Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Last week we examined the nature of faith in Jesus, which is on the human side of our salvation. Faith’s goal is access to the power for salvation that resides in Jesus Christ. It is knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, trust, certainty, and union with Christ. Our appropriation of salvation also possesses a divine side, and that is our topic for this essay.

God is the primary actor in every aspect of our salvation. Apart from God’s initiative in creating, preserving, and empowering the world we would not exist and could do nothing. Likewise, apart from God’s action for our salvation we could do nothing to participate in that salvation. God’s action is the objective side of our being united to Christ; faith is the subjective side.

The New Testament speaks about God’s work of uniting us to Christ as the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works internally with our individual spirit or inner person or heart—whatever term you prefer to use—giving us a new kind of life. Just as God’s Spirit gives life and being to all creatures at the very root of their being, the Spirit joins us to Christ in an action as mysterious as creation from nothing. The Spirit through whom Christ is present is able to indwell, encompass, and contain things without displacing or distorting them in any way. Hence the Spirit can change us, revive us, strengthen us or recreate us from within according to the will of God. And through the Spirit, Christ can dwell in us and transform us into his image without violence to our wills or minds.

Can we say more about the nature of our union with Christ? What kind of union is this? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Is it a union of wills? Considered in this way, our union with Christ would be constituted by our always and fully willing everything he wills. Perhaps this is the simplest way to conceive it. We experience this type of union with friends and fellow believers when we discover that we share love for Jesus Christ and desire his glory in all things. We understand each other and feel the bond created by the One we love. The one Holy Spirit indwells the many members of the body and the many find themselves made one in mind, heart, and will by the unifying power of one and the same Spirit. We meet each other in the sphere of the Spirit.

(2) Or could our union with Christ be even more intimate? Our union with the wills of other members of Christ is a union in something else, the Spirit. It is not a direct union. But our union with Christ can be direct and intimate because Christ can be directly present to our spirits whereas another human being cannot. How can we describe such intimacy of union? Perhaps we can call it a union of being and action. Christ comes so close to us that his life-giving Spirit constantly imparts spiritual life to us so that we are empowered for actions like his.

According to the New Testament, Christ is the one through whom God created all things. He gives all things being and form. In this sense Christ is already and always connected to every creature as its cause and its Lord. All creatures are already touched by Christ and connected to him. But our being united with Christ through faith, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit is a new creation and brings to perfection the work begun in the first creation. The final perfection of our being united with Christ is to become like him in body and soul, mind and heart, and being and action.

Paul places special emphasis on being united with Christ:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Corinthians 3: 17-18)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Next week: Paul speaks of baptism as the act by which we become united with Christ. What part does baptism play in our appropriation of salvation?

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“Jesus Means Freedom”*: God and the Modern Self #14

We are getting close to the end of our series! Today I want to explain why the freedom Jesus promises is so much better than that promised by the modern self. In a culture where most people view freedom as the power to do as you please and become whatever you want, the claim that trusting and obeying God leads to freedom will certainly meet with skepticism. Even many believers think we have to give up some freedom in order to do the right thing always and take on the image of Christ. I want to show that this is not true. The way of Christ is freedom and leads to ever greater freedom. Jesus means freedom!

First, let’s recall that in installment #7 of this series we discovered that the modern self offers a purely external freedom and ignores the inner limits on freedom. In response, we emphasized the decisive importance of those inner limits. We do not know ourselves or the possible consequences of our actions well enough to insure that simply doing what we want or making choices autonomously will lead to happiness. But securing our happiness is the very reason we want freedom! We think we know how to make ourselves happy better than anyone else does, and on the whole that may be true. Experience shows, however, that we don’t know either.

Second, recall that every view of freedom must take into account four factors: self, other, power and exemption. The modern self’s view of freedom leaves out of consideration the most serious “other” that limits our freedom and takes no notice of the only power that remove that “other.” In the teaching of Jesus and the rest of New Testament, the thing we most need is liberation from that inner “other” that consists of sin, blindness, ignorance, guilt, corruption, fear and falsehood. This inner “other” keeps us from embracing fully our true identity as images of God, as children of God. We don’t have power to do the right thing always and become “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Even if we had unlimited power and opportunity to do as we please we could not attain what would lead to our ultimate happiness, unless we also possessed power over the inner “other”.

Jesus promised power to overcome the inner “other”. Only the Creator knows the creature better than it knows itself. Indeed, God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves. He made us! He knows what is wrong with us and how to correct it. God knows what we are, why we are here and what will make us supremely happy. God’s creative power unleashed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit enters our inmost selves and imparts healing, renewing, transforming and empowering power. The alienating “other” is replaced by the Holy Spirit. Supported and liberated by God’s power we gain strength to become what we were created to become: living images of God united to God in love through Christ in the Holy Spirit, sharing in his life, light and joy. And this state, when achieved, is supreme happiness.

As long as we are in this world we cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions, but we know that God does foresee! And God loves us and works all things for our good (Romans 8:28). We need not fear that we will miss our joy because of our inability to foresee the future.

Does this state qualify as freedom? According to Mortimer Adler, the following general definition of freedom covers all specific types: freedom is the ability or power whereby we can make what we do our own action and what we achieve our own property (The Idea of Freedom, vol 1, p. 614). What about the condition I described above in which we live as images of God united to God in love through Christ in the Holy Spirit, sharing in his life, light and joy? Is this state genuine freedom, according to Adler’s definition? Yes, it is. In this state, as God’s child and image, we do only what we truly want to do and we become only what we truly are. We can do what we please because we are pleased by imaging Jesus. And we can become whatever we want because we want to become what God wants for us. And because we were created for God, to love God and become like him, we do and become what leads to our ultimate happiness and joy.

So, do we have to give up some freedom to do the right thing always and to take on the image of Christ? The answer is an unequivocal and joyous “No.” Jesus means freedom! The freedom Jesus brings imparts the thing we most want from freedom: happiness. No regrets. No disappointments. And no limits!

*The title of a book by Ernst Käsemann.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 14 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Freedom of the Children of God”).

Questions for Discussion

 1. What are examples of ways in which believers as well as unbelievers think living a good life involves giving up some freedom?

2. Consider the four factors of freedom: self, other, power and exemption. How does a Christian theory of freedom define each factor? Contrast this understanding with how the modern self defines them.

3. Discuss the claim that we desire freedom because we desire happiness. Compare and contrast the Christian and the modern self’s views of how freedom leads to happiness.

4. Discuss the seemingly paradoxical idea that trusting and obeying God leads to freedom, whereas simply doing as one pleases does not.

Next week: We will finally answer the question of why the Christian view of the human self and of the way we are supposed to relate to God in love and obedience does justice to the idea of human dignity.

When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.

Who is God (Part 2)

Who is God? (Part 2)

Christianity teaches about God and humanity, sin and salvation, religion and ethics.  Each aspect of the message presupposes (or creates) a question to which the teaching is an answer.  And the answer Christianity gives to each question takes form as a story of people’s experience of God and culminates in an invitation to participate in that story.  The story Christianity tells is narrated in the Bible; it is the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church. The church, which is the voice of Christianity in the world, presents this story not as a myth or the product of rational speculation or mystical insight, but as a narration of historical events and experiences. Some will ask whether the story is true. Of course this is a critical question, and I will address it at some point. However in this post I want to focus on how the story identifies God.

The story told in the Old Testament rarely addresses the question “Does God exist?” For this was not a pressing issue in its environment. The existence and activity of the divine dimension of the world was self-evident for nearly everyone. The urgent question was “Which god is God?” or “Who is God?” The story of the Old Testament can be read as a prolonged struggle to answer this question. Throughout the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus God is identified as “the God of Abraham” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or by what God did for past generations. As the story of ancient Israel unfolds the identity of God is deepened and enriched, sometimes in surprising ways, by encompassing more and more history, acts and relationships.

Christianity sees the long story of Israel’s ever-deepening understanding of God’s identity as culminating in the story of Jesus Christ. It does not reject the Old Testament’s identification of God anymore than Moses rejected Abraham’s identification of God or Isaiah or Jeremiah rejected Moses’ identification. But the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together, proved such a surprising turn of events that the entire story had to be reoriented to focus on Jesus. Now God is identified by his relationship to Jesus Christ. When Paul speaks of God he almost always speaks of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:3) or even of “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3). As Paul warns the Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols, he finds it necessary to distinguish the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ from other divine identities: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:5-6).

And we should not leave out the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent, who filled the apostles at Pentecost, guided the early church and continues to sanctify and guide believers today. Hence when Christianity answers the question, “Who is God?” its short reply is “God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This is the Christian name for God. It stands for the entire narrative of God’s actions through Jesus Christ and the Spirit. In the words of the late 4th century church father Gregory Nazianzus, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  Or, to generalize Gregory’s assertion, “When the church talks about God, it means Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” No other religion identifies God in this way; for to identify God in this way is to become a Christian.

What kind of character are we attributing to God by identifying God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” or as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”? And what difference does it make in the way we live and how we relate to God? To be continued…

Note: no contemporary theologian I have read focuses so intently and with more profound insight on the question of divine identity than Robert W. Jenson. See his Systematic Theology, 2 vols (Oxford University Press, 1997). Warning: it’s difficult reading.