Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!

I did not arrange these books for this blog post. They were on a table in my office, in this order, completely randomly.

Facebook informed me that it’s been exactly five years today since my first trip to Kenya. I went there to teach theology and doctrine, church history, and polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love theology and doctrine, as readers of my blog know. I think about this stuff a lot; it’s important to me. Obviously, I get passionate writing about it, talking about it, arguing about it. I’m also sensitive to the charge—often put forward by United Methodist colleagues—that theology and doctrine are of far lesser importance than (to use a buzzword) “spiritual formation,” or spiritual disciplines, or the pursuit of holiness.

Several years ago, I blogged about a popular United Methodist pastor who “crossed the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did so in part, he said, because he met a group of nuns whose lives exuded a kind of holiness that he had never seen before. He wanted what they had, and he attributed this quality of life to their Catholicism.

Not that plenty of Protestants don’t cross the Tiber every week for any number of reasons (and they pass plenty of Catholics swimming the other way as they do so), but given the Methodist emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and personal experience—sometimes at the expense, at least unwittingly, of a more intellectual emphasis on theology and doctrine—it’s natural that a United Methodist would be susceptible to this kind conversion.

Not me! I “live in my head,” as one professor at Candler affectionately pointed out. No matter how appealing the spirituality of some Catholics, I can’t get past at least a half-dozen serious theological objections. For me, nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

But these are intellectual objections, of course. And in our Methodist tradition, when heart and mind compete with one another, we tend to side with the heart. (Isn’t this one reason our denomination is in crisis about our doctrines associated with marriage and sexuality?)

Regardless, the apostle Paul believed that for the sake of holiness, heart and mind must be in harmony. They need one another.

We saw this in last night’s Bible study in Galatians—in chapter 4, verses 17 to 20. The Galatians are in serious spiritual danger. Although they had gratefully received the gospel and were converted when Paul first preached to them a year or two earlier, Paul says he is “in the anguish of childbirth” all over again. From his perspective, nothing less than their salvation is at stake. It’s as if they need to be “born again” again, Paul says. Christ needs to be “formed in them” again. Whether they are, at that moment, still saved or not, they have at least “backslidden” enough to place their souls in jeopardy. (As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe in the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

Is their problem related to sin and immorality? Are they acting like hypocrites? Are they failing to love God and neighbor sufficiently?

No. Their problem is that their theology is wrong.

They’re flirting with a seductive idea put forward by false teachers that they need to add just a few small “requirements” to the gospel in order to be saved. Paul has warned them that if they embrace a “gospel plus” anything else, they have lost the gospel entirely.

For the purpose of this blog post, however, the nature of their theological problem is less important than one principle that this problem illustrates: getting one’s theology right is, in Paul’s mind, an essential gospel issue. 

Last night, I challenged the class to consider how much value they place on the life of the mind versus the life of the spirit. They must go together! Paul implies that we should be as committed to theology and doctrine, to Bible study, and to scripture memorization as we are, for instance, to prayer, to worship, and to Christian service.

Are we? If not, why not?

10 thoughts on “Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!”

  1. I agree. If I have a problem in this regard, it is that I focus on theology rather more so than to “prayer, worship, and to Christian service,” as you reference “the life of the spirit.” While I do agree all Christians should focus on both, I might suggest that a greater focus on one over the other in particular cases may relate to spiritual gifts. Thus, “teachers” may be “more called” to the study of theology than someone with the “gift of service,” who may be more called to “Christian service.” These two “parts of the body” complement each other–the “teacher” may help the “servant” out as to theology, whereas the servant’s ministry may operate as a “credit” to the teacher in the servant’s “ministry” to others. (“I planted, Apollos [sp?] watered, but God gives the increase.”)

    1. I’m the same as you in this regard. And I agree. But even accounting for different levels of giftedness, we can all do things to nourish both heart and mind.

  2. Okay. Finally, a different point of theology to debate, even though I suppose you would relate it to free will.

    The issue of whether one can loose one’s salvation.

    I believe that once God’s saves you, He doesn’t let go. You may “backslide”, but if you were truly saved, He will bring you home in the end. If I didn’t believe that, I would live in constant fear and anxiety.

  3. Grant, I am with you on this point (despite free choice), but “nervously” so. I especially agree that we have little “security” if it is up to us to hold on to salvation. Rationally, we might even say, why not commit suicide once saved to avoid the possibility that we might fall later! The strongest passages to me are the “sealed” passages. Nevertheless, there are a number of other passages that give one some pause, including the two in Hebrews.

    1. You may be right, Grant. I hold loosely to the doctrine of backsliding. I don’t worry about it because I remind myself of Christ’s atoning death and the imputation of his righteousness. It’s only because of Christ that I don’t worry: he’s the sole reason for my justification.

      Having said that, there was a season in my life that, when I think back on it, I wonder, “If I had died then, would I have been saved?” Of course, it’s all hypothetical, and God knew that I wouldn’t die then, so…

      The biblical evidence goes both ways, as I see it. And those Hebrews passages are strong.

      I don’t think it matters that much: even if you believe in eternal security, the potentially fearful question isn’t, “Have I lost my salvation?” but “Did I ever have it to begin with?”

  4. As with almost everything in my theology, I have to go to “Faith” as a large part of the explanation for my belief. I have faith that God knows who has truly turned to Him for rescue and that God will complete the transaction.

    As for “heart and mind harmony”, this brings me to a different question. If my theology says that homosexuality is a sin, but that I still should love the sinner, how do I do that?
    The few homosexuals that I have been able to ask say that their sexuality is an essential part of who they are. If I can’t accept that, then I can’t really love them. They are drawing a difficult line for me, and I don’t see the way around it. Any example of a workable way to do this?

    1. I hope you’re asking Tom, Grant!

      I think it’s important to distinguish the experience of same-sex attraction (over which someone may have little control) from the sin of homosexual behavior. Everyone has a choice about acting on their impulses, whether they experience same-sex attraction as a fixed orientation or not.

      Obviously, if one defines oneself as LGBTQ, such that it’s essential to one’s personality, then that identity tends to feed the desire and make it worse—that would be true of any sinful desire, right? Luther compared lust to a bird flying overhead: We don’t have a choice about a bird flying overhead, but we can prevent it from nesting in our hair.

      But I disagree that you can’t love them: Of course you can! The golden rule still applies. You can pray for them. And you can be compassionate because you yourself know firsthand what it feels like to be enslaved to sin. I do! They need to be set free; Satan has them in bondage; and he’s at work right now to lead them to hell. That’s tragic.

      Lean into this empathy for them. Let empathy be your guide.

  5. Well, as to your “different question,” “who they are” is sinners, regardless of the type of sin they are most “tied to.” So we are to love them as well. The “workable way” is, primarily, I think, prayer for their conviction and salvation. (However, I personally admit that this particular sin is so disgusting to me that it is difficult for me to get around that to “loving the person.”)

    1. Tom, you just added another of my major issues. I also find the whole concept of two men having “sex” totally repugnant. Seeing more and more graphic depictions on the screen is ruining a lot of shows I used to enjoy. There is definitely an “in your face; ram it down your throat” agenda being acted out.

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