A Reading Milestone

17 November 2017

Every year I set a reading goal. This year, it was only 25 books, split between the professionally relevant, the devotional, and fun. For me, that’s a remarkably unambitious goal, and it reflects the fact that I spent the year finishing school and launching a business, which left me precious little time for reading. But I hit my goal last night, finishing the 25th book with 6 weeks to spare. So I’ll probably hit 30 before the end of the year.

Which was my favorite? That’s a complicated question. How do you compare a spirituality of midlife change to a romp through a fictional, Manhattan landscape featuring parkour and dragons, or either of them to a careful appraisal of C. S. Lewis’ philosophical differences with his longtime friend Owen Barfield?

You can’t, on any but wildly subjective criteria.

So let me speak subjectively: overall, for sheer joy of reading, my favorite was probably Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart, a fictional discussion between a wide variety of specialists meditating together on the nature of reality and human consciousness. If it sounds heady, it was — but I’m a geek to the bone. Reading Worlds Apart was like being in a room with a bunch of people brighter than me, and just barely managing to keep up with their discussion. It was a great deal of fun, even if I did have to read some parts a few times to catch up. I read a good deal by (and about) Barfield in the past year, including a number of his essays and introductions to others’ works, but this one was my favorite. He’ll be changing my thought for many years to come.

More sensible comparisions would be within major categories of books: spiritual, healing, martial arts, philosophy, and so on. So here’s some of that.

Among the spiritual works, the clear standout was Hierotheos Vlachos’ magisterial work Orthodox Psychotherapy. Entertaining it ain’t, but when I was able to carve out the time to read a decent chunk at once, I found a depth and breadth of spiritual insight and compassionate understanding of the human condition that is rare in any tradition. It was helpful to me, and it will be helpful again when I read it next year–which I certainly will.

Among the healing works, Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light was a clear standout. It’s a classic for a reason. And I have to make mention of Cyndi Dale’s Subtle Energy Techniques. While I widely disagree with Dale in spots, her reflections on her life’s work are well worth reading, and she is a master of her craft.

Among the martial works, I’ve gotta say, Maija Soderholm’s The Liar, The Cheat, and the Thief is a classic. I will read it again. And again. Her subject is sword duelling, which is only of peripheral interest to me, but her insights into the human condition along the way make it valuable for anybody — and again, she is a master of her craft.

Steven Pressfield’s wonderfully readable Turning Pro and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t changed the way I practice my profession for the better, as did Sam Altman’s Startup Playbook. Reading Greg Gutfeld and Vox Day on rhetoric and political strategy may have made me a little spicier, not that I needed any help in that department.

I read fiction by Lee Child, Kel McDonald, Dan Millman, Tony Hillerman, Doug Wilson, and others — and if you have’t read Wilson’s Flags Out Front, you’re missing out — but for sheer entertainment value, Seanan McGuire’s Midnight Blue-Light Special was the most fun.

I’m still in process on a handful of books — when am I not? — but that’s the lineup for most of this year.



31 December 2013

New Year’s Day is upon us, and with it, a flood of New Year’s resolutions. Gym memberships and workout DVDs will be purchased. Yoga pants will be worn (once). Classic works of literature will be opened. Journal entries will be written. Healthy recipes will be googled, and wheat grass juice will be guzzled. Scales will be dusted off. Credit cards will be cut up. File folders and closet organizers will be purchased. Hopes will be high. This year, I’m gonna do it! No, really!

And by Valentine’s Day, all will be forgotten. Because New Year’s resolutions, like Christmas trees, Jack-o-lanterns and fireworks, are a seasonal thing. You would no more keep a New Year’s resolution in May than you would carve a pumpkin in July. It’s the American way.

That said, the end of a year and the beginning of another is a natural time to stop and evaluate. For a few years now, I’ve had a practice of setting annual goals. Here are my rules:

  1. Standard goal-setting wisdom applies. Goals should be realistic, measurable, etc. Metrics can be totally subjective, but they need to be meaningful. (e.g., if the goal is to exercise enough to feel better, then me feeling better is the measure. If the goal is to be more tender toward my wife, my subjective evaluation is not worth much — but hers is.)
  2. Cover the range. Hitting my goals for the year should mean a fairly balanced life. This means, at minimum, goals that will challenge me physically, mentally, relationally, and spiritually.
  3. Review goals constantly. I write my goals out and keep that piece of paper on my desk where I can see it all the time. I consciously review the list at least once a month, and evaluate how I’m doing. How I’m doing has to boil down to a simple statement, with no shilly-shallying about: “I am on track.” “I am lagging.” “I am ahead of schedule.” “I am failing.”
  4. I am free to fail. If something that seemed worth doing in January just turns out not to be worth doing in the cold light of March, then I won’t feel obligated to do it. This is not a contract with myself. That said, it stays on the list through the end of the year. I will have to face it no less than once a month and say, “I am failing at xyz.” If I am pleased to be failing at it because the other things that are taking precedence really are more important, then so be it. If not, maybe I need to get back on the horse.
  5. No repeats on failed goals. If it wasn’t important enough to do last year, then I’m not going to clutter up my list with it again this year. If I still think it’s important a year from now, it can go back on the list. Note that this does not apply to partial successes. The difference between partial success and abject failure is somewhat subjective, but it mostly hinges on whether the goal changed my lifestyle. Let me illustrate with a couple of my goals from last year. I set myself a goal to read through one book a month in a certain area. I think I did it through February, and stopped. That’s a failure. I still think it’s a good idea to do, but it clearly wasn’t a priority, and therefore it’s banned from this year’s list. I also set a goal of learning Sun Lu-Tang’s 98-posture Taiji form. It crossed my mind that it might take more than a year, but I figured I could handle it in a year if I really tried. In fact, the foundational movements and power-development exercises I had to master before I could even start the form ended up taking the first half of the year. I’m finishing the year with only about a third of the form learned. But I practice 4-6 days a week. The goal changed my lifestyle, so I consider it a success; I just didn’t get as far as I was hoping. I had never done Taiji before, and didn’t have a realistic appreciation for the learning curve. This year’s goal (to learn the remaining 2/3 of the form) is much more realistic.

I don’t have a rule about this, but I’m a big fan of brevity. My entire list of annual goals will fit on one side of a 3×5 card. More than that is too much to juggle, and makes it hard to constantly review.

Here’s a partial (but representative) look at my evaluation for the past year:

  • Spirit: Develop in marital and spiritual leadership. Success. I’ve been presented with leadership roles that I couldn’t have handled a year ago, and been able to step into them handily. The spiritual focus in my marriage is stronger than it was a year ago — we’re more in sync with God and each other. (Sounds fuzzy, but I can feel the difference.)
  • Body: Regular workouts. Partial success. My martial arts workouts were regular and numerous. My workouts for attributes (strength, endurance, looseness, freedom of movement) were no less than once a week, but much more sporadic than they could have been.
  • Body: Focus on power generation in my martial arts practice. Success. I had occasion not only to focus on power generation in my own practice, but to teach a lot of what I know — and I probably learned more by teaching than I’ve ever learned any other way.
  • Mind: Write the novel I’ve been working on over the course of the year. Failure. I did nothing until October, prepped a little, and then tried to ram through it in November, using NaNoWriMo as a vehicle. It didn’t work; I can’t improvise my way through a mystery story — just too much to have in my head at once.
  • Career: Greater control of my schedule. Success. My better choice of bus route package this year allows me more freedom to make and honor commitments. We are well positioned to begin curriculum sales that have a good chance of freeing me from the need to drive a bus over the next couple years, which would greatly increase my flexibility. Meanwhile, I have increased my margin by dropping a weeknight commitment, and I have successfully maintained a day of rest most weeks.

Where there is success here, it is very much God’s doing. In a number of these areas where I was seeking growth, I didn’t have a clue how to make it happen. The goal was more a prayer than anything else, and overwhelmingly, God answered those quasi-prayers, often in very unexpected ways. It’s been my pleasure to learn from what God did, and apply what I learned to setting further goals for this year.

Do you set goals for your year? How do you decide on them?

Reaping What I Sowed

8 September 2013

“That you may be found just when You speak
And blameless when You judge.”

A while back, I parted ways with the Grace Evangelical Society, which was the closest thing I had to a denominational affiliation. Unlike my departure from Rocky Mountain Seminary, which was public and suitably attended by explanation here, here and here, my departure from GES was very quiet. The only public ripple was my removal, without comment, from the list of speakers at that year’s conference. It was a while before the conference, so it seems that only a few people noticed.

Bob Wilkin told me at the time that he wanted to spare my reputation, and I believe that he sincerely meant that. For my part, I believed (probably wrongly) that my reputation was in no danger at all, but to be honest, it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I thought it had been. I’d been gambling my reputation on every public thing I did for years, and this was no different. The issues at stake were serious, and I believed they needed to be discussed in public for the benefit of the entire movement. I was rightly confident I could acquit myself well in open debate. I wanted to give it a shot — and the more public, the better.

However, I wasn’t willing to try to force Bob into a public debate he didn’t want to have. I was still smarting in the aftermath of the vicious Chafer Theological Seminary split, in which I had been very active as a full-time professor (and the school’s only Th.M. graduate). In that context, the quiet parting of ways felt like getting away clean — and in a sense, it was. At very least, it was a significant improvement over the previous unholy mess. Having no significant public venue available to me, I left quietly, and continued the conversation where I could, trying to lay out a Free Grace approach that repented of the past’s errors without surrendering its victories.

Now, with more miles on my shoes and more meals under my belt, I see it differently. The issues under discussion did, and still do, need serious public consideration, and suppressing discussion was and is an awful idea. However, the public debate that would have happened then would have been bad for everybody. I was still pretty angry. I would have gone the extra mile to embarrass my opponents in the debate (and in all modesty, I would probably have succeeded — they were vulnerable at several points, and I was pretty good at that sort of thing.) Serious and important issues would have been buried under all sides’ emotional baggage. Everyone would have come away nursing unnecessary wounds and more entrenched than before. In that sense, a quiet departure was a good idea, and I’m grateful to God and to Bob that it happened that way. However, it was not an entirely unmixed blessing; some fallout has come from the very quietness of it all.

A good while after my departure, I found myself catching an enormous amount of flak from certain quarters because of my association with GES, and this largely because people thought I would teach the very errors I had been trying to correct. I see no reason to allow those misunderstandings to continue, so I am hoping to prevent similar misunderstandings in the future by explaining a little of the history

The job at this point is not to try to go back and say what I should have said back when the separation was fresh, or to enumerate my disagreements at every point. The moment has passed. What I can do is reflect from the present distance on what happened, and in the process clear the air and remove whatever gossip and lingering doubts I can.

The short version is pretty simple: I was a Free Grace hardliner, and sought to advance the cause of Free Grace theology. In the course of that, I gradually became aware that in certain areas, I was sinning against my Christian brothers, and these sins had been nurtured in me by the Free Grace movement. At the same time, I saw a need to encounter and address a set of problems — call them second-generation concerns, perhaps — that would move the conversation beyond some of the traditional Free Grace bullet points. Having grown up Free Grace, I saw it as a living tradition rather than a fixed ideology, and so I sought to reform the movement from within. To say that I encountered very highly placed resistance is putting it mildly. I kept pushing — hard — and after a long series of clashes behind closed doors, I was unceremoniously bounced. The proximate cause was that in the course of a public discussion, I made a critical remark about Zane Hodges and Bob Wilkin, which seems to have provoked Bob to re-examine the value of my participation in GES. At the time it seemed the right thing to say, and I’m still not sure it wasn’t. Had I kept my mouth shut then, something else undoubtedly would have been the last straw — open debate on the issues I was concerned about was not welcome at GES back then. (I don’t know about now — I’ve been out of touch.)

This post is long enough without getting into the specific issues at stake in those discussions (many of which I have written about here before), but l will close with a couple of theological observations about this whole mess.

First, in the events surrounding my departure, I believed with all my heart that I was being treated unjustly. I still think that some people treated me very unjustly, but I can now see that at the same time, I had it coming. You see, I had served for years in the Doctrinal Purity Police, picking fights about doctrinal minutia, causing division among brethren, and so on. These skills were encouraged in my training, and in all modesty I was good at them. When I repented and began to seek a different approach to ministry, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of the Purity Police treatment — and let me tell you, that was not as much fun as dishing it out. Giving me the treatment was sin on the part of the Purity Police, but it was certainly justice where I was concerned. God will not be mocked; I had sown the wind, and I was reaping the whirlwind. I had it all coming, and then some — but God is merciful.

Second, because it seemed to me at the time that there was no rhyme or reason to the situation, I suffered emotionally over my exclusion from GES far more than I should have. As I said above, it was a certain sort of justice, and therefore I ought to have simply received it as training from my loving Father. By the time the chickens came home to roost, I had already repented of the sins whose consequences I was reaping, and was seeking to follow Jesus in those areas. But for some reason I had the idea that things should go well for me whilst following Jesus. Stephen, Peter and Paul would have found that a very odd notion. Following Jesus leads to trouble with the powers that be, and more than a little of that trouble comes from reigning religious authorities. We are Christians; Jesus told us it would be like this, and taught us what to do. Instead of wallowing about feeling wounded and rejected, I ought to have rejoiced as though I were getting a big promotion. In fact, I was, if only I’d had the eyes to see it.

Not In Kansas Anymore

15 December 2012

I left a comment last week on this post to the effect that I’m not in the same place theologically that I used to be. A few days ago a good friend who knows my theological journey very well told me how surprised he was to hear me say that, so it seems like a little clarification is in order. I thought about appending it to the comment thread, but it seemed like it might be more visible as a post, so here it is.

First the assurances. I still believe in the virgin birth, the miracles, the bodily resurrection of Christ, His return in the clouds in like manner as He went, and just for good measure, His coming reign on this very planet. I also believe in the preservation of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego through the fire, the ascension of Elijah in a fiery chariot, Joshua’s long day, manna from heaven, the Red Sea crossing, and Noah’s flood that covered the whole world, by which I mean the whole world. I believe all these things because the Bible says them, and being the very word of God, the Bible is true in all its words and in all its parts. It is never wrong.

For the same reason, I believe that about 6,000 years ago, God made the world in 6 days, by which I mean six days. I have not failed to notice what is sometimes called “evidence of literary design” in the creation account, but unlike some folks, I seem to have also noticed that God is not just writing the account, He is also writing the world. These marks of authorship are a feature of the text because they are a feature of history, because God is telling the story.

I believe in the priesthood of all believers, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and I mean “faith alone” in a way John MacArthur would heartily disapprove of.

So what’s changed? Two things.

First, I have heartily rejected the rampant sectarianism of my former ecclesiastical tribe. Some of them will say straight out that of course they don’t think the folks in the local Anglican church are saved. Others would never say something like that, but practically, they certainly will not seek to love and serve their brothers and sisters at the local Anglican church. They will simply behave as though the local Anglican church doesn’t exist. In whatever guise, this breaking of table fellowship is a practical denial of justification by faith (Gal. 1-2), a moral failure to walk worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1-6), and a refusal to comply with Jesus’ dying wish for His people (Jn. 17).

Second, I now believe in all the biblical spiritual gifts, not just some of them, which is to say that I am not a cessationist. I believe in all the biblical gifts for the same reason that I believe in six-day creationism: because that’s what the Bible says.

I didn’t initially think of these two changes as a complete break with my ecclesiastical tribe. After all, we still had a huge amount in common, and I was prepared to work with them. However, I quickly discovered that virtually nobody was willing to work with me. They would fall all over themselves to affirm that I’m a good guy and they wish me all the best and they’re sure God’s doing great things through me — they just don’t want to, you know, actually work together. On anything. Ever again. But hey, thanks for calling, and let’s get coffee sometime….

So when Jeremy mentioned that he’s no longer where I am theologically — which he’s not — I felt pretty comfortable allowing as how I don’t feel like I’m in Kansas anymore either. I see how that was ambiguous, and I hope I have clarified it.

Headwaters Christian Resources

11 November 2012

We had been looking at the relationship between the institutional church as it exists on paper, and the situation as it actually exists in real life. I have some further thoughts that I am looking forward to exploring here, but this week I want to announce something special that I (and a bunch of other people) have been working on for a long time.

I am proud to announce the launch of the brand new Headwaters Christian Resources blog. Writing chronological Bible curriculum has been a real education for us, and this blog is a way to share with you some of what we’ve learned in that, and our other work. We only have two posts so far, but I think you’ll like them.

“Jesus Is the New Samuel” is an adventure in reading the biblical Story the way its authors — and its Author — meant it to be read. In it, my ministry partner, Joe Anderson, will lead you through an example of edifying typology at its finest.

“Stones into Bread” is my own modest effort to take a lesson from Jesus in how to read Deuteronomy. I conclude it with a couple of relevant devotional exercises that I have found very helpful in my own life. I hope you will too.

My sincere thanks to our web developer, Ben Tyson, our artist, Clay Tyson. We couldn’t have done it without you guys. And of course, I am deeply grateful to God for my dear wife Kimberly and our partners, Joe and Becca Anderson. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never in my life been blessed with such a great team.

Why I am no longer a Cessationist, part 2

4 August 2012
Quick review for those of you who just came in: I resigned from RMBC&S at their request, fielded a few questions about that, and went into some depth on how all this came about. Because it’s a long explanation, and because it takes time to write charitably and clearly for a public audience, I’m doing it in pieces. Here follows the next installment.

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.

Resignation FAQ part 2: Why I am no longer a Cessationist

29 July 2012

I gave all the caveats for this post in my previous post, so I won’t repeat everything. Briefly, I am giving an account of why I am no longer a cessationist. I am not attacking anybody’s ministry and I am not setting out to criticize anyone. Some critique of cessationism and its proponents will come up inevitably along the way, but I can’t help that. I’m not trying to hurt anyone; I’m just telling about what God has done in my life.

I was raised in a cessationist tradition. The first thing you have to understand about cessationism is that it’s not monolithic. You have some guys that believe the modern-day phenomenon that Pentecostals call the gift of tongues is a demonic manifestation. You have some who view it as a natural expression of joy — but not the biblical gift of tongues. Every cessationist I know believes that God continues to answer prayer, and all of them believe that miraculous healings continue to occur today, but some will pray passionately and publicly for a healing, while others would feel that it’s sinful (or at least unwise) to “test God” in that way. Some cessationists have a deeply personal relationship with God, believing that they receive daily guidance from Him through impressions, inner leading, even dreams; others believe God only speaks through the Bible today (and sometimes, the same person will hold both points of view — about which more later). The common thread is the belief that certain miraculous gifts were given at the very beginning of the Church, for the purpose of establishing and validating the Church, and that shortly after the beginning, God ceased to dispense those gifts. Pretty much everybody includes apostleship, prophecy, healing, and tongues among the now-defunct gifts. Some would also include discernment, words of knowledge, words of wisdom. Some would say that these gifts absolutely ceased. Others don’t expect to find these gifts operating in the heart of Christendom, but expect to see them still in operation in situations analogous to the first century — like, for example, when a missionary makes first contact with a stone-age tribe deep in the jungle.

So in a sense, one can speak of “cessationisms” rather than “cessationism;” there’s enough variation to warrant it. The particular instance of cessationism that led to my resignation was RMBC&S’s teaching statement on the issue, which reads,

The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.

I want to make clear that the RMBC&S statement is an instance of the sort of thing I’m rejecting, but this is not simply a matter of slightly different framing of the same basic sentiment. I am rejecting all cessationisms, root and branch.

I have always been an exegete at heart. If I am going to get up in front of people and say “Thus says the Lord…” I want to be very certain that the Lord has, in fact, said it. This goes back very early for me — I remember our family having knock-down-drag-out fights in the middle of family devotions over whether the passage at hand actually said this or that. This didn’t happen every week, but it wasn’t a particular rarity, either, and on those occasions my parents did not use their parental authority to end the debate — it was understood that the Word was the authority, we were all equally in submission to it, and it was vitally important that we manage to come to an understanding of what it said, so that we might obey it well. (These debates also formed in me the quality that several very frustrated folks have described as “not taking correction well.” It is in fact nothing of the kind — it is a gut-level understanding that you can’t win an exegetical argument with age or political authority any more than you can drive a nail with a kitchen sponge; just the wrong tool for the job. But for guys who are accustomed to doing that, it’s hard to take when a younger man refuses to play along. Oh well.)

Cessationism had always made theological and practical sense to me, and I had been taught that 1 Corinthians 13 was the go-to passage for an exegetical validation. This lasted until seminary. I was in my second or third year of seminary — I can’t remember which — and I had occasion to work through 1 Corinthians 13 in Greek. Ironically, the things I noticed are sitting right there on the surface of the English text, but I’d just never read the passage closely enough before to notice them. Certain gifts will cease — says so right there. But when? It certainly says nothing about the completion of the canon. What it does say is that these gifts will cease when knowledge is full rather than partial, when vision is accurate rather than dim, and when full maturity is reached. I didn’t think to pursue the implications of this at the time (that came later); I was so stunned at what the passage didn’t say that I barely noticed what it did say.

Surprised at what I found, I hunted down my Greek professor and asked if I had missed something. He grinned and said no — the passage does not, in fact, say what most cessationists think it says. He suggested to me that a case for cessationism would be better based on the historical evidence that the sign gifts did, indeed, pass out of existence in the first century, and that the modern manifestations that go by the name of tongues or prophecy fall woefully short of the biblical descriptions of tongues and prophecy. That made sense to me, and I went with it. I did, however, continue to want a genuinely exegetical case for the doctrine, and I continued to search for one.

Long story short, I didn’t find one, and I looked at a lot of cessationist arguments. Hebrews 1:1-2 certainly does say that God spoke through prophets in the past, but it doesn’t preclude prophets after Christ — and in fact, there were a number of them, as the book of Acts attests. Hebrews 2:3-4 tells us what purpose the signs and wonders serve, but never says they stopped. Likewise, Ephesians 2:20 says that the apostles and prophets are foundational, but it doesn’t say they have no continuing role (it also says that Christ is the chief cornerstone, and I’m pretty sure we all agree that He has a continuing role.) Even if 2 Corinthians 12:12 says that signs and wonders and mighty works were the signs of an apostle (questionable, but let it pass for the moment), it never says that nobody else did signs, wonders, and mighty works — and in fact, many others did, starting with the 70 that Jesus sent out, and continuing into Stephen, Philip, Ananias, and others. There were certainly people who were not healed miraculously — Paul had his thorn in the flesh (if that was a physical ailment), Timothy had his weak stomach, Trophimus was sick enough that he couldn’t leave Miletus with Paul, Epaphroditus almost died, and so on — but that didn’t mean that healing wasn’t happening; it just meant that not everybody was healed.

Now, the theology of cessationism made sense to me, but increasingly it looked like the theology of Calvinism: internally self-consistent and well worked out as a system, but utterly lacking in exegetical support for the key assumptions. In other words, something that could be true, but seemed to lack the necessary biblical evidence to establish for sure that it really was true. That made it an interesting speculation, but clearly not in “thus saith the Lord” territory. Knowing that the exegetical evidence was woefully insufficient and the theological formulations were speculative at best, I fell back on what, to me, was an obvious point of historical fact: the miraculous gifts seemed to have died out at the end of the first century, and some explanation for the (lack of) phenomena was required. If the explanation turned out to be a bit shaky and incomplete, there was still the brute fact that signs and wonders of the biblical type didn’t continue happening, which made cessationism (in some form) seem pretty likely.

At the same time all this was going on, I became friends with a Pentecostal pastor serving in Orange County, CA. You have to understand, I’d known some charismatic folks back in high school, and those guys pretty much confirmed every stereotype I’d ever been taught — they were flaky, emotional, undependable, unwilling to plan because they wanted to “let the Spirit lead,” which in practice meant doing whatever stupid thing came into their heads at the moment, unreflective, and uninterested in serious study of the Scriptures (again, they would rather “let the Spirit lead” than read the Bible — apparently it never occurred to them that He might be leading them to do just that.) So I’d steered clear of charismatic folks ever since, but this guy was wise, a serious student of the Bible, loving, down to earth — in fact, he was a godly man to whom I could turn for advice in ministry matters, with good results. It was news to me that you could be charismatic and not be a nutcase.

Sidebar: Many of the people who were responsible for my prejudice in the first place will admit, when pressed, that they know a few sane charismatics. However, they were only too happy to have me think that all charismatics were nuts, and never took the time to nuance that generalization by making the appropriate qualifications. This is a violation of the Golden Rule and the Ninth Commandment, which is to say, a major ethical problem. Just sayin’.

I remember that about this time, I found myself in a debate with a Calvary Chapel pastor over the gifts of the Spirit. I articulated my historical/practical defense, and he was underwhelmed. I remember his response like it was yesterday: “So what you’re really saying is just that you’ve never seen the gifts in operation?” he asked.

“No, no,” I said, “I’m saying that they just don’t happen after the first century.” Shortly thereafter, he disengaged from the conversation. At the time I felt like it was because we’d reached a stalemate. Looking back, I see that he realized I wasn’t ready to hear the counter-argument that he would have made. Being ready to hear that would take more than just a shift in my thinking: I needed God to do some work in my life as well.

God did that work by moving me to Englewood, CO. In Englewood, I encountered something I’d never seen — or even heard about — before. The evangelical pastors of the city would gather and pray for one another. I don’t mean one of those “prayer luncheons” where you eat a big meal and then spend 2 minutes praying at the end. I mean they’d get together for an hour, check in to see who needed prayer for what, and then wade in and spend 45 minutes of the hour in prayer for each other, for each other’s churches (as well as those churches not represented in the gathering) and for the city. These men were godly, wise pastors who genuinely cared for each other. They talked about how there’s really One Church in Englewood (even if it happens to meet in 24 different locations most weeks) — and they really meant it, and lived it. In order to show that to their congregations, they rented out the high school football stadium once a year and had a joint church service. The first year, there were 8 churches participating. This past year, 14 churches canceled their Sunday morning services to go to the stadium and meet together. In Englewood, I saw John 17 incarnated in ways I’d never seen before. These were the men I wanted to be when I grew up. As I got to know them better, I slowly realized that almost to a man, they were charismatic. Even the Dutch Reformed guy and the Anglican priest.

I had settled in my mind years ago that if you were going to practice something that you would call the charismatic gifts today, then obviously you had to follow the biblical guidelines for them — tongues must be interpreted, prophecies must be judged, and so on. I had never seen a charismatic church even try to implement those guidelines. Among these guys, it was a no-brainer: of course you had to follow the biblical guidelines. So my stereotypes of what it meant to be charismatic were shattering left and right. I recognized that I was seeing a practice of charismatic Christianity that had heard the cessationist criticisms of the various excesses practiced in the name of the Holy Spirit, taken the biblical content of the criticism to heart, and responded to it. In short, I was seeing maturity. Of course I was still a cessationist at this point, but I found myself forced to admit that these guys took the Bible seriously, and didn’t use charismatic phenomena as an excuse to dodge faithfulness to Scripture.

Speaking of faithfulness to Scripture, I was beginning to develop some biblical problems of my own. As I continued to investigate, the lack of exegetical evidence for cessationism became the least of my concerns: I was increasingly finding a great weight of biblical evidence against cessationism. About this time, a friend who headed a Bible study for a group of pastors and elders one day called me with news: “We’re not cessationists anymore.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the final fulfillment of Joel 2 is still future. If, in the future, our sons and daughters will prophesy, then how can we believe that prophecy has already ceased?”

Good question. And that was just the beginning of the contradictions. I maintained that the New Testament was the authority for church doctrine and practice, but at the same time I also said that the practices that characterized the New Testament church should no longer characterize us today. I held the Great Commission as a charter for modern-day disciple-making, but surely “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” would include repeating Jesus’ commands to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” – and I neither obeyed these commands myself nor passed them on to my disciples. To the contrary, I taught my disciples not to do these things, nor trust anyone who (reportedly) did. I even disregarded passages like James 5:14-15 which spoke to supernatural expectations, but said nothing whatever about the putatively ceased miraculous gifts. Biblical commands began to leap off the page at me: “Do not despise prophecies.” “Do not forbid to speak in tongues.” “Desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.”

I began to wonder: if these things are supposed to continue, then why didn’t they? Why don’t they still happen? Upon investigation, I found that they do. Missionary friends return from the field with story after story — things they personally witnessed, things very much like the events of the Bible, things they don’t much talk about in the Western church because it freaks people out. And it wasn’t just the mission field. A close personal friend had his broken kneecap miraculously healed right here in the United States. Another friend was routinely seeing healing from a wide variety of ailments in direct response to his prayers. I had occasion to hear that guy speak on church history, and I was shocked at what I heard. To hear him tell it, the entire history of the church was just riddled with signs and wonders and healings. This was a history I had never heard about, despite being a church history teacher’s son and (I thought) a close student of church history myself. I had to know more.

I began to investigate, and what I found surprised me. You’d never know it from the history books I read in the course of my theological education, but it’s really true: signs and wonders have characterized the history of the Church from end to end, witnessed (and at times, performed) by such sober-minded saints as Augustin, John Knox, and Charles Spurgeon. The more I looked, the more I found, both in history and in the present day. Only by dismissing accounts of supernatural events out of hand as myths — or simply by refusing to pay attention to them — can we effectively maintain the illusion that these things stopped happening at the end of the first century. The fact that so many Christian historians were willing to do just that was incredibly disturbing to me. If these guys applied the same criteria to the biblical miracle accounts that they applied to accounts of anything that happened since, they would be 19th-century liberals. (Ahem.) Where did they learn to look at stories of God’s supernatural doings with such a priori skepticism? Certainly not from the pages of Scripture!

But while the theory of cessationism was falling apart before my very eyes, the biggest blow wasn’t theoretical at all.

I hope to have the rest of the story up next week, but this is as much as I have been able to write so far. Thank you for your attention, and I sincerely hope I am meeting my goal of being gracious to all concerned and truthful at the same time.