“Unsurpassed Even By Spurgeon”

Yesterday, as I tinkered around the New College Library in Edinburgh, I came across a lecture Sinclair Ferguson gave on William Chalmers Burns.

Burns is a notable figure for anyone studying 19th-century evangelicalism, but I wish every Christian knew his story. His life is a burning testimony that the gospel is God’s power for salvation. A humble, fiery Spirit burned within his soul, and there are lessons worth learning if we’d listen.

And Dr. Ferguson’s lecture is a most excellent place to start.

If you’re interested in reading more about Burns, here are two works you might consider:

2 Reasons Why You Should Go to Seminary

Seminary Wide

I’ve uttered many things over the years I wish I could take back. I’m sure more foolish proclamations will end up in my “Hall of Shame.” One of the more egregious examples is what I said about seminary while at my uncle’s house back in 2006.

Well, You See . . .

Several of us were seated in my Uncle Dary’s plush study reviewing the goings on in the extended Stone family. For just over a year I’d been serving in the student ministry at FBC Prosper. The Stone side of my heritage has always valued education. Thus, whenever the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were present, it wasn’t long until the question came out. Up to this point, I’d handled the issue with what I thought was appropriate deference. But for whatever reason (I’m still not sure what caused it) when the inevitable ask arrived on this occasion my response was bubbly—bubbles of the boiling kind.

The question: “Jordan, when are you going to go to seminary?”

My answer: “I’m not planning on ever going. I don’t see any need for it.”

Filling My Mouth with a Foot

For the next two and a half years I was content to let my heart only harden more. By this time, I’d joined the staff of an Acts 29 church when Driscoll was at the height of his MMA-pastor phase. The ethos of the network at the time was mainly anti-seminary. My boss at the time (in)famously declared seminary was worthless. “I can teach you everything they will, and I’ll do it for free!” he shouted across the hallway one afternoon. I soaked it in. Sometime during this era, I told my father I was going to “beat the system.” By that, I meant I would successfully move up the pastoral ladder without graduate education. Hubris rarely has rung so loud in my life. And that’s saying something.

Some dear mentors of old ran me down in late 2008 to inquire about my new role at the new church. If ever there were poster children, in a good way, for seminary work it was these two brothers. They looked like and sounded as if they’d just left a rousing theological debate at the local library. But the disposition was far from off-putting. It was oddly compelling. They asked if I’d considered going to seminary and, cut to the quick by their kind sincerity, I said, “I am now.”

And So It All Began

About eight months went by, and I hadn’t done anything related to seminary. So my mentors summoned me, literally, to the office. I showed up at their church’s office, they took my lunch order, grabbed the grub, and we broke bread. I was well on my way to eating my third chip when the ambush arrived. “So, Jordan. When will you be going to Charlotte?” one of them asked quite casually. RTS Charlotte was their alma mater, you see. My feeble response was, “My wife and I are trying to get pregnant. I’m not sure it’s wise to head east and forsake my current salary.” I’ll never forget their response, “Jordan, now is not the time for a baby! Now is the time for study!”

Sure enough, just a few weeks later my wife found out she was pregnant. After further counsel with my wife and these assertive fellows it was decided, I’d get my M.A.R. through RTS Global. I’m convinced it was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made.

A Seminary Apologia

Six years later I have the M.A.R. in hand; I’m one semester away from a Th.M. at SBTS, and—Lord willing—just under two years away from finishing a Ph.D. Seminary education is almost as much a part of my life as soccer used to be. As a former adversary of seminary work, let me try to offer an apology for theological education under two simple points.

Seminary education grows ability. This is, in many ways, the reason we go to seminary. We go to learn things we wouldn’t learn otherwise. Radical outliers aside, who honestly would study Hebrew on their own initiative? Would you really read Donald Fortson’s Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land if you didn’t take his “History of Christianity II” course? Would you spend a weekend parsing through the communicatio idiomatum for Dr. Swain? Probably not. But my seminary experience has made me do those things. Furthermore, it’s enabled me to do them. Theological tools I never had now lie in my soul’s workshop.

Seminary gives you the ability of familiarity. It acquaints you with scholars, movements, theologies, and interpretations you’d likely never have otherwise. Sure, some students sound a lot like the caricature of seminarians—after seminary, all they can do is speak in a way no ordinary church members does. But my experience and observation say that’s not the norm. All in all, seminary will sharpen you skill with Scripture. And that’s something from which every pastor (and congregation) can profit.

Seminary education grows humility. Many young men I’ve talked to over the last five years fear the exact opposite; they’re convinced seminary is little more than “Prime Pride Fertilizer.” But that’s not the fault of the seminary. It’s the fault of the sinner attending seminary.

I’ve found few things in my life so adept at fostering humility like seminary. Many in my local church think I’m unusually smart. I might be tempted to believe them if it wasn’t for the students I spend time with in classes and seminars. They are the truly smart ones. And the professors are even smarter and more skilled. When I walk through the hallways at SBTS, I’m reminded how much I don’t know. That’s quite a good thing for humility.

The Apology in Action

Perhaps the best illustration I can offer on these benefits of ability and humility happened last May. I was in my first Ph.D. seminar with Dr. Michael Haykin on “Patristic Spirituality.” I stood up to present a paper on Eusebius of Caesarea’s work on Constantine. With a fluttering heart, I stammered through the paper. The subsequent interaction I had with Dr. Haykin was . . . well . . . humbling. He didn’t rip the paper apart, but he did tear some holes in it. He was right to do so. He then sent me on my way to consider a few sources to strengthen the work.

I left the seminar that week humbled and instructed. It seems that experience is an excellent microcosm of why seminary education can be so useful.


5 Truths for Real Revival

Revival Truths

For the last few weeks, I’ve been tinkering away on a paper comparing Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s defenses of revival. I won’t bore you with the academics of establishing a link between the two men; you’ll just have to trust me on this: no one (outside of Thomas Chalmers) had such discernible influence on M’Cheyne as Edwards.

A Spark and The Sun

On March 20, 1832, M’Cheyne wrote in his diary, “Read part of the life of Jonathan Edwards. How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.” This first recorded encounter with the Northampton pastor was powerful enough to cause M’Cheyne to purchase Edwards’ works three months later and begin to read them in earnest. Andrew Bonar, his closest friend, and biographer, remarks, “It was [during his first pastoral charge] . . . that [M’Cheyne] began to study so closely the works of Jonathan Edwards—reckoning them a mine to be wrought, and if wrought, sure to repay the toil.”

M’Cheyne’s toil was repaid in full. I think we can see that in how similar the 1838–1840 revival at St. Peter’s Dundee (described in Evidences on Revival) was to the 1734–1735 awakening in Edwards’ Northampton church (famously defending in A Narrative of the Surprising Work of God). One simple way to trace this is how each man used revival history in his congregation.

In the Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God, Edwards tells his readers, “There is no one thing that I know of which God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversion.” M’Cheyne too stoked the fire of awakening by recounting God’s great act in revivals of old during weekday services. I thus ask, “How then might Edwards and M’Cheyne encourage awakening in our own time? How might we pursue similar experiences of revival?” I believe to note and pursue five key commonalities each man emphasized.

5 Truths for Real Revival

Revival is the work of God’s sovereign spirit. Each pastor k he could not manufacture an awakening. There were no “new measures” to be discovered. Instead, a rediscovery of dependence upon God’s Spirit was needed, to see Him move in extraordinary power. Today, particularly in the Western church, temptations to pragmatism lurk in every place. Many ordinary pastors lead stagnated congregations. The bones are dry. But God’s Spirit is no less powerful today than he was in 1734–1735 and 1839–1840. Edwards and M’Cheyne challenge us to be patiently urgent in waiting for the Spirit’s breath to whistle forth a rattling sound through our age’s dry bones.

Revival depends on earnest prayer. Edwards and M’Cheyne each recount how the awakenings came after prolonged periods of prayer. Increased devotion to and delight in prayer became one of the clearest fruits of the Spirit’s work in revival. Pastors today will know an awakening has come—or is on the way—when the weekly prayer meeting is full. Another marker will be when multiple prayer meetings take over the church’s ordinary corporate life. Prayer calls upon the Spirit to begin blowing and keep blowing. M’Cheyne’s convicting conclusion at the end of Evidences on Revival is that only pastors “given to secret prayer” will experience an authentic awakening.

Revival comes through preaching Christ. Preaching is the chariot that brings down Christ to a church’s soul. A heralded Christ is what ignited the revival fires at Northampton and Dundee. Haykin reminds, “The deeply held pneumatological conviction in Edwards (and M’Cheyne’s) Reformed heritage [is] that the Spirit is a Christ-centred and Christ-exalting Spirit.” “Nothing but preaching the pure gospel of the grace of God,” M’Cheyne said, can bring about awakening. Let us then continue to preach Christ—crucified, risen, and ascended—believing it is only when He is lifted up continuously in our sermons that He will draw all men to Himself.

Revival increases the weight of God’s glory. A striking feature of both accounts is how revival brought reverence to the respective congregations. Instances of extreme ecstasy happened, but awful solemnity swallowed them whole. Edwards, with relentless attention, shows how fear and solemnity plowed through sinful hearts to plant salvation’s seed. “There seems to be far more of a solemn awe upon the minds of men than formerly . . . There is far more solemnity in the house of God,” M’Cheyne recounts. Our modern age exalts exuberant authenticity, which surely has a place in Christ’s church. Edwards and M’Cheyne remind us, however, that God also deserves our trembling, reverent worship. When the Spirit falls, He does so with heaviness. God’s glory bears eternal, incomprehensible weight. In awakenings, souls feel its force and respond with reverence.

Revival includes the children. While Edwards and M’Cheyne do tell us how the awakenings touched people from all walks of life, they nevertheless single out one special group: children. God used the youth in each church to raise a cup of gladness and shout a song of praise. Our Savior rebuked those who prevented the children from coming to Him. Let not His rebuke fall on us. In our preaching and pastoring, let us bend the knee and speak with tender hearts. Require not an unreasonable degree of theological or moral assent from your covenant children—they too may find Christ’s blessing.

Imitate Their Faith

In Philippians 3:17 Paul exhorts, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne are heroes to whom we should look. M’Cheyne thought Edwards to be a mighty sun in history’s spiritual galaxy. May we, like M’Cheyne, find the star of our life reflecting such absorbing trust in the Spirit who blows wherever He wills.



A Christ to Love

The Love of Christ

After several months spent swimming in the ocean of pastoral ministry and Ph.D. studies, I’ve feel as though I’m resurfacing with a few weeks off before another semester begins. I’m thus eager to haunt this here blog space once again with greater frequency.

A Spirituality of Trysts

One of the seminars I took this spring was “Theological Foundations of Spirituality” with Dr. Stephen Yuille. It was the first seminar I’ve had that allowed me to write a paper on Mr. M’Cheyne. I thus dove into my research with new earnestness, thinking, “Here’s a sanctioned excuse to work on the dissertation!” I first planned to do something on M’Cheyne’s theology of holiness. But the more I researched, the more I realized his idea of holiness is wrapped up in his understanding of Christ. It’s impossible to make sense of his almost-legendary personal holiness apart from his little-known Christology. So extensive is this correlation that what came out was a paper twice as long as it was supposed to be. The girth is good—I think. (It’s my hoped-for-but-yet-to-be-approved dissertation in seed form.)

One of the matters I try to advance in the paper is M’Cheyne’s view of the means of as “trysts”—secret meetings between lovers. It’s a delight to study M’Cheyne because he’s so immediately practical for ministry. To give you a taste of what I’m discovering, and to hopefully serve you as well, here’s a section from my recent work titled, “A Strangely Sweet and Precious Christ: Christological Spirituality in the Preaching of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.”

A Christ to Love

As mentioned above, M’Cheyne’s pursuit of personal holiness has marveled and humbled many a man. It is wrong however to see that pursuit as the centerpiece of his spirituality. Love to Christ was the pulsating power of his piety. In “The Love of Christ,” on 2 Corinthians 5:14, M’Cheyne not only expounds Christ’s love, but also what that love compels in His people’s life. According to M’Cheyne, God knows our desires for sin regularly outweigh our desires for holiness. Therefore, “He hath invented a way of drawing us to holiness. By showing us the love of his Son, he calleth forth our love.”[1] The love of Christ, according to M’Cheyne, “is the secret spring of all the holiness of the saints.” The reason for holiness and spirituality is crystal clear: “We are constrained to holiness by the love of Christ.”[2]

Most studies on M’Cheyne spirituality center on his diligent use of particular means of grace: Bible reading and prayer. What has not yet been pieced together is how M’Cheyne viewed the means of grace chiefly as vehicles of love. It is in and through these means that Christ’s love comes down, and the church’s love goes up. Nothing better illuminates this reality than how M’Cheyne preferred to talk about communion with Christ. For M’Cheyne, the means of grace are “trysts”—meetings between lovers. Consider the following excerpts from various sermons:

  • “In the daily reading of the Word, Christ pays daily visits to the soul. In the daily prayer, Christ reveals himself to his own in that other way that he doth to the world. In the house of God Christ comes to his own, and says: ‘Peace be unto you!’ And in the sacrament he makes himself known to them in the breaking of bread, and they cry out: ‘It is the Lord!’ These are all trysting times, when the Savior comes to visit his own.”[3]
  • “The Sabbath is Christ’s trysting time with his church. If you love him, you will count every moment of it precious. You will rise early and sit up late, to have a long day with Christ.”[4]
  • “The hour of daily devotion is a trysting house with Christ . . . The Lord’s Table is the most famous trysting place with Christ.”[5]
  • “[Gathered worship] is a trysting place with Christ. It is the audience chamber where he comes to commune with us from the mercy-seat.”[6]
  • “We love everything that is Christ’s (word, prayer, sacrament, fellowship) . . . We love his House. It is our trysting-place with Christ, where he meets with us and communes with us from off the mercy-seat.”[7]

The importance of these selections for understanding M’Cheyne’s spirituality is simple: his pursuit of personal holiness was little more than the pursuit of the Christ he loved. Christ’s love was a glorious truth to be preached and enjoyed. Why then did M’Cheyne famously pray, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made?”[8] I would argue he did so because he saw holiness as the maturity of love; it is the highest experience of Christ’s love. “Communion with God; the delighting in Him; loving, adoring, admiring Him;” these are the ordinary desires of a heart redeemed by Christ’s love—these were the ordinary desires of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.[9]

To preach Christ was strangely sweet and precious, M’Cheyne wrote. So sweetly precious was the Savior to this young Scottish preacher that he could not help but let Christ saturate every sermon. He presented Christ’s fullness and freeness in all its glory. Few Christological rocks, if any, did he leave unturned in that theological garden named, “The Person and Work of Christ.” He did, however, sit most comfortably next to those boulders marked, “A Sure Christ,” “A Converting Christ,” “A Captivating Christ, and “A Judging Christ.” His Christology was winsome, romantic, and simple. Here was a Christ of love. Here was a Christ to love.

Alexander Smellie said in his biography of M’Cheyne, “I never knew one so instant in season and out of season, so impressed with the invisible realities, and so faithful in reproving sin and witness for Christ. . . . Love to Christ was the great secret of all his devotion and consistency.”[10] My study of M’Cheyne’s preaching ministry leads me to conclude with a hearty, “Amen.”

[1] M’Cheyne, From the Preacher’s Heart, 52. (emphasis original)

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid., 232–33.

[4] M’Cheyne, The Passionate Preacher, 330. Cf. M’Cheyne, Sermons on Hebrews, 32-33.

[5] M’Cheyne, From the Preacher’s Heart, 234. cf., 103.

[6] M’Cheyne, The Passionate Preacher, 28.

[7] Ibid., 33.

[8] Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 160.

[9] M’Cheyne, New Testament Sermons, 41.

[10] Alexander Smellie, Robert Murray McCheyne (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1995), 172.

A Gospel Worship Revolution

Gospel Worship

Last week Christianity Today virtually declared an end to the worship wars. According to the authors, “the waning of the worship wars” is part of a “decades-long trend in American religion away from an emphasis on belief and doctrine and toward an emphasis on experience, emotion, and the search for a least-common-denominator kind of worship in a time of ever-less salient denominationally specific liturgical and theological content.”

I think their conclusion is right. The worship wars are over. Now, in this post, I raise my theological glass to the hope of “worship revolution.”

A Waking Gospel Revolution

Since the turn of the century, the resurgence of gospel-centrality in the larger evangelical is well documented and undeniable. What we’ve seen is a re-centering of the gospel for the Christian life and some congregational life—particularly preaching. But new horizons of gospel centrality must be explored: How does the gospel shape church polity? How does the gospel change church staffing? How does the gospel transform the tone, not just the topic, of preaching? And, how does the gospel inform worship?

More specifically, “how should the gospel inform the design, implementation, and leadership of a gathered worship service?”

When Doctoral Studies Get Quite Practical

That was the question recently posed to me in a doctoral seminar on “Planning and Leading Christian Worship.” My research and subsequent writing revealed something of a gap in the conversation. It revealed an ordinary way most scholars (and thus many pastors) articulate the liturgical practices of the church that I fear can quickly go the way of obscuring the gospel.

Building on the work of James Smith on human beings as “liturgical animals,” I submit that we “a liturgical gospel rhythm” in our worship.

There are, to be sure, many books that have sought to answer how the gospel shapes worship (see here, here, and here). What’s missing, however, is a deeper reflection on the matter and manner of true gospel worship. In other words, what elements must be present for the liturgy to deserve the modifier of “gospel”? What tone must be present if it’s truly gospel-centered?


I’m still ruminating on all these things, but the paper below reflects my initial conclusions. After spending some time asking if the gospel actually should shape our worship gatherings I move on to propose (only points two and four are somewhat unique):

  1. Scripture is the rule of gathered worship.
  2. Revelation-Reception-Response is the rhythm of gathered worship.
  3. Covenant renewal is the form of gathered worship.
  4. Celebratory reverence is the tone of gathered worship.

Those four points represent what I’m calling a “liturgical gospel rhythm” for ordinary churches.

So, if you’re interested and have some time, download the paper below and let me know what you think.

Download “Revelation, Reception, & Response:
A Liturgical Gospel Rhythm.”

Questions that Need Answering


I’m signing off the blog for a period of time once again. PhD assignments for the fall semester are reaching crunch time and need more attention than I’ve been giving them. Also, I have many theological and pastoral questions I need to wrestle with. They have nagged me for too long and must finally be confronted. Should you think about it in the next few weeks, I’d appreciate prayer.

I hope to be back around Thanksgiving.

The Spirituality of Vineyard Music

I’ve long had a fascination with music in the church. The churches of my youth were ones where songs were sung with gusto and joy. I sung in the church choir during my middle school years, led songs for countless church services, and played guitar for countless more.

A Personal Journey

vineyFor almost two decades I’ve been attracted to conversations about and convictions on church music. God’s word has much to tell us about singing in the life of the church. Those who know me best probably weren’t surprised when we planted IDC with a desire to be “A Singing Church.” God creates and commands a singing people. And so we want to sing with loving obedience. Such a belief has great bearing on the songs we thus sing in response to God. Simply put: we are in a sad state when “that which is popular” has more power than “that which is biblically best” in deciding which songs our congregations sing.

I could continue, but I must really get off the soapbox and arrive at my point.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the history of corporate song, particularly in American evangelicalism. So it was with great delight that I wrote a research paper on the spirituality of The Vineyard movement’s top fifty songs for a recent PhD seminar on “20th Century Spirituality.”

Oh, how interesting and illuminating it was!

Understanding the Vineyard

If you don’t know anything about the Vineyard it was the most influential “Third Wave” movement from the mid-1980s to turn of the 21st century. Led by the rock-star-turned-charismatic-mega-church-practitioner John Wimber, the Vineyard emphasized a spirituality of “kingdom power.” Think “signs and wonders” revealed through power healing, power evangelism, and power warfare.

If evangelism, healing, and warfare were the primary means by which Vineyard churches demonstrated the power of Christ’s kingdom, then musical worship is the main vehicle by which they experienced the love of Christ’s kingdom. Kevin Springer, a key figure in the Vineyard during its peak Wimber years, said, “You don’t understand the Vineyard if you don’t understand the worship music.”

I took up Springer’s challenge and wrote a (long) paper in order to understand not just Vineyard music, but what that music emphasized about spirituality.

Spirituality in the Top 50 Vineyard Songs

I worked with CCLI to identify the fifty most-sung Vineyard songs during the John Wimber era. It seemed wise to limit the songs for analysis to the Wimber period for two reasons: 1) the changing landscape of worship music around the turn of the twentieth century makes it difficult to expect any fluidity should one analyze over thirty-five years of Vineyard Music, thus limiting the time period is advantageous, and 2) one cannot truly grasp the Vineyard’s spiritual heartbeat apart from Wimber’s influence, leadership, and teaching.

To give you an idea of what kind of songs we’re working with, here are the top ten:

  1. “Breathe” (Marie Barnett, © 1995 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  2. “Draw Me Close” (Kelly Carpenter, © 1994 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  3. “Take My Life” (Scott Underwood, © 1995 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  4. “Change My Heart O God” (Eddie Espinosa, © 1982 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  5. “In the Secret” (Andy Park, © 1995 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  6. “Every Move I Make” (David Ruis, © 1996 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  7. “Refiner’s Fire” (Brian Doerksen, © 1990 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  8. “More Love More Power” (Jude Del Hierro, © 1987 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  9. “Spirit Song” (John Wimber, © 1979 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)
  10. “Holy and Anointed One” (John Barnett, © 1988 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing)

My analysis revealed two core themes to Vineyard spirituality: 1) desperation for God’s presence, and 2) consecration unto holiness. Along the way I try to show what these songs teach us regarding the character of God and the work of His Son. Even the knowledgeable folk may find a few surprising things here.

While there are many things to affirm in the Vineyard’s popular catalogue (devotion to God’s word, using songs as prayers) the Vineyard exported a radical individualism in corporate song. Forty-four of the top fifty songs are written exclusively from the first person singular perspective. The songs are all about “I, me, my, and mine.” Hence why Tanya Luhrmann can say, “The [Vineyard’s] worship is intensely individual, even when everyone sings together” (emphasis added). This radical individualism leads me to the glaring flaw in the Vineyard’s most popular music: it prioritizes God’s immanence to the expense of His transcendence. It’s a spirituality of “lots of love with a little cross.”

I could say more, but you might want to read it for yourself.

Click here to read “Lots of Love with a Little Cross: The Spirituality of Vineyard Music.” Head down to page fourteen if you want to skip over a broad analysis of Vineyard’s history and confessional spirituality.

Mainline Influence on Evangelicalism

20th Century Spirituality

Just as Catholicism influenced the spirituality of mainline Protestants in the 20th century, so too did mainline Protestants influence evangelical spirituality. The influences are many, but this essay will focus on the spiritual formation movement, increasing openness to the miraculous gifts, egalitarianism, and homosexuality.

The Spiritual Formation Movement

For most of the 20th century evangelicals had never heard of the phrase “spiritual formation.” Yet, by the turn of the century “spiritual formation” was a buzzword in evangelical denominations and networks. Many seminaries today not only offer spiritual formation classes, but even have departments of spiritual formation. What is it? Spiritual formation speaks of the shaping process by which a person’s spirituality is shaped, and is thus uniquely concerned with the dynamic means by which one grows in Christlikeness. Its main proponents are luminaries such as Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and Eugene Peterson.

Mainline versions of spiritual formation often meant experimenting with a diverse array of practices. In the late 1900s mainline retreats for spiritual formation would adapt themes from medieval mystics and have workshops on the Labyrinth or Enneagram. Some spiritual formation proponents even encouraged Buddhist techniques to help spiritual growth. In a Christianity Today article from 2002 entitled, “Three Temptations of Spiritual Formation,” Evan Howard writes, “One popular retreat and spiritual [formation] training center in my region offers common meals, massage, inner healing, evening prayer, in-depth dream work, daily Eucharist, and “mandala explorations.” Mandalas (artistic, usually circular, designs) appear in a few religious traditions—in Native American designs, in Gothic rose windows, and especially in Tibetan practices.” It seemed as though much of the spiritual formation in the mainline was indeed “spiritual,” but hardly “Christian.”

Much of the evangelical adaptation of spiritual formation picks up on time-tested, ordinary means for growth in Christlikeness. Foster, in his Celebration of Discipline, provides a chapter each on the following disciplines:  mediation, [contemplative] prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. The mainline influence is particularly seen is in how some evangelicals stress greatly intuitive and individualistic notions of spirituality. Yet, whereas the mainline feels no great need to tether this intuitiveness to Scripture, many evangelical teachers of spiritual formation seek to submit the intuitive pursuits to Scripture and not neglect the reality of sin and the need for a Savior. Spiritual formation is thus not something done to simply promote spirituality, but something done to pursue godliness, as revealed in God’s Word.

The Third Wave

Quite possibly the greatest effect mainline Protestant spirituality brought to evangelicalism is “The Third Wave” movement. It was at the beginning of the 20th century that Pentecostalism began and quickly found a place in American—if not evangelical—life. Charles Parham taught that the baptism of the Spirit was subsequent to conversion and was evidenced by speaking in tongues. His young disciple William Seymour would eventually take the Pentecostal doctrine to Los Angeles where, in 1906, a revival broke out. This revival lasted for roughly nine years and led to the rapid growth of the Pentecostalism in America. Yet, for most of the first half of the twentieth century Pentecostalism found little respect among mainline denominations and thus had little effect on Protestantism as a whole. This began to change when Dennis Bennett—an Episcopalian priest in Van Nuys, California—claimed to have been given the gift of tongues. This event was a watershed moment for Pentecostalism. It eventually led to many Catholics and mainline Protestants to become “Charismatic” in their orientation. While Pentecostals teach a subsequent Spirit baptism leading to the gift of tongues, Charismatics accept a “baptism in the spirit” by faith without accompanying manifestations while later seeking to “yield to tongues,” not as “initial evidence” but as one of the authenticating gifts of the Spirit. Throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s, a Charismatic renewal swept through the mainline denominations and moved the continuation of all spiritual gifts to the forefront of much evangelical thought.

The great adaptation of mainline Charismatic renewal practices began to broadly happen in the 1980s. Peter Wagner, of Fuller Theological Seminary, coined the term Third Wave, saying, “The first wave was the Pentecostal movement, the second wave was the Charismatic movement, and now the third wave is joining them.” Third Wave adherents thus made it clear that while they were the natural succession to Pentecostal and Charismatic practice, they were distinct. What made the Third Wave proponents different from Pentecostals and Charismatics was they did not teach a subsequent baptism of the Spirit to conversion, but they did believe in the continuation of all miraculous gifts. A believer was baptized in the Spirit upon conversion and all gifts were to be pursued, but not all gifts would be received.

Third Wave belief and practice was typified by the Vineyard Movement, which went through astonishing growth under John Wimber in the mid-1980s–late-1990s. The movement was characterized by signs and wonders and swept up many notable evangelicals including Dallas Theological Seminary professor Jack Deere, as well as theologian Wayne Grudem, and Sam Storms. Another prominent evangelical Third Wave movement is Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Perhaps the greatest example of evangelicalism’s fascination with and adaptation of The Third Wave is John Piper. One can read Piper articles and sermons circa 1990 to see a pastor intrigued with John Wimber, while simultaneously being unsure of his teaching. At Lausane II in Manila Piper spent much time learning from Jack Hayford and John Wimber. In 1990 Piper took fifty-eight leaders and members from his church to investigate Wimber’s ministry further at The Vineyard’s “Holiness Unto the Lord” conference. Piper came back to Bethlehem Baptist Church with a series of “Kudos & Cautions” for Vineyard and Wimber. As one pays attention to Piper’s ministry, his public fascination with The Third Wave has diminished even if his Third Wave sympathies remain.

Piper appears emblematic of a large swath of evangelicals in our time, Christians who are open to all miraculous gifts, yet don’t pursue or practice all gifts with zeal. In many ways, it seems as though the rising evangelicals today are something of a “Fourth Wave,” which can be quantified in the statement, “Open to all spiritual gifts, but cautious in the use of all spiritual gifts.”

Egalitarianism & Homosexuality

Towards the end of the 20th century many mainline Protestant denominations reflected the larger culture’s changing attitudes towards the role of women and homosexuality. It became increasingly common for mainline denominations to ordain women to pastoral ministry and in time many would ordain a homosexual to gospel ministry. In the late 1980s evangelicals reacted to this growing change with the publication of The Danver’s Statement in 1989. From this public statement of complementarianism The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood began to lead the charge for a “regrounding” of evangelicalism on the Bible’s teaching on gender roles and sexuality.

The evangelical seminaries bear testimony to the war that raged during this time over egalitarianism and complementarianism. Many evangelical seminaries (Fuller Theological Seminary being among the most prominent) had faculty members that were either openly confessing egalitarianism or either on the way to egalitarianism. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is probably the most visible seminary to go through an internal—yet, still quite public—battle over the matter and come out on the complementarian side.

It must be noted that many egalitarians would consider themselves evangelicals. They believe, from Scripture, that women can be ordained to the ministry but still hold to the inerrancy of Scripture and the urgent need for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other evangelicals believe complementarianism to be “a gospel issue,” and thus egalitarianism is incompatible with a pure gospel.

In mainline Protestantism we saw many denominations confessing egalitarianism soon confess openness towards homosexual practice and in our time this is the greatest place of mainline influence on evangelicalism. Just as the matter of homosexuality seems to be the current dividing line in our broader culture, it seems to be the next dividing line of spirituality among moderates and conservatives alike.

Historical Appreciation

A final evidence of the mainline’s influence on evangelical spirituality can be seen in the unabashed appreciation of mainline figures like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis. In 2010 Eric Metaxas published Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Metaxas’ book was something of a sweeping and sensational publication in our country, shooting up the bestseller lists and even paving the way for Metaxas to speak before President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s success was a great indication of how many evangelical Christians are influenced by a mainline Protestant from Germany.

C.S. Lewis also continues to occupy a large plage in evangelical life. In 2013 Desiring God devoted their national conference to the theme “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.” In addition to his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’ books The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain have exerted a large influence on the life and faith of evangelicals.

Old School Advice

iggiI’m at “The Institution”—The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—all week doing some PhD work and one of the seminars is “Patristic & Celtic Spirituality” with Dr. Michael Haykin.

On Monday we spent some time with the letters of Ignatius, and his dispatch to Polycarp has some brilliant wisdom for pastors. He writes,

I urge you, by the grace with which you are clothed, to press on in your race and to exhort all people, so that they may be saved. Do justice to your office with constant care for both physical and spiritual concerns. Focus on unity, for there is nothing better. Bear with all people, even as the Lord bears with you; endure all in love, just as you now do. Devote yourself to unceasing prayers; ask for greater understanding than you have. Keep alert with an unresting spirit. Speak to the people individually, in accordance with God’s example. Bear the diseases of all, as a perfect athlete. Where there is more work, there is much gain.

If you love good disciples, it is no credit to you; rather with gentleness bring the more troublesome ones into submission.

The Apostolic Fathers, 126.

A Theological Journey

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the theological enigma that is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Today I continue with an overview of his theological journey, particularly as it relates to the development of convictions that would eventually give rise to his two bestsellers: The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.

“I Heard the Gospel Preached in the Negro Churches”

In the spring of 1930 Bonhoeffer received an invitation from Henry Sloane Coffin, president of Union Theological Seminary in NYC, to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship. Ever the traveler, Bonhoeffer readily applied. In September he boarded the SS Columbia for and set sail for the United States.

Charles Marsh says, “In 1930 Union Theological Seminary was the proud flagship institution of liberal Protestant theology in America.”[1] Yet, Bonhoeffer quickly found the seminary—and American theology on the whole—wanting. He said, “The students . . . are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions.” Everyone “just blabs away so frightfully.” His conclusion? “There is no theology here.”

The congregations of New York also came under Bonhoeffer’s ire. He visited many of the well-known Protestant congregations, including Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Riverside Church, and never heard of our crucified Christ. “In New York, they preach about virtually everything,” Bonhoeffer said, “except . . . the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[2]

Before his arrival in September 1930, “Bonhoeffer had never had a conversation with a person of color.”[3] Bonhoeffer had been made aware of the “American dilemma,” but it wasn’t until a fellow student invited him to attend a Sunday-morning church service in Harlem that Bonhoeffer not only encountered African-American spirituality, but also “had any experience of American preaching and worship that seemed to him authentic and vital.”[4] Bonhoeffer became a frequent attender at Abyssinian Baptist Church and met with a group of “Negro boys each week,” he said of what he understood as “one of my most important experiences in America.” Bonhoeffer cherished the exuberance and seriousness of what he had at Abyssinian. After the spring semester of ’31 Bonhoeffer and a few friends jumped into a secondhand Oldsmobile for Mexico. More than just wanting to visit the next country south, Bonhoeffer wanted to get a real-life sense of life for blacks in the south—during the time of sharp segregation and Depression-era poverty.

Marsh says,

When, on June 20, 1931 Bonhoeffer embarked on his return to Germany, it was with a new perspective on his vocation as theologian and pastor. He was ready at last to put away childish things, foremost his professional ambitions, and begin to search the Christian and Jewish traditions for peacemaking, dissent, and civil courage. The technical terminology faded steadily from his writings, giving way to a language more direct and expressive of lived faith . . . ‘It is the problem of concreteness that at present so occupies me,’ he wrote upon his return to Berlin—this from the young theologian who ten months earlier had found American pragmatism such an affront to Germanic exactitude.[5]

So Bonhoeffer arrives in the fall of 1931 a changed theologian to a rapidly changing Germany.

The Prophet Returns Home

Capitalizing on the failed Weimar Republic, rising inflation, and enduring humiliation from the Versailles Treaty Hitler’s Nazi party was beginning to make loud rumblings in German politics. While Bonhoeffer was in America the Nazis had become the second-largest party in the Reichstag. Less than a year after Bonhoeffer returned the Nazis had become the largest party and almost 18-months after he began his lecturing at the university Hitler was in total control as a result of the Enabling Act.

Alarmed by the German Christian church’s appeasement of and cowering to the Nazi’s Aryan-supremacy worldview Bonhoeffer found himself function as something like a prophet crying out in the wilderness, warning against the heinous trajectory of destruction on which the Nazis were moving. During this time Bonhoeffer would publish and lecture on topics that would prove to be foundational to Discipleship and Life Together:

  • Lectures on “The Nature of the Church (1932)
  • Article on “The Church and the Jewish Question” (April 1933)
  • Lectures on Christology (Summer 1933)

In the fall of 1933 Bonhoeffer helped to organize the Pastors’ Emergency League (and the subsequent Confessing Church and Barmen Declaration) due to the mainline Lutheran church of his youth rapidly deteriorating beyond repair. The prophetic cry of costly grace thus now fully had its audience. Yet, there is another vital development in Bonhoeffer for our grasping, particularly, the milieu of Life Together and Bonhoeffer’s focus on the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship.

A New Monasticism

In October of 1933 Bonhoeffer began a pastorate for two German-speaking congregations in London. While in England he made a point to visit as many alternative seminaries, peace centers, and monasteries as he could. Why? He had come to see The Sermon on the Mount as having an inalterably integral part of Christian spirituality. He a letter to his older brother during the London period Bonhoeffer said,

I think I am right to say that true inner clarity and honesty will come only by starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. In it alone is the force that can blow all this hocus-pocus sky-high . . . The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with its former self but proposes a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather the people together and do this.[6]

And so he did. At the urging of a council of the Confessing Church, convened in February of 1935, Bonhoeffer would take leave from his London obligations to set up a theological seminary for the Confessing Church.

Painting on a Blank Canvas

Often thought of as a covert religious institution, the seminary—ultimately located in Finkenwalde—operated for almost half its time without state opposition. It was at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer not only enjoyed the most blissful years of his life, it was also an opportunity for him to paint onto a blank spiritual canvas the myriad of convictions regarding spirituality he had amassed over the previous six years.[7]

“As an experiment in Protestant monasticism—at its root, something of a contradiction in terms, Luther’s teaching having closed far more monasteries than it founded—Finkenwalde needed to square the self-abnegation of the cloister with the individual freedom implicit in the Reformation view of Christian community.”[8] Bonhoeffer attempted to manage this great tension by thoroughly regulating most of each day, while simultaneously allowing for students to come and go from the seminary as they pleased. It was a tension not without many complaints, some students often referred to Bonhoeffer as “Der Fuhrer,” but on the whole it was a time of great growth and joy for the group.

The joy of Finkenwalde came to an end in mid-October 1937, but the seminary proved to be the ultimate context for Bonhoeffer’s most enduring works in American evangelicalism: Discipleship and Life Together. In November 1937 Bonhoeffer published Discipleship (the German title is “Nachfolge,” an imperative better translated “Follow Me”),[9] and in 1939 Life Together, with Prayerbook of the Bible following in 1940.


[1] Marsh, 103.

[2] Marsh, 111.

[3] Marsh, 115.

[4] Marsh, 115.

[5] Marsh, 134.

[6] Marsh, 217. Bonhoeffer would later say to Sutz, when thinking about the ecclesiastical division in Germany, “Perhaps this may amaze you, [but] it is my belief that the Sermon on the Mount will be the deciding word on this who affair” (Marsh, 226).

[7] Marsh concurs, “Finkenwalde ultimately existed as the canvas on which he aspired to render his personal ideal of a Christian community. (240)

[8] Marsh, 237.

[9] The English translation, The Cost of Discipleship, originally appeared in 1948.