Is Your Church Spiritual Enough?

Jeff Mallinson
Saturday, February 28th 2015
Mar/Apr 2015

We've got spirit, yes we do. We've got spirit, how about you? Each fall, American cheerleaders chant these words at high school football games, goading opponents to prove their enthusiasm. Similarly, some charismatic Christians challenge traditional churches to be livelier and prove that they are Spirit-filled. But what exactly does it mean for a church to have the Spirit? Ephesians 2:13-22 helps answer this question and radically reframes our understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Here, Paul urges believers to avoid false spirituality, and he turns our focus to the true source and guarantee of the Spirit's presence: the faithful proclamation of Christ's work.

One Body by the Cross: Vertical and Horizontal Reconciliation

Paul addresses those who "once were far off" (v. 13) and says that God gathers people to become "a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (v. 22). He rejects spiritualties that rely on human effort and turns our focus to "Christ Jesus himself" (v. 20). For him, a church is spiritual neither because of members' enthusiasm nor through institutional unity. Instead, he connects the presence of the Spirit to the horizontal and vertical peace achieved by the cross.

Our relationship to God is a vertical relationship, and our relationship to fellow humans is a horizontal relationship. Sin constructed barriers to peace along each axis. Gentiles were once vertically disconnected from God's promises but "have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (v. 13). Likewise, Christ removed a horizontal "dividing wall of hostility" (v. 14) between Jews and Gentiles, reconciling all "in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility" (v. 16).

The architecture of the old temple represented the barriers that existed prior to the cross. A curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the people (Heb. 9:1-9), and the only time anyone passed through the veil was when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement (Exod. 30:10). But on Good Friday, the curtain was torn from top to bottom, allowing access to the Spirit once more (Matt. 27:50-51). None of this has anything to do with humans working themselves into the right spiritual state, and everything to do with God's habit of showing up on his own terms.

Misguided Mysticisms

Some Christians misunderstand Paul's claim that we "have access in one Spirit to the Father" (v. 18), assuming that such access bypasses the ordinary means of grace. This common human attempt to cultivate an unmediated spirituality, or direct union with God, is called "mysticism." We find three mystical movements in contemporary Christianity: "liberal mysticism," "charismatic mysticism," and "consumerist mysticism."

"Liberal mysticism" tries to summon the Spirit through the social gospel, a movement that looks for the Spirit to motivate and accompany progressive work toward social justice. It focuses on innovative resolutions within denominational or ecumenical assemblies, and the goal is to experience God through the joy of helping others. Author Anne Lamott exemplifies this approach in an essay for Slate (April 1, 1999), where she affirms her belief in resurrection, by which she means "that life happens, death happens, and then new life happens." For her, the Easter message is that "awakening is possible, to the goodness of God, the sacredness of human life, the sisterhood and brotherhood of all." All of this reminds us that "we're alive; that grace abounds and that we can cooperate with that."

Lamott is an engaging writer, and Christianity is indeed about new life. As Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558) noted, "The Spirit of Christ is already at work in believers so that they will love both God and their neighbor from the heart." (1) What's missing in liberal mysticism, however, is attention to the proper basis for a new life. Where Lamott speaks of resurrection as something embodied in cooperative human work, Paul insists that the source of new life is the "foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone" (v. 21). Thus there is no generic resurrection experience without the historical resurrection, proclaimed by the prophets and apostles.

"Charismatic mysticism" seeks to summon the Holy Spirit through a lively spiritual ethos. It encourages exuberant singing and rousing sermons, and sometimes it takes the form of speaking in tongues and prophesying. The term "charismatic" comes from the Greek word for spiritual gifts charismata. Luther referred to the charismatic mystics of his day as the Schwärmer, a German word that calls to mind swarms of people who are caught up in spiritual frenzies. Later Protestant theologians called this sort of spirituality "enthusiasm," which comes from the Greek en theos, or "God within." Historic Christianity agrees that God dwells in believers and churches, but it understands this living presence as something that depends upon the word, not human experience.

"Consumerist mysticism" trusts in production and marketing techniques to ensure that the Spirit will show up for a particular event. The church growth movement embodies this approach. This mysticism fosters lively music, attractive programs, and comfortably inoffensive church experiences. Most consumerist mystics have good intentions and believe that the methodologies they use help connect people to God. In a world of competing consumer products, they try to speak the language of consumerism, not to endorse greed or worldly values, but to ensure that the message is noticed amid a barrage of advertising. The problem is that many mistakenly assume that the Spirit's presence depends on the way we orchestrate church experiences. Things may go fine with this method for a time, but when the experiences gets stale, people worry that’like Elvis’the Spirit may have left the building.

Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone

Every mystical encounter depends on human effort: liberal mystics depend on a church's social engagement; charismatic mystics depend on one's receptivity to the Spirit's gifts; and consumerist mystics depend on marketing and production skills. Each approach fails to appreciate the monergism affirmed by Ephesians 2. Monergism is the view that God is entirely responsible for our salvation, calling us from death to life (v. 1). Monergists reject synergism, the idea that two parties cooperate in salvation, and insist with Paul that the source of spirituality is entirely outside of us and located in the blood of Christ alone. (2)

The background for Ephesians 2:13-22 is apparent in verses 1-12, in which Paul opposes the Judaizers who want to force Gentile converts to abide by the ceremonial law. Against such thinking, Paul claims that God brought peace by "abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances" (v. 15). Thus, if we were to ask Paul what it means for a church to be "spiritual," he would answer that it occurs when a church has access to the Father (v. 18), on account of Christ (v. 13) who breaks down the barrier between humanity and the Spirit (v. 22). He would answer that a "carnal" church is one that depends upon its own fleshly effort. By "flesh" Paul did not mean that there is something inherently evil about the physical world. Rather, "flesh" refers to human attempts to access the Spirit. Therefore, spirituality has little to do with lighting, mood, sound, or atmospheric elements. True spirituality occurs by grace alone.

Promised Presence

Paul provides comfort for Christians who want to know whether their churches are spiritual enough. It turns out that spirituality is not a matter of degree; we either have the Spirit or we don't. If we have a true church, then we have the Spirit. Herman Sasse (1895-1976) often cited a phrase from Saint Ignatius: "Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia," which translates as "Where Christ is, there is the church." Sasse explained: "For upon what does the church rest? No, not our faith, not on the holiness of our lives’then it would have long since dwindled out of history’but solely on Christ the Lord." (3) To this, we can add that where Jesus is, there is the Spirit. This is true even when we don't feel particularly spiritual, as the Formula of Concord explains:

We should not and cannot pass judgment on the Holy Spirit's presence, operations, and gifts merely on the basis of our feeling, how and when we perceive it in our hearts. On the contrary, because the Holy Spirit's activity often is hidden, and happens under cover of great weakness, we should be certain, because of and on the basis of his promise, that the Word which is heard and preached is an office and work of the Holy Spirit, whereby he assuredly is potent and active in our hearts. (4)

For the Reformers, the true church exists wherever the word is preached and the sacraments are administered. Word and sacrament are the means of grace, and the Spirit always accompanies them. Regarding the word, Lutheran theologian David Hollaz (1656-1713) writes:

The Word of God, as such, cannot be conceived of without the divine virtue, or the Holy Spirit, who is inseparable from his Word. For if the Holy Spirit could be separated from the Word of God, it would not be the Word of God or of the Spirit, but a word of man. (5)

Likewise, Christ is present in the Lord's Supper, where we no longer dine as "strangers and aliens" but as brothers and sisters, united as the body of Christ. All of this brings a concrete peace and objective reality, not merely an idealistic hope or sociological unity.

One Body and One Spirit

So is your church spiritual enough? Ephesians 2 suggests that your church is assuredly spiritual if it truly is a church. Since the church is found where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered, and since the Spirit is promised to us alongside the means of grace, we rest assured that wherever the church is, there too is the Spirit. This does not give us license to be dull, apathetic, or stale. On the contrary, we freely rejoice that the source of our spirituality is outside of ourselves. Therefore, take heart that if you have Christ, you too are spiritual enough, in the only sense that matters.

1 [ Back ] Cited in Gerald Bray, ed., Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 292.
2 [ Back ] For an insightful study on the ways in which Christ's blood, for Paul, does become, not symbolically but actually, the Holy of Holies, see Lace Marie Williams-Tinajero, The Reshaped Mind: Searle, The Biblical Writers, and Christ's Blood (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
3 [ Back ] Herman Sasse, The Lonely Way, vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia, 2002), 71-72.
4 [ Back ] Solid Declaration art. II, part 56, in T. G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959), 532.
5 [ Back ] David Hollaz, Examen Theologicum Acroamaticum (1707), 993, cited in Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd ed., trans. Charles Hay and Henry Jacobs (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 505.
Saturday, February 28th 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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