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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Evangelical Casualties IV - The Proposed Cure

At first glance it may seem that our three evangelical casualties of restless experientialists, entrenched intellectualists and disaffected deviationists have little in common. However, I propose an cure for their ailments which may be unexpected.

What they all need is simply to dedicate themselves to a little bit of old time religion. By old-time, I don’t mean what the hymn writer of “Give Me That Old Time Religion” was thinking. They were thinking about 1870 or so. I am talking older – like 1650. Specifically, I call those who have been reacted to modern evangelicalism in the above ways to dedication of themselves to the spiritual and practical principles of the Puritans. Now, I know the word “Puritan” has negative connotations, but that is due to our culture, not historical fact. What might the Puritans have for these groups?

For the restless experientialist, the Puritans offer the stress on God-centeredness as a divine requirement that is central to the discipline of self-denial. Second, the insistence on the primacy of the mind and on the impossibility of obeying biblical truth that one has not yet understood. Third, the demand for humility, patience, and steadiness at all times, and for an acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit’s main ministry is not to give us thrills but to create in us Christlike character. Fourth, the recognition that feelings go up and down, and that God frequently tries us by leading us through wastes of emotional flatness. Fifth, the singling out of worship as life’s primary activity. Sixth, the stress on our need of regular self-examination by Scripture, in terms set forth by Psalm 139:23-24. Lastly, the realization that sanctified suffering bulks large in God’s plan for his children’s growth in grace.

For the entrenched intellectualist the Puritans offer a series of points that are counter to this malady – though you may not have known it. First, true religion claims the affections as well as the intellect. Second, theological truth exists for the purpose of practice. Theology matters, as I have said, for it is the science of blessedly living forever and the science of living to God. Third, conceptual knowledge kills if one does not move on from knowing notions to knowing the realities to which they refer – in this case, from knowing about God to a relational acquaintance with God himself. Fourth, faith and repentance, issuing in a life of love and holiness, that is, gratitude expressed in goodwill and good works, are explicitly called for in the gospel. Fifth, the Spirit is given to lead us in close companionship with others for Christ. Sixth, the discipline of discursive meditation is meant to keep us ardent and adoring in our love affair with God. Seventh, it is ungodly and scandalous to become a firebrand and cause division in the church, and it is ordinarily nothing more reputable than spiritual pride in its intellectual form that causes men to form parties and cause splits. The Puritans would have diagnosed today’s fixated Christian intellectualists as spiritually stunted, not in their zeal for the form of sound words but in their lack of zeal for anything else; and the thrust of Puritan teaching about God’s truth in man’s life is still potent to ripen such souls into whole and mature human beings.

Finally, for the disaffected deviationists, those who will read the writings of Puritan authors will find much that helps their malady. They will read of the mystery of God: that our God is too small, that the real God cannot be put without remainder into a man-made conceptual box so as to be fully understood; and that he was, is, and always will be so bewilderingly inscrutable in his dealing with those who trust and love him, so that ‘losses and crosses’, that is, bafflement and disappointment in relation to particular hopes one has entertained, must be accepted as recurring elements in one’s life of fellowship with him. They will see the love of God: that it is a love that redeems, converts, sanctifies, and ultimately glorifies sinners, and that Calvary was the one place in human history where it was fully and unambiguously revealed, and that in relation to our own situation we may know for certain that nothing can separate us from that love (Rom 8:38), although no situation in this world will ever be freed from flies in the ointment and thorns in the bed. They will understand further of this divine love, and that it is the salvation of God: that the Christ who put away our sins and brought us God’s pardon is leading us through this world to a glory for which we are even now being prepared by the instilling of desire for it and capacity to enjoy it, and that holiness here, in the form of consecrated service and loving obedience through thick and thin, is the high road to happiness hereafter. Following this, they will read about spiritual conflict, the many ways in which the world, the flesh and the devil seek to lay us low. Fifth, they will discover the protection of God, whereby he overrules and sanctifies the conflict, often allowing one evil to touch our lives in order thereby to shield us from greater evils. Finally, they will know about the glory of God, which it becomes our privilege to further by our celebrating of his grace, by our proving of his power under perplexity and pressure, by totally resigning ourselves to his good pleasure, and by making him our joy and delight at all times.

By ministering to us these precious truths the Puritans give us the resources we need to cope with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and offer the casualties an insight into what has happened to them and can raise them above self-pitying resentment and reaction and restore their spiritual health completely. We need the Puritans, all of us – John Owen, Richard Baxter, Thomas Fuller. If you like a more modern writing style, J.I. Packer would do nicely. Try the Puritans on, those of us who are very sick and those of us less so, and you will find that the fit is almost always one which you want to wear again and again.


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