The Problem of Free Will

John 1:12, John 8:31-38

In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Martin Luther moves from the problem of good works to the nature of the human will.

A keystone of reformation theology is the understanding that the human will after the fall is no longer neutral.  It is corrupted, bent in on itself so that the natural person cannot chose the Good, but can only do what the sinful nature does which is to sin.  Hence, the will is bound.  It is not forced to sin, but its nature is corrupted so that it cannot do otherwise.  It is as Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin”(John 8:35). Of course, if the Son sets one free, they are free indeed the next verse concludes.

Luther’s thesis states: (#13)

Free will after the fall, exists in name only and as long as it does what it is able to do commits a deadly sin.

What Luther is saying here is that because all have sinned, all people in their natural state are slaves to sin and as such can do nothing but sin.  It is not that we are forced to sin, but that our will is bound and cannot do otherwise.  In other words, every one of our actions have an independent sinful bent to them.  Our independence from God as natural human beings is the root source of all sin.  As the scripture says: “Everything that does not proceed from faith is sin.”  (Rom 14:23) Human unbelief is the root of sin and so for the natural man, everything than he thinks or does is tainted with a selfish, sinful attitude for which he stands condemned.

We must remember of course that such discussions of the will are limited to those things, which Luther says lie “above us” .  With reference to the things of God, who is above us, our will is indeed bound.  However, with reference to things “below us”, such as what to have for supper, whom to marry, and what church to attend, these things are “below us” and as to such creaturely pursuits, we do have freedom of will.  But not towards the things of God.  We are simply not able to choose the Good.

Now, some would argue that in the state of innocence before the fall that Adam and Eve had a morally neutral will, in that they were free to do good or to sin.  After the fall, they became unable not to sin because their will was now bent in on itself and bound, their natures being thus corrupted.  Those in Christ Jesus, are recreated, filled with the Holy Spirit and are released from this binding of the will and are able now to chose to do good, but are also free to sin should they fail to put to death that sin that dwells within, the old self inherited from Adam and Eve.

Luther, however, introduces another nuance to the concept of human will by proposing that it has never had an active capacity to do good, but only a passive capacity.  The analogy of water helps here.  Water has a passive capacity for heat.  It can be heated by an external force, but it has no active capacity to heat itself.  In the same way, even in the state of innocence, the human will had no active capacity to choose good, but only a passive capacity.  Because we are completely contingent creatures, we can only do good to the extent that we are empowered toward the good by the God who alone is Good.  As long as Adam and Eve trusted completely in God and took their cues from God they were maintained by God in that state of innocence. This was completely passive on their part, “God working in them to will and to work for His good purpose” (Phil 2:12).  Any active move of the will in an independent direction turns out to be evil.  In actively pursuing another “good” (i.e. why not be like God?), they actually embrace evil.  So any active capacity that the human will has always moves towards evil.  After the fall, the relationship with God is severed and Adam and Eve’s will is now isolated even further from God.  Wishing to be independent of God, their rebellion corrupted their link to the Good, binding their will so that they become slaves of sin.   Because their will is now severed from God, there is nothing they can do to even prepare themselves for that which God alone must do in them.

Now Theologians of Glory, find such a stance repulsive.  Surely, this is much too pessimistic, they say.  Surely, there must be in us some capacity, ever so small perhaps, to prepare ourselves to receive grace.  But by insisting that we must have even a tiny capacity to actively seek the Good, this stance violates the scripture which says “There is no one righteous, not even one… there is no one that seeks for God.” (Rom 3:10)  In fact, any human endeavor to do good apart from the God who is good, invariably leads to evil.  Even in works of civil righteousness which benefit humanity, their performance as “good works” done apart form faith, draw us further from the truth that we are sinners to the core.  These “good works” become a defense mechanism against God and against the gospel, and in the realm of eternity actually hurt us.

So if our will is naturally incapable of choosing the Good and we are slaves to sin, dead in our trespasses, how is it that so many of our Evangelistic programs are predicated on people making a choice for Christ.

I am thinking of the“decision for Christ”language that is so prevalent in Evangelical circles.  Is it really true that we become believers by an exercise of our will, thereby making a “decision for Christ”?   If we are really saved by grace alone by faith alone, and if faith is really a gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8), then what part if any does our will play in salvation?

According to Luther, it plays zero part.  We are not saved in any measure by an exercise of our will, nor can our will even prepare us for grace.

The proof  is in John 1 12-13.  “ But to all that did receive him, who believed in his name,  he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.”

The Theologian of the Cross, recognizes that Luther is right and that the will is indeed incapable of doing any good apart from God.  What sort of “good” could we do?  Making up our own minds about what is really good is the essence of original sin.  The Nazi death camps were a culturally driven humanistic attempt to will that a German Reich, and a world, without Jews was “good”.  The depths of depravity that the human will is capable of knows no bounds. .     God must of necessity operate on the human heart by first putting to death the will.  Only in dying is there rebirth.  So what is to be done?  The sinner must cast himself on the mercy of God by humbling himself and praying for saving grace.  This is the main purpose of the law to convict of sin, so that the sinner casts himself on the mercy of God.  The law effects fear and wrath, but grace effects hope and mercy.

Regeneration then is that entirely alien act of God upon the sinner that kills the will and recreates it so that it now has a passive capacity energized by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ.   God must of necessity operate on the human heart by first putting to death the will.  Only in dying is there rebirth.  Only after a death can there be a resurrection.  That is how God works.  He makes a person a sinner so that He can make him righteous.

We participate in this death by complete surrender and repentance.   We participate in this new life by exercising the faith given us, becoming again those continent beings that take their life from God alone.  ”I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20)

The only “decision” that I can ever make for Christ is a subsequent one, a decision to give my will to now be ruled by Him.  But that can only happen after the rebirth, never before.  That‘s what the cross does.  That is how God works.  The Theologian of Glory does not like it because there is zero room for the human will seeking the Good.

But that is why God alone gets the glory.  The Son has to set you free.  I cannot will that for another or even for myself. Each one must be born of God.

How it happens and when and why it happens is a divine mystery that only God has access to.  We can only stand back and marvel.  And when it happens to us, we are overcome with gratitude and joy…and we worship in Spirit and in Truth!



Luther’s Theology of the Cross

1 Cor. 1: 17-31

In this passage, we have set against one another, the wisdom of the world and the word of the cross.    We have here two competing theologies, two different ways of looking at life and at God. Martin Luther called these the Theology of Glory vs the Theology of the Cross.

The Theology of Glory, is naturally attractive, because it is based upon human wisdom, philosophy and effort.  We as people, always like to look good, to take pride in out endeavors and be seen as successful.  Even in the church, where we ought to see the theology of the cross articulated faithfully, we very often hear the Theology of Glory disguised in Christian language.

Now, perhaps we should define exactly what I mean by these terms.  The theology of Glory refers to every human way of approaching God apart from the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is the way of every other religious system and  even many (so called) Christian systems as well.  It is based on the premise that human beings are really not all that bad, and by willing and working, we can impress God, so that God will reward us with everlasting life.   What we really need is just a little bit of help, a little grace, along the way.  What Jesus provides for us, by dying on the cross is that freedom from sin, and that extra help in time of need.  He gets us up over the hump.  He lifts us up when we are down.  His grace can be appropriated by faith, (like a shot in the arm) as needed so that we can be successful human beings.  We just need to make a decision for Him and move ahead to the glorious path that He has laid out for us, a path laced with health, prosperity, beauty and happiness. This is the gospel of the wonderful life. Just come to Jesus and He will give you a wonderful life.

This theological system embraces the power of positive thinking, it embraces philosophy, psychology, ethics, morality, strength and wisdom.    It embraces the best that human beings have to offer.  It sounds so good, so very, very good, so pleasing to the eye, to the intellect, to the heart.  It promises to lift us up to God.  But, it is not the way of the cross.  In fact, those who embrace this theology are actually enemies of the cross of Jesus Christ.  Phil 3:18-19. This theology embraces the folly of those who tried to build the tower of Babel, a way to reach the heavens, a way to make a name for themselves.  Those who embrace it become theologians of Glory, and end up calling what is actually good, evil and what is actually evil, good.  It is a deadly sin, the deadliest, because it takes us away from the way God actually works, which is through the cross.

The Apostle Paul describes it here in this passage as the plausible and lofty words of the wisdom of this age (v.6).  In fact he reminds the readers that when he first came to them, that it was much fear and trembling (v. 3) for he had decides in advance that he would “know nothing among them, except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2).

Why is Paul in fear and trembling?  He has been sent by God to preach the gospel (v 17).  It is not because of his audience so much as it is fear and trembling before God that he would be faithful to the message.  He wants to avoid the self-confidence of the wise, learned and eloquent.  Paul knows exactly where all his learning and law keeping got him.  It got him to the place where he was an enemy of the cross, a persecutor of Jesus Christ and His people. He wants to avoid the trap of boasting and self -confidence in his own ability and in his own work.

Martin Luther writes

To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work.  But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself  in one’s own works, and to adore oneself as an idol.  He who is self-confident and without fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner.  For if he had fear, he would not be self-confident, for this reason, he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.”  

So Paul fears that if he wows the crowds with his knowledge and eloquence, then the word of the cross, which is the real power of God will be stripped of its transforming power. (v.17)

For Paul, the message he has been sent to deliver is “the word of the cross” and it is “the power of God”(v 18).  But it is such power only to those who are being saved through it.  It is dynamite (dumamos)  to those who are being delivered from the domain of sin and Satan and lifted into the Kingdom of light.  Through it, they are made new creations in Christ. But to those who are unchanged, those of the world, it is foolishness (mohriah).

What is this word of the cross?  It is the pure gospel.  It presents the suffering Son of God, rejected, beaten and crucified by the religious elite of the day so that the best that humanity can offer is exposed. What is the best that human wisdom can do when confronted by God himself in the flesh? All they can do is crucify. That is the best that the theology of glory can do.  It will dismiss the suffering Son and hang onto its morality  and its “good works” upon which its hopes are based.

So what I hope to do in these next few posts, is to have a closer look at the relationship between the law of God, good works, human will, and the love of God in the light of the Cross.

Our guide will be ancient document, Martin Luther’s Heidelburg disputation of 1512. Although this work is not as well know as his 95 theses, it is a concise articulation of what a theologian of the cross actually does.  It consist of 28 theses that move from examining the problem of good works (theses 1-12), the problem of the will (13-18), the great divide between these two theologies (19-24) and God’s work in us, the righteousness of faith (25-28). It was at Heidelberg that Luther’s audience included no less that six future reformers who collectively fanned the flames of the reformation.

My reason for doing this is that I have discovered that there is a prevailing tendency in any church as it becomes more and more successful to move away from its roots in the Cross into a Theology of Glory.  I found this tendency even in myself, and so I have developed a regular discipline of studying the theology of the cross in order to keep myself grounded in Christ’s work on the cross.  This is the essence of a true Christian theology.  As Luther is famous for saying “the cross alone is our theology”

We will get started by looking at Thesis # 1.

 Thesis 1. The law of God, the most salutatory doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on the way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.

 Thesis 2.  Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with aid of natural precepts , so to speak, lead to that end.

 Why is the law (and human effort) seen in such a negative light by the reformers? (in contrast to the Psalms, ex. Ps. 19, Ps 119)

We must remember that when Luther refers to the law, he is referring to the moral law of God, primarily the ten commandments.  He is not using the law as the Psalmist uses the work “law” to describe the collective instruction and the testimonies of God.  The word of God, the testimonies of God, the precepts of God are praises in the Psalms as that which bring life and sweetness and direction.

The reason was that the moral law was never intended to be a means of righteousness. It was never intended as a list of “to do’s” that would earn us favor with God. It was never intended to isolate people from God in independence and pride. Those who work hard at keeping the law become self confident and proud of their accomplishments.  They become moralists.  They look down on those who cannot do likewise.  These are the Pharisees, who would rather kill the Son of God than admit that they are idolaters of law.  And so the law keeps them from seeing what is really going on at the cross.   It isolates them from the way of salvation.  Their “good works” become evil and take them straight to hell.  The law becomes the “written code that kills” (2 Cor 3:6)

All of this is exposed by the cross, where a righteousness apart from the law is revealed. This righteousness is not earned, but bestowed.  It is an alien righteousness. It comes from outside of us.  It is the righteousness of the Son of God, who exchanges it for our sin and our shame

at the cross.   On the cross, we see “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)  We see the power of God at work in suffering and death.  The cross demands that we enter into this suffering and death.  We are called to wrestle much with our conscience and with God and experience our own death.  We die with Him, so that something new is born in us.  We are born from above (anothen).  “If anyone is in Christ – a New creation” (2 Cor 5:17)

The full extent of the human disease, sin, is fully revealed by the cure…. the cross.

Now this is the power of God to those who are being saved by it.  It is God’s alien work.. putting us to death, so that something new might spring to life.  It is the death of Christ and His resurrection to a different sort of life, an everlasting life.  If you want this life, you must allow Him to do it to you,  You must allow Him to crucify you.

Paul writes: Galatians 2:20  I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Now to the world, and the theologian of Glory, this is going too far.  It is foolishness.   They say:  Let us find a role for the cross in our scheme of religious duties.  Let us say that Christ’s death provides that saving grace that helps us, that overcome the deficit, so that we can move onward and upward to God.  And so in doing so, they rob the cross of its power and the substitute their own schemes.  They take the suffering and death of the cross and call it evil.  I have heard it described as “divine child abuse”.  And so these theologians end up calling that which is very very good… evil. And the evil of their law and their religious works, they call good.  And according to Luther, they do not deserve to be called theologians at all. (theses 19 & 20).

And so the cross becomes a stumbling block to Jews (cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree) Deut 21:23  and foolishness to Greeks.  (vs. 24).. but it is actually the power of God and the wisdom of God.  It is how God works.  It is how he wants to be known by us.

And so this “foolishness” of God is shown to be infinitely superior to the wisdom of man. It is the power of God unto salvation. We must never lose sight of the essentials of the Christian life.  And centered in these essentials is the “foolishness” of the cross.. which turns out to be the wisdom of God and the power of God.

It is also how he calls us to live.

Two Kinds of Righteousness – Part B

Luther’s sermon and tract refers to the first kind of righteousness as an alien righteousness as it originates outside of the believer and is imputed through repentance, faith and baptism into Christ. It is set opposite original sin, which is imputed to all humans through descent from Adam. As in Adam, we are all sinners, so in Christ believers are all seen as righteous. This alien righteousness is the root of the second kind of righteousness which Luther calls proper righteousness.

Proper righteousness is that righteousness, which is exhibited by good works of the Christian motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit and hence is the fruit of alien righteousness, which is its root. As Luther says, “it is not that we alone work it, but that we work with that first and alien righteousness.”   Because Christ is “in us”, we act out in the world that which Christ acts in us.   It is proper in that only through faith in Christ are good works truly “good”, because He alone is “good”. This is sanctification, God working in and through those who are his.

Hence philanthropic good works of the unbeliever are excluded. For apart from faith, no one can rightly fulfill God’s law, as it is only through faith in Christ alone that we are rightly related to God.   The moralist who lacks faith, breaks the first commandment, trusting in his good works as a means of impressing God, yet is guilty of violating the first requirement that God has which is to believe in the one whom he has sent. (John 6:29)

This proper righteousness consist of three aspects, self-denial towards self, love towards neighbor and humility and respect (fear) towards God.   As Luther says “it hates itself and loves neighbor; it does not seek its own good but that of another.” In this sense it “crucifies the flesh” and “works love”.   This aspect of our sanctification is most neglected in modern times. We do not hear many sermons on self-denial and crucifying the flesh. Rather the reverse is true today. We hear of Christians demanding their rights with respect to the flesh.   This is most evident with respect to sexuality, where Christians demand that the church accommodate their individual sexual tastes and bless their living out whatever it is they please with regard to the flesh. Yet, Luther here reminds the faithful that the call of Christ is the call to deny oneself and follow, not to indulge and enjoy.   The second aspect of love toward neighbor applies to friend and foe alike. We are called to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. Only one in Christ can do this, for it is entirely unnatural to love an enemy. It is entirely unnatural to take on another person’s shame as if that shame were your own.

Yet this is what Luther posits. He argues that each person should “conduct himself as if his neighbors weakness, sin and foolishness were his very own”. In the same way that Jesus emptied himself of divinity and took on human weakness, sin and shame, so the believer is called to empty himself of self and take on the neighbor’s shame, ministering to him in love, being Christ to him.

Only in this way does the Christian minister to the world and exemplify humility and awe towards God.

The words of Jesus empower us: “As the Father sent me, so send I you”,  Amen.


Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness Part A


In honour of the 500 year anniversary year of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, I thought I would end my long posting sabbatical with a series of blogs summarizing some of his profound theology.

While Luther remains a controversial figure in church circles, largely due to his late-in-life writings against the Jews of his day, there can be no doubt of his amazing insights into the depths of Christian theology, an insight which, magnified by the printing press and his tracts, set a fire through the church in Germany that sparked the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago.

A highlight of our trip to Wittenberg last April was being able to walk the streets that he walked, worship in the church that he preached in and stroll through the grounds of the university where his theology was debated and solidified.

In Luther’s Sermon and Tract, Two Kinds of Righteousness, he identifies two kinds of Christian righteousness, which correspond to the two kinds of sin. The first is what he calls alien rightesouness, alien because it comes from outside the believer and is imputed to the believer through faith in Christ. It is Christ’s righteousness, which becomes ours upon our repentance and exercise the gift of faith and baptism.   We would relate this to justification, that is, our righted relationship with God through faith in Christ. In this great exchange, our sin and the wrath we deserve because of it is placed on Christ, at the cross and his righteousness is imputed to us, so it is as if we had never sinned. When the Father looks at us, he sees us just as righteous as his Son. Thus we can say with Luther “Mine are Christ’s living, doing and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as He did.”   This alien righteousness is placed opposite original sin, that sin that we have had imputed to us through Adam. Just as Adam’s sin has become ours by virtue of the human race, apart from what we have done, so Christ’s righteousness becomes ours apart from any work. Thus we can say with the Apostle Paul of Christ in 1 Cor. 30, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, and sanctification and redemption.”

It is interesting that Luther states that this righteousness is not instilled all at once, but that it begins, makes progress and is finally perfected at death. This is where conservative theologians would likely take exception. They would say, either we have Christ’s righteousness fully or we have it not. A woman cannot be partly pregnant. Yet for all practical purposes the result is the same for Luther would say that it is fully instilled upon death.   Hence Luther sees an element of continual sanctification in the application of this alien righteousness. Certainly as the believer progresses he or she become more aware of this imputed righteousness, having full confidence at death.

It is because of this alien righteousness, alien because it is not our own that, we bow in worship before the Father, cherishing the Son in the power of the Spirit. And we can say with Paul that “it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Meeting the Resurrected Jesus


Human sin and contradiction lead to the vilest of tragedies.  None of these can compare to the crucifixion of the Son of God at the hands of the religious elite of Israel, the very people to whom Christ was sent and who witnessed His many signs.  For his followers, the crucifixion was also the end of their hopes for a free and revived Israel.  As their collective and individual worlds collapsed, they found themselves locked in fear, in grief and perplexity.

But, it was a woman who came to the tomb first that resurrection morning.  Mary Magdalene did not come to see the resurrected Christ but to embalm his body.  She came still clinging to the physical Jesus, the one she had seen crucified, pierced and pronounced dead.  She had seen Him die and came to honour His memory.  Encountering the empty tomb did not quicken faith in her, but led her to believe that His body had been stolen.  As she ran back to tell the other disciples, she was overwhelmed with a sense of loss.

The rest of the disciples are hunkered down in fear behind locked doors, and it is John and Peter who run to the tomb and see the grave-clothes.  John believes yet Peter is perplexed, yet even John’s faith is incomplete.

But Mary, stays at the tomb, her last connection with the physical Jesus and weeps.  God in all His grace, allows her to see two angels who question her grief and prepare her for what is to come.  It is at this point that Jesus reveals Himself to Mary, although she does not recognize Him at first.  Once she does, her impulse is, understandably, to cling to Him.  But the resurrected Jesus now has a glorified body and she is not to relate to Him physically but in a new way.   She is commissioned as the first Apostle, sent to proclaim the resurrection to the other disciples.  How her heart must have throbbed with joy, expectation, and hope.  Jesus has met her in her grief and she believes.

The rest of the disciples, save Thomas, see Jesus that night and He stands in their midst.  He pronounces peace to them and commissions them in continuity with His own mission.  As the Father has sent Him, so He sends them.   He breathes on them and sends the Holy Spirit to empower and indwell.  He bestows the proclamation of the gospel and the declaration of forgiveness upon them. The torch of mission has been passed to them.

By Thomas is not present and when he hears, refuses to believe.  He is trusting in what He has seen and not in what He has heard.   But Jesus, in all His grace, meets Thomas at his need.  A week later He invites the disciple to place his fingers into the wounds of crucifixion.  Thomas falls down and believes exclaiming “My Lord and my God!”  At last he believes.

Jesus then pronounces a blessing on all those who unlike Thomas, will believe without seeing Him.   Ultimately the gospel is oral.  It is proclaimed.  It is also aural, it must be heard.  We must not rely on our eyes but our ears.  It is not seen but heard.  Faith is quickened by hearing the word of God, through the Holy Spirit.

Yet Jesus is intensely personal.  He meets each of us in our own need.

Believe it: He is Risen!

Towards the Last Passover


Holy Week is haunting.  I try to put myself in the place of Jesus, who ever since the resurrection of Lazarus is more famous, and infamous,  than ever.  There is the celebration dinner thrown for him by Mary, Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised to life after four days of death.  Just six days before the Passover, the house is packed for the news has gone viral.  It is at this meal that Mary takes that pound of pure nard and pours it over Jesus feet, filling the room with its sweet fragrance.  She wipes his feet with her hair as an act of pure devotion; costly, intensely personal mixed with a sadness born of insight.  Judas gives her a hard time “Why this waste?”, he scorns.  But Jesus rebukes him and reminds the whole house that this anointing is for his burial, which is near.  For “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  He continues: “now is the judgment of this world, now is the ruler of this world cast out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  

Jesus has set his face “like flint” to go to Jerusalem one last time, for one last Passover, where he will be the sacrificial Lamb.  The forces of evil coalesce and Jesus, in those last few days shifts his focus to his disciples.  “You are my friends” he says, for I am about to lay down my life for you.  There is no greater love than for  someone to lay down his life for his friends.

And then there is that final Passover meal.  Have you ever tried to eat when you have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that something horrible is about to take place?  I cannot imagine it, but only wonder.  To die is one thing, but to know for certain that you are going to die is something else.  To walk towards death by crucifixion is too much for me to fathom.  But he does it.

Tomorrow night, our fellowship gathers for a Christian version of a Seder meal that will seek to re-enact that night.  We will try to enter into the spirit of it.  But that feeling in in the pit of my stomach will still be there.  


Lent – a Time for Fasting


The church has traditionally set aside the season of Lent, the forty days prior to the crucifixion as a time of self examination, repentance, self-denial and fasting. Self-denial is not a popular sell in our culture.  When I was doing my doctoral project, I developed a Spiritual Assessment Questionnaire that measured 38 different aspects of discipleship.  This was given to each of participants who volunteered to be part of my research project.  Of all the Spiritual disciplines, fasting and self-denial scored the rock bottom lowest of all the 38 categories. 

Fasting is refraining from eating for an agreed period of time. It is done for a specific spiritual purpose as a spiritual discipline. In fasting, I determine in my own heart before God to refrain from eating either completely or partially (certain foods) for a set time. Jesus assumed that His disciples would fast (see Mark 2:20). He also instructed His disciples to fast in secret (Matt. 6:16-18). Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness as He prepared Himself for ministry. (Matt. 4:1-2). John Wesley, the great evangelist of England stated that “The man that never fasts is no more on the way to heaven than the man who never prays.”[i] Wesley was not making fasting a requirement of salvation but was pointing out that one of the fruits of salvation is a life of self-denial and earnest wholehearted prayer, which ought to include regular fasting.

Why is fasting such a powerful spiritual discipline? When I fast, I release the hold of the physical over me. I deny my body that which is good (food) for a higher purpose. I also humble myself before God and declare by my actions that I am in desperate need. I acknowledge that I am too much tied to my senses and my appetites and I practice self-denial in order to draw near to God. The scriptures are full of examples of people of God fasting in times of distress, in times of seeking guidance, in times of great need. Moses fasted for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28). Queen Esther fasted with all the Jews when they were faced with certain destruction, just before she was to put her life on the line by going into the king (Esther 4:16). Daniel fasted for three weeks in order to understand the vision that he was given about the end times (Dan. 9:3).

When I fast for a specific purpose, be it guidance, healing, as a sign of repentance or sorrow for sin, or to plead for healing or for the salvation of someone, I come before God and show Him my earnestness by my self-denial. God takes notice when I do this. My physical hunger in fasting parallels my desperate hunger for God and His help. In the process, all my spiritual senses are honed and made more acute. I become more in tune with God and I allow the Holy Spirit to move me in profound ways.

In addition, fasting breaks the power of the flesh in me. The old man, that sinful-self is mortified with Spiritual power as I fast. In fasting I declare myself master over my body. I declare that I will not allow my bodily appetites to rule over me. Fasting ought not be legalistic, wherein someone else mandates it. Rather it ought to be as a purely voluntary act, with a specific purpose in mind that I lay before God in prayer. In this way, fasting and prayer go together. The time that I would have spent eating, I spend in prayer.  Fasting reminds me that I need God desperately. 

Perhaps this Lenten season, we should all take some time to experiment with this neglected discipline.

[i] John Wesley, “Sermons on Several Occasions” (Weslyan Conference Office. London, 1868), Vol. 3, Sermon 116, Section 14, P. 276.

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