For it is not the hearing of the truth that purifies the soul, but the obedience of the truth which makes the vessel fit for the Master's use, who in His using, and its obedience, makes it a vessel of honor, and glorifies His Son therein, in your bodies to do the Father's will in the world, whereby the Father is glorified in the Son, in whom He shines forth, as the Father begets Him again in you, and you in Him (who was with the Father before the world was,) of His own nature and good will, which as you receive again by faith and obedience, you will be changed into the same image and nature, and to delight only therein, being born of the same Spirit; as he that is born of the flesh delights in the things of the flesh.
I have been reading James Nayler lately and this paragraph has stuck with me. It is the concluding paragraph of his 1657 pamphlet How Sin is Strengthened, and How it is Overcome. I have been reading it in Volume IV of the Works of James Nayler from Quaker Heritage Press. It is also available on-line here or here.
This sums up the essence of early Quaker spirituality quite well and has something to say to us today as well. The first statement brought me up short. Hearing the truth does not purify the soul, it is obedience to the truth that purifies the soul. Reading, writing or speaking the truth also does not purify the soul unless it is done in obedience to the promptings of the Spirit. This can certainly provide a dose of humility for people like me who have some facility with the written and spoken word.
It is God's use of us combined with our uniting with that use that prepares us to be even more fit for God's continued use. This glorifies Christ embodied in ourselves and allows us to do God's will in the world. By this Christ is born in us and by faith and obedience we will be changed into the nature and image of Christ and will delight only in the things of the Spirit.
Claiming that one can be transformed into the nature of Christ is a pretty extreme claim. It is the logical end of the Quaker doctrine that perfection is possible in this life. There is sound scriptural basis for claiming that we can be as Christ but Friends were careful with how they said this because they did not want to be accused of blasphemy. It was, after all, enacting Christ's entry into Jerusalem that got Nayler convicted of blasphemy. During his trial, Nayler claimed that the honor he received was appropriate inasmuch as it was directed to the spirit of Christ in him, but not if it was directed to the fleshly person. Parliament was not inclined to accept this fine distinction and convicted him.
This idea of being transformed into the nature of Christ underlies the Holiness movement which found a home among Friends and is also expressed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as Deification. Do we take seriously this idea that we can become embodiments of Christ's spirit? Do we see our daily acts of obedience to the Spirit as the method of this transformation? Do we see obedience in small things as a step towards obedience in ever larger things, until we can be obedient in all things? Are we willing to give up our personal areas of rebellion? Are we willing to listen to the promptings of the Spirit in all things that we do? Are we willing to depend on God for everything? Are we willing to sit with the discomfort these questions might create?
Labels: James Nayler