The Wickedness of Word of Faith

We have written about evil, darkness, and sin at Rekindle, but last week I encountered first hand an evil that both broke my heart and enraged me. A friend in our church who is facing a far from optimistic cancer prognosis was urged to pray using Jesus’ name and his own authority as a believer (see previous post). This increasingly popular teaching says that God does not want us to ask for things according to his will, rather we must use the power of Jesus’ name to rid our lives of sickness and whatever else ails us. In other words, “You’re sick because you do not have enough faith or because you haven’t prayed using a specific formula.” Quite frankly, to say that to a Christian – with faith and the fruits that evince it – is not merely unloving; it is wicked. It is evil. In this post I will highlight a small selection of the innumerable biblical responses to this false teaching.

Jesus’ faith

Jesus at Mount of OlivesI touched on this in my previous post. But it is too important to skip over. When you state, “Don’t pray: your will be done,” because it is too submissive and weak, remember that that is exactly how Jesus prayed (Matthew 26:39). So you must either rebuke the Son of God or desist from your folly. When Peter calls on Christians to follow Christ’s example in his first epistle we should note that he remembers Jesus’ suffering, death, and that he trusted the Father without wavering (1 Peter 2:13-25). Jesus’ faith is not shown in him demanding a better reality from his Father but in submitting to the Father despite unanswered prayers.

Jesus’ teaching

Following on from the previous point, we turn to the manner in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Correct: the very phrase scorned by those in the word of faith movement is one Jesus encouraged his disciples to use. I am astounded that Jesus got it so wrong. I guess if he had taught his disciples to pray properly they might have avoided persecution and martyrdom. Silly Jesus. If only the apostle John had access to the teaching of Andrew Wommack or Benny Hinn he could have avoided being exiled to Patmos (Revelation 1:9). Choose today whom you will follow.

Paul’s suffering

Since we are on the topic of Jesus’ apostles, I shudder to think about how paltry Paul’s prayer life must have been: imprisoned (Ephesians 3:1); abandoned by his friends, left alone and cold (2 Timothy 4:9-18); shipwrecked (Acts 27:39-44); and unable to pray away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In fact, just read 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. For in the first century the Lord certainly chose weak vessels, akin to jars of clay, which showed the power of the gospel and gave all glory to God. Luckily for us today we have super-apostles who boast much greater ministries than the embarrassment that was Paul’s. If only a copy of Joel Osteen’s I Declare was mixed in with the parchments he requested from Troas.

Prayer is made into a mantra

CandlesReturning to the my introduction, telling someone that God has not answered their prayer because they failed to append “I claim this in the name of Jesus,” is highly problematic. Firstly, notwithstanding what I have written above, it reduces God to a parent withholding something from their child because they have not said the magic word. Imagine God saying to his child, “I would have healed your cancer, if only you had asked me properly.” Secondly, it also reduces God to a vending machine: put in the right amount and click the right buttons and you will be blessed. The power of prayer is reduced to how we ask and not who we are asking: our heavenly Father. I do believe that God invites us to boldly approach him in prayer, but to claim that our wording or specific invocations will force God’s hand is witchcraft, blasphemous, and self-deifying. God hates these things.

The inevitability of death

Lastly, though much more could and must be said against this alarmingly popular heresy, we turn to the matter of death. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief opens with, “You are going to die,” and he is right. For we read of only a few names in the Bible who did not, and they are marked exceptions. Two years ago Jan Crouch, the co-founder of TBN, died during TBN’s healing month. To add satire to irony, The Babylon Bee wrote, “Baffled prosperity gospel preachers have begun offering theories Tuesday on how Crouch could possibly have passed away, given her overabundance of faith, her supernatural ability to name and claim health and wealth at will, and her decades of collecting donations while promising that God’s will is for everybody to be wealthy and healthy.” Why, if we have inherited all of this power, and need only claim wellness or chide sickness, do we succumb to it in death? Because the word of faith movement is a lie; an evil lie that robs people of faith.

Admittedly I wrote this post while emotional and incensed, though I do not think the heat is without light. The word of faith movement is wicked not because it promises things that God does not. It is wicked because when the things it promises do not materialise faith itself is brought into question. Telling someone that God wants them well when they are dying could be the difference between them persevering in the faith and falling away because their mantras have failed them. So I want to address any readers who have said the sorts of things critiqued in this post. If you speak these wicked words you need to repent. You need to humble yourself before the God of mercies and turn from this evil. And you need to pray for those people you have deceived.

Unconvincing Arguments for Why Married Couples Must Have Children

Last year I wrote a response to Tim Challies, and what I thought were some weak arguments showing why married couples should not deliberately remain childless. Before we got married, my wife and I agreed that we were not persuaded biblically that couples must procreate in order to be obedient to God. The result of that position has been numerous conversations in the past few years. Therefore the arguments listed below are predominantly points that we have heard or discussed. Unfortunately I do not remember all of the respective sources. But they are certainly commonplace in the debate about deliberate childlessness. Let me say that I do not claim to comprehensively refute these positions. Rather my purpose in writing this post is to encourage conversation.

Two paths in the New Testament: singleness and marriage

Most likely an erroneous extension of Paul’s quite bemusing argument in 1 Corinthians 7, this idea says that Christians can choose either to remain celibate or get married, with the latter necessarily entailing children. This is a reductionistic and narrow point. If the second path involves marriage and children, can we not then conclude that adoption is excluded from the path of singleness? Or that couples that are unable to have children are required to adopt? While those are undeniably the two paths before Christians concerning marriage, it remains an unproven assumption that the path of marriage requires children.

The creation mandate of Genesis means we must have children

This is a statement that warrants a much more detailed and lengthy post, so I will be brief here. The command given to Adam and Eve in Eden must first be considered in its Old Testament context. It was tied to the human commission to fill the earth, specifically given to Israel under the old covenant. As George Athas commented on a previous post on Malachi 2:15, “These words were written within and to people in the old national covenant, for whom having offspring was a national duty. In the new covenant, this is simply not the case, because the new people of God are not a country with citizens inheriting holy land from the previous generation. Those national elements are no longer part of the framework for how we operate as God’s people. As such, if someone posits that everyone needs to try to have children, they would need to do so on other grounds.”

Having children will sanctify you

“…in a way that nothing else will,” is often appended to the above statement. By this people generally mean having children will especially sanctify you. Apart from the fact that this idea is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, it implies some plainly wrong conclusions. If a type of sanctification is on offer in raising children that is not repeatable anywhere else in human experience, we can expect parents to be the most mature and godly Christians. If this were the case, then certainly Paul would not have desired celibacy for anyone (1 Corinthians 7:8). In fact, for marrieds to tell childless couples – and similarly for marrieds to tell singles – that their own path breeds greater godliness is just insulting.

Furthermore, on this point, if you will allow me to be a little silly, becoming a missionary in North Korea or planning a church plant in Eritrea will also sanctify you, tremendously. Though we do not hear missionary organizations appealing for missionaries on the basis of how God will use it to make you more holy. Many decisions will sanctify us, but this does not amount to biblical imperatives to make those decisions.

When married couples choose childlessness it is always selfish

This point has some connections with the previous one, but I will address it separately. There is no denying that there is some truth in this position: for children prove a remarkable imposition and threat to idols of leisure, autonomy, and freedom. Therefore there may be selfish reasons for choosing childlessness, as there may be selfish motivations for remaining single. There is, I think, a double warning that knocks this position back: firstly, we should be very slow to pronounce on motives, since we do not know each other’s hearts. Secondly, we are must be very careful not to make our preferences into virtues, and others’ into vices. Calvin (2.3.2) wrote of the hydra of wickedness that lurks in each of our breasts. Selfishness can certainly be behind the decision to have children, only I am yet to hear someone who has chosen a childless marriage accuse those with children of sinful motivation. Without knowing my neighbour’s heart I should be slower to reach conclusions about her decisions. And when those decisions differ from mine I certainly should not demonize them. 

Birth control means seizing control from God

One of the most staggering things I have encountered is that people using this argument have taken contraceptive measures. Calling on other Christians to fully trust God in the area of reproduction eliminates the decision to reach your desired number of children before intervening. Perhaps I am being unfair, or exaggerating the ad infinitum conclusion of this statement, but I feel that it requires those using it to surrender all of their procreative outcomes to the Lord. No contraceptives. Either, birth control, planning the size of one’s family, is prohibited because any such action removes God from the picture; or Christian freedom means we make decisions – that are neither right nor wrong – trusting our God who is sovereign in them. People in glass houses should not throw stones.

Children help marriage fulfill its New Testament role

What is that role? It is clearly laid out that in Ephesians 5, to make the gospel plain. The self-sacrificial love a husband is to show his wife is designed to illustrate Christ’s love for his people, the church. But I honestly cannot fathom how having children illuminates the relationship between Christ and his church, especially since nowhere in the New Testament is the link explicitly made between marriage and children. I am not denying that the New Testament assumes marriages will produce children, but pointing out that nowhere do we see an imperative to do so. Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace, points out that regarding marriage the New Testament is noticeably nonbiological in its emphasis. He also quotes John Boswell, who observed that the Old Testament idealises marriage in terms of sexual attraction, not procreation. Finally, he comments that both Jesus and Paul discuss marriage without using procreation as a rationale or functional justification. Children do not help marriage fulfill its New Testament role. I would venture further, though more reading is required, in suggesting that while procreation was a function of marriage in the Old Testament that was not God’s purpose in creating the institution.

I hope you will do some of your own thinking, perhaps even respond to some of the points above, or add a more convincing position that I have overlooked.

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

Galatians: The Lord’s Anointed may be Accursed

If you are a Christian then there is a good chance you have observed, or even received, the stern reproach: ‘Don’t speak against the Lord’s anointed.’ It is one of those declarations dripping with piety and a zealous concern to protect Spirit empowered leaders, apostles, and prophets. But more often than not, it is an excuse for theological ignorance and the undiscerning acceptance of influential, charismatic, and public Christian figures, regardless of what they preach or teach. It is, after all, much easier to meet criticism with a phrase that reveals your reverence for God’s mighty servants and the refusal to be dragged into an ungodly squabble.

Icon St PeterNow meet Peter. John may have been the disciple Jesus loved, but Peter is the disciple we love. He frequently overestimates his devotion to Christ and is subsequently humbled but also graciously accepted by Christ. In what N. T. Wright calls the ‘Peter cycle,’ we are offered a window into the Christian life, “Firm public declarations of undying loyalty followed by miserable failure, followed by astonishing, generous, forgiving love.” But we often think that that is the pre-Pentecost Peter. For at Pentecost Peter becomes a great hero of the early church. Wrong. Peter, like all Christians, was an object of God’s grace, throughout his life. He was far from perfect, despite his special appointment, Spirit anointing, and apostleship. Peter erred and was not above rebuke.

What does this have to do with Galatians or those who claim to be the ‘Lord’s anointed’? In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Paul recounts a striking event in the life of the early church, when he publicly opposed the apostle Peter. And he does so for reasons similar to his refusal to circumcise Titus, in Galatians 2:3-5. Paul boldly challenged any practices that threatened or obscured the gospel of grace (1:6-9). Peter was undoubtedly a giant in the early church. Paul on the other hand was a relatively unknown itinerant preacher who spent an earlier part of his public career killing Christians (1:23-24). Yet when he sees Peter behaving hypocritically (2:13) and out of step with the gospel (2:14), Peter’s status, title, feats, and fan club mean nothing. Paul is uninhibited in speaking against a man who might rightly be called the Lord’s anointed, second only to Jesus.

Paul’s language is unapologetically severe, claiming that Peter’s behaviour meant that he stood condemned, grossly in the wrong (2:11). Peter’s inconsistent conduct was leading others, including Barnabas, astray (2:13). And the implication of his withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles subtly implied that they needed to keep the Old Testament law and live like Jews (2:14). Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one true gospel is accursed, under the judgment of God (1:8-9). It does not seem that Peter’s hypocrisy placed him in that category, but his misunderstanding warranted a stinging reproach. Even the apostle Peter got things wrong and repented. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle, but also a noticeable humility and willingness to be challenged, even repent. Your leader might call himself the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ but if that means he is beyond being challenged and corrected, perhaps he is not the great leader he claims to be.