The Cross, the Spirit and the spiritual disciplines

The Psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” and he answers his own question by saying, “By guarding it (his way) according to your word” (Ps. 119:9). And yet we need only to ask any young man or woman how easy it has been to keep his or her ways pure in accordance with God’s word and most responses would range from simple disappointment to utter despair. They will tell you how difficult it has been to even understand or accept the word of God, leave alone the very ability to walk by it. And the Gospels show us that this condition prevailed among Jesus’ disciples too, before something drastic happened in their lives. And that drastic action was taken by God at the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The Preliminary Diagnosis: Spiritually Impotent

In chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel, we see in the disciples of Jesus two major drawbacks, an inability to accept God’s Word and the inability to engage in the spiritual discipline of Prayer, which could have helped them overcome their moment of trial or temptation.

During the Passover meal Jesus had told them that ‘one of them will betray him’ (Mk. 14:18) and he said that this would be as per the scriptures (Mk. 14:21; cf. Ps. 41:9). But Judas opposed this revelation from the word by asking “Is it I, Lord?” (Mk. 14:19; cf. Matt. 26:25). Jesus again told the rest of his disciples that they were all going to fall away (Mk. 14:27) which was also based on scriptural revelation (Zech. 13:7). But once again, the disciples rejected the revelation from the word (Mk. 14:31). After this the disciples even failed to ask for God’s help to maintain their loyalty towards Jesus (Mk. 14:37, 40). So, not only were the disciples unable to receive the word neither were they able to pray. But are they ‘unable’ to do it or are they ‘unwilling’ to do it?

The Gospel writers seem to tell us that the failure of the disciples has more to do with their ‘ability’ rather than their ‘willingness’. It is important to note that Jesus encourages them to pray but his accompanying preliminary diagnosis of their spiritual condition is that “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14:38b). Mind you, the diagnosis is not ‘a lack of spiritual desire’ but of ‘spiritual impotency’. The spirit of man might be willing but it is not free enough to carry out its desires rather it is enslaved to the sin-tainted flesh. In other words, the human spirit is a slave to the sinful nature within him. And that has been the conclusion of many Protestant Reformers, especially of Martin Luther, who in his book ‘On the bondage of the will’ says that there is no ‘free’ will for humanity because any will they might have, is overwhelmed by the influence of sin. And this spiritual condition is described by Paul as being ‘blinded from seeing the light of the Gospel’ (2 Cor. 4:4) or being ‘dead in the trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1-2). The condition of being morally depraved.

The Solution: Bought at the Cross

Certainly, the solution to man’s spiritual problem cannot begin at man’s ability to choose Jesus, because he cannot, for his will is under bondage. Rather it begins at the Cross, where Jesus disarmed the power of Sin and Satan, which kept man from choosing or believing in Him. The benefits of the Cross include: (1) the forgiveness of sins, (2) the ability to believe in the Word/ statutes of God and (3) the Holy Spirit who helps the believer to persevere in that faith, as promised in the New Covenant. And all these benefits of the New Covenant were bought by Jesus, by shedding his sinless blood on the Cross (Mk. 14:24). That which sinful man could not buy with his own moral/ spiritual strength was bought by Jesus and in the process, he had to pay with his own life. This satisfied the righteous wrath of God against sinful man. And this great act of sacrificial love would open the dams of God’s great mercy and grace.
What has been achieved on the Cross is encapsulated in Ezek. 36:26-27 which says:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules

The influence of the sinful flesh upon a man’s spirit is often pictured by the hardness of the human heart. But this influence is reversed by Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Under this program, the laws of God are no more just outwardly received and obeyed, as mere duty but inwardly received and obeyed. Jeremiah speaking in the context of the New Covenant says in Jer. 31:33b-34a:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD

In the words of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, sinful man receives a ‘new heart’ with ‘new affections’. A heart which now receives the Word and does it wholeheartedly. Not only does this heart receive the Word but also perseveres in it. And this perseverance is wrought by the Holy Spirit, who now lives in the ‘new heart’. That is why God says through Ezekiel, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:27). And Jeremiah spells it out in many ways: (1) He implies that this new covenant will not be broken in contrast to the old covenant which was ‘broken’ by Israel (Jer. 31:32); (2) they will have a heart which will fear God forever (Jer. 32:39, 40c), God also will not turn away from doing good to them (Jer. 32:40b), it is an everlasting covenant (Jer. 32:40a). All these points imply the perseverance of the saints.

And all these benefits mentioned above are poured out because the sins of these saints are forgiven and no more remembered by God. That is why God after enumerating the benefits of the New Covenant says in Jer. 31:34b, “For (because) I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more”. All the benefits of the New Covenant come to us because our sins were forgiven by God due to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. So, the Cross of Jesus Christ is the place where man’s redemption from sin and Satan is initiated and sustained.

The Solution: Applied by the Holy Spirit

Certainly, every aspect of the redemption was bought at the Cross but it is applied to individual lives by the Holy Spirit. No wonder, Jesus after his resurrection asks his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3-5). The spirit of man which was enslaved to the sinful flesh is set free by the power of the Holy Spirit. The spiritually blind man is able to see when the Holy Spirit comes and opens his eyes. The dead spirit is given a new life by the Holy Spirit.

And this reality is clearly stated by Jesus in his interaction with Nicodemus. In Jn. 3:3, 5, he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God… unless one is born of the water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”. A man who is born from his mother’s womb is just a physical man, he is flesh. But a man who is birthed by the Spirit of God is a spiritual man, he is spirit. This regeneration of man’s dead spirit in to a spirit that is now alive, is carried out by the Holy Spirit. Often known as the born-again experience.

And it is through this quickening of the Spirit that a man is now ‘able’ to believe in Jesus. The will which was enslaved, is set free to be able to now believe in Jesus. And Paul talks about the difference between a man who was spiritually dead and one who is spiritually alive. When the gospel is preached to the former, he considers it a weak or foolish message (1 Cor. 1:22-23). But when the Holy Spirit works through that preaching and regenerates a man’s spirit, who in Paul’s terminology has been ‘called’, then he is able to accept Christ as the power of God and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). In 2 Corinthians Paul tells the Corinthians that they who were once spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:4) were ‘given’ the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ when God shined that light in to their hearts (2 Cor. 4:6). The regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is that moment in a man’s life, when the light of God shines in to the dark heart of a sinner. He is turned in to a repentant believer. It is a sovereign act of God and it is nothing short of a miracle! It is a supernatural event!

The Holy Spirit not only regenerates the dead spirit but also helps it to now persevere in the faith confession that it has made in Jesus Christ. A born-again man does not cease to experience the pulls and pressures of his sinful nature (1 Jn. 1:8). He is only set free from its bondage, so as to be able to now reject it and lean towards the desires brought by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16-17). The Holy Spirit regenerates the dead spirit and then woos it towards itself, to walk in the way of God that leads to eternal life. The Holy Spirit helps a man to keep his ways pure. In this world, young men and women who are being drawn to powerful temptations, they can find a constant guide and counsel in the Holy Spirit, for He is the applier of redemption bought on the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The Solution: Received through the disciplines

The Holy Spirit applies the redemption through the means of grace, especially the spiritual disciplines of the Word of God, Prayer and Fellowship. The very work of regenerating a man’s spirit is performed through the Word of God or the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

James 1:18 says “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be kind of the first fruits of his creatures

In more simpler terms, James believes that God has given us a born-again experience by ‘the word of truth’. So, a man is born again, when the word of truth or the Gospel is preached and the Holy Spirit works through it. The same idea is propagated by Peter also.

In 1 Pet. 1: 23 he says, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God”.

The Holy Spirit gives a man the born-again experience through the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), and by it also matures him in his faith. That is why in Jn. 16:13 it is written that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you in to all truth, for he will not speak of his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”.

The Holy Spirit also uses the spiritual discipline of prayer to sustain us in the spiritual battle that is being waged against spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:18). And this is the spiritual discipline that the Holy Spirit led Jesus in to, in the Garden of Gethsemane to overcome the Satanic temptation to by-pass the Cross. It is through this discipline he was able to fulfill the will of the Father (Mk. 14:36). What he understood about his own suffering from the scriptures (Mk. 8:31; 9:31), he found the strength to do it in the discipline of prayer. And that is how the Holy Spirit works. He works in human lives through a matrix of spiritual disciplines in order to finish the good work begun in them at the Cross. That is what we see in the life of the first century church also. A church which is devoted to the disciplines of the Spirit (Acts 2:42). Especially the apostles of Christ, who led the way by saying, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The drastic action taken by God in their lives by crucifying Christ, is taken to completion by the Holy Spirit through the spiritual disciplines.

The Cross, the Spirit and the spiritual disciplines transformed the lives of the floundering apostles found in the Gospel of Mark. From the beginning to the end it was the sovereign initiative of God. But it does not leave us to be passive in any way. We have been called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling without forgetting that it is God who works in us to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). Therefore, let us plead for the Grace of God which was bought on the Cross, for ourselves and for our loved ones. Let us be thankful for the Holy Spirit and submit to His desires, which call us to read the word, pray, fellowship and to engage in every other spiritual discipline that plays a role in leading us to eternal life.

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