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Axe to the Root Podcast Episode #55
The Modern Navel-Gazing Pseudo-Calvinism
Welcome to Episode 55 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will talk about a theology of selfishness. Or, rather, an idolatry of selfishness. Or, to be more precise, an idolatry of selfishness that in the last 100 years has been established as a “mainstream” in the pulpits of the modern supposedly “Reformed” churches and seminaries, and parades – using theologically correct language, of course – as “Reformed theology.” Yes, it is all theologically correct, it uses all the lingo of true Reformed theology, and also its theological and terminological constructs. All heresies and idolatries, however, as we know from history, can be adjusted to speak in theologically correct language – and from the history of the Church we know, that this has been the task of church theologians, to be able to sort through the smoke and mirrors and be able to identify idolatry even when it parades under theologically correct language. And the idolatry of selfishness we will tackle this week has been thoroughly developed to look like it is the real orthodoxy.
Before I delve into this issue, I would like to break my routine for once and extend an invitation to my listeners at the beginning of this episode. The invitation is rather directly tied to what we are going to be talking about today; for today we are going to be bringing down idols, and the invitation has to do with offering the Biblical alternative to those idols. I invite as many of our listeners who can make the trip to join me and many others at the Future of Christendom Conference in Reading, Pennsylvania, organized by the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society. I will be one of many speakers, and you will have the chance to meet many Christians committed to the task of Christian Reconstruction and restoring Christendom. This won’t be your typical celebrity-ladden, dairy diet, fundamentalist event where a number of armchair philosophizers offer the latest fashionable fancy ways of expressing the TULIP or splitting hairs over the meaning of substitutionary atonement and supralapsarianism. This will be a tactical event, where we will be talking about how to change the focus of the church from itself to the Kingdom of Christ, and how to conquer the world for Christ. Find out more on the FB page of the Future of Christendom Conference. And then come and join us on July 7, 2017. Back to our topic now.
Before we start explaining the modern idolatry, I need to go into some pre-history here.
The religion described in the Old Testament was unique in the ancient world. Unique by many indicators, but one indicator is very relevant to us now: it had no mystical elements in it. The essence of the religion was its ethical/judicial core. God was not far removed, and man didn’t have to strive to get a spiritual access to him; in fact, exactly the opposite, Moses declared to Israel that there was no need – as it was with the Gentiles – for the Hebrews to try to find God. “The word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut. 30:14; Rom. 10:8). The pagan nations didn’t have such a God; their gods were remote, and it took elaborate rituals to have access to them (including sacrifice of children, self-castration, magic, etc.), and that access had to be through an elite of priests and rulers. To the contrary, the Jews just had to call on God and He would listen. “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?” (Deut. 4:7). The rituals in the Temple had no magical significance; their purpose was not to manipulate God’s favor, it was only evangelistic and revelational. (We will talk about it in a future episode.) Man’s access to God was not mystical; obviously, you don’t need mystical rituals to speak directly to someone who is sitting next to you; much less to speak to someone who is in your heart and in your mouth. man’s relationship with God was covenantal, which means ethical/judicial. That is, the main issue of the divine-human relationship was the issue of good and evil. Man kept his relationship to God by doing good, and lost it by doing evil. Nothing else mattered, neither ceremonies (which God suspended for a long time, and yet still expected covenantal obedience) nor intelligence or artistic abilities, nor any political abilities or collective efforts. The only boundary God acknowledged was ethical/judicial: do good, you are in a good relationship with God; do evil, you have lost it, and you are doomed.
The pagan religions, on the other hand, postulated gods who were removed from their worshipers in another realm, separate and unlike the material realm. To seek them out and implore them, the pagan worshiper had to find a way to bridge the gap between the two worlds. We know today of the occult rituals used in voodoo and associated with the Ouija board; the purpose of these rituals is to bridge the gap between the two realms, and summon a being from the other world. All pagan religions are in their essence a version of the Ouija board; their worship is entirely predicated on the magical attempt of men to bridge the gap to the spiritual world in order to be able to procure blessings from the gods in that world.
Since the difference between the two worlds is metaphysical (spirit vs. matter), and not ethical/judicial, for a pagan worshiper to gain access to his god, he must effect some metaphysical or occult transformation in his own being. Ethical commitment and faithfulness is not enough – and often, it is the other way around, immorality is required to achieve a higher metaphysical union with the gods. (Think of the ceremonial orgies and prostitution in the pagan temples. Also, read Gary North’s Marx’s Religion of Revolution.) Man must work on himself to achieve a higher level of mystical consciousness, which – listen to this, this is important – will take him away from this world and thus open the spiritual world for him. Pagan prophets and shamans and medicine men all had to artificially force themselves into a form of trans or self-hypnosis in order to be able to hear from the spirits. Modern occult mediums also have to be in a trans to speak for a spirit. In both ancient religions and in the modern New Age practices, man has to gaze deeply into himself, away from the world, in order to discover his true nature and reality. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan relied heavily on narcotics to achieve his higher level of “awareness,” and this influenced a whole generation of young people to experiment with drugs. Again, in all these religions and ideologies, bridging the gap between the material and the spiritual world required a self-conscious withdrawal from the real world, and self-conscious focus on the inner self of the worshiper, as deep as possible, into discovering oneself’s hidden spiritual potential, in order to make the connection with the world beyond.
All pagan religions developed their own rituals and rules for such withdrawal from the world. Even physical self-mutilation has been used as a tool: The candidates for priests of many pagan cults had to go through self-castration in order to qualify. The meaning was clear: in order to get access to the deity, get as far away from the world as you can, or even make yourself as impotent in the world as you can, in order to ascend to a higher spiritual level. (Remember, the Law of God forbade eunuchs not only from being priests in the Temple, but even from being members of the assembly.) Ancient mathematics is another example. It is commonly accepted today that the Greeks who developed mathematics used it for the same purpose as we do today – to model physical realities. However, the pioneers of Greek mathematics, like Pythagoras, saw in mathematics not a tool for practical knowledge and transformation of the world – God forbid! They saw it as a medium for achieving occult enlightenment and ability to communicate with the spiritual world. For this to happen, mathematics had to be completely divorced from any practical applications. It was not just an ivory tower of theoretical science; it was a self-conscious castration of knowledge to the level of complete inaplicability, so that a higher level of occult spirituality was achieved. (Read Mathematics: Is God Silent? by James Nickel.) So deep was the religious commitment of the Greek mathematicians that when one member of Pythagoras’s circle proved through practical examples that irrational numbers do exist (and for their mysticism, irrational was the same as satanic), the disciples of Pythagoras excommunicated that member, built a tomb, and offered libations as if he was already dead.
The Jews – and later, the early Christians – did not have any mysticism in their religion. Not having mysticism, they had nothing of the trappings of mysticism: elaborate rituals and ceremonies, special magical rites of cleansing and achieving higher consciousness and spirituality, spells for invoking beings from other realms, and, most importantly, rules for withdrawing from the real world – or for one or another form of self-castration – in order to reach out to the spiritual world. It is for this reason they were often accused by their pagan contemporaries of . . . “atheism.” The faith of the God of Abraham was ethical/judicial, mainly concerned with righteousness and justice here in this world. For a pagan, this amounted to no belief in any god; after all, what god can be so close to his worshipers as to not need special effort by them to get access to him? This difference was so stark that Paul made it the main point of his sermon in Athens; read carefully his sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-29 to see that the main antithesis there is between God Who is close to His worshipers and the ignorance of the gentiles who believe that the gods can be reached through temples and services by human hands. With God being so close, holiness for Jews and Christians was ethical obedience; and since ethical obedience was impossible for the fallen man, holiness was in their faith of a Savior who will bridge the ethical gap between their fallen state and God’s holiness. It was not them who had to strive to buy that holiness; it was the Savior. Once that holiness was redeemed and restored, they had to return to their task of ethical obedience. For the pagans, it was way too simple, way too easy. What kind of God can be so lax to His worshipers, to not require that they sweat and cut themselves and cry out all day long?
The early church started without any such mysticism. The New Testament describes the life of the church in the same ethical/judicial, and practical terms as was the synagogue. Christians got together to break bread, and then went about their business, bringing the Gospel to the world. There was no focus on hyper-spiritualized Christianity, or on Christianity self-obsessed with some sort of mystical connection to Christ. Spirituality was defined by the ability of a man to judge all things by the standard of the Law of God (1 Cor. 2:15; Heb. 5:14). Even their breaking the bread was not a mystical ceremony; in the first two centuries, it was just a communal meal. The covenantal part of it, as described by Paul in 1 Cor. 11, was about oath and judgment, not about mystical connections, and certainly not about hyper-spiritualized self-improvement. It was a meal, and because it was a covenant meal, it was supposed to be . . . er, covenantal, that is, ethical/judicial. Judgment was expected from God. Man had to make no effort. He was there not to make spiritual exercises. He was there to recline on the table, even lie comfortably down, if he could, and just . . . eat! If there was to be judgment, God was supposed to act, not man.
Paganism, however, crept in the church from its early decades. And it was to be expected, given that the Church in the AD 1ct century didn’t have the luxury of 2,000 years history of Christendom. Pagan ideas – especially from Persia and Greece – crept into the church. And one of the first such idea to creep in was the idea of a different, higher spirituality, which requires not just ethical commitment, but ritual cleansing and deep mystical self-absorption. This pagan influence led to the rise of many mystical practices in the church, from ascetism and monasticism to different mystical and pietist cults, to the rise of ceremonial religion. Hundreds and thousands of people, excited by the prospect of achieving this higher spirituality, fled to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Libya, and spent years and decades living like animals in caves or on pillars, engaged in deep mystical battles against their own imaginations. The practice did not differ in anything from the pagan mysteries and hermits. It has for its purpose an occult connection to the spiritual world; it required withdrawal from the world; and it was entirely obsessed with the self.
It required a restoration of the old pagan dualism in the teachings of the church; the dualism of Plato, and of the Persian Zoroastrians (in fact, endemic to any pagan religion): the dualism between spirit and matter, between sacred and secular, between nature and grace, etc. The dualism had to be developed further. Two realms were postulated, with different laws and standards – the spiritual and the secular. Of course, the spiritual was the higher one, and those entirely devoted to the spiritual realm were people of much higher value in the society. Monasteries and convents continued the same tradition of paganism of imagining some sort of higher, mystical spirituality, which was divorced from the ethical commitment and obedience of man in the real world. Oh, yes, not to forget castration; it was not practiced physically, but the Roman church required of all its priests to become castrated for all practical purposes.
Granted, it was not all bad. Many monasteries and monks were active in the practical applications of the Gospel. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was the monasteries that preserved valuable knowledge – especially on practical topics like agriculture, construction, medicine, etc. Churchmen organized the defense against barbarians and acted as civil judges in the absence of civil government. Learning was preserved by the efforts of priests in places like Ireland and Visigothic Spain. But inside all this great development, there were still seeds of the old mystical paganism.
The Reformation, of course, destroyed the false dichotomy between sacred and secular, by restoring in the Church the covenant antithesis of the Bible. There was no more any higher spirituality or higher conscience or mystical awareness. Both prayer and work were sacred – or could be profane, if in violation of Scripture. What most opponents of the Reformation at the time, and most Christians today don’t realize, is that the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God is first and foremost a doctrine of the Closeness of God. That closeness of which Moses spoke when he said in Deut. 30:12-14,
It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ “Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.
A God Who is absolutely Sovereign is also a God Who doesn’t need man’s efforts to establish a spiritual connection. He grants access with any efforts of man, because such a God can be everywhere, near his worshipers, in fact, even in their mouth as they speak. The doctrine of the Sovereignty of God thus restored, Christians didn’t need any special efforts to reach God. A simple prayer – or even a silent prayer – will be heard, without mystical exercises and lavish rituals. Man was thus freed again to focus on the practical application of the Gospel in the real world. Out of this came an enormous growth of innovation and industry; and eventually, the Western civilization established its technological and economic superiority. Not because Westerners are any better than the rest of the world, but because the faith they had adopted was superior. When everything in life is spiritual, when you don’t have to work to get access to God, and when God is as close to you as your mouth, there is no limit to creativity and growth. Men go to work and produce because they know they don’t have to spend hours and days procuring God’s mercy. It is already theirs.
The antithesis should be obvious to any Reformed Christian: A God Who is near vs. gods who are remote, in another realm. Access to God provided by God Himself vs. man groping in the darkness, trying to touch something he doesn’t even know what. Ethical obedience and commitment vs. mystical exercises and rituals for bridging the gap between the two realms. Full practical judicial participation in the world God has created vs. withdrawal, passivity, and self-castration. The Biblical faith is not mystical; it doesn’t try to manipulate God to listen. To the contrary, God listens even when you wish He didn’t. It doesn’t try to create a higher consciousness. Your higher covenantal consciousness is simple and rational; it is your knowledge of the Law of God and the application of it for judging all. Simple and clear.
But not so simple and clear to today’s Reformed Christians.
A few months ago I listened to a sermon by a well-known and respected Reformed celebrity. I admit, I seldom listen to sermons by celebrities anymore. They are all the same to me. They all speak of the same things over and over again, and they are all focused on the same limited range of topics: The confessions, the sacraments, personal salvation, church membership and obedience to the elders, and personal holiness. They would probably go as far as to speak of the Christian families and parents and children – and even there it is everyone repeating the same things over and over again. (I don’t even know why people in those pews need to be repeated the same simple things over and over again.) To me, every modern sermon I hear is just the same sermon as the previous, just on a different verse. The broader ethical/judicial application of the faith to all of life is missing. This particular sermon, however, was recommended to me by a friend, so I decided to listen to it.
The preacher was very emotional, and his topic was personal holiness and dealing with sin. Not a bad topic, of course, we all need it. Since the preacher passed for Reformed, I expected him to apply the Reformed understanding to the issue. Namely, “You are a sinner, period. You have no way to change that. But God has already changed that. You are now still a sinner, but you are a redeemed sinner. And you are also a transformed sinner. Thus, repent for your sins, ask God to help you in your unbelief, and this is it. And now, go find a productive occupation and make the world a better place for the Kingdom of God. And if sin returns to you, rebuke it and reject it. If you succumb to it, ask for forgiveness, learn your lessons, and . . . get back to work. Never abide on your sin, or on what miserable sinner you are. Abide on the purpose God has for your life.”
But I was mistaken. The preacher, supposedly Reformed, was not going to let his listeners off the hook so easy. If they wanted holiness, they had to work for it.
He did first talk about our general sin and the sins we commit. He did mention that there is a ready solution to them: repent and believe. With a God so close to us, nothing more is needed. In fact, nothing more can be done anyway. And here, where his sermon should have moved on to the Kingdom and the work associated with it, he took a turn. This was only the initial step. There was more.
Once we have repented, according to him, we need to go deeply into our hearts and start searching for more sins to confess and repent. Start examining for sin every thought we ever had, every desire we ever had. Examine our appetite, our desire for fancier clothes. Examine the way we think and dream. Examine our vocabulary, the words we use. Try actively to find any sin we may have committed or commit.
Then go back to our past. What sins have been most prone to. What can we do to avoid them. Build awareness of those sins. Spend some time every day recapitulating those sins and asking God to free us of them.
Our minds must abide on these things all the time. Our sanctification and perfection is the most important thing for us. More important than our work or ministry. If we do not achieve that perfection that God requires in repentance, our life is a wasted life. We are obligated to apply ourselves to such exercises, constantly, and strive for that purity without which no one can see God.
Our work for the Kingdom? It is just secondary. In fact, we better not do it unless we have resolved the problem with our spirituality and purity first. Nothing more matters.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. While other preachers are less emotional and less emphatic, the majority of sermons in the Reformed churches are like this one: focused on pietistic issues, and very often, like the desert hermits of the early church, working hard to find demons everywhere in order to play “spiritual warfare” against them. There is an extensive concentration on one’s own navel, on one’s own spiritual perfection, and one’s own salvation.
It all must come, of course, with making our practical work in the world a lower priority. Perhaps not as bad as the hermits, but close. Perhaps not as brutal as the castration of the pagan priests, but close. At the very least, the scope of your work in the world should be limited; you need the time to search for those demons in your heart.
On the surface, it looks very pious. It is, after all, true spirituality: spirituality free of involvement in the world. In fact, the world and our work in it are put on the back burner, until we achieve the true access to God, through spiritual exercises. Withdraw and focus on yourself. The ancient pagan mysteries revived, in a theologically correct form.
Behind this mentality, as behind all pagan mentality, there is a worldview of selfishness. It regards the Gospel as centered on the salvation and the perfection of the individual. There is truth to the saying that “Jesus died for me.” But the modern Reformed Christians take this to mean that “me” was the central point of Jesus’s death. As if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have for their ultimate goal and purpose the salvation of individuals. With salvation being the ultimate goal of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God remains in the second place. It’s all about ME. That was the main objective of paganism also. The pagan worships his gods not because he believes they deserve worship, and not because he elevates them to a higher level. He worships them because he wants to get something from them. His worship of them is not a covenant, it is a market transaction: I sacrifice this for you, you give me that. The gods had to be placated to provide favors for their worshipers – whether prosperity, or salvation, or military success. Outside such favors, worship was useless and didn’t make any sense. If the gods didn’t deliver, they didn’t deserve worship.
In the modern pseudo-Calvinism, the same focus is obvious – except that the favor that is sought now is personal salvation. Personal salvation, personal perfection, personal sinlessness, personal purity. And the work of the Kingdom of God, of applying the Gospel to all of life, of bringing God’s righteousness and justice to earth and administer them in our societies, is neglected. We have built for ourselves a comfortable, navel-gazing religion.
And it is this religion which has destroyed the influence of the church in America. It is time to throw it on the dustbin of history. The legacy of the Reformation teaches us that we shouldn’t invest our time in achieving personal perfection. Pietism and mysticism are not the legacy of the Gospel, and not the legacy of the Reformation. Our sins are real, and the judgment for them is real. But our redemption is even more real. We won’t make our sinful nature less sinful by exercises. We will achieve perfection only when we do God’s work in this world, and we let God do His in us. Our personal salvation is only a means to a goal. And we better treat it like that.
The book I will assign for reading this week is Gary DeMar’s You’ve Heard It Said. The book contains simple but comprehensive answers to modern pietism. Read that book, and teach your children to avoid the mysticism and pietism of the modern Reformed churches. Nothing kills true Biblical spirituality as a navel-gazing religion, devoted to attention on the self, and subjecting all of God’s work to our own salvation and perfection. God is our perfection. But He won’t do out Kingdom work for us.
Remember the Future of Christendom Conference, July 7, 2017. Visit the FB page and register.
Also, remember in your prayers and giving Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a foreign mission to Eastern Europe committed to preaching the whole counsel of God to all of life. We have books to translate and publish, an intellectual foundation to build. Visit Bulgarian Reformation.com, subscribe to the newsletter, and donate.
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