Monday, October 22, 2007

Community and Spiritual Transformation

I am starting an eight-week experiment on spiritual transformation. At the root of my study is the question, "How do people change?" I am in the middle of a sermon series called Roots: Understanding our Spiritual Heritage, in which I am teaching through the Book of Colossians. I have divided the book into four topics that I think form the roots of our faith--Christology, mission, transformation, and community. The last message I did was the second of three weeks of transformation. The final transformation message will happen on December 30.

I have been wrestling with the question of spiritual transformation for some time now. I have talked about how not to be transformed (i.e. legalism) and the theology of transformation (i.e. the already but not yet), but I haven't settled the question of the nuts and bolts of change. When I share this, I don't just want to present a theological expose of how I think people should change based on what I read in the Bible, but I want to share real life wisdom on how people do change based on my spiritual experiences. As always, I am more interested in praxis than I am in theory.

I believe that spiritual transformation is just that--spiritual. I starts with God and happens by grace through faith. Perhaps that is what Paul means in Galatians 3:2–3, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (NIV) On the other hand, Bonhoeffer has convinced me that "faith" is not equivalent to passive "belief," so some kind of human resonse is necessary for transformation. Belief is certainly involved in faith, but the two are not identical. I love what Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discpleship, "Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." I think Paul also recognized a tension between spiritual enablement and human response when he wrote in Philippians 2:12–13, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (NIV)

There is a tension in spiritual transformation between will and grace. My question is, "What is the difference between what Paul wanted the Philippians to do in Phil 2:12–13 and what he criticized the Galatians for doing in Gal 3:2–3?" For this, I think the works on Paul by James Dunn and N.T. Wright are helpful. The "works" that the Galatians relied on were the ethnic identity markers of circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic Law. The "faith" that Paul encouraged was alllegiance to Jesus and the gospel message. The faith/works distinction is not between belief and action, but between allegiance to the ethnic identity markers of the Mosaic law and allegiance to Christ.

So, what is the practical outworking of faith? First, there is a necessity of trusting in God (I think this is what Paul means by justification by faith). Also, I think that it is also important to be immersed in the spiritual community (perhaps this is one aspect of what it means to be "in Christ," i.e. "in" His body, the church).

I have developed a philosophy of what I think it takes to be transformed. On the one hand, I think it takes prayer and meditation on God's word. These two disciplines are indespensible to Christian spirituality. Also, I think it requires involvement in the spiritual community, especially through confession and repentance. I think James was getting at something when he wrote, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." (James 5:16 NIV) I have found that the significant spiritual changes that I have made in my life have occurred when: (1) I decided that I truly wanted to change and I resolved to do so, and (2) I found accountability for my resolution. It is interesting that these resemble the spiritual disciplines of repentance (1) and confession (2). Maybe the ancients knew what they were talking about.

I plan to teach on December 30 that repentance and confession are the keys to our part of spiritual change. Before I do that, I am going to find an accountability partner and test the theory on myself over the next 8 weeks. I will post on the blog how everything turns out.

No comments: