Published on April 19th, 2014 | by Millennium Magazine Staff0
Dying and Rising With Christ
Written by Mike Feazell:
“OK, I see that salvation is accomplished by God from start to finish and not by me, but I’d still like to know more about how we should live. I’ve heard people talking about `spiritual disciplines.’ What are spiritual disciplines?”
The word discipline comes from the word disciple or student. Disciplines, in this context, are things students can do that help them follow their master. The spiritual disciplines that Christians use are practices that Christ used and that his followers can use to help them remain close to God and in tune with the faithful witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They include such activities as prayer, Bible time, meditation, simplicity, confession, fasting, celebration, service and others.
Not a way of earning grace
One thing we have to be careful about is allowing spiritual disciplines to become another burden of legalism. They can very easily turn into another “measuring rod” of supposed righteousness and ruin the whole purpose of using them.
The Holy Spirit, remember, is at work in us to fashion us into the image of Christ. When we are “listening” to the silent inner witness of the Spirit, even though we may endure great suffering, we sense the peace of Christ’s love. When we are ignoring or resisting the Spirit, we tend to feel like we are on our own, and we feel plagued with anxiety, fear and worry.
Either way, God still loves us, we are still saved, and we are no less his beloved children in Christ. The only difference is our ability to believe it, sense it and enjoy it. If we allow our practice of spiritual disciplines to become a special set of rules for the truly faithful, or to fill us with pride, or to make us feel we are worthy of salvation because of our faithfulness, then they have become another poison to us.
The spiritual disciplines are ways we can stay in harmony with the Spirit, so that we can more consistently experience the joy and peace of our true condition in Christ, even though outwardly we may be experiencing a grievous trial. The disciplines do not produce the condition of salvation—Christ did that; they simply help us “hear” God’s voice of redemption and grace. They are practices that help us more consistently sense the truth that we are secure in God’s love.
Let’s look more closely at three of them.
Spending time in the Bible
We can stay in closer harmony with the Holy Spirit by spending time in the Bible. Please note that I purposely did not say, “through Bible study.” The word study carries so much unpleasant baggage from school days that it ruins the whole idea of just “hanging out” with a loving God. Study is associated with pressure, pressure to perform, pressure to succeed, pressure to “make it.” So let’s talk instead about simply spending time in the Bible as a way of staying in harmony with the Holy Spirit.
Regular Bible reading keeps us from forgetting the truth about who God is and how much he loves us. It reminds us that God is always present and always faithful, even during times of pain, fear and tragedy. It keeps us from the fear that God is angry with us or has rejected us. And it increases our courage in the fight against sin, by reminding us that God has already forgiven and cleansed us for the sake of Christ. By refreshing our thoughts and emotions with the ever-fresh winds of God’s Word of grace and faithfulness, Bible reading gives the Spirit “room to work” in our spiritually defective hearts.
Pray without ceasing
Another way we can stay in closer harmony with the Spirit is through prayer. Paul wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). He didn’t mean, of course, that we are to do nothing else besides pray. He meant that prayer should become a regular and normal part of our daily living.
Regular prayer helps keep us in the right configuration with God—that of humility and gratefulness. When we pray, we are making our petitions to one who is greater than we are, which is an act of submission and humility. In prayer, we realize that we do not hold our lives in our own hands, but that we are dependent on a loving, faithful, present and powerful Someone who does hold us securely in his.
Prayer is also a way of being personally and thankfully involved with God’s will. It is God’s invitation for us to personally participate in the growth and influence of his kingdom—in our own lives, in our families, in the church and in the world.
If prayer is hard for you, don’t let that stop you. Just talk to God about anything at all. Whatever is on your mind, no matter what it is, is a good topic for prayer. God knows our hearts, anyway, so it isn’t like we’re going to shock him or surprise him. Don’t worry that what you say might not be just right. God can handle it. Some of the Psalms are shocking requests for God to smash and bash the Psalmist’s enemies. They are honest prayers about real feelings, even though those feelings are not perfect.
If there is a problem with your feelings and attitudes, God still enjoys being with you in prayer, and he will work with you from the inside out to heal that inner turmoil. In other words, you don’t have to wait until you can put on a happy, mature or wise face to begin praying. Just tell God honestly how you are really feeling and what you really think. It is often through the very process of praying that God helps us grow in our attitudes or maturity.
When our children talk to us, they say all kinds of things. Sometimes what they say is sweet and good. Sometimes what they say is mean and cruel and selfish. Sometimes they make good sense; sometimes they make no sense at all. Regardless of what they say, we are glad they are talking to us, because through such communication our relationship with them is developed. How sad it would be if our children never spoke to us at all.
God knows your problems and sins. He knows your strengths, and he knows your weaknesses. What he wants most of all is simply you. He wants to be with you, spend time with you. He is always available to you, ready to listen, ready to enjoy you for who he has made you to be in Christ.
Everything good and pure and loving you always wished you had been, but always failed to live up to, is exactly, only more so, what he has made you in Christ. Trust him. He is ready to hear absolutely anything you want to talk about. The main thing is to start praying. As you mature in Christ your prayers may become more mature. But let that happen on its own, in its own time. Just start praying.
Another way we can stay in closer harmony with the Spirit is by practicing simplicity in our lives. Here are some ways we can do that:
By giving up the need to have the last word.
By giving up the need to be first.
By giving up the need to be noticed.
By giving up the need to have more.
By giving up the need to be important.
By giving up the need to have our own way.
Bible time and prayer can reinforce our efforts to practice simplicity by making us more familiar and comfortable with the values of the kingdom of God. As we become more secure in trusting God with our care, the less of a burning need we will feel to have to fight to achieve the empty substitutes for security that the world offers.
The practice of spiritual disciplines such as Bible time, prayer and simplicity is a way of helping us remain attentive to the Spirit. Activities such as these help us value the things that matter in kingdom life, instead of the things that matter in the world’s life. They help us remain in harmony with the life of the Spirit and God’s will for our lives. And they reduce the fear, anxiety and strife that characterize life outside the kingdom of God. (A good resource for learning more about spiritual disciplines is Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, published by HarperSanFrancisco.)
Union and communion with God
Now let’s take a closer look at our relationship with God and with one another. In Christ, we enjoy continual fellowship with God. We don’t have to let our personal battles with sin cloud the truth: we are God’s beloved children because Jesus saves sinners—not because we are worthy.
We can stop worrying about whether we will “make it.” We already have—not because we “came through,” but because God had pity on us. When we fail, we don’t have to fear God has left us. He never will. We can trust God: He loves us and is at work in us. He never gives up.
You see, Jesus is our righteousness. Through faith in him, our sins are forgiven, because in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone, God and humanity are one—reconciled. We are sinless because we stand in Christ. We stand in Christ through faith, through trusting the Word of God that God is who he says he is and has done what he says he has done, which is to forgive our sins and reconcile us to himself though Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, then, we are sinless. It is true because God has made it true through Christ. He did it because he wanted to. He loves us because he wants to. He is free to be who he wants to be, and he has freely chosen to be the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ the God/man, not a mix of God and man, but wholly God and wholly man, yet one perfect Person.
In Christ and only in Christ is humanity, including you and me and Aunt Gertie, held safe in God. God holds us sinless in Christ. We overcome not by our own good acts or by our own avoidance of bad acts but “by the blood of the Lamb” (1 John 4:7; Revelation 12:11). Our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s, given to us in Christ, the sinless Human who is also God, by God’s grace, and received by us through faith in him. Paul calls this a mystery that God has revealed to us according to his own good pleasure (Ephesians 1:7-10).
The sinlessness we demonstrate, which is real sinlessness indeed, is definitely not our own personal sinlessness, but the sinlessness of Christ, which we have because and only because God is free to take up humanity into himself through Christ. In Christ, God has given Christ’s sinlessness to those who put their trust in him.
Maybe you could say it much more simply, but at least you get the point we’re driving at: It is all by the grace of a God who is so in control of all things that he, by his own free choice, took us up into his own life by becoming human for us in Christ, and in Christ’s own human death he took up our imperfection in himself and rendered it nullified.
More than that, in Christ’s own human resurrection he became glorified for us—glorified, understand, as a human—so that we humans can live eternally in Christ with God as his own redeemed, perfect and glorified children.
We have eternal life through faith in Christ, not through measuring up. Our commitment to treating other people like they matter to God (which is another way of saying “walk in love as Christ has loved us”) is the natural (natural in Christ, that is) and grateful response to finding out who God is and what he has given for us.
When we understand that God has taken humanity into himself as part and parcel with himself (without diminishing in any way his deity) through his gracious work in Jesus Christ, then we cannot help but see every fellow human being in a fresh light.
In other words, we strive to be with others like Christ is with them, which is just how he is also with us—forgiving, patient, gentle, kindhearted, humble, loving, taking their abuse, and being joyfully at peace with them because our faith rests not in this world, but in God, whom we trust to take care of us even if we are taken advantage of and made suckers of in this life.
And even when we fail in our strivings, we trust in his perfect righteousness and grace, in which we stand clean and forgiven, redeemed and justified, perfect and holy before God, who is our loving and merciful Father precisely because he is the Father of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our life.
Sinners and saints all
To put it simply: we are at the same time, saints and sinners, righteous and unrighteous, holy and ungodly. In other words, we are dead in our sins, yet, at the same time, because we are dead in the death of Christ who died for us, we are also alive in the resurrection of Christ who was raised for us.
To say it another way, we are dead with Christ, that is, sharing in his death, which is where our sins are held forgiven, and, at the same time, we are also alive with Christ, that is, sharing in his life, which is where we ourselves are held redeemed, that is, holy, righteous and blameless with Christ in God.
In the gospel, we are asked to believe that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our eternal life (Romans 5:8-11). That is, we are asked to believe that our sins are removed through his death, and that we are clothed with righteousness through his resurrection.
We are asked to join Christ in his death, that is, to die to our lives as we know them, and to join Christ in his resurrection life, that is, to live with him in the presence of God (Romans 6:1-14).
This can be done only by faith in Christ. We can only trust God that it is so. We cannot make it happen. We have no ground on which to demand anything. We have nothing to bargain with, and we cannot even bluff, because he can see right through us. Either it is so, or it is not. Whether it is so is not up to us. Our only choice is either to believe it, or not to believe it.
There is no tangible evidence of it. The only evidence is the evidence of faith (Hebrews 11:1). If we trust in the evidence of our improved behavior, we are leaning on a broken cane. If we give up trusting because of our bad behavior, we are missing the whole point. God has decided to save sinners, “of whom I am chief,” says Paul, speaking for us all (1 Timothy 1:15).
God does not save righteous people. He only saves sinners who trust him. That is the only way you can be counted among the saved: by facing the truth that you are a sinner, no better than any sinner, and trusting God to save you, simply because he said so.
Alive in Christ
You cannot be saved by being good. You cannot be saved by avoiding being bad. You cannot be saved by being more good than bad. You cannot be saved by anything you do at all. You are saved only one way, by God’s grace, and the only way you can enter and enjoy that salvation is by taking God at his word, by faith, by believing the good news.
“But don’t I have to be good?” you cannot help but ask again. Not to be saved, you don’t. If you did, salvation would not be by grace, would it? And the truth is … you can’t be that good. You never have been, and you never will be. Either you rest eternally in the kingdom of God for no other reason than that you are a beloved crony of the Son of God, or you will not rest at all; there is no other rest in the universe.
“But what about the admonitions in the New Testament to do right things?” you cannot help but ask again.
What about them?
“Come on, Mike. You know what I mean. Don’t they tell us we won’t be in the kingdom unless we do them?”
No, they don’t. They are, like you said, admonitions, not conditions for entering the kingdom of God. They are descriptions of the new life, the kingdom life, which God has freely opened to us and in which the Spirit leads us to walk.
“But it says in Galatians 5:19-21 that people who practice the works of the flesh “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
And it means what it says. Paul is drawing a distinction between those who belong to Christ and are led by the Spirit and those who belong to the flesh and are led by it. Those who are in Christ live by faith (Galatians 3:11) that God’s word for them is true—that their sins are forgiven and that they are accounted righteous in Christ (Romans 4:5-8).
That means at least two things: 1) By faith they have been transformed into the kind of people who have made Jesus Christ the central authority figure in their lives, and 2) They are not afraid to face and confess their sins before God, because they trust him for his mercy in forgiving sin, for his breaking of sin’s seductive power, and for his healing of sin’s destructive effects. Therefore, by faith, we are people who give our allegiance to Christ, who reap the harvest of the Spirit, not people who give allegiance to the works of the flesh.
Christ is the righteous one, and we are one with Christ in God through faith, certainly not through our behavior. If we were one with Christ through our actual behavior, we would not need forgiveness of sin, would we? Believe it or not, we are sinners, regardless of how hard we try to obey. And don’t throw up the old “we should at least strive” smokescreen. Striving is not a condition for salvation; utter, absolute perfection is, and we have that perfection in Christ and in him alone, not in ourselves.
The Spirit leads us to strive against sin for righteousness. But we are saved by Jesus Christ, not by the level of our success in this very real struggle. That is why the gospel is good news. We were once sinners facing death without hope. But now Christ has shown us that he saves sinners out of death and gives them eternal life.
When we stop chasing happiness, security and personal fulfillment in the tired old futile ways rebellious humanity has always chased them and put our trust in Christ, we enter a new life, a new creation, in him. We become what he has made us, beloved children of God; we do not remain in that new creation the pitiful losers we have made ourselves.
It is very good news.