For by grace are he saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. - St. Paul to the Ephesians 2:8-9
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. - St. James 2:18, 26
In yesterday's Sunday school class, one of our parishioners asked how we abide in Christ. That led to a wonderful discussion, in which I somewhat shot from the hip and admitted that I would like to give a more systematic answer. Well, here is that promised answer in part.
The first thing we have to remember is that our relationship with Christ is like any other relationship, in that there are parts of that which are simply impossible to quantify. For example, while one can point to actions that are evidence of a good marriage, it is theoretically possible to have those actions present in a cold and loveless marriage. Affectionate gestures, kind words, and regular bonding time may take on a mere ritualistic nature, after all. However, anyone that has counseled marriages will attest that there is a certain amount of "fake it 'till you make it" that works in bettering a marriage. Similarly, the spiritual disciplines and the means of grace can help us abide in Christ, even when we feel distant from him. While the spiritual disciplines and the means of grace are not synonymous, both play a role in this important aspect of our faith.
A Spiritual Workout
When we speak of the spiritual disciplines, we generally mean those actions or activities that Christians do to help grow in the faith. Reading the bible, praying, fasting, worship, almsgiving and tithing are all included in the spiritual disciplines. An important thing to remember is that the spiritual disciplines are things we do rather than something God does. A common analogy is to liken the spiritual disciplines to a workout routine. By frequent and regular exercise of the disciplines, we usually see growth. Just as the most important way to strengthen a muscle is to use it, so too do we get better at praying by praying.
Just like in a workout routine, we sometimes feel better during the workout, but other times it is difficult or boring, the spiritual disciplines do not always yield immediate satisfaction. But if we continue in them, we will indeed benefit. I once heard an interview with a trainer who said that his method is simple but not easy. The same can be said about the spiritual disciplines. Rather than seeing this reality as a discouragement, we should be encouraged that accepting this challenge will indeed yield long term growth.
God's Gifts for Growth
If the disciplines are the things we do, the means of grace are the things that God does to help us abide in Christ. Typically, when we speak of the means of grace, we are most especially referring to God transforming us through Word and Sacrament. In our baptism, God washed away our sins, we were made dead to sin and alive to Christ, and we were given new birth into God's family. In the Lord's Supper, we partake of Christ's Body and Blood and are brought into communion (that is, fellowship) with him and with the rest of the Church. As the Catechism says, these are the two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself and are "generally necessary for salvation." That is, Jesus gave these Sacraments to all Christians as a way of uniting us to himself and to each other.
While baptism is a one-time event, we are reminded of our baptismal gifts and promises every time we witness someone else getting baptized. Additionally, the traditional use of holy water in prayers and in the fonts at the entrance to the chapel are to be further reminders. Indeed, whenever he was depressed, suffering from doubts, or harassed by Satan, Martin Luther would splash himself with water and remind himself of who he was in Christ by declaring "I am baptized!"
In contrast to baptism, Holy Communion is something we can partake of much more often, at least every Sunday and holy day. In John 6, Christ said that we have life by eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood. This is the promise of the Eucharist. It is not uncommon for Christians to go through significant dry periods where they feel very distant from God. One of my brother priests said that this has never happened to him, and he believes this is because he partakes of the Sacrament of Communion at least weekly. That is, he believes that by sacramentally partaking of Christ, he never feels out of fellowship (or communion) with the Lord.
Hearing from God
Just as we are promised grace in the Sacraments, so too do we receive grace by God's word in the Scriptures. As the Scriptures are the inspired word of God, we hear from him most clearly in the Scriptures. St. Paul tells likens the Scriptures to a double-edged sword that can cut down to the deepest parts. He also says that faith comes by hearing and hearing comes from the word of God. The Holy Spirit uses the Scriptures to convict us of our sins, bring us the comfort of God's promises, tell us about Jesus, and transform us into Christ's likeness. Though one of the spiritual disciplines is reading and hearing the bible, when we do so with faith the Lord will give us the grace that comes from his word. In fact, in order for the Sacraments to actually be Sacraments and impart grace, they require the appropriate words or form based on the Scriptures. That is, even in the Sacraments, God uses his word as the means of grace.
A Faith that Lives
As encouraging as all this is, we all know people who have been baptized, have heard the Scriptures, and even have taken communion but do not show any evidence of being a genuine Christian. That is, some people can outwardly partake of the means of grace without having any benefits of it. According to the Catechism, we need a "lively [i.e. living] faith" to receive the benefits of Communion. The same can be said for the other Sacraments and the Scriptures. Indeed, without a lively faith, the means of grace actually condemn us, making us worse off than if we had never played at being a Christian. In light of this sober truth, how do we know if we have a lively faith? A good synonym for "faith" is "trust." As such, the first question we should ask ourselves, is in whom or in what do we place our trust? In order to have a lively faith, the answer must be in Christ. That is, we do not trust in our own goodness to save us. We do not trust in our own efforts to draw us closer to him. We know that we have nothing good to offer him, and any goodness in us is actually his. This means that our life is one of repentance rather than self-justification or self-righteousness. Indeed, if we think we can make ourselves righteous or justify ourselves, what need have we of Christ? This does not mean, however, that our faith is always strong. Rather, if faith itself is a gift from God (as St. Paul saith), then we can go to him when it needs strengthening. And this is where the means of grace and spiritual disciplines come in: God strengthens our faith through the means of grace, and we exercise our faith in the spiritual disciplines.
Article XIX of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, one of the Anglican Church’s traditional formularies, tells us that we have the visible church when we have a congregation of faithful people where the word of God is preached and the Sacraments are properly administered. That is, in the Church the means of grace are readily available. In the various services of the Book of Common Prayer we are also given methods of exercising the Spiritual disciplines, especially through the Daily Offices and through the Church Year. I would encourage all of us to take advantage of these gifts from our tradition, especially when we have the opportunity to do so together. How better to abide in Christ than to do so with the other members of Christ's body?