On a flight recently from Asia to London Heathrow, I found myself sitting by two strangers. One was an information technology expert.
The other man, much more talkative, was the managing director of a successful local business near Glasgow. Married with young children, he enjoyed soccer, worked hard but was sceptical about Christianity.
He talked a great deal. By the time we reached London, I felt that I knew him well.
If the man had refused to tell me about himself, I would not have known anything about him. He would have remained a stranger to me.
Now think about this in relation to God. Just as that businessman told me things about himself, so God took the initiative in disclosing his character and plans to us. He did so firstly in creation, but especially in the Bible and in his Son Jesus Christ.
As a result, it is now possible for us to know a great deal about God and his purposes. Without God’s revelation, however, we would be helpless to discover anything about him.
Why am I emphasising God’s self-revelation in the Bible, especially in writing about the new spiritualities? The major reason is that God’s self-disclosure, or what I am calling ‘real revelation’, must be our criterion for judging all beliefs and practices.
Last month I described the beliefs and popularity of new spiritualities like ‘secular’, ‘Celtic’, ‘Eastern’, ‘New Age’ and ‘practical’ spiritualities. They all claim to provide fulfilment, peace of mind and a satisfying purpose for living.
But how do we know whether their claims are true or false? Only by using the criterion of the Bible, for here God has spoken and given us reliable answers to all the ultimate questions of life and death.
I must emphasise this crucial point. This book, the Bible, originated with God. He is its author, for he ‘breathed out’ the teaching and words of Scripture. The result is that prophets and apostles spoke and wrote what God had given: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed…’ (2 Timothy 3:16).
And it is a reliable, genuine book with permanent, unchanging information given by God. Here is the one unique, objective revelation.
In ignoring this God-given revelation, those who promote and embrace the new spiritualities are rebelling against God, persisting in spiritual darkness rather than coming to the light. They are ‘without excuse’ (Romans 1:20).
Allow me to illustrate the foolishness of rejecting God’s revelation. The teachers and followers of these new spiritualities – and all other systems of teaching opposed to the Bible – can be likened to a group of office workers who only use an internal intercom system in their office.
They are content to talk only to one another in the office. Although they have an external telephone line, and Internet access to worldwide websites; although they need to use these resources for the purpose of their work; yet they willfully insist on speaking only to one another on their small intercom system. It is tragic and illusory, yet they are happy to carry on in this way.
The illustration is imperfect, no doubt, but the Christian gospel challenges both old and new spiritualities at this point.
To be genuine, spirituality requires an external ‘line’ to the one true God. A human ‘intercom system’ which imprisons people within its own subjective and relative thought world is doomed to failure and begets misery.
Christian spirituality is related inseparably to the objective world of God and must therefore be sought and sustained in accordance with the Bible alone. In other words, spirituality must be set within a framework of objective, revealed truth.
In assessing the teaching and practices of the new spiritualities, therefore, our first theological criterion must be that of real revelation.
There is a second theological criterion to be applied to the new spiritualities, namely, the ‘relatedness’ of revelation.
Genuine Christian spirituality begins with the personal, triune God. This God is not mere mind or consciousness, or a co-extensive reality with the world.
Rather, the three distinguishable persons in the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are persons who love, think, communicate and act. These things are true of God.
Furthermore, since human beings are made in God’s image, these characteristics are true of us also. So our purpose in life should be to worship, love and enjoy God with our whole being. He created us to relate to him and express his likeness in every aspect of our lives.
However, since humanity’s fall into sin, in Adam, we have a problem. This is not because, as creatures, we are finite or human, or because we are restricted by our physical bodies or our environment.
Rather, our problem is a moral one, that of sin and rebellion against God. This characterises every human person in the world. It is not the self which is a problem as much as the sin that affects every part of the self.
Our problem, then, is our sinfulness; our lack of conformity to God’s character. And this guilty sinfulness incurs the wrath and punishment of the holy God.
Grasp, therefore, the contrast between the new spiritualities and the message of the Bible. ‘Actualise your divinity’, say these spiritualities. ‘Be transformed by gnosis through our meditative techniques’.
By contrast, the Bible describes human beings as being ‘lost’, the ‘enemies’ of God, rebels, disobedient, and ‘alienated from the life of God’ (Ephesians 4:18). By nature we are the slaves of sin, blind, spiritually dead and the ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:4). That is the spiritual condition of humanity without Christ.
It is into this major relational breakdown that divine revelation sheds its light; there can be no spirituality at all until our relationship with God is put right.
The third theological criterion we apply is the ‘redemptive-ness’of revelation. How is spirituality possible for sinners, separated from God by sin; for rebels who oppose God? That is the problem of humanity. The new spiritualities do not even address the matter.
The Bible’s answer is surprising and dramatic; it lies in the unique death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was punished in our place on the cross.
He redeems, that is, he releases sinners from the slavery and punishment of sin, but does so at great cost to himself (1 Peter 1:18-19).
As our substitute, he is also the propitiation for our sins, willingly taking God’s anger upon himself by dying instead of the believer (Romans 3:25).
On the cross, too, he reconciles rebel man to the holy, sin-hating God. How? By placing our sins on Christ so that he bore at Calvary the punishment we deserve (2 Corinthians 5:19-21).
His death was a sacrifice. In the Old Testament the worshipper was guilty and subject to God’s wrath. But he laid his hands symbolically on the head of the sacrificial lamb, as a picture of transferring his sin and guilt to that innocent creature.
The animal was then killed, its blood poured out and the worshipper was forgiven. This was a picture of what Christ did as he became our substitute. He bore our guilt, died our death and paid the penalty to forgive us.
The door to God
In addition, Christ’s death was a passover. The Jews in Egypt killed the lamb and sprinkled its blood on their door posts, so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ and spare them. So Christ shed his blood on the cross to bring us to God and to save us from hell. ‘Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us’ (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Finally, on the cross, the Lord Jesus was being obedient. He actively obeyed God’s laws as our representative during his life on earth, and then was ‘obedient to the death of the cross’ (Philippians 2:8) in submitting himself to God’s wrath in our place.
His obedience involved physical sufferings, emotional turmoil, fatigue, loneliness and rejection. It involved being forsaken by the Father – and all this so that we could be reconciled to God. That reconciliation was achieved objectively and once for all by Christ on the cross.
This is where true spirituality is seen – as individual sinners recognise their guilt, turn from their sin to God, and trust with all their heart in the risen, reigning Lord Jesus Christ. Here is the only door to God and the one exclusive door to biblical spirituality.
Next month we will apply the criterion of the ‘restorative-ness’ of revelation to the new spiritualities.