Reality is not limited to the visible. Christianity is not at its best when it relegates its very lifeblood to mere symbolism or takes spiritual results into its own hands. Lately, the tangible grace and peace of Christ dispensed through the faithful ministry of the church has landed on me with the weight of glory. When we spiritualize the mundane, symbolize the spiritual, and moralize the miraculous, we lose the tangible impact of the Gospel, God’s word, and the Spirit’s power.
Spiritualizing the Mundane
When first wrestling through the doctrines of grace, the sovereignty of God became a spiritual fault line whereby I was able to determine the legitimacy of one’s faith. My zeal for that theological paradigm was such that God must have been at work at whether I chose Trix or Fruit Loops for breakfast. Attributing everything to the sovereign will of God can cause spiritual paralysis or Phariseeism.
It can cause paralysis when we focus on minutiae as part of our spiritual journeys. Which college is God’s will? What career would please God? Does the Mazda or the Nissan bring more glory to God? This perspective can also create Pharisees. We create checklists and metrics of spiritual maturity that have more to do with our performance than Christ’s work in us. Those checklists tend to get longer and include increasingly trivial tasks that weigh us down with guilt and shame when left unaccomplished.
Either way, spiritualizing the mundane makes the palpable effects of God’s grace evaporate because we’re too busy overanalyzing or relying on our works to receive them. The adage goes, “you cannot squeeze blood from a turnip.” How much more challenging to squeeze grace from our own version of spirituality?
Symbolizing the Spiritual
Reducing our spiritual lives to symbolism can leave us hollow. Is baptism merely symbolic? Is the Lord’s Supper only an abstract remembrance? When we confess our sins and hear absolution, does anything actually transpire? Does the preached gospel strengthen our faith in live time? Do our religious rituals, for lack of a better term, actually do anything?
Can external elements accompanied by the proclamation of God’s promises give us spiritual benefits? Those questions expose the Lutheran influence on my thoughts over the past few years. The most convincing and convicting answer I heard came from Dr. Rod Rosendbladt, who responded with another question. “Do you believe that particular Jewish blood from one particular Jewish body was shed for the forgiveness of your sins that afternoon?” I’ve become increasingly convinced that we receive spiritual benefits from the means of grace God has commanded the church to practice.
Reducing the spiritual to mere symbolism denies the believer grace and soul nourishment that accompanies the promises connected to God’s word and commands to strengthen faith. A plain reading of texts related to baptism (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:9-12, 1 Peter 3:20-22), the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29, 1 Corinthians 11:26), and preaching the Gospel (Romans 10:11-15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25) make it clear that something powerful and meaningful is happening in those events.
Moralizing the Miraculous
The work of Christ to redeem sinners is a perpetual miracle. It doesn’t cease with regeneration. Our salvation and sanctification are all sheer, resurrecting grace. How could something so miraculous be reduced to mere adherence to moral standards? Must we muster the inner strength to progressively overcome our sinful natures, or is God at work within us through the power of the Spirit and the means of grace?
Marx called religion the opium of the people. Too often, we prove him correct by settling for a Christianity that doles out Bible verses like prescriptions for society’s ethical ills. In so doing, we relegate the atoning work and resurrection of Christ to a peripheral issue. Our purpose can all too easily shift from delivering the good news of meritless forgiveness to sinners to getting people to live as good Christians should. However, when we herald Christ’s saving work for sinners, we offer true freedom that transforms lives in the biblical pattern (Romans 6-7). The biblical pattern is much more miraculous than people who curse less, drink less, read their Bibles more, go to church more, or volunteer more.
It’s possible that instead of being in desperate need of more mechanisms to change our lives, we’re starving for the grace of God to have its true impact. What if, instead of deeper commitment, we need proclaimed forgiveness? We don’t need programs to chart our progress in righteousness. We need Christ’s righteousness imparted to us and preached to us over and over.
Is it real? Are the grace and peace Christianity offers real? It hinges upon Christ living perfectly, dying, and rising on the third day. Paul’s words offer the crux of the matter:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.
1 Corinthians 15: 13-14
Your faith is not in vain. Focusing on the power of Christ outside ourselves instead of what is happening inside us helps us see and receive the reality of his grace and peace. It’s not found in our spirituality, in mere symbols, or our moral performance. It is found in Christ and the promises of God that miraculously reorient our hearts and minds toward him. It is real.