Category Archives: God

Review of “‘The World’s Last Night’ and Other Essays” by C.S. Lewis

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.  It was a library discard.

Lewis, C.S. “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1960.

It’s been a couple weeks since I last posted so I want to get “back on the stick” as we say here in the south.

Recently I decided to begin reading the rest of the unread books in my C.S. Lewis library (which is fairly extensive).  I’ve read all his fiction but not much of his non-fiction.  “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays was the first book I came to on my shelf so I decided to start there.

This particular publication has been out of print for some years.  I stumbled on the hardback copy pictured above at a local used bookstore over twenty years ago, and since then it has sat on my shelf gathering dust.  Until now.

“The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays is a collection of six magazine articles and one address.   All the material is non-fiction save one piece: “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is sort of a brief sequel to Lewis’ popular book The Screwtape Letters.  This is the most accessible and enjoyable piece of them all, and probably the most well-known at the time of publication.  The non-fiction pieces fit mostly in the genre we would call “apologetics,” which is the attempt to answer challenges to Christian faith using rational arguments.

The 1960 publishing date for the book is three years before Lewis died.  So unlike some other collections of his writings, this one was released during his lifetime.

Now that I’ve read it I can see why this book is no longer in print.  To begin with, the reading level is very high-brow.  The text is replete with cryptic literary allusions and untranslated quotations in Latin, Greek, and other languages-that-are-not-English.  Since our American education is no longer a classical one, these quotes are lost on most of us, including me.  The only thing I had any hope of translating was a word in Greek, and while I was able to transliterate it, I didn’t recognize the word or its meaning, since it was a classical reference and my training is only in koine, the colloquial Greek of the Bible.

However, I was not to be deterred: I expected the internet to be filled with resources that would help me crack the meanings of these quotes, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, to my delight I found a web page devoted exclusively to a book study of “The World’s Last NIght” and Other Essays, which provided not only translations of every foreign-language quote but also helpful historical and literary background to the various articles and allusions.  The page I’m referring to can be found here: http://cslbookclub.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=59&Itemid=81

A second reason I’m not surprised this book is no longer in print, though, is that the subject matter seems pretty dated.  Where the topics themselves aren’t dated, in many cases the treatment of them is.  Or so I thought anyway.  This is not a book that would speak very well to twenty-first century postmodern readers.  While it is aimed at the highly-educated elite, I suspect its arguments would seem outmoded to that very elite today.

Really the book is an odd collection, too.  The intended audience from piece to piece ranges widely.  Chapters 1 and 7 deal with devotional and theological matters that would most likely be of interest to Christians or at least those with a penchant for theology.  Chapters 2 and 3 are addressed more to skeptical scholarly types.  Chapter 4, the only work of fiction, would have a wider appeal because of its entertainment value.  Chapter 5 is a work of social commentary.  Chapter 6 is aimed at those interested in science and science fiction.  So I can easily see how each essay might not be of interest to every reader.  Those most likely to enjoy the book as a whole would be people of wide-ranging interests, and those like me who are interested simply because it was written by C.S. Lewis.

Nevertheless, throughout, the book reveals a man with an intimate relationship with God and a deep understanding of the Christian life, and for that aspect alone it is a worthwhile and encouraging read.

The book’s first essay, entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” initially appeared in a January 1959 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.  For the present-day reader this is probably one of the more interesting and appealing chapters.  Most of its explanation is applicable today.  Yet even here the decidedly modern tone of the book (as opposed to postmodern) is evident.

Lewis begins by addressing in rational terms the question “Why can’t we prove prayer works?” which is not exactly the kind of question people are asking today.  Most people today aren’t interested in scientific proof for prayer–they either believe in it or they don’t, based on their experiences, and are not looking to be convinced by rational arguments.  For good or ill, folk today rely more on feelings than on intellectual evidence.  So Lewis’ meticulous arguments, while well-stated, seem a bit quaint.

Granted, there might be a point in someone’s life in which they begin to ask the kinds of questions Lewis deals with here, in which case it would be of great value to them.  But otherwise it may not seem to have much applicability.  That said, the piece is still valuable, for in it Lewis addresses a number of common questions about the nature of prayer and does a good job with it.  Most importantly, he points out that prayer is founded on a personal relationship with God, and it must be understood in that light.

Essay #2, titled “On Obstinacy in Belief,” is a paper Lewis read to the Socratic Club at Oxford University, where he was a professor.  This shows the extent to which Lewis sought to engage secular and unbelieving culture, for this was not a Christian group but an academic one.

In the address Lewis responds to a question he infers from the writings of skeptics: “Why do Christians hold on so obstinately to their beliefs when all evidence seems to point to the contrary?”  At first I felt the question itself wasn’t all that relevant today, but as I read on I finally concluded that Lewis makes some very good points.  In the end I concluded this is actually one of the most relevant essays in the whole volume.

Lewis claims most people, Christian or not, choose their beliefs based on factors that seem like good evidence to them at the time.  Likewise, people choose to become Christians because the evidence seems to point in that direction.  Moreover, the evidence for unbelief is not as immune to subjectivity as some would like to believe.

Lewis says Christians don’t place blind faith in God as is sometimes claimed, and that no one expects people to accept Christian faith without reasonable evidence.  However, once a person becomes a Christian they may be very determined in their beliefs, even when there might appear to be a lot of supposed evidence to the contrary (bad circumstances, etc.).  This obstinacy of Christian belief is because at this point the person has already trusted in God based on the evidence before them.  I agree with Lewis on this point.  I won’t explain any more of what he says but instead encourage you to read the article if you are interested.

I found the third essay, “Lilies That Fester,” to be one of the least interesting pieces in the book.  This was because I wasn’t really taken with the topic.  In it Lewis is reacting to those who make being “cultured” an end in itself and look down their noses at those not sufficiently educated in the latest fads of high society.  Along the way he does make some interesting arguments as to why a Christian theocracy would be an undesirable form of government, how modern education is geared toward fostering certain opinions rather than teaching students to think critically, and why artists serve the public and not vice versa.  But I found the main emphasis of the article a bit tiresome, although I am completely sympathetic with the point he is making.

Chapter 4, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1959, is certainly the highlight of the book.  It’s a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters, probably Lewis’ most famous work.  Of course, Screwtape is a piece of fiction in which the author supposedly stumbles on a correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a tempter-in-training.  Lewis uses the story as a vehicle for exploring the nature of evil and temptation.

Rather than more letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” takes the form of an address given by Screwtape to the Tempters Training College for young Devils.  Here Screwtape waxes more political than religious, and this time Lewis uses the address as a vehicle to examine the pitfalls of democracy (yes, there are some) as well as disturbing trends in education. On both points Lewis is uncannily prescient, predicting pretty much where our society has wound up half a century later.

In the 5th essay, “Good Work and Good Works,” Lewis is disturbingly prophetic again, this time foreseeing the perils of consumerism. Once more he pretty much describes where America in particular has wound up 50+ years later.  Lewis differentiates between gainful employment which serves a useful end and those careers whose sole purpose is the making of money, without providing a worthwhile product or service.  He says this is what happens in a society based on consumerism.  This accounts for “built-in obsolescence” among other problems (and if Lewis already thought it was bad in his day, he would be horrified with the situation now).

Essay #6 carries the intriguing title “Religion and Rocketry.”  This is an interesting piece because it deals more directly with some of the themes that were likely in Lewis’ mind when he wrote his celebrated “space trilogy,” an early and respected work of science fiction.  In this essay he addresses various objections to Christianity supposedly raised by scientific speculation about space travel and life on other planets. Lewis does a good job of revealing the flaws in these criticisms.  However, once again I felt Lewis was answering objections no longer being made today, or at least not being made on the same grounds.

However, his main point is worth considering, which is that space travel and the possibility of life on other planets don’t negate the story of Christ coming on earth.  The words of Christian singer Larry Norman in his song “U.F.O.” from the 1970s capture pretty well the point Lewis makes in the essay:

If there’s life on other planets
Then I’m sure that He must know
And He’s been there once already
And has died to save their souls….

In the final chapter, from which the book draws its name, Lewis shares some reflections on the second coming of Christ.  Once again he is in apologetics mode, as his stated purpose is “to deal with some of the thoughts that may deter modern men from a firm belief in, or due attention to, the return or Second Coming of the Saviour”–a worthwhile goal for sure.  However, I am uncertain whether the specific objections Lewis attempts to address are necessarily the same ones that would be raised by skeptics today.  Maybe they are, I don’t know, since I’m not a skeptic.

The objections Lewis addresses are two: First, Jesus and his disciples believed his return was imminent, and so the fact that he did not return in the first century calls the belief itself into question.  Lewis does well in answering this objection, and if you’re interested in knowing his argument I encourage you to read the book.

Secondly, Lewis claims that modern people shy away from the idea of Christ’s sudden return because it doesn’t seem to square with evolutionary theory.  I’ve never heard anyone raise that specific criticism.  Rather I perceive modern people have a much bigger hurdle to overcome: a worldview which excludes any heaven or afterlife from which Jesus might come back to begin with.

Well, that is a brief summary of the topics covered in the book.  In places Lewis is nothing less than prophetic regarding the times in which we live, but in other sections the book seems dated by a modernistic perspective that has been replaced today with postmodernism.  Nevertheless, I think spiritual seekers in our day might still find ideas here that will address some of their questions.  And I have no doubt Lewis fans and aficionados will find the book an enjoyable and profitable read.

A Spiritual Journey, Part 3 – Change Is In The Air

This is a continuation of my previous post, which in itself was a follow-up to a post I had published back in 2008.  Part 1 can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

Part 2 can be found by going to my last post, or by following this link: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/

After the events of the Pastor’s Prayer Summit in March 1998, which are told in Part 1 of this series (follow the first link above to read that story), I stayed at the Presbyterian church I was pastoring two more years.  But as time passed I began to suspect the writing was on the wall.  I was different now, and over time I began to feel like I didn’t really fit there anymore.  I was changing but my congregation wasn’t.

The changes that took place in me over those two years were not anything new or different or strange.  Rather, I was simply finding the courage to be who I was instead of succumbing to the pressure to be what I sensed others wanted me to be.

At that time most pastors in my denomination wore a black robe as they conducted the Sunday service.   Prior to the ’98 pastors prayer summit, I was no different.  I wore a black robe every Sunday as I led the service.

I’m not really a formal person by nature, though–a fact which was always dismaying to my mother, who was pretty formal.  When I first started in ministry I didn’t mind wearing the robe because I felt it offset my youthfulness somewhat (I was only 27 and pretty young-looking). I felt it gave a sense of authority I didn’t have otherwise–which seemed important since most of the people I was working with were older than me.

However, by this point in my ministry, I was ready to shed some of that formality.  So in the weeks after the Prayer Summit I began to experiment with not wearing the robe on Sundays. Instead I wore a suit and tie–still formal, for sure, but a step down from the robe.

When summer came I tried leaving off the coat and tie altogether and just wearing an open collar button-down shirt and dress slacks.  I was able to get away with that as long as it was summertime, but when the fall came, the church organist (who was one of the matriarchs of the church) came to me and said, “It was okay for you to not wear your coat and tie as long as it was summer.  But now that it’s fall, you need to put them on again. You can’t be that informal all the time.”  (She implied, too, that kids want to be informal, but grownups dress up.  Yikes!)

Some people might say I should’ve ignored her and done what I wanted to do, since she really didn’t have any formal authority to tell me that.  But that isn’t my personality, and certainly wasn’t then. I am a people-pleaser by nature and hate any sort of conflict (though in my old age I’m getting better about speaking my mind and standing my ground).  Besides, she was a member of the church and a key player, one of the leaders.  Among other things, she was chair of the worship committee. I knew if I defied the organist there was likely to be trouble. At best she might make an issue of it before the worship committee and the elders, and at worst I might lose my organist over it. Being in such a small town, I wasn’t sure how many other good organists would be around to take her place, and so I was afraid of losing her (she was good at what she did, and a volunteer).  I was not yet at the level of maturity in which I was willing to take a risk of that magnitude. In that time and place, a Presbyterian church without an organist would scarcely have been Presbyterian!

So I did what she said. I was 33 or 34 and she was well into her 50s.  Besides, I knew she probably spoke for many in the church, maybe the majority.  So I resumed preaching in my coat and tie.  But I never went back to wearing the black robe, except for weddings and maybe funerals.

Preaching in a suit, though, instead of the robe left me open to the charge of being “too Baptist”–a cardinal sin in a southern liberal church.  Baptists are the most populous church in the south, so some southerners intentionally choose a “mainline” or more liberal church in order to avoid joining a Baptist one.  So being “too Baptist” was not viewed as a good thing. Nevertheless I stuck to my guns and wore a suit rather than a robe each Sunday.  (As I write this I am shaking my head over what people can get riled up over.)

At any rate, though, the organist’s displeasure over my open-collared shirt was my first sign that the church might not be as open as I hoped to the ways I was changing.

After the prayer summit my preaching began to change, too. Prior to my born again experience I tended to focus on morality and, honestly, I often preached on the ways I felt people weren’t living up to the Bible. I guess you could say my pre-prayer-summit preaching was probably negative, moralistic, and somewhat legalistic.

Post-prayer-summit I began to preach more on salvation and also on the love of God.  There was still some moralism–I didn’t change totally–but the focus came to be more on Jesus and who He is, His love, and what He’s done for us.

Also my method of preaching changed. In seminary I had been trained to preach from a written manuscript, and often (though not always) this is what I did in the years prior to my born again experience.  After that, though, I began trying to preach more extemporaneously. Instead of writing a manuscript, I would just jot down a few notes and pray that God would give me the words to say.

Looking back I’m not sure my preaching really improved that much. I imagine it seemed more personal and conversational, but I also think the content and organization suffered a bit.  (Actually, in the years since then when I’ve preached I’ve gone back to the method I used before seminary, which is to make detailed notes but still speak off the cuff as much as I can, using the notes to jog my memory when necessary. I find this approach works best for me, since I’m not a talker by nature; but it still allows me to be more conversational.)

Meanwhile, I remained active with the interdenominational pastors prayer group I’d gotten to know at the Prayer Summit. I was going to two different prayer meetings a week, as well as occasional retreats of a day or more in duration.  I also attended conferences with them on occasion.

All these meetings were very expressive in their feel, and quite different from the more staid service I presided over every Sunday.  I had a growing desire for our church to experience the joy, freedom, spontaneity, and openness I saw at the interdenominational prayer meetings.

Whenever I had a Sunday off (which was only a few times a year) I began to make a point of visiting some of the churches pastored by my friends in the interdenominational prayer groups.  I wanted to see what their churches were like.  Of course, a lot of them were doing contemporary worship, and I got to experience some of this firsthand.  This was nothing new to me, as I’d attended Sunday night church at Calvary Assembly of God in Decatur, Alabama for several years, as well as special services at other churches. Not only that, but I had led the singing for youth groups and events for many years. So I was pretty familiar with contemporary worship.

Within the next year I decided to try some contemporary worship at my church.  This was completely new for most of them.  Normally on Sunday mornings we did what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “hymn sandwich”–a hymn at the beginning of the service, a hymn in the middle, and one at the end.  The hymns and all the music were accompanied on a very nice console organ.  Only rarely was the piano ever used, mainly to accompany the choir.

On the other hand, as you probably already know, in contemporary worship it’s not uncommon for worship teams to play 4 or 5 songs straight through before anything else happens in the service. The worship bands play rock instruments (bass, electric guitars, drums) and usually dress informally.  To say the least, all that was going to be a stretch for that little Presbyterian church!

Not being one to stir up conflict, I decided to start small.  As I began to talk about my ideas with the worship committee, what we finally agreed on was that we would not change the worship service itself, but  instead just for the summer months we would add the contemporary worship on as an optional time 15 minutes before the regular service began.  The idea was that those who wanted contemporary worship could come early, and those who didn’t want it wouldn’t have to deal with it during the actual service.

I was satisfied with this as a beginning. My expectation was that those who arrived for church early (which was a sizable portion of the congregation) would be exposed to the contemporary music anyway and might gain a favorable impression of it.

Once this was approved I went to work recruiting the few musicians in the congregation who might be interested in something like this. It wound up just being me on acoustic guitar and a fellow on the piano (I can’t remember now if there was anyone else).

So this is what we did for the summer months that year (I think it was in 1999 but can’t say now for sure).  For each service I would choose about 4 songs and have the words printed on an insert for the bulletin. I chose songs that were popular at the time: “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” and the like.

Attendance was decent – maybe a fourth of the congregation came at 10:45 for the contemporary worship. We had a core of people who preferred that style of music, so they were very happy with it. Quite a few others arrived 5 or 10 minutes early for the main service and were able to hear the new music as well.

There were no complaints about the contemporary portion, but it was just to be a summer thing, so when August ended, the contemporary music ended as well.  Overall it was deemed a “success,” and so I began to think about how we might incorporate contemporary worship into the regular schedule of our congregation.

The worship committee considered a couple of options: an earlier service on Sunday morning and a Sunday evening service.  For reasons I can’t remember now we eventually began to make plans for an evening service.  I think the leaders weren’t crazy about the idea of starting a new early service; our church wasn’t very big to begin with, and I think they were fearful of splitting our already small congregation into two even smaller services.  I guess the thinking was that a Sunday evening service wouldn’t detract from the morning service, and those who wanted to attend both could if they so desired.

By the time we’d begun talking seriously about starting a contemporary service it was late in the fall of 1999.  In spite of the seeming success, for some reason I was uneasy about moving forward with the new service.  I dragged my feet.

Looking back now I think the reason was that it seemed artificial to me.  No one in the church had any thought of doing a contemporary service until I mentioned it.  And even now, I was the only one in the church really pushing for it.  The family of the one man in the church who really loved contemporary worship had, ironically, begun attending another church. In fact, by this time (again ironically) several people in the church who would’ve been the most likely supporters of a contemporary service had begun visiting other churches (more on this below). So I felt like I was trying to force something that really no one else in the church cared about besides me, and my most likely allies in doing it appeared to be leaving.

When I first came there as pastor there were basically two groups in the church: An old core of charter members, mostly elderly, and a group of younger couples brought in by the previous pastor. As you can imagine, generally I felt like I had a lot more in common with the younger group than the older one. The younger folks seemed more vibrant spiritually, more biblically focused, and more open to new ways of doing things.

During my years in Lenoir City I always felt the church’s promise lay with these younger families. Yet now, just as I was beginning to catch a vision for a new direction, some of those very families were beginning to leave. I never found out why. It was always a mystery because these were the people I considered my greatest supporters.  It began to seem like the vision I’d had for the church was not necessarily God’s vision.

During this time (in the late fall of 1999) there was also some contention with the church organist over the new, slightly more casual and contemporary direction I was leading the congregation. I can’t remember all the specifics now, but one Sunday morning after church she basically told me that if I continued in the direction I was going she might leave the church.

By this time I really wasn’t ready to take her on and risk losing her. She had lots of close friends in the church, most of whom were in leadership. Moreover, those who might have supported me against her had begun leaving the church.  My fear was that if she got angry and left, not only would we be without an organist, but her friends, even if they agreed with what I was doing, would not support me if I went against her.

So I feared that a major conflict with the organist would rupture the very core of the church membership, as well as leaving us without an organist.  I figured if that happened a lot of people would leave, or else they would try to get rid of me.  At best we’d be left with me having to lead the music on my guitar, as well as preach, with only a handful of people in attendance. In short, I felt there might not be much church left to pastor if all that happened. I didn’t feel that insisting on doing things my way was worth that level of disruption.

This left me, though, at loose ends. I began to wonder about my future at the church.

Add to this the fact that as long as I had been a pastor, I had struggled with being a pastor. There were lots of reasons. Often I felt ill-equipped for the job. I felt my introverted personality did not fit with the very extroverted nature of being a pastor. Besides all that, pastoring was very lonely for a single person. I’m not saying it would be less lonely if you were married–obviously I wouldn’t know. But it felt odd being single and being a pastor, and the older I got, the more I wondered if being a pastor wasn’t actually keeping me from being able to marry, due to the time commitments and the fact that few women today are eager to marry the pastor of an old-fashioned, traditional church.

Or so was my thinking at the time. Add to that the fact that I had a lot of issues with my denomination, and it’s not hard to see there were many reasons I was struggling with being a pastor.

On top of everything else, I had become increasingly involved in the interdenominational prayer movement that was exploding at that time in Knoxville. My regular involvement with the larger church was exposing me to many practices and experiences I felt went far beyond what my congregation was used to. It was changing me and my perspective.  I was learning and growing.

I tried to share this growth with my church through sermons and one-on-one conversations. But I found it hard to convey it all by myself. I felt I was fighting an uphill battle. I was ready to move forward with what seemed like bigger and better things in God, but my congregation wasn’t going with me. They were content where they were.

If I was a more outgoing person I might have invited some of them to come with me to the prayer meetings. Looking back now I wish I had done that. I guess I feared they’d have no interest in it, or might think it was strange.

At any rate, I felt increasingly out of sync with my church, and didn’t really know what to do about it. Very soon everything would come to a head, though.

I’ll leave that story for the next installment of A Spiritual Journey.  Stay tuned.

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A Spiritual Journey, Part 2 – A New World Opens Up

This post has been a long time coming. It is the follow-up to a post I wrote in June 2008 called “A Spiritual Journey, Part 1.”  In order to understand this post, you really ought to read that one first, which can be found here:

https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

From 1991 to 2000 I served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Seven years into my ministry I had a significant encounter with God which revolutionized the way I understood the Christian life.

I told that story and the events leading up to it in the post listed above.  If you haven’t read that first part, I recommend you do it so this post will make sense.

Here I’m going to pick up where the previous post left off.  (Some of the names in this post have been changed because I haven’t been able to ask permission from the parties involved to share their part in the story.)

After asking Christ into my heart at the first annual Knoxville area Pastors Prayer Summit on Wednesday, March 11, 1998, the retreat was over on Thursday, and I went back home to the church I was pastoring in Lenoir City, Tennessee.  I had decided to share the testimony of what had happened with my congregation.  I was nervous because my denomination was staid and traditional, and not that keen on conversion stories. Even though my church was pretty friendly and open, they were still fairly traditional, so I wasn’t sure how my experience would be received.

Sunday finally came, and I shared my testimony.  It seemed to be well-received.

Altar calls, or invitations to receive salvation, are not a common practice in the Presbyterian Church. In fact, they are so uncommon that Presbyterian sanctuaries generally don’t even have a place at the front for people to kneel if they were to come forward.  This is partly because Presbyterian churches don’t have altars, but instead communion tables. But that’s a topic for another post.

At any rate, that Sunday at the end of my message I gave an altar call, inviting people to come forward and ask Jesus into their hearts, or rededicate their lives.  To my delight, six people came to the front, including several longtime members of the church.  Since there was no altar rail, I just invited them to stand where they were or kneel there on the floor.  As I recall they all knelt, including one dear matriarch of the church who was in her 70s.

I hadn’t given many altar calls before (only one other one in the entire course of my ministry), so I really didn’t know what to do when the people came forward.  To be honest, since invitations weren’t a common occurrence, I hadn’t really expected a response.  That’s what I get for underestimating God.

So I had the organist play a hymn (it may even have been “Just As I Am,” I can’t remember now. 🙂  ) Then I led everyone in a prayer in which I invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts.

At the end I dismissed the service, and talked with those who had come forward.  I wish I could say I was good about following up with them in the days to come, but honestly, I wasn’t.  I hadn’t been trained in anything like evangelistic follow-up, so I didn’t feel like I really knew what to do or say.  This is one of a number of regrets I have looking back on my years of ministry.

That night I had been invited by one of the pastors at the prayer summit, a man named Doug, to share my testimony at his church, a large evangelical church in Knoxville.  I’m not sure Doug knew exactly what he was getting himself into.  But it wound up being a good and memorable experience.

At that time, Doug’s Church had four identical services every Sunday, two in the morning, and two in the evening.  Doug had invited me to share at the two evening services.

At the first service Doug had me speak at the beginning, right after the singing.  He had prepared a message but after I shared, he said he sensed the Holy Spirit moving and decided to stop the service and issue an invitation.  Doug asked the people to come forward if they needed a touch from God similar to what I had experienced.

There wasn’t a huge rush to the front of the church, but I would say somewhere between one and two dozen people came forward.  One of them caught my eye, though–she happened to be a woman I recognized from my home town!  I didn’t know Terri well, and wasn’t even sure she would know who I was. She was known around my home town as a strong Christian, someone who had been very active in Young Life, a para-church ministry to youth.

Because of what I knew about Terri’s Christian background, I was surprised to see her standing at the front of the church weeping.  And yet because of what had just happened to me that week it made perfect sense.  After the service I went up to her and introduced myself, telling her I remembered her from our home town.  She shared that in recent years she had come to a place in which her faith felt dry and empty, and so when she heard my testimony she could really relate, and so she came forward.  When she did, God really touched her.

I later learned that Terri was the wife of one of the elders in the church. I made plans with Terri to get together with her and her husband soon, which we did not long after that, and shared a wonderful evening comparing notes of what God had done in our lives.

The second service that evening went very much like the first.  I shared, and then Doug led an altar call, in which a dozen or so more people came forward.  I later learned that the lives of several people in the church had been touched by my testimony and the Spirit’s working during the altar calls.  I was surprised, delighted, humbled, and thankful.

Apparently some of the things I shared in my testimony that night were a bit controversial, though, and I understand there was a lot of discussion and some debate about it the following week.  We tend to expect salvation to be a very cut-and-dried event. Most often we hear testimonies in which someone who was deeply involved in sin found God, and their life totally changed. My testimony wasn’t like that.  I had been a good churchgoer all my life, and was even involved in church leadership.  The things of God were my bread and butter.  Meeting God in a new way out of that experience is not as cut-and-dried as the blatant-sinner-finds-Jesus testimony.

Back at the Pastor’s Prayer Summit earlier that week, on the night after I had asked Jesus into my heart, I lay in bed unable to sleep, so excited by what I was experiencing, and also wondering what on earth had happened to me!  As I lay there asking questions, I felt God begin to speak to me.

Two analogies came to me, and I believed they were from God.  The first one was that my experience of God had been like that of a couple who are engaged but have never married.  They’ve come to know each other well but their relationship hasn’t been consummated.  They’ve shared their hearts but they haven’t yet been united in marriage and become one flesh.  They may have spent many hours together, but they haven’t become one.

I felt God was showing me that this is what my relationship with him had been like prior to that night.  I read the Bible and prayed a lot, but God had still seemed distant and remote.  The Bible says a Christian is someone who has been united with Christ through faith.  A Christian is “in Christ,” and Christ is in him.  This union with Christ is similar to a married couple becoming one flesh through the consummation of their marriage.  Ephesians 5 even compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and his church.

That night I felt like God was showing me that prior to asking Jesus into my heart I had been acquainted with Christ, but I had not been united with Him.  I even talked to Jesus but was not in Him or He in me until I invited Him in, which I had never really consciously and intentionally done before.

The second analogy that came to me as I lay awake that night was of a business deal that had been negotiated but never closed.  In that scenario, both parties have worked out the deal in every detail, but the contract has never been signed on the dotted line, sealing the arrangement.

In a similar way, in the years prior to asking Jesus into my heart, I had a lot of interactions with God but had never really “closed the deal” with him.  When I asked Christ into my heart, that’s when I finally closed it.

The night I gave my testimony at Doug’s church in Knoxville, I shared these two analogies.  Apparently some people were bothered by the subtleties of it.  Folks were asking “He was ‘engaged to Christ’??–What does that mean??”

The intercessors who had prayed with me to received Christ (who also went to that church) didn’t have a problem with what I was trying to say.  Their take was that anything is possible with God. But my analogies didn’t sit well with others because I guess they weren’t cut-and-dried enough.

So Doug, the pastor of the church, wound up feeling a need to address the issue.  The next Sunday his sermon was entitled “What Happened to Morgan?”  I’ve listened to that message after it was given and it was very well done, though I can’t remember the exact content of it now, since many years have passed.

Well, everything I’ve written about in this post so far covers the events of just four days after the pastors prayer summit–Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening.  Some time during those days I had also called my parents to tell them the news. My mother said this explained something that had happened to her: the same night I’d asked Jesus into my heart, she was awakened in the night and thought she heard God say the words “to the heart” but she had no idea what that was about. After she heard my story she concluded her experience pertained to what had happened to me.

This was typical of my relationship with my mother. She had that sixth sense that moms seem to have about their children, and she was also very sensitive to the things of God, especially anything having to do with me. Rarely did anything important ever happen in my life without my mother having some sort of knowledge or awareness of it even before she was told about it.

After the prayer summit I had wondered how my congregation would receive my story. In the days and weeks that followed I sensed they seemed to approve of what I had shared. As one person commented, “We liked you before, so now if you’ve really met God” (or some words to that effect) “then we like you all the better!” They seemed glad I’d had an experience that legitimized my relationship with God and my ministry.  No one ever questioned my testimony or spoke against it in any way.

The week after the prayer summit I began to wonder how my experience fit with the Bible.  I wanted to know: was it scriptural? I began to think about the Bible passages I knew, and also to search for others.  Over the next week or two, several verses came to my attention that seemed to speak to the experience I’d had.  I’ve already shared some of these in the earlier post, but I think they’re worth repeating in more detail.

My mother pointed this passage out to me: Ephesians 3:14-21

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (emphasis added).

This is the main passage in the Bible that speaks of Christ living in our hearts.  It also makes the connection that the heart is a person’s inner being.  My prayer summit experience was profound for me in terms of teaching me about my own heart and the human heart in general.

Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is a very intellectual town (with more Ph.D.s per capita than any other city in the nation, I understand), I tended to look at everything very rationally (maybe this was somehow related to my upbringing, too).  I was quite a literalist in that metaphor and figures of speech didn’t make much of an impression on me.

As a result, sentimental talk about the human heart always left me cold. As far as I was concerned, the heart was a muscle that pumped blood through your bloodstream and that was it. I was cynical about thinking of the heart in symbolic terms.

My prayer summit experienced made me aware of the emotional aspect my heart for the first time in my life. Once I asked Jesus in and had the experienced of him entering my heart, everything changed. I realized all that talk about the emotional side of the human heart wasn’t pure bunk after all.

Often the heart is equated with our emotions, but from a biblical standpoint this isn’t completely accurate. Ephesians 3:16-17 imply that when the Bible talks about the human heart it is referring to our inner being, the innermost part of us that makes us “us.” So the heart isn’t just a sentimental thing, it’s really the central aspect of who we are.

In the years after my prayer summit experience, as I was discipled by a pastor named David Moore, I came to understand that God relates to us mainly through our hearts, more than our minds.  Therefore, what’s most important in terms of our relationship with God is not what we believe about Jesus in our minds, but what we know and believe about him in our hearts.  The mind reflects what’s in the heart, and whatever we don’t truly believe in our hearts our minds will struggle to grasp as well.

But I digress.  My point was: Ephesians 3:17 does speak of Christ living in the hearts of Christians.

I also found a couple of verses which speak of asking Jesus in.  One of these, probably the most famous, is Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

Months later when I studied this verse in order to preach on it, I learned that the door Jesus is actually talking about there is the door of the Laodicean church to which he is speaking in Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus is standing outside the church, as it were, asking to be readmitted. But the promise he gives in verse 20 is still to individuals in that church, for he says “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Jesus is speaking in individual terms there.  So the verse still applies to the idea of individual persons answering Jesus’ summons and letting him into their own lives.

In my studies I also found a verse in the gospel of John which speaks of receiving Christ: John 1:11-13

11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (emphasis added).

This verse tells what must happen in order for someone to become a child of God (that is, to be saved): they must receive Christ, believe in his name, and be “born of God.”

I think we are all familiar with the idea of believing in God or believing in Jesus.  For many people, being a Christian is equated with this simple kind of belief, or with believing certain ideas about Jesus: that he died for our sins and rose again from the dead. We may see it as believing in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Too often the idea of belief is thought of as mere intellectual assent – if someone believes God exists, believes Jesus lived 2000 years ago, believes he died on the cross and rose again, then that makes them a Christian. These beliefs are good as far as they go.  But the Greek word for “believe” throughout the Gospel of John (such as here and in the famous verse John 3:16) is pisteuo, which is better translated “have faith in” or “trust.”

So the kind of belief John 1:12 and John 3:16 are talking about is more than just intellectual assent.  It’s really faith or trust, which is a more relational idea than mere belief. In order to have faith in someone, you have to know them. You have to know what sort of person they are to know if they’re worthy of your trust. So these verses really imply not just believing in Jesus, but knowing Him, and trusting Him.

John 1:12 also speaks of those who “received” Jesus. Prior to my prayer summit experience I’d never noticed this verse, and had never given much thought to the idea of “receiving” Christ. I’d heard people talk about it (“Have you received Christ?”) but not really considered it.

The context of this verse is the incarnation, God coming to earth in Jesus Christ.  Verse 11 says “He came to his own home” (literally, “his own things”) “and his own people received him not.”  “Receiving” here calls to mind hospitality.  Jesus came to the world he’d made, to his own people, the Jews, and the religious leaders rejected him.  They did not receive him.  Some people did accept Jesus, though–many of them social outcasts such as tax collectors and prostitutes. These folks received him.  They showed him hospitality, inviting him into their homes and lives, spending time with him, accepting him, listening to his message, and obeying his word.

John 1:11-13 implies that those who received Jesus in this way did more than just show him hospitality–they believed in him, not just in his teachings but, it says, in his very name.  In Bible times the name represented the person.  These people trusted Jesus.  They opened their hearts to him.  In doing so they were born of God and so became children of God.  As we would say it today, they were saved.

This gives us a picture of what it means for us to receive Jesus.  It is to open our hearts and lives to him.  To get to know him. To trust him like a trustworthy friend.

John 1:13 says those who received Jesus in this way were “born of God.”  This is reminiscent of a more familiar passage in John 3 that talks about being “born again” (see John 3:1-15).  We’ve all heard the phrase “born again.”  “Born of God” is what it means.  (For more on what it means to be born again, see my post here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/).

In the days after my prayer summit experience I remembered that a couple of years earlier, in 1996 or so, a lady in my church had given me a sermon on tape by John Wood, the pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian, a large church in Knoxville.  The sermon was on John 3 where Jesus talked about being born again.  Pastor Wood gave an excellent explanation of the passage.

As I listened, it dawned on me that whatever the Bible meant by being born again, I didn’t think it had ever happened to me.  So right there I said to God “I don’t know what it means to be born again, but I want it.

Now, two years later, as I thought back on my recent prayer summit experience, it occurred to me that what had happened to me there was God’s answer to my prayer about being born again back in 1996.

In John 3:5 Jesus said “You must be born again.” It’s not an option.  John 1:11-13 also shows that being born again, or born of God, is required in order to become a child of God (i.e., be saved).

This isn’t often discussed.  Many times there’s talk about someone becoming a “born again Christian.”  But according to the Gospel of John, there is no other kind of Christian.  To be born again is to be saved, and vice versa.  Jesus said, “You must be born again.”

Based on my experiences and my reflections on them, I concluded that being saved (i.e., becoming a Christian) is more than just accepting certain beliefs in our minds.  It’s more than just praying a sinners prayer. Being born again involves a personal encounter with God which causes us to be born anew and have our spirits brought to life. (For more on this go here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/)

Colossians 1:13-14 says “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Did you catch that?  This verse says that when we’re born into this world, we’re born into the domain of darkness and that we have to be transferred by God out of it.  This is why we must be born again.  The first time we were born we were born into the wrong domain.  In order to be transferred to the kingdom of Christ we have to come under His dominion and submit to him.  We have to be born into his kingdom, born of God.

I will end this post by asking: Have you ever been born of God?  John 1:11-13 tells us how we can be born of God.  🙂

If you feel this post has been a worthwhile read, or if you know someone who might benefit from reading it, please share it with your friends!  You can use the “Share” buttons below, or copy and paste the URL in your address bar onto your friend’s Facebook page or into an email and send it out!

Up next: A Spiritual Journey, Part 3, in which I talk about the conclusion of my ministry as a pastor, as well as events in my life since that time.  Stay tuned.

Dividing Between Soul and Spirit

Book Review: “The Latent Power of the Soul” by Watchman Nee

The Latent Power of the SoulNee, Watchman. The Latent Power of the Soul. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1972. (According to Nee’s preface, the book was originally written in 1933.)

Watchman Nee (Chinese “Ni To-sheng”) was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century.  After the Communists came to power in China, Nee was imprisoned and spent the last 20 years of his life incarcerated for his faith.  (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchman_nee)

Nee only wrote a few books himself, The Latent Power of the Soul being one of them.  However, notes from many of his lectures were also compiled and translated into English to comprise quite a few more books that have been published in his name.

I’ve read several books by Watchman Nee that were really good.  In particular, The Normal Christian Life, an explication of Romans 5-8, and Sit, Walk, Stand, based on Ephesians, are outstanding.

However, The Latent Power of the Soul is not on par with Nee’s best work.  The reasons are as follows: 1) Nee’s exegesis (that is, his reading and explanation of Scripture) is very weak. 2) His explanation of his argument is unclear. 3) Much of Nee’s case is based on his own subjective experiences rather than on hard biblical evidence, and these experiences aren’t described clearly enough in many cases for the reader to even be sure Nee’s meaning is understood.

Nevertheless, I do see some good in the book, which I will share toward the end of this review.

Spirit, Soul, and Body

The central concept in The Latent Power of the Soul is built on Nee’s earlier book The Spiritual Man, in which he explores the tripartite nature of humanity (i.e., man as spirit, soul, and body). 1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, in Hebrews 4:12 we read “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (emphasis added).

Based on these verses, in The Spiritual Man Nee argues that the terms “spirit” and “soul” are not interchangeable but instead in the Bible each is used distinctly to refer to a different part of the human make-up.  As Nee explains in The Latent Power of the Soul, “the soul is our personality” (p. 11), while the spirit is “that which makes us conscious of God and relates us to God (p. 13).”  I haven’t read all of The Spiritual Man, but what I have read of it seems accurate from both a biblical and experiential point of view.

Superhuman Power Before the Fall?

However, Nee’s main argument in The Latent Power of the Soul seems less well-founded biblically.  His premise is that human beings as originally created prior to the fall were endued with incredible, even supernatural, power, and this power resided in our souls.

Nee bases this claim on the fact that in Genesis God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. Nee takes God’s command to Adam to subdue the earth quite literally and assumes it was incumbent on Adam and Eve all by themselves to fulfill it. Nee’s assumption is that our first parents, as the only two humans on earth at the time, must have had incredible powers in order to be able to fulfill this command, in light of the sheer size of the earth and the scope of plant and animal life that covered the planet at that time.

In my opinion, however, it’s better to interpret God’s command to Adam and Eve as intended not only for them but also their descendants–i.e., that the command is given to the entire human race.  It’s unnecessary to assume God expected Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth all by themselves.  (The question of whether Adam and Eve were the only humans on earth arises later in the story when their sons Cain and Seth marry, for one must ask, where did their wives come from?? But that is a topic for another blog post.)

To back up his argument, Nee makes this claim: The fact that sweat and toil in labor were effects of the fall and not of the original creation (see Genesis 3:17-19) means that prior to the fall Adam must have had limitless physical strength to labor and not grow tired.  However, this is also a misinterpretation, because a careful reading of these verses shows that the increased difficulty in manual labor after the fall is not due to a decrease in Adam’s strength, but to an increase in the difficulty associated with work. In the fall the ground is cursed and produces thorns and thistles (weeds) and so plants which can be eaten now have to be cultivated and the ground worked in order for it to produce food. Man’s labor is likewise cursed with an increase in the obstacles he must overcome in order to achieve his goals.

Because of the fall, humanity has to work a lot harder to produce the same results.  So Nee’s claim that prior to the fall Adam must have had superhuman stamina is unfounded.

Nee also claims that in order to name all the animals (see Genesis 2:19-20), Adam must have had an incredible power of memory and thought in order to accomplish this task.  Here as elsewhere, Nee’s argument is based on conjecture that cannot be supported by the text itself.

Likewise, Nee argues that the Garden of Eden must have been very large because it was bounded by four rivers (based on Genesis 2:10-14), and therefore Adam must have had superhuman powers in order to be able to manage the garden.  However, once again we have a faulty interpretation, for the text actually says that “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters,” (emphasis added).  So the four rivers were not part of Eden but flowed from the river that came out of Eden.  Even if Nee’s interpretation were accurate, his argument about the size of the garden is based solely on conjecture, and such arguments are not a good basis on which to found an entire teaching.

Finally, Nee claims that the fact that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27) also means they had powers that would seem supernatural to us today.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the idea that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve had greater abilities than we currently know.  Science has shown that we only use about 10 percent of our brain power.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who proposed that prior to the fall we used 100% of our brain capacity and pondered what wonders we’d be capable of if this power were restored.  But the biblical basis on which Nee makes his assertions about Adam’s prowess before the fall seems flawed to me.

Latent Power in the Soul

Nee goes on to say that when Adam and Eve sinned against God their spirits died, causing these incredible powers that resided in their souls to be “frozen” and immobilized due to sin. Nee tries to explain this biblically but in my opinion his argument here is not just bad, it’s unintelligible.

The major premise of Nee’s book, then, which is referenced in the title, is that this vast soul power which was frozen in the human soul lies latent and unused.  The central biblical passage on which he bases this idea is Revelation 18:11-13:

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.” (emphasis added)

From this passage Nee surmises that in the last days Satan’s goal is tap into this latent power in human souls in order to accomplish his diabolical deceptions again humanity and the church.  How he comes to this conclusion from these verses is, quite honestly, beyond me.  It seems like a complete stretch in terms of interpreting the passage, especially in light of its context, which speaks of judgment against Babylon in the last days.

Satan Wants Your Soul Power!

Nee’s main point, then, is that in our souls we humans have enough hidden power to perform supernatural wonders. However, he says, as Christians we are not to make use of this power because it is forbidden, due to the fall.  Instead, Christians are to rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, working through our spirit (as opposed to the soul) to do God’s work.

Moreover, Satan is trying to tap into the latent power in the human soul in order to deceive the world in the last days through false signs and wonders he would perform using humanity’s soul power.  For millennia Satan’s attempts to harness this power failed, but in recent centuries he has found success and has been building up steam toward the climax of the last days when the antichrist will unleash the full power hidden in man’s soul and take over the world.

Now, the idea that we should rely on the Holy Spirit’s power instead of the power of our own souls in order to live the Christian life is exactly right.  It’s Nee’s claim that we have supernatural powers bound up in our souls which Satan is trying to release that I see as unfounded from a scriptural standpoint.

Nee makes much of Anton Mesmer’s discovery of hypnotism in 1778, and claims this was the turning point at which Satan began to have more success in releasing humanity’s latent soul power.  Since that time, claims Nee, man has been learning more and more about parapsychology, through which Satan has been gaining ever greater control over human soul power.  Nee believes that parapsychology and all paranormal activity is a product of man’s latent soul power, and says that this is going to increase in the last days until the antichrist finally emerges and gains control of the world.  It seems to me that Nee’s thesis betrays a 20th century Western preoccupation with paranormal activity.

A More Biblical Approach

Now what strikes me as odd about this is, I think there’s a way in which Nee could’ve easily made a similar argument from a much more biblically sound perspective.

Nee’s position is that Satan needs man’s soul power in order to be able to do anything of a supernatural nature or perform the false miracles with which he will bring the antichrist to power in the last days. Strangely, Nee completely overlooks what the Bible has to say about the occult.  Several passages in the Bible (notably Deuteronomy 18:9-14) make it clear that occult practices like witchcraft, spiritism, necromancy, and the like were forbidden by God, and the implication is that these are activities which convey genuine supernatural power and originate with Satan.  (Paranormal activity like Nee describes would fall under the category of occult power as well, by the way.)

So the Bible would seem to indicate that Satan is capable of supernatural activity without having to use man’s soul power.  Therefore Nee’s claim that Satan needs human soul power to do his dirty work simply doesn’t seem necessary (or biblical).  I’m sure it’s true that when the human soul is separated from God and HIs Spirit, this can become a means through which Satan can work; but it doesn’t follow that this is the only means by which Satan can work.  At any rate, it seems strange to me that Nee ignores such a clear scriptural connection to his topic, and instead comes at it in such a roundabout way.

Soulish or Spiritual?

In the last of the three chapters in the book, Nee focuses on the difference between living the Christian life, or conducting ministry, out of one’s soul power versus doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a helpful distinction.  However, I found the practical examples Nee gives to be singularly unhelpful.  They are very subjective, often based on Nee’s own personal intuitions and perceptions, so that his reasons for believing a certain experience or manifestation was soulish rather than Holy-Spirit-led are hard to see or understand.  And in fact some of his claims seem pretty strange to a modern reader.

For example, Nee says that too much singing in worship services is soulish rather than led by the Holy Spirit; too much reflection on a Bible text will lead to a soulish interpretation rather than a spiritual one; all holy laughter (yes, they knew of it in his day) is soulish; if you desire for God to speak to you through dreams or visions, and especially if you have a lot of dreams or visions, then these are likely from the soul rather than the Holy Spirit; if you experience strong feelings, especially good feelings, in worship or prayer then these are likely from the soul rather than from the Holy Spirit; too much praying in tongues, or an inordinate desire to speak or pray in tongues, is soulish; and that many supernatural healings are wrought through soul power rather than Holy Spirit power.

Fear of Spiritual Deception

After reading Nee’s final chapter I felt like the ultimate effect of it, and indeed of the entire book, might be to instill in the reader a fear of being deceived.  Nee comes across as though he believes most spiritual phenomena and manifestations in church or Christian meetings are soulish and demonic rather than from the Holy Spirit, especially if they are accompanied by very nice feelings.  Nee seems to believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is accompanied by very little feeling at all, almost as if the Holy Spirit works impassively in human beings.  Therefore, a lack of strong feelings is a sign of a work that is authentically of the Holy Spirit, while the presence of strong feelings renders an experience suspect as being possibly soulish and demonic rather of God.

If what Nee says is true, then a lot of what goes on in today’s charismatic church (not to mention the rest of the church) originates in the soul and is of demonic origin, rather than from God!

Throughout The Latent Power of the Soul Nee refers to a book called Soul and Spirit by Jessie Penn-Lewis, an evangelist famous for her role in the Welsh revival in the first decade of the 20th century.  Penn-Lewis is also known for her controversial book War on the Saints in which she concluded that some of the spiritual manifestations which occurred in the Welsh revival were from Satan rather than God.

Though I haven’t read War on the Saints in its entirety, nor have I read Soul and Spirit, I have studied Penn-Lewis and can sense her influence on Nee in The Latent Power of the Soul.  Penn-Lewis became very suspicious of spiritual manifestations and is accused by some of being too quick to label certain manifestations as being demonic in origin rather than divine.  The Latent Power of the Soul strikes me as having this same tendency.  And since Penn-Lewis’ book is about the only source Nee consistently references in this book besides the Bible, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Soul and Spirit had a lot of influence on The Latent Power of the Soul.

I will be the first to admit that discernment is needed with regard to spiritual experiences and manifestations.  The apostle John warned us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  However, in my opinion Nee’s approach in this book is erroneous in itself.  It seems based more on Penn-Lewis’ book and on certain assumptions of Western society (which is ironic from a Chinese author) than on the Bible.

Reading this book helped me understand something about my own life and background.  My mother was always very afraid of being deceived in the way Nee describes in this book.  In fact, the copy of the book I read belonged to my mom, and contained all her underlining and notes.  From these I could tell that she really agreed with or was greatly influenced by the teachings in this book.  I also know that my mother was highly influenced by Jessie Penn-Lewis’ book War On the Saints which also goes into great detail in describing what the author believed were demonically inspired manifestations in the Welsh revival and warning her readers to be on guard against them.

It seems my mother was highly influenced by these two books, and that her deep fears of being spiritually deceived may have been founded on them.  My mother’s fears in this regard had a very profound (and I would say negative) effect on our relationship and also on my perception of God and His trustworthiness with regard to spiritual phenomena.

The Value of This Book

Having described all the problems I see with The Latent Power of the Soul I will go on to say, however, that it’s not all bad. I did benefit from reading it.  Nee’s clear and careful distinction between the human soul and spirit is helpful, as is his delineation between the ways they operate.  Nee also makes a valid point that there is an important difference between what we conjure up by our own power and what is the true work of the Holy Spirit.  He rightly points out that some of what goes on in Christian church services and meetings is more the use of psychological means and human effort rather than relying on the Spirit.

Nee’s words made me ask myself: when I lead worship or speak, how much of what I do is my own efforts, and how much is reliance on the Spirit?  How often to I employ persuasion or manipulation, rather than simply looking to the Spirit to do his work?  It is a sobering question, worth considering.

Nee’s book also made me take a fresh look at some of the ways we do things in church today.  For example, if church leaders work very hard to sport the latest hip fashion, and if our desire in worship is to have the latest cool music in order to attract new people (or retain the ones we have), are we using psychological manipulation?  Is our very approach, and our motive, soulish in origin?

Reading this book also spurred me to begin a study of how the Greek word for soul, psuche, is used in the Bible. Psuche is the word from which we get the English term “psyche,” another word for soul.  In fact, “psyche” is really just a transliteration of psuche.  “Psychology” is the study of the soul.

In my word study I learned something new about the following verse (or was reminded of it, because I think I had heard it before): 1 Cor 2:14 says “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  In the Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written) the word translated “natural” is psuchikos–literally “soulish” (or, as the English translation of Nee’s book quaintly says, “soulical”).  So a paraphrase of the verse using this idea would be “The person operating only in the realm of the soul does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Here is another place in Scripture where we see the distinction Nee has rightly pointed out between operating from the soul, and operating from the spirit.  It shows the importance of the distinction.

I hope no one reading this will leave with a bad impression of Watchman Nee.  He was a great man, a truly courageous Christian.  No doubt he received a great reward when he met his heavenly Father after leaving this life.  Some of his books are classics.  The Latent Power of the Soul is just not one of his better works.  This reminds us that even the greatest of Christian leaders is still a human being and fallible like the rest of us.  But I’m grateful I took the time to read this book.  It gave me greater insight into one of my spiritual heroes and helped me to see his more human side.

Genuine Freedom

I post and comment a lot on Facebook. In the process my friends and I have some great and provocative discussions on all kinds of topics.

Tonight a friend posted this quote attributed to Rick Joyner: Love is the greatest freedom. Selfishness is the greatest bondage.”

This dovetailed with something I was thinking about yesterday. Last night another friend had posted a video by the rock band The Who. That spurred me on to watch several more of their videos. While I haven’t been a huge Who fan, I do enjoy some of their music, especially the “Who’s Next” album. So last night I enjoyed the concert videos I found of the songs “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”–arguably one of the best rock songs of all time.

While watching these videos I was really impressed by John Entwhistle’s bass-playing, as well as Keith Moon’s busy drumming style. I often look up bands I like on Wikipedia, and so before long I was reading about The Who, and especially Entwhistle and Moon.

The crazy and self-destructive life Moon led is no secret. (He died of a major drug overdose at the age of 32.) As I read more of the details, it made me sad. Keith probably felt he was living a life of “freedom” by flaunting so many conventions of society and just doing whatever he wanted in the moment. And a lot of other people would likely see this as a life of freedom, too–though they might not carry it to the extremes Moon did. But I thought: yeah – freedom to destroy yourself! – real freedom! (not).

Never has it been more clear to me that what many call freedom is really a form of bondage, and that the life of relationship, community, transformation, and discipline God invites us into is really the only path to true freedom. In our flesh we think selfishness is freedom and the relational “ties that bind” hinder freedom. But it’s really only in the context of community and behavioral boundaries that true freedom is possible.

A very personal example isn’t hard to find. I love to eat, and I confess I often eat more than I should. In my short-sightedness, I think freedom is being “free” to eat as much as I want, of whatever I want. But my oversize gut and all the extra poundage I carry actually weigh me down and hinder my freedom. Because I’m overweight I can’t move very quickly. If I ever had to literally run for my life, I’d be in real trouble. Being overweight also probably makes me less attractive to women, and less respectable to any I might desire to influence with my Christian witness.

So the “freedom” I think I have in my eating habits actually steals my freedom in other, more important areas. And this doesn’t even touch on the many ways in which relationships free us rather than hindering us which Rick Joyner referred to. As I wrote in one of my songs a number of years ago:

Real freedom’s so much more

Than just doing what we want to,

‘Cause when we hurt ourselves or others

Our freedom isn’t true.

Real liberty

Comes from having eyes to see

That we’ve freed from doing wrong

And liberated to do what’s right.


I think I understand that better now than when I wrote it back in the day. Maybe it’s time I really changed the way I look at freedom.

[Lyrics to “Your Wish Is My Command” (c) 1989 Morgan Trotter music.]

Reflections on "The Shack"

As is typical of The Shack from what I’ve heard, I read the book this past spring after being given a copy by a friend. The novel was already rising in popularity, and I read it partly just to see what all the buzz was about.

By now I’m told The Shack has sold over a million copies. An internet search reveals that responses to this fictional story have run the gamut, from unqualified praise to scathing critique. Of course, this varied reaction is because its presentation of God is a little unorthodox—which is precisely why some people have loved the story, and others have viewed it with suspicion.

Spoiler Alert: I’m going to discuss details of the story that will give away key elements of the plot, so if you intend to read it and don’t want the story line to be spoiled for you, then you might not want to read further. My thoughts are intended mainly for those who’ve read the book, though others may find them helpful if they are curious.

My response to The Shack was mixed. Certain parts of the story really touched me emotionally. Other aspects either left me a bit cold or raised questions about the book’s true value and the long term impact it will have.

First I’ll share the parts of the story that impacted me positively. Next I’ll share those I found to be more questionable.

The Restoration of All Things

Like most, I found the plot that frames the story gripping and heart-wrenching. Missy, the little daughter of the story’s main character, Mack, is kidnapped by a serial killer and meets a most horrific end. The book is about how God ministers to Mack in the aftermath of this terrible nightmare that no parent would ever want to face. The story becomes a vehicle, then, for offering a fresh perspective on humanity’s perennial question: If God is all powerful and completely good, why do unspeakable things happen in this world of his?

There were two scenes in the book that touched me deeply. One occurs in chapter 11 when Mack is in the cave with Sophia (“wisdom,” of course), and he gets to see Missy again, as she is in eternity. The moment is bittersweet because he cannot touch her or hold her or talk to her; he only gets to see her and hear her tell him she’s okay and that she loves him. But the message is conveyed clearly and powerfully on an intuitive level that all wrongs in this life will be righted in the life to come, and that all pains and sorrows will give way to eternal and everlasting joy. For me it was the most powerful moment in the entire story.

The other part of the book that really moved me was toward the end when one evening Mackenzie is allowed to see with spiritual eyes, to witness the glory of all living things, including a heavenly gathering of saints who have gone before. These Mack perceives as beings of pure light. His attention is drawn to one light-being in particular who is radiating a corona, if you will, of various hues of brilliant colored light. Mack is told by Sarayu (the character in the story who is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit) that one of the beings there is “having some difficulty keeping in what he is feeling.” Mack discovers that this particular light being is his father, who severely abused Mack as a boy, to which Mack responded at the time by putting poison in all his bottles of whisky and then running away from home. This scene is full of impact as father and son are reunited in a profound and emotional encounter. The question of whether Mack’s horribly abusive father was a believer is not addressed, but once again the message comes through that even the most horrible events of this life, even the most painful of relationships, will be redeemed and restored in the end. This scene for me certainly evoked my own longing that this would indeed be true, that at the end of all things that which has never been healed in this life will finally be satisfied one day.

There were other aspects of the novel, though, that did not sit with me so well, and which left me with questions and concerns. I will share these as well.

No Devil in the Details

First, it struck me as odd that a book whose purpose is to address the problem of evil makes absolutely no reference to spiritual warfare or to the presence of satan, a spiritual presence in the world that seeks to oppose God and all that is holy and good, and to seek vengeance against God by bringing tragedy on his creatures. In my view this is the book’s most glaring omission. It leaves out a key aspect of Christian teaching that, in my opinion, helps to explain the presence of evil in a world governed by a sovereign and good God.

God Is Oprah??

A second issue I had with the book was that I felt it played right into the ideological excesses of contemporary culture. Our culture and the American church are very feminized. In The Shack three of the four main characters who are supposed to represent God for most of the book are female. No wonder the book is so appealing to modern sensibilities! Isn’t this exactly what 21st century America wants in the divine: a kinder, gentler, more feminine God? This may be what we want, but is it really what we need—a more feminized portrait of God?

Up until Mack encounters God at the shack I found the book remarkably gripping and realistic. Paul Young, the author, had me asking, How is he going to resolve this? But when Mack returns to the shack and suddenly everything is transformed and beautiful, and Mack is greeted at the door by the female God-character “Papa,” I had to struggle to retain my interest in the story. “Papa” is a large, almost stereotypical older black woman. My response was, honestly, “Oh my gosh—God as Oprah!! No wonder this book is so popular! This is exactly what millions of Americans would love for God to be like!”

But is God presented as Oprah what we really need? Honestly it seemed rather trite to me….

As the story unfolds, the Holy Spirit is portrayed also as a woman—a very feminine, very savvy Asian woman—named Sarayu (which is, incidentally, Sanskrit for “wind” or “air”). And then when Mack later encounters the character who is supposed to represent wisdom as personified in the book of Proverbs, she is, of course, also a woman, aptly named Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”). For most of the book the only male character representing God is Jesus, who is portrayed as a hip young Middle Eastern man.

Quite honestly, as I read the story, with all its feminine representations of God, I felt kind of like a guest on an episode of the TV show “The View”—you know, that popular trendy morning talk show hosted by Barbara Walters and three other women. I shook my head and again thought to myself: No wonder this book is so popular!

Not So “Novel” After All…

This presentation of God in feminine form might be novel for some (no pun intended), but it was not new for me. At the seminary I attended in the 1980s, feminist students and teachers were all the time wanting to portray God in terms other than male or masculine. Seeing God the Father and the Holy Spirit portrayed in this book as women reminded me of many a tiresome chapel service at Princeton in which God was invoked as “Father/Mother God” or “Our Heavenly Mother.” So this was nothing new for me, it was just a tad wearisome. It was all too familiar, and not a pleasant association either….

In the book, author Paul Young has “Papa,” the God-as-a-black-woman character, explain that he chose to appear to Mack in this form because his relationship with his father was so bad. This is the very same argument the feminists at Princeton Seminary used to justify their insistence that God never be referred to as “Father” or “He” because it might be offensive to those who had a bad relationship with their father. I saw entire denominations overtaken by this assertion that we can no longer call God “Father” or “He” out of consideration for those who were abused by their fathers….

The character Sophia reminded me of the “Reimagining God” conference a number of feminist theologians sponsored for all the mainline denominations back in 1993, in which God was invoked as the “goddess” Sophia and the elements used in their “communion” service were milk and honey rather than bread and wine. The milk and the honey were each intended to represent aspects of womanhood, and I’ll just leave it at that.

I have experienced firsthand the errors and heresies that can occur when the Fatherhood of God is replaced with feminine images. So the portrayal of God through a majority of female characters in this book was not a source of comfort or help to me. I could go further in my critique of Young’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit as a female character, but I won’t.

Is This What We Really Need?

But my biggest question about all this is: Sure, a softer, more feminine portrayal of God is more palatable in this day and age, but is it really what we need? Isn’t what we really need a picture of God in masculine terms that’s more accessible? We’ve associated God the Father with the “otherness” and transcendence of God. In essence we’ve allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner by the claim that a masculine portrayal of God must represent only his transcendence, and so if we want a more immanent view of God (that is, God among us and with us), we must use a feminine portrayal.

But I contend that the real problem is not with the idea of a masculine God, but with our understanding and view of masculinity. I think Young would have served us better if he had worked to rehabilitate our view of God using a male character. By reverting to a female personification of God, Young has essentially surrendered to our culture’s prevailing view that masculinity itself is the problem. Indeed, at one point in the book “Papa” herself says “Men! Such idiots sometimes!” And every 21st century woman reading the book (and not a few men I suspect) respond with a hearty “Amen!” No wonder the book is so popular! It parrots the very view of men and masculinity we’re subjected to every night on TV. Please! If I want that I’ll just watch television.

[Edit added March 4, 2017: But more important than the question of what we need is, How does the Bible portray God?  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and our final authority for faith, practice, and doctrine.  What does God reveal about himself in the Bible?

The Bible consistently portrays God as male/masculine.  The Bible refers to God with masculine pronouns in the third person – he, him, his.  The Bible reveals God as the Father of Jesus Christ and likewise as the Father of all who will accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, God must have had good reasons for revealing himself in these masculine terms.  And I believe his reason was because what we most need is a good and loving Father.

If God has chosen to reveal himself as masculine, then I think we tamper with this at our peril.

Now some will respond that God also speaks of himself in Scripture in motherly terms, and this is true.  There are a few passages in which God speaks of himself as acting like a mother in certain ways.  But there are still some important distinctions to consider.  First, all the references to God being like a mother in the Bible are in the form of similes.  You probably remember from grade school what a simile is: a comparison of one thing to another using the words “like” or “as.”  In Scripture God says that sometimes he acts “like” a mother in certain ways, but he never calls himself our Mother, nor says he IS a mother.  On the other hand, scripture says God IS a father.  Jesus invites us to address God as “Father.”  There’s a difference, and it’s an important one.  I think to make light of or ignore this difference puts us at risk of creating God in our own image, the way we would like God to be, rather than as he really is.]

“PC”–More Than Just An IBM Computer….

With the presence of a female Asian character, a female African American character, and a Middle Eastern man, the book also plays to out culture’s current emphasis on multi-culturalism. In other words, The Shack is just so pleasantly “PC”—Politically Correct. Again—no wonder the book is so popular. Even Sarayu’s Sanskrit name and her Asian ethnicity seem like nods to the popularity of Eastern religion in our day. All this goes right along with the culture’s views on how the world ought to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with these characters being non-white. It just seems like such a blatant parlay to the spirit of our age…..

Don’t Put Your Hierarchy On Me

Another way in which this book plays to our culture is in its view of hierarchy and authority. The age we live in is very anti-authority and opposed to any form of hierarchy. The God characters in the book make strong statements that the concept of hierarchical authority relationships did not originate with God but are a product of the fallen world we live in. Young even goes so far as to say that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, that all the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another in attitudes of mutual submission.

I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a single passage of Scripture anywhere in the Bible that describes or refers to God the Father as subjecting himself to either the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Son subjects Himself to the Father, and the Spirit subjects himself to the Father and the Son. But if there are any passages in which the Father subjects himself to the Son or the Spirit I am not aware of them. (In his forthcoming book “Reimagining Church,” house church guru Frank Viola claims to demonstrate from Scripture that hierarchical relationships did not originate with God. I am interested to see what he has to say and whether his argument holds water.)

If I am correct that Young is in error in this presentation of relationships within the Trinity, then this may be one of the gravest errors in the book. Is Young opening our eyes to a new truth in Scripture and a way in which the church has been in error, lo these many centuries? Or is he merely capitulating to the spirit of the age and furthering the rebellion against all forms of authority which so permeates our time?

Help or Hindrance?

Another concern I have about this book is the way in which it is being received by non-believers. The other day on the internet I read a response to it by a woman who said she had always avoided becoming a Christian because she couldn’t accept that a loving God would require people to believe in just one way—in Christ—in order to be saved. She said that reading The Shack had given her hope that maybe God is more the way she would like God to be.

If The Shack is introducing people to the true God and inviting people into saving relationship with Jesus Christ, then that’s a great thing. But if this book is merely encouraging us to make God in our own image, then it is doing serious damage to the cause of Christ, because it may cause people to believe they have no need of Christ in order to be saved. That would be a very tragic outcome, indeed.

I have not even said anything about the fact that by implication the book seems to leave open the question of whether people outside of Christ will be saved, and whether there will be any eternal retribution for the unrepentant.

Inspect the Fruit

Obviously, this book has become very popular. But the popularity of something doesn’t necessarily mean it is right or wrong. The Purpose Driven Life and Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now have each sold millions of copies, and yet both books have their fans as well as their detractors in the church. So popularity doesn’t really mean that much. Jesus said we would know his followers by the fruit produced in and through their lives.

This weekend I will get to hear the author in person. I’m interested to see what he and the meetings will be like.

At any rate, I guess time with tell the real story of The Shack. In time we will see whether it has really brought people closer to Christ, or if it just turns out to be another fad that has made its way through the evangelical church. If The Shack is just a fad, hopefully the damage left in its wake won’t be irreparable.

The New Birth

The following is a sermon I preached at a United Methodist church in East Tennessee on June 1, 2008.

John 3:1-15

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (Revised Standard Version)

For those of us who grew up in the church, this may be a very familiar passage. Because it’s so familiar we can miss aspects of its meaning.  Therefore this morning I want to take a fresh look at this story to see what we might learn from it.

The first person we meet in the story is Nicodemus. What do we know about him?

Verse 1 tells us Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was devoutly religious. This same verse also calls him a “ruler of the Jews.  ”In verse 10 Jesus calls Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel. ” This implies that he must have been fairly well-known as a spiritual leader, someone who was respected as a teacher in spiritual matters. So from these few facts we can surmise that Nicodemus was no lightweight; he was known and respected as a spiritual leader.

In light of this, the fact that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night (verse2) is significant. Some of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people were suspicious of Jesus and thought he was leading the people astray. It appears Nicodemus was concerned about what his colleagues would think about him coming to consult this controversial rabbi, and so Nicodemus comes to see him quietly at night.

We can also see, though, that he must have had some level of spiritual awareness, because he tells Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (verse 2). Nicodemus recognized Jesus as a man who had been sent by God. One of the themes in the gospel of John is that Jesus is the man who came down from heaven, and this verse indicates that Nicodemus was perceptive enough to see this.

Jesus doesn’t mince any words with this man. In fact, he doesn’t even give Nicodemus time to ask a question or tell Jesus why he came. Jesus cuts to the chase; He tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” (v. 3).

The fact that Jesus says such a thing to this prominent religious leader is significant: Even though Nicodemus is a spiritual leader of his people—even though he’s a teacher, and a man of some understanding—Jesus tells him there’s more. There’s more to being a part of God’s kingdom than Nicodemus has yet discovered.

Nicodemus questioned what Jesus meant about being born anew. It would be worthwhile for us to consider the issue for a moment.

You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and that all our English Bibles are translations of the Greek manuscripts into English. In John 3 verses 3 and 7, where the text speaks of being born anew, the Greek word translated “anew” is anothen.

This word can also be translated “again”. Of course, this is the wording we most often hear with respect to this phrase: “born again”. The idea of being a “born-again Christian” has almost become a cliché. However, we see here that being born again is a biblical idea.

The Greek word “anothen” can also be translated “from above”. So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be “born anew”, “born again” or “born from above.” Each of these translations tells us something about what Jesus meant.

“Born anew” and “born again” have similar meanings. We can tell Nicodemus understood Jesus’ statement in this way because of his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus understood Jesus to be saying he needed to be born again.

The translation “born from above” is helpful also, because it helps us know what kind of birth we’re talking about. It’s a birth that’s not merely of this earth, but instead is “from above.” We can interpret this to mean that the new birth is from heaven. We’ll say more about that in a moment.

When we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus “you must be born anew” or “born again,” our response might be a bit like that of Nicodemus: “What do you mean I must be ‘born again?’ How can someone be born once they’ve grown up? Can a person enter a second time into his or her mother’s womb and be born?” Let’s take a few moments to consider in more depth what kind of birth this new birth or second birth is.

Our best indication is found in verse 6, when Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here Jesus contrasts two kinds of birth.

First he refers to our natural birth when he says “That which is born of the flesh is flesh….” Every person is born into this world in the natural manner: Parents conceive, the mother carries the baby to term (hopefully) and eventually the mother gives birth to a healthy baby from her womb. This natural birth that every person goes through to come into this world is what Jesus is referring to when he says “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.”

But then Jesus goes on to say that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here he’s talking about the second birth, or the new birth. So from this we know that when Jesus says “you must be born again” he’s talking about a spiritual birth. This fits with the idea of being “born from above,” which we talked about a moment ago. When he speaks of “that which is born of the Spirit” he’s referring there to the Holy Spirit. The new birth is a spiritual birth coming “from above,” when a person is born of the Holy Spirit.

This goes along with what Jesus said in verse 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Scholars have debated what Jesus means here by being “born of water.” Some say the reference to water refers to the waters of baptism. Others claim Jesus is referring to the natural birth, as we think of when we say that the mother’s “water broke” just before giving birth.

Since Jesus is talking here about what must happen in order for a person enter the kingdom of God, and since he contrasts the natural birth with the spiritual birth in verse 6, I don’t believe being “born of water” here is referring to the natural birth. I think it’s safe to say that the water Jesus mentions in verse 5 is the water of baptism. Jesus is saying that in order for a person to enter the Kingdom of God they must be baptized and spiritually reborn. (Note: We should not take this to mean that baptism is necessary for salvation. But that is a topic for another sermon.)

So to sum up, when Jesus tells Nicodemus “you must be born again” he’s saying to him: In order for someone to enter the kingdom of God a person has to be born in a spiritual sense. They must be born of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about this idea of being born again, let’s look at another passage in the gospel of John, John 1: 9-13.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (RSV)

Here John is talking about Jesus coming into the world. He says that Jesus “was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (verses 10 and 11). But then notice what it says in verses 12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Here we see another reference to the new birth, when John speaks of being “born of God.” John tells us that the way to become children of God is by being born of God.

What the gospel of John is talking about here and in chapter 3 is becoming a Christian. And what we see in both places is that in order to become a Christian a person must be born again.

We have heard talk over the years of “born-again” Christians, but these verses let us know that really there is no other kind. If you want to be a Christian, if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, if you want to be a child of God, says the Bible, you must be born again. Notice it says “you must be born again.” Not you “may” or you “might want to be”, but “you must be born again.” And lest we think Jesus was only addressing this thought to Nicodemus, we should take note of the fact that when Jesus says “you must be born anew” in verse 7, the word “you” in the Greek is plural. So it means “you all must be born again.” (You didn’t know Jesus was a southerner, did you?  😉 ) Taking this into account, the full meaning of verse 7 is as follows: “Do not marvel that I said to you, Nicodemus, that you all must be born anew.”

Jesus wasn’t just telling Nicodemus he had to be born again. He was saying that any person who desires to become a Christian needs to be born again.

Why? Why do we need to be born again?

The answer goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God’s command, and ate of the forbidden fruit, their disobedience caused them to die spiritually. This gave them a sinful nature which also passed to their children and on down through the generations, so that every person who’s ever been born has a sinful nature that separates them from God.

Every person who is born into this world is born spiritually dead. When we come into this world our spirits are dead. That’s why Jesus said we must be born of the Spirit in order to be saved. In order to enter God’s kingdom we have to be born into it via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revives our spirit and brings it to life, giving us new life, the life of Christ.

Back in the days when kings ruled the earth, the normal way to become a king was that you had to be born the son of the king in order to succeed to the throne. Kingship was normally passed on by blood through birth.

When we become Christians, we become children of God, who is the great king of all the earth. God invites us to become his children. But in order to do this, we have to be born into his kingdom.

So how does this happen? How do we become born again? Let’s look again at John 1: 12-13.“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John says that those who were given power (the Greek word also means “right” or “authority”) to become the children of God were those who “received” him, those who “believed in his name.” This is how we are born of God, by receiving Christ and believing in his name. Let’s look briefly at these two ideas.

First, what does it mean to receive Christ? We must begin by remembering that Jesus is a person. He’s not a concept or an idea or a thought, but a person. Yes, he’s risen from the dead and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. But the Bible teaches that Jesus comes to us spiritually and makes his home with us if we love him. Consider these verses from the 14th chapter of John:

18 “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

If a stranger comes to your house, you have a couple of options as to how you will respond to them. You can turn them away, or you can receive them into your home and show them hospitality. If you get to know them well, you may begin to show them love and in a sense receive them in a deeper way, into your heart.

John 1 says that when Jesus came into this world, many didn’t receive him. They rejected him. They didn’t believe he was who he said he was, they didn’t believe or accept his teaching, they didn’t receive him in any way.

The chapter goes on to say, though, that there were some who did receive him. These were the ones who “believed in his name.” In Bible times, someone’s name represented everything they were. To believe in Jesus name is, among other things, to believe in everything that he is. These people believed Jesus was who he said he was. They believed and accepted Jesus’ teaching. They received him into their homes and into their lives and showed him hospitality and love.

Unfortunately, the idea of believing in Jesus is often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “believe” in the New Testament is the word pisteuo, which really means to “trust” or to “have faith in.”

Too often people think that believing in Jesus is just intellectual assent; that is, merely believing in Jesus as an idea or a concept; believing facts about Jesus—that he was born of a virgin, died on the cross, rose again, saved us from our sins, will get us to heaven when we die, etc. These facts about Jesus Christ are all true, and we do need to believe them.

But when the Bible talks about believing in Jesus, what is meant is trusting in him, having faith in him. Jesus Christ is a living person, more real than you or I. And we can have a relationship with him, just as you would have a relationship with a very special friend; or with a father who loves you and looks after you and watches out for you and has the best advice and wisdom for you. In order to be born again we are called to place our trust in this very special friend, to put our very lives in his hands.

Likewise, receiving Jesus means opening our hearts to him and receiving him, his very life, his very being, into our very selves.  Letting all that He is fill all that we are. THIS is what it means to be born again.

And so the question I have for you this morning is: Have you been born again? Have you received Jesus into your heart and life? Have you believed in his name, not just as an idea, but as the Lord of the universe and your closest friend?? Have you invited to Jesus to come and live inside you, to fill you with Himself?

The Bible says that unless a person is born again, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Simply being born into this earth of natural means is not enough. Every person is born that way. But in order to become a child of God, we have to be born of God, born of the Holy Spirit.

This means God has no grandchildren. Every new person who comes into this world must be born of God themselves. We don’t become Christians automatically, simply because our parents were Christians, or because we grew up in the church. The only way we become Christians is if each one of us personally receives Christ ourselves and puts our trust in him.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people who have gone to church all their lives but have never come to know Jesus Christ personally. They may have been faithful in their church attendance but have never received him. They may even be leaders in their church, just as Nicodemus was a teacher of the Jews, and yet they have never placed their faith in him. To every one of us Jesus says “you must be born again.”

I want to tell you a story from my own life. I grew up going to church. My parents were Christians. They had grown up Methodist, and as a child our family attended the Methodist church. For reasons I won’t go into, when I was about 12 our family became Presbyterian (a fact for which I hope you all will forgive us. 😉 ). So my formative teenage years were spent in the Presbyterian Church. I was confirmed in that church and became very active in the youth group. Around the age of thirteen I began to make some conscious decisions to try to live the way I believed God wanted me to live based on the teachings of the Bible.

From then on I was at church almost every time the doors were open. As a teen I tried very hard to live a righteous life. I became a leader and song leader for my youth group, and taught Sunday school on occasion with the younger kids.

In college I continued to serve with youth groups as a leader and during the summers I worked as a camp counselor at our church camp, eventually working my way up to the position of head counselor. I felt like my efforts as a spiritual leader at the camp were well-received, and so I concluded this was perhaps an indication that maybe God was calling me to be a leader in the church. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I felt drawn to some form of church leadership.

So my senior year I decided to go on to seminary. I applied to become a candidate for ministry in my denomination and began applying to seminaries. When I was accepted at Princeton seminary I decided to go there.

After seminary I was ordained as a pastor and served two churches. My years of ministry were filled with personal struggles of various types. I found that the beliefs I had weren’t sufficient to deal with the struggles I was facing. I felt like something was missing from my life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I had entered the ministry in 1991. In about 1996 or ’97 I heard a sermon on tape by the pastor of a fairly large church in Knoxville on this very same passage from John 3 about being born again. As I listened to the tape, I concluded that whatever this experience was of being born again, I had not had it. I didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, I was pretty sure I had not experienced it. So I began to pray, “Lord, whatever it means to be born again, I don’t think it’s happened to me, but I would like it to happen, so would you bring it about in my life? I want to be born again.”

In 1998 I was invited by some other ministers in the town where I lived to attend a prayer retreat for pastors. There I had a chance to share some of my burdens and struggles with the other pastors, and they prayed for me.

On the third night of the retreat, I learned of some men there who were praying for pastors in a more personal way, and so I sought out these men and asked them to pray with me. As I shared my struggles with them and we prayed, I felt my burdens beginning to lift. I was being released from spiritual bondages and sins I had been carrying around for a long time. It was a wonderful, freeing experience, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room was palpable.

During this prayer time, one of the men turned to me and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” At this point I had been a pastor for seven years, so the question kind of took me by surprise. I might have been tempted to dismiss it, but because God was working so powerfully in my life, and because I was in such obvious need, I took the question seriously.

I responded that I wasn’t sure I ever had asked Jesus into my heart, but that I had made a decision to serve Him as a young teenager. The man replied gently that this was good, but it wasn’t the same thing. And so he put the question to me again: “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever asked that exact thing, but I think it’s already taken care of.”

“Well,” he replied, “since you’re not sure, why don’t you take a moment now and ask Jesus into you heart. Then if anyone ever asks you about this again in the future, you’ll know for sure.”

I agreed. I bowed my head, and he encouraged me to say a simple prayer in my own words. So I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you know I love you and I want you to be in my heart. And so I ask you now to come into my heart,” or words to that effect.

At that moment, as I prayed those words, I was aware of a benevolent spiritual presence filling my heart with a peace and a feeling of cleanness and joy and love that I have never known before. Jesus Christ had answered my prayer and come into my heart, just as I asked him to!

Later that night, after the prayer time was over, when I went back to my room in the conference center where the retreat was being held, I was filled with joy and excitement and wonder! As I lay in bed that night I found myself asking, “Lord what has happened to me???” As I lay there, the Lord began speaking to my heart about what had happened in my life. Over the days and weeks that followed, as I studied the Bible to find explanations for what I had experienced, I concluded that I had finally experienced this new birth Jesus talks about in the third chapter of John. I had been born again, born of the Spirit.  That prayer I had prayed a couple years earlier had been answered.

From my own experiences I’ve concluded that being born again involves a personal encounter with God. It isn’t necessarily something that happens just by being in church every Sunday or by doing spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study. I did all those things and more as an active church member, and as a pastor; and yet I never experienced the new birth through those things alone.

You may find it hard to believe that someone who grew up in church, was active in youth group, went to seminary, and became a pastor could do all that and yet never come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. But I’ve become convinced there are lots of people who’ve been in church all their lives but have never been born anew. They are elders, and deacons, and Sunday school teachers, and church board members, even pastors, bishops, and seminary professors. They are good, responsible religious people like Nicodemus, but just like him they need to be born again.

Since you all are Methodists, I’ll close with a story from the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. (You all probably know this story better than I do, and might be able to correct me on any details I get wrong.)

Wesley grew up in the Church of England, and at the age of 22 made a profession of faith. After this Wesley decided to pursue a career as a priest.

Eventually John Wesley became the leader of a group of Oxford university students started by his brother Charles called the Holy Club. These young men were very zealous in their desire to live a holy and spiritual life, and so they adopted a very strict regimen of Bible study, self-denial, and acts of service. This group later became known as “Methodists” because of the method of spiritual discipline they rigorously pursued.

In 1735 Wesley decided to come to America to be a missionary to the Indians. On the trip across the ocean, one day a storm came up and everyone on board thought they were going to die. Wesley himself was very fearful of death at this time in his life.

During the storm the young preacher noticed a group of Moravian Christians from Germany who remained calm and serene. Wesley was impressed by their faith and concluded they had something he didn’t have, something he wanted.

In Wesley’s own estimation, that first trip to America was a failure. The response to his ministry was not as he had hoped, and in 1738 he returned to England. Once back home, Wesley sought out some Moravians like those he had met on his trip to America, and began attending their meetings.

You’ve probably heard the famous story about how one day, while attending one of these meetings held on a street called Aldersgate, as someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed.” After this spiritual experience, Wesley’s life was profoundly changed. He discovered a new power in his preaching, as people responded like never before. Eventually a revival a broke out that continued for 50 years.

Scholars have been divided over exactly what the experience was that Wesley had at Aldersgate. Some have said it was salvation, some have said it was sanctification; others have concluded it was the filling of the Holy Spirit. But one thing is clear—after this experience, Wesley was never the same. His life was forever changed. He knew the power of God in his life as never before.

Through my own experiences and the testimony of others, I’m convinced that the new birth, being born again, is a personal encounter with God. If you’ve had it you will know, because your life will be changed.

It may happen different ways for different people. But the point is have you had it? Do you know that you know that you’re born again?

When a baby is born, mother and baby go through a very painful and wrenching process of labor. (Since I’m a man, I’ll never know what this is like in a personal way, but the ladies can tell us). The mother never forgets the labor she went through with her children.

I think it’s the same way with spiritual birth. You know when it happens because it is significant and memorable.

If you have any doubt in your mind that you’ve been born again; if you have any uncertainty as to whether you’ve met and gotten to know Jesus Christ in a personal way, I encourage you to seek to know him personally. If you’re unsure, why not ask Him just to be certain. Tell God, “Lord, I’m not sure I’ve ever had this experience of being born again, but I would like to.” If you’re not sure you’ve asked Jesus into your heart, why not pray a simple prayer asking him to come into your heart and live inside you.

For years I thought the Christian life was me trying real hard to live the way I was supposed to live. Today, even ten years after I met Jesus Christ, I am still learning that living the Christian life is not trying our best to live as Jesus wants us to live. Instead, it’s inviting Jesus Christ to come and live inside us, and letting Him live His life through us.

I encourage you to seek to know Jesus Christ personally. Feel free to ask me about this if you want to know more.