Holy Living or Holy Thinking? Reflections on Sanctification Going into 2016

Trey Nation lives with his wife Hannah in the Boston metro area. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Old Testament. He works fulltime with China Outreach Ministries, serving students and visiting scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He hopes to continue pursuing higher education in service of the global church.

While working in campus ministry, I routinely find that my conversations with international friends cast new light on the things I believe. Conversation with others is always stimulating to thought, but cross-cultural dialogue is particularly fruitful. Conversations with my Chinese friends are fascinating and difficult. Recently I have had semi-regular lunches with a Chinese friend who is a PhD candidate studying philosophy at Harvard. He is not a Christian, but is very interested in Christian faith and ideas. Although I am not a philosopher and he is not a theologian, our disciplines try to answer similar questions, and the history of western philosophy and western theology is entwined. The cultural differences add another layer to our discussions; ways of thinking I take for granted are often not obvious to him, and vice-versa. Every time we meet, we are both surprised and intrigued by our discussions. It’s great fun.

Beyond simple enjoyment, however, I often find that my own thinking is challenged or expanded through our conversations. What follows is simply a single example.

My friend and I were having a conversation about the possibility of a transcendent God communicating with people. The discussion itself was quite interesting, as I was trying to explain the Christian doctrines of condescension and mediation: that although our minds cannot comprehend God in the fullness of his being, he communicates with us in ways we truly can understand, such as prophets speaking human words, written texts in human languages, all through the inspiration of the Spirit. The conversation was interesting on its own terms, but what really sparked my thinking was an off-hand comment my friend made.

My friend was describing how he felt like he meets two kinds of Christians: ones for whom Christianity is something that permeates their entire lives, and ones for whom it remains simply an interior conviction or an emotional response. I wasn’t initially surprised by his observation. Both of our cultures encourage a narrow, internal religiosity. In America, there is a strong social pressure to make religion strictly personal and demand that it stay out of the public sphere. Perhaps inevitably, our culture often breeds Christians whose “faith” appears to have very little impact on either their living or thinking outside of Sunday morning. In China, the consequences of being known as a Christian may at times encourage a similarly internal religiosity.

The part of my friend’s observation that surprised me, however, was that he identified two types of hypocrites among those for whom faith was shallow. He met some Christians who were thoughtful and had integrated their theology with their worldview in rich ways, but who were nonetheless living lives that were out of accord with the ethics of Christianity. We all know such people, and my friend and I could agree that such behavior was hypocritical. On the other hand, however, my friend also identified as hypocritical many Christians who appeared to be living upright, moral lives, but who became deeply uncomfortable any time questions of philosophy, science, or complex theology arose. Their morality was Christian, but their faith was intellectually shallow, and they saw theological reflection as unnecessary. To my friend’s eyes, the latter group was just as hypocritical as the former. They also constituted a serious barrier to the gospel for him. How could a Harvard philosopher contemplate a religion whose proponents were suspicious of deep thought?

In the end, the conclusion we reached was that Christianity in America has too often driven an unnecessary wedge between the life of the mind and the life of the body. Some groups of Christians strive for a faith that is mental and personal but need not influence questions of action, finance, sexuality, etc. Other Christians strive for emotional fervor and moral transformation, but are at times dismissive of questions of science, doctrine, or philosophical inquiry. I see these divides in my own life, the ways in which I pit mental development and bodily holiness in contrast to each other. I certainly see these divides in our churches, where even within Evangelicalism we throw accusations of “dead orthodoxy,” or “anti-intellectualism.”

Paul sees no such divide. In Romans 12, Paul’s call to sanctification embraces the body and the mind. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.” Sanctification, rightly understood, is a process wherein every inch of our lives is brought under greater obedience to Christ. No part is excluded. We dare not hold anything back. As people being sanctified by the Spirit, we should be seeking holiness in our actions but also in our thinking, which means a willingness to deal with hard questions, and answer them with the truths of scripture.

Sanctifying our minds also means that our discipleship and our outreach must be thoughtful. In many places around the world, God is drawing students like my Chinese friend to the gospel. In China in particular, the current wave of conversion is happening on college campuses and in urban centers: among students, scholars, professors, and professionals. If the gospel is to permeate their lives, then it must be a faith that enables them to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds.” Carefully considered theology and deep reflection on the Word are vital to the growth of the church in China. They are equally vital to the revitalization of the church in America, where biblical illiteracy both outside and inside the church is on the rise. If we, as American and Chinese churches, hope to meet our current challenges we must do the hard work of theology, and the harder work of applying theology to life. We must, in other words, begin to see that theological education is a form of discipleship.

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If Christ calls me, he demands every inch. In fact, as my atheist Chinese friend inadvertently reminded me, sanctification is a matter of total transformation. We cannot be content to see our minds transformed but our actions unaffected, but nor should we be content with the opposite. Discipleship involves exhortation to a holy life, but it also involves the development of a theology that embraces all aspects of life. If we as disciplers shy away from hard questions in favor of encouraging a “simple faith,” we will inevitably produce intellectual hypocrites, who profess to believe but cannot intelligently answer the questions posed by others. As we enter the new year and reflect on the challenges it holds for Christ’s followers both here and in China, we cannot hope to reach people without rich theology, and the recognition that discipleship and sanctification involve both holy living and holy thinking.

The year ahead will provide Christ’s church with ample opportunity to live out the gospel; let us pray that we are training ourselves to do so as whole people.


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