A War of Spirits

I have recently enjoyed a book of essays edited by Richard Lints in honour of David Wells, recently retired Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “Renewing the Evangelical Mission” contains some excellent material from, among others, Miroslav Volf, Jim Packer, Mark Noll and Cornelius Plantinga.

Following our The Church in the Public Square conference, I was interested in some comments by Os Guinness in his article entitled “Found Faithful: Standing Fast in Faith in the Advanced Modern Era”. He says that in this generation we must be prepared for a “war of spirits”.

Immanuel Kant famously predicted that the outcome of the Enlightenment would be a cosmopolitan world and an age of “perpetual peace”. Yet, a century later, Friedrich Neitzsche, in his last book before he went mad, gave an opposing vision. He warned that the world was about to see a “war of spirits” the like of which had never be seen before. Clearly, says, Guinness, Neitzsche was closer to the reality of where we are today than Kant. Guinness says that the “war of spirits” can be seen at three levels.

First, there is a “war of spirits” in the public square. In the modern world, there is a three-cornered contest of ideas. In one corner are the “old faiths” of Judaism and Christianity. In another corner are the secularist faiths of humanism and the New Atheism. In the third corner are the resurgent religions from the rest of the world, supremely Islam. This has resulted, not in “the happy illusion of multiculturalism”, but in real tensions between entire worldviews and ways of life that are simultaneously present in the same societies. The big question is how we deal with our deep differences. These competing worldviews sound abstract when compared to problems like terrorism or HIV-AIDS, but the tension underlies many other issues.

We are now living in a ‘global public square”. The Danish cartoon controversy and the Pope’s speech at Regensburg show that even when we are not speaking to the world, we can be heard by the world, and the world can react to what we say. Unless this issue is resolved, Guinness believes that the tensions will increase. Already it is clear that there is discrimination against evangelicals and Roman Catholics who take their faith seriously and who take it into public life, and in some places evangelicals are now seen as a threat to liberty and divisive to the public order.

The “war of spirits” also exists within denominations. There are conflicts and tensions among those belonging to the same denomination, so that those who are orthodox in one denomination are closer to the orthodox in other denominations than they are to liberals and revisionists in their own. The resulting conflicts are damaging to those denominations.

But the third area of the “war of spirits” is in individual believers. Recent polls have revealed a troubling trend, namely, a steep rise in the number of evangelicals who no longer believe that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life”. What Jesus stated clearly, and what first century Christians in Rome and twentieth century Christians in China would have died rather than deny, is now routinely neglected and denied by many American Christians. Evangelicals now range across a vast spectrum from fundamentalists to relativists.

“The acid of relativism has corroded dangerously deep and the “war of spirits” is now deep in American Christian hearts.”

The great need, says Guinness, is for prayer and spiritually powerful persuasion. There is a great contrast between the early church and the modern Western church in terms of the absence of spiritual power. He also notes that the huge contrast between the world in which he came to faith fifty years ago and the world of today is the general disappearance of prayer in the average evangelical church.

Our current situation cries out for a re-positioning of evangelicals in public life. The strategies of the religious right have clearly failed because its leaders trusted political action to do what politics can never do. The alternative to the faulty extremes of being privatized and politicized is to be prophetic in the precise biblical sense of living and speaking “according to the word of the Lord”. That means, like Old Testament Israel, we must, by the grace of Christ, live in covenant faithfulness with God.

“The tragedy of evangelicals today is that we are simultaneously complaining about the anti-Christian drift of secular culture while all the while living in ways that are little different.”

Secondly, says Guinness, we must follow the prophetic example in our speaking. That means exposing and highlighting the consequences of the choices which this generation makes. Elijah thundered, “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.” He pushed his hearers towards the logic of their settled choice. In the same way, Samuel warned Israel of the consequences of their loyalties if they chose a king like the nations around them.

“It is not up to us to turn our culture around, or to turn this country back to God, but we can highlight our generation’s choices and their consequences … Woe to us if we do not live faithfully, speak out clearly, and warn our contemporaries with candor and compassion.”

The challenge for evangelical people, I believe, is to not only believe in the importance of reformation and renewal for others, but to be reformed and renewed ourselves so that we are radically and authentically Christian in our words and actions. This “war of spirits” calls for spiritual power and skill that is distinct and different from the way the world wages its wars. We need to help our generation see the destructive consequences of following a secular agenda, and for us to speak and behave in a way that commends the life-giving and life-enhancing consequences of biblical Christianity.

Who needs homiletics?

One of the books on my first year Homiletics class reading list is Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers. It’s a book which I have read many times, particularly in my early years of pastoral ministry. You can imagine the delight of some of the students when they came across the following passage, and their eagerness to share this section with me.

What about preaching as such, the act of preaching of which I have spoken? There is only one thing to say about this; it cannot be taught. That is impossible. Preachers are born, not made. This is an absolute. You will never teach a man to be a preacher if he is not already one. All your books such as The ABC of Preaching or Preaching Made Easy should be thrown in the fire as soon as possible. But if a man is a born preacher you can help him a little – but not much. He can perhaps be improved a little here and there.

How can that be done? Here I am going to be somewhat controversial. I would say: Not in a sermon class, not by having a student preach a sermon to other students who then begin to criticise matter and manner. I would prohibit that. Why? Because the sermon in such circumstances is being preached with a wrong object in view; and the people who are listening to it are listening in a wrong way. The message of the Bible should never be listened to in that way. It is always the Word of God, and no one should ever listen to it except ina spirit of reverence and godly expectation of receiving a message.

The Doctor is right in this regard: You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Giftedness for ministry and preaching is just that, a gift of the Holy Spirit. But it may be honed, improved and encouraged. Every preacher, whatever the length of their experience, needs to think and reflect on the way his gift is exercised so as to be fruitful and effective. And there is always room for improvement.

It is also true that preaching in a classroom situation is false and unreal. But within our tradition we do not allow untrained people access to the pulpit until they have been trained in theology and proven their orthodoxy. So, in contrast to other Christian denominations and fellowships where people exercise a preaching ministry first and are trained later, there is little opportunity for our students to get experience in preaching and to test their gift until much later in the training process. Classroom preaching is one of a few, rare opportunities available to aspiring preachers. It would be unfair and unwise to launch a student into the ministry without some opportunity to test their giftedness for preaching and to receive some feedback.

Clearly, supervised ministry opportunities in an assistantship in a local congregation are the main ways in which students may test their calling and gifts. One learns to preach by preaching. Only after preaching 150 or 200 times can that gift be developed to any significant level. Listening to lectures on preaching is probably the worst way to learn how to preach, closely followed by reading books on preaching. Exposing oneself to good models of preaching and gaining practical experience in a local congregation must take priority if one aspires to be a preacher.