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Coming Out of the Hangar: Confessions of an Evangelical Deist

The Power of the Cross: The Biblical Place of Healing and Gift-Based Ministry in Proclaiming the Gospel

 

Never seen a miracle? Still believe in them?

 

Waiting for the Breakthrough

I have never seen a miracle. Not one I recognized. I have prayed for folks who were sick—sick with cancer, disease, or some disability. No one was supernaturally healed when I prayed. I have heard first-hand accounts of people suffering from demonic oppression. That is not something I have ever seen. I have Christian friends who say they hear audible messages from the Lord; others who receive distinct impressions about how to minister or what to say in a specific situation. This has never happened to me. I have wrestled with destructive patterns and habits of sin in my life, have asked the Holy Spirit for supernatural resources to give me victory over those habits. And yet, typically, the severity of the temptation and the strength available to me seemed unchanged. When I experienced victory, I do not know if it was anything more than will-power and discipline.

Why is my Christian experience so devoid of supernatural reality? Why this raging disjunction between the faith I profess and the faith I practice?

Maybe this is your story too. You have wondered, Is this all there is to Christian faith—an experience of God that does not venture beyond my own subjective thoughts and feelings? Where is the power that was available to Jesus and the early church, the power of the Spirit which Paul commended to his Christian congregations, and which some Christians today continue to testify to? Is something wrong with me? Is my Christian faith subnormal?

Those are the questions I want to tackle here—as an evangelical Christian and as a Presbyterian pastor.

I said, I am an evangelical Christian. I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior God sent for the salvation of the world, that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and rose bodily from the dead, and that people must repent and put their faith in him in order to receive and experience God’s forgiveness and eternal life.

I believe that God is alive, that he created the world and is intimately involved in it today. I believe in supernatural reality. I believe in the miraculous ministry of Jesus and of the apostolic church, and I further believe that God continues to minister powerfully and miraculously in the world today through the church and in the name of Jesus.

I have heard and read personal testimonies of healing and deliverance, of supernatural encounters with God and manifestations of his Spirit. Some of these were perhaps psychosomatic healings or psychologically-induced experiences. But many of them ring true and most of them I believe. They are often similar to biblical accounts. Why should I believe the Bible but disbelieve similar stories told by reasonable, sober Christians? When these stories came from the mission field in Africa and Latin America, evangelicals had far less trouble with them than more recently when they came from Christian neighbors in the same suburban tract. Suddenly it is spooky and disturbing.

So far, God has always done these things when I was out of the room. But when I hear about them now, I rejoice over the power of God manifest in other people’s lives and say cheerfully to God, “Maybe next time, Lord, I’ll be there.”

I said, I am a Presbyterian pastor. I belong to a denomination which many Bible-believing Christians think has become doctrinally apostate and spiritually dead. The same could be said of other “mainline churches”—Methodist, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Episcopal, and American Baptist. I have to admit that many of the official pronouncements and preoccupations of my denomination appall me. But there is still much life and faith in Presbyterian congregations I know. I love my church’s godly heritage and tradition. And while it is sufficiently faithful to its biblical and spiritual roots and sufficiently open to new things God is doing (and new forms in which to express it), it wins my allegiance. All denominational allegiances are provisional. I belong to Christ first and to a Presbyterian church somewhere after that.

Both the mainline denominations and evangelicals have had difficulty with healing and other supernatural ministry—sometimes for different reasons. Let me try to explain those difficulties.

If they knew what a deist was, many Presbyterians would check that box. For them God has wound the universe up like a great clock and it is more or less ticking away on its own. Miracles do not happen, or if they do, they are confined to a special historical or religious situation (such as, the life of Jesus). God intersects people’s lives only in a spiritual, subjective dimension (in their “heart,” in their “soul”, etc.). I do not pretend to defend this position; it is unbiblical and unchristian. But you find it all over the American church scene, especially in mainline churches like mine, espoused by pastors and laypeople alike. You can understand their difficulty with the notion of supernatural ministry.

There are also Bible-believing Presbyterians, like those I hang out with, who are supernaturalists in principle, but often unconscious deists in practice. In worship we sing about God and talk about God, but often the style of worship actually distances us from God and prevents us from experiencing his presence and power.

Evangelicals believe in miracles but do not generally experience them. We pray for all manner of divine intervention and wholeness, but do not expect much response. We expect the clock to keep ticking pretty much like it always has. We affirm the reality of the supernatural, but have little first-hand contact.

Pastors are no exception. If they go to orthodox Princeton Seminary (as I did) or Bible-believing Dallas Seminary or evangelical Fuller Seminary, they receive little or no training in Spirit-empowered ministry and submit to a curriculum that is far more academic than spiritual. We are trained to know about God but not to know God or to do the work of God.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2008

About the Author: Kirk Bottomly, M.Div. (Princeton Theological Seminary, 1990), has been the Senior Pastor at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, in Fair Oaks, California, since 2008. After a career in technical and speech writing, Kirk then attended Princeton Seminary where he received his Masters of Divinity. Since then, Kirk has been an associate pastor of Christian Education at Emmanuel Presbyterian and the Senior Pastor at Fallbrook Presbyterian Church. FOPC.org Pastor Kirk’s video blog

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