Turning Theology into Spiritual Life

I was asked about harmonizing NT Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul” with the Keswick Convention and Watchman Nee’s “Deeper Life.” How do I reconcile being fond of both?

Here’s my answer:

I don’t really worry about harmonizing NT Wright and Watchman Nee. My concerns are practical. Therefore, the answer to your question about harmonizing the “New Perspective on Paul” and the “Higher/Exchanged Life” is found in your later questions about sin in the believer.

You mentioned the sin that remains in us, our new nature, the Holy Spirit, what to do after a known sin, relationship with God, and the effective work of Jesus in us. To address all of that would be a book! So my answer to you will be to summarize my answer to these last issues, and then explain how they apply to harmonizing the New Perspective with the deeper life teachings of Keswick. (You’re right. I am a huge fan of the Keswick Convention because of the incredible people that have been affiliated with it: Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, Rees Howells, Hudson Taylor, T. Austin Sparks, etc. Just a phenomenal crew of effective, powerful disciples.)

So, here goes.

As I said, my concerns are practical. My goal is to hear “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” on the last day. I have no other goal. I have a lot of distractions and temptations that hinder me on the way to that goal, but that is my one goal.

What I see in Jesus and Paul is that they were both true “paracletes.” Parakletos is the Greek word for “exhorter.” The Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete by Jesus in John’s Gospel, though there parakletos is usually translated “comforter.”

The related Greek words parakaleo and paraklesis are translated many different ways. They are translated beg, plead, exhort, comfort, console, consolation, exhort, admonish, and probably 2 or 3 others.

I decided my chosen definition would be “to convince someone with words by any means possible.” I think you can see that the words above all involve using words to convince someone of something.

Jesus and Paul both do that. They plead, they warn, they threaten, they promise reward, they encourage, they show mercy, they rebuke, they express frustration.

We need all of that, too. I need of all of that. I am like all the other weak ones among the saints. I am tempted by my flesh, attacked by the devil, tempted by the devil, drawn to the world, moved by human emotion, prone to addiction, and in every other way prone to sin, pride, jealousy, lust, division, revenge, anger, etc.

I don’t want to lose the war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. I want to win it.

Watchman Nee—along with Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, T. Austin Sparks, and Hudson Taylor—has had a great influence on my life by teaching me that I must rely on the Holy Spirit all the time. My victory will never come from my flesh. It will come as I turn again and again and again and again to the Holy Spirit, choosing his ways, not mine.

They taught me that being spiritual and recognizing the voice of God is absolutely essential to the Christian life, and that it is not only possible, but normal. They taught me that it is okay to learn to hear God and that many mistakes would be made along the way, but that I would mature and grow to know his voice better and better as time passed.

I have also been influenced by Charles Finney and the early Christians who taught me that seeking to walk by the Spirit in some mystical, spiritual way is good, but not enough. The violent take the kingdom of God by force, Jesus said (Matt. 11:12), and he was speaking about those who would enter the kingdom with violent force, not crushing the walls of the kingdom, but crushing ourselves, our will, and our own lives so that we might be acceptable to the King because we have forsaken everything.

Where I have really gotten help from the New Perspective people is in the area of justification. The emphasis on the Kingdom of God and our right standing as citizens really helped me piece together the many seemingly contradictory statements of Scripture concerning righteousness, faith, and works.

On arriving at the throne of God blameless and without fault:

The simplest picture of arriving blameless at the throne of God that I find in Scripture is 1 Jn. 1:7. We have to walk in the light, and if we do walk in the light, then the blood of Jesus will continually cleanse us from sin. Walking in the light means two things to me. It means walking in obedience to the teaching and revelation God has given me, and it means staying open and exposed before God when I stumble.

The shortest description of how to walk as a Christian that I can expound on is 2 Pet. 1:3-7. It goes like this:

  • vv. 3-4: This is the foundation of our Christian life. We have been given God’s divine nature. Jesus lives inside of us (1 Jn. 5:11-12), and we can let him live through us all the time (Gal. 2:20; 6:7-9). We must count this as true so that we know and believe the power that is in us (Rom. 6:11), and through these “great and precious promises” we have the power to escape the corruptions of this world.
  • v. 5: We add to our faith virtue/goodness. After we believe, we add to our faith doing what we know to be good. It’s the only appropriate response to believing the Gospel (Acts 26:20).
  • v. 5: We add knowledge to goodness. After we believe we do what is good, but those who have lived their life as sinners don’t actually know what is good. We learn the commandments and teachings of our Lord, adding knowledge to our virtue (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).
  • v. 6: We add self-control to knowledge. Just because we know it doesn’t mean we do it. We must be doers of the Word and not hearers only (Jam. 1:22). We see here that despite the fact that it is by the Spirit that we crucify the flesh (Rom. 8:13), it is up to us to seek and grow in self-control.
  • v. 6: We add perseverance to self-control. Even the self-controlled can grow weary (Rom. 2:7; Gal. 6:9). We must add perseverance to our self-control, continuing in it. Paul describes this perseverance and some of the motivation for it in Php. 3:8-15.
  • v. 6: We add godliness to perseverance. After we have persevered in hearty obedience to the Spirit of God, our obedience begins to change us. We become godly. We are not just persevering, the life of God is infusing us, making it more and more our nature to do what our Father does, to live like Jesus lived.
  • v. 7: To godliness, we add brotherly kindness. With godliness comes humility and a righteousness that is from God and not from man. We need this foundation to really excel in brotherly kindness. We must know our own weakness, and we must know what God commands and be able to differentiate God’s will from religious ideas, traditions, superstitions, fears, and deceit of man.

  • v. 7: To brotherly kindness, we add love. Everything before that is the foundation building up to love. Love can be conceived and wished for by a new Christian, but the depths and power of love, along with the ability to love with God’s love, is limited to those who are mature in the Messiah.

Another passage that gives a picture of this is 1 Jn, 2:12-14. The little children simply know the Father. The young men have learned to be strong and to battle the wicked one. The fathers, however, know him who was from the beginning. They know the depths of God. They understand his eternity and his attributes, and they have abandoned their own versions of righteousness to be found in God’s righteousness, imbued with godliness, filled with brotherly kindness, and shining with love.

Along the way we may, and will, stumble or even fall. We are in a mighty battle against ourselves, the devil, and the world. When we sin, however, we have an advocate with the Father, King Jesus the Righteous One.

There are those to whom God will not impute sin (Rom. 4:8). This blessing is not for those who merely name the name of the King. It is for those who also depart from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19). We can’t just call him Lord; we have to do what he says (Matt. 7:21; Luke 6:46). If we want our sin to be automatically cleansed, we must walk in the light (1 Jn. 1:7). If we want to be as righteous as Jesus is, we must practice righteousness (1 Jn. 3:7). Do not be deceived about these things (1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 6:7; 1 Jn. 3:7).

One final note:

I have said that we sin along the way. Let me provide a little more scriptural evidence for that assertion.

James 3:1 warns us that not many of us should become teachers because teachers receive a stricter judgment. How can there be a stricter judgment if the least strict judgment is that a person must not sin at all?

So, too, Paul tells us that there are those to whom God will not impute sin (Rom. 4:8). What purpose does he have for saying that if Christians never sin?

Don’t take that so far that you mock God (Gal. 6:7). The unrighteous will never inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), and those who walk according to the flesh will reap corruption (Rom. 8:12; Gal. 6:7).

True Christian theology calls us to action, and zeal for action. No, we’re not perfect the first day, which is why I love NT Wright’s description of justification. God just wants us to be faithful citizens of the Kingdom. He knows our weaknesses, and the Christian life is all about overcoming those weakness; day by day; over long periods; with lots of discipline from our Father involved.

It’s a frightening but exciting course, given by the Creator of the universe, which allows us to become his sons and grow up in his household.

That’s the other thing. We grow together. It’s really hard to grow up straight and true if we are not exhorted, encouraged, consoled, rebuked, and pleaded with daily (Heb. 3:13). I feel so sorry for those being bent by the ways of this world, the traditions of men that rule our Christian organizations, and by pure loneliness without ever being rightfully welcomed in the arms of Jesus, which according to 1 Corinthians 12:12 are the arms of saints. His arms are not supposed to be stretched down from heaven when they exist here on earth already! He wants to hug us, comfort us, and strengthen us in real human arms through which flows his blood and which are empowered by his Spirit.

Such an environment is worth searching long and hard for.

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4 Responses to Turning Theology into Spiritual Life

  1. NB says:

    This post is one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read. Thanks.

  2. Evan says:

    We elevate and become so preoccupied with our theological beliefs to the point that we allow it to define who we are; not what we do. To temper this nasty habit I am reminded of this quote from Oswald Chambers: “The first thing that goes when you begin to think is your theology.”

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