Monday, November 22, 2010

Faith, Promises, Spurgeon and Finney

A particular subject has occupied my mind for years. To introduce it let me quote from "Spiritual Liberty", a February 18, 1855 sermon by Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892):
You are free to all that is in the Bible. Here is a never-failing treasure filled with boundless stores of grace. It is the bank of heaven: you may draw from it as much as you please without let [obstacle] or hindrance. Bring nothing with you, except faith. Bring as much faith as you can get, and you are welcome to all that is in the Bible. There is not a promise, not a word in it, that is not yours. In the depths of tribulation let it comfort you. Mid waves of distress let it cheer you. When sorrows surround thee, let it be thy helper. This is thy father’s love-token: let it never be shut up and covered with dust. Thou art free to it—use, then, thy freedom.
Sounds rather straightforward, doesn't it? Spurgeon seems to say, "Find any Bible promise you want—from any place in the Bible— and claim it." But here's the rub: is Spurgeon suggesting that we find any promise in the Word of God, divorce it from its historical context, and apply it to our situation if we like the words? Can that be done properly? Does the Bible "work" that way?

Revivalist Charles Finney (1792-1875) was direct when he spoke on praying "the prayer of faith" in his Lectures on Revivals. He didn't believe one could pray such a prayer without "evidence" for it contained in a word from God, be it biblical, providential or an inner assurance from the Spirit. Finney believed faith arose by claiming either a general promise in the Bible or a reasonably inferred principal found in the Word:
Where there is a general promise in the Scriptures which you may reasonably apply to the particular case before you. If its real meaning includes the particular thing for which you pray, or if you can reasonably apply the principle of the promise to the case, there you have evidence. For instance, suppose it is a time when wickedness prevails greatly, and you are led to pray for God's interference? What promise have you? Why, this one: "When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him." Here you see is a general promise laying down a principle of God's administration, which you may apply to the case before you, as a warrant for exercising faith in prayer. And if the case come up, to inquire as to the time in which God will grant blessings in answer to prayer, you have this promise: "While they are yet speaking, I will hear."
Finney continues:
If I had time to-night, I could go from one end of the Bible to the other, and produce an astonishing variety of texts that are applicable as promises; enough to prove, that in whatever circumstances a child of God may be placed, God has provided in the Bible some promise, either general or particular, which he can apply, that is precisely suited to his case. Many of God's promises are very broad on purpose to cover much ground. What can be broader than the promise in the text: "Whatsoever things ye desire when ye pray?" What praying Christian is there who has not been surprised at the length, and breadth, and fullness, of the promises of God, when the Spirit has applied them to his heart? Who that lives a life of prayer, has not wondered at his own blindness, in not having before seen and felt the extent of meaning and richness of those promises, when viewed under the light of the Spirit of God?
Yes, but what about taking promises out of their context? Charles Finney seems pretty blunt:
At such times he has been astonished at his own ignorance, and found the Spirit applying the promises and declarations of the Bible in a sense in which he had never dreamed of their being applicable before. The manner in which the apostles applied the promises, and prophecies, and declarations of the Old Testament, places in a strong light the breadth of meaning, and fullness, and richness of the word of God. He that walks in the light of God's countenance, and is filled with the Spirit of God as he ought to be, will often make an appropriation of promises to himself, and an application of them to his own circumstances, and the circumstances of those for whom he prays, that a blind professor of religion would never dream of.
He seems to be saying, Wrench Scriptures out of their historical context and apply/claim them to/for your situation; after all, that's what the apostles did.

What is your opinion on these matters?

1. Are we "free to all that is in the Bible"? Is Spurgeon right when he says, "There is not a promise, not a word in it, that is not yours"? Is Finney right when he alludes to the nature of the prophetical and its often dual fulfillment as a reason to treat all promises the same way?

2. Must we wait until we think the Holy Spirit has impressed us to lift a promise out of its historical context before we can claim it? Could not our imaginations deceive us in this manner?

3. Is it faith or presumption to use the Bible in this way?

4. Can it not be abused in absurd ways? For example, Paul told the Corinthians that "all things are yours" (1 Cor 3.21b) but that cannot mean that I am free to steal anything I want because all things are mine!

5. Yes, it's a given that we must pray according to the will of God (1 John 5.14-15) but have we cheated ourselves by not using the Bible promises in their "length, and breadth, and fullness...when the Spirit has applied them to his heart?"

6. Is the Bible a spiritual grocery store from which we may fill our carts up without "let or hindrance" or does such an approach to violence to sound hermeneutic principles?

There's no doubt that God powerfully used Spurgeon and Finney—and the Lord continues to do so long after they are dead. We, on the other hand, probably will be forgotten by the passing of time. Was it their faith that enabled them to do exploits for God? Let me slap my own hand for typing this but, pragmatically speaking, did such an approach work for them?