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Review of Holy Fire

 The following review was submitted as an academic paper for the Master’s of Theology program at The Master’s Seminary in the Fall of 2014.

 

OUTLINE

Introduction. 1

Positive Elements. 2

Cessationism.. 4

R.T. Kendall and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. 8

Biblical Concerns. 16

Theological Concerns. 24

Pastoral Concerns. 26

Conclusion. 31

Bibliography. 32



Introduction

The year 2013 was a landmark year for debate over charismatic theology. John MacArthur published his book, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship,[1] stoking the debate over the charismatic movement. That book and the Strange Fire conference, held at the church where John MacArthur is pastor-teacher, promoted a biblical view of the Holy Spirit and warned against the errors of the charismatic movement. The book and conference received overwhelming responses—positive and negative. Charismatic leaders, pastors, and authors responded with numerous articles, videos, and books. Many even wrote before the book was published appealing to John MacArthur to tone down his rhetoric.[2] In a radio interview, R.T. Kendall recounted that his publisher, Charisma House, asked him to write a book answering John MacArthur’s yet unpublished book.[3] Holy Fire: A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our Lives[4] is the product of that request. In that interview, Kendall notes that he did not have opportunity to read Strange Fire until his own book was published. Upon reading it, he felt confident that his book was written precisely as it needed  to be as a preemptive answer to MacArthur’s work.

Kendall’s book boasts thirty-two written endorsements as well as a forward by Jack Hayford, a foremost leader in the charismatic movement. Also included in the front matter is a special recommendation by Greg Haslam, Kendall’s successor and pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. These endorsements amount to high praise from a broad spectrum of the charismatic movement. In his forward, Jack Hayford suggests “Holy Fire will become a point of reference for many, and that as years pass, it will find enduring use for a generation or more.”[5] A book on the Holy Spirit by a reformed charismatic author with such high praise deserves careful attention and evaluation.

Dr. R.T. Kendall (DPhil, Oxford University) is a respected pastor-scholar within the charismatic movement. He was the second successor to Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in 1977 and pastored the church for twenty-five years. During his tenure he led the church away from its traditional doctrine and practice into a fully charismatic congregation to the point where the same behaviors exhibited during the Toronto Blessing became manifest in the church.[6] After retirement from that ministry position he returned to the United States and has continued a significant speaking and writing ministry.

Positive Elements

R.T. Kendall writes as one concerned for the spiritual welfare of his readers and ultimately for the glory of God. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his interpretation of Scripture or experience, Kendall writes with a gracious tone and heartfelt conviction. Throughout the book there are a number of positive elements from which cessationists and charismatics can benefit.

First, the chapter “What Every Christian Should Know About the Holy Spirit” is a helpful delineation of twenty-one truths about the Holy Spirit from Scripture. While cessationists would differ on the application of some of those truths for believers today,[7] the list is a helpful reminder of the truths Scripture reveals about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, throughout the book Kendall rightly cautions charismatics against excesses, manipulative practices, and counterfeit manifestations. The following examples are just a few of many instances where Kendall laments the prevalence of such practices. On healing televangelists, Kendall writes, “I find it disquieting too when prominent healing evangelists absolutely forbid people in wheelchairs from being pushed to the front of the auditorium before the services.”[8] Along these lines Kendall confirms that he’s aware that a lot of purported healings are fraudulent.[9] On prophecy he writes, “What must be avoided in any case is people saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord’ or ‘The Lord told me.’ Speaking like this is not only highly presumptuous but it is taking the Lord’s name in vain.”[10] This is a welcome admonition as such language is all too common not only in charismatic circles, but in broader evangelicalism.

Third, Kendall rightly warns against serious theological error prevalent in charismatic circles. These errors include prosperity theology, open theism, hyper grace, and universalism.[11] Though charismatic leaders have chided John MacArthur for making broad brush statements, particularly as it relates to the prosperity gospel, Kendall appears to agree with John MacArthur’s assessment of the theological problems among charismatics. “I only know that the common denominator of [Pentecostals and charismatics] today is no longer the manifest power of God but the in-your-face promise of financial blessing if you give generously to one’s ministry—their ministry.”[12] Such an admission from R.T. Kendall, along with his other concerns over prevalent theological errors should lead to humbling self-evaluation within the movement. Despite these admissions, I will later discuss why Kendall does not go far enough in expressing his concerns.

As helpful and encouraging as these positive elements may be, they are overshadowed by the serious historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral concerns I have regarding the content of Holy Fire.

Cessationism

As stated above, Holy Fire was a preemptive response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire. Again, after reading Strange Fire Kendall noted that he was fully satisfied with his own book and would not alter it in any way. Therefore, Kendall’s chapter “Cessationism” stands as his official response to cessationist arguments. Though statements about cessationism are made at various points throughout the book, this chapter addresses this theological position directly. Unfortunately, Kendall caricatures and misrepresents the convictions and underpinnings of cessationism. So erroneous is his presentation of the position that one could only assume he had not come across an educated cessationist before—an assumption that is surely false. It is of great concern, then, that Kendall felt confident of his response to cessationism after reading Strange Fire. Though more could be said, I offer five reasons this chapter raises serious concerns over the possibility of fruitful future discussions between cessationists and charismatics.

First, Kendall wrongly defines cessationism as an a priori hypothesis held by those who have yet to experience or witness the miraculous. He writes, “Cessationism is a hypothesis. It is not a teaching grounded in Holy Scripture—like the virgin birth, the deity of Christ. . . . Cessationists have chosen to believe that God does not reveal Himself directly and immediately today.”[13] When describing how a cessationist changes their view, the answer is not that their arguments are overwhelmed by proper biblical interpretation. Rather, “Most cessationists would be thrilled with a miracle. . . . Sometimes this actually happens—when a cessationist is convinced of a miracle and changes his or her views. But not often.”[14]

Second, consistent with the statements above, Kendall gives the reader no indication that cessationists have made any biblical and exegetical arguments to arrive at their convictions. This is particularly concerning in light of Kendall’s confidence after reading Strange Fire. John MacArthur offered extensive biblical and exegetical reasons for believing that the gifts practiced in charismatic movement are not the gifts of the New Testament.[15] But such arguments are not even acknowledged—much less addressed—in Holy Fire.

Third, Kendall caricatures cessationism by aligning it with deism and anti-supernaturalism. “But you might be forgiven for thinking there could be a strong similarity to cessationism and the teaching of deism.”[16] After defining deism, he writes, “Cessationists do believe in the supernatural in Scripture of course, but have no expectation that God will intervene supernaturally today except, perhaps, through providence.” Though it is not uncommon for charismatics to associate cessationism with deism or anti-supernaturalism, it is an association that is contradicted by the writings of cessationists.[17]

Fourth, Kendall implies that cessationists question the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. The chapter begins with a story told by Charles Carrin.[18] In this story, a man calls Carrin’s church to ask if they are a Bible-believing, inerrancy-affirming church. Carrin affirms that they are, but he goes further to say, “we also believe in the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.” The man replies, “Do you mean tongues?” Carrin responds, “We believe that all the gifts of the Spirit, including tongues, are included in the Scripture’s inerrancy and are to be believed.” The story closes with the man’s definitive response: “Well, I don’t.”

By including Carrin’s story in this book, Kendall perpetuates an objective falsehood—that cessationists to not believe in the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Even if Kendall had not read any cessationist material prior to writing this book, after reading Strange Fire he would know that cessationists hold their position precisely because of Scripture’s unalterable truth—it is inerrant, it must not be changed, and modern charismatic gifts manifestly do not correspond to the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.

Fifth, Kendall offers an unusual explanation as to why cessationists do not change their view when confronted with the miraculous. He suggests that cessationism is ultimately a work of the Spirit. “But I have my own hypothesis: it is to test the faith of those who actually see the miraculous but have to enjoy it in relative solitude, without their friends being convinced.”[19] He asks the following questions to imply that cessationism is the work of the Spirit wherein He blinds the minds of some believers to the miraculous: “What if God in some cases keeps some skeptics from seeing the miraculous even though it actually takes place? . . . Why did Jesus reveal Himself only to a few? . . . So could it be that God withholds the lack of hard evidence to skeptical people for our sakes?”[20] What purpose would such hardening serve? Kendall offers this suggestion, “I also suspect that God sometimes allows just a little bit of doubt when it comes to the objective proof of the miraculous. This keeps us humble.”[21] In other words, Kendall suggests that the Holy Spirit withholds Himself from some believers in order to keep other believers humble. Therefore, he says, charismatics ought to be patient with cessationists because they’ve been blinded by the Spirit.

These five reasons should raise serious concerns regarding the fruitfulness of future discussions between cessationists and charismatics. Kendall is a highly educated and experienced pastor-scholar. It is likely he has read numerous works by cessationist pastors and scholars. Yet in the aforementioned radio interview, he acknowledged that after reading Strange Fire he was confident that its contents warranted no changes in his own book. Therefore, Kendall is not ignorant of what cessationists have written. Strange Fire contains extensive biblical and exegetical argumentation demonstrating that the modern charismatic movement bears little to no resemblance to the gifts described in Scripture. So it begs the question: if one of the most respected pastor-theologians in the charismatic movement cannot acknowledge that cessationism has biblical and exegetical underpinnings, and if he explains its existence on an anti-biblical blinding work of the Spirit,[22] who is blind to what? If Kendall and all those who endorse his work hold this perspective on cessationism, it is unlikely that productive and robust interaction on the text of Scripture can occur.

R.T. Kendall and Martyn Lloyd-Jones

From the very beginning of this book, R.T. Kendall appeals to Martyn Lloyd-Jones as an advocate for his positions. In the preface he writes, “[Lloyd-Jones] was responsible for my being in Westminster Chapel precisely because of the views I take in this book.”[23] Chapter three, “The Immediate and Direct Testimony of the Holy Spirit,” serves the purpose of revealing Lloyd-Jones’ charismatic views. “The Doctor stressed not only that the sealing of the Holy Spirit (which he used interchangeably with baptism of the Spirit), is a conscious experience, but also that it follows conversion.”[24] That Lloyd-Jones held this view becomes the foundation for appealing to him throughout the rest of the book as an affirming authority.

Why does Kendall appeal to Lloyd-Jones? “I know how much conservative evangelicals revere Dr. Lloyd-Jones. . . . I hope that knowing exactly what he believed will help you to be more open to the immediate and direct witness of the Holy Spirit.”[25] He goes on to say, “I am not saying he was a ‘Charismatic.’ But he certainly was such with a small c. He believed that the gifts of the Spirit are available today and was categorically on the side of those who were open to the immediate and direct witness of the Holy Spirit.” There are three significant concerns related to Kendall’s appeal to Lloyd-Jones.

First, Kendall seems to misunderstand the nature of conservative evangelicals’ appreciation for Lloyd-Jones, and thus his repeated appeals fail in their purpose. Assuming for the moment that he accurately portrays Lloyd-Jones’ theology, conservative evangelicals do not look to Lloyd-Jones to shape their theology. Appreciation for the man and his ministry is due to Lloyd-Jones’ commitment to Scripture and expository preaching. He was a uniquely gifted preacher who taught the Word with conviction, power, and clarity. That he held certain convictions is far less important than why he held them. In other words, if Lloyd-Jones is persuasive, it is because of his interaction with the text of Scripture. Unfortunately, Kendall devoted his writing to showing that Lloyd-Jones held certain positions, without explaining why such positions are true from Scripture. In fact, as will be discussed later, this chapter on the immediate and direct witness of the Holy Spirit is void of biblical reasoning altogether. Instead, Kendall’s support from his position comes almost exclusively from the writing and teaching of puritan Thomas Goodwin and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Therefore, Kendall will find that readers of his book concerned primarily with what Scripture teaches will not be swayed by his appeals to Lloyd-Jones.

Second, Kendall misrepresents Lloyd-Jones’ theology of the Holy Spirit and the gifts. Martyn Lloyd-Jones left behind a vast repository of his teaching through recorded sermons and published material. In particular, a series of lectures were published after his death under the title Great Doctrines of the Bible, Volume II: God the Holy Spirit.[26] This work reveals some discrepancy in what Kendall portrays as Lloyd-Jones’ theology. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was no cessationist—that much is true. However as I read his teaching on the baptism of the Spirit, the sealing of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, and the assurance of salvation, there appear minor and major inconsistencies with how Kendall describes his teaching.[27]

In his chapter “The Baptism With the Holy Spirit,” Kendall indicates that Lloyd-Jones believed that the baptism of the Spirit “can happen again and again.”[28] But in a lecture published under the chapter, “Baptism and Filling,” Lloyd-Jones makes a distinction between the baptism of the Spirit and the filling of the Spirit. In short, he taught that “the baptism, I suggest, is the initial experience, the filling is an experience that can often be repeated.”[29] These two terms are not synonymous. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes the former as an experience for the benefit of the individual believer (conscious experience of the glory, reality, and love of God), and he describes the latter as for the benefit of others (empowerment for service).

With regard to the sealing of the Spirit, Kendall indicates that Lloyd-Jones used the terms sealing and baptism interchangeably.[30] However Lloyd-Jones distinguished baptism and sealing by teaching on them separately, defining them differently, and by not even mentioning the sealing or baptism when he taught on baptism or sealing, respectively.[31]

Regarding the gifts of the Spirit, Kendall does not explicitly attribute to Lloyd-Jones any specific charismatic views on the nature of the gifts. However, by invoking Lloyd-Jones several times in minor or tangential points, there is an underling premise that Lloyd-Jones held to Kendall’s views on the gifts of the Spirit. At the very least, there is no indication of the opposite. However, Lloyd-Jones held to cessationist views regarding apostleship, prophecy, and healing. “The gift of prophecy, like the gift of apostleship, was temporary and ceased when it was no longer necessary. I would also put into this same category the gift of healing.”[34]

On speaking in tongues, though Kendall does not define the nature of tongues from Scripture,[35] his descriptions show that he believes tongues are inarticulate sounds, not unlearned human languages. In contradistinction, Lloyd-Jones taught that the gift of tongues in Acts and 1 Corinthians were of the same nature—unlearned human languages.[36] 

These examples of the difference between Lloyd-Jones and the charismatic views Kendall holds leave no doubt that Lloyd-Jones would disagree fundamentally with the most common practices of the charismatic movement. Indeed, if Lloyd-Jones held tightly to the biblical description of tongues, would he have approved of the later charismatic practices of laughing, barking, or being slain in the Spirit? It seems doubtful, yet these practices occurred at Westminster Chapel years after Lloyd-Jones entered into glory.

Lastly, on the matter of assurance of salvation, Lloyd-Jones held strong disagreement with Kendall’s views, even while Kendall portrays the opposite. In the second volume of Lloyd-Jones’ biography, Iain Murray details the progression of Kendall’s works on the Puritans during his time at Oxford.[37] The debate comes down to the role of works in one’s assurance of salvation. Kendall believed that the Puritans had no assurance because they looked to their works rather than to Christ. Others, including Lloyd-Jones, believed that while works were not the highest form of assurance, they were necessary still. Indeed, Murray notes that Michael Eaton, a man whom Kendall references a number of times positively, accused Lloyd-Jones of the same teaching which Kendall accused the Puritans.[38] According to Murray, “Early in 1981 [Lloyd-Jones] read a critical review by Paul Helm of Dr. Kendall’s published thesis and in conversation on February 5, 1981, he expressed his warm approval and the hope that it would have a wide circulation.”[39] This occurred less than one month before Lloyd-Jones went to glory. Because Kendall does not offer the time frame in which his personal conversations with Lloyd-Jones occurred, it is possible that Lloyd-Jones initially agreed with Kendall until he was able to study the issue further. Nevertheless, as will be shown next, Kendall should have been fully aware that by the end of his life, Lloyd-Jones did not support Kendall’s interpretation of the Puritans, or his view on assurance of salvation.

The third concern regarding Kendall’s appeal to Lloyd-Jones is that he misrepresents Lloyd-Jones’ affirmation of his theology and ministry. The clear implication in Holy Fire is that Lloyd-Jones affirmed and encouraged Kendall’s theology and leadership.[40] In fact, Kendall offers the reader no indication that Lloyd-Jones disagreed at any point of charismatic theology or disapproved of Kendall’s ministry at Westminster Chapel in any way. Whatever role Lloyd-Jones played in establishing Kendall as pastor of Westminster Chapel in 1977, it is not true that he approved of Kendall’s theology or the direction Kendall was leading the church by 1981.

Regarding Lloyd-Jones’ view of Kendall’s ministry, Iain Murray published a review of Kendall’s In Pursuit of His Glory, wherein Kendall recounts his twenty-five years at Westminster Chapel, and similarly portrays Lloyd-Jones as affirming his ministry. An extended quotation from Murray’s review is helpful.

The truth is that Lloyd-Jones liked Kendall as a person, valued his preaching gift, and for three years after the latter’s coming to Westminster (February 1977) did all he could to guide and encourage him. In particular, he was gratified that the American agreed with his understanding of the sealing of the Spirit as a post-conversion experience – a belief that he saw as closely connected with revival. It thus appeared clear to Lloyd-Jones, and to his former deacons in 1977, that prominence to the ministry of the Holy Spirit would continue in the pulpit of Westminster Chapel. In his early years in London, Kendall made much public use of his ‘Timothy-Paul’ relationship with ‘the Doctor’, and knowledge of this undoubtedly allayed any early misgivings in the congregation. In the now-published account, however, Kendall says nothing of why the relationship broke down. Indeed it broke down so seriously that prior to his death, Dr Lloyd-Jones indicated that Kendall, far from organizing his funeral or memorial service, was to take no part in those proceedings. The reason for this solemn decision by Dr Lloyd-Jones was, at first, unknown to the deacons at Westminster Chapel. After Kendall had protested to them about his exclusion, they supported an enquiry to the Lloyd-Jones family. Writing to the deacons before the Memorial Service, to be held at Westminster Chapel, Kendall said, ‘Surely the family will see the importance of the Minister of Westminster Chapel opening the service that the Gospel might not be hurt at Westminster Chapel’ (Letter of 17 March, 1981). A crisis over the use of the building for the Memorial Service was averted by allowing Kendall to speak briefly at the beginning of that service. We forbear mentioning other matters in this connection, but this much needs to be said to correct the impression of Kendall’s book that he ever enjoyed the confidence of Lloyd-Jones. He did not, and he knew it. He told the deacons ‘that he had given grave theological offence to the Doctor’ (testimony of Dr Richard Alderson).[41]

To validate the accuracy of two opposing perspectives is fraught with difficulties in light of possible subjective interpretations of events and personal conversations. However, let the reader know that whereas Kendall speaks much of his relationship to Lloyd-Jones, rarely does he include objective evidence that can be verified. Indeed, much of it is private conversations held over thirty-five years prior to writing this book. In the review quoted above, Murray offers objective evidence including the names of church leaders whose tenure spanned the ministries of Lloyd-Jones and Kendall and could thereby testify to the matters at hand. Additionally, Murray details how in 1985, six deacons were dismissed from their offices due to their unwillingness to accept Kendall’s theology and practices that went in a decidedly different direction away from what Lloyd-Jones had established in the church.

In light of the significant appeal Kendall makes to Martyn Lloyd-Jones in an attempt to sway conservatives, I felt it was critical for the reader to see the disparity between Kendall’s portrayal and Lloyd-Jones’ own works and the accounts of Iain Murray.

Biblical Concerns

The subtitle of Holy Fire is A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our Lives. Those who endorse the book highlight Kendall’s biblical approach saying that he causes “his readers to reevaluate their own opinions in the light of Scripture.”[42] Indeed, Jack Hayford wrote in his forward, “He also presents the Word with a theologian’s awareness of history and is careful to define the lines within the revelation of God’s Word in this book.” Such statements cause the reader to anticipate biblical and exegetical arguments that lead to charismatic theology. Unfortunately, the reader most concerned with what Scripture teaches about spiritual gifts will be disappointed.

This is not to say that Scripture is absent from the book—not at all. As noted above, there are bright spots, including where Kendall broadly outlines the work of the Spirit directly from the Bible. There are also a number of points made throughout the book that offer accurate biblical insight. One need only look at the Scripture index to see that there are hundreds of references to Scripture throughout the book. However, Kendall fails to use or rightly divide the word of truth at the most critical points of defining and defending charismatic theology. In this section I will trace several examples that display patterns of Kendall’s erring interpretive and theological methods.

As noted earlier, chapter three seeks to convince the reader of “The Immediate and Direct Testimony of the Holy Spirit.” This is the doctrinal position that the sealing of the Spirit is a conscious, post-conversion experience whereby the Holy Spirit makes the assurance of one’s salvation real in their soul. This experience results in “joy, assurance, and intimacy with God” that one does not experience apart from the sealing of the Spirit. [43] To convince the reader of this doctrine, Kendall appeals primarily to Thomas Goodwin and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. For biblical support, Kendall appeals to Ephesians 1:13 is the primary text.

However, rather than making an exegetical argument, Kendall appeals to the differing translations of the verse. Kendall notes the difference in translation between the King James Version (KJV) and most other versions: “Whereas the Authorized King James Version, as we will see below, says that the sealing of the Spirit came to them ‘after’ they believed—indicating the sealing is subsequent to faith, most versions read so that all Christians have the seal of the Holy Spirit when they believe.”[44] In light of this difference in translation, Kendall concludes, “There are, therefore, two ways of looking at this seal: objectively and subjectively.” In other words, Kendall tells the reader that we know the sealing of the Spirit is an objective reality that all believers experience unconsciously because of how most translations render Ephesians 1:13. Further, we know that the sealing of the Spirit is also a subjective, conscious experience that happens to some believers because of how the KJV renders Ephesians 1:13. Remarkably, this difference in translation serves as the sole biblical support of his view. If the student of Scripture desires to know why there is a difference in translation or whether one is more faithful to the original Greek text, they will not find further explanation from Kendall. This is a failure to apply sound principles of hermeneutics and exegesis by one who demonstrates  the ability to apply those principles to other texts.[45]

On the matter of speaking in tongues, Kendall asks, “Is the gift of tongues or praying in tongues (1 Cor. 14:2, 14) the same phenomenon as the 120 received on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4)? Possibly not. It may have been something different. The best scholars among Pentecostals and charismatics differ on this, and I see no need to make an issue of this.”[46] Later in the book when he works through the different gifts of the Spirit, he writes, “In my opinion, [the tongues of Acts and 1 Corinthians] are not necessarily the same. . . . I say again, if it were not for the stigma of this particular gift—given the notoriety it has received, I don’t think the gifts of the Spirit would be nearly so controversial.”[47] These quotes constitute the totality of interaction with Scripture Kendall offers on the subject of tongues.

Throughout the book, Kendall portrays the gift of tongues as inarticulate sounds. He affirms that tongues may or may not be kick-started by a person speaking gibberish, but denies that all believers can or should expect to speak in tongues.[48] Though the Apostle Paul writes extensively about the nature, use, and purpose of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Kendall makes no attempt to offer biblical instruction on tongues. Instead, he offers his opinion and a number of accounts of how he and others have experienced charismatic tongues. Once again, the reader interested in what Scripture says about spiritual gifts is left disappointed.

Similarly, as Kendall walks through the gifts of the Spirit as listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, he offers no biblical support for why he defines the nature and practice of the gifts as he does. With each gift he offers a definition and usually one or more examples of a modern use of the gift. But in no case does he look at the biblical data relevant for understanding the nature of the gifts. This is all the more disturbing in light of the concluding sentence of the chapter, “Twice Paul said we should ‘eagerly desire’ the gifts (1 Cor. 12:31; 1 Cor. 14:1). The onus is on us all to show how closely we wish to adhere to Scripture by coveting the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”[49] Unfortunately Kendall offers no help to the reader who desires to “adhere to Scripture” when it comes to the nature and use of the gifts themselves.

The examples provided above testify to the absence of biblical support for significant areas of Kendall’s theology. I will now turn to examine a few cases where he errs in his use of Scripture.

In his chapter “Strange Fire,” Kendall admits to significant theological and practical problems within the charismatic movement. One of those errors, he notes, is that “gifts are more important than character.[50] This error, which he describes as “biblically and theologically ignorant,” teaches that God’s approval of a person and his or her ministry is manifested by their ability to make use of the miraculous gifts, regardless of their personal holiness. Kendall laments that this error has led to increasing scandals among charismatic leaders. Nevertheless, in a surprising statement he writes, “The gifts are without repentance—irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). This explains why a person’s gift continues to flourish despite their personal morality. . . . The gifts are irrevocable; God lets you keep them.” In the next chapter he returns to this issue and answers two objections. “‘But how could these preachers have such power?’ I answer: the gifts and calling of God are ‘without repentance’ (KJV)—irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). . . . ‘How do they get these words of knowledge? Does that not mean they are hearing from God?’ No. This does not mean the Dove remains on such a person. It means that an irrevocable gift of healing, prophecy, or word of knowledge still works.”[51]

While it is true that Paul uses the word charisma in Romans 11:29, it is not in reference to spiritual gifts. In the context of Romans, Paul is using that term to refer to “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4) which belong to the nation Israel. The more immediate context concerns the “calling”—salvation—of Israel. There is no exegetical evidence or other passage of Scripture which can be used to affirm Kendall’s view that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are irrevocable. Indeed, this is an irrational position. For how can “healing, prophecy, or word of knowledge still [work]” apart from the direct empowerment of the Holy Spirit? There is no alternative to the Holy Spirit as the source of the power and content of these gifts other than evil spirits—which are known to be able to perform such supernatural acts.

Another passage Kendall uses out of context is Romans 9:15. “‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’ (Rom. 9:15). This means that God was showing mercy and compassion to Peter at Pentecost.” Romans 9 is in the same larger context of Romans 11 where Paul addresses the sovereignty of God in the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. The “mercy” and “compassion” of Romans 9:15 specifically refers to the salvation of sinners. Kendall removes the verse from its context and applies it to God’s sovereignty in manifesting power through believers. The astute student of Scripture will note that Paul essentially makes this very point in 1 Corinthians 12:11—a passage with which Kendall ought to be very familiar. Nevertheless Kendall chooses the wrong text to make a valid point.

Kendall’s use of Romans 9:15 and 11:29 are just two examples of how texts are used out of context and with disregard for what the Holy Spirit intended when He inspired the words of Scripture. One last example of poor biblical interpretation will suffice for the purpose of this review.

Chapter four is entitled “The Oath and the Stigma.” It begins, “There is another way of describing the immediate and direct witness of the Holy Spirit and the way it may come to us. It is when God swears an oath to you.”[52] According to Kendall, this is significant because “if the sealing of the Holy Spirit is the highest form of assurance, having God swear an oath to you is the highest form of knowing you have it right when it comes to hearing from God.”[53] Where does Scripture teach that believers ought to expect the Lord to swear an oath to them? It doesn’t, nor does Kendall indicate it does so in any explicit way. Instead, he uses the examples of the Lord swearing to Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Peter, and simply presumes that the Lord will “swear an oath” to believers today in the very same way.

However, in a display of serious misinterpretation, Kendall makes the following distinction: “There are therefore two levels by which God generally communicates to us: the promise level and the oath level. Both are equally true. But a promise sometimes implies a condition; it implies an if.”[54] While one might argue the semantics, the principle of conditional and unconditional promises of God is valid. However Kendall distinguishes between the [conditional] “promises” of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:2, Genesis 15:5, and Genesis 17:6, and the [unconditional] “oath” to Abraham in Genesis
22:16-17.[55] 

Though Kendall doesn’t explain how he makes this distinction, one could conceivably argue—from silence—that the first three iterations of the promise were conditioned on how Abraham would respond to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Nevertheless, the Lord Himself made no conditions in the first three iterations, and while the forth iteration could be considered to have stronger force in light of Abraham’s act of faith, there is no exegetical reason to consider the first three as conditional. Furthermore, when the author of Hebrews highlighted the faith of Abraham, he pointed to his faith in response to God’s initial promise in Genesis 12 and did not mention his faith exhibited in Genesis 22. Lastly, the terms “promise” and “oath” are not distinguished in Scripture the way Kendall differentiates them. In other words, Kendall establishes an arbitrary distinction and imposes it onto Scripture. He the emphasizes what the text does not emphasize, and does not emphasize what the text emphasizes.

A great many more examples could be raised to demonstrate a failure on R.T. Kendall’s part to rightly handle the word of truth. While at times he makes valid points, at the most critical points Kendall fails to adhere to Scripture, interpret Scripture in context, and allow the text to speak for itself rather than imposing his own ideas on Scripture.

A final biblical concern relates to the lack of treatment—or at best a de-emphasis—of the purpose of spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit is one of Paul’s main points (12:7, 21-26; 14:3-33). Indeed, the entire thrust of Paul’s instruction on prophecy and tongues in chapter fourteen is aimed at pursuing what most edifies the church. Chapter twelve, too, is largely about how the gifts relate to the corporate church. In other words, Paul’s instructions in1 Corinthians 12-14 are almost entirely focused on the purpose of the gifts given by the Spirit as for the edification of the church—others—not the individual who receives the gift—self. However, this emphasis is almost entirely absent in Kendall’s writing.

Near the end of the book he does offer this point of truth: “Whenever God uses us powerfully or chooses to display His authority in us, it is not for us. It is for those around us who need what we have to say.”[56] However this brief aside is in the context of speaking with power as a proof the Spirit, not in the section on spiritual gifts. It is true that when discussing the gifts of the Spirit there is an others-orientation inherent in gifts such as healing and prophecy. But this is implicit, not explicit in Holy Fire. Indeed, Kendall illustrates the gift of knowledge—which is biblically an others-oriented gift—with a story of a woman receiving a personal and private message from the Lord by looking at Scripture. Once again, this reveals a pattern in Kendall’s book where Scripture’s clear teaching and emphasis regarding the gifts of the Spirit is not brought forth in Holy Fire.

Theological Concerns

One of the positive elements of Holy Fire stated earlier is Kendall’s concern over serious theological errors within the charismatic movement. However, what is a positive element is also a concern regarding Kendall’s response to open theism and prosperity theology. On the one hand, Kendall rightly notes that each error must be avoided and repudiated. “I have been astonished at the number of leaders who have accepted [open theism]. It is of Satan. It should be rejected categorically.”[57] Every Bible-believing Christian should affirm these statements. Unfortunately, beyond these statements Kendall fails to respond with the soberness such heresy deserves. Apart from decrying the god of open theism, Kendall does not even hint that those who believe this error are in eternal peril. The god of open theism is a false god who cannot save. One cannot be a Christian indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit and believe in open theism. But the reader of Holy Fire can only come away with the impression that while open theism is wrong, those who hold to it are still true believers.

On prosperity theology, Kendall writes, “Arguably the worst development in our generation, however, is the way the prosperity message has taken over.”[58] He rightly describes this teaching saying, “Some television preachers manage to make certain passages of Scripture explain supposedly the real meaning of and reason for God sending His Son into the world to shed His precious blood: your financial blessing and healing. Some actually make prosperity teaching to be the essence of the very gospel of Jesus Christ.”[59] This is accurate, but Kendall again fails to show the seriousness of this error and understand the significance of what he’s written. Those who hold to prosperity teaching preach a false gospel. Kendall acknowledges they make the gospel about health, wealth, and prosperity.

The Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, condemns false gospels in the strongest possible terms, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). Therefore, if Kendall is right that prosperity theology is in its essence a false gospel (though he does not put it in those terms), and if he is right that it has become pervasive to the point of being the “common denominator of these movements today,”[60] then the necessary conclusion of Kendall’s own admissions is that many charismatics are accursed. To say otherwise is to claim that false views of the essence of God (open theism) and the nature of the gospel (prosperity teaching) do not constitute false religion. If they do not, then one wonders what would constitute false religion.

Perhaps what is worse for cessationists is that Kendall places the errors of open theism and the prosperity gospel on par with cessationism. “But cessationism quenches the Holy Spirit as much as the previously mentioned teachings that displease Him. You will not likely convince a cessationist to believe that the living God heals supernaturally today.”[61] While Kendall rightly describes open theism and prosperity theology, he misrepresents and caricatures cessationism in such a way to make cessationists malign the character and work of God. I am not aware of any cessationist—certainly not the most prominent voices such as John MacArthur—who believe what Kendall suggests they believe. If he were right, then perhaps there would be reason to equate it with the other errors. But he is not right.

Ironically, R.T. Kendall and John MacArthur agree that prosperity theology is the dominating tie that binds those in the charismatic movement. There are exceptions, of course, but television preachers—where millions of Christians around the world get their Bible teaching—by and large teach a false gospel. The difference between MacArthur and Kendall on this point is not what they see in the movement, but what they acknowledge that means about the movement.

Pastoral Concerns

In the chapter that follows “Gifts of the Spirit,” Kendall sets out to answer the question, “How can you, the reader, be sure that what I have stated is true?”[62] This is a sobering question for any Bible teacher to ask. Those who teach “will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1) in part because they influence believers in ways that affect their earthly and eternal lives. Therefore, it is incumbent upon any teacher to ensure that they are “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), and that their listeners are encouraged to compare their teaching with Scripture (Acts 17:11). Therefore the question Kendall raises is an important one—especially on the issue of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Kendall acknowledges his own weaknesses in discerning the true work of the Holy Spirit: “I know what it is to be deceived, let down, disillusioned, and betrayed by those I adored and trusted. It is enough to make a person a professional cynic. But I have survived.”[63] Therefore, in this chapter Kendall sets out to help his readers discern the true work of the Spirit. Unfortunately, his answer falls short of the biblical standard. “There are four things that give us a pretty safe tip whether or not we are witnesses the Holy Spirit. They are: fearlessness, power, love, and self-control.”[64] Notice what is missing. In that list, and in the chapter, Kendall makes no mention that one should evaluate charismatic experiences with Scripture.

Addressing how one knows whether manifestations of power are of the Holy Spirit, Kendall writes, “The gift of discernment is needed when it comes to preachers claiming power, for people can be so gullible. I fear this of myself, this being one of the reasons I myself have been deceived at times.”[65] So how does one discern whether claims of power are authentic? According to Kendall, on must have the gift of discernment. He offers no other test.

This is a pastoral concern because if Kendall—a highly educated and experienced pastor-scholar—cannot discern whether miraculous claims are genuine, what hope does the ordinary Christian have, especially when he admits that “it is almost always not what the faith healers claimed”? The result of this teaching is that all to whom the Spirit has not given the gift of discernment are consigned to deception. But according to Scripture, any believer can properly evaluate claims of power by comparing what is taught and practiced by supposed faith healers with Scripture. The Holy Spirit has given us tests to discern spirits (1 John 4:1) as well as tests to discern true and false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20; 1 Corinthians 14:37-38; Galatians 1:8, etc.).

Another pastoral concern relates to how Holy Fire teaches believers to handle Scripture. In addition to the examples of mishandled Scripture given thus far, the last chapter of the book, “Isaac,” offers several examples of ways in which R.T. Kendall misdirects believers in the study and use of their Bible. This chapter is a prophecy of a future outpouring of the Spirit which will exceed any outpouring since Pentecost.

First, Kendall makes use of the account of Ishmael and Isaac to explain that he believes the current charismatic movement is “Ishmael,” and “Isaac” is coming. Isaac “will be a demonstration of what happens when the Word and Spirit come together. . . . It will cross denominational, geographical, cultural, and theological lines. The glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. . . . I believe Muslims will be converted by the millions before it is over.” Ishmael and Isaac are metaphors, but Kendall uses Matthew 25:1-13 to support his prophecy. In his view, the parable is not about the second coming of Christ—as it must be in light of the broader context of Matthew 24-25—but about the next outpouring of the Spirit. “It is my view that the cry in the middle of the night will usher in the next and final great move of God on the earth. It is when the Word and the Spirit come together simultaneously. . . . The entire church will be awakened. But the foolish [members of the church] will not be allowed to enjoy the great move of God.”[66] While this interpretation, which ignores the context of Jesus’ teaching, could be categorized as a biblical concern, it is placed here as a pastoral concern because it is contrary to what Scripture teaches about the future and it establishes a false hope for believers.

A simple rule of interpretation is that one should not establish theology from a parable. Not only does Kendall do just that, but he contradicts what Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12-13, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” This theme is consistent in Paul’s letters and with also Jesus’ own teaching.

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. . . . And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. . . . But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9-14)

Jesus, Paul, and the other authors of Scripture consistently describe the remaining portion of history as going from bad to worse with increasing persecution, false prophets, and deception. Therefore, Kendall’s interpretation of the parable in Matthew 25:1-13 contradicts the otherwise consistent teaching of Scripture.

What is more, this interpretation sets up a false expectation for believers. In the book of Revelation, the expectations established by Jesus and Paul are maintained and described in horrific detail. However, the book is full of encouragement to believers in light of the sovereign purposes of God and the coming reign of Christ who will defeat His enemies. Just prior to the closing benediction, the Apostle John ends his prophetic book with the words, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). However, just prior to his own closing benediction, Kendall ends his prophetic chapter with the words, “Even so, come Holy Spirit.” The Bible teaches believers to be looking for the coming of their King. Kendall redirects that expectation and places it elsewhere.

Is Kendall right that “as Ishmael was the forerunner to Isaac, so this vast movement that has emphasized the person and manifest presence of the Holy Spirit has set the stage for what is coming next”?[67] Perhaps, but maybe not in the way Kendall believes. Ishmael was a product of the flesh—he was the result of Abraham attempting to bring about the promise of God by another woman and apart from God’s will. This is not a connection Kendall makes, but in light of the concerns raised in this review, it would appear that the charismatic movement may have more in common with Ishmael than Kendall indicates.

There is indeed a time when the Spirit will be at work in greater ways than ever before—“when the glory of the Lord will cover the earth”—but it will occur after the Lord Jesus returns in His glory and reigns on the earth, first for a thousand years, and then for all eternity in the new heavens and the new earth.

A final pastoral concern relates back to Kendall’s response to the false teaching prevalent in the charismatic movement. Throughout the book, Kendall intentionally avoids naming anyone whom he believes to be in error. If one wanted to know which charismatic leaders have fallen into open theism or prosperity theology, Kendall doesn’t point them out. This is a pastoral concern because the nature of theological error is that it is often subtle and mixed with truth. It is not enough to simply name false doctrine—church leaders must obey Scripture and call out false teachers (Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 3:1-9). At a time when television and the Internet allow false teachers to enter into homes unfiltered, leaders are responsible to protect the flock from wolves by pointing them out.

But not only does Kendall not name those who promote the errors, the false god, and the false gospels he discusses, a number of them either endorse Holy Fire, or are spoken of positively in the book. Oral Roberts, one of the fathers of the prosperity gospel, is affirmed by Kendall as a genuine healer. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, who endorses the book, promotes necromantic practices and teaches a variety of theological heresies including some which relate to the person of Jesus and the nature of God. John Hagee, a prominent prosperity teacher, also endorses the book. When the perpetrators of the very errors Kendall decries promote his book, it is difficult to know how his readers will be able to distinguish between truth and error.

Conclusion

“How is solid teaching to be maintained? First, leaders must teach the truth as found only in Scripture.”[68] One can only wish that Kendall adhered to his own principle. As this critique has shown, R.T. Kendall misrepresents cessationism, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and the Spirit-inspired biblical teaching on the miraculous gifts. Given the high praise for Holy Fire by a wide spectrum of charismatic leaders, one ought to be concerned about the productivity—or lack thereof—of interaction between cessationists and charismatics over the text of Scripture. One should also be concerned for how Holy Fire will influence believers who lack the knowledge and biblical grounding necessary to evaluate Kendall’s teaching with the historical record and Scripture. Thus, unlike what the book’s subtitle suggests, it is an unbalanced, unbiblical look at experiences which claim to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, but which cannot be validated by Scripture. As a preemptive response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, rather than addressing his concerns, Holy Fire exemplifies them.



 

Bibliography

Kendall, R.T. Holy Fire: A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our
Lives
. Lake Mary, Florida: Charisma House, 2014.

———. Interview by Michael J. Brown, The Line of Fire, January 21, 2014.

Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. Great Doctrines of the Bible, Volume 2: God the Holy Spirit. Wheaton,
IL: Crossway Books, 1997

MacArthur, John. Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit
Worship
. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013.

Murray, Iain. “A review of R. T. Kendall, In Pursuit of His Glory: My 25 Years at
Westminster Chapel.” The Banner of Truth, no. 486 (March 2004): 25-32.

———. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981. Carlisle, PA:
The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990.

 

 


[1]
John MacArthur. Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013.

[2]
Perhaps the most vocal critic was Dr. Michael Brown.

[3]
R.T. Kendall, interview by Michael J. Brown, The Line of Fire, January 21, 2014.

[4]
R.T. Kendall, Holy Fire: A Balance, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our Lives. Lake Mary, FL, Charisma House, 2014.

[5]
Kendall., xxi.

[6]
Kendall devotes an entire chapter to his personal testimony wherein he describes his tenure at Westminster Chapel. Due to the personal nature of that chapter, it will not be reviewed in detail, but only as its content relates to broader concerns addressed in this review.

[7]
Kendall offers no distinction on how the promises Jesus gave to the disciples in John 14-16 apply to believers today as opposed to those first disciples who were to write Scripture and preach to people who had no New Testament.

[8]
Ibid., 112.

[9]
Ibid., 160.

[10]
Ibid., 150.

[11]
Ibid., 64-78.

[12]
Ibid., 65

[13]
Ibid., 113.

[14]
Ibid.

[15]
For exegetical reasons for concluding that the gift of tongues in the New Testament cannot be related to modern tongues, see Strange Fire pages 140-154. Unlike what Kendall suggests repeatedly in Holy Fire, it is not a “stigma” that prevents cessationists from believing in tongues—it is Scripture.

[16]
Kendall, 109.

[17]
MacArthur affirms the biblical admonition to pray for the sick that they might be healed (Strange Fire, 176). Cessationists distinguish between God responding to the prayers of His people and the supernatural gift of healing given to some in the New Testament period.

[18]
Kendall, 107-108.

[19]
Ibid., 113.

[20]
Ibid., 114, 116.

[21]
Ibid., 115.

[22]
This supposed work of the Spirit is not only absent from Scripture, it contradicts even Kendall’s own biblical explanation of the Spirit’s work in the lives of believers in chapter two. Further, Scripture describes blindness to truth as the work of Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). Therefore, I conclude that Kendall’s position is not merely extra-biblical, but anti-biblical.

[23]
Ibid., xxxii.

[24]
Ibid., 45.

[25]
Ibid., 42-43.

[26]
Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Great Doctrines of the Bible, Volume II: God the Holy Spirit. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997.

[27]
It is important to note that the majority of Kendall’s references to Lloyd-Jones are based on personal, one-on-one conversations which occurred thirty years prior. Only on rare occasions does Kendall quote a published (i.e. objective and verifiable) source.

[28]
Kendall, 131.

[29]
Lloyd-Jones, 243.

[30]
Kendall, 45, 47.

[31]
One exception is when Lloyd-Jones notes that the logic he uses to argue that the baptism can be subsequent to regeneration also carries for sealing. I also realize that in other teaching contexts Lloyd-Jones may have addressed the two subjects in closer proximity. But in these published lectures the two do not meet or intertwine.

[32]
Ibid., 35-40.

[33]
Lloyd-Jones, 95.

[34]
Ibid., 272.

[35]
Indeed, he writes, “The best scholars among Pentecostals and charismatics differ on this, and I see no need to make an issue of it” (30). This will be addressed under the heading Biblical Concerns.

[36]
Ibid., 273-274.

[37]
Iain H. Murray. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990. See pages 721-726.

[38]
Murray, 725.

[39]
Ibid., 724.

[40]
Every time Kendall invokes ML-J it is affirming the point which Kendall is discussing. For further details on Kendall’s representation of ML-J, see In Pursuit of His Glory: My 25 years at Westminster Chapel.

[41]
Iain Murray. “A review of R. T. Kendall, In Pursuit of His Glory: My 25 Years at Westminster Chapel.” The Banner of Truth, no. 486 (March 2004). 25-32.

[42]
Quote taken from the endorsement by Dr. Clive Calver.

[43]
Kendall, 46.

[44]
Ibid., 41.

[45]
The first six truths in the chapter “What Every Christian Should Know About the Holy Spirit” are the longest sustained representation of accurate application of hermeneutics and exegesis. See pages 16-19.

[46]
Ibid., 30.

[47]
Ibid., 151.

[48]
Ibid., 140-145.

[49]
Ibid., 151.

[50]
Ibid., 77.

[51]
Ibid., 91.

[52]
Ibid., 48.

[53]
Ibid., 49.

[54]
Ibid., 50.

[55]
Ibid., 51.

[56]
Ibid., 159.

[57]
Ibid., 75.

[58]
Ibid., 64.

[59]
Ibid., 65-66.

[60]
Ibid., 65.

[61]
Ibid., 7.

[62]
Ibid., 153.

[63]
Ibid.

[64]
Ibid., 154.

[65]
Ibid., 160.

[66]
Ibid., 175.

[67]
Ibid., 172.

[68]
Ibid., 72.

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Christ The Builder

Note: The following is a transcript of the message I preached on November 17, 2013 at the last service of Sudden Valley Community Church. 

Consider these statistics: According to a Barna Study, 3500-4000 churches in America close every year. If we take the low number, that’s 70 churches per state, five churches per state per month.

There are all kinds of reasons churches close—from the good to the tragic and everything in between. Suffice it to say that what we are doing today is not unique in 2,000 years of church history.

In fact, you recall that in the book of Revelation Jesus dictated letters to seven churches. These were undoubtedly large and influential churches. All seven of them ceased to exist many centuries ago. Even in America with over 200 years of history, it is extremely rare to find a church more than 100 years old. You can find them, but they are very few and very far between.

Every month all around the world small groups of people come together to start a new local church. And every month small groups of people come together for the last time to close a local church.

Just like losing a loved one—either at four years old or a hundred years old—no one wants to see a local church die. If you would have asked me six months ago, I would have told you that I never want to be part of a church closing. If you were to ask me now, I still don’t want to be part of a church closing; but there are times when you must do things you simply don’t want to do.

Closing a church—no matter what the circumstances—is tragic because there are relationships that will never be what they once were or could be. There are joys that will never be experienced and sorrows that will not be shared. Someone said to me recently, “There is nothing to celebrate in the disbanding of a Body of Christ.” And I essentially agree. There may be things to celebrate regarding that Body of Christ, but the actual disbanding is not one of them.

But there’s something else that makes all this so difficult. And that is that whenever a church closes, it appears as though the gospel has failed. It appears as though the Kingdom of God has suffered a defeat. It appears as though the universal Body of Christ has lost an essential member.

What I want to do is assure you, from the lips of Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, that though it may appear that way, that is emphatically not the case. So if you would, follow along as I read Matthew 16:13-23, and then we’ll focus our thoughts on verse 18.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”

Whenever we come to a familiar text like this, it is easy to ignore the context and just get what we want out of it. But it is the very context that makes it that much more applicable to us today. You see Jesus and His disciples were in Caesarea Philippi. That is the furthest Northeast region of Israel. They’d been spending the last few months in the northern region of Israel covering the cities around the Sea of Galilee, going all the way West to Tyre, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and back again.

Caesarea Philippi was so near the border that it was heavily populated with Gentiles. This extensive traveling meant a lot of personal instruction from Jesus to the disciples, but very little public ministry. In fact it is likely that the disciples were somewhat confused by all this.

They knew Jesus was more than a prophet. They knew He was not John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah. They knew—as Peter himself confessed—that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of living God. They were not confused on that issue. The reason for their confusion was that Jesus—as the Messiah—was not conducting Himself or His ministry in the way they expected.

The Jews assumed the Messiah would come and conquer and usher in a new and glorious kingdom for Israel. And the disciples had the exact same expectation. With that expectation, it must have seemed like Jesus was wasting precious time and energy in these scarcely populated northern regions when He should be taking advantage of the groundswell of support in Jerusalem and other highly populated areas.

The disciples no doubt had their ideas of how the Messiah should accomplish His mission, and Jesus was not measuring up. So Jesus has to confront them head on. In doing so Jesus didn’t beat them over the head, but instead gave them hope by promising success.

I just want direct your attention to two simple statements of Jesus that give us hope for today. As sad and difficult as this day is, it is not a hopeless day. And here why:

I Will Build My Church

First, Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Such a simple statement, but O how vast are its implications. It is not we who build His church. Christ is the Builder. The success of the church is not dependent on us and our abilities and our finances and our faithfulness. No, the success of the church is dependent solely on the faithfulness and power of Jesus Christ.

The word “church” here is the first of two times it is used in all the Gospels. Jesus uses it in the way the disciples would have understood it at the time, namely, to refer to an assembly of people; it refers to those who come together for a purpose. Here, it is not people who come together on their own. Rather, Jesus says it is, “my church.” That possessive pronoun is emphatic in the Greek.

This assembly is a group that Jesus brings together. They come together under His banner, in His name, for His mission, under His authority.

In saying that Jesus will build His church Jesus is indicating that the church is something more than a casual gathering. He is saying that He will put together an unstoppable and eternal movement. This movement will not be centered around an idea but a person. It will not grow through human ingenuity but divine enablement. It will not succumb to the natural forces of this world but will outlast every institution made by man and overcome every enemy.

The Gates of Hades Shall Not Prevail Against It

In addition to saying, “I will build my church,” notice that Jesus went on to say, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Hades is the better translation there, not hell. Hades is the grave, the place of the dead. It is not hell as opposed to heaven, but the place of the dead as opposed to earth, the place of the living.

As such, Hades is not a reference to Satan and his demons. So Jesus is not saying that hell as represented by the Devil and his demons will fail in their attacks against the church. Instead He is saying that death itself shall not prevail. Consider also that Jesus uses the phrase, “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”

Gates are not exactly an offensive weapon. No one’s confidence is bolstered when carrying a large iron gate into battle. Gates have one purpose—to regulate entering and leaving. In the case of the gates of hades, they serve the twofold purpose of allowing people into death, and preventing anyone from leaving death.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that death is the last enemy. It is, in that sense, the ultimate enemy. The strength of any enemy is measured by how much it is able to wield the power of death. Though spiders vary in size and ugliness, it is their deadly venom that determines whether you should be afraid of them. Felines vary in size, but the lion’s ability to kill is the reason we call it the king of the jungle.

The reason we no longer have Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites on the planet is not because they fell into financial disarray or moral scandal, but because they all died. The reason Assyria and Babylon and Rome no longer exist is because the power of the sword was inflicted on them.

Organizations often end when their founder dies and no one is passionate enough to keep them going. Family businesses close when the owner dies and there is no one to take over. Ethnic groups, nations, organizations, and businesses all succumb to the power of death. The gates of hades ensure that those who die cannot return to preserve their interests.

Not so with the church. Jesus promised, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The Jewish leaders understood that if you kill the shepherd, the sheep scatter; so they crucified Jesus. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.

When the followers of Jesus began to multiply out of control, the hatred of the Jews reached the boiling point and they stoned Stephen to death. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.

Herod pleased the Jews by beheading James, the leader of the Jerusalem church. But the gates of hades did not prevail against the church.

Nero thought he could sanction widespread persecution and encourage the killing of Christians. But the gates of hades did not prevail against the church.

All over the world local churches were closing because their members were imprisoned or put to death. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.

The day came when the renowned church of Ephesus—started by Paul and led for many years by Timothy and the Apostle John—closed its doors. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.

My friends, in the last 2,000 years, hundreds of thousands of churches have closed their doors. But the gates of Hades has never and will never prevail against the church.

Do not be deceived. The closing of Sudden Valley Community Church is sad and difficult because of what is does mean for each of us in many different respects. But it is not as though the Word of God has failed. The church marches on.

Today we leave from here and tomorrow we join another church. We continue to worship and serve and edify and encourage and teach and learn and make disciples. The task of the church is not done and cannot be stopped until our Bridegroom comes to take us home. Until then, Jesus will continue building His church, and the gates of Hades will continue to sit in its corner defeated and powerless.

So my friends, be encouraged. Sudden Valley Community Church was an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands. As we’ll hear from your own lips in a few minutes, the Lord has used this local church to build His church. And as we, His church, move out from here, He will continue to use us as we join ourselves to other local churches.

This is not a time to take off our armor and sit and sulk. This is a time to stand. So stand with me as we call one another to rise up and put our armor on to serve the King of kings.

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Church Life, Uncategorized

The Biggest Mistake I’ve Ever Made

You know you’ve made them. We’ve all made them.

Bad decisions.

Some decisions are bad by virtue of their nature (e.g. deciding to sin); others prove to be bad by virtue of their consequences. The biggest mistake I ever made falls into this second category.

There was a point in my life where as the spiritual head of the home I needed to decide which church our family would join. A number of options lay before us, and we visited most of them. There was one option I intentionally wrote off the list because it didn’t meet my music preferences and the people there were… well… stuck in the past. In the end we chose a church based on its friendly atmosphere, music style, and because I felt one of the leaders would be a good mentor. The preaching was not on the “pro” side of the list.

That was a huge mistake.

Now don’t get me wrong. We loved the people we got to know. I enjoyed the music. I had great ministry opportunities. The leader mentored and encouraged me and taught me valuable lessons.

But I didn’t realize that in the midst of it all we were not growing in healthy ways. Of course, we didn’t realize it at the time. We felt good about our spiritual maturity. At least I did.

And then it happened. We moved and joined another church that has a long history of good, solid, faithful expository preaching. Some might even say this church was stuck in the past in almost every way.

We felt the difference almost immediately. It’s hard to describe, but it felt like we were shriveled plants transplanted among thriving plants, and for the first time we realized how backwards our thinking really was.

As time passed I realized that I had sacrificed our spiritual health on the altar of my preferences. As the spiritual leader, I was responsible for that.

As Voddie Baucham would say, “if you can’t say ‘amen’, you oughta say ‘ouch’.”

I’m Not Alone

It’s been many years since then (can a 32-year old say that?), and I’ve realized this is one of the most common and yet serious mistakes Christians make. We frequently make significant decisions in life with no or very little regard for how it will affect us spiritually.

Moving for a great job opportunity or to move closer to family are just two situations in which Christians rarely ask, “Where will we go to church?” It’s an afterthought. You often hear them say months down the road, “Well, we still haven’t found a church we like yet.”

It doesn’t sound serious, but it is.

When God redeems a person, He immediately places them in the body of Christ. That is to say, He puts them in an organic relationship whereby they need other believers to sustain and grow their spiritual lives. More than that, the body needs them to be healthy (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). As children of God, we join a family where our relationship to our Father is dramatically and intimately affected by our relationship to our brothers and sisters. That may not be the case in our physical family, but it is in our spiritual family.

I have never come across a spiritually healthy and mature believer who was disconnected from the local church. Never.

You may think you’re an exception to the rule, but go back to my diseased plant illustration. When you’re on your own, you don’t know how sick you are because you don’ t know what true health looks like. Lone Christians have a self-created definition of spiritual health. It certainly doesn’t come from the Bible.

But let’s say you’re not a lone Christian. Let’s say you’re involved in a church, serving, giving, fellowshipping, and even learning. The tragedy is there are many sickly churches out there full of sickly Christians. Oh, they don’t look sickly. There’s a lot of activity, events, excitement, loud music, and relationship building. But they are sickly because they lack the only sustaining and nutrient-rich resource available–a consistent diet of God’s Word carefully exposited and laid to bear on the people.

There are two simple questions you can ask to determine if the preaching you’re exposed to is nutrient-rich:

  1. Does the sermon outline and major points rise out of the text, or does the sermon fall back on the text for supporting its point?
  2. Did the sermon take me back to the text’s biblical, historical, and redemptive context for understanding, and bring me forward for its significance? Or was the text quoted simply to support the point of the sermon?

Those two questions will help discern whether you’re being fed the living and active Word, or someone’s current topical interests.

Conclusion

What’s the point? Your spiritual health matters. Spiritual health is not determined by involvement, excitement, or relationships. It really comes down to the spiritual food you receive. A church can say whatever they want regarding their view of Scripture. No church ever says they have a low view of God’s Word. But you will be able to determine their view of Scripture by their teaching, their leadership structure, their philosophy of ministry, and more.

Don’t make the mistake of choosing a church based on superficial factors. Don’t make the mistake of going where there is excitement and activity and heart-warming sermons, but not in-depth teaching that raises you to higher levels of worship.

Choose carefully. Choose wisely. Don’t make the mistake I made.

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Personal Life, Uncategorized

Sin is Not A Choice

It’s the words Christians fear.

I didn’t choose this, I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember.

We fear hearing those words because we don’t know how to respond. If someone did not choose their behavior, their emotions, or their way of thinking, it must be natural. And if it’s natural, how can it be sinful, since God clearly made them that way? If its natural, how can you tell them to repent of something they didn’t choose?

The natural flavor of our compulsions, inclinations, and preferences make it very difficult for Christians to argue that sin is a choice. That’s why many professing Christians are following the lead of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The APA  removed homosexuality as a mental disorder from the DSM in 1986, and now many Christians tell us that despite millenia of biblical clarity on the issue, homosexuality is not a sin but rather something to be celebrated as a natural expression of God’s creation. In other words, if God made a person that way, it can’t be wrong since everything God makes is perfect.

There’s a number of problems with that line of thinking, but let’s focus on the issue of whether certain sins can be a choice when they feel so natural.

Sin is Natural

Christians engaged in culture wars too quickly forget that sin is a natural expression of the unregenerate human condition. Certain ministries and many individuals act and talk as though there’s something unnatural about sinners wanting to affirm and celebrate sin. It’s as though traditional values and established laws are a powerful restraint to the human heart. It’s time for a reality check.

Sin is natural. You never ask a toddler when he decided that throwing himself on the floor was a productive method of getting his way. He never decided that, it just came naturally. You never ask a child when they decided lying was valid solution to getting out of trouble. They don’t decide that, it just comes naturally. Parenting is the art of instilling unnatural behavior and thinking in children, and hoping they become natural over time.

After 32 years of life, 10 years of marriage, nine years of parenting, and five years of counseling others, I’m convinced good behavior and thinking rarely become completely natural. And when they do, it’s only by God’s grace and the regenerating work of His Spirit.

So sin feels natural because it is natural.

Sin Is Not A Choice

But to say sin is natural is not to say sin happens apart from our volitional faculties. Our will is intricately involved in our sinfulness. In fact, every sin passes the checkpoint of our will before it moves out to our actions.

People tend to think of the will as a fork in the road where they can and must choose to take one path or another. That is a helpful analogy for a particular decision, but not for how the will works. The will is more like a train going down the track. There are very few meaningful decisions in life that require us to stop, get off the train and change the switch to head in another direction. We generally just tend to go along a certain path without too much thought. [1]

For example, when a woman says “yes” to a marriage proposal, it is rarely a calculated decision where she stopped and considered the alternative. Generally speaking her decision is already made by virtue of the track her desires are on. She did indeed choose to say yes, but her choice was natural based on her will.

Or think of the love a father feels for his new-born child when he holds him for the first time. That love is not a calculated decision, but rather compelled by the track his will has been on for months.

What about the tragic situation where a mother abandons her baby? Her will has been on a certain track which took her in natural direction away from what we typically think are natural mothering instincts.

Another way to say all this is that sin (or any particular decision) is not a choice, but rather a series of choices, and in some cases a lifetime of choices. That is, the choice to sin is not made in a vacuum.

In order to arrive at the decision to think or behave a certain way, there are countless questions that have either been answered, or still need to be. For example:

  1. Who rules the Universe?
  2. To whom am I accountable?
  3. What is the standard of law and morality?
  4. What brings me joy?
  5. What is most important in life?
  6. What is the reward for reigning in my desires?
  7. If I don’t look out for my happiness, then who will?

These are the kinds of questions and decisions that under-gird every sin. But that’s just the starting point.

No homeless alcoholic would tell you he woke up one day and decided to give up his high-paying job and loving family to become an alcoholic. But now, sleeping on a park bench and craving the taste of beer is as natural to them as breathing.

No spouse who commits adultery wakes up one day and decides to ruin their wonderful marriage and hurt their children.  But now, leaving their spouse and children for “the man or woman of their dreams” is completely natural.

How does someone get from A to Z? How does something so unnatural become natural?

Just Say Yes

It is so easy, you might even say it’s natural. All you have to do is start saying “yes” to your sinful desires. Say “yes” and allow those fantasies to continue. Say “yes” to the lies that you deserve better than what you have. Say “yes” to your feelings. The more you say “yes” to, the more natural sinful thinking and behavior will become.

Before you know it, you might be saying, “I don’t remember choosing to ruin my family and pursue another lifestyle” or “I don’t remember choosing to be bankrupt and losing everything” or “I don’t remember choosing to be addicted to this substance.”

The reality is you didn’t say “yes” to one big thing, you said “yes” to a million little things.

Had you been faced with today’s decision years ago, saying “yes” would have been unnatural and even abhorrent. But now, how can you deny yourself of what is so natural?

Redirection

So how can a person change?

There are those moments when God lifts the train of a person’s will off the track and places them on a new track such that they no longer have the desires of the past. But that is rare.

More often, change happens over a long period of time as a person learns to say “no” to what has become their natural instincts and say “yes” to God and His standard of righteousness. This may require stopping at every switch, getting off the train, pulling the lever, and getting back on. In other words, it’s a lot work. It’s deliberate work. It feels unnatural. But the more we follow the light of His path, the more joy and freedom we begin to feel.

Of course, it all begins with the decision to lay down your life and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

So next time you hear those dreaded words, “I didn’t choose to be this way,” don’t respond, “yes you did!” Instead, have a conversation about other choices they’ve made, perhaps starting with who they’ve decided Jesus is.

Join the Conversation

Have you experienced this in your own life? Have you been tempted by something you never thought would be a temptation? Is this even a valid way to think about these things?

 

[1] This reality has massive implications for the whole “free will” debate. But that’s another post.

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Uncategorized

Are You Spreading a Demonic Faith?

Free grace.

There is no such thing as “free”. Someone, somewhere paid for it.

Free grace is a phrase used by those who want to emphasize that the penalty for our sin was paid in full by Christ on the cross. Free grace denies that we, by our good works, can earn grace from God. That is a truth taught by Scripture and agreed upon by every Protestant since the Reformation, and every gospel preacher before the Reformation.

The problem lies in that champions of free grace go further to say that good works—anything that pleases God—are irrelevant to saving faith. In other words, say a mob boss professes faith in Christ, but continues in unreservedly in his mob bossing. According to some, his behavior should not trigger any doubts as to his salvation—because grace is free; it requires nothing but faith in Christ. That may be an extreme example, but it makes the point.

Grace is free, some say, because not only can you not earn it by your good works, but neither does it require anything from you. To say otherwise, according to this view, is to establish a works-based salvation.

Here is the problem with that: What Jesus said.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. . . So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-33).

No one would argue that grace is “free” in that it cost Jesus everything to give it to us, and it costs us nothing to earn it. Where Jesus would take issue is grace places certain demands on us. We cannot earn it, but the payment Jesus made did more than set us free from sin. Jesus did not die to free us from the master of sin only to become our own master. No, He freed us from sin so that He would be our Master. Grace not only free us, it purchases us to be His own possession. As such, as Jesus said above, everything we own, including our relationships is secondary to Him.

But that’s not all. Jesus goes a step further.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24).

Not only must we be willing to sacrifice our most valued relationships and all our possessions, but our very lives as well.

That explains why demons aren’t rescued from hell and forgiven. You see, if grace was free on the basis of faith, every demon would be a Christian. Demons have more accurate theology than the most astute theologian (James 2:19). They believe the gospel. They really do. And yet they’re not saved. Why?

Because though they know that Jesus is Savior, they refuse to repent.

What separates the faith of a demon and the faith of a Christian is that demons do not submit to Christ as Lord. They refuse to change the course of their lives and follow Him. They love their brother, Lucifer, more than Christ. They refuse to renounce their dark ways and walk in the light. They have all the right theology, but they are rebels, not slaves of Christ.

Grace is not free, and it certainly isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus everything—including His life. And to receive it, it costs us everything—including our lives.

No one can disparage the desire to see as many people come to faith as possible. But many have maximum numbers of converts as their goal rather than disciples. If you read the Gospels, it is vividly clear that Jesus was not at all interested in crowds. He wasn’t looking for votes in a political campaign against Rome, or soldiers for an army, or trying to reach Facebook’s maximum friend count. No, He was looking for disciples who would give up everything—even their own lives—to follow Him.

We are living in a time when churches have three options. First, they can deny the faith and be friends with the world. Second, they can seek friendship with the world by altering everything about their faith the world doesn’t like, and thus become enemies of God. Third, they can forsake the world, the flesh, and the devil, be subject to mockery, isolation, persecution, or even death, but be friends with God who gives eternal life.

As time passes you will begin to see your family, friends, and leaders make one of those three options. The question is, which will you choose?

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Uncategorized

Jesus Did Not Have a Wife, But He Will

With all the hype over the fragment dubbed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, there’s been a rash of articles discounting the idea that Jesus had a wife. What’s surprising is the silence regarding Jesus’ future wife.

In case this is the first time you’ve come across this, Michael Kruger has an excellent article on the historical aspect of this fragment. In this article, though, I want to remind you of what you likely already know—Jesus is engaged to be married.

There are some who say Jesus could not have had a wife because it would have been irresponsible. For the last three years of his life Jesus was “married to the ministry.” If he was married to a person as well, he would have set a poor example to married pastors. Others would say there is not a shred of evidence in the Bible that Jesus had a wife. So for some tiny fragment 400 years later to imply otherwise is less than convincing.

Those positions are true as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.

Let us not forget that Jesus is engaged to be married. The Church is the bride of Christ.

The example Jesus set for husbands was not in how he treated a wife on earth, but how he lived and died for the Church (Ephesians 5:25).

The day will come when the glorified saints will appear in the wedding hall wearing the most spectacular wedding garments imaginable—fine linen, bright and pure (Rev 19:7-8). Marriage on earth is a picture—a shadow really—of something far more profound. That profundity will be fully comprehended and enjoyed when we arrive at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

When we ask, why did Jesus come? There are a number of biblical answers we could offer: to testify to the truth, to redeem mankind, to reveal the Father, and much more. But this answer is also true—to secure a wife.

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Uncategorized

The Roots of Listening

Part 1: Listening Well

Part 2: Preaching is Not a Monologue

No one denies that trees have roots, but neither do most of us think about the roots when we see trees. As Christians there are a lot of obvious things we should do—read the Bible, pray, go to church, and avoid sleeping during the sermon. But as obvious as those things are to most Christians, it’s not always obvious why we should do those things.

Before we get too far along in learning how to listen to sermons (the tree currently under inspection), we must understand the roots so that once the tree is set in place it will stand firm. We’re going to answer the question why listen closely to sermons… even the least interesting ones?

In Expository Listening, Ken Ramey provides four theological truths that must support healthy listening habits. Let’s briefly unpack these:

1. God has spoken and commands us to listen to and obey what He has said

When you read the Bible and it refers to God speaking, He doesn’t shout into the dark hoping someone perks up. Instead, He opens a direct channel of communication to individuals and groups of people. The writer of Hebrews opens up his letter, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son…” (Hebrews 1:1-2a).

Just as through Moses God commanded, “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 5:1; 6:3, 4; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9), God commands us to listen to His Son (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Over and over in Proverbs the command is repeated “Listen!” (5:7; 7:24; 8:32; 19:20; 23:33), “Hear!” (1:8; 4:1, 10; 8:6, 33; 22:17; 23:19). It is only through hearing that people can be saved (Romans 10:14). The commands to hear and listen to God abound from Genesis to Revelation. God demands to be heard.

But God wants more than simply to be heard. He demands to be obeyed. James writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Why is it important? Because, Paul writes, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13). As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Doing the Father’s will means first of all to confess Jesus as Lord and repent for salvation (John 6:29). It is only after a person has been saved by grace through faith that obedience to God in all areas of life has any meaning. For all the negative press “good works” get in the question of how a person gets saved, good works are critical in the life of those who’ve been born again. Paul’s letter to Titus highlights this: church leaders should provide the example of good works (2:7) because that is the end of redemption (2:14), and so we all ought to be devoted to good works (3:8; 3:14).

This is but skimming the surface, but suffice it to say that when God speaks, He demands to be heard and obeyed.

2. We all fail to listen to and obey God and deserve to be punished by Him

This has been true from the moment Eve was deceived and Adam went along with disobedience to God. Spiritual death, the immediate result of their sin, impairs all their descendants. Apart from grace we are all hostile to God’s voice and certainly hostile to His ways (Romans 8:7). Failure to hear is both the result of hostility and nature. We are like a deaf man who refuses to learn sign language.

Israel is judged, among other things, for not inclining their ear (Jeremiah 7:24, 26; 11:8; 17:23; 35:15; 44:5). They had God’s Word. They were God’s chosen people who received special revelation. But instead of listening and obeying, they were like a teenager who refuses to take off their headphones. What was true of Israel is true of all those who have not received grace.

But the reality is even Christians have a hard time hearing. Of the Hebrews it is written, “Concerning Him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have becomedull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11). Paul wrote that in the latter days “people will not endure sound teaching… and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

The penalty for not hearing and obeying is clear. To Adam and Eve God promised death (Genesis 2:17), and that sentence is the same for us all (Romans 5:12).

So what is the solution?

3. God grants us the ability to listen to and obey Him by His Holy Spirit, whom we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.

Notice, first of all, that the solution does not rest on you. The path to life is not yours to pave. The bricks have already been laid by Jesus Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. Your responsibility is merely to walk on the path, empowered by God’s grace.

Only those empowered by the Holy Spirit can truly hear, understand, and obey God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:10-14). Only those who are spiritual—that is, born of the Spirit (John 3:1-8)—have received a new nature which longs to hear from God just as a baby desires its mother’s bosom. Ken Ramey writes, “The moment we are born again, it’s as if we are given a new set of hearing aids or a new pair of glasses that enable us to hear and see in God’s Word what we couldn’t before.”

So if a new nature is required to listen and obey, how does someone get that nature? There is a bit of a theological Catch-22 here. According to the point #3, it states that we receive the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. So you must believe in Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit. But it’s not that simple. No baby is born by virtue of its own will.

The apostle John captures this Catch-22 in John 1:12-13, “But to all who did receive Him,who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Though some see this as a tangled web, almost a “which came first” situation, a confusing theological mess, it’s actually quite simple.

What makes it simple is the word picture John uses. He uses of the analogy of physical birth. As already stated, no baby exists by virtue of its own decision. Instead, every baby owes his or her existence to their parents. And once a baby is born, every baby gasps for air and soon grasps for milk in their fight to live. The natural response to being given life is to seek it. In the same way, the natural response to being given spiritual life is to receive Him and believe in His name.

Since all people are utterly dependent on God for the ability to listen and obey, we must all cry out to Him for His help.

4. God promises to bless us both now and for all eternity if we listen to and obey Him.

This could not be stated any clearer than Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one who readsaloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Read, hear, keep, and you will be blessed.

Proverbs is full of reminders that those who “listen to me shall live securely and will be at ease from the dread of evil” (1:33). When a women wanted to bless Mary (Jesus’ mother) by virtue of her relationship to Jesus, Jesus responds, “Blessed rather are those who hearthe word of God and keep it!” Elsewhere Jesus rejected the priority of his blood relationships in favor of water relationships (baptism) saying that it is those who “do the will of God” who are his brother and sister and mother (Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35).

In other words, while some place heavy emphasis on the Christian’s relationship with Jesus, Jesus places the emphasis on the Christian’s obedience. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). The fact that we are Jesus’ fellow heirs (Romans 8:17) and His friends (John 15:14), does not change the fact that we are fundamentally His slaves—otherwise “Lord” would be a wholly inappropriate title.

But we are slaves of the loving, gracious, kind, generous, benevolent God of the Universe. Though from our perspective we can only say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10), when we obey, God’s response will be, “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23).

Conclusion

When God speaks, He demands to be heard and obeyed. But He is not like a despot who whips his slaves forcing them to listen out of fear. Rather, He is a loving King who gives life to His slaves enabling them to hear—even giving them the desire to hear and obey—and then He rewards them for doing so.

We have been saved from the eternal wrath of God. We have been brought into the kingdom of His beloved Son who gave His life for ours. And our loving Father is eager to teach, instruct, warn, and help us live a life that is not only pleasing to Him, but results in blessing for us. The more He speaks the more He reveals His marvelous character to us which only makes us want to draw nearer and listen more closely.

But listening and obeying is not easy. Even the most loving father’s words can be drowned out by the television in the corner. But regardless of the winds of distraction in this world, here are four deep roots that will help you stand firm in listening to your Father’s voice.

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