Holistic Theology

According to Mark Twain, good judgment is the product of experience—and experience is the product of poor judgment. This tongue in cheek comment illustrates in a comical way how life is often so hopelessly interwoven that attempting to separate it into little stacks that do not touch is impossible.

For example, in this little quip, Mark Twain demonstrates among other things that good judgment, bad judgment, and experience make no sense in and of themselves. Experience with no external reference or metric is neither good nor bad, by itself it is meaningless. However, without experience how does one measure the effects of their judgment? Good or bad judgment is equally meaningless unless it is put into practice and experienced. A proverbial box of good judgment will never benefit anyone. Nor will an entire boxcar full of bad judgment ever hurt anyone. Judgment whether good or bad, needs to be exercised to have any meaning or effect.

Furthermore, wisdom can be defined as knowing how and when to exercise good judgment. Wisdom marries good judgment and action to the proper time and place. Wisdom is a process of synthesis. Our world on the other hand, seems obsessed with deconstruction and analysis. Our world so often fails to see the interconnection and unity of life and thought. Our world therefore is plagued with compartmentalized and conflicted lives. Our modern world’s fundamental predisposition is unwise.

Theology does involve a certain amount of analysis to be sure. But the goal of theology must be the harmony of wise synthesis, not simply deconstruction and analysis.

Beyond this, there are I believe concepts in theology that defy deconstruction. Concepts that are in fact destroyed by deconstruction. Irreducible concepts. Interdependent concepts if you prefer. This paper is an exploration of some of these concepts.

Irreducible complexity and the mousetrap

I am not sure who was the first to use this example. I first heard of it in Behe’s book “Darwin’s Black Box”. A mousetrap by definition of the term can only be reduced so far before it ceases to be a mousetrap. There are a certain number of components arranged in a specific way that constitute a mousetrap. Take away any one of the essential components or rearrange them so that they can not function together properly and you no longer have a mousetrap. The mousetrap can not be reduced beyond the minimum essential components. To attempt this is to destroy the mousetrap. There are concepts of this sort in theology as well.

There is an interdependence that does not allow certain concepts to be reduced beyond a certain point. To try to deconstruct these concepts beyond this point destroys the concept. I am going to look at things like the Trinity, Faith, Love, and Knowledge in this article but I think there are others as well.

Holistic Theology and the Trinity

Let’s begin with the Trinity. It is possible to discuss the distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit. It is possible to offer biblical data to demonstrate this distinction. However, simple deconstruction of the concept of the Trinity destroys the concept of the Trinity. The Trinity is one. There is only one God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one. These three cannot be properly understood separately. God is one. Nor can God simply be reduced to a singularity. Unity can not be properly understood without an understanding of distinct persons. God is three persons in one substance or essence.

Likewise, marriage was designed to be two that are one flesh. A reflection of God in His creation. Yes you can talk about the male and the female as distinct. But in marriage they are one. You can not deconstruct the oneness without destroying the marriage. God reinforces this concept by making this oneness of two the source of new life. When the two become one physically, new life is created. Separating the inseparable causes new life to cease. Beyond this, we are now observing – very painfully, that when two separate people physically join without the intended unity, they can produce a baby but no family results. Where there is no family to raise the child, pain rather than health is the result.

Creation is full of this sort of interdependence. Everywhere we look we see things like sexual reproduction and symbiotic relationships of a wide variety of types. It all points to the inseparable nature of God. And teaches us important things about the God that created it all. It teaches us that God is a unity and not simply a singularity. Unity is his design, his intent, and his purpose in sending Christ1Consider Eph 1:7-10. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.. And we have gotten little more than a vague glimpse of the glory God intends to show us through the atonement and our ultimate salvation. There is a unity with God and each other that is hard to imagine in the fallen world of this age. But all around us we see demonstrations of God’s nature and intent if we can get over ourselves and embrace the unity and balance that flows from the nature of God himself.

Faith – Works – and the gift of Salvation

Building from our understanding of God as an irreducible, eternal, one that is three persons. We move on to topics like salvation, election, faith, and works. Our desire for deconstruction while sometimes helpful on these subjects, may just as easily make a holistic understanding of them more difficult, rather than clearer. I do not believe any of these topics can stand on their own. While I understand the need to try and deconstruct and analyze these things, these concepts can not be properly understood in isolation. Let’s begin with faith and works for our first example. It is in my opinion one of the more important examples of irreducible concepts in biblical theology.

One of the first things taught (and rightly so) to a new believer is that they are saved as a gift of God, by the work of God in Christ, through faith. So far so good. When received with an open heart, this truth transforms a wicked self-centered sinner into a growing child of God. The problem does not reside in that statement of truth. The problem develops as people try to deconstruct and analyze it. Not that this is a bad thing, as we have discussed previously, a certain amount of analysis is necessary to fully understand what is meant by this statement.

The problem as I see it develops when one tries to separate this statement into individual concepts and attempting to understand each of them in isolation. Salvation for example, can not be understood simply as a gift from God. Salvation is better understood as an aggregate outcome of God’s love, work, and grace throughout history. But it is also the aggregate outcome of our faith and, properly understood, works. For while we are saved by faith and not, strictly speaking, by our works, we are not saved without our works either2This is examined in some detail in the epistle of James 2:14-26. Also consider Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:16-21 and remember this passage follows a strong argument against adding works of the law to Christianity. There is a lot to be said here and I will look at this in more detail later in this paper. The Gospels are also full of examples of people that come to Jesus only have Jesus demand some action to demonstrate their faith. Luke 18:18-24 is one example but there are many others..

Consider faith, the gift and the grace of God has been given to all. But there is no salvation without faith. Is faith then a meritorious work? No, it is a necessary response to the grace and gifts of God. It is not only pointless but harmful to try and separate love, justice, grace, foreknowledge, election, forgiveness, faith, and works. There may be a logical order to these things, but practically or functionally they are inseparable.

In order to examine the relationship between faith and works, I am going to use the terms belief and faith in a slightly unusual way. I understand the bible often uses the words faith and belief as synonyms. But in the book of James he makes a distinction between simply believing something and having what he would describe as a living faith. So for the purpose of clarity I am not going to look at faith and belief as synonyms, but like James, I am going to use the word faith in the “living faith” sense of James. And belief in the more generic sense of considering a given proposition to be true. This may feel a bit forced at times, but I believe it will help us keep certain concepts clear as we talk about belief, faith, and works.

With that said, let’s consider good works. Our forgiveness is a gift of God, it is however not received unless we have faith. But can we say belief = faith? Apparently not, since James tells us that the demons also believe but tremble. Some have said, belief + trust = faith. But is that the entire equation? Trust seems to be a potentially helpful addition but what is trust? How is trust different than bare belief? Or rather, what does trust add to bare belief?

Let’s look at good works a bit closer. Eph 2:10 tells us that the doing of good works was the very reason that we were recreated in Christ. And James tells us that we are saved by works as well as faith. A statement that has caused more than a bit of heartburn for many theologians over the years. But unnecessarily so in my view. The truth is that faith and works are inseparable. You can not be said to have faith if there are no works. Faith must by necessity work.

We do not receive new life because we work, we work because we are made alive in Christ. God is the source, God made the first move. But we do work by necessity nevertheless. It was the purpose for which we were created initially3Gen 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. and recreated again in Christ4Eph 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.. There is no way to truly understand faith without works.

I am suggesting that a better equation is this:

belief + actions consistent with that belief = faith.

We are saved by this kind of faith in the finished work of Christ. The demons described in James lack this kind of faith. They do not respond with actions consistent with their belief thus they are not faithful to their belief. In a manner of speaking, they have belief but no faith.

Another example

Let’s digress a moment. “knowing”, in the biblical sense of the term, needs to be understood more like “knowing how to play piano” than “knowing the multiplication tables”. Adam knew Eve and a child was conceived. The knowledge of good and evil was likewise acquired through the act of disobedience. They knew evil once they had done evil. Knowledge requires the experience of action in these biblical examples. Knowledge is instantiated through the experience of action. Prior to the action, there can be no true knowledge. There can be data and definitions but no actual knowledge.

I am using the term instantiated in the sense it is used in object-oriented computer programming languages. In these languages, objects must be first defined in terms of their attributes. An apple for example, can have the attribute of color, and size. But the attributes of an apple is not an apple. It is any number of potential apples. In programming, an apple object does not actually exist until it is instantiated. In other words, an actual apple has to be created and these attributes must be specifically defined. An actual apple does not have a potential color it has an actual color. It is red or green or yellow.

Instantiation is the act of turning a potential something into an actual something. You are creating an “instance” of that previously defined thing. You no longer have a definition of a thing you have an actual thing. This is a useful metaphor when discussing things like knowledge or faith or love. Data and definitions are only potential knowledge. Actual knowledge is instantiated or created when these definitions and data are acted upon and experienced.

Consider belief in the truth to be a potential for faith. Actual faith must be instantiated via action consistent with belief. Prior to taking action consistent with belief, you only have potential faith – not actual faith. This I believe is how demons can believe without faith. And why from the perspective of James’ example, faith alone can not save, works must be included. He does not specifically say, but I believe the answer lies in the fact that faith and works are inseparable. Because faith cannot be instantiated without works. Without works, the belief remains simply a potential faith that is never instatiated or actualized.

One can not speak of having faith unless that faith has been instantiated through action based on, and consistent with, belief. Faith and action are inseparable and irreducible.

At this point some are probably thinking that this is a mask for some kind of Pelagianism or “works righteousness”. And would ask, “if this is true, can a person be saved by their own works alone?”. The short answer is of course no. Or else what was the point of the incarnation of the son of God? Because as I stated earlier the source of our salvation is God alone. I would counter with the question, “can you be saved without works? Better yet, let’s look at a more basic question, “can you be saved without faith?”. If you give the obvious answer of no. Then it is important to understand the properties of this faith since faith is crucial to salvation. I am asserting in this article that one of the essential properties of faith is, action consistent with belief.

Think about this, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for lack of faith what exactly is he rebuking? It is that, they have failed to act in faith. Their actions are not faithful to the truth. He is correcting their actions, or very often their inaction. Actions do flow from belief, but belief alone can not be properly called faith. Faith includes the idea of fidelity. What does maintaining fidelity8 to a belief look like? Action consistent with that belief. Faith is not an intellectual exercise, it is an action taken in response to, and consistent with, one’s belief. And in the case of Christian faith, action consistent with one’s belief in the truth of Christ.

Let’s look at one of the classic passages of Paul regarding salvation.

“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.””

Romans 10:9-13

We see in this passage that belief in and of itself is not the faith that saves but belief plus confession. Even the thief on the cross made a confession and a sort of defense. It is important to remember that belief and faith are not exactly the same thing. Faith is instantiated or actualized when belief is acted on in some way. In this case confession.

Let me attempt to say this another way. Faith has essential properties. One of the essential properties of faith is; to take action consistent with belief. For example, a tricycle has the essentialproperty of having three wheels. Color is also a property of tricycles but not an essential property. Color does not make something a tricycle nor does changing the color make it less of a tricycle. Likewise, faith has the essential property of taking action consistent with belief.

If you build a vehicle with two wheels – it is not a tricycle.

If you remove works consistent with belief from faith – it is not faith.

Now we are back to this idea of irreducible concepts. Faith can not be separated from works without destroying the biblical concept of faith.

So is it right to say that if we sin by failing to do works we lost? Sin by definition is a faithless act5Num 5:6-7, 1 John 1:5-2:1. And we are saved by faith. So while we may sin at times, just as the disciples did. Repentance is an act of faith, based on our belief that Christ has already dealt with our sins at the cross. So to be restored to faith requires that we take action consistent with our belief in the finished work of Christ and repent6It could be said that this kind of understanding makes it impossible to know that we are saved since there could be some unrepented sin lurking somewhere in our lives. This worry is clarified greatly in 1 John 1:5-10.. Therefore faith and works are inseparable since action consistent with belief is an essential property of faith. To have faith is to have works7 1Peter 1:13-25 This passage when take together shows that actions are to be taken in light of the ransom paid by the blood of Jesus. Trying to separate these concepts in a passage like this can not be done without doing great violence to the whole concept of salvation.. We are saved through faith.

Unbelief

But just as faith is inseparable from works, it is quite obviously inseparable from belief. After all without a firm belief in the truth there can be no faithful actions taken in response. This takes us once again to the idea of holistic understanding. Unbelief or “mis-belief“(belief in something false) is at the core of all faithless action. Therefore the content, sincerity, and intensity of our belief is as inseparable from faith, as the response of action is. Belief in the truth is the source of faith. At a certain point deconstruction of these things must stop or you no longer have biblical belief and faith.

Faith, works, and belief are inseparable but not identical.

You can talk about distinctions between belief, faith, and works. But it will not really be what the bible is talking about until you put them all together. They are all one unified whole. As is life itself. And they can only be properly understood together – holistically.

Belief is not faith.

Works are not faith.

Faith is not works.

However

Faith works – in those who believe.

Love

Much like faith, love is often misrepresented and misunderstood. Whereas faith is often distorted into nothing more than a mental state. Love is often distorted into nothing more than a feeling. True love will be forever defined and demonstrated by the cross of Christ. And we are to pick up our cross and follow him. But that picture is difficult to interpret at face value. When I was young I thought that Jesus was calling all of us to die horribly. This is where holistic theology comes into play once again.

In one sense Jesus is calling us all to die, and our old natures are going to find that a horrible thought. But the idea of picking up our own crosses and following Jesus does not describe the end point as much as it describes the journey. We are to be “living sacrifices”8Rom 12:1 according to Paul. So what are we to make of these images when taken together? The picture that begins to form as we look at these images together is one of an ongoing sacrifice of our lives. But what does that look like? Self-flagellation? Joining a monastery? Or what?

A useful working definition for love could be worded like this;

“Benefiting others – at my expense”.

Putting the good of others ahead of our own. This, in simple terms, is what Jesus did by taking up his cross for us. The cross is the definition of love for the Christian9Rom 5:8. For to be Christian by definition is to be like Christ. To love like Jesus is to do what he did. Love is not a feeling, though many feelings are associated with it. It is the act of benefiting others at my expense. That may in fact, at certain times and places, involve the actual giving of our lives. But far, far more often it involves the ongoing sacrifice of ourselves for others in our day to day interactions. This is our living sacrifice. This is our “reasonable service” or “logical worship” or “logical response to God10Rom 12:1“. When what we have been given in Christ is properly understood. No other response makes any sense.

Understanding love in this way makes the other references to love so much more understandable. For example, if we understand love as a feeling, loving our enemies seems more like mental illness than love. How can we “feel good” about a true enemy? We can however put our enemies benefit ahead of our own. Scriptures must to taken together, holistically as it were, or they can never be properly understood.

Concepts like love and faith can not be understood as mental or emotional states. They are not simply concepts and feelings, they are commitments put into practice. They are both instantiated by action. Just as not all work or action is faith, not all action to benefit others is love11Consider 1Cor 13. However there can be no love or faith without action12 1John 2:2-6, 1 John 3:16-18. And the action taken in love or faith often precedes or supersedes the associated feelings.

Faith works.

Love blesses.

Holistic understanding

Let’s return to the premise of this article. There are many things in theology and even in life that can not be fully understood in isolation. Things that must be taken together to be properly understood.

Consider the nature of Hebrew poetry for a moment because I think it gives us an insight into the world view of biblical literature and thought. At the core of Hebrew poetry stands the concept of parallelism. Which briefly stated is two (sometimes more) concepts placed side by side. Sometimes they are contrasting statements, sometimes complimentary13For some easy examples of this consider something like Proverbs chapter 18. It is a clear and tight example of Hebrew poetic parallelism. We read and hear these so often we often fail to consider the structure of them.. But always they are intended to be taken together. The composite whole is needed to understand the parts. There is an interdependence of the individual statements.

While this is true and easy to see in the poetic writings of scripture, I think there is a deeper world view to be considered when reading the scriptures. This same holistic view of life, knowledge, and wisdom is at work in all their writings. Theirs is a cumulative wisdom. A wisdom of balance. This is why age and wisdom are connected in the ancient world. Age gives a depth of perspective and an accumulation of experiential knowledge that the simple ingesting of data can never give.

In the modern world a quick mind and a good memory can make you into the star student in any university. But the collection of information no matter how large, will make you no less a fool. Wisdom grows like a tree. It must be tended and fed in order to grow. It can be hindered, but it can not be hurried. Even a healthy well tended tree will grow only so fast. Knowledge as I mentioned above requires experience. You can never know the piano by reading books about the piano. It takes years of practice and experience to know the piano. This view of knowledge is true even in purely academic pursuits, you can amass an impressive collection of data on any given subject in a relatively short time. However, developing a mature and balanced perspective on that data will require years of processing that data in various ways. Testing, challenging, and being challenged is what will ultimately turn that data into knowledge1.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

Romans 12:2

In terms of biblical knowledge harmony needs to be the goal. If a theological ideal makes it difficult to take a natural reading of the sermon on the mount – you are not done. If you find yourself desiring to choose between Paul, John, Mark, and James – you are not done. If the Old Testament seems to be talking about a different God than the New Testament – you are definitely not done.

This may well create seemingly unpatchable holes in your theology. Great! You are finally beginning to understand one of the deepest truths of the bible.

God is God and we are not.

No God small enough to fit in our head is big enough to worship.

For many years I was the director of a full immersion bible school that focused on an inductive approach to the bible. In my welcome speech I always tried to make a statement similar to the following:

“Before you leave there are three words that I want you to be able to say with great conviction. I want you to develop the courage to say these words whenever and wherever appropriate. These are the words, repeat after me, all together now; I – DON’T – KNOW!” I still consider that the most important advice I could ever give a young bible student. This is not an excuse for lazy thinking – it is an admission that no matter how long or how hard we study, God is always going to be greater, and smarter. And God, as any older saint can tell you, will frequently surprise and confuse you.

God is God – God does not exist because we understand him. God does not exist because we believe in Him. God does not exist because we experience him. He exists because he can not, not exist. God is God. We are not.

To sum up, wisdom is love and faith in action, based on the balancing of all we have come to know about the will of God, through the testing of our understanding.

Faith works

Love blesses

Knowledge tests

Wisdom lives

Self Diagnostics

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

2 Cor 13:5

So far this entire article can be easily ignored for the most part. It would be easy to walk away and do absolutely nothing different. That feels like a terrible waste of time. So let’s take a moment and apply Paul’s advice to the Corinthians and put ourselves to the test.

Belief

Do I believe the truth? Do I believe that when Christ died I died? Do I believe that I am in fact a new creation? That the old has truly passed away and all things are being made new now?

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

2 Cor 5:14 – 17

 Do I believe that I am truly forgiven for all the sins I have committed? All the things I have left undone? Do I believe that I am a son and heir of God?14Gal 3:25 – 29 makes it very clear that all, including females, are to consider themselves sons and heirs. This is the worst place imaginable to try and use gender-neutral terms. In the culture to which this letter was addressed, daughters did not inherit. Therefore, to be an heir is to be a son. Son is a status in the family of God. And Gal 3:27-28 makes it clear that this status is not determined by race, social status, or sex. It is now the status of all that are in Christ. We are all sons in Christ. Because Christ is The Son. Do I believe I am free from the power of sin? Do I believe that Jesus is in me?15 Rom 6 Do I believe God is able? Do I believe God is good?16Heb 11:6

How do I know if I truly believe these things?

What am I testing, what am I looking for?

True belief will result in faith and faith will produce works consistent with that belief.

Faithfully acting on belief (in others words faith)

There is an old preacher line that has a lot of merit. It goes something like this – if you were put on trial for being a Christian today, would anyone be able to find enough evidence to convict you?17 1John 1:1-6

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.“

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matt 7:15 – 23

Let’s look at the above passage carefully. There can be two seemingly contradictory conclusions drawn from this same passage. But the point is holistic understanding so we will look at them together. The first passage tells us that we can tell a true from a false prophet by looking at the fruit produced from their life. The second paragraph seems to indicate that good works alone does not always indicate a heart that belongs to God.

To try and separate knowledge of the truth from godly lifestyle and works is self deception. So why does Jesus refer to people doing great works in his name as “workers of lawlessness”. If you look at the two passages together it can give us some help in understanding the point Jesus was making. In the first paragraph Jesus was describing how to determine a false prophet. Their “fruit” needed to be fruit of the Spirit. Or the source of their prophecy was not the Spirit of God. In the second he expands on this theme by adding exorcism and miracles to prophecy, and essentially saying all of this is worthless if we are walking in lawlessness.

But what is lawlessness? Disobedience to the old covenant? Breaking the ten commandments? To a degree, but a broader reading of the New Testament gives us a bit of a different picture. Lawlessness is a self-willed life that has no regard for the authority of God(or anyone else) and therefore no regard for His laws. Jesus as Lord and judge demands obedience as Lord. We need to obey not just a list of laws, but we have to do his will.

What’s more, as our eternal sacrifice and forerunner in resurrection, our very life is in Him. It would seem these works were not done in obedience to the will of Christ but were motivated by something else. Some form of selfish motivation, rather than being motivated by the love and knowledge of Christ. Works that were good in a sense, but works that did not flow from the knowledge and love of Christ.

This knowledge is based in our interaction with, and our life in, Christ. Our works flow from the resurrected life of Christ as we are in him and he is in us. His life must be at work in and through us for our works to be acceptable. We live in him and we follow his will. To do anything else is lawlessness.

Getting back to the point of the passage we can see that a life truly lived in Christ will bear the fruit of the life of Christ. Or the fruit of the Spirit(God is one). Fruit that comes from the Spirit living and working through us. This fruit can be to some degree produced at least in appearance outside of this relationship. But a true relationship with Christ will always bear the fruit of the Spirit. This fruit is revealed in the works or our life which can be observed by others. The inner life will always bear fruit outward. But outward fruit does not always indicate inner life.

However, over time it does seem that what is inside will come out. Therefore, we can know someone by their fruit, it just may take some time for the true nature of the tree to be revealed.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Matt 7:24

So how are we to judge ourselves? By looking at the fruit of our own lives. If we do not see the fruit of the Spirit being produced and growing. There is a problem. As we determined earlier, faith and works cannot be separated. And we are saved by faith. If we do not see godliness growing in us and bearing the fruit of the Spirit, we need to take action immediately.18 2 Peter 1:3-11

We need to take inventory and see what remains of our old life. Things that we are to “consider dead”19 Rom 6:11-14. We need to reject whatever it is. We must consider it powerless and defeated, it is dead to us. We must embrace the new life that is in Christ alone and begin walking in that grace. This is repentance. This is life. This is freedom. Freedom from sin by the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is walking in faith. This is walking in the Spirit. Faith walks. Faith works.

Looking for love

The last of the self diagnostics I would like to discuss is probably the most important. Love is both a motivation and an action202 Cor 5:14 – 21. We love when we benefit others at our own expense. In the same way that the love of Jesus benefited us at his expense. So let’s examine both our motivations and our actions.

Are we driven by the love of God to help others at our own expense?

Do we do things to help others for their good alone?

Or do we, as is so often and sadly the case, help others with ulterior motives? Are we helping them because we desire to see them blessed? Or are we looking for some selfish gain in the bargain as well?

What drives our decisions?

Are we moving toward a better future for others or a better future for ourselves?

Are we looking to benefit the eternal kingdom of God, or a happier life in the here and now?

Are we loving? Or are we seeking the warm feelings of friends and family or perhaps the recognition and respect of others? Or worst of all, are we in some misguided way still trying to earn our own salvation?

Do we give of ourselves to be noticed by others? Do we give of ourselves simply that others we love will be blessed and helped? Is benefiting others enough for us? Is obeying God enough for us? Is simply allowing God to use us to show his love to others enough for us?

These are the most difficult questions when it comes to our hearts. Asking these questions are only easy if you lack self awareness. When we examine our hearts honestly we find plenty there for us to drag to the alter and burn. We will find plenty of things trying to escape the cross.

The cure

Now that we have taken a proper inventory we are faced with another dilemma.

What to do?

In my experience this point in the process can sometimes feel a bit like the chicken and egg problem. Which comes first? Do I change my outward behavior and hope that these changes will work into my heart? Or do I get completely introverted focusing on my heart and attitudes hoping that it will someday find it’s way out?

If there was ever a time to think holistically it is now. The answer I think is both. Let’s review. We must believe the truth first. Jesus is God incarnate. He came, he lived, he taught, was rejected, crucified for our sins, and rose again vindicated. He is exalted and at the right hand of God. He is the king of all and is the final judge of all. That is at the core of the truth. Jesus is the way, he is the truth, and he is the life.

But as we discussed earlier simply believing that these are true statements is not really faith. Faith will by necessity work. Faith is a response to our belief in the truth. So we must respond to the truth, by acting on the truth. Just as the heroes of Hebrews 11 did. When we allow the truth to move us to action – change occurs.

Simply believing the truth is not enough.

Simply taking action is not enough.

But together our belief and our action become true faith and true love. And this faith transforms us by the grace and power of God. It is then that the love of God can truly control and direct our actions. Rather than a chicken and egg dilemma it becomes a self-reinforcing circle of eternal life in Christ. Motivated by Christ, found in Christ, and powered by the Spirit of Christ. (Which is the Holy Spirit for God is one).

The Kingdom sequence

I would like to consider one more thing. When we see this potential dilemma of heart and action, our response is often to do nothing. Like a deer in the proverbial headlights we do not know what to do, so we do nothing. This is, I am sad to say, a classic lack of faith. Why a lack of faith? Because if we believed the truth, really believed it – we would act on it.

Our old nature excels in self-preservation. We see that it is good to be generous, but we say first I need to get an abundance, then I will give some of that away. We see that it is good to love, but we say, first I need to love myself before I can truly be healthy enough to love another. Both of these notions though common are dead wrong. Jesus tells us that first we must lose our life, then we will find it. First we give, then we will receive. The abundance is in Christ, we must believe this and act on this in faith. Whether we see the outward signs of this abundance or not. The giving precedes the receiving, we give believing the truth that we have our abundance in God. And that God is an inexhaustible source of all that we truly need.

Let me give an example from my own life. I, like many I suspect, have often prayed that God would give me his love for others. On one occasion as I was praying just such a prayer, suddenly, I felt strongly that God was chastising me for making excuses not to love. Then I was directed to what I considered to be and unlikely passage in the course of this internal dialog. It was this passage from Matthew:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matt 6:19 – 21

I remember thinking, “Lord, what does this have to do with being able to love others?”. What he showed me was that our hearts follow our treasure. Putting our treasure in heaven will cause our heart to follow our treasure. When I thought for a minute I began to see what God was trying to tell me. My feelings in this case would follow my treasure. So I needed to place my treasure in those I wish to love. As I do this, my heart could no longer remain apathetic toward them, since I have put my treasure in them. This was another case of what often feels like backward kingdom logic. First we take action and love others as Jesus has commanded, then our feelings begin to follow.

If you think about it, this is really the only possible way we can obey Jesus and love as we should. After all, how long does one have to wait to feel love for someone who has done something truly terrible to you or someone close to you? However, we can obey and give of ourselves today so that our enemy can be blessed. Putting that which we value most (ourselves) into that same enemy which, by nature we should hate. As we do this our heart toward that person will change. Because our treasure is now in them. Then we will begin to love our enemy both in action and in heart.

So once again, the supposed dilemma of which comes first is answered with a holistic “both”. Faith breaks the stalemate spurring us to action which in turn transforms us. We find love as we give love. We are fed as we feed others. The Spirit becomes a river of living water that flows out of our inmost being21 John 7:37 refreshing us in the process.

Think again about the feeding of the 5000 in Matt 14:15 – 21. The disciples were tired, they were hungry. They had almost nothing to eat themselves, much less to feed others. But Jesus told them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat”. Classic case of backward kingdom logic.

However, in this case the disciples obeyed. And though they really had nothing but the command and blessing of Jesus to go on – they went. And when they came back, not only had they fed everyone Jesus told them to feed, but they each had a basket leftover for themselves.

Belief drives faith, which drives action, which brings about transformation, which strengthens belief and so on. A circle that cannot be dissected without being broken. An irreducible and wonderful upward spiral of giving that originates in Christ, and carries us ever more fully into Christ. Which in turn drives us to give all the more. All of this is released by faith, that wondrous response to the gift of God in Christ.

Final thoughts on “holistic theology”

So for the purpose of this article, holistic theology is the understanding that some things cannot be reduced beyond a certain point without destruction. It is the idea that some things simply cannot be properly understood in isolation.

A warm inner feeling of kindness toward another person in no way shows that person love. Love can only be shown through action. Our feelings are all worthless until we give of ourselves for the benefit of others.

Belief, faith, and action are also inseparable. Let me end with one final example that will hopefully give a little insight into the relationship between these three things. A common gift where I am from is a gift card to a store or a restaurant. The card itself is just a piece of plastic. To look at it – worthless. However, someone who loves you has paid the price for that card. And if you can believe it, that worthless piece of plastic can be worth quite a lot.

However, without faith – that card is useless. Until you respond to that gift it will do you no good. Just a small piece of plastic in your pocket. It is only when you respond in faith and hand that piece of plastic to the cashier that the intended benefit of that gift will be realized.

Simply believing the card has value without responding in faith and cashing it in, leaves you with no benefit from the gift. Though the gift is very real and expensive. I guess you could try paying for the goods yourself, but obviously that also gives you no benefit from the gift. And it assumes you had the money in the first place. (Which if you follow the point of this analogy, we do not.) The only way to receive the benefit that the giver intends is to give that card to the cashier in faith. This act of faith will bring joy to the giver and joy to the receiver.

But there is one more point I would like to make at the risk of driving this analogy into the ground. You cannot have the blessing of the gift and the gift card at the same time. You have to give away the small but tangible card that was given to you in order to receive the intended and presently somewhat intangible blessing of the true gift.

Believe faithfully

Love actually

Live fearlessly

Hope confidently

Tom Possin – 20181

California bush

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