January 22, 2021

iMonk Classic: Conversations with Michael Spencer

Let me be the first to say that I am enjoying the discussions we’ve been having lately on Internet Monk. I plan to incorporate more discussion sessions in the near future through “Ask Chaplain Mike” and “Let’s Discuss…” posts. Readers have sent in thoughtful questions via email and in the comments I’ve received several ideas for these times of interaction.

I hope it has been encouraging to you as well. If you haven’t yet joined the conversations, jump on in, the water’s fine!

My wife reminded me of a day when Michael “opened up the phone lines” for an entire day of discussion. On Saturday, August 1, 2009, Michael sat at his computer and entertained questions all day long. By the end of that Saturday, he had answered 130 queries from readers about a variety of subjects.

You can read the original post here: “Saturday Is for Asking Questions.” I encourage you to do so. It will give you a good snapshot of what it was like to have a conversation with our late friend, Michael Spencer. Here are a few bits from the discussion:

QUESTION: Lately, you’ve mentioned Luther’s impact on your understanding of how we are called to live out our sanctification. Could you help clarify how Luther sees living with our sinfulness and our sanctification as different from the Calvin or the Wesley camps?

iMonk: Well, the guy who said “sin boldly” isn’t Wesley, that’s for sure. Wesley believed in the possibility of perfect love. Luther would never use the word “perfect” about anything in Christian anthropology or experience. Calvin’s view of sanctification is about visible evidence that you are elect. “Make your election sure,” i.e. drive yourself to despair, imo. Luther says sinful people are given a perfect salvation by faith as a gift. Sanctification is totally rooted in the Gospel. I think Luther is weak on discipleship. My views on discipleship are in a 4-page article in the upcoming Modern Reformation magazine. Wesley’s type of discipleship processes, with Luther’s theology in the Gospel. That’s a good balance.

QUESTION: Do ever get the feeling that sometimes Christianity may be nothing more than some hoax and that all those years you believed and served it could have been spent doing better things?

iMonk: All the time. That’s normal about any of life’s commitments. Marriage. Vocation. Etc. faith commitments aren’t free from wavering. It’s these idiot Christians who tell people that it’s a sin to feel like a normal human being who ought to be smacked. “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Best prayer in the Bible.

QUESTION: How do you preach the gospel to a non-theist? Or do you?

iMonk: You preach the Gospel to everyone. I think you do several things:

1. Jesus knew there were non-theists, and talked about the Father anyway.
2. Remember that Romans 1 says they know God but suppress the knowledge. We speak with that in mind.
3. We follow Peter’s advice and speak gently and with respect, including respecting non-belief. So we don’t approach arrogantly or with hostility. We are gentle and to the point.
4. Paul spoke to those who were skeptical of all Gods in Acts 17. Model his use of the human heart and the evidence in pop culture.
5. Don’t debate or humiliate. Proclaim Good News. Sara Miles was converted by a silent communion. God the Spirit does the converting.

Michael and Roman Catholicism
Michael said regularly that the way forward for today’s evangelical church includes looking back and reengaging with the ancient, deeper, and broader traditions of the church. This led him to do a lot of thinking about the church’s roots and the traditions that have ancient connection with those roots. Plus, he was a nut for Thomas Merton, which led him to think about Catholicism and its traditions. Michael never could stop being Protestant, but he developed a respect and appreciation for many things Roman Catholic.

If you would like to understand how Michael Spencer’s thinking developed along these lines, a good piece to read is “The River Is Deep; the River Is Wide: How I Made My Peace with the Roman Catholic Church.”

The great attraction of Catholicism for me wasn’t its doctrinal correctness. Like an elderly grandparent, the church believed a lot I could never believe. But I was attracted to its maturity and beauty. It’s confidence in God rather than in human urgency and zealotry. Even among those who were living lives of amazing sacrifice, there was a quiet, settled center that I found wonderful. Merton experienced it in his conversion, and I could sense it whenever I came near to Catholic spirituality and tradition.

“Tradition” is an important item in my enlightenment and acceptance of Catholicism. I knew that Catholic bashers never tired of pointing out that we believed only what the Bible taught, and paid no attention to tradition. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Right. “Tradition” was one of those words preachers spit out with disgust, right alongside “religion.” But I was far enough down the road now to realize that my Baptist experience had all kinds of traditions that we reverenced as untouchable, yet we did not want to admit the truth. We waved our Bibles around and then stayed safely within the traditions we’d received from our culture, our denomination and our churches. (Listing those traditions is another essay, or a comment thread, but if you haven’t figured out that Protestants of every kind are steeped in their own traditions, you need to wake up.)

…Catholic bashing is a sport that will always be popular among Protestants. It is the type of teenage behavior one expects from kids who leave home after a big fight. It’s not necessary, and even when we take stock of the many serious issues that separate us, we still say the same Apostle’s Creed, worship the same Trinity, share the same first four centuries of the church and believe in the same Christ of John 3:16. I prefer to acknowledge this unity. I don’t care if you don’t. I’m rewarded without applause on this one, I assure you.

Michael and Jesus-Shaped Christianity
In addition to the word “post-evangelical,” the phrase most identified with Michael’s life and ministry is “Jesus-Shaped Spirituality.” If you search the archives, you will find posts devoted specifically to the subject. Today, I want to point you to some of his study that lay behind his use of that designation. Michael loved the Gospel of Mark and taught it several times a year for over a decade. In the post, “Read It Again…and Don’t Skip the Hard Parts,” he comments on how American evangelicalism has never really come to grips with how to understand and apply what the Bible says about Jesus’ ministry, revealed in the Gospels.

When I first started studying the Bible seriously, I studied the epistles. I had no idea where to fit the teaching and miracles of the Gospels into my Christianity. Preachers took the miracles and turned them into all kinds of things: outlines, illustrations, allegories. There was a sense that the Gospels were full of things that just didn’t matter all that much when compared to the efficient, memorizable outline of the Roman Road or the practical teaching of the epistles and the pastoral letters.

…the Gospels go far beyond the epistles in putting the Kingdom in front of us, because everything Jesus says and does is dominated by this Kingdom he is announcing…..and his actions and words make it very clear what kinds of changes must take place. The disciples are blown away by it all, and that’s our cue to get our helmets on as well.

So when you read the Gospels, Jesus is including the excluded, healing the hopeless, remaking Israel, reaching out to the pagan, overturning the religious professionals, redefining all the predictable terms, shocking those who know all the answers and, in general, making it unmistakably clear that the Kingdom isn’t just about forgiveness and “heaven,” but about the life we are living- and will live- in the Kingdom here, now and in the future.

Most of our study of the early chapters of the Gospels ignore what Jesus is doing, and leave the impression that Jesus wandered around Galilee proving that he was the Son of God, so that when he died we would get the whole, “God’s Son died for your sins” thing. We don’t seem to get the purpose of all of this. It’s not the warm-up act for the cross: it’s the Kingdom. It’s what Jesus came to bring, and to give to us. It’s a Kingdom with a crucified and risen Messiah, but it’s always a Kingdom where believing and belonging mean revolution.

In fact, Jesus is teaching, eating, doing miracles, staging prophetic announcements and performances, shocking the authorities, teaching on a reborn/remixed Israel, training disciples, telling stories and all the rest for the express purpose of saying that if God is here now, and his Kingdom is present now, then YOUR life is going to be deeply transformed. God himself is going to give your life an entirely different definition and direction.

I encourage you to go back and read these posts in their entirety. In addition, the IM Archives are filled with gems of insight and encouragement from the keyboard of our friend and founder, Michael Spencer. Take some time to peruse them. They will help you get to know Michael better, and you will learn more fully what we are all about here on IM.


  1. Adrienne says

    “It’s these idiot Christians who tell people that it’s a sin to feel like a normal human being who ought to be smacked.” Oh my, you will never know the amazing timing of my reading this. I LOVE THIS QUOTE!! I am reading a “Christian” book about widowhood. Typical evangelical ” Managing Your Emotions” – you are in control, follow these 6 power points and you will be fine. That was certainly NOT my experience. I spent the day yesterday with a young widow who is 5 years down the road since her husband’s death. She hit the wall again. It happens. I DID NOT tell her to get ahold of her emotions, to manage them, to follow the power point. I let her cry and listened. We had a cup of tea, went to a movie and later had dinner with an older widow who showed tremendous compassion. My friend will be okay. But I was just ready to hurl this book out the window when I decided to read IM and saw this quote. Denise Spencer I would love to hear from you. You know you had a gem of a husband. How are you doing?

    • Danielle says

      I love this quote too!

      I hope I have friends like you when I face a period of great pain. Sure beats any 7-step plan.

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