Modern Mysticism

Eric Casteel
Friday, August 17th 2007
Jan/Feb 1994

Perhaps one of the greatest sermons on the centrality of God's Word occurs in what is also one of greatest pieces of music from the nineteenth century: Brahms' A German Requiem. From a musical standpoint, no other piece matches the ethereal contrast of the heavy, somber instrumentation with the yearning, hopeful vocal lines. Unlike other requiems, which use the liturgy from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, Brahms used only scriptural passages that he chose. One finds all the passages one would expect to find in a requiem; passages denying the power of death: "Where, O Death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55), "Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord" (Rev 14:13); passages glorifying God: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…" (Rev 4:11); and passages eschewing self: "Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days…" (Ps 39:4). Most importantly, implicit in the very nature of a requiem based on biblical texts, and explicit in many of the passages chosen by Brahms, is the central theme of the objectivity and centrality of God's Word.

Brahms' message to his listener is simple: It is in God's Word alone that we find our hope: "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever" (1 Pt 1:24, 25a).

The music to which Brahms set this text is astonishing. It is the central motif in the funeral march, the second movement of the requiem, and it carries, even supports, the concept on which Brahms set his requiem: ultimately, man's only consolation is God's Word. Considering this, I find myself as baffled as Antonín Dvorák was when he said of Brahms: "Such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes nothing!" Brahms was an agnostic.

More baffling than this, however, are professing Christians who don't believe in the objectivity of God's Word. To them, God's Word is not the place to which the Christian turns, along with the Sacraments, in order to find hope amidst despair, or meaning in times of uncertainty. To them the Word is merely a manual for finding out what they must do in order to keep their "personal relationship with Jesus" going. Instead of reading Scripture for comfort in declarative passages such as "You have been reconciled," they look for "If you will abide," and they go out and try really hard to abide. Bottom line? A well-concealed form of works-righteousness that can only lead to further despair once they run out of energy trying to abide. Not long after Jesus' "If you will abide" statement, Peter went out and denied him. But we also know that Peter was forgiven for this. Since we can safely say that Peter was not "abiding" in Christ when he denied Christ, we can also conclude that Peter's "personal relationship" depended not on his abiding, but on the shed blood of Christ. What are we to say, then, to the likes of Charles Stanley who says that the believer who wants to live the "spirit-filled life" must learn to abide in Christ? (1)

In his book The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life, Stanley attempts to address the needs of believers who are struggling, carnal, or fleshly. (2) He summarizes the problem thus: "To an outsider looking in, there is often little or no difference between the life-style, thought-life and habits of the Christian and those of his 'uninformed' heathen neighbor." (3) I am not going to argue with Stanley's belief that the Church needs to provide comfort for its struggling members and guidance for the "carnal" or "fleshly" members. We constantly see Christ, Paul and the other New Testament writers doing this. However, my agreement with Stanley ends there. I contend that Stanley's prescription for these classes of believers departs from the biblical witness and from any type of historic Protestant orthodoxy–Lutheran or Reformed. In fact, as we shall see, his position is more akin to the Roman position and, at times, borders on mysticism. It is indeed a paradoxical position that embodies a kind of neo-nomianism and anti-nomianism. That is, he creates a new law–yielding–and replaces God's law–perfection.

Stanley's book is essentially a book about sanctification. As such, it focuses on living a life led by the Holy Spirit. Stanley rightly insists that living a righteous and holy life is an impossibility for the Christian. He then states that the Holy Spirit was sent in order to be our helper in righteous living. In a certain context, this could be true, but in the context of Stanley's book, it has two problems. First is Stanley's implication of what God's will actually is for the believer. Second is his definition of what the Holy Spirit is for. I will discuss each of these in turn.

God's Will for Any Life

According to Stanley, "God is looking for imperfect men and women who have learned to walk in moment-by-moment dependence on the Holy Spirit." (4) Imperfect men and women? What about, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:20)? What about, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect"(Mt 5:48)? What about, "Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God" (2 Cor 7:1)? Perhaps this writer is missing something, but nowhere in Scripture can I find any hint that God is looking for imperfect men and women. To be sure, he has found them, but he is looking for perfect righteousness.

Now, a reader of Stanley's book might accuse me of taking this sentence out of context by printing it alone. My first answer to this is that there is no context in which this statement would ever be true. My second response would be that even in context the sentence is just as bad–if not worse. Here is the entire passage:

Sermons are not God's primary method for reaching people. People are his method for reaching people. What kind of people? Men and women whose lives and life-styles have been deeply affected by the truths of Scripture, people who have discovered the wonderful Spirit-filled life. God is looking for imperfect men and women who have learned to walk in moment-by-moment dependence on the Holy Spirit. Christians who have come to terms with their inadequacies, fears and failures. Believers who have become discontent with "surviving" and have taken the time to investigate everything God has to offer in this life. God's method for reaching this generation, and every generation, is not preachers and sermons. It is Christians whose lifestyles are empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit. (5)

I suppose Romans 1:16, in light of this view, should read something more like, "the lifestyles of imperfect men and women are the power of God unto salvation." The Reformation would answer that, yes, it is sinful people who evangelize, but God's method for reaching this generation, and every generation, is his perfect word: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'The one who is righteous will live by faith'"(Rom 1:16, 17). Remember Brahms' text? Brahms quoted Peter, who was quoting Isaiah. The full passage reads:

All people are like grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever (Is40:6, 8).

"People wither, God's Word endures," says Brahms the agnostic. But Stanley spends much of the remainder of the book describing his experiences as a young pastor, using these as examples for teaching his readers how to be imperfect but Spirit-led men or women who will win their "uninformed heathen neighbors" to Christ. This is evangelism by saying "What a good boy am I." It is a type of evangelism that attempts to attract people to a well-adjusted, family-values-affirming bourgeois existence. Mormons do this. Except at least Mormons know that God requires perfection.

It is a notion all too present amongst American Evangelicals that God has lowered his standards for New Testament believers. They may not say this explicitly, but I have heard many echo Stanley's implication that God doesn't require perfect righteousness–you just have to love Jesus. In the Old Testament (they think), God required a works righteousness, but in this dispensation, all we have to do is say we believe. As long as we profess faith, walk down the aisle, or love Jesus, we're okay in spite of our imperfections. But with this system what do we do with all those New Testament passages about holiness? Why do some people look like they're doing better than others at being Christian? And why don't I look like one?

Gospel Plus…

"Gospel plus", the teaching of Lewis Sperry Chafer and R. A. Torrey makes a distinction between believers that have "yielded" to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and those who are merely trusting Christ. This teaching is largely a result of a faulty doctrine of justification that does not teach that Christ's righteousness is credited to the believer. When justification is properly understood, there can be no such distinction among Christians, because all believers are credited with Christ's perfect life. Who can be more spiritual than Christ? The Reformation answer to the New Testament call for holiness is that it's the same call for holiness that God has always issued. It is a call to perfection after which we are to strive. But we will inevitably be reminded by Scripture and our failures that we are not perfect and we cannot live up to God's Law. We must, at that point, run back to the gospel, which freely offers Christ's perfection to us. All Christians are always in this loop. Take a look at Romans 7. When we find ourselves against a wall, we do harm to ourselves to try harder to abide. Christ is our only hope. We are sinners, and yet we have been justified–simul justus et peccator. All Christians are spiritual and carnal. I will reiterate, then, that an empirical distinction between "spiritual" and "carnal" Christians is totally unbiblical.

Stanley, however, obliquely makes this either/or distinction in his book, although he tries to back away from it by refusing to give the experience a name (that is, "second blessing"). He says he doesn't want Christians to be divided into groups of "haves and have-nots." Good. But then he states "I believe there is a definite distinction between being baptized by the Spirit and filled with the Spirit. The filling of the Spirit is something that takes place in accordance with our willingness to surrender to the influence of the Spirit." (6) He simply replaces the haves and have-nots with the willings and willing-nots, or surrenderers and surrender-nots.

The type of inward focus which this teaching inevitably creates (Have I surrendered? Am I willing? How's my yieldedness level?) is a high-water mark of mysticism. It's looking for a warm feeling of peace or escape that Christ never promised us–at least not as any type of permanent feeling, as if once we are believers, we no longer have to spend time in this world, living with pain. Luther's view was quite the opposite:

That may be called the Christian life that is never at perfect rest, and has not so far as attained as to feel no sin, provided that sin be felt, indeed, but not favored. …While flesh and blood continue, so long sin remains; wherefore it is ever to be struggled against. Whoever has not learned this by his own experience, must not boast that he is a Christian. (7)

Particular statements of Christ's wreak havoc on evangelicals of this persuasion: "I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world" (Jn 16:33). Christ says that he gives peace, but that we still face tribulation. This is because the peace that he promised was not an empirical one: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives" (Jn 14:27). We are not told to seek an experience of peace. We are, in fact, told that our experience will be quite the opposite: we will face all sorts of trouble. But nevertheless, we are assured that real peace has been established. But it is not a peace with ourselves, our inner child, or our neighbor. It is peace with God whose anger at sinful humanity has been dealt with by the Cross.

The peace we have with God is a declaration of peace. It is explained specifically in Romans 5: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…" (Rom 5:1). But he didn't promise that we'd feel it all the time: "…we also boast in our sufferings…" (Rom 5:3). To go looking, then, for some type of mystical experience of filling or peace militates against the very Gospel of Christ. To be sure, Christians will sometimes experience a feeling of peace, but to look for assurance of right standing with God in an experience is antithetical to the gospel. Luther assured Melanchthon that the entirety of the gospel is outside us.

The Spirit-filled Life

The inevitable question will be asked, "If the filling of the Spirit isn't some type of experience, what does Paul mean when he uses the phrase?" That's a fair question, and the answer, I think, is so straightforward that it's easy to miss. In the New Testament, there are nine occurrences of the phrase "filled with the Spirit." They occur in Luke (1:15,41,67), Acts (2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9), and Ephesians 5:18. In every case in Luke and Acts, the phrase is associated with speaking God's Word. For instance, in Luke we read: "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…'"(1:41, 42). She's filled with the Spirit, she prophecies. The same thing happens with Zechariah, and similar things happen with the apostles in Acts. Being filled with the Spirit is consistently associated with prophecy or an exhortation.

In the case of Ephesians, however, this relationship is somewhat harder to discern. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be a direct association between the Spirit and God's Word:

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 5:18, 20).

There doesn't appear to be any mention of God's word, here. (Except for that part about singing psalms. Hmm. Those are God's Word.) Pushing a little further, however, we can compare this verse to Colossians 3:16, 17, which is similar: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

From these two verses, it seems as if the filling of the Spirit and the word of Christ were achieving the same thing, which would be consistent with the filling of the Spirit in Luke and Acts. The filling of the Spirit, in every case, is associated with the Word of God. Associations like these are one of the reasons why Protestant orthodoxy insists that the Spirit always works with the Word, and is present when the Word is preached. The Spirit-filled life is one that depends on the Word of God and nothing else. (8)

Protestant orthodoxy also insists that a right understanding of the Holy Spirit's work starts with what Christ said he was for. The Holy Spirit works in and with the Word to get out the good news that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:19). Christ himself tells us most clearly what the Holy Spirit's job is in John 14, 16: "[He] will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned" (Jn 16:8, 11). Also, Christ said, "…the Spirit of truth comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf" (Jn 15:26b). The ministry of the Holy Spirit begins here. This is where Jesus tells us exactly what to expect of the Holy Spirit. Other passages, such as Acts 1:4, 8, should be interpreted in light of Christ's description. When that is done, we see Acts quite plainly as a mandate for evangelism–the starter's pistol ready to send the Apostles running off the blocks. The Holy Spirit in Acts was not sent to help the apostles live good, moral lives. He was sent to do God's work–proving the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgement–through the medium of the apostles' preaching. Acts 1:4, 8 is not to be interpreted as the prerequisite for victorious Christian living, as Stanley seems to interpret it. (9)

Earlier I stated that I find it astonishing how many professing believers don't believe in the objectivity of God's Word. To be fair, this accusation doesn't exactly appear to fit Stanley. Toward the end of his book, he states: "Of all the ways the Holy Spirit reveals himself, [the Bible] is the most objective and, for that reason, the most valuable. …The Bible is the Holy Spirit's most objective way of communicating with his people. It is the only way to know anything about him." (10) It would seem that my accusation is misdirected. However, there is something suspect about Stanley's statement–suspect in its content and in its position in the book.

Lex orandi est lex credendi

According to Stanley, the work the Holy Spirit seeks to accomplish in Scripture is to provide direction for the believer's moral life. Stanley covers situations such as divorce, premarital sex, marital happiness, and successful family relationships. In short, the Holy Spirit reveals "principles for holy living" in Scripture. But what about sin and righteousness and judgement as in John 16:8? Christ didn't say anything about principles for holy living. We are not made holy because we follow rules. We are holy because Christ is our holiness (1 Cor 1:30). We are holy because we are vines that have been grafted into the branch that is Christ. (And the Holy Spirit is not the "sap," as Stanley says. (11) I'm not sure that statements like this even qualify as good mysticism.) When Lutherans (and, presumably, the Reformed) speak of the objectivity of God's Word, we are specifically referring to the fact the Scripture carries (tells, proclaims) the message of justification. God's Word is always speaking to us–not in us–so that we may take comfort in the good news. The Holy Spirit, through Scripture, tells the believer that God requires perfect righteousness from him and then tells him that Christ has provided that righteousness. We are not to take comfort in our feelings. The Holy Spirit is working in Scripture to condemn the ungodly– law–and to assure the same ungodly of God's grace–gospel (Rom 5:6, 8). It is not the Holy Spirit's work to help people make themselves better. Never once in the section on Scripture in his book does Stanley refer to the Holy Spirit's work as that of illuminating Christ (Jn 15:26). Stanley doesn't seem to believe that Scripture is objective in terms of revealing God's grace, but he does believe in the objectivity of the principles in the Bible. He doesn't see Scripture as being the way the Holy Spirit is always working to assure the sinner of his right standing with a just, holy and perfect God, because of the just, holy and perfect Christ. But he does see Scripture as the timeless rules for living by which imperfect men and women gauge themselves and make their own paths straight.

Now, Stanley would never say this explicitly. In fact, he would, I hope, probably deny it. But the problem lies in the way that Stanley presents his information. Scripture is listed as third in a list of four "markers" of the Holy Spirit. (It comes in behind "peace" and "conscience.") The concept of Scripture isn't even presented as a major issue until the end of the book. If Scripture is as important as Stanley says it is, why doesn't he present it first in this list? Better yet, why isn't it the first thing in the book? And it is here that concern with Stanley's book is best expressed. Stanley does indeed say many things that could be constructive for his reader. But the problem lies in the fact that never is the Spirit-filled life rooted in justification, as it must always be. Justification, in fact, is never covered in the book, which reveals an age old problem in Protestantism, which is that while justification is seen as God's work, sanctification is what we do. This is patently wrong. Sanctification is entirely dependent on justification, and cannot occur without justification. When the two are separated, the sinner in us will naturally gravitate towards the sanctification part, because it appears to involve us. We want something to do. We think that what we do will be as good as what God did in Christ. But how can we be like God? Adam and Eve tried that and got us all where we are. To pursue sanctification without rooting it in justification is to follow our sinful nature.

There is an ancient saying in the church that correctly identifies how we shape our beliefs: lex orandi est lex credendi. Literally translated, it says, "the law of prayer is the law of belief." Loosely translated it means that the way a church worships defines how it believes. A pastor might be able to give all the right answers to a quiz on justification, but when the choir sings about "pressing into the kingdom by force," it reveals a congregation steeped in works righteousness; not because they have an Arminian confession, but because their worship is oriented this way. This is the reason why people in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions "split hairs" over words: they make all the difference! This is why people in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions get touchy about the music in their churches: it makes all the difference! When people from these traditions encounter a work like Stanley's, they should recognize immediately that, however good his intentions, Stanley has directed his reader to seek what amounts to a mystical experience. (Am I Filled? Have I yielded?) He spends a book talking about leading, guiding, yielding, surrendering, listening and only a few pages on Scripture, where the Spirit is really to be found. And even then, Scripture is not the place where the Spirit is guaranteed to be really working, but merely the place to find a few rules. (I have said all of this and not even mentioned the sacraments which, not surprisingly, are entirely absent from Stanley's book.) Quasi-mystical experience is inserted in place of assurance of God's grace, and rules for living in place of Christ's righteousness. It is an ironic day for evangelicalism when Christians who are honestly seeking a deeper understanding of God (Father, Son or Holy Spirit) are better advised to put down the books of some of their most noted pastors, stop listening for the "still small voice," and begin listening to Brahms.

All Scripture quotations from The New Revised Standard Version.

1 [ Back ] Charles Stanley, The Wonderful Spirit-filled Life, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1993), p. 63.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., p. ix.
3 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 3.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 5.
5 [ Back ] Ibid.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 35.
7 [ Back ] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter and Jude, p. 119.
8 [ Back ] I am not here trying to construct an entire thesis regarding what the filling of the Spirit is, and I realize that my analysis is far too brief and hasty. I wanted, however, to draw the reader's attention to this simple fact about these passages and point out that Stanley never mentions the connection. Considering how much Stanley tells his charismata-inclined readers to read things in context, I find it interesting that he managed to overlook one of the obvious contexts in which the phrase "filled with the Spirit" is set.
9 [ Back ] Stanley, op. cit., p. 9, 10.
10 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 203,207.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 56.
Friday, August 17th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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