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emotionally-healthy-spiritualityThe book ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality’ has been widely acclaimed from all sides of the ecumenical spectrum and has been set up as favoured by the Willow Creek Association among others. It is focused on trying to address what the author sees as a shortcoming of modern Christianity – a failure to recognise the importance of emotional growth in the Christian life. The book sees this failure as being at the root of many of the problems that face Christians today: from marital strife, church splits, bitterness and more. The following quote must be considered:

“Emotionally healthy spirituality is a universal approach to spiritual and religious life … Spirituality is concerned with becoming one with God or the true Self.”

So the focus of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (both the book and more explicitly the day by day course guide) is concerned with improving religious life by looking inward at ourselves. The only problem is that the above quote wasn’t taken from Scazzero’s book. It was taken from Hindu yoga mystic Swami Atma.

 

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Swami Atma

 

12 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. 2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. 3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.

4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. – Deut 12

The above is an example of God directly speaking to the people of Israel and explaining his feelings towards adopting the practices of pagan religions and using them to worship God. We understand that we no longer live under the Old Covenant with its laws and procedures to protect national identity and purity. The New Covenant has extended grace and mercy to those who are God’s people, and a common grace to all. We know this because God no longer requires us to stone rapists, or kill witches, or disobedient children. However, we also recognise that doing so did not make rape, witchcraft or being disobedient to parents morally justifiable in God’s eyes. In the same way, even though we no longer are called to burn down pagan temples and break down their altars, we can still see the clear attitude God has towards those who seek to worship Him using the practices of pagan religion.

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This was also clearly seen in Leviticus 10, where the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, lit the altar with ‘strange fire’ and were immediately consumed in God’s wrath. Again, this is not to say that God is necessarily going to consume anyone who offers the wrong practice as worship to Him, but it demonstrates how seriously he takes the way in which he is worshipped in accordance with the instructions he has already given to us. God’s response to Aaron after this incident was:

“‘Among those who approach me

   I will be proved holy;

in the sight of all the people

   I will be honoured.’” – Lev 10:3

That word ‘holy’ in the Hebrew is the word ‘qadash’ – which among the uses of the term it holds connotations of being set apart, separate and consecrated. God proclaims himself to be set apart from all systems and sources – he is unique and singular (Isaiah 42:8, 44:6, 46:5). It would then stands as justifiable that seeking to treat him as yet another one of the pagan gods would be an offence to his holy character as if what works for Buddha will work for God.

The book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality opens with a series of personal anecdotes where the writer experienced burnout in the face of various strains and disasters. He goes on to describe what for him he claims was a revelation of sorts. On page 55 he states that his “inner world was not in sync” with his “exterior behaviour”. He identifies this as what Jesus called “hypocrisy” – the state of not being true to one’s inner, emotional self. His call on page 65 is “to know God you must know yourself”.

The problem here is that it is factually incorrect. Jesus refers to the Pharisees as hypocrites, but he never explains that it is because they are not in touch with their inner, emotional selves. In Matthew 6:2, 5 and 16 he uses it to refer to those who make an outward show of religious piety but inside they are rotten to the core with sin. I put sin in italics because it is very telling that it is a word that Scazzero never uses to describe the many terrible situations that he lists at the start of the book. He doesn’t put the problem down to the sinful heart’s desire to sin against God and therefore needs to repent (looking upward) but as man’s inability to tap into his emotional self (looking inward). Inadvertently, Scazzero has told us that all the problems in our lives are to be solved by looking inwards to ourselves, rather than all the sin (for that’s what he’s actually talking about) in our lives being dealt with by looking upward to God. He sees the remedy as “the inward journey” to consider “the forces and motivations beneath the surface of our lives” (page 72). Where God (through the prophet Isaiah) would see the remedy for sin as “Look unto me and be ye saved” (Isa 45:22) Peter Scazzero seems to suggest the remedy is “Look at yourself and be ye emotionally healthy.” Where Jesus would say “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.” (John 14:7) Scazzero would have us believe “To know God you must know yourself.” (page 65).

It is this refusal to identify and acknowledge sin that leads to several other troublesome statements throughout the book. For instance, on page 168 we are told that “God’s approval is without conditions”. This could possibly be reinterpreted to an orthodox level of acceptability if what he is referring to is the fact that once saved God gives his approval to his children based not on their performance but on their status as redeemed and blood-bought sons and daughters of God. But my eyebrows are further raised when he starts referencing noted Universalists like Thomas Merton and other emergent writers that seem to suggest he actually believes that God approves of absolutely everyone without conditions, Christian or no. And it is in examining the practical side of his guide to being emotionally healthy that we see this faulty line of reasoning worked out: specifically in chapter 6 where he endorses the mystical practice of contemplative prayer.

Be attentive and open. Sit still, sit straight, breathe slowly, deeply and naturally, and close your eyes or lower them to the ground.” (page 160). Scazzero suggests that we repeat a ‘centring word or phrase’ in order to block out our busy thoughts and allow God to speak through his Holy Spirit. At a recent evening service when this practice was clearly taught to the congregation at our church, similar instructions were given for anyone who wanted to ‘listen to God’. Stray thoughts were to be discarded or pushed aside as distractions – clearly the message was that clear minds were to be achieved in order to “allow God to speak to us”. It was described as “the deepest” and “highest form of prayer”, scriptural support came from Matthew 14:23, 26:36 (Jesus find a place to pray alone) and 1 Kings 19 in the cave with Elijah. Apparently, “even Jesus needed to find time to listen.”

Except what Peter Scazzero, and the lady preaching, say when they describe this “deepest form of prayer” and what the Bible clearly depicts are two completely different things. Not in Matthew 14:23, 26:36 nor in 1 Kings 19 (nor in any other place in scripture) do we see anyone “repeating a centring word or phrase” to clear their mind, neither Elijah nor Jesus sat in silence, pushing their thoughts aside in order to “allow the Holy Spirit to speak to them”. The precise practice is not found anywhere in the pages of scripture.

In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples approach Jesus with a very particular request. They ask him “teach us to pray”. Doubtless, a lot of them knew what prayer looked like. Some of them had perhaps been into the synagogue or temple a few times in their lives, but there was something different about the way Jesus prayed, and they wanted to know the right way to pray like Jesus did. What was Jesus’ response? If you’ll forgive the parody:

“And Jesus replied to them, ‘I will teach you the highest, deepest form of prayer. First, you sit still, back straight and breathe deeply…repeat my name over and over again until all your distracting thoughts are gone and then…”

No. The passage doesn’t read like that. The one portion of scripture where Jesus is directly asked how to pray and he says: “And he said to them, “When you pray, say:” We have no other instruction from Jesus on how we are to pray. This is it. When you pray – say! Open your mouth and employ your brain function to communicate, not shutting it down completely. The point is that, if we are to believe that this is “the highest” and “deepest” form of prayer, Jesus doesn’t teach us it.

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In fact, elsewhere the scriptures will warn us against this practice. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:15 says that, whilst he will pray ‘in the Spirit’, he will pray ‘with his mind also’. Jesus, when rebuking the behaviour of the Pharisees clearly forbids the use of centring words when he says “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do” (Matt 6:7) The term ‘vain’ here meaning empty, or meaningless.

Notice as well that Jesus identifies this as something ‘the heathens do’. To what is he referring? ‘Heathen’ is a catch-all term used by the translators to describe the pagan Gentiles. Therefore the question is raised: what ‘vain repetition’ is he talking about?

I believe that, with perfect divine knowledge, Jesus is referring to the ancient Arabian, Hindu and Buddhist practice of mystical meditation, in which a mystic would chant, over and over, a mantra in order to allow themselves to enter into a trance-like state. They did this in order to receive mysteries, enlightenment and “unity with Brahma”.

“Buddhist meditation is an invitation to turn one’s awareness away from the world of activity that usually preoccupies us to the inner experience of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

For Buddhists, the realm of meditation comprises mental states such as calm, concentration and one-pointedness (which comprises the six forces: hearing, pondering, mindfulness, awareness, effort and intimacy).

The practice of meditation is consciously employing particular techniques that encourage these states to arise.”

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/customs/meditation_1.shtml)

This practice was then brought into Roman Catholic monasticism by the likes of St Teresa of Avila and lately Thomas Merton, both of whom Scazzero cites as authorities in the book. These are our examples of how we could be led into emotionally healthy spirituality if Scazzero is to be believed. So who were they?

Teresa of Avila was an early 16th century Roman Catholic mystic who was a regular practitioner in what would be known as ‘contemplative prayer’. Through these mystical practices, she claimed that she had endured physical intimacy with (and married) Jesus, claimed she had regular visions of hell, claimed she could levitate and more. This is the example of emotionally healthy spirituality we are to follow, according to Scazzero.

Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic Trappist Monk who claimed to have visions (sent from God) of himself as a Buddhist monk performing rituals. He devoted the rest of his writings to uniting Christianity, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism into the same belief system (Mystics and Zen Master 1967).

And the links between Zen Buddhism and Scazzero’s book are clear. According to the BBC article on Buddhism – “Meditation is a mental and physical course of action that a person uses to separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings in order to become fully aware.” This ability to detach oneself in order to achieve ‘awareness’ is mentioned throughout the text. Scazzero tells us in page 132 “detachment is the great secret of interior peace”, and he continues on page 133 “those who are most detached on the journey are best able to taste the purest joy in the beauty of created things.

I could mention other things about the book that are troubling (ancestral curses, factual inaccuracies about the Bible, etc.) but I feel I would be beating a dead horse by this stage. Scazzero says that “Most Christians today are struggling spiritually” (page 1 of the 40-day course guide book), and he tries to plug that gap with a mix of Roman Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist mysticism. Whereas Jesus, the word and the Holy Spirit, regarded as sufficient throughout church history by faithful orthodoxy, are cast aside.

If the teaching is a) not found in scripture, b) actively opposed by scripture and c) finds its origins in pagan religion then the words of Deuteronomy ring true even today:

4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. – Deut 12

In short, Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, identifies the wrong problem and posits the wrong solution. It is a dangerously heretical text with clear aims to introduce pagan mysticism into the practice of the church.

 

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Verse 1

Well I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like.

But I have read my Bible and it tells me what you’re like.

For it tells me you gave your son for those who trust in You.

Chorus

You’re a good, good Father

It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are

And I’m loved by you

Not for who I am, but who you are, who you are.

Verse 2

And I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide.

But I know we’re all searching for one thing only you provide

for you know just that we need Jesus before we say a word.

Bridge

You are perfect in all of your ways

In my suffering and in my good days.

You are perfect in all of your ways

For your glory.

Verse 3

Mercy so amazing I will always speak.

Grace so undeserving I will always think

On the way you draw me deeper

and deeper into your word.

How can a young man keep his way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.

– Psalm 119:9

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So you’ve been to Soul Survivor.

You’ve had great banter.

You’ve had mind-blowing times of worship. You’ve seen the dancing, the bouncing, the lights, the screeching guitars, the euphoria. You’ve maybe even raised your hands a couple of times.

You might even have been one of the hundreds of people who walked forward at the end of the meetings. Praise God if you did!

And now you’re home.

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The tent is packed away for another year, the bracelets and leaflets and stickers and books that you guarded with your life now lie in the corner of your room. You have to get up for church on Sunday morning and…

…it’s just not the same anymore.

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Do you know ‘God’s great dance floor’?

There are no lasers. There are no crowds bouncing up and down. There are no euphoric swells and people dancing in the aisles and on stage. You’re lucky if there is even a drumbeat because the drummer had to decide between playing the drums and filling in for the bassist who’s not there and the old lady on the organ has no idea what a Rend Collective is (but it sounds painful). Your diet no longer consists of chocolate and pot noodles. You actually have to eat vegetables and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. You no longer are surrounded on a daily basis with people feeling the same thing, singing the same songs or even speaking the same language half the time (See this handy primer on Christianese). Instead, people in school, university or in the workplace are bitter, they’re sarcastic, they’re more interested in the latest gruesome death on Game of Thrones than the latest Housefires single. What’s worst of all is that you find it so much easier to go with the crowd around you, than to try and pull them up to your level.

You, my friend, are caught in the post-festival blues.

 

So how do we survive Soul Survivor?

 

  1. See it for what it is

 

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. – 1 Kings 19

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Elijah saw some amazing stuff on that mountain. Can you imagine the scene? The wind is so strong the mountains are tearing and shattering into pieces! Earthquakes causing the entire landscape to tremble. Fire bursting out spontaneously.

And none of it contained God.

You have to look soberly at your experiences. There’s a lot to be said about euphoria, good and bad. My personal slant is that God gives us the possibility to experience euphoria, and what better thing to feel euphoria about than the presence of God? But looking soberly, like I said, those experiences are not God.

God is in the low whisper.

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In comparison to mountains smashing and ground shaking and fire raging, that low whisper must have seemed rather dull to Elijah. You can just imagine him thinking, “Oh, I thought when God showed up it’d be a bit more…impressive?” But God was in the dull. He was in the simple, quiet communication of his word.

So you might have felt the very ground move at Soul Survivor, but see it for what it is. An awesome experience, but one that is not God. It is my experience that God does not often communicate in the mind-blowing, the euphoric, the earth-shaking. The times that I’ve most clearly had communication from God has been on my own, in my living room when no one else is around and I have my Bible open. God is in the low whisper.

 

2. You’ve worked on your public faith, now work on your private faith

 

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It’s so much easier to talk, shout or sing when there is a crowd around you doing the same thing. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the high street, stand with your hands in the air and belt out “BLESS THE LOOOOORD OH MY SOUL!” and see how it feels. What I’m saying is that being a Christian seems so easy when you are surrounded by Christians. This can be great because it allows you to freely give voice to your beliefs and convictions in a safe place where most people won’t judge you. One of the hardest things, I believe, for a young person to navigate is how to publicly portray their faith honest and openly for the world the see and festivals like Soul Survivor can be a great way of practising that.

But, to take the song out of context a bit, there must be more than this…

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Obviously, this isn’t my car. For one, it’s clean.

You can polish a car so much that it gleams for everyone to marvel at, but at the end of the day, there has to be something under the hood to make the car go. No car goes around with its radiator and pistons hanging out, they aren’t aesthetically pleasing. But they are so crucial to ensure there is power in the engine for the car to move. In the same way, a public faith is just a façade unless there is something under the hood. We need our roots to go deeper if we are to avoid getting choked out by the weeds when that first trial comes along. I can’t teach you how to love God in your heart, that’s a work of the Holy Spirit. I can suggest some practical tips though for working on your ‘under the hood’ private faith though:

 

i) Read your Bible. Do it daily. Joshua 1:8.

 

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This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

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ii) Get some solid Bible teaching. Listen to it. If you are in a church where this is a bit scarce, do what I often do – there are some great podcasts I can recommend, but they won’t suit everyone. I’d suggest:

  • The Village Church
  • Renewing your mind
  • (For the girls) Sheologians
  • (Also for the girls) Flower Mound Women’s Bible Study
  • Daily John Piper
  • Sermon audio
  • Radical with David Platt

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iii) Read a book for once! Learn as much as you can. It is a lie from the pit of hell that theology does not matter. It totally does! As soon as anyone opens their mouth to speak about God they are being theological. Chances are if they don’t know any theology it’s just bad theology they are speaking.  Start off with a good study Bible (I’d recommend ESV or Matthew Henry, but there are other great ones). Some other great books that have profoundly impacted me include:

  • The Pursuit of God – A W Tozer
  • The Holiness of God – R C Sproul
  • The Reason for God – Tim Keller
  • The Explicit Gospel – Matt Chandler
  • The Mortification of Sin – John Owen
  • Scandalous – D A Carson

 

3. If you aren’t enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it

 

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Best Jamaican-bobsled-based movie in history. FACT.

One of my favourite movies is Cool Runnings. That bit at the end where they (spoilers) carry the bobsled across that last stretch and everyone starts slow clapping and the guy’s dad is there and he’s wearing the t shirt…gets me every time.

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Hang on. I need a moment.

Okay. But there is one particular scene that always stands out to me the most. John Candy’s character (Irv) is a washed up bobsled champion who cheated once and was banned from ever competing again, but is hired to coach the Jamaica team. The driver of the team, Derice, is talking to Irv and asks why he did it. He was already a champion, why did he feel the need to cheat all those years ago?

Irv: [telling Derice why he cheated] It’s a fair question. It’s quite simple, really. I had to win. You see, Derice, I had made winning my whole life, and when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning, no matter what. Understand?

Derice Bannock: No, I don’t understand. You won two gold medals. You had it all.

Irv: Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.

Irv had tasted the euphoria of winning a gold medal and had become so fixated on it that he was prepared to break every rule to get it again. In a moment of self-reflection, he admits that he didn’t feel like he was enough without it. Not only that, but once he had it, he still wasn’t satisfied.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. – Ecclesiastes 5:10

Idolatry happens when you take a good thing (like money, gold medals, euphoric experiences, etc.) and make them the whole focus of your satisfaction and justification. As Christians, all of our delight and satisfaction is found in God alone.

For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things. – Psalm 107:9

God knows that the only way you will be satisfied, the only way you will receive true joy, is in Him. He will not allow you to find it anywhere else because it is nowhere else. Not even in those things that we use to praise him, like dancing and singing and raising our hands and shouting and feeling the euphoria of collective worship. This is starkly evident when the children of Israel turned from following after God in the book of Amos. The crazy thing is that they are still meeting, still singing songs, still making their sacrifices but God says:

21“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen. – Amos 5

So we can’t look to these things to be our ultimate satisfaction. This frees us up to appreciate any and all styles of worship, knowing that we are not dependent on fog machines and lasers to encounter God any more than Elijah was dependent on the mountains tearing in two. Miraculous signs and experiences are wonderful, but they aren’t what God ultimately wants for us. He wants to give us Himself.

The Jews watched as Jesus fed the 5,000 in the wilderness, and we’re told in John 6 that loads of people followed him because of this.

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. – John 6:26

Jesus is quick to deter them, however. He tells them that they were settling for bread that easily perishes and does nothing for the state of their souls. All the while God wanted to give them the bread from heaven that never perishes.

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. – verses 33-35

Here is the one thing that will satisfy. Not the bread that perishes. Not the bread that will do nothing for their souls. Not the dancing, the lasers, the sound system, the high tempo music that is gone when you leave Peterborough. Those things, in and of themselves, will do nothing for your soul. Christ is the bread of life. If you aren’t satisfied without all those things, then I urge you to examine whether or not you have truly known Jesus – or are you just following the temporary fulfilment that comes along without him. Is it enough to know that you belong to Christ?

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

[Deu 18:9-12 NIV] 9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.

 

Introduction: What do we believe?

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In the Middle Ages, the Romand Catholic church had been the predominant church throughout Christendom. They had started out as the pure defenders of orthodoxy, but around the time of Pope Gregory I (540-604AD) that began to change. The church began to teach that, while the Bible was authoritative, it was not authoritative alone. Rather, special revelation, given to the Pope direct from God, was necessary in interpreting the will of God. At first scripture was kept in Latin and only the priesthood were able to read it. Then others began to see the benefit of having a Bible that they could read in their own language. 3fb6327e491356f66979f1c475f5ff77-william-tyndale-wolf-hallPeople like John Wycliffe (who was declared a heretic) and William Tynedale (who was burned at the stake) sought to bring God’s word to the vernacular. The Roman Catholic church responded with aggression and violence, executing many others who attempted this.

Then in the early 1500s The Reformation happened, and one of its central tenets became known as ‘Sola Scriptura’. As Christians, we affirm what the Catholics believe that the scriptures are authoritative over the Christian’s faith and practice. However, unlike Catholicism, we affirm that scripture alone is authoritative over the Christian’s faith and practices. We believe that there is nowhere else we can look to tell us what we are to believe and do as Christians. Consider the following verse:

[2Ti 3:16-17 NIV] 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Notice that the Bible testifies about itself that it is useful to equip the servant of God for every good work. That is to say, the Bible is sufficient to train us in righteousness, teach us, rebuke us, correct us and equip us.

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Therefore, if there is any practice that we cannot justify from the Bible, then we ought to discard it as unbiblical and wrong. This was true for the reformers when faced with paying indulgences, prayers to Mary, transubstantiation, et al, and it is true for us today when we are faced with apostasy of our own. In particular, the focus of this article: Contemplative prayer.

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What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer has come into fashion in some areas as a means of ‘listening to God’. Its proponents say that it is a way for God to directly contact the believer in a real and powerful way. At a recent service we were told that it is a ‘deeper’ form of prayer, one that gains us greater unity with God.

It begins with choosing a “centring word”. According to Rick Warren (an open practitioner of contemplative prayer) this should be a short word or phrase that can be uttered in a single breath. Normally, something like “Jesus” or “God” or “the grace of God” is suitable. This is done in order to help the believer empty their mind in order to receive communication from God.

Is it biblical?

Support for contemplative prayer is often cited from Psalm 46:10a ““Be still, and know that I am God.” From this, it is said that this is a prescriptive for how the believer is to meditate.

In a recent meeting, the examples of Jesus separating himself to pray (eg Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16 etc.) was used in support of the practice. Also used was Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19 where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.

Notice, however, in none of these passages does anyone have to repeat centring words, empty their minds or enter into a trance-like state in order to hear from God. The Biblical reference do not depict the exact practice they are supposed to support.

What does the Bible actually say?

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. – Matthew 6:7

Here you have Jesus specifically telling people not to perform useless repetitions in prayer. The practice of repeating ‘centring words’, according to Jesus in this verse, is something a Christian should not be doing. Why? Because it’s what the heathen do (I’ll come back to that later).

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. – 1 Corinthians 14:15

In this verse Paul is addressing some of the craziness going on in the Corinthian church where people are praying openly in tongues with no interpretation and it is causing confusion. Here Paul has to address this and say that prayer, while it is done ‘with my spirit’, is done ‘with my mind also’. The practice of contemplative prayer, however, is focused around the process of emptying the mind, not using it. Here again we see a direct Biblical contradiction of the practice in the words of Paul this time.

In fact, any time the act of prayer is mentioned in the scripture, it is always referred to as the conscious act of making communication with God. Asking (Matt 21:22), petitioning (Dan 9:3), pleading (2 Sam 12:16), interceding (1 Kings 13:6) and making requests known (Phl 4:6). There is no mention of repeating mantras in order to clear one’s mind.

So where does it come from?

The practice of contemplative prayer in Christendom can be traced back to the Middle Ages and to Roman Catholic mysticism. Remember the doctrine of sola scriptura was as a response to the propensity of the Catholic church to adopt teaching and practices that were outside of what the Bible taught. In his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero references two of these mystics: Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton.

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Teresa was a Caremlite nun who, through practicing contemplation, claimed to experience physical pain and sexual pleasure. She practiced asceticism, which was the belief that closeness with God can only be achieved through separating oneself from the world and suppressing the natural desires of the body. She also claimed to have levitated during the Mass.

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Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who (again, in a contemplative state) had visions of himself performing the duties of a Buddhist monk. Later in his ministry he became fascinated by Zen Buddhism, and wrote extensively on uniting the practices of Buddhism with Christian orthodoxy.

What Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:7 that vain repetitions are to be avoided because it’s what the heathen do. Neither Teresa nor Merton were around at the time Jesus is speaking – so to whom is he referring when he says “heathen”?

The fact is that the practice of contemplative prayer, whilst found nowhere in scripture, is found almost identically in the ancient Eastern mystic systems of Buddhism and Hinduism. Kundalini yoga is based around the practice of achieving an altered state of perception through repeating mantras and clearing one’s mind. This has all been popularised through the New Age movement in recent times, and introduced into Christian practice through organisations such as the Emergent church. It is also little surprise that it is rife throughout the ecumenical movement.

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So what do I do?

The Bible is clear about God’s attitude towards adopting the practices and beliefs of pagan religions (Deut 18:9-12). If you find yourself performing, or being asked to perform this practice, flee from it. It is right and proper to desire to hear from God, and God has given us all the means of doing so. It’s called the Bible. Read it, asked for illumination as you do. Pray about it. Seek God regarding it. Wrestle with it. Fill your mind with the truth and resist the enemy that would fill it with anything different.

If you are teaching this to people, repent. Those who teach are subject to stricter judgement (James 3:1), and the Bible is replete with warnings about what happens to those who teach false doctrine in the name of God. Repent and turn to Christ, trust his word and come out of new age mysticism before you are deceived any further, and before you deceive anyone else.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

A meditation on 1 Corinthians 1

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An old fisherman walks into a pub and he’s downcast. He’s been out on the lake all the previous night and not caught a single thing. He steps up to the bar and there’s a young fella in the queue ahead of him. The young fella motions to the barman and exclaims that he’s just caught his 50th trout that week. The bar erupts in appreciative applause, and the old fisherman for a moment is happy that he’s getting a free drink in hard times. But deep down there is a nagging jealousy that this youngster has caught so many fish while he has been labouring endlessly with no result.

During the course of the night the two get to talking and the old fisherman finally gets his chance to ask about the young man’s catch.

“What bait did you use?” the old man asks.

The young man wipes away the flecks of foam from his top lip, “Cheese.” he says.

The old fisherman is stunned, racking his brain trying to figure out how cheese could ever tempt a trout. “Wh-how…?”

“Easy,” the young man says, “I use a little wooden block with a metal trigger. I set the cheese at one end, the trout swims up, nibbles the cheese and WHUMP!” he bangs his fist on the table, “The critter is crushed in the trap.”

Sensing something wrong with the story, the old fisherman asks, “Do you mean…a mousetrap?

“No,” replies the young man, taking another swig, “a trout trap.”

“Well…okay…” the old fisherman raises one eyebrow, “where do you catch them?”

“Round the back.” the young man says, thumbing at a nondescript area behind him.

“Round the…back?”

“Aye,” the young man says, “out in the alley. I lay the traps down at night and in the morning they are heaving!”

“Could you…could you show me what you mean?”

“Sure.” The young man whips out his phone and scrolls through his pictures. Finally coming to a stop he flips the screen towards the old fisherman.

The old man looks at the picture, then gives a puzzled look at the young man, then back at the screen. “Son,” he says, trying to stifle a bemused laugh, “that’s a dead mouse.”

The young man sniffs and pulls his phone away. Indignantly looking down his nose at the old man he says, “Well, that’s your interpretation.”

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The church in Corinth was a church that had let go of the brakes. It has massive issues all throughout it from the lay people right through to the leadership. They were permissive of sexual immorality and refused to practice church discipline. They used the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the wrong way, causing confusion among the congregation and the world outside. There were some who even stirred the people up against Paul and his message so that he had to write twice to them to try to turn the ship around.

The predominant issue Paul is going to address, however, in the passage is the issue of divisions. We are told in verse 10-14 of 1 Corinthians 1 that the church has broken off into self-defined groups. One group prefers the teaching of Apollos. One prefers Simon Peter. Another group champions Paul. One particularly hyper-spiritual group even divides themselves by calling their faction ‘of Christ’. This is the situation Paul is wading into in this letter, and so in his opening address he pleads for them to unite around a common ground.

Paul, however, is very clear about what that common ground must be. It is actually a very narrow definition of what should unite them. He doesn’t call on people to simplify their beliefs down to “God is love” and “God wants you to be united”. Even though both of these are true, they both leave room for each faction to reinterpret to their own presuppositions. No, Paul calls them to unite around one, central theme, and it’s that theme which is the focus of this study.

Verse 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

v22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, v23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentile, v24 but those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

See Paul never calls for unity for unity’s sake. This is the call of the ecumenical movement: that matters of the atonement, salvation and justification don’t matter so long as there is unity. This opinion has been championed of late by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in recent days, among others. But the Bible does not call for unity for unity’s sake. In fact, as you read Paul you will see that there are times when God clearly calls for division from certain things and certain teachings (Galatians 1:8-9, Romans 16-17, 1 Timothy 1:3-5).

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Therefore it matters infinitely not just that we have unity in the church, but what we are being called to unify with. In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul is abundantly clear. We are to be unified in our message, and that message is Christ and him crucified.

And nobody wants to hear it.

That’s what we get from verse 22. See the dilemma Paul is in here. The people outside the church in Corinth don’t want to hear the message Paul is preaching. What do they want instead?

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom

We’ve already seen how the church had started to pride themselves on their great teachers like Apollos, like Peter, like Paul and even Jesus. This is what has brought division. Casting aside the explicit message of the gospel they taught Paul, Apollos, Peter and Christ as if they were another one of the great philosophers. “Come hear Apollos: the next Aristotle!” “Cephas: the heir to Socrates!” “These are people,” they’d say, “who can teach us the way of wisdom!”

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And so the message of the gospel is replaced with a how-to manual. How to live “Your Best Life Now”, how to be “Purpose-driven”, “You too can be like David if you follow these 5 steps!” There are entire churches and ministries today who are based around this message – and it comes from a denial of sin in the heart of man. Gnosticism teaches us that man’s salvation lies in his education, that the way of knowledge, of enlightenment, is the true way to God. That mankind is essentially good and just needs to be taught the right path. The Bible does not teach us that the root of mankind’s problem is a lack of wisdom, or of purpose, but it is that they are wicked sinners in need of a saviour. “Ryan that’s foolish,” you might say, “people don’t actually believe that anymore! We know men are essentially good. They need helped from their brokenness and poverty and hunger. Preaching against sin is just silly!” And you would be just like the Gentiles who tell Paul that the preaching of the cross is ‘foolishness’.

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There is another group Paul is preaching to who want something else. This is where it got interesting for me when I was examining the text. The Jews, we are told, demand a sign. Just like they did back during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 2:18) they will not believe unless they see a sign. This has led the Corinthian church to make a public spectacle of their use of the miraculous gifts that Paul is going to address in chapters 11 through to 14.

“But it’s what they want!” the church might reply, “It’s how we can get them into the church, Paul! What’s wrong with giving them what they want?” It is true, in fact the gospel without some sort of miraculous sign is a “stumbling block” to them. They can’t make that leap between what they hear and what they can’t bring themselves to believe.

Notice something very striking here.

Paul refers to two people groups. The Jews and the Gentiles. From his perspective in the world of the early church, there is no one else. This is 100% of Paul’s audience: Jews and Gentiles, and neither of them want to hear the gospel. Paul identifies both as a way of referring to everybody in the world at the time. Do you see the conflict here for the early church? They are tasked with preaching a message which, on the face of things, looks like everyone is rejecting. Neither the Jews nor Gentiles want the message of Christ crucified. “Wow us with miracles, instruct us with wise words, but don’t convict our hearts with the cross of Christ!”

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Do you feel the pressure the church is under? You can almost understand them sitting down in a meeting and saying, “Look, nobody is buying this. Why don’t we start by finding out what they want us to give them, and then meet that need and by that way we’ll see people come into the church. Our message would be more effective if we just became a little more seeker-sensitive.

Just like the young fisherman in our story, you can hear his condescension when he admonishes the older man just to change his bait, and his location, and then he’ll catch loads of fish! The problem is that the young man is not catching fish at all, because he’s actually the one using the wrong bait. On the face of things his methods are extremely effective, but they are wrong.

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My favourite panel in all of comic book history

Yet Paul, rather than embrace this, stands resolute against it. You can see this is his repetition of the clause here and in chapter 2, “but we preach Christ crucified“. Paul has no interest in being ‘seeker-sensitive’. On the battlefield of evangelism he is not budging one inch away from his original message. He has no intention of changing the bait. He is more concerned with remaining obedient to his calling (verse 1) than to gaining a following.

This is not the first time God has done this either. Back in Isaiah 6 we see the prophet Isaiah confronted by the glory and majesty of the Lord so much so that he is completely undone. Then we have the well-preached passage where God asks for someone to go for Him and Isaiah replies “Here am I, send me!” and everyone wipes away a tear and goes out and joins the mission field and hurrah! Only I’ve rarely heard a minister finish that chapter. What exactly is the mission that God gives to Isaiah?

And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on hearing,[c] but do not understand;
keep on seeing,[d] but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,[e]
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”

I mean, you can just hear the gulp as Isaiah listens to this commission. Imagine a new pastor hearing this mission, “Go and tell people to keep on being deaf and blind. Make their hearts dull and their senses useless in case they turn and repent and be healed.”

Isaiah has enough in the tank at this point to ask, “How long do I have to do this for?” To which God replies in verse 11:

“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is a desolate waste,

 

The news just doesn’t get better. Isaiah’s mission, his job, is to preach to a people none of whom will accept him. None of them will repent right up until God destroys the land and takes them off into slavery. In this commission, Isaiah’s job is not to get bums on seats. His success is not measured by how many people come forward at the end of his rallies, because God tells him from the start that no one will. Isaiah, like Paul, has been given a mission from God and his success depends on his faithfulness to it – nothing else.

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Church, have you sacrificed the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified for popularity?

There are whole church movements who are built around this – performing signs and wonders to attract the unbelieving world. “Doing the stuff,” as John Wimber would call it. “Power evangelism” as Robbie Dawkins would say. “Manifesting the power of God” as Bill Johnson would say via Smith Wigglesworth. What they mean is operating the miraculous gifts of prophecy and healing (and several other things not found in scripture).

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Notice, however, that in our chapter there is a distinction made between “signs” in verse 22 and “the power of God” in verse 24. Paul will also mention this phrase (“the power of God”) in Romans 1:16. In both passages Paul makes the case that signs and wonders aren’t what he means when he says “the power of God”. I am sorry to disappoint Messrs Wimber, Dawkins, Johnson, Wigglesworth et al., but Paul describes the gospel of Christ crucified as the power of God, not signs and wonders. How do we “manifest the power of God”? We preach the gospel. How do we conduct “power evangelism”? We preach the gospel. How do we “do the stuff”? We preach the gospel.

 

“But this is totally ineffective,” you might say. “Everyone either thinks it’s really stupid, or can’t understand it. At least with signs, or with wisdom people can actually see the benefit of what we are doing. How are we ever going to get people into church if all we do is preach Christ crucified?”

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The answer is found in verse 24. Paul says in 23 that the Jews in general think it’s a stumbling block, the Gentiles in general think that it is foolishness, but Paul doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to say in verse 24 “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (emph. mine) That is the reason that Paul preaches Christ crucified! If he were to merely perform signs, or teach wisdom, he would get loads of people to come, but not have them transformed by the power of God. If he preaches Christ crucified, he gets fewer people to come, but they are transformed by the power of God! Who are these fewer people? They are those whom God has called. They are those given to the son from before the foundation of the world, the elect, the ones the Father has chosen to show his mercy to. They are saved by the power of the gospel and nothing else.

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So we preach Christ crucified. We do not waiver from the message that our sins have been cleansed, we have been forgiven of our rebellion and treason against the most high God of the universe by the broken body and shed blood of his son Jesus on the cross. We are all drawn nigh to God through his shed blood alone. There is no more dividing partition between ourselves and the Father. No pope, priest, prophet nor anyone else stands before God for us – we are welcomed in through the blood of the lamb, and at the same time sent out to be messengers of this great love that we have been shown. That love that caused a perfect, sinless lamb of God to willingly lay down his life for those who cursed his name, spat on his face and nose-dived towards a lost eternity before he stooped to save us. The riches of his grace and mercy that he lavishes upon his elect to be called sons of the living God. The blessing of being trusted with his gospel to go out into the world and roll back the darkness wherever it may be found in the hope of a promised eternal inheritance.

 

Compared to that, signs, and wisdom, seem pretty cheap.

 

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

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Last week a large group from my church went to Spring Harvest up in Minehead. We were unable to go due to a family holiday in Wales, but I’ve been able to catch up with some of the people who went, and the teaching through the videos that have been posted online. The people I’ve spoken to spoke very highly of the worship, the seminars, the social aspect of gathering together outside of the normal setting with other believers. Very few people mentioned the actual teaching, instead referring to a vague notion of ‘unity’. It was only in watching the Archbishop of Canterbury speak at the conference that I got a firm handle on what was meant by this drive for ‘unity’.

And I was appalled.

Please don’t get me wrong. Unity among Christians is imperative. I agree with the words of John 17 where Jesus asks for his people to be one. That is not the issue. It’s what we’re being asked, through vast assumption and little discernment, to be united with that has troubled me. It is clear that what was meant by ‘unity’ was actually ‘ecumenism’.

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Ecumenism is the movement towards unity among Christian groups, however widely understood to mean unity between every group that self-identifies as Christian. I make the distinction because there are many groups and organisations that self identify as Christian and are not. Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two examples. I would add a third, which is where the contention of this issue lies for me, and it’s Roman Catholicism.

Christian unity is very, very important. I cannot restate that enough. The underlying question, however, is what is a Christian?

Is it simply someone who self-identifies as one? Or is there certain criteria we should expect? For instance, we agree that a Christian is someone who loves Jesus. At his speech at the recent Spring Harvest in Minehead the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, suggested such a definition. Therefore, let us use that simple definition for now – that a Christian is someone who loves Jesus.

woman-565104_1920Imagine if I were to sit down and explain how much I love my wife. I am so in love with her I think she’s the most beautiful person in the world. Her long, blonde hair, her tall, slim physique, her penchant for action movies and pre-19th century poetry all fascinate me. I could talk about her all day!

The problem is that’s not my wife. My wife is relatively short. She has shoulder-length brown hair and hates action movies. I doubt she’s ever read a pre-19th century poem since being forced to in school.

So imagine if I were to describe my wife in the first way, then you actually met my wife. You would assume two things. a) I’m lying or b) There is some misunderstanding, and we are talking about two completely different women. Either way, does it look like I love my wife if I’ve got so many details wrong about who she is?

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In the same way, simply saying we love Jesus isn’t enough. The question must be asked: who is Jesus?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Is he the sole mediator between God and man? 1 Timothy 2:5 or does he delegate that responsibility to his mother, priests, the Pope and saints?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does the Pope serve as “The Vicar of Christ” (the term ‘vicar’ comes from the latin ‘vicarius’ meaning ‘in place of’) or is Christ still active as the high priest for all believers as Hebrews 7 says he is?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Did Jesus die once for all (Hebrews 7:27) or is he to be continually sacrificed in the Eucharist (“The Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely an offering of praise and thanksgiving, or simply a memorial of the sacrifice on the Cross. It is a propitiatory sacrifice which is offered for the living and dead, for the remission of sins and punishment due to sin, as satisfaction for sin and for other necessities.” The Council of Trent, Session XXII, Sept 17, 1562)?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus save people by grace through faith (Ephesians 2) or does he save people after they perform meritorious works? Must the believer then maintain their own salvation through confession to priests and receiving the sacraments? (CCC 1131)

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus regenerate through baptism (section 1215 of the Catechism “This sacrament [baptism] is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God”) or does he do it through faith (Hab 2:4)?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus alone have the power to forgive sins (Psa. 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Dan. 9:9; Mic. 7:18; Acts 8:22) or is the only way to be forgiven by confessing to a priest and being absolved (CCC 1424)?

I hope I have demonstrated above that we aren’t dealing with minor peccadilloes but these differences go right to the heart of who Jesus is. What is being presented in both systems is an entirely different gospel, with different means of grace, different definitions of grace, different functions of the atonement and a different Jesus at its centre.

In listening to Justin Welby speak at Minehead he does address these differences very briefly. He calls them ‘really difficult things’ and ‘the biggest issues’. He does this in the middle of his point that unity is more important than these ‘really difficult things’ and ‘biggest issues’. What is implied here is that “the truth of the One God” and “blessing the other” is vastly more important than worrying about whether or not we are preaching a different gospel. It was at this point that I felt he’d be much happier if he simply tore Galatians 1 out of his Bible.

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He goes on to say that unity is the reflection of God’s holiness. Saying, “Disunity is sin. We cannot be holy if we’re not united.” In this he seems to be in ignorance of what the term ‘holy’ actually means. In the Hebrew scripture the term for ‘holy’ is ‘qodesh’, which means ‘separateness, apartness, set-apart”. The word literally means to separate. It was given to the portion of the offering that was set apart for God in the Levitical sacrificial law. Therefore, to be holy means to separate from that which is ungodly, or set against God as he is revealed in his word. To say that holiness means unity, even with beliefs that are set against the word of God, is mind-boggling.

Again, I am all for Christian unity, but I hold with Martin Luther who said “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” It is my belief that Welby actually intends for us to commit to ecumenism rather than Jesus. This is no surprise, as he openly tells us that his spiritual director is the Roman Catholic monk Nicolas Buttet, and he openly praises the Catholic mystic Jean Vanier as an “extraordinary image of Christ” (Vanier in his book Essential Writings has previously identified the Hindu Mahatma Ghandi as “one of the greatest prophets of our times” and “a man sent by God” and called for all Christians to “open doors to other religions”). One article from a Catholic source said:

Justin Welby has no doubt that he is a Protestant who prays in tongues, whose religion is a Bible religion; but, thanks to P.Nicolas, he adores Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, goes to confession, and has been on pilgrimage to the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.  Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby break the mould that the past wishes to impose on them.

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After all this, Welby had the gall to reference Latimer and Ridley, two of the early English reformers, who were burned at the stake for having the courage to separate from the Roman Catholic church in the first place, as examples to support unity with the Roman Catholic church! So it is clear that, in calling for unity, Welby is asking us to disregard discernment, doctrine and the legacy of people like Latimer and Ridley and so many others who suffered for our faith, and using the dying words of Latimer to do it.

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I do not feel anger or prejudice against anyone, regardless of religious persuasion. We live in a pluralistic society where I brush shoulders with people of many different faiths every day. However, it is very clear to me in my reading of scripture and understanding of the gospel as passed down to me that no one who follows the teachings and practices of the Catholic church can rightly be called Christian. I believe that scriptures like Gal 1:8 are very clear on that point. I do not say this with any malice, or triumphalism, but with a heavy heart. I want to obey Jesus Christ’s desire that I love people, and in this case I love people enough to say that they are lost and in dire need of the gospel that actually saves.

Justin Welby intimated that the world is dying without Jesus, and that the only way we can show them Jesus is if we are united. The irony of that position is that he is standing alongside, shoulder to shoulder with, people who are dying without Jesus and affirming them in doing so. I would rebut this statement that the only way we can show the world Jesus is if we are united (yes, united) on who Jesus actually is, what he does, and how we can approach him. If we present not just social improvement programs but the gospel. The full, unadulterated gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

Love you all in Christ, Ryan.