This is the tenth post in this series of fourteen. In the past fifty years our imagination about what it means to be God’s people has been shaped by imported models and by a variety of traditions, but those traditions themselves have been conditioned by the preachers, leaders, books and churches that have dominated the media. The most prominent of are American “success” mega-churches.
We are now in the intriguing place of recognizing the limits of an imported imagination of ecclesial life, creating a significant vacuum and much anxiety. There are also hopeful signs that the work of theology, and of mission, in place — in THIS place — and the interaction of these two, is being taken with new seriousness by Canadian believers. Thus this series of posts on the work of Canadian authors.
My last post considered “Borderland Churches, by Gary Nelson. This time we’ll look at Magnificent Surrender: Releasing the Riches of Living in the Lord, by Roger Helland. Roger is district executive coach of the Baptist General Conference in Alberta, Canada. Roger makes his home with Gail near Calgary, Alberta.
• Why did you write this book?
I wrote it for two reasons: 1) I was greatly impacted by the book when I taught it as a seminary course a couple of years ago. I saw how a high Christology is essential and very practical for life and leadership, spiritual formation and discipleship, ministry and mission. 2) I wanted to convey this practical Christology, captured in Paul’s primary thesis in Colossians 2:6, “Just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.” Bottom line: “the spiritual life is the surrendered life” . . . to Christ Jesus as Lord.
• Who is it for?
It is for all Christians, with some attention to Christian leaders, who want to engage in a section-by-section expository journey of Colossians for the purpose of spiritual formation, discipleship, and mission.
• Why Colossians?
In four jam packed chapters, Colossians contains some of the grandest Christian theology and practice in the entire New Testament. I am convinced that Christology, not models and methodology, is the key to personal and corporate renewal.
• Paul’s epistemology seems Spirit-driven (1:9-11) but is also participatory (1:13, 2:10, 3:1-4). The word we tend to use is “belief” which usually indicates something cognitive—a dimension of mental knowing that connects to the Enlightenment. Where does Colossians come out and how does this influence your walk through the book?
New Testament belief or faith (pistis) is more of dynamic action based on spiritual knowledge than static cognition based on information. It is not abstract and merely intellectual content, though it contains content, but content based in the person of Christ to whom we must surrender.
• You use the word “behave” to describe the working out of virtue, but you sometimes build your argument around “practices.” The first word connotes morality, the second something more like “habit.” Which is which and which is more helpful in terms of Paul’s arguments?
The old saying, “sow a thought reap an action, sow an action reap a habit, sow a habit reap a character” gets at it. Again, virtue is action (behaviors of moral excellence) shaped over time by specific practices or habits (disciplines). In Colossians 3, Paul exhorts his audience to set their hearts and minds on things above where Christ is seated (a mental theological orientation). The outworking of this is contained in the rest of the chapter as he appeals for a life of virtue by putting to death certain practices of the old self, ridding oneself of those practices, and clothing oneself and putting on other practices according to the new self. “We can no longer live as we once did because we are no longer the people we once were.
• In chapter 4, you show how Colossians helps us against the pendulum swing that often occurs in Christian circles. Fundamentalism and Liberalism are both errors that work out a particular stance to culture. You advocate something “incarnational” as a third way (49). Tell us more about this.
The tendency is to withdraw from culture (Fundamentalist) or to accommodate to culture (Liberal). An incarnational approach, one practiced by Jesus, is to engage culture, embody the life of God in the world while not becoming like the world. Christians are called to live as children of light (and salt) who make contact with the world, where their character and conduct are seen. It is what I call “the gospel according to you.”
• As we move into chapter 5 Paul has his own way of living in the tension when he asks us to “set our minds on things above.” You point out that this does not mean abandoning the world but rather hints at a “worldview” change. How does Jesus’ enthronement above the world lead us to engage in culture?
Jesus is the resurrected, raised, and we must not forget, ascended Lord. He rules over all: the universe, the world, the church, and our lives. This theological worldview has very practical consequences. Jesus is supreme and sufficient. We cannot add and we must not detract anything from Christ. He is present in culture and governs all nations. If Christ is sovereign, everything is affected. John Stott said, “When Christ is Lord, nothing is secular.”
• The opening of chapter 5 (52-55) seems to imply that right thinking leads to right practice. “A Christian worldview . . . will shape our lives to embody the truth we champion.” (55) Spiritual formation is then primarily an issue of worldview. Is that correct?
A worldview, a mental model, a set of beliefs that shape our interpretation of the world, will affect our spiritual formation. Our theology is a worldview claim that must be proved by praxis, a way of life that it engenders. We are called to have the mind of Christ, to watch our life and our doctrine closely, and to be renewed in knowledge of our Creator. Spiritual formation is based on the knowledge of God’s will through spiritual wisdom and understanding leading to fruitfulness (cf. Col. 1:9-11) that enable us to walk worthily of the Lord (Col. 1:10; Eph. 4:1).
• You also acknowledge that practices will form us (60). You then use the “clothing” metaphor to encourage putting off the old and putting on the new. What are the key “counter-forming” practices that help us escape the worst influences of our culture?
Paul offers a list of counter-forming practices in Colossians 3 with the clothing metaphor: to rid ourselves of such things as rage, anger, malice, slander, filthy language, lying, we are as God’s chosen, to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. Paul says that these “virtues” are bound together in perfect unity with love, the greatest apologetic of the Christian “counter culture” sourced in God himself.
• On pages 72-80 you talk about Christian households. At the close of this section, you get into a discussion of hermeneutics. Why is this important for this section?
Colossians 3:22—4:1 deals with households and how Christian wives, husbands, children, slaves, and masters are to behave toward each other in the Lord. This section, as any really, gets to the challenge of hermeneutics and how a culturally grounded text then is lived out in a cultural setting now. In other words, how does the Word of God then function as the Word of God now? There has been much discussion especially around the role of women and whether in the marriage relationship it is egalitarian or complementarian, as well as how one applies the text directed to slaves and masters if we live in a society where slavery is no longer practiced. Do we then apply it to the situation of employees and employers? What is cultural and what is supracultural, what is descriptive, and what is normative, what are the principles we can apply, are usually the core questions. But all of Scripture is cultural and all of it is the Word of God written from within and to a given historical-cultural situation. For me, the way through is to locate the practices from a theological reading of Scripture according to the author’s intent and purpose to shape the Christian community according to God’s character and Christ’s Lordship in a given setting, and not to simply look for transferable principles.
• I think I appreciated chapter 7 the most, “Open Eyes and Open Doors.” In this section, your heart for mission shines through. Yet, “mission” is so often the most ordinary of things, those “interruptions” where we become available to God and to the needs of those around us. And in this section, you connect availability to divine purposes through prayer. How important is prayer for a recovery of mission in the church? How important is this theme in Colossians?
It is easy to underestimate the role of prayer in spiritual formation, discipleship, and mission. From the very outset, Paul prays for the Colossians as he opens his letter to them. It is based in gratitude to God and inspired by the reputation of the Colossians, known for their faith, love, and hope as they understood and believed the gospel. Paul then launches into a prayer for the Colossian asking God to fill them with the knowledge of his will that they would live a life worthily of him (to have missional gospel impact) and fruitful, as the fruit of that gospel was growing all over the world as it was in Colossae.
So, in his final appeal in chapter 4, Paul goes on to ask the Colossians to pray that God would open doors of opportunity for him to proclaim the gospel clearly as he should. He encourages them to be wise in how they act toward outsiders and that their conversation would be salt-seasoned so they would know how to answer everyone. Finally, Paul references Epaphras (the local missionary who evangelized his fellow Colossians) who always wrestled in prayer for them, that they would stand firm in God’s will mature and fully assured. This is what we could call a “missional spirituality,” a spiritual vitality in prayer that both forms and feeds mission, as it breaks through walls of resistance to the gospel and unleashes the power of the gospel in the world.
• You close every chapter with two special sections: Reflections, and Practice. In these sections, you ask questions of the reader, and make suggestions for application and new practices. These closing sections could make the book quite useful for small groups. Was that your intention? Do you know any groups that have worked through the book together?
I know a few people who have indicated they would like to use the book for group study. Yes, it is quite useful and designed for individual and group study, reflection, and practices. The goal of the book is to provide a theological reflection through the book of Colossians, to see and embrace the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ Jesus as Lord, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. When we understand that he is magnificent . . . our only posture is to surrender. In this way, we will release the riches of living in the Lord!
Previous posts in this “Made in Canada” series:
A Happy Ending, published by The Story in Sarnia, Ontario.
Beautiful Mercy, published by St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg.
The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci in Winnipeg.
Where Mortals Dwell, by Craig Bartholomew in Hamilton
The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan, by John Bowen in Toronto
Plunging Into the Kingdom Way, by Tim Dickau in Vancouver
Sacred Space for the Missional Church by Bill McAlpine in Calgary
Post-Charismatic? by Rob McAlpine in Kelowna
Borderland Churches by Gary Nelson, Toronto