…but He never really does

21 July 2015

“Hey, do you think God could really speak today? Could He reveal Himself to someone with a thought, an impression, a circumstance?”

Sure. Shoot, He could do an audible voice if He wanted to. Nobody really thinks God couldn’t do it. He’s God, after all.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page about that. So last night, when I was praying, God said…”

“Wait. What do you mean, ‘God said’?”

“I mean that He talked to me, and I heard it. Look here in my journal — I even wrote it down.”

“Oh come on! How do you know that’s God?”

“Same way I know it’s my Mom calling when I hear her on the phone — I know what her voice sounds like.”

“You’re telling me you literally heard an audible voice, and you know it was God?”

“No, I’m telling you God spoke to me in my thoughts, and I know what it sounds like when He does that.”

“Don’t be silly! How could you possibly tell?”

*****

Interesting, huh? Here we have a conversation between two Christians, both of whom profess that God can speak to individuals today — to whomever He wants, anytime He wants. But one of them is certain, in advance of all the evidence, that He didn’t speak to this particular guy last night. This is the difference between theology on paper and theology in real life: only one of them actually expects it to happen. Last night, only one of them was listening in the expectation that God might speak. Big surprise — only one of them heard anything.


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.


Experiential Knowledge

9 September 2012

Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be defined by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.
-Flannery O’Connor, letter to Beverly Brunson, January 1, 1955

I remember talking with a roommate of mine in Bible college about our Spiritual Life class. He pointed out that 90% of what is taught in classes and books on the spiritual life is not actually anywhere in the Bible. Upon a little reflection, I agreed. We began to kick back and forth examples of things we’d heard that were nowhere in Scripture. I don’t remember most of them, but I vividly remember our contemptuous discussion of praying, “God, show me my sin” — a prayer we could find nowhere in the Bible. The real need, we felt, was to strip away that 90% — all the folklore that surrounded walking with God — and just stick to what it actually says in the Bible.

How silly we look in hindsight, all these years and miles later! Of course we should start there; that’s our foundation. And also of course, there are a tremendous number of superstitious fables grown up around the Christian life that actually serve to conceal biblical truth, and these weeds ought to be pulled out of the garden and burned before they cause any more trouble. But coming to understand how to apply that biblical foundation well is a skill at which we grow, and in growing, we pick up a great number of helpful hints and bits of folk wisdom.

God is a person, according to the Bible. Or three, if you like. How much of my know-how about living with my wife is written down anywhere? Much less than 1%, surely. Even if I set about to write it down, how much could I realistically write down? Maybe 5%, maybe? So despite my best efforts, 95% of my know-how about living with my wife will remain unwritten. It will come out, when it comes out at all, in a piece of advice to a friend in a particular situation: “Let it go, man. You’re not going to get anywhere with that right now.” Or “That’s a good question. Why don’t you ask her?” If my friend responds in that situation by saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” he’s going to miss some good advice.

So the astonishing thing is not that 90% of the advice about walking with God is not written anywhere in the Bible. What’s so very astonishing is that 10% of it is. It’s a testament to how much God wants us to know Him that we have so much guidance written down. But as with any other person, walking with God is an art. In the end, the know-how is experiential; we learn not by reading, but by doing it ourselves, and watching it done by others.

That “Show me my sin” prayer that my roommate and I so criticized? When a relationship is going sour and I need to come to grips with my own responsibility for it, asking God to expose my sins in the relationship so I can confess them and forsake them is a great idea. I am very glad that I have the freedom to do that, and I am delighted that He answers such prayers. I don’t need a specific verse to hang it on for it to be helpful.

I have heard “listening prayer” criticized on the grounds that there’s no Bible verse that says God speaks to us in prayer. That may be the case, but there’s certainly no verse that says God doesn’t speak to us when we pray, and when I come to God in prayer, ask my question, and then shut up and listen, well…He speaks to me. So there it is. Is this biblical? Well, yes. God did it with Abraham, didn’t He? Am I not a son of Abraham by faith, invited to share in the Triune fellowship by Jesus Himself through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Why shouldn’t my prayer be a two-way conversation?

It happens all the time in Scripture that God speaks to people by a variety of means; there’s certainly nothing unbiblical about it. But as I coach someone in learning to listen to God’s voice, what I tell them will be a mix of biblical precedent and things I’ve gleaned from my own personal experience walking with God and hearing His voice myself. Mostly the latter, to be entirely honest.

Is there something wrong with that? Nope. “He who walks with the skilled will be skilled,” as the Good Book says, and I learned to hear God’s voice the same way — by being coached by people who had the skill. As I gain skill, I will coach others. This is the way God designed us to function in the Body of Christ.

Of course, if you think about it, it seems silly. Having given His inerrant and inspired Word, God then entrusts the task of teaching His people how to apply it to fallen, feeble, frail human beings. It’s amazing that it gets done, generation after generation. But that’s the mystery, isn’t it? The mechanism is us, and it looks like it will never work — but in spite of it all, Christ is building His Church into a glorious Bride without blemish or spot. A sensible, believable explanation for this eludes us — even the professors among us — but the fact of it is right there in front of us. In spite of all the good reasons that it should not be so, it is so. For which all thanksgiving.


Mere Supernaturalism

12 August 2012

As I have discussed my transition away from cessationism with various people, it has become clear that there are actually two related issues entangled together. In my life, they came as a set, but there’s no reason why everybody’s experience would be the same as mine.

The first issue is the question of whether certain miraculous spiritual gifts ceased operating as individually vested gifts after the initial launch of the Church. This is the issue around cessationism proper. Many charismatics don’t understand this, and thus are confused when a cessationist professes to believe that miraculous healings still happen today, that God answers prayer today, and perhaps even that God can still speak through visions and dreams today. The issue in cessationism is not healings, but a particular person having the gift of healing; not someone hearing from God in a general sense, but a particular person having the gift of prophecy. (Generally. This distinction does not hold for tongues — every cessationist I know says it’s over and done with, period.) So with cessationism vs. continuationism, we’re talking about whether the Spirit continues to dispense all the biblically attested spiritual gifts in the present day.

The second issue, although related, is distinct from cessationism: the expectation that God will intervene supernaturally. From the Red Sea to the present day, God’s people have struggled with the temptation to forget that God intervenes in the world. We tend to think of this as a peculiarly modern temptation, but a quick look at the Exodus generation shows us this is not the case.

Hold that thought a moment.

***
In eschatology, the wide dividing line has typically been between premillennialists on the one hand, and post- and amillennialists on the other. That’s where the bright political fault lines have been drawn. I want to suggest that this is a mistake.

The lines ought to have been drawn between those who look to the future with hope and expectation, and those who look to the future with gloom and the spirit of Chicken Little. This is the difference that makes a difference. I’m an optimistic premil (or if you like, a dominion dispensationalist), and I have much more in common with a patient postmil than I do with either my doom-and-dystopia premil brethren or most amil folk.

This is not to say that the theological question of when Christ returns relative to the millennium is unimportant. I believe it is an important question, and one which Scripture plainly answers. What I am saying is simply that optimism or pessimism about the future is vastly more important. We who can look at the nations raging, laugh at them with Yahweh, and seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness on earth as it is in heaven — we are one breed. The Chicken Littles are something else, and whatever their doctrinal statements might say, their spirit of fear and their little pronouncements about “polishing the brass on a sinking ship” are not from God, because He doesn’t give that spirit or talk that way.

***
In similar fashion, I believe that in the battles over the charismatic movement, evangelical Christians drew the bright political line in the wrong place. I know folks who are charismatic in their theology, but day in and day out, expect no divine intervention in their lives. I also know charismatics who go to church, belt out a couple of paragraphs in tongues, and go home — but don’t pray with authority, don’t seek to hear from God, and don’t seek to minister to others in any supernatural way. By the same token, I know rock-ribbed cessationists who believe God speaks in dreams, pray for miracles, and trust Him to supernaturally order their affairs and relationships.

We drew the political line between those who practice all the biblically attested spiritual gifts today, and those who do not. However, the far more important issue is whether, on either side of that line, a person will seek to resolve his problems through doctrine alone, or whether in his daily practice he will also expect God to intervene supernaturally.

I’m open to suggestions for naming these positions, but for our present purposes, I’d like to call them doctrinalism and supernaturalism, respectively.

Two points of clarification. First, I’m talking about habits of practice, not talking points. I know lots of people who on paper, and when pressed will admit that it’s possible God would intervene miraculously today, but in practice, from day to day, they rely on doctrine alone, and they teach their followers to rely on doctrine alone. These people are doctrinalists, no matter what they say.
Second, I am not setting up an either-or situation here. It’s not either doctrine or supernatural intervention. I am talking about people who rely on doctrine alone versus those who look to doctrine, but also seek for God to intervene supernaturally in the present.

Again, I am not saying the cessationism question is unimportant. Not at all. I think the stakes are very high in that conversation. In the interests of full disclosure, let me just go ahead and spill the beans: I believe that most cessationists and most charismatics have one critical thing in common: an allergy to biblical discernment. I believe that the Church will not grow into health and maturity unless she employs all the biblically attested gifts (cessationists, I’m lookin’ at you), and she employs them with testing and discernment, as Scripture requires (charismatics, I’m lookin’ at you too), and all of that in the context of loving God enough to take His Word seriously and be visibly united with His people. So yeah, I think it’s an incredibly important issue.

However, supernaturalism/doctrinalism is a much more important issue. The question of whether God will intervene through the gift of healing is important, but the question of whether God will intervene at all is obviously an even more important question.

I would contend that in most ministry venues, supernaturalists — charismatic or not — are natural allies. Doctrinal statements can create a barrier where no biblically founded barrier exists, of course, but those who look for and appreciate God’s intervention can work together, if they’re allowed to — or if they simply choose to move forward no matter what their more sectarian brethren might prefer.

And then later, over a bottle of wine, they can argue over whether the miraculous healing they just prayed for, and received, was the result of the gift of healing, or whether it was simply an answer to prayer.


Mystical Union: The Only Path to Maturity

30 January 2011

The posts on mystical union appear to have touched a nerve in the FG community.  Clearly this is an area that warrants much more investigation and discussion; I am much encouraged that we’re on the right track .  And so we continue…

In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for all who believe in Him to be one: “I do not pray for these [eleven disciples] alone, but also for all those who will believe in Me through their word….”  Please note, Jesus is not asking for a loose alliance, but that we would be one “as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You….”  Jesus wants us to be one as the Trinity is one.

Is that even vaguely possible?

Of course not.  It would take a miracle.

And that’s exactly what Jesus prays for–a miracle: “…that they also may be one in Us.”  We cannot unite with each other apart from God; what we can do is be joined to the Trinity, and thereby be united to each other.

Jesus has a purpose in mind: “…that the world may believe that You sent Me.”  This tells us something about the unity He is praying for.  All believers are joined to Christ invisibly, but that is not the answer to Jesus’ prayer.  Jesus is praying for something that unbelievers can see, so that they might believe.

By what tools are we to be thus visibly united?  How do we do it?  “And the glory You gave Me, I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.”  The Father gave glory to the Son, and the Son has given that glory to us.  By that glory we are to be united.

But what does it mean?

I’m having a hard time describing it here.  If you’ve seen Jesus’ glory revealed in two believers in the same place at the same time, then you’ve seen what he’s talking about, and the unity that inevitably flows from it.  If you haven’t, I’m not sure I can explain that particular miracle to you, except to say that when the glory shines forth, we recognize our mutual Friend Jesus in each other, and for His sake we love one another, and find ways to get along.  When our sins obstruct the glory, suspicion reigns, and there is no unity except the pseudo-unity that comes from having common enemies.

All this is not only an answer to Jesus’ prayer and a witness to the world; it is also necessary for our own spiritual growth: “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one….”  The path to perfection, to maturity, lies in the sort of unity that Jesus prays for.  One of the great sins of conservative evangelicalism is the presumption that division leads to greater purity, and thence to maturity.  It simply isn’t true; Jesus says that we will be made perfect in one.  Divided, the Body will never be mature.  (Now, this same Jesus taught us about church discipline and so on, so it’s not as though division never happens in an obedient church.  But although division may be necessary at a particular time, it is a setback, and we should treat it like one.)

And again, Jesus has a purpose in mind for the miracle He is praying for, and he expands on it here: “…that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as you have loved Me.”  Not only will the world see the sign and know that Jesus is who He says He is; our visible unity will also be a sign to them that God loves us, just as He loved Jesus.

Knowing this, they will want to be a part of us, the people on whom God pours out His love.  What a witness it would be!  What a witness it is, on those rare occasions when it happens to some degree!

The key to it all is “in Us” in verse 21.  This is a miracle from top to bottom, and none of it is going to work if we are not united to the Trinity.  Only by being in the Father and the Son will we be able to unite with each other.

Conversely, if we find ourselves unable to unite with each other, what does that say about our relationship with the Father and the Son?


Mystical Union: The Only Alternative to Legalism

23 January 2011

In conversation with a couple of friends this week on these things, I happened more or less by accident on a truth that surprised me, and sharpens the mysticism issue for me a great deal.

Here’s how it happened: in discussing the ongoing person/proposition controversy, we were considering how poorly the Saving Proposition/Content Of Saving Faith positions fare when faced with the burden of addressing a person’s present experience of death.  However well they might do at addressing truths regarding the second death (not well, actually, but that’s another discussion), these positions utterly fail to bring God’s saving power to bear on death right now. Jesus came to save His people from their sins — not just from the Lake of Fire, but from drunkenness, adultery, theft, lying, murder, addiction, and so on.

An eternally secure heroin addict who will certainly go to heaven when he dies has not yet been saved from his sin.  No proposition suggested in the Content of Saving Faith debate will help him.  He needs more than propositions; he needs rescue.

If you insist on sticking to the truth-is-a-proposition approach, then you find yourself stuck in a two-tiered view of the Christian life, in which one needs this proposition to guarantee passage to heaven, and then those propositions to experience life here and now.  In principle, this is the Galatian heresy all over again, and as long as you confine yourself to thinking of truth in terms of propositions, it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Which is why you ought to consider the living Christ instead of just propositions about Him, however true.  A propositional view of receiving eternal life not only fails to meet the real human need for life now, it can’t help lapsing into legalism.  You can refer to a person in a proposition, but you can’t contain a person in a proposition, or transmit a relationship with a person via a proposition.  All you can contain and transmit in a proposition is an idea.  Living by ideas — even the most noble of ideas — is living by Law.  We already know how well that works, and anyhow if Sinai had been all we needed, whence Jesus?

The solution?  Actual relationship with the living Christ, which is to say, mystical union.  Either you live in real relationship with God or you’re just another legalist, living by ideas in your head.


Gordon Clark Refuted in Three Sentences

22 January 2011

Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth.  All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional.  But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.