enlarge my borders (and start with this blog)

My present study of evangelical fideism led me yesterday to revisit the gift book that rocked our pre-9/11 world, the “little prayer with the giant prize” (17), The Prayer of Jabez.

I first noticed 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 in 1989 when Howard Hendricks used it as an example of the importance of observation in my hermeneutics class at Dallas Seminary. He said that if we skip over the genealogies we’re bound to miss some good stuff buried in the middle that will preach or, if put in book form, will sell a bazillion copies (Isn’t it strange that the most celebrated professor at a non-charismatic school has the gift of prophecy? Wouldn’t this make Jack Deere the Sage Rosenfels or Tavaris Jackson of DTS? You have to know the past of DTS and the present of the Minnesota Vikings to get this last point, so skip it if you don’t).

Biblical Hermeneutics was a terrific class which “Prof” team taught with a young fellow named Mark Bailey, who at the time seemed important to me because he had married Steve Green’s sister, but has since earned his own well-deserved reputation as the president of DTS. All to say I appreciate and highly respect the source of Bruce Wilkinson’s booklet, but I have some questions about his execution.

As far as I can tell, here is Wilkinson’s argument:

1. We should ask God for more.

I basically agree with this, though I think Wilkinson possesses an American preoccupation with size (e.g., p. 57—would having less than 100 kids at VBS be a failure?) and a too low view of providence. He is not content with having God work through normal channels, but argues that men and women of faith should be experiencing miracles on a daily basis, (p. 16, 24, 33), which he helpfully defines down as “an intervention by God to make something happen that wouldn’t normally happen” (p. 43). By this definition it’s considered a “miracle” when a stranger opens up to him about her marriage and switches seats on a plane so she can continue their conversation (p. 78-83).

2. We should trust God for more.

Here is where I think Wilkinson gets into trouble. It’s one thing to ask God to bless me, it’s another to claim what I am asking for. If I have a promise from God, then I can and should claim that promise and believe that I will receive it. But short of that, how do I know—to use his examples—that God will clear the way for me to witness to the governor of California or save the island of Trinidad? (p. 32-36). I’m not saying it’s wrong to attempt either of these, but is it right to claim them as God’s will for my life? In other words, can I make a claim on God where there is no promise, and can I claim a promise that is not revealed in Scripture?

3. We should act on what we are trusting God for.

Now Wilkinson’s advice becomes more troubling. He says that if we are asking God for something specific, like “give me the island of Trinidad,” then we should step out in faith and attempt this God-sized goal, trusting him to provide the supernatural resources that we need. If we are not regularly doing this, then we are settling for mediocrity rather than the exciting life of supernatural results that God wants to give us (p. 34, 47, 53, 56, 77).

I agree that we should stretch ourselves and rely on God’s supernatural power—particularly when it comes to loving God and neighbor—but I’m not convinced that faith means claiming promises which God hasn’t made and trusting him to bail us out when we then get into trouble. For a real life example of this, note how Liberty University, a school built by Jerry Falwell and an enormous line of credit, was made solvent only when a benefactor gave tens of millions of dollars to plug the hole left by Jerry’s faith.

Faith is both less and more remarkable than Wilkinson says. It’s less, because it’s about the daily grind of obedience rather than claiming islands for God, and it’s more, for the same reason. Anyone can hop on a plane and hold Bible clubs in Trinidad, but to love my neighbor as myself—that requires an act of God.

So here’s my question: if faith is my reliance upon the promise of God, then can I call it faith when I rely upon what was not promised? If not faith, then what should we call such attempts?

15 Comments

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  1. Dr. W,

    Apparently, from what I’m told, Wilkinsons’s book was roughly based on a sermon given in a DTS chapel. Dr. Adams made me aware of this. From those who were there, the sermon was a great contextual and exegetical sermon. The sermon took note of the context and offered a good interpretation, based on the intent of 1 Chronicles.

    However, Wilkinson, took the idea…out of the context….and turned it into a book! I can try and track down the original message if you want?

  2. Jason:

    Was Wilkinson the one who preached the message? If not, and he was simply someone in the audience, imagine the bitterness of whoever preached that day!

    Wilkinson preached once in chapel the year I was there. I remember it because the PR folks were taking pictures that day and he kept interrupting his sermon to pose. It was very funny, though probably not helpful to his message, as I can’t remember what it was. Maybe it was “Walk through the Bible but Linger on Jabez.”

  3. Dr. W,

    No I believe it was a DTS prof who preached the message and Wilkinson was a student! If i were the prof, I would have expected an apology and possibly some kickback from the financial cash cow that became his book.

    Jason

  4. You might have to delay your book launch enough so you can write on this one:

    http://www.amazon.com/You-Were-Born-This-Predictable/dp/1601421826/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245423609&sr=8-1

  5. Mike –

    Please know that I agree with your thoughts on most things (at least those not related to Ohio sports teams). Your thoughts on “Jabez” are certainly right-on in my opinion.

    I do have one question for you though, not as a means of disagreement, but rather to help me crystalize my own thoughts. You say that the Liberty University benefactor plugged the hole left by Fallwell’s faith (implying that the faith was misplaced). Couldn’t one just as easily argue that the benefactor was a vindication of Fallwell’s faith? Again, I’m not making that argument, just trying to work through how we think about these things.

  6. Pete:

    Good point. Experience can be interpreted in more than one way. So then the key is to examine Scripture and see if stepping out in irresponsible ways without a command from God is the pattern of faith. Of course, Jerry could and well might have argued that he was responding to a directive from the Lord, but inasmuch as that directive is not found in Scripture, I think that anyone who makes such a claim should be extremely humble about what they think God is telling them to do.

    Another way to look at it, did God use the rich benefactor to validate Jerry’s faith (as in, this is how I want my children to live) or to rescue his life’s work and ministry? What would happen if all Christians followed his example? Who would be left to bail us out?🙂

  7. I realize I am jumping into this discussion on fideism but I am new to blogging and have tried to read all the previous posts by Wittmer and the responses. Sorry if this post seems to answer a number of them all at once…here it goes….

    It seems to me that “faith” as a verb (in the NT especially) can be found in two contexts: (1) initially at salvation and (2) as the active living out of the gospel in the daily life of the believer until the return of Christ and consummation of all things. While there may be some problems with the definition (as there are with others) I like Bruce Little’s definition: Faith is what you do with what you know (Heb. 11:1-2). I don’t think “faith” as defined in Scripture is devoid of rationality (See Nash, Faith & Reason). To concede to this would just prove the claims of the new atheists like Dennett, Sagan & Dawkins that faith is belief in the absence of evidence. This is not Christian thinking or is it how I see the exercise of my faith as. Schaefer (more recently Tim Keller in his new book The Reason for God) rightly point out that there is a rational/intellectual aspect to coming to faith in Christ. (There are a number of word studies with salvific passages that could be explored to support this point but others have done this better and there is not enough room to do it here).

    Faith (whether in the context of initial salvation or in the process of sanctification) is the application of what I know (knowledge) to be true. I take Heb. 11:1 to mean that faith is (1) acting upon what I know to be true to this point and (2) my exercising of faith is itself the evidence that I believe (based on the revelatory knowledge from God about the situation) it will come true even if I don’t know exactly what the fulfillment will look like. This may be a little sketchy but I think you get the idea. I think the 2 part definition of faith in Heb. 11:1 is two ways of saying the same thing…maybe.

    So, in relation to the present questions:

    1. No, it is not faith when we act on a perceived promise that is not really a promise at all. Too often we try to fill in God’s promises by assigning the content to the prayer request. God promised to save souls but he did not say it would be 50 in Awana this yr. Surely we don’t think he didn’t answer our prayers when only 40 or even 10 get saved. So should we say, save many instead? I think that is reacting too much. The point is we should not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of the “name-it-and-claim-it” prayer theology. I am all about praying specifics (like the salvation of my neighbor by name) but only those specifics that fit realistically with the actual promises God has given us.
    2. What to call it if it is not faith as you understand faith to be Biblically? There are a number of things you could call it – misguided, uninformed as the result of Biblical illiteracy or lack of basic theology, etc.

  8. Well said, Mike. I ask for help crystalizing my thoughts, and you provide crystals! We indeed need to be very careful when we say, “Thus sayeth the Lord…” to the point of being very hesitant to do so if the “thus” is not specifically found in Scripture. I recently read Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. It was a very beneficial book in which DeYoung made this point also.

  9. Somewhat as an aside to this:

    In your study of faith, have you considered reading “A Practical View of Christianity” by William Wilberforce? In reading the first chapter, he’s stated that faith is based upon the evidence of the Scriptures; that our practices and sincerity mean nothing if not based on the substance of God.

    So far interesting…and it might bolster what you’re saying (I mean, who’s going to argue against Wilberforce, the great abolitionist?).

  10. Mike,

    I think we might expand the definition of faith beyond reliance on God’s promises to also trusting God as we follow his commands. He has commanded us to go and make disciples. So missionaries go to other countries, and everyday Christians share their faith with their neighbors, etc. God did not promise numbers, he just told us to go, so we do, trusting the numbers to him. In this way we do act on what we are trusting God for (point 3), but the act is grounded in God’s commands, not my plans. And if God closes the door, we trust his sovereignty and look for other ways to live out the command.

    Brian

  11. Good words, Craig, Pete, Joel, and Brian. And thanks for the heads-up, Tyler. Let’s brace ourselves for the next best seller!

  12. Of course the original “Prayer of Jabez” sermon was preached by Spurgeon—who took a decidedly different angle than did his modern counterpart.

  13. Mike:

    ‘Stepping out in faith’ is a sensitive and practical issue for me in my ministry, as I expect it is for many believers. I seek to stretch our church and school leadership and to depend on God, but what that always means in practice can be difficult. Creating budgets and forecasting monetary issues is especially challenging.

    There have been a few times over the years where I too carelessly asked for (and received) and spent more than we reasonably knew/believed we could take in (perhaps like the Falwell situation).

    Several times some faithful givers in my church have “bailed us out” by providing the funds. I am grateful to God, and to the donors, for it. But I also seriously wrestle with it as bordering on being a form of stealing. Granted, at one level, these gave willingly, but also they give to keep God’s people (and me) from embarrassment which certainly has the feel of forcing people against a fully free choice.

    I am more and more leaning toward believing it is wrong to take advantage of people’s sense of goodness in this way. I am increasingly committed to asking for people’s pledges to give in advance and refuse to budget and spend more than we reasonably expect to get.

  14. Tim:

    Thanks for sharing your real world experience. You remind me of the pressures that confront leaders who must cast visions and create budgets, something which I can thankfully leave to those on the dark side (i.e., administration). I do like how your thoughts have evolved on this issue–I agree it’s better to ask for the money up front rather than on the backside (which will also need saving at that point!). I wonder though, how many helpful and productive Christian ministries have been built on the other model. And how many have failed because they could not locate a wealthy benefactor to rescue their foolhardiness.

  15. What’s up friends, nice paragraph and good arguments commented at this place, I am in fact enjoying by these.

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