The Movement Called ‘Sonship’
Dr Jay E. Adams, recently writing of the advantages of a new confession of faith which could deal, for example, with some of the false teaching coming into the Reformed church, mentions, ‘Aberrations of the faith found in such movements as Sonship should be pointed out and rejected. These movements–both large and small–constantly plague the church’ (Jay E. Adams, Hope for the New Millennium, Timeless Texts, Woodruff, SC, 2000, p.44).
What is this ‘Sonship’? Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, student at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, has analysed its teaching in the Westminster Theological Journal Vol. 61, No.2, Fall 1999 (pp.227-246) in an article entitled, ‘The Sonship Program for Revival: A Summary and Critique.’
Dixhoorn informs us that the Sonship program originated as a Bible study led by C. John (Jack) Miller for New Life Presbyterian Church in Jenkintown, Philadelphia. Twenty years ago Miller and some of his family had been on an extended vacation in Spain for about three and a half months. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea he spent hours studying the promises of Scripture and he had a high religious experience. He returned to America with the themes of adoption and revival on his mind and began to teach them in the Philadelphia church. Much of the history of the Sonship program can be gleaned from the book ‘Sonship: Discovering Liberty in the Gospel as Sons and Daughters of God’ (Jenkintown, PA: World Harvest Mission, 1997), Lessons 1-5, 13-14.
Miller encouraged New Life Presbyterian Church into originating the ‘World Harvest Mission’, a non-denominational missionary organisation. Sonship became its main teaching vehicle. Its convictions, it claimed, would encourage missionaries to endure tough situations and make them effective evangelists. Today over 100 people work with World Harvest Mission on four continents. Sonship has been lauded by such men as Jerry Bridges, Ralph Winter and Steve Brown. It has been adopted principally by Presbyterians, but also by Reformed Baptists too. In the UK it is gaining in popularity amongst the former in Ireland and Scotland and amongst the latter in England. It also has identical emphases as the non-charismatic ‘renewal’ movement of the Church of England.
The author of this article has recently been reading Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones‘s Spiritual Blessing: the Path to True Happiness (Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne, 1999), a dozen sermons preached in 1965 based on the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee in which the Lord turned water into wine. Lloyd-Jones is exhorting his hearers and readers to experience more of God’s blessing. He talks about ‘Christian people living under the law who are suddenly lifted to another level, and go on living on the mountain tops of the Christian life and the Christian faith’ (p. 67). But, unlike Miller, Lloyd-Jones in this perplexing book, yet never makes a single reference to himself and to what he has experienced during his life. Also he always bows before the sovereignty of God in granting or withholding a new experience or a baptism of the Spirit. ‘Seek God and his blessings,’ is his constant exhortations. ‘Don’t think you have everything when you are regenerated. There are greater heights before us all to ascend.’
Who is going to question the need for Christian growth in spirituality, and a closer walk with God? Who is satisfied with his own spiritual attainments? Who would not long for a more experiential life of hope, joy and peace suffusing our worship, evangelism and service? Such maturing is a theme on the lips of every preacher. One finds Dr. Jay Adams himself, so different from Lloyd-Jones and Jack Miller, asking, ‘Why do so few Christians have an abundance of hope? The answer lies in the facts just set forth–they are ignorant or forgetful of the abundant promises of God … the Holy Spirit powerfully impresses the truth of his Word, the Scriptures, upon us in order to give us the hope that we need’ (op cit p. 29).
World Harvest enthusiastically advertises the life-changing impact of their particular teaching. To have entered the blessing of Sonship will totally transform your life, they claim: ‘What would ongoing revival look like in your life? God changing you in ways you never dreamed possible? Prayer more natural and spontaneous throughout the day? Evangelism effectiveness increased? Broken relationships healed? Your teenagers in love with Jesus? Living more in partnership with Christ? A diminishing concern for what others think of you? Increasing surrender to Jesus’ leading in your financial decisions? Growing ability to love and forgive the painful people in your life? Growing power to “be one” with people very different from yourself? Abounding more in joy and peace regardless of your circumstances? Your marriage, good as it may be, getting much better? Do you think it is even possible for Jesus to change you deeply after all those years since you were first saved?’ (‘Sonship-by-Phone for Missionaries’ brochure). The stories of change amongst their leaders is produced as evidence of these claims.
What methods are used to bring these blessings into one’s life? A week-long conference. A 16-week course of instruction centred upon the Sonship training manual (done either long-distance by a missionary in telephone counselling or in local church Bible studies). The pastor and his wife having finished the course become ‘graduates’ and they then begin a Sonship course with a small group of interested people in the congregation. Finally every member is drawn in, becoming themselves disciples and teachers of Sonship. All of this may take two or three years to accomplish (cp. One Plan Revival in the Local Church, by Paul Miller).
Jack Miller spells out six major emphases to the programme:–
- Understanding justification by faith and our adoption, and using this assurance of God’s love to develop …
- Regular early morning devotions,
- Tongue control,
- Skills in journal-keeping, discipling, and witnessing,
- Gift identification,
- Capacity to work within a team and small groups (Outgrowing the Ingrown Church p.145).
The message of Sonship is, ‘Let’s revel in the fact of our being adopted into the family of God and joy in that relationship’. God’s way of keeping us dependent upon him for salvation is through justification and adoption. The chief problem with Christians, Sonship claims, is their tendency to act as orphans. Sonship is the cure to that. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to testify to our adoption as God’s children. The focus of Sonship is revival, a continuous experience in the life of the church. So the Sonship ministry is a revival work.
Sonship emphasises key Christian doctrines. It does not underestimate the Biblical doctrine of sin–‘Cheer up. You are a whole lot worse than you are!’ Jack Miller kept saying. The greatness of grace is also emphasised:
Miller adding, ‘God’s grace is a whole lot bigger than you could imagine.’ Jesus Christ is a mighty Saviour–that is a constant theme. Both faith and repentance are emphasised in a balanced way. So in what areas does the concern about Sonship lie? Why does Jay Adams identify it as an ‘aberration of the faith?’ Van Dixhoorn is unhappy with three areas:–
Sonship presents a distorted teaching on adoption.
Sonship absolutises the status of the biblical doctrine of adoption. It becomes the overarching theme from which the other graces, and so growth in Christian effectiveness, flow. But Professor John Murray was surely right in giving to union with Christ that privilege: ‘Union with Christ is not simply a step in the application of redemption; when viewed, according to the teaching of Scripture, in its broader aspects it underlines every step of the application of redemption’ (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 161). That cannot be said of adoption. The benefits of justification, regeneration, sanctification come from union with Christ not from adoption.
Sonship teaches that whereas the negative side of justification is the forgiveness of sins adoption is the its positive side. But that is not the case. It is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness which is the positive side. Imputation is not a doctrine taught adequately by Sonship. To miss the distinctive blessings of adoption by merging adoption into justification is a large tax for the Christian to bear.
Sonship presents a truncated view of the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification.
The Sonship course helpfully emphasises that the believer is totally forgiven and righteous in God’s sight. A growth in the knowledge of God is accompanied by a growth in the knowledge of sin. Being holier equals feeling less holy. Good. So the gospel of Jesus Christ–his blood and righteousness as our only hope–becomes increasingly precious to us. That is certainly one dynamic in the Christian life. However, this is where Sonship seems to stop. Where is the daily battle with remaining sin? What about mortification by the power of the Spirit? What of self-examination? Van Dixhoorn says, ‘It is as if Sonship had never heard of section three in the same chapter of the Confession. The Westminster Divines go on to say that in this “war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” That is far from clear in Sonship’s teaching.’ (op cit, p. 238).
According to Sonship, there is real danger in contemplating one’s own growth in righteousness. ‘Looking at covenant keeping or growth in holiness tends to spawn judgmental attitudes and pride on the one hand, or complete despondency over sin on the other hand. Sonship allows the believer to look at the Father’s work in adoption for comfort. The believer may also look to Christ’s work and justification for comfort. But the believer may never look at the ‘sanctifying Spirit of Christ’ for encouragement, not even as a minor emphasis in the Christian walk. In this way Sonship’s doctrine of assurance is not as Trinitarian as it could be’ (ibid).
What of the emphases in John’s first letter about gaining assurance through carrying out the commandments of God? Sonship seems to assume Christians are simply not obeying God’s commands, so that all they can see in themselves is law-breaking and sin. But John assumes that Christians will see more than that, not perfect obedience but the beginnings of new obedience to God. When a Christian’s conscience does not condemn him it gives him stronger assurance. In other words, a believer’s good works do matter with regards to Christian assurance and all that flows from that.
Of course this is not the rock on which the believer erects his hopes of salvation. That is the Rock of Ages slain for us. But those building on that Rock are to be zealous in good works, and to the degree we recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives we are to be encouraged and give thanks for that work. As long as we always constantly remember that the works we do are works of grace then pride need not be encouraged by positive self-examination.
Van Dixhoorn says, ‘If Sonship would take a healthy dose of the first epistle of John, it would help keep its students from feeling proud or guilty for seeing growth in grace; it would encourage them by God’s grace to work out their salvation (Phil. 2:12), and it would credit the Holy Spirit for his work in the believer’s life’ (ibid).
The Spirit, in fact, takes Christians into those areas of self-knowledge where we are up against the truth about ourselves: face to face with our own guilt and our own failure. If we do not live on that interface, then God’s Spirit is not dealing with us at all. We are called to mortify the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit. We must ask God, ‘Lord, show me myself. Give me your view of me.’ Any movement which draws the attention of its disciples from considering their own lives is doing them the most grievous disservice. The Spirit shows us our sins and then gives us strength to bludgeon those sins to death. This need to understand the comprehensive inward work of the Holy Spirit is closely connected to the final concern about Sonship, namely revival
Sonship presents a confused doctrine of revival.
There is a sense in which the experience of ‘revival’ that the Sonship programme speaks of is not really revival at all. ‘Revival,’ the student is told, ‘is just the life of the Lord Jesus poured into human hearts…In other words, it is dying to self and self-attitudes. The willingness of Jesus to be broken for us is the all-compelling motive in our being broken too. This is not a thing we do once for all, but a constant dying to self.’ (Key Concepts). Van Dixhoorn points out truly that when the word ‘revival’ is used in this sense it is simply sanctification with an exciting label.
The word ‘revival’ is used of experiences of being ‘adopted’ after being ‘orphaned,’ such experiences sometimes occurring in frequent succession through the undulating course of life of a disciple. Sonship teaches with considerable emphasis that a Christian is not only justified by faith but actually sanctified by faith (Lessons 8.2, 8.3, 9.9-12, 9.16, 10.14, 10,18). The phrase ‘Sanctification by Faith’ is first introduced in the Sonship material in the form of a quotation from Richard Lovelace, whose Dynamics of a Spiritual Life is commended by World Harvest. The Wesleyan and Keswick doctrines of sanctification taught that there could be great bounds forward made in holiness. Lovelace and Miller have plundered these movements for their own understanding of revival. A Christian may have his own ‘revival’ and after a declension be revived again and enter again into assurance of sonship.
In the Sonship’s teaching there is a failure of emphasis upon or understanding of what happens in the life of every Christian at regeneration in a definitive work of sanctification. From the very beginning of union with Christ there is set an enormous antithesis and reorientation in the life of the mere believer as he has once-and-for-all died to the reign of sin over him and come under the life, protection and provision of God. Such an emphasis is not a characteristic of Sonship, but rather it stresses the importance of living experiences of being revived in the faith (cp. Rose Marie Miller, From Fear to Freedom: Living as Sons & Daughters of God, Wheaton, Harold Shaw, 1994, p.72).
The truths about Sonship are claimed to be the means which the Spirit would use to kindle revival. Sonship stresses ‘ongoing revival in the life of the believer, empowering one to obey the command to love God and love others, in a radical, Jesus-kind-of-way, that amazes the lost, and draws them to Jesus’ (Sonship-by-Phone Ministries). But, according to Sonship, these laudable ends are not achieved primarily by the ordinary means of grace but through private devotions, small group prayer meetings, a course, a conference etc. This concept of revival by these special means inevitably leads to disaffiliation from the life of gospel churches which are unpersuaded by Sonship teaching.
Again, preaching does not have the pre-eminent place in Sonship circles that it has had in the great revivals of the past. So in its evangelism and open air outreach Sonship will orchestrate splashy drama activities to draw a crowd–rather like those seaside meetings of the Arminian YWAM. One remembers four men in black suits with their faces darkened carrying a coffin through the streets of Dublin and creating an urban stir as they wended their way to the site of a World Harvest street meeting. So gimmicky. One has to choose between relying upon the Holy Spirit in weakness and fear and much trembling, or looking to the engineering of man.
Van Dixhoorn concludes: ‘In the end, it would be better for churches to emphasise their dependence on the Spirit of God to make the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation. It would be better to go back to the old method of stressing, or even belabouring, the importance of catechesis in families, the primacy of preaching on the Lord’s Day, corporate worship, and trusting that the sacraments will be effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that ministers them, but only by the blessing of Christ and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them. If World Harvest offered a course which underscored these things it would be preferable to repairing the existing Sonship course and other new measures. The church would benefit if Presbyterians would be earnest in prayer, asking their God for extraordinary blessing on his ordinary means of grace rather than looking for the experience of ongoing personal ‘revival.’ Sometimes less is more’ (op cit, p. 246).
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