A Reformed Look at Pentecostalism

In view of Pentecostalism’s criticism of the life, not only of the lax, unfaithful, and disobedient church member, but also of the faithful Reformed believer (who has not received Pent.’s baptism with the Spirit) and in view of its promise to transport people into a higher level of Christian life and experience, we ask: What is the Christian life and experience? What is the “normal Christian life”? 

In answering this question, we pay no attention to the claims and testimonies of men and women; indeed, we shut our ears to all that clamor. The norm for Christian life and experience is not the neighbor’s testimony of her wonderful power and ecstatic feeling, but Holy Scripture. Thus, we let God be true, and every man—and woman—a liar. The failure to let Scripture, the reliable Word of God, be the norm for the Christian life, and the dependency upon the thoroughly unreliable words of men and women is the cause of no end of doubt and fear, whether one is spiritually what he, or she, ought to be and even whether one is a regenerated child of God at all. This gives Pent. the opening it wants. For knowledge of the Christian life also, “To the law and to the testimony,” shunning the “wizards that peep, and that mutter” (Isaiah 8:19, 20). 

According to Scripture, the Christian life is a life that finds its fulness in Jesus Christ, as this Christ is revealed in the Word. It will not go beyond Christ; it will have nothing apart from Christ or in addition to Christ—not circumcision, not new revelations, not a higher knowledge, not some spirit. The reason is that the Christian knows, and has found by experience, that Christ is a complete Savior. In Christ dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and the Christian is complete in Him, i.e., filled up in Him (Colossians 2:9, 10). To be sure, the Christian life is a life of growth, but that growth is a growing up into Christ, not a going beyond Christ: “That we . . . may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:14, 15). Just as is the case with the physical growth to maturity, this spiritual growth is a gradual, often imperceptible development, not an instantaneous, overnight transformation. It is lifelong. And it takes place by the Word and prayer. 

The Christian life is: Christ alone and Scripture alone. One who objects that this leaves the Spirit out is mistaken, for this is how the Spirit works—He gives us Christ in the truth of the Word. 

The Christian life is a life of walking in the Spirit Whom we all received when we were born again, of which rebirth and reception of the Spirit our baptism is a sign and seal. The believer does not look for, or seek, or tarry for a second baptism, whether this is viewed as a second work of grace—the typical Pent. View—or as a flowing out of one’s spirit into all of one’s life—the view of such Pentecostals as Dennis Bennett. Rather, the child of God strives all of his life to walk in the Spirit Who was given him when he was saved. This is the apostle’s instruction concerning the Christian life inGalatians 5. There were problems in Galatia, serious problems regarding the Christian life. There was the threat of the saints’ biting and devouring each other—a pathetic lack of love (vss. 13-15). There were the real temptations of the flesh and its lusts: adultery; idolatry; strife; drunkenness; and the like (vss. 19-21). There were evidences of vain glory, of provocation of one another, and of envying one another (vs. 26). But the solution was not that they seek a new baptism. On the contrary, they must walk in that Holy Spirit in Whom they lived: “This I say then, .Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (vs. 16); “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (vs. 25). 

The Christian life is active. The activity of the Christian life is, first, a battle, a fierce, unrelenting, life-long battle. The battle-ground is oneself. The foe is sin. Pent. knows nothing of this battle; the Pent. has already won the victory in his baptism with the Spirit. Not only do you hear little or nothing of the forgiveness of sins in Pent., but you also hear little or nothing of the daily struggle of the saint against indwelling sin. In fact, it is not unheard of that the Pent. preacher will ridicule those who are always groaning over their sins, those, that is to say, whose testimony all their lives is, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). Nothing more clearly than this exposes Pent. as a religion totally alien to the Reformed faith. A Reformed Pent. is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. A Pent. cannot confess the first part of the Heidelberg Catechism. At best, he can only say that he used to know the misery of sin, both guilt and depravity. Ignorant of his misery, neither can he know redemption or the living gratitude that wells up daily from a forgiven heart. 

Scripture, however, presents the Christian life as a striving against indwelling sin. This is the teaching ofGalatians 5:17: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”

This is the powerful doctrine of Romans 7. The Christian man or woman, is carnal, sold under sin; the apostle Paul at the very end of his life was carnal, sold under sin (vs. 14). He was this, not because he was unregenerated, not because Christ had not baptized him with the Holy Spirit and fire, not because sin reigned in his life, not because Paul was a careless Christian, but because, even though he was born again, evil was present with him—he retained his sinful, totally depraved flesh. As a new man in Christ—and we may safely suppose, as one of the holiest of saints, he delighted in the law of God after the inward man (vs. 22); had a hatred of sin (vs. 15); and possessed a will to do the good (vs. 18). But such was the power of sin in him, as long as he lived, that “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (vs. 19). Therefore, the apostle—and every Christian—knows his misery; he expresses it in the anguished cry, “O wretched man that I am”—the New Testament equivalent of the “Out of the depths” of Psalm 130. Yet, he neither gives up in the spiritual battle, nor is he ever without the solace of the Savior, Jesus Christ his Lord. Verse 23 insists on the warfare; verse 25, on the comfort of Christ.

Not only is this warfare with sin the activity of the Christian life as regards one’s personal life, but it is also the activity of the Christian life in the family and in the congregation. 

This is a painful, bitter struggle. 

For this reason, the Christian can be enticed by the sweet promise that suddenly the battle is over. A pastor can be tempted similarly by such a promise for the congregation. But with the shield of Scripture, he can—and must—resist the temptation. 

Do you find this bitter struggle against sin in yourself? 

Do not despair! 

Do not think that you are not saved, or that you are insufficiently saved! 

This is it: the “normal Christian life”! 

The result is that we long ardently and wait, not for a second work of grace, but for the second coming of Jesus Christ: “Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly.” 

The activity of the Christian life, secondly, is the doing of good works. But it is not the production of spectacular deeds and glamorous accomplishments, as Pent. would have us believe. Rather, it is the doing of unnoticed, insignificant works. It is the activity of sanctification of life, walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit: not practicing adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like (Galatians 5:19-21); but living in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, and the like (Galatians 5:22, 23). 

It is the activity of the unnoticed works of keeping the law of God: right worship of God; confessing the truth; keeping the Sabbath; obedience of parents and all in authority; faithfulness to wife or husband; Godly rearing of children; diligent labor at one’s earthly vocation; payment to Caesar of his taxes; speaking well of one’s neighbor, especially the brother in the church; and contentment with one’s lot, without coveting. 

In short, the activity of the Christian life is: Love! Love the Lord your God! And love your neighbor as yourself!

As you do this, do not blow a trumpet before your piety; do it secretly, so that God will reward you. 

This is possible by the grace of God, but, even then, sin will defile our best works, so that there is only a small beginning of the new obedience and so that there is constant need of pardon. 

But does not the Christian life have its experience? 

As an alternative or addition to faith, experience must be renounced, root and branch. Christ does not call us to experience, or feel, but to believe. The way of salvation is faith, not feeling; by faith we are saved, not by experience. 

Nevertheless, faith has its experience; there is a genuine experience in the Christian life. It is threefold: I know the greatness of my sins and misery; I know my gracious redemption in Jesus the Christ; and I know thankfulness for this redemption. 

Do you have this experience? Then, you have the normal Christian experience. This is all there is. Whoever lusts for more is an ingrate and aggravates God; he says to God Who gives him Christ and His fulness, “But isn’t there something more, something better?” 

To put it differently, faith has the peace and joy that come from justification. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . . and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1, 2). 

The confession of the Reformed Church and the Reformed believer is radically different from that of Pent. Our confession is not that we are powerful, capable of doing great things, far advanced in might and glory. This is the boast of Pent., always advertising itself in lofty terms, always exalting its life, its power, its revelations, and its accomplishments. The Reformed Church and the Reformed believer are humble, confessing their sins, their weaknesses, and their unworthiness. Rather than proclaiming herself, the Reformed Church glories in and confesses Jesus Christ. Hers is the confession of the Church in all ages: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”