When I started serving with reformed and traditional evangelical Christians in para-church ministries, one of the first things I recognised (and pretty quickly) about the difference between my Pentecostal faith upbringing and their faith life was the lack of discipline. And, what’s worse, it wasn’t even purely their lack of discipline in life but their lack of desire to be disciplined, and acknowledgement that the Christian life should be so.
Drunken partying, excessive alcohol consumption, excessive material and entertainment consumption, excessive food consumption, expensive holidays and the desire for the ‘American Dream’ – expensive house, expensive car, expensive schooling, and a well-paid job. These were the kinds of things I noticed characterising their lives, while they claimed to believe in a very contrasting gospel.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t know Pentecostal Christians who live like this – I do. But at least they have the sense to be somewhat ashamed of that kind of lifestyle. Reformed Christians have time and time again accused Pentecostals of adhering to at least some level of ‘prosperity doctrine’, while they themselves live it. They live in prosperity, believing that they have every right to.
There was not a single month in my life that I ever believed, from Pentecostal teachers, that God gives to us for our own gain. If my pastors ever taught that God blesses His children materially in any way, it was always followed with some kind of call to then bless those because we are blessed. Our wealth is not for us – it is to share with those who need it.
This is the kind of teaching that I grew up with: sacrificial giving. For example, Pentecostals tithe. I don’t believe that Christians need to tithe as they did in the Old Testament, but I believe it is good Christian practise. To paint a picture: for every time I heard a message that may have been bordering on the prosperity doctrine, I heard five messages about giving of our wealth and resources even when it hurts. Of obeying God’s call to be generous and share with other believers.
This is the kind of teaching that is evident of a larger gospel theme that Pentecostals believe in, which is sacrifice.
We are constantly at war with our flesh. Our flesh desires safety and physical comfort, but the gospel calls us to take risks, and to walk by faith. Pentecostals fast from food. We give when our circumstances, in the flesh, might tell us to hold onto our money. We regularly give up things like social media or electronic entertainment or coffee for periods of time as a sign, and as a reminder to ourselves, that we only need God.
We believe in serving in church and in parachurch ministries, and in holding prayer meetings in our schools and workplaces, and in tithing and giving to missions because that is the Christian life. And while there is propensity to fall into a works-based mindset, never for a second of my entire life did I believe that I was saved by what I did. What we were taught was that we live in sacrifice because we are saved by grace, and by God’s grace alone. People often tell me that they feel like the Pentecostals need to preach grace and forgiveness more. I often don’t understand them, because in the five Pentecostal churches that I’ve spent time or served in, and the many conferences, I’ve never heard another gospel preached.
I understand that the Pentecostal church typically has not approached things like suffering and poverty in the Christian life with wisdom or grace. I’ve been at the back hand of it, and it’s something I have often critiqued the church on. I’m not saying that they have perfect theology. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to get more involved with other evangelical Christian ministry and study was to experience deeper theology…. You can understand my disappointment when I found such a common disregard for Christian discipline and dismissal of the gospel-focused counter-cultural lifestyle.
I also want to clarify that this hasn’t been my experience of every evangelical Christian. Especially in my study, I’ve met many who believe in living a physically and spiritually disciplined life for the sake of the gospel. I’m generalising so heavily because not only is it a pattern that I’ve noticed, but a pattern that other Pentecostals have noticed as they start stepping out of their little Pente-bubble and experiencing a wider range of church traditions.
It was a sad conversation when, in explaining some of the practical differences between Reformed churches and Pentecostal churches to a good friend, 8 years older than myself, she curiously asked if I had noticed something. Uncomfortably, she listed the same kind of things as I’ve described above. When I admitted that, sadly, yes I had noticed that kind of lifestyle commonly carried out by reformed Christians, she told me that her sister (five years older than herself) had noticed that in her friendship circles too.
If this is something common enough for three different people of fairly different ages to pick up on when forming relationships with reformed evangelicals, then I’d say it’s common enough to be a problem – although, of course, I’m speaking from experience and so my statement has limited evidence; but I would say I’ve heard enough sermons and testimonies to say it confidently.
And of course; that statement: ‘Predestination has become the excuse of rich Christians to remain rich and comfortable while the body of Christ suffers in mission fields, poverty, and persecution.’
It may seem unrelated to what I’ve thus far outlined, so let me get to the point now.
Just a couple of Sundays ago I heard yet another sermon on how there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, so stop trying.
As expected, the following week I listened to almost every middle-class, well-off Christian say how “refreshing” it was to hear a sermon like that… as if it wasn’t a sermon I know they’ve heard at least twice in the last year. One of them had even given a sermon based on exactly that!!
I’ve got nothing against a “saved by grace” sermon. I’ve got everything against a sermon that encourages people not to strive for righteousness as part of the Christian life. Sermons that manipulate people into believing that if they do good things, they’ll fall into a works-based view of salvation. As if there aren’t Christians who have gone their whole lives believing in a high (possibly sometimes too high) view of sanctification without being deceived that it is anything but the blood of Jesus Christ that washes us clean and grants us salvation.
Let me tell you something from the experience of at least three other Christians I have talked to in the past two months who have lived the less-than-ideal life. Australia’s problem is not a works-based doctrine of salvation. It’s not. It seems like it, because my generation’s leaders had to go through the time when nominal Christianity told middle-class people that being a Christian was about going to church and being a good person.
You know what the difference is between those nominal middle-class Christians and today’s middle-class Christians? Nothing, except that today they understand that they are saved by grace. If you think that that’s effective evangelism, you have missed the gospel.
The Word of God is transformative. It turns materially rich and spiritually poor people into materially poor and spiritually rich people. It makes them realise that because God has blessed them with wealth, it is their God-given responsibility to share it with others. They suddenly don’t need all the latest TV channels, and the latest technology, and the expensive car, and expensive house; because they are met with the revelation that Christ. Is. Enough. They take care of their bodies because they understand that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. They aren’t afraid of Christianity being persecuted, because they know that to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
The fundamental difference, that I’ve noticed, between those reformed Christians who live the aforementioned lifestyle, and the Pentecostal teaching of the Christian life, is our theology on grace.
Those people actually defend their gluttony, drunkenness, and lust with grace. And look, I’m not saying that sanctification happens overnight. I’m not saying that the Christian life and the church and evangelism isn’t messy. But I was taught that because of grace, we continue to strive toward a lifestyle of holiness. We’re not striving for salvation; we’re striving against our flesh, as the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to do, because of our love for God and desire to live as He has called us.
Some Christians defend their clear lack of desire for or progress in sanctification with the twisted, unbiblical doctrine that God’s grace means they don’t have to strive or sacrifice. That God’s grace means it’s okay for them to live in luxury, spending more money a month on entertainment services than they do on missions, or the church, or in being generous to others.
And of course, how can they think differently, when every other Sunday they are hearing their minister tell them that God’s grace means there is nothing they can do to try and be a “good” Christian?
Once again, I have no qualm with that message; but that is not what we need to hear anymore. We need to hear, “saved by grace, for a life of holiness in our commitment to God”. We need to hear about sacrificing luxuries to increase our giving to God’s kingdom on earth. We need to hear about desiring a good job and working diligently in what we do to earn money which we can use for the glory of God – not the glory of self.
When Christians are being told repeatedly that they are saved because God predestined them to be saved, they become lazy, selfish, and arrogant. Ironically, this is the complete opposite of what the true message of grace should instil in us.
Predestination is not an excuse to live selfishly and desire the finer things in life. It has become that, however; so much so that there are some who will never allow themselves to be convicted. Because of lazy preaching, which seeks more to gain the affections of the congregation than to preach the uncomfortable truth, rich Christians thrive in their materialistic lifestyles while missionaries aren’t able to continue their work because of the lack of funding; while Christians in persecuted countries go without Bibles and resources; while they are dismissed from jobs because of their faith.
But I suppose, in God’s “sovereignty”, He has pre-ordained it this way. So why should we bother to give to their need, right?