My ‘Holy Week’ visit to the local Orthodox Church

This week is ‘Holy Week’. In contrast to living on Skye, where you were lucky to find at least one ‘Good Friday’ church service – here in Dunblane you have it all. With the Cathedral, St Blane’s CofS, an Episcopal Church, an Orthodox Church, Quakers, the Free Church and a local charismatic church – there is a lot happening on ‘Holy Week’. Of course, being the Free Church we are pretty much ploughing on as usual. Well that’s not quite true, we ran our Easter Craft for Kids and the Case for Christ (which comes to a conclusion on Easter Monday). And this Sunday our text in our Acts series naturally falls on a passage which relates to the risen Christ – so we will have a resurrection message and resurrection themed hymns and psalms. Oh – and the kids will get chocolate eggs.

Anyway, with ‘Holy Week’ being such a big thing here, and with my recent reflections and interactions with the current news pieces surrounding Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy – I decided to take the opportunity to pop along to the local Orthodox Church. I caught half an hour of what was going to be a three-hour service (Holy Thursday The Passion Gospels, FAST) but I couldn’t stay for the whole thing as our own Bible Study and Prayer meeting was starting an hour later. Since I only caught a snap-shot on the Thursday, I also went along for the Good Friday Service (this included Vespers and procession of the shroud) and managed to catch the whole thing.

I’m aware that the concept of a Free Church preacher and elder visiting an Orthodox Church might freak some people out. But let’s just put it in perspective. I was a Religious Education teacher for seven years. I’ve visited mosques, Buddhist temples and I’ve gone to hear the Dali Lama – and I still love Jesus, preach the gospel and hold to Sola Scriptura and haven’t morphed into a tree-hugging, all-religions-are-the-same kinda guy. So, if the Orthodox Church visit makes you shudder. Chill.

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Location

The first striking thing about the church (Community of St Nicholas) is its location. Its in a lovely little cottage in the centre of Dunblane. One half of the cottage is the residence of the priest and his wife, and the second half has been converted into the church.

 The Priest

As I arrived on Thursday evening, I was early — no one else had arrived. I had an opportunity to introduce myself to the priest and his wife. A lovely couple. We chatted about a number of things briefly – not least New Testament Greek. One thing struck me about the Priest – he actually came across as a religious man. And it wasn’t just because of his robe or the big gold chain with a cross. It was his countenance. I’ve experienced this a number of times with a certain people. There are some people whose faces radiate a kind of lightness. It’s the kind of person you meet whose presence makes you aware that you need to spend less time reading books or tapping away at a keyboard and more time on your knees.

The ambience

The bare stone-wall interior, with hanging candles was quite atmospheric. At one point, in the good Friday service, I felt I’d been transported back in time and we were worshipping in the ancient catacombs.

The people

On the Thursday, around 12 people gathered in the small church. On Friday night there must have been nearer 30. What struck me was the fact that there were a lot of young women with children at the service. I was also struck by the fact that it was very multicultural. There were a good few nationalities present. In fact, I’d go so far to say it is the most inter-national church I’ve encountered in Dunblane – although I’ve still to visit a few of the other ones. It was certainly more international than the various Free Churches I’ve visited or been a member of.

The Service/Liturgy

This was interesting. As would be expected, there were aspects that made me awkward and other parts I found incredibly enriching. There were also parts that were simply universal i.e. aspects that can be found in all churches in all places. One other thing that struck me is the fact that there were no seats. You stand throughout this service (there are some seats at the side for those who need them). Given the fact that one service lasted three hours, this is interesting in and of itself. How many of our churches get caught up moaning about the discomfort of the pews, or pushing for ‘comfy chairs’? The fact that the normal practice is to stand sent out a clear message — this isn’t about making you feel comfortable. Have evangelicals become too comfort orientated?

The awkward bits….

The first thing I noticed is when some people entered the building, the first thing they did was bow down and kiss one of the Icons. Throughout the service there was a fair bit of veneration of icons, veneration of Mary, and the regular performance of the Sign of the Cross.) I also couldn’t help but notice the central Icon at the altar was Mary, with a small image of Jesus at the centre of her. I guess this is part of the ‘Mother of God’ theme. Again, as reformed believer who sees the supremacy of Christ in the pages of scripture, it is difficult to see how this kind of imagery does not negatively affect our view of the person of Christ. Jesus seems to be overshadowed by his mother. Having said all that, these were very small parts of the over-all whole – which by and large were more universally applicable to all Christians.  

In many ways, the Orthodox service was like a more intense version of the Catholic Mass which I attended as a child. The priest, the altar attendants, the incense, the chanting of scripture and prayers were all very similar but in some ways felt more ancient.

Overall, the service was mostly made up of sung/chanted scripture readings. Ironically, these were read from the authorised version. There were readings from Isaiah, the Gospels, the Psalms and the Books of the Law. These were chanted in-between various sung/chanted prayers and responses.

One bit that particularly moved me was a song that reflected upon the impact of the cross upon Jesus’ mother – as a mother. It was a reflection on the words of a scripture “and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.” This was not, in my view Mary veneration, but a valid biblical reflection upon the effect of the cross upon Jesus’ mother. If protestants feel that the EOC/RC over-do the emphasis on Mary, we certainly under-do it. I was deeply moved by the horror and pain that Mary would have experienced as she watched her son being crucified. What mother would not be shattered into a thousand pieces by that?

Really Interesting Interactions

A couple of interesting interactions occurred between myself and other people. A young guy came in on the Thursday night. He had travelled all the way from Glasgow. He informed the priest, and myself, that he had been attending an Orthodox Church for a month. He said he’d been doing some research on churches, and “by process of elimination” arrived at the conclusion the Orthodox Church was the true church.

The priest had to go and get things ready, and myself and the young guy got chatting. Once he found out I was in ministry in the Free Church he began to ask some questions. It turned out his background was similar to mine – he was from a ‘nominal’ Roman Catholic family. I took the opportunity so share some brief testimony as to how I stumbled into a gospel hall when I was 18, and heard the simple gospel and how I encountered Jesus in a very real and life changing way. My prayer and hope for this young man is that he doesn’t stop short of just looking for church, religion, or a denomination – but that he finds Christ. In fact, this was my one concern about the whole experience. Whilst there were crosses, and icons of Jesus and references to him everywhere – my worry was that the gospel and the need for personal faith and repentance were not very clear. My concern, and my experience from growing up Roman Catholic, is that Jesus gets crowded out by religion. That’s not to say that there are not people in these contexts who clearly know Christ (it’s not for me to judge that) but it’s just to say that we cannot under-estimate how important the reformation was. In clearing away the smoke, the images, and the priesthood – it helped us see Jesus more clearly. It helped us hear the message of Christ crucified and the call to repentance and faith.  

The second interesting encounter was with a couple I later bumped into on the way home. The woman had been involved in the singing part of the service. It turned out, the husband was an Episcopalian but the wife Orthodox. We were outside the Free Church, and I had the opportunity to introduce myself as the local Free Church ‘minister’. The wife almost fainted. Literally. She was astounded that the local FC preacher would visit an Orthodox church service. The husband excitedly said. “David Robertson has done more to warm me towards the Free Church than any other person”. I agreed and told him that David’s writing was quite instrumental in drawing me to the Free Church also. We then had a chat about the decline of biblical teaching within the mainline churches.

These two encounters are examples of what I like to call ‘Kingdom moments’. The moments where something of the Kingdom of God breaks through in what seems like a chance encounter.

Taking away stuff to apply?

Is there anything to learn from the Orthodox Church for Free Church ministry? Yes, I think so.

James White, commenting on the conversion of Hank Hanagraaff to Eastern Orthodoxy said about evangelicalism:

“The church has become focused on the people pilling in, not the sacredness of what goes on there.”

Well that’s one thing the EOC can’t be accused of. There was nothing seeker sensitive about the EOC I visited. There was on the other hand a strong sense that the purpose of the gathering was religious. I think we have lost something of that. This ties in with a recent lecture from the Rev John Ross at ETS last week. He challenged us to recover our reformed liturgy. He challenged us to recover the liturgy of Knox and the Directory for Public Worship. I think he is absolutely right. Within reformed liturgy there is a strong God-centeredness. After several decades of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels – we have just ended up with shallow church.

Having said that, Ed Stetzer warns about the lack of missional elements within the EOC.

I think the tendency towards (big-O) Orthodoxy and its liturgy is missiologically unhealthy, not just theologically problematic. Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today’s context, and apply them as the “true” or “authentic” way.

That’s not helpful and it actually hinders the advance of the gospel, which in part explains why American Orthodoxy has far more converts from evangelicalism than it does from secularism.

Whilst we need to recover our sense of sacredness, we also need to maintain our missional ethos. A liturgy that is not designed to draw people in and make it accessible is not like Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was incarnational. The church should be too.

Finally, we need to do a better job of explaining ourselves ecclesiologically to those who want answers. “Which split was the Free Church – was that the one in the 1800s?” asked a young man who was in the process of looking for the true church. Do we know who we are, where we came from and why we exist as a church? Are we able to articulate who we are in relation to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal and Church of Scotland? One of things that causes me to despair is the fact that many evangelicals – including many reformed ones – have such a shallow view truth, church and history. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that not everyone spends their lives watching mind-numbing television. Not everyone wants to go to your church because you are ‘seeker-friendly’ – they don’t care that your services are designed with the first-time visitor in mind – they want truth. They want to know how your church is connected to the Apostles. Are we able to explain ourselves in terms of where we fit on the Orthodox, Catholic and protestant map? Do we know why the Reformation mattered and why it still matters? We need to.

Overall, as you can see, I valued my visit to the local EOC. Dunblane churches have good relationships across the denominations. I hope to meet the leader of the local EOC again sometime. The services did help me reflect upon the cross. The OEC helped me see things that I can do better as a Christian (prayer) and things we could do better as a church and a denomination. It also helped me value afresh the importance of the reformation, and the dual challenge for our churches to be sacred spaces but also missional places.

 

 

 

 

 

Dreher & Hanegraaff: Why we need to become more Orthodox & Catholic & Why the Reformation Still Matters

So Hank Hanegraaff has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Christian Blogosphere looks like a load of drunk folk staggering through Glasgow City Centre. Some are arguing, some are shouting incoherent nonsense – some are singing sectarian battle songs and others just staggering about dazed. What are we to make of this?

The Hanegraaff situation fascinates me and interests me for a number of reasons which are connected to my own spiritual journey.

Icons, statues of the Virgin Mary, Crucifixes, Stations of the Cross and the altar were all early and frequent images for me as a child. Like most people of my generation I walked away from religion and pursued my own path. But later, I came to faith in Christ through the simple preaching of the gospel in a brethren hall. I then spent a number of years trying to make sense of my experience, evangelical teaching, and the glorious-chaos of the evangelical and protestant church. Early on in my conversion, I rejected the exclusivist, and ‘conservative’ brethren approach to church in favour of the more open and experientialist Pentecostal/charismatic church. Yet whilst I appreciated the emphasis laid upon encountering God, and the call of God, I was always concerned about the doctrinal chaos that marked Pentecostalism. The Toronto Blessing and Prosperity theology, in particular, were sources of concern.

In the providence of God, I stumbled upon a book written by Hank Hanegraaff, ‘Christianity in Crisis’. This book was really helpful for me. In this book, Hank highlighted a number of false teachings plaguing the contemporary church, particularly via the Word of Faith movement. I am indebted to that book for its biblical emphasis on discernment.

Christianity in Crisis

Unbeknown to me, Hank was the ‘Bible Answer Man’, an evangelical Christian apologist. I never knew that, I just read his book. However, now that the ‘Bible Answer Man’ has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, many evangelicals are declaring him apostate.

The fact that evangelicals can equate conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy as apostasy, to me, is actually symptomatic of the problem and the reason why guys like Hank end up ‘swimming the Bosporus’. Are we really saying that there were no Christians from the end of the first century up until the reformation? How can we say that someone who sincerely owns the Nicene Creed as their personal faith, is not a Christian? How can we say that someone who genuinely prays the Jesus prayer (“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) is not a Christian?

This is the second reason why the Hanegraaff scenario interests me, it’s not only because I’ve appreciated his work in apologetics, it’s also because I totally understand why he has headed into the Eastern Orthodox Church. The evangelical church, by and large is, a-historical, and ever drifting away from solid apostolic Christianity. Rod Dreher in his book, the Benedict Option, demonstrates this issue brilliantly.

Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centers with religious morals slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living breathing Body of Christ. Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomized members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, it’s no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts.

If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Ages, they must stop “being normal.” We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor.

Dreher, along with many others, is spot on in his analysis of the contemporary evangelical church scene.

But this raises a question. What is the solution?

Michael Allen and  Scott R. Swain, in their book, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation observe:

Many critiques of Protestantism suggest that if one desires a churchly, sacramental, ancient faith, then one must turn from the Reformation toward Rome or the East. And many have taken to those paths, fleeing what they may perceive to be thin theologies of ministry and of the Christian life in the Reformational world.

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This is the path that Hank has taken. However, whilst I would argue that it is wrong, ignorant, and sectarian, to declare the Eastern Orthodox Church an apostate church, it is also, in my view, unwise to run for refuge to Rome or Orthodoxy. Why? Well, as much as I understand the quest for historical-connectedness to the Apostolic church I’m ultimately unconvinced that it can be found in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.

To be perfectly at one with the EOC or the RC is to be at odds with the Apostles. If we are looking for a pure stream of the Apostolic faith, we need to look beyond the East which at best is a freeze-frame of 7th or 8th Century Eastern Christianity. We need to look beyond Roman Catholicism – which at best originated in a 4th century development, and instead we need to go to the inspired writings themselves. The Apostles teaching, the Gospels and the Law and the Prophets are a surer foundation for the church than the later developments of the OC or the RC.

I understand the quest for the ancient church. I understand the despair at shallow evangelicalism. I understand the aversion to the schismatic and at times bigoted expressions of Protestantism. Yet having said all that, the Reformation matters. The scriptures matter. The gospel matters.

There is a third way between embracing the errors of the OC and the RC and the mind-numbing banality of evangelicalism. It’s not perfect, and it’s not without its faults and weaknesses. But I do believe that it holds together the best of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism. Where is this place I speak of? It is the confessional, reformed presbyterian community of faith.

I understand that to many ancient-church seekers, the reformation church looks like a novel-schism. It looks less like the ancient church, and more like a modern anomaly. But I would say, look deeper. Read Calvin’s Institutes – a thorough exposition of the Apostles Creed which draws upon the scriptures and the early Church Fathers.

The reformed faith, unlike its evangelical successor, is not anti-catholic or anti-orthodox. Arguably, it retains the best of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. William Perkins, the reformed puritan, argued for a Reformed Catholicity. He said:

“By a Reformed Catholic, I understand anyone that holds the same necessary heads of religion with the Roman Church: yet so as he pares off and rejects all errors in doctrine, whereby the said religion is corrupted.”

In other words, Reformed Christianity is exactly that – reformed. It is the reformation of Catholic faith. It seeks to retain that which is biblical but reject that which is false.

Whilst I can see the attractiveness of the ‘ancient’ liturgy of EC/OC I cannot escape the fact that the gospel and the scriptures are smothered in centuries of human tradition. Historicity is important. But at best, EC/RC can take us back to the 4th—8th century. It’s not ancient enough. And it has too much cultural and traditional baggage. The grace of God is buried by vestments, icons, priests, altars, and incense. The clear voice of scripture is locked in a chest of human tradition. And we can’t really see the light of Jesus because he is overshadowed by his mother. These issues, and many more, is why the reformation mattered and why it still matters today.

Why Spiritually Abusive leaders quote: “Touch not the Lord’s Anointed” & Why Confessions of Faith are good

John MacArthur and his Grace to You ministry have engaged in an in-depth way with the excesses surrounding the charismatic movement for many years. I’ve appreciated a lot of the issues that Johnny Mac and his Strange Fire conference have raised. Of course, it’s worth noting that MacArthur and Co. can be guilty of pushing the pendulum too far in the other direction. They can overstate things and overlook valuable and insightful Pentecostal and charismatic contributions to the wider church.

Having said that, a recent article from GTY touches on a deeply embedded problem within many charismatic circles. Cameron Buettel writes:

False teaching thrives in environments where it is unlikely to be questioned. Charlatans and heretics prey on uncritical minds, and work tirelessly to protect and preserve that gullibility. Their success depends on dismantling every challenge to their authority and accuracy.

This was certainly my experience in a number of Pentecostal and charismatic churches. At various times, as a new believer, I would raise questions about the Toronto Blessing, or the Prosperity Gospel — or some other form of strange teaching, and I’d always be told to not question. Basically, people were conditioned to embrace every whim and fad that would be pushed from the pulpit.

This is one of the main reasons why I’m now in a confessional denomination. In a confessional context, we have a Confession of Faith which lays out what we consider to be clear, non-negotiable priorities. Ministers and elders are held accountable to that Confession. This Confession helps preserve solid teaching; it functions as a basis for unity and it is a means of enabling church discipline.

Further, Confessionalism can help to counter the unhealthy  culture described above by Buettel because it helps nurture an environment of discernment. There is a reason why you won’t find the Prosperity gospel in a reformed church, there is a reason why preachers can’t introduce novel revelations and there is a reason why reformed churches don’t facilitate the kind of chaos that comes with fads like the Toronto Blessing — the reason is this: our confession operates as a safe-guard.

If you want to read more about why contemporary evangelicalism could benefit from a recovery of Confessional Christianity, you may be interested in my recent book Radical Church: A Call to Rediscover the Radical Roots of the Christian Faith.

Is the Holy Spirit a Gentleman?

On Sunday I was preaching on Acts 9: the Conversion of Saul. I drew attention to some popular sayings and compared them with God’s dealings with Saul/Paul.

Two popular expressions I heard LOTS when I first became a Christian were:

“Jesus is standing at the door of your heart and knocking – waiting for you to open the door – there is only one handle and it’s on the inside.”

“The Holy Spirit is a gentleman – he won’t come where he is not invited.”

Yet, that’s not we see in Paul’s conversion – the Holy Spirit is less like a gentleman and more like a mafia mobster!

He isn’t standing and knocking at the door of Paul’s heart – he’s kicked the door open, gate-crashed his party and has taken him captive to obey his will.

Today I was reflecting further on this issue, and I decided to try and identify the source of the idea that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. Interestingly Google yielded immediate success. Someone had already done this. A website called Dictionary of Christianese has a great article on the Holy Spirit is a Gentleman. And it has a very useful list of quotes and dates of people who have used this phrase. What is particularly interesting is not only how popular the saying is but also the fact that it has been challenged almost as much as it has been promoted.

List of citations

1966 Collins, Defeating Alcoholism the Fairview Way 250 : God will never force his way into a life until that life freely opens the door, steps aside, and says, “Come in, God.” God is a gentleman. He will not intrude where he is unwanted. 1966 Nichol Pentecostalism 229 : That a greater emphasis has been placed on teaching Pentecostals to control their emotionalism is evidenced by the appearance of admonitions such as this one: It has been well said that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman—He does not disturb meetings. There is a proper time and place for manifestations of the Holy Spirit and it is not a time when it will inject a harsh note into the meeting and disturb either speaker, singer, or audience. 1969 Basham A Handbook on Holy Spirit Baptism 54 : The Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He works in our lives only to the extent that we are willing. He prompts and leads and woos and persuades, but He does not force. 1971 Mumford Take Another Look at Guidance 41 : We know that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He never forces His entry into our lives. He must be invited. 1972 Samarin Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism 162 : The rule that applies here is the saying, “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman.” The sensitive glossolalist therefore looks for openings very much in the way a conversationalist does. 1974 Bennett The Holy Spirit and You 000 : As David du Plessis says, “The Holy Spirit is a Gentleman!” 1974 Link Help in Understanding the Bible 16 : God is a gentleman who will not force himself or his service on those who do not have a genuine desire. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is available only to those who want his teaching and leadership. 1974 Hagin Bible Faith Study Course 76 : The Holy Ghost is a gentleman. He’s not going to come in you and just take you over and run things on His own. You can find no scripture on any such thing. Devils, demons, and evil spirits will do that. They’ll make peoople do things they don’t want to do and force them into doing things but the Holy Ghost, all through the Bible, leads, guides, prompts, urges, or He’ll give you a gentle push. 1982 Ortlund Up with Worship: How to Quit Playing Church 29 : We have come to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is a Gentleman. We have never seen excesses in behavior. He is seemly! But we’ve seen His characteristics exhibited in living color: great tenderness, great compassion for those embarrassed by their own sin. 1990 Harper Gifted People 29 : I have found that the Holy Spirit treats us with respect. He is a “gentleman” as David du Plessis used to say. 1990 Ecumenical Rev. 108 : David du Plessis, the “patriarch” of the Pentecostal movement, often said: “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He does not force himself on us but comes only where he is welcome! 1994 Chevreau Catch the Fire: The Toronto Blessing: An Experience of Renewal and Revival 101 : John Arnott often reminds those gathered that there is no Scriptural basis for the common belief that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman, and does nothing without our consent.” 1994 Alpha (Sep.) 3 : God is not a gentleman; God is God. 1995 Porter, Richter The Toronto Blessing, or Is it? 28 : Proponents of the Blessing have repeatedly stated that the old idea that “God is a gentleman” (both polite and English!) is out of date and inaccurate. It is repeatedly claimed that there is no biblical basis for the belief that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman, and does nothing without our consent.” 1997 Lotz God’s Story xxxiv : Have you kept Him [=the Holy Spirit] standing outside your life because you have been unwilling to repent of your sin and have never invited Him to come inside? The Spirit of God is a gentleman. Although you can be aware that He looks longingly into your life, yearning to enter into all that you are, He will not force His way into your life. He waits to be invited. 1999 Heidler Experiencing the Spirit: Developing a Living Relationship with The Holy Spirit 19 : We’ve been taught that the Spirit is a “gentleman” who would never do anything you didn’t ask Him to do. That only shows how little we understand the grace of God. There are times when God’s love for us demands that He move in forceful ways. 2002 Bovier More God: From the Twelve Steps Into Deeper Faith 84 : In Twelve Step meetings I’ve often heard that God is a gentleman and won’t intrude where he’s not welcome. I don’t agree. While God is patient in many respects, the more I know him, the more I recognize him at work, and the more I can see that he was active in my life long before I was willing to acknowledge his presence. 2004 Bartkowski The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men 89 : As it was explained to me by several Promise Keepers, Jesus is a “gentleman.” The implication here is that a gentleman does not intrude but waits until he is asked to enter. 2005 Williams, Lee Spirit-Led Days: Day by Day with the Holy Spirit 9 : Kathryn Kuhlman said many times, “The Holy Spirit is a Gentleman. He will never do anything to embarrass or hurt you.” 2006 Tucker God Talk: Cautions for Those Who Hear God’s Voice 73 : Describing God as a “Gentleman” who requires an invitation is a weak effort to ascribe to God status and sophistication that is wholly unnecessary. In Scripture we find God speaking to many people uninvited, and there are scenes in the Psalms and elsewhere when God does not speak even when invited. 2008 Carson The Doors of the Church Are Closed 96 : I am fond of saying that God is a “gentleman God,” which means that Jesus will not force His way through the door any more than God would have forced Adam’s obedience in the Garden. We refer to this in theology as free moral agency. 2009 Giles If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going 62 : How many of you have heard the evangelical bunkum that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman and that when He wants to get your attention, He’ll woo you like a lover? I know, kinda weird, eh? 2011 Creed Awakening 32 : “Jesus is a gentleman, Charles. He would not heal someone who does not want to be healed.”

If we study the scriptures it should be obvious that the Holy Spirit is not a gentleman. Let me leave you with a quote from A.W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God.

How different is the God of the Bible from the God of modern Christendom! The conception of Deity which prevails most widely today, even among those who profess to give heed to the Scriptures, is a miserable caricature, a blasphemous travesty of the Truth. The God of the twentieth century is a helpless, effeminate being who commands the respect of no really thoughtful man. The God of the popular mind is the creation of maudlin sentimentality. The God of many a present-day pulpit is an object of pity rather than of awe-inspiring reverence….To argue that God is “trying His best” to save all mankind, but that the majority of men will not let Him save them, is to insist that the will of the Creator is impotent, and that the will of the creature is omnipotent.

Should We Expect ‘Damascus Road’-type Encounters with God?

This Sunday our text at Dunblane Free Church is Acts chapter 9 – Saul’s encounter with the risen and exalted Jesus. As I began to think about the text, I was reflecting on the fact that the common observation about Paul’s Damascus Road experience is the warning that Saul’s experience should not be considered normative. However, it struck me that whilst there is obvious truth in this, such concerns overlook an important point – there are elements in Paul’s conversion that are the marks of all true Christian conversions. Or put another way, there are aspects of Saul’s encounter which are normative for all of God’s people.

No sooner had I reflected on this when a friend brought to my attention a book in our church library. The book is J Douglas MacMillan’s ‘Wrestling with God’.

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MacMillan is dealing with Jacob’s encounter with God at Peniel, but his observation is obviously and equally applicable to the Damascus Road narrative.

This passage provides us with a marvellous instance of an encounter with God, and finds its focus in the theme of a power that transforms. That power is the saving power of God in the life of man. It is this power that makes the gospel the most significant thing in the world. . . While we will not encounter God in the dramatic way that Jacob did, and must not look for such physical experiences, we can nevertheless, encounter the same God and enjoy the same blessing and come under the same power as Jacob. The details and the circumstances are not likely to be repeated, but behind the details and events of Peniel we can trace the moral and spiritual lessons… There are enduring, unchanging and spiritual principles in God’s saving, gracious dealings with his own people.

I think MacMillan’s comments are helpful in that they help us to avoid the pitfalls of mysticism (expecting physical or external manifestations) yet they also safeguard us from nominalism because it roots spiritual life in an authentic encounter with the living God.