Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the certainty of where our story ends. There are ups and there are downs in the Christian life, and some of the highs are really high and some of the lows are really low. Just as your plane of vision changes while riding a roller coaster, sometimes we get confused on where we’ll actually end up, afraid one of those dips may not pull up in time to avoid disaster. How comforting, then, to look to the Word of God and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that every one of us who belong to Jesus will also be made like him in the end. We can know this because sanctification is ultimately his work anyway – work that he has promised to do. Here are a few passages.
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). There are some loud theological words in this passage that raise some important questions, like, “What exactly does ‘foreknew’ and ‘predestined’ mean?” But for this writing, these pursuits are not the point. The point is this – if you a believer in Christ, you will ultimately be changed into the likeness of Jesus. It is as sure today as it ever has been, regardless of what your recent or not-so-recent experience has been. It’s up to him, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That is not constraining, it’s comforting.
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the Spirit of him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). Everyone who belongs to Jesus has the Spirit (Rom 8:9). And if you have the Spirit, life is yours. There are no surprise endings.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18). The Holy Spirit is God and brings freedom everywhere he goes, and your person is no exception. We all are becoming more like Jesus, from one degree of glory to the next. Progress may be unsteady from our wavering perspective, but it is as certain as the Word of the Lord. How do we know this? Because “it comes from the Lord.” Who, in case you forgot, is the Spirit.
“And I am confident of this: that he who began a good in work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). You have a role to play in your sanctification. You are to battle the flesh and “let not sin reign in your mortal body” (Rom 6:11). God equips you “to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). But in all these things, never forget that it is God who began the work. And it is God who will finish the work.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). The Shepherd takes care of the sheep, and he’s never lost any. Not even one.
“We eagerly await a Savior from [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20-21). If you trust in Jesus, you are included in that “our.” By his own authority, Christ is going to make your sin-filled body like his sinless, perfect body.
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification, and its end, eternal life” (Rom 3:22). This is the clearest of all, perhaps. Man I love this verse. Easy and beautiful observations: 1) Sanctification has an end. 2) That end is eternal life.
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). The “Golden Chain” of salvation. This verse is sweet sweet sweet. It means that salvation is an inextricable web, a work of God from start to finish. No one has ever begun who has not finished. There are no exit ramps on the highway of salvation. You will arrive safely at glory.
All this is to encourage you and let you know that even though the struggle hurts, it doesn’t go on forever. If you’re at the top of the spiritual stratosphere right now, take the time to encourage another believer. And if you’re in the midst of the struggle, know that the struggle has an end. And, because of the grace and lovingkindness of God toward you, you will win. Until then, keep seeking that next degree of glory.
“If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” – Galatians 1:10
Let’s do this inductively. I ask. You answer.
If you are trying to please man, are you a servant of Christ? _________________________
Is it even possible to be a servant of both man and Christ? _________________________
Who are you serving? ________________________
Who should you be serving? _________________________
One of the most famous poems of all time is called “Invictus”, written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. It has been quoted endlessly; you will probably recognize a few phrases. The poem, written in simple English with an alternate-rhyming pattern, is extremely powerful. It captures something common about the human condition, and if you read it slowly and without distraction, it will be nearly impossible for you not to feel something darkly magnetic about these words.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
At first reading, it’s hard not to be drawn in by these “inspiring” words. They’re captivating. I really mean it when I say that the poem really does capture a desire felt by all mankind. Unfortunately that desire, which at first seems so noble and beautiful – to be the captain of your own soul – is the same kind of unbridled pride which overtook Adam and Eve and resulted in the Fall of the entire human race. (Yes, it is that heavy, and yes that is exactly what “Invictus” is describing). A little background information will go a long way.
William Ernest Henley did not have a pleasant life by anyone’s standards. At the age of 12 he was diagnosed with a unique form of tuberculosis that spread throughout his body. To extend his life at the age of 17, doctors amputated his left leg below the knee. His upper body continued to grow while his lower body withered, and he developed painful abscesses in his joints. He suffered his entire life, and being unable to cope with his circumstances, developed an intense hatred and irreverence toward anything sacred – especially God. Capturing his inability to deal with his plight, “Invictus” is the outpouring of Henley’s hostility and pride against the Divine. The words of the poem itself reveal how completely broken and tortured Henley’s life was:
- He felt “covered by night” that’s “black as the Pit,” but still describes his own soul is “unconquerable.”
- He claimed that despite his circumstances (which he says “chance” is responsible for), “he has not winced or cried aloud.” (But what is the poem itself, if not a desperate cry from a tormented man lying in the confines of a hospital bed?)
- The meaning of “unbowed” is obvious – Henley refused to pray or acknowledge the existence of God in any way. His allowance of “the gods” in the first stanza only serves as self-centered praise.
- The “strait gate” is a clear, unashamed reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14. Equally clear is that “the scroll” refers to the Bible (or more directly, God’s impending judgment as described in the Bible). Henley spit directly in the face of the loving God of the universe, claiming that he himself would command his own destiny.
Suffice it to say that “Invictus” (which is Latin for “unconquered”) is nothing but Henley’s declaration of independence from God. It is an empty praise chorus to human pride. This pride is within us all; it is the root of all sin. We all wrongfully desire to be the master of our own fate, much to our own destruction. But as Paul wrote to the Philippians, one day “every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” And it brings me no joy whatsoever to say that William Ernest Henley is now acutely aware of exactly who the Captain is.
Many years ago, Dorothea Day wrote a response to “Invictus” called “My Captain.” Day’s version, of course, owes its framework to Henley’s original work, but it remains unique in its own regard and is a perfect conclusion to this post.
Out of the night that dazzles me
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ the conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears
That life with Him! And His the aid,
Despite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.
I have no fear, though strait the gate,
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate:
Christ is the Captain of my soul.
It is probably a gross understatement to say that Christians are a bit averse to change in the church. As a matter of fact, it might even be fair to say that Christians can be among the most dogmatic people in history when it comes to preserving tradition.
The argument is not over whether this is true or false, the argument is over whether it is good or bad. Some Christians will use biblical evidence to support their emphasis on tradition and consider any change of any kind to be a departure from truth. Other Christians will (with equal ferocity) explain that change is a necessary part of doing church in a changing world, also citing biblical examples and claiming that not even the apostles would be so hard-headed about such peripheral issues. The question that naturally must arise, then, is “who is right?” Should we loosen our grip on tradition, or tighten it up more than ever? The answer is both. Here’s how and why.
There are without question biblical mandates to preserve tradition – Paul says that church leaders must “hold to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9). In other words, not the trustworthy word as heard from the latest tweet on gospel relevance, and not the trustworthy word as you choose to interpret it (postmodernists), but the trustworthy word as taught. Church leaders are to receive the truth of the gospel, accurately preserve it, and pass it on to the next generation unscathed and undiluted – in other words, unchanged. The Bible simply leaves no wiggle room for the latest doctrinal fad. Truth is God’s truth once for all; it is not subject to change. Another example (and there are many) of a tradition which should never change is the Lord’s Supper (ya know, since Jesus himself set it up and whatnot). The Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Not just “remember how I did this,” but “you actually do this yourself. Break this bread and drink this cup and while you do, remember me.” That is a tradition from which we have no grounds to part. Not ever.
On the other hand, there are valid biblical examples of constructive change being necessary in the church. It may be safe to call Paul the world’s first and foremost church planter, and his entire life as a Christian can seem like one tumultuous change. He changed where he slept, what he ate, how he traveled, and even (gasp!) how he presented the gospel. He never changed the gospel itself (because he held to it as taught; see above), but he certainly changed its delivery based on who he was trying to reach with it. In Athens, he even quoted a Greek secular poet to build a bridge into the Athenians’ context (Acts 17)! This is not compromising the truth or being ashamed of the gospel, it is a legitimate apostolic example of evangelism. Furthering the kingdom of God on earth is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; it involves constant change and adjustment. To reach people who have never been reached, you have to do things that have never been done. So change is a necessary part of church life as well.
So what’s the solution? We aren’t supposed to change, but we are…how confusing. But the real solution lies in clearly outlining what is subject to change and what is not. There has to be an upfront statement about what is on the table for evaluation and what is not.
So let’s make a pretend box called, “Things We Will Never Change (Or Even Think About Changing).” In this box we can put things like the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). We can also put in our central biblical doctrines (the full humanity and divinity of Christ, Trinitarian Theology Proper, salvation by grace through faith plus nothing, etc.). Also included here is the view that the Bible is completely without error and does not contain anything that is contrary to fact. There are many things that go in this box, and none of them are subject to change. Never ever ever let anyone in this box. Lock it and throw away the key.
Let’s make another pretend box called, “Things We Will Constantly Change (And Make It A Point To Consider Changing).” This is where it starts to hurt a bit, because we love some of our traditions in church that, quite frankly, are not as central as we’ve made them. But if we say we are serious about reaching lost people yet aren’t even willing to turn loose of some of our own preferences, we are kidding ourselves. So in this box we can go ahead and put church architecture, for starters. The church has met in many kinds of buildings over the years; bricks with a steeple is only one of them (ouch). We can also put our style of worship music in this box; we should constantly evaluate what kind of music would most effectively reach whatever community our church is based in. Surely that is closer to the heart of the gospel than getting puffed up about the kind of music we prefer. There are many other things that should go in this box as well; these are just a few examples.
The key to all this, of course, is accurately assessing what goes in which box. We have a bad habit of making what is central seem peripheral, and making what is peripheral seem central. Stop worrying about whether or not you have chandeliers or florescent lights and start worrying about trying to genuinely greet a visitor. Stop caring so much about whether your music minister is wearing a tie or a V-neck, and start caring about the accurate presentation of the gospel to nonbelievers in your worship service. Because I promise you, the apostle Paul wouldn’t care if your music minister wore jeans so tight the only way out of them is get raptured as long as he’s connecting people to Christ. Let’s keep our eye on the ball.
To be effective today, the church has to be more determined than ever – determined to protect our traditions, and also determined to burn them. The key is to learn which determination to employ toward which tradition. Let’s decide prayerfully and honestly.