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Cruel Evangelical Ministry
The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Knowing God,” published in 1973 by Hodder & Stoughton.
A certain type of ministry of the gospel is cruel. It does not mean to be, but it is. It means to magnify grace, but what it does is rather the opposite. It scales down the problem of sin, and loses touch with the purpose of God.
The effect is twofold: first, to depict the work of grace as less than it really is; second, to leave people with a gospel that is not big enough to cover the whole area of their need. Isaiah once pictured the misery of inadequate resources in terms of short beds and narrow blankets (Isaiah 28:20 NIV)---a sure recipe for long-term discomfort and discontent, with a chance of serious illness thrown in. To such unhappiness, in the spiritual realm, this kind of ministry exposes all who take it seriously. Its prevalence is a major hindrance to knowledge of God and growth in grace at the present time. We hope we may do service to some by exposing it, and trying to show where it falls short.
What kind of ministry is this? The first thing to say is that, sad as it may seem, it is an evangelical ministry. Its basis is acceptance of the Bible as God’s Word and its promises as God’s assurances. Its regular themes are justification by faith through the cross, new birth through the Spirit, and new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Its aim is to bring people to new birth and from there lead them on into the fullest possible experience of resurrection life. It is in every sense a ministry of the gospel. Its errors are not the errors of those whose ministry strays from the central evangelical message. They are errors to which only an evangelical ministry could ever be exposed. This must be stressed at the start.
But if it is a doctrinally sound evangelical ministry, whatever can go wrong with it? How can anything be seriously amiss with it, when its message and aims are so scriptural? The answer is that a ministry which is wholly concerned with gospel truths can still go wrong by giving those truths an inaccurate application. Scripture is full of truth that will heal souls, just as a chemist’s shop is stocked with remedies for bodily disorders; but in both cases a misapplication of what, rightly used, will heal, will have a disastrous effect. If, instead of dabbing iodine on, you drink it, the effect will be the reverse of curative!---and the doctrines of new birth and new life can be misapplied too, with unhappy results. That is what seems to happen in the case under discussion, as we shall see.
The type of ministry that is here in mind starts by stressing, in an evangelistic context, the difference that becoming a Christian will make. Not only will it bring us forgiveness of sins, peace of conscience, and fellowship with God as our Father; it will also mean that, through the power of the indwelling Spirit, we will be able to overcome the sins that previously mastered us, and the light and leading that God will give us will enable us to find a way through problems of guidance, self-fulfilment, personal relations, heart’s desire, and such like, which had hitherto defeated us completely.
Now, put like that, in general terms, these great assurances are scriptural and true---praise God, they are! But it possible so to stress them, and so to play down the rougher side of the Christian life---the daily chastening, the endless war with sin and Satan, the periodic walk in darkness---as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses, a state of affairs in which everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist---or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once. This is to suggest that the world, the flesh, and the devil, will give us no serious trouble once we are Christians; nor will our circumstances and personal relationships ever be a problem to us; nor will we ever be a problem to ourselves. Such suggestions are mischievous, however, because they are false.
Of course, an equally lop-sided impression can be given the other way. You can so stress the rough side of the Christian life, and so play down the bright side, as to give the impression that Christian living is for the most part grievous and gloomy---hell on earth, in hope of heaven hereafter! No doubt this impression has from time to time been given; no doubt the ministry we are examining here is partly a reaction against it. But it must be said that of these two extremes of error, the first is the worse, just to the extent that false hopes are a greater evil than false fears. The second error will, in the mercy of God, lead only to the pleasant surprise of finding that Christians have joy as well as sorrow; But the first, which pictures the normal Christian life as trouble-free, is bound to lead to bitter disillusionment sooner or later.
Our assertion is that, in order to appeal compellingly to human wistfulness, the type of ministry we are examining allows itself to promise at this point more than God has undertaken to perform in this world. This, we hold, is the first feature that marks it out as cruel. It buys results with false hopes. To be sure, the cruelty is not that of malice. It is prompted rather by irresponsible kindness. The preacher wants to win his hearers to Christ; therefore he glamorises the Christian life, making it sound as gay and carefree as he can, in order to allure them. But the absence of a bad motive, and the presence of a good one, does not in any way reduce the damage which his exaggerations do.
For what happens, as ministers know all too well, is this. While tough-minded listeners who had heard this kind of thing before take the preacher’s promises with a pinch of salt, a few serious seekers will believe him absolutely. On this basis, they are converted; they experience the new birth; and they advance into their new life joyfully certain that they have left all the old headaches and heartaches behind them. And then they find that it is not like that at all. Long-standing problems of temperament, of personal relations, of felt wants, of nagging temptations, are still there---sometimes, indeed, intensified. God does not make their circumstances notably easier; rather the reverse. Dissatisfaction over wife, or husband, or parents, or in-laws, or children, or colleagues, or neighbours, recurs. Temptations and bad habits which their conversion experience seemed to have banished for good reappear. As the first great waves of joy rolled over them during the opening weeks of their Christian experience, they had really felt that all problems had solved themselves, but now they see that it was not so, and that the trouble-free life which they were promised has not materialised. Things which got them down before they were Christians are threatening to get them down again. What are they to think now?
The truth here is that the God, of whom it was said, ‘he tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms’ (Isaiah 40:11), is very gentle with very young Christians, just as mothers are with very young babies. Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy; striking providences, remarkable answers to prayer, and immediate fruitfulness in their first acts of witness; thus God encourages them, and establishes them in ‘the life’. But as they grow stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school. He exposes them to as much testing by the pressure of opposed and discouraging influences as they are able to bear---not more (see the promise, 1 Corinthians 10;13 NIV), but equally not less (see the admonition, Acts 14:12 NIV). Thus he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to help others. Thus he crystallises our sense of values. Thus he glorifies himself in our lives, making his strength perfect in our weakness.
There is nothing unnatural, therefore, in an increase of temptations, conflicts, and pressures, as the Christian goes on with God---indeed, something would be wrong if it did not happen. But Christians who have been told that the normal Christian life is unshadowed and trouble-free can only conclude, as experiences of inadequacy and imperfection pile in upon them, that they must have lapsed from normal. ‘Something’s gone wrong,’ they will say, ‘it isn’t working any more!’ And their question will be: how can it be made to ‘work’ again?
The second cruel feature of the ministry we have in mind appears at this point. Having created bondage---for such it is---by leading young Christians to regard all experiences of frustration and perplexity as signs of sub-standard Christianity, it now induces further bondage by the straight-jacket of a remedy by which it proposes to dispel these experiences. It insists on diagnosing the ‘struggle’, which it equates with ‘defeat’, as a relapse caused by failure to maintain ‘consecration’ and ‘faith’. At first (so it is suggested) the convert was fully surrendered to his new-found Saviour; hence his joy; but since then he has grown cold or careless, or compromised his obedience in some way, or ceased to sustain moment-by-moment trust in the Lord Jesus, and that is why his experience is now as it is.
The remedy, therefore, is for him to find, and confess, and forsake, his defection; to reconsecrate himself to Christ, and maintain his consecration daily; and to learn the habit, when problems and temptations come, of handing them over to Christ to deal with for him. If he does this (it is affirmed) he will find himself once more, in the theological as well as the metaphorical sense, on top of the world.
Now it is true that if Christians grow careless towards God, and slip back into ways of deliberate sin, their inward joy and rest of heart grows less, and discontent of spirit comes to mark them more and more. Those who through union with Christ are ‘dead to sin’ (Romans 6:1)---done with it, that is, as the ruling principle of their lives---cannot find in sinning even that limited pleasure which it gave them before they were reborn. Nor can they indulge in wrong ways without imperilling their enjoyment of God’s favour---God will see to that! ‘Because of the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding . . .’(Isaiah 57:15 RSV). That is how God reacts when his children lapse into wrong ways. Unregenerate apostates are often cheerful souls, but back-sliding Christians are always miserable. So if you find yourself asking:
Where is the blessedness I knew
when first I saw the Lord?
you ought certainly to ask, before you go any further, whether there have been particular wilful
sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.
If so, then the remedy prescribed above is, at least in broad principle, the right one.
But it may not be so; and sooner or later a time will come for every Christian when it is not so. Sooner or later, the truth will be that God is now exercising his child---his consecrated child---in the ways of adult godliness as he exercised Job, and some of the psalmists, and the addressees of the epistle to the Hebrews, by exposing them to strong attacks from the world, the flesh, and the devil, so that their powers of resistance might grow greater, and their character as people of God become stronger. As we said above, all the children of God undergo this treatment---it is part of the ‘chastening of the Lord’ (Hebrew 12:15 KJV, echoing Job 5:17; Proverbs 3:11), to which he subjects every child whom he loves. And if this is what is happening to the perplexed Christian, then the proposed remedy will be disastrous.
For what does it do? It sentences devoted Christians to a treadmill life of hunting each day for non-existent failures in consecration, in the belief that if only they could find some such failures to confess and forsake they could recover an experience of spiritual infancy which God means them now to leave behind. Thus it not only produces spiritual regression and unreality; it sets them at cross-purposes with their God, who has taken from them the carefree glow of spiritual babyhood, with its huge chuckles and contented passivity, precisely in order that he may lead them into an experience that is more adult and mature. Earthly parents enjoy their babies, but are, to say the least, sorry if their growing children want to be babies again, and they hesitate to let them return to babyish ways. It is exactly so with our heavenly Father. He wants us to grow in Christ, not to stay babes in Christ. But the teaching we have in view here sets us against God at this point, and sets before us a return to babyhood as our supreme good.
Again, this is cruelty, just as the old Chinese habit of binding girls’ feet and forcing them permanently out of shape was cruelty, and the fact that the motive is kindness is neither here nor there. The least effect of accepting the proposed remedy will be arrested spiritual development---the emergence of a childish, grinning, irresponsible, self-absorbed breed of evangelical adults. The worst effects, among sincere and honest believers, will be morbid introspection, hysteria, mental breakdown, and loss of faith, at any rate in its evangelical form.
LOSING SIGHT OF GRACE
What, basically, is wrong with this teaching? It is open to criticism from many angles. It fails to grasp New Testament teaching on sanctification and the Christian warfare. It does not understand the meaning of growth in grace. It does not understand the operations of indwelling sin. It confuses the Christian life on earth with the Christian life as it will be in heaven. It misconceives the psychology of Christian obedience (Spirit-prompted activity, not Spirit-prompted passivity). But the basic criticism must surely be that it loses sight of the method and purpose of grace. Let us try to expound this.
What is grace? In the New Testament, grace means God’s love in action towards people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending his only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The New Testament knows both a will for grace and a work of grace. The former is God’s eternal plan to save; the latter is God’s ‘good work in you’ (Philippians 1:6 NIV) whereby he calls you into living fellowship with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9), raises you from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-6), seals you as his own by the gift of his Spirit (Ephesians 1:13f), transforms you into Christ’s image (2 Corinthians 3:18), and will finally raise your body in glory (Romans 8:30; 1 Corinthians I5:47-54).
It was fashionable among Protestant scholars some years ago to say that grace means God’s loving attitude as distinct from his loving work, but that is an unscriptural distinction. In (for instance) 1 Corinthians 15:10---‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them---yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.’---the word ‘grace’ clearly denotes God’s loving work in Paul, whereby he made him first a Christian and then a minister.
What is the purpose of grace? Primarily, to restore our relationship with God. When God lays the foundation of this restored relationship, by forgiving our sins as we trust his Son, he does so in order that henceforth we and he may live in fellowship, and what he does in renewing our nature is intended to make us capable of, and actually to lead us into, the exercise of love, trust, delight, hope, and obedience Godward---those acts which, from our side, make up the reality of fellowship with God, who is constantly making himself known to us. This is what all the work grace aims at---an ever deeper knowledge of God, an ever closer fellowship with him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself.
How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh, and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another---it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defence, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road.
When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself---in the classical scriptural phrase for the secret of the godly life, to ‘wait on the Lord’.
THE GOD WHO RESTORES
This truth has many applications. One of the most startling is that God actually uses our sins and mistakes to this end. He employs the educative discipline of failures and mistakes very frequently. It is striking to see how much of the Bible deals with godly people making mistakes, and God chastening them for it.
Abraham, promised a son, but made to wait for him, loses patience, makes the mistake of acting the amateur providence, and begets Ishmael---and is made to wait for thirteen more years before God speaks to him again (Genesis 16:16; 17:1). Moses makes the mistake of trying to save his people by acts of self-assertion, throwing his weight about, killing an Egyptian, insisting on sorting out the Israelites’ private problems for them---and finds himself banished for many decades to the backside of the desert, to bring him to a less vainglorious mind. David makes a run of mistakes---seducing Bathsheba and getting Uriah killed, neglecting his family, numbering the people for prestige---and in each case is chastened bitterly. Jonah makes the mistake of running away from God’s call---and finds himself inside a great fish.
So we might go on. But the point to stress is that the human mistake, and the immediate divine displeasure, were in no case the end of the story. Abraham learned to wait God’s time. Moses was cured of his self-confidence (indeed his subsequent diffidence was itself almost sinful! - see Exodus 4:14). David found repentance after each of his lapses, and was closer to God at the end than at the beginning. Jonah prayed from the fish’s belly, and lived to fulfil his mission to Nineveh.
God can bring good out of the extremes of our own folly; God can restore the years that the locust has eaten. They say that those who never make mistakes never make anything; certainly, these men made mistakes, but through their mistakes God taught them to know his grace, and to cleave to him in a way that would never have happened otherwise. Is your trouble a sense of failure? the knowledge of having made some ghastly mistake? Go back to God; his restoring grace waits for you.
Unreality in religion is an accursed thing. Unreality is the curse of the kind of teaching that we have challenged in this chapter. Unreality towards God is the wasting disease of much modern Christianity. We need God to make us realists about both ourselves and him. Perhaps there is a word for us in the famous hymn in which John Newton describes the passage into the kind of realism that we have been seeking to induce.
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face,
I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried,
‘Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?’
‘Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied,
‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.’
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