“Unfit for his office or unpardonable stupidity!” Those were the disdainful options presented by the city’s new tailors for any who failed to see the “wonderful quality” and “exceptional beauty” of the Emperor’s new clothes. And so, as we could have predicted, the admiration and accolades came flooding in from most every citizen of the empire. “Marvelous!” “Incomparable!” they fawned. No one wanted to be left out. No one wanted to be thought ignorant or undeserving of his or her reputation in the kingdom. But the problem was, as one honest little boy pointed out, there were actually never any clothes to admire.
Without intending to, Hans Christian Andersen captured the essence of the problem with much of what intermittently grows up around the truth of the Christian faith. The early church’s bout with Gnosticism, for instance, proved to be a formidable foe as the community’s penchant for pretention and elitism fueled the belief that a “proper knowledge” of God could only be attained by a special insightful knowledge, possessed by those endowed with a superior mystical intuition. The word “Gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word “knowledge” – and who doesn’t want to claim that they have a real “knowledge” of the God we all gather to worship, or who wants to admit that they don’t possess an adequate intuition with which to be attuned to the Savior? The Gnostics spoke of those who had the “divine spark” and those who did not. The “haves” could understand the “deep truths” that God wanted us all to know, and the “have-nots” were unfortunately plagued with an “unpardonable stupidity.”
While classic Gnosticism died, the condescending bifurcation of Christians into those who are mystically intuitive enough to “get it”, and those who “just can’t”, has revived itself throughout church history with the rise of the Neo-Platonists, forms of the second-blessing movements, branches of Pentecostalism, and even the Christ-quoting New Age sects. There seems to be a perpetual vulnerability to this bifurcation among Christians who dread being accused of being “unfit” or “stupid” when it comes to understanding the deep things of God or experiencing the full Christian life as God intended. It is no different when it comes to many of the modern evangelical discussions regarding “gospel-centered sanctification.”
The difficulty of protecting your life and doctrine from any Gnostic-style intrusion is that the “mystical initiates” always describe their deeper knowledge or enlightened experience in terms that are almost impossible to protest. Who doesn’t want to be “gospel-focused” or “cross-centered”? Who doesn’t want to be “carried by Christ” or “reliant on grace”? Who doesn’t want to “behold God” or “live the gospel”? Who wants to admit they haven’t been “fueled by grace” or “steered by God’s efforts instead of their own”? But before we agree to any pious-sounding prescription we ought to be quick to ask for a clear definition.
When it comes to the popular “new insights” regarding sanctification, you’ll find that the conversation is littered with fuzzy language and undefined analogies. Many of the discussions about what God does or does not require, desires or expects are punctuated with “Bible words” and cast in godly-sounding phrases, but the words and phrases are not defined and their meaning is not discernable. It is as though, “If you have to ask what they mean, there’s something clearly wrong with you or your experience with God!” So Christians readily embrace the expanded “gospel-centered” terminology, applying their own meaning, or avoiding any attempt at meaning altogether. Our views of the Christian life end up consisting of phrases that “feel good” and expressions that “seem right” but do little to clarify what sanctification actually means or entails.
But the question must always be asked, “What do you mean by that?” “What is it exactly that you are saying about what God expects me to think, believe or do?” Such requests for clarification are often received as an insult. It is as though you are asking a musician to explain the mathematics of a musical score during a symphony’s performance. But that is the problem with this age-old appetite for mystical imprecision; the “inductees” want to claim that the “true reality” (or beauty, genuineness or glory) lies not in something perceptible or even understandable, but in something that is indefinable. One may claim that’s appropriate when discussing the subjectivism of jazz music, fashion design or cubistic art, but when one is talking about the objective truths and precepts of God’s word this should not be tolerated. As Jay Adam’s has rightly warned, we are in trouble “when our biblical instructors begin to sound like poets” and our Christian books “offer warm fuzzies, but do precious little to instruct us in the ways of God found in the Scriptures” (Biblical Sonship, pp.24, 26).
And yet, there is a voracious appetite these days for books and blogs which allow Christians to feel their way through the paragraphs, instead of carefully thinking their way through the meaning of each concept. Little effort is made by authors and bloggers to be clear and precise. Instead, the “keys” and the “secrets” of the Christian life are steeped in undefined analogies and packaged in a flowery vocabulary.
One could argue that there is a discernable confluence of social, theological and philosophical currents, which make a vague and inexact pulpit preferable to one that is clear and precise. But Christians should not put up with this. We should be quick to discern that when it comes to God’s word there are a host of sinful reasons for desiring existential platitudes over lucid and plain exposition. Leonard Ravenhill used to say that, “when there is something in the Bible that churches don’t like they call it ‘legalism’.” And I have found that when that doesn’t work, they can always obscure the Bible’s clarity in a haze of nebulous language.
When there is a diet of shapeless sermons and imprecise teaching, many people are persuaded to deny what is biblically obvious. Witty phrases and emotive analogies begin to trump direct and clear statements found throughout the New Testament. Biblical statutes are dismissed on the authority of pastoral illustrations. “Frolicking in the shadow of the cross”, “bathing in grace” and “basking in Jesus” start to invalidate the clear biblical call to “decide”, “choose” and “work out our salvation”. With the popularity of all of this fuzzy language it is understandable why many Christians begin to feel “unfit for their office or unpardonably stupid” for not joining in. But if we are to be faithful to the God of Scripture we dare not reject or neglect what he has so plainly revealed in order to garner the affirmation of the evangelical in-crowd or to pursue some ill-advised respite from the duty of Christian sanctification.