Pilgrim’s Progress

The Explorer’s Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

We are entering a new section of Romans, one where Paul talks extensively about the long-term Christian life—the ongoing post-conversion changes we should all experience.

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, by believing in the proven work Jesus Christ has done on the cross. Our belief is enough to save us. But is there more to do?

Yes, of course there is. We have received a gift so great we cannot fully comprehend it, the gift of eternal life, Paul is saying. If we properly understand the gift, we turn our lives into a giant thank-you note to God.

We give our bodies, conforming our behaviors to his will as closely as possible. We surrender our minds, letting God’s Spirit work in us and change our very thought patterns through prayer and Scripture.

Most of us like the part about God’s grace being freely given, the fact that salvation is a simple matter of belief. But when it comes to thinking about ongoing discipleship—about actual change—well, we’re not always so receptive. The Christian life starts to sound like work.

There’s a term for when we accept the gift but offer no response, no thanks, no real change in our minds and hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, called such an attitude “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I suppose I could just stop here, hoping to shame us into responding more fully to God’s grace, the way our parents might have guilted us into writing a thank-you note for a nice present we received. I think I can make all of this a little more palatable, however. Perhaps we can even become excited about this new section of Romans.

We are called to give up some attitudes and behaviors when we become Christians. We are not left with a void, however; God replaces the lesser behaviors and thoughts we surrender with even more gifts.

We are being invited to explore the kingdom that is dawning now, even before it is present in full. Like any explorer, we have to sacrifice the stuff that weighs us down if we are going to find something new, something that will change us to the core.*

We do respond to God simply as an act of thanks. We repent of what separates us from him. We pray and search the Scripture to try to understand how to better please our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God doesn’t just receive our thank-you notes and flip them on the kitchen table with the rest of his mail, however. He gets excited by our response.

God says, “What else can I do for you? It is such a joy to have you a part of my plan! What do you want to know next? What do you want to do next?”

“How can I help you be the best you you can be?”

And God changes you some more. And you see where you used to be and where you are now, and you give more thanks. And God changes you even more!

It is a glorious cycle, one spiraling us toward heaven. Pretty soon, all that stuff we gave up, all that stuff we thought was so important, is simply scattered on the ground far below us, as forgettable as yesterday’s garbage.

If you don’t believe me—well, just try to fulfill Paul’s plea for a time. Six months, a year, something substantial. Make God’s word part of your life. Talk to him in prayer.

And certainly, most certainly, give up those behaviors that you know are not of his will. We have a short word for those behaviors: sin. Stop sinning. Ask God for the strength you need to stop.

Paul is not asking us to suffer. No, not at all. Instead, he’s asking us to live fully. We free ourselves to accept the further gifts to come, the gifts that gild our salvation.

*If you want to explore the backpack metaphor further, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a good place to start.


God at War

Ephesians 6:10-20

I should begin by confessing to a bit of thievery. I lifted my sermon title from the title of Gregory Boyd’s 1997 book, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict.

In the book, Boyd does an excellent job of exploring a biblical worldview that I think helps Christians with theodicy, a fancy theological term for how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil. It’s a worldview with which I generally agree, and I need you to at least understand this viewpoint before I launch into our Ephesians text.

The idea goes like this: There is an enormous cosmological struggle going on, much of it unseen to our eyes, a struggle between good and evil, God and Satan. In both the physical and spiritual realms, which are much more entwined than we realize, evil happens because beings created by God choose to work against God’s will.

This worldview, which I find to be very biblical, has an opposing school of thought. The opposing worldview says that all events occur according to God’s mysterious will, even those occurrences that seem inherently evil to us. To support this opposing view, people will sometimes cite Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

I prefer the worldview of cosmological warfare primarily because it best fits the broad picture painted by Scripture, today’s text included. I also find it disturbing that the opposing worldview makes God seem somehow indifferent to the present pain we feel when evil happens, particularly in the form of suffering and death.

In short, God has no hand in evil and is at war against what causes pain and grief. We are invited to join in the battle.

I should note that we are fighting in a war that is essentially won. We’ve seen such moments in human wars, of course. The combatants reach a point where it is obvious to everyone who is going to win. And yet, the fighting, suffering and dying continue awhile longer.

In the great cosmological war between good and evil, Christ’s victory over death marked the decisive battle. The end is delayed only because God wants as many people as possible to have the chance to embrace the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Ephesians 6:10-20 simply lays out this God at War worldview and then gives us metaphors for how God equips us for the fight. Paul talks about putting on the “whole armor of God,” evoking an image of a Roman soldier going about the daily policing of a city.

Paul tells us to put on:

  • The belt of truth. What does a belt ultimately do? It holds everything together. There is one truth central to Christianity. We may debate the details, but ultimately, Christians acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Christ’s coming and death on the cross were real events, as was our Savior’s resurrection from death. Christ’s return, in which he will vanquish evil forever and set all of creation right, will be very real, too.
  • The breastplate of righteousness. This covers the chest, of course, which contains in particular the heart. Our hearts—our wills—must be aligned with God’s will. When we do what Jesus would do in the same situation, evil cannot overcome us.
  • Shoes, “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” We’re reminded of the Great Commission, our need to tell others about Jesus Christ. Roman soldiers’ shoes were an example of early ergonomics; the nail heads in the soles were strategically located to help the feet push efficiently against the ground, like a good pair of baseball cleats. In other words, they were made to move, and we are called to move. We’re also reminded that while we’re using a war metaphor, we actually carry a message of peace. We overcome our enemies with love rather than with weapons of steel and lead.
  • The shield of faith. Our faith gives us confidence that Satan’s power is severely limited. We need not fear even death, thanks to our faith in Jesus Christ. A shield may be defensive in nature, but the confidence it gives us allows us to move forward into a world full of evil.
  • The helmet of salvation. For me, the first image that comes to mind is that of  baptism. Regardless of the mode of baptism used, the head is covered. We’re also reminded to keep our heads. Where does Satan strike first? Our minds, of course. But through belief and baptism, we are born again, and the Holy Spirit works in us to renew our minds so we are protected from evil’s influence.
  • The sword of the Spirit. Paul makes it clear that the true sword is the word of God. A sword can be a very active weapon, one used for offense rather than defense. In Scripture, God has given us everything we need to strike at evil. How well we wield our sword depends on how much time we spend with it, learning how sharp it truly is.

If you like exploring Christian spirituality through such metaphors, you might also enjoy reading a 17th-century Christian classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. (If the Shakespeare-like language is difficult, you could try a modern-language version of the story.) It is an allegorical telling of the Christian life, where an everyman character named Christian finds salvation, is unburdened of his sin and battles evil along his way to the Celestial City.