Collective Writings from the Books of A.W. Tozer
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No matter how sincere they may be, ministers without discernment are sure to err. Their conclusions are inevitably false because their reasoning is mechanical and without inspiration. I hear their error in our pulpits and read it in our religious periodicals; and it all sounds alike: revived churches engage in foreign missions; hence let us plunge into missionary activity and spiritual refreshing is sure to follow. The healthy church wins souls; let us begin to win souls and we will surely be revived. The early Church enjoyed miracles, so let’s begin to expect mighty signs and wonders and we will soon be like the early Church. We have neglected the “social implications” of the gospel; let us engage in political activities and charitable endeavors and all will be well again. Miserable counselors these, and physicians of no value. Their advice is not only poor; it is spiritually damaging. What doctor in his right mind would tell a patient dying of tuberculosis, “Healthy men play football; go out and play ball and you will regain your health”? Such advice given under such circumstances would reveal only that effect was being mistaken for cause; and that is exactly what is happening these days in religious circles. The effects of revival are being mistaken for the causes of revival. And this to the confusion of everyone concerned and to the effective blocking of the spiritual refreshing for which so many are praying.
In the previous chapter I said that truth should not be passed out indiscriminately, but suited to the circumstances and needs of the hearers. From the prophets we learn this and from the apostles, as well as from our Lord Himself. These were never bound by a mechanical religious “curriculum” which dictated unintelligently that certain doctrines were to be taught at certain times regardless of conditions. They prescribed truth as a divine medicine to be proclaimed with emphasis when the needs of the people called for it. They preached hope when the morale of the nation was low, obedience when the people grew careless, purity when their morals began to sag, humility when they became proud and repentance when they fell into sin. All was in accord with the total body of revealed truth, but the moral skill of these men of God enabled them to fit the message to conditions. Otherwise a vast amount of truth could have been wasted and a world of prayer and hard labor rendered ineffective. Today the religious situation cries out for the skilled moral physician who can diagnose our ills and prescribe wisely for our cure. It is not enough simply to repeat correct doctrinal cliches. It is imperative right now that we have the benefit of the piercing discernment of the Spirit. We must not only know what God has said; we must hear what God is now saying.
If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation, it must be by other means than any now being used. If the Church in the second half of this century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting. Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will be not one but many), he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom. Such a man is likely to be lean, rugged, blunt-spoken and a little bit angry with the world. He will love Christ and the souls of men to the point of willingness to die for the glory of the One and the salvation of the other. But he will fear nothing that breathes with mortal breath. This is only to say that we need to have the gifts of the Spirit restored again to the Church. And it is my belief that the one gift we need most now is the gift of prophecy.
Not the fact that the churches are unusually active these days, not what religious people are doing, should engage our attention, but why these things are so. The big question is: Why? And no one seems to have an answer for it. Not only is there no answer, but scarcely is there anyone to ask the question. It just never occurs to us that such a question remains to be asked. Christian people continue to gossip religious shoptalk with scarcely as much as a puzzled look. The soundness of current Christianity is assumed by the religious masses as was the soundness of Judaism when Christ appeared. People know they are seeing certain activity, but just what it means they do not know, nor have they the faintest idea of where God is or what relation He has toward the whole thing. What is needed desperately today is prophetic insight. Scholars can interpret the past; it takes prophets to interpret the present. Learning will enable a man to pass judgment on our yesterdays, but it requires a gift of clear seeing to pass sentence on our own day. One hundred years from now historians will know what was taking place religiously in this year of our Lord 1956; but that will be too late for us. We should know right now.
There has probably never been another time in the history of the world when so many people knew so much about religious happenings as they do today. The newspapers are eager to print religious news; the secular news magazines devote several pages of each issue to the doings of the church and the synagogue; a number of press associations gather church news and make it available to the religious journals at a small cost. Even the hiring of professional publicity men to plug one or another preacher or religious movement is no longer uncommon; the mail is stuffed with circulars and “releases,” while radio and television join to tell the listening public what religious people are doing throughout the world. Greater publicity for religion may be well and I have no fault to find with it. Surely religion should be the most newsworthy thing on earth, and there may be some small encouragement in the thought that vast numbers of persons want to read about it. What disturbs me is that, amidst all the religious hubbub, hardly a voice is raised to tell us what God thinks about the whole thing. Where is the man who can see through the ticker tape and confetti to discover which way the parade is headed, why it started in the first place and, particularly, who is riding up front in the seat of honor? Not the fact that the churches are unusually active these days, not what religious people are doing, should engage our attention, but why these things are so. . . .
A prophet is one who knows his times and what God is trying to say to the people of his times. What God says to His Church at any given period depends altogether upon her moral and spiritual condition and upon the spiritual need of the hour. Religious leaders who continue mechanically to expound the Scriptures without regard to the current religious situation are no better than the scribes and lawyers of Jesus’ day who faithfully parroted the Law without the remotest notion of what was going on around them spiritually. They fed the same diet to all and seemed wholly unaware that there was such a thing as meat in due season. The prophets never made that mistake nor wasted their efforts in that manner. They invariably spoke to the condition of the people of their times. Today we need prophetic preachers; not preachers of prophecy merely, but preachers with a gift of prophecy. The word of wisdom is missing. We need the gift of discernment again in our pulpits. It is not ability to predict that we need, but the anointed eye, the power of spiritual penetration and interpretation, the ability to appraise the religious scene as viewed from God’s position, and to tell us what is actually going on.
. . . there is at the root of true religion an inward witness, an awareness of God and Christ at the farthest-in core of the renewed Christian’s spirit given to him by the Spirit of God. This experience results from faith in and obedience to the Scriptures. It is the end result of Bible doctrine but it is not that doctrine. It is a consciousness of God and spiritual things too deep and wonderful to utter or even think. If this sounds too extreme or mystical let me remind my readers that it was once an accepted and expected phenomenon in most Protestant churches. In happier and holier times conversion was held to be (among other blessed things) an immediate acquaintance with God in living, spiritual experience. This came about as the result of the Word preached in the power of the Spirit. And let’s remember one thing more. Even today there are those who can testify that they too know what I am talking about here. We do not need to appeal to the dead past for support of our teaching. God still has His thousands who know what the inner witness is.
Knowledge by spiritual experience is not mental, it is intuitive. It is consciousness, it is acquaintance with something or someone by direct awareness. It might help the reader to understand what we mean by such words as “awareness” and “consciousness” if he were to ask himself how he knows he exists, how he knows he is himself and not someone else, how he knows he is alive and not dead. The answer is simply that he “knows” these things by conscious awareness of which reason is no part. Let him attempt to prove to himself that he exists, for instance, and he will find that the “he” who is doing the demonstrating must first be aware that he exists before he can begin to prove that he does. When the French philosopher, Descartes, sought to get to the root of all knowledge he thought away all accepted facts, went back till he found the one irreducible element of knowledge that could not be challenged and came up with his celebrated Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” But let no one imagine for a moment that with his little syllogism Descartes went all the way back. He did nothing of the kind. The truth is that he was by intuition aware of his existence before he ever began to notice that he was thinking. His self-knowledge antedated thought and all he did was to prove to reason that he existed by proof that it could understand: “I think, therefore I am.” This illustrates but does not explain what we mean by religious knowledge by direct spiritual experience. Stated in other language this means simply that there is at the root of true religion an inward witness, an awareness of God and Christ at the farthest-in core of the renewed Christian’s spirit given to him by the Spirit of God. This experience results from faith in and obedience to the Scriptures. It is the end result of Bible doctrine but it is not that doctrine. It is a consciousness of God and spiritual things too deep and wonderful to utter or even think.
In a recent letter a man from Jamestown, NY, quoted a statement from an editorial, “Three Degrees of Religious Knowledge,” . . . and asked for clarification. The quotation was taken from that part of the editorial dealing with the third degree of knowledge: “. . . it is knowledge by direct spiritual experience . . . Since it was not acquired by reason operating on intellectual data, the possibility of error is eliminated.” The letter comments on this as follows: “This statement seems to me to parallel the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. I was always taught that the holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and life. My observation has been that most of the false cults base their so-called doctrines and revelations on personal spiritual experience. I would appreciate your further clarification on this editorial statement . . . defining the boundaries with which `direct spiritual experience’ can be depended upon without danger of departure from the revealed Word of God as contained in the holy Scriptures and as projected in the earthly life of Christ.” This matter deserves further explanation and I’ll be glad to make it. In my editorial I said that there are three degrees of knowledge open to Christians. The first is the common knowledge shared with all normal persons, namely, the data furnished by the senses and by reason operating upon such data. This embraces all knowledge of natural things from the first scrap of knowledge enjoyed by an hour-old baby to the highest reaches of scientific information acquired by the pooled efforts of the race. The second is the knowledge received by faith. It consists of data given by divine revelation and received by the believing mind without proof. It is taken on trust and cannot in the very nature of it be demonstrated as being true. Were proof possible then it would belong in the first category and faith would be unnecessary. The third kind of knowledge is that given by direct spiritual experience. This differs radically from both of the others. It has nothing to do with the senses and so is not physical or natural data. It has nothing to do with ethics or doctrine and so is not moral or theological knowledge. I do not believe that God teaches doctrine by direct unmediated experience. The exact opposite is true. The Scriptures are the source of all rational knowledge about moral and religious things, except those things that are revealed by nature as mentioned in Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:19-20, and they are few and inadequate.
Our constant effort should be to reach as many persons as possible with the Christian message, and for that reason numbers are critically important. But our first responsibility is not to make converts but to uphold the honor of God in a world given over to the glory of fallen man. No matter how many persons we touch with the gospel we have failed unless, along with the message of invitation, we have boldly declared the exceeding sinfulness of man and the transcendent holiness of the Most High God. They who degrade or compromise the truth in order to reach larger numbers, dishonor God and deeply injure the souls of men. The temptation to modify the teachings of Christ with the hope that larger numbers may "accept" Him is cruelly strong in this day of speed, size, noise and crowds. But if we know what is good for us, we'll resist it with every power at our command. To yield can only result in a weak and ineffective Christianity in this generation, and death and desolation in the next.
Now the serious Christian wants to escape both extremes. Yet he is much concerned about the whole matter of numbers and is eager to find the will of God for his life and ministry. Should he go out for larger crowds or accept smaller ones as the will of God for him? Does success in the Lord's work depend upon numbers? Is it possible to make up in quantity what is lacking in quality and so accomplish the same result? Perhaps an illustration or two might help. If our country should be visited by a famine and you were put in charge of feeding the starving in your section of the city, would numbers matter? Most surely they would. Would it not be better to feed five hungry children than two? Would you not feel obligated to feed hundreds rather than tens, thousands rather than hundreds? Certainly you would. Or if a ship sank and your church were given a rescue boat, would numbers mean anything? Again the answer is yes. Would it not be better to save ten than two, 100 than fifty? So with the work of God. It is better to win many than few. Each lost one brought home increases the joy among the angels and adds another voice to the choir that shall sing the praises of the Lamb. Plainly Christ when He was on earth was concerned about the multitudes. And so should His followers be. A church that takes no interest in evangelism or missions is sub-normal in every way and desperately in need of revival.
The question of numbers and their relation to success or failure in the work of the Lord is one that disturbs most Christians more than a little. . . . There are Christians, for instance, who dismiss the whole matter as being beneath them. . . .They prefer to sit around the Lord's Table in a select and tight little circle, admiring the deep things of God and, I very much fear, admiring themselves a wee bit also. This is a kind of Protestant monasticism without the cowl and the beads, for it seeks to preserve the faith of Christ from pollution by isolating it from the vulgar masses. Its motives may be commendable, but its methods are altogether unscriptural and its spirit completely out of mood with that of our Lord. The other and opposite school is the most vocal and has by far the largest following in gospel circles today. Its philosophy, if it can be called a philosophy, is that "we must get the message out" regardless of how we go about it. The devotees of this doctrine appear to be more concerned with quantity than with quality. They seem burned up with desire to "bring the people in" even if they have not much to offer them after they are in. They take inexcusable liberties both with message and with method. The Scriptures are used rather than expounded and the Lordship of Christ almost completely ignored. Pressure is exerted to persuade the people (who, by the way, come to the meetings with something else in mind altogether) to accept Christ, with the understanding that they shall then have peace of mind and financial prosperity, not to mention high grades in school and a low score on the golf course. The crowds-at-any-price mania has taken a firm grip on American Christianity and is the motivating power back of a shockingly high percentage of all religious activity. Men and churches compete for the attention of the paying multitudes who are brought in by means of any currently popular gadget or gimmick ostensibly to have their souls saved, but, if the truth were told, often for reasons not so praiseworthy as this.
The question of numbers and their relation to success or failure in the work of the Lord is one that disturbs most Christians more than a little. On the question there are two opposing schools of thought. There are Christians, for instance, who dismiss the whole matter as being beneath them. These correspond to the lovers of high-brow music who firmly refuse to admit that there is anything of any real value other than that composed by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. They know they are in the minority and glory in the fact, for in their opinion it is a very, very superior minority and they look down their noses at all who enjoy anything less complicated than a symphony. Of course this is cultural snobbery and tells us a lot more about such persons than they would care to have us know. They remind one of the unco-learned of whom Colton wrote, "So much they scorn the crowd that if the throng by chance go right, they purposely go wrong." Now among religious persons I have met a few who are guilty of a kind of spiritual snobbery of which they are doubtless wholly unaware. These have recoiled so violently from popular, cheap-Jack Christianity that they simply have no longer any sympathy with crowds. They prefer to sit around the Lord's Table in a select and tight little circle, admiring the deep things of God and, I very much fear, admiring themselves a wee bit also. This is a kind of Protestant monasticism without the cowl and the beads, for it seeks to preserve the faith of Christ from pollution by isolating it from the vulgar masses. Its motives may be commendable, but its methods are altogether unscriptural and its spirit completely out of mood with that of our Lord.
The last cause I shall name is nonobedience. Truth is given to be believed and obeyed. Certain truths can only be believed, the reason being that they are revelations of fact and contain no command or instruction to be carried out. Other truths must be obeyed or for the hearer they have no meaning. "I will come back" (John 14:3) is a statement of fact which cannot in the nature of it be obeyed; there is nothing in it to obey; it can only be believed. "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) is a command which can only be obeyed. It is addressed to the will, and the only proper response is obedience. We cannot possibly discharge our obligation to such a passage by trying in some dubious manner to "believe" it, though I am sure many try to do just that. Is it any wonder that confusion arises? We will go far to simplify our religious concepts and unify our lives if we remember these four points: First, truth is a spiritual entity and can be grasped in its inner essence only as the Spirit of truth enlightens our hearts and teaches us in the deep, mysterious recesses of our souls. Secondly, since God is love we must surrender ourselves to love or we can never know the truth of God in its higher meaning. Thirdly, we must come to the Word with the simple faith of a child, ready to believe it whether we can understand it or not. And lastly, we must obey the truth as we see it, trusting God with the consequences.
Now lest I be misunderstood and so succeed only in confusing things still further, let me assure my readers that I am and have always been a staunch advocate of theology, and regularly teach doctrine systematically in pursuance of my pastoral calling. I joyfully recognize that there is an outline of divine truth fitted to the human mind and intended by its Author to be received by it. I think no one can become a strong Christian who is not a theologian of some sort, but it is altogether possible to be a theologian and not be a Christian at all. Bible doctrine without love is but a shadow of truth; doctrine held in love is very truth indeed, and we dare not allow ourselves to be satisfied with anything less. Another source of religious confusion is unbelief. The writer to the Hebrews attributed Israel's failure to benefit by the truth to a breakdown in their faith. "But the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith" (Hebrews 4:2). The thought of holding holy truth in unbelief is a frightening thing. For the unbelieving mind to tinker with the truth of God is as terrible as was the unauthorized act of Saul when in fear and unbelief he offered a burnt offering at Gilgal. "I thought, `Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD's favor.' So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering" (1 Samuel 13:12). So the king explained his act, but there is something spine-chilling about it all. An unholy man tried to do a holy act and tragedy followed. From that hour Saul's life degenerated till at last, deserted and terrified, he died by his own hand.
I said that the causes of religious confusion were four, and I named misunderstanding of the nature of truth as one of them. The others are lack of love, unbelief and nonobedience. "Wisdom is a loving spirit," says the Wisdom of Solomon. "He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way" (Psalm 25:9), says David, the father of Solomon, and these set forth a truth which the whole Bible joins to celebrate; namely, that love and wisdom are forever joined and that soundness of moral judgment is for the meek alone. The humble, loving heart intuits truth as the Scriptures reveal it and the Holy Spirit illuminates it. The Spirit will not enlighten an unloving mind; and without His enlightenment the mysteries of Christian truth must forever remain a stranger to us. To the loving mind God gives the power of immediate apprehension, and to none other. The theologian who is only a theologian must work out the teachings of the Scriptures as a child works out a jigsaw puzzle, fitting piece to piece with painstaking labor till at last he has a body of doctrine bearing some resemblance to the Biblical revelation. The difficulty (and the source of confusion) is that certain pieces will fit anywhere and others nowhere, so they may be forced into place or tossed back in the box at the whim of the student. But where love and illumination are, the picture always comes out right. The Spirit says one thing to all loving hearts.
. . . Invariably the newly learned, like the newly rich, overdo everything, and that is just what the evangelical-rationalists are doing. They forget that Moses, David, our blessed Lord Himself, John, Luther, Wesley, Bunyan, Schopenhauer, William James (to bring together a few very different but very effective teachers), could state their doctrines in language as simple as childhood talk and as clear as distilled water. These modern teachers aren't so easy to comprehend. They write in an academic jargon that only another of them can understand. At the rate they are going it will take at least one generation for their teaching to filter down to the man on the street and the worshiper in the pew. And maybe that is good after all.
There has emerged lately in American Christianity a school of religious thought conceived in intellectual pride and dedicated to the proposition that everything of value in the Christian faith can be reduced to philosophical terms and understood by the human mind. The notion seems to be that anything God can utter we can comprehend, allowing possibly for the need of a little divine aid with the heavier stuff. The brethren who are promoting this movement seem to feel that the trouble with evangelicalism is that it is not scholarly enough, that it cannot state itself in scientific terms. They appear to be chagrined by the chuckles of the learned liberals at the allegedly ignorant fundamentalists and have been needled into an attempt to prove that we evangelicals are not so dumb after all. They hope to make their point by equating Christian theology with Greek philosophy and the findings of modern science, and demonstrating that if the truth were known the Christian revelation is just good clean reason, nothing more. I pass over the pretty obvious fact that there is in all this more than a trace of the taint of mind-worship. And am I just seeing things or do I detect a deep and painful inferiority complex on the part of these apostles of evangelical-rationalism? But I won't call attention to it. I know how they feel. Well, I believe these brethren are wrong. I believe they are as badly mixed up and confused as the peddlers of old wives' tales in Paul's day or the snake handlers of our own Ozark Mountains--only, of course, in a different and more respectable way. If they succeed in reducing Christianity to a philosophical proposition, they will do more damage to the true faith of Christ than liberalism, Catholicism and Communism combined.
Having as the High Priest of our profession the incarnation of all divine wisdom and having as our source book of religious knowledge the holy Scriptures, the soundest and saltiest work ever written, why do we tend so easily to become confused about things spiritual? I believe the causes are four, and I propose to state them in this and the next chapters. The first cause of religious confusion is our failure to understand that the truth as it is in Christ Jesus is a moral and spiritual thing and not something intellectual merely. Let a man approach the burning bush of divine truth with the desire to grasp it in his hand and the intensity of the fire will blind his eyes and cauterize his hands and face to the point of insensibility. Before the awesome vision of revealed truth, the human intellect should kneel and hide its face in trembling adoration. Because Moses was afraid to look upon God, the Lord could speak to him face to face as a man speaks to his friend; but God hides His face from the man who does not instinctively hide his own. Intellectual pride, then, with its corollary, irreverence, is one cause of religious confusion. Satan's original doctrine, "You will be like God, knowing . . ." (Genesis 3:5) has been accepted by millions of religious persons through the centuries and commands a big following today even among professedly orthodox Christians. In spite of all Christ said while among men and all His inspired apostles wrote after His ascension, we seem never to learn that the inner essence of truth cannot be apprehended by the mental faculties. We still come at the awesome supernatural reality headfirst.
There comes a time when the true believer must take his stand on the oath and covenant of God and refuse to be shaken. He must lift high his happy affirmation, not in arrogance, but in faith and in deep humility. Perhaps his declaration of independence will go something like this: I am not yet perfect, but I thank God and my Lord Jesus Christ that I am done with the past and I do now trust in my Savior for full deliverance from all my sins. I cannot pray like Daniel, but I shall never cease to praise God that He inclines His ear to me. I am not as wise as Solomon, but I glory in this, that "I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day" (2 Timothy 1:12). I have not the gifts of Moses or Isaiah or John, but I'll be everlastingly grateful that I have been given the moral perception to understand and appreciate such men as these. I am not what I want to be, but thanks be to God that I do want to be better than I am; and I am sure that "He who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). Here I stand. I can do nothing else, so help me God.