Chalmers’ Sermon

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What is the role of the heart in directing our conduct?  This question invites ongoing reflection. For many Christians the primacy of the heart in the soul seems at the same time obvious and improbable.

I know the challenge involved in seeing the point because when each year as a seminary professor I introduced the place of the heart it was only slowly engaged even among the most able and devoted students.  That even though many of the same students regularly use the rubric of the heart to express their personal faith and could see the extensive biblical content that sets it out for us.  My strategy was to find a number of voices, both in the Bible and among Christian writers, to unpack the point.

Thomas Chalmers is one of these.  Chalmers, a 19th century pastor in Scotland, knew that many in his parish were captured by a “love of the world.”  But how is it possible, he asked in a sermon, to stop loving the world?  Is it the function of the will?  He answered, no!  That view, he said, “is altogether incompetent and ineffectual.”  Instead, the way to overcome sin is “to exchange an old affection for a new one.”

His sermon title, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”, expressed his key to an authentic spirituality [Select Works of Thomas Chalmers, 4:271-390].  Sin lives in the heart and sin can only be cured by a new heart with transformed affections.

Chalmers held—along with Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards and others—to an affective spirituality in which biblical faith is heart-based: a response to God’s love that changes our deepest orientation of life from being self-centered to Christ-centered.

At some level most Christians will say, “I’m in favor of God’s love and so is every other believer I know.  What’s new here?”

What is unique is not the affirmation of God’s love but the assertion that God’s love is the sole basis for launching faith.  Faith as a response to God’s love is not one option in coming to him; it is the only way anyone comes to him: faith works through love (Galatians 5:6).

Faith, in other words, is not birthed out of human will or by an intellectual assent to certain truth claims, but as a fruit of the Spirit’s love poured out into our hearts.  The will and the mind are only instruments of the heart, never its directors, so that once a love for God is present in us our thinking is reoriented and our choices are redirected.  It is in this affective primacy that spirituality takes a very different pathway to other spiritualities.

What are the alternatives?  A commonly held spirituality—the rational-volitional model—relies on one’s own ability to believe in God in an informed choice of the free will.  Another is the self-emptying call of mysticism—based on an ascent into God’s being through steps of purgation and illumination in the pursuit of an ineffable sense of union.  The former treats Christianity as the pursuit of proper knowledge; the latter pursues pure experience.  Let me set aside any reflections on the mystical option for now—it calls for a separate essay—and follow Chalmers’ focus here.

What Chalmers opposed as “incompetent and ineffectual” are the claims that faith is a rational-volitional event that can bring about self-transformation.  The basis for this approach is certainly rooted in our commonsense perception of thinking and choosing as a self-moved, uninfluenced, process.  A more sophisticated expression of this view is offered in ancient Greek (and later Roman) Stoicism.

In the Christian adaptation of Stoicism the human “act” of believing is the instrument God gives us for entering into faith—making it, ironically, a faith in the human act of believing.  Commonsense or not, the problems with this notion are obvious.  Some of the 17th century affective Puritans, for instance, disparaged this as “will worship” because the human initiative is treated as the motivational basis for faith and, by extension, for salvation.  Our capacity to choose, then, is made to be even greater than God’s work in us.  Among the many counterclaims of the Bible we find Jesus and John responding: “apart from me you can do nothing” and “we love [God] because he first loved us” [John 15:5; 1 John 4:19].

The actual basis for faith is our newfound affection for Christ birthed by the Spirit’s illumination of the Son that “expels” our former love of self and autonomy.  It is God’s attractiveness that captures hearts and then transforms behaviors.  And before we are captured by that attractiveness we were entranced by other forms of worship.  Even the notion of a free will is nothing more than an axiomatic commitment to human autonomy.  We were made, in fact, to be lovers of God. To insist instead on Stoic autonomy is to embrace, unaware, a form of self-love.

What’s the difference in practice?  Stoic faith gives primacy to human responsibility; affective faith centers on God’s goodness and beauty that draws our gaze of faith to himself.  One is a human activity—despite claims of God’s assisting work—while the other is as one-sided as being born is to a baby.  Only the Spirit’s illumination, by opening the eyes of our hearts, brings about the change.  Yet the response is fully ours.  One creates a faith of unending duties; the other a faith expressing our new desires.

How common is this polarity?  And how much reluctance is there among Christians in facing it?

Think of what many worshippers experience.  On a given Sunday the church service begins with worship songs that express and invite a response to God’s gracious love.  Then the sermon shifts the worshippers’ emotional and cognitive gears into reverse by offering lessons on finding and obeying God’s will.  The first movement features desires; the second elevates duties.  One treats the desires as wholesome; the next treats desires as detractors that need to be overruled by the listener’s willpower.

You might have noticed this pattern but pardoned it by assuming the two movements are partners—two sides of a whole.  But think for a moment.  Are not the two movements actually opposed?  They travel in different directions with opposite destinations; and they use different motives and foci.  One draws all the attention to God’s greatness; the other to the soul’s inadequacies.  One treats God’s efforts as active and effective; the other treats human efforts as central.  One is positive and winsome; the other is negative and discouraging.

This oscillation of messages leaves many heartfelt worshippers discouraged, if not dizzy, as they find themselves spinning in spiritual pirouettes.  It also helps account for a widespread defection from traditional church ministries by those who hunger for a more coherent and compelling sense of God’s presence.

Chalmers’ sermon, then, offers us a captivating vision: God’s love is what changes us.  As our affection for God grows—as he is revealed in Christ through the Word and affirmed to our hearts by the Spirit—our old and enslaving affections begin to be expelled.  This is a spirituality that grows with a rational and volitional progression, yet it is the heart that moves both the mind and the will to change.  Apart from God we bring nothing to this transformation.  This is the good news of God’s love in Christ.  May we all respond accordingly.

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