“The More Things Change. . .”
Mar 09, 2012 by Craig Blomberg | 1 Comments
“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 KJV)
The preacher is describing the person without the Spirit of God, the category of persons that older English versions translated as “the natural man.” He describes how this person may be quite happy. Not believing in God at all leads to no anxiety about final judgment. The preacher notes that there may even be a great level of confidence among these people, especially among the highly educated, that they have learned the truth about the universe that still escapes the masses of humanity that believe in some kind of G/god.
But let me not paraphrase this preacher’s words; let me quote some of them exactly. “[A natural man] can talk large of his rational faculties, of the freedom of his will and the absolute necessity of such freedom in order to constitute man a moral agent. He reads and argues, and proves to a demonstration that every man may do as he will, may dispose his own heart to evil or good as it seems best in his own eyes. . . . From the same ignorance of himself and God there may sometimes arise in the natural man a kind of joy in congratulating himself upon his own wisdom and goodness. And what the world calls joy he may often possess. He may have pleasure in various kinds, either gratifying the desires of the flesh, or the desires of the eye, or the pride of life—particularly if he has large possessions, if he enjoy an affluent fortune. . . . ‘I am free (may he say) from all the enthusiasm of weak and narrow souls, from superstition, the disease of fools and cowards, always righteous overmuch; and from bigotry, continually incident to those who have not a free and generous way of thinking.’ . . . Thus he remains a willing servant of sin, content with the bondage of corruption; inwardly and outwardly unholy, and satisfied therewith; not only not conquering sin, but not striving to conquer, particularly that sin which so easily doth beset him.”
By now the old English language makes it clear that I am not quoting a twenty-first century preacher. This is John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, preaching in 1746 in England. The difference between his setting and many of ours was that, while there were a few avowed atheists, particularly teaching at the University of Oxford, where he often spoke in chapel, many claimed to believe in God and called themselves Christian but fit the descriptions Wesley gives above. Today the number of “aggressive atheists” eager to label all religion, and especially Christianity as delusional, has increased. But the number of “practical atheists” who still attend churches, at least in the U.S., including evangelical ones, but for whom God makes no visible, discernible difference in their lives, also remains high. While recognizing that it was possible that such people were genuine but lapsed Christians, Wesley more than any of the other major Protestant Reformers became convinced that large numbers of them were not truly saved at all.
In January and February I had the privilege of teaching and ministering in Ireland, Albania, the Czech Republic and Quebec, each for about a week at a time. I met a significant cross-section of evangelical students and leaders in each of those four locations, two of which I’d been to before. What they all had in common was a sense of commitment, eagerness, urgency and recognition of the hurdles they were up against as they constituted a tiny minority of folks in a sea of (to varying degrees) traditional Catholicism, growing Islam and rampant atheistic secularism. The reverse culture shock was striking for me as I returned to a country with large churches with congregations themselves sometimes equivalent to a large percentage of the number of believers in some overseas countries. But here there is little of the commitment to prayer meetings I saw overseas, none of the commitment by a majority of a local congregation to be eagerly involved in lay discipleship and biblical training programs. Instead I learn about the latest round of people abandoning their spouses and their faith for the most trivial of reasons, almost unheard of in the overseas settings I visited (“somebody else in the church hurt me,” “I just needed a change,” “if God existed life wouldn’t be so hard.”)
What an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Christian martyrs over the centuries and to those who are putting their lives on the line even as we speak in order to proclaim Christ! I’m convinced Wesley was right—such people have always been “natural” persons, never truly touched by the Spirit of God if they can wimp out on him and renege on their commitments to others so readily. Our preaching needs to focus a whole lot more on counting the cost of commitment and not being nearly so willing to pronounce someone a Christian simply because they have prayed a prayer, raised a hand, walked an aisle, or even written a couple paragraphs’ testimony on a seminary application form! Then, like the ancient church, let’s catechize them for at least a year or so, emphasize public, adult baptism, in which they share their own testimony in their own words (not just taped behind the scenes somewhere and played on big screens) and make solemn pledges to follow Christ the rest of their lives. Let’s make sure they have lifelong mentoring so that people can walk with them during the difficult times of life and encourage them when their faith falters. Then perhaps we’ll have recovered more of what a true biblical Christian looks like! Meanwhile, beware of the natural men all around you, including in church!