Monday, March 8, 2010

No substitute for the Gospel

Spiritual experiences and the disciplines are no substitute for that which is the matter of first importance: the Gospel.

From D.A. Carson:

A litany of devices designed to make us more spiritual or mature or productive or emotionally whole threatens to relegate the gospel to irrelevance, or at least to the realm of the boring and the primitive. The gospel may introduce you to the church, as it were, but from that point on assorted counseling techniques and therapy sessions will change your life and make you happy and fruitful. The gospel may help you make some sort of decision for God, but ‘rebirthing’ techniques—in which in silent meditation you imagine Jesus catching you as you are born from your mother’s womb, imagine him hugging you and holding you—will generate a wonderful cathartic experience that will make you feel whole again, especially if you have been abused in the past. The gospel may enable you to be right with God, but if you really want to pursue spirituality you must find a spiritual director, or practice asceticism, or discipline yourself with journaling, or spend two weeks in silence in a Trappist monastery.

These are not all of a piece. What they have in common, however, is the diminishing of the gospel in order to magnify the current device that is guaranteed to bring you toward wholeness. By contrast, the New Testament passionately insists that everything we need for life and godliness and a walk in the Spirit is secured for us in the gospel. It follows that if someone chooses to adopt some ascetic practice in order the better to focus on the Jesus of the Bible, the attention is still on Jesus.

But if someone so ties asceticism to altered moods or to experiences of ‘spirituality’ that the gospel itself is virtually ignored or is implicitly dismissed as a sort of initial stage now to be improved by ascetic practice, the name of the game is idolatry.

Again, if someone has experienced cathartic relief and emotional integration after an imaginative ‘rebirthing’ session, I am glad that the emotional integration has taken place. But we must insist that a better emotional integration could have been achieved by meditating on, say, the passion narratives, or on Ephesians 3:14–21. For then the emotional catharsis would have been tied to what God himself insists is the clearest and most complete demonstration of his love for us in Christ Jesus. In other words, the emotional integration would have been tied to the gospel instead of to something as ephemeral and diverting as manipulated imagination.

This is a time for Christians to return to the basics, the comprehensive basics, and quietly affirm with Paul, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith”’ (Romans 1:16–17).

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