Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 5

March 3, 2008

by Douglas Wilson

We join a conservation in progress; it is between a young theological questioner who grew up in a typical Evangelical church, and an older pastor from a historical theological tradition.  

***** 

“But… What difference does it all make?” I asked.  

Pastor Spenser took a sip of his coffee, and answered the question with a question. “What kind of difference do you mean? For the individual Christian, or for the Church, or both?”  

“Well, I first came to visit you because the difference it makes to me was obvious. The doctrine I held before did little more than torment me. I was constantly in fear over the possibility of losing my salvation.”  

“But I have friends who hold to those same doctrines with enthusiastic cheerfulness. Are these teachings something which I needed to hear for my Christian life, but which are not necessary for the Church at large?”  

Pastor Spenser nodded. “I see what you are asking. Even if all this is true, is it something the Church needs to believe? Is the Church hindered in her work if these doctrines are neglected or rejected?”  

“Right. If some Christians seem to get along just fine without it, why can’t the Church as a whole?”  

“Because ideas have consequences, and because the Church is made up of individuals.”  

“OK. Explain.”  

“Ideas have consequences, not because each individual is consistent, but because groups of people are consistent over time.”  

“What do you mean by that?”  

“Let’s take a clear example from outside the faith. Have you ever known an atheist who was a decent, law-abiding citizen?”  

I nodded. “Yes.”  

“Now was he being consistent with the basic premises of his worldview?”  

I laughed, “No. And we had many discussions about it. He treated me with respect, but given his worldview, I was nothing more than a mass of protoplasm.”  

Pastor Spenser continued. “Now my point is this. Individual atheists can frequently be inconsistent like this. Atheistic societies never are.”  

“Never are inconsistent, you mean?”  

“Right. Over time, the beliefs of individuals will be consistently applied by the group, even if many of the individuals who brought this about did not apply them.”  

“Apply this to the Church, then.”  

“The basic issue we have been discussing all these weeks has been the difference between man-centered religion, and God-centered religion.”  

“I follow that.”  

“Now, have you ever known any Christian whose beliefs, or doctrines, were what we have been calling ‘man-centered’, but whose life was clearly God-centered?”  I nodded again. “Yes.” “And we would call that inconsistent?”  

“Yes.”  

“And if you wind up changing churches, you will very quickly encounter Christians whose doctrines are ‘God-centered’, but whose life is man-centered. This is also inconsistent.”  

“Well, this brings us back to my first question. If this is the case, what difference does it all make?”  

“It is quite simple. The Church, being an assembly of people, will eventually live in a manner consistent with her doctrine. If the doctrine is man-centered, then there will come a time when the lifestyle, morals, ceremonies, teaching, etc. are also man-centered.”  

“So even though an individual is inconsistent with his false doctrine, the Church at large will eventually be consistent with it.”  

“Correct. This explains why certain beliefs can be held by pious Christians, while those same beliefs go on to corrupt and defile the piety of the Church.”  

“Can you give me an example from church history?”  

“Certainly. Consider revival. What does that term mean?”  

I grinned. “A week of nightly meetings?”  

“That is what it has come to mean. Arrange for a speaker, print the flyers, gather the troops, and work up a revival. From start to finish, it is the work of man.”  

“What did revival mean before?”  

“It referred to a time when the sovereign Holy Spirit moved in a congregation in such a way as to reveal the glory of Jesus Christ. From start to finish, it was the work of God.”  

“What is a true revival like?”  

I was surprised to see Pastor Spenser’s eyes well up. “I don’t know,” he said. “All the knowledge of true revival today is second-hand – through books. The last healthy revival was in the mid-nineteenth century.”  

“What happened?”  

“Revival, which is a gift of God, was, through theological confusion, turned into a work of man. The result is revivalism, not revival.”  

“What is the difference?”  

“Well, there are two kinds of revivalism. One is where a denomination has a long tradition of having these meetings, everyone is used to it, they go and listen, and then go home. It is little more than a religious seminar. And, as seminars go, some of them might be worthwhile.”  

“And the other?”  

“The other is the result of taking the whole idea of revival more seriously. The people expect fireworks, so they see to it there are fireworks. It is nothing more than religious enthusiasm and fanaticism.”  

“But weren’t some of the great revival preachers of the past – men you respect – accused of religious fanaticism too?”  

“They certainly were. And if God is merciful to us and sends true revival again, the charges of fanaticism will be heard again.”  

“But…”  

“I know. Couldn’t a Christian make the point that the whole distinction between revival and revivalism is a false one, and that all such events are fanatical to some degree or another?”  

“Right.”  

Pastor Spenser nodded. “It is a legitimate concern. First, can we agree that there is such a thing as true fanaticism?”  

“Sure. I don’t believe anyone would disagree there. Religious fanatics have always been around.”  

“Now, the next question is this: Does the Bible teach anything which, if applied, would result in the one applying it to be accused of fanaticism?”  

I smiled. “You tell me.”  

“How about 1 Peter 1:8? ‘Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.’ Or Ephesians 3:17-19? ‘…that you…may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge.’  I don’t know. A little extreme, don’t you think?”  

I sat for a moment, thinking. Pastor Spenser spoke again.  

“Christians get used to such passages. There it is, safe on the page. But there is no way for a Christian to be filled with inexpressible joy without it affecting his demeanor and behavior. And when it does, he will be accused of fanaticism. Many Christians, in their concern over religious fanaticism, have gotten rid of not only the fanaticism, but also the religion.”  

“So what are the characteristics of true revival, over against revivalism?”  

“We have been talking about God-centeredness versus man-centeredness. The distinction follows us into our discussion of the criteria by which everything is to be evaluated; teaching and lifestyle, or, put another way, doctrine and morals.”  

“OK. Let’s start with doctrine.”  

“In a true revival, doctrine is the emphasis, and the doctrine is God-centered. In revivalism, because man is the center, feelings are emphasized. In revival, truth overwhelms the mind, resulting in an emotional response – inexpressible joy. In revivalism, the emotions are excited directly, and any number of teachings, true or false, can do that.”  

“What about morality?”  

“In a true revival, the change in the moral behavior of those blessed is significant and lasting. With revivalism, very little is done to teach the people to restrain their passions. In fact, because the ‘revival’ encourages a lack of restraint in the church, it is not long before a lack of restraint is evident elsewhere, usually in the area of sexual morality.”  

“Are you saying that in order to have a true revival, a belief in God’s exhaustive sovereignty is necessary?”  

“Yes.”  

“But didn’t men like Charles Finney deny this particular truth? And wasn’t he part of the revivals of the nineteenth century?”  

“Yes, he did deny it, and he was certainly a participant in ‘revivals.’ But he was one of those who effectively introduced the man-centered doctrines and practices which were the death of true revivals in this country.”  

“You know,” I said, “I thought I had gotten used to the strange things you say from time to time. But this takes the cake! I have some friends who are really into revival, and they read books by Finney all the time.”  

Pastor Spenser was shaking his head. “I know, I know. It is ironic. When Christians periodically despair of the current state of the church, and come to think, correctly, that the only thing which will help us is revival, they then turn to one of the men who was a major part of the problem.”  

“So how would you summarize all this?”  

“I would say that God is over all, and through all, and in all. Anyone who denies this, in any measure, is a hindrance to true heaven-sent revival.”  

****

This is Part 5 in a series of 6 titled Easy Chairs & Hard Words.

 

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