The Doctrine of Christian Living: EFCA Ordination (Part 8 of 11)
For the last few months, I’ve been writing about my ordination process in the Evangelical Free Church of America. If you’d like to read about what the process looks like, check out the first post in the series (here). Throughout the autumn, I’ll occasionally share the remaining sections of my ordination paper, which engages with our denomination’s 10-point statement of faith. This week’s post is from the section on the Christian living. I know these posts are dense. Please hang with me through a few more.
Thank you for the prayers and encouragement along the way,
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8. We believe that God’s justifying grace must not be separated from His sanctifying power and purpose. God commands us to love Him supremely and others sacrificially, and to live out our faith with care for one another, compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed. With God’s Word, the Spirit’s power, and fervent prayer in Christ’s name, we are to combat the spiritual forces of evil. In obedience to Christ’s commission, we are to make disciples among all people, always bearing witness to the gospel in word and deed.
Speaking in systematic theological terms, sanctification is the process of becoming more and more holy (Jn 17:17; Rm 6:11ff; Eph 2:10; 1 Thes 4:3; Heb 12:1). The Bible closely links “God’s justifying grace” and “His sanctifying power” in this way: God’s action of justification invariably leads to and produces sanctification, a cooperative endeavor by both God and the person. When God justifies a person, the process of change must begin (Jam 2:17–26). This change is not without setbacks, but one day, God will complete what he began (Phil 1:6). Hallelujah. The process of change varies in people: sometimes it seems nearly instantaneous in one specific area of life, and other times change plods along slowly, incrementally—two steps forward, one step back. The Lord surely has his reasons for the relative slowness and rapidity of sanctification, perhaps just fast enough so we trust he’s still working but not so quick that we get cocky. With all of his riches, Jacob’s limp wasn’t a bad thing for him; it assuaged his swagger.
When we say, “live out our faith,” we mean the deepening of a Christian’s trust in the promises of God that leads to increasing, joyful obedience. We can call this “works,” which is what Paul calls it in Ephesians 2:10. Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves never stays stagnant. In fact, Scripture is clear that final salvation requires good works—works produced by grace through faith but works nonetheless (Jn 5:28–29; Rm 8:12–14; Gal 5:21–24; 6:8–10; Heb 10:36; Jam 1:26; 1 Jn 1:7; and many, many others). To just highlight one aspect of our obedience, Christians should do good to everyone but especially those of the household of faith (Gal 6:10), which is not unlike the requirements for eldership which specify that if a person cannot care for his own household, something is wrong.
While all true believers are eternally secure, the feeling of assurance is not static. A believer’s assurance to whether he or she is a genuine believer fluctuates for a host of reasons, and progress in sanctification is one of them. When a believer lives out her faith in humble, joyful obedience, she should be encouraged that she is indeed a believer and that all the promises in the gospel are hers. A Christian in overt disobedience—what the OT sometimes calls high-handed or defiant sins (Num 15:30)—might feel very assured of his own salvation, but we might better label his assurance as false assurance. John addresses the topic of assurance extensively in 1 John 3, in which there seem to be two related components: an ethical part of assurance related to a believer’s obedience and a mystical, spiritual part that comes through the voice of the Spirit (esp. v. 24).
Jesus spoke of the greatest commandment as loving God and the second as loving our neighbor (Mt 22:37–39). We see this pattern reflected in the Decalogue (Ex 20; Dt 5). To love anything more than God, even good things such as one’s family and ministry, involves elevating a good thing to the place of God, which is idolatry. Yet when we love God rightly and preeminently, we will also love the things he loves. And because God’s own passions are committed to the poor and oppressed (Dt 10:18; Ps 140:12; Lk 4:18), the people of God ought to be characterized by these same passions—passions that translate to merciful gospel witness in both word and deed (Dt 15:11; Prov 31:8–9; Amos; Micah 6:8; Mt 23:23). In this way, each local church ought to be an oasis of compassion and an incubator of people zealous for justice as we extend the gospel and make disciples among all people, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded (Mt 28:19–20). I spend a significant amount of time discipling men who, Lord willing, will spend their lives discipling others into deeper understanding of what it means to follow God in the home, church, and world—that is, walking with God both when everyone is watching and when no one is watching.
We should not neglect the implications of the gospel’s cosmic aim to restore all things, which includes social order, but neither should we conflate the proclamation of the gospel to simply doing good things. People changed by the gospel will do things like volunteer in a crisis pregnancy center and oppose local laws that might hurt the poor and minorities. Yet the gospel is not volunteering or lobbying, though it produces good works as a tree grows fruit.
Because God calls us to reach all people (1 Thes 3:12), ministry in general and churches in particular will always be messy. Sermons will be too long for some and too short for others. Worship music will be too expressive for some and too stuffy for others. Some will wrongly become dogmatic about secondary matters and squelch fragile unity and opportunities to build bridges. And that’s all just within the church. With all these varying maturities, backgrounds, temperaments, races, ethnicities, and economic statuses, Christians reaching non-Christians will certainly also be messy. It was in the book of Acts. But diverse people rallying around the cross of Christ glorifies God in ways monolithic uniformity does not. For if God has seen fit to unite the two oft-opposed groups of Jew and Gentiles together in one body through the cross, then we should certainly seek the same sort of unity.
When speaking of various types of diversity, it is also helpful to point out what we don’t mean. Sometimes when Christians speak of faith, we mean the faith as in an established body of doctrine (cf. 2 Thes 3:2 in the Greek, hē pistis). Jude wrote about “common salvation” and contending “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). These phrases become meaningless if Christianity were infinitely malleable. Yes, the Christian faith has aspects of mystery, but the Christian faith cannot be all mystery lest there be nothing to call the Christian faith once-for-all-delivered.
In evangelism, discipleship, and the advancement of God’s kingdom, there will always be opposition. Of this we are warned (Mt 10:16ff; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 5:8). Our ability to discern the exact makeup of the opposition—whether the world, flesh, or devil (1 Jn 2:15–18)—is often difficult. The categories mingle. Yet God has appointed means, or we might say weaponry, for service in the battle. These means are many and varied, but we can correctly subsume them under three larger categories: God’s Word, the Spirit’s power, and prayer in Christ’s name, by which I mean prayer consistent with the will of Christ and prayed in his authority through our union with Christ (2 Cor 10:3–5; Eph 6:11; 2 Tim 4:7).
Discussion Questions (created by the EFCA)
Relationship Between Justifying Grace and Sanctifying Power and Purpose
1. How do you understand the doctrine of sanctification? How is it related to justification?
2. What is the purpose and function of “works” in the life of the believer?
3. What is the relationship between a believer’s sanctification and assurance?
4. Why is love for God preeminent and why is this at the heart of understanding the Ten Commandments and is considered the first and greatest commandment of the whole of the Christian life? How does this relate to other gods and idolatry?
5. How does our preeminent love for God (and God’s prior love of us) serve as the basis for our love for others? Is there an importance to this order?
Living Out Our Faith
6. Why is it important to distinguish between “the faith” understood as a body of truth and “faith” understood as the way in which one lives, viz. having been justified by faith, we live by faith?
7. Living out our faith begins with “the household of faith,” which is evidenced in “care for one another.” Why is this important?
8. What is the biblical teaching of “the poor” and “the oppressed?”
9. How do you understand the local church’s responsibility and role in the world, particularly ministering with compassion and justice?
Combating Spiritual Forces of Evil
10. What is spiritual warfare? How should we combat the spiritual forces of evil?
Christ’s Commission to Make Disciples
11. What is the importance of the command to “make disciples” and what are the God-ordained means of doing that?
12. The scope of this ministry is “all people.” Support this biblically and explain the importance and practical outworking of this in the local church.
13. Why is it important to distinguish between the gospel and the entailments of the gospel? How does the gospel relate to deeds of mercy and compassion? What are the implications of equating them (e.g. the social gospel), and what are the implications of creating an absolute disjunction between them?
14. We are always to bear witness to the gospel in both proclamation (“in word”) and in life (“in deed”)? Give examples of how we can witness to the gospel “in…deed.”