By Greg Forster; part two of a series.
We have seen that the cross is not only for saving, the cross is for destroying – destroying hell and all its works. John is pretty straightforward: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
How does that apply to our daily work?
Not to go all spiritual on you – I know how faith and work folk hate “spiritualizing” everything – but we can’t start with outward actions. Heart change isn’t heart change if it doesn’t lead to life change. But the heart change of regeneration (not just a change of emotions but of the core of the entire person) is logically and theologically prior to life change.
If sin is superficial, life change can come first. But if sin goes down to our very roots, heart change has to come first, because our hearts are the roots of who we are – and what we do.
In the holy war between God and Satan for the fate of the universe – winner takes all – the first piece of real estate we have to take back from Satan is our own hearts.
To place heart change first is not to privilege individuals over communities or other non-individual loci of concern. God does care primarily about relationships: his relationship with each person, people’s relationships with one another (discretely and in community), and the relationships between people and the nonhuman creation. But once we realize that each individual’s relationship with God is the primary constitutive factor of their whole personhood, we can see that to say “God cares primarily about relationships” does not remove the individual as individual from the center of God’s concern. If anything, it cements them there more firmly, not by excluding communities from the center but by making concern for individuals and communities interdependent.
This insight is important because we must understand it if we wish to approach these matters without either privileging the individual over the community or vice versa.
Last night was the first meeting of my small group for this season, “The Gospel and Race in America. “We looked at the confrontation in John 8, where Jesus is attacked because he contrasts his word of truth with the ethnic pride of the leaders in the temple. One thing we talked about was how groups have a certain “truth” mixed up in their sense of group identity, so anyone whose standard of truth is Jesus’ word will be 1) set free from slavery to their group as well as from slavery to Satan, but also 2) in a state of permanent tension, and often conflict, with their own group.
The challenge to the leaders’ ethnic pride begins with individuals prioritizing, and thus being set free by, Jesus’ word of truth.
Of course we know that all such people will necessarily be in spiritual community with one another. That much is implied in Jesus’ declaration that the leaders are not really (i.e. spiritually) sons of Abraham because they don’t behave the way Abraham did; it is later ratified by Paul’s declaration in Galatians that Gentile believers are really sons and daughters of Abraham because they do behave as Abraham did.
But it is the individual’s behavior that places them in one spiritual community or the other. And it is the individual’s heart that drives their behavior.
Dallas Willard may have overstated things when he said that however important communities may be, individuals must come first because only an individual can think and act. But I believe what he meant was that heart change must come first for this reason. And so it must.
Anyone who really wants to understand this will profit greatly from the chapter on injustice in The Spirit of the Disciplines. Injustice, Willard writes, passes through communities like a wave through the ocean. The wave has no independent existence; it is simply a movement of the ocean, something the ocean does. And why does the ocean do this? Because each individual water molecule is passive and goes along with whatever movement is imparted to it by the other molecules around it (which are in turn passive and only transmit the movement imparted to them, and so on).
What if a sizeable group of water molecules had the power to resist the movement of a wave? The wave would vanish, first in the part of the ocean occupied by those molecules, and then in the subsequent parts of the ocean where the wave would have been transmitted, but was not.
That, he says, is what the Christian community ought to look like. And it is centered on teaching individual molecules – people – to resist the motion of injustice.
Next time: What this means in practice, and how it becomes a public rather than merely personal movement.