The Higher Life at the Orlando Prayer Summit

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, August 15th 2007
Jan/Feb 1995

In December [1994], Mr. Bill Bright, a former businessman who founded Campus Crusade for Christ International, held a "prayer summit" that included Christian broadcasters Paul Crouch (a "prosperity evangelist"), Robert Schuller, Jack Hayford, and a total of 75 evangelical leaders whose view of revival is, generally speaking, an inheritance from Finney rather than from Whitefield and Edwards. What is remarkable as one scans the list of participants is that the majority of the most identifiable names on the roster, from a variety of denominations, are held together by a common heritage in the theology and practice of Charles Finney. The purpose of this article is to focus on the theology of the man behind the Summit itself and its related 40-day fast by Mr. Bright, but first we should understand the background in the work of Finney.

Finney's Fads

"Finney bristled with eccentricities. Fads were exaggerated into fanaticisms, foibles into gospels." So charged B. B. Warfield in 1921, at the beginning of a massive study of perfectionism from Finney to 1920.

Much of Warfield's work describes and critiques the merging of Wesleyan and Finneyite perfectionism in the Keswick Movement that came to be identified by the terms "Deeper Life," "Higher Life," and "the Victorious Christian Life." This movement, burgeoning in the second half of the last century, turned many classical Protestants into evangelical mystics overnight. In classical Reformation Christianity, the categories are Law and Gospel, the former demanding perfect conformity to God's righteous will and allowing no shortcomings in holiness; the latter promising full remission of sins and imputation of Christ's "alien righteousness" apart from human merit. Just as Luther had known the "ladders of ascent" through which a devoted Christian could seek God's face through illumination, confession, purgation, and eventually union–leading to the ecstatic experience of a direct encounter with God, so Protestants have proved themselves to be just as clever in the assembly of such ladders.

Like the mystics of old, these "victorious Christian life" proponents lowered the expectations of the Law. No longer did God require absolute perfection, but "absolute surrender." It was not external works of obedience that God required, but "complete consecration" and "yieldedness." With the advent and rapid growth of Dispensationalism, leaders such as Dallas Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer declared, "The grace teachings are not laws; they are suggestions. They are not demands; they are beseechings" (emphasis in original). God's Law is replaced with "suggestions," short-circuiting the conviction of sin, while God's Gospel is basically merged together with this single category of "suggestions" and "beseechings." It is neither Law nor Gospel, but a confusion of both. In the place of God's moral Law, Chafer substituted "three laws or principles, which characterize the teachings of grace concerning the manner of the daily life of the believer." These "laws" are "the law of perfect liberty," "the law of expediency" and "the law of love." Their perfections are achieved not by rigorous human achievement, but by "full surrender" to the Christ who is at work within the believer. (1) "The code of rules contained in the law has been superseded by the injunctions and beseechings of grace." (2)

The Law removed and substituted with the ostensibly less rigorous "grace-laws" of love and surrender, the believer is actually encouraged to believe that he or she can attain the "victorious, Spirit-filled life" by being sufficiently "yielded" to the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the Gospel is not pure grace, free and undeserved. The good news is, "By following the principles or laws of grace, you can attain victory." The Law is less difficult and the Gospel is less the announcement of what God has done and given objectively, outside of the believer's experience and activity, because of Christ.

While Warfield exploded Chafer's teaching concerning the Christian life in a Princeton Theological Review piece reviewing the Bible teacher's He That Is Spiritual, these views gained prominence in countless Bible and prophecy conferences throughout this century. One contemporary proponent of these views is Bill Bright.

Bill Bright and the Medieval Monk

As Wesley, Finney and the Pentecostalism that bore their imprint had emphasized a "second blessing" or "second work of grace" in which second-class Christians at last attained the filling of the Spirit, Mr. Bright calls believers from the "carnal Christian" class into the "higher life." Closely following the outline of Chafer's He That Is Spiritual, Bright distinguishes between three types of people: the "natural man," who is an unbeliever; the "spiritual man," who is a "victorious, surrendered, Spirit-filled" believer, and the "carnal man," who, although a believer, "never allows the Holy Spirit to mold him into the person that God created him to be." Further, "Most Christians, whether or not they realize it, are in this carnal category." In fact, Paul's description of the Christian in Romans 7 is a description of such a "carnal Christian," according to Bright. Like the monks Luther knew (and at one time was himself), "victorious Christians" are God's elite band. Bright tells the following story: "Another friend, one of the most dedicated men I have ever known, lived by a little black book." Lest the reader jump to conclusions, this "little black book" was not the Bible:

In this book he kept a careful record of all of his activities–past, present, and future. In it he recorded the time he was to get up every morning, how long he should have his devotions, and to how many people he should witness. I was very impressed; I wanted to be like him.

However, even such spiritual devotion can be done "in the flesh" rather than "in the Spirit," and the believer must not only be careful in such disciplines; it is only effective if he allows the Spirit to do this through him. (3)

How then does one attain such "victory"? For the monk, the answer was easy enough: confession, purgation, and union. By confession, impure thoughts and desires were brought into the open. One then could move on to "purgation," which required fasting, penance, and other acts of devotion intended to flush sinful, worldly preoccupations from the soul. At long last, the spiritually-yielded attained a direct vision of God. But this estate was difficult and often required abandoning secular pursuits and callings for "full-time Christian service." Luther recalled,

In a word, whoever looked at a monk drooled in devotion and had to be ashamed of his secular station in life…Yes, we wanted to scale God's heaven and to steal into His kingdom before He could be aware of it. This was the sugar that lured us into monkery…Later, when we had gulped down the morsel, we found the poison, that Christ was lost and now was no longer a Savior or a Comforter, but an angry Judge, nay, an executioner and a devil in our heart.

The present writer has met too many former Crusade staff members who were "burned out" on Christianity for the very same reasons that Luther and Calvin had been in the sixteenth century. The medieval monk would perhaps occasionally entertain such obvious thoughts as those that disturbed the young Luther: What if my confession were incomplete or disingenuous? Would my short-comings go unnoticed by an all-seeing, all-knowing Judge? And then there was purgation–the second level, in which sins were driven out of the heart. How could one ever be certain that these steps had been followed sufficiently?

Bill Bright, rather similarly, proposes what he calls the principle of "spiritual breathing." Again, this is not the moral Law of God, but neither is it the Gospel, as the Reformers understood those two categories. It is a confusion of "Law" (commandment) and "Gospel" (good news), in that it both requires less and gives less. The first stage of this "spiritual breathing," Bright tells us, is to "exhale and inhale." "We exhale when we confess our sins, and we inhale when we appropriate the fullness of God's Spirit by faith." (4) Of course, in Scripture, we are told that the Spirit is given to every believer at the beginning of the Christian life (Joel 2:28; Jn 3:5; Rom 8:9; Eph 1:13-14). Nevertheless, in this system, the Spirit is viewed less as a person than as a quantity of divine substance, poured into the believer in varying degrees, depending on how closely one followed the rules for "appropriation." This infusion-centered rather than imputation-centered doctrine of salvation exactly parallels the medieval system. Each sin, says Bright, "should be named specifically" and he actually claims that by confession the believer "appropriates" the Holy Spirit. After this exercise, the believer is qualified to receive forgiveness and cleansing. (Is this the monk's equivalent of "purgation"?)

To his credit, Bright does insist that Christ is the basis for such forgiveness, but this too was affirmed by medieval mystics. Nevertheless, "Sin short-circuits the power of God," Bright contends, so the reader is directed to "list your sins…on a sheet of paper." As penance was required for genuine purgation in medieval piety, Bright warns, "Restitution may be necessary…This is vitally important because you cannot maintain a clear conscience before God if you still have a guilty conscience before your fellowman." For some, there will only be "little sins" to confess and purge, but every sin must be listed. "It may be that there are no gross sins in your life," (5) Bright concedes, leading one to conclude with St. Anselm, "You have not yet considered how great your sin is."

Finally, if these steps are followed, "guilt is gone." "Through the principle of spiritual breathing," rather than by looking to the brass serpent in the wilderness (i.e., Christ), "you can get off the spiritual roller coaster and stay off for the rest of your life…, but [God] will not bless us and use us to bring others to Himself if there is unconfessed sin in our lives." (6) In order to receive the Holy Spirit, one must begin by "preparing your heart" and must "be willing to surrender your life to Christ," must "confess each sin" and "make restitution." (7)

Aside from the obvious difficulties that this presents for the Christian life and the doctrine of sanctification, the most important danger it presents is to the Gospel itself.

Now to the "prayer summit," held in December in Orlando, Florida. Although our Lord warned against making one's fasting a matter of public record, Bright, like the medieval monks of old, is convinced that it is only by following his example that revival will come. Therefore, in his communiqué to his Campus Crusade staff and supporters, called "The Bright Side" (October and November issues, 1994), Mr. Bright explained his 40-day fast in depth. By fasting, we fulfill 2 Chronicles 7:14, turning from our wicked ways so that God can heal our land. Although fasting does not appear in the passage, "The major key to meeting the conditions of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is fasting." While he insists that this does not create a spiritual elite, Bright nevertheless declares that, "There is no doubt in my mind that those who fast with pure motives will be drawn closer to the great heart of God and experience a quality of life in the Spirit that one does not generally know apart from fasting." Through the fast, "I have been drawn closer to our Lord. If possible, I love Him even more." If possible? Again Anselm's haunting warning echoes: "You have not yet considered how great your sin is."

The end result of the fast is that "more people will come into the Kingdom and be drawn to serve Him within this movement than if I had never fasted." Remarkably, Mr. Bright seems to believe that his own fast serves as some sort of a mediatorial sacrifice that, as surely as the law of gravity, is predictable in its results: If one does X, God must do Y. He credits his fast with the salvation of human beings, while Paul declared, "It is not the result of human decision or effort, but of God's mercy." (Rom 9:16). God is never put in our debt by conditions we somehow fulfill: "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" (Rom 11:35). But Mr. Bright has learned that "If only we love, trust, fast, and pray, revival will come…" Instead of pointing struggling believers to the fasting of Christ in the 40 days of his temptation, which was as truly part of our salvation as the Cross, "victorious Christians" are directed to their own fasting (and especially to Mr. Bright's) as a technique for levering divine blessing, forgiveness, healing, a close relationship to God, and "a quality of life in the Spirit that one does not generally know apart from fasting."

Because he had been following his principles for so long, the fast itself did not require very much confession and purgation: "Since I learned how to breath [sic] spiritually many years ago, I frankly do not have that much to confess," Bright declared. Anyone who does not think that he has much sin to confess is self-deceived into believing that such spiritual technology really does have the sin-spill under control: crews are on the scene and the clean-up is going better than expected. Crusade staff have reported that Mr. Bright asks staff leaders whether they can stop sinning for one minute, extending it to one hour, one day, and so on, implying that if one can go without sinning, in principle, for a short time, there is nothing keeping a person from absolute sinlessness. The difficulty with this, of course, lies in its major premise: According to Scripture, even our best works are corrupted with sin, so that we have not really gone without sin for even the single minute that was considered a "given." Again, Anselm urges, "You have not yet considered how great your sin is."

A Weak View of Sin at the Bottom of "Lazy Theology"

In his reply to Cardinal Sadoleto, John Calvin charged the Roman Catholic prelate with having a "lazy theology." It was lazy in that Sadoleto had never really come face-to-face with the depth of his sinfulness and, therefore, did not see any great need for a Gospel of imputed, alien righteousness. To be sure, he would never have denied that he was born in original sin, nor would he have questioned the fact that even a cardinal struggles with indwelling sin in the form of wicked actions, but he failed to see that sin was first of all a condition that rendered it impossible for even the Christian-the most "victorious" Christian, to "appropriate" anything from God's hand. The Law was not replaced with an "easier" set of "principles" for the Reformers, but was allowed to address the sinner (including the Christian) with the whole force of its threatening blows. This led a person thus condemned to only one of two options: either to despair of ever finding favor with God, enjoying close fellowship with him, and receiving the Holy Spirit, or to claim Christ alone and his victorious life, death, and resurrection as having secured divine favor, the Holy Spirit, and everything else in the Christian life.

For the Reformers, then, the Law was not "good news" and the worst thing a person could do would be to attempt to substitute the rigor of God's moral demands with a "kinder, gentler" set of "principles of grace." The Law is not easy, as it requires perfect love of God and neighbor. Trespassing that Law cannot be covered by following any set of principles–even by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Trespasses can only be covered by perfect obedience, but the good news is as good as the bad news is bad: In Christ, we have every spiritual blessing freely given to us the moment we are united to Christ through faith alone (Eph. 1:3 ff.) All Christians stand justified, adopted, close to God, and all Christians are "spiritual" (i.e., regenerated, as Paul uses the term in Romans 6 especially). There are no "first-class" Christians who by their "second blessing" surrender have appropriated the filling of the Spirit and closeness to God, while "carnal" Christians are left behind by the Holy Spirit. All Christians possess the Holy Spirit and are filled with his wonderful presence, so that sin's guilt and sin's tyranny are both destroyed by the decisive victory of the Cross once-and-for-all (Col. 2:1 ff.). The Keswick theology risks separating not only justification from the new birth, but the Son from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not and will not give anyone any spiritual blessing except as it is purchased, earned, merited, and secured by Christ. He does not operate an "under-the-table" business with Christians directly, but only distributes that which has been mediated and purchased for every believer by Christ and in Christ.

But just as the good news is equally true for every believer, the ongoing reality of sin is true as well. All Christians are "simultaneously justified and sinful," righteous before God because of his imputed righteousness, but sinful in themselves. Sin is dethroned by Christ in the beginning of the Christian life, but never eradicated in this life. No believer is victorious over sin, known or unknown, in this life and the process of sanctification is incomplete until we arrive in God's presence glorified. The truth about every Christian is found in Romans 1-3 (dead in sins, condemned by the Law, and helpless to find God), 4-5 (justified by an alien righteousness), 6 (made alive in Christ so that sin is not the ruling principle), 7 (and yet continually at war with ongoing sinfulness), and 8 (living in the victory of Christ's cross and the hope of final redemption from sin in the future, with no place for confidence in one's own victory).

Confession, Purgation…At Last, The Beatific Vision

If one were to ask Mr. Bright about his theological system, no doubt he would say that he does not follow such systems, but only the Bible. And yet, his debt to the Keswick mysticism that has pervaded American and British evangelicalism is obvious. We have seen how his theology parallels the medieval monk's "ladder of ascent" in terms of confession and purgation, but where is the third stage: union or the experience of an unmediated encounter with God, what Aquinas and others called the "Beatific Vision"? It comes in the same letter in "The Bright Side." Bright claims that through his fasting, just such an unmediated encounter took place. After a great deal of crying, Mr. Bright says he was awakened early the next morning by the Lord:

There will be an awakening in America; He will enable us to be a part of completing the fulfillment of the great commission; our World Center will be erected; we will see the International Christian Leadership University established; we will see a radio and television program developed, where Vonnette and I will take the basic truths and messages of Campus Crusade to thousands. Now I'm not given to prophesy, I'm a Presbyterian. We don't do things like that. But I am telling you what God told me and I'm willing to stake my life on it.

There is a good reason why Presbyterians–as well as other Christians from the Reformation tradition–"don't do things like that." It is because we do not believe in unmediated encounters with "the naked God," as Luther expressed it. We do not believe in climbing ladders of confession, purgation, and union. Instead, we look to the Word, through which the Spirit convicts us of sin–not so we will eradicate the guilt and power of our sins by our own activity, but so we will "fix our eyes on Christ, the author and finisher of faith" (Heb.12:1), the believer's only "righteousness, holiness, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). In Romans 10, Paul warned about a zeal without knowledge. His Jewish kinsmen and women were ignorant of the righteousness that is "alien" and imputed and instead sought to establish their own, he says. Therefore, they sought to climb the heights or plumb the depths to bring Christ to them, instead of realizing, "'The Word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,' that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming" (v.8).

We cannot climb up to God to receive any of his blessings, but he has come down to us. Through "baby-talk," he reveals his saving Gospel. Word and Sacrament alone are ordained by God precisely because they are not the ascending activities of creatures, but the descending activity of God–divinely-given means of receiving the divinely-given promise. Through these two ordained means of grace, God gives what he promises, in contrast to humanly-crafted sacraments and ladders to "Higher Life."

It is not by "laws" or "principles" for attaining spiritual perfection, but by embracing the perfect law-keeping of the Second Adam, that we are united, through faith alone, to the "full surrender" of the only victorious Christian who has ever lived.

1 [ Back ] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace: The Glorious Theme (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1950; reprint from 1922 edition).
2 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 351.
3 [ Back ] Bill Bright, Handbook of Concepts for Living (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1981).
4 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 68.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., pp. 73-74.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., pp. 66-75.
7 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 102.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, August 15th 2007

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

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