First Principles Part One: The Spiritual Life

I HAVE REFERENCED Trevor Hart and Kelly Kapic in the past regarding what constitutes Christian theology. Hart describes the theologian as “…fidelis quaerens intellectum: a believer seeking understanding… theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (1). Hart calls this “faith thinking.” Kapic assures us that growing in the knowledge of God changes our view of everything else. Not that we lose sight of all except God; rather, we view everything in light of God, through the story of His creation and redemption. All men and women live in a state of epistemological pilgrimage—searching all their lives for meaning and purpose. The primary goal of Christianity must be sound theology. Yet, we cannot diligently seek knowledge without a primal grasp of the first principles of Christianity.

R.C. Sproul writes, “There is a solemn duty of learning the Law of God; of mastering His revelation. To master God’s Word is to be deeply immersed in the study of theology” (2). Referencing Martin Luther, Sproul believes we are all called to be theologians, just as we are all called to be Christians. We belong to “the Way” of Christ (Acts 9:2; 19:19). Indeed, we are “sojourners” (1 Pet. 2:11). Vital to being in the Way is walking “in the Spirit” (2 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 5:16, 25; Eph. 5:8, 15). True theology is lived theology, which we achieve by being “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8). The Pharisees attempted to “know” God through arrogant self-righteousness, but it requires humility to know Him. J.I. Packer said, “If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both… if it fails to promote humility, it inevitably feeds pride” (3).

“Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God.” —Thomas Aquinas.

The Most Fundamental First Principle

It comes as no surprise that Satan attacks us through the mind and body. When appetites (lust, hunger, thirst) run amok, it leads to preoccupation with the flesh. Paul said, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). A mind set on the flesh is hostile to God. Paul adds, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Christians who live in this manner are said to be carnally-minded. If we live according to the flesh we will die, but if we live by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the flesh. We are told to be dead to sin and alive unto God. Simply put, yield to God and not to the lusts of the flesh. But how do we obtain victory over the flesh? Paul said, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

The J.B. Phillips New Testament translation says, “…the unspiritual man simply cannot accept the matters which the Spirit deals with—they just don’t make sense to him, for, after all, you must be spiritual to see spiritual things. The spiritual man, on the other hand, has an insight into the meaning of everything, though his insight may baffle the man of the world. This is because the former is sharing in God’s wisdom, and ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ Incredible as it may sound, we who are spiritual have the very thoughts of Christ.” —1 Cor. 2:14.

Accordingly, our first goal is identifying and defeating the hindrances to living a balanced Christian life. Watchman Nee wrote, “Walking in the Way [of Christ] means to proceed gradually one step after another… to walk in the Way cannot be done in just one step” (4). Entering into and walking in the Way are two important principles in the Bible. They must be equally stressed in our spiritual growth. Our focus on walking (“continuing in”) the Way must include a persistent urge to enter more deeply into the spiritual life; to know Christ and have a deep desire to let that knowledge move from our heads to our hearts. Nowhere is the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge more critical. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). To seek the kingdom is to hide God’s Word in our hearts and strive to operate on His principles. Only then can our head (indeed, our entire body) benefit from restoration.

All These Other Things

Henri Nouwen opens his chapter titled “All These Other Things” with the following: “The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now” (5). Lately, I am struggling with this principle: focusing on my illness and physical pain as if I can cure my flesh with my flesh. Dwelling on chronic pain and discomfort, I tend to shirk my ministry responsibilities. Focusing on the kingdom of God is nearly impossible if I spend the day obsessing over physical ailments. (I am working on an article to be posted in the near future about how we tend to give power to our circumstances by focusing on them.) Amazingly, lack of persistence and reliability are character defects that first raised their ugly heads during my active addiction.

It is important to be aware of the way we think, feel, speak, and act. In order to achieve this, I ask the Holy Spirit to help me think about what I’m thinking about. This is similar to the concept of metacognition: a term in psychology meaning “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” Not surprisingly, it works! But in order to stay in that “walk” we must first ask for guidance, remembering that the mind is the devil’s battlefield. Satan offers faulty thinking to everyone with the goal of building up strongholds against the kingdom of God. Paul wrote, ” For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Our mind is the forerunner of all our actions (see Rom. 8:5). In other words, our actions are a direct result of our thinking.

In Part 2, we will examine the scope of our redemption in Christ, applying salvation principles to healing and restoration.

Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references are taken from the ESV (English Standard Version).

(1) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 1.
(2) R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Carol Stream, IL: 1962), xxv.
(3) J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 15.
(4) Watchman Nee, A Balanced Christian Life (New York, NY: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1981), 2-3.
(5) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 7.

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