A Call To Reform – Part 2

  1. The Peril of Legalism

            A friend of mine recently attended a Pentecostal church, and she sought my opinion.  After giving her some points on theology and spiritual implications, I mentioned the potential of having guilt-feeling in Pentecostalism.  At her request, I explained that Pentecostals see speaking in tongues as the overarching evidence of the indwelling of the Spirit.  The absence of such ‘gift’ often creates guilt that makes the believer thinks that he is a second-class citizen.  In order to ‘survive’ in this atmosphere, he may begin to pretend to have the gift of tongue.  My friend went on to tell me that was exactly what she was doing. 

            A parallel phenomenon exists within evangelicalism.  Subtle legalism often fills the church and expresses in the form of a mental list that measures the ‘spirituality’ of individuals.  Different people might have different lists, but they all contain essential elements that one must fulfill in order to be called a “true Christian.” Common things on ‘the list’ include:  prayer, evangelism, daily devotion, and social involvement.  In time, the items on the list will reveal themselves in subtle ways like a disapproval frown when you confessed that you have not been doing your daily devotion, or you would keep hearing praises on this one person who enjoys evangelism.  Eventually, everybody realizes that a good Christian will obey these New Testament laws.  Incidentally, those who carry ‘the list’ know that it contains only elements that they can fulfill.  Therefore, the person who does not give at least ten percent of his earning will never use tithing to measure others. 

            When spirituality becomes human endeavors after salvation, the problems become clear.  For those who succeed, it promotes spiritual pride; and for those who fail, tremendous guilt-feelings arise.  Alister McGrath defines Christian spirituality in the following way:


For Christianity, spirituality concerns the living out of the encounter with Jesus Christ.  The term “Christian spirituality” refers to the way in which the Christian life is understood and the explicitly devotional practices which have been developed to foster and sustain that relationship with Christ.  Christian spirituality may be thus understood as the way in which Christian individuals or groups aim to deepen their experience of God, or to “practice the presence of God,” to use a phrase especially associated with Brother Lawrence.[1]

 He further suggests to think of Christianity as having three elements—a set of beliefs, a set of values, and a way of life.  Spirituality concerns with especially the third element.  In this sense, the practice of spirituality is closely related to the believer’s relationship with Christ.  Unfortunately, our western culture has cut off that relationship with the context of our community.  In the end, our personal relationship with Christ becomes a lonely struggle with our sinful nature, and our community stops being the context of our personal encounter with Christ but functions as the judge who tells us whether we are good enough.  In a Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren says “I found this constant judging of in/out, us/them to be fatiguing and distracting from loving everyone I met as a neighbor, which I was pretty sure should be primary for Christians.”

            I believe the reform will focus on grace.  The Italian novelist Ignazio Silone wrote about a revolutionary hunted by the police.  In order to hide him, his friends dressed him up as a priest and sent him to a remote village.  When the peasants learned the arrival of the “priest”, they swarmed his door with stories of their sins and broken lives.  The “priest” protested and tried to turn them away, but they will not leave.  He had no other choices but to listen to the stories of people starving for grace.  Philip Yancey comments in his book that he senses that is why any person goes to church:  out of hunger for grace.  I believe the reform will focus on a spirituality that emphasizes not so much on how much we have achieved but on how broken we are, for the acknowledgment of our brokenness reflects how much we need Jesus.  This acknowledgment will produce no shame but becomes the driving force that brings us closer to Christ. 


  1. Justification in my Mind

Romans 10:9 says “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is one of the most quoted scriptural verses by today’s Christians to support justification by faith.  Along with it came the notion of conversionism.  But, what happens when we have someone who confessed with his mouth but never believed in his heart?  Better yet, how would we know?  Tracing all the way back to the Second Awakening, Charles Finney, the Billy Graham of his time, took sanctification out of salvation.  People who wished to accept Christ were encouraged to “come as they are.” Finney’s program did invite many converts to come forward.  At the same time, he never put sanctification back in the picture.  Consequently, the pews were filled with a lot of justifiedbelievers without regeneration (or the ‘born again’ experience).  While we may separate justification and sanctification when studying theology, they always go hand-in-hand in reality.

We have inherited this legacy till today.  During evangelistic events, we emphasize the coming forward to accept Jesus to experience justification by faith.  We count the number of ‘saved’ by counting the number of people who raised their hands or prayed the prayers, and we would leave the rest to the “follow-up team” (if there is one).  In essence, we keep producing people who have no idea of what bearing the fruits of the Spirit has to do with their salvation!  However, they have learned to survive in church by adaptation of the Christian culture.  As a result, many in the church have lost sight of what faith, hope, love, and other Christian virtues are about.  They talk of love but fail to show it.  They speak of humility but lack true humbleness.  They aspire joy but forever missing its sense.  In other words, these Christians keep falling short of fulfilling their ideologies.  And, without knowing what to do with the failure, they sometimes convince themselves that they have already achieved what they set out for—only that it does not look like anything of the secular parallel.[2] When people from outside the church looked inside, they often see a bunch of hypocrites. 

I believe the reform may focus on an accountable justification.  When faith remains a complete personal pursuit, accountability has no place to fit in.  If the fellowship of the community plays no part in the spiritual journey of the individual, then the community becomes nonessential.  Those of us who live in the west may not see the significance as we are accustomed to the concept of individualism and personal relationship with God; however, Christian spirituality not necessarily look the same on the other side of the world.  The late Vincent J. Donovan, a Catholic priest who evangelized to the people of Mesai in Africa, told the story of his adventure in Christianity Rediscovered.  At one time, after telling the gospel to a tribe, he advised the chief and his people to consider accepting Christ and that he would return in a week to hear their answer.  Upon his return, Ndangoya, the chief of this tribe, informed him that they were ready to accept Christ.  However, Donovan commented that baptism was not automatic as he knew the hearts of these people were not the same over the course of the year of catechism.  He stood in front of the assembled community and began to separate the acceptable from the “unacceptable” candidates for baptism.  “This old man sitting here has missed too many of our instruction meetings.  He was always out herding cattle…These two on this side will be baptized because they always attended…But that man there obviously not understood the instructions…And this warrior has not shown enough effort…”  For the rest of the story, I will quote from his book directly.

The old man, Ndangoya, stopped me politely but firmly, “Padre, why are you trying to break us up and separate us?  During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire.  Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community.  But they have been helped by those with much energy.  There are stupid ones in the community, but they have been helped by those who are intelligent.  Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village, but they have been helped by those with much faith.  Would you turn out and drive off the lazy ones and the ones with little faith and the stupid ones?  From the first day I have spoken for these people.  And I speak for them now.  Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We believe.’”

     We believe.  Communal faith.  Until that day I had never heard of such a concept, certainly had never been taught it in a classroom.  But I did remember the old ritual for baptism of children, the first question in that ceremony.  “What do you ask of the church of God?” we inquired of the infant.  Of course, he couldn’t answer for himself.  He couldn’t speak for himself.  He couldn’t even think for himself.  He certainly could not believe.  And there is no such thing as a valid baptism without belief.  Such an act would be magic, witchcraft. 

The answer to that question, supplied by sponsors, was not “baptism” or “salvation.” It was, “faith.” That is what the child asked of the church of God, of the community of believers—faith, their faith, to become his, to make baptism possible.[3]

A community of faith means more than the sum of all the individuals put together.  It must be a fellowship that promotes honesty and vulnerability before God, so it can provide the context for each individual to practice authentic Christianity.  The community keeps everyone accountable, yet it encourages each member by genuine love.  In this sense, “confessing” with one’s mouth and “believing” with one’s heart no longer pertains to a personal commitment to merely an abstract concept but to living genuinely within a community according to the ways of God.  When we invite someone to “accept” Jesus, we are no longer inviting someone to come forward to raise his hand or to pray “the prayer.” In essence, we will be inviting someone to join the community of faith, to make that community a core part of his life, to allow himself to be vulnerable in that community, and to allow that community to be honest with him.  Together, the community will worship the Lord in the name of Jesus.  I think this is what the reform will try to do. 

[1] Alister McGrath.  Christian Spirituality, pp.2-3.

[2] Ask a Christian to tell you what joy is and you will see what I mean. 

[3] Vincent J. Donovan.  Christianity Rediscovered, p.70.

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