Thoughts of Faith and Practice and Life Transformation

Today’s post is going to be a melange of thoughts from blog posts that I have read over the previous week, in which I will attempt to retain some shred of coherence while wandering all over the place.  But then that’s the postmodern way, isn’t it?

I shall begin with a quote:

The reduction of faith to practice has not enriched faith; it has impoverished it.  It has let practice itself become a matter of law and compulsion.

–Juergen Moltmann

In our church we are beginning the year with a series called “Ask It”, which is centered around a single question which ought to guide all of your decision making:  “What is the wise thing to do?”  Or, put another way, “In light of my past experience, my present situation in life, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing for me to do?”

Excellent question.  If you keep this question front and center in all of your decision making you can save yourself a lot of trouble financially, relationally, emotionally, and in many other areas.  You would do very well to remember this question and take it to heart.

But if you subsist on a diet of this sort of preaching for any length of time, you start to get the idea that Christianity is all about making wise choices, learning principles to help you make wise choices, putting those principles into practice and watching your life soar to ever greater heights as you steer clear of the pitfalls of financial, relational or moral catastrophe that snare the unwise all around us.

Rick Warren did a short op-ed piece at The Christian Post last week entitled “The Aim of Preaching Is Life Transformation“.  I can’t say that I would agree with this.  When you make life transformation the ultimate goal of preaching, you reduce faith to telling people to think a certain way, feel a certain way, and act a certain way.

To be sure, Warren does not see preaching as being about giving out commands and expecting compliance.  Instead it is about something deeper:

Repentance is about changing minds at the deepest level – the level of beliefs & values.  We preach to produce the ultimate paradigm shift for people – the very transformation of their lives.  And it’s serious business!

But even this misses the point also.

We are called to make disciples.  Warren acknowledges this much.  But how do we do that?  The best answer is in 1 Thessalonians 2:

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

–1 Thessalonians 2:7-12

Paul saw the ultimate goal of preaching as to represent God well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love.  Life transformation will follow from this, but it should not be the ultimate goal.  Certainly it did not seem to be the ultimate goal for Paul.

Evangelicals have a long and well-documented obsession with “transformation by information”.  The model of spiritual formation now prevalent in evangelicalism sees the 40-minute sermon as the end-all, be-all in driving spiritual growth (with the personal quiet time coming in at a close second).  But this is only good up to a point.  Because there comes a point in everyone’s life (and if you haven’t reached it yet, you will, one of these days) where information alone is powerless to effect life transformation.

Sure, there is immense value in the right kind of repetition.  Every teacher knows this.  The Gospel and biblical preaching demand it.  But what is being repeated?  Is it the Gospel?  In many places in evangelicalism, no.  It is enough information to fill the atonement section of a seminary library.  It is the same political rants or moral exhortations or prosperity promises or success principles that you’ve all come to know and love so well.  The same challenges to ever-greater levels of spiritual commitment.  These things may work for a short season, but in the end will fail to produce lasting life transformation.

Now we turn our attention to Paul.

The reduction of Paul’s writings to systematic theology and doctrine has not enriched our understanding of Paul; it has impoverished it.

Allow me to direct your attention to a review of a new book from N. T. Wright entitled “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”.  Coming in at two volumes and 1700 pages, this one’s a doozy.  It will take lots of time to read, lots more time to digest.

What we learn from Wright’s work is that Paul was a creature of a certain time and place.  His attitudes and beliefs were heavily influenced by that time and place, though they would undergo major revision after a significant spiritual experience in Paul’s life.

Paul was a Jew, living in a Jewish nation situated in a world dominated by Greek philosophy, pagan religions, and Roman empire.  After his conversion experience Paul reworked much of his Jewish worldview around Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

An example of Paul’s reworked beliefs is soteriology (this is the doctrine of salvation, for those of you playing the home game).  In the Jewish worldview, soteriology is not a “me and Jesus” thing.  Instead it is something located in the people of God as a whole, beginning with Abraham and continuing through the Jewish nation.  In Paul’s reworked beliefs, soteriology finds its culmination in Jesus Christ.  Paul never understood the people of God as being the beneficiaries of salvation, instead he saw the people of God as the bearers of salvation to the entire world.

When you understand Paul as a man of a certain place and time, you begin to understand Christianity as not just a system of beliefs and doctrines (though it certainly does have those), but rather as a story.  We are invited to participate in the story of God’s redemptive work for all of creation.  We take our place in this story, not by memorizing tomes of systematic theology or by learning and practicing good life principles, but by simply heeding the invitation of Jesus:  “Follow me.”