God has given us means of grace and called us to the practice of certain spiritual disciplines with and within the community of faith, the church, to get us into the flow of his grace. When we take time to pray, put our hearts into worship, renew our minds through the study of God’s word privately and together with the church, the Spirit of God shows up to meet with us. In these times of fellowship and communion with God, God transforms our hearts and renews our minds; God heals our sin sick souls in order to renew us in his image.
A grandmother who had clung to her old bicycle from childhood was about to take it to the dump. A friend told her about a man who could restore it to be even better than new. She hesitated but decided to give it a go. She took the rusty old, broken down thing to the shop. The repairman worked wonders. The bike was better than new. And it brought great joy not only to the grandmother, but also her nine year old granddaughter. Like a master craftsmen that can save a jalopy from a junkyard and make it a showstopper and award-winner, God by his grace can not only renew our shine, he can also restore our engine so that we will run in the way of his commandments (Psalm 119:32).
God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, renews us, but we have to get ourselves to the repair shop and meet with the only one who can really fix us. We have to get into the flow of God’s grace by living in the means of grace through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prayer, fasting (training ourselves in self-denial by going without food, which helps us to gain self-control over our desires), Bible study, worship, and fellowship with other believers gets us in the flow.
In the early Methodist movement believers would meet together in small groups for more than just Bible study. They also met together to share how God was at work in their lives, to confess their sins to one another, to encourage each other, to pray for one another, all to help each become more like Jesus. They took the exhortation from Hebrews very seriously.
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ~ Hebrews 10:24-25 NRSV
In meeting with each other for this purpose, God himself also joined in the fellowship by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and worked wonders in them, among them, and through them.
All of these spiritual practices got them in the flow of God’s grace where they could receive the good things that God wants us to have. The goal of the practices are all geared toward believers being renewed in the image of God by putting off the old sinful habits of heart and life and putting on new habits of heart and life.
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. ~ Ephesians 4:22-24 NRSV
Sometimes you will hear people pit religion against a relationship with God. It is true that people can do religious practices without a real relationship with God. But religious practices such as prayer and fasting and attending church for worship weekly are not bad practices. They can be directed toward the wrong goal, but they are definitely good practices when directed toward the right goal. True religion should help us to grow in our relationship with God and with our neighbors. True religion should lead us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as we love our selves (Matthew 22:37-40). You couldn’t really have much of a friendship with another person if you never spent any time with them, talking to them and listening to them, could you? Attending church “religiously” to commune with God and fellowship with other believers also strengthens our friendship with God and our spiritual family; the church is our spiritual family.
Spiritual disciplines, which are religious practices, should be directed toward being renewed in the image of God, which is to be renewed in a holy love relationship with God and neighbor. We must remember that God’s grace is meant not only to flow to us to renew us, but also to flow through us so that we freely and fully share the blessing of God with the world. Our personal renewal is inextricably connected with the renewal of the whole world. John Wesley said all holiness (another way to talk about renewal in the image of God) is social holiness. That is all holiness is about relationships with others. First this includes our relationship with God, who is by nature and eternally social being as one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holiness is about love of God and neighbor. Through faith we participate in the loving fellowship of the Trinity and thereby are enabled to truly love each other. Renewal in the image of God is renewal in these holy relationships, and is central and essential as the goal of the means of grace and the practices of our faith. John Wesley put it this way:
Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul. ~ Sermon 44: On Original Sin
The more God’s blessing flows to us, the more God’s blessing will inevitably flow through us. According to the Bible the transformation of the world is tied to the transformation of humanity. The transformation of society through ministries of compassion and justice must flow through people whose hearts are being transformed by holy love, and whose minds are being renewed according to God’s holy law. We cannot truly love our neighbors if we do not first truly love God, and we cannot truly love God if we do not truly love our neighbors. The attempt to love neighbor apart from loving God is a twisted and distorted love. The attempt to make the world more just while ignoring our own need for God’s justification and righteousness in our own hearts and lives will be counterproductive at best. Works of compassion and justice in society should flow from human hearts being renewed in the love and righteousness of God.
In 1785 William Wilberforce had a radical conversion experience in England; he was born again. As a new creation in Christ he began to live differently, and developed an overwhelming concern for the wellbeing of others. Through relationships that he had with other evangelical Christians, Wilberforce became a leading abolitionist. He worked
tirelessly for many, many years to end the slave trade in England. It was a long-fought and incredibly hard battle with a mighty army of opposition. In 1791, just a few days before his own death, John Wesley wrote a letter of encouragement to Wilberforce. In it he wrote in part:
BALAM, February 24, 1791.
DEAR SIR, — Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, [‘Athanasius against the world.’] I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. . . .
Through the prayers and encouragement of countless people like John Wesley, and through gaining strength from God through the means of grace, William Wilberforce remained faithful in his struggle in the British parliament. After twenty years heading the campaign to abolish the slave trade, in 1807 Wilberforce finally saw the victory won with the passage of The Slave Trade Act. The blessing of God that flowed to him also flowed through him to bring the blessing of liberation to African slaves, who were all created in the image of God and many of whom were fellow Christians. The blessing of God that flowed to Wilberforce to renew him in God’s image also flowed through him in many other ways into society as well. Wilberforce also supported the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
When we get in the flow of God’s grace by living in the means of grace—by practicing spiritual disciplines, by praying faithfully, by fasting regularly, by renewing our minds to the word of God, and by attending worship at church weekly—God’s blessing will not only flow to us, it will also flow through us to bring blessing to others, and indeed to all creation. By transforming people like William Wilberforce, and people like you and me, God intends transformed people to transform the world. But we have to get into the flow.
For the Church, it’s the flow that started as Jesus’ first disciples devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14) after Jesus ascended into heaven. Then one day, shortly thereafter, just as Jesus had promised (Acts 1:8), they found themselves in the flow of God’s blessing that empowered them to begin the transformation of the world.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. ~ Acts 2:1-4 NRSV
Are you ready to get in or get back into the flow?