This is a response to the fascinating document which Justin Peters, an American preacher whose shredding of the ‘Word of Faith’ movement in his ‘Call for Discernment videos is superb. Yet despite this service to the church, he was left with a sense of preaching the faith, but not really believing it himself. For him this led to a time when he responded more to God: ‘I had a guilty conscience to be sure, but did not have a true, gut-wrenching godly sorrow. I had never genuinely wept over my sin until then.’
He uses the bible to justify the claim that this is the ONLY gateway to a true relationship with God, going so far being ‘rebaptised’ after this experience, having first been baptised as a seven year old, when believing in Jesus was on a level with believing in Santa Claus. He extends his exposition to defend the Calvinist position that such repentance is given by God to His elect – so it’s not something to which can aspire, but just happens. That’s a secondary debate that I’m going to park for now.
There is a strong tradition in the Calvinist tradition that we should experience some such ‘gut-wrenching’ sorrow. This is what underlies the Calvinist revival tradition – most clearly seen in Jonathan Edwards’ experience in the early 18th century. Yet it is one that carries over into early Methodism, where a clear awareness of your own sinful state before God is the starting point for conversion. The ‘Evangelical’ movement is usually separated from this earlier Puritan tradition by Evangelicals’ willingness to allow the process of contrition to move to resolution by engaging with the grace of Jesus relatively quickly; the Puritans expected the period of contrition to be measured in days. Yet both remained committed to an expectation of visible contrition, as a result of engaging with God, before the salve of the Cross was to be applied for the individual. Both traditions are thus highly sceptical of the modern emphasis of preaching God’s love first…
The danger at this point is, of course, that it becomes the PREACHER who hangs his listeners over the flames of Hell and frightens them by such stories into signing up to the faith, rather than the process seeing God bring to an awareness of their sins. We can go too far the other way. The book of Acts shows us Peter being unsubtle in his criticism of the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), though it is notable that his focus is on the visible events of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Stephen similarly does not model gentleness on any understanding we can cope with in his attack on the leaders of the Jews that gets him martyred. (Acts 7).
However I want to pursue is how far a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience of repentance is a necessary precursor to coming to know God. A review of the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with people seems to offer little evidence for it. The emphasis there is far more on living out the decision to repent; thus Levi and Nathaniel are called to follow Jesus, and the Samaritan woman is wowed by Jesus’ knowledge of her life so that she tells all her neighbours (John 4). Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish hints at this sort of reaction (Luke 5), but it is notable in its uniqueness, and it doesn’t make the other gospels. From a historical perspective, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ offers an experience that might or might not be what Peters insists on; he is indeed deeply miserable in his garden when he hears ‘Take and Read’, though it’s hard to assess. Is it ultimately about his struggle with lust, rather than ‘sin’. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.xi.html Similarly CS Lewis’ report of his conversion in ‘Surprised by Joy’ doesn’t have such an episode, nor does GK Chesterton offer any such event. This modern paradigm can perhaps be traced to Luther’s experience of sin and being released from it when he discovers the meaning of Romans, and is seen in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, but that doesn’t make it normative.
And yet Peters’ focus on the need for genuine repentance is important. The issue however is whether it needs to be expressed by a specific experience, or whether, as with all conversion, the process can be gradual. The central issue is one of true engagement with God leading to a changed life in the medium term; the problem comes when we try to bottle this and do it purely on a human level. We’ve already touched on the ‘scare them into heaven’ approach. There are a number of alternatives. One is the ‘sign up now and all will be well for ever’ – a perversion of the ‘born again’ movement which validly emphasises the need to engage with God – but makes the process so easy that it takes no real commitment, requires no repentance and has no meaning. We have the ‘join the community, enjoy the buzz, have a great time at church’ approach, that at best does lead people to seek more, but at worst legitimates their sinful lifestyles. We have the Catholic solution to the conundrum; as the established church, it needed to offer its religion to all the citizens of the Roman Empire. As a result it came to see baptism as a infant as the entry point to the church and engagement with the sacraments as the way to progress. As ever, at its best, such an approach can lead to true engagement with God, but when combined with a desire to conform without such engagement, can easily lead a formalised religion with no reality.
An interesting feature of this story is Peters’ decision to be ‘rebaptised’. Whatever else happened, that isn’t it; you can only be baptised once, so he is rejecting his baptism at the age of 7 and claiming his new one as his baptism. Note, in passing, the problem for who favour believers baptism in the legitimation of the cycle of feeling that a further baptism is justified because the first one wasn’t real. However I do want to highlight that baptism does point to a specific point of transition in a person’s life, which should be recognised in our theology. Instead we have a tendency to downplay the crisis of conversion, perhaps leaving a legacy of people hanging around in our churches because it’s a comfortable place to be, rather than because they’ve met with God.
So – what conclusion are we to draw? Surely we must accept that God works in a variety of ways to bring His children to new life. An experience that is central to the spiritual life of one person may have no resonance in the life of another – because that’s not God’s priority for them. Of course this can be taken too far; at some point if a person is TOO far from a pattern of experience that resonates with the rest of the Christian community, it becomes necessary to conclude that they haven’t actually engaged with God at all. The complexity comes where the same experience is truly of God in one person – but not for another; Satan has disguised himself as an angel of light, as we are warned (2 Cor 11). It is here that the gift of ‘discerning of Spirits’ becomes required…