My Story: A Pentecostal Journey of Revival and Reformation

A genuine 'insider'

My earliest memories of church were in an 'old-school' Baptist church in Moonah, Tasmania, at 6 years of age. My family soon moved to a more lively Brethren church – Lindisfarne Bible Chapel – which in time went through its own charismatic revival. I myself was one of the earliest (and youngest) in our youth group to 'experience' at the age of 15 what we described as 'baptism in the Holy Spirit,' accompanied by tongues-speaking. Some years later our church joined the Australian Pentecostal denomination, Assemblies of God, aligning strongly with Sydney's Hills Christian Life Centre (now called Hillsong).

I myself became one of the foremost proponents of Pentecostalism within our growing movement of churches in Hobart. I spread the teaching of Pentecostalism and later the Word of Faith movement within the youth group and wider church, then later also in the preaching circles in which I operated. I began preaching in our churches at the age of 17. By that time I was a dedicated supporter of Kenneth Copeland's ministry, having read widely through American and Australian Pentecostal literature, including much of Hagin and Copeland's work. I was extremely zealous for the movement, converting many Christians into Pentecostalism, including friends and family, some of whom I convinced regarding Divine Healing and other key doctrines of Pentecostalism. I also vigorously defended Pentecostal doctrine to skeptics.

Turning points

In 1997 I left Tasmania to study at Hills Leadership College (now Hillsong College) in Sydney. It was there, at the age of 18, that I went through what could be described as my own personal 'reformation.' There in one of the key Pentecostal Bible colleges of Australia, I began intensly reading the Bible, going from Genesis to Revelation, again and again. My Scriptural 'feeding frenzy' was sparked by a series of perplexities that arose out of a number of biblical themes that I slowly began to see within the Scriptures themselves. I began to realise that some key ideas repeatedly emphasised by the Biblical authors could not be accomodated by the theological system of Pentecostalism that I was learning.

There were several elements that came together for me, acting like catalysts for my intense reading of the biblical data, and then, in the years following my return from Hills Leadership College, facilitated my re-thinking of my theology and subsequent move away from Pentecostalism. What follows is not a list of pitfalls in the theological system of Pentecostalism. Rather, what follows is a chronological description of the four main areas that I began wrestling with as a dedicated Pentecostal, whose resolution forced me into a turning point in my Christian understanding:

1. The emphasis of the New Testament as a whole

As I read and re-read the New Testament, I became increasingly aware that the Scriptures were thoroughly Christ-focussed and Gospel-driven. And this emphasis from Matthew to Revelation revealed a glaring disparity with the emphasis of Pentecostalism. The movement I was a part of glossed over the key elements of the Christian message, and much of the Apostle's teaching in their letters, such as the seriousness of sin, the judgment to come, the centrality of the Christ's resurrection, repentance, righteousness, and the return of our Lord. It is not as though Pentecostals do not acknowlege the importance of these themes, but it was revealing that little time was spent focussing on them when the New Testament went on and on about them, with little attention to much else. I began to see that Pentecostalism preached a superficial works-based law centred on the ego and focussed on power, performance and prosperity. I've described this issue with more detail in my corrective to Rick Warren's best seller, The Purpose Driven Life - Part II: A Corrective.

2. The Sovereignty of God over all things

Next, I distinctly recall in my 'Doctrine' classes asking my lecturer what he meant when he declared, “God never intended human sin, or any to go to hell -- although we know that God is in control of everything.” It became obvious that “I don't know; I don't quite understand it” was a standard reply. I became increasingly aware that my lecturer's theology came unstuck on the topic of God's sovereignty in view of original sin, the origin of evil and Satan, the presence of suffering now and our certainty regarding everlasting judgment. God's knowledge and power were in question. My lecturers sincerely admitted their doctrine could not hold together both the existence of evil and suffering and the absolute sovereignty of a good God. Therefore, following Pentecostalism to its conclusion, God's place outside of time, his knowledge, his power and control, were all inevitably 'limited' in some way. None of this squared with the Bible's grand vision of a God who is both perfectly good and absolutely all-controlling. I've written a brief article on this topic to address these questions: God, Evil & Sovereignty: A Pentecostal dilemma.

3. Grace, Election and the Predestination of Christians

Similarly, after reading and re-reading Paul's Epistle to the Romans, I began to see that what the Scriptures taught about God's sovereignty in salvation, his election, predestination, foreknowledge, and his grace, did not marry with the doctrines of Pentecostalism either. I became extremely perplexed with Jesus' own words and the Apostle's teaching about predestination, and their complete disagreement with my own Pentecostal view of predestination and foreknowledge. My beliefs about faith, conversion and human freedom of choice all left me out of line with the direct teaching of the Bible. Again, I've written briefly on this topic: Predestination: A Pentecostal Problem.

4. Understanding and applying the Old Testament

In addition, it became apparent that although very often the Old Testament was a basis for Pentecostal preaching, very rarely was the actual historical meaning of Old Testament texts explained or applied. Abraham was about God's promise to make me great, Moses was about how God would use me despite my imperfections, David was about how I could have victory over the giants in my life. However I began to see that Christ himself insisted that the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Law, the Kingdom under David, the Temple, the Exile, the Return of the Remnant, all spoke about him. My own reading of the Old Testament at that time had not yet understood how Abraham, Moses and David were actually about Jesus. I began to realise though that God had been revealing his gospel from the very beginning, in every page of Scripture. The message of God's kingdom was the focus of the entire storyline of the Bible, from Beginning to End.

I now saw that Pentecostals relied on allegorical methods of interpretting the Old Testament, which did not square with Jesus' and the Apostle's own historical-grammatical and christological interpretation. I became increasingly frustrated with Pentecostal preaching from Old Testament narratives, which turned any text into a sermon about success or methods of achieving as a Christian, rather than a revelation of God in his gospel deeds and words. I've now also written briefly on this subject in The answer for Pentecostalism and Overview of the Old Testament: The Gospel in Context.

My re-think

These four elements then together combined to spark a re-think in my understanding of the message of the Bible as a whole, along with my theological standpoint on just about every Pentecostal doctrine that I held as a Pentecostal at that time. The rest is history, so to speak. For more details on where I arrived at in my understanding of the teachings of the Bible, read the rest of my Talking Pentecostalism articles. | 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.