Mark Strom: Jesus, not experiences or success

An extract from Mark Strom, The Symphony of Scripture, 2001.

Colossians: Jesus, not mysteries and experiences

No book of the Bible has influenced my own pilgrimage to comprehend the wonder of the gospel as profoundly as Paul's letter to the Colossians.

Some years ago I belonged to a particularly zealous group of Christians; we desired to follow the Lord closely and for him to use us significantly. But despite our motives, aspects of the group's teaching led us into murky waters. The “unusual” increasingly fascinated us; e.g the demonic and angelic, tales of unusual experiences and visions, and a deep commitment to immediate messages from God as being more authoritative than the Bible. Like other similar groups, we articulated obedience as the foundation of any true “deeper” or “higher” christian life. These emphases combined to reinforce other beliefs such as that a christian may lose salvation and/or become demon possessed through disobedience.

This teaching produced mixed results. While some were mature enough to take what was good and leave the rest, most of the group experienced the increasing influence of three false attitudes: (1) a sense of one-up-manship of having “arrived” as a christian—and corresponding disdain or pity for others who did not share our ideas; (2) a thirst for new revelation which took us further and further away from the gospel onto the thin ice of curious commands about each individual's future and rules concerning abstinence from various people, activities and substances; and (3) a (sometimes fearful) conviction that a christian is protected from evil and mishap only through praying certain prayers regularly and maintaining a high level of obedience.

Colossians was a personal letter for me. The names and details had changed, but the troublemakers at Colossae entertained the same superior and fearful commitment to revelations, visions, mysteries and laws as I had (see Colossians 2:16-23). Paul's answer for his friends (and for me and mine) was startlingly simple; the mystery of all mysteries was the (now public) good news of what Jesus did on the cross for his people (1:28-2:5). Moreover, Paul made it plain that maturity came through understanding this gospel better and better, not through laws, experiences and revelations. According to Paul, such rules always sound spiritual but they are totally ineffective and even anti-gospel since they lead people away from the central importance of Christ (2:19, 22-23).

2 Corinthians: Jesus, not strength and success

Christians throughout the western world have accepted the spirit of industrialization. We believe, along with the rest of our society, that bigger is better, that progress is the highest good for mankind, and that power, riches and success must always be preferred and honoured over frailty and vulnerability. Sadly, we reflect this spirit in our christian sub-cultures in such things as our commitment to denominations, church buildings, tyrannical and bureaucratic leadership, high profile and pressured evangelistic systems, and tertiary education as a prerequisite for ministry.

Some Christians go so far as to identify unbelief and disobedience as the root cause of all poverty, ill-health and failure. Consequently, many Christians who are sick, poor, depressed, emotionally disturbed or lacking in social skills feel that they must be “second rate”, “ineffectual” and “unspiritual” because of their difficulties.

The apostle Paul faced similar attitudes. His critics most likely gloated over this failures and sufferings and tried to undermine the value of this ministry to his friends (2 Corinthians 2:17-3:2; 5:12; 10:1-11:15). Like Job's acquaintances, these “false apostles” probably believed that weakness and suffering were the evidence of inferiority and even unbelief. Paul's response went to the heart; he rejoiced in his weaknesses for he chose to follow the way of Jesus, which is the way of the cross, and its apparent weakness and foolishness (4:7-18; 6:3-10; 11:21b-29; 12:7-10).

Live by grace, not by law

Why say all this?... I do so because I am convinced that the same mistakes pervade the christian scene today. Like the people of God through all ages we misunderstand and distort the relationship between what God has done (the “is”) and what we should do (the “ought”). In particular, this departure from the gospel shows its ugly head in... the search for a deeper, higher, more powerful and prosperous christian life...

And what of the search for a greater christian experience? Such teachings always confuse the “ought” and the “is”. For example, rather than remind people of the security we have in Christ's death and resurrection, some teach that victory is only ours through certain prayers and acts; rather than point to our full forgiveness in Christ, some urge us to calm our troubled consciences by embracing esoteric ideas about repentance and obedience; rather than remind us that the Spirit of God has come fully to point us to Christ, some teach that we must fill our minds with “deeper truths” and experience more of him. In every case, we pervert the gospel; we turn what Christ did for us into something that we must do for ourselves.

This extract is a word-for-word quote from Mark Strom, The Symphony of Scripture, p. 69-72, P&R Publishing Company, 2001. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.