Prayer in the Spirit

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Coptic Icon of the Ascension

I am examining Balthasar’s insights from his book Prayer. In this post I want to walk through the paradox of flesh and spirit. Balthasar introduces the two opposing realities of flesh and spirit, saying,

the tension between flesh and spirit which characterizes man in particular brings out the starkest contrasts in the way contemplation is viewed. If God is pure spirit, and if contemplation is a matter of encountering God, it seems to follow that the contemplative’s task is to purify himself and lift himself into the purely spiritual sphere by slowly detaching himself from the external world of sense (p 259)

The logic is there: God is spirit, and man is called to contemplate God; but of course, this quote wreaks of Gnosticism. Christianity is a wholly this worldly. It is a physical religion; incarnational. How then can this be the call for the contemplative? Balthasar, aware of the possible objections, qualifies his call to purely spiritual prayer:

[We cannot not presume that] man’s soul belongs with God and thus seeks to return to him (whereas the body comes from below and must return thither to death), and that man’s bodily existence is alienated from God through sin and bondage to death, the conclusions of natural religion seem to be almost inevitable: man, at the core of his being, is a soul which comes from God; the body is involved in some kind of “displacement” or “fall”; and soul’s return and redemption must take place through a movement away from the body and toward the spirit (p 260)

On the contrary, says Balthasar, “God, who is pure spirit, condescends to become man in order thus to lead us up to him. For Christ is both God and man: in the flesh he not only manifests the reality and power of the soul, the spirit: he even manifests the divine in the medium of the flesh” (p 262).

In other words, it is not that God wants to break the chains of the flesh and free us from bodily existence. On the contrary, the reality of the God-man means that God has come into and through the medium of the flesh. This means that divine and fleshly existence are not in competition with one another. In Christ, God and man have entered into a cooperative relationship.

So then, how is the Christian to contemplate God in pure spirit if he is not called to escape the flesh? How can he be purely spiritual and yet in the flesh? Balthasar explains:

God did not descend to the level of flesh simply so that we should “ascend” from flesh to spirit; the revelation of agape, of his self-sacrificing and self-emptying love is not solely or primarily intended to assist our natural religious eros to reach its goal… In other words, God’s entering into flesh must not be seen as a mere means to our redemption, nor as a preliminary stage on the way to our “divinization”; it is not something that passes away, as it were, is extinguished, is canceled by the Risen Lord’s return to the Father. The Risen One returns to the Father with his whole humanity, including his body. This is what makes him the firstborn of many brethren. But what kind of body is his? Is it not a glorified body, adopted into the Spirit’s mode of existence? (p 263)

OK then, we come to the answer: Christ returned to the Father with his entire humanity. What this means is that mankind is not destined to break free of the flesh, but rather to entire into a new mode of spiritual-physical existence. Paul calls this existence glorification; a world, a body, enriched and animated by the power of the Spirit. This is what it means to be spiritual: to participate fully in God’s eternal life through the Son and the Spirit.

Let us dig a bit deeper. Balthasar expounds:

There is truth in the Platonic view (that body is bondage), and it is this: through sin we forfeited our native home and have taken lodging in a lower region; we have fallen from a world governed by the Spirit to a world governed by subspiritual laws (p 268)

Flesh is fallen not in the sense that it is bad and we must escape it, but in the sense that it has lost a life enlivened by the Spirit. Our bodies are given over to temporality; to non-eternity; to life outside of God’s own life, to be overtaken by corruption and death. Redemption therefore includes a participation in Christ’s full resurrected life in the Spirit. The Son became one of us to breathe the Spirit back into our flesh; to give us a participation in his own triune life. If this was not needed, then why the incarnation? Death had come as a result of the fall, and God entered into that situation to destroy death in the flesh, and to make our very flesh participants in his life.

Christ came, in other words, to give us a physical-pneumatic life, a fully embodied life governed, empowered, enhanced, transfigured by the life of the Spirit. Balthasar explains,

As believers privileged to share in the Lord’s resurrection, our senses acquire something of the pneumatic quality of the Lord’s glorified sense even prior to our own resurrection, so that, in him and together with him, we can grasp the Father and the Spirit and the entire world beyond (p 270)

What all of this means is that to pray in the Spirit, to be spiritual, is not to leave the flesh. It is not to be otherworldly. Rather, it is to be illumined and to participate in the life of Christ through the Spirit. This world was destined to participate in God, to be elevated, to be raised to a new and higher pitch through God’s own power. This is the logic of the incarnation: the Son took the fallen finite flesh of humanity and breathed life into it. And he gives us this very life in the Spirit!

 

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Praying in Light of the Resurrection

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In his new little book on the atonement and resurrection, The Sign and the Sacrifice, Rowen Williams explains five ways in which the reality of the resurrection changes the lives of believers. The entire chapter is a goldmine of insights, but I want to hit on one point that I believe is incredibly important: if the resurrection is true, our prayer life changes. Specifically, if Christ has risen and has already entered into the holy place, face to face with Father, this changes fundamentally the way we approach God in prayer.

Rowen Williams explains:

It’s far too easy to fall into the way of thinking of prayer as a sort of “storming” of heaven, a campaign: somehow we’ve got to get enough petitions together to make God change his mind; or we’ve really got to exert a bit of pressure on God to make him do what we want; or even, God’s a very long way off and we’ve got to make a lot of noise to attract his attention; and all the various other distortions of prayer that are around. But if we are being introduced into a new world, the place where Jesus is, then prayer is most deeply “allowing God to happen in us”; the Spirit bringing Christ alive in us, being int he place where Christ is real, with the Spirit coming into us to bring Christ alive in our own hearts (p 92-93)

In other words, if Christ is already at the Father’s side, prayer is principally not working our way up to God to gain his favor. It is allowing the reality of Christ happen within us in the power of the Spirit. It is being joined to Christ in his face-to-face relationship with the Father. It is being united with Christ by the Spirit in his resurrection reality.

This turns prayer from a work to reception. It is receiving Christ’s accomplished relationship with the Father and practicing that reality.

Williams continues by explaining that because of the resurrection, prayer becomes a Trinitarian reality: we come to the Father through the work of Christ in the power of the Spirit. We do not come with our own accomplishments, but

I come before God allowing the Holy Spirit to put Christ’s words in my mouth, to let my breath by breathed anew by the Spirit, carrying the words of Christ, and just let the Trinity be where I am when I pray (p 94)

If the resurrection is a reality, prayer is our inclusion through Jesus in the community of the Triune God. We belong, as Williams says, “in God’s eternity” (p 94). What a joy!

Justification and Resurrection

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I recently wrote a post on justification, in which I said, in essence, that justification itself has transformative elements to it. It is a word of pardon which at once delivers from bondage to sin and death.

This comes from Paul’s gospel preaching in Acts 13:38-39, in which he says that by faith, one is “justified” from all the things from which the Mosaic law could not free. I noticed that most biblical translations usually translate the word justified as “freed”: “one is freed from all the things from which Moses could not free” (cf ESV). My conclusion was that the impulse was correct: God frees us from bondage through his creative word in justification. Or, his pronouncement effects what it says.

After reading the post again, I’m not quite convinced I went far enough into the forensic or courtroom imagery, and that I didn’t do justice to what I was meaning to say (go figure!).

So, I want to add another element here that I hope can be formatted or integrated with my previous post. I still hold to the former post, that salvation is a declarative-rescue from the effects of sin and death, but it is also true in scripture that what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection is judicial in nature, or rather relates to man’s guilt before God. So I want to expand a bit here, borrowing from the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran tradition.

I want to concentrate on one peculiar verse from Romans 4: Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

I want to notice a couple things here:

First, Christ was delivered over for our sins. Paul connects Christ’s death with our sin. But what does he mean to say by this connection? Very simply, the death of Christ was the mechanism which released mankind from its debt or offense of sin. This is why the Bible commonly calls the cross a sacrifice, an oblation, a holy offering to the Father, which operates as man’s way to forgiveness; or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:2, it was a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”, meant to compensate for the original sin and actual sins.

The Catechism of the Catholic church explains the death of Christ by saying this:

[Christ’s sacrifice is first] a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is an offering of the Son of God made man, who is freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience. (paragraph 614)

His suffering was a self-gift, as self-offering, which, as the Catechism rightly states, “completes and surpasses all other sacrifices” found in the OT. It is offered to God the Father as a holy oblation of love.

The 39 Articles of the Anglican church explains his death this way: “[Christ came to] be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men” (Article II); and also: “[Christ] came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world” (Article XV).

The whole point here is that Christ offered himself as a holy sacrifice to God in order to take away the offense of sin. This is properly the negative side of salvation: Christ’s death and suffering made reparation between God and man. (And, just by way of aside, it is this same sacrifice which God the Father looks to in order that he may continue forgiving us. We sin every day, and why does he continue to forgive? The cross! It is eternal in its effects.)

OK, but what I want to notice here (finally we come to the whole point of this post!!) is that while Paul attributes forgiveness of sin to the cross, he attributes justification to the resurrection. Did you notice? Paul tells us: Christ “was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). It is important to note this; usually when Protestant scholars search for a biblical-theological import or corollary for justification, it is the cross. However, Paul says justification is related to the resurrection!

What all of this means is that justification, at least from this verse, involves a a union with the resurrected Christ that communicates spiritual life. I would also argue that justification, at least from the fullness of Paul’s corpus, involves the negative aspect of the release of sin-debt. Justification, then, it may be argued, is simultaneously a pronouncement by God of “not guilty” (or “forgiven” or “not condemned”) and a gift of divine life through union with Christ. Or, put another way, justification is a pronouncement of “not guilty” which actualizes inner renewal through union with Christ.

Hence, we come to Peter Leithart’s definition of deliverdict: Justification is a pronouncement of forgiveness and a gift of new resurrection life. Or, it is a forensic pronouncement which effects a deliverance from death and condemnation. The Council of Trent says this of justification: “justification is not only a remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man”. John Henry Newman defined justification in terms of a declarative word which was transformative: “[God] declares a fact, and makes it a fact by declaring it. He imputes, not a name but a substantial Word, which, being ‘ingrafted in our own hearts, is able to save our souls” (Lectures on Justification, Lecture 3, Par 8). God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects ontic renewal.

And actually, this makes sense when one considers the mechanism of Christ’s own resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is properly effected by God’s declaration of Jesus’ own innocence and righteousness. Christ was put to death as a sinner and wretch by the authorities, but God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead over all authorities and kings. Thus, God’s own judgment of Christ’s innocence effected his resurrection from the dead. They are one and the same action from God.

Newman himself calls Jesus’ resurrection his justification. Newman explains this way:

Our Lord’s justification, as St. Paul terms it,…took place upon His resurrection… Christ differs from us in this, that He was the true and eternal Son, we sons only by adoption; He holy by nature, we made holy beyond nature; but He does not differ in His justification, which, simply considered, was what I have been showing ours to be, an open acknowledgment of Him by the Father as righteous and well beloved, yet not nominally such (God forbid) but really. St. Paul, who in one place says that Christ was “justified by the Spirit,” (see 1 Tim 3:16) explains himself elsewhere by saying that he was “declared to be the Son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (see Rom 1:4) (Lectures on Justification, lecture 3, par 7)

God’s word about Christ’s own righteousness effected his deliverance from death. Newman argues that it is the same as us: God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects our union with Christ in his resurrection.

As we end, I want to look at one Lutheran scholar who has good insight on this issue. Jordan Cooper argues that Luther himself understood justification as both a forensic or declarative reality and as a ontological reality. Cooper says this:

Luther’s definition of justification contains two aspects: the legal and the effective. On the one hand, Luther confesses that we are imputed as entirely righteous through the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, and on the other, he confesses that through the means of faith, we receive a new heart. (The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3808-3810)

Jordan continues by saying that within the Lutheran tradition (at least for Luther), “imputation is the cause of sanctification and a renewed life” (Kindle loc 3813-14); and, “justification properly speaking is thus a legal declaration, but it is an effective declaration.” (Kindle loc 3827).

Cooper goes on to explain this principle in terms of God’s creative word:

To gain an understanding of the relationship between imputation and renewal, one need not go directly to Paul, but to the beginning of the Bible: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1: 3). God is a God who speaks. Not only does he speak, but he speaks with power. He does not speak descriptively, but as a divine potentate giving a command which is then brought into reality. Whereas human speech either describes, questions, or gives commands, God’s pronouncements enact what they proclaim. God says that it is so, and it is so. When God justifies the sinner, he is declared righteous and consequently is righteous. God’s word is a life-giving word and a creative word. As God declares the sinner to be justified, life is brought from death… (Kindle loc 3828-3834)

So then, justification is God’s word of forgiveness and acquittal which effects union with Christ in his resurrection.

What’s Significant About the Resurrection?

Here’s a short but helpful explanation by Ben Witherington on the significance of Christ’s resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15.

“God’s ‘Yes’ to life is louder than death’s ‘No.” – Ben Witherington

“17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)