While the theory of cessationism was falling apart before my very eyes, the Lord also began to show me the practical bankruptcy of the position. The setup for this, unfortunately, was a set of really ugly political battles that I won’t describe here. For our purposes at the moment, there were four salient results. First, I came out of the whole mess deeply aware that my ecclesiastical tribe — which had raised and trained me to follow Scripture at any cost — was unwilling to live up to its own principles when its own habits and traditions were at stake. I had been safe up to this point only because I had stayed away from the “wrong” passages in Scripture. That was okay when I didn’t know any better, but knowing compelled me to take a good hard look at the places my tradition had taught me to develop blind spots. Second, I needed to grow in my leadership ability. My tribe didn’t really have any way to address that, being generally convinced that leadership, communication, personality, group dynamics, and other areas of general revelation about human beings were all a greased slide into rank liberalism. Third, I was pretty beat up. It was far from being my first political fight, but all things considered I think it was the ugliest (thus far). I was really hurting, and I wouldn’t heal without help. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t get it from my tribe. Finally, of the three communities I considered home, one unceremoniously gave me the boot, the second was regarding me with serious suspicion, and the third was willing to allow me to continue work within the community under strictures that ruled out most of the ministry God was calling me into, forcing me to pursue much of my ministry outside the boundaries of my home community.
I went out into the broader Christian community in Englewood, because that was the only venue the Lord had left open to me. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, other than a chance to pursue my calling and hopefully heal. I had no idea what God was about to do.
For a few months, I just wandered, meeting new people, deepening existing acquaintances, and just trying to get the lay of the land. When summer came, I had very little to do because of the seasonal nature of my work, so I was looking for some additional ministry. One day I found myself getting a ride home from a friend who was working 40 hours a week, taking 14 hours of classes in summer session, and planting a church in his copious free time. He was clearly strapped, and I asked if there was something I could do to lighten his load. He got back to me with a request to help organize his worship service — they had an established order of worship, but needed someone to handle the administrative end of things, making sure everything got done. I visited the church a few times in order to meet the necessary people, and about a month later, realized that the Lord had gone before me and knit me into this church. I bonded with them, and they with me…without trying, I had accidentally joined the church. You have to understand, I am not one of those guys that people instantly bond with. This kind of thing just does not happen to me — but God did it.
Knowing that God was doing something special, I went with it, and remained with the church for about a year. It turned out — I did not know this going in — that the church I had accidentally joined was charismatic. I don’t know what sort of picture that word raises in your head, Gentle Reader, so let me describe a little. The worship was heartfelt. The Bible teaching was well-prepared and generally well-delivered. I never saw someone speak publicly in tongues in our church. I did see a number of prayers for healing, and something which was described as prophetic ministry.
At its most general, this might be a group of us coming together in prayer, not just to speak to God, but to listen. On several occasions, as I waited patiently to see if God would speak to me, I would find a particular passage of Scripture leaping off the page at me for no apparent reason. As we all began to share what we heard, it would turn out that the passage of Scripture that jumped out at me was a perfect fit to someone else’s circumstances, or the answer to a question someone else was asking God. It was very often the case that everyone got a little piece of the puzzle, and none of it made sense until we got all the pieces on the table. It was clearly supernatural, and the fruit was stronger fellowship, deeper understanding of God’s Word, growing purity and sanctification and a deeper reliance on one another. On the strength of Jesus’ assurance that a ministry can be tested by its fruits, I was sure that this was of God. But I had no idea just how good it could be.
During a time of deep discouragement in the fall of last year, I had occasion to receive ministry from two young women with prophetic gifting. We spent less than a half hour together, but in that time, it became clear that somewhere along the way in my Christian walk — I don’t know when — I simply stopped believing that God was interested in my good. For some time, I had been pursuing a life of grim determination more suitable to a Norse myth than Scripture. In a matter of minutes, these two dear sisters dragged this lie out into the light, exposed my sin, brought me to repentance, and spoke the peace and encouragement that my soul desperately needed to hear. I won’t share the specifics of what they told me here, because it was incredibly personal, but I wrote it down and I still refer to it often. In their own ability and their own paltry knowledge of me, there is simply no way they could have known to say what they said. But their own ability had nothing to do with it. My walk with God took a strong turn for the better that day. The glory, of course, is Christ’s. But I’m also profoundly grateful to two young prophetesses who were willing to be used by God in a supernatural way.
In January of this year, I was sitting with two friends planning a small-group lesson for the church when the conversation turned to my schedule, my incredible degree of busyness. Both of these two had a measure of prophetic gifting, and the conversation quickly moved from the mechanics of scheduling to the idolatry in my heart that was driving the problem. Subsequent conversations went even deeper, and exposed a sinful vow I had made as a child, an inner idol I had been serving for nearly 30 years. Through the ministry of Scripture and Spirit-led encouragement, God has torn that idolatry out of my heart — although I have to stay vigilant to keep it from creeping back in. Old habits of worship die hard.
Had we but world enough and time, there would be more to tell, but this is a sample. I spent a year with people who were willing to be used by God in supernatural ways, and they dealt with hidden lies, sins and idolatries in my heart, some of which had been festering there for decades. God got an incredible amount of work done, and I am vastly freer today as a result. I have a long way to go yet, of course. But today I know my Father as someone who loves me, seeks my good, tends my wounds, and cares for me specifically. Of course I knew all this doctrine before, but now I’ve lived it more deeply than I’d ever imagined possible. That wasn’t the case before all this started.
But so what? The process is different, but what I’m describing here in terms of results is just garden-variety sanctification: rooting out the enemy’s lies, coming to believe and live the truth instead. Couldn’t the same result have been achieved in a cessationist ministry? I have two answers to that.
1. I was 35 years under ministry that relied on doctrine alone without this stuff ever getting touched; in less than a year, faithful believers who were willing to be used by God in a supernatural way dragged it all out into the light. Kinda speaks for itself, don’t it?
2. God “strikes straight licks with crooked sticks,” as the Gaelic proverb goes, and I’m sure that had He decided to, He could have dealt with these things through a cessationist ministry. He’s God; He can do anything. But you know what? That’s not how it happened, and I am obliged to honor, not someone’s fantasy of what God might have done, but what He actually did. What I received from God was the benefit of prophetic ministry in His Church.
So I may not simply take the sanctification benefits I reaped and run back into the cessationist fold, even if I wanted to. First of all, those benefits really did come to me in a way that simply precludes cessationism (not that the position had a biblical leg to stand on anyhow). “If you won’t believe the words,” Jesus said, “believe the works.” The works happened right in front of me, and I simply can’t deny them. (In Scripture, there are people who did deny the works even though they saw them — but trust me, you don’t want to be like those guys.) Second, Jesus also said “Freely you have received; freely give.” I received the benefits of supernatural ministry, and I now have a duty to share. If God will give me opportunity, I will do exactly that. The problem, of course, is that I didn’t start out with either experience or gifting for this. But Paul said to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. I am obeying that command, and praying to that end. The fruit is coming slowly, but it’s coming.
If God is pleased to answer my prayers, then I will give to others as He gave to me. If not, then so be it; I’ll continue doing what I am gifted at now — shepherding and teaching — for His glory and the good of His saints. But no one will ever convince me that prophecy is not alive and well in the church today — it changed my life.
I have been following this series with rapt attention. I’ve been praying for you and thinking about you often. I am fascinated by your journey and thankful that God has brought you to where you are now. Not because I agree with you (though I think I mostly do); but simply because God brought you here. The uncertainty that comes with the lose of employment and leaving the tradition you grew up with must be about as much as you can handle right now. I pray that God continues to give you the peace that comes with faithfully following Him while many things around you must seem murky. The same prayer and hope is extended to your better half as well.
Thank you for your prayers for Kimberly and me. We both appreciate it.
There’s another word for all that “uncertainty:” freedom. Chesterton once said that the purpose of an open mind is the same as an open mouth: you’re meant to close it on something. The same is true for open options. “Keeping your options open” is not a strategy for long-term success; commitment is.
That said, our options are far more open than they’ve been before, and in this season, that’s the way God wants it. Eventually, I expect we’ll exploit that openness to settle into a set of commitments that would have been utterly impossible without this much freedom. In the meanwhile, though, we’re enjoying the process quite a lot. The angst was all in the set-up; this part is fun.
Is there a particular denomination that you think you’ll fit in better with now, than in the past? Or maybe you’re not really that defined as of yet?
I don’t know. The church I spent a year with happens to be with Grace Covenant International, for whatever that’s worth.
In truth, though, “a friend nearby is better than a brother far away,” and I’m far more interested in being wired in tight with the other churches and pastors in Englewood (across all kinds of denominational lines) than I am in finding a denomination that works for me. The community here is a real community, and it’s better by far than being allied with people I see at a conference once a year.
Okay. So are you still “Free Grace”, theologically, then? Has your exegetical awareness that has led you away from cessationism had any impact on your Free Grace exegesis?
There’s no such thing as “Free Grace exegesis,” any more than there’s such a thing as “Calvinist exegesis.” The monikers attach to sets of theological conclusions, which are in turn either the results of exegesis, or they are nothing. Of course, “eisegesis” will bear any modifier you might care to hang on it.
That said, I think I’d prefer to put it that the exegetical awareness fostered by Free Grace finally filtered into my cessationism, with fatal results for the latter. 😉
Of course my disagreements with the more…shall we say, precious, aspects of certain strands of FG theology, both on GES and FGA sides of the fence, are largely a matter of record. I have never been anything but FG, my whole life, and I remain broadly FG without needing to tick all the boxes on somebody’s litmus test to be secure in my position. This has provided no end of annoyance to folks in both organizations, who would rather see the stance of the first generation (sins and all) cast in concrete, than hear a word of insight from the second. “Science progresses funeral by funeral,” as Max Planck said, and as you know, theology is the queen of the sciences. I say all this with a lopsided grin and not a whit of bitterness. Not to my credit, I’ve been there and done that — but after you get over the impatience, offended hubris, and sense of personal offense, it really is pretty funny.