Our culture can be confusing with its various gospels, theologies, movements and spiritualities. How do we begin to distinguish between the social justice movement, prosperity gospel, liberation theology, feminist theology, gay theology, Jewish spirituality, Hindu spirituality, Islamic spirituality, Buddhist spirituality, animist spirituality, the spirituality of poverty, the spirituality of social transformation and a variety of other philosophical, mystical and social movements, perspectives and experiences?
Syncretistic pluralism enters the church through exposure to these different forms of spirituality in our increasingly diverse, post-Christian culture. Some actually advocate the evolution of spirituality to something more plural, open and culturally diverse. Why not tie it to psychology, yoga, Wicca or eastern meditation? It’s progressive, edgy and chic! We are in danger of taking on board almost anything that falls under the label of “spirituality”. How serious is this problem?
According to a Gallup poll, most Americans (86%) believe in a personal God, which at face value sounds like a healthy statistic. However, individualism is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that when asked to define “spirituality,” almost a third of Americans polled define it without reference to God or a higher authority: “a calmness in my life,” “something you really put your heart into,” or “living the life you feel is pleasing.” Many practice a “do-it-yourself” faith that takes pieces from various traditions to construct their own patchwork faith. For example, a fifth of people who describe themselves as “born again” also say they believe in reincarnation!
Perhaps this is one reason why a profound sense of unreality afflicts many churches. False teaching and heresy can intrude in subtle ways. We speak of ‘knowing’, ‘meeting with’ and ‘worshiping’ the living God, but it can feel superficial and inauthentic. Even the Lord’s Supper can be corrupted: Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17 “I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” Given high rates of Biblical illiteracy in most churches, people do not mature: sin goes unrecognized and uncontested, and relationships can be selfish and thoughtless. Could Paul’s admonition be true of our churches today, where the word ‘spiritual’ has degenerated into something so amorphous and pervasive that one can make it can mean whatever one wants it to mean?
Clearly, not all “spirituality” is spiritual.
These guidelines, based on an article by theologian and New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, can help us differentiate between authentic and inauthentic forms of spirituality.
- The priority of the gospel. The gospel must be rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered. Spirituality must be thought of in connection with the gospel. The gospel is of first importance, as it is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). It is by faith in God’s Son that we know the Father. It is by the cross and resurrection that we who were alienated from God have been reconciled to our Maker, Judge and Redeemer. Without the Good News of the gospel, people are left with nothing but religious legalism and false assurances. Bear in mind that the gospel is not just for non-Christians – it’s for Christians too: it doesn’t just ignite the Christian life, it is the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day.
- The gospel must not be eclipsed. The Spirit works outward from the center. Although it is important to be concerned with issues like abortion, worship styles, church government, counseling techniques, sociological issues and marriage seminars, if these are detached from the core of Biblical theology, then the periphery is in danger of displacing the core. The gospel should not be simply assumed. It must not be concealed. It should be continually proclaimed. True spirituality must be clearly anchored in the objective gospel. Our direction is always deeper into the gospel, not beyond, apart from, or aside from it.
- Personal knowledge of God. Christianity is not just a creed, a system of thought, a culture or a worldview. As we see in Acts chapter 2 and in authentic revivals throughout history, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16) and regenerates people individually and corporately. The Holy Spirit lives in regenerated believers, leads them (Romans 8:9, 14) and produces the fruit of the Spirit. Only God gives life to natural men and women who otherwise would not understand and embrace the things of God.
- The necessity of Scripture. Our understanding of what is spiritual must be brought to the test of Scripture. God’s Word is paramount: it helps us live according to God’s revealed will, and keeps us free from wrong doctrine and conduct. Scripture keeps us united and pure. “Sanctify them by the truth,” Jesus prayed, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). There will never be much sanctification apart from the Word of Truth. Scripture places such a heavy emphasis on understanding, absorbing, meditating on, proclaiming, memorizing, reading and hearing the Word of God, that we ignore it at our peril.
- Life change. Life-transforming knowledge of God lies at the focus of true spirituality, and this has gospel and moral implications. Those who are truly spiritual live by the Spirit (Gal 5:16), put to death the “acts of sinful nature” and produce the fruit of the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit enables and empowers believers to testify about Jesus (John 15:26-27; Acts 4:8) and long for His return: “Come Lord Jesus” (Rev 22). True spirituality is an all-of-life transformation of every aspect of human existence, personal and corporate, in the knowledge that God’s regenerated people live as His people, in His presence, for His glory.
Lord Jesus, in the eternal gospel you pour out your love, you free us by your grace, and you invite us into your transforming story of redemption. Thank you for being the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). You make all things new (Rev 21:5): you have saved us, you are saving us and one day you will completely save us. What Good News! Following you is the greatest privilege and the purest delight imaginable. Help us learn from you, encourage one another, finish the race, and complete the task of testifying to the wonder and the beauty of the gospel of your grace (Acts 20:24). Amen.
Written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations, Village Schools of the Bible (First posted July 26, 2019)
Carson, D.A. The Gagging of God. Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Zondervan, 2011.
Gallup, G. Americans’ Spiritual Searches Turn Inward. Gallup, February 11, 2003.
Grudem, W. Bible Doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Zondervan, 1999.