Enabling professionals to be mature, faithful, fulfilled followers of Christ and effective in their lives and jobs is important to us in Interserve. We have found that compartmentalizing our lives and faith hinder us from becoming mature followers of Christ. Moving toward maturity in our walk with God requires a good foundation. The foundation impacts our journey and our destination. I worked among Pashtun people in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. They have a proverb about this. They say: “An crooked load will not reach its destination.” If we do not have some of the primary issues about our faith laid down properly, reaching the fullness in life that Jesus promises can be impaired.
One of the impairments to reaching this promised fullness can be something so simple as the way we think and talk about our “faith.” For example, when we talk about beginning our journey of faith we tend to speak about it with these phrases: “coming to faith,” “putting our faith in Jesus,” “trusting in Jesus as our Savior.” When we stop to think about what these phrases mean, each one emphasizes a thought process and a mental decision. None of them describe entering into a dynamic, interactive relationship with Jesus. Yet, few of us tend to analyze them. Therefore, many of us are not sensitive to the deficiencies embedded within them and we allow them to shape the way we think.
What actually happens when we “come to faith?” Is coming to faith a time when we primarily accept a new set of beliefs, or adopt a new way of thinking? Changing the way we think is indeed part of what happens in this event, but it isn’t everything. Though such phrases may be partly accurate, left to themselves they are more inaccurate than accurate.
When we turn to Jesus our turning is part of a bigger process. An integral part of this process is that Jesus accepts us who are turning. (We have a big word for this and we call it justification.) Another fundamental aspect of this process is that Jesus puts his Spirit within us. (We have a big word for this too and we call it regeneration.)
For some of us all this happens in one glorious instant. About midnight one night in March of 1972 I decided to turn my life over to Jesus. I was changed in an instant. For others this turning may be a process that happens over several weeks or months. I have friends that cannot pinpoint a certain time when they were changed. One friend got involved with Christian friends at college, started studying the Bible with them, and after a few months he noticed that he had developed a completely different set of values. He had become a completely different person. He cannot pinpoint when this change happened, but he knows it happened.
How did this change within him and within me take place? Was it just that we made a decision to be different? No. What made this change in him and in me happen was that Jesus accepted us, forgave and cleansed us, and put within us his Holy Spirit. This is what God had promised to do a long time ago through the mouth of Ezekiel. Ezekiel 36:25-27 says:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart put and a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you, and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (TNIV).
These three verses highlight three things God does within us when we turn to Jesus. First, God cleanses us. This cleansing is from any guilt or shame that we may have carried from the things that we either did or failed to do. John the Apostle wrote about this cleansing in his first epistle. He wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). Second, God changes the focus of our orientation. He shifts us from being self-centered into being other-centered. We become caring and compassionate people because he removes our cold, stony heart and gives us a heart of flesh. Third, God gives us his Spirit who puts within us a desire to do what is right and obey God’s laws.
Jesus was referring to these verses in Ezekiel when he was talking to Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus told Nicodemus: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3 ESV). Nicodemus was stumped by this statement and wondered how a person could be born a second time. Jesus replied to his query by saying: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). When Jesus mentioned about being born of water and the Spirit he was referring to the promised cleansing and the giving of the Spirit about which Ezekiel had written.
The giving of the Spirit may be a one-time event but the Spirit is given so he can live within us and take an active role in shaping our lives. The giving of the Spirit is so important that each of the Gospels mentions that Jesus is the one who gives the Holy Spirit (see Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). Jesus in John 14:15-17 includes the Father in this giving. He says that the Father will give the disciples another advocate to help them. The Spirit would not just be with them as he was at that time, but he would be in them. Jesus in John 20:21 tells his disciples that he is sending them as the Father has sent him. Then he immediately breathes on them in verse 22 and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus in Acts 1:4 tells the disciples to “wait for the promise of the Father” referring again to this promise given in Ezekiel 36. Then Jesus reiterated what John the Baptist had said about Jesus recorded in each one of the Gospels: “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5 ESV). As we read the Book of Acts we see the Spirit transforming this ragtag group of disciples into a dynamic changing force.
The role of the Spirit in the lives of believers is so important that Paul told the Ephesians in 5:18 to be continually filled with Spirit. Then he went on to describe how being filled with the Spirit would transform the way they worshipped and related to one another as a community (5:19-21), and transform the way they related to one another in their households- as wives, husbands, children, fathers, servants, and masters (5:22-6:4). Paul highlighted this ongoing, dynamic, and active role of the Spirit to the Galatians by encouraging them to walk by the Spirit (5:16), be led by the Spirit (5:18), and live by the Spirit (5:25).
Paul drew the Romans’ attention to this role of the Spirit in Romans 8 when he said that the requirement of the law is fully met in us when we live “according to the Spirit” (8:4). He expanded on this in Romans 14 when he wrote to them about getting along with one another in the midst of their differing opinions. Paul said: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17 ESV). By that simple phrase “in the Holy Spirit” Paul pointed out that the Spirit is the one who guides and enables us to treat one another properly (righteousness). The Spirit is also the one who produces peace and joy in our lives, in our relationships, and in our communities.
Paul’s comment in Romans 14 highlights why Jesus said that we had to be born of the Spirit in order to see “the kingdom of God.” Some people have thought Jesus was only talking about “going to heaven” when he mentioned the kingdom of God. However, Jesus was also talking about seeing the kingdom of God realized in our midst. The kingdom of God is realized among us when we graciously and properly relate to one another. The point by Jesus and Paul was that we will only consistently desire to and actually treat one another well when we are filled with the Spirit. When we treat one another with grace and dignity we make the kingdom of God a present reality and we give everyone around us a glimpse of what “heaven” is going to be like.
The point in all of this is this. When we talk about our faith with phrases like “coming to faith,” “putting our faith in Jesus,” “trusting in Jesus as our Savior,” these phrases do not mention this dynamic, interactive, dependent, supportive relationship we have with the Holy Spirit. Such phrases do not even give an indication that there is a Holy Spirit and that this Spirit can live within us.
This is why I find such stock phrases inadequate. They do not even come close to describing what the Good News is. The Good News is that God in his love sent Jesus to us. Jesus created the way through his death so we could be accepted, and forgiven and cleansed from all that we had done wrong. Jesus rose and ascended into heaven so he could pour out upon us his Holy Spirit. Without this gift of the Spirit we would be powerless to follow and obey God’s laws. However, through his Spirit God gives us everything we need in order to have constructive, healthy relationships with him and with one another (see 2 Peter 1:3-5). Paul could only use the term “new creation” as he tried to describe the radical change that happens to us when we encounter the living God in Christ Jesus. He wrote: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
It is not easy to make a catch phrase that adequately describes all the wonderful things that happen to us and within us when we embark on our journey of faith with Jesus. However, it is wise that we not reduce these wonders down to phrases like “coming to faith.”
With this foundation of what the Good News actually is, let’s move on to see how this foundation can help us find deliverance from compartmentalizing something that was never meant to be compartmentalized.