Gordon T. Smith’s 2014 book, Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity, is an honest and thoughtful attempt to describe what it looks like and what it means to be a mature Christian. As Christopher A. Hall notes in a Christianity Today review of Smith’s book, “Holiness is a loaded term, one with a checkered reputation.”
Wesleyan-Holiness people may not agree with this assessment, but many acknowledge the difficulty of describing and living out what it means to be holy. So how do we talk about and embody holiness in ways that are compelling and attainable in a post-Christian society?
Smith’s book provides several helpful, conceptual handles on Christian holiness, using words like wisdom, good work, love, and joy to describe its characteristics. He looks at Christian maturity, both in its individual and corporate dimensions, as well as providing reflections on spiritual transformation and higher education.
Smith, a prolific author, serves as the president and professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Ambrose University in Alberta, Canada, which is jointly affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Smith previously served as the executive director of reSource Leadership International and was also academic dean of Regent College. Smith met with Grace and Peace Magazine to respond to questions about his book during a visit to Nazarene Theological Seminary to give the Heinmiller Lectures in Spiritual Formation.
g&p: What prompted you to write Called to Be Saints?
GS: In a previous book, I wrote about conversion as the beginning of the Christian life, located in the broader perspective of what God does in the life of an individual or a faith community. I later decided that I wanted to speak about the other end of the Christian journey and experience. I was concerned that we were not communicating the ideal of maturity in Christ in a way that was compelling to me, let alone to my son’s generation.
g&p: What makes Christian maturity hard to describe?
GS: Every characterization of God’s holiness in an individual’s life will be culturally located. I read the Scriptures and articulate the Christian ideal, but it’s always framed within a particular time and space.
If we think of our own theological and spiritual traditions, where is continuity between how we articulate the Christian ideal and how our forebears did? Where are the discontinuities that reflect the aspirations of our own culture and society?
Our culture has deep longings that are worth tapping into and suggesting that, ultimately, these are fulfilled in Christ Jesus. We need to frame that in a compelling and accessible way.
For instance, one of the most beautiful words in sacred text is holy. Unfortunately, holiness has no meaning for an emerging generation. A. W. Tozer observed that many good words have lost their power, so we must put them on the back shelf and find other ways to express a similar ideal that resonates with either the society we’re a part of or those we’re trying to communicate with.
So, if the language of holiness does not have traction with young people, we can draw upon synonyms. I’ve drawn on the image of Christian maturity because the longing to develop as a person does resonate. I’m echoing Paul in Colossians 1 when he speaks about the telos to which we are called. He doesn’t use the language of holiness, but he talks about fulfillment of the human vocation. In Called to Be Saints, I’ve tried to find compelling language that gives us another avenue to reflect on the biblical call to spiritual maturity, full-fledged Christian discipleship, and, of course, holiness.
g&p: You did doctoral work at Loyola school of theology. did you draw on that and other parts of the Christian tradition in writing Called to Be Saints?
GS: In Called to Be Saints I talk about holiness as wisdom. I talk about holiness as vocational holiness. I talk about the need to love and be loved, and I talk about the invitation to joy. For each of these I drew heavily on the evangelical tradition, but I also asked, “What other voices might inform the conversation?”
For instance, Alexander Schmemann is Eastern Orthodox, and his writings on the relationship between holiness and joy are unmatched. David Ford is spectacular on the relationship of holiness to wisdom. Eugene Peterson uses the rich phrase vocational holiness. What does it mean to be holy in how we engage the world? Concerning holiness and love, there’s no doubt about the huge influence of the early church fathers and John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—they all said that to be holy is to love as we are loved. I’m also indebted to the Ignatian tradition.
Does that weaken my own tradition? Not at all. Drawing from other sources has strengthened my understanding of my own tradition and my reading of the Scriptures.
Finally, I lean into Schmemann on the theme of joy. A holy person is a happy person. It doesn’t mean we’re happy all the time, but we know resilient joy in a deeply fragmented world. All of these, though, must be located in the broader vision of the Christian life. As I seek to frame holiness, I think of Paul’s great line in Colossians 1:27, which reverberates down the centuries, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” This is the defining nature, character, and purpose of the Christian life made possible by the Father’s call and through the grace of the Holy Spirit. But there is a radical centrism in Paul and in the New Testament: Wisdom, vocational holiness, love, and joy are not ends in themselves but are all found in Christ Jesus, the one who holds all of our lives together.
g&p: You’re the president of a university in Canada, in a largely post-christian culture. How do we consider christian maturity in a Way that is relatable and attractive to secular society?
GS: I study the Scandinavian countries because I think we will be where they are now. Let’s evaluate how the church is thriving—or not—within thatkind of supremely secularized society. The cultural infrastructure will not support the church, and that’s a good thing. It will force us to be clearer about who we are, what we’re trying to do, and what it means to lean into the grace of God. We’ll face a trimming, like the pruning of a tree, which will be healthy for us. We’ll actually grow more in a post-Christian society, not less.We’re perceived now as the great critic of our society. But instead of judging, we will be able to say,“What are the deep longings of our society?” We’ll acknowledge the palpable need to be loved and say, “We know how to be a community that loves and is loved.” We’ll recognize a huge desire to havea resilient joy in a fragmented world. We want to be able to say, “We also have some experience with this.” We can notice the longings and be agents of socialtransformation and justice.
I think a post-Christian society will be a multifaith society. So part of our learning may include being attentive to other religious traditions. God may want us to listen and be responsive to learnings that may come from Thích Nhất Hạnh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist, from Muslim sources, from Sikh sources. Ultimately we long for Muslims and Buddhists to come to faith in Christ, but it does no harm to be in a learning mode with them in the meantime.
g&p: What are the implications of looking at holiness as Wisdom, love, vocation, and Joy as it pertains to the church and the corporate dimensions of our faith, such as Worship?
GS: One of my concerns is that we have previously trained pastors with a single agenda—to make a church grow. It can be a mile wide and an inch deep, but you’re a player if you can make that happen. We urgently need to reconceptualize pastoral ministry and congregational life along the themes in Ephesians 3 and 4, where all are growing up into Christ as each part does its work. Paul frames his own ministry in Colossians as doing everything possible to present each one perfect in Christ. Pastors need to be equipped to form people in the faith, but that will not happen quickly.
So much of our frustration in evangelical churches is: This isn’t working, people are not mature in Christ; we need to have a revival weekend and fix it in one great swoop. Pastors need to understand how congregations work so that all of this is happening interdependently. Together we’ll grow up into him who is the head, but it’s a long process and requires patience. It also requires wisdom—a congregation’s practices cannot just lead us in circles, but gradually, through sustained practice, lead us to greater maturity in Christ.
We need to be attentive to the ways liturgy, worship, and the gathering of the saints is indeed a formative event. Its most powerful formation is not just because of engagement with the Scriptures, not just because we learned to give generously through offerings; ultimately, it’s an encounter with Christ. If I grow in faith, hope, and love, it’s because I meet Jesus Christ in real time. Liturgy is all about God’s people encountering Christ. Again, its impact is slow.
Sometimes, pastors get frustrated and say, “I wish there were more patient people, so I’ll preach next Sunday on patience, and if I’m a good preacher, they’ll be more patient people.” And the next Sunday, wow, the patience sermon worked, so, “If I preach on giving, they’ll be givers. If I preach on social justice, they’ll be committed to that.” That’s not the way preaching or liturgy works. The impact is much more subtle. Isaiah says God’s Word will not return void. If we are faithful with good practice in liturgy, God will do God’s work in God’s time in individuals and communities.
g&p: How do you see this relating to the means of grace? How do we teach people a theology of grace that helps them pick up on this?
GS: What are the concrete, tangible ways and means by which the grace of God is appropriated so that it actually alters me? As I said earlier, grace works in our lives subtly, often below the surface in terms of the daily routines and practices that make a Christian a Christian or a faith community a faith community.
So we’re not trying to hit a home run. We’re just trying to get on base each week. Rather than trying to be heroes, we’ll just be faithful. And what are the means of grace by which we can live faithfully in response to God’s call and appropriate His grace? How does the ascended Lord communicate His grace to the Church and to the individual Christian?
I really do believe in the power of the Scriptures— read and heard week in and week out as they are preached, meditated upon, and lived. However, I also encourage us to recover the deeply Wesleyan idea of the sacramental life of the church. John Wesley viewed the sacraments as a means of grace. The current generation longs for an integration of head and heart. They refuse to pit head against heart like my generation did.
If our faith is not embodied, if it’s not sacramentalized, it does not take. If worship is merely cerebral or sentimental, it is not transformative. The sacraments help us to embody the grace of God. For example, I hear God’s Word preached; now I receive it as I eat and drink at the Table. Practices that take me to serve the communities are also acts of my body, of living out what I’ve heard. So my acts of service—whether in the soup kitchen or in my day job—are acts of embodiment by which God’s grace subtly takes root in my life.
The trump card is the inner witness of the Spirit. It is hard to overstate the power of Paul’s language in Galatians 5: Walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, lean into the Spirit. We need to learn how to do that in a post-Christian, secularized society where the rhythms of daily life will not be fundamentally Christian. An anti-Christian culture will force us to learn how to have a greater immediacy of relationship with the Holy Spirit. We will ask ourselves, “How do we live these Scriptures in a way that reflects the immediacy of the Spirit in the church’s life and witness?”
g&p: How does the work of preaching relate to spiritual maturity? What do you say to the minister charged to preach and teach a life-giving Word?
GS: When we open the sacred text we need to ask, “What is the greatest need of anybody who showed up today?” I suggest that their greatest need is to trust Jesus more. Every sermon is about calling people to lean into the gospel. If you go after their morality or their behavior (“I want them to be a better husband or more honest”), you fail to appreciate that the things you long for are derivative of something else. If people begin to behave better but don’t grow to trust Jesus more, you’ve accomplished nothing. The purpose of proclaming the Word is to call us into deeper trust in Christ, greater union with Christ, deeper dependence on the Spirit of Christ. Always make that your goal. Secondly, let the Word do what only the Word can do. You are not the agent of change. Allow the Word to be the agent of change, made possible by the work of the Spirit. So we preach in the Spirit; we pray for illumination before we come to the text. We lean into the Spirit to let the Spirit work through the Word, but the effect of the Word is incremental. You’re not hitting home runs. So you preach the Word and let it do its work in its time. It will not return to us void.
g&p: What advice would you give denominational leaders charged to help and support pastors to preach and live out the call to christian maturity?
GS: When I look at the relationship of Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy, I cannot get away from the power of blessing. As a grandfather, my primary call to is to bless my grandchildren. The older generation is to bless the younger generation. That means offering a radical hospitality of receiving them or their own terms and not demanding changes.
Paul said to Timothy, “I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.” He delighted in the next generation, enjoyed their company. I enjoy my grandchildren; they bless me back. But their blessing me is the echo of my blessing them. The initiative has to come from the older generation to the younger generation. Blessing also means empowerment. When Paul told Timothy, “Remember how we laid hands upon you,” that was an act of empowering Timothy. So I receive you into my company, I delight in you, and I empower you. All of those are part of what it means to bless the next generation. The crucial question for every older person is, “Are you a blesser?”
GORDON T. SMITH is the president of Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada