In our recent discussions about Christian spirituality, we have taken time to discuss the concept of obedience and its antithesis, freedom. We have done so because Christian spirituality is built on the principle of surrender. Other forms of spirituality seek to meet God, or access the divine, through various methods and disciplines that largely amount to an attempt to control our circumstances, our lives, or others.
But Christianity works the opposite way. Being a child of God is all about surrendering one’s freedom in order to experience God, and be one with God. This is what leads us to abundant life, deep joy, and incredible fruitfulness — success in this life, if you will.
But how do we surrender ourselves to God? As a teenager, I met a youth pastor who only read Christian books, only listened to Christian music, and only watched Christian movies. When I asked him why, he answered he wanted to be fully committed to Jesus. For him, surrendering to God was immersing oneself in the best (or worst) contemporary Christian culture had to offer. But is that what surrender is? We shall now turn to Scripture to help answer this question.
To begin, we must deal head-on with an obstacle in the modern Christian soul, which is the belief that God is simply not real enough in our own lives for us to surrender to Him directly, that we must resign ourselves to the idea that we are basically on our own, and that the best we can hope for in this life is surrendering to an ideal we have in our heads of how a Christian should live, or what the Christian life should look like.
Which, I propose, is the very opposite of what the Bible teaches. The problem with conforming our lives to an ideal instead of a person is that we lack the proper machinery to live up to that ideal. Scripture teaches not that we have merely sinned but that, apart from God, we are incapable of doing otherwise. Our attempts to live an ideal Christian life — be it obeying the Bible, being like Jesus, or answering the call “what would Jesus do?” — will fail.
Scripture has a name for attempting to conform to an ideal. It is called “obeying the Law.” In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul goes into great detail explaining how things stand as it relates to the Christian soul’s relationship to the Law. In Romans 7, Paul explains:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Some have asked the question, “Is Paul describing here his life before or after becoming a Christian?” The answer is both. Paul is describing what it means to be human, whether one is a child of God or not. That is, Paul is saying that even as children of God, we are incapable of fulfilling the Law by attempting to obey it.
Now some of you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t the Bible also say that we are dead to sin?” Yes. In fact, it is the apostle Paul who says it. But in the passage we just quoted, Paul is in the process of explaining how we are dead to sin — and more importantly, how we are still under its dominion.
But how is it possible to be dead to sin but still under its dominion? An analogy may help here. Most of us own a car. Now a car is designed to get us quickly from one place to another. Its standard, one might say, is to move at a maximum speed of eighty miles per hour. But it will never achieve that speed by us pushing it. To reach its full potential, a car must have us in the driver’s seat.
In the same way, Paul is saying that if I attempt to live out the Christian life by obeying the Law, I will be no better off than trying to push a car (and that, uphill). But I am now dead to that whole way of approaching life because of Jesus:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do . . . God did . . . so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
We are dead to sin not because the law of sin and death has been abolished, but because a new law has superseded it. Just as a car (which operates on the laws of internal combustion and electricity) is able to overcome the law of gravity, so the Christian soul is able to overcome the law of sin and death by operating according to the “law” of the Spirit.
The takeaway here is somewhat startling. First, because the Christian life can only succeed by cooperating with the Spirit of God, it is essentially a supernatural experience. We are not Bible-followers; we are followers of the Spirit of God who now lives inside us.
More importantly, a life resigned to the idea that the Spirit of God is not real enough to be obeyed is, according to Scripture, a failed Christian life. For it has denied the only avenue the Bible now provides for our success in the spiritual life.
In our past discussions, we eliminated the idea that freedom is a viable part of the Christian life. Now we have eliminated the idea that obedience to anything apart from the Spirit of God is a viable, also. This leaves us with only one option: Encountering God directly. We now inch closer to authentic Christian spirituality, which is experiencing God Himself, powerfully and intimately.
The last takeaway is that the very nature of obedience has also changed. Pushing a car is much different than driving it, especially if you believe you are being judged by how well you push. In our next discussion, we shall further explore what driving looks like to the Christian soul.
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