While undergoing some training with Young Life, to begin working as a volunteer, I was privileged to hear from a fellow named John Miller. Miller had been one of the founders of Young Life, sixty years earlier. In 2001, nearing the end of his life, he brought a message to the newest generation of Young Life leaders. He quoted from his 1990’s-era book entitled “Back to the Basics of Young Life.” As the title suggests, Miller’s message was one of return, of recalling the roots of the ministry. “Get cozy with Jesus,” he drawled, leaning on a chair. “Snuggle up to Jesus.”
John N. Miller went to his reward only a few months later, on June 4, 2001.
Another John, about nineteen hundred years earlier, sounded a similar theme as he too neared the end of his earthly life:
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. 1 John 2:7
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 2:20-21
As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. 2:24
Most scholars believe that his three epistles were composed at the end of his remarkably long life. Hearing of the new teachings and ideas that were infiltrating the church, of which he is likely the last surviving original disciple, he takes his pen in hand to reassure his congregation. He reminds them that they already have the knowledge they need. They already know the truth; they need only to adhere to that, and not look elsewhere.
John is a classic conservative, in the strict (non-political) sense of the word. His primary concern in his First Epistle is that the congregation would turn back to what they have heard “from the beginning” and not seek after some novelty of doctrine. He characterizes this kind of curiosity as “being led astray.” He wants to bring his hearers back to the original principles, the bedrock teaching that is full and complete and sufficient. His authoritative epistle is a bulwark against this perceived (false) sense of deficiency. They should not, John argues, be yearning for a new experience, a new special knowledge or teaching, a new spiritual ‘high.’
It is generally well-known that the Gnostic form of teaching was gaining followers among the Christians of John’s day. Gnosticism (a doctrine something like today’s Christian Science) taught that a fuller experience of God lay in the path of special knowledge, or gnosis. Paul, himself a classic conservative, wrote against this idea to his young protégé, the pastor of the church at Ephesus:
Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge [gnosis], which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.
1 Timothy 6:20-21
Plus ça change. There is surely plenty of new doctrine around these days. John reminds us to return to our roots. The real, original gospel of grace is sufficient. As Paul says,
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him… Colossians 2:6
Peter, likewise, reminded his flock that “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3) Everything we need is provided in the gospel. The Holy Spirit is our teacher:
I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.
1 John 2:26-27
The delivery of Christian doctrine should be sola Spiritus – drawing on the teaching resource available to all believers. That is, it should not depend on a teacher who brings up something new, like the cult leader who claims to have “a truth hidden from us for centuries.” The content of Christian doctrine should be sola scriptura — nothing more than a reminder of old truths that were written down long ago (though perhaps forgotten). Therefore the only “novelty” to be had is in the experience of an inadequately-instructed believer who begins to discover these things. These newly-unearthed “nuggets” were always in the ground and ours for the taking from the beginning.
What obscures the truth, then? Why do so many Christians remain ignorant of the life-altering truths that languish unused, unclaimed, unexercised in their Bibles? We must always remember that our sanctificiation, that is, our growth and progress in holiness, is dependent upon our cooperation. And in that process, we have an adversary. Satan’s job in many cases is not putting ideas into our heads, but keeping them out. If he can successfully cause Christians to misapprehend, or not apprehend at all, the New Covenant teachings, he can thwart the believer’s progress and render him ineffective and unproductive.
Satan tries to make the New Testament seem boring. As a result, the believer who falls under his sway starts looking elsewhere, as though there were higher mountains to be climbed, new vistas to be conquered. This was the first-century appeal of Gnosticism. Today, the evangelical and (especially) Pentecostal worship culture actually nurtures this wanderlust, this ache for novelty. Modern worship lyrics exhibit a troubling tendency in that the singer must express a sense of “pining” or “yearning” for a new experience. Often these lyrics are in the form of a prayer to God for an anointing, or a plea to “send down” some sort of new blessing or revelation.
The singing of such lyrics engenders a mentality of insufficiency among the worshipers. A key theme of the New Testament – particularly the First Epistle of John, Peter’s two epistles, and the letters of Paul to Timothy and to the Galatian churches – is that Christ is sufficient. Singing these songs reinforces the unscriptural idea among believers that what they have is in fact not enough; there is another, higher experience awaiting them. The writings of John (and Paul and Peter) teach against this attitude.
Further, it corrupts the language of grace. Too often the modern worship song employs “grace” in a dynamic, rather than a static sense. That is, it sees grace in the Roman Catholic way, as something dispensed from above from time to time, and our responsibility is to call for it and yearn for it. As evangelical Christians, we should instead embrace the New Testament formulation: Grace is a static quantity, a complete provision of God through Christ’s finished work that cannot be augmented or changed:
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. Ephesians 4:7
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
We stand in grace; we do not come to God seeking it, or clamoring for more of it.
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
2 Peter 1:3
When a believer begins to see the power and wonder of grace, he or she shakes off the folly of wanderlust and begins instead to stand confidently on the received truth, the old truth — that which “we have heard from the beginning.”