Over Cautious?

In my last post I said that if you are not a person of the Word, then you cannot truly be a person of the Spirit. Dan described me as being “open-but-cautious-yes-prophecy-might-exist-but-the-Word-is-better”. I will admit that I did only give half of the picture. So here I will say it the other way round – if you are not a person of the Spirit, then you cannot truly be a person of the Word.

Over at the SBL conference, there are some seriously knowledgeable people. They would beat you on a Bible quiz any day. They know the original Greek and Hebrew, the textual variants, and the history of interpretation for any passage you care to mention. And the other day one of the scholars chastised the others for not being learned enough in the field of textual criticism.

In John 3, Jesus talks to someone who may well have been the leading theologian of his day “are you the teacher of Israel”, and tells him that he needs the Spirit’s work in his life. There is so much more to knowing God than simply knowing the Bible.

Non-charismatics often speak against the charismatic desire to “experience” God, particularly setting it as a battle of the subjective experience versus the objective Word of God. But this is to make a false dichotomy – the New Testament abounds with experiential language when the Spirit is discussed – joy unspeakable, crying out Abba Father etc. So a genuine commitment to the Word must result in a desire to know not just more about God, but to know him personally too.

So Dan, I am cautious, I freely admit it. But I hope I am truly open as well.

The Bible and Prophecy

As a charismatic, I believe that God can speak in many ways. But as an evangelical, I believe that the surest and clearest way to receive revelation is through the Bible. It is our plumbline for testing all other revelation against.

When charismatics ask “what has God promised me?”, they often refer to whether they have received a “personal prophecy”. If they say “did God speak in the meeting today?”, they are often asking whether there was a prophecy. This tendency to overlook God’s written word is one of the chief reasons why many non-charismatics, while not sure of the arguments for cessation of the gifts, are not willing to join ranks with the charismatics.

I sometimes think that if I were God, I would punish those who didn’t read my written word by not speaking to them in other ways. How arrogant after all, to say “I want to hear your voice” and in the next moment to think “I can’t be bothered to read my Bible”. But God is thankfully infinitely more gracious than me, and still finds ways of getting his message through to those he loves.

In the end though, we will seriously impoverish ourselves if we don’t feed regularly on the Scriptures. God has more to say to us than once a year telling us what house to buy or job to apply for. Every day in the Scriptures, there is a glimpse of his glory to be found as well as practical instruction for how to live a life that brings him glory.

If we charismatics are truly the people who earnestly desire to hear God speak today, then we must be lovers of the Word. If we know the Bible we are not only in a position to weigh the prophecies of others, but to evaluate the impressions through which we believe to be God speaking to us. If we are not people of the Word, then neither are we people of the Spirit.

The Great Cessationist Debate

I’ve had a rather busy few weeks, so have had nothing to put up here for a while, and that will probably continue for a while. I’ve been slowly working my way through all my books to work out who thinks what about the millennium and the rapture. There’s a fairly even spread at the moment of all opinions except pre-trib rapture (dispensational), which is only represented by my wife’s Left Behind books.

However, I have been following the cessationist debate amongst Christian bloggers with some interest, and its probably a good thing I haven’t had the chance to join in, as this is a subject that can run and run. Rob Wilkerson has very helpfully provided an index to posts on the subject. If I can find the time to read through all that and find anything whatsoever that hasn’t already been said, I’ll consider adding my thoughts to the debate.

At our cell group weekend away in the New Forest, I did get the chance to perform my Cessationist hymn though. I’m afraid there is no recording available, but the lyrics are here:

The Cessasionist Hymn (To the tune of ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’)

The gift of tonues was poured out from above,
By the Spirit on those who receive
It is lesser by far than the gift of prophecy
But was used most of all by St. Paul.
It was born on the morn of the day the church was formed
And was always its pleasure and pride
But it stopped… short… never to go again
When the apostles died.

Ninety years without slumbering
Sha la la, sha ba ba
Interpretations following
Sha la la, sha ba ba
But it stopped… short… never to go again
When the apostles died

Welcoming the Spirit

I have heard a number of people speak recently of the importance of “welcoming” or “inviting” the Holy Spirit to meetings. It is a phrase I am reluctant to use as I think it is open to misunderstanding.

It can sound as though it is for the Holy Spirit’s benefit, as though he needed some kind of permission from us to come to church, or that he was reluctant to come and needed a bit of persuasion. However, even though I have occasionally heard people “giving God permission” to do things, I don’t think this is what is generally meant by “welcoming” or “inviting” the Spirit.

The concept rather should be for our benefit. We need to remind ourselves of the reality of the presence of God, and Jesus’ promise to be with us when we meet together. He wants to meet with us, to bless and encourage, to correct and instruct through his word and by his Spirit. If we are to experience all he has to offer us, we need to cultivate an attitude of expectancy and openness. If those who lead meetings can in some way can say something to promote this attitude, then it is a good thing.

Open to the Spirit

Occasionally in charismatic circles, you will hear a person or a church described as being “open to the Spirit”, usually meaning that they are receptive to the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues being used in their churches and individual lives. But even those who are “open” to certain aspects of the Spirit’s ministry may be closed to others. To truly be “open to the Spirit” is to welcome his work in whatever form it comes.

For example, one ministry of the Spirit is to convict of sin, and yet it is quite possible for us to ignore his promptings over certain deeply rooted sins. We may be open to being guided as to where we should live, but not to being called to serve overseas. We may desire the gift of healing, but refuse the fruit of patience. We may be open to him teaching us through a high profile Christian preacher, but not through our own small group leader.

There are many diverse ways that the Spirit can speak to us – through the Bible, through preaching, through the advice of friends, through inner conviction, through dreams and visions, through the gift of prophecy, through suffering, through signs and wonders. And there are many subjects that he wants to speak to us about – our time, our money, our relationships, our witness, our sins, our future, our ambitions, our love for God and our knowledge of God. Are we really listening? Or do we only hear what we want to hear?

In 1 Thessalonians 5:19, we are warned against quenching the Spirit. Verse 20 reveals that this can happen if we despise the gift of prophecy, an important aspect of the Spirit’s ministry. But I think it follows that we can quench the Spirit by being closed to any of the ways he desires to work in and through us. Of course we will require discernment, as verse 21 reminds us that not all that purports to be from the Spirit actually is, but that does not give us an excuse to retreat into our comfort zones, restricting God’s working in our lives to ways we find acceptable. We must let the Spirit’s fire blaze in our hearts, destroying what is worthless and producing holiness instead. Don’t quench the Spirit, but be open to all he has for you.

My Reformed Charismatic Journey Part 4

The time has come for my final post in my “reformed charismatic” story series, which covers the six years since leaving university (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I know that I have said little about the “reformed” part of my theology – this is mainly because I have grown up believing in the doctrines of grace and have never found Arminian arguments persuasive. I have debated on the subject at various times, but it has usually served to further confirm me in my Calvinist interpretation of Scripture.

Rediscovering Word and Spirit

After leaving university, I got a job as a computer programmer back in Dunstable, where I had grown up. I got married and we bought a house in Luton, and returned to the church I had grown up attending. It was a time of transition for the church. Dr Jebb anounced his intention to retire from the pastorate, which he did after a year. The following year or so was spent searching for a new pastor, and eventually Mark Lawrence, from another FIEC church was appointed. His arrival brought many changes and some much needed fresh impetus to some structures that had stagnated during the “interregnum period”. But it was clear that the ghost of charismatic past had been decisively exorcised.

Shortly after moving to the area, my wife had begun the process of attempting to join the church, which involved working through various courses (West Street had the longest and most thorough new members course I have ever come accross). Unfortunately, she questioned some of the teaching (about head covering and spiritual gifts) which resulted in something of an impasse. So we were in the awkward position of myself being heavily involved in the church, leading a youth group, playing in the worship group and even teaching part time in the Christian school, while my wife was initially not even allowed to join me at housegroup because she had not yet come into membership. Without a pastor, no one knew exactly what should be done about her and being cast in the role of “problem person” made her wonder whether she really did want to join after all.

My interest in reading theology was growing, and it helped that I worked right next to an excellent Christian bookshop. It was there that I bought my first commentary – The Message of Matthew by Michael Green with the intention of reading it alongside the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan that I do most years. Six years on I have bought about 100 more commentaries of which I have read about half. My desire to recieve some theological training at the church was not to be realised though, as Dr Jebb’s retirement meant the closure of the “Ministry Training Institute” – a Bible college he ran. Nevertheless in my lunch hours I would listen to the taped lectures from previous years.

It was during these 3 years in Luton that I felt that I would really like to go on a Bible week again, like the ones I had attended as a child. I assumed that nothing comparable existed. I was particularly skeptical about the Stoneleigh Bible week, but after listening their 1998 live worship CD, Beautiful Saviour, I figured that they must be doing something right for such Christ exalting songs to be coming from their movement. So in 1999 I went with a small group from our church. I warned my wife that though the worship might be good, we should beware of false teaching. Over the course of the week, all of my prejudice was blown away. After hearing Dave Holden, Terry Virgo, John Hosier, Greg Haslam, and Simon Pettit, I no longer believed that it was impossible to be a charismatic and retain an evangelical loyalty to the Bible.

We had to evacuate our tents due to flooding, but nothing could dampen our spirits that year. Our visit led to something of a renewal in the youth work (late teens and early twenties) I was leading at the church, and it was one of the most exciting and rewarding periods of my life to see God at work in their lives in a significant way. At the same time, a number of my close friends were experiencing similar renewal and giving themselves to the Word and prayer. Out of this flowed “Full Faith”, our own slightly tongue in cheek ‘church’ where we could preach sermons we had composed to one another.

The New Frontiers Years

We returned each year to Stoneleigh, and the final Bible week in 2001 coincided with a period of seeking God about where our future should be. The theme of the whole week was “Let’s Go”, and there was much encouragement to be willing to move on to new places to serve God. Later that year I found a job in Southampton and we moved house. We had both lived there before, but we were in a different part of the city now and so had an opportunity to try out some churches.

KCC, a New Frontiers church in Hedge End was first on our list to try, and ended up being the only one we tried. I was particularly impressed with the “Word Plus” course they ran in the evenings (although the name of the course amused me since I had recently heard some sermons warning against the ‘Gospel Plus’ heretics in Colosse who were considered to have great similarities with the charismatics). We found it to be a warm and welcoming church, and it very much feels like home for us now. Ironically, at this stage of my “reformed charismatic” journey I find myself in a church where not all on the eldership are Calvinists. But I have not heard “beligerent Arminianism” (to quote the classic introduction to Christian Hymns) being preached, so I will for now put up with those who “think otherwise”, trusting God to “make it clear to them” (Phil 3:5)!

My Reformed Charismatic Journey Part 3

OK, here is part 3 of my ongoing story of how I came to describe myself as a “reformed charismatic” (read part 1 and part 2 first). If you are interested in hearing my normal ‘testimony’, then Tim Challies has pretty much covered what I would need to say in his excellent post here.

Diversity at University

In 1994, I went to study a four year masters degree in electronic engineering at Southampton University. I quickly got involved in the Christian Union there, which I thoroughly enjoyed and kept me extremely busy particularly leading various hall groups and cell groups, leading worship and doing the PA. It was also a good learning experience as I came into contact with other Christians from church groups I didn’t even know existed. Despite our wide variety of backgrounds, there was a real sense of love and unity amongst the 300 or so members, and it seems a shame that once everyone leaves university they head back into their separate denominations and rarely do anything together again. It is not as hard to worship and witness together as we sometimes think.

Going to university in a place I had never been to before also gave me a chance to search for a church. I tried some of the charismatic churches first, but it was the height of the “Toronto Blessing” and many of them had put preaching on hold. I wanted to hear some good expository preaching, and also wanted a church that wasn’t making a big deal of whether you were ‘for’ or ‘against’ the ‘TB’. Portswood church, an evangelical (noncharismatic) church fitted the bill perfectly, thanks to the pastor John Symons, a man I have the utmost respect for, and whose warmth and wisdom were a real blessing to me throughout my time there.

Two notable things happened while I was at university, that would result in changes to my theological outlook; both were unplanned. The first happened when one day, feeling bored with my electromagnetism studies, I ventured into the theology section of the university library. There I picked up Calvin’s “institutes” and Hippolytus’ “The refutation of all heresies” (the sheer audacity of the title attracted me). I was already an occasional reader of devotional books (I liked biographies) and loved listening to my large collection of sermon tapes, but had never delved into anything like these books before. They encouraged me to start thinking more deeply about what I believed and why.

The second thing was I met Steph, who is now my wife. Steph was from a Pentecostal church in Bromley, and the Christian friends who had witnessed to her and discipled her could only be described as “nuts for Jesus”. For them, a Saturday wasn’t for shopping and watching TV – the morning would be spent praying and the afternoon evangelising strangers in the high street. It took some getting used to, but I learned to appreciate their zeal for God. It struck me as odd that the two groups of people I knew most bold in evangelism were those hyper-charismatics from Bromley and the anti-charismatics fron UBM. They would get on well together if they could understand one another.

Steph and I didn’t argue much, but when we did it was always about theology. I wanted her to stop listening to Kenneth Copeland and she wanted me to stop listening to Hank Hannegraaf. We argued passionately about the possibility of an outer court in heaven, the trichotomous anthropological nature and of course Calvinism and Arminianism. Most of our differences are now resolved thankfully – she has seen the error of her ways (hope she doesn’t read this!), but she did have one (typically Pentecostal) question that I couldn’t answer to my satisfaction. Why don’t you ask God for the gift of tongues? It bugged me that the honest answer was that I didn’t want it, mainly because it was weird, but I prayed about it anyway, not so much seeking the gift but just talking over my confusion about it. A breakthrough came one day when quite unexpectedly I started praising God in tongues after passing my driving test! I was shocked, and didn’t do it again for a number of years.

Well done if you’ve managed to stick with my story this long. Only one more part to go.

My Reformed Charismatic Journey Part 2

Here is the second part in my series on how I became a “reformed charismatic” (read the first part here). It really seems to be personal story telling time in the blogging world at the moment. Today’s installment covers from when I was about 12 to 18. I am particularly conscious as I write this that many of my friends look back on this time with mixed opinions and the internet is not the place for a full discussion of all the issues, so I will simply give the basic details and how I felt about it at the time.

Drifting Away

After Ern Baxter died, the church I attended slowly but surely became less and less charismatic. More hymns were sung and fewer choruses. The charismatic gifts were seen less and less. We no longer attended Bible weeks. This was largely due to the pastor’s growing concerns about the direction that the charismatic movement was headed in. It lacked commitment to Scripture, had antinomian tendencies, left false prophecy unchallenged and there were even a number of tragic cases of gross immorality amongst leaders. “Open to the Spirit” increasingly meant “open to anything whatsoever”.

By 1994, my church had lost any resemblance whatsoever to a charismatic church, and with the onset of the “Toronto Blessing” began to actively criticise the movement. Dr. Jebb had earlier written a booklet defending a basically Pentecostal doctrine of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, which in his typical style was argued with hundreds of biblical references. He now wrote a second booklet arguing against his position in the first. It was in a difficult time for the church, with many people leaving, including the families of quite a few of my friends. Many though were persuaded that the charismatic movement had gone off the rails and we were best staying out of it. Others stayed simply out of love and loyalty to their spiritual family and home, not knowing quite what to make of the change in direction.

The big problem, we were told, was that the charismatics are after “experience” which is subjective, not objective. We should be content with the objective Word of God and remember that worship is not about enjoying yourself but honouring God. It seemed to make sense to me at the time, but it was not until a few years later, when I started reading John Piper, that the whole idea of honouring God by enduring boring worship was blown away (not of course that it was put quite like that, but that was the general impression I got).

I was now on the verge of starting university, and was encouraged to read books such as “Charismatic Chaos” by John MacArthur and “Christianity in Crisis” by Hank Hanegraaf. These confirmed to me that the charismatic movement was irretrievably lost in a mess of muddled thinking, and that I would do well to avoid it. I was also beginning to read more of the Puritans and Reformers who had a cessationist stance whenever they touched on these issues.

About this time I started going on yearly missions with UBM, where I found many evangelicals with a love for the Word and a heart for evangelism, but I quickly discovered that charismatics were viewed with extreme disapproval. So at this stage in my life all the people I looked up to in the faith were noncharismatic in practise and teaching, and I was regularly hearing anti-charismatic anecdotes which bolstered a growing prejudice against them.

Despite all this going on, these were years of significant spiritual growth for me. I was baptised, and got about as fully involved in church life as I possibly could. I loved the youth groups especially, and the atmosphere of controversy over the charismatic movement and particularly contemporary Christian worship music (which was viewed with extreme disapproval) did at least serve to get me thinking and studying the Bible for myself.

So I was in a fairly settled position. I believed that the charismatic gifts were still valid for today, but that most churches who tried to use them were seriously deficient in other areas. In fact, I do not ever remember hearing a cessationist argument in church, except for one sermon on why there were no longer apostles today. I had been warned of the excesses of charismatic practise, but had not rejected charismatic theology. Perhaps I would have left it at that, content with a noncharismatic evangelicalism, but there were still issues for me to think through, and some of these came to the forefront while I was at university (which will be the subject of part 3).

My Reformed Charismatic Journey Part 1

Adrian Warnock and Diane Roberts are putting together a Reformed Charismatic aggregator. They asked if I would mind explaining how I ‘evolved’ into a Reformed Charismatic. I had been planning to post something about this anyway as a follow-up to my ‘dividing lines’ posts (here and here). I wouldn’t actually say I evolved into one, rather that I started off as one, evolved away from it, and then came back. Following in the recent tradition of Jollyblogger and Adrian, I will post this as a multipart series. For brevity’s sake, it’s not my testimony, and neither is it intended as a defence of being reformed or charismatic.

The Early Years

I spent just about my entire childhood in church. It was (back then) a reformed charismatic Baptist church in Dunstable (which is mentioned in the Bible you know – look carefully) and it had its own Christian school which I attended. With a Saturday night youth group as well, I was in the building seven days a week most weeks. The pastor, Dr. Stanley Jebb, was a very scholarly evangelical Calvinist, who passionately believed in expository preaching. Every Sunday morning the whole church would gather at 10:00 for an hour’s ‘Bible school’ where we studied church history, or books like J C Ryle’s “Holiness”, or A W Pink’s “The Attributes of God”. At 11:15 we had the main morning service, and from the age of five children were expected to stay in and listen to the sermon. The pastor would quite happily discuss the Greek text and talk about some more advanced theological concepts (for example, at the age of seven I was well versed in the difference between syntheke and diatheke, and why ‘propitiation’ should be prefered to ‘expiation’). In many ways, some of his distinctive ideas lined up with traditional conservative evangelicals, teaching head-covering for women, strongly advising total abstinence from alcohol, keeping Sunday special and dressing smartly for church.

But we were also very definitely charismatic, and involved in the “restoration” movement (now more commonly called the “house church” movement – see Andrew Walker’s book “Restoring the Kingdom” for a historian’s perspective; see also a critical Banner of Truth article ). We went to some of the early charismatic Bible weeks (Dales and Downs) and eventually organised our own (the Anglia Bible week) with speakers such as Peter Lewis, Barney Coombs, Bryn Jones and Ern Baxter. Ern was an American and part of what was known as the “shepherding movement”, which our church was also in and came under his authority. He had a similar passion for the Word and Spirit as our pastor did, and would regularly come over to give teaching.

My earliest recollections of church include the charismatic gifts being used regularly. The times of worship were often powerful with a real sense of the presence of God as people sang “in the Spirit”. As young people we were encouraged to seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit. I still have a slip of paper from a Bible week when I was eight years old which states that I had asked that day to be prayed for to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. However I never did speak in tongues as a child (neither to my knowledge did any of my friends), and this was not considered a problem by anyone. In fact, that week is probably the time that I would say I became a Christian – it is my earliest memory of earnestly seeking God.

Read Part 2 here

How Important is the Gift of Tongues?

Commentators are almost unanimous in their analysis of 1 Corinthians 14 (and the preceding two chapters) that Paul is in some way rebuking the Corinthians for an over-emphasis on the gift of tongues. It was central in their thinking and their meetings. Paul responds by effectively saying “If you want to make a big deal of one spiritual gift, then prophecy would have been a better choice, and in any case, the foundational mark of spirituality is not any of the gifts, but in showing love”.

Paul was clearly a tongues speaker, as he claims in 1 Cor 14:18 that “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you”. This is a surprising claim, given what we can deduce about how much the Corinthians seemed to be using the gift. Whilst Paul may be utilising hyperbole here, the point remains that he used this gift extensively. But from verse 19, we see that he clearly has private use in mind. This does not prove that he never spoke in tongues in a public meeting, but it does indicate that his main use of the gift was for his personal edification. In any case, Paul’s primary contribution in many meetings was doubtless teaching, and he presumably was glad to allow others to contribute in prophecy or tongues.

Paul has much to say in praise of tongues – they edify the speaker (14:4) and can edify the church if accompanied with the gift of interpretation (14:6). Most significantly, in verse 5 he says that “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues”. For many charismatics this is enough evidence for them to teach every Christian that they should keep seeking God until they get this gift. However, the sentence does not end there – Paul recommends prophecy as an even better option. Furthermore, earlier in 1 Cor 7:7 Paul has spoken of his desire that everyone shared his gift of celibacy!

So we conclude that this gift is valuable, but not essential. Those who desire help in their personal prayer lives and want to be edified (which is surely all of us) would benefit greatly from it. But given Paul’s insistence in chapter 12 on the diversity of the Spirit, it would be silly to imagine that everyone needs to follow exactly the same route to personal edification. That not all the Corinthians possessed this gift is strongly indicated by the rhetorical question of 12:30 and the implication of 14:5 (which is interesting to note, since 12:13 indicates that he did believe them all to have been baptised in the Holy Spirit – hence we cannot make tongues a required evidence of this experience).

But if Paul has much praise for tongues, he also seems to deprecate the gift in places. He is not simply content to pray or sing with his spirit in verse 15, he wants to pray with his mind also. He makes essentially the same point four times in a row in verses 2-6 that prophecy is preferable to tongues in the meetings. The most striking statement comes in verse 19 where he says that “in church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue”.

Some have taken this verse to indicate that in Paul’s opinion, tongues are purely for personal use, and are best kept out of public meetings. But this goes beyond what he has said. He has indicated that they can bring the same considerable benefit as prophecy if there is an interpretor present (v5). They are included in the list of things that “must be done for the strengthening of the church” in verse 26. And in verse 27, most tellingly, although he places limits on the use of the gift (one at a time, no more than two or three) he clearly expects that after heeding his rebukes in this letter, the gift will continue to be used in a public context. Exactly the same restrictions are placed upon the prophetic gift (v29), the very gift Paul has been encouraging the use of.

A brief comment is appropriate on the gift of interpretation, which is in many ways as mysterious as the gift of tongues itself. Paul is not criticising the use of tongues per se, but the fact that there were a number of uninterpreted tongues in their meetings (perhaps because the people who typically interpreted were not present on some occasions – see v28). He took a dim view of this situation as it provided no benefit whatsoever to the hearers. It only benefited the speaker, and hence was at best selfish and at worst shameless self-promotion.

So how important exactly, is the gift of tongues? If it is said that modern charismatics tend to overestimate the importance of this gift, then it must also be admitted that noncharismatics tend to underestimate it. To summarise the teaching of this chapter on the value of the gift of tongues:

1. Tongues greatly benefits the speaker in personal use
2. Tongues can benefit the church as much as prophecy, but only when an interpretation follows
3. A person with the gift of tongues may quite appropriately speak in praise of it and encourage others to desire it
4. No one however should insist that others exclusively seek or use one particular gift, but acknowledge that the Spirit gives a variety of gifts to the body of Christ
5. Sensible limitations on the gift should be exercised in public meetings so that it does dominate at the expense of other contributions (which include prophecies, teaching and hymns)
6. Those addressing the entire meeting should resist the temptation to speak in tongues if they do not intend to seek an interpretation.