Isaiah calleth heaven his “seat,” and earth his “footstool,” but not his dwelling; therefore, when we long to seek after God, we shall be sure to find him with them that hear and keep his Word, as Christ saith, “He that keepeth my Word, I will come and dwell with him.”
(Martin Luther, “Table Talk”)
God in Christianity is very personal: “You have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father (Romans, 8:15) and “they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (Jesus’ prayer to hid father – John 17:20b). I often hear Christians say “Christianity is a relationship not a religion.” Trite but not complete tripe. More correct is it to say that the heart of the Christian religion is relationship; vertical first, between God and Christians, and horizontal second, between Christians.
I focus here on the meaning of “personal relationship.” I draw on some thoughts from three sources on the issue: Calvinist Mike Horton’s White Horse Inn discussion “Your own personal Jesus”, John Piper’s lecture on Martyn Lloyd Jones, and Martin Lloyd Jones from his sermon on Ephesians 2: 6-9, where he explains what it means to be “in Christ.”
People assume that sin is the absence of God, but it is the presence of God; of his judgments. For this reason, all of us are born into a relationship with God, and thus God is not separated from any human being. The question is whether for you God is a God of wrath or a God of forgiveness.
Much of modern popular Christian culture is obsessed with self-discovery techniques where the church is set aside in favour of savouring one’s own personal Jesus. Christians do have a personal relationship with Christ but this depends on faith and trust in what Christ has done in history. Instead, we see personal relationship displacing knowledge: “I don’t wanna know about Jesus, I wanna know Jesus.’’ Such thinking is a disaster waiting to happen. It indicates that you know little Christianity. How in a future heaven or on this or a future earth can you have a personal relationship with someone you know little about? Knowledge, like books, is not everything, but it ain’t nothing. Indeed knowledge of the kind we are concerned with often comes from books, or someone bookish.
Similarly with the mind. “The mind isn’t everything” doesn’t mean the mind is nothing. When it comes to living the Christian life, reading and listening (and thinking, of course) are important. As is very clear from the scriptures, minds can be darkened by more than a lack of information. For example, the Gospels are very clear that most, if not all, of the disciples, were “slow of heart” to understand Jesus. Peter got it most in the neck from Jesus. Jesus kept on telling the disciples that he was to suffer, die and rise again, but they couldn’t take it in because they didn’t want to; they were not expecting a suffering Messiah but a victorious one.
So you’re determined to know nuttin because your (impersonal) noggin, you insist, will only get in the way of your snoggin (personal encounter with God). Religion, you say, is knowledge and stuff, which can only smother your time with God. Forgive, but you’re a silly ass. Don’t you know the basics, that the Spirit of God works through knowledge and religious practices, and so does not usually work immediately upon the heart. The Spirit of God speaks through tangible means such as the word, water baptism, the Lord’s supper. He confines Himself, generally, to these measures for our benefit. “Confine” makes us think “box.” “Don’t put God in a box,” you say. Scripture is only a box in the sense that your brain is a box. Are your thoughts confined to your neurons? Of course not.
Here is an example from scripture of the connection between knowing God and knowing about God. A large section of the New Testament deals with explaining what is meant by “Jesus is the Son of God; for example, Paul spends much effort – mental, analytical effort – explaining what “Jesus the Son of God” means. Walking hand in hand with Jesus will have to also involve thinking about and trying to understand who he is. Our thinking is “analytical.” So walking with Jesus should also involve analysing Jesus (the concept) for ourselves and (unless we do it ourselves we can’t do it) explaining him to others. “Analyse” means use your reason to give reasons for the faith that you have received, and to defend the body of teachings (doctrines) that pertain to this faith. The Bible is clear: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” ( 1 Peter 3:15). There are many examples of Jesus and Paul reasoning (analysing, and synthesising) with their listeners. One important topic in this regard is the authenticity of the historical events in the scriptures. The Son of God mediates with the world through events – past, present and future. Without this knowledge there can be no trust, no personal relationship with God.
Very close to the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus is “inviting Jesus into your heart.” Where in the Bible does it say that? Inthe Bible we do see God pouring his love into unregenerated hearts, but that involves no invitation from the sinner to God, but is a unilateral sovereign act of God. It’s called amazing grace.
The general Reformed (Calvinist) position, represented by Mike Horton’s “White Horse Inn,” is that the relationship we have with Jesus is based on the premises that he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father. So, he is not with us in the same way that people are together in a room. We don’t, says the White Horse Inn panel, see Jesus in a face-to-face relationship. He has ascended on high, so if I am going to relate to him it is through the power of the Holy Spirit and my trust in his work for me. This trust in Christ, is granted by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit somehow unites me too a personal Jesus who is not even in the room. The “invite Jesus into your heart” people think, says a member of the White Horse Inn panel, that Jesus can take up “residence in your aorta” – the pipeline to your heart.
Paul says the Spirit has been sent into our hearts to cry out “abba father”‘ (Romans 8:28). To be in the spirit, says Paul, is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the Spirit. We don’t ask Jesus into our heart – dead hearts can’t invite; we trust in him that his work and mercy will exchange our sin nature for his righteousness (making us right with God; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
I think, though, that the personal relationship with Jesus has been largely ignored. Jesus says:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (John 15:4), and Paul tells of his “commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This is the language of “mystical union” in Christ by the Spirit. Christ is not climbing down from heaven into our hearts.
I now focus on the nature of this mystical union, where I take issue with the common Reformed (Calvinist) position – typified by the panel of the “White Horse Inn.” Within the Calvinist scheme, there exist two contrasting two paradigms; the first, the right view, the second the wrong one:
1. The gospel is outside of me. Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead; a historical event. This view of the gospel draws me out of myself to the Body of Christ, the Church, and into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
2. Inviting Jesus into your heart calls you away from the public, away from the Church, away from a communal relationship into an individualistic gnostic relationship. An example is the evangelistic call: “close your eyes; it’s between you and God.” The White Horse Inn panel says no, don’t close your eyes, keep ’em peeled. Look in the book of Acts. People were saved and baptised and brought to maturity through connection to other members of the body. Believe in Jesus, yes, but confess it publicly. Statements such as “invite Jesus into your heart” and “make Jesus your personal saviour” create, says the White Horse Inn panel, an atmosphere where the average Christian is not schooled on the substance of the faith. These statements become the substance. They need to be replaced with key biblical passages such as trust in Christ, and the significance of the resurrection.
What stands out for me in the White Horse Inn discussion is their emphasis that God is most close to Christians through the body of Christ, that is, in communion with other Christians. In a previous post I asked whether a Jew can singly cleave to God in private, or is this best achieved in public, in community.
There are relatively few Torah-observant Jews who believe he or she can meet God One-on-one in a personal relationship, because the majority of them follow the Oral Torah/tradition, which teaches that God only becomes fully present in community; the Jewish community. I once wrote (see above ) that the traditional Christian view, in contrast to the Jewish view, is that there is no true religion without a close personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ, his incarnate Son. I think I was wrong, because traditional Western Christianity up to the Reformation was embodied in the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, where the ordinary believer got closest and most personal to God (and still does) in ”communion” – eating the literal body and blood of Christ (under the appearance of bread and wine), which suggests something more palpable than a mystical union. Not only does Jesus enter your aorta but your stomach as well. The point is that the more you go to communion the more you become like Christ, the more you eat Jesus’ aorta, the more present he becomes in yours. That is not the Protestant view of getting close to Christ, of the “mystical union.” The White Horse Inn Panel (chaired by Mike Horton) discussed above represents, I would think, the majority of the Reformed position, which is similar to the Jewish position that one gets closest to God through community.
The Jewish position is that owing to the fact that God is a consuming fire (Rashi), it is wiser to approach God mediated through the community represented by the authority of the sages and their rabbinical disciples, who bind the community together unto God. The Reformed tradition (Calvinists) generally agrees that the best way to cleave to God is through communion with other Christians, but not (as in the Jewish case) because God is a consuming fire but because Calvinists (not all) are wary of experiential (”experimental,” the old term) intimacies with the divine, which may easily lead to ”Christ is everything; doctrine, nothing,” and further on to ”Christ is nothing, or only something, while God is everything.” And the next thing you know you’re praying before a Catholic tabernacle with a squatting Buddha atop.
But there is more to worry about. There’s all this ”God is my daddy and Jesus is my buddy” stuff. The holiness of God flounders around at the bottom of your shopping basket of ”he will supply all my needs.” That worries the Calvinist, and rightly so.
I return to the ”personal Jesus” in the light of another Calvinist, Martyn Lloyd Jones, who, although one of the most respected defenders of Calvinism (he’s the founder of the Calvinist “Banner of Truth” publishing house) does not fit into the usual calvinist mold. Jones agrees, as all Calvinists do, that unbelievers are indeed living with God; the God of wrath, not the God of love. ”All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (”Ephesians 2:3). In an effort to shed the doctrine of ”radical corruption” (total depravity), there is the view that ”nature” here means ”second nature” (habit); so the text has nothing to do with original sin (what about ”all have died in Adam?”), but with personal sin accrued during one’s lifetime. But I digress.
Where Jones differs radically with the usual Calvinist position is that he believes that ”regeneration (always done by the Spirit) is distinct from the the Pentecost experience of ”Baptism of the Holy Spirit’,” which brings us into intimate communion with God, and which fans the flames of devotion and revival. Whereas the Jew, to avoid being burnt up in the raging fire of the divine presence, avoids a close direct communion with God and prefers to cleave to God by cleaving to the rabbis, Christians who believe in the ”Baptism of the Spirit,” as defined by Jones, pray that the fire will fall on them, burn in them. Jones says to the typical Calvinist, indeed to the typical ”evangelical,” ”Don’t quench the Spirit.”
There is a close connection between a personal relationship with God and the gifts of the spirit, and I believe that calvinists see this as well. Perhaps this is why they throw the ”getting close and personal” baby out with the “gifts” bathwater.
Jones distinguishes between ”customary assurance” and ”full assurance.” For Jones, unless one has a personal experience of Jesus, which the Baptism of the Spirit affords, one cannot have full assurance. Signs and wonders that accompany the Baptism of the Spirit are, says Jones, God’s way of strengthening the presence of God and the desire to evangelise. The stock Calvinist response is to denigrate post-apostic gifts of the Spirit, and trot out ”Jews demand signs, and Greeks wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). The reasoning is that “signs and wonders” serve merely as a captivating diversion from the real business of the Gospel. Such reasoning, though, is very simplistic; after all, Peter and Paul, didn’t think that the gifts took the edge off their witnessing. So, why should we think so now?
Lloyd Jones was disillusioned with the Church’s negative attitude towards the gifts. He believed that the spiritual gifts are essential for revival, because they ”authenticate the truth of the Gospel to a desperately hardened world” (Piper). Piper quotes Jones: ”This is why I believe that we are in need of some manifestation, some demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit.” Jones warned against being too interested in the exceptional. Yeah right, says the typical cessationist (gifts have ceased); the Gospel is something better. But, says Jones, better to be gullible than smug.
And my view on the gifts? There is so much drivel today. Prophecy is one example. Once in a church I was attending – be careful not to be smug now – a bloke stands up and says, wait for it: ”We’re living in the end times.” The pastor of the church writes all prophecies in a book. So that one was added. That’s enough to make any Jewish Calvinist (moi) become a cesssationist. And miracles? All that Benny Hinn stuff. I attended one of his presentations. There were dozens of people in wheelchairs. None of them were healed, but there was lots of falling over – backwards, of course; they only fall forwards (Ezekiel, John the Apostle) in the Bible. Although I don’t practice the gifts – mainly, I suppose, because of all the silly stuff going on (woof woof), the jury, if not the Jewry, is still out on this one. (I was once a practising “charismatic”).
As a counterweight to the typical calvinist aversion to “Jesus living in my heart,” let us now turn to Martyn Lloyd Jones’ sermon ”In Christ Jesus,” which deals with the personal relationship the believer has with Christ. Jones’ text is Ephesians 2:4-7:
2 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
The ‘but’ (verse 4) is the transition between despair and the introduction to the Gospel, which is about hope, our only hope. Suddenly (sudden transition ”but’) we have this astonishing message. God has done this when we could do nothing. The Apostle Paul makes clear to us what God has done to us. Here – in verses 4-7 – we have one of the profoundest descriptions of what happens to a sinner. The essence of Christianity is union with Christ, to be seated in heavenly places. Not, in contrast to the Roman Catholic and the Jew, that we did anything to achieve this. The primary fact of Christianity is that when we were dead in sin, God raised us up and put us in heavenly places. It is not something we strive to do. It is what God has done to us, not what we have done to ourselves. So far, Jones is a kosher calvinist.
Now here is where he tries to convince the kosher Calvinist (imbibers of the White Horse Inn, for example) that bacon can also be kosher; if it comes from Nazareth. Jones distinguishes between the ”objective” (kosher) and ”subjective” (bacon) view of ”raised in heavenly places.” These terms need explanation. There are two meanings of ”subjective” – 1. not real and 2. immediate personal experience. By “subjective” Jones means the latter. By ”objective,” in contrast, Jones means something not experienced yet, in other words, something that has not been taken up into the subject’s (person’s) experience; it is still outside himself. Jones beef with the traditional calvinist is that they like objective talk, but not subjective pork. Many Christians (not only calvinists) take merely an objective view of “raised in heavenly places,” which means that we will only be raised and share a life of glory later on – at the resurrection or when we die. So far, says our traditional calvinist, “raised in heavenly places” has only happened to Christ, whereas we have faith that this future glory will be ours as well. Jones says it is wrong to interpret this verse only in this way. The whole tenure of Ephesians 2:6 is something that has happened to those who believe. Paul is praying that believers may know what God is doing now, not only in the future.
Both the objective (future state of glory in the heavenlies) and the subjective (present state of glory in the heavenlies) are true. Furthermore, it is wrong to teach that in the now it is all in Christ and nothing in me at all. On the contrary, scripture always emphasises the subjective, the now in me. And that brings us back to the White Horse Inn’s traditional calvinist view. Recall their position, which is that the relationship we have with Jesus is that he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father. So he is not with us in the same way that we are together on earth; we don”t see him in a face-to-face relationship. He has ascended on high, so if I am going to relate to him it is through the power of the Holy Spirit and my trust in his work for me, which the Holy Spirit gives me. The Holy Spirit does not, they say, unite me to a personal Jesus who is not even in the room, whereas, the “invite Jesus into your heart” types believe, they say, that Jesus does not only come into your room, he takes residence in your right ventricle.
I wonder what they’re mixing with their White Horse at the Inn. To maintain that a believer, even an over the top “charismatic” believes that Jesus is living in their lub-a-dub-dub in the same way Jesus is physically present in the Catholic Eucharist, is wrong. It’s not a toss up between the physical and spiritual presence of Jesus, but the degree to which he is spiritually present; through the Holy Spirit, of course. What most calvinists don’t like in Lloyd Jones his view that born again Christians have been given now the fullness of Christ’s life and that what they need to do is appropriate it, that is, not make it a prop, but make it proper to them, that is, make it their own (Latin proper “own”), by experiencing it in their inner being. Most calvinists accept ”mystical unions” – what other way is their around ”we’re seated in the heavenlies – but are uncomfortable with mystical (that is, very personal) encounters with God. Owing to the excesses in mysticism, they do have a point. Christians, though, are meant to experience (feel) the presence of Christ/God here and now. That is no big stretch, because when we are born again, we are lifted up to the heavenlies (no not necessarily “up”). Yet we remain caught ”up” in this corruptible body, struggling, sinning, and groaning for the redemption of our bodies.
One of the most marvelous of all the Christian doctrines is our union with Christ (Romans 5 – 6; 1 cor 15:2). Our union is not only in Christ’s life but in his death: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20). Are these just “objective” words (outside of me) that I believe, or can they be a personal encounter with God? Both.
”I am the vine, you are the branches (John 15) shows us how the corporate aspect of the mystical union comes into play between parts of the body with Christ as the head. This does not mean, though, that the believer only comes alive (to the presence of God) when he or she is united to other believers (the Church). When I am born again, I meet Christ, person to person, in a mystical way of course. Yet just because this meeting is not physical, this doesn’t mean that it is not personal, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is not taking up residence in my ”heart.” We are given, says Jones, a new power, a new direction, a new disposition – we’re seated in the heavenlies. This power is given by Christ, not the church. This power is consolidated by the church (fellow members of the body). The key issue, though, is that if anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature, a new person. Why? Because he has met the person Christ – in his “heart” – but (first) in his head.
In summary, here is the “mystical union” in a nutshell (the “Truth Project,” Lesson 8):
The Mystical Union between:
A. Husband and wife
B. Christ and His church
The Body of Christ – Making many One (i) Many members – we form one body with unique gifts and roles (ii) The Mystery of Christ – “… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (III) Jesus’ vision for the church 1. John 17: 20-23 ” …that all of them may be one …so the world may believe that you have sent me …may they be brought to complete unity …”
C. God and the individual – the Unio Mystica 1. Colossians 1:27 “Christ in you” 2. John 15:5 “If a man remains in me and I in him” 3. John 14:16-17 “for he lives with you and will be in you” 4. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 “God’s Spirit lives in you.”
Section C was the focus of this discussion. All sections, though, are necessary for a proper understanding of the Gospel and the en-joy-ment of the Christian life.
Time to get down (not completely now) off our high (objective) horse. And please let’s not be scared to ride our feelings. Side saddle, if you prefer.