Gospel Substitutes Part 3: Mysticism


(Eds. note: today, we present the third part of our "Gospel Substitutes" series by covering the issue of Mysticism.  Make sure to check out the first two entries in the series, which addressed Formalism and Activism.  As always, we are deeply indebted to Dr. Tim Lane and CCEF for inspiring this series.  If you are interested in reading more about the way that mysticism has become more ubiqitous in our culture, take a look at an article Jake Phillips wrote earlier this year about the rise of New Age spiritualism, and, more importantly, find some of the scholarship by Dr. Peter Jones).

I was about 16 when the Jesus Movement of the 70’s hit the East Coast. And wow did it hit. One of my favorite memories of that season was the Vice Principle of our public high school in Alexandria, Virginia approaching Benny and the leaders of a growing bible study group to see about doing a last-period evangelistic meeting at school! He had seen such dramatic changes in some of the school’s former trouble makers (including Benny) that he figured maybe Jesus had something to do with it.

That revival was full of emotion. Former druggies and kids who used to sleep around were now carrying Bibles and pasting “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper stickers on beat up cars blaring Andrae Crouch and the Disciples rather than The Rolling Stones. Jocks who used to strut from girl to girl kissed dating goodbye long before Josh Harris was born.  Teens who didn’t darken the doors of their parents churches were crowding into the basement of the nearby Baptist church, sitting cross-legged on the floor in tie-dyed jeans singing passionately enough to warrant the deacons in their meeting upstairs asking their Pastor if he realized more and more hoodlums were hanging out there on Tuesday nights. And kids were getting baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues and boldly but sometimes offensively trying to get everyone in 4th period history to join them.

In this series on things that can become substitutes for the gospel in our lives, we’ve covered formalism and activism. Today I want to cover another common gospel substitute: Mysticism.

Mysticism in this context is when “the gospel is reduced to an emotional spiritual experience that results in mustering emotional moments that bypass simple heart change through intelligent repentance and faith.” (Dr. Tim Lane, CCEF).

An important thing to remember during this series is that every gospel substitute has something good and important at its root. Last week I talked about Jared’s faithful attendance at and service to his local church masking a secret life which produced formalistic assumptions that his sexual sin wasn’t so bad. Then Jake, who loves all kinds of Christian causes, talked about how activism can lead us to prize picketing at abortion clinics or addressing white privilege over the “preeminence of Christ over all issues and the power of the cross over all humanity.” Neither faithful attendance and service nor passionate engagement in Christian causes are bad things, in and of themselves.  Similarly, emotions are important; God gave them to us. And Christians who think that emotionless Christianity is more holy than those out-there believers who dance or raise their hands or cry or sing loud in worship as drums play and worship leaders shout might be in need of a better understanding of what the Bible teaches about the trees in your neighborhood “clapping their hands” in praise to God. If trees can clap then people can too.

But what happens when the pursuit of emotional experiences replaces the simple hard work and “personal vigorous effort anchored in the grace of God” that author Jerry Bridges says the Bible requires of those who want to grow in godliness?

• Prayer becomes something we do only when something bad happens or we feel like it. How many friendships or marriages could survive with that attitude?

Bible reading is threatened when we get to the begats because, after all, who in the world cares that Abijah was Asa’s father anyway? Forget that God could use those few words to remind a struggling Christian boy that having a bad father doesn’t mean he’ll be a bad kid.

• Sunday morning worship becomes too focused on whether we slept well or what the song choices are or if the guy leading isn’t the worship leader we really like (this is a constant temptation for our church when Jake leads instead of Kyle). Knowing a holy God is present just isn’t enough to give us strength to press through the fatigue because we’re just not feelin’ it.

• Or we go ahead and thrust our hands up in the air and sing loud because that’s what matters even though we’re thinking about who we’ll go to lunch with and why are they doing that dumb song again???

• People whose serious pursuit of growth in godliness through putting sin to death and seeking Christ-imitating change are viewed as uptight and intense. After all, one amazing prayer meeting or an anointed prophetic word or an electrifying time of worship that includes tears is a far quicker way to get sin of your life or move on in God.

Anyone who knows me will say that I love sweet times of worship, cry a lot (Eds. note: this is true) when God’s presence is tangible, and robustly pursue prophetic words that edify and encourage others. But what many don’t know is that I too am tempted to not pray or read the Bible when I don’t feel like it. The mystic can too easily lure me from the sometimes-dutiful pursuit and worship of God that elevates faith over feelings.

“Intelligent repentance and faith” is what the gospel is all about because Jesus walked through a life of temptation and suffering year after grueling year, relationship after disappointing relationship, day after wearisome day hammering nails before He took the nails for you and me. Jesus could have called down the twelve legions of angels down to rescue Him that day in the garden to free Him from the pending cross. (Did you know that would be 36,000 or more angels?!) But He didn’t to show us that deliverance and godliness often come one drop at a time.

I regularly ask the Lord for subjective experiences with Him. I love times when I sense His presence so keenly that I think I might open my eyes and see Him there. I’ve had intensely emotional experiences alone in my room when the Bible seemed to jump off the page at me or tears of repentance or faith flowed faster than I could control. And there have been times when the presence of God left me so aware of His nearness and holiness that I could hardly pull myself off of my face on the floor. But those times aren’t frequent. Rather, the majority of my interactions with God are just like yours: one obedient step followed by another lazy step at a time.

Our union with Christ created a dynamic, passionate, heart warming and glorious relationship with God. Seeking spiritual experiences and emotional encounters with Him is evidence of a heart that demonstrates the longing and even panting of which scripture speaks. The gift of emotions connects us to God and to people in rich and meaningful ways! But mysticism, of which the church has been and remains guilty, is no replacement for the Spirit-empowered and God-glorifying effort that becoming like Christ rightly demands of the believer.

And as we’re taking those often-painstaking steps toward Spirit-empowered godliness, sometimes God surprises us with memorable experiences that remind us of His bigness and our smallness. I love those experiences, but my growth – like yours – can’t depend on them.


Howard, these verses are a great reminder of the Spirit's tangible activity in our lives. When I think of how many times I would have "turned back and no longer walked with him" if HE hadn't maintained His grip on my heart...well...it fills my heart with a desire to love Him more. You have loyally followed Christ through so much. Thank you for your example!

Perhaps part of the answer regarding why we let emotions substitute for the gospel and our union with Christ is found in John 6.

When we perceive our circumstances are well we are happy to follow jesus but when circumstances go poorly or we must do something difficult then we complain or perhaps even walk away as some disciples did in verse 66. We forget that Jesus said that we would have persecutions and diificulties and thatt is part of the gospel also we need to remember

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
53 So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.
58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever."
59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?"
61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this?
62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
64 But there are some of you who do not believe." (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)
65 And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.
John 6:52-66

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