by Rev. Allen Baker – Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. From Banner of Truth Trust, UK (11/2010)
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. (Acts 2:3)
If Brett McCracken’s observation is correct — that seventy per cent of those age eighteen to twenty-two, who grew up in the church, leave it never to return again,1 then surely we can agree that the evangelical church is in big trouble. Ever since the late 1970’s when evangelicalism began to suffer the loss of members, she has tried numerous schemes to stop the bleeding. First it was the church growth movement with its emphasis on homogeneity, that we ought to worship with people ‘just like us.’ Then came the seeker friendly movement with its use of drama and ‘how to’, psycho-therapeutic sermons, seeking to reach the Baby Boomer generation who was bored with church. Then came, for a brief period of time, the Emerging Church movement which sought to connect the Generation X culture with the ancient past. And now we have hipster Christianity where pastors don metro-sexual dress, sport $80 haircuts, and use shocking speech and address even more shocking topics from the pulpit in order to reach the Millennial generation.
In each of these movements there can be no doubt that some were truly converted, and surely mega-churches, for good or for ill, have come out of all these approaches. The question, however, is this — are these offerings of strange fire to the Lord? God was terribly displeased with Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, when they brought their strange fire on the altar (Num. 3:4). He killed them on the spot. There are at least three underlying false assumptions in each of these movements. Consequently the embrace of any or all of them will fail to bring the substantial, biblical growth evangelicalism wants and needs. What are they and what is the remedy? First, each of these movements assumes a semi-Pelagian view of man. Pelagius, the fourth century A.D. heretic, denied the doctrine of original sin, believing that mankind therefore was not corrupted by Adam’s fall into sin. In other words, man was completely free to choose or reject the overtures of the gospel. The semi-Pelagian (modern day Arminianism) does not go that far. It says that while man was definitely and adversely affected by Adam’s fall, he still has some ability to decide on his own free will to follow Christ. The moment one takes this position is the moment he becomes a pragmatist in gospel work. If man has the key to the jailhouse of his sin in his pocket, then we ought to use any method necessary to coerce or seduce him to use it. So, anything goes in church services with entertainment, music, sermons. If a sixty year old pastor wants to reach the Millennial and X generations then why not bring his wife on the platform, having a bed there as a prop, and talk openly and specifically about sexual intercourse, urging the married couples to engage in that activity every night for a week?2
The second false assumption is that the Word of God preached is insufficient to get the job done. No evangelical pastor will admit this of course, but this is the practical outcome. Therefore sermons are becoming shorter and shorter, more and more devoid of solid Biblical exposition and content. The emphasis in many churches seems to be on the unbeliever, ‘dumbing down’ the sermon in order to appeal to him, leaving the rest of the congregation spiritually malnourished. No wonder, then, that the problems of marital infidelity, divorce, wayward children, and varied addictions are as rampant inside the church as outside it.
And the third false assumption is that the Word of God is sufficient. ‘Al, what are you saying? Are you contradicting yourself? Didn’t you just say that many today believe the preached word is insufficient? Which is it?’ Here’s what I mean — some who hold to the sufficiency of the preached Word of God believe that is all that is required, that all a preacher needs to do is stand up, open his mouth, after studying well and preparing a good, solid Biblical sermon, and all will be well, that God will bless the simple preaching of the Word. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But this also is a faulty assumption. I hear it all the time from Reformed types. This, however, was not enough for Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, or Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Did they believe in the total inability of man to believe the gospel? Absolutely! Did they believe in the complete sufficiency of Scripture? Yes, of course. But they also believed in the preached Word energized by the Holy Spirit. Their preaching and their lives were marked by Holy Ghost fire. What is that? John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus, said that One was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11). Isaiah said that an angel came and touched his depraved mouth with coals of fire from the altar (Isa. 6:6-7). The men on the road to Emmaus, after hearing Jesus open the Scriptures to them about himself said that their hearts burned within them (Luke 24:32). Malachi said that the coming of the Lord would be like a refiner’s fire (Mal. 3:2-3). Applying the words of the Psalmist, the writer to the Hebrews says that God makes his messengers a flame of fire (Heb. 1:7, Psa. 104:4) Paul tells us that we will be saved by fire (1 Cor. 3:15). Hebrews exhorts us to worship the Lord with reverence, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). And Luke says that one of the manifestations of the coming Holy Spirit was tongues that resembled fire (Acts 2:3). This was the fulfilment of John’s words (Luke 3:16).
What does this mean? Fire in the Bible is symbolic of three things — purity, power, and passion. Isaiah is purified by altar coals. Jesus’ baptism of the Spirit and fire promises the coming power of God. And God’s messengers are a flaming fire, filled with passion to take the gospel to the nations. By all means, we ought to reject semi-Pelagianism and what comes from it; but we must also reject the notion that all we need is the sufficiency of the Scripture. We need both the Scripture and the Spirit. We need to take up the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17) but we must also pray with all perseverance and petition in the Spirit for all the saints, that the Word may go forth with boldness (Eph. 6:18-20). How do we get there? We must have Holy Ghost fire. We must have the unction of the Spirit (1 John 2:20). There is only one way, and that is earnest prayer and supplication, pouring out our hearts to God in repentance, asking for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), seeking his presence and power until we get it (James 4:8). If you are a preacher then make this your highest priority in ministry. If you support your preacher in prayer, and surely you should do so, then pray that the unction, Holy Ghost fire, will come with fulness in purity of motives, power in preaching, and passion in pursuit of ministry. I know — it looks strange, decidedly uncool in our day when hip and laid back is in — but we ought to go to church and watch our pastor burn with Holy Ghost fire as he stands to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. This is not a casual thing. This is not a ‘maybe you ought to think about it’ proposition. This is life and death (2 Cor. 3-4). Our words are a savour of life unto life or death unto death (2 Cor. 2:15-16).
Samuel Chadwick said that when the church talks a lot about its problems, when conferences increase then she is in trouble. She is looking to activities to overcome the lack of true spiritual power. ‘We are acting as though the only remedy for decline were method, organization, and compromise.’3 Surely we can do better. Surely we must do better. We must have Holy Ghost fire!