Science and Christian Virtue 1 (RJS)

Last week I posted on an article from Discover Magazine on the science of sin (Part One and Part Two). This article described a number of studies where the human brain was imaged as a function of external stimulus. These kinds of studies are in their infancy – so the results should be considered with interest and a dose of healthy skepticism.  The basic ideas are sound – but as the work progresses there will no doubt be refinements and changes in the understanding of human response.

There are key points here that we need to take seriously though. The first that strikes home is human embodiment. We cannot separate soul, spirit, mind and will from the human bodies that contain said soul, spirit, mind or will.  The second is that the human mind or will is malleable – research is demonstrating that the brain contains a conscious self-regulatory system. As one researcher said: “This network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature.

In the course of a few posts over the next several weeks I would like to think through some of the ramifications of these ideas in the light of Jesus and Paul, and in the context of Christian thought through the ages. I am not an expert in much of this, so I look forward to learning from the comments and conversation.

Let’s start off with a simple question.

Is there any role for human effort in the development of spiritual and ethical maturity (Christian virtue) or is it simply the power of the Spirit through the grace of God working within one’s life?

I don’t want to underplay the gospel of grace – or the power of the Spirit.  Romans 5-8 is a profound discussion of victory through Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection. Paul knows what he is talking about, he knows the struggles of human flesh. We rest on the grace of God and in the Spirit who helps our weakness and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

But nowhere in the pages of the Bible – Old Testament or New Testament – is there an expectation that the role of God’s people in this process is to sit back, relax, and let the Spirit produce fruit. To quote Paul: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

Yet at times in our church it seems that there is such a fear of “self-effort Christianity” which, it is said, will result either in depression and burn-out in failure or in arrogance and pride in success, that the safest course is to do nothing and wait for divine intervention.  This is compounded by a society that expects effortless success.  Both winning a lottery and winning the World Series are attributed to luck.

Tom Wright has an excellent lecture on the theme of Christian Virtue delivered last February when he was visiting Fuller Theological Seminary.  He began the lecture by introducing the  concept of virtue and the discipline of thousands of small decisions that result in right actions coming naturally without conscious thought – the development of “second nature.” In developing his theme Wright used the example of the emergency landing of flight 1549 on the Hudson River last January 15th. Capt. Sullenberger was rightly hailed as a hero – and the incident termed a “miracle.”  But this miracle did not just happen – Sullenberger had been preparing for such events for decades with training and discipline. And when the time came, the right actions came naturally.

What has this to do with Christian virtue?  Wright continued:

Our culture prefers effortless spontaneity with occasional divine intervention in emergencies rather than working with God on developing the muscles that will meet those emergencies with a God given second nature which appears spontaneous, but is in fact the result of thinking and choosing and practicing. Now all this may sound fine at one level, but by now anyone standing in the Christian tradition ought to want to ask one or two rather sharp questions. … The very mention of virtue will make many Christians stiffen in alarm.  They have been rightly taught that we are not justified by our works but by our faith. They know that they are powerless to make themselves conform to any high and lofty moral code. … Isn’t virtue a way specifically of talking about a self help sort of moralism? Isn’t that the sort of thing that Paul in the first century and the reformers in the 16th taught us to be suspicious of? … And in any case doesn’t St. Paul talk about the fruits of the Spirit as the key to Christian living? Once we’ve got the Spirit won’t they all simply come naturally?

How might all this fit within what St. Paul calls the gospel of the grace of God?

It is not the case that God does the initial work of salvation and then stands back and we have to do the rest all by ourselves. But the logic of God’s grace goes deeper than the question imagines. God loves us as we are, as he finds us, which is more or less messy and muddy. But the grace which meets us where we are is not content to leave us as we are. The whole New Testament insists that what matters is not so much affirmation as transformation. A transformation shaped and energized by Jesus’ death and resurrection and by the work and power of the Spirit. That after all is what the New Testament insists on as the meaning of baptism, not accepting us as we are, but putting us to death and bringing us to new life. (Time in: 13:58 -19:13)

I will come back to more of Wright’s lecture in a future post – but here would like to move a bit further into consideration of the fruit of the Spirit. Is the human role passive or active?

Galatians 5 is the prototype list of fruit of the Spirit and works of the flesh.

The works of the flesh are  “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these,

The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

Paul claims that those who practice the works of the flesh will not inherit the Kingdom of God – and ends with the plea: If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

In his commentary on Galatians Scot notes:

In general we see something fundamentally important here as to how Paul depicts the Christian life.  It is life in the Spirit, the life of a person who is surrendered to letting the Spirit have complete control. But we see here also that one does not gain this life by discipline or by mustering up the energy. One does not huddle with oneself in the morning, gather together his or her forces and charge onto the field of life full of self-determined direction. Rather, the Christian life is a life of consistent surrender to the Spirit. (p. 269)

Later in the section on Bridging Contexts Scot writes:

I pause here to admit discouragement. I do not know about you, but when I look through the list of virtues in the fruit of the Spirit, and when I examine such teachings on the Holy Spirit in the light of the whole letter, I become befuddled over the church. How can we confess Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit and live with so much tension in the Christian world? Why is the Christian church so torn and divided, here over theology, there over practice? Why do we know so much of personalities and so little of Christ? … Why is it that Christians claim to have the Spirit but show so little of his power and love? Why is it that Christians claim to live in the Spirit but spend so much of their time “out of step” with the Spirit? It is my prayer that God will renew his work of the Spirit and that this chapter will be used by God to that end. (p. 275)

Lets get real here. We expect airline pilots and crews to train and develop the discipline necessary to achieve the positive outcome seen with flight 1549.  We expect athletes to train and discipline their bodies to win the game or the race. It takes hours of practice to master the piano. We expect professors to study for decades, to prepare for class, and to approach their jobs as professionals.  Why is the Christian life any different? Why do we expect that God would zap moral muscles and the fruit of the Spirit into place?

Now we get back to the science. One thing that the science teaches us is that mind and body are not separable entities.  We are organic unities. But the science also shows that effort and discipline can train the mind and and, to a certain extent, the will. We must train for virtue as an athlete must train for a race.

The Christian life is relationship and commitment. Christian virtue and life transformation demands that we work with God to develop the moral muscles to make the right decisions under pressure and to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. It seems to me that we do indeed develop such a life through intentional and consistent discipline. There is no life of consistent surrender to the Spirit that is not also a life of consistent discipline to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. We cannot do this without the grace of God and the power of the Spirit – but it will not happen unless we actively participate.

I rather expect that we will continue to have a Church that is torn and divided, with so much of personalities and so little of Christ, and Christians who claim to have the Spirit but show so little of his power and love, until we get this right.

Okay. Now I’ve really stepped into it.

What do you think? What is the role for human participation in the development of Christian Virtue and the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

  • Rick

    Good post. Brings potentially new meaning to “be transformed by the renewing you mind” in Romans 12, although it is doubtful Paul had the scientific implications in mind (no pun intended).
    However, I may differ with one thing you said:
    “There is no life of consistent surrender to the Spirit that is not also a life of consistent discipline to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.”
    Is the focus of the disciplines to be on the virtues, or is the focus to be on God/Christ?
    In John 15, Jesus discusses the need to abide in Him, or we will be unable to do anything. The disciplines should focus on our relationship with Him, from which we will see the fruits devolop in our lives.

  • Warrick Farah

    See also 2 Peter 1:3-9 – “His divine power” (3) and don’t forget about the cleansing (vs 9) in tension with “make every effort” (vs 5).
    Scott, what do you think of Jerry Bridges short article “Gospel Driven Sanctification”:
    Does what you’re advocating lead to performance-based discipleship?

  • Diane

    I agree abiding in Jesus comes first but from standing in that Light of the Holy Spirit we should be able to see our flaws more clearly (one of the main reasons we seek the Light is to be transformed) and then we can exercise our intellects and wills to help us in the process of transformation, as well as being open to grace.
    Lab exercises can be useful but are also artificial and hence quite limited. For example, having envy induced artificially bears little fruit but if we can see where our own envy lights up in real life, it can be a very useful guide to changes we may need to make –and we don’t just need to wait for grace to make the changes. Part of the grace is knowing we are loved enough that we can bear to look at our own flaws. Same with sloth, etc.–if we can acknowledge it and analyze, we can start, with God’s help, to change it. And if we see these seven deadly sins as in facts sins–as a perversion of the good and not simply something we have to live with passively or that we rationalize away: “I’m not a glutton; it’s society making me feel bad because this culture is thinness obsessed and hence I’m going to eat whatever I want” –and if we see the good as at least partially obtainable, we can change. It’s not impossible.

  • Jim

    Huge topic. A great book that touches on this is Philip Kenneson’s Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community. (IVP)

  • Jim

    For me, the distinction between practice and grace is overdrawn. We would not know the practices were it not for grace. Not just any practice suffices…However, some practices have been modeled for us by Jesus and the early church.

  • MatthewS

    “What do you think? What is the role for human participation in the development of Christian Virtue and the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit?”
    I am more passionate about this than perhaps about any other subject. Sometimes I think it’s a paradox; it’s the unsolvable problem on the blackboard that the boy (or girl) genius doesn’t realize you can’t solve.
    Author Gary Collins says, “Some of our counselees, like some of us, try repeatedly to be ‘good Christians’ but the failure rate is high and the resulting frustrations are common. Others may try a ‘let go and let God’ approach that involves continual submission and a process of waiting for God to bring about the longed-for transformation. This too can lead to failure and disappointment. In contrast the Bible presents what might be called a ‘divine cooperative program’ in which we take responsibility for becoming more Christlike and we trust continually that God will work within us to bring change.” (Biblical Basis, 235) Collins later uses the metaphor of musicians (similar to OP) who seem to play with free abandon but this freedom and talent is always preceded by practice and discipline.
    I think other possible metaphors are the conquering of Jericho and tomatoes. Jericho: They didn’t sit around on their couch. They had to show up and march. But neither did they fight anything like conventional warfare. They had to do their part and God did his. Without God they would have failed.
    Tomatoes: we went to the store, bought some seeds, planted, watered, and tended to them. And then we waited. and waited. and then fruit came. If we sat back and prayed for tomatoes, God would not likely have miraculously created tomatoes ex nihilo on our counter. At the same time, there is a miracle of life that you plant this little seed and eventually you get this kind of fruit. There was cooperation in that we did our part and God did his (through natural processes, but we believe God is behind those processes, right?).
    I grew up in a rules-based environment. Don’t watch TV, don’t listen to the devil’s music, don’t wear hip clothes or haircut. Get up early, sit up straight, do devotions. Chain of command. External rules were the thing. We played that game and we won, until our family basically fell apart. I see this as religion in the flesh that bred pride and strife and such; it was not cultivating fruit of love, joy, peace, etc.
    I appreciate Foster’s description of disciplines that they are plowing the field, getting it ready for God. The disciplines aren’t the thing but they are preparation for the thing. I hope that’s fair to his intent. The rules (touch not, taste not, handle not) aren’t the issue; the heart, expressed through actions, is the thing: love,joy, peace, etc. Try to do these and you fail. Plow the field and pray for rain and wait for fruit. Divine cooperation.

  • Jeff Borden

    Good stuff.
    Our response to God’s grace is a disciplined (disciple) life. Our act of practice, study, relationship with the Holy Spirit is the synergy of transformation. I can’t help but wonder what the church might look like if we practiced the premise offered in Gladwell,s Outliers (the 10,000 hour rule) applying spiritual disciplines in concert with submission and obedience to the workings of the Holy Spirit. Personally, I do believe this is the reasonable expectation for the converted soul to reach a level of “full maturity” in Christ. It’s all grace and all glory to the work of God in us, but I’m hard-pressed to believe that mature and full
    “fruit of the spirit” transformation occurs in spiritual couch potatoes.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post! There are a host of fascinating and befuddling theological issues here, not the least of which is the effects of “original sin” on the human will, and what really counts as “virtue.”
    But, setting all those aside for the moment: I agree with your frustration at “Spirit-talk” or “surrender-talk.” So much of our popular spirituality, reflected most directly in our worship music, is of the “let go and let God” variety. It’s even reflected in “secular” songs such as “Jesus Take the Wheel.” (BTW, for a great parody, check YouTube for Tim Hawkins’ “Cletus Take the Reel”!)
    It’s as though we expect the Spirit to direct us like good robots once we “surrender.” But I don’t think that’s really the sense of what it means in Biblical terms to “abide” in Christ or to “live in the Spirit.” Yes, we must “surrender” to God — and yes, the Spirit of Christ indwells us, we abide in Christ, and our lives become united with Christ — but I don’t think this erases the uniqueness of the human will. We remain fully human persons even as we are made into “new creations” and ingrafted into the vine of Christ — indeed we’re set on the path to becoming the fully human persons God created us to be.
    So our surrender isn’t a sort of neo-Gnostic New-Agey Buddhist dissolution into nothingness. We’re expected to act boldly and confidently, to exercise the human will given to us by God and transformed by His Spirit. And this means we can’t just sit back and wait for spiritual formation to happen. We trust that God is at work as He says He will be, and we act with confidence.

  • Matthew R Green

    I agree with much of what MatthewS offered. There is a certain paradox of doing and not doing that does not logically fit together but somehow must. Dallas Willard offers the definition of Christianity as what you do when you realize you can’t do anything. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true.
    I think it may depend more on the church you’re involved with or the local culture around you whether you have a drop-everything-and-let-go-do-the-work mentality. I’ve mostly come from a train-yourself-to-be-godly-through-hard-work mentality, and I think that’s just as prevalent (though perhaps it defies the wider culture more directly). Regardless, neither works.
    I’ve heard the solution to this tangle being called active-passivity and the hard road of easy work. Our temptation is to either be passive (do nothing and just hope that maybe something good happens) or to be active (do all the right things because that way I’ll get what I’m supposed to). But again, neither works. Part of the struggle is to actively resist the urge to take matters into our own hands and wait for God, attending to the Spirit. Our resistance to our urges and attending to God becomes very active, even if we aren’t doing anything directly. It’d difficult (the hard road) to resist our drives to make everything better ourselves, to stop running away from our anxiety or cease stuffing our anger, and then look to a Savior for help (easy work). That requires trust, and trust is hard to come by sometimes…

  • Andy Rowell

    Just a note that N.T. Wright has another recent piece on virtue. It is “Faith, Virtue, Justification, and the Journey to Freedom” 472-497 in The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays (2008).

  • RJS

    I don’t think that this is an issue of “spiritual disciplines” I think that it is an issue of discipline. Practice doing right until it comes naturally.
    Yes we will fail, and no we will never achieve perfection, and of course it will require prayer and the power of the Spirit.
    Scot’s talks on the “Jesus Creed” are excellent examples of what I mean. Say it in the morning, in the evening, ask throughout the day – “is this action actually out of love for neighbor?” Eventually through the discipline of a thousand small decisions, with the power of the Spirit – love for my neighbor will begin to be “second nature.”
    It seems to me that we wish to pray for love of neighbor then go out and live our lives without a second thought. The love should come with effortless spontaneity – through the Spirit. But God does not work this way – ever.

  • Andy W.

    So how do we recognize the Spirits work in our life? How can I tell if change in my life is simply through self-discipline and/or maturity or is the work of God? I know that the harder I work at addressing the darkness of my soul, change does come (@ a snails pace), and yet so do new revelations of more darkness! Where is the power of the Spirit living in me? Where is the “Comforter” offering assurance and peace and encouragement? I’m worn out, from the grind, from failure, from a perceived lack or God’s power in my life. So what am I left with…GRACE, oh amazing grace!

  • pds

    Peeling Dragon Skin
    Great post.
    “Effort” and “striving” are bad words in some circles, despite Hebrews 12:14 and many other verses. People want to flee “works righteousness” so badly that they overcompensate.
    From Lewis:
    “He [The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs- pairs of opposites . . . He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.”
    By the way, nice photo of “ARETE KELSOU” or the “virtue of Celsus” in Ephesus. I trust that you are not advocating that we pursue the virtue of Celsus? :)

  • Taylor George

    Bravo, great post. Is this not the same exact tension we face when dealing with Salvation? Or is there a difference?
    I for one sure hope we can come up with an orthodox/biblical way of explaining how I can “work” at my faith. Life seems pretty meaningless otherwise. The neoReformed get around this by citing prayer and bible reading as means of grace. I think that’s a good start but leaves me wanting for Paul’s marathon runner imagery.

  • mick

    Good start to what should be a good topic of discussion.
    I have gained much from Dallas Willard’s work in “Renovation of the Heart” and “Spirit of the Disciplines”.
    There always seems to be a tension in this “not I but Christ life” which follows with “and the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me”.
    In Christ, we have been given a new nature. But it is one we are called to “put on” as well as “put off the old”. I think I can get too western in my trying to dissect who’s doing what. The new nature that has come to be by grace through faith in Christ is now to begin growing and exercising (actively and passively) in order to become mature and fruitful. This, I think, is how Christian virtue (perhaps, only one: LOVE) grows in us and us in it. But the more I think about it, the less I get it or do it!

  • RJS

    Better picture now?

  • Jim

    RJS @ 11…Oh, didn’t mean to imply only spiritual disciplines. You’re right.
    My way of getting at it is to “live in the service of Life”, which is how I understand “blessing”. Starts everyday when I first see my wife, ends everyday when I tell her good night, and includes how I approach the day between those book-ends, every situation, every encounter.
    However, that I would even know what blessing is and what it entails is for me a matter of grace, i.e. blessing. So, the line between, what is of grace and what is of will is at least a porous one.
    The Way to the Way is the Way.

  • RJS

    And from Lewis’s example – this is why we must seek the “Third Way” with eyes on Christ.

  • Steven Blair

    Good post; Dallas Willard writes in the “Spirit of the Disciplines” how asking “What would Jesus do?” in a moment of ethical dilemmas is similar to me grabbing a bat in a major league game and asking “What would Albert Pujols do?” (my paraphrase) You need to train.
    Similar topic about science and faith: My blog today “Evolution, the Church’s Mission, and 9/11.” A short reflection, from a different angle.

  • Karl

    RJS (11) and Jim,
    I too recommend Foster (and Dallas Willard) here. I think Foster acknowledges the need for effort/discipline in doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, but he also is emphasizing that the practice of the full range of spiritual disciplines along with that effort/discipline in an individual area, will over time allow the spirit to transform a person into the likeness of Christ in a way that can’t be achieved *either* through spirituality minus effort in works, *or* through trying to do the right thing in the absence of a sustained practice of the spiritual disciplines. Over time this can change one into the kind of person whose first response is the Christlike response in most instances (or at least more instances than previously), rather than the kind of person who always has to check his first response, remember the proper response, and give the proper response with gritted teeth and much effort.
    Note also that Foster lists inward, outward and corporate disciplines. So what RJS is calling “Practice doing right until it comes naturally” would actually fall under the umbrella of Foster’s corporate or outward disciplines, in most cases anyway.

  • pds

    RJS, Love the photo! (I really didn’t mind the other one.)
    Distinguishing good effort/training from bad effort/training doesn’t seem to be that hard.
    Effort in pride in order to boast or earn salvation or impose rigid rules is bad.
    Effort in humility, recognizing our dependence on God’s power to be transformed in the image of Christ is good.
    Are there other ways to distinguish the two?

  • Mike M

    RJS: you “really stepped into” this one well. Thanks.
    One thing: I wouldn’t separate “mind” from “will” though. Will is one aspect of mind (others being reasoning and emotions) and hence can be “disciplined” itself.
    The reflexive nature of our responses is interesting fodder. To anyone who desires an appreciation of the spiritual disciplines, I advocate the following exercise: eliminate road rage. First step, stop getting mad at other drivers for acting like drivers. These people aren’t (usually) acting like that to get you mad. They act like that because they are driving to get somewhere. With God’s grace, just that attitude can save a lot of stress and misguided anger.
    Second, start helping other drivers to get to their destinations. Instead of speeding up as a person enters from an on-ramp, slow down and let them in. And so on. Be concerned about them getting to where they need to go safely.
    These exercises soon become second nature or reflexive. And yet they are just living the second greatest commandment. It does become a tomato seed-type metaphor.

  • beckyr

    Some folks mention surrendering to the Spirit then waiting for God to transform, as if that’s in error. But let’s wait a moment here – surrendering to the Spirit is a big deal, it’s hard to do, it goes against our fallen nature. So I would think if a person has surrendered to the Spirit the fruit will come along. I would also say, that I think surrender to the Spirit is a moment to moment thing, not just one thing we do each new day.

  • Lourens Grobbelaar

    A few thought come up. I see that Pharisees was clean on the outside but not on the outside. We should beware that this is not what we are saying. Further Jesus says that our thoughts are just as sinful. We also learn from Jesus about the inside being reflected on the outside. So we must change inside so we can change outside. Should we therefore start with our actions or our thoughts if we practice disciplines?
    Is it rather a question of subjecting my thoughts to Christ, “taking them captive” and subjecting them to Christ? This is however not a passive stance, but an active stance.
    If we want to practice a different way of live start with how you think and imagine different choices so when we come before a choice the action has long before been anticipated. My prerequisite would be subjection to Christ and not doing this as human feat. That is when we often find people reverting to their default position and believes when the wheels come of. It is easy to practice certain disciplines when all is well, but who are you truly?
    All said however I do feel that the tension between believing correctly and doing correctly, between my participation and God’s participation is not either…or, but both.

  • Jeff Cook

    Pragmatically, is there any good reason not to assume that human effort is substantially required?
    What possible benefit is there to the belief that transformation is ALL the Spirit?

  • Rick

    “this is why we must seek the “Third Way” with eyes on Christ.”
    But what does “eyes on Christ” mean?
    Is it looking at His example and just using natural discipline to do those things, or is it the spiritual discipline of meditating and seeking His (Holy Spirit’s)power to do those things? Or both?

  • Taylor George

    @25 Jeff, Take for example Jerry Bridges book Transforming Grace. In that book he takes a heavy grace oriented approach to sanctification. He and others find benifit in that because anything less is relying on human effort and may constitute “works salvation”. He uses Galations 3:1-5
    5Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

  • RJS

    It seems to me that it is prayer and meditation and seeking the power of the Spirit — and turning around assured of the power of the Spirit, practicing the discipline of walking in a way consistent with the fruit of the Spirit.
    I just cannot see how “a life of consistent surrender to the Spirit” would allow anything else.

  • RJS

    Would you say Galatians is about repudiating “works salvation” or more to the point with this post – “works sanctification”?

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, I’d not prefer either of those really. But, Galatians repudiates anything that adds to the sufficiency of justification in Christ and calls into question the adequacy of the Spirit for living the Christian life.
    I trip over the word “works” because I don’t think it refers to “human effort” but to adding Torah observance to Christ.

  • RJS

    Oh, I see my comment reads that way – but I didn’t mean to contrast salvation and sanctification.
    I meant does Galatians refer to “human effort” in either process?
    I thought – from your commentary and other sources – that Galatians was dealing with “Christ alone” versus “Christ plus Torah”.
    I think this is what your comment is saying as well right?
    It seems to me that “works” in Galatians has nothing to do with self-effort sanctification. When it is used this way (see comment #27) isn’t it a misuse and misinterpretation of the text?

  • Johnny

    Without reading many of the comments, I just want to say that expended effort does not equal earned favor.
    Paul says that the Lord causes us to will and do according to His good pleasure.
    He first draws us to repentance with his kindness, and then he put’s His desires into our hearts. It is then up to us to walk accordingly.
    Depending on ‘where’ one is at in their own journey determines how they will answer the initial questions that you posed.
    Grace to you.

  • MarkE

    Thanks for the excellent post and discussion.
    Here is my question related to this topic: To what degree does our biblical position need to be validated by observation? I just don’t observe transformation happening passively around me. In my low-church, evangelical circle, we do seem to pray and sing for grace to “rain down” a lot. It feels more like a longing than an experience. If the passive approach is the way it works, shouldn’t we see more spontaneous change happening around us? Is it fair to conclude that God does not work in this way, at least as the norm?

  • Jim

    RJS @ Mark E Would not participating in worship itself be a practice that serves to help shape us? i.e. is not singing/praying for grace to reign down a form of practice that helps to shape us into a people who are capable of patience?
    Incidentally: chapter 14 in this book is by Stanley Hauerwas and speaks to much of this whole discussion. the whole chapter (though not the whole book, which is a compilation, is available via googlebooks.

  • MarkE

    I don’t know, you tell me. Do you see people being significantly changed by participating in worship? I know I participate in worship regularly and change in my life doesn’t come that easily. Most of the change in my life comes from, among other things, intentional, well-directed effort.

  • RJS

    I think that worship is a practice that helps shape us. Although I agree with Mark E that if transformation was a passive process, I would expect to see better results. After all the power of the Spirit is overwhelming…certainly we don’t think that the lack of result is because the Spirit is limited?
    The only conclusion I see possible is that we see poor results because God chooses to be in relationship with people and to work in relationship. We must be active participants and if we are not – the results will be less than optimal.

  • Dura Mater

    Hello, all. I am usually a lurker and reader, but the subject of embodiment and its bio/theological implications is near and dear to my “heart” (well, actually, brain).
    I am a neurologist. One of the biggest revolutions in neurobiologic unsderstanding over the past 20 years or so is our appreciation of the effect of neural events on the brain. We used to believe that the brain determined our experience; now we have come to realize that our experience affects our brains. AMAZING. So, we have come to realize that not only physical events, like head trauma, change the brain, but emotional trauma can change it – physically – as well. A changed brain means a changed experience-processor, a changed way of thinking, a changed personality, even a changed life.
    Spiritual disciplines are neural events. Practiced over time, they change the brain. Presumably, they change the brain in such a way as to make us more virtuous. (Probably, this can be studied with functional imaging, but I don’t think anyone has done this yet.) A moment of grace could be the catalyst for such a change. Grace changes us, mind, body, and spirit.
    We are fearfully & wonderfully made!!

  • Jim

    This is great discussion. Thank you all for enlivening me today!
    Mark E: I don’t know either! I admit that some of our worship is shallow and barely conscious. Some Sundays I teach and think I am talking about the most significant thing known to humankind and see that more than a handful are sound asleep! I pray the Spirit works in spite of us! :-) I suspect that worship practice, like water dripping over a long period of time, does help shape us. But perhaps the changes are imperceptible from a short term vantage. And I certainly agree that intentional, conscious acts are best, especially those that take us out of our comforts. I suspect when the Spirit told Philip to “go stand by that chariot” that he intended that act to shape the eunuch AND Philip!
    RJS: Couldn’t agree more! I wonder if part of our problem is our Western tendencies toward thinking either/or rather than both/and????? I sort of always thought the yin/yang symbol could be Christianized: i.e. there’s the Spirit and there’s the practice and there’s Spirit in the practice and practice in the Spirit.
    Dura Mater: (like the name!)…I love that stuff. Did a series of teaching on precisely that. We become what we do, what we think, etc. and the connections get formed. Why don’t you write the Christian book on that? (Or is there one???) I have one popular book written from a Buddhist perspective!
    Thank you all again for helping me think…for shaping me!

  • Mike M

    Dura Mater @37: you are getting at the heart of the matter (puns intended). Even for those of us who recognize that body/mind and brain/heart are just a couple of the dichotomies we inherited from Greek philosophy, there is difficulty in expressing this unity. Maybe you should stop lurking.

  • Scott Morizot

    I’m with Bishop Tom, Dallas Willard, and anyone Orthodox from any century you want to point to. Of course it takes our effort. Doesn’t diminish grace at all. As Dallas Willard, grace is opposed to earning. Grace is not opposed to effort.

  • Scott Morizot

    I’ll add that the issue in Galatians is whether or not Christians have to be circumcised (if male) and otherwise adhere to or practice the works of Torah. Everything else is pure extrapolation.

  • Bob

    BeckyR, You’re right about the fact of surrender maybe the hardest part of the spiritual life. The best gift that we can be for God is being our true self. It is much easier to do the acts Mother Teresa then to be true myself. Our It is next to impossible without the movement of the Holy Spirit. As I move into middle age it is more about releasing and letting go then being an athletic like Paul. I can’t read Dallas Willard and Foster it feels so impossible. I love RC spirituality in this sense and authors that write about the mystical life. Merton, Richard Rohr, Brennen Manning, Nouwen, Thomas Keating, Basil Penington, David Benner
    The New Testament was written in a culture were lists of vices and virtues were common but the mystics of Catholicism have developed the psycho-spiritual dimension in a very attractive way. I think this is where Scripture Alone falls short. Understanding, living and enjoying the love of God is the greatest spiritual quest

  • Dura Mater

    @jim (38) & mike (39) :) thanks.

  • r keith rytaran

    surrendering to the will of God was the most difficult thing that i ever did. my failure to do so kept me from the blessings that He has waiting for me. i have chronicled those events and a host of others within three true novels. the first was released just this summer.
    it is by Eloquent Books and is entitled Euclid Avenue, Our scars mean something. the press release can be seen at the book is also available at barnes & noble, books & co, books-a-million, borders, select hallmark book stores and

  • JoanieD

    “Christian virtue and life transformation demands that we work with God to develop the moral muscles to make the right decisions under pressure and to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. It seems to me that we do indeed develop such a life through intentional and consistent discipline.”
    I heartily agree. And part of that discipline is to learn to pray in such a way that we surrender to God. Jesus told us that when we pray, we go into our room, close the door and pray to God in secret and God would reward us in secret. God does expect us to “do our part” to meet with him.
    One question…I know this is Scot McKnight’s blog, so what do the initials RJS mean on the title of this blog entry? And the entry seems to be quoting Scot. So I am confused as to who wrote the entry.

  • Mike M

    Joanie @45: RJS is another blogger Scot asked to head several of the more scientifically oriented blog entries. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Dr. McKnight doesn’t profess to be an expert in all areas of life. I’m not sure what her initials stand for but I think it means “Religiously Justified Scientist.”

  • JoanieD

    Thanks, Mike. And that “Religiously Justified Scientist” is cute!