Eternal Incarnation

Our thoughts on the Incarnation often focus exclusively on the birth of Jesus at Christmas time, but in Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, Gerrit Scott Dawson points out why the oft neglected doctrine of the Ascension addresses our crucial need for an ongoing incarnation.
“Moreover, our salvation depends on his (Christ’s) continuing union with us. If the Son of God came to us where we are, but then left us, if he went away and did not take us with him, we would still be lost…For any view of the ascension as Jesus slipping off his humanity is a sentence of condemnation. We cannot be united to him in the Holy Spirit if he is no longer flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. If the one who sits at the right hand of God is not still fully human as well as fully God, then we will never enter within the veil. If he dropped the hypostatic union with humanity, then he dropped us, and we are left forsaken on this side of the great divide, unable to fulfill our purpose, find forgiveness and restored communion, or enact our mission” (6).
Turning to the hope found in the doctrine of the Ascension, Dawson writes:
“A human hand will grasp us as we make our way into heaven. We shall be greeted by a face – the face of Jesus – that has a form to recognize. The incarnation continues, and so we are included in the life of God. That is the essential meaning of the ascension. We are not left alone. Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity. Jesus is himself that new and living way. The fully human one has gone within the veil in our name and even in our skin. United to him by the Spirit, to the one who remains united to us, we may follow where he has gone” (7).
This Sunday is Ascension of the Lord. May you be full of the hope that comes with the knowledge that the eternal Son of God forever shares our human life ensuring our ongoing fellowship with the God who is triune.

Why I Love the United Methodist Church

General Conference starts today. The weeks leading up to this meeting of the legislative body that speaks for our United Methodist Church, have brought extensive focus on those aspects of our communion that need to be rethought and reformed. This is as it should be, for we are a denomination in crisis. But as General Conference convenes today, I hope we will remember our strengths as we seek to address our weaknesses. There are many reasons to commend and love the United Methodist Church. Here are but a few.
Grace that transforms
I recall reading John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection for the first time. I remember that I was blown away by Wesley’s vision of magnanimity of God’s grace. For the first time, I got a glimpse of the power of grace to transform in ways deeper than I’ve ever imagined. Wesley helped me to see that grace is not merely about forgiveness; it is about holiness. It is about the work of God to reproduce his own character within his people in order that we might bear his restored image to the world. This is our heritage as Methodists. I long and pray for the day when the United Methodist Church is, like Wesley was, full of passion for that grace that transforms rebel sinners into the sanctified people of a holy God.
Faith that works
Methodists affirm that salvation is by faith alone, but we also believe that true faith is itself never alone. It is always accompanied by works of mercy, charity, and justice. God saves us by faith not so that we can sit idly by and watch the world crumble under the curse of the fall. He saves us by faith so that we can be about the work of shining the light of his new creation into a world feeling the deep pain of sin and death. And as we set about our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, the world will be transformed because those who obey all that Jesus commanded will increase in number throughout the nations. And they will put their faith to work. I love the United Methodist Church because, when we are at our best, we are passionate about this outworking of our faith.
Truth that is experienced
Experience has always been a big part of the Methodist movement. We believe that the truth of scripture is brought to life in personal experience. A good example of this would be Wesley’s emphasis on the doctrine of Assurance. Scripture tells us that our sins are forgiven and that we are right with God. But the witness of God’s Spirit with our own spirit makes this more than words on page; the personal presence of the Spirit of God allows us to experience the peace and joy of the assurance of reconciliation with God. Truth is authenticated in our personal experience.
These are just a few features of our Methodist heritage that are worth celebrating. As our General Conference delegates deliberate over the future of our denomination and the changes that will best address our weaknesses, perhaps we can also remember, celebrate, and build on the good things that God offers the world through the people called Methodists.

The Role of Experience in the Life of the Christian

The people called Methodists have always recognized the importance of experience in the Christian life. It is the common privilege of the children of God to personally and authentically appropriate the loving forgiveness of God in Christ and the redemptive embrace of God’s own Holy Spirit. The authentic experience of being rightly related to God brings the truth of God revealed in scripture to life in each of us. At our best, we Methodists have understood this and made it a priority in our preaching and teaching.
As with many things, we must exercise caution to avoid allowing experience to do more than it was ever intended. Unfortunately, experience is sometimes granted ultimate authority over reason, tradition, and, at times, even scripture. We are tempted to think that if something feels right, then it must be right. We Methodists are reminded, though, that we must “interpret experience in light of scriptural norms” (2008 Book of Discipline, para. 104). Experience is not always a reliable guide, and it is an ongoing necessity to discern between personal preference and the genuine experience of being led by the Spirit. This is why the scriptures must be the norm. When experience and the Bible contradict, experience must surrender to scripture. The Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures will never lead anyone in a manner that contradicts those scriptures.
Experience is not an authority above or even on par with the Bible; rather, experience functions to make the truth of scripture a real factor in our lives as disciples of Christ. Experience is that authentic knowledge that God affirms our faith and obedience. It is Wesley’s warm heart. It is the feeling of forgiveness and the assurance of God’s love for us. Experience is not to be granted authority to contradict or trump the Bible; rather, it is the conviction of the Spirit when we stray from truth. An authentic experience of God’s love and grace are essential to the Christian life, but like every aspect of life, experience needs to be conformed to the image of God in Christ as revealed in the scriptures.

Eschatology is Everything

I’m reading a lot on the Apostle Paul these days. And among the many things I’m learning, one stands out from the others: for Paul, eschatology is everything. His view of “last things” soaks his theological thinking. You cannot escape it. It’s pervasive. I’ve read this before, of course. But it is now taking root in my own thinking in a new and exciting way.
Consider, for Paul that justification is the present faith-anticipation of the eschatological verdict. Sanctification is the Spirit-life of the future come into the present. Salvation itself is a matter of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, which is the first fruits of the final resurrection of the people of God. The presence of the Spirit in the Church marks it out as an eschatological community. And the Mosaic Law, though it was a good thing, is now obsolete because it was intended for an age that has now ended with the coming of the Christ and the Spirit. More could be said, but you get the picture.
But why is Paul’s theology so pervasively eschatological? I am persuaded that it is because of his all-consuming focus on Christ. The first coming of Christ was an eschatological event which inaugurated the eschatological kingdom of God. His death on the cross is the decisive end of the old age; his resurrection the decisive beginning of the new. As already observed, his resurrection is also the initial phase of the general resurrection, his new life the beginning of the new creation that will find its ultimate consummation upon his return. Let’s not forget that Paul’s eschatology is not fully realized; to suggest as much would be a grave misunderstanding of his thought. But Paul did believe himself to be living at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. And the crucial difference was the presence of the Messiah, Jesus Christ the Lord. And because of that, for Paul, eschatology is everything.

Life in the Spirit

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Romans 8:9

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the Christian life is about more than forgiveness of sin. Don’t get me wrong! Forgiveness is hugely important. But it’s not the end of the story; it’s only the beginning. One of the ways that scripture describes the ongoing process of Christian discipleship is with the language of living in the Spirit. But what is life in the Spirit? How is this new life nurtured and developed? What is it’s goal?
Romans 8 is one of the chief places that the Apostle Paul develops the theme of life in the Spirit, and he does so in contrast to life in the flesh. When Paul uses these terms flesh and Spirit, he is referring to opposing powers or principles of control. The Spirit is God’s own Holy Spirit who indwells believers and empowers them to live transformed lives that honor and please God. The flesh is the opposite controlling power that is antagonistic to the work of God’s Spirit. In developing these concepts Paul invites his reader to ask: Am I controlled by the flesh or the Spirit? He also wants his readers to begin reflecting on what it looks like to live under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit as they seek to live in ways that are honoring to God.
Life in the Spirit begins with the life of the mind.
Paul makes just this point when he says, “For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6). Being transformed into the likeness of Christ begins with the life of the mind, which means that as believers we need to be intentional about the way we order our habits of thinking. There are innumerable voices out there vying for a piece of our thought life. From radio to TV, billboards to social networking, someone wants us to think about their show, their product, their idea, or their agenda. The question for us is whether our thoughts will be shaped by those voices or by the Spirit of God.
But how do we develop habits of mind that are shaped by the Spirit? The Church has often pointed to the means of grace as concrete and specific tools used by God to transform our thinking and our living. Regular study of scripture alone and with a group, prayer, corporate worship, and sharing in the sacramental life of the Church are only a few ways that we can develop a disciplined thought life. Memorizing scripture is enormously important as well. My grandfather has made a habit of memorizing several chapters of scripture at a time (and sometimes even whole books!). It’s not hard to guess what occupies his thinking most of the time. Life in the Spirit begins with the life of the mind. Who is shaping our thinking?
Life in the Spirit is life free from sin.
The struggle against sin is sometimes so profound that it’s almost impossible to believe that God’s Spirit intends us to live lives that are pleasing to God, lives free from sin. But no matter how tough it may be to believe, Paul makes just this point by implication in Romans 8:7-9. He claims that the mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It is not willing submit to God; indeed, it is not able to submit to God. Then Paul says something staggering: “You are not in the flesh.” Here’s the logic: those that are in the flesh are unable to please God. You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Therefore, you are able to please God. If Paul is right that those in whom the Spirit dwells are able to please God, then he must mean that those who have the Spirit are able to successfully resist temptation to sin, because sin is not pleasing to God.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for Christians to sin. I am saying that life in bondage to sin is not God’s design for the normal Christian life. Life in the Spirit means that the Spirit empowers people to obey God, to honor God, to resist those things that bring feelings of guilt and condemnation. It turns out that the good news is better than we could of imagined. Not only is the penalty of our sin forgiven, but the power of our sin is destroyed. Life in the Spirit means life free from sin.
Life in the Spirit is holiness now and resurrection later
Many times when we talk about life in the Spirit and the holiness that is the fruit of life in the Spirit, we forget that this life is driving forward towards a goal, and that goal is nothing less than resurrection from the dead. We catch a glimpse of this in Romans 8:11 where Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” For Paul, God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus, if the Spirit of God dwell in us believers, then we have the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead along with Christ. The presence of the Spirit in the present produces the transformed life of Christlikeness and holiness; the presence of the Spirit also guarantees the future resurrection of the body when Christ returns. This is important because death is a consequence of sin, and until death is defeated and its effects reversed, the consequence remains. Life in the Spirit means the full overthrow of all the effects of sin. Bondage to sin is broken in the present; the death that is the result of sin is reversed in the future. And that is good news.
So, life in the Spirit begins with the transformation of our thinking and works its way out into every aspect of our living as we await the day when death will be fully and finally overthrown and our bodies raised from the dead. Christian discipleship is about much more than forgiveness. The question is: Are we living in the Spirit?

Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God by Gordon Fee

To many Christians, the Holy Spirit is a fuzzy figure about whom they can say little with confidence.  Unfamiliar with his person and work, believers often move through their Christian life with very little lively experience of the Spirit.  This problem is compounded by a significant neglect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in both academic and church settings.  In Pauline studies specifically, the Holy Spirit has been much neglected.  The present book by Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, aims to fill the gaping hole in the life of the church by working through Paul’s presuppositions and teaching on the Spirit as presented in his thirteen canonical letters.  The book is intended for interested laypersons and is quite accessible.  Those with knowledge of current scholarship on Paul will notice Fee’s interaction with various takes on Paul, but readers with little or no background in Pauline studies will not be hindered as they work through this book.  A number of features make this book beneficial and, as a result, are worthy of note.
First, and perhaps most importantly, Fee writes with the hope of nurturing the church in the Spirit.  His is no mere academic exercise, but an effort in leading the church to know God as he has revealed himself in scripture.  The book regularly provides practical implications of the material for the life of the church, and, in this sense, this book is for the church and a model for doing theology.
Second, while Fee strongly emphasizes the experiential aspect of the Spirit, he never presents that experience as being inconsistent with the Spirit of God as revealed in scripture.  All too often, Spirit movements have an “anything goes” attitude with regard to the experience and manifestation of the Spirit.  Fee does not espouse such an attitude.  The reader comes away from this book rightly feeling that the author would have him experience the Holy Spirit in a vibrant and fresh way, but the experience is always of the Spirit as made known in the Bible.
Third, many Christians find the language of the Trinity to be challenging and difficult and, as a result, never seek to understand this sine qua non of the Christian religion.  Fee, however, presents the person of the Spirit in a very accessible way.  He explains the trinitarian language of the church in clear terms and shows how Paul presupposed the later trinitarian formulations even if he did not use their exact language.  Worth special note is Fee’s presentation of the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity.  When the Holy Spirit is written or spoken of, impersonal terminology is often used (e.g., wind, fire).  Fee helpfully highlights the way Paul uses verbs of personal action with regard to the Spirit, as he also does with regard to the Father and the Son.  This emphasis on the personal nature of the Spirit is especially important for understanding how the Spirit intends to be at work in the life of the church.
Fourth, Fee manages to balance a number of issues which are often over emphasized either one way or the other.  He maintains a good balance between the individual and corporate dimensions of the Holy Spirit’s work. He also maintains a good balance between the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit.  This balance is referred to by Fee as “the radical middle.”  He generally does a fine job of walking the line between various extremes.
Fifth, Fee’s understanding of Paul’s theology is thoroughly eschatological, which is important because Paul’s theology was thoroughly eschatological.  Paul’s thought and mission were shaped by his perception of living in the unique period of time between the first and second comings of Christ.  Fee well represents Paul’s understanding of the Spirit in the life of the church as especially shaped by this eschatological orientation. 
All in all, this is a fine book that will serve as a good introduction to the study of the Holy Spirit.  Looking closely at the Pauline material as Fee presents it may well whet the appetite for further study as presented by other biblical authors.  Fee’s work will lead you to desire the experience of the Spirit for yourself, your local church, and the church universal.