I believe there is a gross error present within the church. What is that error? It is the “spiritualizing” of different passages of the New Testament.
Why do I say this is a gross error? I do so because that spiritualization then gives rise to teachings in and from the church that are not part of the gospel message, but actually find their origin in religion. When this happens, it not only opens the door to attaching the teachings of religion to the gospel, it actually paves the path.
From being trained to be what is called a “Biblical Theologian,” it was drilled into my head that a text could not be made to say something different than what the author was actually saying and any application must remain true to what was actually being said. “Spiritualizing” a text is akin to changing what the author was truly saying in the first place which is wrong. To then create an application or teaching from that “spiritualization” is piling on.
I have often wondered if this type of thing has arisen from the desire to find and the teaching that there must be some deeper hidden spiritual meaning behind every word or phrase in the Bible.
And this desire is what has led to the “invasion” of religion and its tenets/teachings into the gospel message.
Let me give an example. The teaching of “dying to/denying self.” Dying to or denying self is actually a practice of the Old Covenant and religion. It is not part of the gospel message, but through spiritualizing some passages in the New Testament, it is brought into the gospel message. Let me explain.
There are two main passages that are used to support this teaching, both of which are spiritualized in order to make this teaching plausible.
Luke 9:23-24: Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his soul/life shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul/life for my sake, this one shall save it.”
Through the spiritualization of this passage, Jesus is now made out to be saying that, in order to follow him, one must deny himself pleasures and desires in this life in order to live a disciplined life, one that’s worthy of Jesus. The teaching states that the only way to true self-fulfillment is through self-denial.
Is that truly what Jesus is saying here? No, it is not. Because of the use of the Greek word for “soul,” which was used for actual, physical life (in other words, actual breathing), Jesus is talking about a person’s physical life, not that person’s desires or wants or selfishness. What Jesus is actually saying is this: “If someone wants to follow me, s/he must be prepared every day to actually die physically because of following me. If you are not willing to do that, that you cannot follow me.”
When those hearing him heard the word, “cross,” the denial of self, this idea of a denial of desires or wants, did not enter their minds. What entered their minds is actual and literal physical death, even one of the most cruel ways of being put to death, which a death on a cross was.
Jesus was declaring to them here that in order to follow him, they must be willing to relinquish their right to actually continuing to breathe and anticipate that each day may just be the day in which that relinquishing becomes actual reality.
So, what Jesus is truly saying here does not support this idea/teaching of denial of self.
The second passage is 1 Corinthians 15:31 where Paul says, “I protest by the boasting in you, brothers, which I have in Christ Jesus, I die daily.”
The spiritualization of this text makes Paul out to be saying that he continues to die on a daily basis to his old nature and his own wants and desires. But is that truly what Paul is saying here? Once again, it is not.
The topic of this chapter is physical resurrection. The word construction that Paul uses truly means that he has a daily expectation of death, actual, literal, physical death because of following Christ. This daily anticipation of death does not deter him because he believes in the reality of the resurrection because of Christ’s resurrection, which was the first-fruits of the resurrection.
He further cements that this is what he means when in the following verse (verse 32), he says, “If after the manner of men I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Paul is saying that, because of the reality of the resurrection, he has no problem anticipating that that very day may be the day in which he is called to actually die for the name and cause of Christ.
The contrasting approach is doing it in what he calls the “manner of men.” This is without the reality of the resurrection. If he fought those beasts without the hope of physical resurrection, there is no reason to do so because he would be dead and stay dead forever. Therefore, it would be appropriate to do whatever was necessary to remain alive physically and get the most out of the days one has. Hence why he says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
So, what Paul is saying here does not support this idea of “denial of self” and its spiritual applications.
Now, why do I say this spiritualization actually gives rise to combining teaching of religion with the pure and true gospel? One of religion’s main teachings is that of the necessity of self-discipline, a denial of wants and desires, because there are two warring natures within a person. Religion teaches that it is necessary for a person, through being taught techniques, observances, and performing rituals, to deny this nature for the other one. One religion calls it the yin and the yang while another uses the picture of two “dogs” fighting for control inside of a person. The spiritualization of these two texts, with the resulting idea of the necessity of self-denial, brings this teaching into and connects it with the teaching of the gospel.
If the gospel is just a repackaging of the old or of religion, how is that good news? It’s not. In all actuality, the spiritualization of these two texts actually change what truly happened through the gospel. It does so, because if it is understood what truly happened through the gospel, then it would be realized that this teaching is not only necessary, it is false, so the nature of the gospel must be changed somehow in order to accommodate this teaching.
So, what is the true nature of the gospel? What truly happened in and through the gospel that made this teaching of “self-denial” unnecessary? What makes the gospel truly good news?
The gospel is truly good news because, through participating in the death of Christ through being crucified with him, the old nature is killed and removed. It could not be reformed or “managed” into righteousness; it had to be killed. Then, through also participating in the resurrection of Christ to walk in newness of life just as Christ did, we are given a new nature as our one and only nature. We are made new creations and through Christ being made to be sin, we who believe have become the righteousness of God in Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
Paul taught that through Christ we now have a new nature, that of Christ, and that new nature is our one and only true nature. Because of this, there is no need for religious laws or practices or techniques which are designed to manage and regulate the old nature because it is dead and the new nature has no need of them.
God is not still practicing “sin-management” and “behavior-modification” like He did in the Old Covenant. He dealt with sin once and for all through Christ. If He still felt that “sin-management” and “behavior-modification” were still necessary, then what He did through Christ wasn’t sufficient. God would actually be making Christ’s sacrifice common, which He just would not do. And since He wouldn’t go there and do that, neither will I. Therefore, I reject this spiritualized teaching of and the need for self-denial as necessary for the Christian.
I believe the biggest problem in the church and for many Christians today is that they do not truly realize who and what they are. They do not realize their true identity and true nature. If they did, they would realize that the concept of self-denial is unnecessary because of having the nature of Christ.
What must happen is that Christians must truly realize who and what they are – the adopted sons and daughters of the living and true God, having the nature of Christ as their one true and only nature. They must change how they think and how they view themselves. This is the reason why Paul says in Romans 12:2, “And do not be fashioned according to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and well-pleasing and perfect.” Being fashioned according to this age is thinking through a “religious” mindset, with all its need for rules and regulations and behavior modification techniques and ways of dealing with that old sinful nature. But being renewed in the mind means that we now see ourselves as God has now made us to be. That is where our focus lies, and when we make that change, we move deeper into realizing and experiencing in reality what God has already made us to be through Christ.
Through a combination of things to which I have been exposed, I believe that one of the things God has given me to do is to expose those teachings within the church that actually go against what the gospel truly teaches.
As Paul encourages his brothers and sisters in Philippi, I will strive for THE faith of the gospel and teach against anything that taints that faith.