Theme: United to Christ
Leading Question: “If the death of Jesus assures us of right standing with God, how does it help us become more like him?
According to a host of New Testament passages, accepting Christ”s sacrifice on our behalf is intended to lead to new life in Christ, a life that differs markedly from the old one. But how the process of becoming “new” takes place is open to a wide variety of interpretations. This lesson explores some of the primary concerns as we seek to become “new” in him.
1. New in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). Paul”s description of the new life in Christ is extraordinarily exuberant and optimistic:
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”– 2 Cor 5:17, NRSV
In our desires and efforts to live a holy life, the family of believers has often split into two groups, with numerous gradations in between. Some affirm with passion that it is possible to live a perfect life in Christ; others, with equal passion, affirm that the only perfection possible for sinful humans in perfection in Christ, a vicarious trusting in his merits, not our own.
From a practical point of view, some in the one group end up trying very hard to be perfect, so hard that they become unhappy people, difficult to live with; but some in the other group, sensing what seems to be an impossible goal, too readily trust in the merits of Jesus in ways that allow them to become careless in matters of holy living.
Put another way, one group really worries that the church will become careless and not do the things that it should and could do; the other group worries that the church will become discouraged from grappling with a seemingly impossible ideal. Carelessness and discouragement: Two great enemies of the soul. Is there a way that we can pool our strengths and weaknesses to avoid both evils?
2. Tussling with the body of death (Rom. 7). In Romans 7 Paul describes a monumental battle that rages in the soul. These words are perhaps the most pointed ones:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” – Rom 7:21-23, NRSV.
The two groups noted above tend to split on the issue of whether or not this inner war is something that is part of a true Christian”s life. The “perfectionists” who worry about carelessness in the church are fearful that admitting the battle will lead some to give up the battle completely and simply shrug. The non-perfectionists are more realistic about human nature and readily admit to the inner battle. But some of the more extreme perfectionists are inclined to label such “realism” as unworthy of the name Christian.
Those who admit to the inner battle inevitably move on to Romans 8:1 and claim the gift of God”s grace: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). And when one is “in Christ Jesus,” there is no place for carelessness. There is freedom, but a freedom which is always sensitive to the needs of those around us.
3. Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:13-26). After sharp words with the Galatian believers, Paul gives a wonderful description of the goal of Christian living, one that can be a corrective to those who are so preoccupied with personal holiness that they become difficult to live with. In verse 13 he notes that we have been called to freedom, but cautions that we should not use our freedom as an “opportunity for the flesh.” The NRSV actually translates “for the flesh” as “for self-indulgence.” The translation is justified because of the lines that immediately follow calling for unselfish love: “but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single command, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself”” (Gal 5:13-14). Retaining the translation “for the flesh,” however, actually throws into bold relief the difference between flesh and Spirit and the goal of living in the Spirit. In short, anything that drives a wedge between us and the needs of others is of the “flesh,” even if it is catalogued under the heading of “holy living.” It is too easy to become introspective and preoccupied with the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21), forgetting that the whole point of the “fruit of the spirit” (Gal 5:22-26) is to relate to others in a helpful way. And note that the “fruit of the Spirit” is singular. The full list of virtues constitute one fruit: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” These are never a means of salvation. They are the result of salvation. And because we are grateful to God, we will seek to share that gratitude in helpful ways with others.
4. C. S. Lewis on Christian living. Two passages from Mere Christianity do a marvelous job of highlighting the goal of Christian living. Lewis hints at the danger of becoming so preoccupied with holiness that we become miserable and unhappy people. The fruit of the Spirit really is love, joy, peace, patience….
Becoming holy is great fun: “Already the new [people] men are dotted here and there all over the earth. Some, as I have admitted, are still hardly recognizable: but others can be recognized. Every now and then one meets them. Their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off. They are, I say, recognizable; but you must know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people” which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other [people] men do, but they need you less (We must get over wanting to be needed : in some goodish people, specially women, that is the hardest of all temptations to resist.) They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognized one of them, you will recognize the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect (but how should I know?) that they recognize one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of color, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 187-88
Christianity: hard or easy? In the last chapter we were considering the Christian idea of “putting on Christ,” or first “dressing up” as a son of God in order that you may finally become a real son. What I want to make clear is that this is not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; and it is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity. Christianity offers nothing else at all. And I should like to point out how it differs from ordinary ideas of “morality” and “being good.” (IV.8.1)
The ordinary idea which we all have before we become Christians is this. We take as starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. We then admit that something else – call it “morality” or “decent behaviour,” or “the good of society”– has claims on this self: claims which interfere with its own desires. What we mean by “being good” is giving in to those claims. Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call “wrong”: well, we must give them up. Other things, which the self did not want to do, turn out to be what we call  “right”: well, we shall have to do them. But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance, and some time, to get on with its own life and do what it likes. In fact, we are very like an honest man paying his taxes. He pays them all right, but he does hope that there will be enough left over for him to live on. Because we are still taking our natural self as the starting point. (IV.8.2)
As long as we are thinking that way, one or other of two results is likely to follow. Either we give up trying to be good, or else we become very unhappy indeed. For, make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier. In the end, you will either give up trying to be good, or else become one of those people who, as they say, “live for others” but always in a discontented, grumbling way – always wondering why the others do not notice it more and always making a martyr of yourself. And once you have become that you will be a far greater pest to anyone who has to live with you than you would have been if you had remained frankly selfish. (IV 8.3)
The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don”t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don”t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don”t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked–the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours” (IV.8.4) – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 166-167.
In short, knowing that God gave everything for us, inspires us to want to be like him.