The Self-Discipline of Faith

The classic biblical text on Christian self-discipline, in my opinion, is 1 Cor 9:24-27.

[24] Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. [25] Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. [26] So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; [27] but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

For Protestants (and here I’m thinking of myself) who had their faith nurtured in the context of “grace alone” theology, this paragraph poses potential interpretive problems. Paul is saying it’s not merely as simple as “grace alone.” The problem becomes even more pronounced when Paul puts these thoughts on Christian discipline into the context of God’s grace in history in the next few verses (1 Cor 10: 1-14).

[1] I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, [2] and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, [3] and all ate the same spiritual food, [4] and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

The third part of the argument begins in vs. 5ff where Paul says, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. [6] Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.”

And what did they do that Paul described as desiring evil?

  • idolatry (v. 7 )
  • sexual immorality (v. 8 )
  • putting Christ to the test (v. 9 )
  • complaining (v. 10 )

He summarizes the argument thus far in v. 12ff.

[12] So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. [13] No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Following his summary he once again returns to the subject of grace: “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? …” (1 Cor 10:15, 16). This testing comes in the context of pure grace: spiritual food (10:3f) for the Israelites and the Sacramental meal (10:16) for the church.

Because the passages on self-discipline (9:24-27) and the reference to divine testing (10:12) are separated by eleven verses, the connection between them isn’t immediately obvious. But when the larger context is considered it seems clear that Paul is talking about the same thing from slightly different perspectives. Life in God (under the divine cloud/in the Spirit) is a life of grace. It is God coming to us and guiding us (the cloud) and it is God providing every spiritual need (the manna/the Sacraments). This is a description of what could be called “grace alone” and can be incorporated into our lives through “faith alone.”

So it is that the arena we live in is defined by grace. Grace gets us into the arena. Grace guides us through the obstacles of the arena. Grace is our only spiritual nourishment while in the arena. That is the proper meaning of “grace alone.”

But it’s at this point that the grace/works binary (which I discussed in relation to Pelagianism in the previous essay) completely breaks down as an accurate description of the obstacles to the Christian life. As I said in that essay, although “grace vs works” or “faith vs works” (which leads to the affirmations of “Grace alone – Faith alone – Scripture alone”) is the handy shorthand descriptor for the results of the Pelagian controversy, it is not the only way to describe the controversy. Pelagius, because he was enamored with Stoicism, was focused on “self.” The Church recognized this focus was in error, and defended the traditional teaching that self must be submitted to God, and that a focus on God was the only way to properly fulfill and give meaning to the self.

Thus, the better binary to describe the Pelagian controversy is God vs self (in contrast to Grace vs works). And when we set aside the misleading binary (grace/works) for the more historically accurate binary (God/self), what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 10 makes a great deal of sense.

We live in the arena of Grace. Paul describes this arena of “grace alone” in 1 Cor. 10:1ff. Our ancestors (and the Church, for “these things occurred as examples for us” v. 6) were all “under the cloud,” “passed through the sea,” were baptized into Moses in the cloud and sea,” “ate of the same spiritual food,” and “drank the same spiritual drink” from “the spiritual rock” [ie, Jesus Christ].

But merely living in this Arena of Grace, as if God does everything and we simply receive the benefits, will lead to judgment. “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness” (v. 5). The children of Israel lost patience with Moses when he went to the mountain to receive the law. The result is that they became focused on self rather than God, who in spite of the grace surrounding and embracing them, was invisible behind the storm clouds enveloping the mountain top. Because of this focus on self, they entered into idolatry. And this story of self vs. God occurs repeatedly both as they travel through the wilderness and after they cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.

How do we avoid the pitfalls of the children of Israel? Self-discipline. But not the sort of self-discipline that focuses on self, rather the sort of self-discipline that allows me to move beyond myself and focus on God and my relationship with God.  Paul goes so far as to say that “I punish (literally, “to beat black and blue”) my body and enslave it (“to treat as a slave with severity and discipline”)” (9:27).

Before we make too much of Paul’s description in v. 27, we need to make clear that he’s not describing self-mutilation. The context is specifically athletic training and athletic discipline. By using these stark terms he makes clear that he’s not describing the weekend athlete who, on a whim, goes for a run, or joins a recreational soft ball league in order to get a little bit of exercise. Paul makes clear that when he calls us to Christian discipline (9:24ff) in order to properly respond to the “testing” in the arena of grace (10:13), he is speaking of discipline that is organized, consistent, and hard. In other words, it’s work! But this spiritual work can only be accomplished in one place: the arena of pure grace.  The only nourishment available that will strengthen us for this work is the grace of God (the spiritual food). Furthermore, the goal of this “work” is not to become a fulfilled and complete person who can then step into the presence of God (this is the error of Pelagius). Paul’s point is that we’re already in the presence of God. The goal of this work is to take hold of the grace that is above us, below us, surrounds us, and feeds us. The goal is that I may more fully experience God’s presence and enter more deeply into the divine fellowship that is only available to me inside the Arena of Grace.

This is the proper meaning of Grace. Pastor Richard, in his otherwise excellent essay on ladder theology, concludes by saying,

God doesn’t need our ladders to descend to us, nor do we have to meet him halfway. The reason being He has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ and He daily comes to us in His Word and Sacraments. God has fully descended to us and He reaches out His hand to us and delivers His forgiveness to us without a ladder!

Goodbye ladder, goodbye climbing and hello grace alone!

This is a good description of the Arena of Grace, but it begs the question of what the Christian life is all about after conversion. Is the Christian life just sitting around feeding on God and accepting his forgiveness? Pr. Richard never addresses this inevitable next step in his argument, but Paul tells us unequivocally that if we think that’s it, we are in danger of being disqualified. Once we grasp the significance that we do indeed live in the Arena of Grace, then we can proceed with the tasks the Arena offers us, surrounded above and below with God’s grace, and nourished with God’s grace from his spiritual food. Once we understand that by Grace alone we live in the presence of God, then we can get serious about getting to know God intimately by attacking the Arena of Grace with gusto and the strength that only comes from grace.

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