Q&A: Spiritual Essentials

All that goes into making a healthy and vibrant spiritual life is inexpressible, especially considering God’s agency in it all. Yet there are plausible essentials, as there are essentials that have made your faith what it is today.

If you had to suggest one spiritual essential to a new convert, what would it be and why?

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This Faith is Not for Wimps

CC BY, Stephen A. Wolfe, Flickr

CC BY, Stephen A. Wolfe, Flickr

I consider myself a city boy provided that you understand “city” in my history is originally Nowhereville, USA. So it’s a choice kinda thing. I enjoy studying cities and I like city life and have been privileged to visit some pretty big ones—the biggest, in fact, which is a true marvel.

Yet I feel more at home in the outdoors. I love nature. Words like rustic, sylvan, and bucolic stir me in ways the words modern, skyscraper, and metro never do.

Being sent outdoors as a kid was not a punishment. Later I would work and participate at several camps and a few jobs that were pretty hands-on. I’ve always admired the manual life, although I am regrettably not the son bitten by that bug. (My mom is a seamstress, so I could’ve been a tailor by now.) I’ve said 101 times that the person who can work with his or her hands will survive much easier should the world go belly-up tomorrow.

Compete to Win

As I’ve grown older, I’ve increasingly desired the physical, outdoorsy life. I envy those who grew up on farms, ranchers, and just the skilled laborer. I’m sure they have much to share to slap me back into my reality, still…

The physical, labor-intensive life is to me a fitting metaphor for the character of the spiritual life. Our faith certainly creates a refined product, but the nature of the tool is duly rugged.

I discover this truth all through Scripture: in the agonized prayer of Hannah crying out to God for a son; in the Psalms’ tightly framed shots of human emotional investment made in worship; in the implications of scripture, like grief as a spiritual act of sowing.

I notice it in Jesus’s bold yet nimble teachings to go the extra mile and love the vilest; to “have faith” in an ardent way; to know that if the kingdom will be had, it will be found; to remember that the way up is down; and to make sure we count the high cost of serving him.

Do you see it? Do you notice how tough and gritty, coarse and earthy this life of faith is? Every Christian will surely taste his own sweat and feel the grain in his mouth.

Works in Progress

Tools for cutting and refinement are necessarily sturdy. Wood isn’t going to carve wood, is it? Clay won’t shape clay. They need a sharper and more durable tool to give them form.

The faith God has given us is definitely durable and sharp enough—in his hands and in our spiritual practice—to whittle away at our knarls, imperfections, and stony hearts until we become works of beauty, transformed by his grace. It turns Jacobs into Israels and makes Peters out of Simons.

BUT… “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). This isn’t for cowards. It takes dexterity and resolve to apprentice this carpenter.

The Deceit of Riches

CC BY, MS Images

CC BY, MS Images

Have we not all at some point envied wealthy persons, their lives or possessions? I know I have. Everyone desires a comfortable life, and the more comfort always seems the better.

Now it doesn’t take a change in status to be comfortable. People who, in the eyes of the government, live at the poverty level can and do live comfortably because how one manages their income matters greatly. Unfortunately, poverty stigmatizes people as lacking restraint, but that’s not necessarily true.

The bottom line about true wealth and poverty has nothing to do with dollars and cents. Instead, it has everything to do with inner happiness.

Dangerous Idealism

Humans have a tendency to romanticize wealth. And let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with being rich. The scripture nowhere condemns it. Everyone has a responsibility to work and wealth is a possibility for all.

I must be careful here lest I paint a stereotype about wealthy people; and I do not wish to spurn them or their wealth. But I do intend to express how often erroneous is our conjecture about riches and rich people.

If only at the nether reaches of our minds, we sometimes think people with lots of money…

  • Need nothing
  • Experience no hardship
  • Possess the power to do as they please
  • Deserve recognition and honor
  • Know more than less wealthy individuals
  • Are people of integrity

That is how television often portrays the wealthy—right before you see that they deal with the same life issues common folk deal with. And you notice how their wealth and power influences their choices and decisions, not unlike how poverty affects the choices and decisions of others. The test of struggle is to survive its dearth; however, the test of prosperity is to survive its flood.

Asaph’s Portrait

America has increasingly become a society of people chasing after riches. But many people are only discovering disappointment when they find them. It’s not because they don’t enjoy the many ways money makes their lives easier; instead, it’s because they realize how it makes their lives harder.

I can never escape Asaph on this topic. He paints a lucid picture of impious wealthy people who do not realize the toll they’ve allowed their wealth to take on their hearts.

“For they seem to live carefree lives, free of suffering; their bodies are strong and healthy.  They don’t know trouble as we do; they are not plagued with problems as the rest of us are.  They’ve got pearls of pride strung around their necks; they clothe their bodies with violence. They have so much more than enough. Their eyes bulge because they are so fat with possessions. They have more than their hearts could have ever imagined. There is nothing sacred, and no one is safe. Vicious sarcasm drips from their lips; they bully and threaten to crush their enemies. They even mock God as if He were not above; their arrogant tongues boast throughout the earth; they feel invincible” (Psalm 73:4-9, VOICE).

Asaph describes people who having trusted their wealth don’t notice the side effects of doing so. They never realized how their privilege allowed all their desires and inhibitions to surface and take control of their lives. (Again, I do not generalize.)

What we often don’t see with these folk are the effects of vice on their hearts. Plastered smiles and a pompous glow only go so far before the pain of inner distress and sadness causes you to buckle.

You may have heard the stories of those who evangelize or make prayer visits to astute communities; they sound much like the stories told of those on the other side of the tracks, sometimes worse. We don’t readily assume that wealthy people are hungry, violently abused, bound in addiction, drowning in debt, or suicidal, yet many live this way behind closed doors.

Getting Free

Sometimes it’s real tough for these people to find freedom because they can get buried beneath the trappings of their lifestyle. Issues of pride, image, reputation, dignity, etc., keep their problems shut out of view and keep them away from help, which only allows trouble and vice to run rampant.

Folk with lesser wealth often have less of their life invested in their reputation to allow such a thing to threaten their well-being.

Perhaps too some wealthy people don’t know how to call for help. They’ve always been in a position of control and security, the ones making decisions and helping everyone else never expecting that they would ever need rescuing. That role reversal must surely be difficult.

All Things are Possible

After the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus, the Lord twice exclaims to the disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. It doesn’t mean that they won’t or that it’s impossible; if you will, this was Jesus telling them, “I’m just saying…”

He’s really pointing to those weeds he speaks of in his parable of the sower. They represent all the fineries, gaieties, and pleasures of life but leave one bereft of spiritual wealth, stymied in his spiritual efforts and bankrupt in the life to come.

But a powerful truth he speaks next—“With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). For all of us the leap from folly to faith is impossible without God. But hopefully you didn’t miss what was so plain to Jesus and remarkable that we don’t see: just how burdensome wealth can be on the soul, the one place that never factors into our dreams of being rich.

Yet God, he says, can give even the wealthy the grace to make the leap into kingdom life.

I trust that you pray for the lost. The next time you do, say a prayer for those who are wealthy. Pray that they be good managers, even stewards, of their wealth. Pray that God would rebuke the Evil One who desires to drag their souls to hell. Pray that they will know the rich love of Jesus, that God would dispel all religious exoticism and foolish revelry so they would know Truth.

God loves the wealthy.

Other reads: 2014 Gates Annual Letter; Why Do the Wicked Prosper and The Perils of Covetousness

What We Learn in God’s Holding Patterns

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

A flight holding pattern is a delay tactic airports use when planes cannot land for different reasons, like congestion or bad weather. If you’ve flown enough, you have probably experienced one of these. In fact, you may have looked out your window and saw the airport but wondered why on earth you were flying around it in circles.

Depending on the type of delay and number of incoming aircraft, planes can be stacked in holding until air traffic controllers can land them one-by-one, starting with the lowest plane.

God’s way with us is like holding sometimes, can you agree?

Learning Contentment

Who doesn’t love that great Pauline verse—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:13). But I’ve found that many of us don’t understand its context. It is definitely deeper than the Christian self-help it has become in recent times. Paul refers to his ability through Christ to keep at an even keel while facing the highs and lows of his life. He expresses how the grace of God offers him contentment.

So let’s back up a little. Paul, a prisoner now and finalizing his letter to the Philippian Christians, thanks them for their generosity to him. Then, he quickly clarifies that he doesn’t bring up the matter for any new need he has…and this is where the important context begins.

“For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (vs. 11b-12, ESV).

Is Contentment Satisfaction?

This is a revealing glimpse at Paul’s life. His words comfort us in our trials today because someone as sage and godly as he is transparent enough to share his own holding patterns in the will of God.

What does Paul mean by content? Surely he desired to be out of that prison. His churches were better served by his presence among them; after all, he’s sending them a letter here. Certainly he preferred a full stomach to a grumbling one and peaceful presentations of the gospel instead of violent protests.

If we’re not careful, we will make Paul say that he was satisfied with his circumstances. But consider yourself: perhaps there was a time when you didn’t have the things you needed. Did that cancel your desire to have more or better, especially if someone depended on you? No, it didn’t.

Think about the plan God has shown you for your life. Maybe you’re in a hard place right now and simply cannot fathom how he will make good on his promise. Although it’s difficult now, God showed you his plan at the start to provide you hope for when the good times turned. He doesn’t mean for you to build a home in the wasteland.

Something on the Inside, Working…

Instead, Paul’s contentment means he was inwardly self-sufficient, not requiring outside support. It means that he was indeed satisfied with the grace of God that propelled him forward in the divine will despite his external circumstances. In fact, it was knowing that wherever he was in life somehow accomplished the will of God for him; and because of that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him. The scope is pervasive, all-inclusive.

Herein we are offered a deep lesson about what we possess and don’t possess. The highs and lows enter our lives to lend us perspective and never to disturb our rest in God. For whatever may come, we cling to grace, not things.

Let me sum it up this way: Contentment is to not worry about anything you see around you or off in the distance, whether it’s your natural sustenance or the very promises of God. But it is to learn and progress right where you stand. And it is to trust God—who knows exactly where you are in the holding pattern—until he lands you where he wants you next.

More on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness and God, You’re Killing Me!

My Two Cents on Generosity

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

Thought: If I had millions of dollars, I’d be an incredibly generous person.

I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of talk, especially when the jackpot swells. Wealth does indeed allow people to be generous and helpful. My problem with this rationale, however, is that we should think more money makes us more generous persons.

Now I don’t doubt that there are many who have respected their fortune by carefully weighing the responsibility of managing it—and have become more generous due to a new appreciation for wealth’s power. And there are those who have purposefully and creatively used earlier hardship as the impetus to empower others less fortunate.

These kinds of people underscore a process of building virtue and have understood that to be reckless with wealth is to disregard the noble prospects it is capable of producing.

But to assume that abundance directly translates into abundant virtue…well Jesus would quickly disagree with us.

Asian Hospitality

Let me tell you about a wonderful encounter of hospitality I had.

I was a teacher in Japan and decided to spend my first vacation in Tokyo. My American co-worker (and college mate) grew up there and was going to visit family; he asked me to come along. Lodging for me was arranged with a Christian family who gladly agreed to house me.

I was shown incredible hospitality. The entire upstairs loft belonged to me, and my host pre-stocked the refrigerator there with every imaginable treat. My clothes were washed, ironed, folded, and delivered daily. Meals were prompt and the matron’s sister baked and sent over exquisite breads for us. I was insisted upon to use the home phone to call and chat with my family back in the U.S. And despite the language barrier, we enjoyed the presence of Christ together in devotions after meals.

My friend had decided to join me the second day. Those he visited were elderly, so he opted to lodge with us and use his fluency to help us all communicate. When it came time for our departure, the patriarch handed each of us an envelope that, to our astonishment, contained almost $200 to pay for our train home—and a trip to visit them again.

Cultivated Hearts

This kind of hospitality, which I bumped into regularly as a gaijin (foreigner), is extreme by American standards. Obviously, it’s largely rooted in Japanese and Southeast Asian culture, but that lends to what I attempt to convey here. (And I should again emphasize and beg you to consider, to my point, the authentic faith I witnessed in this home.)

To think that wealth, newfound or otherwise, makes us more generous individuals really is to deceive ourselves. If you missed the point the first time: the heart must be cultivated this way.

I hope you go out of your way to accommodate others, really. But the level of generosity I described—let’s face it—isn’t quite American, culturally, for reasons I cannot explain now. When you go on vacation, is it imperative that you return bearing gifts for co-workers to show you were thinking about them? No, you hightail it outta the office just to get away from them jokers!

Gifts of the Heart

Let me be concise. I’m not convinced by wealth-induced “sudden generosity” because abundance has very little to do with virtue. Folk who have nothing but are truly generous people will share the little they have with others in need without a second thought. Did we clearly hear Jesus’s proposition—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Real generosity doesn’t need wealth.

After observing the rich give their offerings and a widow place two copper coins in the temple treasury, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “They all (the rich) gave out of their wealth,” meaning their gifts were inconsequential to what they possessed and were easy to offer. For all their abundance and the pride they derived from it, they possessed little spiritual wealth that begged of sacrifice and unadulterated devotion.

But this widow “out of her poverty, put in everything she had”—two paltry coins—and so confirms my point here.

More posts on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and Why Do the Wicked Prosper? 

Hail Mary, Full of Grace

CC BY-NC, sofi01, Flickr

CC BY-NC, sofi01, Flickr

What endears most of us to Mary is her acceptance of the will of God—“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Hers really is a hallmark example of faith in God’s promise.

What’s peculiar to me, however, is how the scripture seems to commend Mary and her faith. If you’ll recall, after Gabriel leaves her, she packs up and makes haste to see Elizabeth, whose husband, Zechariah, Gabriel had already visited. Elizabeth herself was now six-months pregnant. After hearing Mary’s news, she exclaims, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (v. 45). Now that’s good.

I Believe!

I love the implications. Elizabeth’s words have some real meaning in them. The odd thing about her life at this moment is that back home Zechariah communicates with her by writing. Did you forget that? Gabriel had struck him mute for disbelieving the promise of God.

Should I ever encounter the angel of God, he’ll have no trouble with me believing!

I wonder how many times Zechariah repented for his disbelief; did Elizabeth ever ridicule him—the priest—for being audacious…with an angel, after all! “Hon, let me get this right: you were scared silly by this messenger, and then you doubted him!” “(Scribble)” Fiction doesn’t get any better than this.

Now can you see why Elizabeth’s words are interesting? And what about Mary? She is newly pregnant and spends the first three months of her pregnancy in Judea with Elizabeth until her ninth. Did Mary leave Nazareth to avoid questions and her community’s disdain? Did God’s holy child become a burden for her to bear once she returned and everyone could infer a possible reason for her absence?

The Light of Promise

One of my favorite preachers, the late Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers, had a good saying he often used: “Don’t doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.” Now an angel radiating the glory of God is certainly enough reason to trust and never doubt again, for most of us at least. But circumstance has a way of making us second-guess our faith.

We all know what it’s like to receive the promise of God and, in that moment, feel like we can trust him for anything. Standing in the light of promise gives us a seeming invincibility to doubt, for the promise is as good as possessed. Then, the clouds close and shut out the light. We never knew that daytime could literally turn black as night.

I don’t imagine Mary’s pregnancy and the next few years of her life being the easiest. We cannot know. Sadly, I’m a little more persuaded they were difficult because the devoutest folk can be mean or dispiriting and given to chatter. And how do you convince someone that your child is the long-awaited Messiah? That YHWH is his father, not Joseph, your unwed husband. Maybe strange occurrences swayed a few, but carrying Jesus probably cost Mary some grief.

I firmly believe “Be it unto me” remained her attitude toward God, but it couldn’t have been easy. And before you doubt me on this, going to the cross wasn’t easy for Jesus, although he too was resigned to the will of God.

But Paul calls him the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor. 1:3-4); and I’m sure he allowed the clouds to part from time-to-time to let Mary know…to reassure us that his promise abides. We must know that the darkness is not to be feared and trust that the clouds, although stormy and destructive at times, won’t kill us and cannot possibly extinguish the light of promise.

The Diagnosis

Paul writes, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed…without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead…yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith…being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (1 Cor. 4:18-21; cf. v. 17).

I look at this verse and see an X-ray of Zechariah and Mary’s conditions. Zechariah doubts God by limiting him to the impotence of his body; but Mary trusts God by telling him, “You have the power to give life where there is none.”

We serve a God whose promises for us are enduring. He wants you and me to simply accept them as true and trust him. You may be in a dark period now hoping for the clouds to part for once; know that the promise still shines. Despite the pain, you will possess everything God has promised you.

The Parable of the Laborers

CC BY-NC, kewing, Flickr

CC BY-NC, kewing, Flickr

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

*Portion of an exegetical paper I wrote on the topic.*

The parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16 is part of Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom. Matthew is the only writer who tells the story, which places its composition around A.D. 63 and for the benefit of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The details of the parable would have been very familiar to Jesus’s audience. Brad Young offers a sitz im leben perspective (on-scene contextualization):

The setting assumes the difficult economic conditions of first-century Israel. Many day laborers are standing in the market hoping to be hired for a day job. The original audience could readily identify with these workers and their real-life situation…Day laborers were on the bottom end of the economic structure. They received minimal wages for sporadic work. As the primary wage earners, they had to support their families by the odd jobs they could acquire for day service. During the time of harvest, the situation improved as landowners needed additional day laborers to harvest the crops on time.

One noticeable aspect of this parable is that at its outset the householder, not his steward, works from early morning to late evening to acquire laborers. This would have been an immediate signal to the listening crowd that their normal worldview was about to be challenged.

The parable can be divided into three acts: Act One, the hirelings (vs. 1-7); Act Two, the payments (vs. 8-11); and Act Three, the dialogue between the owner and the grumbling workers (vs. 11-15).

It is obvious that the parable involves economic details. The only condition imposed on the workers is proper work for a day’s wage. This was the denarius, a silver coin that meant a usual day’s pay. The parable, however, should not be used to imply any message about economic arrangements in society, a proposition not obvious in the illustration.

Moreover, the owner’s pay arrangement is simply impossible in the developed world and modern economy. Business leaders and workers would spurn the idea.

A Hard Pill to Swallow

The workers are recruited throughout the day and are finally called in to be paid. This is where the parable does what it is characteristically known for, which is setting up listeners for a surprise. The owner starts by paying the laborers who have worked the least amount of time first—and they receive just as much as those who have toiled all day in the heat.

The first-comers are begrudged. When confronted the owner explains that he had kept his word and had also decided to be gracious to those who had come later. Donahue says:

“If the reader too quickly identifies the owner as God and is unwilling to experience the same feelings as those who worked all day, the challenge of the parable loses its force. Hardly any parable in the Gospels seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society as does this one…The constant complaint in our society about welfare is proof that popular morality operates according to the principle of ‘equal work for equal pay.'”

The laborers who had been fortunate enough to receive work in the morning should have rejoiced at the generosity of the owner.

Still, one significant limitation of the parable needs to be pointed out. Those who labored all day earn their day’s wage by their work; but Jesus did not believe that anyone earns a place in the kingdom by his or her work. It should be understood that parabolic language should not be pressed too far.

God’s Undeserved Favor

What is the message of the parable? It is first a parable of the kingdom by which Jesus illustrates the incredible grace of God. It drives a wedge between two ways of thinking about Christian life and one’s relationship with God.

The first mindset centers on human goodness and the ability to earn one’s way into the kingdom. But a problem arises here because distinctions are easily and often made between those whose length of service and fervor for the kingdom are exemplary and those who have less to show. The simple standards of justice and the ranking of time and effort determine degrees of worth.

The second way of thinking ventures much deeper into the gospel to show us that God’s way with us makes no distinctions between us. Each of us are accepted and loved by him, and we are saved not due to any efforts we make but purely as a result of his grace. It is that “God loves us not because we are lovable, but because God is loving in a radical way.”

This is the gospel. Borsch says, “We either ‘take what belongs to us and go’—a way of living that cuts us off from true fellowship with God and others—or we receive from God what he has graciously chosen to give.”

Credits: Borsch, Frederick Houk. Many Things In Parables: Extravagant Story of New Community. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988./Donahue, John R. The Gospel in Parable. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988/Young, Brad H. Jesus The Jewish Theologian. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995

How We Engage the Lost

CC BY-NC-ND, [phil h], Foter

CC BY-NC-ND, [phil h], Foter

The Holy Spirit awakens sinner’s hearts to God, but he employs the righteous in bringing them to Christ. It would be easy to say God needs none of us and can save those who choose him independent of us—then sit back and do nothing. Yes, he could but he has obligated himself to need our help, to use sheep to produce new sheep.

And then I wonder… Is it possible for me to cause an awakened soul to reject God—and before you discard the notion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship, warns us about the danger of offering “cheap grace” to sinners that converts them but strands them inside salvation’s gate without suggestion of further discipleship.

If the quality of our teaching and preaching can inhibit spiritual growth, could it not also be possible that we or our presentation of Christ turn some away from Jesus except the Holy Spirit rescues them? Conceivably yes and it’s a sobering thought. We possess a grave responsibility laboring with God for the lost, and it should cause us to examine our lives, beliefs, and spiritual competence.

Jude on Evangelism

The final verses of Jude convey some remarkably rich and practical wisdom about how to approach the lost: “And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives” (vs. 22-23, NLT).

According to Jude, a one-size-fits-all evangelistic approach doesn’t work, and he’s right. Many of us grew up in the “fire and brimstone” days and in either-you’re-in-or-you’re-out folds. And I’m not knocking these people and this heritage because, well, it’s still holiness or hell.

But I also understand that times have drastically evolved. Speaking the “unchanging gospel to an ever-changing world” is different from what it was just twenty years ago, and it’s something we really need to think about more deeply, especially as it relates to our methods, involvement, creativity, and content.

Seekers and Scorners

Jude shows us three types of people we will encounter in evangelism. The first are those with doubts or whose faith wavers. I’ll call them seekers, although they may or may not be in search of God. These people will hear the gospel without resistance and may be searching for spiritual significance. They sometimes have weighty questions about life, personal significance, spirituality, and philosophy, which deserve to be heard and answered well.

Jude explains that we should be gentle and patient with this kind. In fact, some may need coaxing out of timidity and to be loved or shown truth and led away from false teaching. They are not yet entrenched in doctrine or vices that would cause them to fight the gospel or regard the church with disdain. Show these individuals compassion.

The second type of people, whom I’ll call scorners, is the opposite. Their sinful hearts are proud and resistant to the gospel, perhaps antagonistic. The patience and wooing that characterize converting the seeker is impossible with the scorner. Jude explains that this kind must be rescued from their own ignorance.

Although we must never frighten people into a decision for God (and certainly no genuine decision), scorners must be warned and shown how their sin and defiance offends the Lord. They have no clue that they are walking off a precipice into hell and must be mercifully yanked away from destruction…snatched from the fire.

Keep Yourself Untainted

The third type of people I will call the shameless. The implication from Jude is that these folk have lived in an unrestrained, or licentious, way. Jude’s instruction is to again show mercy, but he includes a warning to the laborer about the extent of the mission with these individuals. It should not involve one’s enticement to or participation in a person’s sin or with that person. We should genuinely love one while hating the ravaging effects of their sin, yet we must never cross the line and defile ourselves.

It is easiest to minister to people with whom we once associated because we understand their lifestyle and can access them. But ministry to our old friends and acquaintances is prohibited if it provokes the slightest temptation.

“Becoming all things to all people” has become cliché these days; however, we must also be careful for our own souls. Satan is devious and Christians can be taken advantage of by him. Yet we should not deceive ourselves and think we’re resistant to old habits when we’re not.

We would do well to heed Jude’s advice. Honestly, his counsel is basic and the least we must do to prove any acumen with the gospel. We can only better assist the Holy Spirit given the many tactics working to stop people’s salvation.

Read Reflections on Evangelism for a detailed treatment of the subject.

The Nature of Christ

"Prince of Peace" by Akiane CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr

“Prince of Peace” by Akiane
CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr

The nature of Christ rested at the center of the greatest controversies in church history and often led to the important ecumenical councils of the Church and the development of the creeds. Here we’ll discuss five major heresies regarding the nature of Christ: Ebionism, adoptionism, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, and Eutychianism. I encourage you to consider the implications that logically proceed from these doctrines. Also, reflect on statements and teaching you’ve heard that veer close to these.

Jesus and the Christ

Christological heresies existed as early as the apostle’s ministry. A Judaizing group called the Ebionites taught that Jesus was an ordinary human possessing unusual but not superhuman or supernatural gifts. They espoused that the Christ descended upon Jesus the man at his baptism and withdrew from him near the end of his life. The doctrine resembles the teaching of Paul of Samosata who taught that the logos was not a being but was equal to what reason is in a human and merely impersonal. Jesus, so said Samosata, was uniquely indwelt by the wisdom of God and, in successive stages, grew closer in relation to him.

Samosata’s teaching is called dynamistic monarchianism, or adoptionism, and holds that this power from God came upon Jesus the man, again, at his baptism. Adoptionism opens a doorway to modern liberal theology that devalues the divinity of Jesus and teaches the recognition of human’s God consciousness.

Nestorius, on the other hand, did affirm both the divinity and humanity of Christ but insisted that the two natures not be confused but viewed as being completely distinct. Nestorius was opposed to the term theotokos, a reference to Mary as the “God-bearer.” The Alexandrian school taught that if there was in Christ a physical union of God and man, then it could be argued that Mary was the “mother of God.” Nestorius, of the Antiochene school of thought, opposed this and claimed that the logos had taken residence in Christ. The divine element in him, however, was not in his human nature.

Nestorius implied a lack of unity, stating, “I distinguish between the natures, but I worship but one [Christ].” Christian orthodoxy acknowledges both natures of Christ but that the two became one and simultaneously retained their uniqueness. It remains questionable whether Nestorius really taught what he was accused of due to the vagueness of his teaching.

Swallowed in Divinity

Apollinaris offered a truncated view of Christ’s humanity. He believed that Jesus took on genuine humanity but not all of it. Apollinaris was very concerned about maintaining the unity of the Son. He opposed Arianism—the Son was not pre-existent and was created by the Father—but ventured too far with his teaching. According to Apollinaris, Jesus was a “compound unity,” part human and the rest divine. What Jesus bore of humanity was merely his human flesh. This flesh was animated by the divine logos (spark), which replaced a human soul.

Thus, Jesus was human physically but not psychologically; his soul was divine. Jesus was essentially different from all human beings because he possessed no human soul or will nor did he possess the capability to sin because he was divinity poured into a human vessel. Further, there is a slight implication that Jesus’s flesh could have only been a mystical, docetic one, not truly subject to his overpowering divinity.

If Ebionism represents the extreme view of Jesus’s humanity, then Eutychianism is the opposite extreme. Eutyches agreed on the two natures of Christ but felt that the two became so blended in their union that there could only be one nature and it fully divine.

Apollinarianism and Eutychianism differ from the others because they hold that Jesus had one nature and not two. These two doctrines are called monophysite doctrines, meaning “one nature”; Ebionism, adoptionism, and Nestorianism are dyophysite.

Council of Chalcedon

The fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon brought an end to these disputes, specifically Eutychianism and Nestorianism. The council began on October 8, 451, and was attended by 630 bishops and deputies. After five sessions that lasted until the 31st, the council finalized the Chalcedonian Creed, one of the greatest, that further defied Christological heresy and established sound Christology.

Swedish theologian Bengt Hagglund, in his History of Theology, helps clarify the significance of the creed (in part):

We confess one and the same Son [against Nestorius, who…was believed to teach that there were ‘two sons’], our Lord Jesus Christ, who is perfect in His divinity [against dynamism, Arius, and Nestorius] and perfect in humanity…with a reasonable soul and a body [against Apollinaris who replaced Christ’s human soul with the Logos and taught that the Logos assumed a “heavenly flesh”], of one essence with the Father according to divinity…of the same essence as we according to humanity [against Eutyches]…”

The value of the Christian creeds is inestimable. The Church is triumphant over heresy today because of the great work the Fathers undertook to clarify and summarize Holy Scripture. Many groups in the Protestant Church overlook and even avoid creedalism, being speculative of it. Yet the creeds are the signet of the Church, concisely expressing theological thought contained in the scriptures. The creed is, as Cyril calls it, the “synthesis of faith” and has been a sustaining force in the existence of the Church.