Thursday, July 7, 2011

Powerful Testimonies of Former False Converts

Posted by Christine Pack (and a thank you to airĊ blog for posting this video):

❝Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.❞ 2 Cor 13:5

A Book Review: Donald Whitney's "Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life"

Posted by Christine Pack, original article by Bob DeWaay,
Critical Issues Commentary Article, reprinted in full (Mar/Apr 2009 - Issue 11)

Personal note from Bob DeWaay:  In 1971, when I was a new Christian and in Bible College, I had the desire to be the best possible Christian. And while the Holy Spirit imparts to all Christians a desire for holiness (an obvious good thing), potential pitfalls that can lead us off course and harm us always exist. I have shared my story before in CIC but it is pertinent to the topic of this article. My desire to be an exceptional Christian led me to pietism, which led me to a Christian community where I worked on practicing holiness in a communal setting. In that community we tried any practice that anyone claimed would bring us closer to God. Sadly, my desire to be closer to God led me away from the truth because I was not committed to the principle of scripture alone. That brings me to our topic.

Many people concerned about Donald Whitney's endorsement of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard (two popular evangelical mystics) have asked me to review his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.1 These people have wondered how someone who claims to be Reformed2 in theology and teaches at a seminary known for Reformed theology could endorse Foster and Willard. They also wondered if Whitney's own teaching contains Foster's and Willard's same errors. This article is my answer to these requests.

Before I begin my critique, I want to place before you the areas where Whitney and I agree. Whitney has the gospel right and explains it (Whitney: 28).3 He is correct that it is the Holy Spirit who imparts a desire for holiness and does so for all Christians. He is correct that the purpose of sanctification is to conform us to the image of Christ. Some of the practices he endorses are valid means of grace (such as the Word of God and prayer). He cites in valid ways many orthodox teachers from church history. He understands that evangelism includes the call to repent and believe and that sharing the gospel constitutes "success" even if people refuse to listen (Whitney: 103). I appreciated his emphasis on the need to study the Bible in a scholarly way in his chapter about learning. And his thesis that we ought to make holiness a priority and take action to that end is a valid implication of his theme verse: "Discipline yourself for the purpose of "godliness" (1Timothy 4:7b). But I disagree with the manner in which Whitney uses Paul's athletic metaphor in his applications. Paul implies neither asceticism nor sanctification by human effort.4

Had Whitney's book been written when I was in Bible College, it would have proven toxic to me. I would have eaten up his ideas and embarked on a plan to put into practice everything he teaches. In fact, taken as a whole, the errors I pursued as a young Christian would be the most practical way to implement Whitney's approach to holiness: join a Christian commune or a monastery. I am very concerned that Whitney will harm young Christians who wish to be the best Christians they can be, just as I was. Because it contains the true gospel and begins with a respect for the scriptures, I believe Whitney's book to be even more seductive than were the teachers I was reading—like Watchman Nee. Ordinary life does not lend itself to the high level practice of asceticism, pietism, and mysticism.

The problems with Whitney's book are these: serious category errors, a lack of boundaries, failure to understand the means of grace, pragmatism, the endorsement of false teachers such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard without caveat, and his own toned-down version of mysticism. I shall proceed to show what I mean by interacting with his ideas.

Spirituality Without Boundaries

The Emergent/postmodern crowds speak of "open source" spirituality (a metaphor borrowed from current internet and software practices). This is a colorful way of describing syncretism (the blending of religious beliefs and practices). One can take an idea and make it work within his own system. Like Wikipedia, the users create the content. Whitney has a similar approach. He has blended beliefs and ideas from various sources into a program that promises to sanctify those who follow it.

That he has done so can easily be shown from his opening chapter on "spiritual disciplines." He writes:
This book examines the Spiritual Disciplines of Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning. This is by no means, however, an exhaustive list of the Disciplines of Christian living. A survey of other literature on this subject would reveal that confession, accountability, simplicity, submission, spiritual direction, celebration, affirmation, sacrifice, ‘watching,' and more also qualify as Spiritual Disciplines. (Whitney: 17)
Notice he states, "and more." It is not a minor claim. This more exposes the fundamental flaw in Whitney's thinking that leads him and his followers astray. The practices that purport to sanctify Christians qualify as "open source." There are no boundaries. Some of those listed above are from the Bible, but many are not. We do not find new scriptural sanctifying practices from a survey of "other literature." I have done such a survey and have written a CIC article about it entitled "CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN DIVINATION."5 Can just any practice invented by someone in a "Christian" context actually move people closer to God and be legitimate and truly sanctifying? If not, what criteria would Whitney give to determine the boundaries of valid versus invalid practices? He has provided no such criteria.

Let us apply some simple logic to this matter. Who determines what constitutes valid, sanctifying practices? Does God or does man? Unless we want to open the door to everything (e.g., "Christian Yoga,") we must say God determines them. Furthermore, if God exists and God has spoken, then obviously God determines the pathway to Himself. Any version of Christianity outside of liberalism would agree in principle to that. If we reject that idea we must embrace the concept that "all paths lead to God."

Since God determines how we come to Him and how we grow in Him, either God has spoken once for all to reveal the pathway to Him or this pathway is discovered mystically by persons in church history, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Reformed Theology, such as that taught at Southern Seminary6 where Donald Whitney teaches, has always stood on the principle of sola scriptura. Scripture alone is binding and authoritative; mystical experiences or pragmatism are not. So if God determines how we come to Him and grow in Him, He has done so in Scripture (unless we choose to reject the principle of sola scriptura in the manner that many do today).

Since Scripture alone reveals how we come to God and grow in God, then Scripture alone must reveal sanctifying practices. Unless God said (through Scripture), "If you come to me in faith according to these terms and means, I will meet you," then we cannot proceed validly in faith by any particular practice. I will discuss specifics later. For now we are showing that sanctifying practices are determined by God, are revealed in Scripture, and are exclusive. That is to say that God has determined the boundaries of how to legitimately pursue sanctification. We are not denying that mystical experiences exist; we are denying that God has promised to sanctify us through them. What is certain concerning God and how we pursue sanctification is already completely revealed in scripture. If we pursue other means of sanctification, what we obtain is not true sanctification but something else.

In Whitney's case, he gets the first part right (how we come to God through the true gospel by faith) but fails on the second part (how we grow in God in sanctification). His list of practices includes many that are not revealed in Scripture. They are apparently pragmatically determined.

Let me illustrate. What does "Bible intake" have in common with "silence and solitude"? Nothing. (I do not like his terminology "Bible intake" but will assume he means something like the Word of God being a means of grace.) God has promised that he will sanctify us through His word (as Jesus prayed in John 17:17) but He has not promised that we will become sanctified if we sit in solitude. It is not a sin to sit in solitude, but no one can claim that solitude is necessary for sanctification if God has not said that it is. The claim that solitude is necessary based on the idea that Jesus went into the wilderness to pray amounts to shabby exegesis. Sanctifying practices are not determined by what Jesus did, but by what He commanded us to do. He told us to pray, but He did not make a universal command that all Christians must practice solitude any more than He commanded all of us to walk on water.

So Whitney is out of bounds to tell us we must do certain things that are not in the Bible if we want to achieve godliness on no other grounds than he said so. He provides arguments in order to justify some of his other practices, but shabby and weak arguments are not valid and should not be heeded. For example, when he teaches us to practice journaling he says this: "Though journaling is not commanded in Scripture, it is modeled" (Whitney: 205). The proof he offers are the Psalms, parts of Jeremiah, and Lamentations. This provides us a good opportunity to practice our hermeneutics. Whitney's claim is that journaling will make us more like Jesus (Whitney: 206). The writing of the Psalms and Lamentations was not done because God had made a general promise that if people of faith were to write a journal about their own feelings, experiences, and issues, that God would thereby sanctify them. David and Jeremiah were Holy Spirit-inspired Biblical authors, not people who "modeled" the practice of journaling so that others would do the same. The writers of Psalms and Lamentations wrote scripture that is binding and true. Despite Whitney's claims, our own journaling is a product of our imaginations—and not of scripture. Scripture is a valid means of sanctification and our own imaginative writings are not. What is descriptive (that David, God's prophet, wrote about his feelings and concerns in the Psalms) is not thereby prescriptive and binding. The practice of journaling is not a valid implication from the very existence of the Psalms. Therefore Whitney has "modeled" something himself: the practice of abusing the Scriptures to make them say what they do not say. His modeling concept introduces confusion and reduces the uniqueness of scripture simply to the journaling efforts of yesteryear.

This sloppy thinking is becoming endemic in today's church. When I had opportunity to speak with Rick Warren face to face I described this very issue and problem to him. I told him that he says "keep a journal" with the same degree of authority and tone as when he teaches us to believe and apply Romans 8:28. I told him that I am bound to believe and apply Romans 8:28 because it is Scripture, but I am not bound to keep a journal and I can safely ignore everything Warren says about journaling. He listened politely but neither defended his teaching nor addressed the issue.

I am not shocked that this diminished view of Scripture has entered evangelicalism through the seeker movement. But I am shocked that it has shown up as a means of sanctification in a Reformed version of conservative evangelicalism such as what Whitney represents. Neither Rick Warren nor Donald Whitney can threaten me with lessened sanctification for my refusal to keep a journal. I do not have to obey these men as though they can speak for God bindingly outside of Scripture. I hate writing about my own thoughts feelings, musings, or whatever. I would rather spend my time understanding scripture and learning what God is saying to us there.

That Whitney cites the famous throughout church history who kept journals has no bearing on the topic and does not make it God's law. They were exercising their Christian liberty. What of all the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11? Did they actually fail to reach their true potential by failing to journal? But if journaling was necessary for godliness, why did God fail to tell us so? The same goes for solitude, silence, and other practices not commanded in Scripture. By claiming that such practices are necessary for godliness Whitney is indicting God for failing to adequately inspire the Biblical authors to teach us "everything that is profitable for life and godliness" (2Peter 1:3). Whitney can tell us how he and other nice people value journaling all he likes, and there is no problem. But when he tells us that an extrabiblical practice is necessary for holiness, it becomes a serious error not to be tolerated. Why? Because now he has opened the door for an unlimited number of possible practices to enter that someone can claim will result in sanctification. Whitney's approach attacks the authority of scripture by removing the boundaries found there. He abuses the church by pushing people to do something with the threat that if they do not obey him, they will fail God (and be less sanctified).

Faith Needs an Object

We are saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8). We are sanctified the same way. Consider what Paul wrote: "This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?(Galatians 3:2). Paul said this to rebuke them for thinking that they could progress in the Christian life on some different basis than they began. We cannot be saved by faith and then sanctified by works. Whitney, being Reformed in theology, would agree with me on this point. He does discuss the need for faith and the work of the Spirit. But his teachings imply works in many ways, by the metaphors and terminology he uses in order to urge Christians to follow his practices. But there is a huge problem: faith is not some self-existing metaphysical entity; it needs an object.

Christian faith has God and His promises as its object. The book of Hebrews emphasizes this. Consider how the author of Hebrews discusses Abraham:
For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, . . . so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. (Hebrews 6:13, 18)
The two unchangeable things are God's oath and God's promise. God cannot lie, and if He has promised, we can, like Abraham, believe God. The recipients in Hebrews were exhorted to believe God's promises in Christ. God has not promised to meet us under the New Covenant if we keep Sabbath, return to the temple sacrifices, the Day of Atonement, and return to the Levitical priestly system. To do so now would be apostasy. But He has promised to meet us in Christ if we come in faith to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16).

This underscores the problem with "spiritual disciplines" such as taught by Donald Whitney. Since only some of them are commanded in Scripture, and the list of practices is amorphous, they are not based on faith but on syncretism. Why? Because faith needs an object—God and His promises. If God had said, "If you practice journaling in faith I will meet you and make you like Christ," then not only would I have to practice it, I could do so in faith. My hope would not be based in my "work" of journaling, but in my faith that God will keep His promise. But since no such promise exists, I have only my work. Thus in every extrabiblical practice that Whitney calls a "spiritual discipline" necessary for sanctification, he teaches sanctification by works—which Paul rebukes in Galatians. "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?"(Galatians 3:3). Faith with no object is not faith as defined in the Bible.

This is the reason that, historically, Reformed and Lutheran theology has taught means of grace, not spiritual disciplines. Means of grace are defined by the Bible and attached to God's promises. If we come to God in faith according to the means He has defined, He has promised to graciously meet us. Lutherans define means of grace as the Word and sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). Some Reformed theologians such as Charles Hodge have taught that prayer is a means of grace (and I agree with Hodge because of Hebrews 4:16).7 Whitney's syncretistic, man-made "spiritual disciplines" are replacements for scriptural means of grace as can be seen by his own statement: "The Spiritual Disciplines then are also like channels of God's transforming grace" (Whitney: 19). Whitney's "means of grace" are largely discovered by mystical spiritual innovators like Richard Foster, not defined by God in Scripture.

The idea that "new means" can create a better Christianity in American evangelicalism can be traced to Charles Finney. Finney opted for new measures and taught human ability to do anything God has commanded.8 The various versions of Arminian evangelicalism that arose after Finney have minimized or rejected any concept of means of grace. As human ability has been taken as a key assumption (both in deciding for salvation and in practicing sanctification), the idea of means of grace is foreign. Various "higher life" theories and spiritual disciplines were embraced to fill the vacuum.

Thus I am very alarmed about Donald Whitney bringing spiritual disciplines and implied human ability into Reformed theology. If the trend for syncretistic spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation takes over the Reformed versions of evangelical education there will be very few options for young people who want an education grounded in the solas of the Reformation. Scripture alone and grace alone are compromised—if not rejected outright—when spiritual disciplines are adopted.

The book of Colossians deals most decisively with this issue. Like the Galatians, they were tempted to begin with Christ and progress by some other means:
Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.(Colossians 2:6-8)
Where do extrabiblical spiritual disciplines come from? They come from the tradition of men. These practices purport to make Christians holy, or even superior to ordinary Christians, but Paul says they make them captive. Illegitimate means of sanctification cause us to stray. We do not begin though faith in Christ, by grace, and proceed according to the traditions of men. Journaling is a tradition of men, and Whitney admits it when he says that Scripture does not teach journaling—only to try to prove his case by citing famous Christians who practiced it.

Some might wonder why I am being so hard on him about this. They consider such things as journaling, solitude, and the like to be harmless. That they are harmless is disputable. I would agree they are harmless if those that taught them stated that they had absolutely no value to make you holy or godly. But let us assume for the moment they are harmless (e.g., sitting in the forest in silence is not going to hurt anyone). The harm comes when spiritual value is attached to ordinary practices within the realm of one's own Christian liberty. Suppose I claimed that eating Cheerios for breakfast would make one more like Christ. Since every Christian has the need to be more like Christ, they would have to eat Cheerios if they believed me. But making food laws is a doctrine of demons (1Timothy 4:1). What is harmless in other contexts becomes toxic when spiritual value is attached.

Consider another section of Colossians:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)
The Colossian heresy was a version of syncretism.9 Syncretism is the melding together of beliefs and practices from various sources. The key issues are "teachings of men" and "self-made religion," which are the source of the practices in question. Spiritual disciplines fit both categories: "teachings of men" and "self-made religion." Extrabiblical spiritual practices indeed have "the appearance of wisdom," but they also "are of no value against fleshly indulgence." If someone claims these have spiritual value, they are worse than a waste of time as far as sanctification is concerned. They lead Christians away from the sufficiency of Christ, Paul's major theme in Colossians.

Results of Sanctification are not the Cause of Sanctification

A number of Whitney's category errors have to do with cause and effect. The Lutheran and Reformed understanding of means of grace is that when we come to God on His terms, by faith, God graciously works to change us (sanctification). This is by grace through faith. These means are limited to what is ordained in scripture. Luther and the other Reformers needed to define these means in order to apply the principle of scripture alone to refute the claims of Rome. Rome had instituted many practices that supposedly had sanctifying value, and they operated under the principle of "by the work done" (ex opere operato)—you get the grace because you did the work.

The reformers, in rejecting Rome and her innovations, had to define where a true church existed. Luther and Calvin solved that problem by stating that where the Word is purely taught and the sacraments (meaning for them baptism and the Lord's Supper) administered according to the Lord's institution, the church exists there. If they are there and genuine faith exists, God is at work by His grace saving and sanctifying. The many practices of Rome that claimed to be of spiritual benefit were rejected outright. Grace comes to us by God's ordained means, not through an unbiblical priesthood teaching unbiblical practices. The church was defined by means of grace.

The means of grace must not be mistaken for the results of grace. There are of course many passages in the Bible that exhort the church, binding us to biblical living. These tell us objectively what sanctification looks like. Obedience to God's commands is the result of grace, and not the cause or means of it. If we teach that we must obey first and then God will give us grace we are teaching sanctification by works, not faith.

Remembering that Whitney claimed that spiritual disciplines are "channels of grace," let's consider some of these "disciplines." For example, one of his "spiritual disciplines" is serving (chapter 7), and "serving" supposedly is a means (his term is "channel") of grace. The implication is that if we serve God, then grace will come. It is true that we are told in many places to serve God by serving the body of Christ. We are to use our spiritual gifts. We are to care for one another. There are close to 100 "one anothers" in the New Testament. A sanctified Christian is certainly a serving Christian. But if "spiritual disciplines" are means of grace and serving is a spiritual discipline, then we have to do the work first and then grace comes. The effect of grace is mistakenly taught as the "channel" of grace.

Some might think that I am being too technical here and that most people would not see or care about this distinction. But Whitney is teaching at a theological seminary alongside others who are supposed to know these things. If he is incapable of understanding the difference between the source of grace and the results of grace, then how are the students in that seminary supposed to learn such an important doctrine? Dear readers, the difference is the difference between the Reformation doctrine and the Roman Catholic idea of "by the work done." It is the difference between believing God's promise and coming to Him on His terms and doing good works like serving and expecting the result of those works will be grace. That is not a minor distinction, but it goes to the core of Christianity itself and was foundational for the Reformation.

We see the same problem in Whitney's claim that stewardship is a spiritual discipline. Yes, we are required to be stewards of all we have, including time and money, which Whitney discusses. True Christians are those who have died with Christ to the world and all its claims on us. But do we make ourselves stewards by spending more time in spiritual activities and giving away as much of our money as possible? Or do we put ourselves under God's means of grace, by faith, and as we study and believe the Bible, become stewards by God's grace? I consider Whitney's teaching on giving to be abusive. Paul refers to giving as a "gracious work" in 2Corinthians 8 and 9. That means that when God performs a work of grace, people become generous and eager to give. But Paul specifically says that giving is voluntary. Whitney says, "The proportion of your income that you give back to God is one distinct indication of how much you trust Him to provide for your needs . . . We give to the extent that we believe that God will provide for us" (Whitney: 143). Francis of Assisi took vows of poverty and founded an order of monks that did the same. Luther, before he was converted, also gave up all that he owned to pursue God. True saving and sanctifying faith was not found in these examples of self-sacrifice.

This is precisely the teaching I came under, and it led me into a Christian commune. If I want to know that I love God and trust Him, then I must give in order to prove it (or so I thought). We were told that most people were spending their lives working so they could acquire money to spend it on things like houses and cars. The "higher" way was to trust that God would provide. How do we know whether or not we trust God to provide? If we really wanted to prove it we quit our jobs, sold our houses (I did not have one at that time but others did), gave the money to the ministry in question, and moved into the commune to "live by faith." So I did. I had objective proof that I loved God and trusted Him to provide. Plus I had 24 hours a day to practice "disciplines" like those promoted by Whitney. A sad side effect was that we couldn't help but look down our noses at the ordinary Christians who worked jobs and bought nice things.

Donald Whitney is not teaching people to give everything away and move into a commune. He is, however, teaching Christians to think like those who give everything away and move into some equivalent of a monastery. As I read his book I thought about what happened to me when I thought that way. We have no way of being sure of how much we love and trust God. Only God knows. He controls the trials that He providentially sends in order to help us build love and trust. We are presumptuous when we create our own trials by asceticism supposedly to prove to ourselves that we trust Him. We should give and serve by His grace and not think that how much we give is a true indication that we trust God to provide for us. A person can give everything away and yet not trust God on His terms at all.

Whitney, however, makes giving a spiritual discipline that we practice to prove to ourselves that we love and trust God:
The use of your money and how you give it is one of the best ways of evaluating your relationship to Christ and your spiritual trustworthiness. . . If you are truly submitted to the lordship of Christ, if you are willing to obey Him completely in every area of your life, your giving will reveal it. . . . How much you give of what you have should be a reflection of how much you love God. (Whitney: 146, 147).
I have serious pastoral concerns about this statement.10 The people who really do love God and want to please Him often feel that they do not give enough and likely do not love enough. Whitney's message is only abusive to those that believe him—much as the sale of indulgences only abused those that believed indulgences were effective in sanctifying the dead. To the extent that people actually believe Whitney, his message will cause them to give more and more for relief of doubt and fear. Whitney says, "Whenever you get a raise, unless there are unusual circumstances, plan to give a greater percentage than you are now giving" (Whitney: 152). The poor saint who struggles with assurance will give as much of his income away as possible, and still feel that it is not enough. He or she will give more, but does that really assure his or her heart before God that he or she truly loves Him?

To summarize the directives in the chapters of Whitney's book: spend more time reading the Bible, memorize more scripture, have a Bible reading plan, obey the Bible more, apply the Bible more, pray more, do more evangelism, make more plans for evangelism, serve more, use your gifts more, work harder at serving, use more time for spiritual things and less for wasteful things like entertainment, give more, fast often and regularly, spend time daily in silence and solitude, learn to hear the inward voice of God and then obey that inward voice, keep a journal, discipline you self to write in a journal daily, study more, persevere more, and so forth. In fact, one could summarize, "think of whatever appears to be spiritual and godly and then do more and try harder."

Am I exaggerating? No. Whitney's error was obvious in the first chapter when he made becoming holy analogous to developing various skills:
Consider the people who will work hard at learning to play an instrument, knowing that it takes years to acquire the skills, who will practice hard to lower their golf score or to improve their sports performance, know it takes years to become proficient, who will discipline themselves throughout their career because they know it takes sacrifice to succeed. These same people will give up quickly when they find the Spiritual Disciplines don't come easily, as though becoming like Jesus was not supposed to take much effort. (Whitney: 21)
If, as he claims, Spiritual disciplines are the "channels of grace," and we need to put more effort into them because they are not easy, then we must work first before grace comes. That is why Whitney's spiritual discipline doctrine should be anathema to anyone who follows Reformed theology. Work comes first; grace is the result (which is a denial of important solas).

So to summarize this false teaching, let me quote Dallas Willard as cited approvingly by Whitney without qualification: "My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself" (Whitney: 21).11 Really? So why doesn't the Bible tell us more detail about Jesus' "lifestyle" and why is that lifestyle not prescribed as binding on Christians? Furthermore, the one thing we know for sure about Jesus' lifestyle is that He lived sinlessly. Willard and Whitney might as well say, "go out and live in perfect obedience to everything God said and then you will be like Jesus." If anyone could do that, then Jesus was not the unique Son of God.

What Happened to Romans 7?

We know we should obey God in all things. Paul taught in Romans 6 that in Christ we are free from sin as our master and that we should present ourselves to Christ as servants of righteousness. In fact he says that we are freed from sin and enslaved to God (Romans 6:22). But that is not the end of the story. Romans 7 recounts Paul's lament about his own sinfulness: "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24). Was the answer to his lament "do more, try harder?" No, it was the sure hope that the work of the Spirit of God who indwells every believer will certainly keep us, intercede for us and within us, and ultimately carry us to glory.12 Our hope is in God's sovereign, gracious work. That work is mediated to those who come to God in faith by His gracious means.

When I met with Rick Warren at the end of his 2008 Summit for his PEACE plan, Chris Rosebrough13 was there as well. He had sat through every session for several days and told Warren that what he heard day after day was "do more, sacrifice more, give more, etc.," but that he did not hear about the forgiveness of sins. Chris told Warren that he admits that he fails, doesn't serve enough, lacks self-discipline in some ways, and certainly has guilt. But, he said, Warren's program apparently offers nothing in the way of the cleansing of sin and hope for those who know they fall short. When I followed up and specifically asked Warren if he believed in the means of grace, he answered "Of course I do." If Whitney were asked, he likely would give the same answer.

Chris had raised an important, pastoral consideration. The truly converted are constantly aware of their sinfulness. Ironically, the more sanctified a Christian becomes, the more he is aware of his sinfulness, and the more it troubles him. What would happen if the troubled Christian, perhaps having the "wretched man" thoughts that Paul expressed, picked up Whitney's book on spiritual disciplines looking for hope and believed what he read there? I see only two reasonable outcomes: hopelessness or self-righteousness. If he is totally honest, the outcome must be hopeless. Pastorally we must offer hope, not an illegitimate method. The hope is found through the blood of Christ. The means of grace include the Lord's Supper because that reminds us of the reason for our hope.

There are many similarities between Whitney's book and many portions of The Purpose Driven Life. Unless you start with a theology of innate human ability, neither book makes much sense. Whitney makes the analogy of a boy who wants to play a guitar. The boy is given a vision by an angel of an accomplished guitar player. The guitar playing dazzles the boy with amazement at its quality. Then the angel tells him that the person playing is him in a few years, but he must practice (Whitney: 15, 16). The idea is that if you have vision of what you will become, you will be motivated to put in all the effort. The analogy itself smacks of works righteousness. Whitney claims that Romans 8:29 supports his analogy. This is patently false because in context, being conformed to the image of Christ is a certainty because of what God does in every believer and not contingent on various levels of effort between believers. Furthermore, world-class guitar players begin with innate abilities that must be developed, and I agree that if that person works hard and has great teaching and is given opportunities he will do well. But we begin with no innate ability to be holy. Even as believers holiness does not come from innate ability plus practice, but from God's work of grace. The analogy inculcates an attitude of works righteousness even if Whitney (like Warren) denies believing such.

Even worse is the statement that follows the analogy: "I will maintain that the only road to Christian maturity and Godliness (a biblical term synonymous with Christlikeness and holiness) passes through the practice of Spiritual Disciplines." (Whitney: 16, 17). But as I have shown, Whitney's spiritual disciplines are a list with no boundaries. Whitney's "only road" is through spiritual disciplines, most of which are not revealed in the Bible. What a strange and syncretistic "narrow gate" this is! But Romans 8:29 applies to all who are "foreknown, predestined, called, and justified." That would include the thief on the cross. He got there without spiritual disciplines.

Pragmatism and Mysticism

The people who asked me to review Whitney were concerned about mysticism. I am concerned too, not merely because Whitney is a mystic without qualifications (he is not), but that he has opened the door to mysticism by his pragmatism, lack of boundaries, and belief that there is some "inner voice" we can hear and be certain that it is God speaking new revelations to us. He himself then defines no truly mystical process likely to work for most people but points them to others like Willard and Foster who do. When it comes to mysticism, Whitney would be the kindergarten and Richard Foster the graduate school.

As I showed earlier, Whitney offers a larger list of "spiritual disciplines" than what he addresses in his book. The list includes "spiritual direction." Having read true mystics like Foster and Morton Kelsey I know what these are. Spiritual direction is the Christian version of setting oneself under a guru. Because not everyone is that good at mystically hearing inner voices they find someone who is much more advanced in the art of hearing what they naively think must be the voice of God. The spiritual director can teach others the art and guide them down the path of contemplative spirituality and practice to be a better mystic. Supposedly the spiritual director is skilled enough to guide the novice into deeper contact with God (but actually to the spirit world where they think they meet God).

The spiritual director knows techniques that will work for anyone. As in the case of clairvoyants in the occult world, some seem to have an innate ability to hear from spirits in their mind by voices or see to them through visions. But becoming a psychic is something that can be taught. The main technique is to silence the mind using a repeated phrase in order to enter the silence. Once there, familiar spirits can speak. The "Christian" versions of this are called "contemplative prayer." Richard Foster is famous for teaching this.

Whitney does not teach "spiritual direction" but calls it a spiritual discipline and praises Richard Foster several times in his book. Whitney's version is much softer. He teaches no technique other than quiet contemplation. But what one does in Whitney's version is to supposedly hear the certain voice of God. He says, "Other times silence is maintained not only outwardly but also inwardly so that God's voice might be heard more clearly" (Whitney: 184). How do we know God's voice as distinct from our own thoughts or other spirits? In reality we do not. That is why scripture alone is a valid principle and why the Reformers disregarded the Pope's claim for authority because of his revelations. But many evangelicals, including famous ones, have bought the lie that there is some voice of God that we must learn to hear so that we can get personal revelations beyond Scripture. Whitney cites A. W. Tozer: "Stay in the secret place till the surrounding noises begin to fade out of your heart and a sense of God's presence envelopes you . . . Listen for the inward Voice till you learn to recognize it" (Whitney: 199). What exactly does God's presence feel like and God's voice sound like? We cannot know for certain, and surely Satan is capable of giving us an experience that we will think feels and sounds like God.

But worse, once people believe that they need to know how to feel and hear God, they will decide they are not very good at it (if they are honest with themselves). Then they must turn to the Fosters and Willards of the world, who have processes that are more powerful than Whitney's. Silencing the mind eventually works for everybody, whereas Whitney's unsophisticated version will only "work" for the naturally mystically inclined.

Whitney, Foster and Willard are pragmatists. That is, they judge their practices not by agreement with Scripture, but on how well they work. By "work" they mean some sort of subjective criteria that makes a person feel or think they are closer to God or more holy. The only boundaries that exist for pragmatists are subjective and rely on common sense. Whitney has more common sense than Foster, but his basis of judging the validity of a practice is the same. That is why I am alarmed that he is teaching in a seminary committed to Reformed theology. Once his pragmatism is taught as the foundation for spirituality, his students (if they are foolish enough to believe him) will become the next generation of Richard Fosters and Dallas Willards. It is hardly the case that we "need" more of them given the fact that the entire Emergent/postmodern movement is already committed to mysticism. We never "need" mystics! But conservative, Reformed theology has been one of the last places of hope for a vital evangelicalism committed to the solas of the Reformation and gospel preaching.14


Southern Seminary has some great theologians whom I admire. Included in this list is the president Albert Mohler, as well as theologians Thomas Schriener and Bruce Ware. But now the seminary is offering a Ph.D. in "Spirituality" under the guidance of Donald Whitney,15 and this is a tragic development. I hope I have demonstrated why Whitney's theology is faulty and damaging to those who believe it. It would be far more at home in a Methodist university grounded in Wesley's idea of holiness through method.

If the leadership of Southern Seminary cannot see what is wrong with Whitney's theology and practice, then I can no longer recommend it (as I have in the past). If this article falls into the hands of any of these men, please seriously consider my arguments. I would welcome a rebuttal if you wish to offer one. Bringing spiritual disciplines into our movement to supplement the means of grace will do irreparable harm in the long run.

Reformed theology exists to resist the processes that led Luther to despair as he tried every practice the church had to offer for achieving holiness. In his despair Luther found in the Scriptures the truth that salvation is from God as a gift of grace alone. He taught that the Holy Spirit comes to us through the Word, and he rebuked the "enthusiasts" (as did Calvin) who claimed some inner "word" that was directly infused by God. Luther countered that the "external" word alone (i.e., that which comes through Scripture) was God speaking. The means of grace, for Luther, were also the Word coming to us. He considered baptism and the Lord's Supper visible manifestations of the gospel.

By Lutheran and Reformed standards, Donald Whitney is an "enthusiast." He has taken it upon himself to bind Christians to practices not taught in Scripture. He has promised that there is an internal word that we can learn and follow as the voice of God. He strongly implies that we begin by grace through faith and proceed by works. He offers processes that tell us "do more and try harder" and little hope that is external to us (i.e., the promise of God). This is deficient theology by Reformed standards. I would not allow this to be taught in a Sunday School class in our church. Why is it a degree program offered in a prestigious seminary?

This topic was discussed in Pastor Bob's Sunday School class. LISTEN HERE.

End Notes
  1. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991)
  2.  My concerns about Whitney will be of interest to Christians who are not Reformed in theology as well. The key issue of how we come to God and how we grow in God is important to every Christian.
  3.  All references to Whitney’s book will simply appear in bracket page numbers throughout the rest of this article.
  4.  Mounce (Word Biblical Commentary) cites Pfitzner positively: “But he too is to practice a gumnasia, a vigorous development and application of all his strength and ability that he might serve the glory of God with every thought and action. Such exercise is not restricted to a negative physical asceticism, nor even to the self-disciplinary ‘enkrateia’ of I Cor 9:25ff., but rather implies a positive developing of his strength nourished above all ‘by the words of faith’ (v.6).”
  6.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY; HTTP://WWW.SBTS.EDU/ABOUT/
  7.  HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE84.HTM The article explains means of grace
  8.  HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE53.HTM Many people do not realize how heretical Finney’s teachings are because they admire him as a great evangelist and have never studied his theological writings. Finney’s belief in innate human ability is rivaled only by Pelagius himself.
  9.  CIC ISSUE 69 for a scholarly discussion of this that is based to a large degree on the research of Clinton Arnold: The Colossian Syncretism - The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae, (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1996).
  10. Paul taught in 1Corinthians 13:3 that one could give all of his possessions to the poor and still lack agape love.
  11.  I review Willard’s popular book, The Spirit of the Disciplines here:HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE91.HTM Much of what I say about Willard applies as well to Whitney. They are both pragmatists.
  12.  See CIC ISSUE 76 which is an exposition of the meaning of “led by the Spirit” in Romans 8.
  14.  I intend no disrespect for conservative evangelicals who do not follow Reformed soteriology. But the fact is that most of the prominent evangelical leaders who are leading the charge for gospel preaching and Bible teaching have Reformed soteriology. I am thinking of John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, Al Mohler and others like them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Q&A With Francis Chan About Rob Bell's Book "Love Wins"

Posted by Christine Pack

Francis Chan
Mark Galli, Senior Editor of Christianity Today, recently sat down with pastor/author Francis Chan to discuss Rob Bell's controversial book Love Wins and Chan's book Erasing Hell, which is his response to Love Wins.  Bell's book has generated massive amounts of controversy because at its heart, it proclaims a message of "Christian Universalism" (the false belief that Christ's death on the Cross made atonement for all people, whether or not they have ever heard the gospel message or the name of Christ). One of Chan's responses from the Q&A caught my attention:
Mark Galli: Your reaction to Love Wins was my experience as well and, I suspect, the reaction of a lot of its readers. That's the one thing that I've said is good about the book. It's forced us all to think more deeply, go back to Scripture, and read more carefully. 
Francis Chan: There was a lot that was good in that book. There are some good principles in there. Some of the things that he dislikes about the evangelical church today are things I have a real problem with as well. I told Rob that some of the stuff that he writes needs to be heard, and the people who need to hear it won't hear it because of the tone and some of the other things that he writes. 
He didn't think that was the case, but I do think there is some value in some of the things that he writes.
While I appreciate other comments made by Chan in this interview, his response to Galli's question above is entirely mind-boggling to me. It is somewhat akin to saying the following about a glass of water with a drop of arsenic in it:
"There is a lot of good in that glass. There's some good, refreshment there. There is definitely some value in that glass of water!"
The more biblical model for dealing with false teachers is to publicly mark them out, warn others and flee from them:
"They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good." (Titus 1:16) 
"Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute." (2 Peter 2:2) 
"Now I beseech you, brothers, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned; and avoid them." (Romans 16:17)

photo credit: williamhartz via photopin cc

 Additional Resources 

What Rob Bell's Theology Looks Like In The Real World

God As a Crazy, Stalker Girlfriend?

Phil Johnson and Chris Rosebrough Weigh In on Piper-Warren

Posted by Christine Pack

In a 3-part series of radio programs, Phil Johnson (Team Pyro) and Chris Rosebrough (Pirate Christian Radio) weigh in on the topic of Piper-Warren. For anyone in Christendom who doesn't know what that means, I'm referring to the controversy that was ignited when well-known and well-respected pastor John Piper (author of Desiring God, Future Grace and numerous other books) invited pastor Rick Warren (Purpose Driven Life) to be his keynote speaker at the Desiring God 2010 conference.

The reason this invitation to Rick Warren was so shocking to so many was because Rick Warren, the preacher who has single-handedly done more to drive true gospel preaching out of today's churches than almost any other pastor alive today, had been invited to speak at one of the most respected forums for putting the spotlight on bringing true gospel preaching back into today's churches. How ironic is that?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Christianity Today Promoting Mysticism

Posted by Christine Pack

From Olive Tree Views (July 2, 2011)
Jan Markell
"Jan Markell as host and Eric Barger as guest challenge Christianity Today for their promotion of a bargain sale of products promoting lectio divina, contemplative prayer, "the silence," spiritual formation, walking the labyrinth, and more. These are practices the reformers died fighting 500 years ago. In particular, the Emergent Church is promoting all of these along with everything mystical. Mysticism has replaced doctrine and the leaders of this apostate movement say Jesus died to save the earth, not individuals. Yet evangelicals are climbing on board the mystical train and it's leading to a train wreck in the church. How can you spot this in your church? Who are the names to avoid?"
This two part show can be listened to here: Part 1 and Part 2

How Pietism Deceives Christians, and The Errors of Elitist Teachings in the Church

by Bob DeWaay, CIC Article reprinted in full, Issue 101

There are no extraordinary Christians; but being an ordinary Christian is an extraordinary thing. How I wish I would have understood that when I was a new Christian. But I didn’t. Soon after my conversion I began a quest to become the best possible Christian. In so doing I fell prey to teachings that promised me a Christian life superior to that of ordinary Christians. What I did not know was that I had embraced pietism. I didn’t become an extraordinary Christian and I did walk straight into error.

My journey into the “deeper life” oftentimes involved embracing contradictory teachings. For example, two of my favorite teachers in the early 1970’s were Watchman Nee and Kenneth Hagin. One taught a deeper Christian life through suffering1) and the other taught a higher order Christianity that could cause one to be free from bodily ailments and poverty.2 The hook was that both claimed to have the secret to becoming an extraordinary Christian. I found out that they didn’t.

My dissatisfaction with the Christianity taught in Bible College 3 led me to join a Christian commune some months after graduation. That group’s founder taught that all ordinary churches and Bible Colleges were caught up in “religious Babylon.” He taught that the kingdom of God was to be found by quitting one’s job, selling one’s possessions, giving the money to the commune, and moving in together to be devoted to the “kingdom” twenty four hours a day. So in my search to become an extraordinary Christian I did what he said and joined.

By the time I had fully explored many versions of pietism seeking to escape the tainted Christianity found in ordinary churches, I had squandered the first ten years of my Christian life. I was converted in 1971 and by 1981 I had given up on becoming a superior Christian. I bought a house for my family and began a car repair business to pay the bills while I tried to figure out what to do with my calling to preach now that most everything I had been taught, practiced, and taught others had failed.

By God’s grace I went back to the Bible and determined to merely teach verse by verse from that point on. It took another five or six years to rid myself of the various errors I had embraced and then I taught Romans in 1986. Through that study I came to appreciate the doctrines of grace. That understanding opened my thinking and was the turning point for my ministry. I also came to realize that the wrong-thinking that attracted me to pietism was that I held to a theology based on human ability rather than grace alone. Once I grasped that, I never looked back.

If the “secret” to a higher order Christianity is based on something we discover and implement (the secret to the deeper life), then it makes sense that some Christians could achieve a higher status than others. But if salvation AND sanctification are God’s work through His grace, then we are all in the same boat, and there’s no higher order.

Understanding the Basics of Pietism

Pietism is difficult to define because it can be taught and practiced in an unlimited number of ways. Some versions appear to be innocuous while others are so radical that most people would see that something is wrong. I now know that no version of pietism is actually innocuous. If a teaching is called pietism but teaches no more than what God has always used to sanctify Christians, then it is not really pietism. Real pietism always harms those who embrace it.

The essence of pietism is this: It is a practice designed to lead to an experience that purports to give one an elite or special status compared to ordinary Christians. The Bible addresses this error in the book of Colossians.4 The false teachers in Colossae claimed to have the secret to a superior Christian experience that would cause people to rise above the bad “fate” they feared. Paul went on to explain that they already had everything they needed through Christ and His work on the cross. Another way of stating this is: If after having fully trusted Christ’s finished work on the cross, you are told that you are still lacking something, you are being taught pietism.

Church history is littered with misguided pietistic movements. Many of them are linked with mysticism. I will give examples later in this article. Pietism can be practiced many ways including enforced solitude, asceticism of various forms, man made religious practices, legalism, submission to human authorities who claim special status, and many other practices and teachings. The fact that pietism has many forms can be seen by the litany Paul gives in Colossians:
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day -- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:16-23)
Paul calls this approach “self-made religion” which is exactly what all forms of pietism are. They all suggest that having been converted by the Lord through the cross and practicing His ordained means of grace by faith are inadequate. They have discovered a better way that leads to a higher order experience. Paul says they have “the appearance of wisdom.”

His list includes ascetic practices. These appear to most poorly taught Christians to be what the Lord wants. They reason, “Of course God is happier with a person who sells all and moves into a convent where he takes an oath of poverty than He is with someone who goes to work forty hours a week and uses some of the money to buy things.” Is He? When I was a pietist, if someone told me he prayed two hours a day, then I had to pray three hours to make sure I wasn’t missing out on something. I reasoned, “Of course God is happier with a Christian who prays three hours than one who prays two.” Is He? When I was a pietist I would work on cranking up my desire for holiness because I reasoned that holiness is found through something in the person rather than through God’s grace. Based on sermons I’d heard I reasoned, “Christians are not experiencing a higher degree of holiness because they do not desire it enough.” Is that true? No, none of these pietistic statements are true.Such teachings lead to elitism and comparing ourselves to others. The Bible tells us not to do that. Paul stated that these practices “are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

God is committed to the holiness of everyone He has redeemed. He makes them holy through His ordained means of grace. Paul warned both the Galatians and the Colossians against adding anything to the work of Christ: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6); “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). This means that salvation is by grace through faith and sanctification is by grace through faith. There is no secret principle to be discovered that creates higher order Christians. Here is how it is explained in Hebrews: “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:10, 14). Pietism is an attack on the scriptural truth that Christ has already done it all and that this is true for all Christians. I believe in progressive sanctification, but God is sanctifying all Christians by the same means.

Pietism in Church History

Since pietism existed in Colossae in Paul’s day it has always been in the church. But we want to analyze some expressions of it to see why it arises and how it works. Church historian Justo Gonzalez chronicles the beginnings of the monastic movement which was apparently a reaction to a perception that popularity and success had tainted Christianity after it was endorsed by Constantine. 5 The question they dealt with was how to overcome Satan (pietism often offers special protection from Satan) who was tempting people with success now that martyrdom was no longer available. Gonzalez writes, “Many found an answer in the monastic life: to flee from human society, to leave everything behind, to dominate the body and its passions, which gave way to temptation. Thus, at the very time when churches in large cities were flooded by thousands demanding baptism, there was a veritable exodus of other thousands who sought beatitude in solitude.”6 This version produced the Desert Fathers as they have come to be known.

Some documents from the early church fathers describe the lives of “anchorite” monks who fled society to live in the desert. One was Anthony who gave away all his riches before entering his new life: “He then [after leaving his teacher] went to live in an abandoned cemetery, where he subsisted on bread, which some kind souls brought him every few days. According to Athanasius, at this time Anthony began having visions of demons that accosted him almost continuously.”7Ironically, fleeing the city to escape Satan’s temptations did nothing to actually deliver him from Satan.

The monastic movement led to the idea that one could become a higher order Christian and be more pleasing to God. The movement also introduced mystical practices that today are being brought back into the church under the guise that they came from a time when Christianity was pristine and not tainted by modernity.8 What is really happening is a repeat of history. When Christians perceived that the success of churches in times of prosperity caused certain ills, they fled to solitude where they became mystics. This process is happening today again. But these pietistic movements did not lead to a more pristine Christianity in the past, nor do they do so today. They lead to elitism as Gonzalez points out: “On the other hand, this sort of life was not free of temptations. As years went by, many monks came to the conclusion that, since their life was holier that that of most bishops and other leaders of the church, it was they, and not those leaders, who should decide what was proper Christian teaching.”9 Some today have determined that ordinary Christians10 are so tainted by modernity that these elite ones refuse to be called “Christian” but rather prefer the term “Christ followers” because the elite deem themselves to be following Christ in a pristine way that is not true of the rest of us.

The monastic movement became more organized and still exists today. The Roman Catholic Church acclaimed their deeds done beyond what is required of ordinary Christians and developed a teaching called “works of supererogation,” a teaching rejected by the Reformers.

An example of the ‘works done beyond’ are the monastic vows taken by certain monastic orders: They are considered works of supererogation in Rome. Those who take the vows are deemed more pious than ordinary Christians.

Luther wrote a lengthy essay demonstrating that scripture rejects the validity of monastic vows.11 His essay is also an interesting look into the issues that were debated at the time of the Reformation. One key issue for Luther was that the monastics went beyond the gospel and made commandments out of matters that God has not commanded and in so doing sought to achieve a superior standing before God. One such example was celibacy. Luther argued that vowing something that God had not commanded is sinful: “The very foundation of the monastic vows is godlessness, blasphemy, sacrilege, which has befallen them because they spurn Christ, their leader and light, and presume to follow other things they think better.”12 They thought they could improve on the teachings of Christ and live a superior spirituality by swearing oaths to live pious lives beyond anything Christ required of His people. Luther condemned this as sinful. Luther wrote, “If you obey the gospel, you ought to regard celibacy as a matter of free choice: if you do not hold it as a matter of free choice, you are not obeying the gospel. . . . A vow of chastity, therefore, is diametrically opposed to the gospel.”13 So in Luther’s day, he taught that Christians were in error and sin if they bound themselves by oath to a practice not required by Christ. Though they may think themselves more pious than ordinary Christians because of their special vows, Luther called them gross sinners.

In spite of Luther’s thundering condemnation of those who practiced the pietism of Rome (not called pietism at that time), in less than 200 years it was a Lutheran, Phillip Jacob Spener, who is credited as the creator of the movement that gained the name “pietism.”14 However, Spener himself apparently was not a pietist in the sense of claiming a higher order Christianity. The list of Spener’s proposals for the church includes more intensive Bible study, the practice of the priesthood of believers, practicing deeds of unselfish love, and dealing with unbelievers and heretics with dialogue and loving persuasion rather than compulsion.15 Spener’s concern was corruption: “He was reacting against the polemical orthodoxy that was sterile amid the immorality and terrible social conditions following the Thirty Years’ War.”16Though it could be argued that the term pietism should be reserved only for movements that seek to reform a corrupt situation in the church, the fact is that it became attached to the mysticism of Jacob Boehme and his many spiritual descendants. Not only that, many movements to fix a perceived problems in the church have taken a mystical, elitist, trajectory which is what characterizes pietists.

So with due respect to people who consider themselves “pietist” along the lines of Spener, I believe that my definition describes the key ideas that have been promoted in church history. The problems Spener wanted to cure were caused by the existence of the state church which was not a Biblical idea. They did not need more piety; they needed to define the church in Biblical terms. Unregenerate people forced into a state church because of a war are by nature impious. The state church will always be corrupt because Christ’s church is not attached to a particular civil government.

Mysticism and Perfectionism

Boehme’s mysticism included an eclectic mix gleaned from cabbalism, alchemy, neoplatonism, and other really bad sources. Even Theosophists claim Boehme as one of their own.17 People of his ilk have arisen with some very strange versions of pietism. One was Jane Leade whose mystical, elitist writings are preserved on websites of her present day followers. This sample of Leade from An Enochian Walked with God shows how elitist pietism can be:
But now methinks, I hear some say at the Reading of This, Oh! You have mentioned a high and lofty State, which is as a new thing that hath not been declared; as that in this present Life there should be found any to ascend to the New-Jerusalem, to feast and worship GOD There; This, you will say belongs to the Enochian Life; but That Age of the World is not yet come, so as to know a Translated State. We grant it, that it is not common, only peculiar to some, that in Enoch’s Spirit are raised to walk with GOD, and so are taken up in the Spirit wholly. But we may hope This day of the Spirit is coming on, whereby it shall be known more universally; in the which Angelical Spirits shall ascend, and That Divine Principle shall open, that now hath been so long shut up: Then you will know a New-state of Living, that you never knew before; for it will turn the Love of all mortal Things out of the Hearts-door: This will in very deed be known.18
Leade’s pietism re-emerged in the twentieth century in the Latter Rain movement that also claimed that certain elite Christians would emerge. They claimed that the “manifest sons of God” that Paul mentions in Romans 8 are not all the saints at the resurrection (which is what Paul taught) but certain elite Christians who achieved that status now. The Latter Rain movement has now become the latter day apostles and prophets movement that is also pietistic to the core. They claim special status that ordinary Christians know nothing about. It is followers of that movement who typically post Leade’s writings on websites.

Not all versions of pietism are as radical and heretical as that of Boehme and his spiritual descendants. For example, Boehme’s ideas influenced William Law: “[A]lthough they [Boehme’s writings] strongly influenced The Spirit of Love(1752, 1754) and other later writings of William Law, causing a rift between Law and John Wesley, who described Boehme’s writings as ‘most sublime nonsense.’”19 But Wesley’s Methodism and perfectionism were themselves pietistic. Wesley is an example of a much less extreme pietism. But the idea that some humanly discovered and implemented method can lead to the achievement of a better Christian life than through the ordinary means of grace is nevertheless pietism.

Some of our Evangelical denominations have been pietist from their very inception. Charles Finney’s teaching in the mid 19th century caused the problem. Finney’s teachings, as I have argued before, were heretical. He too taught Christian perfection. Wesley at least held to prevenient grace so as to avoid Pelagianism.20 Finney was fully Pelagian in his approach to both salvation and sanctification.21 And his innovations permanently changed much of American Evangelicalism. After Finney other perfectionist movements arose. The Holiness movement, for example, came not long after Finney. Both the Holiness movement and the subsequent Pentecostal movement held to second blessing doctrines that by nature are pietist because they create an elite category of Christians who have had a special experience that ordinary Christians lack. The Keswick Holiness (also known as the “Higher life” movement) movement is an example of pietism and elitism as well. The Holiness movement in general is a pietistic movement that claims a special experience that creates higher order, (often supposedly perfected) Christians. They are in error. Ironically, the deeper life or higher order Christians do have something distinct about them—they have embraced error.

Today the largest new pietist movement is the Emergent Church. As I pointed out earlier, pietism often arises in response to the perception (sometimes warranted) that the church has become too worldly and it seems true once again today. Some now assume that since ordinary Christianity is compromised, they must discover an extraordinary way to become better Christians. One Emergent leader has even entitled one of his works, “A New Kind of Christian.”22 But this movement really isn’t all that new. It draws on teachings and practices found in other pietist movements in church history. In fact, a recent Emergent book includes essays by those experimenting with communal living, something I tried in my pietist days!23

Furthermore, the Purpose Driven movement is also a pietistic movement. Rick Warren claims there are world class Christians that are in a better category than ordinary Christians. He had his followers take a long oath at a baseball field to pledge themselves to serving his new reformation. I already mentioned the apostles and prophets movement that is pietistic. So ironically, three huge movements in American evangelicalism (Purpose Driven, Emergent, and C. Peter Wagner’s latter day apostles) are all based on pietism. The three movements seem radically diverse, but each one claims to be a new reformation and each offers a higher status than that of ordinary Christians.

Is Orthodoxy Dead?

Church history tells us that the charge pietistic reformers level against the church is that the church practices “dead orthodoxy.” Some years ago I hosted a pastor’s meeting at which pastors could discuss theological ideas. Position papers were presented and then critiqued by the group. Some of the pastors came from the Charismatic movement (also pietistic). A common theme from the Charismatic pastors was their distain for doctrine. Because theirs was a reform movement, they were fighting “dead orthodoxy.”

I spoke after one of our meetings with a pastor who told me that when he was a Lutheran, reciting creeds and doctrines caused him to be spiritually dead. I responded, “So believing that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, who lived a sinless life, who died for sins and was raised on the third day and bodily ascended into heaven killed you spiritually?” He said, “I didn’t really believe those things.” He had assumed that the cause of his unbelief was not sin, but a church that recited creeds. I believe that it is much better to preach those doctrines from the pulpit and call for people to repent and turn to Christ than to make recitation part of a liturgy. But nevertheless the creeds were not the problem, unbelief was.

Christian orthodoxy simply means holding to the true beliefs revealed in Scripture. These beliefs are often systematized as topical teachings such as the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of justification, and so on. Genuine faith in the truth of the gospel is saving faith. No one having saving faith is “dead.” In Ephesians 2:1-8 Paul teaches that we were dead, but that God made us alive, and that He did so by grace through faith. It is also true that where genuine saving faith exists, it produces evidence in the lives of those who have it as Paul asserts in Ephesians 2:10. So when James says that faith without works is dead, he refers to something other than the type of faith that Paul says is a work of grace. It is the type of faith demons have (see James 2:17-19). In the gospel of John, John uses the term “believe” in two ways.24 There are those, for example, who “believed” in John 8:30 but when confronted with their need to be set free began to debate Jesus and later accused him of sin (see John 8:31-47). Jesus told them they were definitely not from God. But in many other places in John those who believe are true believers who have eternal life.

My conclusion is that “dead orthodoxy” is orthodoxy that people might fight for because of parochial reasons (“this is ourtradition and no one is going to change it”) but in which they put only mental assent faith. I gave mental assent to creeds when I was 12 years old because it was my duty to join the church at that age; but I was a dead sinner. But it most assuredly was not the truth contained in the creeds that killed me; it was my unbelief. Those “believers” in John 8 proved themselves to be unbelievers by refusing to become Jesus’ disciples, learn the truth, and be set free.

Pietism misdiagnoses the problem and creates a false solution. It sees a compromised church that is apparently caught in dead orthodoxy. The real problem is not dead orthodoxy but spiritually dead sinners who give mental assent to orthodox truth but show no signs of regeneration. If indeed such a church existed (if truth really is there God has His remnant there as well), that church would be characterized by worldliness and sin. This is the case because dead sinners do not bear spiritual fruit. There was a church in Revelation that Jesus called “dead.” Pietism that holds to the true gospel but goes beyond it imagining that the dead sinners who are church members are Christians. When some of them become regenerate through the efforts of the pietists, they assume they have now entered a higher class of Christianity. They posit two types of Christian: “carnal” Christians and “spiritual” Christians. But in reality there are only Christians and dead sinners.

Furthermore, pietism sees the lack of good fruit in the “dead orthodox” churches to be a sign that teaching doctrine is of no value and that what really matters is practice and not doctrine. So they gravitate to works righteousness. This is precisely the mode of the Emergen Church. It has been the approach of pietists throughout history. But works that do not result from a prior work of grace (which is the result of God’s work through the gospel to convert dead sinners) are in fact “dead works” no matter how pious they look. Mother Theresa did good works but denied the exclusive claims of the gospel. That “piety” is of no eternal value if those who were the recipients of the good works never hear or believe the gospel and thus end up in hell.

God’s revealed truth is never dead, but sometimes it falls on dead ears. In John 6 multitudes who were interested in following Jesus for bread left Him when He spoke the truth to them. The few who did not have dead ears were asked if they would leave too. Peter answered for the group: “Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:68, 69). Genuine faith like that is not the domain of higher order pietists who learned the secrets of the deeper life, it is characteristic of every one of Christ’s true flock who ever exists. Pietists think that adding some man made process to what Christ has provided for all Christians throughout the centuries can cure a problem that never existed: being “dead” because of believing the truth. Instead of a cure, they create an illness as they lead people away from the finished work of Christ.

Pietistic Misuse of 1 Corinthians

The favorite proof text for pietists of all sorts has been this passage: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1Corinthians 3:1 KJV). I cite the KJV because that is where the term “carnal” as in “carnal Christian” came from. In my early pietist days, as I said, I was influenced by Watchman Nee. He made a strong point about a passage just before this verse: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man” (1Corinthians 2:14, 15). The word “natural” from the Greek is literally “soulish.” Nee used that as proof for his anatomical sanctification scheme. In that scheme, the spiritual man is one whose soul is inclined to the spirit (i.e. their spirit as joined to the Spirit) rather than to the external world through the body. My other early teacher, Kenneth Hagin, had a similar teaching but it was based on the idea of following one’s spirit rather than what he called “sense perception” (lying symptoms that you were sick when God said you were healed for example). The result of these teachings is a two tiered schema for the church: the carnal Christian and the spiritual Christian. In pietism there is always a process that leads to an experience that brings one into the more favorable category.

But was Paul teaching that some Christians are actually not spiritual but carnal or “soulish”? I used to think so until I read Gordon Fee’s excellent commentary on 1Corinthians. The “carnal Christian” teaching fails to take into consideration the larger context of Paul’s letter. The “natural man” who does receive the things of God on the ground that he thinks them “foolish” is not a carnal Christian, but a person who has rejected the gospel. This can be seen by Paul’s prior use of “foolish” in chapter 1: “but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1Corinthians 1:23-25). The lost who are not “the called” are the ones who consider the message of the cross “foolish.”

Furthermore, 1Corinthians 2:14 teaches complete inability, not merely a lack that is only due to not having the right teaching. In the pietist scheme of things, the carnal Christians could remedy their problem if they would only adopt the teachings and practices promoted by the pietists. But the Greek of 1Corinthians 2:14 literally says that the natural man is “ou dunatai gno_nai” not able (i.e. without power) to know. He cannot know because he is unregenerate, he does not have the Holy Spirit. Believers have the Holy Spirit, unbelievers do not. The natural man is an unbeliever, not a carnal Christian. Paul makes this clear in Romans:
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (Romans 8:5-9)
In Romans it is made explicitly clear that those who are “fleshly” and “without power” (the same word as used in 1Corinthians 2:14 – dunamis) to serve God, obey God, or please God are not Christian. They are not carnal Christians, they are lost in sin.25

Gordon Fee points out that this section in 1Corinthians has been subjected to misuse for a very long time:
This paragraph has endured a most unfortunate history of application in the church. Paul’s own point has been almost totally lost in favor of an interpretation nearly 180 degrees the opposite of his intent. Almost every form of spiritual elitism, “deeper life” movement, and “second blessing” doctrine has appealed to this text. To receive the Spirit according to their special expression paves the way for people to know “deeper truths” about God. One special brand of this elitism surfaces among some who have pushed the possibilities of “faith” to the extreme, and regularly make a “special revelation” from the Spirit their final court of appeal. Other “lesser” brothers and sisters are simply living below their full privileges in Christ. Indeed, some advocates of this form of spirituality bid fair to repeat the Corinthian error in its totality.26
The great irony is that those who find a hyper-spirituality doctrine in 1Corinthians are falling into the very error Paul wrote to correct, as Fee so eloquently pointed out. If you have been subjected to pietistic teachings of one form or another, I urge you to buy Gordon Fee’s commentary that I cite here and read it. It was very instrumental in helping me find my way back to the truth.

But you may be thinking, “Paul did call the Corinthians ‘carnal’ did he not? So how can you say there are no ‘carnal Christians’?” That is a very good question. The answer is found in Paul’s use of irony. Some of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible are misunderstood when an ironic statement is taken to be literal. Another example is the passage in Revelation 3 where Christ is standing at the door knocking. This is an example of irony—Christ on the outside of His own church seeking to come in for table fellowship when the table fellowship of the church is supposed to be all about Christ! But not seeing the irony, people take this as an evangelistic passage and teach that the sinner has to open the door or Jesus will be stuck outside.

Similarly, when Paul says to the Corinthians that they are “carnal” (1Corinthians 3:1) he is issuing an ironic rebuke! They were the ones listening to the “super apostles” who suggested Paul was not spiritual like they were. The Corinthians prided themselves in their supposedly superior spirituality. Paul said that true spirituality was always centered on the cross, not the wisdom of men. The Spirit’s work in our lives is because of the cross. But the Corinthians were thinking and acting like unbelievers, i.e. the “carnal.” Again, Fee helps us:
First, picking up the theme of being “spiritual” from what has just preceded, Paul makes a frontal attack and pronounces the Corinthians as not spiritual at all. Indeed, they are just the opposite: they are “fleshly”—still thinking like mere human beings, those who do not have the Spirit. With this charge Paul exposed himself to centuries of misunderstanding. But his concern is singular: not to suggest classes of Christians or grades if spirituality, but to get them to stop thinking like the people of this present age.27
So Paul’s use of irony to rebuke the Corinthians is interpreted as literal in order to set up an elitist version of Christianity which is the very thing the Corinthians did that Paul was rebuking.

Pietistic teachings based on bad exegesis of 1Corinthians have abounded for centuries. Those I have mentioned in this article are merely a sampling. Another I heard was that the bride of Christ will consist of the elite Christians and that lesser Christians will merely be “handmaidens” who get to watch but are not part of the marriage supper of the Lamb. I am sure that my readers have heard versions of this that I have not. But if you understand one thing, the two categories are the regenerate and unregenerate—the first category are those who are spiritual, the second are those who are carnal—you will have understood Paul’s teaching in Romans and 1Corinthians. Being regenerate is an extraordinary thing which is miraculous work of grace that God gave to unworthy sinners.


Pietism cannot help but take people’s minds off of the gospel. When I was a pietist I thought salvation was an interesting first step a person took, but mostly lost interest in the topic unless I ran across someone who needed to pray the sinners prayer, which I imagined was the first step. The gospel of Christ was only of marginal interest to me as I sought the “deeper things.” The more I tried to be a very special type of Christian, the further my mind wandered from the cross. I was guilty of the very thing for which Paul rebuked the Corinthians.

I lament the wasted years sometimes; but my wife reminds me to think about God’s providence. She says, “If we had not gone through all that back then you would not be able to help people the way you do now.” This is true. My prayer is that my “wasted” 10 years will help some of my readers avoid falling into the same type of trap. If you have salvation, the forgiveness of sins, you have the greatest imaginable spiritual riches. It truly is an extraordinary thing to be a Christian.

Issue 101 - July / August 2007

End Notes
  1.  Nee had an unusual anatomical sanctification scheme that requires distinguishing between body, soul and spirit with the spirit being the pristine source of sanctification and the body needing to be subdued as the soul learns to follow the regenerated human spirit.
  2.  One thing Hagin and Nee had in common that probably attracted me to both of them was the idea of the primacy of the human spirit and the idea of gaining special knowledge by following ones spirit.
  3.  Though the college had a pietistic 2nd blessing doctrine, my teachers were sound and pointed me in the right direction. I could have been saved from years of error had I listened more closely to some of them.
  4.  See CIC Issue 69; March/April 2002 The Colossian Heresy Part 1 for a detailed, theological explanation of Colossians chapter 2. HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE69.HTM
  5.  Justo L. Gonzalez The Story of Christianity Vol. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984) 136, 137.
  6.  Ibid. 137.
  7.  Ibid. 140, 141.
  8.  The Emergent Church movement is well known for doing this.
  9.  Gonzalez vol. 1, 143.
  10.  When I speak of “ordinary Christians” I mean those who are truly converted but claim no special or elite status. Nominal “Christians” who are actually unregenerate are not Christian at all in the Biblical sense.
  11.  Martin Luther, The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows from 55-Volume American Edition Luther’s Works on CD-ROM (Fortress Press, Concordia Publishing: Minneapolis, 2001) Vol. 44, page 243.
  12.  Ibid. 260.
  13.  Ibid. 262.
  14.  The New Dictionary of Theology, Sinclair Ferguson, David Wright, and J.I. Packer ed. (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1988) s.v. Pietism, 516.
  15.  Ibid.
  16.  Ibid.
  18.  HTTP://WWW.PASSTHEWORD.ORG/JANE-LEAD/ENOCWALK.HTM in a section called “The Enochian Life.”
  19.  The New Dictionary of Theology, s.v. Boehme, Jacob 106.
  20.  Pelagius was an early heretic, condemned by church councils, who taught that all humans have the ability to obey God without a prior work of grace.
  21.  See CIC Issue 56 Charles Finney’s Influence on American Evangelicalism --HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE53.HTM
  22.  Written by Brian McLaren
  23.  An Emergent Manifesto of Hope Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones editors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007)
  24. Ryan Habbena’s article Formulating a Theology of pistueo_ (believe) in John’s Narative:HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/SCHOLARLY/SCH007.HTM published at under “ARTICLES/SCHOLARLY.”
  25.  See Gordon Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians” in The NewInternational Commentary on the New Testament; (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1987) 115 – 120 for an excellent scholarly discussion of what Paul means by the “natural man.” It is noteworthy that Fee is a Pentecostal and as such belongs to a denomination that tends to pietism; but Fee warns against such interpretations of 1Corinthians.
  26.  Ibid. 120.
  27.  Ibid. 122.