Three years ago, CT launched the Global Gospel Project, a multimedia initiative exploring the fundamental truths of Christianity. In the magazine, we framed doctrines in terms of how they arise from thinking about the three persons of the Trinity—year one, doctrines related to Jesus, year two the Father, year three the Holy Spirit. The project continues online, exploring teachings that connect to the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, we’ve undertaken a new venture in print: “Re-word.” This will allow us to include more biblical exposition in our pages with articles that combine personal narrative and commentary from respected teachers and scholars. The series will not only unpack the riches of Scripture, but also show how biblical truth renews our lives. —The Editors
On a beautiful May morning in 1973, my Christian life took a decisive turn. I had converted to Christianity 18 months before, in the fall of 1971. I had been an aggressive atheist, utterly convinced of the godless worldview. Yet in my first term at Oxford University, I came to realize that Christianity was intellectually superior to my earlier atheism. Christianity simply made sense of life in a way that atheism did not.
Yet a year or so into my Christian life, all was not well. I tended to think of faith as a set of ideas only. Sure, I loved God with all my mind. But what about my heart? And my imagination? I sensed I was standing on the threshold of something enormously rich and satisfying, but I saw it only from a distance, uncertain of whether I could ever grasp it. Like Moses on Mount Nebo, I was glimpsing something that seemed beyond my reach. I knew I had to break free from the cold rationalism of my early faith. But how?
That was why I set out early on that day, cycling to Wytham Woods, a few miles from Oxford City Centre. I found a place to sit on a hillock from which I could see Oxford’s famous “dreaming spires.” Having asked God to help me sort myself out, I opened my Bible and began to read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. One of my friends had told me how it had helped him in his faith to read the book in one sitting. I decided I would do the same out in the countryside, where there were no distractions.
That day I discovered two themes that have transformed my life as a Christian. Both came to me when I was reading Philippians 3, savoring every phrase, trying to identify and digest every nugget of wisdom.
Wings of Faith
The first breakthrough came as I contemplated Paul’s declaration, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 8, ESV used throughout). As I read and reread those words, I began to realize the true nature of my problem: My faith had affected my mind but left the rest of me untouched. Up to that point, I had thought of spiritual growth in terms of accumulating knowledge. And so I had read biblical commentaries and books on systematic theology. But that hadn’t deepened the quality of my faith. I was like someone who had read books about France but had never visited. Or someone who had read about falling in love but had never experienced it.
Everything in the opening section contributed to my transformed vision of the Christian faith. Yet that single verse seemed to sum up everything so well.
Its context is significant. Paul explains how his personal journey qualified him as a distinguished Jew: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” (v. 4). Paul was not being ironic. He was listing his many achievements before delivering the point: These achievements pale in comparison to the wonder, joy, and privilege of knowing Christ. “Whatever gain I had,” he said, “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). In the light of Christ, we see things as they really are. What we thought was gold crumbles to dust.
Paul explained that his achievements might actually get in the way of what really matters: knowing Christ. Good things can be a barrier to what is best. I don’t think the word transvaluation was in my vocabulary at that time, but that was what Paul was proposing—a radical revision of my understanding of what mattered in life.
Paul’s words forced me to reconsider my value system. He made it clear that what mattered was not what I achieved, but what Christ achieved within and through me. Our status is given through faith in Christ, not obtained through the works of the law. Paul knew that knowing Christ overshadowed and overwhelmed anything and everything he had previously known and valued.
Could I say that? Did knowing Christ trump everything else I loved and valued? Or was Jesus just one interest among many?
What spoke most powerfully to me that morning was Paul’s distinction between knowingabout Jesus Christ and knowing Jesus Christ. Many readers, no doubt, will feel this is blindingly obvious. But everyone has to discover it sometime, and that day I grasped the importance of “spirituality” for nourishing my relationship with God. And the great “Christ hymn” (Phil. 2:5–11) helped me see my need to focus on Jesus’ life and death, and not approach him through a depersonalizing framework of abstract ideas. As a result, hymns like Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”—which I had seen as sentimental emotionalism—took on new meaning as I was able to share and enter into the experience of adoring Christ.
Paul’s words “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12) gave me a framework for growing in my faith. The idea linked together my own responsibility to try to do my best, however limited, and God graciously supplementing my weaknesses and inadequacies. It was because Christ had taken hold of me that I was enabled and encouraged to take hold of him and let him lead me onward and upward through life. Previously, I had tended to see my faith as something I needed to sustain; now I realized it could sustain me.
I began to think of my faith as being grasped and held by Christ, and adjusted every aspect of my life accordingly—my mind, heart, imagination, and hands. I made a connection—perhaps a naive one, but one that spoke deeply to me—with the powerful image of Christ knocking on the door of the church at Laodicea, asking to be welcomed (Rev. 3:20). When I became a Christian, I had invited Christ into my mind, but that was where it had stopped. I realized that I had to allow every “room” of my life to be filled with the life-giving and life-changing presence of Christ.
Of course, I never lost sight of rationally defending the faith. As an atheist who had discovered Christianity, I naturally saw myself as an apologist—someone who was willing and able to rise to the challenges to faith presented by the culture. Yet I progressed in my understanding of what it meant to have faith in Christ. I began to read C. S. Lewis in 1974, and found in him someone who reaffirmed the rationality of faith while showing its rich imaginative dimensions. I also began to read Thomas à Kempis’s classic Imitation of Christ, embracing its challenge to model my life around the crucified Christ. I had previously seen the sermon as the heart of a church service; I began to realize how worship nourished and enriched my faith. No longer did I have to actively work at my faith. It was as if it developed a life and strength of its own, supporting me. The phrase “wings of faith” suddenly became meaningful.
Why the Church?
Yet my reading of Philippians helped me answer another question that had troubled me: What is the point of church? The Oxford congregations I had attended provided rather meager fare—sermons that focused on encouraging us to read our Bibles and trust God. As a result, I thought I could get more from reading books or talking to friends than from attending church. I was unaware of the vitality of Christian community. I had not read Cyprian of Carthage’s famous maxim: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the church for his mother.” If I had, it would have baffled me. The church, in my view, played merely an educational and social role.
So I was struck by Paul’s words in Philippians 3:20: “our citizenship is in heaven.” When I had attended a lecture at Oxford on the Roman colonial system, I had failed to connect it to this passage, which uses the Greek term politeuma, translated here as “citizenship.” A jumble of thoughts surged through my mind as I began to connect the dots.
The church is an outpost of heaven on earth, what Romans termed a colonia—not to be confused with the English word colony. Philippi was itself a Roman colonia at the time, an outpost of Rome in the distant province of Macedonia. Paul’s readers would have easily related to this imagery. Roman citizens residing in Philippi had the right to return home to the metropolis after serving in the colony. For Paul, one benefit of knowing Christ was being a citizen of heaven. Christians live on earth now, where there is much to accomplish for God’s kingdom. But we are citizens of heaven, and that’s our real home.
The church is a community of believers, an outpost of heaven on earth, a place in which a “spirit of grace” (Zech. 12:10) dwells. Just as the Romans at Philippi spoke the language and kept the laws of Rome, so we observe the customs and values of heaven. As Christians, we live in two worlds and must learn to navigate both while ultimately being faithful to our homeland.
This helped me to finally make sense of Christian community. I began to see the church as a place that helps Christians straddle the two worlds of faith—where we are now and where we shall finally be. It’s like an oasis in a desert, equipping us to work and serve in the world while fostering and safeguarding our distinctiveness as Christians.
I began to realize that the church was an imperfect yet important anticipation of heaven, whose worship and ethos were integral to my faith. The church was a community gathered around the public reading of God’s Word, its interpretation and application through preaching, and its enactment in worship and prayer.
Many readers will rightly note that this—my early thoughts, I remind you—fails to do justice to the full nature of the church. But that’s not the point. As I grew in faith, I read works such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s LifeTogether, which helped me develop a richer and fuller vision of Christian community. But reading Philippians triggered a series of thoughts that helped me solve a serious problem I was facing. However imperfect and inadequate those thoughts of May 1973 may have been, they set me on the road to ordination in the Church of England, so that I might minister within the kind of community I had once considered irrelevant. Although my primary responsibility is teaching at the University of Oxford, I take great pleasure in ministering to village congregations in the Cotswolds, near my home.
Perhaps the most important lesson from my early morning reflections 40-some years ago was how the Bible can speak to us in times of need, transition, and discernment. I was at a crossroads. Like so many others before me, I found that coming to the Bible with real, honest questions—and a willingness to be changed—opened up new possibilities of growth. I know I won’t be the last to make that discovery.
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, president of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and author most recently of C. S. Lewis—A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale).
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