Authors Note: I first published this on a previous blog in 2012. The views expressed in this essay remain at the core of my convictions today. That is one reason I decided to post it. Another reason is, I’m hoping to finally get back to writing Part 2 — which I’ve never completed! I trust you will be blessed with understanding as you read…
“And [Jesus] said, ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible with God'” (Luke 18:27).
“I’m a pessimistic optimist,” said Dr. William Davidson, whom I had the honor to study Church History and American Christianity with while in Seminary. In fact, I consider myself doubly blessed, because he was also my faculty advisor and the foremost Free Will Baptist Historian of the era. Since I was a Free Will Baptist minister at the time, and members of my family have been Free Will Baptists for at least 7 generations in North Carolina, that meant a great deal to me.
I confess, when I heard “Dr. D” verbalize this philosophical maxim, I was initially puzzled. He quickly added that “what men could not do, God could do.” In the context of the class that day — as I recall, it was American Christianity — and of the greater subject matter, it made sense. From that moment on, Dr. D’s philosophical maxim has stuck with me.
I suppose, however, that I’ve taken his observation much farther than he ever would. Dr. D is a faculty member at Columbia International University, and I am a very happy alumnus of the Seminary. Class of ’96. I got what I believe to be among the best educations in “Divinity” available at any Evangelical Graduate school. The College, and later the Seminary, were born out of the American arm of the “Keswick movement,” which began in the last quarter of the 19th century with a conference in Keswick, England (where it got it’s name), and spread through a significant portion of Evagelicalism. It is also known as the “Higher Life movement,” and its basic teaching is that it is possible — and it should be the “normal” Christian experience — to live an abundant, joyful and victorious Christian life. This “victorious Christian life” emphasizes that believers have the privilege of living above known sin as part of their walk with Christ, which enables them to live in holiness and victory.
Now, I would hasten to add that I don’t know Dr. D’s personal theology on the issue, though like the vast majority of professors at CIU, I imagine the “Keswick” view is likely. It has been and is even now very common among Evangelicals the world over. Back in the 1800’s, “famous” adherents to the Keswick message included the renowned Evangelist D.L. Moody, founder of China Inland Mission Hudson Taylor,
and R.A. Torrey. In the early part of the 20th century, of course, Dr. Robert C. McQuilkin was a leader in the American Keswick movement, and out of that movement was born Columbia Bible College — Now Columbia International University. In the last generation or two, well-known Christian Pastors, writers and theologians such as Robertson McQuilkin, Stephen Olford, John Stott, Stuart Briscoe, Alistair Begg, and this evangelist (you may have heard of him) from North Carolina named Billy Graham have all professed adherence to the Keswick view of the “victorious Christian life.”
Thus, when I say that I took to heart Dr. D’s maxim, “I’m a pessimistic optimist,” I imagine I took it much farther than he would have ever intended. The reason I say that is because I do not fall into the “Keswick school” regarding the nature, ability or possibility of mankind to live “victoriously” in this life. At least, not as we think of it in our too often limited, humanistic, materialistic capacity. I take Jesus quite literally at His word when He says, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” And remember, this was a direct answer to the Disciple’s question, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26).
The simple answer: NO ONE. Of course, this is nothing that most traditional, Biblical Evangelicals do not affirm. Evangelicals “know” that we as humans can do nothing, contribute nothing, add nothing to earn nor buy our salvation. And even after salvation, what we “do” is not us — but Him working in us and through us. Thus, we are not victorious — HE is, in us.
Let me explain, then, why I say I am “a pessimistic optimist,” particularly as it regards mankind, both as individuals and as a race.
First, because Humans are “totally depraved.” That is, humanity — every human being — has inherited “original sin” from the father of the race, Adam. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed to all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Not only have humans inherited a nature that is fallen, but they are thereby predisposed to act sinfully themselves. This is “volitional sin,” and is what Paul addresses when he writes to the Romans, “There is none righteous; no, not one….For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10,23). Total Depravity does not mean that humans are “as bad as they can be,” but that all parts of human nature are marred and corrupted, and indeed dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1a), and humans are rendered incapable of doing any good at all apart from the grace of God (John 15:5).
Second, because humans can get worse. In fact, Moses records in Genesis 6 that in the years leading up to the great flood: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart were only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). During Noah’s lifetime, he watched humanity descend to the depths of depravity — and he built an ark. They mocked, and he kept building. They scoffed, but he kept preaching (2 Peter 2:5). None believed, but he kept on working. And when the rains came, he and his family entered the ark and GOD shut the door (Genesis 7:16). None were saved but Noah and his family alone — because humans can get worse.
Third, because human civilizations always do decline and fall. Paul makes that excruciatingly clear in Romans 1:18-32. Here, Paul describes the steps any given human civilization goes through as it descends into the depths of depravity. When it reaches the deepest depths, and drags the bottom, that civilizations time is up. The four steps of any human civilization as it descends into depravity, and thus, destruction are:
- Intelligence – (Romans 1:18-20; cf. Psalm 19:1) God reveals Himself in the Creation
- Ignorance – (Romans 1:21-23; cf. I Corinthians 3:19,20) Man willfully rejects knowledge of God
- Immorality – (Romans 1:24-27) Willful ignorance leads to immorality — when mankind refuses to believe the Truth of God, they will believe the lies of Satan (cf. Genesis 3:1-8; John 5:43, 8:44; 2 Thessalonians 2:11) NOTE: “God gives them up” (1:24), “God gives them up” (1:26)….
- Impenitence – (Romans 1:28-32) When mankind rejects God and begins to reap what they have sown, they most often do not repent, but angrily shake their fists in the face of God (cf. Revelation 9:20,21). This is the last stage of a human society, a civilization in decline, facing collapse under the weight of their own depravity and rebellion against God. As with Pharaoh, there comes a point when the hearts of the leaders and the people are hardened and will soften no more — and God then hardens their heart, for they are fit for nothing but judgment and condemnation.
Fourth, because humans are getting worse. Some might seek to contradict me. They would say “there is nothing new under the sun,” or “the same sins being committed now have always been around.” This line of reasoning is faulty. The Apostle Paul leaves little doubt about conditions in the future when he warns Timothy, “But evil men shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). I think this statement refers not only to individuals in the immediate sense who, as they indulge in sin become less and less restrained, but also to societies and civilizations, as Paul explained in Romans 1. Not only can it happen, it is happening — in our time, in this day, in our nation and across the entire globe.
Fifth, because the “Church” is failing — and will fail. This is the one that gets me in the most trouble with the most people. Not just the Keswick proponents, but just about everyone else. Biblically, however, the “Church,” at least in its human, institutional, organizational form on earth, has failed, and will fail to complete the Mission God has set before it. I have long called this the “made-with-hands” Church. Too often we have “sanctified” our denominations, and glorified our organizations and exalted our edifices when Paul rightly taught that “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing He is the Lord of heaven and earth, dwells not in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). Paul (yes, Paul) further explained in Hebrews that “when Christ appeared as the high priest of good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation…. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:11,24).
Paul warns Timothy, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:1,2). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul went even further in describing the kind of failures the Church would see in “the last days”: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away [their] ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3,4). But Paul was not alone, as Peter also warned the disciples, “there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1). Peter goes on to tell them, “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (2 Peter 3:3). Jude, the half-brother of Jesus also noted that “They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires” (Jude 1:18).
I won’t take the time to illustrate or explain a distinction between the “Universal Church,” or the “Invisible Church,” or the “Body of Christ,” which is spiritual, and is composed of every truly born again believer, and the “Institutional Church,” and the “Visible Church,” or the many varied denominations, sects and local churches that compose the temporal organization that is made up of members as defined by each of the groups as they see fit — some true to scripture, many not — and all composed of, as Jesus referred to them in His Parable, “Wheat and Tares” (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). It is worthy of noting, however, that the “made-with-hands” Church fails. The Church fails because the temporal institution is composed of humans, corrupted by humans, and manned by depraved humans. Even the greatest of saints have warring within them two natures, and this battle continues until the day he or she passes from this life and stands in the presence of the Lord, glorified and freed from the very presence of sin (Galatians 5:16-26; Romans 7:14-25).
I must note at this point that my “pessimism” about the Church — and about humanity — is not a full “fatalism,” as some might believe. I have not said that victories cannot be won. I have not said that we cannot see miraculous things happen, or that obstacles, sins, and many other problems, issues and handicaps cannot be dealt with in our Christian walk. I have found, however, that there is only one “secret” to “living the Christian Life.” If you want to “live for God,” DIE. Die to self. Paul gave us the one and only formula for “victory” when he said, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The “victories” that come in life are completely of HIM. The failures are completely ours — because we fail to plug in to HIS power.
I also won’t take the time to draw the eschatological/prophetic implications of my statement that the Church is failing and will fail. I will leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that our inability, even with the Holy Spirit indwelling us, available in full measure to fill us that we might walk in His power (Ephesians 5:18), we still fail. We fail to achieve unity, to fulfill the Great Commission, to observe the Great Commandments, to be salt and light…. To simply do those things that God has called us to do, as individuals, and thus as a collective.
Sixth, because life confirms scripture. I would like to say that my own experience in life contradicts the view that I outline here from Scripture, but instead, what I have seen in my life confirms Scripture. When I read of Ananias and Sapphira, who sought not only to lie to Peter and the Jerusalem Church, but to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11), I can say I have known some Ananias’ and Sapphira’s. When I read about Hymaneas and Alexander making shipwreck of their faith (I Timothy 1:18-20), I can sadly say I have known those who have become “apostate,” and left behind the faith they once knew. When Paul tells Timothy that “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10a), I can sense his deep sadness, because I have been forsaken by those who chose the things of the world over loyalty to the Lord, to His Word, to His Servants. And when I read the final words of Paul, testifying that “at my first defense [before Nero] no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them” (2 Timothy 4:16), I have been left alone when “all forsook me,” with only the exceptional “Luke” who stayed with me, and the Timothy and Mark who rushed to me for ministry in my time of need. They were the exception, not the rule.
I don’t pretend to say that my experience is anything more than anecdotal — but it is my experience. Apparently, my experience has been shared by millions of others, to a greater or lesser extent, in the “made-with-hands” Churches of the world. When one can say that they have been more mistreated by those within “the Church” than those in “the world,” What kind of witness is that to the world? What does that say of “the Church”? To me, it says, “The ‘Church’ has failed.”
Finally, then, one might conclude with the words of the Lord: “The things which are impossible with men…. I am pessimistic about the ability of mankind to effect any kind of positive change in society or human life. I am pessimistic about the ability of even redeemed mankind — those who are “saved,” who have been redeemed and are a part of the Church — to make lasting, effective and positive changes to this world. Why? Because the world is currently given to the rule of “the prince of this world” (John 12:31), and though believers have at their disposal all the power to defeat him through Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20), they do not call upon it, avail themselves of it, nor experience the potential for total victory that could be theirs. In fact, it is more likely that the redeemed will be “prone to wander,” in the words of the old hymn, and fall back into their worldly ways, even while in the Church — something that Paul, John, Peter and Jude had to deal with in the epistles of the New Testament often.
From the time of the Reformation until near the mid-20th century, the predominant eschatological view (understanding of the end times) was known as “Postmillennialism.” Postmillennialism had a very positive faith and confidence in the ability of redeemed humans to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. This view basically affirmed the idea that the Church would expand through evangelism — and where necessary colonialism — and eventually the world would become “Christianized.” That is, the majority of People on earth would become believers in Christ — and thus the Church would “bring in” or “initiate” the Kingdom of God on earth. The belief was that the Church would reign over earth during the “Kingdom Age” (euphemistically call “The Millennium” – though some believed it was a literal 1,000 years), and only at the END of that Kingdom Age, when Satan came to earth to directly attack the Church, would Jesus literally return to fight for the Church, receive His kingdom from the Church, and create eternity future — the New Heavens and New Earth.
It was this view that drove the Puritans to cross the Atlantic and settle in Plymouth Colony — to “create the Kingdom of God on earth.” It was this view that drove many of the Founders in the Rebellion against King George III — “We have no King but Jesus!” It was this view that compelled the Abolitionists in the early Republic to fight for an end to chattel Slavery, and the Temperance movement to fight against legal alcoholic beverages. Both succeeded — slavery was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment; Alcohol was made illegal in 1919 [Prohibition] with the 18th Amendment, but repealed in 1933 with the 21st Amendment. This view of Christian “triumphalism” was behind the great migration west, “Manifest Destiny” which was the belief that we [the United States — or at least Anglo-Protestant Christians] were to rule the entire continent — which meant the Native Americans had to go — to reservations or to the grave (in the name of Jesus and the United States Government, of course). It was this concept that promoted the “Monroe Doctrine,” forbidding any European powers from colonizing any lands in the Americas after the Administration of James Monroe. It was This ideal that Teddy Roosevelt pushed when we went to war with Spain in 1898 — and became an “empire” for all intents and purposes, conquering Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam — for the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba — something the Spanish didn’t even do. And it was this dream that Woodrow Wilson seized upon when, after his reelection, he broke his promise to keep us out of the “Great War” in Europe, and committed American forces to fight in what he dubbed, “The War to End All Wars.” Why? Because he was sure that when this war ended, his dream for a “League of Nations” would be the blueprint for establishing the “Kingdom of God” and “Christianizing” the Earth. But, Woodrow Wilson was wrong. Terribly wrong.
In reality, “the War to End All Wars” was merely “strike one” for the grand optimistic view of redeemed human’s abilities to establish the “Kingdom of God.” “Strike Two” came in 1929 with the crash of the stock market and the following Great Depression. And “Strike Three” came between 1939 and 1941, depending on where you lived on the earth. In Europe, it was 1939. In Asia, it was 1939 — or even a decade or more earlier, if you ask the Chinese and Koreans, who had been fighting conquest by the Japanese Empire for years. December 7th, 1941 was the date of death for most Postmillennialism in the United States. It’s very difficult to remain an optimist about humanity — even redeemed humanity — when 25-30 million people die in the WWI, the Great Depression leaves at least 25% of people without jobs, homeless, unable to purchase necessities, hunger and starvation in some countries becomes common, especially Germany. Then, 60-65 million die in WWII, which ends with the detonation of the first atomic weapons, and includes the Holocaust — the murder of over 6 million Jews, nearly a third of the worlds Jewish population.
By the Mid-20th Century, most Protestants, Evangelicals in particular had adopted a decidedly pessimistic view of the ability of humanity to effect lasting and real change on the earth, via politics or other social means. In fact, in many cases Evangelicals and Fundamentalists took that withdrawal and “separation” from society, culture and the Body Politic too far. Most within the orthodox church did realize, however, the reality that no theology, no doctrine of anthropology, could rightfully claim humans had the ability to bring in the Kingdom of God. Postmillennialism withered. Optimism about the ability of humans, even redeemed humans, is unwarranted. It is unsupported in Scripture, in experience and in history.
But, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. (Luke 18:27).
THIS is why I am a pessimistic OPTIMIST. Which I will explain in a future essay: A Pessimistic Optimist: Part 2 – Why I Am Optimistic, and What (or Whom) I Am Optimistic About.