Bringing Reality to the Spiritual Life (Part 1)

Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In 1955, he founded the L’Abri Fellowship, a residential community in Switzerland that allows visitors to stay for short or long periods of time, find answers to faith-related questions, and experience the Christian life being lived out firsthand.

Schaeffer studied under Reformed scholars Cornelius Van Til and J. Gresham Machen, and he developed strong convictions about biblical inerrancy and other doctrines upheld by conservative evangelicals. During the early 1950’s, however, Schaeffer experienced a personal spiritual crisis that led him to reexamine his faith. This crisis began when he honestly faced two problems he saw in Christian leaders who, like him, were strongly contending for biblical truth.

First, a lack of love in the midst of disagreement. The churches and church leaders he knew were racked by quarrels, divisions, petty ambition and politics. His wife Edith described it as follows: “How could people stand for God’s holiness and the purity of doctrine in the church, and in one’s personal life, and yet not have it turn out to be harsh and ugly?” Church leaders were very vocal about what they were “against,” but Schaeffer was often left wondering what they were “for.”

Second, a pervasive lack of reality. The New Testament is full of promises to those who accept its teachings: blessings of love, joy, peace, and fullness of life present in supernatural abundance. But when he examined his own faith and that of Christians he knew, he wondered: Where are these promised results? Why aren’t they more obvious?

This crisis led him to reevaluate all of the beliefs on which he had staked his career and his life. During that period, he paced back and forth for hours at a time, thinking and praying and thinking again. He returned to the most fundamental questions and asked whether the teachings of the Bible were actually true.

After several months, a breakthrough occurred. Schaeffer came to a new understanding of his faith. He found the answers he was seeking in the historical truths of the Bible. Joy and thankfulness toward God flooded his heart which he expressed through poetry and song.

Shortly after this spiritual reawakening, Schaeffer developed a series of lectures which became the foundation for the teaching and discipleship programs at L’Abri. This material was later gathered and published in 1971 under the title True Spirituality. That book, and the lecture series on which it is based, addressed the question that Schaeffer himself had wrestled with, the question that he heard over and over from young people who came to him looking for answers. That question was, “Why does my faith seem so unreal?”

As he spoke with these young people, many of whom were raised in Christian families and evangelical churches, he found a familiar pattern. In church, they were told, “Accept Christ as your Savior. Believe in his atoning death for your sins and receive his gift of forgiveness and eternal life.” So far, so good. That is solid biblical teaching. But then what? After accepting Jesus as their Savior, what were they supposed to do?

At that point, believers were typically presented with a list of things to do: Read the Bible. Pray daily. Worship God on Sunday. And avoid sins and behaviors that were sinful and ungodly. Those forbidden behaviors varied from place to place, but in general it included sexual immorality, drunkenness, lying, stealing, and swearing.

Sooner or later, these believers began to wonder, “Is that all there is to the Christian life? Am I just supposed to uphold some doctrines and try to be a good person?” The faith began to seem trite and unreal.

Schaeffer believed that their sense of unreality came from two sources. The first was the modern scientific worldview which limits the universe to a naturalistic system of cause and effect. The Bible presents our world as having two parallel realms: the natural, which we perceive with our bodily senses, and the supernatural, which is inhabited by God, angels and spiritual forces. The supernatural is not in a faraway place (e.g., heaven). It is present here and now and is just as real as everything we see, even more so. Yet, as a practical matter, many of us live as though the supernatural realm does not exist. “From the Christian viewpoint, no man has ever been so naïve, nor so ignorant of the universe, as twentieth-century man” (from True Spirituality, p. 57).

The second reason why faith becomes unreal is that many of us are trying to living the Christian life by our own effort and strength. To live the Christian life by your own effort is a contradiction. The Christian life is Jesus Christ coming alive in us and bringing forth God’s works in us through the Holy Spirit. Schaeffer taught that it is not enough for Christians to just do the right things. These things must be done in the right way, through the power of the Spirit, not through our own strength, otherwise they are worthless. Self-effort cannot bring our dead souls to life; God must do it. Similarly, self-effort cannot bear good fruit in our lives; God must do that as well. Just as we receive from God our justification from sin as a free gift of grace, we must also receive any good works that we do from God as a free gift of grace. This understanding of how to receive good works, rather than merely do good works, is notoriously difficult to describe. But it is not a minor issue. It is a fundamental principle of Christianity. Without it, the gospel isn’t really the gospel.

Until I read True Spirituality, I never really tried to distinguish between the work that I was doing and the work that God was doing through me. “What’s the difference?” I thought. “One way or another, the work’s gotta get done. Why should it matter if it happens this way or that way?” In my upbringing, personal initiative, hard work and effort were always praised as virtues. No one had ever told me that the work of faith had to be God’s work, not mine. And no one had ever clearly explained to me how this phenomenon of God working through a human being actually looks in practice. If this is such a fundamental part of Christianity, how could I have missed it? How could my Bible teachers and church leaders have failed to emphasize it?

But then I wondered, “Maybe that’s why my faith seems so abstract and unreal.”

Like Francis Schaeffer, I too had been experiencing a crisis of faith. For a long time, I had been growing increasingly aware of unreality in myself and in the Christians around me.

For example, once I attended a Bible conference where we were studying one of the familiar passages that are commonly found at UBF events. During the testimony-sharing time, one of the missionaries began to read his testimony, and I thought, “This sounds familiar.” As I listened, I recognized that it was the exact same testimony that he had shared on the same passage at an event a few years earlier. He was recycling his old written testimony and passing it off as something new.

Although this is a rather blatant example, that sort of thing was happening all the time. In every group Bible study, someone would say, “One thing I learned is…” and proceed to utter something that I had heard countless times before. If we had been speaking honestly, we would have admitted that we were not learning anything new; we were just reminding ourselves and one another of what had been taught long ago. When I first noticed this tendency, I was bemused by it. But as it continued unabated year after year, it became increasingly bothersome. “Everyone here is bored stiff,” I thought; “Why can’t we admit it?”

I have seen events that were tired and drab, yet church members spoke of them in unrealistically glowing terms, pawning them off as amazing and miraculous. Admit it. There is a fine line between (a) seeing God who is present and working in the ordinary affairs of life and (b) convincing ourselves that some very unremarkable work by human beings represents the genuine work of God. The former is authentic; the latter is counterfeit. But to the untrained eye, the two can look similar, especially to us who live in modern times and are chronically insensitive to the supernatural realm.

Does the Bible have anything to say about this sense of unreality?

I am reminded of a highly educated and well regarded religious leader who secretly approached Jesus. This man was wondering why there was so much miraculous work going on in the ministry of Jesus but not in his own life. Jesus responded by explaining to him that there are two fundamentally different kinds of work. Natural work arises from the flesh; supernatural work arises from the spirit. Human effort produces the former; only the Holy Spirit can create the latter. Supernatural work springs forth from the regeneration or new birth, which is the work of God alone.

To this man, the teaching of Jesus sounded like gibberish. “I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover,” he thought. “If this were true, why didn’t I see it before?”

Jesus concluded this meeting by challenging Nicodemus to intellectual honesty and integrity. Jesus urged him examine himself to see whether his achievements were natural or supernatural. The two are as different as night and day. “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (Jn 3:21).

Maybe this Schaeffer guy is on to something.


  1. Very good point Joe, about the need for awakening and real Christian life. I think that what Chesterton (another favorite  Catholic of mine)  said is right on, “people have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There is never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It is sanity and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.” If our Bible studies are boring and drab it is because something is wrong with us, not with the Bible or the Christian life. But here is a question for you Joe, who is listening? I mean, I know that there are 15 or 20 regular contributors to this website, but I also have spoken to many people in UBF who have never heard of it. I think that this is a message that people in UBF need to hear! So, how, other than by word of mouth can this happen? Maybe a mass email with this link should be sent to everyone in the entire ministry…but you know that if you do that, you might have to be a martyr :)

    • Hi David, thanks for your kind words.

      This website has quite a few readers who don’t comment. But regardless of how many read it this, what matters is how many of us actually live it out.

      I think this is what Paul was talking about in 1Co 2:4: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” Paul was a wise man and a great speaker. But it was the demonstration of the Spirit’s power through his life  that distinguished him from the sophists of his day who roamed around Corinth trying to gather an audience.

      If anything that appears on this website is Spirit-filled, then God will make sure it that it reaches the eyes and ears of those who need it.

  2. GerardoR

    Hi Joe,
    Interesting article. However, I am still a bit unclear as to what you mean. Are you saying that we need to accept Jesus works in our life so that we can do them? The article sounded as if you are saying, God wants to work through us and bringing this additional work in our lives can satisfy our faith life. Is this correct?

    • Hi Gerardo, I don’t really understand the question you are asking. Maybe this will be cleared up in Part 2.

  3. Thanks, Joe. It is surely easier for me to depend on “my work” which is tangible, than to depend on God’s work, which is often intangible. Though we do have to “work things out,” it is ultimately God who is working in us (Phil 2:12-13). Also, how do we practically and functionally speak as though God is speaking through us, and work with the strength God provides (1 Pet 4:11)? Surely this requires continuous self-denying humility and a continuous dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit, I think.
    I’m wondering what you or others think? Is our UBF tendency toward “work righteousness” and “naturalism masquerading as the supernatural work of God” because of our Pellagian or semi-Pellagian tendencies? Or might it be (also) due to our spontaneous tendency to “save face” due to our strong cultural sense of shame and honor? So, if we say a conference, or a messenger, or a message, or a testimony is bad (or recycled), we are shaming (and not encouraging) the person or the one who prepared the conference.

    • Hi Ben. I didn’t remember what Pelagian and semi-Pelagian meant and I had to look them up. I think of this less as a doctrinal issue and more about the tacit knowledge of how to live the Christian life that is informally passed from one person to another by example.

      Speaking for myself, I acted like the people in The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. When people around me were saying, “What a beautiful message!” and “What a wonderful Bible study!” I never wanted to say, “Well, I thought it was uninspiring” or “I didn’t get it.” I never wanted to be the one to  declare that the emperor was naked, because, after all,  the emperor’s clothes are so  unique  and special that only the truly wise  people can see them. If  the beauty or specialness of our Bible study is only apparent  to those who are spiritually mature and “high level,” then who would want to admit that he doesn’t see it?

  4. Darren Gruett

    Good article. Certainly, our lives as Christians should be more than just routine. I think of the disciples, living humdrum, boring lives as fisherman until Jesus called them. I think as Christians we should have the most exciting and fulfilling lives of anybody.

  5. I’m suddenly reminded of a time I was giving a testimony and I said one of those catchphrases like “I need to give my life to Jesus” or something like that. After I said that someone blurted out “what does that even mean?” I got annoyed at him. To be quite honest, I didn’t even know what I was talking about! It was just one of those things that gets drilled into your head when you hear it enough. But for him to have the courage, or just being so anoyed with hearing it so much, is really refreshing. He actually questioned in public! I never see that! And what did I do? I got mad at him. Yikes….