A Summary-Review by Stephen Yuille
Surveying the landscape of Christian spirituality, we discover a host of competing (even contradictory) visions of what it means to live out the faith.This diversity exists because many professing Christians formulate their spirituality on the basis of ecclesiastical tradition, cultural influence, and personal taste. That is to say, the standard by which they determine how to live out the faith is something other than the Bible. When anyone’s subjective preference trumps God’s objective truth, the result is predictable: confusion.
In Paul’s Spirituality in Galatians, Adam McClendon seeks to bring some clarity to the confusion. His goal isn’t to show what the whole Bible says about Christian spirituality but how the Bible must shape Christian spirituality. He accomplishes his goal by examining Galatians 2:20, where the apostle Paul writes, “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.” McClendon chooses this particular text because its four key-phrases convey “the essentials of the spiritual life” (p. 5). As he expounds each “essential,” he shows how Paul’s spirituality stands in marked contrast to much of what’s lauded as Christian spirituality in our day.
The first essential of the spiritual life is the centrality of the cross: “I have been crucified with Christ.” Paul’s use of the perfect tense in this phrase points to the ongoing significance of Christ’s crucifixion in the believer’s life. McClendon draws an important conclusion; namely, “The spiritual reality of what happened when faith joined the believer to the crucified Savior has a continual and progressive transforming effect” (p. 27). This means that our identity with Christ in His crucifixion isn’t a singular event but a permanent effect that governs our entire lives.
Paul’s cross-centered vision of the Christian life challenges several trends within popular Christian spirituality. By way of example, McClendon turns his attention to those who dismiss the cross while focusing exclusively on Christ’s perceived example as the basis for their spirituality (p. 20). They tend to reinterpret the Bible through the lens of personal experience based on race, gender, status, culture, etc. They then employ this reinterpretation as the basis for social action. McClendon affirms that such an approach to Christian spirituality is a radical departure from the Bible as it gives ultimate authority to people’s personal and cultural experiences. Moreover, it completely misses the pivotal place occupied by the cross in the believer’s life.
The second essential of the spiritual life is the centrality of Christ: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Here, Paul draws out the implications of our union with Christ in His crucifixion; namely, our identity is now found in Him (p. 39). He lives in us by means of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to live for Him (p. 44). Since our union with Christ is a permanent act (as indicated by the perfect tense), the result of that union is also permanent. This means that we are adequately equipped to live for Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion.
Paul’s Christ-centered vision of the Christian life speaks to those whose spirituality rests on the presupposition that we need “a second experience of grace” (p. 51). McClendon is thinking primarily of Pentecostals, who make an unbiblical cleavage between baptism into Christ and baptism in the Holy Spirit, believing the first occurs at conversion while the second must be pursued subsequent to conversion. McClendon provides an insightful critique of their position by clarifying the relevant texts in the Book of Acts and by expounding the four New Testament imperatives concerning the Holy Spirit’s empowering work in us (Gal. 3:16; Eph. 4:30; 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:19). All of this flows from Paul’s fundamental assertion that Christ lives in us by the Holy Spirit from the moment of conversion.
The third essential of the spiritual life is the continued tension of the flesh: “And the life I now live in the flesh . . .” While our union with Christ in His crucifixion provides a new identity by which we live out the faith, it also creates a tension. The truth is we’re only partly saved, meaning there are “now” and “not yet” realities to our salvation. As a result, we’re caught in an ongoing struggle between the presence of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh (p. 77), and this struggle will continue until the completion of the redemption process. As McClendon notes, this view of the spiritual life has significant implications for sanctification: “Believers are fully equipped by the presence of the Spirit of Christ for the spiritual life . . . They no longer have to give into sinful temptation, although experience reveals they often do” (p. 84).
Paul’s tension-filled vision of the Christian life challenges a spirituality that’s popular within large segments of the Protestant church. It’s known as “entire sanctification,” “perfect love,” “Christian holiness,” or “heart purity” (pp. 85â€“102). Simply put, it’s the belief that we can reach a level of total commitment to God by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit through a second work of grace whereby we live out of perfect love (p. 85). McClendon rejects this defective view of Christian spirituality for two reasons. For starters, it misunderstands the eschatological “now” and “not yet” tension regarding the spiritual life (p. 94). Moreover, it misunderstands numerous Bible passages that demonstrate the believer’s lifelong struggle with the flesh (p. 97).
The fourth essential of the spiritual life is the authenticating evidence of faith: “. . . I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” This statement implies that faith isn’t confined to a single moment at the beginning of our spiritual life, but is the governing principle by which we live (p. 105). That is to say, faith doesn’t end at the moment of justification, but continues as a necessary condition of salvation thereby setting the course of our lives. As Paul declares, the fuel for this “faith-infused living” is found in the sacrificial love of God (p. 122).
Paul’s faith-governed vision of the Christian life is a necessary corrective for the form of spirituality that has arisen out of Free Grace Theology (p. 107). Proponents of this position view faith as a singular act by which we receive the justifying grace of God. After this initial reception of God’s grace, faith is no longer essential. In other words, it’s possible for people to be saved by faith without living a life of faith. On the basis of Paul’s spirituality, McClendon demonstrates the shortcomings of Free Grace Theology: “Those who argue that saving faith is not durative or a necessary element in the Christian life fail to realize that Paul in Galatians 2:20 is presenting the normative position for the Christian’s spiritual life” (p. 110).
Paul’s Spirituality in Galatians is the fruit of McClendon’s doctoral studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is, therefore, a scholarly work, exegetically rigorous and theologically robust (with plenty of footnotes). Although scholarly, it’s easily within the grasp of the educated layman, and will prove a rewarding read for anyone willing to employ a little mental exertion.
In short, McClendon offers an engaging study of biblically-based Christian spirituality. He uses sound exegesis to arrive at the meaning of his selected text (Galatians 2:20). He shows how this verse reveals the essential components of Christian (Pauline) spirituality — what it means to live out the faith under the influence of the Holy Spirit. And he employs these components as a standard by which to critique erroneous expressions of Christian spirituality.
McClendon’s paradigmatic study is a welcome remedy for the many ailments that plague Christian spirituality; moreover, it will serve as a dependable guide for all those who hold to the Bible as the supreme foundation for Christian living. For this reason, it merits your careful consideration and thoughtful interaction.
Dr. J. Stephen Yuille is Pastor of Grace Community Church, Glen Rose, TX, Director of Baptist Studies at Redeemer Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX, and Book Review Editor for Spirituality and Christian Living here at Books At a Glance.