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Attempts to measure spiritual growth by constantly seeking the next big breakthrough have left many Christians disillusioned. Another approach to spiritual growth is a renewed appreciation for the commonplace.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) about his book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014).
Dr. Horton says, “CNN will not be showing up at a church that is simply trusting God to do extraordinary things through this ordinary means of grace delivered by ordinary servants. But God will. Week after week.”
[See all of Michael Horton’s books in the Bible Gateway Store]
Michael Horton: As Paul tells Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Tim. 6:6). Contentment is the summons to realize and accept our place in Christ and his body—and more broadly, our place in the gift exchange in society through common grace. This cuts off at the root the discontentment—ambition—to change our station in life not only in the direction of prosperity, but also in a self-imposed poverty. This is what Paul himself exemplified and spoke of in his ministry (Phil. 4:12-13).
As we are brought into God’s extraordinary kingdom through ordinary means, we are remade, no longer fashioned as competitors for commodities in a world of scarce resources, but as co-sharers with Christ in the circulation of gifts that flows outward from its source without running out. Contentment in godliness is great gain because it signifies the heavenly blessings which God has already blessed us with in Christ (Eph. 1:3-4). This eternal joy can never be taken from God’s people. Therefore ambition, restlessness, and avarice can be put away for the first time as we rest more and more in the work of the Son of God.
How are we not being true to Scripture if we’re not creating “sustainable faith and discipleship in a radical, restless world”?
Michael Horton: Our form of discipleship must be taken from Scripture itself. If we fail to see how the form and content of discipleship belong together, we will fail to prepare people for their ordinary experiences in this world. We will fail in handing down a faith that can actually face the waves of the world, the tides of personal despair, and the fiery darts of the devil. And yet, the more deeply rooted we are in the Word of God, the more our witness will be authentic and imbued with conviction. However, the power of God unto salvation is not our passion for God, but the passion he has exhibited toward us sinners by sending his own Son to redeem us. Our churches and families need to desperately recover the Scripture’s picture of discipleship in actual practice.
Christians must regain this story in order to keep their hand fixed on the plow. Our expectations must be realigned to realize this life is not as good as it gets. There are many wondrous blessings we do have now, but what we see now is only a preview of the coming attraction, when sin and death will be done away with and victory will be seen covering the earth, when the entire cosmos becomes the sanctuary of God. Christians must return to the great story that has its fulfillment in life after death, so we may live and die well in the light of our extraordinary hope that enables us to embrace the ordinary lives God gives us here and now.
How is the “ordinary” reflected in the fruit of the Spirit?
Michael Horton: Everything today must be quick and easy, because that is how the world seems to operate. Yet, the key to maturity is time and community. Discernment and godly wisdom develop in a community that spans generations. The church is called to be this place where the Spirit uses normal patterns and rhythms of the Christian life in a community, so that we may bear fruit like a well-watered tree. Despite common appearances, the church is the place where God’s new creation is coming into existence and being sustained by the Spirit like a great vineyard.
The Spirit cultivates and builds God’s kingdom through very ordinary means. The Lord speaks to our hearts through the law and gospel each Lord’s Day, convicting us of sin and renewing our faith in Christ. The Spirit throws down our man-made divisions and attempts at earning a right standing before him as we hear his word. Our God does not force us into his kingdom kicking and screaming. Rather, he sweetly woos our hearts by his lavish generosity and grace in his Son. He renews a right spirit within us, so we turn and delight in the law of the Lord, according to the grace that is in his Son and by the power of his Spirit. He establishes our faith through teaching and catechesis, so we may come to know the parts we play in his great drama of redemption. The sacraments are the ordained signs of this covenant meeting place of God with men and women, where he sanctifies us and sets us apart for holy callings, preparing us even now for the resurrection. In prayer we learn to submit our wills to God and conform our thoughts to our Lord and Savior, continually praying “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Through such ordinary means of preaching and sacraments the Spirit unites us more and more with Christ and his body. We grow to see each other more highly than ourselves as Christ’s sacrificial love is formed in us by the Spirit. Our needs become aligned through this slow and steady process with God’s kingdom. Through these intentional, structured social practices in the covenant community we come to bear the fruit of Christ’s work in our bodies. All of these things take time, patience, self-control, hard work, love, gentleness, peace, kindness, and goodness. As we practice these virtues in God’s church, the Spirit forms them in us, making them second nature.
What do you mean, “the call to excellence is useless by itself”?
Michael Horton: Excellence is to go over and above the call of duty. But to what end? It becomes a vice or virtue depending upon its ultimate orientation—the glory of God or the glory of man. St. Augustine defined sin as the state of being ‘curved in on ourselves’; the state of continually making how we think, feel, and desire the ultimate priority. We need to love again, to invest our time into something greater than our schemes. We have this worthy object: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
The call to excellence is useless by itself because all it will do is encourage this selfward curvature. We must be given a story and identity that takes us out of our self-infatuation and turns our desires to God by receiving the gift of salvation in Christ, and out towards our neighbors whom God loves. By Christ’s divine power, he has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Pet. 1:3). True excellence, therefore, must be defined by magnifying the name of God in our daily lives, serving others in love, and must be cultivated in communities where we are formed through the Spirit by the preaching of the Word and participation in the Sacrament together with other generations.
Are we reading the Bible wrongly—especially the Old Testament—when we highlight so-called “heroes of the faith”?
Michael Horton: When we consider this question, we must ask how specifically we are seeing these saints as heroes. It is not that we don’t need heroes for our sons and daughters. The difficulty arises when we read the Old Testament stories as Aesop’s Fables, filled with moral examples, who only teach us how to be better people. This kind of reading tends to reduce even Christ to the Ultimate Hero, when what he means to us and for us is so much greater than that.
The Old Testament itself paints a picture of sinners who themselves need a Savior as much as the rest of us. Even when they act in ways that foreshadow Christ, or believe in the promises of God, it is ultimately Christ who saves and allows his people to overcome the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. When Paul tells the Corinthians that these stories were written for their example, he reminds them of the unbelieving generation in the desert and warns us against unbelief (1 Cor. 10). They are examples to us of faith, but specifically a faith in a Christ, who doesn’t merely provide an example for godly living, but is God in the flesh, descended to earth to redeem us from death, hell, and sin. If this is our guide, we cannot go wrong.
What should the church’s goal be of the ministry of the Word?
Michael Horton: The ministry of the Word is essential to the mission of the church and to the creation of faith in the world. Paul reminds us that, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14-17).
In these verses, Paul describes the mission of the church and its ministry, to proclaim Christ in all things. Even Christians need the ministry of the Word to constantly tell them this good news. It is not something we just “get” at the beginning of the Christian life. No, the gospel keeps our eyes fixed on Christ, while the law tells us how to run the race. For as Paul states in the thematic section of Romans 1, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16-17).
We never graduate from faith in this simple, yet profound, gospel of grace. It is something we always move deeper in and grow by. It is through such a simple ministry of the Word that God’s people are redeemed and brought into the very light and life of the triune God. Through such a ministry, indeed in the entire church service, God’s people are trained in the faith and enabled to persevere in trials and tribulations which will undoubtedly come to ordinary disciples of Christ. This ministry was established so we might live and die well in the Lord.
How have the values of free enterprise influenced the gospel?
Michael Horton: In consumer-based cultures, Christians enter into scores of contracts, from credit cards to mortgages to employment. While there is nothing sinful about contracts or free enterprise, a problem arises when we allow contractual (and consumeristic) thinking to expand into all areas of life, leaving little room for God’s ordinary means of grace. The gospel is polluted when we allow culture to provide the paradigm for the Christian’s life and practice. When we are unaware of how Scripture speaks to the method of grace as well as its message, we will unknowingly adopt a method that distorts the gospel and harms the mission of the church.
For example, our society trains us to think of marriage as a contractual arrangement. If one party fails to fulfill his or her end, the contract is null and void. Increasingly children are raised in a contractual environment. When contractual thinking dominates our horizon, we can even make Jesus or the church an asset we think we can manage. Jesus and spirituality can easily become therapies that merely help us cope with life. They can serve us if we chose him over other service providers. We even talk about “making Jesus my personal Lord and Savior,” as if we could make him anything!
The good news is the opposite of this contractual approach to life. The good news is that Jesus is the only Lord and Savior. It is not what we make him, but what he has made us—coheirs of his estate—that the gospel proclaims. The gospel fuels our ordinary discipleship precisely because it is realistic and God-ordained. The gospel alone keeps our eyes fixed on Christ, and counteracts our tendency to add our own doctrines and commands, which in the end burn us out and beat us down.
Explain what the ordinary ministry of the church should be.
Michael Horton: The ministry of the church should orient itself along the commission given by her Lord and Savior, rather than surrender itself to every wind of marketing doctrine and niche strategy. God’s ecosystem for faith takes time and the proper soil for the seeds to grow. For centuries, believers were raised with prayer, singing, instruction and Bible reading with the family each morning and evening. The Reformers and their spiritual heirs not only wrote catechisms for this purpose, but books with each day’s readings, prayers, and songs. They knew that, as central as it was, that the weekly public ministry needed to be supplemented and supported by daily habits. These public and private disciplines cohered and enabled Christians to persevere in their pagan context. This was the ordinary ministry of the church from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day and everything between. I find my identity, faith and practice, in Christ together with his body. The church is not just where disciples go; it’s the place where disciples are made.
The church is not simply an institution with systematic theology, but an organism with a form of life. Recall the ordinary weekly ministry in Acts 2: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:41-42). These activities not merely being described as a good idea concerning Christian practice; rather, this is the norm for normal churches established by the apostles.
Bio: Michael Horton is the author of over 30 books and host of the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio program. He’s the professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California and the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. A popular blogger and sought-after lecturer, he resides in Escondido, California with his wife and children.