“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”
In Part 1, “A Prophetic Warning to the Prophetic Movement,” I addressed the danger of giving too much attention to and placing too much confidence in just anyone who says they are prophesying in the name of the Lord. Without discrediting prophesy all together, I called for believers to be discerning. I further encouraged leaders to take more responsibility for what takes place in the prophetic settings.
An Evangelical Priesthood
Now, here in Part 2, I am making a similar call against placing too much confidence in
our current evangelical priests. Yes, we have an evangelical priesthood. In both cases
we are doing what we should never do. In both cases we have adopted intermediaries.
It is easy to take shots at people who say and do flaky things. On the contrary, it is more
difficult to call into question those who, in every respect, appear to be well educated,
well groomed, refined in manners and level-headed.
For instance, Mormons appear refined and level-headed. Millions of otherwise
intelligent, thoughtful people follow Mormon teaching. In Mormonism perception
becomes the reality. Regrettably, many evangelicals are falling for the same thing and
lining up in a similar fashion. They buy the glossy promotional cover without carefully
thinking about the content. Mormonism simply has better packaging than Scientology.
Take it from me, Mormonism is “crackers” – as “crackers” as Scientology but somehow
they get a free pass.
In order to justify their legitimacy, Mormons go so far as to point to their apparent
success – prominent nationally recognized personalities, sophisticated universities and
institutions, wealth, numerical growth, etc., as clear evidence that what they teach is
the product of divine revelation. Of course, this is no evidence at all and to prove my
point, I ask them how many people managed to get onto the ark? Thousands, even
millions of adherents is no guarantee of truth. In fact, according to scripture, success
may indicate the exact opposite ( “wide is the gate”). Perhaps we should be suspicious
of some evangelical success stories? Are we enamored by the packaging or the content?
“Churches with the word GRACE in their names
are often the most legalistic.”
Here’s a case in point. I grew up in a very prominent evangelical denomination. If I
mention the name, everyone would immediately recognize it. They made the claim that
they were, without doubt, the most biblical denomination in the world. Since people I
greatly admired made this claim I never questioned the truthfulness of it. I believed this
until I left home and discovered that there were countless ways in which they failed to
teach the “full counsel of God.” While there were many good things about this group,
there were many ways in which other churches and denominations held to truths they
had either ignored or missed entirely. I should have had this mind, the whole truth
belongs to the whole church and no prophesy of scripture is of any private
interpretation (2 Peter 1:20). We have come outside of the camp, bearing His reproach
(Hebrews 13:13) and here we have no continuing city (Hebrews 13:14). Our preachers,
theologians and denominations belong to us. We do not belong to them (1 Corinthians
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men,
the Man Christ Jesus,”
“Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself
and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us
not to think beyond what is written,
that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.”
Understanding the following may take an exercise of making very fine distinctions – or
a high level of discernment.
In the whole of the Bible the word “flesh” is mentioned four hundred twenty times in
about four different ways. The earliest and most often use has to do with all living men
and animals, re: the body itself. It continues to be used in the same way in the New
Testament but predominately we now have the introduction of the idea of the human
nature without divine influence and prone to sin. Flesh (sarx) in this sense is called
Paul gives us a nice, tidy list of carnality in Galatians 5:18-21. You know what these
fleshly acts are. Perhaps you have memorized the list. In case you have forgotten, here it
“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are:
adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred,
contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions,
heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like;”
This sums it up. Or does it? The text indicates that it is not as exhaustive as it could be.
Look at how it concludes, “…and the like.” We do however get the idea of what the “and
the like” is, don’t we? We are left to fill this in for ourselves. Add to this list all of the
nasty business you can think of and that constitutes what we may call, “the works of the
flesh.” The text seems to indicate that carnality (fleshliness) is the outworking of the
ego or the assertion of self. The assertion of self always results in the sins of the flesh.
Bad behavior and the outworking of evil activity are rather easy to identify so we don’t
have to analyze this reference to the flesh hardly at all. We all get it.
This is what disturbs me! “Flesh”, as Paul understands it “flesh” moves beyond this list
and shows up in other, less identifiable ways. I have friends involved in religion of the
flesh and they don’t have a clue. When I read scripture and survey the present spiritual
landscape, I see “flesh” as something more pervasive. It shows up in the most polished
settings – even among the most groomed spokespersons for the Christian faith.
Theological elitists are the masters of a carnal faith.
When Paul says in Philippians 3:3,
“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit,
rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh…,”
Here, Paul is not referring to either the human body or acts of unethical or immoral
“Our virtues are but splendid sins.”
What do you think Augustine meant? He meant the same thing that Paul meant. Paul
had already explained his philosophy by renouncing confidence in human ancestry,
national legacy, social position, religious devotion, physical strength, intellectual skill,
eloquence, ability, educational achievement or professional notoriety. All of this
influence becomes meaningless when facing the cross of Christ. As tricky as it is, this
confidence in status is as much the flesh and carnality as is bad behavior and the
outworking of evil activity. Here in Paul’s own words, is what he calls flesh and
“…though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he
may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the
stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning
the law, a Pharisees, concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the
righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet
indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ
Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them
as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own
righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ,
the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the
power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed
to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
What makes God mad?
I have often thought, “What were those occurrences that seem to have aggravated God
the most?” I haven’t compiled a thorough list and in the interest of time I will provide
just a couple of incidences of the many and all of them was of a similar kind. God was
clearly annoyed when Israel complained and murmured, particularly when they
questioned his ability to provide meat in the wilderness. Again, he wasn’t pleased with
the Tower of Babel or when David numbered Israel. Many incidents of God’s
displeasure had to do with God’s people doubting him and taking things upon
themselves. God is displeased when any man thinks he can go it alone.
Unfortunately, this is American evangelicalism. Along with the Pharisees, western
evangelicals have made the claim, “We have Abraham as our father.” Here’s a bit of
news for you, God “can raise up children of Abraham from stones,” so we dare not
make the same mistake of thinking too much of ourselves as the Pharisees did.
“Without faith it is impossible to please Him.”
Early in scripture we see God admonishing His people for putting confidence in the
“arm of the flesh” or trusting in the strength of horses or chariots rather than the power
of the living God.
We see this surface again in the New Testament, when in Paul’s First Epistle to Corinth
he warns them about trusting in human wisdom or philosophy. Paul is not telling them
to be stupid. He does say that “Knowledge puffs up” – makes folks self confident –
arrogant. God always resists the proud. Human cleverness, intellect or eloquence will
not be the means by which the kingdom advances so, dear brethren, as good as it is,
don’t put too much confidence in it. After all, “The kingdom does not come in word
(intellectual gymnastics and philosophical speculation) but in power.” Though we
know this, there is a part of the western church that doesn’t seem to believe it. They
have seemingly come to the conclusion that God moves through intellectual refinement.
A friend of mine who has an earned Ph.D. once said this to me, “A Ph.D. doesn’t prove
how intelligent anybody is. It just lets us know how long they’ve spent in school.” May
I add that a Ph.D. – for that matter, all theological education – doesn’t certify a persons’
spirituality, orthodoxy or ministry effectiveness either. In fact, it has often been the case
that just the opposite proves to be true. The more education a person has had results in
them being less spiritual, orthodox or capable of ministry. We are immediately
suspicious who does not have formal theological training. Why? Why shouldn’t it be
the other way around?
Another friend, a career missionary added this, “I have never seen a Ph.D. cast out a
demon.” This may not be one hundred percent true but I can concur that often class
attendance or academic achievement does not seem to enhance one’s spiritual authority
when real power encounters are required.
These then are two equally dangerous errors. There is on one side of the church an over
spiritualization and anti-intellectual mood and in the other over confidence in academic
skill, formal ministry preparation and this posture often spawns a suspicion of the
I might call this mood, “Evangelical Gnosticism.” This is the notion that spiritual
sensitivity cannot be trusted. “The heart is deceitful above all things and who can know
it?” For this side of the church, the kingdom does come in words. The more a person
knows about Greek, theology, scripture – the more books they have read, written or
names they can drop, etc. – the more spiritual he or she becomes. Friends, this is just
christening the Gnostic heresy and making it acceptable. Knowledge may enhance
spirituality but it is not the means of gaining it.
We clearly see that Paul ran up against this same spirit in Corinth.
“And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of
human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit
and of power,” that your faith should not be
in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
It is this writers’ view that seminaries are responsible for more heresy, speculation and
theological confusion than all of the amassed, uneducated country bumpkins combined.
Those preachers who make up sentences with double negatives can be easily dismissed
but not so when someone has a masterful command of language and academic
credentials to go with it.
Recently, I have been reading in Joshua and referring to James Montgomery Boice’s
little commentary by the same name. He points out that, in strictly human and/or as
military strategy, Joshua did a foolish thing when, as soon as he crossed the Jordan, he
commanded the circumcision of all of his men. God had a good reason for disabling,
immobilizing and leaving the troops defenseless for at least three to five days. He
wanted them to clearly understand that the battle was the Lord’s and that confidence in
human strength would only end in defeat as it did when they went up against Ai.
The quest to gain acceptance with the secular world.
Perhaps this is why the American church with all of its seminaries, PhD’s., billions of
dollars invested in buildings, technology and so forth is so pathetically weak and
ineffective. With all of their knowing I doubt if our theological halls have figured this
much out. Those who write most of the books we read have never fought a skirmish in
their spiritual lives. They are as, John the Baptist called them, “those that wear fine
raiment and live in King’s palaces.” Rarely will we find a hair or a comma out of place.
Then there are the followers who think to themselves, “Oh, if I just claim this truth, I
will be a spiritual giant like Dr. This ‘n That.” I personally tire of the constant reference
to this author or that pastor. In many respects some of these people have been elevated
to almost demigod status. Perhaps it is only in America that we have this luxury of
having our own personality cults. I have friends who hang upon these priests to breath
or type their next word. See there, just like the world, we have our celebrities too. Is this
a form of idolatry?
How they love their scrolls and books. This was the problem with the Pharisee’s and
the scribes. They were masters of academic detail. In fact, they were so fastidious
regarding the Torah and zealous toward academic excellence they adopted the
rabbinical commentaries (Talmud) with the same vigor. These were the seminarians, the
PhD’s. They were devoted to jot and tittle. They had it figured out how things must be.
As we say, “They had their ducks all lined up in a neat row.” Everything was measured
by rightly dividing the word of God. It all boils down to an accurate exegete of the past.
“Does any prophet come out of Galilee?” They built their houses of cards, sat back in
admiration but then God blew it down. He (Jesus) arrived as a surprise package. Is this
why the last to recognize a move of God are those in seminaries and church hierarchies?
It didn’t take long before the emerging infant church had their minds made up as well.
In less than a decade they had it figured out how things ought to go. That was until
Cornelius’ house when God blew all of the neatly stacked cards across the gentile
We have placed too much confidence in this form of flesh
and thus have established a new evangelical priesthood
This same attitude has found its’ way into the twenty-first century. There is a side of the
western evangelical church that thinks this way. Without ample evidence, they have
decided that the gifts are not for today. These have all ended with the Apostles. We no
longer need the gifts because we now have the completed canon and we can rely on our
exegetical skills. Leave this business to the professionals.
These folks, like the Pharisee’s admire academic certainty. They don’t like any coloring
outside of the lines.
For me, this represents a carnality of another kind.
It reeks of the high-mindedness of Corinth, doesn’t it? Does this surprise you that
someone might call this carnality? Nevertheless, for me it amounts to a sinful trust in
the flesh. The flesh will prevail and save the day. We don’t need power when accurate
exegetes will suffice. Well, let’s see if exegesis bears this out. I ask you, what is Paul
saying here in these passages? What constitutes and who were the “puffed up?”
“Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you.
But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills,
and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up,
but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.”
1 Corinthians 4:19-20
This is the same Paul who was touted as one of the greatest intellects of the ancient
world. This is the Paul who also wrote, “Study to show thyself approved.” Study all
you like but avoid placing any confidence in it. This is one of the prevalent
contemporary errors that we must be on guard against. I am not being anti-intellectual.
After all, I am a Bible teacher and apologists so not opposed to learning all that we can.
What I am opposing here is the carnal pride that comes with anyone claiming they or
their group have arrived at the full council of God. “We see but through a glass darkly.”
Vance Havner, that great country preacher from Jugtown, North Carolina (I’m serious,
it was Jugtown) said, “I have never yet heard a sermon that I got nothing out of it. But,
I’ve had some mighty close calls.”
I will not be as charitable as Havner. I have sat through some sermons that were down-
right content less in one of two different respects. Some were so eisogetic, esoteric and
ethereal I gave up on the premise right early. There were others so impressively
intellectual, academic and ponderous that I didn’t want to encourage the speaker in his
powerless, self infatuation.
Whether apocryphal or not, it is been often told that somebody once told John Bunyan
that he had preached a delightful sermon.
“You are too late,” said John,
“the devil told me that before I left the pulpit.”
The problem is not education or those who have it. The problem for me is the false
assumption that those who do have it are somehow more insightful, spiritual or gifted
than the rest of the church. There is far evidenced too much false humility. I am afraid
that too many popular evangelicals have been too busy with self promotion and
pretending that all they do is for the glory of God. Perhaps they would do well (as
would their followers) if they took leave off the reading of their press clippings and
cease from seeking the media limelight.
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit,
according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the
world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of
the Godhead bodily;”