Fulfilling the Promise of the New Life
Written in 1991, previously unpublished.
Jesus said: “I am the light of the world; those who follow me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12) This is his promise, his assurance, that provision has been made for the disciples to be like the master—to walk in the light, to live in the character and power of the Father, as Jesus himself did.
From the first chapter of the Bible to the last, light is associated with the expression and communication of God’s own being and power. St. Paul says of God that he “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Tim 6:16) Plato, the great Greek philosopher who lived some centuries before the coming of Christ, understood that being and knowledge have their source from something in the invisible world that is like the sun in the visible world. (Republic, Book VI)
Light brings reality and goodness, energy and knowledge. Darkness means illusion and evil, weakness and ignorance. To those who follow Jesus, he gives both the strength and the guidance to live truly and rightly. We receive through the light of his presence with us and in us an abundance of that life which he shares with the Father. (John 10:10)
The new life in the light of God is a life of self-sacrificing love. Its special quality, as the kind of love or good will characteristic of God himself, is conveyed through the New Testament context by the Greek word, agape. It stands over against all merely human affections—however good these may be in their own right—in virtue of its boundless willingness and ability to give.
Even our love for God does not exhibit the true nature of agape. In his old age the apostle John had long meditated upon his experiences with Jesus. We paraphrase his conclusion: “If you want to see love, don’t look at our love for God, but at his love for us in sending his son to die for our sins.” (I John 4:10) Again he says: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (3:16)
Jesus had called John and the other apostles, as he calls us today, “to love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than that one should lay down their life for their friends. You are my friends if you do whatever I command you.” (John 15:12-14) In his presence is provision to succeed in a life of agape, to step out of darkness and walk in the light of self-sacrificing love.
RECEIVING THE FAMILY RESEMBLANCE
If I do not have this kind of love, the most glorious and astonishing things I do “profit me nothing.” (I Cor. 13) That is, they indicate no progress at all into the life, the reign, of God. A contemporary, colloquial wording of what Jesus said on this point might be: “What’s so great if you love those who love you? Terrorists do that! If that’s all your ‘love’ amounts to, you have not entered into God’s action, drawn from the flow of his redeeming life, of his kingdom. Or suppose you are friendly to ‘your kind of folks.’ Crooks are too, without any help from God.” (Matt 5:46-47)
It’s when we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those that hate us and pray for those who abuse us that our action in faith engages the reality of God and participates in the action of his reign. Such actions are, precisely, of his character of self-sacrificing love, and they can only be done from his power. He alone has in himself the will and the power to be kind to the unthankful and the evil; to lavish good things—the sun, rain, food and drink, the beauty and health of creation—upon the good and the evil, upon saints and sex offenders. (I cringe at the thought!) His very being longs to do good to all. That is the nature of agape, which God is. (I John 4:8) But we do not want to do that, and we couldn’t if we did. So when we actually do such things, it is a clear demonstration that his life is flowing through us, making us “children of the Highest.” Provision is made for this as we follow Jesus.
Let’s be specific about this resemblance in the family of God. Let’s move to the level where one feels what it’s like. Here are some suggestions of agape life, taken from Jesus’ words.
Have you ever loved an enemy? Has your heart gone out in generous blessing upon someone who has insulted you, humiliated you? Have you been able to seek and secure the well-being of someone who openly despises you, even wishes you were dead? Are you earnestly praying for God’s best blessings to come upon someone who has hurt you, stolen from you, harmed your children or other loved ones, ruined your reputation or your hopes? Are you enthusiastically “pulling for” the success of a competitor for favor, or position, or financial gain? Do such reactions come at all? Do they come with increasing frequency and naturalness as you progress through your years with Christ?
A much-used doormat says: “Welcome friends!” Could yours also genuinely welcome enemies? Or is the association with a doormat still more than your feelings can stand?
When you loan a dress, a stereo, a car or some tools or books, are you able to release them with no hope of seeing them again—“without despairing of anyone,” as Luke 6:35 suggests—and with no thought that now the borrower will be obligated to do you a favor?
Have you found your way into the reality and power of forgiveness? Have you forgiven everyone their trespasses in the generous-hearted way that God has forgiven us? To truly forgive is, as the saying goes, “divine.”
Peter listened to Jesus teach about forgiveness, and possibly heard him say that we should forgive the same person seven times in one day. (Luke 17:4) This was so hard to accept! (vs 5) Could the Master possibly be saying that? It was perhaps on another occasion that he inquired: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matt 18:21) This still seems to be the question uppermost in the minds of those starting to think seriously about forgiveness. Unforgiveness is such a large part of our people management project.
But then Jesus revealed the true heart of forgiveness to Peter. He said, “not up to seven times, but up to four hundred and ninety times.” (vs 22) Now of course he did not mean that on the four hundred and ninety-first time we need not forgive. The answer to the question of how often I should forgive is: Every time. This is part of that life of God which we receive as we follow Jesus, enabling us to walk in the light as he is in the light.
To forgive means that we do not carry the intention to make “them” suffer for what they have done—“when the time is right!” Has sharing the life of Jesus quieted our heart so that it no longer screams: “You’ll pay for this, you.....!” Do we no longer hold “it” against them, in ever so subtle ways? Ways which we perhaps no longer even recognize as the punishments that they really are? Are we released from constant, low-level grumpiness toward or around the one who has ‘disappointed’ us?
To step free from “keeping score,” from watching to hand out “due punishment,” from stiff and hostile human relations: That is a gift which comes to those who share the yoke with Jesus. He makes his life available to us, and in the measure we receive it we very naturally “will be the children of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:35)
A WRONG “RIGHTEOUSNESS”
The provisions are made for us to become women and men of agape. But we will miss those abundant provisions if we undertake simply to do the kinds of things which agape does, as spelled out, for example, in Matthew 5 through 7 or I Corinthians 13. And we will bitterly fail, continuing to walk in darkness. Indeed, this is the common course of events with those who begin to take obedience to Christ seriously. Most of us soon give up. This is because we miss Jesus’ own instructions on how to enter into God’s kind of righteousness.
He taught us that unless our righteousness moved beyond the kind of righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees of his day, relentlessly pressing toward a heart of faith and love, we would never make contact with the rule of God. (Matt. 5:20) The result would be that we would not have God’s life coursing through us and so would not manifest the family resemblance, agape.
Jesus’ illustrations of the two kinds of righteousness (see especially Matthew chapters 5 - 7) make it clear that the scribal righteousness was one defined in terms of which precise action one does or does not do. It is the control of one’s actions that matters here. To be righteous in this way, you simply do the ‘right’ thing. Now it will make not the least bit of difference if “the right thing” is fixed by quoting the words of Jesus himself: “Go the second mile,” “Turn the other cheek,” are among the favorites. For it will still be a matter of scribal or legalistic righteousness, telling only what you did, not who you are. You can hate the person whose burden you are carrying. To generously assist someone who is imposing on you in the first place is, however, quite another matter, calling for a different kind of heart.
Moreover, we are bound to fail at scribal righteousness. It depends upon our control. We cannot always be on guard; and in the unguarded moment an “idle” word (Matt. 12:37) or gesture or action will reveal the angry, the greedy, the arrogant or lustful contents of the heart. And this will in turn force us into hypocrisy.
Thus Jesus taught us to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1) If we try to deal with righteousness only in terms of our actions, we will be constantly hiding the vile contents of our heart; and the evil deeds which slip or pour from it (Matt 15:19-20) will have to be hidden or explained away. Hypocrisy is the darkest part of the heart of darkness, a major fortification in Satan’s kingdom of lies. The light of life can deliver us from it by changing our hearts.
BEING WITH JESUS
But if we cannot follow Jesus just by trying to do the things he did or said to do, how do we follow him? The all-important answer is: By being with him. Remember, that is how his first disciples followed him. There can be no doubt about this. When he selected the twelve, it was first of all “that they might be with him.” (Mark 3:14) That is what it meant for them to follow him. And that is what it means for us today. If we cannot make sense of being with him, and richly practice it, we shall never learn to do what he said for us to do. Our lives will never be transformed into light.
If, on the other hand, we make it our whole business to remain with him, abundance of life will make us fruitful in every aspect of goodness and righteousness. In his final words to his apostles, he gave them the secret: “Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it remains in the vine; no more can you, except you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches: Those who remain in me and I in them produce much fruit.” (John 15:4-5)
This understanding of following Jesus, as being with him, is concretized in the golden triangle of spiritual transformation. Here is the matrix of blessing where we abide with Jesus and “truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:3) One side of the triangle is made up of the trials of day-to-day existence. A second side is the action of God’s spirit in those events. And there is, finally, our own efforts to serve God and do His will.
PATIENCE MAKES PERFECT
The knowledge of the gospel brings us assurance that God accepts us where we are, that he did not make a mistake in creating us and placing us here, and that his intent is to bless us throughout all aspects of our lives. That means the place where I meet Christ and live with him is in today’s events—each day. After all, there is nowhere else to do it, is there? Because that is where I am and will always be. But he as promised to be with me, and so I can learn to follow Christ right here, right now.
We are tempted to throw away our lives, to look only for special times and places which will make us new. We would like them to be nice, trouble-free times. But it doesn’t actually work that way, since our lives consist of unspecial times. Yes, our life is, for the most part, a trial. Just think of what work means to most people. Or of the continuous difficulty which most people have in personal relations. Or the financial or physical limitations under which most people live. How stressful, or even painful, our lives are! Can it be that these sad, tawdry circumstances are God’s instruments for our transformation into the likeness of Jesus? Yes, that is exactly the truth. And if we do not in faith accept this, we will never step free of the darkness.
James, the Lord’s brother, begins his message to the church by instructing us to have “total joy” over the troubles which come upon us. J. B. Phillips translates this crucial passage: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance.” (James 1:2-3) Unfortunately, these words usually are not taken seriously by Christians today, and indeed are often turned into a joke. But James knew that, if we but let this quality of endurance or patience have its full effect, “we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (vs 4) Paul also spoke of a hearty Christian appetite for trouble. “We glory (even boast) in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation produces patience.” (Rom 5:3; see also 2 Cor. 12:9-10) This patience in turn produces the character to see things through with God. And the result of our experience in this character is a hope that we will be like Jesus: a hope that does not disappoint us because, sure enough, the agape of God floods our personality through the spirit’s action (vs 5) and the rule of God and his kind of righteousness (Matt 6:33) is established and sustained in us.
Paul’s penetrating analysis of how we grow through the trials of life from saving faith to a personality possessed by God’s kind of love, stresses the Spirit’s role in the culmination of the process. But of course that role is present from beginning to end. So much so that the character of Jesus created in us is treated by him as the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, lowliness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) This is one, unitary character structure, with parts that cannot be isolated from each other. Indeed, even the list of parts given here cannot comprehend the result of the flow of life from the spirit of Christ. In Ephesians 5:9 Paul speaks of “the fruit of the light” which is seen “in all goodness and righteousness and truth.” All is covered by the one word, agape, in I Corinthians 13. For he understood agape to be what binds everything into perfect harmony and completes the whole of Christian virtue. (Col. 3:14 NEB) When it is fully there, all else of Christ is present.
The spirit of Christ is a reality. We come to know his reality once we have accepted the call to redeem the times of our lives and look in faith for him to interact with us. He will be there. He will speak to us, he will act for us and in us. It is a stunning fact, and one deeply revealing of the nature of love and of God, that the spirit of God, limitless in power, can be quenched (I Thess. 5:19), can be grieved (Eph. 4:30), can be resisted (Acts 7:15). Puny humans are permitted to ignore the one who holds all power in heaven and earth. But, responding in faith to the good news of God’s kingdom, ordinary women and men also can receive the Spirit into their lives, can interact with him, and can see their own character converging with Christ’s under the shaping action of the spirit.
But this will not happen unless, trusting in God’s word and the spirit’s movement within and around us, we strive to be like Jesus. We have already seen that this does not refer merely to acting as he did. That is a deadly trap on the road to Christlikeness. Rather, our goal must be to fill our hearts and minds with those thoughts and feelings that naturally produce the behavior of Jesus. We are to “let his mind be in us.” (Phil. 2:5)
This is primarily done by constantly focusing our minds upon God as revealed in the Bible, and above all in his Son. The Old Testament saint found unfaltering life and fruitfulness in constant meditation on the law of God. (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:3) The coming of Jesus provides even richer resources for us to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” (Rom. 12:2) And his spirit is present in the individual life as was never true before. When we honestly and fully open our minds to Jesus, lovingly and longingly focusing upon who he was, desiring to be like him, it is not only our thoughts that change. Rather, he meets our efforts by pouring himself into us.
St. Paul does not hesitate to compare the one who lives face to face with Jesus with Moses, whose face literally glowed from his encounters with God. (Ex. 34:29-35) He states it as a simple fact that “we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (II Cor. 3:18 NAS)
Thus we see how to take the many New Testament passages instructing us on what to do to enter the mature life of agape. Note that these never direct us to outward action, but to internal changes. The same passage which speaks of the fruit of the spirit presumes that we have crucified the flesh (Gal. 5:24) and commands us walk by means of the spirit. The Ephesian letter tells us to be renewed in the spirit of our mind, to put off the old man and put on the new one, which “is created in righteousness and the holiness of truth in accordance with God.” (4:22-24) According to Colossians chapter three, we are to kill off (“mortify”) the drives and impulses that govern our sin-formed life, and put on the new person. (vss 5-11) And in verses 12 through 15 of this same chapter we are told to put on inward parts (guts, bowels) of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, longsuffering (patience), forbearance, forgiveness, agape, peace and thankfulness. A similar list, this time as a progression, is stated in II Peter chapter one, moving—as with Paul in Romans 5—from faith in God’s promises to, of course, agape. (vss 5-7) If we do this, Peter says, we “shall never fail.” (vs 10) We “shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.”
Notice that the righteousness we are to put on is, in Jesus’ words, “beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” It is not a matter of doing or not doing specific things, but of having a heart in union with God’s heart, one that has “entered the kingdom of God.”
We should also notice that, for all practical purposes, the list of “new bowels” that we are to put on is identical with the components of the fruit of the spirit listed elsewhere. This confirms the synergism, the joint action, of God’s spirit and our own will and efforts. All things are given to us by divine power, as Peter says. (II Peter 1:3) Yes, but still we must give all diligence to add the various dimensions of regenerate personality to our faith.
The New Testament statement that most clearly and forcefully formulates the three interactive, dynamic factors for spiritual transformation is Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out the salvation God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose.” Here the dual agency of ourselves and God is clear. What we do is to be done with the ongoing action of God within our souls. The context of this cooperative action is the ordinary course of each day’s events. Paul continues: “Do all you have to do without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be God’s children, blameless, sincere and wholesome, living in a warped and diseased world, and shining there like lights in a dark place.” (vss 14015 Phillips)
THE SECRET OF ABSOLUTE ABUNDANCE
Why does the golden triangle work? How does it bring us to the place where, as with Jesus, it is easier to love our enemies than to hate them? Easier to give, to lend, than to withhold or keep? Harder to lust than to cherish, harder to bully than to listen? How does it make us long to forgive, grieve over any barrier that lessens the free flow of joyous love between us and our neighbor?
Very simply, life lived within it unshakably confirms the word of God in the individual’s experience. The utter sufficiency of God to every need increasingly becomes the most obvious of facts. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Ps. 23:1) “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19 NAS) “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?” (Heb. 13:6) In life or death, no matter what comes, “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Rom 8:37) “Perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18) Such language, which, I am convinced, floats somewhere between dream and reality for most people, comes to transcribe the constant experience of the one who lives within the Golden Triangle of Spiritual Transformation as a disciple of Jesus Christ.