“The time has now come, and is coming”: who we [are] we [are] becoming
Stephen Hague (thoughts shared in the FTS chapel, Spring 2015)
What do you want to become? Who do you want to be?
I now am old enough to know that many people we meet in life have very definite ideas about who and what we should, or should not, be. That is, who and what they want us to be! Do we try to be or become this person or that person, this rock star or that actor, this philosopher, or the latest sport’s phenomenon? Do we try out this idea or that idea?
Listening to these many voices that mold us, may seem incidental and insignificant, as though they may even be the path to acceptance by others, and success in this world. But these voices and forces are of no small importance, because their cumulative effect can change, or impact, the course of our lives . . . forever. Even the smallest of such voices can eternally redirect a person’s life.
- The question is, whose voice are we listening to?
- The question is, who are we presently becoming?
- The question I want to consider is simply do we really want to be disciples of Jesus? If we do, then do we really want to become what he desires us to become?
To consider that we must ask:
- Is it possible to be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus?
- Is it possible to be a Christian without being like Christ?
- Is it possible to become like Christ if we are not his disciples?
We all know the expression, “What would Jesus do?” Dallas Willard thinks that this is an inadequate, and even fatal, guiding principle since it is “not an adequate discipline or preparation to enable one to live as he lived.” Indeed, as it stands it can become nothing more than another burden to our success. Jesus told his disciples that his burden is easy and his yoke is light. According to Willard, the secret of the easy yoke, then is to learn from Christ how to live our total lives, how to invest all our time and energies of mind and body, as he did. “What would Jesus do” can make our “spiritual life” just a series of “special deeds.” That is, we try to be loving by acting loving, but we fail! We try to act like we think Jesus would, but we widely miss the mark.
As Dallas Willard writes with remarkable clarity of insight on this:
“Spiritual formation is, in practice, the way of rest for the weary and over-loaded, of the easy yoke and the light burden (Matthew 1 1:28-30), of cleaning the inside of the cup and the dish (Matthew 23:26), of the good tree that cannot bear bad fruit (Luke 6:43). And it is the path along which God’s commandments are found to be not “heavy,” not “burdensome (1 John 5:3).
It is the way of those learning as disciples or apprentices of Jesus “to do all things that I have commanded you,” within the context of his “I have been given say over everything in heaven and earth” and “Look, I am with you every minute’ (see Matthew 28:18, 20).}
But—I reemphasize, because it is so important—the primary “learning” here is not about how to act, just as the primary wrongness or problem in human life is not what we do. Often what human beings do is so horrible that we can be excused, perhaps, for thinking that all that matters is stopping it. But this is an evasion of the real horror: the heart from which the terrible actions come. In both cases, it is who we are in our thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and choices—in the inner life—that counts. Profound transformation there is the only thing that can definitively conquer outward evil.
It is very hard to keep this straight. Failure to do so is a primary cause of failure to grow spiritually. Love, we hear, is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). Then we mistakenly try to be loving by acting patiently and kindly— and quickly fail. We should always do the best we can in action, of course; but little progress is to be made in that arena until we advance in love itself— the genuine inner readiness and longing to secure the good of others. Until we make significant progress there, our patience and kindness will be shallow and short-lived at best.
It is love itself—not loving behavior, or even the wish or intent to love—that has the power to ‘always protect, always trust, always hope, put up with anything, and never quit” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8, PAR). Merely trying to act lovingly will lead to despair and to the defeat of love. It will make us angry and hopeless.
But taking love itself—God’s kind of love—into the depths of our being through spiritual formation will, by contrast, enable us to act lovingly to an extent that will he surprising even to ourselves, at first. And this love will then become a constant source of joy and refreshment to ourselves and others. Indeed it will be, according to the promise, “a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)—not an additional burden to carry through life, as acting loving” surely would be.
Do we believe that being a Christian is first and foremost about being forgiven for our sins? Do we believe that the primary reason we become a Christian is to get to heaven? Do we believe that human beings are fundamentally spiritual and that our life in the body is just a temporary, necessary evil? Perhaps if we do believe these things, it might explain why we prefer to be saved and born-again Christians, struggling to do what Jesus would do, but just not as his disciples living in this world as he taught us to live and love.
We thus sometimes tell the world through our bumper stickers that “we are not perfect, only forgiven.” But is this to be true of us; that we are only forgiven? Can we imagine the apostles saying such a thing as part of their message? Rather, they insisted, as did Jesus, that if we love him, we will do as he commanded. That means we will not just be people who are only forgiven; we are people who are new creations, and living as such (not just in actions, but in heart, mind, soul).
Who we [are] we [are] becoming in Christ
Someone (Woody Allen?) humorously once quipped that “by the time we are forty, we have the face we deserve.” I think the element of truth here is that our hearts and persons are becoming what they are going to be forever . . . (and that perhaps our face may reflect that). Dallas Willard also writes that “We are becoming who we will be forever.” Do we want to become like Christ? Do we really think that we can be Christians without being disciples? We are very adept at being “Christian” without being “Christ-like.” But, is it possible, if we are new creations, to be anything but his disciples? Do we suppose that we could ever do what Jesus did, or would do, without actually being as Jesus is?
2 Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone,
the new has come!
But what does it mean to be a new creation? Is it a passive, “Let go and let God” as some might say? Rather, Paul writes in 1 Jn 3:2 — Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,a we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.
Sometimes people watch a great baseball player or musician and say, I can do that, but how often they fail because they are not prepared to do what it takes! How often we say, I am going to do as Jesus would do but we fail! Rather, is not being a disciple more like being an apprentice to a master builder or carpenter? This is the life of the disciple of Jesus; it is training to become like him in every way possible.
Jesus’ often said that “the time is coming and now has come.” What do such expressions mean? In part, they mean that we do not need to, and must not be , conformed to all the many things people in this world expect us to be. We do not have to be burdened to be what we are not now becoming, nor ever will be. Rather, in Christ. we know this in our new birth as disciples of Jesus:
- We have NOW been rescued from the darkness and brought into his glorious light (Eph 5:8; 1 Pet 2:9).
- We are NOW a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17).
- We have NOW been “made new in the attitude of our minds, and have put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24).
This has begun now. As Jesus said, “The time has now come . . .” We see this in the church of all true believers. You and I together have already become “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9) for “The time has now come . . .”
- We ARE NOW tasting of the tree of LIFE: “like living stones being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:5). “The time has now come . . .”
- The new creation is seen in us, the body of the church who are in Christ, a present spiritual reality, a spiritual house, our present home in this world: we are a holy people of God who form a new priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices to God.
- We are now the one people of God in the world who together wait that great Day of the Lord. Most importantly, we are those who love one another in such a way that we ‘live in harmony with one another, are sympathetic, loving each other as brothers, compassionate and humble. We do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing . . .’ (1 Pet 3:8-99). Are we living this way? As his disciples, we are expected to, since “The time has now come . . .” And Jesus is calling us to be who we are becoming in Him.
Why would we ever want to be, or become, anything less? As Paul wrote to the Galatian church:
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . . Gal 4:19 (NIV)
Willard adds, “A fundamental mistake of the conservative side of the American church, and today much of the Western church, is that takes as its basic goal to get as many people as possible ready to die and go to heaven. It aims to get people into heaven rather than to get heaven into people.” Such a project is self-defeating, since it creates people who may be ready to die, but are not ready to live. Rather, presently, now and increasing to fullness in time, as new creations, we live because . . .
- To conclude: we have certain eschatological hopes that what we are and are becoming is and will be glorious:
- As Jesus repeatedly said, “the time is coming and now has come.” What do such expressions mean for us?
- Jesus taught a great deal on the kingdom of God, and he is telling us that in his coming the kingdom of God had come in a new way, and yet was also going to continue to come. Indeed, his parables often illustrate the progressive and expansive nature of the kingdom come and coming. But, what does it mean to say that the kingdom of God has come, and that the new creation has begun?
- We presently have hopes of the kingdom that are rooted in the promises of God to the patriarchs. We have hope because we know the promises have already begun to be fulfilled. We have a clear testimony in the scripture to this fact. (This is one reason we so treasure the scriptures.)
- We also presently have hope of the kingdom, since with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we have greatly escalated eschatological realities of the kingdom of God advancing in our midst. Yet, we also have hope because, as new creations, we presently see and experience the eschatological realities of the kingdom coming:
- We see these in our new birth; we have been rescued from the darkness and brought into his glorious light. We are a new creation in Christ Jesus. We have been “made new in the attitude of our minds, and have put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24). This has begun now! “The time has now come . . .”
- We see this in the church of all true believers. You and I together have already become ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet 2:9). Are we declaring his praises?, for “The time has now come . . .”
- The new creation has certainly begun and we are now tasting its fruits, though we have yet to sit at the table of the great Banquet Feast of the Lamb. We have foretastes, but they are real tastes of true life in God through Christ. We are now tasting of the tree of LIFE: “like living stones being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:5). “The time has now come . . .”
- The new creation is seen in us, the body of the church who are in Christ, a present spiritual reality, a spiritual house, our present home in this world: we are a holy people of God who form a new priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices to God. We are the one people of God in the world who together wait that great Day of the Lord. Most importantly, we are those who love one another in such a way that we (as we read in 1 Pet 3:8-99): ‘live in harmony with one another, are sympathetic, loving each other as brothers, compassionate and humble. We do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing . . .’ Are we living this way? We are expected to, since “The time has now come . . .”
In sum, our eschatological hopes and our eschatological realities enable us to walk by faith through the battles of this life. Because we have no doubt, we believe that the One who rescued us from darkness will also one day raise us up bodily. The One who has given us a new ‘heart of flesh’ is going to prepare a new body for us, an undying one, when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-21). Are we embracing this hope as we should?, since “The time has now come, and is coming.”
“In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet 3:13) at the “renewal of all things” that Jesus promised (in Mt 19:28). “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:1).
We pray to live with these eschatological hopes and to have these eschatological realities in our lives and among us, for
“The time has now come, and is coming . . .”
Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus. Come.
 Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 9
 Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 9.
 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 24.
a Or when it is made known
 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pp. 238-239