By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director, Hendrickson Publishers
There are books that ought to be read. And then there are books that must be read. The Paradox of Holiness and Faith in Search of Obedience are books that must be read by those among us who seek to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in language we can understand—language that has the power to lift up our hearts, encourage our spirits, and strengthen our backbones. These books present us with a vision of God who is truly God; not a hobby or an image of ourselves, but God who—in love deeper, richer, and more demanding than we can imagine—reaches out to embrace all of us living amid the fractures, violence, and heartache present in the world today.
—Frederick R. Trost, President (Retired)
Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ
On the anniversary of what would have been his eighty-ninth birthday (May 3), we celebrate the life and faith of Donald G. Bloesch (1928–2010). Professor Bloesch was a noted American evangelical theologian, who characterized himself a “progressive evangelical” or “ecumenical orthodox,” which meant he critiqued the excesses of both the theological Left and Right. Bloesch’s pietistic background and spiritual life lay at the heart of understanding his theology and how Christianity is to continue into the future.
In August 2016, Hendrickson released his last two works—The Paradox of Holiness and his spiritual autobiography Faith in Search of Obedience—which were previously unpublished. Because we had published his Essentials in Evangelical Theology in a one-volume book, his widow and editor Brenda Bloesch (in her early eighties at the time) contacted us with these “new” books—and, of course, we were delighted!
After working so closely for so long with Mrs. Bloesch on these two books, it was good for me to revisit The Paradox of Holiness almost a year later in order to write this article. I found myself immediately drawn back into it. Professor Bloesch’s relatively short chapters on what could be considered “fruits” of the Spirit are indeed edifying and profound. As it was too difficult to concentrate on only one chapter (or one fruit), I decided to give you a taste (no pun intended!) of all of them. I hope this whets your appetite (let’s keep the metaphor going!) to read it along with Faith in Search of Obedience, which Hendrickson published together as one volume for your convenience. I’m glad I had the occasion of his birthday to read through The Paradox of Holiness again. May you be blessed by this bite-sized sampling!
In the Words of Donald Bloesch…
Only God and his incarnate Word are unconditionally holy. Our holiness as the people of God is derivative and symbolic. Holiness means being separated by God for service to his glory. Holiness connotes nearness to God and separateness from the world. The essence of holiness is not morality but transparency—to the Wholly Other. To be holy in the Christian sense is not to be morally perfect; it is to be a sign of the passion and victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It means to be baptized into the death of God and to rise again with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:3-4). A holy person is necessarily a godly person. Holiness signifies wholehearted consecration to the living God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Faith does not set us free from conflict but engages us in battle with the powers of darkness. Faith is not content to coexist with adversaries but expels these adversaries from the Christian life. One of faith’s most insidious enemies is doubt—a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the reality and power of God in daily life. We are called to doubt ourselves, our own virtue and integrity, but we as Christians must never doubt the promises of God given to us in Jesus Christ. . . . Faith in the biblical sense is much more than assent to right doctrine. It is walking the pathway to victory over the powers of darkness, a victory that is manifested in outgoing, sacrificial service to those for whom Christ has died.
Self-control is the mastery of self through the power of God. It is not exceeding others in the pursuit of greatness, but foregoing the desire for greatness as the Lord leads us in our daily walk. In the words of the Wisdom writer, “It is better to be patient than powerful; it is better to have self-control than to conquer a city” (Prov. 16:32 NLT). It is not only the liberation of the self through faith, but power over the self through control of our appetites that characterizes the Christian walk. . . . The first step in self-control is self-surrender to the God who created us in his image and who endows us with the power to overcome and persevere.
4. Godly Sorrow
Cultural religion sees the goal in life as the avoidance of pain, while biblical religion gladly accepts pain if it is involved in kingdom service. The pain of the cross is indeed a fundamental element of Christian service. Christ suffered the pain and guilt of sin in our place, but he gives us the privilege of following him by taking up our own cross and doing battle with the powers of darkness. . . . Sorrow is a concomitant of the Christian life, but it is not the last word. The last word is the peace that we find in sorrow, the joy that enables us to rise above sorrow. Now we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we need fear no evil, for Christ is with us, strengthening us by his Spirit (Ps. 23:4).
Joy is not the antithesis of happiness, but it brings to happiness an eternal dimension that uproots our trust in the things that bring us worldly prestige and pleasure. Joy persists even when happiness is taken from us. It is not wrong to seek earthly happiness, for true Christianity does not revel in asceticism. Yet it is a grave error to make earthly pleasures first in our order of priorities. We may pray for both kinds of pleasure, but our hope and confidence should be fixed on Jesus who alone can fill the aching void in our hearts.
Meekness is the antidote to fear. Because we know that God will secure us from all harm, we can face the future with confidence, even when things are not going well in the present…. The meek are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They bring about changes by being a leaven in the lump. They do their work not in an obtrusive manner but in a hidden way. Meekness is disarming. It conquers by divesting its adversaries of the power to control and subvert. It drives back the forces of darkness by impressing upon them that there is a power greater than the power of coercion and manipulation. Meekness is a docility in spirit that makes one a fit instrument of the Spirit of God.
7. Holy Boldness
[Holy boldness] is not to be confounded with heroism in which we rise above ourselves in order to make an impact on the world. Holy boldness entails not the realizing of human talent and ambition, but sometimes the sacrifice of talents and personal goals in order to be faithful to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Holy boldness is taking up the cross and following Christ, not pursuing a vision or agenda that gives glory to ourselves rather than to Christ.
Long-suffering is fortitude—endurance under trial. It also is perseverance—persisting in a vocation to holiness, which always places one in opposition to the world. . . . It might be thought of as steadfastness: pressing forward in obedience to the call to discipleship. Long-suffering also connotes patience under adversity. . . . Fortitude is seeing the hand of God in the most dire circumstances and rejoicing in the victory of God, which is already in effect through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fortitude is not submission to the pain of life but the willingness to endure it. It entails being unflinching in our convictions and faithful to our mission, yet giving God all the glory as we triumph over adversity.
9. Interior Peace
Peace in the biblical perspective is not the absence of anxiety but the growing sense of victory in the midst of anxiety. If we are people of peace, then concern for our neighbor extends far beyond mere toleration to compassion. Yet, before we can make peace with others, we must be at peace with God. We cannot be at peace with God unless we are indwelt by the Spirit of peace who makes all things new (Rom. 8:6). Let us bow before God in gratitude for the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, who brings peace and confidence to a despairing and drifting world.
Among the gifts that equip the Christian for kingdom service, wisdom surely ranks among the highest. Wisdom is the gift that interprets God’s will, that leads the people of God into deeper understanding concerning the plan of redemption. Wisdom is not cunning but insight. It is not the ascent to God but the fear of God. . . . Wisdom entails discerning the impassable gulf between good and evil, a capacity that emerges only by the action of the Holy Spirit. . . . Two enduring aspects of wisdom are fearing God and shunning evil (Job 28:28). Theologians who fear God and renounce moral evil are the models to follow in our time, when truth has become indistinct and relativism and nihilism prevail.
The people of God will have wisdom, but they will also be imbued with ardor—a fervent and passionate embrace of the gospel. Saints manifest not only balance but also rapture. They will have zeal (Rom. 12:11) but not necessarily zealotry. They do not look for controversy, but the message they preach fosters conflict with established ways of seeing things. They are both peacemakers and disturbers of the peace. They are driven by the motivation to bring troubled souls the peace of God. . . . To be ardent in the faith means not only to love and cherish God but also to delight in God—to be in his presence, to partake of his glory. The Christian vocation involves not only self-sacrifice in the hands of God but also fervent adoration of God so that we are lifted above a restrictive and soul-stultifying existence to life-giving service to God and our neighbor through faith working through love and unstinting devotion.
First of all, there is the consciousness of being a finite creature subject to creaturely limitations, including sickness and death. Second, there is the consciousness of being a sinner and therefore under the sign of divine condemnation. Finally, there is the consciousness of the power and sovereignty of the living God who revealed himself once for all in the person and work of Jesus Christ. . . . As Christians, we are given the power to condemn evil because we are made poignantly aware of our own entanglement in evil. Even more, we are conscious of the redeeming power of God’s mercy that brings good out of evil. We can celebrate the victory of good over evil because of our unswerving conviction that this victory has already occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and needs only to be revealed by the Spirit as he works mightily through the Word of God—written and proclaimed.
[Generosity is] the willingness to give of one’s self and one’s treasures for the sake of the well-being of others, to share what has been bequeathed to us by a compassionate and loving God. It entails not simply giving according to one’s means but giving beyond one’s means to the glory of God. . . . Biblical faith does not embrace voluntary poverty and obedience to a religious superior as counsels of perfection. A simple lifestyle in the biblical sense is to be contrasted with an ostentatious lifestyle on the one hand and a rigoristic ascetic lifestyle on the other. As Christians, we are not required to give up the goods and comforts of life—except where such action is expressly commanded—but we should be ready to sacrifice all of these things when and if it becomes a matter of our salvation or the salvation of others.
Piety as a Christian virtue is characterized by simplicity of heart. The heart is not divided or split between conflicting goals. The psalmist prays: “Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name (Ps. 86:11 NIV). In Jeremiah 32:39-40 we read, “I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. . . . I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me” (NIV). . . . What is needed today is not a postmodernity that consigns the human enterprise to a strategy for self-improvement, but a reborn modernity that rests the case for humanity on God’s atoning work of redemption in Jesus Christ and the outpouring of God’s Spirit to confirm the truth of this saving work in the human heart.
Christian love is never transitory but enduring; it is not wavering but unbending. In compassion, we take pity upon someone who is in trouble. In agape, we act to alleviate the sufferings of others and bring them into conformity with God’s will. Christian love is more a matter of the will than of feeling. It is bearing the cross in vicarious identification with others in their pain and ignominy. Compassion is a uniquely Christian virtue when it is united with dedication to God’s glory.
Giving Professor Bloesch the Last Word…
In a fully biblical theology, we will make room for the call to Christian perfection as well as the call to decision and repentance. We are enjoined to be perfected in love so that we can bring the grace of perfection to one another, to all who remain infected by the virus of sin, even though sin is receding rather than expanding in the lives of those who truly belong to God. May we go forward in the Christian life in the knowledge that the Spirit of God has already prepared the way. Our mandate is to walk in his steps, to follow along the path of holiness he has marked out for us in his cross and in his resurrection victory.
Patricia Anders is editorial director at Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine, teaches Aesthetic Aspects in Literature at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).