Oswald Chambers: A Cautionary Look at a Popular Devotional Teacher

“NEXT TO, OF COURSE, THE BIBLE…”
It may be that if you ask any Christian what his or her favorite author is, besides the Bible, the answer may very well be “Oswald Chambers”. He has become quite popular across the spectrum of modern Christendom and beyond. To be sure, much of his writings contain useful practical wisdom. This cannot be denied. Yet there is also another side to his writings, and to his life, that needs to be known. No man is free of theological error, and it is the teacher whose reputation is the highest who has the most opportunity (intentional or otherwise) of spreading error among the undiscerning.

“My Utmost for His Highest” is the book that comes most to mind when we think of the man. This is a devotional with daily readings like “The Daily Bread”. “Utmost” goes a bit deeper than that other devotional however. “Deeper” does not always mean “better” though. While there is much good teaching, there is also much that is questionable.

CENTRAL TENET OF THE FAITH:
Oswald Chamber’s spiritual father, at first at least, is none other than Charles Haddon Spurgeon. This is surprising, considering the quite different path, theologically and personally, Chamber’s life took. (More on his life can be found from the links below). He shares with Spurgeon a tendency to draw much from a single text. He lacks, however, Spurgeon’s orthodox emphasis on the centrality of the Atonement and justification through faith. Spurgeon, as well as orthodox classical Christianity, placed great emphasis of our salvation being based on the character and faithfulness of God. Chambers, on the other hand, emphasizes -our- holding on to God, -our- seeking after God as being the central defining tenet of our faith. As he says…

“[T]he bedrock of Christianity is personal, passionate devotion to the Lord Jesus.”

No, the bedrock of Christianity is Christ, the Cornerstone. If we are only as secure in Christ as our personal devotion to Him is in any moment, then we are in trouble – all of us. We are not standing, in that case, on the Rock, but are teetering on one of those swaying rickety bridges that responds to and amplifies all of our unsteady steps.

PERFECT SAVIOR or PERFECT SAINTS?
By “utmost” (in the title of his main book) Chambers means attainable perfection. He actively worked to spread Wesley’s emphasis on perfectionism, commenting in 1908:

“John Wesley’s teaching has had no hold in Scotland in the past, but it seems now as if it is going to be grasped with a tenacious hold unequalled in the country.”

Wesley’s teaching was, of course, that Christians could become sinlessly perfect, what Chambers calls “sanctification”. I put the word in quotes because this is not the Biblical term, but one that he pours his own meaning into. For Oswald Chambers, sanctification means nothing less than sinlessness. He believes the Christians can be, and should be, sinless. The “new-birth” means “no more sinning”:

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (1 John 3:9). Do I seek to stop sinning or have I stopped sinning? To be born of God means that I have the supernatural power of God to stop sinning.

“In the Bible it is never–should a Christian sin? The Bible puts it emphatically: a Christian must not sin. The effective work of the new-birth life in us is that we do not commit sin; not merely that we have the power not to sin, but that we have stopped sinning.” (Aug. 15th)

“Have I made this decision about sin–that it must be killed right out of me? Haul yourself up, take a time alone with God, make the moral decision and say, “Lord, identify me with Thy death until I know that sin is dead in me”. (April 10th)

“Either God or sin must die in my life. The New Testament brings us right down to this one issue. If sin rules in me, God’s life in me will be killed; if God rules in me, sin in me will be killed. There is no possible ultimate but that.” (June 23rd)

The Biblical position, of course, is that Christians do sin from time to time. Not to see this is to have a low view of sin and to have an unrealistic, discouraging, frustrating, not to say unscriptural, view of Christianity. “If we say we have no sin, then the truth is not in us.” (Ist John 1:8). After this verse is the promise that we can get cleansing from our sins by confession to Him. As we grow in grace, we sin less and less, but we are not sinless.

The source of our strength in our walk is in our meditation on Christ’s perfection, not our own. When we think of ourselves it should be of our own imperfections and of our falling far short of the divine standard. The resultant humility (“poor in spirit”) that this brings draws us nearer to Christ and enables the Holy Spirit to continue His work of Christlikeness in us (2nd Cor. 12:9- 10). Not surprisingly, Chambers does not favor this sort of “defeatist” introspection, insisting instead on attaining perfection by Gnostic/mystical means.

NEW LIFE or NEW LEAF?
“God will not give us good habits, He will not give us character, He will not make us walk aright. We have to do all that ourselves; we have to work out the salvation God has worked in. If you hesitate when God tells you to do a thing, you endanger your standing in grace.” (Nov. 12th)

At first this sounds quite acceptable. We do indeed have to “strive with Him” in our Christian walk. But he goes too far when he insists, as far as character and our walk are concerned, that we “have to do all that ourselves”. That just isn’t true. Rather we walk in the works that God has prepared for us (Eph 2:8- 10). Neither does hesitation endanger “standing in grace”. It is a flimsy grace – and a tenuous (dare I say “fictional”) salvation that can be blown away by mere hesitation. Once again Chamber’s Arminian misunderstanding of salvation clouds the picture.

The Biblical teaching is that if we are in Christ we are new creatures. All things are new (2nd Cor. 5:17). Yes, we have the responsibility to obey. But if we falter, hesitate, blow it here or there, we do not suddenly become “old creatures” again.

SECOND WORK OF GRACE?
It is through a misunderstanding or devaluation of Christ’s “first” work in the life of believers that Chambers posits the need for a “second work” of grace. Here he shows his Keswick roots. (More on that can be found from the URL below).

Am I set in my ways, concerning God? We are never free from this snare until we are brought into the experience of the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire (Jan. 28th).

God does not give us overcoming life; He gives us life as we overcome. When the inspiration of God comes, and He says, “Arise from the dead,” we have to get up; God does not lift us up (Feb. 16th).

Ah, but God does lift us up. Paul says several times that we are raised up in Christ. It may be that we do not know this as we ought. The lack, in that case is not one of experience, but of teaching.

WHERE IS “DOCTRINE”, “CHURCH”, “MINISTRY”, ETC. IN HIS BOOK?
A person’s doctrine does not consist only of what he teaches. What he neglects to teach is also important. A reading of Chamber’s works will find little mention of the church, unless it is spoken of collectively or in a bad light. There is little mention of “church” and “ministry”. “Doctrine” and “corporate worship” are likewise downplayed. Search for the words on the first of the web sites below and see for yourself. Instead the emphasis is on “abandonment” (a deeper life term first found, as far as I can tell, in the writings of Mrs. Pearsall Smith), personal devotion, personal seeking after God. Who can fault seeking after God? No one. Yet – and this is the needed balance – we are personally enriched and gifted by the Spirit of Christ in order to build up the Church. The emphasis from Chambers is on spiritual navel-gazing, on a vicious cycle of constant introspection.

Reading Ephesians 4 you will find two mentions of “building up”. The first is from the Spiritually gifted in the corporate church. The second is of the church “building up itself”. All of this gets scant mention in Chambers’ writing. If we had only his writing, we might think that the Christian walk was to be a monastic walk in the park or time in the prayer closet. Yet we are saved to serve, to build each other up.

DOWNPLAYING DOCTRINE
Chambers, in common with many of the so-called “deeper life” advocates, builds up an artificial tension between intellect and mere obedience, as if both are not needed.They are both as essential as two wings on a plane. We cannot be obedient to what we don’t understand. God’s people die for a lack of knowledge, as the prophet said. Neither do we learn facts in order to just bury them.

In the devotional for Oct. 10, Quoting Matt. 11:25 (“I thank Thee, 0 Father . . . because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”)

Chambers writes:

“All God’s revelations are sealed until they are opened to us by obedience. You will never get them open by philosophy or thinking. Immediately you obey, a flash of light comes. Let God’s truth work in you by soaking in it, not by worrying into it. The only way you can get to know is to stop trying to find out and by being born again. Obey God in the thing He shows you, and instantly the next thing is opened up. One reads tomes on the work of the Holy Spirit, when one five minutes of drastic obedience would make things as clear as a sunbeam. “I suppose I shall understand these things some day!” You can understand them now. It is not study that does it, but obedience. The tiniest fragment of obedience, and heaven opens and the profoundest truths of God are yours straight away. God will never reveal more truth about Himself until you have obeyed what you know already. Beware of becoming “wise and prudent.”

He misses the point that obedience has to be based on knowledge. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”. At no time should we downplay the further pursuit of knowledge, rather we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2nd Peter 3:18). We are to dedicate ourselves to a study of God’s Word, though not neglecting the inner life of meditation and prayer.By studying Christ’s Word we become more Christlike (2nd Cor. 3:18), we “save ourselves” and others (2nd Tim. 3:15; 1st Tim. 4:16) and much more. So doctrine is very important.

A Christian who reads Oswald Chamber for profit will certainly find some things in his writings to benefit from. Like much of what we find in our bookstores and on the Web wisdom is needed. For anyone who feels that I am unfairly criticizing this teacher I would only ask that he be read with Berean discernment. As you read him, ask yourself, “Is he emphasizing the very things that the Bible emphasizes?” “Is he using Biblical terms in a Biblical manner?” “Does he give central place to the foundational Person and doctrines of the Faith?”These are always fair questions to ask of any teacher.

 

I sincerely ask that any reader would treat my articles this same way.

 

About asterisktom

I breathe, therefore I blog.
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