In November of 1994, Newsweek did a cover story on “The Search for the Sacred” (http://www.newsweek.com/id/112426). It observed the popularity of spiritual concerns among people all walks of life. Contrary to what was expected to be the demise of religion with the advance of science and technology, the opposite happened. The Spiritual is ‘in.’ Is it partly due to the success of the New Age movement? Or is it simply man’s compensating reaction to the overkill of the material and technological? Whatever, we cannot deny the prominence of spiritual interests today.
Is this something for Christians to rejoice over? Is it the triumph of our emphasis on spiritual realities? I am afraid that is not the case. From the same Newsweek feature, we learn that the current spiritual interests concern anything that gives inner peace and a sense of wholeness. Anybody can claim this from the most disparate of experiences: an environmentalist who reflects on man’s oneness with nature; a yogist concentrating on his mantra; the latest New Age self-help therapies; or any occult version of crystal power – everyone of these will take an oath that this is genuine spiritual experience.
Sadly, the current version of Christian spirituality is a mirror of worldly spirituality. It is merely a REVIVAL of one of the most perilous heresies that early Christians had to contend with: Gnosticism. The Gnostic held to the desparity, even hostility, of mind and spirit on the one hand, as against matter and body, on the other hand. The spiritual experience, it was taught, is a turning inward – an experience that transcends the external of matter and body; it is subjective, mystical, and internal. It has nothing, or little to do, with the external, historical and objective. One could almost read something like this from current devotionals:
Learn to despise this world of outward things, and devote yourself to what lies within. Christ is ready to come to you. But you must make room, deep in your heart, to entertain him as he deserves, deep in your heart is where h likes to be. If you love Jesus, if you love the truth, if you really direct yourself by an impulse of the spirit, and rest in him contentedly.
The language sounds very current. But these are the words of Thomas a Kempis from the Imitation of Christ – one of the classics of Gnostic literature. The experience of God is what one feels inside. That inside feeling is definitive of everything that one calls spiritual. If we find this thesis acceptable, it indicates how far we have departed from the biblical concept of spirituality. A Biblical Model.
The word “spiritual” occurs as a description of Christian character in Galatians 6:1. The ‘spiritual’ is exhorted to restore those who are overtaken by a fault. Who are these “spiritual” people in the church? It is instructive to note that the exhortation of Gal. 6:1 follows chapter 5 which is full of teaching concerning the Holy Spirit. In contrast with those who sought legal righteousness, Paul characterized Christians as those who have the hope of righteousness by faith – an it is so through the Spirit. From this starting point, Paul could described the Christian as one who must ‘walk in the Spirit’ (5:16), of being ‘led by the Spirit'(5:18), of ‘producing the fruit of the Spirit’ (5:22), and of ‘living in the Spirit’ (5:25). This is the life of the man whom Paul characterizes as ‘spiritual.’
What is the point of all these observations? Just this very significant point: The spirit in the word spiritual or spirituality is not the human spirit as against the body or matter, it is the Holy Spirit. The spiritual is not one who has an experience that transcends the body – it is he whom Paul describes in chapter 5: a Christian whose life is oriented to the Holy Spirit!
In order that we may appreciate this, let us put biblical spirituality in three pairs of contrast with current idea of spirituality. Mystical Closeness, or Mediated Presence?
Current ideas of spiritual experience draw too much from the language and picture of intimacy of the friendly kind. We see this in popular Christian songs:
He touched me; Oh he touched me
And oh, the joy that floods my soul;
Something happened, and now I know
He touched me, and made me whole
But how did this touching transpire? Of course, not in the bodily sense, but in some inexplicable inside experience of the soul in which the body has no business. And that inside experience becomes determinative of one’s experience of God.
Or, take this song:
I come to garden alone;
while the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses
And he walks with me, and he walks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known
How sweet are these words! Yet how unbiblical- save them for your dates! Is this how the Son of God deal with us? An intimate promenade in the garden? A communion which is unshared with everyone else? Can any sinner talk in this manner who knows what it is to be in the confronting presence of God? The presence of God kills! (Exo. 33:20). That is why early in biblical revelation, the need for a mediator is underscored. And even when God’s presence was properly mediated, it still forced those who were confronted to tremble helplessly. Whatever inspired anyone to claim a buddy-buddy experience with God, it is not from Scriptures. Michael Horton [ www.remembrancer.com/ace] is right:
We ought always to suspect the vision-seer who is happy and carefree in the presence of God. When he tells you of the informal, ‘chatty’ nature of the conversation, remember that the universal response of everyone in Scripture who received a dream or vision from the Lord was one of terror and great distress. [In the Face of God: 71]
Where does the Christian experience the presence of God? The answer is in Jesus Christ the Mediator. Paul introduced Christ in the Galatian letter as the one who delivers from the present evil age by His atoning death (1:3,4). By His death, believers have died to the law that they might live to God (2:19,20). As spiritual, the Christian lives in the Spirit (5:25). How is this made possible? Not by digging into one’s inside experience, but by looking in faith to Christ in whose death the flesh was also crusified (5:24). The Christian’s access to God is not drawn from a sense of buddy-ness with Him; not because somewhere in a beautiful garden we were walking and talking together; not because he touched me in some mystical sense. It is only because of what happened to the Cross of Christ on Calvary two-thousand years ago. So says Horton:
Outside of Christ, there is no accurate knowledge of God or of His salvation. Outside of Christ’s cross, there is no true knowledge of what God is doing in the person and work of Christ . . . Christianity is an objective religion with subjective application, not a subjective religion with a few objective ‘givens’ upon which people of all faiths can agree. Its truth is anchored not in what happens inside a person, but in what happened in the ancient land of Israel two-thousand years ago. [ibid. 82, 112]
Thank God that my access to Him depends on that event in history! If it depended on my internal condition, woe is me! How fluctuating is my heart! Indeed, deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9)! Were I to stand on what my heart is like, my closeness to God would have been more of illusion than reality. But the event of Calvary will never change. Its efficacy is objective and real before the Holy God. And when, in faith, I can look to the cross of Christ, God’s presence is real as it is mediated by the Christ of the cross. It is this which is of the Sprit! Truly spiritual! Inner Voice or Word of the Text?
Because current spirituality is a turning inward, its measure of spiritual experience is to go by inner impressions and satisfaction of felt needs. When this makes a claim of God speaking to the soul, it is often in the form of an inner voice. Pat Robertson talks of an ‘inner light’ which he defines as ‘intelligence that comes from God without reliance on sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.’ In other words, a voice that cannot be checked in terms of the biblical text.
How is this voice to be evaluated? It seems to be beyond any external authority. How dare would anyone question the validity of God’s voice which transpires in the inner experience? Here lies its peril. Its validity and authority is based on its therapeutic effect: if before you feel bad, then after the inner voice, you feel better, what else could that be but from God! Because one feels good and gratified, it must be right!
One can only balk at the selfishness of the evaluation. What is right is what serves felt needs. Gone today is the healthy self-doubt that our felt needs may be wrong – as they often because we are sinners. But that will not be tolerated in a generation where its respected guru, Robert Schuller, can affirm, “Christ was crusified to sanctify man’s ego trip.”
Yes, we want the voice of God. Where is He to be heard today? The answer is in the text of Scriptures. Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God (Heb 1:1-3). Christ chose to have His revelation be embodied in the office of the apostolate. All that we need to hear from God will center on Jesus Christ. And anything that has to do with Jesus Christ is embodied in apostolic testimony. What does that mean for us now from whom the apostolic office is gone? It means that the only remaining mode of revelation we have is the written revelation left to us by the apostles – the Scriptures. Paul could, even in his lifetime, issue this warning : ‘Even if an angel should preach to you any other gospel than that which we have preached, let him be accursed!’ (Gal. 1:8f). That is, there is no other gospel except the gospel of the apostles! In chapter five, Paul expressed his concern that the vaunted spiritual experience of the Galatians will hinder them from obeying the truth (5:7). And any experience that hinders obedience to the truth is, by definition, not spiritual experience. Paul did not bother to investigate their inner feelings. No matter how spectacular, and inwardly satisfying, Paul’s test of experience that comes from the Holy Sprit is truth and obedience to the truth.
Let us judge our own spiritual experience by the truth of the apostolic revelation. John’s simple divide of truth and falsehood applies to us (1 John 4:6): “He who knows God, hears US. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” The genuineness of God’s dealing with the soul, and the measure by which any experience is to be judged, is not how and what one feels inwardly. The judgment will be taken from and settled by the only lingering remains of apostolic word – the Bible! Thank God, He still speaks! And those of us on this side of the completed canon of Scripture are so much more privilege that God can speak to us anytime through the open book of Scriptures. Make no mistake about it: there is more of God’s voice in the Christian who quietly and humbly studies his Bible than in all the spectacular inner impressions of our deceitful hearts!
Peretti’s Spiritual Warfare, or Paul’s Spiritual Warfare?
Frank Peretti has earned his millions through his exciting novels that explore the theme of warfare between good angels and evil angels. While titillating as fiction, it has sadly become definitive of so much of current practices in Third wave churches. The current vocabulary of spiritual warfare draws a lot from fictionized imagination of directly engaging with demons. Strategic warfare. Casting out territorial spirits. One of the masterpieces of today’s emphasis is the demonizing of sins. For example, pride and lusts, previously known as our sins to mortify, have become demons to exorcise. In the process, many have been set up for a grand illusion. Those sins are still there – waiting for the old-fashioned methods of plucking out the right eye and cutting off the right hand – but with one sweep of a command, ‘I cast you out, demon of lust, in the name of Jesus!’ the exorcist convinces himself that it is cast out indeed. But is it? No, but the responsibility has just been transferred to a demon. This is Gnosticism of the old school.
What is the true spiritual warfare that the Christian can gain victor through the Spirit? Paul identifies this as the conflict between the Spirit and the flesh (Gal 5:16ff). It is about dealing with our sins, and cultivating the fruit of the Spirit. This is the Christian’s warfare – and is not about exorcism and skirmishes with demons. In the familiar passage about doing warfare with demonic beings (Eph 6:10ff), all the weapons have to do with something that is objective and focused on Christ and the Word of God. Horton points out,
Everything in Paul’s list of armor is objective rather than subjective, external rather than internal, Christ-centered rather than self-centered. God’s armor has to do with the Word, the gospel, justification and truth – not with binding demons . . . or setting up face-offs between the forces of darkness and the forces of light through sign and wonders. The great issue of this battle is a contest for truth and faith in Christ against error and unbelief. For many engaged in spiritual warfare programs today, the Word is often down-played in favor of the Sprit’s direct revelation an activity apart from the Scriptures. [p. 99]
We are engaged very seriously in a conflict – a warfare, if you prefer the word. But it is not about giving weapons to angels on our side as they battle with evil spirits. There is more of the Spirit in the Christian who mourns and seeks to mortify his sins, and grows in spiritual graces than all the fictionalized schemes to cast away demons. Indeed, the more we demonize our sins, the more we make a cop-up from the conflict. How often it leads to the ironic spectacle of men who claim to have cast out demons but those attitude reveals bondage to covetousness, pride, and disobedience to God’s Law!
Our battle is with sin. The assurance of victory is not angels, but in what our Lord Jesus has done – on the cross and the empty tomb – with completion! That complete work of Christ is being applied to us by the Spirit. And when we gain some foothold in holiness as we obey the truth, there we are having a very real spiritual experience and victory.
“Those who are Christ’s have crusified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”
– Galatians 5:24, 25
Noel A. Espinosa is chief editor of Herald of Revival magazine,
pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Los Baños, Laguna (Phils.),
and teaches at the Grace Ministerial Academy.