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Leopoldo A. Sánchez M. on Sculptor Spirit

It is impossible to become more like Jesus on your own. A new book offers five ways to recognize how the same Spirit who worked in Jesus’ life can shape us to be more Christlike.

Leopoldo “Leo” A. Sánchez M., the Werner R. H. and Elizabeth R. Krause Professor of Hispanic Ministries at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, also teaches systematic theology and directs the Center for Hispanic Studies there. He is the principal double bass player in the St. Louis Civic Orchestra, and he serves on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's Vital Worship Grants Advisory Board. In this edited conversation, Sánchez talks about helpful ways to understand sanctification using his book Sculptor Spirit: Models of Sanctification from Spirit Christology.

Why did you title your book Sculptor Spirit?

When you deal with sanctification as a concept, you think there's just one way to live like Jesus. I was looking for a metaphor to make sanctification come alive and appreciate the diversity of ways Scripture, the church fathers, Martin Luther, and contemporary theologians speak about life in the Spirit. The Spirit is the sculptor who chisels our rough edges to form us in the image of Christ. Just as a sculptor works with many tools, the Spirit uses a variety of ways to shape Christ in us. My book explores five models of how we can recognize the Spirit at work in the life of Jesus, and through him, in our lives.

And what are those five models?

Those models, with their subthemes in parentheses, are renewal (death and resurrection); dramatic (vigilance and resistance); sacrificial (service and sharing); hospitality (marginality and welcome); and devotional (work, rest, and play). Since writing the book, I've noticed even more models, but at least my book offers five to get the ball rolling.

Your book's subtitle mentions Spirit Christology. Is that the same as what theologians call Logos Christology?

No. Logos Christology and Spirit Christology are two complementary ways of speaking about the one Jesus. These are not two different Christs. This is one Christ seen from two different angles. Logos comes from the Greek word for word, as we see in John 1:1 and John 1:14. The Son is presented to us as God-with-the-Father, the One who has taken on himself human flesh. Logos Christology emphasizes that Jesus is truly God and truly man. Its primary confession, that Jesus is the incarnate Word, begotten of the Father, was made by the Council of Nicea in 325. They wanted to affirm Christ's divinity over groups that denied it.

Spirit Christology adds on to Logos Christology. As we also see in John 1, John the Baptist testifies that he saw the Spirit come down on Jesus (v. 32-33). John bears witness, saying, "The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit." So Jesus Christ is the receiver, bearer, and giver of the Spirit. This distinguishes him from prophets in the days of old, when the Spirit descended on specific prophets for specific messages. But in Jesus, the Spirit remains, because he is the fulfillment of the prophets. In John 3, John the evangelist explains that Jesus is the "one who comes from above," and the One "whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure" (John 3:34, NRSV). At the end of the gospel, Jesus also breathes the Holy Spirit upon his disciples so that they might speak words of life to the world in his name (John 20:21-23).

Why should non-academic Christians pay more attention to the Spirit at work Jesus' life?

If I say, "Jesus is the Word made flesh," well, great, that applies to him. But I am not God and am certainly not the only begotten Son of God in flesh. Athanasius, an early church father, explained that the Word became flesh so that all flesh might be saved. That's Logos Christology in a nutshell.

Spirit Christology, however, shows how we can participate by grace or adoption in the life of Jesus as much as is humanly possible. The Spirit whom Jesus received at his baptism is the same Spirit we receive from Jesus, which gives us access to measureless grace. The global rise of Pentecostal and charismatic movements has revived interest in trinitarian theology, especially the role of the Spirit in the Christian life. My seminary students are interested in the connection of how the Spirit meets us and forms us in Christ, both as individuals and as the body of Christ. They desire to describe and discern their experience of the Spirit in Christological and Trinitarian ways.

Could you contrast two models to show how the Spirit worked in the life of Jesus?

The sacrificial model depicts the Christian life as sharing in Christ's humility by thankfully serving God and our neighbors. The gospels tell us that when Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." These words echo the Isaiah 42 "suffering servant song," showing that Jesus is anointed with the Spirit to be the servant of Yahweh, who will take on himself the sins of the people. Jesus applied this to the shape of discipleship when he told the sons of Zebedee, and the rest of his disciples, that he had not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:35-45). So, we can become more like Christ through service. In Philippians 2, Paul explains that if we have "any common sharing in the Spirit," then we will follow Christ's example of emptying himself. Of course there are differences between Jesus' servanthood and ours. We can't take on our sins to save us. But we can live sacrificially for the sake of others as the Spirit shapes Christ the servant in us.

The dramatic model depicts the Christian life as a drama or conflict between God and the devil fighting for the souls of men and women. I call that "life in the wilderness." At his baptism, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry. In the next episode, he's led into the desert by the Spirit. It's a place of prayer but also where the devil prowls. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians to not be overly confident and remember what happened to their forefathers in the desert (1 Cor. 10:1-13). He says that to stand firm against evil, we need to be as vigilant as well-trained athletes or well-armed gladiators (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Martin Luther advised people not to be spiritual superheroes, but fight temptation by gathering with and seeking support from fellow saints. This model shows that when you're under spiritual attack, the Spirit forms you by driving you to seek the power of God in the Word, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines that promote accountability in community.

What life experiences have helped you discern another model for how the Spirit sculpts us to be like Jesus?

The hospitality model looks at marginality and welcome. I was born in Chile, raised in Panama, and am a first-generation immigrant to the U.S. Part of my work at Concordia Seminary is to teach in Spanish, so I come into contact with other first-generation immigrants. Many of my students serve congregations that include people here who do not always feel they belong because of their skin color, accent, cultural background, or undocumented status. So I pay special attention to biblical accounts dealing with Jesus and his work in the borderlands, among people who are excluded from society.

Which biblical accounts support the hospitality model?

In Luke 17, Jesus walks and talks with people living along the border between Samaria and Galilee. Borderland regions are sometimes seen as suspicious, and people wondered what Jesus was doing in such places. His example teaches you something about how the hospitality of the kingdom of God works at the margins. That same chapter tells how Jesus heals ten lepers, but the only one who comes back to thank him is a foreigner, a Samaritan. This detail throws us for a loop, because the one we'd least expect to get the goodies of the kingdom is the one who praises God.

My Spanish-speaking students and I work with people who often feel excluded, so it's very affirming to see that Jesus wasn't motivated by fear of "the other." In the Book of Acts, we see the Spirit being given to many people that Jerusalem Jews might have seen as "the other." When Greek-speaking Jewish widows were going hungry, the apostles chose seven men who were full of faith and the Holy Spirit, to serve as deacons. Philip, a deacon who had a Greek name, and was not from the "in group" of Jerusalem Jews was chosen by the Spirit to serve among the excluded.

Both the sacrificial and hospitality models involve service. How are they different?

The sacrificial model is more about serving and sacrificing for those who are "like me." The hospitality model goes to the margins. Note that one of the chosen seven deacons was Philip the Evangelist. He also travels to Samaria to preach, baptize, heal, and sets the stage so that apostles from Jerusalem might then lay hands on Samaritans so they can receive the Spirit. He also baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch, who has no full access to the temple. But, now, through the Spirit passed on through Jesus to the apostles to Philip, the eunuch is in. He becomes part of God's family. Philip embodies a Christlike life of hospitality, bringing outsiders into the kingdom.

How do you hope Sculptor Spirit will influence people?

Through the models we've just talked about, plus the renewal and devotional models in the book, I hope people will feel encouraged by the giftedness of the Spirit. Remember those WWJD (What would Jesus do?) bracelets? I always felt that following their message was a little hard. It placed a burden on me to be like Jesus but offered no way to bridge the chasm between us. But these Spirit Christology models remind us that we can pray, "Come, Holy Spirit, and shape me to be like Jesus." Instead of trying so hard on our own to be like him, we can remember that Jesus, the bearer of the Spirit, generously gives us the Spirit. The Spirit, working in and through us, has many ways to gently shape and work with us to be more Christlike. I hope people will receive this book as an invitation to prayer. I hope it gives Christians a new way to describe their spiritual journey, so they can also engage others seeking for the spiritual life.


Read Sculptor Spirit: Models of Sanctification from Spirit Christology by Leopoldo “Leo” A. Sánchez M. Register for the 2020 Calvin Symposium on Worship to hear  Sánchez M. speak in a plenary session.