Mike Wells of Abiding Life Ministries International recently died. As a result my blog experienced a steady stream of people googling for information about him. I wrote an essay in response to a sermon I heard Mike Wells give back in 2005 and it seems to be the only Abiding Life criticism out there so other people have linked to it and it has pretty good page-rank. Search for "Mike Wells" and up pops my little essay. I'm guessing many friends of Abiding Life stumbled across my essay in the last couple of weeks and moved on but one person stopped to engage me. Nick left a lengthy comment that I appreciated and thought was worth reproducing in full:
Read your blog for the first time, re: Mike Wells' sermon. Interesting stuff. I can understand where you're coming from, but I don't think the message points you listed from his sermon actually sum up his broader body of teaching. I've known Mike for more than 20 years and his emphasis has always been on 'Christ in you, the hope of glory' as Paul writes in Col 1:27. While I wasn't there at the service you described, I have consistently heard Mike teach that a daily awareness of Christ, as He lives His life in us, reminds us that we are forgiven, and also that the struggles of today can be 'cast upon Jesus' as he strengthens us through His Holy Spirit. What Mike always stressed was that the only effort that counts is the spiritual effort Christ accomplishes in us. If we are boxing, running or striving in a spiritual sense, then itcx is possible because we are daily trusting in Him for our wisdom, strength and motivation. Mike never said daily devotional time, reading the scriptures, persevering, fighting addiction etc. was unnecessary. Instead he emphasized that none of this achieves anything without the revelation of the 'mystery' to which Paul refers in numerous passages. This is not some esoteric teaching, but basic truth from scripture. Christ is the mystery - and as you quite rightly point out - many evangelicals today struggle with how to make the Christian life 'work.' While I admire Bonhoeffer's example, his suggestion about 'costly grace' is not only a contradiction in terms, but a contradiction in theology. Yes, Christ paid the price for us. And I agree that thinking - now I'm saved I don't have to worry about how I live - is a dangerous belief. But the point of the Holy Spirit coming to live in us was so that we could have the 'mind of Christ', as well as His peace, joy, etc. He calls us into His service. And His service can be very costly. But His grace is in no way earned, or deserved. We are called to give and give and give of ourselves for the service of others. We can do this because His grace is sufficient for all our needs. He never stops giving and giving and giving. I understand the parable of the talents to be just this sort of picture. If the talents are understood to mean God's riches in glory, His grace, then those who invest it and use it are praised by their Heavenly Father. But the one who sat on it and didn't use what he had been entrusted with -was like the Pharisee whose view of God was akin to an angry, demanding judge. Grace is always free, but we can't truly enjoy it unless we are passing it on.
I don't mean that we shouldn't care about personal failure, but rather that we recognize personal failure as just that: something 'I' got wrong. When I am striving to live like Christ, I am worshiping an icon. When I daily let Him live in and through me, then I am transformed. In a literal sense the Gospels were a transitional period - but I think what is meant by that expression is: Jesus came to teach, heal and demonstrate His power as the only perfect Christian who ever existed. But the whole thing wouldn't have made sense unless He not only died, but rose again...and ascended into Heaven...and then sent His Helper, the Holy Spirit to prove that His life could be lived - not perfectly - but joyfully as was shown through the Book of Acts.
Telling the alcoholic that he needs to imitate Christ (without understanding that the HS is available to help) is about as useful as saying that changing his life doesn't matter because he's always forgiven. Few people struggling with these sorts of issues would happily declare that their problem doesn't matter now that they're forgiven. They know it does matter. And the only way they can begin to emerge from addiction etc. is if they do so knowing that they are forgiven, and that the Holy Spirit will strengthen them and guide them out of addiction. Maybe Mike's sermon that day didn't completely make sense. Fair enough. But I know that he talked about the 'abiding life' because John's Gospel was written to emphasize the absolute dependence that we must have on Christ in the form of His Spirit to accomplish His will. I don't mean to discredit what you were saying, and I know that Mike's message sometimes sounded too easy to be true, but so much of what he has taught in the past has been as I've described. He always demonstrated the indwelling life in a wonderfully wise and gracious manner, encouraging people to trust Christ for all their needs. Mike died three days ago while doing mission work in Costa Rica and the reason I stumbled on to your blog is because I was trying to find out more as to the circumstances of his death. Your blog came up. It's good to see someone questioning what they hear in sermons and teaching. Too few Christians are doing so. If you disagree with what I've said, don't hesitate to reply.
God Bless Nick
Nick - thank you for engaging with my essay about the Mike Wells sermon I heard. Obviously you have appreciated the ministry of Mike Wells and yet your comments are kind and irenic. I greatly appreciate it - if you read my initial blog post that links to the essay I tried to convey my hesitation at spending time criticizing someone near and dear to people's hearts. My motive in engaging the message of the sermon was to try to spur the congregation I am a part of to think more deliberately about how they understand the Christian life to work on a day-to-day basis and what that means for how we function as a body.
I was keenly aware that its easy to succumb to an attacking mentality when you set out to criticize something; it's also easy to become defensive when you're criticized. Like you, the people in my Congregation I talked to were pretty relaxed and interested mostly in clarifying both what I had to say and where I may have misunderstood what Mike had to say.
You said "I don't think the message points you listed from his sermon actually sum up his broader body of teaching" and I have to confess that this is possible. I'm not that familiar with Mike Wells or Abiding Life Ministries. Before I wrote my essay I spent some time browsing articles at http://abidinglife.com/ to try to gain a little more familiarity. I'm also very familiar with people who have been mentored by Mike Wells - like you they are personal friends of his and and they have been heavily influenced by Mike's overall message over the years. From this level of familiarity Mike's message didn't sound strange or even that unexpected to my ears - he said some things more explicitly that I had already picked up from other people.
I should also say I have no objection to some of Mike's main slogans and themes. "There is nothing that the nearness of Christ cannot cure" - sounds pretty good to me. "Christ in you, the hope of Glory" - I better like that one - that's Scripture! I've seen the illustration many times: your problems are in one hand and Christ in the other - which hand will you focus on? And that also sounds like it may be good and sensible advice.
What I had heard many times before and clearly heard from Mike that morning that I do disagree with was the idea that the Christian life should be lived without effort on our part. I admit here that this is not simple and straighforward. There is a message of rest, there is the acknowledgment that it must be God who works in us to will and to do. By no means do I advocate a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sort of Christianity where getting it right is simply a matter of trying harder.
I wouldn't quibble with your formulation that when we are exerting it is possible only because of the presence of Christ living in us. Or to phrase it a little differently - our exertions only do us good if they are driven by the life of Christ in us. What I didn't get from Mike, what I haven't heard from any other ALMI-folk is that sense of nuance. What I have heard is the negative commands to "give up", "come to the end of yourself", "stop trying", "realise you can't do it" sometimes followed by the positive command to abide or to rest. This word to (some) believers comes as a word of condemnation and discouragement. This message was so strong I would identify it as the theme of the sermon I heard and I want return to it later.
You also said: "While I admire Bonhoeffer's example, his suggestion about 'costly grace' is not only a contradiction in terms, but a contradiction in theology." I'm only guessing here that neither you nor Mike has ever tried to give Bonhoeffer a sympathetic reading. I don't know if you poked around on my site enough to realise I have a series of studies through Bonhoeffer's classic The Cost of Discipleship - this has been a book I've returned to frequently in my adult christian life so the comment by Mike (and your own comment) naturally catches my eye. The point of "costly grace" (if I can exegete Bonhoeffer for you) is not that we earn or deserve grace as you correctly point out - the point of costly grace is that we must correctly esteem the value of the Grace of God. "Cheap Grace" for Bonhoeffer is the grace we casually bestow upon ourselves apart from relationship with the Son of God. Bonhoeffer saw a Church that casually assumed God's grace while actively leading away from following Jesus and called upon his fellow believers to recognize that God gave his Son, that Christ shed his own blood, in order to be able to invite us into His family and His divine life. Costly Grace is not intended to be nor rightly understood a contradiction at all and Bonhoeffer remained Lutheran in his understanding of salvation, justification, and grace.
It seems to me that you intuit Bonhoeffer's point when you say "He calls us into His service. And His service can be very costly. But His grace is in no way earned, or deserved." But I'm not sure sure what you mean about personal failure when you say we should recognize personal failure as "something 'I' got wrong". Even more you lose me when you say "When I am striving to live like Christ, I am worshiping an icon." - I really don't know what this means.
I did agree with your definition of a transition period: Jesus is demonstrating who He is as messiah but will only fully be revealed in power and character by his death and resurrection. However - I very clearly got the sense that what Mike Wells meant by "the gospels are transitional period" was that we aren't to take Jesus words in the Gospels as commands for Christians. This is a theme I have also heard from other ALMI influenced people - that the words of Jesus in the Gospels are not for Christians but are to people still under the law. It is a mistake, from this point of view, to read the Sermon on the Mount and think that as Christians we should try to love our enemies.
This is the other major point of disagreement I felt with Mike's sermon. I suspect this is some of what your comment about "striving to live like Jesus" is aiming at even if I don't understand the icon bit - for me living the Christian life is a matter of entering into relationship with Jesus and by God's grace and empowerment seeking to follow him. Following is most directly done by hearing and doing what he taught. This is not simply a matter of following a new law - much of what Jesus has to say transcends simple "do" or "do not" commands and penetrates to our hearts. Yet I believe Jesus did and does intend that we hear his words and set about to obey them.
Phrasing it like that (and using words like obey, obedience, discipleship, etc) seems to be contrary to the message of Mike Wells as I have heard it both directly and indirectly so let me also note a couple of points of agreement. I definitely agree with last point: Christian ethics are incoherent outside the person of Jesus. Going around telling people to be more moral doesn't save them and ultimately the Christian life can't be lived outside relationship with Jesus, an indwelling of the Spirit, and communion with God. I am also clear that the process of sanctification, of discipleship, of growing in grace and knowledge, of maturing as believers only comes upon a solid foundation of understanding that Christ died for me, a sinner, that I am saved not because of my works but despite them, that the love of God is not conditioned upon my performance for Him but rather that I strive and am able to strive because I am loved by God and He dwells in me. However - I believe it does mature believers a disservice to teach (as I thought I heard Mike do) that we should not exert ourselves, that there is no effort in the Christian life, that we shouldn't be "trying", etc.
Haven't written more about Mike Wells since 2005 - despite enjoying a good argument I try not to make an occupation out of finding people to criticize. And honestly I felt even more reticent writing this essay than I first did now that Mike has passed away.
One thing I have considered in the meantime is the pastoral necessity of considering your audience and this both strengthens and reduces my criticism of the Abiding Life message as I have heard it.
It seems to me that Mike had a keen awareness of a particular trap or perhaps two - counterfeit gospels if you will - that express themselves in Christians who believe they must earn their relationship with God and who are consumed by guilt over sin and failure or who are tempted to reduce relationship with Christ to morality or ceremony. The shorthand I hear for these two counterfeits is "condemnation" and "religion".
Given an audience that falls into one of those camps I understand the pastoral appropriateness of the Abiding Life message. But I believe that at least as many Christians are influeced by a false Gospel that teaches that God loves you, saying a prayer once saves you, and now you can do whatever you want secure in the knowledge that the main point of Christianity (going to heaven when you die) has been secured.
To those people the Abiding Life message is at best incomprehensible: My problems are in one hand and Jesus in the other? How about I look at my new car instead of at my hands? And at worst it reinforces their contentment with their eternally secure salvation which requires nothing more of them and will get nothing more - including the nearness of Jesus. They don't need a cure! They're going to heaven aren't they?
At this point I agree with (and am compelled to quote at length) Bonhoeffer. This has been my personal experience in Christianity and I am convinced it is every bit as big a problem as "religion" or "condemnation":
The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 1
This cheap grace has been no less disastrous to our own spiritual lives. Instead of opening up the way to Christ it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience. Perhaps we had once heard the gracious call to follow him, and had at this command even taken the first few steps along the path of discipleship in the discipline of obedience, only to find ourselves confronted by the word of cheap grace. Was that not merciless and hard? The only effect that such a word could have on us was to bar our way to progress, and seduce us to the mediocre level of the world, quenching the joy of discipleship by telling us that we were following a way of our own choosing, that we were spending our strength and disciplining ourselves in vain—all of which was not merely useless, but extremely dangerous. After all, we were told, our salvation had already been accomplished by the grace of God. The smoking flax was mercilessly extinguished. It was unkind to speak to men like this, for such a cheap offer could only leave them bewildered and tempt them from the way to which they had been called by Christ. Having laid hold on cheap grace, they were barred for ever from the knowledge of costly grace. Deceived and weakened, men felt that they were strong now that they were in possession of this cheap grace—whereas they had in fact lost the power to live the life of discipleship and obedience. The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works.
Bonhoeffer had no new commands to offer, no program of works to set up, no new moralism to establish. He is merely concerned that we hear the call of Jesus to follow, and that we do in fact follow where Jesus calls - and he resented deeply the German Christianity that turned men away from following Jesus with the word "Grace". I would encourage you to read Bonhoeffer if you haven't done so and it strikes me, in fact, that the last paragraph of Chapter 1 expresses the Christian life in a way that doesn't seem that incongruent with message of Mike Wells.
Happy are they who have reached the end of the road we seek to tread, who are astonished to discover the by no means self-evident truth that grace is costly just because it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace, and are able to sing the praises of the all-sufficient grace of Christ with humbleness of heart. Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.
Thank you Nick for taking the time to write to me. I hope I've been as gracious as you were - and know that I mean what I said about Christian unity. In Christ we are brothers even when, maybe especially when, we don't see things eye to eye but recognize Christ in each other anyways.blog comments powered by Disqus