1 John & The Practice of Righteousness

(For the message from Sunday, August 22, 2021: “The Reading of 1 John.” You can view this sermon by clicking HERE.)

Yesterday we had the pleasure to hear from Rev. Scott Williams. Scott led us in a public reading of 1 John, followed by some insights from the letter’s message that he felt had specific relevance for the Church today. One of those points had to do with the idea of practicing righteousness. I thought Scott presented a poignant question when he asked, “Do we practice our faith as much as we practice our distractions?”

Do we practice our faith as much as we practice our distractions?

Scott reminded us that to do anything well takes practice. This can be a conflicting thought for the believer. In fact, I found myself squirming a bit through this section of Scott’s message. This is one of those truths that is difficult to articulate within the context of spirituality. Like many aspects of our spiritual journey, this idea traverses a fairly narrow pathway that lies between two ruts, and we must be careful to not fall into either one.

On one side is the dangerous idea that spirituality is strictly a matter of our practice. We can begin to believe that we will grow spiritually as we develop spiritual practices, that somehow practice = spirituality or spiritual maturity. This perspective can begin to place the emphasis on practice alone, which can result in a failure to recognize the gracious activity of the Spirit working within the life of the believer. Even if we are aware of the danger of this perspective we can get antsy when considering the idea of practicing for fear of falling into such a belief.

But the other extreme is just as dangerous. The perspective there places the onus for spiritual growth and maturity exclusively in the work of the Spirit while completely disregarding any and all need for personal responsibility or practice. This is a picture of spiritual lethargy birthed from the idea that spiritual maturity is solely a work of the Spirit. In this view there is no focus on practice. Why would there be? The Spirit will do the work! Right?

I am appreciative to Scott for bringing this up yesterday and for the way he presented it. As I listened a couple of things popped into my head. The first is a definition for spiritual formation offered by Evan Howard in his book A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation. He describes it as “A Spirit- and human-led process by which individuals and communities mature in relationship with the Christian God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and are changed into ever-greater likeness to the life and gospel of this God” (p. 18). Did you notice the first part of that description? Howard describes spiritual formation as a Spirit-led AND a human-led process. Simply put, we need to affirm both, not pit them against one another. The Spirit works within us to graciously change us through the work of sanctification. BUT we also play a part in the process! We lean into that work, pursue it, and put to practice the righteousness and godliness that is revealed to us in the Scriptures. The Spirit produces it and we practice it!

I was also reminded of something that I read years ago by A. W. Tozer that I recall from time to time. The selection is taken from his We Travel an Appointed Way, but I read it in a compilation work entitled Tozer on Worship and Entertainment. He offers the following rebuke that stings me every time I return to it:

The amount of loafing practiced by the average Christian in spiritual things would ruin a concert pianist if he allowed himself to do the same thing in the field of music. The idle puttering around that we see in church cirlces would end the career of a big league pitcher in one week. No scientist could solve his exacting problem if he took as little interest in it as the rank and file of Christians take in the art of being holy. The nation whose soldiers were as soft and undisciplined as the solders of the churches would be conquered by the first enemy that attacked it. Triumphs are not won by men in easy chairs. Success is costly. If we would progress spiritually, we must separate ourselves unto the things of God and concentrate upon them to the exclusion of a thousand things the worldly man considers important.

(p. 46-47, emphasis mine)

Oof! Again. As I revisited that quote I thought about the state of the world around me. And then I considered the dreadful way the church seems to be reacting to that state in some profound ways. If we are to bear spiritual fruit within and before the broken world around us we must be people who first embrace the practice of the godliness we hope to display in our reactions therein. It will only be because we are pursuing the spiritual maturity we desire with as much vigor as we ask the Spirit to work it out within us. If we truly desire to grow in holiness and godliness, we will not be content to sit idly by and remain passive while expecting the Spirit to simply accomplish it. If we truly desire it, we will practice toward it. We will passionately pursue it.

I’ve thought a lot about the sentence I bolded in that quote. I wince as I consider how accurately it seems to depict the state of the American church at times. So easily divided. So easily frustrated. So easily distracted. May we heed our brother’s exhortation from his message yesterday and, out of a passion for holiness, practice for godliness! That is how the church will be prepared to respond in godliness to the weighty and confusing issues of our day.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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