The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Finding More Switches for Enlightenment
Spiritual Enlightenment happens when switches get turned on. Ministry is all about finding those Spiritual switches that work for people at various stages and situations in life.
Our first-grade daughter came home from school one day and skipped around the house shouting “I can read. I can read.” Something had clicked that day. Now she could associate visual symbols with the sounds she associated with meaning. She grew up around books that were read to her. She became an avid reader.
I have talked with reading specialists who describe their method of helping children sound out alphabet letters and associate them with pictures, like a cat or a dog. They describe special moments when it all “clicks,” and children take off in their readings. But for some, the “click” does not happen, and reading remains a laborious process done slowly and reluctantly.
The reality among adults is that finding the right switch for Spiritual enlightenment depends on where the individual is in his or her life and how they process information. Each brings unique personal experiences into an encounter.
I learned long ago that when I am preaching a sermon, I am preaching 150 sermons to the 150 in attendance. My words have to snag their attention wherever their thoughts are at the moment. Many come worried about family problems, are nursing grudges, or are anxious about their health. The words I use can mean many different things to those processing them. My words need to be engaging and practical.
Truth As Encounter
Emil Brunner is a mid-20th-century theologian who had a great influence on my thinking through two books. One is The Misunderstanding of the Church, where he demonstrated that informal fellowships of the Spirit are the church that counts, not the institutional forms of the day. The other is Truth as Encounter, where he unpacked the limits of truth statements in doctrinal propositions about God. The truth that counts is a relationship with God through encounters with him.
All seminary-educated pastors take a series of courses on Christian teachings about basic topics like the Father, Son, Church and End Times. Naturally, we think these truth statements are the way to know God. But in actuality, they offer only truths about God. The Bible teaches that God is a person, not an abstract truth. He is best understood in the person of Jesus Christ, who calls us into a relationship with him. We can describe those relationships, but that is not the same as experiencing Christ-centered relationships with God. Therein is the dilemma for ministry. We can and should logically teach about God and describe the desired relationship, but more effective for Spiritual enlightenment is actually modeling that relationship.
Paul highlighted three responses to encounters with God in his summary at the end of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope and love. He transitions to these three after discussing spiritual gifts in the previous chapter. He ends Chapter 12 with the encouragement to have a passionate commitment to the greater (Spiritual) gifts, which he summarizes as faith, hope and love.
The word “faith” can be a listing of beliefs, but that biblical word also means trust. Trust is a relationship. My suburb has a sign encouraging drivers to “Believe in Broadview Heights.” That’s an abstraction. The biblical God I trust is a person. Hope is the certainty of what we do not see. Like faith, hope can be an abstract proposition. But I place my personal hope in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are reliable in what they promise. The greatest of the three responses is love. That is the ultimate relationship term. To those who have little experience of it in their personal lives, love remains an abstraction that motivates little new behavior. When the Spirit enters, he kindles love, which then motivates new loving relationships.
Martin Luther’s Encounters
Martin Luther was unique among theologians of his day. He had a very personal relationship with God. It first expressed itself when he was overwhelmed by a frightening thunder and lightning storm that he took as the voice of an angry God. He responded by joining a monastery.
A scene in the 2003 film Luther stands out for me. He was in his monk’s cell physically wrestling with the devil, bouncing off the walls. The spiritual realm was up close and personal. Luther deeply feared God. That’s why when later the switch turned on that illuminated justification by grace through faith, he felt a great personal experience of relief that his works were not necessary.
The other great Reformer several decades later was John Calvin, founder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, from which modern-day Evangelicals are descended. A perceptive, highly trained lawyer, he expressed biblical truths in the impersonal terms of a law book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Centuries early, the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote volumes of logical propositions about God. The story is told that one day he had a profound personal experience, and he never wrote a word again.
Luther is unique in that he remained a Bible scholar who felt no compulsion to turn biblical insights into an integrated system of logical declarations about God. That he left to his good friend Philip Melanchthon, who was followed by later generations of systematic theologians. In the early years of the Reformation Luther had profound respect for the Holy Spirit, who had done so much for him. Later rational theologians did not know what to do with the Spirit beyond a few generalizations, so they mostly left him out of their systems.
Lutheran theology can be expressed as a system of propositions like those of Calvin. Or it can be appreciated as a series of personal discoveries and convictions about how God interacts with his people. In today’s culture, Luther’s legacy will fare better than Calvin’s.
I and Thou
Very formative for Martin Luther was his relationship with his monastic mentor and Confessor Johann von Staupitz. He later remarked, “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.” He had developed a relationship with a superior who was kind and caring enough to challenge him to move beyond his overwhelming fear of God. For him, the face of God had been his stern and demanding father whom the boy Luther could never satisfy.
In the relationship between Luther and Staupitz, a switch turned on that helped transform him through the renewing of his mind. Scholar Luther knew all about the God of the Bible. The first breakthrough happened in his study of Romans as he pondered “the righteousness of God.” The grammar allowed translation as also the righteousness from God. His world started to change when he realized that righteousness was something God gave him, not just demanded of him.
What happened can be explained in terms of the distinction between seeing God as an “It” or as a “Thou,” as offered by Martin Buber. The “It” is an abstraction that does not bring a personal response. The “Thou” is a person one enters into a relationship with. For many, God remains an “It,” above and beyond them to be feared and revered. The Holy Spirit’s work of enlightening turns the “It” God into the loving “Thou” God to whom we want to be drawn closer.
At my Lutheran High School, religion courses included a year’s worth of doctrine, which was taught as an upgraded version of the Small Catechism’s teachings about God. I thrived on it because my mind works that way. But most of the class was bored because little application was made to life as they experienced it. For them, God remained an “It.” I learned in later years that many drifted away or found their way to churches that were better focused on a personal relationship with God.
Ministry today needs to do better at finding switches the Spirit can use to move personal enlightenment beyond the recitation of biblical truths.
Have you ever had an experience a) when a new insight “clicks” for you? b) when God’s love for you became more real and drew you closer?