God Told Me!? (A Critique of Mysticism)

What do you do when a friend says, “God told me I needed to go on a diet,” or “The Holy Spirit spoke to me last night and said you should make more friends”?  How do we even begin to respond?  It’s not easy to respond to such comments; it takes patience and wisdom!  If you’ve heard these statements before, you might appreciate Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this kind of “God-told-me” mysticism.  In the paragraphs below, Lloyd-Jones says these are his main critiques of mysticism: 1) it is claiming continuing inspiration, 2) it devalues Scripture, 3) it devalues the person and work of Christ, 4) it focuses on the Lord’s work in us so much that it forgets His work for us, 5) it is weak on the doctrine of sin, 6) it is entirely subjective, 7) it tends to extremism and fanaticism.  Here are his comments:

“The main criticism of the evangelical can be put in this form: It is a claim to a continuing of inspiration.  The mystic in a sense is claiming that God is dealing as directly with him as He was with the Old Testament prophets; he claims God is dealing with him as He did with the Apostles. …The mystic says he has received a new and fresh message and that he is in a state of direct inspiration…. Now we believe that God gave a message to the prophets, He gave a message to the Apostles; but we say that because God has done that, it is unnecessary that He should do that directly with us.

“My second criticism would be that mysticism of necessity puts the Scriptures on one side and makes them more or less unnecessary.  You will always find that persons who have a mystical tendency never talk very much about the Bible.  …They say, ‘No, I do not follow the Bible reading plans; I find one verse is generally enough for me.  I take one verse and then I begin to meditate.’  …He does not need this objective revelation; he wants something to start him in his meditation and he will then receive it as coming directly from God; he depreciates the value of the Scriptures.”

“I do not hesitate to go further and say that mysticism, as a whole, even tends to make our Lord Himself unnecessary.  …There have been people who have been mystical and who claim that their souls have immediate access to God.  They say that just as they are, they have but to relax and let go and let God speak to them and He will do so; they do not mention the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…The danger of mysticism is to concentrate so much on the Lord’s work in us that it forgets the Lord’s work for us.  …It is so concerned about this immediate work upon the soul that it quite forgets the preliminary work that had to be done before anything could be done upon the soul.  It tends to forget the cross and the absolute necessity of the atoning death of Christ before fellowship with God is in any way possible.”

“We can go further….  Mysticism is never very strong on the doctrine of sin.  The mystic tends to say, ‘…If you want to know God just as you are, you have to start getting into communion with Him, and He will speak to you and give you all the blessings.’  They never mention the doctrine of sin in the sense that the guilt of sin is such a terrible thing that nothing but the coming of the Son of God into the world and the bearing of our sins in His own body….”

“Another very serious criticism of mysticism is that it always leaves us without a standard.  Let us imagine I follow the mystic way.  I begin to have experiences; I think God is speaking to me; how do I know it is God who is speaking to me?  …How can I be sure that I am not the victim of hallucinations, since this has happened to many of the mystics?  If I believe in mysticism as such without the Bible, how do I test my experiences?  How do I prove the Scriptures; how do I know I am not perhaps being deluded by Satan as an angel of light in order to keep me from the true and living God?  I have no standard.”

“In other words, my last criticism is that mysticism always tends to fanaticism and excesses.  If you put feelings before understanding, you are bound to end in that, because you have nothing to check your experiences with, and you will have no reason to control your sensations and susceptibilities.”

Lloyd Jones goes on to mention that the Scriptures are the “only authority and final standard with regard to these matters, with regard to a knowledge of God.”  He said, “the evangelical doctrine tells me not to look into myself but to look into the Word of God. …It tells me that God can only be known in His own way, the way which has been revealed in the Scriptures themselves.”

This entire section is very much worth reading.  It’s found on pages 89-92 of Life in Christ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Avoiding False Spirituality/Spiritualities

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 VolumesThere are many popular quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities in existence today.  The “Christian” bestsellers typically include books about spirituality without a clear explanation of or belief in the gospel.  Some popular “Christian” authors deny key aspects of the historic faith and others talk about being spiritual without much dependence on Scripture.  You can find bestselling books about someone supposedly going to heaven and you can read a book that puts words in Jesus’ mouth.  Most of the time, these spiritualities are quite man centered, focused on internal feelings and emotions.

These things have happened before in history.  For just one example, after the Reformation there were radical reforming groups such as the Anabaptists – some of whom rejected the written Word of God only to focus on the inner voice/word/light (called “mysticism”).  Around 1700, Dutch Reformed pastor Wilhelmus a Brakel even addressed this pietism/quietism/mysticism in his systematic theology, since Quakers, Pietists, and other such sects had come on the scene.  The chapter is called, “A Warning Exhortation Against Pietists, Quietists, and all Who in a Similar Manner have Deviated to a Natural and Spiritless Religion under the Guise of Spirituality.”  In this chapter, Brakel gives 6 propositions to help Christians stand firm in biblical spirituality and avoid quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities.  Here’s an edited summary:

1) A Christian must have great love for the truth; all splendid pretense void of love for the truth is deceit.  The truth is the way of salvation as revealed by God in his Word (John 17:17, Eph. 1:13).  There is no other way unto salvation but one.  Christ’s church has this truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is the means whereby God draws sinners out of darkness (James 1:18, 1 Pet. 1:23).  God’s truth in Scripture is what true faith rests upon and what our life must be regulated by.  We are obligated to stand on this truth and uphold it – we must never trifle with the truth.

2) A Christian must have great love and esteem for the church (Ps. 27:4, 122:1-2).  The church is the congregation of the living God (Rom. 9:26), his people whom he loves.  Who would not have the highest esteem for the church which as God and the Lord Jesus as King?  How can one claim to love God and love the church – his children – an not have esteem for her? (1 John 5:1).  If you do not love the brothers, you certainly do not love God – regardless of what you may say.

3) The Holy Scriptures are the only rule for doctrine and life.  In the Word all saving truth is comprehended, upon which the church is built, and which God has given to the church for the purpose of spreading and preserving the truth.  This the Pietists either reject or minimize.  The Word is everything to the church.  There is no church without the Word and there is no Word without the church.  He who wishes to live godly and desires to be saved must regulate his intellect, will, affections, words, deeds, and entire religion according to this Word.

4) Regeneration is the originating cause of true spiritual life, and of all spiritual thoughts and deeds (Luke 6:45, Rom. 8:5). A person can appear to be very religious and spiritual, which even shows up in the writings of pagans, but if a person is not regenerated by God, this religion and spirituality is nothing but darkness and pollution, and not worthy of being called spiritual.  Regeneration is not separating yourself from the world; it is not ‘sinking away in God;’ it is not losing sight of yourself.  Rather, it is a complete change of man wrought by the Holy Spirit through the Word.  It is being brought from death to life and involves the whole man.

5) A Christian continually avails himself of faith.  True religion means going to Christ, receiving him and entrusting yourself entirely to him.  Faith in Christ is a daily exercise, a daily reality.  It is not as if one can believe a few times, and then move along.  Rather, one exercises faith as long as he lives.  Although true faith waxes and wanes, it constantly trusts in Jesus.

6) All of man’s felicity, here and hereafter, consists in communion with and the beholding of God.  God savingly reveals himself to his reconciled children who presently believe in him, and thus not to the world – not to unconverted and natural men (Mt. 11:27, John 6:46, 2 Cor. 4:6, etc).  Many unconverted engage themselves in beholding God by means of their natural light.  They speak about divine meditations, doing so with expressions which are lofty as their imaginations can devise.  But we must follow the advice of the apostle: Believe not every spirit, but test the spirits… (1 John 4:1).  To follow one’s own spirit and ideas, as if they were from the Holy Spirit, is to run to one’s own destruction.  Therefore it behooves all Christians to live in the presence of God, avail themselves to his will found in the Word, and to heed the Spirit speaking in the Word.

We need these propositions today as much as God’s people did in 1700!  Remember, not every spirituality and religious thought is biblical and Christian.  Brakel’s six propositions, which are based on the Word, will help us steer clear of false spiritualities and religions and help keep our feet firmly planted in the historic Christian faith.

You can read the entire chapter in volume 2 of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

shane lems

No Inherent Stock of Goodness

Between the years 1768 and 1779 John Newton wrote several letters to a friend of his who was also a pastor.  Apparently, his friend was skeptical about the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) and tended towards the mystical writers of his day.  Newton, in a loving way, explained why he himself believed these doctrines and stayed away from mysticism.  Here’s one part from one of the early letters in this correspondence.  (Note: I’ve edited it very slightly).

“…The longer I live, the more I am constrained to adopt that system which ascribes all power and glory to the grace of God and leaves nothing to the creature but sin, weakness, and shame.  Everyone must speak for themselves; and for my own part, I cannot ascribe my present hopes to my having cherished and improved an inward something within me, which Mr. [William] Law speaks of.  But, on the contrary, I know I have often resisted the motions and warnings of God’s Spirit, and if he had not saved me with a high hand, and in defiance of myself, I would surely have been lost.”

“Nay, to this hour I feel an evil principle within me, tempting me to depart from the living God.  I have no inherent stock of goodness upon which I can hope to hold out hereafter, but stand in need of a continual supply, and emphatically understand our Lord’s words, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’  For I find I am not sufficient of myself so much as to think a good thought.”

“…I believe…in a word, that Christ is the all in all in a sinner’s salvation; that we have no righteousness in the sight of God but in his name, no power but so far as we are ingrafted into him by faith, as branches deriving sap and influence from the true vine (John 15:1, Isaiah 45:24, 1 Cor. 1:30).  Upon these principles I find that I cannot have satisfaction or comfort in the mystical writings, notwithstanding they may say many excellent things occasionally – things which may be very useful when understood in a gospel sense (p. 205-7).

This series of letters is found in volume 6 of The Works of John Newton.

rev. shane lems

More Machen

The church today is facing something similar to what Machen faced less than 100 years ago: Jesus divorced from Scripture, history, and the church.  We saw it a few days back in Deepak Chopra’s “third Jesus.”  Deepak’s jesus used scented lotions and came so we could realize our inner potential, so we might find self-actualization and inner tranquility.  The Christ of Scripture, history, and the church is God in the flesh who came to save people from sinful self-actualization by becoming a bloody curse on the cross, by destroying death in his resurrection, and by ascending into glory where he now lives to protect his church.  This is the gospel truth that Machen so ably defended.

“I do not think that what the New Testament says about the cross of Christ is particularly intricate.  It is, indeed, profound, but it can be put in simple language.  We deserved eternal death; the Lord Jesus, because he loved us, died in our stead upon the cross.  It is a mystery, but it is not intricate.  What is really intricate and subtle is the manifold modern attempt to get rid of the simple doctrine of the cross of Christ in the interests of human pride.  Of course there are objections to the cross of Christ, and men in the pulpits of the present day pour out upon that blessed doctrine the vials of their scorn; but when a man has come under the consciousness of sin, then as he comes into the presence of the cross, he says with tears of gratitude and joy, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me.”

From “What the Bible Teaches ABout Jesus” in J. Gresham Machen, Selected Shorter Writings, edited by D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), 30.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Deepak’s jesus

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Deepak Chopra, in many ways a picture of American religion right next to Oprah and Osteen, has his own Jesus – or so he claims in a recent book of his, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore (New York: Harmony Books, 2008).  He says the first Jesus is the historical one, “and we know next to nothing about him” (p.7-8).  “This historical Jesus has been lost… swept away by history” (p. 8). 

The second Jesus is the one the early church made up: “He was created by the Church to fulfill its agenda” (Ibid.).  In fact, Chopra says, Jesus’ followers put words into his mouth, like the ones that say he is the only way to the Father (p. 10).  “The New Testament is an interpretation of Jesus by people who felt reborn but also left behind” (Ibid.).  “This is the Jesus built up over thousands of years by theologians and other scholars” (p. 9).

Chopra is ticked off (my words) at these two Jesuses, because they stole something precious from him.   What did they steal?  The Third Jesus:  “The Jesus who taught his followers how to reach God-consciousness” (Ibid.).  Chopra summarizes his Jesus’ mission this way: “Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness” (p. 10).  He then goes on to quote some of Jesus’ more beautiful, harmonizing, and peaceful statements (i.e. consider the lilies, do unto others, seek and ye shall find, etc); Jesus gives people beautiful and carefree existence, Chopra notes.

I get sick in the stomach writing this, honestly.  This is utterly inconsistent: Chopra says the NT is the early church’s construction of Jesus, yet he quotes the NT to show the reader his own version of Jesus.  Furthermore, if  theologians and scholars for 1900 years got Jesus wrong, according to Chopra, isn’t it quite arrogant of him to think hegets Jesus right?  I realize “logic” in Eastern religions isn’t always sought after, but this is bizarre.

 Of course, this is the Jesus Seminar on steriods married to Eastern religion which flirts with American spirituality – which is why books like this can hit the top of the NYT bestsellers next to Oprah’s stuff.  I don’t read these things for fun, but as a way to take the pulse of the religious/spiritual culture in which we live.  Also, one could study this book in light of the 2nd commandment, what it means to make an image.   This book makes the golden calf look like kindergarten round-up!

In summary, Deepak’s “Christ we cannot ignore,” is a christ we cannot adore because he is a projection of the author’s imagination.  This is America’s Eastern jesus: your way, right away!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Don’t Come to the Garden Alone!

I’m sure many of you have heard the hymn “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles (d. 1946).  The song has always given me the creeps.  Here are a few lyrics.

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…he speaks, the sound of his voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing…  and the melody that he gave to me within my heart is ringing.  …and the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”

That gives me the creeps – roses, sweet voices, intimacy like “none other has ever known”  – these just scream to me the notes of enlightenment deism, rationalism, and mysticism, not to mention the fact that a Mormon could sing this song with a clear conscience.  Here’s another solid reason why the hymn just plain scares me: Miles’ account of how he penned the hymn.  I have to summarize it a bit, but I’ll include a few quotes, so pay attention to those.

In April, 1912, Miles was sitting in his dark room – a photography room with his organ inside it.  He was reading John 20 there, the text where the risen Christ meets the weeping Mary.  Miles wrote, “I seemed to be part of the scene.  I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life….  My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall.  As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches.”  Miles then recounts the scene unfold as he saw it, somewhat similar to John 20.

Miles continues: Mary’s word “Rabboni!” ends the vision.  “I awakened in sun light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating.  Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote, as quickly as the words could be formed, the poem exactly as it has since appeared.  That same evening I wrote the music.”

There are 100 things I could say about this, but I’ll have to save it for later posts on a closed canon, the regulative principle of worship, mysticism, rationalism, deism, revivalism, and so on.

Almost forgot: I got the above quote from Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 365 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 113.

shane lems

sunnyside wa