As I’ve been thinking more about the topic of participation in Paul’s letters, I’ve realized that participation theology (that is, a solid understanding of the believer dying and rising with Christ), may serve as a needed corrected to some aspects of Charismatic theology. Let’s start with a bit of background. Protestantism historically has embraced a pessimistic attitude toward humanity, even toward the believer. Especially for Luther, the believer remains plagued with sin, while still a saint, and must cling by faith to the coming deliverance of Christ. Justification is something God does for the believer, once and for all, in the cross. It is imputed to the believer, but the believer’s is still torn between both flesh and Spirit (à la Romans 7). There may also be a tendency to delay the “good things” about believers into a future age, whether it’s inheritance, sanctification, etc.

What a lot of Charismatic theology has done is reclaim the good things the New Testament has to say about the believer. Charismatics love passages like Ephesians 2:3-10, where the believers are portrayed as being seated with Christ in the Heavenly realms. We love Romans 8, and the triumphant “Life by the Spirit.” We love 2 Cor 5:17-21, where the believer is called a new creation! We definitely love statements like, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” The miraculous aspects of Jesus’ ministry typically follow. Some Charismatics go so far to promulgate a “Dominion Theology” where Christians are supposed to “reign with Jesus” in places of leadership throughout the secular world. See this for a bit more info.

On the whole, I think this a good progression from Luther’s pessimism, but it does have some problems. First, there are a few practical problems. An exalted view of the believer is an easy recipe for spiritual arrogance and pride. The prosperity gospel probably came from this imbalance. Also, it can lead to some existential quandaries. Sometimes, life sucks. Even if I’m a son of God, I sure don’t always feel like it! Along with this, any struggle is automatically because of demonic oppression. Or, if God doesn’t answer my prayer, my faith is really shaken!

The traditional doctrine of justification actually encourages these, in my mind. The problem is that the cross is thought of primarily (or exclusively) as something that God did through Jesus for us. This is absolutely true! But it’s not the complete story. We are also called to emulate the cross, to participate in the dying and rising with Christ. We Charismatics love to emphasize the power of resurrection without the suffering of the cross, but God calls us to both. They’re definitely linked in Paul’s mind. Philippians 3:10-11 is a very good example of this, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” This balance is absolutely crucial. It helps us make sense of the challenges of life (which sometimes get downright terrible; but then again, so was the cross!). I helps us make sense of the awesome points of life (after all, we’re sharing in the power of his resurrection!). It helps us remember that the way to exaltation and glorification is through the the Cross, the way of humility. We are heirs with Christ, but this involves sharing in his suffering (Romans 8:17).

Overall, I think that a robust “participationist” reading of Paul will help us live much more effectively. It helps us remain humble in suffering while celebrating the glorious parts in the life of the believer. Charismatics heartily embrace the power of the Resurrection. Hopefully we can embrace the suffering of the Cross as well.

~alex

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