Becoming God's Spiritual Person
Inferior, Ineffective Concepts of Being Spiritual
Suppose you were the # 1 representative of God on earth. Of all the representatives God had in the past or would have in the future, no one could equal (and certainly not surpass) your representation of God. Suppose you were delivering God’s message to the people who were certain they, their grandparents, and their ancestors understood God better than anyone else who lived in any period. What would you stress?
Jesus was God’s # 1 representative on earth. No one in the past could equal him, and no one in the future would equal him. In Matthew 5-7 he delivered his longest recorded message. His audience was Jewish. It could be rightfully affirmed that this message focused on what God considered to be human expressions of spirituality. As a people, Jesus’ audience was certain their understanding of God had long been superior to the understandings of all other people.
What did Jesus stress—attitudes or institutions? Institutions were a part of the Jewish heritage—the Passover, the priesthood, the sacrificial system, the tabernacle, the temple, and the royal city which was also their religious center. Institutionalism they understood! Institutions were in the foundation of their identity! The origin of their institutions proved their relationship with God! God’s # 1 representative would be foolish not to connect spirituality with institutionalism!
Yet, Jesus began this message with an emphasis on attitudes. He started with beatitudes. According to Jesus’ emphasis, the spiritually fortunate person was the person who knew his (her) spiritual poverty and deeply regretted it. He (she) was humble, merciful, and sought an internal purity that radiated outwardly. He (she) had an insatiable appetite for righteousness. As a committed peacemaker, he (she) would suffer for right (by God’s definition) if necessary. Their commitment was to glorify God, not themselves.
In all Jesus said in these three chapters, where is his emphasis on proper divine institutions? Where does he say or suggest that a person is spiritual and can feel spiritually secure because he (she) has identified and associated himself (herself) with the divine institutions that receive God’s approval? Where does Jesus affirm the bond between spirituality and appropriate divine institutions? Does that bond exist?
All the Jewish institutions mentioned above—the Passover, the priesthood, the sacrificial system, the tabernacle, the temple, the city that was both a political and religious center—had their origins in either God’s commands or God’s approval. All of them in some way tried to move a neglectful (sometimes rebellious) people closer to God. The problem was not the origin of the institutions. The problem was founded on the people feeling spiritually secure because their nation possessed the institutions, not because they adopted the attitudes toward God the institutions represented. They failed to understand that spiritual security was not the result of form, but the result of attitude.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
Consider Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Not once does he directly discuss a Jewish institution—favorably or unfavorably. He went directly to the heart of their spiritual failure. Spirituality did not rest in institutional reform but in attitude reform. Spirituality involved much more than confidence in the fact that “We as a nation have the correct institutional forms,” or the conclusion that “We maintain the correct institutions,” or the conviction that “Our institutions make me okay.” The basic problem: the confidence that spirituality is the result of endorsing/associating with the proper institutions rather than placing confidence in God. Having confidence in institutions and having confidence in God are not the same!
Carefully examine the content of Matthew 5-7.
1. These are the attitudes of the fortunate person because these attitudes contribute to his (her) spirituality.
2. The spiritual person addresses the basic spiritual needs of all people—just as salt and light addresses the basic needs of all people.
3. Though my (Jesus’) emphasis differs from the emphasis you have heard, do not see me as one who destroys but one who focuses on God’s continuing intent.
4. You are not made spiritual by conforming to traditional views, but by understanding God’s intent.
1. Acts of righteousness are not performed to win human approval, but divine approval.
2. Though you may do correct acts (benevolence, praying, fasting), those acts must come from godly motives. (Why you do what you do matters to God!)
3. Place your confidence in the certainty of God’s purposes, not in the uncertainty of material ambitions/objectives.
1. Know what your spiritual purpose is.
2. Share with discerning people.
3. Trust God’s awareness of your situation.
4. Be committed to God’s purposes.
5. Understand that the objective of spiritual people is to practice what they know, not merely to know.
When Jesus spoke this message, the Jews had existed as a nation for more than a thousand years. Their religious institutions were ancient. The traditions they followed came from old emphasis. Some even suggested Jewish “oral law” statements had divine approval. Yet, when Jesus finished the lesson in Matthew 5-7, the Jewish audience was amazed. Why? No one taught as Jesus taught—he taught with personal authority instead of citing the precedent of ancient conclusions that supported what he said. He declared that spirituality depended on your personal attitudes, not on the institutions residing in your nation’s heritage.
One point is called to your attention: a person can be informed about being a spiritual person, yet be misinformed—even if the information is “old.” How long a statement/ conclusion has existed is not the point. Who made the statement/conclusion is not the point. The point is this: does the statement/conclusion reflect God’s intent? Does the statement/conclusion verify a godly attitude?
The following is not an attack on the importance or necessity of obeying God! The importance of obeying God is verified throughout scripture. I cannot imagine any writer of scripture from Moses to Paul (or beyond) telling anyone that human obedience to God was unnecessary.
At the same moment, obedience is not a substitute for faith in God. In many instances, obedience is the expression of the existence of faith. If faith in God is understood to be trust in God, doing as God requests is an expression of that trust. When trust acts, the action of that trust is in the form of obedience.
A person obeys because he (she) trusts. The issue is not a matter of earning, but of trusting. The motivation for obedience is at issue, not the act of obedience. Obedience does not seek to earn. The objective of obedience is to express gratitude. Obedience says, “Thank you,” to God, not, “You owe me!”
Nor is the following an attack on spiritual correctness. Seeking to be correct before God is a life-long pursuit, not an event achievement. The more accurately a person understands, the more correct he (she) becomes. For example, correctness is not the result of imposing first-century culture, demanding a compliance to any human interpretation of scripture, or accepting an “issue statement/perspective” that is the spiritual manifesto of a group. Correctness is not a “plug in” position or act that produces a humanly-approved response that results in acceptance or inclusion of the person. Correctness is the result of surrendering to God’s intent. Determining God’s intent is a life-long pursuit that requires many adjustments.
Discovering God’s intent involves twists and turns that an infant Christian never considered nor imagined. God’s grace and mercy make spiritual maturing possible without placing relationship with God in jeopardy. Because God accepts a person “where he (she) is” does not mean the person ceases to accept the challenges of spiritual growth and development. Example: in Acts 10 the Jewish Christian and Apostle Peter did not understand God’s concern for the salvation of people who were not Jews—read Acts 10:9-17, 28, 29. It was not until Acts 10:34, 35 that Peter understood. That understanding transformed Peter’s life—consider Acts 5:15 in contrast to 11:1-3, 15:14, and Galatians 2: 11-14. Peter’s understanding resulted in significant prices! Do not expect all correct understandings to result in encouragements and endorsements!
Nor is it an attack on being the church that Jesus died and was resurrected to establish. It should be the goal of every man or woman in the Lord Jesus Christ to be a functioning part of those people who are in the Lord Jesus Christ and in relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ineffective Approaches to Spirituality
A. The church-centered approach:
The person feels spiritually secure because he (she) can affirm membership in what he (she) considers the correct church. Evangelism becomes a matter of declaring the correct church. Conversion becomes a matter of entering the correct church. Salvation becomes a matter of membership in the right church. The continuing focus of God in modern or post-modern centuries is church centered. Consequentially, spiritual security is considered to be primarily a church issue.
There is no question that “church” is mentioned and played a spiritual role from the scripturally-recorded beginnings of Christianity. However, the essential question is this: “What was the role of the church?” Were the organization and work of the church the message of evangelism? Were first-century people converted to the church? Did the church provide salvation? Was spiritual security tied to church membership? Was a converted person a part of the church because of an act of God, or was accepting the church an essential step in the process of conversion?
Was the message of evangelism the crucified, resurrected Jesus? Were first-century Christians converted to Jesus? Did the Lord Jesus Christ provide salvation? Was spiritual security tied to relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Was accepting the Lordship of the resurrected Jesus essential to conversion?
The question is this: Did Christianity begin and continue in the first century as a Savior-centered thrust or as a church-centered thrust? Does Jesus forgive, or does the church forgive? Does Jesus sanctify and justify before God, or does the church sanctify and justify before God?
There is a significant difference between God placing a person in the church because that person believes the resurrected Jesus is Lord and Christ (see Acts 2:32, 36, 46, 47), and believing the church is the source of salvation and salvation’s benefits. There is a vast difference in believing Jesus saves, and the saved are divinely placed in the church, and believing the church saves. It is the difference between humans as a collective group dispensing salvation, and God through Jesus Christ dispensing salvation.
There are too many who feel spiritually secure because they belong to the church while knowing little about the Savior. Too often faith is in the church, not in the crucified, resurrected Savior. Thus “church attendance” becomes the important measurement of faithfulness instead of devoting life to God’s will in Jesus Christ seven days a week.
B. The “Do” Centered Approach:
Basically, this is the concept that human “doing” (in contrast to believing) is the foundation of and the key to being saved. This concept declares God is not concerned with the faith the person has but with what the person does.
Consider Paul’s opening of his letter to the Christians in Rome (Romans 1:16-3:30). Paul made the following points: (1) God made it possible for people to be righteous by trusting the good news of what He did in Jesus (1:16, 17). (2) Every person, no matter what one’s background is, needs God’s solution (1:18-2:29). (3) The advantage of those who are Jews is found in their exposure to God, not in possessing the Law (3:1-8). (4) However, no one is sinless—all (including the Jewish people) need God’s solution (3:9-20). (5) Jewish scriptures, including the Law, are only witnesses to what God did in Jesus Christ. He (Jesus Christ) alone provides humanity with righteousness, justification, and the means of propitiation before God. Jesus Christ is the means of God being God while He extends salvation to sinful people (3:21-30).
Note carefully two points: (1) all are sinful, and (2) Jesus Christ is God’s solution for human sinfulness.
Humans, no matter what their background, cannot make themselves sinless by a human act or a combination of human acts. They can have relationship with the Savior who can give them access to God. However, they are righteous, justified, and receive propitiation before God because of what God did in Jesus Christ. Nothing anyone does makes that person sinless. Every person who accepts God’s salvation must trust what God did when He gave the world Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what He continues to do for the person who places himself (herself) in Jesus Christ.
C. The “Goodness” Centered Approach:
This easily could be regarded as a form of the “do” centered approach. The reason for including it as a separate emphasis is due to its widespread acceptance more than the uniqueness of its thinking. The basic idea rests on the conviction that a human being can be “good enough” to impress God with human goodness. In that human goodness, the person moves God to extend him (her) salvation on the basis of the person’s human goodness. Thus salvation has little or nothing to do with any religious expression, but is centered on expressing human goodness.
There are two foundation problems with this view. (1) All people are declared sinful and in need of God’s help. Expressions of human goodness deal only with immediate opportunities. They do not deal with past failures. To use a western culture illustration, there is no statute of limitations on sin! (2) Different cultures define appropriate expressions of human goodness in different ways. There is no universal understanding of what human goodness is or definition of human goodness. It is quite possible for an act to express goodness in one culture and contempt in another! For example, public kissing may be a sign of affection and friendship in one culture, and an “out of place” expression that shows contempt for society in another culture. There is no common, “held by all people” definition of goodness.
If we could become righteous without God sending Jesus Christ, then Jesus came, died, and was resurrected for nothing.
D. The Association-Centered Approach
Basically, this concept suggests that a person does not have to become a righteous person to be saved if he (she) can say that he (she) has a close association with someone who is righteous. “I do not need to be a Christian because my father (grandfather) or my mother (grandmother) or my spouse or my children are devout people who have given their lives to God.” Thus, one can be recognized as being a righteous person through human proxy/ association instead of divine proxy/association.
In a joking manner (but often with a serious intent) a person suggests, “That person (in my family) is righteous enough for both of us.” The suggestion is that “The person is more righteous than he (she) needs to be, and that excess righteousness is enough to save me without me making any commitment to God.”
Again, the problem lies in the conviction that divine goodness exists in humanity through humanly-approved human acts. Goodness has its source in humanity, not in God. The individual human has no spiritual need or problem that can be addressed only by appropriate personal dependence on God. The human being can place God in debt to him (her) by associating with humans who do depend on God.
In all these concepts (A-D), the issue rests on how the person answers these questions:
1. Does the source of the problem of sinfulness originate in the person?
2. Is dependence on Jesus Christ God’s answer to human sinfulness?
3. Can salvation be generated by human acts while neglecting God’s involvement?
4. Can salvation from sin be conferred on people by a human pronouncement?
The basis of a person’s answers to those questions: The person’s understanding of God’s purpose/objective in human relationships.