So what’s the deal? How much attention should we give to ‘cleaning up our act’ in the flesh? Is it even possible? Doesn’t the Bible warn us against trying to war against sin, in that it (a) ultimately doesn’t work, and (b) gives us room to boast of our own good works (Rom 4:2, Gal 3:3)? Besides, what is the point of grace and of the shed blood of Christ if we are expected to be righteous in our physical bodies? If we were able to be righteous on our own we wouldn’t need a savior in the first place.
Such reasoning, though tasty at first bite, is perhaps the single greatest misunderstanding to ever find its way into Christian practice.
I hesitate to even use the phrase “Christian practice” because it has become, for many, the most bewildering of statements. To attach “practice” to anything “Christian” is to confuse modern categories. Practice has come to mean “legalism,” and Christian has come to mean “doctrine divorced from action.” To have faith means to believe the right things; to successfully check “agree” next to each theological proposition forwarded by one’s denomination of choice. Grace has come to mean “unmerited favor” in the sense of God simply electing some to inherit eternal life (while the rest inherit eternal damnation) inconsequential to any so-called cooperation of the elected person; a ‘divine lottery’ of sorts. Combine these two ideas – “faith” as belief divorced from action, and “grace” as merit divorced from cooperation – and you have a diluted and anemic Christianity, the inevitable result of having been subjected to centuries of Scholasticism, Enlightenment, and unchecked Modern fancy.
But what is the truth of the matter? Do our physical bodies really have a place in the schema of salvation? To answer, I would like to turn the attention to a different set of questions, rather than simply rehearse the questions left over from the Scholastic and Enlightenment age. I hope that they will serve as an introductory of sorts to what I believe is the real Christian and/or Apostolic understanding of the role our bodies play in our relation to God.
1. If our bodies are inconsequential to our relationship with God, why did God create us with physical bodies and why did He take a physical body in the incarnation of Christ?
Put in the simplest of terms: we were created with physical bodies because the purpose and plan of God requires that we have them. Looking back to Adam and Eve it is apparent that we were created to be ‘priests’ of His creation. Alexander Schmemann (Orthodox priest and theologian) describes this beautifully saying, “The first, the basic definition of man is that he is ‘the priest.’ He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God – and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he received from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” Mankind is indeed the only one of God’s creations that is both material and spiritual, making humanity the mediator between God and His creation. When man rebels against God he forfeits his role as priest and hence throws his whole existence into disorder.
The second part of the question reveals the truth of the argument above. That God incarnated Himself in a physical body further reveals the essential factor the body plays in our life with God. Jesus was the perfect Eucharist of God. In Him we find perfect communion with God and the redemption of the material world around Him. Everywhere Jesus went and every person He touched became a meeting point of God and His creation. Every moment of Jesus’ life was a sacred moment (a sacrament). This was the original intention of God in the creation of mankind, that in some mysterious fashion mankind would join in perfect communion with God and His creation through their whole beings, not excluding their physical bodies. A major component of God’s redemption is the return of believers to this state of unity.
2. Is it possible that one can have faith without corresponding action in the flesh?
Imagine two men sitting in a deli when suddenly a cook rushes in from the back screaming, “Fire, Fire, run for your lives!” Now imagine that the two men sat back with coffee in hand and begin discussing the outburst: “You know, Bob, I really believe what that cook said, I believe this deli is on fire.” “Jim, you could not be more right,” the second man interrupts, “I believe that if we don’t get out of here we are going to die.” And for the next few minutes the men continue discussing the physics of fire and its potential destructive nature, coffee still in hand. Did the two men really believe what the cook said?
If space would allow we could cover thousands of scriptures that speak to the necessity of acting on our faith. Suffice it to say that Paul, the one who many people use to protect their doctrine of inactivity, was fully convinced that if a believer did not continue in God’s goodness they would be “cut off” (Rom 11:22), that if one calls himself a believer he must “depart from sin” (2Tim 2:19), that faith is like a race and a fight (Heb 12:1 and 2Tim 4:7), and that ultimately the just shall “live” by faith (Rom 1:17) and not merely “think” right doctrine. Believing right doctrine, though absolutely essential, only puts a believer on par with devils (James 2:19).
3. If true faith requires that I act out my belief where does that leave God’s grace?
It leaves it the context in which the Bible presents it: it is the power of God to become a disciple of Christ. Jesus said that one’s righteousness had to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees in order to be saved. This of course means that we as Christians take on the righteousness of Christ and not of ourselves, but this in no way teaches us to disengage from obeying Christ, rather it is just the reverse – it empowers us to obey Christ. Peter understood Christ’s blessing as a release from sin, not a release from righteousness: “God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your sin” (Acts 3:26). What power is it that He gives to his disciples to turn away from sin? Paul says, “Through Him (Jesus) we have received grace…for obedience to the faith” (Rom 1:5). Paul again encourages Timothy with the words: “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2Tim 2:1). If the average preacher of today had written 2Timothy 2:1 it would probably read: “just chill in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
Your body is intrinsically tied to your relationship with God. Any teaching that denies such is much more in line with ancient Gnostic belief than authentic Christian teaching. We must get out of the habit of partitioning off our world of “thinking” from our world of “doing.” If one does not learn from Jesus’ own earthly walk of faith – i.e. the unity of belief and action – then Christ will remain for that one an enigma, a puzzle, a mystery, anything but the Author and Finisher of our faith.
Thanks for reading.