For a long time, I wondered why it was that so many Christians, myself included, had such difficulty living out the realities of our faith. After all, when we accepted Christ into our lives, the old had supposedly passed away and the new had assuredly come; at least that is what Paul told us.
I suspect that just about all of us struggle with this issue at one time or another. I think most Christians want to have a deeper walk of faith and each has his or her own persistent demons that whisper in the ear in the dead on night and sometimes even shouts in the bright light of day. Without going into this issue too far, I think it is safe to say that this is, and has long been, a problem for those in the sheepfold of Christ. Paul even lamented the same issue when he told us he often did what he didn’t want to do and didn’t do what he wanted to do.
Personally, I had my first epiphany regarding this problem many years ago when reading The Normal Christian Life by the Chinese evangelist and teacher, Watchman Nee. In this fine book Nee discusses the fact that there are two halves to the gospel. The first half, involving the blood of Christ, dealt with our individual sins. These sins of the past, as well as all future sins, are covered by the blood of Christ and we are forgiven and justified. It is this half of the gospel that the church, especially the Protestant church, has focused on almost exclusively. Christ died a “Substitutionary” death for each of us, paying our sin debt to God.
Preachers extol this theme from pulpits far and wide and our traditional hymns are filled with references to the “precious blood.” Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing amiss with the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, although I’ll be the first to admit that this is something I accept solely on faith, because I sure can’t grasp why it is necessary. That, however, is another subject for another time.
What I discovered, first reading Nee, and later in other writers, was that the gospel had a second half, namely “the cross.” Christ’s blood covered our sins and his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection gave us new life. Not only did it give us new life, it gave us the power to walk in that newness of life as new creations. The problem, at least in part, was the fact that this half of the gospel was not talked about nearly as much as the first half. It seems the church had become obsessed with sin and forgiveness and ignorant of the power and identity imparted by the resurrection. This new understanding helped me put my own powerlessness into perspective and that was a good thing. However, it did not solve my dilemma completely. Although armed with this new wisdom, I still did not full understand or grasp, much less accept, my new identity “in Christ.”
I eventually came to see that the acceptance of my new identity in Christ was not so much a matter of understanding as it was an issue of faith. Just as I appropriated my forgiveness and salvation by faith, so I must appropriate my new life by faith. I further came to see that God, by his infinite grace and from his heart of mercy, had done two other things which I found mind-boggling. First, according to Paul, he placed inside me (and you) the same power that raised Christ from the dead. Stop right now and think about that for a minute. What the Apostle is telling me is that I have within me a power that is stronger than death, a power that can accomplish miracles beyond comprehension.
The second thing I came to see was equally miraculous, at least to my small mind. Peter tells us that God has graciously provided all that we need to be the kind of people we are called to be. In 2 Peter 1:3-4 we read:
By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.
Peter reminds us that grace and peace in our lives comes through knowledge of God and Christ. Then he makes an amazing statement. He tells us that Christ, through his divine power, has granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness. He has already given us all we need. All we have to do is, with empty hands and an open heart, reach out and receive it. Further, Peter goes on to tell us that through believing and appropriating the promises made by Christ, we may become partakers of the divine nature. Do you really realize what this means? Do you see the profound reality that Peter is putting right before our eyes? We, even as limited, fallen, and broken humans, can partake of the nature of God Himself. When I truly reflect on this statement, I tremble in awe.
Without waxing overly loquacious here, let me just say that this passage of scripture literally overwhelms me. We have been given:
Everything we need to live a godly life
Great and precious promises
The ability to share God’s divine nature
A pathway of escape from the world’s corruption
So these two revelations, that the same power that raised Christ from the deal lives in me and that God has already provided everything I need to live a godly life, helped me to at least get an intellectual grasp on the second half of the gospel. I spent much time in prayer, asking God for the faith to accept all of this, just as I had accepted, by faith, his offer of salvation and cleansing.
Although I found my Christian walk deepened by this, I still found areas of my old life that were problematic and the enemy certainly called to me with a persistent voice. Also, I continued to notice that many brothers and sisters, once equipped with this knowledge, generally had a deeper walk of faith, but still struggled as I did.
Since that time, I have come to see that as long as we live in a fallen world, we can expect struggle. I also now understand that scripture repeats that the provisions of these blessings of God are in the “spiritual realm” or in “heavenly places.” Our part in this process is to place ourselves in a position of receptivity that will allow these “precious promises” to be brought from the heavenly realms down into my daily living.
With all that said, not too long ago I had another of these revelations take shape in my mind over a period of several months. I will attempt to put some of these notions into words with the caveat that even for a person who makes his living with his pen, this is often difficult.
We have seen that many thinking, intelligent, and insightful Christians have now come to the awareness that the gospel has two halves, forgiveness and empowerment; justification and new life; death of the old and the coming of the new. Although I think this an accurate map of the “good news,” what I would like to do is offer another map of the gospel terrain. Instead of two halves, let’s consider that there may, in fact, be three thirds. More significantly, perhaps it is the third “third” that needs clarification and personal application in this day and age.
If the blood symbolizes the forgiveness of sin and our justification before a Holy God, and the cross and Jesus’ subsequent resurrection and the birth of new life, what might this other third I am referring to be? In a word, it is the Ascension.
After appearing to his disciples after the resurrection, Jesus finally instructs them to go into all the world and make disciples. He tells them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Before that time, they are to hold up in the Upper Room. I suspect they did more up there than just hang out, waiting. I can imagine them discussing their future tasks and going over the fine points of the teachings that Jesus had given them. I am sure that the few lessons we have in scripture are a small fragment of all the truths Jesus uttered to his inner circle over the course of three years.
Eventually, the Spirit did indeed come with a loud wind and tongues of fire and the disciples were empowered to go out and do what they were mandated to accomplish. We only need look at the immediate transformation of Peter to see just how empowered and changed these people were. The same man that denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest spoke with clarity, courage, and conviction. Yes, the Holy Spirit brought the disciples the power they needed. But did you ever stop and ask yourself the question: “What made the Holy Spirit’s arrival possible?”
Was it some mysterious timetable God had planned? No. Was it some degree of spiritual attainment on the part of the disciples that made it possible for the Spirit to finally appear in power? I doubt it. If not these things, then what?
All we have to do is examine scripture for the answer. Christ made it very clear what had to happen before the Spirit could descend to earth. Let’s look at John 16:7.
But in fact, it is best for you that I go away; because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you. (NLT)
Jesus had to ascend back to heaven before the Advocate could descend to earth and more importantly, take up residence in our hearts. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gives the disciples his final instructions:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere, in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (NLT)
After this, Jesus was “taken up in a cloud while they were watching.” We are told in other sections of scripture that Jesus is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father and he is there, interceding in our behalf and carrying out his role as the head of the Church, his Body. Shortly after this, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples in the Upper Room and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
My point in all this is simply to point out that the act of the Ascension makes the coming of the Holy Spirit possible and, as we all know, without the Holy Spirit we could accomplish nothing, zilch, nada. Just as the blood of Christ brought about our salvation, forgiveness, and justification; and the death and resurrection of Jesus brought about the defeat of sin and the birth of a new creation; the Ascension brought about our empowerment, our ability to go and do the things Christ mandated us to do, and equally significant, be the kind of people he mandated us to be.
In my mind I now look at the gospel as being divided into thirds rather than halves. Perhaps it seems insignificant, mere hair splitting, and maybe it is. However, I have come to believe that it is more than that. I have found that when I describe the “Sacred Story” of God’s plan of redemption, restoration, and renewal, most people understand the division into thirds and further, telling the great story this way seems to impart a degree of hope to those looking for just that, something that will give them the promise of positive life change and a better way of living. By including the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, potential converts a given an account of not only the possibility of new life, but of empowerment to make that life a reality.
To be continued…..
© L.D. Turner/ 2009 All Rights Reserved