Packer opens this chapter with an indictment of those who in the name of love and kindness magnify grace and deemphasize sin and judgment. He says instead of being kind they are actually cruel. Now he is not talking about radical liberalism, which constantly attacks the historic view of sin and redemption and uniqueness and need of Christ’s sacrifice. No, he is talking about otherwise doctrinally sound evangelical ministry and with that in mind, we need to read his presentation with a discerning heart. Before we start, if you are new to this study, you can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. There are also study materials for the book available at william.meisheid.com.
You have to remember that this book was originally written in 1973, and the focus of this chapter was a form of Christian triumphalism that argued those of true faith would enter the Promised Land where they would overcome every problem, including the world, the flesh, and the devil by living out their Christian faith. Those of us who lived through those years as new Christians can well remember what eventually came to be called the “prosperity” gospel. It was a faith-driven premise that said if you were not triumphant, it was because you lacked faith to live as a King’s Kid, had failed to claim your birthright as a son of God, and were deceived by false teaching and the devil to believe you had to suffer, be sick, or lack any need, especially financial. They did, as Packer noted
leading young Christians to regard all experiences of frustration and perplexity as signs of substandard Christianity It insists on diagnosing the struggle, which it equates with defeat, as a relapse caused by failure to maintain consecration and faith.
The question we need to address is not was this chapter important for that moment in the life of the Church, it was, but does its arguments still address a need for correction in the life of the Church today? Are Gods grace, at times difficult correction, and his ongoing restitution of our lives under distortion and attack today as they were then? Remember, we are not talking about those who are obviously aberrant to everyone, such as the liberals supporting homosexuality and abortion within the banner of Christ. We are talking about those whose doctrine is otherwise apparently sound.
I would argue that we do have a similar problem in the Church today, but rather than it being a prosperity gospel, it is the opposite, that while God loves you he is not in total control of everything that happens in the world, so you might just be blindsided by something from which God had no resources to protect you. I am speaking of the “Open Theism” movement within the Evangelical Church. For a beginning critique of this movement I suggest you see this post at Intellectuelle. From there you may want to check out Tektonics and Parableman starting with this post (note the link in his post).
What I find interesting is that both of these problematic approaches to otherwise sound Christian doctrine find their primary inspiration within Pentecostalism. While it is true that the prosperity people found inspiration in Finney and other aspects of the Holiness movement, they applied a unique Pentecostal twist to those underpinnings. Pinnock himself, subtitles his instructive offering as How the Pentecostal Theology of Experience is Changing Our Understanding of God. So there we have it: experience versus the Word, subjective understanding versus revelation and the written record. The root of the Pentecostal experience of God, no matter what anyone in this context wants to argue, is the “rhema,” called by Pentecostals God’s living current word to us, coming in the form of prophecy, words of knowledge, and glossilalia (tongues) which give us immediate access to God in context. That is the keyGod in context.
This direct access to God in real time is not considered something that is special and rare (as we see biblically), but normative and constant. It is expected and if you don’t live that way then there is something wrong with your faith. I must state here that I became a Christian and grew up early in my Christian life within this Pentecostal and later Charismatic mileu. I can personally attest to undeniable physical miracles. I have personally experienced visions and transcendent moments that went well beyond anything my previous experiences in the drug culture or occult could duplicate. That said, I am now always skeptical and I attribute that skepticism to one thing, God’s gracious gift of discernment. When I went through the “Life in the Spirit” class at my church, a necessity for joining the congregation and as such a necessity for my being married in the church, instead of asking for tongues or any of the other gift when hands were laid on me for such an impartation, I asked for discernment. Having come out of the drug and occult world, knowing the truth from error and deception was paramount to me. And to be honest, I got what I asked for. God undeniably touched me at that exact moment with a transcendent experience that forever made me call into question all later experiences, both mine and of others. God in essence “told” me all my past experiences had been a fraud, a substitute for the real thing, and this moment was the reality I had sought. It was also evident that I was to question everything from that moment on, since most of what was happening in the world was fraudulent. That he was speaking about inside as well as outside the Church was self-evident.
That was a seminal moment in my Christian existence. It was as if scales fell away from my eyes and what had once been a wonderful psychedelic landscape of Christian Godness, now became a pockmarked Christian landscape filled with black holes, bear traps, and con artists residing beside the undeniable light of Christ. It is not without reason Paul says to test every spirit to see if it be from God. It is also significant that the most noble of men were the Bereans who searched the scriptures in order to authenticate Pauls words and teachings.
We live in dangerous times, both physically and spiritually. Christianity is under attack both from without (secular humanism, Islam, materialism, etc.) and from within (liberal Christianity and its embrace of homosexuality and abortion, scandal and moral turpitude in public and popular leaders, doctrinal drift, and cliff diving from the likes of Open Theism). What Packer has to say to us in this chapter is that right doctrine in the basics of the faith does not mean right doctrine in other areas, areas that can undermine the faith once delivered unto the saints in substantive ways. We all need to have Berean hearts that practice judicious discernment and be willing to step out and actively judge those who claim the faith (See my Judge Not Is For Cowards), while holding fast to compassionate righteousness and loving discernment (Philippians 1:9-11).
May God bless your day and may he grant you grace and peace and help in your time of need.