Divine Deception

11427290_10153351229973704_4814296511228219245_oAs most of you know, my family and I just returned from our eight-month, 40-state (and 2 province) road trip. Over the next several months, I’m going to post various stories about our adventure, from watching cowboys joust to meeting the pastor of “The Most Bombed Church in America.”

But first, I want to tell you a little more about the trip and how it began with a divine deception.

When we started our planning, I thought it would primarily be a book tour for my recently released book, Radically Normal. Sure, I knew we’d get to see some amazing sights and get a break from the brutal ministry experiences we’d been through, but that was secondary to the business aspect.

And this is where God tricked me. Early in the planning of the trip, the pastor of a church in Oregon invited me to speak at his church. The timing was perfect – he wanted me for the very first Sunday of our trip. Coincidence? I thought not. I was sure that meant I’d have speaking engagements almost every Sunday thereafter.

Not so. It’d be another four months before I spoke at another church. (For the record, my wife had far more realistic expectations.)

I spent the next several month frustrated by the lack of speaking engagements. Try as I might, I was only able to get a handful of small events. I wasn’t just frustrated, I was confused. What had I missed? What was God doing?

About halfway through the trip, relaxing in a hot tub somewhere in central Florida, I thought, “You know, this is really is a nice break from all that we went through over the last four years of ministry.”

Then it dawned on me, this trip wasn’t just about business, it was a much needed sabbatical. After all the pain we’d been through, we needed this trip to be refreshed and recharged. I needed to regain a heart for ministry.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: “I don’t know why it took me so long to see that this trip was also a sabbatical. Yes I do know why; I was too busy being anxious. Isn’t that just like us – to be so busy striving that we can’t see the gift God is giving us?”

In my anxiousness to launch Radically Normal, I wasn’t willing to take the break I really needed. I thought I had too much to do, so God had to trick me into taking a break.

Sometimes God has to trick us because our plans are not his plans.

That is not to say that his plans always involve a hot tub, but they are always best. They always bring the greatest long-term joy and peace.

And so, even as my family has come back home and is living in the midst of even more uncertainty – Where are we going to live? Should I go back to pastoring? – I think I’m in a much better place to relax and enjoy the ride.

How about you: Have you ever tricked your kids into doing what you knew they really wanted? Have you ever felt as if God tricked you like that?

The Adventure of Going Home

As American, I think the points of the compass have a certain “feel” in our collective subconscious. For instance, north means cold and south means warm. What about east and west? East feels like old, established, tradition. West feels like new and adventure.

Traveling the country for eight months has cemented these feelings for me. The further east we went, the older everything got. A sense of tradition and history permeated the air. Driving toward the birthplace of our nation felt strangely like heading Home.

But as we took a left turn at Maine, dropping down to St. Louis then vaguely following Lewis and Clark’s path, I could feel the adventure of heading “out west.” It was easy to imagine its wildness to the early settlers.


Here is where it gets interesting for me – my family’s actual home is in the west, nearly as far west as one can go in the continental United States. The net effect was that going home felt like an adventure.

In one sense, that’s not surprising. We sold our house when we left and I don’t have a job, so coming home really is an adventure (prayers for guidance are welcome!).

But the sense of homecoming as an adventure has an even deeper meaning. Heaven will be the Great Adventure, not a place to sit around but where we’ll be entrusted with greater challenges than we can now imagine. Yet it will also be our Real Home, where we really belong. It will be our true Sabbath.

Somehow, this westward trip home help me understand heaven as both adventure and rest. Not completely, but enough that I’m more eager for it than ever.

Heresy Hunter or Heresy Healer? About my recent guest post…

Many of my posts begin as a word picture, such as God becoming a bum,designed to evocatively and memorably describe some truth (such as the Incarnation). The more evocative, the better. I then write the post around that image.

In the case of this post that Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal posted, the image was that of a refugee trying to warm himself with a feces-smeared blanket. My hope was to evocatively associate heresy with filth and my half-done response to derelict of duty.

I wanted to share that with both because it’s fun to give some background and also to encourage you in your writing/speaking/preaching to use evocative images. Don’t waste those powerful images that have sprung to your mind – find a way to milk the most out of them.

The post can be found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2015/february-online-only/heresy-hunter-or-heresy-healer.html

Feel free to read it and comment!

To the glory of God and the joy of the saints!


Patience Like a Mountain

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)

Does patience feel more like a “have to” or “get to” of following Christ?

Yesterday I was talking to an old friend about challenge of showing God’s love to the employees at his restaurant and keeping his cool as the stress level rose. That got us talking about patience. He said the key to patience was lowering one’s expectations. At first I nodded in agreement, but then thought better of it.

I recently preached on the fruit of the Spirit and for the first time saw a connection between the third and fourth fruit, peace and patience. The Biblical idea of peace (shalom in Hebrew) is much deeper than “no fighting”; it means that God has defeated the chaos and restored order and well-being. Peace means “it is well with my soul.”

Seeing peace side-by-side with patience made me wonder if maybe peace is the key to patience.

The world is filled with things that will try to steal your peace, your shalom: slow drivers in the fast lane, spending an hour on hold with your insurance, or dealing with painfully slow employees. But patience says to the world, “I have peace in my soul and you cannot steal it. You may have some, if you like, but you cannot take it from me.”

Patience - Mount_Rainier_over_TacomaSaid another way, patience is like a great mountain towering above the fray, unmoved by the great storms that swirl around it. It is solid and secure within and without.

I told my friend that there is nothing wrong with appropriate expectations. He should have high expectations for his employees. The key to patience is holding them to those expectations without allowing their failures to steal his peace.

The more I see patience as holding onto God’s peace and not allowing the frustrations of life to steal it, the less it seems like an obligation the more it feels like a gift. What do you think?

What a Scholar Taught Me about Humility

Many students of the Bible are snobby about Bible translations. The more literal a translation, the better. Currently, the English Standard Version (ESV) seems to be the preferred choice. The New International Version (NIV) is tolerable if you can’t handle the ESV. Woe to you if you read a free translation, like New Living Translation (NLT). And if you quote from a paraphrase, like The Message, be prepared to offer the necessary mea culpa’s.

I was thinking about this last week as I was getting ready to have lunch with a renowned Bible scholar, Dr. Robert Mounce. Not only has Dr. Mounce written many great commentaries but he also was a key translator for the ESV, NIV, and NLT. He recently completed a unique translation of the Gospels which tells the story from Jesus’ perspective, Jesus, In His Own Words. What if Dr. Mounce asked what translation I use? I usually study from the ESV, but I prefer reading the NIV.

When we met, the thing that struck me the most about Dr. Mounce was his complete lack of pretention. “Dr. Mounce” was quickly replaced by “Bob.” He is the most accomplished and respected scholar I have ever met, yet he was one of the least intimidating. He was interested in my life and thoughts and asked about my church and my book. At the same time, he had many interesting things to share with me. For instance, he told me about sitting in his office with other scholars to discuss creating a new translation – the NIV. No big deal, just the biggest translation since the King James.

I get the impression that the ease of conversation came through practice, not accident. I think he has spent a lifetime choosing to communicate clearly and take an interest in others instead of just trying to sound smart. This takes effort; the natural language of his field consists of phrases like “rhetorical criticism” and “subjective genitives,” but he sets that aside for the benefit of the listener.

The main thing I took from my time with Bob Mounce was the desire to be as unpretentious as he is. I want to pursue scholarship and being plain-spoken simultaneously. I don’t want to be so caught up in what I know that I stop being interested in the stories of others. I know that this is not natural – human nature tends to grow puffed up with more knowledge. It is wisdom that brings humility, as James 3:13 says.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

Regardless of how much success I have as a writer, I hope I can always make others feel that comfortable. Or how little success I have – sometimes the most pretentious people are those who have the least success (funny how that works). One last thing: It turns out I didn’t need to be self-conscious about the NIV – he told me he usually reads from the NLT.


About my upcoming book, “The Radically Normal Christian: God Shouldn’t Be Your Only Happiness”

Growing up in the church, many of us had an impression that if we were really spiritual, we would be perfectly happy celebrating Christmas simply reading the Nativity story in an undecorated room – no tree, gifts, or special dinner (shouldn’t that money be given to the poor anyway?). [1]

This is unmitigated nonsense. It’s driven by (among other things) an appalling ignorance of the normal, godly life promoted in the Old Testament. In this book I attempt to correct the modern (and by modern, I mean “for the past 1,800 years”) Christian tendency to undervalue the things of this life and the happiness God planned for us to enjoy here. At the same time, I remind us that God is the source of joy and any attempt to find complete happiness here will ultimately be unsatisfying.

I talk about being “radically normal” because, speaking broadly, Christians can be divided into two groups, Stoic Christians and Indulgent Christians:

Indulgent Christian tend to appear worldly, caring more about being happy now than pleasing God.

Stoic Christians tend to appear very spiritual, placing their emphasis on God, heaven, and spiritual happiness.

Indulgent Christians look very normal to the rest of the world.

Stoic Christians look very radical and for that reason Indulgent Christians tend to idealize them, even though they don’t have any real intentions of being one of them.

The difference between Stoic and Indulgent and between Radical and Normal largely comes down to the question, “What makes you happy?” Is your happiness in eternal things or temporary things? But that is not an either/or question; neither Stoic nor Indulgent Christianity is Biblical.

Without realizing it, we have allowed our ideas of mature Christianity to be more influenced by Greek philosophy than Biblical perspectives.[2] For instance, the church began to devalue sex early on; it was just so physical, too close to ungodly lusts. By the 4th century, St. Augustine spoke highly of married couples who practiced abstinence within marriage (“True love waits, and waits, and waits…”). Believe it or not, the medieval church basically said it was okay to have sex with your wife, but not okay to want to have sex with her.[3]

We scoff at this view of sex, and rightly so, because all of that is clearly unbiblical: Compare it to the Song of Solomon which unashamedly delights in sexual desire. Fortunately, the modern church is correcting its low view of sex. But here is the question of the hour: What other God-given earthly joys do we still undervalue or even forbid?  A good meal? A glass of wine? A competitive football game? A relaxing vacation?

I don’t want us to adopt the indulgent values of our world, nor do I want us to be so stoic that we can’t enjoy God’s good gifts nor relate to the world around us. Instead, I believe the Bible calls us to be Radically Normal. We look normal, yet scratch below the surface and we are radical:

We enjoy possessions and the things of this life, yet they do not posses us.

Food and drink bring real joy, yet we don’t use them to fill a void.

We excel at our jobs and are ambitious, yet they are not our identity.

Our family and friends are central parts of our life, yet they stand in distant second to our loyalty to God.

Ever the preacher at heart, my book won’t float in the theological stratosphere, it is deeply practical. The core of the book is five key principles which I explore in the context of the everyday things of life (such as owning stuff, being weird for Jesus, our entertainment, and having a “secular” job). The principles are:

  1. God wants us to be (mostly) normal.
  2. The Old Testament tends to addresses temporal, earthly things and the New Testament eternal, spiritual things. If we don’t read them both, our faith will be unbalanced.
  3. God wants us to enjoy this life as much as possible without being distracted from him and the next life.
  4. God’s commands are meant to lead to joy, not misery.
  5. This world is temporary but not meaningless. God will renew creation, not destroy it, so what we do here matters.

It is my hope that when my book is completed, it will profoundly change how you look at this life and the next, and that you will be left deeply enjoying both more. In the end, The Radically Normal Christian will be a guide to deep and lasting happiness.

[1] Granted I’ve never heard this taught by anyone per se, yet whenever I give this example I see many knowing nods. Why? Because we were taught that the more spiritual and less materialistic Christmas was, the better. This is true, to an extent, but we were never given a “cap.” When was Christmas spiritual enough? It must be (I reasoned) when all unspiritual things were removed.

[2] We don’t realize how deeply our faith has been influenced by the Early Church Fathers, for good and bad. The Fathers were in turn deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, specifically Neo-Platonism. In contrast with the profound earthiness of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, Neo-Platonism devalued this world as a shadow and overemphasized the next as real.

[3] Case-in-point: In the Canterbury Tales, the pious wife all but apologizes for having sex with her husband, but the adulterous couple has a great time. If you want some light bedtime reading, the Word Biblical Commentary’s “Song of Songs” edition has some great material on the church’s view of sex up until the modern era.

John Piper demonstrates the problem with Calvinism

On more than one occasion I have needed to reach up high (perhaps to change a light bulb), but I didn’t want to go all the down to the garage to get the stepstool, so I grab a chair. Not high enough? No problem, just put a box on the chair. By the grace of God, I haven’t broken anything yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Perhaps my biggest issue with Calvinism is their methodology – the problem is not with the clear Scriptural principles but the framework of suppositions they build off of those principles. (For the record, I don’t fit well in either the Calvinist or Arminian camp – I am closest to Norman Geisler’s “Chosen but Free”.) While I deeply respect John Piper, he gave a good demonstration this error in his post “Why God Created the Universe—For Good Friday.”

Piper begins with this absolute statement: “The universe was created for the glorification of God’s grace at Calvary.” That’s quite a claim – THE reason for the universe! From there he builds his case using a series of propositions with Scriptural backing. The problem is that the entire structure requires that each Scripture means only and precisely and entirely what he takes it to mean.

For instance, his first point is “the apex of God’s display of his own glory is the display of his grace [Piper’s emphasis].” He supports that statement with Ephesians 1:5–6, “God predestined . . . according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace”.

Yes, this passage does say God’s grace part of his glory, but it does not say it is the apex of his glory. You simply cannot make an assertion like that without Biblical proof! As you examine each of his six points, you will find that most (if not all) make similarly unwarranted claims.

Returning to the analogy of my makeshift stepladder, the higher the assertion, the more secure the Biblical basis needs to be. To claim to have the reason for the universe, Piper needs a lot better than a collection of chairs, upside down buckets, and empty boxes.

To put it another way, be careful about making bold statements that fit in your theology but are foreign to the actual words of Scripture. Perhaps the error of Calvinism comes from an unhealthy dependence upon systematic theology at the expense of Biblical theology.

Fasting Makes Me Hungry – The Radical Truth Behind an Obvious Fact

I’m a good Christian (not to mention the pastor of a little church in the Pacific Northwest), but up until recently I had only fasted twice. The first time was in was in high school. It was on Halloween and I fasted and prayed the Satanist wouldn’t poison any little kids or sacrifice any black cats (that’s what we were afraid of in those days). The second time was in college, but I only made it to dinner. I was so grumpy that I broke several other commands. I blamed it all on “low blood sugar” and refused to fast again for the next 15 years. I simply ignored the Biblical call to fast. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, I was learning (through Scriptural study and personal experience) that God’s commands always bring me joy, if not in the short run, at least in the long run. As King David said, “The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (Psalm 19:8). This truth has become a frequent theme in my preaching.

All the while, fasting loomed over me. “You say obeying God will make you happier,” whispered my inner monologue, “but you refuse to fast. So do you really believe it or not?” I managed to ignore myself for a couple of years, but I finally got on my nerves. I broke down and agreed to an experiment: I would fast one day a week and see if it indeed made me happier.

So what did I learn, does fasting make me happier? No. Almost a year into this experiment, still fasting once a week on most weeks, and I still do not enjoy it. But, I discovered, that is the point. The fact that I not enjoy fasting has made it one of the most important components to a joy-filled life. Here’s the short version: Fasting teaches me it is okay to be hungry.

Curious? Here is the longer version: In Matthew, Jesus talked about fasting.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15 ESV)

It’ s clear that Jesus expects us to fast; failure to fast is disobedience. But notice why he expected them to fast: They would mourn the loss of Bridegroom. In addition to the things we typically associate with it, fasting is an act of mourning because we are apart from Christ. We are stuck here on earth while he awaits us in Heaven.

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21-24 ESV)

Listen to Paul’s eager longing to be reunited with his savior. This wasn’t some lifeless dogma; it was a deep yearning that filled him. To Paul, all the joys and pains of this life weren’t even worth comparing to the “eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Heaven, the hope of God’s presence was like an eternal hunger gnawing away at him.

Maybe you read that and think, “That’s great for Paul, but I seldom feel that way. Right or wrong, I am pretty attached to this world.” But I think you do feel this eternal hunger, deep inside. The problem is you probably don’t recognize it for what it is, you call it by the wrong names. You call it emptiness, that feeling even on a good day, when you still don’t feel “full.” You call it restlessness or being worn, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” a feeling that has only grown as you’ve aged. You call it loneliness, a feeling you just can’t shake. (If you have never been married perhaps you think marriage cures loneliness, but that isn’t the case. At a pastors’ conference, I recently listened to a pastor talk about his pornography problem. In his counseling session he discovered the reason he used pornography was loneliness – even though he was happily married, had a great church community, and a relationship with God, he was lonely.)

Emptiness, restlessness, and loneliness are all types of hunger, constant reminders that this world is not your home, that it is broken and cannot fully satisfy you. Creation itself feels it:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21 ESV)

When you feel this hunger, you can respond in one of two ways:

You can believe that the hunger means there is something wrong with you and it can be fixed. So you try to fix it in different ways. You try things that are ungodly and destructive: Pornography, immorality, drunkenness, drugs. Think about it: How many sinful, painful things have you done to fill a void? Or maybe you’ve tried things that are “fine”: Music, books, food, even relationship. But they are also ineffective, they distract you for a while, but the hunger stays. Or you can try Christian things: Quiet times, prayer, reading the Bible, inspirational worship. But even these cannot to completely remove the hunger.

This is where I lost some of you. You think that the reason you still feel hungry is because you haven’t found the right spiritual experience or discipline, and you refuse to believe it’s a hopeless search. But Over 25 years of being a Christian and almost 15 of being a pastor has taught me that there is no spiritual experience this side of Heaven that can truly satisfy this hunger. The Apostle Paul was incredibly close to God, practically had the Bible memorized, was a Christian par excellence, and he had experienced the most spiritual powerful encounters possible (including a visit to Heaven – 2 Corinthians 12:2), yet he felt this hunger more strongly, not less.

On the other hand, you can realize that the hunger means there is something wrong with the world, something that cannot be fixed. This is not your home; you were made for something better. God has filled this world with joys and delights that he full intends for you to enjoy, but (as the Teacher so callously reminds us) they are but temporary joys under the sun.

Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 ESV)

Fasting has taught me through experience what I knew in theory: It is okay to be hungry, it is okay to feel lonely and restless. In fact, it’s to be expected. About once a week, I am reminded that in the same way I hunger for food, I continually hunger for Heaven, to be face to face with God. And then the rest of the week, I joyfully partake in the God-given joys of this life. I live in a cycle of fast then feast, fast then feast. It is one way I “seek first the Kingdom of God,” and then have the lesser things added (Luke 12:31).

I know that fasting is a tough sell, especially for those of us who are running away from a “stoic faith,” but urge you to give it a try. Fast from all food, from evening until the following dinner (Richard Foster’s suggestion in “Celebration of Discipline”) once a week for one month, not because it will be fun but because it will remind you that it is okay to be hungry.

The Baptism of the Holy Spirit

I wrote this years ago (at the request of my previous church) to explain my beliefs on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am posting it to give the Scriptural and theological basis for my perspective, especially in light of my sermon series on spiritual gifts. It is being posted my personal blog because it doesn’t represent an official position of the church, though all of the elders believe that the Baptism is not a secondary experience but part of salvation.

In the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, God’s Holy Spirit did not usually indwell the typical Israelite. Rather, specific individuals might be given the Spirit – usually for a limited time and a specific purpose. However, the prophets foretold that this would change:

…I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.— Joel 2:28-29 NIV

And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Ezekiel 36:27 NIV

In other words, there would come a time when God would pour His Spirit out on all of His people, not just a select few.

In the Gospels and Acts

It was this foretold outpouring that John the Baptist was referring to when he said:

I baptize you with water, but he [Jesus Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. — Mark 1:8 NIV

John was saying that Jesus was the one who would usher in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, also called “the gift of the Spirit,” “the baptism in/with/by the Holy Spirit” (with, in, and by are all ways of translating the same Greek word “en“), and sometimes “filling of the Spirit.” Jesus reminded the disciples of this after he rose from the dead:

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. — Acts 1:4-5 NIV

This happened shortly after Jesus returned to heaven.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. — Acts 2:1-4 NIV

Peter knew that this event was the fulfillment of the prophecy foretelling that the Spirit would be poured out on all believers.

[Peter said] “…this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:  ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people….’” — Acts 2:16-17 NIV

When his listeners asked Peter how to respond to the Gospel, he said:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. — Acts 2:38 NIV

Peter did not say, “Repent and be baptized, and then we will pray for you to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But rather, “…you will receive the gift….” Peter was saying that salvation and baptism with the Holy Spirit would happen simultaneously. This promise wasn’t only for Peter’s original audience.

The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call. — Acts 2:39 NIV

In the Epistles

If, as the Pentecostal view holds, the baptism of the Spirit occurs after salvation and should be earnestly sought by believers, we would expect to see such a crucial event explained and promoted in the Epistles.

Yet, the only time “baptism with the Spirit” is mentioned in the Epistles, it demonstrates that we are all baptized with the Spirit when we become part of the body of Christ, i.e. when we are saved.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. — 1 Corinthians 12:13 NIV

In fact, when Paul lists the core components of Christianity, he mentions only one baptism, water baptism.

There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. — Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV

A Response to the Pentecostal View

The large majority of conversions recorded in Acts seem to presume that conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit would go hand in hand, just as Peter had said. But there are some passages that seem to be exceptions to that rule. The book of Acts covers a time of great transition in the history of God’s people, when (for the first time) His Spirit began to indwell all of His followers. It should not surprise us that there are some unusual events during this time.

The following three passages from Acts have been used to support the view that the baptism of Spirit occurs separately from salvation. In two cases, the passages are probably recording a salvation event, but the other is a genuine exception that springs out of this time of transition.

1) Acts 9:17-18

According to the Pentecostal view, Paul (also called Saul) was converted on the road to Damascus, and then baptized (filled) with the Spirit a few days later.

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized… — Acts 9:17-18 NIV

The Bible doesn’t say that he was already a Christian – it is likely that this passage is describing Paul’s conversion experience (see Acts 22:16).

Several times in Acts, receiving the Holy Sprit is synonymous with being saved. A good Jew would have understood that he had been saved from his sin by God, through the animal sacrifice at the temple. In his mind, the most conspicuous change when he accepted Jesus was that they received the Holy Spirit. This is why Peter had said “Repent and be baptized…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” rather than “…you will be saved.”

2) Acts 19:1-6

The Pentecostal view also sees the following passage as an example of baptism of the Holy Spirit occurring after salvation.

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. — Acts 19:1-6 NIV

Notice that Paul seems surprised that these men had not received the Holy Spirit. But as soon as he finds out that they had only received John’s baptism, he realized they were not yet Christians. So, Paul then “leads them to Christ.”

But doesn’t it say that that Holy Spirit came upon them after they were baptized? No, in the original Greek the order of events is not clarified. It simply says that they were 1) baptized and 2) the Holy Spirit came upon them.

3) Acts 8:14-17

The Pentecostal view says that the Samaritans in the following passage are like modern Christians who haven’t been baptized with the Spirit.

But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women….When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. — Acts 8:12, 14-17 NIV

These Samaritans had not yet received any of the Holy Spirit, whereas Pentecostals believe all Christians have some measure of the Spirit – even if they haven’t been baptized with the Spirit.

This passage records a very significant episode in the early church: the first time the Gospel was received by non-Jews. Just as salvation came to the Jews first and Gentiles second (Romans 1:16), it appears that the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit came first to the house of Israel. This event would then be the Samaritan’s Pentecost (in the pattern of Acts 2:1-4).

Why the delay for the Samaritans? We know that there had been long-standing animosity between the Jews and Samaritans. Perhaps God knew that Jewish believers would have a difficult time accepting His work among the Samaritans. Wanting to ensure that Samaritan believers would never be treated as second-class Christians, God waited until Apostles Peter and John came to substantiate their salvation.

We see a similar Apostolic “seal of approval” when Gentiles received the Spirit n Acts 10. In this case we get to hear the criticism of the Jewish Christians:

The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened… “As I began to speak [to them], the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” — Acts 11:1-4, 15-18 NIV

In effect, we see three “Pentecost” events, one for Jews, one for Samaritans, and one for Gentiles. And as they were baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), they would forever be untied as one:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 NIV

The Filling of the Holy Spirit

If Scripture teaches that all believers are baptized with the Spirit, does that mean that the “baptism” experience that Pentecostals have had is invalid? By no means! Scripture teaches that believers may continue to have significant experiences with the Holy Spirit. Peter was not only baptized in the Spirit, he was also filled on a later occasion:

After [Peter and other believers] prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. — Acts 4:31 NIV

By emphasizing that all believers are baptized in the Holy Spirit from the moment of salvation, we are not invalidating what has been a very meaningful and impacting experience for many believers. Rather, we are clarifying that it is better understood as a filling of the Spirit. All believers are commanded to continually be filled with the Spirit (“continually” is implied in the original Greek):

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be [continually] filled with the Spirit. — Ephesians 5:18 NIV

As believers, we are commanded to continually grow in our submission to and reliance on the Holy Spirit. This manifests itself through spiritual growth and maturity, evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. — Galatians 5:22-23 NIV

But the filling of the Spirit may also be experienced in more dramatic ways, such as the experience Pentecostals label “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

If a person earnestly seeks the power of God’s Spirit in his or her life, God will honor that desire, regardless of which label is used. This filling of the Spirit could be a very dramatic and memorable experience – especially if that person had previously been closed to the power of the Spirit. God has used the Pentecostal movement to remind the church of His Spirit’s powerful role in the believer’s daily life.

Why then make such a fuss about labels? The first danger of the Pentecostal doctrine is saying that believers who have not had a dramatic “baptism” experience have less of the Holy Spirit than those who have. As a result, there are many believers who live in guilt and confusion, thinking they have not received the Spirit because they never spoke in tongues.

The second danger is relying upon outward manifestations (such as tongues), which can be intentionally or unintentionally manufactured by the individual (see Matthew 7:22-23). A better test of the Spirit’s presence is consistent growth in the fruit of the Spirit, which springs from His inward work; if a person doesn’t bear the fruit of the Spirit, it is unlikely that he or she is truly Spirit-filled.


It is not my intent to invalidating this meaningful and impacting experience of many believers, nor am I minimizing the Holy Spirit. Rather, I want to proclaim the Biblical truth that every believer has been baptized in the Spirit and should seek both His continuous filling and dramatic empowerment.

Happily Ever After?

Here is an update version of “Soul-Prosperity Gospel.” I think it does a much better job of capturing my intent (the first version was clumsy and confused the point).

I have two young daughters, so I have read and watched my fair share of fairy tales, most of which end with a wedding and “they lived happily ever after.” Call me a wet blanket, but just once I would like to see one that ends with:

“…and the next day they got in a huge fight over castle decorations and Cinderella feared she had just made the biggest mistake of her life. But over the next many years, through all the normal ups and downs of marriage, she discovered in the struggles a deeper joy than any happily ever after could ever offer. The end.”

I am not holding my breath, but I fear that “Happily Ever After” does not prepare our children for the reality that is ahead of them. As I tell couples in premarital counseling, marriage is the hardest thing I have ever done, but it is also the best things I have ever done.

In the same way, I fear that many pastors and teachers (from a wide range of churches) are doing a similar disservice to Christians when they preach a “Happily Ever After” faith. In essence, they communicate that if a person removes certain barriers from their life (typically via an act of forgiveness, “giving it up to God,” or being prayed over), they will live happily ever after.

Like most erroneous teaching, it is based on truth: There are significant barriers to our soul’s wellbeing. I can think of four primary ones:

  1. Blatant rebellion against God or his appointed authorities
  2. Unrepentant unforgiveness or bitterness
  3. Willful unbelief
  4. Ignorance of God’s promises

When any of these are present in our lives, they may (and usually do) act as a roadblock, preventing us from moving forward in our spiritual growth or our relationships. Accordingly, we all should prayerfully and carefully examine ourselves for their presence in our life. Furthermore, these things may be dramatically removed with a single act of prayer, forgiveness, confession, or repentance.

So far, so good. The problem lies in the expectation that if these barriers are removed, then our Christian walk or our relationships will automatically become fruitful and vibrant, happily ever after. I do not think that is the case. Rather, when they are removed, then a person’s walk will become normal. By normal I mean the “three steps forward, two steps back” struggles with sin, ups and downs of emotion, and a deepening dependence up God’s Spirit.

As I pondered this topic, I have earnestly sought God to see if any such barriers are in my life, and I am reasonably confident there are not, yet my Christian walk is still a lot of work; some weeks I feel close to God, other weeks I feel distant. Sometimes I am victorious in my struggle with sin, at other times…not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the life God has given me, but I think that the richness and joy comes because of the struggles. C. S. Lewis (speaking through Uncle Screwtape) called this the “Law of Undulation.”[1] It is specifically through the peaks and valleys that we grow in maturity, relationship with God, and joy. Said another way, in all sincerity I say I live a joy-filled, optimistic, victorious Christian life and it has only grown deeper through the toil and pain.

The curious thing is that I don’t know how many of the aforementioned pastors and teachers actually believe in the “happily ever after faith.” Most of the time, they know perfectly well that the Christian walk is full ongoing challenges which should serve to drive us closer to Jesus. After all, they face those challenges in their own life. So why do they communicate otherwise?

I am not sure. Perhaps they are trying to stress the importance of removing the road blocks (and I wholeheartedly agree), so they use inflated language to express the difference the removal will make.

Many people understand it as hyperbole or overselling, but (and here is the real danger and the reason for bringing this up at all), their words are misunderstood by the desperate and the naive.

Imagine that in your life you feel like you are constantly running in sand – perhaps always struggling to get ahead in life, facing continual challenges in your relationships, or always feeling defeated in your spiritual walk. Now some pastor or teacher offers you a silver bullet, a magical answer – if you just are freed from unforgiveness or rebellion, all that will change and you will live happily ever after.

So in great hope you forgive, repent, “give it over to God,” or whatever the case. And it perhaps it makes a real difference (as would be expected), but you soon find that life is still hard, knowing God is still work, and your marriage still a challenge. How do you respond?

Some people respond with guilt or discouragement, thinking that the fault is theirs, perhaps they didn’t give it up all the way or that God does not love them enough. Others will respond with a renewed effort, looking for some other answer just around the corner that will fix it all, so they go to the next prayer meeting, read the next book, or go to the next conference.

In either case, the tragedy is that may be so busy looking for their happily ever after that they miss the depths of joy waiting for them in the struggle.


[1] Found in “The Screwtape Letters,” chapter 8, which is an excellent presentation of the idea I am trying to convey here.