January 5, 2021

The Root of Jesse: Unifying and Renewing a Divided Life

A Radical Disconnect

In the gospels, Christ Jesus claims to be the light that leads to life in all its fulness (John 1:4; 10:10). Scripturally, if we turn from that light and life, we are left only with darkness and death. The apostle Paul makes clear that if we exchange the truth about the triune God for a lie and worship and serve the art and imagination of men, the cultural consequences are devastating (Rom. 1:18-32). We are undoubtedly witness in the modern West to the societal implications of widespread religious apostasy. Faithful Christians sense a need to respond, but how?

If the Christian faith is to again shape the direction of Western cultural life, Christians must recover a coherent scriptural world-and-life-view. By world-and-life-view I mean the essential structural features of a grand story of reality– a web of basic assumptions through which we interpret all of human experience. The majority of believers today do not have an adequate understanding of the gospel of the kingdom – the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all life and thought. In Scripture, Christ is often referred to as the root – the unified origin that gives and sustains life for all of creation (Rom. 11:16-18, 15:12; Rev. 5:5, 22:16). A large part of our present confusion stems from the fact that many Christians have treated the gospel of Christ not as a root, but as an appendage – illegitimately contriving to embrace Christ as a savior and redeemer from personal sin, but failing to appreciate Him as the creator and sustainer of all things, the Lord and root of all creation.

This far-reaching deficit in understanding leads to a radically truncated view of the significance of the gospel, and to a faith that is packaged up into one or two limited ‘domains’ of life – typically that of personal devotions, ‘spiritual’ disciplines, and the functioning of the church institute.

Over the last eighty years especially, this problem has naturally and logically led many believers to withdraw from vast areas of cultural life (i.e. education, law, politics, arts etc.). The outcome of this world-abandonment has been the radical secularization and re-paganization of society, and its attendant decay.

Reaching the Root

In order to begin to overcome this profound lack of a comprehensive Christian worldview, its source or root must first be understood, exposed and pulled out. When weeds have invaded a flowerbed, it is no use simply pulling off their visible leaves – they need to be carefully separated and rooted out or the flowers will eventually be choked out. The same is true here. Something invasive from outside of biblical revelation has buried itself deep within the thought life of many believers that prevents them from realizing the full significance, unifying power and beauty of their life and calling in Christ. If this invasive and unscriptural principle is not dealt with, it can choke the meaning, hope and vitality from the Christian walk.

Because of this artificial separation of salvation and lordship, many Western Christians have treated ‘personal salvation’ as an essentially private, ‘spiritual component’ within a broader, largely secularized conception of life – perhaps a convenient compromise because in the short term, this perspective garners general cultural approval. Many Christians believe they share most other values in common with unbelievers in public, social and cultural life. The idea of a distinctly Christian vision of human identity, social order, politics, education, law, arts, science, business and so on, seems a strange and foreign notion. For the non-Christian looking in, this kind of private, interiorized faith appears little different from other popular approaches to the ‘spiritual component’ of life which, instead of involving church-going and praying, might include mindfulness meditation and yoga. Such a perspective misses the reality that, whether it is the gospel of Jesus Christ or an apostate belief system, all of life is inescapably ordered around our most deeply-rooted beliefs. In other words, life IS religion.

Exalted Ideas

Because of the influence of Greek philosophy on believers in the early centuries of the church’s engagement with culture, and its continuing influence through the Medieval period, Reformation era, the Enlightenment and on into the present, there remains a nascent predisposition towards these ancient pagan concepts.

The Greek view of reality was inherently dualistic, positing uncreated ‘substances’ or ‘essences’ in tension or uncomfortable union with each other – eternal ideas and matter – existing and continuing to exist in and of themselves. Such a worldview is worlds apart from biblical faith because in Scripture there are no independent substances. Instead, everything that is,finds its root, origin and continuance in its connection to Christ and His ever-present creative, sustaining and powerful Word. Creation is distinct from Christ but not separated from Him. The whole idea of an autonomous and independent cosmos is the myth of a pagan and secularizedculture that flattens reality into meaninglessness. Rather, as Andree Troost puts it, “[Christ] is with God the Father, the creator and bearer of the entire cosmos which was created in him.”[1] The apostle Paul shocks the Athenians with his application of this reality, ‘for in him we live and move and exist’ (Acts 17:28).

From the scriptural standpoint, not only are all things created by the Word, all things are also dependent on this Word moment by moment. As such, all truth and meaning and the meaningfulness of creation is found in this Word which is power – the power that holds all things together (Col. 1:17). In the gospels, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the centurion who came to Jesus asking Him to heal his servant had insight into this reality when he said to Jesus, ‘say the Word and my servant will be cured (Luke 7:7)’ – it is this same Word of power which commanded the seas ‘be still,’ the water to turn into wine, the blind to see, and commanded, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’

This Word of power holding all things together is humbling because it is the borderline or horizon of our reach. What Scripture reveals to us on the creation side of the Word in the gospel is that the Word who created all things was ‘made flesh’ and ‘dwelt among us.’ Christ the Word is God, and He is also the Word of God! This is only grasped in terms of the relationship between God and man – the boundary and bridge between creator and creation revealed to us in God’s covenant bond with His creation in Scripture.

A Bridge too Far

The importance and power of this biblical revelation of Christ the Word as the foundation for truly Christian thought gradually faded from view. After the apostolic era, the patristic period of the church (the first five centuries) saw many church fathers who were converted from pagan backgrounds in the Greco-Roman world, and they naturally brought with them the intellectual baggage of their former lives. As brilliant as their contribution to the spread of the faith and growth of the church was, a truly inner reformation of thought in terms of a scriptural worldview did not emerge in this period. They frequently struggled to wrestle free from the powerful religious ideas that shaped their cultural milieu. In their sincere attempts to interpret Scripture and relate the Christian gospel to the pagan world, they were not able to entirely shake off various anti-scriptural elements of Greek thought in conveying biblical truth. Even men as great as Augustine were deeply influenced by Neo-Platonism. This makes most of them unreliable guides today in areas like creation, marriage, sexuality and the value of the ‘material’ world.

The powerful influence of Greek thought thus continued in the life of the church. By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas brought Roman Catholic thought to its zenith by officially interpreting Aristotle for the church. He attempts to build a formal bridge between Aristotle and Scripture, a synthesis of the Greek understanding of nature with the biblical teaching of creation – giving rise to an entire school of thought called scholasticism. Aquinas tried to accommodate the form-matter dualism of the Greeks to the Christian faith, and that legacy has remained with us in various permutations. In order to see this bridge clearly, we must consider briefly the ongoing influence of these Greek ideas on our view of the human person and then note some of the practical consequences.

In accommodating Greek dualism to the Christian view of creation, theologians demanded the independence of the human body as a substance, over against a soul substance. Here, by special creative act, God permits the implanting of an indestructible soul into a body from without. The result, instead of the biblical unity of the human person, is the uncomfortable assemblage of two independent substances – body and soul. In keeping with Greek thought, the flesh is conceived as something of a prison for the noblest ‘part’ of man – the immortal soul which escapes the corruptible material flesh at death. The rational soul – a spiritual complex of particular functions such as thinking, willing etc.… – is then seen as the seat of true light, natural reason and spirituality, whilst the body is implicitly or explicitly denigrated in terms of lower desires, carnal appetites and the seat of sin. Such teaching also entails the problematic notion that God creates and inserts sinful souls into each new person – hence the need to shift the seat of sin to the body’s lower capacities.

As such two domains of life were generated: a natural domain where, following the Greeks again, the state is the highest community in the earthly temporal order, leading us to the highest step of morality; and a spiritual domain of grace governed by the church, bringing souls to eternal verities. The state in turn rules over the earthly and temporal realm and is the portal or threshold to the domain of supernatural grace where the church leads us on to spiritual perfection. This is why ‘Holy Orders’, asceticism, monasticism, and the celibate priesthood were thought to constitute the highest forms of service to God, because they belonged to the upper storey of reality that brings souls to perfection, whilst withdrawing from carnal appetites and fleshly desires of ‘the world.’

A Divided Life

Though the Reformation broke with much of this characterisation of life and sought a renewal of the biblical and integral understanding of Creation, Fall and Redemption, recovering a scriptural view of marriage, the priesthood of all believers, and our cultural calling to rule and subdue, it failed to completely blow up scholasticism’s bridge from dualistic conceptions of the human person in Greek thought to Christianity. Consequently, a ‘Protestant scholasticism’ was soon entrenched, and has persisted into modern evangelicalism. We can see the many ways in which the division of life into separate domains has stubbornly manifested itself. Consider some of these common and familiar divisions of life amongst Christians in Western culture:

Body/Soul: Human beings are made up of two separate substances, higher and lower, easily distinguishable and separable. The soul (a complex of higher functions including reasoning) is the ‘real’ person; the body is merely a shell. The soul’s destiny is Heaven; the body and the earth are relatively unimportant.

Material/Spiritual: The Christian life is a ‘spiritual’ life consisting of spiritual disciplines. It is an inner battle against the desires of the lower part of us – stemming from the body. The material world is an incumbrance, lesser, or evil, and we will eventually escape it into Heaven. In the meantime, we must suppress our material desires.

Natural/Supernatural: Most life activities are just natural and about this world, but Christianity is about a supernatural world beyond this one, and therefore this natural life and creation are not as important as the supernatural world. The natural is mundane and boring and carries on largely in terms of its own impersonal laws, but sometimes God breaks in to do supernatural things like miracles, which are much more significant than everyday events.

Public/Private: Our spiritual life of faith is an essentially private matter of personal conviction and should not be imposed on anyone else. Our private faith is not for the public space as it does not involve publicly accessible knowledge. And in any case, God’s kingdom is not of this world.

Secular/Sacred: Most of life functions well in terms of neutral secular principles and concepts that everyone can agree on. Politics, education, law, science etc., are secular areas of life basically governed by man’s common natural reason. The church, however, is a sacred institution of grace which, unlike these other areas, is ruled by biblical revelation. This revelation must not be imposed upon or applied to culture and society, for to Christianize culture is to mix the upper and lower storeys, secular and sacred.

Law/Gospel: Law is concerned with the earth, the material world and sinful natural desires, whereas gospel freedom is spiritual and concerns grace for the soul. The church is the institution of grace, not law – which is a matter for the state as a natural institution. Grace throws law aside because grace has no more need for the law than Heaven needs earth, or the saved soul has real need for the body.

Common/Special Revelation: The natural creation is the realm of common grace, common principles, and natural law. By contrast, Christ is the source of special grace and special revelation. The one is a ladder to the other, but we need the addition of faith and grace in special revelation to bring us to completion, salvation and perfection.

Reason/Revelation: Human reason is sufficient for understanding most of life in the natural world and guides politics, education, culture etc., in terms of neutral rational principles. Human reasoning, though prone to errors, is good as far as it goes and can offer high-probability proofs for God’s existence acceptable to logical and right-thinking people. However, supernatural revelation to the soul is admittedly necessary for eternal salvation and to disclose certain spiritual doctrines.

Science/Faith: The sciences operate only in terms of objective natural reason and concern religiously neutral knowledge of the natural world. The sciences answer factual questions about how things happen in the world. Faith is unrelated to reason and is only concerned with the higher value judgments of why things happen. The only truly Christian academic discipline is theology because it is concerned with studying religion and faith. There can be no distinctly Christian view of philosophy or science.

Culture/Kingdom: The kingdom of God is a purely spiritual and invisible reality that does not manifest itself outside the heart and supernatural institution of grace – the church. The kingdom of God fundamentally concerns a future heavenly reality, not the present earth and human culture. The earth is destined for total destruction so nothing in human culture has any eternal value. Getting souls into heaven and preserving them in the institutional church through this veil of tears is our calling.

These artificial separations ruled by different principles are perspectives that follow logically from the dualistic conception of the human person derived from distinct substances in Greek thought and then synthesized with the Christian view of creation and redemption.

Re-Unifying a Divided Life

How then do we go about reintegrating such a disintegrating conception of life– a view that prevents us from seeing the full scope and grandeur of the gospel? I think we must begin with a recognition of the human heart, as the focal point and root of our whole temporal existence where we stand as an undivided unity before the face of God as image-bearers. It is from this religious root of our being that all the functions and issues of life spring. Human beings cannot be cut up and separated into different ‘substances’ with particular functions abstracted from the full person, some higher (spiritual) and some lower (natural), some earth-bound, others Heaven-bound and existing normatively apart from the body. The incarnation and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus militates against every effort to divide up the functions of human life into substantive divisible ‘parts’ on different planes of existence.

We may conceptually distinguish an inner man and outer man (2 Cor. 4:11, 16), fully dependent in every way and at every moment upon the sustaining Word of Christ (Acts 17:28; Rom. 11:36). But there is no independent ‘essence’ of human life, no higher and lower substances or ‘parts.’ Our full human selfhood, the depths of the heart, is God’s mystery transcending the temporal functions of our existence and is grasped only in relation to God who has placed in us a sense of the eternal (Eccl. 3:11). Christians shall one day follow Christ out of the grave (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18). And it is the full person that is raised to life (inner and outer man), just as it is the totality of creation which will be released from its subjection to futility and its bondage to corruption due to sin, when we receive the fullness of our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:19-23).

Next, we must equally resist every inclination to divide up created reality into artificial distinctions of nature and grace that are entirely foreign to the Bible. Our faith rests on the scriptural truth, as Gordon Spykman puts it, “that the mediating Word is the religious lifeline which links God and man together in a life-long, all-embracing covenant relationship of revelation and response.”[2] All of creation in every part is governed by the mediating Word of Christ and in no domain of life do we escape the all-embracing covenant relationship we have with Christ in terms of that revealed Word. Indeed, all of life is a religious response to that Word. As such, Christ cannot be unhitched from a so-called natural realm of factual ‘neutrality,’ an area of creation that can be withdrawn from the sovereign Lordship and authority of Jesus and His written Word-revelation. Christ Jesus, who holds all things together by the Word of His power, from whom, through whom and to whom all things exist, cannot be banished to a supposed upper storey of reality, a spiritual world of ‘grace,’ shunted out of history to a future eternity or imprisoned in the walls of the church institute.

The central direction of Scripture is the unity and continuity of God’s creation, redemption and kingdom purpose – an all-encompassing Creation, Fall and Redemption of the whole of life. This inescapable revelation is the starting point for both our philosophical and theological activity and not a theological product of human interpretation – it is the motive-force of the biblical message, the Word of life made manifest to us by the Holy Spirit. The Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd argues that the radical character of this religious motive:

…can only be revealed by the Holy Spirit, because he opens our hearts so that our faith will no longer be a mere acceptance of formal articles of our Christian confession, but a living faith, serviceable to the central working of God’s Word in the heart – the religious centre of our life … The Word of God…must penetrate to the root of our being and become the central motive-force of our whole Christian life.[3]

One significant implication of this fact is that at the Fall, mankind lost more than just a ‘supernatural’ gift of grace. We cannot say that our reasoning, living and acting in most of cultural life are basically sound as far as they go, so long as we have the gift of faith to save our souls. Neither can we say that sin and evil reside in some isolated ‘part’ of our being, in the so-called ‘lower’ desires. Rather, the Fall into sin consists in a radical corruption at the root of our entire being that necessitates new birth (John 3:3; 2 Cor. 5:17) – entailing an equally radical restoration and renewal of all life.

Given that the Fall into sin is so total and radical in the heart of man, its corrupting work has penetrated every aspect, activity and social arrangement of human existence (Matt. 12:34; 15:19). Christ Jesus, as our savior, healer, redeemer and last Adam, thus claims for Himself the heart He has regenerated by His Spirit. As such it is in Christ and His Word that we find the fulness of meaning for our lives in their totality. This means that His restorative kingdom life cannot be restricted to a ‘part’ of the human person, or any isolated terrains of human life such as the church institute or our personal devotions. Rather, the kingdom breaks through in marriage and family, education and entertainment, science and arts, politics and law, business and economics. As Danie Strauss has rightly noted, ‘It is impossible to speak of a neutral sphere within so-called common grace, where the total antithesis, for or against Christ, does not radically apply.’[4] In all aspects of life, in every activity, institution and academic discipline, we will be for or against Christ.

God’s work of conserving and redemptive grace in Christ is thus manifest in every square inch of creation, His reconciling work active through His body in every sphere, calling us to a response of joyful obedience. Christ did not intend for our lives to be divided, fragmented and disintegrating – one part for God, the other part for the world; one destiny for the body another for the ‘soul’; one life-principle in the family or church, another in vocational and cultural life; one calling regarded as holy and all the others profane; one science as Christian (theology) and all the others secular; one law for Christians, another law for politics. Instead of this schizophrenic picture, the integrating Word of life is meant to reign supreme in each and every area as we walk in faith and obedience praying, ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.’

This is what is so important about the living Word – He demands a response in all aspects of life, our very bodies to be presented as living sacrifices as a spiritual act of worship (Rom. 12:1). God’s unified Word, variously revealed in creation, Christ’s incarnation and Scripture, is directed toward a response in every part of our being and in all our activities. At the deepest level of our humanity,at the heart of our existence, all of life is a continuous response to the Word of God.

The only division of reality that Scripture recognizes is that of direction – towards true worship or apostasy – the kingdoms of light and darkness which manifest the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Which spirit will capture our hearts and give direction to our culture and civilization? Our shared goal as Christian believers should be an undivided heart and life, devoted to Christ who saved and redeemed us, unfolding in all things to God’s praise and glory.

[1] Andree Troost, What is Reformational Philosophy: An Introduction to the Cosmonomic Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd, trans. Anthony Runia (Jordan Station, ON: Paideia Press, 2012), 166.

[2] Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 94.

[3] Herman Dooyeweerd, Wat is die mens? Cited in Strauss, “Scholasticism and Reformed Scholasticism.”

[4] Strauss, “Scholasticism and Reformed Scholasticism.”

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