In this cultural moment when so many are seeking holistic healing, holistic medicine, Whole Foods, and whole-bodied spiritual practices (e.g., meditation, yoga, etc.), Christian teachers have such an opportunity to share the holistic message Jesus taught. Yet, I fear too many pastors and churches are still drunk on the leftover wine of ancient Gnostic and Platonic thinking — that is, the notion that the body/matter is inherently corrupt and salvation is about liberating our soul/spirit from it.

How ironic that the Creator took on the fullness of our human condition in order to save us — heart, soul, mind and body; and we show our appreciation by propagating a gospel message for two millennia that has mainly been about saving disembodied souls.

In our “Pilgrimage of the Soul” series this fall at MainStreet, we are exploring the fuller extent of God’s transforming work. As I’ve been saying, Jesus didn’t come to get our souls to Heaven as much as He came to bring the peace of Heaven to our souls. Jesus summed up the heart and goal of true spirituality as, in Dallas Willard’s words, restoring “all of the essential parts of the human self” to their proper order under God’s sustaining grace.

Willard, in his manifesto on spiritual formation, Renovation of the Heart, chips away at our Neo-Platonic approaches of spiritual transformation — i.e., converting souls and counting decisions — while largely ignoring the messy yet necessary interior work of healing our emotions, redeeming our thoughts, changing our bodily habits, and liberating our souls. According to Willard, our human nature is comprised of the following six aspects:

  1. Thoughts (images, concepts, judgments, inferences)
  2. Feeling (sensation, emotion)
  3. Choice (will, decision, character)
  4. Body (action, interaction with the physical world)
  5. Social context (personal and structural relations to others)
  6. Soul (the factor that integrates all of the above to form one life

The Eastern Church Father, Athanasius (296-373 CE), famously taught that “God became like us so that we may become like God.” Moreover, in order to save the 19-02514-doritosflamin.jpg
totality of our human nature (heart, mind, body, etc.), Christ had to take on every aspect of it including our propensity toward late night Dorito binges. Thus, Athanasius wrote, “What has not been assumed [or taken on by Christ in his incarnation] has not been redeemed.” We can take heart that, to paraphrase Hebrews 4:15, Christ “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not give in to the Doritos.”

Where is this New-Agey sounding “mind, body, spirit” talk found in Scripture? It’s everywhere if we’ll only have the eyes to see (and Christians have been trained their entire lives to read the Bible through “Western eyes” and so aren’t as attuned to more Eastern/Oriental sensibilities and concepts). Willard lifts out David as one example:

The salvation or deliverance of the believer in Christ is essentially holistic or whole-life. David the Psalmist, speaking of his own experience but prophetically expressing the understanding of Jesus the Messiah, said, “I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure” (Psalm 16:7-9, NRSV).

Note how many aspects of the self are explicitly involved in this passage: the mind, the will, the feelings, the soul, and the body. A major part of understanding spiritual formation in the Christian traditions is to follow closely the way the biblical writings repeatedly and emphatically focus on the various essential dimensions of the human being and their role in life as a whole (p. 31).

I agree, and after preaching sermons for 10 years mainly aiming at getting right beliefs into people’s minds and seeing less than stellar results, I wonder if more holistic spiritual growth pathways are called for.

I am hopeful that the next generation of Christian leaders and teachers are going to recover a more holistic vision for spiritual renewal, and this fuller account of the (original) good news of salvation will appeal to many who have walked away from a more narrow and one-dimensional salvation message they grew up with. Is it too much to hope that we’ll simply take Jesus as his word and pursue a spirituality that will begin transforming our heart, soul, mind and bodily strength? Who’s with me?

This is a perfect place to plug our amazing Holy Yoga classes at MainStreet multiple times each week.

DISCUSSION: Were you taught a holistic gospel that saves our heart, mind, body, and soul? Or did you grow up hearing a gospel about rescuing your soul for Heaven? Do you think we can learn anything from the more holistic teachings of other spiritual traditions?

Jeremy Berg is the founding pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Mound, Minnesota, and Professor of Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy is completing his doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary in Chicago. He holds a M.A. in Theological Studies from Bethel Seminary (2005) and B.A. from Bethel University (2002). He and his wife, Kjerstin, keep busy chasing around three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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