Universal Pentecostal Church (2)
In terms of biographies, it is far from being a classic. Nor is it particularly well written. With an unattractive cover and format, this paperback has been produced cheaply in the Third World to make it available to a wide readership in Asia, Africa and Europe.
The biographer is anonymous but is, I suspect, a senior UPC leader. And the writer describes his subject in uncritical terms; in many parts it is fanciful and exaggerated. Curious? Well, the title of the book is The Biography of Pastor Paul (Pentecostal Press Trust, 1998).
But why mention this book at all? Well, in order to understand the UPC it is helpful to know about its founder, ‘Pastor Paul’. The book throws much light on some of the strange, even mistaken, views and practices of the UPC founder; practices and beliefs that continue today.
In the preface, Pastor Paul is compared favourably with the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers. Referring to 2 Chronicles 16:9, the writer claims that ‘The Lord’s eyes found such an upright man in Pastor Paul, in the 20th century’.
Converted from Hinduism
Born in South India in 1881 into a Hindu family, the father’s intention was that this boy should become a Hindu priest like his grandfather. When he was 14, Paul (his original name was Ramankutty) went to Sri Lanka looking for work. Eventually, a wealthy Christian, Dr Asarappa, who had been converted to Christ from Hinduism through the witness of the Church Missionary Society, gave him work and welcomed him into his home. Paul learnt about the gospel of Christ from this loving family but opposed their Christian teaching.
Four years later, Paul claims to have been deeply affected by a vision of the Lord Jesus. Then, at the age of 21, he made an open profession of faith in Christ. The Asarappa family was thrilled and Ramankutty was baptised without delay by a CMS clergyman and given the Christian name ‘Paul’.
Returning home, he experienced hostility from his family and, for his personal safety, went back to Sri Lanka where he witnessed freely to the Lord’s grace. He was then given two years training in the CMS Bible Seminary in Kottayam and ordained as an evangelist and catechist. He also married a fine Christian lady.
Nominalism in his church, coupled with a lack of biblical understanding among members, discouraged him greatly. Some Australian missionaries spoke to him of ‘Spirit-baptism’ and alleged the ‘prior necessity’ of baptism by immersion. Paul claims to have received Spirit-baptism in 1921 followed later by glossolalia. During these months he claims to have come to a much deeper love for the Lord.
However, these experiences were accompanied by a series of visions and hearing ‘the voice of God’. He attached major importance to these private ‘revelations’ and made certain decisions as a result. These included leaving the Anglican church, forfeiting a regular wage, living wholly ‘by faith’, and insisting that his full-time leaders and members should literally forsake all in following Christ.
Gradually, Pastor Paul gathered more and more people around him. He established ‘faith homes’ for his full-time workers, all of whom had to be wholly committed to their leader as well as to God.
In 1924 he registered his work in Sri Lanka as the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission. Slowly the work grew and spread to a number of countries. This numerical growth was due to some extent to the leader’s claim to have regular divine revelations and the power to heal and perform miracles. He also maintained tight control over his organisation until his death in July 1945.
There were aspects of Pastor Paul’s life and teaching which were clearly wrong; and some of these aspects will be highlighted and assessed next month. But one cannot escape the conclusion that this man was a sincere and earnest Christian. Alongside the mystical and dubious claims of Pastor Paul, there was evidence of grace in his life. Marks of holiness, constant prayerfulness and trust in the Lord, coupled with a zeal for evangelism and a desire to know the Spirit’s power upon his preaching, characterised his life.
However, my correspondent’s concern (see last month’s article) is precise and justified. He wants me to ‘give some overall picture as to what this church really stands for and how it compares with Scripture’ being ‘troubled by many of the teachings and practices in the church’. He adds graciously: ‘I am not trying to be judgemental but would like a second opinion backed by biblical evidence’.
His desire is to test UPC teachings in the light of the Bible. ‘For some reason which I cannot quite explain I feel the teachings are wrong’. And with regard to some of their teaching, his instinct is correct.
Like the Family of Love, the UPC is orthodox on a number of major doctrines. ‘Faith in the Triune God is the backbone of the church’, we are informed (The Voice of Pentecost, February 2000, p.15) and they ‘preach Christ, His virgin birth, His works, His teachings, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His ascension, His second coming…’
The New Birth is taught too, but identified with conviction of sins, repentance, confession of sins/faith etc. No reference is made to the prior, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in bringing spiritually dead sinners to life and to Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:3-7). This is a serious omission.
Concerning justification, we are informed that it is the ‘act of God’s free grace by which we received remission of sins’ (Power Divine, vol.2, No.2, Oct-Dec 1997, p.1). Although true, this is not an adequate summary of the Bible’s teaching on the subject.
Yes, justification is something God alone does in his ‘free grace’; as sinners, all we deserve is to be rejected and punished by God. So why is the UPC statement insufficient, and how does it fail to convey the marvel of the gospel? Allow me to explain.
Justify is a legal term; a verdict is given by God the judge regarding our innocence in his sight. When God justifies, he pronounces the believing sinner ‘right’ and ‘not guilty’ with regard to his holy law, although the sinner has broken that law repeatedly.
But how can sinners be declared righteous and not guilty? The Bible explains. We are justified through the substitutionary death of Christ, ‘whom God set forth to be a propitiation by his blood, through faith … that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:25-26; 8:33). And, again, ‘Christ Jesus … is made unto us … righteousness, and sanctification and redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
It is the glorious righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is reckoned to my account when I trust in him. Condemnation is no longer a sentence hanging over my head, for he has borne my sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). In fact, all my sins, past, present and future, are forgiven through Christ. That is fantastic news.
After reading many of their magazines, I am convinced the UPC needs to place much greater emphasis on our Lord’s sacrificial death for sinners. After all, that is the heart of the gospel. And it is exceedingly more central than matters like healing, separation, ‘entire sanctification’, ministry and a ‘three-stage Advent’, with which they seem to be preoccupied.
To my amazement, they provide no doctrinal statement concerning the nature, purpose, sufficiency and finality of the Lord’s death. All they say is that they preach ‘His crucifixion’.
They often refer to ‘the blood’ of Christ, but again I have struggled to find references in their publications to the significance of our Saviour’s death. This is possibly assumed by the UPC, but why not spell it out clearly?
Many testimonies in their magazines refer to ‘victory through the blood of Jesus’ (Voice of Pentecost, vol.28, No.8, May 2000, p.14) but such references are usually in the context of occult deliverance, healing or sanctification rather than Christ’s penal, substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of sinners, which alone is the ground of our hope and justification.
The UPC needs urgently to focus more clearly on ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Next time we will examine some of their distinctive teachings.