I have been struck for some time with the way Christianity in modern times has dismissed the human body. Meaning that, much of the emphasis today in the preaching and teaching of the gospel is fixed on the issues of the spirit in such as way as to dismiss the importance of the believers life lived in the flesh.
The common notion is that Christ came to save the spirit of a person but not the flesh, the flesh is ‘lost’ and is expected to remain in a state of sin; for one to genuinely attempt to live sinless is dangerous. Dangerous in that if one succeeds in living righteously they will inevitably fall into pride, and pride is of course the most deadly of all sins. Therefore, it is much safer for one to hold to the doctrine of grace even to the point of excluding good works, rather than the other way around. The great German theologian, Bonhoeffer, satirically chided his own Lutheran Church saying, “to be Lutheran must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists, Calvinists and enthusiasts—and all this for the sake of grace. We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ,” and again he says, “The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works” (The Cost of Discipleship).
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that one should take the opposite and equally foolish path of holding to good works to the exclusion of grace. What I am suggesting is what Christ, the Apostles, the early Church Fathers, and much of the Church until recent times has always understood to be the case concerning one’s body in their journey of faith, i.e. the body matters. Further, I am suggesting that our understanding of grace has been whittled down over many generations to a perverse and bizarre notion that grace is a gift from God that frees us from the need to obey to Christ.
This loss of consciousness concerning the importance of our bodies in the journey of faith and the subtle perversion of the doctrine of grace, I believe, goes hand-in-hand. And they can both be traced back to a common theological error, an error that another great German theologian, Helmet Thielicke, described with the phrase, “anthropomorphic Docetism.”
Docetism was an ancient heresy that taught that Jesus was a spirit and only appeared to have a physical body. This is the same heresy that the Apostles had in mind when they said, “Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1Jn 4:3). Of course, the question of whether or not Christ had a physical body has ceased to be a serious hindrance in the preaching of the gospel. But today Docetism has been reinvented and applied to humans (hence: anthropomorphic Docetism) and accounts for the genesis of the two errors listed above.
In short, we have lost focus on obeying Christ in our flesh and have likewise recast our idea of grace to fit the new vision of salvation, that is: a purely spiritual salvation. In practical terms, we have become the ‘Church of the abstract.’ All of our righteousness, all of our obedience to God, is performed in our imagination and taken to be real. By loving our neighbors in our minds we have sufficiently fulfilled the command of our Lord. “Faith” passes from the marriage of belief and action, to simply belief. When faced with a moral decision we make a confession of faith, not an act of obedience, and continue on with whatever we had already intended to do in the first place.
What we are experiencing today is a spiritual fallout that very much answers the question Jesus put to His disciples before His departure: “When the Son of man returns, will He find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). This sweeping trend of teaching a doctrine of grace that dismisses one from taking seriously the sins committed in the flesh is, in my estimation, the most serious sign of apostasy that the Church faces today. In the next few articles we will dig deeper into this growing phenomenon discussing the importance of the body and the doctrine of grace as taught by Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church Fathers in comparison with today’s common preaching. I hope for spirited discussion, but most of all that these articles will help to reveal the great love God has for His people and the life He that has empowered us to live through Him.