Concerns with ‘Awakening Australia’ remain

Over the past two months, there have been several articles, many conversations, and 100,000s of people engaging in reading and talking about Christian revival.

The catalyst for this discussion is a revival event that is planned for  Melbourne next month, “Awakening Australia”.  Hundreds of Churches and thousands of Christians across Australia have been energised and excited by the idea of coming together and hearing Christ preached, and praying for many thousands of Aussies to come and to know Christ.

In September, Stephen Tan wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition Australia, in which he offered a critique of Bethel Church and Bill Johnson. Stephen attended a Bethel connected church in Melbourne for several years, and so he has first-hand knowledge of their teaching and practices. The impetus for that article is the upcoming “Awakening Australia’ weekend, which is heavily influenced by, supported by, and promoting Bethel ministries.

I have twice already stated that “Awakening Australia” is more than a Bethel event, but it is not less than. For example, the organiser and one of the keynote speakers, Ben Fitzgerald, is a Bethel missionary, Bill Johnson will be speaking from the platform, and Bethel is supporting the event financially and is sending hundreds of volunteers to serve in Melbourne. In addition, the vision for this event lays in similar events that have been organised in Europe, which again have their origins in Bethel Church, Redding. There is nothing wrong per se with an American Church coming to Australia and bringing other churches together for an event. It is misleading, however, to explain away or to minimise ‘Awakening Australia’s connections with Bethel and with the word of faith movement.

Why am I writing again on this topic? Because, as a Christian and as a pastor and as a Melbournian, I remain very concerned by this event and the potential it has in damaging the physical and spiritual well-being of many people.

One of the concerns that have been raised relates to Bill Johnson’s teaching about the Divinity of Christ, and the ways in which his writings repeatedly minimise and at times seem to deny, that the incarnate Christ is fully Divine. Two weeks ago Bill Johnson issued a statement through text message to Ben Fitzgerald, which I was given permission to make public. The statement clarifies and to some extent corrects Johnson’s own public teaching about the person of Jesus Christ.

If Bill Johnson’s statement reflects a genuine correction, surely he will make further public clarifications and go to great to lengths to correct this teaching in his books. After all, is there any more significant a subject than who is Jesus Christ? To date, Bill Johnson and Bethel have released no such statement on their websites or in any public forum, other than this one casual text message. I find that astonishing.

There have been a number of updates over the past couple of weeks. I wish to bring to attention two of these.

First, a major Christian documentary was released last week. American Gospel: Christ Alone. It is a documentary produced by Americans to warn Christians around the world of what is America’s most dreadful export around the globe, the word of faith movement. The documentary features  American theologians and pastors who are decrying a false Christianity that has gained wide acceptance in the United States and is now being transported globally and is leaving behind millions of shattered people.  There are two hours of interviews, testimonies and biblical explanations of what the word of faith movement is about, and why it is so dangerous and damaging. Of immediate interest are sections in the documentary that explore some of Bill Johnson’s and Todd White’s teaching and ministry, including White’s connections with Kenneth Copeland and the prosperity gospel, their views about healing and the kenosis heresies. If anyone is interested to know why Stephen Tan, myself, and many others are so concerned about ‘Awakening Australia’ and the word of faith movement more generally, it is worth taking the time to view American Gospel: Christ Alone.

Second, ‘Awakening Australia’ has released and promoted a profile of Bill Johnson, ahead of his visit to Melbourne. As part of this bio, we read,

“healing and deliverance must become the common expression of this gospel of power once again”

“Bill teaches that we owe the world an encounter with God, and that a Gospel without power is not the Gospel that Jesus preached.”

By power Gospel, Bill Johnson believes that miracles and deliverance from evil spirits is an essential aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so much so that “a Gospel without power is not the Gospel that Jesus preached”.

 

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First of all, let’s note the implication of these words. These statements work against the very claim that the organisers have been making, namely, these revival meetings are about building unity amongst Aussie Churches.  Hold on, Awakening Australia has just informed thousands of Churches across the nation that they don’t believe the real Gospel. Straight away, evangelical churches and reformed churches are excluded, based on these statements.

Let’s be clear, both Johnson and White believe that the Gospel centers on the manifestation of miracles and healings, and as Johnson loves to say, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (as though we can drag heaven into our lives now and overcome sickness and poverty, etc). This differs substantially from the Gospel of Christ that is revealed and taught in the New Testament.

In American Gospel: Christ Alone, one of the interviewees offers this comment on Todd White’ messaging,

“This method of evangelism by blessing, it’s changing the Gospel from you are dead in your sins and this is what you need by God’s grace, repentance, and faith…it’s changing that message to God loves you, he accepts you, here’s some free stuff. He’ll cure you of your ailments, he’ll heal  your back pain”

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The focus shifts from sin and God’ wrath, to a positive message of, ‘you’re ok and let me give you a blessing today’. What did the Apostle Paul teach?

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:1-5) 

Not only does the New Testament focus on atonement for sin by sufficient death of Christ, New Testament authors specifically repudiate teachers who add to the Gospel of Christ, including those who demand or expect to see signs

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-23)

Hymenaeus and Philetus are two blokes who are mentioned in the Bible, not as examples to emulate, but as people to avoid (2 Timothy other 2:17-18). They taught that the “that the resurrection has already taken place.” In other words, they alleged that the promises that will one day be experienced at the resurrection could be enjoyed in the present. Paul says of these two men that their teaching is like ‘gangrene”, they had “departed from the truth” and that they “destroyed the faith of some.”

God does not promise physical or mental healing in this world. If you’re sick, visit your GP. Doctors and medicine are God’s common grace available to us. We can, of course, pray for God’s healing for our Heavenly Father invites us to talk to him about everything, but it is a lie for any preacher to promise such and to suggest that miracles must accompany the Gospel. The power Gospel is not signs and miracles today, it is Christ crucified: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1).

Sean DeMars rightly points out in the documentary, “bad theology hurts people.”

I am not suggesting that there are not genuine believers involved in Awakening Australia. I am not discouraging Churches from partnering together in the Gospel. I am not dissuading Christians from praying for revival. Praise God for such things. The greatest joys I have witnessed in life are when I have witnessed or heard of someone coming to know Christ through repentance and faith in him. Christian unity is beautiful and precious, but fudging the Gospel or downplaying aspects of the Gospel will not create a greater sense of unity amongst brothers and sisters; it only distorts and fractures.

Over the past month, a number of people have suggested that it is wrong and divisive to question ‘Awakening Australia’, and instead of criticising we should get behind it. Let’s remind ourselves, by their own promotional material,  Awakening has implied that thousands of Australian churches are not preaching the Gospel.  My response to those who have pushed back and raised concerns from what I and others have said is this, pastors of churches have a responsibility under God to be concerned for truth and to teach what is right and good and to warn our churches of ideas that or contravene or muddy the Gospel.

Jude exhorts us to “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted”

As Paul shared with Timothy that he was being poured out like a drink offering, he gave him this charge,

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

I trust and pray that this is not the case, but if the Gospel presented at ‘Awakening Australia’ reflects the messaging that Bill Johnson and Todd White are widely known for espousing (and remember they are both speaking at the event), the effect will not be greater Gospel unity or genuine Spirit given Christ glorifying revival. The effect will a hyped up pseudo- spirituality which will fade in the weeks to come and which will confuse unbelievers as to what Christianity is really about, and which will cause great pain for the sick who are offered false promises of healing. Until such time that Awakening Australia distances themselves for these speakers and their links with the word of faith movement, concerns will remain.

Regeneration Church, a Church in and for Monash

It was a great joy to visit Regeneration Church last night for their first ever public service. It was exciting to see a packed building, and encouraging to see the Regeneration team in action for the first time.

If you live in/around Clayton, why not visit one Sunday?

 

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I was invited to offer a word of exhortation to the new church. Below is a copy of my remarks:

“200,000 people live in the City of Monash. They are made in the image of God, important to God, and needing Jesus.

The Great Commission is Jesus sending his disciples to the nations in order to preach the Gospel and to make disciples. In line with this mission, Mentone Baptist Church has sent the Regeneration team to area of Monash, a place where the nations have come.

Understand that being part of a new church may be the hardest venture, the most joyful venture, and the more important venture, of your lives. Indeed, today marks the beginning of a new Gospel work that, we pray, will bear fruit lasting into eternity.

Most residents in this area won’t know of Regeneration Church and many won’t care, and some people will become interested and join. Understand, whatever the reception, God loves his church, Jesus will build his Church, and she is marvellous in his eyes.

While we at Mentone Baptist we will miss all of you, we are not so much saddened to see you go, as we are excited to partner with you in this new work. Indeed, Melbourne needs hundreds more Gospel-centred Churches. New Churches have begun in Box Hill, Northcote, Officer, Footscray, and elsewhere. And yet we are yet to penetrate the first layer of skin in Melbourne.

As Paul reminded the Corinthians, may I impress on you,

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Understand our role, it is to plant and water. Regeneration Church: Do the work of evangelism, preaching, teaching, loving and caring, serving. And trust God to grow his church. Trust him, depend on him, ask him.

Mentone will keep you in our prayers, and we are keen to continually support you in other ways. I’m  also looking forward to preaching here a couple of times this year.

May God richly bless this work, to grow a Church glorifying his Son.”

A sling, an arrow, and the Gospel

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them?”

Cleisthenes

From the Delphic hamlet that is The Australian, Greg Sheridan has given Australian Churches an oracle.

According to Sheridan,

Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.

The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.

The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

In my opinion Greg Sheridan offers a lucid critique of many Churches who are failing to grapple with the rise of secularism, although I wonder if he adequately understands the nature of the Church’s mission and therefore how success and relevance are defined.

Sheridan is right to point out the gross sins of abuse within the Catholic Church (and other denominations as well), and the way this has greatly damaged community perceptions of Churches.

There is urgent need for Churches to practice repentance. Dressed in clerical collars and reciting liturgy, great evil has been perpetrated, especially in the area of sexual abuse. Joe Smith and Lisa Jones can see it, but there remain clergy in some institutions that still don’t get it. The fact that their deeds expose them to be frauds of faith does not diminish the impact on the community. Real, transparent, and deep repentance is required.

Sheridan is also spot on in observing the naivety of some Christians who believe they still belong to the centre of Australian life. We defer to census figures that prove the majority of Aussies believe in God and who identify as Christian, but surely we know better. The reality is, Churches have never belonged comfortably at the centre of Australian society; they have played a significant role in shaping culture, alongside many other voices, but it is more a case of Churches being tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.

This tolerance is eroding, rapidly so. This year alone we have seen various groups slamming the foot on the accelerator, such that we are fast approaching an intersection called ‘free speech’, and the direction Australians will take remains unclear.

Several political groups have declared their hand:

The Greens have decided their way forward by calling for religious organisations to lose their exemptions for discrimination laws.

Federal Labor have made clear: “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”

Bill Shorten has since stepped back from this position, but there are no guarantees he won’t step forward again.

And the Victorian Government, singing from their autocratic hymnal, has determined to insult and silence anyone who challenges their hermeneutic of life.

Should churches fight to keep a voice in the public arena?

We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

A great example of this happened last week when Christians came to the support of Roz Ward, a professing Marxist and co-founder of the controversial curriculum, Safe Schools. Ward was forced to resign from a Government role and was suspended from La Trobe University after a comment she made in regard to the Australian flag. While her views may be disagreeable to many, she has the right to express them, and to find herself being ousted from an academic institution on account them was extreme. Subsequently, a number of Christian leaders noted this hypocrisy and sided with those who called for her reinstatement.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

As a liberal democracy, Australia is governed by these 4 principles:

“A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;

A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;

A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;

A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).”

If we accept these principles, surely Christians have freedom to articulate their views in public discourse? This doesn’t mean people have to like or affirm these beliefs (nor those of any worldview), but it does mean there is freedom to speak. Unfortunately though, it seems as though these values are becoming museum pieces, relics from a golden age of democracy when the Cleisthenes’ of Australia stood tall. After all, no fair democracy has ever endured the ages. And yet, while Australia formally holds to these democratic convictions, there is a place for Christians to speak without fear of law or litigation.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

How should Churches view ‘success’?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.

New Sermon Series on Romans 9-11

JoiningGodsMission

What is God’s mission into the world?

What is our role in God’s work?

What is the relationship between God’s Gospel at the people of Melbourne?

At Mentone Baptist we will be working through Romans 9-11 (Sept 28-Dec 13). It will be exciting. It will be challenging. It will be hard. It will life changing.

The compelling love of Christ

What motivates Christians to tell people about Jesus? Even when a society is overwhelmingly averse to the Christian message, Christians keep on talking about the man from Nazareth. Why? I understand that there are people in our communities whose motives are questionable, even unprincipled, however, it would be misleading to define the many by a few wolves who’ve found their way into the sheep paddock.

Let’s take a look at how Paul explains his evangelistic heart in Romans 9.

At Mentone Baptist, we have just finished a two month sermon series on Romans chapter 8, one of climatic points of the entire Bible. The final verses of this Scripture explore the unchanging character of God’s love for his people in Christ Jesus:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God’s ever constant and never ending love, is a love that is ours in Christ Jesus. And this love has a centre, the cross, which is alluded to by the phrase, ‘through him who loved us’. When Paul uses the aorist form of the verb ‘to love’, he is referring to a completed love, which is one way of talking about Jesus’ sufficient death on the cross in our place.

While chapter 9 introduces a new section in the letter, moving from teaching on Christian assurance to expounding God’s mission into the world, what Paul says here ought to be understood in light of his understanding of God’s love in Christ. There may not be any conjunctions connecting 9:1 with 8:39, but the very first subject on Paul’s mind after meditating upon God’s love is 9:1-5:

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”

When this love of God has been truly experienced, it cannot be kept to the self. Embracing this love is personal and real, but God’s love experienced will become God’s love expressed. It is too wonderful to keep to yourself. The news is too important to keep private. For Paul, assurance of Christ’s love:

1. Changes how we view people: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people”. There is no hint of spite or envy, no Hamlet-esque Soliloquy. He grieves for his fellow Jews.

2. Changes what we want for people. Paul desires their salvation, for people to realise that Jesus is the Christ. If it were possible, Paul would suffer God’s judgement for them. The Gospel is too important and too phenomenal to hide.

He is under no illusions that not everyone appreciates his endeavours, at times the opposition is strident, but some will respond by believing this Gospel of Jesus.

3. Changes how we speak to people. There is an earnestness in Paul’s tone, and as he reflects upon the plight of his people he turns to the story of the Bible, God’s promise of salvation. Paul’s speech is theologically shaped and Gospel driven, and his manner is in tune with the very words he speaks.

We anticipate that some folk will throw hissy fits at our evangelism, some will be genuinely angered, while others are indifferent. Evangelism’s aim isn’t popularity. That was Paul’s experience on mission, as it was for all the Apostles and even for Jesus; should we expect anything different? I am not suggesting that we should be poor employees and begin a Bible study when we should be working, or that we misuse various platforms; it’s right to be pulled up when this happens. Integrity is an aspect of love.

Fear leads to the Gospel being diluted or disappearing from our conversations.

Pride always wants to win the argument.

Greed looks for personal gain.

Retaliation uses the Gospel as a weapon to crush those who hurt us.

We know these temptations, but they are not what we most fundamentally desire. They are intruders that distract us from God’s love. The extent to which we know that Christ has loved us, this love will motivate our hearts to love the people around us, deeply, earnestly, and freeing us to speak of Christ with clarity and grace, boldness and love. 

Australia’s view of Christianity may be shifting from a paradigm of suspicion to antagonism. Therefore,  keep reminding one another of Romans 8:35-39,  and let this knowledge be evident in our lives and words.