The past month I have been meditating on Andrew Murray’s classic of spirituality Absolute Surrender. Some of you have read, or are starting to read, this inspirational encouragement toward a more Spirit-empowered life. It is such a relief to see a vision of the spiritual life more akin to the New Testament and the empowerment of the Resurrection, if only we would turn in surrender and trust in God.
Experientially and biblically Murray is on to something. "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (Ephesians 3:16 TNIV). Nevertheless, I balk at the tone in the book and especially words that conjure up perfection or absolute sanctification. That said, it is a sign of cynical faithlessness not to take Murray up on his teaching that trust and obedience can be means of grace to a more empowered life. If his teaching is to be modified, I think it is not in the details but in the tone or the strange things we can do with Andrew Murray’s powerful message.
One of my hesitations involves the danger that striving for Absolute Surrender can lead to sub-biblical legalism and a form of Christian works righteousness. As the apostle Paul might say, what you begin in the Spirit must be completed in the same way as you started. Striving to surrender is such an oxymoronic idea even though it does capture the truth of the paradox. A second dilemma that is front and center in attempting to apply Absolute Surrender is introspection. The notion gets you looking inward to see if you are surrendered or obedient or trusting enough. Trusting that the Spirit is at work in you is one thing but to make extra demands on your rather weak will to say yes all the time is futile. And so at the completion of the reading, I decided that my mantra, "more than less so, in the power and by the grace of the Spirit", seems to be the ticket.
As these ideas were dawning on me I realized a struggle in me. I certainly don’t want to be justifying my less than stellar performance and setting my sights and expectations in a faithless manner. A book I am starting to read is helping to measure Murray’s vision: Keeping in Step with the Spirit by my former professor J.I. Packer. Packer was writing the book while I was at Regent College and it was being typed by a friend of mine who kept talking about it. I haven’t read it until now!
What Packer does in the first section is to describe where authors like Murray and other "Keswick" teachers are coming from. In the eighteenth century John Wesley developed a doctrine of Christian Perfection that resulted in some pretty legalistic Methodists. You can read about them in Charles Dickens if you like. In the nineteenth century there was a backlash against this teaching but it went way too far into some really anemic understandings of Christian faith. Then came a renewal, revival or whatever you call it, and the holiness movement was kicked off as a redress to the conservative evangelical reaction. We know how that process works; it sets up a dialectic of extremes and Andrew Murray, R.A. Torrey and others represent the exciting end of that movement.
The rest of Packer’s book, while not denying the truths or desires of the Keswick movement, offers what he thinks is a more biblical and experientially balanced but not lazy or cynical, approach to the work of the Spirit. His particular theological flavour is Reformed or Calvinist with a dash of the best of Puritan thought. He hints that holiness is increasingly possible but that the battle is won in grace and over a lifetime. I must have subconsciously picked up my mantra from Packer or at least made it my own in the phrase…more than less living in the Spirit. I am looking forward to reading this book and seeing how it augments, corrects and clarifies the Spirit life that Andrew Murray has perked my interest in. I am hoping to keep you posted on my learning curve in this vital area since it involves all of us in community.