SPIRITUAL FORMATION: WE MUST BE BEREANS [Excerpts]
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Galatians:1:6
These were hard words for the Galatian Christians to hear. They were undoubtedly surprised by this rebuke from their leader, and although we are not told how they responded to his discipline, today we can surely learn from their situation. Since Paul’s time, believers have been in danger of turning aside from the gospel and repeating the same mistakes. Often the established church has failed to contend for the faith once delivered (Jude:1:3). The gospel and the word are continually under assault, and two millennia have not decreased the threat. For the body of Christ to stay vigilant, we must be semper reformanda, always reforming.
Distorted gospels most often come as new light, promising reformation and growth at the expense of those pillars. False gospels have this feature in common: they add the works of man to the finished work of Christ. Whenever Christian leaders alter the core of the gospel, all those “good things” they teach about the spiritual life are shaped by that distorted core. A corrupted gospel is a leaven that spreads into the whole lump of dough.
[Proclamation magazine’s] articles on spiritual formation have prompted appreciation along with some critical responses, so this is an attempt to provide clarification. Genuine Christians can disagree, but then we dig deeper into God’s word. Testing the spirits is no easy task, and it has not been reserved to the professionals. The lowliest Christians are obligated to examine the most brilliant teachers. Even Dallas Willard’s and Richard Foster’s numerous endorsements and popularity do not exempt their teachings from being subject to every Christian’s obligation, the Berean test. That is why we dare to challenge their teachings.
First, Willard and Foster’s writings minimize or eclipse the core of the gospel—Jesus’ propitiation for our sins by his blood—and replace it with a gospel of human experience. Willard and Foster’s gospel is focused on what God will do in us—human experience. By this, the cross becomes an inspirational drama, while our internal experiences with God become our gospel in actual fact. For example, here is Dallas Willard’s experiential definition of the gospel: “The Gospel of Jesus is that life in the Kingdom is available to us now. We can experience the Kingdom and live in it by placing our confidence in Jesus for everything…”1 Some may argue that this definition does describe the reality of the gospel experience, but it is important to understand that this definition is not an out-of-context explanation of the gospel taken from a larger paragraph. This is Willard’s official definition of the gospel as given on the website listed in the footnote. He does not describe the gospel as the biblical, historic fact of Jesus’ finished work.
The gospel, however, is not an experience. If we use Willard’s definition of the gospel, where are we placing our trust? The gospel is the announcement of the unique, perfect work that God has already done for us in Christ (1 Cor:15:3-19), plus nothing. If we proclaim the historical gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection and then add the process of discipleship to that gospel, we shift our focus from what Jesus has already done to our own faulty progress. In other words, holiness is not a component of the gospel; rather, it is the fruit of the gospel root.
At the heart of the gospel is the precious truth of justification by faith alone, by which we possess the very righteousness of God, without human works (Rom:1:16,17; 5:17). We can have access and standing before God only on the basis of faith alone in Christ’s dying for our sins and rising from death, not because of our success at imitating His lifestyle. Saving faith has a mighty object outside the self: the perfections of the Lord Jesus. His righteousness is outside our experience or efforts, imputed to us as a free gift, by faith alone. If we work for it to come inside us, it is no longer a gift, but God’s obligation to us (Rom:4:4,5).
However, Willard and Foster overlook imputed righteousness, replacing God’s acceptance of us “in the beloved” with His work of renovation within us. They insist that the traditional Protestant teaching of justification and the forgiveness of sins is just seeking a “ticket to heaven” while leaving out personal transformation.2 Willard’s sweeping condemnation of Protestantism presents a false choice between the assurance of God’s complete acceptance of us and personal holiness—a straw man argument. Instead of this false choice between assurance in the judgment and personal holiness, Hebrews makes it clear: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb:10:14). Christ’s bloody sacrifice in our place is the solid foundation for our ongoing sanctification today.
The gospel of the cross of Christ is further weakened when we seek fellowship and access to God through mystical experiences—altered states of consciousness. This is the central experience of “contemplative prayer” as taught by spiritual formation teachers, such as Willard, Foster, Pennington, Merton, and others. Mystical knowledge of God separated from Scripture and the gospel of Jesus’ doing and dying makes the reconciliation of Jesus’ atonement unnecessary. D.A. Carson said it well:
To pursue unmediated, mystical knowledge of God is to announce that the person of Christ and his sacrificial work on our behalf are not necessary for the knowledge of God. Sadly, it is easy to delight in mystical experiences, enjoyable and challenging in themselves, without knowing anything of the regenerating power of God, grounded in Christ’s cross work.
(Martin Carey, “Spiritual Formation: We must be Bereans,” Proclamation magazine, vol. 15, Issue 1)