Evangelical Spirituality

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 19:2 (Summer 2001)

Evangelical Spirituality

Evangel 19:2 (Summer 2001)

I have been giving a considerable amount of thought recently to the question of what is the fundamental distinctive mark of an Evangelical theology and spirituality. Without claiming originality, I have concluded (not for the first time) that it lies in the conviction that I can be sure that my life is hid with Christ in God. In other words, Evangelicalism is distinctive in its belief that all true believers can have access to assurance on the ground of the justifying work of Christ. Luther’s great re-discovery of justification by faith remains, I would argue, at the heart of a truly biblical and Evangelical religion.

  But, in practice, is this true? In the course of a succession of recent pastoral encounters of one sort or another, I have become deeply aware of the fact that many Evangelical Christians lack this certainty (and are, to some extent, spiritually disabled as a result). Why should this be?
 
  Doubtless, there are cultural factors at work. We live in a profoundly experience-centred and subjectivist age: what I feel is what is true. Such an environment, working on a temperament inclined, for example, to the melancholic (and bearing in mind that we all have an enemy who promotes ‘the lie’) is almost sure to engender difficulties.
 
  Perhaps this may be linked with false conceptions of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Granted our contemporary cultural baggage, the Spirit is often viewed as a ‘thing’ whose presence is manifested by powerful, visible and ‘felt’ effects. Thus, Reformed believers in particular can struggle with assurance on the ground that they lack such a witness or the Spirit.
 
  However, I suggest that the fundamental reason lies in the more general failure of Evangelicalism both to spell our adequately its distinguishing doctrine of justification by faith in the face of an increasing neo-legalism and to emphasize that true faith is a felt faith: where the heart rests on the objective truths of God’s revelation.
 
  I would like to address briefly both these issues. Doctrine these days is frequently at a premium (and sadly, where it is not, its presentation lacks the sort of fire likely to engage the children of a postmodern world). Where biblical truth is neglected the entail, inevitably, is a gradual slide from the glorious if humbling recognition that ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to his cross I cling’ to a resurgent semi-Pelagianism and the feeling (‘natural’ for fallen humanity) that somehow I co-operate with God in my salvation. Under such circumstances the understandable sense of low self-worth (which seems endemic in current society) and the preoccupation with ‘feelings’ render problems with assurance inevitable. Certainly, I find it difficult to lead people to assurance who somehow feel their failure is not the occasion for God’s grace to be seen in more glorious colours but fear that they are ~not good enough’ for him.

But the second factor brings the challenge nearer to home (certainly for Reformed believers). Have we intellectualised our doctrine? Has truth become something that simply marks out the ‘sound’ believer amid the many and prevailing Evangelical errors of today (especially those who emphasize ‘experience and against whom we over-react). Where is truth proclaimed with a passion that is witness to a heart ignited into love by the encounter with God in the truth? Where are the great songs which celebrate the great verities of the faith sung with a sense of passion that ‘this is true for me’? Where is justification set forth as a truth upon which mind AND heart are to feed delightedly? Small wonder, then, when brought face to face with a form of Christianity that emphasizes the ‘feif, Reformed believers feel left on the outside and are led to question the reality of their own life before God.

So this editorial ends with a challenge. The contemporary church desperately needs to rediscover the doctrine of justification by faith: Sola Gracia and Sola Fide need proclaiming loud and long from the rooftops! But proclamation is not enough: it must be accompanied by genuine and evident ‘religious affections’ that provide both an opening to contemporary society and a bridge over which it is possible for doubting believers to pass and find the felt faith soundly grounded in eternal verities. Such alone is biblical and provides the assurance which many of today’s believers desperately seek.

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