Monthly Archives: November 2013

Moral clarity and mission in Ephesians

Blending inOne of the most difficult issues for Christians to navigate in our generation (and in any generation) is how to engage faithfully and constructively with people who don’t share our Christian beliefs. If our approach is too strident, we make enemies unnecessarily, but if we lose our sense of identity and mission while we are immersed in the surrounding culture, the distinctive beauty of our Christian witness is diminished.

Three passages in Ephesians offer help in clarifying how a Christian living in the light can shine within a dark world.

Ephesians 4:17-19 foreshadows teaching on putting off the “old self” and putting on the “new self” by exhorting believers to leave behind the non-Christian attitudes and practices that characterized their former lives. Their old selves were permeated by “the futility of their thinking,” and being “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” They were marked by “ignorance” (of God’s good will), hardened hearts, a loss of “all sensitivity” (to God and his work), and various moral vices.

Ephesians 5:8-14 uses the imagery of light and darkness to highlight the drastic change of the believer’s spiritual situation. “Light” is grouped with belonging to God, living a morally fruitful life, and pleasing the Lord. “Darkness” is associated with fruitless deeds, shame, and hiding. Christians are called to separate themselves from participation in darkness while shining brightly in the dark environment around them.

Ephesians 6:10-12 depicts the Christian struggle to live for God in the world as warfare. Paul is careful to specify that our enemy is not “flesh and blood” though. The devil and all other spiritual rulers, authorities, powers, and forces of evil in “this dark world” are the ones who oppose God’s people. Christians must stand strong in their identity in Christ and all of the divine resources God has made available to us in this supernatural struggle.

Two key truths emerge from these three passages:

1. The light/dark contrast and stark difference between believers and unbelievers alerts us to the need for moral clarity and discernment in our lives. It is a false dichotomy to say that Christians in their relationships and behavior can be either loving or holy. A sloppy line of reasoning among some Christians goes like this: A) it is wrong to be moralistic and legalistic – concerned with only outward behavior and being pure; B) therefore, just love other people and don’t be concerned about moral excellence. Our engagement with the world is characterized by both love and light. It is interesting to note that in 1 John, two things are said about God: “God is love” (4:8,16) and “God is light” (1:5).

2. Spiritual battle is a reality in our lives, but we must be sure to identify the correct enemy: Satan and the forces under him, not the unbelievers we encounter. We need to be spiritually and morally vigilant in our resistance to Satan’s agenda and values. But we should be careful about adopting a cultural warrior attitude against people who don’t believe in Christ. Our posture towards others should be that of an “ambassador” (Eph 6:20), looking for opportunities to represent God well as we share the light of Christ  with those who don’t know him.

Unlike the lizard (at least I think that’s what it is!) in the opening picture, Christians are called to stand out within our environment. We are not driven by hostility towards those around us but motivated with a desire to shine the light of the gospel in dark places.

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Renewal in Christ, part 2 – New Creation, New Community

Waterfall in the Rockies

Christians enjoy a transformation in their lives that changes them from the inside out and touches every part of their existence. From last time, we saw that Paul unfolds the foundation for and process of renewal in Christ, in Colossians 3:1-10. For this post, we will observe the outcome and community of renewal in Colossians 3:10-14.

How does the daily process of living out our union with Christ through leaving behind the old self and growing into the new fit into God’s eternal plans for our lives and our world?

The outcome of renewal in Christ is that believers are “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator” (Col 3:10).

The very word renewal in English and Greek (ανακαινοω) implies a return to an initial, ideal status. Along these lines, the pairing of “image” and “creator” takes us back to Genesis 1:26-28, where humans made in the image of God are commissioned as creators and rulers under God. Against this Scriptural background, Paul pictures Christ-formed believers creating and ruling under God in the new creation, in parallel with the original creation ideal. This should engender a sense of wonder, creativity, and responsibility among those who are being renewed in Christ.

Ultimately, our renewed lives will be lived out in a renewed creation of the new heavens and new earth (see Revelation 21-22). But in our current lives renewal towards that goal can still be experienced in all areas of life. The depth of renewal is as limitless as the depths of the riches of Christ (see Col 2:3), and the scope of renewal is as wide as all of creation, particularly in the vocations to which we are called. The process of Christ-centered formation is not somehow cordoned off from “real life” and limited to private spirituality but is at the core of an integrated renewal that touches all areas of creation and new creation.

One other implication of the outcome of renewal in Christ is that through the process of putting off the old self and putting on the new self we are being restored to our authentic selves. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that God somehow wants us to abandon and be untrue to our authentic selves when we grow as disciples. But the new self we embrace through renewal in Christ is a return to the original, authentic vision God has for humanity. It is the distorted and temporary false self that is being cast aside when we put off the old self and are made new in Christ.

Finally, the community of renewal is the body of Christ in all of its diversity (Col 3:11).

Believers all share a common union with Christ. We partake in a common renewal, from old to new, as we are being restored to the image of God. Rigid categories that separate us are eliminated – “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.” Christ’s work of renewal does not eliminate diversity but secures equality in Christ among those diverse believers, so that  “Christ is all, and in all.”

The “new-self” practices Paul identifies in Col 3:12-14 are community/corporate practices, encompassing relational virtues such as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, along with habits of forgiving and loving one another. We see some of these in action in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul challenges Philemon to live out the implications of this equal status in Christ with his slave Onesimus. It is in the closeness and messiness of real relationships that renewal into the image of God is experienced.

With Christ at the center of our identity and renewal, we grow together towards the original vision of humanity God gave to us, and toward what we will enjoy together with him, eternally, in the new creation.

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Renewal in Christ, part 1

Wilderness of JudeaIt is always fun to wake up just a bit more refreshed the first day or two after gaining an hour through daylight savings time. It is sad though how quickly that extra hour seems to get spent! The demands of life catch up again, and that fleeting time of renewal is quickly gone, like a morning mist.

What does true renewal look like for a Christian? It moves beyond simple refreshment to the experience of Christ’s life within us. How then does Christ bring about this renewal, and what is our responsibility as believers for our own renewal?

In Colossians 3:1-14 Paul presents a lasting renewal in Christ. In the passage, Paul describes:

1) The foundation for renewal.

2) The process of renewal.

3) The outcome of renewal.

4) The community of renewal.

First, the foundation of renewal is Christ and our union with him. In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul further develops the logic of being united with Christ. Paul has already established the reality of a believer’s union with Christ in Colossians 2:10-13, where he proclaims that we have been made complete in Christ (2:10), we have been buried and raised with Christ (2:12), and we are now “alive together with him” (2:13). Christ’s death and resurrection is something believers share in, through faith, so that we are now dead to sin and alive to God. In chapter 3, Paul continues to press the full implications of our union with Christ. Believers are even “raised with Christ” and “hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3). Paul sums up union with Christ by saying that Christ “is our life,” and that we will one day live together with him in his glorious existence (3:4). In other words, a believer’s identity and destiny are now shaped fully by Christ.

Second, the process of renewal consists of putting off the old, putting on the new. But for Paul, growth in Christ is not simply about behavior modification or sin management. Maturity and renewal in Christ is the outworking of being united with Christ.

What does this process look like? This putting off the old and putting on the new is developed against the backdrop of a series of contrasts: the contrast between earthly things and heavenly things (3:2), between the old self and the new self (3:9-10), and between a current world marked for judgment (3:6) and a glorious destiny for believers (3:4). Given these contrasts, Paul calls for a clean break in which the believer abandons the old life of corruption and embraces the new life of renewal and holiness. Putting off “earthly things” and the old self means leaving behind things that belong to a world that recklessly resists God. Putting on the new self and heavenly things means embracing things that are a preview of the glorious new creation yet to come. But this process flows from union with Christ. The resulting script for a believer’s obedience follows along the lines of “because I am united with Christ, I will put off X and put on Y.”

Pond in China

The beauty of this teaching is that the obedient process of renewal always stands on Christ’s foundation of renewal. When I lived in China, a five or six year-old boy was playing with his friends beside a murky pond near our apartment complex (see picture). All of a sudden he lost his balance and fell backwards into the pond. He began flailing his arms, with a look of fear on his face. As several bystanders prepared to jump in and rescue him, the look on his face abruptly changed. He calmly planted his feet on the bed of the pond, stood up, and walked to dry ground. The pond had turned out to be shallow, with solid ground underneath. In the process of being renewed in Christ believers can remember that Christ is our solid ground beneath us. Instead of flailing about on our own to grow in Christ, we can plant our feet on the firm foundation that Christ provides for us.

The theological principle for this is known as “the indicative and the imperative.” In grammar, the indicative mood presents fact and reality, while the imperative is the mood of command. In Paul’s letters, he first establishes the indicative (what Christ has done to bring us salvation and life) before he delivers the imperative (commands to live consistently with what Christ has done for us). The pattern of indicative first and imperative second means that Christians are growing into the renewed life that Christ has already secured for them. We are being renewed into the person God designed us to be, in Christ.

More to come next time: the outcome of renewal and the community of renewal.

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