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Healthy Theology 8: Living Well

Healthy Theology 8: Living Well

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:4 ESV)

People want to know how to get into heaven; but–to quote a line from a forgotten source–God’s first desire is to get more of heaven into us. For Christians, “eternal life” is not just about how long we live after we die; it’s also about the kind of life God offers us—not just in eternity, but even today. According to the Gospel of John, “to know the only true God and Jesus Christ” summarizes what it means to experience the life of eternity. Knowing God involves the intimacy of walking in step with God’s Spirit, putting on the mind of Christ, and trusting in the promises of God. We live in the confidence that we do not walk alone, and we are not left to our own resources. The Spirit of God is with us on our journey toward a better life. Our Savior promises to be with us on the road to recovery. Our God will forever be with us as we accept the invitation to “participate in the life of God” (2 Peter 1:4 MSG). Healthy theology goes beyond asking what you believe or how you read; it involves practicing a vibrant life of faith that flows out of a spiritually nutritious life.  A healthy pursuit of God involves relying on God’s Spirit which enables us to experience a new kind of life: one that causes us to look more and more like Jesus—and, in so doing, become more and more like God.

TRANSFORMATION

Participation in the life of God begins with a transforming experience. In a conversation with a man named Nicodemus, Jesus named this experience as being “born again” (John 3:3). This birth is not from a second womb, but from a higher source (John 1:13; 3:4, 6). We long to know how we can get to God; the surprising reply is to allow God to get into you! To be born of the Spirit (John 3:8) is to allow God’s Holy Spirit to take up residence in your heart and life—cleansing your heart, mind, and soul, preparing and enabling them for active service in the ways of God (Romans 6 & 8).

God’s transforming grace begins to work, even when we do not yet see all the effects. The new Christian may look in the mirror and say “I don’t see or feel any different.” But God is at work in you (Phil 1:6), and He is not finished yet. Progress takes time.

Christians are not only “saved” in some initial moment of giving our hearts to Jesus; we are “sanctified” (that is “made holy”) by the inward work of the Spirit upon every aspect of our lives. In one sense, we are “declared holy” because we are children of God, and have his Holy Spirit living inside us. But in another sense, we are “being made holy” through the difficult process of changing our attitudes, habits, thought patterns, lifestyle, vision, and relationships. As the Living Bible beautifully translates 2 Peter 1:4, God has promised to “save us from the lust and rottenness all around us, and to give us His own character.”

What a powerful thought! If the process of sanctification is to empower us to become more like Christ, what is the end goal of this transformation process? It is for us to take upon ourselves the very character of God.

We become someone new: growing in the Spirit, becoming like Christ, so as to embody the very character of God. This what the life of eternity looks like.

HOW DO WE LEARN TO BE DIFFERENT?

Christ, our model, “learned obedience by the things He suffered” and was “made perfect” by them (Heb 5:8-9). When the Apostle Paul discovered Christians acting in sinful ways that once characterized their past, he reminded them “that is not the way you learned Christ!” (Eph 4:20). This emphasis on “learning” proper behavior is part of what it means to be a disciple. After all, the word “disciple” means “learner.”

As disciples we want to know what is right and wrong, good and bad, and how we ought to choose the good and avoid the bad. We call this the study of ethics. But ethics involves at least three sorts of approaches. Most everyone combines these in one way or another. At the same time, however, most everyone has a “way” of thinking about ethics that centers on one of these three approaches.

1.Achieving Goals. Perhaps you sense that what God wants most from us is to do whatever is best for others—regardless of self or any other consideration. If so, you may be operating out of a “goals”-oriented approach to ethics.

2.Obeying Rules. Perhaps your approach to ethics begins with this important thought: God’s highest desire is for us to obey his commandments. If you assume that—more often than not—God gives us a list of things to do or not do, and we ought to find the right answer and simply apply it to our situation, then you may be operating out of a “rules”-oriented approach to ethics.

3.Acquiring Habits and Becoming Virtuous People. Perhaps you think that God’s chief desire is to form us into the kind of people who can discern (for ourselves) which goal to seek and how to behave in situations beyond rules. If so, then you may be adopting a “virtue”-based approach to ethics.

I think we can all agree on the merits of these approaches. There clearly are Christian goals and there are, no doubt, Christian rules. For the moment, I would like you to consider the merits of a virtue-based approach. In Christian history, a virtue-based approach to ethics does not neglect goals and rules. In fact, virtue ethicists seek certain goals and follow certain rules in pursuit of becoming a certain kind of person. The key difference is this: when we become the kind of person who can discern wisdom that comes from obedience and seeking God, the goals and rules no longer become the central concern.

“In short, we can engage in the process of taking on the very character of God.”

Here is an example: we teach our children to make their beds every morning. We want them to become the sort of people who can maintain a healthy life, avoid sloth, keep to a schedule, and live an ordered life. We would be proud of them if, when they are 30, they maintain such a life, and live with industry and integrity, whether or not on any particular day we were to find their bed unmade. The rule serves a larger purpose rather than simply serving itself. To disregard the rules, or to set aside the goal, is to fail to live out the purpose of either. But to be so constrained by them that you miss out on the larger purpose is to fail to capture the virtuous life to which they point.

In a chapter on “the Cardinal virtues,” C. S. Lewis speaks to this understanding very well. “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a simple set of rules,” writes Lewis, “whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” It’s a certain “quality of character” that God wishes to develop within us. For this reason, something more than ‘keeping the rules’ ought to drive us; our attitude, our intentions, and the larger trajectory of our lives come into play. “[R]ight actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue’, and it is this quality or character that really matters.”

The more I study difficult issues in Christian living, the more I see great value in adopting a virtue-oriented approach–as the rich tradition of Christian thought advises. We may not find the rule that gives an easy cut-and-dry answer to any particular situation. We might find Christian goals that lead in more than one direction. But that should not worry us nearly as much as it might seem; with prayer and confidence, we can acquire spiritual habits which essentially change our instincts, form our judgments, and align our hearts with the will and heart of God. In short, we can engage in the process of taking on the very character of God.

 “…[W]hen one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:16-18).

Resources For Further Reflection
Book: Robin Lovin, Christian Ethics: An Essential Guide. An excellent introduction goals, rules, and virtues.
Article: Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation, and the Restoration of the Soul
Sermon: Billy Wilson, “God Will Finish It” (Philippians 1:6) 

(photo credit: Pixabay)

Nathan Guy

Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.

Categorized: Christ & His Kingdom , Healthy Theology 101: What Is Theology? , Healthy Theology: A Starter's Kit
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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Corbett says:

    Good insight as always. I remember Dr David Smith emphasizing virtue-based ethics in our medical ethics course last year.
    Thanks for the refreshing read!

  2. Sean W says:

    Virtue theory was always my favorite branch of normative ethics. I always felt like it tried to get to the heart of the matter with internal change and not just external obligation. That being said I always wonder about the deathbed convert to Christianity. Someone who hasn’t had the time to acquire habits and become virtuous/or fully formed– but I guess this person would be sanctified even though he was still in the process of being made holy. this process of being made holy reminds me of the great divorce; sin works forward to corrupt the future while the goodness of Heaven (God’s grace) works backwards restoring the past in such they can “experience” heaven on earth- that extension of Heaven being experienced in our process of being made holy. I had a question about this dual role on being sanctified while being made holy. Does this process of being made holy continue after death? Or are we just sanctified. With Irenaean’s theodicy facing evil brings about these hard won virtues and in extension Hick’s soul making theodicy suggests the process continues after death. Does this process continue in an exclusivist nature (not a universalist way)?

    Thanks again for the article. It was very thought provoking.

    • Nathan Guy
      Nathan Guy says:

      Thanks for reading, Sean! You raise some interesting points and ask a fantastic question. Will the process of “conforming to the likeness of Christ” continue after death? In one sense, 1 John 3:2 implies that our likeness to Christ will find fulfillment “when He appears.” On the other hand, the pursuit of God is–as a good friend once said to me–“an eternal pursuit in an infinite direction.” I see no objection to the possibility that new creation will involve creative sharing and synergy which might imply some sort of growth or expansion (see Revelation 21-22, where the kings of the earth bring their glories into the celestial city). After all, God is inexhaustible..why should the pursuit of God be anything less? If I may, let me point you toward studies in “Theosis” in its more basic form (with roots in Eastern Orthodoxy). Lots there to think about. God bless!

  3. I feel like to answer the question well you’d need greater precision in our language about what exactly sanctification means, about what sin means, etc.
    I think that we’ll be free from temptation and fallenness, wicked desires, etc.Think about geometry for an illustration and say that God is like a ray rather than a point on the grid. Sanctification is about bending our lives to get on that ray and move in the same infinite direction it is moving. Thus, God is something to be participated in rather than something to be captured or some place at which to arrive. Because if you’re on the ray at 1, you’re fully on the ray. If you’re on it at 1 million, you’re fully on the ray. The ray encompasses both and draws both “further up and further in”.

    LIke Sean W, I found Lewis’s treatment of the question in The Great Divorce to be both helpful and lovely. There’s something similar at the end of Perlandra too – a vision of an infinite dance. If you want a book that explores some similar themes in a more systematic and theologically rigorous way, check out David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. He does some cool stuff on this theme when he talks about Bach’s musical variations. Really cool stuff.

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