Posts Tagged ‘spiritual formation’

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

September 7, 2017

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?

The most important “spiritual discipline”

July 14, 2016

The July 13 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (and Every Day) is a helpful corrective for many of us Christians. We tend to overemphasize the work of “spiritual disciplines” or “spiritual formation” at the expense of the finished work of Christ—the sole basis on which we’re accepted by God. In which case, as it so often does, the Law rears its ugly head.

Please don’t misunderstand: While it’s hard to imagine how our souls can remain healthy if we long neglect the disciplines of daily prayer, Bible reading and study, and worship, among other Christian practices, they are not the center of gravity when it comes to the “work and rhythm of the Christian life.”

On the contrary, citing Jesus’ gospel proclamation in Mark 1:14-15 (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”), a pastor named Curt Benham writes the following:

Christianity for many of us has come down to: “Just tell me what I have to do… Tell me the habits I must form in order to maintain my relationship with God.” We can run on spiritual disciplines for a while, but there’s eventually a breakdown between what it was meant for and what it has become.

That’s why Jesus’ words are so comforting… Jesus simply tells us this: repent and believe the gospel. This is the work and the rhythm of the Christian life.

Repentance really just means being honest about who you are. It means admitting there is a giant bedrock of self-centeredness that you can do nothing about. It means being aware of the fact that you’re really pretty into yourself, and you need help if anything’s going to change.

To believe the Gospel means to believe that help has arrived, that Jesus really is who he says he is and really did what he said he did… that, because of Jesus, you are loved and accepted by God, right now, as you are, and not as you should be. Rather than a repeated work through your week, we instead repeatedly return to a work that’s already been done on our behalf. Now there’s a Christians routine we can stick with![†]

The most important spiritual discipline is repeatedly “returning to work that’s already been done on our behalf.” I like that!

The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (and Every Day) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries, 2013), 243.