Try the Spirits – A Reformed Look at Pentecostalism – Part III by David J. Engelsma

By April 9, 2011 April 12th, 2016 Charismatic Movement

The Reformed View of the Christian Life

Does not Pentecostalism, despite its serious errors, have something to contribute to the churches of the Reformation, something, in fact, that these churches very much need? Should not Reformed believers learn something from Pentecostalism, something that they are otherwise quite ignorant of? Do not Reformed churches and their members lack something which God Himself is now supplying through the Pentecostal, or charismatic, movement? Having given His Church the former rain moderately, is not God now fulfilling Joel’s prophecy of a ‘latter rain’ (Joel 2:23)?

This notion is widely accepted in Reformed circles. That which Pentecostalism is supposed to contribute to the church and the member is a vibrant Christian life. A Reformed church and a Reformed saint have sound doctrine, it is said; but they are deficient in the area of Christian life. To the congregation, Pentecostalism will contribute a real unity of the members; a love that cares for, and shares with, the other members; the energetic use of his gifts by every member; and a spontaneous, lively, exuberant worship. To the individual member, it will supply spiritual experience, joy, zeal, and power. Reformed Christianity has the Word (doctrine); Pentecostalism will add the Spirit. Thus, Pentecostalism is introduced, and welcomed, into Reformed churches.

The notion is false. The Reformed Church has always sought the unity of the people of God; urged the mutual love of her members; and done justice to the use of his gifts by every member. It was not Pentecostalism that moved the Reformed Church to confess the communion of saints, in Q. 55 of her Heidelberg Catechism, in these words:

First, that all and everyone, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.

Nor was it Pentecostalism that was responsible for the Reformed Church’s charging her members to live the Christian life by loving their neighbors as she does in Lord’s Days 39-44 of this same Catechism. Let Pentecostalism improve, if it can, on the Reformed Faith’s application of the Fifth Commandment to the believer as the requirement that ‘I show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me… and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities . .. ‘(Q. 104); of the Sixth Commandment, as the requirement that we ‘love our neighbor as ourselves… show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and all kindness towards him, and prevent his hurt as much as in us lies…'(Q. 107); of the Seventh Commandment, as the teaching that ‘we must… live chastely and temperately, whether in holy wedlock, or in single life’ (Q. 108); of the Eighth Commandment, as the requirement that ‘I promote the advantage of my neighbor in every instance I can or may, and deal with him as I desire to be dealt with by others’ (Q. 111); and of the Ninth Commandment, as the requirement that ‘I defend and promote, as much as I am able, the honor and good character of my neighbor’ (Q.112).

To the Pentecostal’s suggestion that we should go to school at the feet of Pentecostalism, to learn about Christian experience, Reformed Christians are inclined to respond as the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ (Job 38:2,4). Bypassing the glorious tradition of the Reformed, Presbyterian, and Puritan preachers and writers, we invite those who make this presumptuous suggestion to read the Heidelberg Catechism. For over 400 years, Reformed Christians have been schooled in a catechism that sets forth the entire message of Scripture from the viewpoint of personal comfort; that defines this comfort as belonging to Christ; and that grounds this comfort in an experiential knowledge of sin, an experiential knowledge of redemption, and an experiential knowledge of thankfulness. When they have finished with the Catechism, they may pick up the Canons of Dordt, to observe the warm, pastoral treatment of the great doctrines that are at once the distinctive truths of the Reformed Faith and the heart of the gospel of God’s grace. Here, they will find an exposition of predestination, e.g., that is deeply concerned with the assurance of election (I,12); with the effects of the sense of election in the daily humility, adoration, self-purification, and thankful love of the children of God (I,13); and with the spiritual struggles and doubts of those who are the ‘smoking flax’ and ‘bruised reeds’ (I,16).

As genuine, Biblical Christianity, the Reformed Faith has always also honored the Holy Spirit and His work. It has confessed His Godhead; it has observed His outpouring as the Spirit of Christ on Pentecost; it has ascribed to Him the complete work of the gathering of the Church and the saving of every elect sinner, insomuch that it has denied that even the smallest part of the gathering of the Church or the saving of the sinner is the work of man and has asserted that even the Word is powerless without the Spirit. It has extolled the Spirit’s works, e.g., regeneration and sanctification; praised His gifts, e.g., faithful witness to the truth; and cultivated His fruit-the love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance of Galatians 5:22. For all this, the Reformed Church owes Pentecostalism exactly nothing.

The Reformed Christian does refuse to honor any spirit alongside of Jesus Christ; does refuse to dabble in any salvation additional to the redemption of Christ; does refuse to fly with any spirit above the solid atmosphere of the Word of Christ–Holy Scripture; and does refuse to confess some spirit instead of Jesus. But the Holy Spirit of God does not take it ill of us, that we make this refusal. He Himself demands it of us and works it in us. For He has come to glorify Jesus (John 16:14); to bestow Jesus’ redemption (John 7:37-39); to work in and through Jesus’ Word (John 6:63); and to confess Jesus Christ (I John 4:1-3).

Pentecostalism has nothing to contribute to the churches of the Reformation. Reformed believers can learn nothing from it. The Reformed Faith needs nothing that Pentecostalism can supply. Pentecostalism must be rejected, in its entirety, as a religion alien to Reformed Christianity. In the bloodstream of a Reformed church, it is a foreign element. If it remains, unpurged, it will be the death of that body, as a Reformed body.

It is disturbing to find Pentecostal literature in the homes of Reformed people, for use as edifying reading–Watchman Nee; David Wilkerson; John Osteen; Arthur Wallis; The Full Gospel Businessman’s Voice; and others. Even though the material may not be Pentecostal, the devotional reading-and listening!-of some Reformed believers is to be faulted. The fare from which they regularly feed to satisfy the soul’s craving for exposition of the Christian life, experience, and practice is the best selling literature of present-day fundamentalism. At best, it is devoid of anything Reformed; at worst, it undermines everything that Reformed believers hold dear, inculcating a superficial, false view of the Christian life and experience. Where, e.g., in the frothy works on the higher, richer, fuller, deeper Christian life, with their flashy covers, that abound in the average Christian book store, do you find anything of the ‘out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD’ of Psalm 130? Much less is this sorrow over the guilt of sin central to their vaunted higher, richer, fuller, deeper Christian life. Theirs is a higher, richer, fuller, deeper Christian life, therefore, whose heartbeat is not the forgiveness of sins in the redemption of the cross of Christ. The Christian life to which those books call the readers cannot be a life of fearing the Lord, the holy, gracious Judge, by the pardoned sinner (Psalm 130:4). Instead, they tell us how to be happy. Nor do they set forth the Christian life as obedience-costly obedience-to the Ten Commandments of God’s Law. A plague on these books; and a plague on their higher, richer, fuller, deeper Christian life!

It may well be, however, that some of the blame for this bad reading lies at the feet of us preachers, elders, parents, and Christian schoolteachers. Perhaps, we are not recommending to the saints the good, solid devotional works-the sermons, commentaries, and other writings of Luther; of Calvin; and of the older Reformed, Presbyterian, and Puritan authors.

Perhaps, we are not producing books and articles that do justice to the practical and experiential aspects of the Reformed Faith–its unique and vital piety. Perhaps, our preaching slights these aspects of the gospel. Then, we defend orthodoxy, without applying it. Or, in reaction to experientialism, we ignore experience; in reaction to subjectivism, we dare not be subjective; in reaction to a clamor for the practical that despises doctrine, we fail to speak the practical things which become sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). In this case, there is indeed a lack, not in the Reformed Faith, but in our teaching of it; and it should not surprise us, wrong though it is, that the saints seek to satisfy their hunger elsewhere.

The fact that Pentecostalism has nothing to contribute to the Reformed believer does not imply that God does not make use of this movement on behalf of His people. God has always used heresies to drive His Church to the Word, so that her knowledge of the truth may be increased and her faithfulness of life may be renewed. God uses Pentecostalism to send us back to Holy Scripture, to search it as regards its teaching concerning the Christian life.

The basic appeal of Pentecostalism is its criticism of the Christian’s life and its promise of a higher, richer Christian life. Pentecostalism finds much laxity, unfaithfulness, worldliness, and disobedience. We do well to confess this. God sends the scourge of Pentecostalism for a reason. Many have lost the first love. The love of others waxes cold. Iniquity abounds. For many, worship is lifeless formalism; confession of the truth is a dead tradition; Christian life is an external ritual; and the experience of salvation’s peace and joy is non-existent. Always, mysticism arises against the background of a decline in the spiritual life of the Church, especially a decline into dead orthodoxy and lively worldliness. In these circumstances, Pentecostalism seduces the people with the allure of real life, dynamic power, and wonderful feeling.

In view of Pentecostalism’s criticism of the life, both of the faithful Reformed believer, who has not received Pentecostalism’s baptism with the Spirit, and of the lax, unfaithful church member, and in view of its promise to transport the Christian into a higher level of spiritual life and experience, we are compelled to ask, ‘What is the Christian life and experience? What is the normal, Christian life?’

In answering this question, we pay no attention to the claims of religious men and woman. The norm of Christian life and experience is not the neighbor’s testimony of her latest ecstatic feeling, but Holy Scripture. In this way, we let God be true, and every man, a liar. The failure to let Scripture, the reliable Word of God, be the standard of the Christian life, and the dependency upon the thoroughly unreliable words of men, is the cause of no end of doubt, whether one is what he ought to be spiritually, and even whether one is a regenerated child of God at all. This gives Pentecostalism the opening that it wants. For knowledge of the Christian life, the rule is: ‘To the law and to the testimony,’ shunning the wizards that peep and mutter (Isaiah 8:19,20).

According to Scripture, the Christian life is a life that finds its fullness in Jesus Christ, as this Christ is revealed in the Word. It will not go beyond Christ; it will have nothing apart from Christ, or in addition to Christ–not circumcision, not new revelations, not a higher knowledge, not some spirit. The reason is that the Christian knows, and has found by experience, that Christ is a complete Savior. In Christ dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and the Christian is complete in Him, i.e., is filled up in Him (Col. 2:9,10). To be sure, the Christian life is a life of growth, but that growth is a growing up into Christ, not a going beyond Christ: ‘That we…may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ’ (Eph. 4:14,15). Just as is the case with the physical growth to maturity, this spiritual growth is a gradual, often imperceptible, development, not an instantaneous, overnight transformation. It is life-long. It takes place by the Word and prayer.

This sufficient Christ, with all His adequate benefits, is the life of the believer by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his heart. ‘I live,’ exults the believer, ‘yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). The fervent prayer of the apostle for all of the members of God’s Church is ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith’ (Eph. 3:17). This takes place in every one of us by our being ‘strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man’ (v.16).

The Christian life is a life of walking in the Spirit of Christ Whom we all received when we were born again. The believer does not look for, or seek, or tarry for a second baptism; rather, he strives to walk in the Spirit daily, in all of life. This is the instruction concerning the Christian life in Galatians 5. There were problems in Galatia regarding the Christian life, serious problems. There was the threat of the saints’ biting and devouring each other-a pathetic lack of love (vss. 13-15). There were other temptations of the flesh and its lusts: adultery; idolatry; drunkenness; and the like (vss. 19-21). There were evidences of vain glory, of the provoking of one another, and of envying one another (v.26). These were problems for men and women who had been baptized (Gal. 3:27) and who had received the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2). But the solution was not that they seek a new baptism, or a different administration of the Spirit. On the contrary, they must walk in that Holy Spirit in Whom they lived: ‘This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh’ (v. 16); ‘If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit’ (v.25).

The Christian life, it is thus pointed out, is active. The activity of the Christian life is, first, a battle-a fierce, unrelenting, life-long battle. The battleground is oneself. The foe is sin. Pentecostalism knows nothing of this battle; the Pentecostal has already won the victory in his baptism with the Spirit. Not only do you hear little or nothing of the forgiveness of sins in Pentecostalism, but you also hear little or nothing of the daily struggle of the saint against indwelling sin. In fact, it is not unheard of that the charismatic preacher ridicules those who are always groaning over their sins, those, that is to say, whose testimony all their lives is, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (Rom. 7:24). Nothing more clearly than this exposes Pentecostalism as a religion totally alien to the Reformed Faith. A Reformed Pentecostal is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. A Pentecostal cannot confess the first part of the Heidelberg Catechism. At best, he can only say that he used to know the misery of sin, both guilt and depravity. Ignorant of his misery, neither can he know redemption or the living gratitude that wells up daily in a forgiven heart.

Scripture, however, presents the Christian life as a striving against indwelling sin. This is the teaching of Galatians 5:17: ‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.’

This is the powerful doctrine of Romans 7. The Christian man, or woman, is carnal, sold under sin. Paul himself, man of God and apostle of Christ, was carnal, sold under sin. He found himself so, at the very end of his life, after he had been sanctified by the Spirit and after his sanctification had progressed far (v.14). Paul was carnal, not because he was unregenerated, not because Christ had not baptized him with the Holy Spirit and fire, not because sin reigned in his life, not because Paul was a careless Christian; but because even though he was born again, evil was present with him-he retained his sinful, totally depraved flesh (v.21). As a new man in Christ and, we may safely suppose, as one of the holiest of saints, he delighted in the law of God after the inward man (v. 22); had a hatred of sin (v. 15); and possessed a will to do the good (v.18). But such was the power of sin in him as long as he lived, that ‘the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do’ (v.19). Therefore, the apostle-and every Christian-knows his misery. He expresses it in the anguished cry, ‘O wretched man that I am’ (v. 24)–the echo in the New Testament of the ‘Out of the depths’ of Psalm 130. Yet, he neither gives up in the spiritual battle, nor is he ever without the solace of the Savior, Jesus Christ his Lord. Verse 23 insists on the warfare (‘I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind..’); verses 24, 25, on the comfort of Christ (‘who shall deliver me . . . ? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord’).

Not only is this warfare with sin the activity of the Christian life as regards one’s personal life, but it is also the activity of Christian life in the family and in the congregation.

This is a painful, bitter struggle.

For this reason, the Christian can be enticed by the sweet promise that suddenly the battle is over in this life. A pastor can be tempted similarly by such a promise for the congregation. But with the shield of Scripture, he can, and must, resist the temptation.

Do you find this bitter struggle against sin in yourself?

Do not despair!

Do not think that you are not saved or that you are insufficiently saved!

This is it: the normal Christian life!

The result is that we long ardently and wait, not for a second work of grace, but for the second coming of Jesus Christ: ‘Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly. ‘ We hope eagerly, not for a baptism with the Spirit, but for the resurrection of our bodies: ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body’ (Rom. 8:23).

Second, the activity of the Christian life is the doing of good works. But it is not the production of spectacular deeds and glamorous accomplishments, as the charismatics would have us believe. Rather, it is the doing of unnoticed, insignificant works–works that are of no account in the estimation of men. It is the activity of sanctification of life, walking after the Spirit, not after the flesh: not practicing adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like (Gal. 5:19-21); but living in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Gal. 5:22,23).

It is the activity of the unnoticed works of keeping the law of God: right worship of God; confessing the truth; remembering the Sabbath; obeying parents; faithfulness in marriage; chastity in single life; Godly rearing of children; diligent labor at one’s earthly vocation; payment to Caesar of his taxes; speaking well of one’s neighbor, especially the brother and sister in the congregation; and contentment with one’s lot, without coveting.

In short, the activity of the Christian life is love–love of the Lord our God and love of the neighbor.

As you do this, do not blow a trumpet before your piety; do it secretly, so that God will reward you.

This is possible by the indwelling Power of Almighty God; but, even then, sin will defile our best works, so that there is only a small beginning of the new obedience and constant need of pardon.

But does not the Christian life have its experience?

As an alternative or addition to faith, experience must be renounced, root and branch. Jesus Christ does not call us to experience, or to feel, but to believe. The way of salvation is faith, not feeling; we are saved by faith, not by experience; we are saved by faith alone, not by faith and experience.

Nevertheless, faith has its experience. It is three-fold: God’s child knows the greatness of his sin and misery, his gracious redemption in Christ, and thankfulness for this redemption.

Do you have this experience? Then, you have the normal Christian experience. This is all there is. Whoever lusts for more is an ingrate and aggravates God. He says to God Who gives the knowledge of Himself in His own Son (John 17:3), ‘But is there not something more, something better?’

To put it differently, through faith the Holy Spirit gives the peace and joy that come from justification. ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and rejoice in hope of the glory of God’ (Rom. 5:1,2).

Since this is the Christian life, the Reformed believer makes a confession that is radically different from that of the Pentecostal. The Pentecostal is always boasting of his great powers and is always rejoicing in his marvelous accomplishments. The Reformed saint humbly confesses his weaknesses and takes pleasure in his infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake. For he has learned to trust in Divine grace; desires the power of Christ to rest upon him; and has heard God say, in the gospel, ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness’ (11 Cor. 12:9, 10).

He will not glory in himself. To do so, is, to him, abhorrent-a blasphemy. From the bottom of his sin-broken, but justified heart comes the confession, ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 6:14).

This is the sound of the Dove.