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Friday, July 8, 2011

Spiritual Treadmills


It's been a week that has involved a little controversy about Reformed faith and practice occasioned by a review of a book titled Ten Myths about  Calvinism.. For the Curmudgeon it is time to move on. As the saying from my youth goes, "It's been fun, but it's not been real fun." What follows is different in purpose. It was originally produced in a pastoral setting - that is, as pastoral counsel. Yet it is not unrelated because it is addressed to Calvinistic practice, specifically Calvinistic piety and pastoral care.



Treadmills

Treadmills are machines you walk on without ever getting anywhere. It doesn’t matter how long or how far you walk, you still get nowhere. You never reach a destination. There are spiritual treadmills that Christians can get on that have negative impacts on both Christian comfort and Christian living.
One treadmill is the state of grace treadmill. Christians who get on this treadmill are those who believe their salvation depends upon whether or not they are in a state of grace when they die. They may or may not be in a state of grace because one can move in and out of grace. Of course, this treadmill is one that serious Roman Catholics walk on. If you are going to heaven you must die without mortal sin on your soul. 

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin is a sin of less serious matter that weakens charity and impedes the exercise of virtue… The Tradition of the Church affirms that mortal sin destroys sanctifying grace of the soul and cuts the sinner off from the body of Christ. Scripture again affirms Tradition when Jesus compares the Body of Christ, the church, to a vine.
The way to get into, remain in, and, if need be, return to a state of grace is by use of the seven sacraments. Sanctifying grace is received at baptism, and actual grace is received by use of the sacraments.

Although sanctifying grace instills us with life, there are moments in our lives in which we are especially moved by God’s love. These graces help us to sustain our relationship with Christ and are called actual graces, because they reflect the intervention of God in our lives. Actual grace is what moves a person’s heart to conversion and penitence and sustains the soul in the process of justification and sanctification.
The seven sacraments of the Church are also a work of actual grace to nourish the Body of Christ and its members. The Eucharist, as the central sacrament, provides the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ as the heavenly food for the soul.
The sacraments work automatically, but they do not work permanently and irrevocably. One can receive salvation through baptism, or move back into salvation by confession and absolution, but that same person may die not possessing salvation. Even if you die with only venial sins, you will almost certainly have to spend time in purgatory to cleanse your soul of them.

Not only Roman Catholics but all Arminians believe that a person can be in a state of grace, yet not remain in the state of grace and can be lost. The Articles of Religion written by John Wesley, while holding out hope of restoration for those who have fallen from grace, nevertheless, teach that grace received can become grace lost.

John Wesley, in his article, “What is an Arminian?” contrasts Calvinism and Arminianism, his position, thus:

The Calvinists hold… that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. The Arminians hold, that a true believer may "make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience;" that he may fall, not only foully, but finally, so as to perish for ever.

The Articles of Religion, written by Wesley, while holding out great hope that those who have fallen from grace may be renewed in grace, nevertheless affirm that salvation can be lost:

Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and, by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

Those who believe that one can move from a state of grace to a state of being fallen from grace, are on a spiritual treadmill, because they cannot be certain that they will die in a state of grace. If you do not die in a state of grace, though you may have once been saved, you will be lost.

A second treadmill is the experience treadmill. I want to be clear about this: those whose teaching results in folks walking on this treadmill do not believe that a person is saved by experience (Christ alone saves), but that an experience is necessary to receive salvation.

It can be illustrated by the central question asked about salvation. Rather than ask, “Have you come to faith in Christ?” or, “Are you trusting in Christ?” this teaching asks, “Have you been converted” or, “Are you born again?” (“Conversion” and “regeneration” - being “born again” - are perfectly good Christian words when used appropriately. Conversion is turning to Christ in faith. Regeneration, or the new birth, is the secret work of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace to grant the gift of faith.) 

The shift can be subtle, but it is a shift from the question of whether or not one is saved by grace through faith to the question of whether one has had an experience that produces faith. This teaching can also be illustrated by sermon titles chosen by some of its teachers: “True Conversion: Rare and Difficult” or, “The Almost Christian Discovered.”

In this teaching, people are encouraged to look inward and to ask, “Am I really saved or have I just thought I was saved? Have I really been saved, or have I deceived myself?” Sometimes, the very lack of certainty is taken as evidence that one has not had the experience that leads to salvation. Then some teach that, even if lack of certainty (which this teaching actually encourages) is evidence that one has not really had the experience leading to salvation, yet it will be by a special experience that one comes to be assured of salvation.

This can lead, under Arminian preaching, to people walking the aisle or praying the prayer repeatedly, either because they are not sure, or because they want to make sure, that they “really mean it this time” and so are saved. Under a particular kind of Calvinistic preaching, people ask themselves, “I know I professed faith without any consciousness of confessing what I did not sincerely believe, but have I really believed? Have I been truly born again? Am I really a Christian?”

This treadmill can be particularly damaging to covenant children and young people. What do we expect to happen with those born within the covenant? We expect that, as they hear of Christ, they will believe in Christ, as they learn of Christ, they will trust in Christ. We expect this because we believe that as we, who are parents, use “all the means of God’s appointment”, God’s Holy Spirit will make these effective to the salvation of our children. We do not expect them to have a distinct or memorable experience. Indeed we believe that the normal pattern will be that they will, so far as they can remember, always have believed in Christ, or not be able to remember a time when they did not believe in Christ. 

Yet many by this teaching are unduly disturbed by being urged to “make sure” that they have experienced true conversion. Practically there is no difference between being born in a Christian home and a non-Christian home, being baptized into the church and not baptized, except exposure to some “external privileges.” Now, we understand and respect that Five Points Baptists should so believe and teach, but we cannot understand why Presbyterians should.

But the damage is not limited to children and young people. Anyone without a distinct movement from unbelief to faith can be disturbed. And even those who point to a memorable event, may be disturbed if they are made to feel uncertain that what happened was the “real thing.” It is possible that they are deceived by the devil or self-deceived, so that they mistakenly believe that they are saved, when they in fact are not.

Those who emphasize experience can be on a treadmill because they are never quite sure if they really are saved. Probably so, perhaps, but not surely so.

The third spiritual treadmill is the spiritual disciplines treadmill. There are those who put a great emphasis on the spiritual disciplines, or devotional exercises, or “quiet times.” They involve Bible reading, memorization, and study and prayer. (Note that, while believers have always been able to pray in private, it was not till well after the invention of the printing press that any believer could read the Bible in private.) Christians are taught to incorporate these things into a routine that is departed from on only in the case of extraordinary circumstances. Interestingly sometimes these private practices are given more importance than church attendance and public worship.

It is emphasized that these practices are absolutely essential to Christian health and living. Sometimes phrases such as “No Bible no breakfast” or, “Miss your devotions one day and God knows it; miss your devotions two days and you know it; miss your devotions for three days and everybody knows it” or, “Seven days without Scripture makes one weak” are used to reinforce the importance of making these things habits.

Now, do not misunderstand. The private use of the Bible and private prayer are very good things. Most of us could do with more. And Christian disciplines, routines, habits, and regular practices are good things. Again, most of us could do with more not less of them.

But, there is a danger here, too. Think about the way some people handle diet and exercise. Depending on the kind of diet they follow, they may feel they have put a nail in their coffin if they eat something with too much fat or too many carbohydrates. If they do not go to the gym, or do their jogging or walking, or spend time on their treadmill, they feel awful for missing. This approach can make it virtually impossible to enjoy the life and health you have, if you have not followed the regimen. And, this approach can work against health, in that the sense of failure can lead one to be less careful of good health practices. If you failed to follow the regimen yesterday, you are so discouraged that you are less likely today or tomorrow to do the things that can aid good health.

It is this way with the wrong kind of emphasis on the spiritual disciplines. Christian life is just that - it is life, a living relationship with God through Christ. The disciplines can aid that living faith, but they are not the same as that living faith. This approach can work against real Christian health. If you miss whatever daily routine you have committed yourself, the sense of guilt and failure can hurt spiritual health. You can develop a “checklist approach” to the Christian life. If you can put a check by the things on your list, then you can feel good about your spiritual health; if you have not checked off at least the most important of them, you are cannot feel so good about your spiritual health. 

All this can mean a lack of enjoyment of the life with God you have by faith, not by activities or practices. What I mean by “living by faith” is that you live your life in the consciousness of God’s presence and favor, knowing you are forgiven, justified, and reconciled on the basis of the work of Christ alone, that you have constant access to your heavenly Father through your High Priest, that you can count on Jesus to understand and grant you help in all the circumstances of life, and that God is with you and will never leave or forsake you.

This kind of emphasis on the spiritual disciplines is a treadmill when believers pay more attention to the routines of certain activities and practices than the realities of living faith.

These three “spiritual treadmills” all have elements of truth. There is a difference between being in a state of grace and not. There is a difference between true and false faith. There is a need for faithful use of the means of grace, and that includes the private and personal ones. But these realities should not lead to Treadmill Christianity.

Are you in a state of grace? Yes, if your faith is in Christ as he is offered in the Gospel.  Is your faith real? Yes, if you sincerely are resting on Christ alone for salvation. Do the spiritual disciplines have a place? Yes, they aid the Christian life, but they are not the Christian life.


5 comments:

Rod said...

Re: the second treadmill. Instead of asking people to "give their testimony," which means tell about a past event, we should ask them to testify of their current faith in Christ.

Don Frank said...

Great post, Bill. I have tried them all and When time permits, would like to describe another one that I don't see listed.

One question though: how do I know if I am sincere enough in my "resting on Christ?"

gaurav11 said...

The Tradition of the Church affirms that mortal sin destroys sanctifying grace of the soul and cuts the sinner off from the body of Christ. Treadmills Bangalore

sam flower said...

Great Post!!! Keep Posting...
Treadmills

sam flower said...

Great Post!!! Keep Posting... Treadmills