of Amos
The book of Hosea (we’ll come back to this one as well)
The covenantal language used here, and the violation thereof are indicative of infidelity. In fact, pretty much the entire book of the prophet Hosea is an object lesson of the infidelity of God’s people. There is really graphic language used in Hosea. The Hebrew root ‘zanah’ is used 14 times in Hosea and has strong sexual undertones. It means “to commit fornication, to be a harlot.” This is how God viewed the idolatry of His people; as marital infidelity. God, who had condescended to His people to dwell among them (Lev. 26:12, Exodus 25:8), Who had made an intimate covenant with His people to stand forever, had “wedded” Himself to a people who were unfaithful. God was faithful, His people were not.
It is in this context that we turn now to the New Testament. Repeatedly, Christ calls people to, yes repent, but also to be in relationship with Him. He says, for example, in John 14, that He will “take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.” He says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.“ We will make our home with him. Intimate language of union.
St. Paul picks up on this intimate language. He uses, for example, the words “in Christ” or “in Him” repeatedly. In the New Testament, this phrase is used 70 times. St. Paul links the marriage of a man and woman with the love of Christ and His Church on more than one occasion, clearly picking up on this intimate covenantal/union understanding of how God loves His people.
At the end of our corpus of Holy Scripture, the vision of St. John paints another picture for us. He paints a picture of a banquet, the great marriage supper of the Lamb where the Bridegroom and His Bride are joined together in perfect union again.
This, brothers and sisters, is salvation. We are joined in intimate union with Christ, the God-man, the Second Person of the Trinity. This is the restoration of the people of God to the union of the covenant He has promised. Yes, our sins are forgiven, propitiated, expiated and all those other fancy theological words. All those are true.
But the ultimate joy and aim of salvation is the restoration of the union of God with His greatest creation, the human race. Those who are in Christ as part of the Bride, His Church, will know this renewed intimacy. Just as the Holy Trinity exists in perfect union, so the Bride is drawn into perfect union with her Bridegroom.
Oh, what joy! What manner of love has been bestowed on us! Let us, like the Apostle Paul, cry out,
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Glory to Jesus Christ!
In my last post, I talked about a discovery I made as I began to search for the apostolic Church. I discovered that the lived reality of the Christian faith was vastly different in the modern world than in antiquity. That ancient faith produced some of the most brilliant sermons and exegetical work in the history of Christianity, as well as more martyrs than we even know. Countless men and women gave their lives for Christ in the early centuries of the Church. Most of those martyrs were not intellectuals and academics. Most of them probably couldn’t define the hypostatic union or define theosis but they had a lived reality of the Faith that we seem to lack in the modern world.
So, I began to wonder why their lives were so different, their faith so vital and sincere. For help, I think we only need turn to Holy Scripture. The words of our Lord Jesus are vastly helpful, as well as how He lived while on earth. St. Paul is also critical in explaining all this as well. I’ve had this bouncing around in my head and heart for awhile and wanted to share with you all.
When we read St. Paul’s epistles and examine his life, we see one thing that jumps off the pages of Holy Scripture. St. Paul lived the Christian life with a vigor and passion that most of us do not possess. We see in his writings and life a consistent message that I want us to consider. I want to consider the Christian life through three lenses:
I know, they all three start with a C. It’s my Protestant roots showing with the alliteration. We see, in the life of St. Paul, and if we are Christians, conversion through encounter. Specifically, St. Paul encounters the risen Christ. We find his story in the Acts of the Apostles 9:1-19. For the sake of what I’m trying to say I want to point out a couple of things. Saul (who became known by his Roman name of Paul), didn’t pray a special prayer. He didn’t “invite Jesus into his heart.” He was confronted by the living Christ, fell on his face, and said, “Lord, what will thou have me to do?”
Christ is Lord, whether you believe it or not. He doesn’t need you to “invite Him to be your Lord and Savior.” He already is. Our conversion means we submit to that objective reality. All authority has been given Him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He doesn’t need your permission. By the way, nowhere in the entirety of Holy Scripture is the notion of “inviting Jesus into your heart” found. It is an entirely made up construct from the 19th century.
Conversion is something that is done, not just a set of principles you assent to. It is not a system of belief, but a new way of life. It is a continual, life-long process. It is not simply a decision (even though that’s part of it) but an embrace of Another and togetherness with Christ. It is, in fact, the death of one person and the birth of an entirely new person. St. Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 5:17,
“So then if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things passed-away; behold, new things have come-into-being.”
St. Paul says you are literally a new creation, echoing the words of our Lord Jesus that “you must be born again.” (John 3:3) Again, St. Paul says the lived reality of the Christian life is that our old man has died, that we have been crucified with Christ. In Galatians 2:19-20, the Apostle tells us,
“For through the Law I died to the Law in order that I might live to God. I have been crucified-with Christ! And I no longer am living, but Christ is living in me. And what I am now living in the flesh, I am living by faith in the Son of God— the One having loved me and handed Himself over for me.”
It is no longer I who am living but Christ (by the Spirit) lives in me. This is conversion. We turn from our past and the disease of sin (we die to self) and we turn toward our life in Christ and become united to Him. And the promise of Christ to those who do so we find in John 14:23,
“Jesus answered, and said to him: If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him.”
The Father and the Son will come to those who are converted, by the Spirit, and make Their home with us, in us. The Blessed Trinity will live in and through us; They will commune with us. Which brings us to our second lens, communion.
Prayer is the lifeblood, the center of the Christian’s daily life. St. Paul reminds us that we are to,
“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17)
On the surface, this seems rather hard to do and frankly a silly thing to say. How, precisely, are we to pray without ceasing? We have to work and eat and sleep and spend time with our families. We can’t all be monks and just pray all the time. One practice that has been handed down in the Orthodox Church is what has become known as “The Jesus Prayer,” taken from the parable of the Pharisee and Publican in St. Luke’s gospel. We find it in Luke 18:10-15. The publican prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This forms the basis of The Jesus Prayer, which simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There is a lot of theology packed into that prayer which I won’t take the time to unpack right now. The point is that this prayer, repeated over and over, gives us an idea of the Orthodox way of prayer and a model for praying without ceasing. While the value of physically speaking the words is incalculable, the point is not to just mindlessly repeat words as if they were some sort of magical incantation. The point is the attitude of the heart. First, for our hearts to be properly humble before our Lord Jesus and secondly, for this to be the continual and communal cry and posture of our heart; to pray without ceasing. And when we no longer know what to say, we have the comfort of the promise of Romans 8:26-27,
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. What sweet comfort! What hope! What a promise!
And so, what is the point? Conversion, communion with and in Christ…for what purpose? Other than the tremendous promises and the realities we have already seen, what is the purpose of our union with Christ?
Some reading this will immediately push back, especially if you are from the West. We don’t like conformity. But this is a good kind of conformity. This is conformity to the perfection of humanity. This is the realization of the return to the perfection of the Garden of Eden, when our first parents walked in the cool of the day with their Creator, in perfect harmony with God and His world. This is what it means to be truly and finally human.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28-29)
For those called according to His purpose. What is His purpose? That we are to be conformed to the image of the Son. Oh, brothers and sisters! Do you see?! This, then, is the lived reality of the Christian life! This is so much better than mere mental assent, so much more than being “good.” We get to be conformed to the image of the second Person of the Holy Trinity, to become like the One in Whom we are. He is the firstborn among many brethren.
Our promise of the lived reality of the Christian life is that we will be like Him. We will be like Christ!
Glory to Jesus Christ!