Earlier this month, the mainland publication Church China published a long article examining the importance of solid theological preparation for Chinese involved in the Great Commission. Last week we translated portions of the article. In part two, we continue with the translated portions, followed by short summaries and observations by the translator (in italics).
Update: This is an edited version of what was originally published on March 29.
What Should the Chinese Church Pass on to the Nations?
"By his wounds you have been healed." 1 Peter 2:24b
There is no one on this earth who does not need to face disease and death. No matter if we serve God in church or if we go to minister to unreached people groups, this is the reality. As Christians we live in the "already but not yet" of God's kingdom. We have a foretaste of heaven, but we have not yet reached the final period. Therefore, in today's fallen world, how should Christians face illness and suffering?
The author says that there is no doubt that miracles can and still do occur. “The question is, is it God’s will that he will always heal?”
“God's will is to always cure disease and relieve pain”—This view has been very popular for the past several decades among some overseas church communities, and is being taught more and more in some Chinese churches. Therefore, we are very worried. The basic principle of this view is not only that a loving God always wants good for his children; rather, the chief perception is that because Christ's redemptive work on the cross destroyed the curse of sin and sickness, redeemed believers can now overcome sickness by belief in Jesus' name, just as they are able to overcome sin. Health and healing of the body are now an integral part of the plan of salvation. Therefore, we can and should seize this grace, and we should proclaim the blessing and bless others through ministry.
Of course, says the author, because of Christ’s work on the cross Christians will be resurrected and freed from sin and death at the consummation. But, in this fallen world we experience only a foretaste of what is to come. Passages in the Old Testament that speak of healing should not be read too literally (e.g. Isaiah 6:10; 53:5; 57:18-19). Similarly, the healings we see in the New Testament should not be read as normative. Again, says the author, it is crucial that we read passages such as these in their context. The apostles performed great miracles in the book of Acts. Paul himself healed people (Acts 14:8-10) and raised people from the dead (Acts 20:9-10). But, Paul himself did not see healing as normative, as we can see from his concern over Epaphroditus’ near-death illness. Also, we do not see miraculous healings in the case of Timothy (1 Tim 5:23), Trophimus (2 Tim 4:20), and Paul himself (Gal 4:13-15).
Not only does God “permit” sickness and suffering to occur, says the author, but “in order to achieve his profound and eternal will he can increase suffering.” We see this in the case of Ananias and Sapphira and in Paul’s own suffering (2 Cor 12:7-9). “Three times he called on God to take away his suffering, but God told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in human weakness.’”
The situation is practically the same down through history. Take John Sung [1901-1944] and the modern Chinese church for example. At an evangelistic rally, witnesses say he prayed for hundreds of people with minor and serious illnesses and many people were immediately healed. But, even though there were many miraculous events during his ministry, Sung himself suffered from intestinal tuberculosis. God permitted this faithful man to suffer and did not heal him. In his long battle with the illness, he still insisted on preaching, sometimes needing to lean over or kneel while preaching in order to lessen the pain. However, Sung insisted that God's grace was sufficient for him. Finally in 1944, he returned to heaven, having lived only 43 years.
The author says, “The idea that in a world full of pain and suffering there is a loving God who will always heal, bless, and restore our sick bodies is very attractive indeed. If missionaries were salespeople, then this would definitely be a very sought-after ‘product!’" However, God's plan bears toward the eternal. And, we should interpret what happens in life from this perspective. The Lamb of God laid down his life so that those of us who believe in him can receive ultimate healing, blessing, and restoration. But, God's Word does not guarantee physical blessings in this age. Even Jesus did not establish a "healing for everyone" ministry model.
The author goes on to say shortly after,
Please understand, we are definitely not attacking people's faith or opposing believers who minister to the sick under the power of God. On the contrary, if the Chinese church hopes to make an important contribution to the completion of the Great Commission, all of us desperately need the Holy Spirit to give us supernatural equipment. That's why we need to holistically study the Word of God and to carefully study Scripture passages in their correct contextual background so that we better understand the nature and the will of the God we serve. Because without God, we can do nothing. The Spirit of God will not contradict the Word of God. If we deviate from God's map, our confidence and enthusiasm will not be rooted in truth, but in imagination. Doing this will result in extinguishing the passion of the Holy Spirit. God will heal, but only according to his methods, his timing, and his agenda. We do not dare to arbitrarily presume to know him!
So what does the view “the guarantee of salvific healing” mean then? Why is this topic so crucial?”
The author lists three problems to consider regarding “salvific healing.” First, it undermines God’s sovereignty and “puts God in a box.” Second, it distorts the gospel and redefines the meaning of Christ’s work. Third, it undermines peoples’ faith, as well as sows doubt and confusion because peoples’ expectations are not met.
Overseas churches that promote this kind of teaching influence the Chinese church. The author sounds a warning to Chinese Christians, many of whom have been attracted to Christianity by promises of miraculous healing and other spiritual phenomena. He cautions believers to test all of these promises, experiences, and practices against the truth of Scripture. He says, “Our concern is for those precious brothers and sisters in the Lord with a sincere desire for a deeper experience of God and miraculous works. Because they are deceived by unscriptural teachings, they instead depart from a real relationship with God that is guided by the Holy Spirit.”
The author points out examples of what he considers to be unscriptural spiritual practices making their way into Chinese Christian culture, singling out the evangelistic method called “treasure hunts” Although he is sympathetic to the passion of those involved in this method, he offers a three-part critique: that it can be intimidating, that it places too much emphasis on “fun,” and that it is too formulaic.”
In fact, one of the wonderful aspects of [Christ's] ministry was his unpredictability—people could never guess what he was going to do next! Whether it was casting out demons, healing the paralytic, or opening the eyes of the blind, there is no fixed pattern. There is no “success formula” for us to copy. This is intentional! Why? Because God knows that if we begin to think, “This is God's way of doing things! Now we’ve also got it!” we will establish a set methodology and rely on this method to replace God himself! This is the reason why we do not adopt such kinds of transferable and reproducible models like Treasure Hunting. This is also why we must humbly submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, because under any particular ministry environment we cannot be under the impression that we know exactly what should be done! It's God who leads us, because he is building his church. He is the only head of the church and the ruler of ministry!
The author says we must not fall prey to approaches that appear very spiritual but are in fact unbiblical misapplications of Scripture. Such methods, although often employed by believers who are zealous for the Lord, put God “into a box.” These methods seem to draw on God’s sovereignty, but in fact they treat God’s power as something that can be controlled. We must always ask, “Who is in control?” Who or what determines what evangelistic approaches are applicable in particular situations? “If we get to the point where we say, ‘It's we who take the initiative in determining our strategy,’” says the author, “then we assume God's throne and God merely works through our ‘abilities.’”
In the book of Acts, there are many examples of God's people being directed to use extraordinary methods to spread the gospel or perform other acts of ministry. No matter what kind of method, they all demonstrated the power of God. Please take the time to read the accounts of Philip (Acts 8: 26-40), Ananias (Acts 9: 10-19), and Peter (Acts 10: 9-48). There are many wonderful accounts there, but please pay close attention to the main ideas of texts:
- In each case, God took the initiative to direct ministry action.
- Although these people also took initiative, it was as if they were willing to be on call at any time, very spiritually alert and obedient to the Lord's leading. But, they had absolutely no premeditated plans, designs, or control. They did not know what was going to happen.
- God's guidelines do not contain any of the “if this, then that” instructions. God's instructions are very clear and specific. They are completely obedient to God's leading, as made evident by the fruitful ministry.
- After the “power encounter” with God, none of them based on their experiences is able to invent a method that can be expressed in words and that is reproducible. None of them can produce a method for themselves and others that can be used over and over again to create a similar “power encounter.”
The author goes on to analyze several problems in the individual steps of the Treasure Hunt method. He is particularly at pains to address evangelism methods that seep into the Chinese church. Some of these methods can mistakenly give a false presentation of the gospel and what it means to have a relationship with Jesus. For example, the Treasure Hunt seems to promote a forced supernatural encounter upon a non-Christian in order to “release God’s presence on them.” In fact, healing by prayer becomes the central focus of their ministry. The assumption is once people experience a supernatural encounter, and once people are healed by prayer they will become more open to and one step closer to the Christian faith. Without a visible demonstration of God’s power everything else becomes difficult to accomplish. This, says the author, is a mistaken presentation of the gospel.
Healing and miracles are an important part of the gospel. And of course God’s love and goodness must be shared with others. But, says the author, how can someone come to a relationship with Jesus if they are only told they will be healed and that God loves them? How can they have a right relationship with Jesus if they do not have an understanding of humankind’s fallen condition and their need for a savior? Sinners cannot ask God into their hearts because their hearts are dead.
The origin of our separation from God is our sin. Unless the problem of sin is resolved through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus we cannot be reborn, we cannot be reconciled, and absolutely cannot establish even a glimmer of a relationship with God. Sadly, the Treasure Hunt method clearly does not follow this. The method does not lead the person before the Holy Creator to share about the fallen condition of humankind. According to Scripture's teaching, we should not on the surface “invite Jesus into our lives.” Instead we should repent and confess as redeemer the Lord Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself for us and atoned for our sins. What is distressing is, the Treasure Hunt from beginning to end is a human invention, rather than the word of God.
As the Chinese church sends more missionaries throughout China and beyond, these missionaries must be careful not to present a half-gospel or even a false gospel. Just because these methods might find acceptance in Western churches that does not mean the Chinese church should not critically analyze them. In fact, the Chinese church has a duty to carefully search the Scriptures and to determine for itself how God call Christians to be missional. In addition, as Chinese Christians must base their missiology on God’s Word, not on manmade strategies and human-centered techniques, neither should Chinese Christians fall prey to the notion that miraculous signs and healings are necessary prerequisites for conversion. Careful Biblical exegesis, says the author, must guide missions strategies.
The author goes on to say,
If my comments seem too harsh or too critical, I ask you to give it more thought. Consider the seriousness of the situation with the current generation. Consider the frightful depth and importance of these eternal questions; this is the prerogative that we have in Christ. God will soon lead many Chinese brothers and sisters into places of darkness that Satan has occupied for centuries. If we want to form steadfast disciples and to build healthy churches we must use God's way! This is his world, this is his mission, this is his gospel message to use his way to save his elect! Who are we to dare to invent our own methods that try to force miracles in order to advance God's work?
Chinese in general feel a great sense of pride over China’s tremendous development in the past several decades. Many Chinese believe that China will return to its preeminent role as a world power. Similarly, many Chinese Christians believe that the Chinese church will assume a large degree of ownership in world missions over the next several decades. In his concluding remarks, the author gives some final reflections to Chinese Christians as they seek to fulfill the Great Commission.
Dear brothers and sisters, please understand that seeking the things that God himself can do is not the same as seeking God himself. If spiritual revival, spiritual gifts, experiencing God's power, ministry success, and causing many people to return to the Lord captures our attention and controls our self-awareness, we will be compelled to use methods that God never prescribed to seek out spiritual experiences. And then we will fall into sin. Anything that replaces God as the center of our emotions is an idol. Any concept that believes God's power can be exploited through a technique comes close to witchcraft and does not conform to biblical Christianity!
Now, imagine if pioneering missionaries of the Chinese church used this type of “encounter with God” concept in areas of China, Central Asia, and the Middle East where communities revere spiritual power? What would happen? For those who have been blinded by Satan and who are completely lost in the dark, religious practices essentially stem from self-interest and idol worship. They hope their pilgrimages or offerings will make this life or their next life a little better. To this end, these animistic communities are filled with ceremonies and rituals that control and manipulate the karmic laws of the spiritual world. For them, a “power encounter” is the norm of life.
What will happen if one kind of higher power is introduced to them only as a spiritual power of love and goodness that “hopes to give people healing, provision, and protection, and has the absolute authority to do so?” Of course animists would be interested in “inviting Jesus” into their lives! Who would not want to take advantage of this kind of power? Brothers and sisters, the clear and present danger posed by this method is this: If you follow this agenda and use methods “ungrounded and unfounded on God's revelation to us,” we are just another form of animism cloaked in Christianity used to replace their own “self-interest” ceremonies and “power gain” techniques. Imagine this being copied right now by Chinese missionaries in thousands of communities across all of Asia. Brothers and sisters, this will be the greatest tragedy in the history of the church! This is our shame!
As Christians, our task is to fulfill the Great Commission, says the author. This task is a heavy calling that requires us to take up our crosses and follow after Christ. If Chinese Christians are to take the gospel “Back to Jerusalem,” it will mean a road paved with suffering, setbacks, and sacrifice. Chinese Christians will face many challenges, beginning at home.
Brothers and sisters, the church in contemporary China is facing a huge challenge—the unprecedented material benefits of modern society. They divert our focus and weaken our enthusiasm for ministry. Compared to Communism, materialism is a much greater danger to the church. Interest in one's own personal well-being has spread to our church, a kind of Christianity that asks “What can God do for me?” So, when God now calls us for global cross-cultural missions, our greatest need is to guard against those ministry techniques that deviate from God's agenda. We must guard against ministry techniques brought in by secularized overseas churches that subtly twist the truth, are full of mocking, are concerned with earthly things, and are man-centered. If we allow them to dominate our church, the commission God entrusted with us to preach the gospel to all people will fail!
The only way to prevent ourselves from sinking into painful mistakes is to resolutely abide by the truth of God's word, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is here that we begin to know the Lord our God, God of the universe—his temperament, his essence, his attributes, and his will. It is here that we know that God is true love and goodness, full of mercy and abundant grace, and a father eager to gather his people forever into his radiant kingdom. It is here that we find that God is worthy of our reverence, worship, and obedience. Our righteous God must judge sin, and we mortals must have a proper relationship with him, otherwise we will be cursed.
The Spirit of truth and the Word of truth are two sides of the coin, both of which we equally need. That must be our goal! So let us go, full of the Holy Spirit and equipped with the whole Word of God, to reveal to all peoples this supreme master of all things, this wonderful Creator and Redeemer God!
Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
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