Our role as spiritual midwives

After I posted my reflections on the conversation between Gavin D’Costa and Daniel Strange, Dan kindly sent me a draft of some material he had written by way of response, for inclusion in the manuscript for a book on which he is currently working. I was grateful for this opportunity for further conversation, and I made a few additional comments on what Dan had sent me. I am not at liberty to pass on his work in progress, but I want to share more broadly some clarifications regarding my own position, which were elicited by Dan’s remarks.

In his most recent email message, Dan wrote:

 “I think one of the key things we seem to differ on here is whether the ‘antithesis’ is as antithetical as I believe it is. I just don’t see biblically your description of ‘sinners who are both moving in the same direction, though at different places along that same path.’ However much common grace we can talk about, I think there is always a fundamental transition between dark and light, death and life etc. and that this difference is principial, the roots of the worldview if you will.”

I want to make sure my understanding of these things is clear to readers of this blog, and I’m hoping that these additional remarks I made to Dan today will be helpful. I wrote:

I totally agree with you that there is a sharp line between dark and light, death and life. But I want to make two corollary observations.

(1) We are not always able to discern accurately on which side of that line a person stands, in their relationship with God.

(2) Given the limits of our judgments in that regard, rather than jumping to such judgments, particularly through assessment of a person’s affiliation with a religious institution, we should seek to discern the direction of the person’s life at the moment of our meeting. We all live in constant relationship with God, either moving toward him or away from him. This is true on both sides of that sharp line which is clear only to God. People are continuously responding to divine revelation, either positively or negatively. Our goal, therefore, should be to listen and watch for indications of their situation in this regard. When people seem genuinely to be at peace with God, to have a clear conscience in regard to their behaviour relative to what they understand to be God’s demand upon them, and living out of a desire to please God, we should be thankful for this. It is not our responsibility to give people assurance of their salvation, on the ground of such discerned behaviour, but we should all be seeking to help others to live in constant faith and obedience to God. This orientation of our hearts is fundamental. Additionally, we must share/teach the truth of God to the best of our knowledge and ability, relying upon the Spirit of God to illumine people’s minds to God’s truth, of which we seek to be ambassadors.

I am reminded of a conversation I had once with a missionary in the Arab world. He spoke about the delight of meeting professing Muslims who had the heart of God-fearers. In our relationships with the adherents of other religions, I think it is appropriate for us to begin from a spirit of hopefulness concerning the work of God in these people’s lives. Even in the case of those who have not yet been transferred by God out of darkness into light, when people are being drawn by God to the light, we should rejoice and seek to be midwives in God’s service. This framework will make us less interested in whether or not this person is a Christian, and more interested in how they are relating to God at this point in their lives, in the orientation or trajectory of their heart response to God.

I hope that make sense, whether or not you agree.”

On rereading what I had said, I should stress that I am certainly not uninterested in whether or not people become Christians. I do want people to believe in Jesus, God’s Son and the world’s only saviour and to join a community of others with that commitment. But even when I am talking to fellow Christians, I want to have the same basic goal, namely, encouraging them to keep moving forward in response to God. I am happy when others have that same goal in their relationship toward me.

The issue here is priority. I think that my primary interest should be how people are responding to God in the ways that God is making himself known to them. It is in the case of people whom God is moving toward the light, that Christian gospel proclamation is most fruitful, and I do want them to become part of the church which Jesus is building.

John 3:20-21 is an important text for me here:

 “All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

In the interest of mutual clarity, I now welcome any thoughts that are triggered in your minds by these observations.

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9 Responses to Our role as spiritual midwives

  1. Chris Wettstein says:

    Hi Terry,

    I like what you say, in this remark:

    “Given the limits of our judgments in that regard, rather than jumping to such judgments, particularly through assessment of a person’s affiliation with a religious institution, we should seek to discern the direction of the person’s life at the moment of our meeting.”

    I have no objection to these words. However, here are 3 further observations, building upon this idea that you express:

    1. Assessing a person’s affiliation with a religious institution should be some part of our assessment – not an infallible indicator, but supplying either positive or negative evidence. For example: it is a positive sign of a person’s heart if they willingly seek to identify with a Gospel-affirming church; it is a negative sign of a person’s heart if they willingly seek to identify with people who openly reject the truth of Christ.

    2. Even when we seek to “discern the direction of the person’s life at the moment of our meeting” – we can only have such discernment in reference to Christ Himself. What makes “good works” actually “good” in the sight of God is not measured by God by mere outward conformity to the outward demands of His Law, but whether those “good works” proceed from a heart that is in union with Christ. How can we discern if a person is in union with Christ? If they do not profess faith in Christ, I do not believe we can discern that they are in union with Christ.

    3. Even when we seek to “discern the direction of the person’s life at the moment of our meeting” we must be aware that the apparent direction of a person’s life, in that moment, is not a very reliable source. If you only look at Abraham’s life in Genesis 16, its hard to say that that was the heart of a “justified” man. True believers, in union with Christ, can sometimes go for long periods of time without any apparent fruit or peace of conscience. What matters, ultimately, is not the apparent direction of their hearts in relation to God – but whether God Himself has graciously brought that person into union with Christ, declaring their sins to be forgiven based on the work of Christ outside themselves. In turn, there could presumably be many people who appear outwardly to be “at peace” in their consciences, and they may be behaving just as “good” as any typical Christian, from our limited perspective, but yet God may see such a person as not being in union with Christ if they are (in their heart) not actually resting upon the gift of God, the Son of God, as the Source of their peace – e.g.: if they are actually only resting upon their observation that “everything seems to go on fine for me, as long as I basically follow my conscience.”

    What do you think?

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful observations, Chris. Essentially, I concur with your first one.

      In regard to the second, I agree that it is the heart that matters – without faith it is impossible to please God. It is precisely at that level, however, that we have to be aware of our limitations. We can not always discern our own motivations, and we need to be careful when judging those of others. I’m not saying that no discernment should be exercised, and we have to act in keeping with what we conclude, but always with a sense of our limitation that breeds humility and grace.

      When you say this: “How can we discern if a person is in union with Christ? If they do not profess faith in Christ, I do not believe we can discern that they are in union with Christ,” I think it possible that we are approaching this from different frameworks. I agree with you, in the case of people who know the truth about Christ, and concerning whom we have reason to believe God has made that truth clear. The key issue, however, is whether people are suppressing the truth or responding to it. So our discernment has to operate first at the level of discerning what objective revelation they have received, secondly, at the level of the inner illumination God has given them, and thirdly, in regard to their heart response to these. I believe (where you may not, as I recall) that God has worked savingly in the hearts of some people prior to their knowledge of the gospel. I also believe that God holds people accountable for the revelation he has given them, and that this includes both his subjective revelation (illumination) and the objective. When a person rejects our gospel message, we can not immediately conclude that they have rejected Christ himself. Discerning the measure to which Christ has made himself known to a person is not always easy, but it is more critical than their response to the objective revelation (proclamation).

      I think I agree with the substance of your third point. I indicated in my post that we are always moving toward or away from God. But we do that on both sides of the sharp line between spiritual death and life. My point was that we need to minister to people at any given moment according to what we perceive to be their direction at the time. I recall a late night conversation with one of my teenage sons whom I was warning about his spiritual condition. He looked at me a bit stunned and asked: “Don’t you believe that once we are saved we will always be saved.” I assured him that I do, but at that point in his life I had no grounds for confidence that he had saving faith, so I had to grant the sad possibility that earlier evidence of such faith may not have been of the genuine, lasting sort – like seed planted in the rocky or thorny ground.

      In my post, I was speaking particularly about the way we relate to people at particular moments of encounter. I think that you are speaking more globally. Given our different perspectives, I’m not sure that we disagree at all here.

  2. Poetreehugger says:

    I am encouraged by the Christ-like mercy and love for the individual that I find in the tone of your whole post. Too much of the Christian message has been one of condemnation of humanity.
    The attitude of being interested in “how people are responding to God in the ways God is making himself known to them” looks like a more humble and caring attitude, with a more “Emmanuel” inclusiveness. What I am trying to express is that walking alongside of a person whom you feel led to communicate with on these issues, in a genuine concern for the person themself, similar to the way God expressed love for us by becoming one of us, by our very sides, telling us about that love. We do not know how God is or will be revealing “himself” to each person, and would do well not to hinder that by restricting or limiting the ways in which God works.

    Thank you for this post, and I look forward to hearing more discussion.

  3. Chris Wettstein says:

    Thanks for your reply, Terry,

    This discussion brings to mind a question – for clarification:

    You mention: “We all live in constant relationship with God, either moving toward him or away from him. This is true on both sides of that sharp line which is clear only to God. People are continuously responding to divine revelation, either positively or negatively.”

    Do you mean to say that that there are people on the side of “darkness” who are sometimes responding positively to divine revelation? How could they be truly responding positively, if they are still in darkness & not (yet) in union with Christ?

    Secondly, as a theoretical question – how could I assume that someone else is in union with Christ, if that other person does not profess faith in Christ? Should I assume that they are in union with Christ based on the fact that I see more good deeds relative to the bad deeds that I see?

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Hi Chris,

      You asked two questions:

      1. “Do you mean to say that that there are people on the side of “darkness” who are sometimes responding positively to divine revelation? How could they be truly responding positively, if they are still in darkness & not (yet) in union with Christ?”

      My answer is that there are positive responses to revelation which are not of the character of justifying faith and negative responses to revelation which do not constitute apostasy. We need to encourage people moving in the positive direction and warn people moving in the negative direction.

      Jesus told a number of parables based upon this principle. The parable of the soils is a good use of it, particularly the seed sown in rocky ground and in thorny ground. Jesus was preparing his disciples (and us) for the fact that some people would respond to divine revelation and might even do so for long periods of time, but eventually it will become apparent that their responses were not justifying. The parable of the wheat and the tares is another example. There Jesus warned us to be cautious in our judgments of who is in and who is outside of his kingdom, for precisely the reason entailed in this principle.

      Judas is a cautionary example here too. Notice that when Jesus said that someone was going to betray him, there was not a unanimous turning of the finger on Judas. Even though God had told them that one of them was a “son of perdition,” none of them knew which one of them it was.

      2. Your second question is complex, I think, involving two questions which I will deal with separately, though they are admittedly related.

      a. You ask: “Secondly, as a theoretical question – how could I assume that someone else is in union with Christ, if that other person does not profess faith in Christ?”

      Union with Christ is a new covenant way of speaking that is really only appropriate when speaking about people whose revelation to God is governed by the terms of the new covenant, which entails their having new covenant revelation. Everyone saved since the fall of Adam has been saved on the ground of Christ’s atoning work, of the death of the Lamb slain before the creation of the world. But “union with Christ” is a particular relationship to God which is brought about by God’s gift of the Spirit of the risen Christ. This is one of the very special blessings of the new covenant. So, I would not say of Abraham that he was “in union with Christ,” nor would I say this of someone whose revelational situation puts her relationship to God under the administration of the Abrahamic covenant, even if such a person has the faith of Abraham, by God’s grace. The same goes for Noah and for those who live under the Noahic covenant today.

      b. You ask: “Should I assume that they are in union with Christ based on the fact that I see more good deeds relative to the bad deeds that I see?”

      On account of my answer to 2a, let’s not talk about being “in union with Christ” but about being saved (i.e., justified, reconciled to God). Here I think the answer is definitely “No.” Without faith it is impossible to please God. On the other hand those who have the faith that pleases God will bear the fruit of righteousness. But, precisely because we gratefully affirm the truth of God’s widespread common grace, we know that lives in which God has graciously restrained sin are not necessarily lives in which God has regenerated the heart. Motivation is key.

      So, when we see someone who lives according to the letter of the law of God, we are thankful but we look for more: does this person love God (as s/he) understands him, and do what they believe God demands of them on that account? If so, we may consider it possible that God has already reconciled them to himself. These are the people of Jn 3:20-21. We proclaim Christ to them, and we are hopeful that they will respond to this revelation with faith in Christ, but we grant that this will require an invisible work of the Spirit enabling them to say “Jesus is Lord.” When they do so, we will listen with interest to their own perception of how much continuity/discontinuity there was in their relationship with God prior to their becoming Christians.

      There will be some who were doing good deeds because of God’s regenerative, pre-new covenant work, in their lives. If they come to faith in Christ, with a sense that they now know more clearly the one in whom they had trusted before, we may consider it likely that they are people of Jn 3:20-21. We will know of them that the works they did before becoming Christians were the works done out of a regenerate heart, though one that still needed to be brought forward revelationally.

      The disciples of Jesus are a very good case study in this regard. I think it most likely that the 11 were all saved before they met Christ. Gradually, over time, as God’s Spirit revealed to them the truth concerning Jesus, they became Christians, but the moment at which that occurred in the life of each one is very difficult to identify, and the moment of their becoming Christian was not the same things as the moment of their being saved.

  4. Chris Wettstein says:

    Thanks for clarifying what you mean, Terry,

    I find it surprising that you would not speak of Abraham as being “in union with Christ,” but yet you would speak of Abraham as being “regenerated” or “born again.” I would find it hard to affirm this kind of distinction, in view of the way Eph 2:4-5 speaks.

    If your argument is that “union with Christ” is not directly stated in the language of the OT, this leads one to wonder if we should speak of OT believers as being “regenerated” – since the OT does not directly speak in that language either.

    My way of looking at it is that the “new covenant” was established in history, by the blood of Christ approx. 2000 years ago. The “new covenant” is now the defining covenant of the people of God, whereas previously the people of God were defined by “old covenant” ordinances. In this respect, the “new covenant” was not yet established before Christ came. However, God was already working out “new covenant blessings,” since the beginning, within the remnant of His people. God was already forgiving sins, causing people to walk according to His law, causing people to know Him, etc. (i.e.: the blessings promised in Jer 31:31ff) – and such people were also looking forward to the Messiah by faith. If there were people who were looking forward to the Messiah, before He came, I don’t find it hard to say that such people were “in union with Christ” and (thus) enjoying the blessings of the Messiah already.

    I suppose we are using the language of “union with Christ” in different ways. Nevertheless, it seems to separate Christ from His benefits – to speak of people being “saved” without being “in union with Christ” – that’s just how it sounds to me, at least.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      I hear your point, Chris, and I may need to revise my language, but I’ll stay with it right now. I grant that regeneration is not a term used in the OT, but I believe that the Spirit was doing then the work for which the NT gives us a good term. It would have been impossible for anyone to believe in God, in a justifying way, without that inner transformation of their will.

      On the other hand, I am reluctant to speak of OT believers as “in union with Christ” for the same reason that I do not speak of the Church in the OT. It is a matter of covenantal progress, I think. So I (presently) consider it anachronistic to speak of anyone as “in union with Christ” (i.e. with the Messiah) until Jesus returned to the Father and sent the new covenant Spirit, inaugurating the Church as his body. So I would not even say of the apostles, before Pentecost, that they were “in union with Christ.” If, by “union with Christ,” you simply mean “in fellowship with God,” then clearly it applies to OT believers, but I use the term in a way that has distinct covenantal historical significance.

      As you said, our difference may be terminological, not conceptual.

  5. Chris Wettstein says:

    Thanks again, Terry, for the clarifications.

    I’m trying to understand how you are using various terms, and I’m wondering if you could further clarify what you mean by (1) “union with Christ” and by referring to (2) God’s “new covenant work.”

    For me, I think of God’s new covenant work as involving regeneration & forgiveness & ensuring the saving knowledge of God (i.e.: the promises of Jer 31:31ff). And I think of “union with Christ” as referring to the saving union that exists between Christ & His elect people.

    Thanks again, for your patient & kind clarifications.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Hi Chris,

      I think of “union with Christ” as the mutual indwelling of Christ and those who believe in him, which is brought about when the risen and ascended Christ baptizes people in the Spirit, into his body. This is something that began at Pentecost but, since then, occurs simultaneously with the gift of repentance and faith that are (and had always been!) instrumental in an individual’s conversion.

      This is God’s “new covenant work,” in that it is the particular operation of the Trinity after the Son had completed his atoning work in his death, was vindicated in his resurrection, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. From there the Father and the Son together sent the Spirit who had ministered to the Son throughout his life of perfect and obedience, and who now makes the Son present (as another advocate of the same kind) by his indwelling of believers in Christ.

      There are significant continuities between God’s saving work in the lives of the elect in the old covenant and in the new covenant, but the actions of the Spirit in the new covenant are indelibly marked by the actions of the Son in fulfilling his incarnate mission, which he carried out in the power of the Spirit who was constantly at work savingly in the old covenant. As the “author and pioneer” of our faith, Jesus’ righteousness was that of an old covenant person, but the people of the new covenant (the church) did not enter into the distinctive new covenant experience of salvation until Christ sent the Spirit as means of making his presence continuous with his people. It is that presence of the Spirit of the risen Christ that effectuates the union with Christ which is a distinctive new covenant experience.

      That is how it looks to me.

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