From the Renovaré Newsletter Archive

The selection below is from a November 1994 Renovaré newsletter. Download a PDF of the original newsletter.

Dear Friends,

We hear shrill voices from all quarters warning of crises of all sorts. The crisis in world hunger! Crisis in the political arena! Environmental crisis! Financial crisis! Urban crisis! Crisis in the family! And I am sure there is much to be said in all these areas, and more. But we so often fail to see the dire predicament — crisis if you will — we are facing in the area of Christian spirituality.

To begin with, we have a whole proliferation of spiritualities not rooted in Jesus Christ which have sprung up out of the desperate hunger for something — anything — that offers even the slimmest hope of leading people into spiritual reality. Some are so silly that you have to shake your head in astonishment. Many draw from old animistic religions which rightly call us to a respect for creation, but then move into an unqualified reverence of creation, and finally into an unholy deification of creation.

These spiritualities are a smorgasbord of beliefs — some foolish, some more sophisticated — however they hold a common pantheistic base which begins by saying God is in creation” and moves to affirming Creation is God” and finally ends up with the idolatry of I am God.” In virtually all cases these spiritualities lack the great biblical confession of the transcendence of God, that is, God is above and beyond us in every way. The Bible always holds in creative tension God’s utter transcendence (God is wholly other than us) with his wonderful immanence (God has freely chosen to draw near to us, to commune with us, to teach us, and to shepherd us).

The reasons for this explosion of spiritualities is varied and complex, but clearly a contributing factor has be Christianity’s failure in the twentieth century to show forth a profound spirituality that is deeply rooted in the resurrected Christ and which offers a living and vital union with him in the midst of everyday life. There are obvious exceptions to this — I think of the American writer A. W. Tozer, the Chinese preacher Watchman Nee, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta — but these sterling examples only underscore our overall poverty of spirit. The tragedy — and the real crisis — is that our churches today have been taken over by what Dr. Dallas Willard calls a Theology of Sin Management.” Let me give you just two examples of how this has worked its way out in our day.

Rejecting Christ as Teacher

At the turn of the century there was a huge debate among Christians called the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy. There were many dimensions to this struggle, but the thing I want to focus upon here is how both groups ended up rejecting Christ as our pattern for living. The modernists said, We reject Jesus as the Son of God but affirm him as a great moral teacher.” Now, the truth of the matter is that they meant teacher” only in the sense of someone who taught ethical things about loving enemies, etc., but not in the sense of someone you should pattern your life after with appropriate disciplines of prayer, solitude, fasting, and more that conform to the overall way Christ himself lived when here in the flesh.

Fundamentalists reacted strongly to the liberal notion of Jesus as merely a great moral teacher” and distanced themselves from any idea of Jesus as Teacher. Therefore, when they stressed orthodox theological formulation (i.e. the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, etc.) they failed to connect this with a way of life that imitates Jesus as our Teacher for living. The result was an almost total loss of the ancient practice of the imitatio Christus, the imitation of Christ. (There is a reason, you see, why Thomas à Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ has been the unchallenged devotional masterpiece for Christians in every century since its publication except our own.)

We still suffer from this rejection of Jesus as Teacher by both the left and the right. It is a crisis in our spirituality. Without a way of living patterned in its general outlines upon the way Jesus himself lived when among us in human form with disciplines appropriate for that life, we simply will not be able to introduce people into the abundant life Jesus welcomes us to experience.

Rethinking Evangelism

A second major area contributing to our crisis in spirituality has to do with the way evangelism developed in our century. Without wanting in any way to depreciate the sacrificial efforts of myriads of evangelists and all the good that has come from those efforts, we must say that evangelism in our day has focused almost entirely upon how to get people into heaven when they die. As a result evangelism in our day has reached the point of diminishing returns, for thoughtful people have to ask, What am I to be converted to?” 

And even in the more recent controversy over Lordship Salvation” (whether you accept Jesus as your Savior” or whether you must accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord”), the issue has remained one of discovering what things are essential for getting into heaven when we die.

To be sure, getting into heaven is an issue of great significance. But it is never the center of Jesus’ call to discipleship, and is, in fact, cared for when we accept his call to be his disciple. The good news of the gospel is, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand;” that is, accept Jesus as your life,” be yoked together with him, walking in his steps,” and imitating him who is the way, the truth, and the life.”

This eternal life” which is to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” concerns itself less with getting us into heaven than it does with getting heaven into us. And so we enter into this ongoing life, this life born from above,” this life given by the grace of God which is unearned and unearnable, this life in which we are saved by his death and live by his resurrection, this life that progresses from faith to faith — from the faith we have to the faith we are about to receive, this life of growth in grace in which we are increasingly formed and conformed into the image of Christ. When this eternal life takes hold; when righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit pervades everything; when out of our innermost being flows love and joy and peace and all the fruit of the Spirit; we find that death becomes merely a minor transition from this life to greater Life.

There are two great theological words that capture what I have been describing: justification (dealing with our acceptance and right standing with God) and sanctification (dealing with our growth in grace into the likeness of Christ). The point I want to make here is that justification and sanctification are like two sides to the same door: you enter into the experience of both as you go through the door. It isn’t like we can get one without the other. To say this does not mean that we are perfect the moment we are yoked to Christ in discipleship. Far from it. But it does mean that we sign up for the whole deal when we commit ourselves to Christ.

When Jesus gave us his Great Commission” manifesto he was not referring to evangelism as we narrowly define it. He called us to make disciples of all peoples” and to teach them to observe all things whatsoever I command you.” The best way I have of describing the idea of disciple” is by our English word apprentice.” For a time I was an apprentice electrician and my job was to go with the journeyman and listen to what the journeyman said and observe what the journeyman did and try to do it the way the journeyman did it. So it is in our life with Christ. We are yoked to him, listening, watching, and doing.

In this way we will develop what Thomas à Kempis calls a familiar friendship with Jesus.” And in so doing we will have a vital spirituality that will welcome people into the depths of Jesus Christ.” This is what people hunger for today. This is what will revitalize Christians and bring in the revival for which we all long. This is what will overcome the superficial spiritualities of our day that are groping for reality. May God allow us to enter so deeply into this way of walking and living that we will be like a city set on a hill radiating his life and light.

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

Text First Published November 1994 · Last Featured on February 2022