God has called me to love everyone. But I don’t like everyone. I naturally befriend people who are intelligent, have a sense of humor and show a life of integrity. One particular man who exemplifies all of those qualities has been a friend of mine for many years. We enjoy each other and find we agree with each other on many things.
But he did something that confused me years ago and it has never sat right with me since. During this season of our friendship, he gave me a number of books to read. Many of them were written by Dr. T. Austin Sparks (known to many of his readers and followers as TAS). For the sake of clarification, let’s put Dr. Sparks in the category of a Holiness preacher. I knew of his writings before my friend showed them to me, and honestly I don’t care for them. Let me quickly explain.
Dr. Sparks writes mainly about the dangers of sin. I have no problem with any preacher or writer pointing out sin. We humans are an unhealthy race, and we occasionally need to be shown that unhealthiness before we can grasp what it means to live better. But Dr. Sparks is of that race of preacher/teacher that will not teach on anything else. I never heard him preach in person (he died in 1971, the year I became a Christ-follower), but I have been told by those who did hear him he rarely smiled or joked around when he preached. Though he was not a “hell-and-brimstone” preacher, with acidic tones and booming voice, his content fit that category.
What confused me is why my friend would digest a steady diet of this type of teaching. I asked him and he seemed annoyed I would even question it. “Mike, I thought you appreciated someone who is biblical and encouraged people to live in holiness”. I assured him I did – and do. But I do not agree with any ministry that focuses completely on the negative aspects of our existence without constantly bringing this back to the glory of New Life in Christ.
Here is what confuses me. This kind of preaching still exists and people prefer to listen to it, for reasons I am suspecting are not healthy in themselves. Along with Sparks, there are other prominent scarecrow preachers like Leonard Ravenhill, John McArthur, Paul Washer, Mark Driscoll (though sometimes Driscoll is just bombastic) who have huge followings. Some people tell me it is because sin is increasing in our day and we need more of this type of preaching to stem the tide of wickedness.
Do we? Does that really work? My observations tell me otherwise. Sin is no more or less prevalent today as at any other time in history. The increase in so-called “prophetic preaching” feeds on three things in the human soul:
1. Our innate guilt for many things we have done wrong and never settled.
2. The constant doubt that we are acceptable to God or anyone else.
3. The need to feel superior to others, even if it means we must demean ourselves to get to that place.
I find those who like holiness preaching of this brand already lead pretty decent lives and are probably least in need of the type of preaching these guys specialize in. So why do so many good-thinking and well-meaning Christians follow these Scarecrows of the Faith?
I think the answer is found in the disciples of John the Baptist. John inherited a mantle from a long line of gloom and doom Old Testament preachers. His ministry was stark (he dressed in old rags and lived on locust nuts and wild honey), he called people names, rattled all their cages and asked them if they were ready to die soon. He wore the calling of Elijah well. In fact, Jesus confirms that he is Elijah – or at least that he carried on the same ministry as Elijah did.
But at some point, that all changed. The day that Jesus came down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, the entire understanding of sin and the Kingdom of God forever shifted. From that point on Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Those who followed John were encouraged from that point on to follow after Jesus. But even after John told them “He (meaning Jesus) must increase and I must decrease”, some of John’s followers couldn’t get the hint. In some ways, not even John the Baptist could fully release his ministry, even after Jesus came along. I get that. Once a prophet, always a prophet.
For instance, John and his followers taught a rigid discipline of fasting. Jesus and his disciples often went to banquets – and they were duly criticized for doing so; not only by the Pharisees, but also by the followers of John.
Listen. I know this world can exhibit evil and will not be entirely cleaned up until God remakes it all. And I know that even followers of God need to be reminded to clean up their room and play nice. Sometimes, they need to be told in clear tones not to cheat on their spouse or their taxes. But I don’t see the point of someone preaching only about sin and leaving Grace, Joy, Forgiveness, Laughter, Fellowship, The Power of God and a hundred other great Jesus teachings lying on the shelf.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time looked for reasons why natural disasters happened to people. They pinned the blame on the sin of a victim’s parents, on his lineage and even some sin the victim must have committed. The Pharisees found a woman committing adultery and flung her into a market square, daring Jesus not to condemn her.
Instead, he asked them all if there was a person among them who had not committed sin recently. If they had, he welcomed them to stone her first. No one did. No one could withstand the glare on his face!
When all had left, this man of Righteousness, this preacher of Holiness, this Prince of Peace just said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more”. He didn’t follow her down the road heaping condemnation on her head.
Remember, the enemy of our souls is called Satan. The name means “Accuser”. Unfortunately, instead of giving our Adversary a counter-attack from the pulpit, where the love of God and the cleansing of the blood of Jesus could be spoken triumphantly, we sometimes echo the words of the Calumniator all too easily.
Of course, there are those who feed God’s people with a steady diet of Youtube videos, hackneyed cliches and positive thinking. I sometimes think the Scarecrows believe they are countering that unhealthy pap by focusing continually on sin. As we were reminded in Kindergarten, two wrongs don’t make a right
If you have become hooked on the Holiness Scarecrows, maybe it is good to mix some grace in your diet. Otherwise, you may get spiritually constipated.