Chalk it up to another episode of missing what is right in front of me, but it took me awhile to realize that many of the letters in the New Testament are intended to be spiritual direction. That is, they are meant to instruct people on how best to live our lives in light of what Christ has done.
What happens if we look at one of the epistles as a crash-course of spiritual direction from Paul to his readers? What were Paul's priorities? What were the first lessons they needed? Looking at the letter to the Galatians, here's what I see:
- The most vital thing, given first priority, is to make sure they understand the good news of Christ. He explains from many and various angles why this message is to be trusted, and the message is that our righteousness consists in trusting God's righteousness that is revealed in Christ. Roughly half the epistle is devoted to this, and nothing else is considered until this has been firmly grasped.
- There was a strong warning given against false rules and false religiosity, against the "keeping up appearances" kind of religion, or the "earning our righteousness" kind of religion, or the "keeping the holiness code" kind of religion. He tries to get them to see religion in a new way, not as a matter of keeping the law but of living as children of God.
- He challenges them to see the law as fulfilled in this: loving each other. He challenges them on whether, with all their rules and observances, they have actually loved each other.
- He instructs them on recognizing the works of our sinful nature, the sinful acts, attitudes, and outcomes that have no place in a Christian life. He challenges the people to "crucify" those. His listeners lived in an age where crucifixion was a reality, not a historical curiosity. We might have the same reaction if we were told to give our sinful nature a lethal injection, or to put our sinful nature in the electric chair. We remember the cross as where we meet Jesus, where we seek his place at the heart of the matter. But we remember the cross with an understanding of what Paul meant: our sinful nature is not to be given amnesty, but executed, to die with Christ.
- He instructs them on what a spirit-filled life looks like. He describes a goodness that fulfills and surpasses the law without giving itself a pat on the back for how favorably it tallies against the law, without trying to justify itself by what it does, without trying to condemn or show up anyone else by comparison.
- He shows them how, as a community, to work together when there is sin. He shows them the particular temptations that come for the corrector: to be arrogant or conceited or harsh, to be self-deceived about his own status, or to be ungenerous toward another's burdens. He shows them the particular temptations that come for those who steadily persevere: to grow tired of doing good.
- He explains how each person has the responsibility to test his own actions.
I know more of the epistles and much of the New Testament could be re-read from that same point of view. What I hope is that eventually we can answer this question: what are the Bible's instructions about our spiritual formation? Paul already gives a short answer here: to become children of God, to clothe ourselves with Christ.