One of the great problems facing the church today is how to cultivate a unified Christian mind on a corporate level in our churches and on an individual level in the lives of individual Christians.
This challenge is, in one sense, the challenge facing every generation of Christian believers who are called to live in the world and yet not be of the world. So in an important way there is nothing new about this difficulty. Previous generations of Christians have faced it just as we are now.
Yet there is something uniquely difficult that hinders us, particularly in a place like the United States, as we attempt to do this thing today. There are three things in particular that militate against this sort of reflection and development for Christians living in the United States:
- First, the very idea of a clear and coherent mind that has been taken captive by the Gospel in a pervasive way is foreign to us. We are fragmented people who only fleetingly pay any heed to the life of the mind and who are not concerned with cultivating a single coherent way of being in the world. We quite literally live our lives in many different, disconnected places and amongst many different, disconnected groups of people. The whole structure of life in the United States in 2016 lends itself to superficial knowledge, fleeting grasps at the truth, and commitments that only endure long enough to shape us in mostly superficial ways. We simply do not have the ability to know much of anything in a deep, life-changing way. This is true of all Americans, regardless of religious beliefs.
- Second, the idea that a person or community should devote themselves to a rule or discipline that constrains their choice and demands sacrifice of them is largely foreign to us as well. We have not only become disconnected from our places, we have also become disconnected from our neighbors, family members, and even our own bodies. And the idea that some rule should bind us to those things even when our heart wishes to part from them is increasingly not only unwelcome, but (sorry Vizzini) inconceivable.
- Third, this individualism has very much shaped the life of the church. Our Christian practice is often defined not by the norms and beliefs of the ecclesial tradition to which we belong, but in a far more hap-hazard way—appropriating an Orthodox practice here, a Roman practice there, and so on. This is also very much reflected in how we approach theology. Our knowledge of theology is often quite limited and superficial, disconnected from daily life not simply because of our apathy to it but because we simply do not devote the time required to truly understanding the scriptures or seeking out the ways in which basic Christian teachings actually connect to our daily Christian practice.
It’s for all these reasons that I am excited about a new book called Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life. If you’re a theology nerd it’s easy to get excited about the book simply because of the names of the contributors, which include Fred Sanders, Katherine Sonderegger, and John Webster, amongst others. But it’s the purpose and scope of the book combined with our current cultural moment that truly excites me.
I have spent my whole life in evangelicalism. I grew up in a church that cares deeply about the Bible and with parents who taught me how to read the Bible and taught me a fair bit of theology too. Yet even in a scenario that is probably, as far as knowledge of the Bible goes, better than most millennial evangelicals got, I came to college knowing relatively little theology. Given my own situation, I don’t think that’s a discredit to my parents or church, both of whom worked very hard to teach me the Bible, so much as it is a commentary on American evangelicalism more broadly and particularly of late 20th century fundamentalism which often struggled to make any sort of systematic sense of scripture, even while being deeply devoted to the reading of it.
To take one example, which also brings us to one of the more helpful essays in the book, my understanding of election prior to college was exclusively concerned with the way in which God saves or damns individual people. There was no broader context for thinking about election. I had Romans 9 and that was mostly it.
It wasn’t until college and being introduced to Reformed University Fellowship, that I started to develop a broader understanding of the doctrine as well as an understanding of the doctrine’s practical import and connection to the rest of Christian theology. For me, that knowledge came through the campus’s pastors talks on Thursday nights as well as listening to free lectures via Covenant Seminary’s online portal.
But thanks to Sanctified by Grace, you could get what took me a couple years to hammer out over many sermons, conversations, and long hours listening to lectures from a single essay that will take no more than an hour to read. The essay is by Suzanne McDonald and it’s an excellent introduction to the Bible’s understanding of election, which does not exclude questions of the final destination of individual people, but includes far more than just that. McDonald focuses on two points in particular that are clearly taught in Scripture and yet are points that I had never considered prior to RUF.
First, far from the caricatured version of election which sees God choosing a small group of people and saying “I don’t care about anyone else,” the doctrine of election is actually deeply concerned with all people. In the first place, it is not as if God has elected a small and exclusive group—their number is as many as the stars, he tells Abram. But it goes beyond just the number of people God has elected. The individuals God calls out are called out in order to be a blessing to all the nations—as is clear from the very beginning of God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12. Election is not about a rejection of the vast majority of the world, but is concerned with bringing about the restoration of the world through the work of God’s elected people.
Second, election in Scripture is never linked to the works of those who are elected. It is wholly unmerited. Indeed, if anything God seems to elect those least worthy. McDonald specifically mentions Jacob, Joseph, and David—all forgotten younger sons—but you could just as easily mention someone like Gideon, least of the least of the least in Israel, or many of Jesus’s disciples, most of whom were not people of great education or social prestige. Yet these are the people God chooses to do his work in the world. Not only that, these are the people with whom God keeps his covenant even through their own infidelity. To see this we need look no further than the story of Abram, which is where the story of God’s election begins in Scripture. Repeatedly Abram fails in various ways and yet God remains faithful to him.
Far from being a doctrine that should make us fear God or see him as a kind of moral monster, the doctrine of election reminds us that God cares for all of creation and that he is faithful to those with whom he makes covenant. It is, in other words, a deeply pastoral, comforting doctrine that helps individual believers understand the purpose of their salvation as well as the security of their salvation.
The above is one example of what I mean when I say the book does a marvelous job of connecting Christian theology to the Christian life. We’ll discuss this at greater length as the week continues as I’ll be doing more posts on this book throughout the remainder of this week.