“The God of Surprise” – An Interview with Ern Baxter.
I found this interview with Dr Ern Baxter quite by chance, and as I transcribed it - I became convinced that it is one of the most vital interviews I have ever read of his. He emphasises two thrusts: The absolute essential need for a tension between Word and Spirit, and secondly his passionate belief in the "Sovereign Surprises" of God (See Part 1, 2, 3 for his awesome sermon on this). If we are to believe and pray for revival, and for another greater move of the Holy Spirit in our day - then this interview and its principles and wisdom MUST be read, and absorbed and put into practice.
Q: Ern, with your 40 years of experience in various moves of God, can you comment on all that God has done and give us some perspective on it?
Baxter: That’s quite a demanding question and I’m a little reluctant to try and attack it because it requires not only a comprehensive answer but also a perceptive one. Rather than answer specifically, I will begin with an important principle I have seen in all movements – the need for balance between the Word and the Spirit. In one of the movements of God’s Spirit that I was involved in which was experiencing instability, I told the leaders right from the beginning; “If you don’t bring this movement under the disciplines of the Word of God, it’s going to scatter 27 ways to nowhere”. And that’s what happened. Had it stabilized and come under the authority of the Word, it could have made even more of an impact than it did. As it was, its impact on Christianity was considerable.
The conviction I have held for over 40 years now, ever since I was a young man trying to lay my own conceptual and life foundation, is that if we don’t maintain balance between the didactic and the pneumatic – the Word and the Spirit – we will get off the track. When there’s an overemphasis on doctrinal rectitude and conceptual accuracy, to the neglect of the inspirational and the pneumatic or charismatic, the Christian life deteriorates into an intellectual exercise and produces little spiritual food. On the other hand, when people get too involved with the experiential and the emotional without hedging it with biblical disciplines and guidelines, they go off into fanaticism and radicalism and the movement eventually dissipates.
As I read history, it seems to me that somehow all the problems lie in that area. In fact, I was recently talking to a group of men who were discussing their pastoral responsibility and I asked them, “Where are you headed?”. They replied, “We’ve been pretty heavy into teaching with our people lately and we really feel that we need to get a little more inspiration”. I smiled, because I could see that these men were wrestling with that legitimate tension between the Word (didactic) and the Spirit (pneumatic). That is an ever present tension.
I can look back over my own life and see where I have reacted to both sides. I have said about certain movements, “Well that’s too cerebral – too theological. It doesn’t have any life in it”. And in doing so, I’ve almost thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Other times I’ve reached for the inspirational and found it going off into extremes and I have overreacted to that. So what I’m saying is to some degree autobiographical.
Q: That tension of maintaining a balanced approach to the Christian life is something we all need to grapple with, don’t you think?
Baxter: Yes. I recently talked with another group of men who are in charge of a large constituency of believers and they had obviously reacted to some charismatic extremes. I said to them, “I can understand why you’ve reacted, but in the final analysis, it rests upon those of us in leadership to determine where the balance is”. That’s the agony of being a leader. I can’t indulge my personal feelings. I must make godly evaluations and try to maintain a balance between the Word and the Spirit because from Genesis to Revelation, the Word and the Spirit are Siamese twins. They are inseparable. If you try to cut them in half or separate them, then you will have problems.
Q: That whole question is very appropriate to the charismatic renewal because it certainly caused an explosion of the experiential in most denominations and churches.
Baxter: That’s right. All of the revival movements mentioned earlier sprang up out of an obvious need for some kind of renewal. The Church had not just settled down to normal – it had settled down to subnormal. The renewal came to break that sub normalcy and breathe some life into the situation. James Gilchrist Lawson says in the preface to his book, 'Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians' that historically it’s obvious these renewal forces had to be extreme to bring about the required effects and changes. I believe that’s true for any renewal. Then adjustments can be made somewhere along the line to bring the extremes back into balance.
Unfortunately those adjustments aren’t always made. I’ve heard people in the charismatic movement glibly say, “The Lord said this” or “The Holy Spirit told me that”, and I didn’t have to have the gift of discernment or any profound perception, to simply recall two or three Scriptural references to show conclusively “that what the Lord was saying” wasn’t what the Bible said. When it comes to a choice like that, my choice is in the Word of God.
Some Christians who have lived in a dry religion for years are so enamoured with this new found release that the charismatic movement provides that they don’t believe there are any perimeters or boundaries. They go off emotionally – and that brings us back to the constant tension between the didactic and the pneumatic.
Q: in many ways, we’re still struggling to find that balance aren’t we?
Baxter: Yes but I see the battle between the didactic and the pneumatic as part of the process of God in history, and there will come a time when that balance will be achieved. I would probably give in to an ultimate discouragement if I didn’t believe from the Word of God that in the purposes of God there is a time factor that God has planned in the inscrutability of His degrees and counsels, that there is going to be a time in history when certain things are going to happen. I’m prepared to live with the process of God in history that’s going to have an ultimate victorious outcome.
We’re saved by hope but hope is not, “I hope it will happen”. In the Bible, hope is the assurance of what is going to happen. Men like David served their generation, made their contribution to the divine historic process and then went on to sleep. That gives me comfort because I too have to serve my generation and fall on to sleep. It is my hope that the next generation will be the one to see the Kingdom of God in all its reality. If it’s not that generation will also contribute to the process. The plan of God is a progressive one and it is only a philosophy that sees the ultimate victory of the decrees of God can keep you safe.
Q: Where do you think God’s plan is taking us?
Baxter: I can only attempt to answer this from God’s standpoint. To try to get into an analysis of all of the elements and factors involved is, first of all, beyond my ability. Secondly, even if I were an expert in that kind of analysis, there is other data that indicates to me that I don’t have all the information. So I have to approach it from God’s standpoint. I believe that such factors as righteousness, the purposes of God, obedience and others are being worked out in us. Man is learning. God is teaching. God is revealing these principles and we are making our responses whether they be good, bad or indifferent.
Ultimately the decree of God is going to be victorious. God has always had a witness and God will always have a people. These people are destined for ultimate victory to co-share with Jesus Christ the sovereignty over the earth. God’s going to work it out. I’m a biblical optimist and I believe as we walk in the light, we will see God’s purposes revealed.
I don’t want to be abrasive, but I sometimes think that we can be a little too inquisitive about what is going to happen, a little too anxious to prognosticate the future rather than being childlike and trusting that our Father is taking care of tomorrow. One of the problems with trying to analyse the future is that you can never anticipate God’s surprises. I was thinking about this recently and I began to mentally list the surprises of God as revealed in the Scriptures. The Bible is full of God’s unanticipated interventions – unanticipated because you would have never have guessed win a hundred years what He was planning to do. For example the coming of Christ. Who could have ever believed that a Nazarene carpenter being put to death between two thieves could be the Saviour of the world?
What will His next intervention be? God reached down and put His hand on John Wesley, Dwight L Moody, Augustine, Saul of Tarsus, Peter the fisherman. Who is He going to His hand on next? We can’t know what is just around the corner, but the fact that God intervened in the lives of all these men and has performed a whole lot of exciting interventional surprises since, indicates that He’s got a lot more up His sleeve?
What is He going to do next? I don’t know! I look at the visitations just in my own lifetime and I wonder where they all came from. I don’t want to appear to be wisdom personified and say, “This is going to happen” because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You may pick up a newspaper tomorrow and find a whole new thing is taking place. I know that doesn’t provide much intellectual satisfaction but it feeds me that I know I am walking with a God of history and sovereignty. And the God of history is certainly no drab personality. He is the most exciting Creature in the universe.
Q: What would you say our responsibility is to be, knowing that God, by sending His Word, is able to completely alter our circumstances?
Baxter: I think our main job is to find out what God wants us personally to do and then do it. I’m not sure that I haven’t been too nosey and curious about what everyone else is doing. There is a place for general knowledge but I don’t need to be aware of what everybody else is doing down to the last detail. Rather my responsibility is to find out what God wants me to do and do it. I received great comfort from that in recent years because there was a time when I wanted to be a kind of cosmic ecumenist; I what to know what everybody else was doing. Lately however, I have received great strength and comfort from finding out what God wants me to do, getting involved with it and doing it. It carries with it some publicity but that’s really not important. The point is, I must do the will of God.
Jesus knew what it was to be in the limelight, to feed five thousand but He also knew what it was to forego the pleasure of going to Jerusalem with His brothers. Jesus found His fulfilment in doing the Father’s will. He said, “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8:29). I want to give myself totally to what I should be doing. That is our responsibility – to know what God wants us to do and then do it.
Q: That whole characteristic of God’s unpredictability is the essence of what He did in the charismatic movement. For example, who could have predicted that God would reach down into the midst of the drug culture and start the Jesus movement, bringing those people into the things of God?
Baxter: That’s right. In fact, God almost seems to have a kind of humorous mischief about Him. The Caesars and the governors were carrying on as if they owned the world, not knowing that the baby who had just been born in Bethlehem was about to split history in two. Who would have guessed that the little boy growing up chiselling wood in his stepfather’s carpenters shop was nothing less than a history changing dynamite – a little kid in a carpenters shop! During the 30 years that he was growing up, the rulers had no idea what was going on.
My question is – what’s going on somewhere right now? It has to be going on because Jesus said; “My Father worketh hitherto and I work”. There’s no doubt that the Lord is at work to accomplish His purposes and establish His sovereignty in all the earth.
My personal confidence, which I think is pretty well known, is that God will win the victory. Not one jot or tittle of His plans will fail. I live for that and I live in that. It is my hope. You and I and every other Christian are a very small part of the whole plan; but thank God we are a part of it.