by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
“How we dedicated ourselves to God when we were made new through Christ I will explain, since it might seem to be unfair if I left this out of my exposition.” - The First Apology of Justin, the Martyr
Justin, the Martyr, is one of the most influential Christian voices of the second century. Prior to his execution in Rome for being a Christian, he wrote a series of works defending Christianity against the spurious charges leveled against the church by its often violent detractors. His most famous extant work is simply known as the First Apology. The treatise is addressed to the Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pious, who was a pagan. It is essentially a plea for toleration of persecuted believers throughout the Empire. The Apology is also a carefully crafted, sustained argument for the truth of the Christian faith.
I recently re-read this important work of the early church. After pages of brilliant and winsome defense of the Christian faith, one gets to the conclusion wherein Justin appears to come to a sudden realization: it is not enough only to offer a theological rationale for the faith. The faith should be changing the lives of its adherents if non-Christians are to be persuaded of its truth. It is not just what we believe that matters; it is also how we live what we believe.
The quotation above transitions the reader to the final passages where Justin describes the patterns and habits that form the basis for Christian living. He lists the following: prayer, fasting, devotion to Scripture, continual self-examination, and constant communal fellowship, primarily centered in worship. As we see, from the earliest days of the church Christians in community have embodied particular but consistent patterns of life.
As I write this piece on Ash Wednesday 2021, I peck at my keyboard aware that at any moment the power may go off in our temporary apartment living quarters. It has been a very difficult few days in Houston with extremely low temperatures, persistent power outages, and loss of water. Compared to the plight of so many who are cold, hungry, alone, or without shelter, my inconveniences are quite mild. However, this week has been another challenge in a 12-month-stretch filled with unexpected disturbance and unpredictable disruption. What a year it has been since the church last entered into the Holy season of Lent!
We all know that among the gifts of Lent is the call to reexamine our commitment to spiritual disciplines that shape a robust, well-integrated Christian life. It is also a calling that is easily distorted. On the one hand, talk of spiritual disciplines can sometimes obscure the gospel by placing personal dedication ahead of God’s free and loving initiative in Jesus. After all, the core of Christian doctrine is that our salvation is a pure gift of grace that can never be won through human obedience or achievement (Romans 3.21-24). On the other hand, Christians are not merely passive recipients of God’s grace. We are called to be active participants in God’s grace. As Paul encourages the Philippian Christians: “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1.27).
The dedicated process of participating more and more in God’s grace through the Spirit is variously described by our Tradition as repentance, holiness, and sanctification. And this process is characterized by spiritual disciplines that are reemphasized by the church in Lent.
The more mature I become, at least one thing has become very clear: I am better able to accept, endure, and even grow through the unpredictable aspects of life to the extent that I am rooted in predictable patterns of connection to God. That is, spiritual routines and rituals are essential for my stability in an unstable world. I wonder if this is true for all of us and worthy of fresh contemplation in light of this past year… this past week! “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Psalm 16:8).
As Justin, the Martyr, discerned, the visible expression of the gospel is the integration of belief and practice. We all should welcome structures and direction for growth in holiness. My pastoral observation is not that we resist the argument for such growth. We simply don’t make time for it. However, dedication to spiritual disciplines is essentially about the formation of Christian character, the daily, repeated, rhythmic acts that over time slowly form us into the people Jesus calls us to become. These disciplines provide the basis for growing in grace and experiencing the abundant life promised by our Lord. As one of my favorite poets, the late Anglican priest R.S. Thomas, once wrote: “character is built up by the application of uncountable brush strokes.” This is also how masterpieces are created.