Knowing God, chapter 21: These inward trials

In this chapter, Packer takes on what he considers shortcomings of the ministry of evangelism, which arise from an inaccurate application of gospel truths.

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The evangelistic ministry emphasises the difference that becoming a Christian will make in a person’s life. In stressing the positive aspects (forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, the power of the indwelling Spirit), the not-so-positive side of Christian life gets downplayed (the daily chastening, the struggle with sin and Satan, the periodic valley moments). This may leave the recent convert with the impression that the Christian life is one in which problems no longer exist—or if they come, they only have to be taken to the throne of grace where they melt away.

It is also entirely possible to over-emphasise the rough side of Christian life, but this is a lesser extreme: false hopes are a greater evil that false fears. False hopes will lead to bitter disillusionment whereas false fears may lead to the pleasant surprise that all isn’t as gloomy as once thought.

God is very gentle with young believers, such that the start of their new life in Christ is marked by great joy, remarkable answers to prayer and fruitfulness un their acts of witness; thus God encourages them. But as they grow stronger, they’re able to bear more and God exposes them to as much testing as they’re able to bear (1 Cor 10:13), but not less (Acts 14:22). In this way, God builds their character, strengthens their faith and prepares them to help others. He glorifies Himself in our lives, making His strength perfect in our weakness.

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The young Christian who’s been led to believe that all experiences of frustration are a sign of sub-standard Christianity then is led into a life of hunting for non-existent failures, in the belief that once they repent, they could recover  an experience of a spiritual high. (It is true that if a Christian is in deliberate sin, their inner joy and peace of heart diminishes and discontent of the spirit increases. Backsliding Christians are always miserable. But it may not always be that the discontentment is brought about by sin, e.g. Job).

The teaching we have in view sets the young Christian against God, who is trying to lead them into spiritual maturity. The effects of this teaching will be morbid introspection at best, and loss of faith at worst.

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I’ll let Packer speak:

“What basically, is wrong  with this teaching? It is open to criticism from many angles. It fails to grasp New Testament teaching on sanctification and the Christian warfare. It does not understand the meaning of growth in grace. It does not understand the operations of indwelling sin. It confuses the Christian life on earth with the Christian life as it will be in heaven. It misconceives the psychology of Christian obedience(Spirit-prompted activity not Spirit-prompted passivity).  But the basic criticism must surely be that it loses sight of the method and purpose of grace. Let us try to expound this.”

What is grace? It is God moving heaven and earth to sinners who couldn’t life a finger to save themselves. It is God sending His Son to die on the cross so that we guilty ones may be reconciled to God. God had an eternal plan to save—that is His will of grace. His work of grace is to call men into fellowship with Christ ( 1 Cor 1:9), to raise them from death to life (Eph 2:1-6), to seal them as His own by His Spirit ( Eph 1:13-14), to transform them into Christ’s image (2 Cor 3:18), and to finally raise their bodies in glory (Rom 8:30; 1 Cor 15:47-54).

The primary purpose of grace is to restore man’s relationship with God. He renews our nature so that we may be capable of loving, trusting, obeying, hoping in and delighting in, Him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to Himself.

This purpose isn’t achieved by  shielding us from assaults by the world, the flesh and the devil; nor by protecting us from unpleasant circumstances (whether of our own doing or not); but by exposing us to all of them so that we may come to see our inadequacy and to drive us to cling to God alone. The Bible constantly states that God is a strong rock, a firm defence and a safe refuge. Who better to run to when things aren’t going as planned?