Three Critical Questions on the Christian Life

18 May 2014

I had the privilege of going to the inaugural facilitator training course for the Paul Tripp/Tim Lane How People Change small group curriculum, several years back. One point that Tripp made over and over has really stuck with me. “If all we needed were principles, then God could have done everything we needed on Mount Sinai. If all we needed were principles, then why did Jesus come and die? Because we don’t just need principles; we need rescue.”

Indeed. I’d like to address that same line of thought at a slightly higher resolution.

1. If Sinai is sufficient, then why Calvary?

If principles/doctrine alone were sufficient, then God could have gotten it all done at Sinai. If that were true, then why Jesus? Because living by principles is never enough. We needed to be saved from ourselves, and this is something we simply could not do for ourselves, no matter how good the principles might be. The seeds of the problem are inside us, and we can’t excise them.

We have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone,” as the Anglicans say. We simply could not resolve the problem for ourselves; it took Jesus dying our death on the cross. We participate in His death, and in this way we are reconciled to God.

2. If Calvary is sufficient, then why Pentecost?

If Christ’s finished work on the Cross was all that we needed, then why send the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the work all done? No, it isn’t. Calvary reconciled us to God, but reconciliation is only the beginning of what God wants to give us. He wants to give us life.

Through our union with Christ, we participate, not just in His death for us, but also in His life. Ongoing participation in the life of Christ is a continuing miracle of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and comes upon us in anointing for service just as He came upon Jesus for His earthly ministry. It is through the guidance of the Spirit that we advance God’s Kingdom here on earth.

3. What does it look like to live Sinai, Calvary, and Pentecost?

If we mess up the first question, we make the moralistic mistake of trying to earn God’s acceptance. Life turns into a never-ending round of “service” that is much more about our need to see ourselves as useful than it is about meeting actual needs. We become the sort of person that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he penned the epitaph, “She lived her life for others. Now she has peace…and so have they.”

If we mess up the second question, then we make the mistake of trying to seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness without taking advantage of all His guidance for us. We’ll operate based on the general principles in Scripture — which (to be fair) give far more guidance than most people think. But the Scriptures also give far less guidance than is needed for the life that God would have you to live.

If we get both questions right, if we live into Sinai, Calvary and Pentecost, then we live a life that is guided by the Scriptures. Our character becomes deeply aligned with God’s character as He has expressed it in the Scriptures. And our lives become masterpieces, unpredictable works of art. Just applying the principles on our own would generate a decent life, but it would never yield the beautiful surprises that come from a living relationship with God.

For example, God used me to help a homeless guy named Michael last year. The biblical principles would lead me to helping homeless folks–the stranger in your gates, the least of these, and all that. But I have no shortage of opportunity to minister to homeless folks, and Michael was not hanging around the places I would usually go to minister. What led me to Michael was that God literally told me to turn the car around, go back to that exit ramp, and give him $5 and a message: “God has not forgotten you.”

I did. As the relationship developed over subsequent conversations, it turned out there were certain truths Michael needed to hear, and then to live. It just so happened that these were the same truths God was teaching me right then.

Was the guidance to engage that specific homeless guy at that specific time biblical? No. It was far more specific than I could have gleaned from the Torah, or from the Old Testament, or even from the completed canon. But it didn’t conflict in any way with Scripture; it just went further than general instructions to the whole Body could go. Was it God? Of course, and the good fruit bore that out, as Jesus taught us that it would.

In other words, to add to Tripp, we didn’t just need principles; we needed rescue. And we don’t just need rescue; we need relationship.

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Living with Pentecost

2 September 2012

In the theology I was raised with, the Spirit had two major relationships to human beings. In the Old Testament, He came upon people to empower them for service, and in the New Testament, starting at Pentecost, He indwells believers. Indwelling was just as empowering for service as the “upon” relationship of the Old Covenant, but better somehow, rendering the “upon” relationship obsolete.

Lately, I’ve been moved to study what the New Testament teaches about the Spirit, and I’m finding something a bit different. First of all, Jesus promised the indwelling Spirit to the disciples in the upper room discourse (John 14:17), and delivered on this promise well before Pentecost (John 20:22). There is much scholarly hand-wringing about the latter passage, but let’s not monkey about trying to keep our systematic theology neat. Jesus said “Receive the Holy Spirit” and breathed on them. Do we imagine that it didn’t work? That His breath hit their faces, but the Spirit only made it halfway, and then hung in limbo for days until Pentecost? Let’s just take it straight up the middle: He did it, and it worked.

So they had the indwelling Spirit, but they did not yet have the promise of Acts 1:8, the Spirit empowering them for service. By the way, the language of Acts 1:8 is all about the Spirit coming upon them for service — very Old Covenant language. Interesting, huh? The promise of Acts 1:8 is fulfilled at Pentecost, and men who had been huddling in an upper room are transformed into bold witnesses. The Pentecost event is then repeated (with the same supposedly Old Covenant language, by the way) in Acts 10:44//11:15 with Cornelius’ household, and in Acts 19:6 with the disciples of John.

In a very real sense, Pentecost is an obvious case of a “second blessing.” There’s no biblically responsible way to say that there’s no such thing as a second blessing. Peter — to take an obvious example — certainly did receive a second blessing at Pentecost. The question is whether our experience today follows the pattern of Peter’s. So let’s follow Peter’s experience a little ways and see what happens with him.

What happened to Peter at Pentecost, exactly? Acts describes it this way:

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

What did the Spirit do to them? He filled them, and this fulfilled the promise Jesus gave that they would receive power from on high when the Spirit came upon them. This is all Old Covenant language. The Spirit filled the Hebrew artisans (Exodus 28:3), particularly Bezalel the son of Uri (Exodus 31:3, 35:31). The Spirit filled Elizabeth and Zacharias to empower them for prophesy (Luke 1:41, 67), and John the Baptist even from the womb (Luke 1:15). The Spirit filled Jesus upon His baptism (Luke 4:1). And now, the Spirit fills Peter (and everybody else present).

But filling is not a one-time event. Pentecost wasn’t some unrepeatable phenomenon; it was just the beginning. The same thing happens again with Peter when he’s before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8). That’s his third blessing, if we’re still counting. After he’s released and returns to the nascent Jerusalem church to report, they pray, and ” the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.” For Peter, that’s the fourth blessing.

Is this something all believers should partake in? The seven deacons of Acts 6 are described as “full of the Holy Spirit,” and Stephen in particular is “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” And it is this same thing that we are commanded to do: “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,” says Paul to the Ephesians.

So when someone asks me today if I believe in the second blessing, I say, “Sure, but who’s counting?” I need way more than a second blessing. I’ve got lots to do yet.

The filling of the Spirit is an iterative, ongoing need, if we would minister in the way that God would have us to do. This is nothing new — the Spirit has always come upon God’s people for supernatural ministry, as He continues to do today. Whatever we are facing, we need to be filled with the Spirit in order to handle it as God would have us to do. What’s new is that it is available not just to the occasional craftsman, judge, king, or prophet, but to every believer, all the time.

The indwelling of the Spirit is a separate issue, having to do with our invitation into the Triune fellowship, as Jesus explained in the upper room discourse. The disciples received that in John 20, as we receive it today at the point of salvation. But He had not yet fallen upon them to empower them for ministry. When He did — wow. That same filling is what we are called to today — repeatedly.


The Gift of Teaching is not for Today

25 August 2012

If a person really has the gift of teaching, then he will communicate well. As he’s communicating the content of the passage of Scripture before him, he will never make a mistake in interpretation or an error in communication strategy, because how could the divinely given gift of teaching go wrong? Is the Holy Spirit working through him, or isn’t He? If it turns out he was wrong on a content issue, or he just screwed up the delivery beyond repair, then clearly the Holy Spirit wasn’t at work, and the guy doesn’t really have the gift of teaching.

And let’s face it, most of what passes for “teaching” today is pretty weak stuff. I mean, we know what real, Spirit-directed teaching looked like, right? Paul’s speeches in Acts, his address to the Ephesian elders — that’s powerful stuff. How many sermons do you hear today that measure up to that standard? None, that’s how many. You know why? Because it’s not the Spirit’s gift of teaching at all, that’s why; it’s just a guy saying some stuff that occurred to him in the study.

Reasonable, yes? How can it be flawed and imperfect if the Holy Spirit is the one who gives the gifts? God gives perfect gifts; says so right there in James 1.

So today, we have folks who claim to teach, but they make mistakes, and even occasionally have to issue retractions because they realize they were wrong about something they said earlier. They don’t measure up to the power and vibrancy of the biblical examples of teaching, at all. It would appear, in fact, that the biblical gift of teaching is not being dispensed by the Spirit today.

**

Of course this is all hogwash. But isn’t it exactly the standard that many of us apply to the gift of prophesy? Why is that gift different?


Experience gap

19 August 2012

As I’ve made my shift out of cessationism, several people have expressed concern that perhaps I’ve grown tired of the hard work of biblical exegesis and teaching, and I’m hunting for something more sensational and showy.

And they’re soooo, like, totally right. I never really liked reading and studying, and this is my big chance to fulfill my childhood dream of being a circus ringmaster for Jesus…oh, wait. No, that’s someone else.

For any position that people are committed to, there’s a story that they tell themselves about why people are committed to it, why others aren’t, and most importantly, why people give up on it. A previously committed member of the group who gives up and walks away casts doubt on the whole enterprise, and you have to tell yourself something about why that happened. There are usually a few stock explanations, and while sometimes those explanations are outright lies, usually they have become the stock explanations precisely because they’re often true. Once the stock explanations are in place, of course you turn to them before you try any other theory.

“Okay, Tim, I get it. You’re not really the ringmaster type, are you? But surely you must have seen some amazing things if you’re changing your mind about all this.”

Not really. Some prophetic words that really struck home with me, a few things like that. But I haven’t seen the dead raised or an eye regrown or a broken bone healed or anything like that.

“Seriously, you now believe all this stuff happens, but you’ve never seen it for yourself?”

Well, yes, actually, that’s exactly right. I have never seen a New-Testament-quality miracle. I changed my belief based on Scripture and reliable history. I have a couple of good friends who have seen some of these miracles, and even benefitted from them, but I’ve never seen or done one myself. Yet I now believe they happen. The truth of it is simple: I want to see God at work, however He is pleased to work. As far as I can tell from the NT, the range of what God is willing to do is considerably broader than I used to think, but my faith has a real impact on how God is willing to work. So I’m believing God for all of it, and waiting to see what He will do. In the meantime, there’s a gap between what Scripture teaches me to expect and my own experience.

It’s not like we don’t know how to handle that gap. When I experience a gap between the biblical teaching on chastity and my own experience, I don’t develop a doctrine that allows me to rationalize my lack of experience with biblical chastity. I humble myself before God, confess my sin, pray for His mercy and deliverance, and then — with authority! — call on the power of the risen Christ to rebuke my lustful thoughts, transform my heart and mind, and drive any demonic influences far from me. I speak the truth that I am a living sacrifice, a vessel for sanctification and honor, a son of the Most High, and I rebuke the temptation. Jesus already purchased the victory over sin; all things are mine in Christ. This victory is already mine; Jesus has already paid for it. I tell God I want it, and I don’t stop telling Him how much I want it until He gives it to me. None of my cessationist friends would have much of a problem with this.

So what am I to do when I experience a gap between Scripture and experience when it comes to the miraculous? Same thing, I would think. Sure, I could gin up a doctrine that allows me to rationalize my lack of experience with God fulfilling His promises, but why would I?

Why go through all that when instead I could confess that I have never believed God for these things, admit my lack of faith, and repent of it? And having repented, I now pursue a new course of action. “Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” So there it is — I’m desiring. Every time I drive past the Broadway-Hampden overpass, I pray for miraculous gifting. What will He give me? I don’t know. But He told me to desire, and I do. He told me that I don’t have because I don’t ask, so I’m asking. He told me that if I ask for something, I should keep asking all the time, like a poor widow seeking justice from an unjust judge. So I do that. Why? Because it’s obedient. What will God do? I can’t wait to find out.


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 traditions were at stake. I had been safe up to this point only because I had stayed away from the “wrong” passages in Scripture. So I wanted to take a good hard look at the places my tradition had taught me to develop a blind spot. Second, I needed to grow in my leadership ability, and my tribe didn’t really have any way to address that. 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. 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 so 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 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.


Resignation FAQ, part 1

22 July 2012

For those of you who haven’t heard, I’ve resigned — or more accurately, been asked to resign — from my seminary teaching position. You can find the announcement here.

As the dust has settled, a few questions have come to the forefront.

  • What will I do now?
  • Aren’t I mad about being asked to resign?
  • Why did I change my position on spiritual gifts?

Let’s take them in order.

What I will do now is exactly what I have been doing. Youth ministry at The Fount, writing curriculum for Headwaters Christian Resources, involvement in the Englewood community, seeking to know and follow Jesus, to introduce others to Him and help them follow Him, to be a better disciple, a wiser discipler, a more loving husband, a stronger friend. I won’t be teaching in the RMBC&S classroom, but I’ll continue to support the students, my friends among the faculty, and the mission of the school by whatever avenues are open to me; they’re doing good Kingdom work. The beauty of seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness is that the work is not tied to any one organization (Pope Benedict, are you listening?). Organizational ties come and go. Wineskins wear out; all is mist, as the Preacher once said, but through it all, we fear God and keep His commandments.

And no, I’m not even a little mad about it. I don’t believe that this is an issue Christian brothers should divide over, but the school is serving a community that feels differently about it than I do. Theology is a contact sport, and when you change your position on something, you have to expect some organizational alignments to change as well; there’s nothing sillier than a professional theologian whining about having to change jobs after he’s changed his theology. That’s just the nature of the beast. When it comes to something like this issue — where the very, very contentious debates only died down about 40 years ago — the lines are brightly drawn and well policed. They’ll be gone in another 10-15 years, because people on both sides have matured, because much of the divisive craziness that characterized the debate 40 years ago isn’t around anymore, and because the younger generations are simply refusing to polarize around that issue — and God bless them for it. However, we have to deal with what’s going on now, and right now, things are still polarized enough that some folks feel the need to politicize the issue.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, God will not be mocked. We reap what we sow. I was a foot soldier for the Doctrinal Purity Police in the not-too-distant past; in God’s good pleasure I am reaping a little of what I have sown. Of course I don’t like it, and I wish that God had arranged things differently. But discipline is never comfortable, because it brings change, and change is never comfortable. I look forward to being trained by it in order to reap the peaceable fruit of righteousness.

Finally, why the shift? This is the most common question I’ve gotten over the past days, and it’s more difficult to answer than you might expect, for two reasons. First, it’s not quite as simple a question as it looks, sitting there on your screen. Some people mean, “Please give me an autobiographical account of your shift.” Others mean, “Please tell me you haven’t turned into a snake-handling whacko.” (I haven’t, by the way.) Others mean, “Is there something wrong with my theology?” Still others, “Young man, we taught you better than this. No excuse will be good enough, but explain yourself anyway!” There are other nuances too — lots of subtext on this one. I need to be clear about which questions I can hope to answer. I intend to give an autobiographical account of how I came to hold this view. Along the way, I do also feel a responsibility to explain myself to the community that raised and trained me. If what I say addresses some of the other nuances along the way, then so be it, but these two are all I’m really trying for.

Second, it’s difficult to give an account for my shift because I’m kinda done being a foot soldier for the doctrinal purity police. I’m happy to be clear about what I believe and why, and I have no intention of dancing around the shortcomings of cessationism. As I always have, I’ll say what I believe to be true and make no apology for it. That said, there’s a lot of needless division and brother-hatred around this issue, and I have no desire to exacerbate the wounds already inflicted on Christ’s Body. I don’t want to be dishonoring to anyone, least of all to the community that raised and trained me. I can hardly avoid criticism — at least implied criticism — of that community; an autobiographical account of my shift will discuss why I started with their position, found it inadequate, and adopted a new one. That said, it is still a matter of Christian duty for me to be properly honoring and grateful to my community and the many gifts it has given me. This is a difficult balance to strike, and it is essential that I do it well. With that in mind, I’m going to delay answering this question publicly until I am able to do so in a manner that is agreeable to my conscience.

I intend to put an answer up in a few days to a week, but I’m making no promises. Articulating all this well has been significantly harder than I had thought it would be, and I had a full life before all this came up. I’ve got other things to do, and if this is going to take 50 hours, it will be a while before it gets done. I welcome private conversation on the topic at any time, so if you feel you need an answer sooner, please don’t hesitate to contact me. As I said in my resignation announcement, nobody has anything to hide here, and I’m happy to share the details in private conversation.