Monday, 1 October 2012

The Battle of Wills

I bumped into my friend Howard in the tearoom.  He’s a 110% enthusiastic evangelist - likely to press the gospel on all he meets (including unsuspecting customers, I believe).  A lovely brother.  I forget exactly how our brief work break conversation went, but his final comment was, “Ah well, the Lord’s in control”.  I couldn’t contain my surprise.  “So, you’re a Calvinist?”  Wrong thing to ask.  He had no notion what I meant.  Not knowing if he’d been insulted, but suspecting, he visibly deflated.  “What’s a Calvinist”?” he shot across at Dave, who was leaning on a cleaning mop in the doorway.  I made my escape.  If a man can be so fired up for souls as Howard, and have sidestepped this theological divide for so long, he deserves to remain in innocence.  However, some of us have lost that virtue.

I remember the moment my good friend Stan whispered furtively to me after our Methodist Young Peoples’ Class, “Stevie believes in predestination”.  A conspiracy was brewing in the Arminian stronghold.  Stevie was our Class co-leader.  Like some dirty postcard seller, he’d even shown Stan a selection of New Testament texts.  “It’s in the bible”, Stan gravely confessed.  

Our Church letterhead boasts “Reformed”; it’s a nod in the direction of our Baptist Trust Deed.  Mainly, our fragrance of Christ is, like Paul’s, for all.  You’ll find few tulips in the garden.  Here’s a thought-provoking assessment from Beyond the Cosmos by Hugh Ross.

‘Individuals and churches highlighting the free-will side of the issue tend to emphasise what they may refer to “holy living” or “separation from evil”.  Those on the other side of the issue may term such a perspective “legalism” or “living by rules”.  Individuals and churches highlighting God’s sovereign choice tend to emphasise what they might call “freedom in Christ” or “grace living”.  Those on the other side of the issue may term this approach “licence” or “loose living”.  Sadly, we tend to divide ourselves among congregations, rarely willing to meet for dialogue.’

Hugh then lists some attitudes and perspectives that he, assisted by friends – believers from different backgrounds - has compiled, which reflect overemphasis to one side or the other.  

Symptoms of Over-emphasis on Free Will
Typically, when a person or fellowship emphasises the role of human will more than God’s will in the spiritual birth and growth process, the results include:
(a) working to please God or justify ourselves before Him by being good and doing good;
(b) viewing sin as so dangerously and powerfully enticing as to need policing by rigid, external, man-made restraints.

Specific ways these distortions manifest themselves include the follow, among others:
1. Life seems increasingly exhausting and draining rather than joyous and fulfilling.
3. Fear nags – fear that one has not done enough good things, or fear that one has done too many bad things, or both.
4. Doubt nags – especially doubt whether one is really saved, or will stayed saved.
5. Supernatural gifts of the Spirit seem more important than the fruit of the Spirit because they appear to attest more dramatically to the Spirit’s indwelling presence and to God’s approval.
6. Conformity to certain behaviour patterns, non-essential scriptural interpretations, or rules of conduct and spiritual expression become important validations of salvation.
7. Teaching focuses more on God’s standards and justice than His mercy.  Assurance of salvation seems a dangerous door to temptation.
8. The distinction between justification and sanctification appears blurred.
9. Emotional expression, whether the glum extreme or the happy extreme, is taken as a sign of spirituality.
10. Prayers implore instant deliverance from immorality, addictions, and other long-term problems and ailments.
11. Shame lingers and seeks some form of anaesthetic.
12. Weaknesses and struggles must be hidden from self and others, or attributed to Satan’s attacks.
13. The letter of the law receives more attention than the spirit of the law.  ”Perfect” obedience rather than daily spiritual growth becomes life’s goal.
14. Parents, teachers and church leaders often seek control, and justify it.
15. Fear of wrong choices leads to a preference for “signs”, strongly enforced prohibitions, and relinquishing choice to others, especially to authority figures.

Symptoms of Over-emphasis on Predestination
Typically, when a person or fellowship emphasises God’s will and underemphasises humans’ will in the spiritual birth and growth process, the results include:
(a) mistaking God’s “grace” for freedom to do as one pleases;
(b) minimising temptation’s power and sin’s consequences.

Specific ways these distortions manifest themselves include the follow, among others:
1. Life in Christ seems much the same as any “good” person’s life, but with the benefit on an eternal insurance policy.
2. The initial step or indication of salvation, such as water baptism, confirmation, or applying for church membership, receives more attention than the ongoing process of growth.
3. Teaching emphasises the mercy and forgiveness of God over the justice of God and the losses resulting from sin.
4. Sermons focus more on comfort and assurance than on conviction, confession and change.  Hell, or God’s justice, is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
5. The role of the Holy Spirit in empowering and discipling believers for godly living receives little attention.
6. Distinctions between sanctification and glorification seem blurred.
7. God’s plan becomes more His than ours to fulfill.  The need for evangelists, missionaries and counsellors, and for good teaching in apologetics and theology is downplayed.
8. Parents and leaders take a somewhat fatalistic approach towards the spiritual life of family and church members and outsiders.
9. Immorality, addictions and long-term sin problems are treated as reminders that we are “just human”.
10. Remorse seems a sufficient step of repentance.
11. God’s promises and reassurances are applied unconditionally.
12. The fight against evil becomes more a societal than personal battle, especially in view of God’s ultimate victory.
13. Self-examination seems a needless flirtation with guilt.
14. The “judgemental” label thwarts attempts to reprove and correct flagrant sin.
15. The Christian label may be broadly applied to those who serve the community or the church, or who express kindness, generosity and pleasantness.

Hugh Ross also comments that these are personal views.  However, behind them lies one shared opinion: believers know they have been hampered in their spiritual growth by these subtle imbalances.  It would be admirable if, like Howard, we could all just to get on with living from our convictions.  But when even a quick read through the lists exposes some uncomfortably familiar tendencies, we can afford to pause for readjustment before a God Who is beyond our comprehension.


n0rma1 said...

Like a tightrope walker carrying a pole with a weight at each end I'm inclined to think the balance is found not in the middle but on both sides at once. Thanks for posting this - got me thinking. I still am.

Anonymous said...

This is really helpful : I can see how Arminianism has shaped my character but where I need a bit of balance at times.