As we have studied the messages of Jesus to the churches in Revelation 2-3, Sunday we were challenged not to compromise truth as the church in Pergamum had done. They had tolerated the lies of Satan and had relinquished the sound words of God. This is a relentless threat for the church today as well.
By way of example, I mentioned two wildly popular “Christian” books, widely accepted within the church. But there is reason to be concerned and to read these books with great care.
The Shack by Wm. Paul Young, has sold over 22 million copies and is now also a major motion picture. It is one of the best-selling Christian books in history and has been translated into other 30 languages. Its theology is having a huge impact on believers and unbelievers alike.
The book and movie attempt to answer the age-old question of the problem of evil. When a father loses his daughter through the evil actions of another, he is left to try to reconcile God’s sovereignty and His goodness. Young’s answer to this perplexing question is hardly sound and in keeping with the God presented to us in Scripture. Randy Alcorn writes, “I believe that those who are well grounded in the Word won’t be harmed by the weaknesses and deficiencies of the book. Unfortunately, few people these days are well grounded in the Word.” There are many aspects of this book that are troubling. Let me focus on just a few.
While it’s true that the book is telling a fictional story, nonetheless the story communicates ideas that are either true to God and His Word, or they are not. (Think C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia.) Young uses three characters, two women and a man, to portray the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ... three separate persons in three separate bodies. This is not the God of the Bible because the Bible doesn’t teach Tri-theism. We believe in one God, not three. In addition, Young conveys that the entire Godhead became incarnate, not just the Son. “When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human … We now became flesh and blood.” Alcorn rightly observes that in The Shack “God seemed more amusing and friendly, but also somewhat smaller, more manageable, less threatening-someone not to be feared. If the picture of God in The Shack is radically different from the impression people get from just reading the Bible, then that raises an obvious question. Read Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 and ask yourself if this is the ‘Papa’ of The Shack.”
Regarding the important doctrines of sin and salvation, Papa (the Father) tells Mack, “I am not who you think I am. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment devouring you from the inside. It is not my purpose to punish it; it is my joy to cure it.” Here, as throughout the book, truth is mingled with error. Certainly, the Bible clearly teaches that God must punish sin because He is a holy and just God, and that He has already done so through the work of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinful mankind. Ron Rhodes points out that the book’s message regarding salvation teaches that “Christ is just the best way to relate to the Father, not the only way.” Here is one of the most dangerous messages of the book. It is called, “Reconciling Universalism.” It teaches that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and that God wishes no one to perish (both of which are true), but it falsely concludes that all will be saved. If all will be saved, then belief in Jesus is unnecessary. Indeed, the central truth of Christianity – that Jesus died for our sins and rose again – is lost.
I received a free copy of the book a few months ago at a pastors’ gathering. On the front cover is the glowing recommendation of Eugene Peterson (author of The Message) … “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” Here’s a great example of why you shouldn’t put too much stock into the snippets or sound bites of others. Read the book yourself. Go to the movie if you like. But do so with your mind engaged, carefully evaluating every word in light of the uncompromising Word of God.
The second book I used as an example on Sunday was the devotional by Sarah Young entitled, Jesus Calling. The book has sold more than 10 million copies since first being published in 2004. Jesse Johnson evaluated Young’s devotional in a chapter of the book, Right Thinking in a Church Gone Astray. After expressing some strengths of the book, he writes, “There are at least two reasons Jesus Calling should be avoided: first, it purports to be revelation from God; and second, it promotes a quietist model of sanctification.”
Sarah Young modeled her book after God Calling, by A. J. Russell, published in 1930. God Calling is a mystical, doctrinally questionable devotional that claims to be a series of messages received through experiential communion with the Spirit of God. Young had had similar experiences, and she began to look at her experiences with God’s Presence through Russell’s description of receiving messages from God. She began to wonder if God had messages for her too. In the introduction, Young writes, “I began to wonder if I too could receive messages during my times of communion with God ... So I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I sensed He was saying.” So, the book consists of daily readings which Young believes she received from God. She does acknowledge, “The Bible is, of course, the only inerrant Word of God; my writings must be consistent with that unchanging standard.” But she never explains how her writings are different from the Bible.
I have used many devotional books in my life. I have many in my library. But I don’t believe any of the authors of those devotionals would suggest that what they have written comes from God. However, Young has recorded her thoughts as if they were from God Himself. This has the “effect of raising the Jesus who speaks in her imagination above the Jesus who is revealed in Scripture. When Young writes that her practice of projecting her thoughts of Jesus onto paper has ‘increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline,’ she evaluates the power of her own imagination above God’s actual revelation. Thus the entire premise of Jesus Calling is a flagrant violation of the Lord’s warning in Isaiah 55.8-9: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways ... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ Young fails to heed this warning by elevating her projected thoughts about God communicating with her, above the actual words of God Himself.” (Johnson, p 72)
Johnson concludes, “Simply put, the Jesus of Jesus Calling is not the Jesus of the Bible. By projecting her thoughts of what Jesus would say to her onto paper, Young has invented a form of Jesus in her own image. As a result, her version of Jesus does not sound anything like the Jesus revealed in Scripture.”
The second concern with the devotional is the promotion of quietism as a spiritual model. This “higher living” approach to the spiritual life emphasizes “letting go and letting God.” To accomplish this, the believer is encouraged to rest in the presence of God by emptying the mind. It is a spiritual life marked by passivity and the desire for a mystical experience with God that evaluates them to a spiritual plateau where they experience true sanctification.
Johnson again observes that “Young’s whole method in Jesus Calling bears all the trademarks of quietism: She had a spiritual experience that evaluated her into the Presence of God. That experience is repeatable, mystical, and results in spiritual growth that is far superior to anything the Bible offers on its own. She stresses an inner stillness in which the person is consumed by the knowledge of the Presence of God, and a form of obedience that consists entirely of inward passivity.” (p. 73)
In conclusion, the reader will find material consistent with Scripture in both of these books. They are not devoid of truth. But they must be read with care (as is true for any book) because the authors have mingled truth and error. Considering the state of American Christianity, I suggest any book which receives the acclaim of so many, deserves our special attention. The average Christian in America lacks a sound understanding of Scripture and is therefore, undiscerning. Albert Mohler expressed it best ... “Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.”