Being Educated Beyond Our Obedience

I wrote a post some time ago about being a glutton for knowledge that I did nothing with. This same idea came into focus when I heard someone quote Niel Cole recently as having described American Christians as "educated beyond their obedience."
When I was growing up I can remember my charismatic church teaching that when God tells you to do something, he waits until you do it before he'll tell you anything else. I don't take this to mean that God only talks to those who obey, but rather that discipleship is done on a "need to know" basis. 

I wonder if we aren't damaging our souls by learning more about God when we haven't acted on what we already have learned. Are we becoming calloused to conviction?

Jesus had some clear teaching for his fans that resisted becoming true followers.

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand...and when the storm comes, the house will fall with a great crash."

The sadly funny thing is we've somehow become convinced that the best way to follow Jesus is to learn something new about God, when in fact, we'd be far better served to act upon one thing we have already "learned." You might say that the almost ignorant activists make better disciples than the learned philosophizers. And this is an indictment of me, as it is likely to be of you - who derive some pleasure from reading a blog about Jesus. :)

An elder at our church who's deeply invested in a ministry planting churches in Africa told me about how they make disciples, using a process they called "obedience based discipleship." While the sound of it is, I'll admit, a bit off-putting this is quite close to what I'm suggesting. It's a cycle of praxis that begins with Bible study: learn, action, reflect. Learn, act, reflect. They've planted thousands of churches and developed as many pastors using this method, and it's about time we learned from the new center of the Christian world.

Let me ask you, what is one thing you have learned about following Jesus that hasn't moved from mind to hand? I dare you, before you learn one more thing, before you listen to one more sermon, do it.

Related Posts:
Being Educated Beyond Our Obedience Pt. 2
God's Word is Dangerous Entertainment
Confessions of a Glutton

Lindsay Knows How to Preach

Be sure to listen to Lindsay's sermons on the right, under "Lindsay's Teaching". Her newest sermons include "In the Rearview Mirrow," the concluding sermon in the series "Never Waste a Crisis" which she preached to our entire congregation, and "Falling from Grace" part of the "Tempted" Series at Sanctuary about Jesus' second temptation in Matthew. Enjoy. Oh, and especially enjoy one of Lindsay's most embarassing moments.

A Philosophy of Spiritual Growth

The Vision of the Kingdom of God  

Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Jesus, John 4:14 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. 2 Cor. 3:17-18 

We are created in God’s image, male and female, for fellowship with God; we are created for divine life! We understand that those who give their lives to Jesus will receive “living water,” the Spirit of God Himself. This water will keep them from ever thirsting again— from being driven and ruled by unsatisfied desires. This spring of water will even become “rivers of living water” that flow from the disciple’s life to a thirsty world (John 7:38). The apostle Peter declared that those who love Jesus “are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” and “sincere love for each other” pouring from their hearts, which rids them of “all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind” (1 Pet. 1:8, 22, 2:1). What a compelling vision of life!22 The fundamental call of Jesus, “Follow me,” is an invitation to intimacy with Himself, to community among His followers and to participation in His work and ministry (Matt. 9:9).

At MPPC, we are committed to this individual and communal vision of loving God, loving people and serving the world. We understand that discipleship involves an intentional and integrated Jesus way of life, not a gaggle of church programs that one dips into along the way. Nonetheless, we struggle with making our theology practical enough to actually change our hearts, transform our characters, and show the world the “with-God” life—something of the reality of God’s goodness, God’s Kingdom on earth.23 Dallas Willard, one of the foremost thinkers on Christian spiritual transformation in our day, became a major influence as we developed our philosophy of spiritual transformation.  

Sin and the Ruined Soul
Willard highlights the "failure to understand and acknowledge the reality of the human situation" as "one of the greatest obstacles to effective spiritual formation."24 We must own the reality that we are sinners and that our sin separates us from God.25 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen…so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…(Rom. 1:20- 21). Our corrupted wills choose to defy the authority of God, worshiping ourselves rather than God. “Choice is where sin dwells,” and we must face the devastating effects of our sin on our inner lives and in our relationships with others and God.26  

Our Hope in the “Transforming Friendship”
Willard has insightfully addressed the dilemma that, despite all our good intentions and strenuous efforts, we don’t approach and receive the life Jesus offers us in the right way. When it comes to transformation, we need to understand how Christ works to redeem each element of our human nature (e.g., our beliefs, feelings, habits of choice, bodily tendencies and social elations). Jesus invites us to leave our burdensome ways of heavy labor— especially our “religious” efforts—and step into the yoke of training with Him as His way is easy and light.27

Willard points out that what we thought was so difficult about entering into the Jesus way of life is entirely due to our failure to understand and take the small steps that quietly and surely lead to our transformation. The hopeful insight is that transformation of the heart—understood as our inner being, the place from which we see the world and make our choices—is possible. Through the gracious action of God’s Spirit, along with our intentional cooperation (by means of spiritual practices or methods), we can increasingly live into the wholeness, holiness and power of the divine life for which we were created. Grace thrives on method and method on grace.28

What is the process of shaping our inner being “after God’s own heart”? Christian spiritual formation is focused entirely on Jesus. Jesus is the spiritual master. The Jesus way of life is relational; it involves that “transforming friendship” with Jesus, that vivid companionship with Jesus, in which we learn to be like Him and live as He lived, placing the spiritual disciplines/practices at the center of our new life in Christ.29 Bringing the disciple of Jesus to love God and to trust His ways wholeheartedly forms the inner world of the human self so that it becomes like the inner being of Jesus. The outer life of the individual then becomes a natural expression of the character and teachings of Jesus, a life obedient to God’s guidance and direction, a life lived in service to others.

Spiritual Change: the Reliable Pattern
We must first acknowledge that our inner (and therefore our outer) being can be transformed to increasingly take on the character of Jesus, that is, it can actually happen and should happen. While we accept that only God can transform a life, we are active participants in this process, and what we do (or do not do) matters greatly. Willard uses an acronym from the Latin word “vim” (to be full of life) to help us understand the practical aspects of the pursuit of transformation:30

The V stands for Vision. The I stands for Intention. The M stands for Method or Means.
 Using the example of learning to speak a new language, say, Spanish, Willard explains that the project starts with the vision—what one’s life would be like speaking Spanish, why this would be desirable or valuable considering the time and effort required. If the vision is clear and strong, he contends, it will very likely pull everything else required along. There then needs to be an intention for the vision to be realized, a point of decision, as personal change rarely happens by accident or drift. There must be an effective choice of the will (spirit). It would be laughable, he points out, for a person to simply wonder if one day they would be able to speak Spanish. Yet this is what we often do when our hope for Christlikeness is little more than a wish. Finally, there needs to be effective methods, such as language courses, books, connection with Spanish speakers and practice, practice, practice. Willard concludes that with a clear and strong vision, as well as intention enacted through thoughtful and persistent methods, the outcome is ensured.

Even in spiritual formation—which is dependent on the grace of God—the process of change involves the same pattern of VIM. Indeed, Willard is emphatic that “Not just any path we take will do. If this VIM pattern is not put into place properly and held there, Christ simply will not be formed in us.”31 How does one measure spiritual formation or growth? John Ortberg points out that “Jesus consistently focused on people’s center: are they oriented and moving toward the center of spiritual life (love of God and people), or are they moving away from it?”32 Among Jesus’ final words to His disciples were, “A new command I give you: Love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). This growth in love goes hand in hand with deepening relational intimacy with Jesus—the same conclusion reached by the REVEAL study.

Spiritual maturity is measured by love for God and others and intimacy with Christ, not by levels or types of church involvement, biblical knowledge or spiritual practices. Using the VIM pattern, we see that the process of spiritual growth begins with a clear and compelling vision of a life with God, marked by obedience, service to others, hope, joy and love. The power of this vision compels the holder to make a decision, a definite intention that, whatever it costs, “I must have that with-God life!” Finally, with determination, we thoughtfully and persistently engage in the methods or practices that are meant to help us realize the vision. The methods are not mysterious; we have rich resources available to us in the example and teachings of Jesus, in the Scriptures generally, and in His people across time.

VISION: Vision is the essential driver of Christian spiritual transformation and is focused entirely on Jesus. Jesus declared that life as He lived it, a life characterized by extraordinary love—by and for God and others—was possible for all who would follow Him. The vision which captivates disciples of Jesus is one in which the Spirit of God is flowing through our being until we are fully changed people, who whole-heartedly love and trust God, genuinely love and care for others, and serve the world with compassion.

INTENTION: Intention is the individual’s settled response to the invitation of life and love in the presence and under the power of God. It is not a wish, but rather a determined decision to do whatever it takes to pursue this Jesus way of life.33 Intention is the choice to “obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus.”34 The church cannot make this choice for people, though it must call people to it. Again, we recognize and pray for the gracious powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit, who works mysteriously and miraculously within every believer to say “yes” to God’s call to conformity to the image of His Son.35

METHOD: Methods are the vital practices (often called “means of grace”) by which a disciple activates his or her intention to pursue Christian spiritual transformation. Following Jesus, we learn from Him how to arrange our lives around activities that enable us to live in the fruit and freedom of the Spirit. This allows us to train “wisely” following His example, not simply trying harder to copy His outward behaviors.

 There is no “one-size” formula for growth, but we seek to work with the Spirit in bringing every aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, feelings, habits of will, social relations and bodily inclinations—working from the inside out, into harmony with the way of Jesus.36 These methods (or spiritual disciplines) enable us to participate with the Spirit in becoming the person we cannot otherwise become by our own direct effort. There are certain practices that are basic to helping most of us gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modeled, such as solitude, silence, prayer, worship, servanthood, confession and engagement with Scripture, especially Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels.37

In addition, we learn our particular barriers to living a Jesus kind of life; and then discover particular personal spiritual practices, experiences, or relationships that can help us overcome these barriers. For example, sins of omission (not doing the things we ought to do) would likely be addressed by a discipline of engagement (e.g., worship, study, fellowship, giving) whereas the sins of commission (doing the things we ought not to do) would likely be addressed by a discipline of abstinence (e.g., solitude, fasting, silence). Foundational to our understanding of the helpfulness of these methods is the empowering activity of the Holy Spirit given as the beloved Counselor and Comforter of every believer.38 We believe the Church, as God’s community, has a role at each point in this process of spiritual transformation.
  • The Church is responsible for continually holding forth the vision of love which Jesus proclaimed and modeled in the “with-God” life in His Kingdom.
  • The Church must call people to intention and invite decisions to pursue this lifegiving vision.
  • The Church is responsible for offering encouragement, guidance, accountability and essential catalytic opportunities to those seeking to grow spiritually.
Conclusion The best thinkers on the spiritual life describe it as an integrated and relational one, encompassing all of life and involving our relationships with the self, others and God. Ortberg comments on the spiritual life from God’s perspective: “God is not interested in your spiritual life. God is just interested in your life. He intends to redeem it.”39

The Growing Faith Task Force believes that this common understanding of spiritual formation, against the backdrop of the REVEAL findings, can help us as a church community to discern and evolve those best practices which will, by the grace of God, quietly and surely lead to our transformation into Christlikeness—so that we may be used by God to usher in the shalom of His Kingdom.

22 Willard and Simpson, Revolution of Character, 9-11. We are indebted to Dallas Willard for his deep thinking and understanding of the biblical basis and imperatives of discipleship. 
23 Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, ix. 
24 Willard, The Renovation of the Heart, 45. 
25 Romans 3:23 26 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 46. 
27 Matthew 11:28-30. 28 Willard and Simpson, Revolution of Character, 11, 19. 
29 Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, xi. 
30 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 77-94. 
31 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 85. 
32 Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, 34. 
33 Jesus cautions disciples to count the high cost of discipleship saying “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” Luke 14:25-33. 
34 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 87. 
35 Romans 8:27-30 
36 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 89, 93. 
37 Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, 48.

This entire post is an excerpt from Menlo Park Presbyterian Church's Growing Faith Task Force Report, for which I was an editor and contributor.

Related Spiritual Formation Posts:
How to Live in the Kingdom of God
A Theology of Spiritual Formation 
Why (and How) Spiritual Disciplines Work 
Corporate Culture as Spiritual Formation
A Call to Spiritual Formation
Dallas Willard: Interview with John Ortberg at Catalyst Conference

A Personal Statement of Faith by Christopher James

I believe the one God has revealed God’s self in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, co-equal in divinity yet distinct. I believe the only true God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Israel’s Redeemer; the Father of Jesus Christ. As seen in God’s name and essential to God’s nature, God desires to be known. God declares both through and to creation, “I Am.” God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, creating for the praise of God’s own glory. In sovereignty, God intimately sustains creation out of love for it. I am created to praise God, reveling in God’s love.

I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the image of the invisible God and the firstborn over all creation with all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus is God’s greatest self-revelation, and the true incarnation of the Word, who was with God in the beginning. Jesus, the Son of Man, lived a fully human life, showing complete solidarity with humanity. As the sacrificial Lamb, Jesus bore in himself the debt of our human sin. Jesus has been restored to divine glory and given the name above all names, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is Lord and Savior. He is the victor over death, the fulfillment of the Law, and the brother of all who are in Christ. Jesus is both the teacher and the subject taught. I am his follower and disciple. My principle obligation in this relationship is not one of understanding, but of continued presence and obedience. Though separated from God by our idolatrous sin, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection accomplished for us salvation: our sin is forgiven and we are no longer slaves to evil. We may now live as citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus will come again to judge the world and consummate the Kingdom, and usher his bride, the church, into glorious intimacy and peace forever.

I believe the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, and the closest companion of Jesus’ followers. The Holy Spirit equips Christians to live now into the efficacy of Christ’s victory. The Spirit is the Almighty God that desires to be known and experienced intimately. The Spirit inspired and empowered the prophets of old and today gives guidance, conviction, illumination and supernatural gifts for the strengthening of Christ’s Body. By the Spirit believers are transformed into Christ-like character. The Spirit animates Scripture, enabling understanding and giving it power in the lives of its readers. The Holy Spirit lives in me, enabling me to live as a citizen in the Kingdom of God that Jesus welcomes all to join.

I believe the church is all who are in Christ; those who have been chosen, adopted into the family of God and given the Spirit. As a called-out community we are a chosen instrument of God's self-revelation to the world. The church speaks of the great “I Am”: in worship it declares, “You are,” and in mission, “God is.” As the Body of Christ, the church is to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, healing and proclamation of the Kingdom of God. The church is to both show forth the Kingdom to the world, and seek promote Kingdom values of love, peace and justice in society. Christ’s disciples are called to obedient participation with the Spirit’s transforming work by means of private and corporate spiritual disciplines such as prayer, study, service, stewardship and simplicity becoming both apprentices to Jesus and accomplices with him in the Kingdom conspiracy.

The Canon of Scripture faithfully reveals the triune God and documents the history of God’s covenant and people. Through the contextually-situated writings of Scripture, God’s will for the church and individual believers has been authoritatively revealed.

The church celebrates two sacraments: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These serve as outward signs of the inward realities which God enacts by them. Baptism marks the communion of an individual with Christ through participation in his death and resurrection and entrance into the covenant community. At the Lord’s Table we enjoy the real spiritual presence of Jesus as host and meal, celebrating the Lord’s death and resurrection and toasting to the new covenant and coming reign.

What do you believe?

Meet John the Miracle Worker: The Story and Legacy of John Wimber

John Wimber was born on February 25, 1934 in Peoria, Illinois to a rural poor family. His father, Basil, was a drinking man and his parents divorced while John was still young. His mother showered him with “all the acceptance, admiration and praise that he’d need for the rest of his life.” John loved his grandfather Charley greatly and six-months before Charley died a Baptist preacher came to talk to him about Jesus. Charley was “marvelously converted” and called each of his own children and John into his room and told them about Jesus. When Charley’s time did come he sat up in bed and yelled, “He’s coming! Do you hear it? He’s coming for me! Sweet Jesus! He’s here! Do you see him? Oh, he’s here!” and died with his arms held out to Jesus. This somewhat embarrassing event was stuck in John’s memory indelibly. 

Meet Greg: Pope, Saint and Pastor

Brief Biography
Gregory the Great was born in about 550 AD to wealthy parents of senatorial rank. He was educated as one of his class and went on to serve as the Prefect for Rome during the threat of Lombard invasion in 573. In 574 he retired and founded six monasteries with his personal funds. He also converted his father’s house into a monastery for himself and others. In 579 Gregory’s monastic life was interrupted when Pope Pelagius II made him the seventh Deacon, to care after the Christian community in Rome. Shortly thereafter the Pope sent him to Constantinople to gain the Emperor’s understanding of Rome’s peril and his military support. His seven years of work in Constantinople gave him exposure to Eastern theology, spirituality and church life. It was here that he began writing Moralia Job. Shortly after he returned to Rome hoping to resume a monastic life, the Pope died and Gregory was the popular choice for his replacement. With personal doubts about his own qualifications to serve as shepherd of the entire church and informed fears about the hectic schedule of a pope, Gregory temporarily

A Proverbs 31 Dog

Epilogue: A Dog of Noble Character A pet of noble character who can find? It is worth much more than an iPhone.
Its owner has complete confidence in it, and he has everything he needs.
It brings him good, not harm, all the dog-years of its life.
It retrieves slippers and the morning paper and does so with eager jaws.
It is like an UPS truck, bringing goods from afar.
It gets up early and scares away burglars, providing safety for its master.
It chooses the way to go on its walk and drags its owner on.
It runs vigorously, its legs are beefy.
It sees that it has not made a mess, and it watches over the house by night.
In its jaws are rats and rodents.
It cuddles next to the poor and gets petted by the needy.
When it snows, it has no fear because its master’s slippers are near to him.
It gathers blankets for it’s bed, and is well groomed.
Its master is an established businessman in the office.
It rids the property of vermin and buries them.
It is known for its strength and loyalty, it can laugh at the next dog-year.
It barks truthfully, and it directs its master wisely.
It protects the property of its master, and is not a lazy dog.
The master’s children call it special, and the master boasts of it: “Many dogs are loyal, but you more than them all.”
Barks are deceptive and cute puppies grow up; but a dog who is noble is to be praised.
Give it the doggy bone it deserves and let it win the blue ribbon at the dog show.