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The Alpha Course

Category Articles
Date February 16, 2004

Brian Robinson

Pastor of Faith Baptist Church, Scarborough, Ontario

I was having a cup of coffee, and an early morning read of the national newspaper, before heading for the study, when I happened to glance out of our kitchen window. ‘What is this?’, I thought, ‘a sign on my neighbour’s lawn bearing happy smiling faces?’ Immediate investigation was required, and upon closer inspection I found, to my surprise, a sign advertising the Alpha course. The signs were popping up on a number of my neighbours’ lawns. Well, any spiritual activity in a secular society was a most welcome change, ‘But what,’ I wondered, ‘is this Alpha course?’ So nothing would do but to get on my ‘horse’ and race down to the local Christian bookstore to see if any copies of the Alpha course were available. I was to discover shelves of Nicky Gumbel’s ‘Questions of Life – Alpha,’ and I added to his coffers by purchasing one.

Immediately, I plunged into ‘the reason for the season’ that would cause my neighbour, and several others, to festoon their lawns with ‘Alpha – have you tried it?’ Actually, the book was a quick, and even a delightful read. It was full of interesting facts and numerous wonderful quotes. Some of his jokes were better than my own (wonder of wonders) and as humour brightens any day, I quote the following:

A missionary working among children in the Middle East was driving her jeep down a road when she ran out of gas. She had no gas can in her car. All she could find was a potty chair. She walked a mile down the road to the nearest gas station and filled the pot with gas. As she was pouring the gas into the tank of her jeep, a large Cadillac occupied by wealthy oil sheiks drew up. They were absolutely fascinated at seeing her pouring the contents of the pot in the jeep. One of them opened the window and said, ‘My friend and I, although we do not share your religion, greatly admire your faith!’

But all jokes aside, is the Alpha course, which is aimed at those who know little or nothing of the Christian faith, a useful tool to achieve the object for which it was written? The purpose is to present the saving grace of our God to a generation that has become, by and large, biblically illiterate. Does it achieve that goal? The author is a priest of the Anglican communion by the neat name of Nicky Gumbel. He is clearly an excellent communicator of what he believes to be the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints!’ Moreover as churches who wish to share the good news of Christ to a lost world, could Alpha help us to reach the unchurched of our generation? Certainly, it is well done, with some wonderful testimonies, quotes from church fathers, familiar names of the reformation, modern authors, and everyday testimonies of how God is at work the lives of those touched by his grace. I asked one pastor who loves ‘the doctrines of grace’, and is now using Gumbel’s Alpha course, whether he had any qualms as to the material found in the book? He thought the course had merit and would not hesitate to recommend it with the provision that one needed to be aware of the strong charismatic elements and make the necessary adjustments when presenting the course to the newcomers.

I wish that after my reading of the material I could be as accommodating, but I truly fear that the Alpha course is a dagger pointed at the heart of the Christian faith, and has many more flaws than an unabashed promotion of ‘charismatic’ theology. Again we are faced with the dilemma that arises when one examines that which seems to have promoted Christ to the unchurched, or even the churched. Why should we rain on someone else’s parade? After all, if it works, and nothing succeeds like success, go with the flow. Certainly, Alpha contains many Biblical truths with which we can heartily agree. The first several chapters deal with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; the proof of Jesus’ existence and his rightful claim to be the God/man; his cross work is made necessary because of man’s sin and lost condition; the necessity of recognizing that one is a sinner and that Jesus is able to save all who put their trust in him. Other chapters deal with the importance of reading the Bible and praying; seeking God’s will for one’s life; the Holy Spirit and his work, and the nature of the church and its place in our lives.

The problem with Alpha begins with the premise that God loves everyone equally and that he is the loving Father of us all. He quotes St.Augustine that, ‘The whole Bible does nothing but tell us of the love of God’ (p.44). And a Catholic priest Father Raniero Cantalamessa who writes, ‘That God so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world to die for us and if we believe, we shall have eternal life’ (p.44). Gumbel also writes in the same vein, ‘God loves each one of us so much and longs to be in a relationship with us as a human father longs to be in a relationship with each of his children. It is not just that Jesus died for everyone. He died for you and for me; it is very personal.’ Sadly, the character of God is truncated in Alpha. The love of God is so prominently featured, that God’s other attributes are almost non-existent. And who in our society today does not know, or has not heard, that God loves them? In fact they would be surprised that such would not he the case. But in a society that knows little of the true and living God, the God of the Bible, any introduction to Christianity would be wise to spell out just who this God is that we are called to love, worship and obey.

Alpha seeks to present a very warm, cozy, if not fuzzy Gospel. God loves you and loves you so much that to keep him on the outside of your life is very painful and hurtful to him, like snubbing your best friend. God longs to see you saved, but as God is always a gentleman, he will never force himself on any of his children, which includes the whole human race. Thus, we read the often used illustration that, ‘we have to open the door to let Jesus into our lives. Jesus will never force his way in. He gives us the freedom to choose. It is up to us whether or not we open the door to him’ (p.61). Does God never force himself on us? Yes, thank God he does, or who would ever be saved if God were to wait for some response from those whom the Scriptures describe as, ‘dead in trespasses and sins?’ (Eph.2: 1). The whole thrust of Scripture is that a Sovereign God is able to make us willing in the day of His power (Isa. 40:10). It is not ‘spiritual rape’ anymore than a loved one who gives herself to her lover in joyous recognition and wonder of that love. Yes, men and women must believe, but God must open the eyes and the ears if Christ is to be received, and his salvation embraced. Part of God’s love is not only to send his Son, to do and to die, but to send his Spirit to assure the victory of the Son wrought in life and in death.

Is God really a frustrated Deity who is everyone’s Father even if they don’t give him the time of day? Can we truly say that anyone is a child of God until they are adopted into the family of God through the grace of God? (Eph. 1:5) One of the major flaws of the Alpha course is the helplessness of God in the face of man’s ‘free will.’ Is it true that God, having paid the debt for our sins, must now wait anxiously for man’s to see whether the payment accomplishes what God hoped it would accomplish?

The atoning work of Jesus Christ is put in this fashion: ‘Jesus’ death was, indeed, even more amazing because Jesus died, not just for one man, but for every single individual in the world’ (p.49). Clearly, that is not a biblically true statement. The amazing thing about Christ’s death according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:8 is that: ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.’ What amazed the apostle was not that Christ died for every single person, but that God should lay down his life for one sinner, let alone a multitude of sinners. Gumbel teaches a failed atonement because even while Christ was on the cross, thousands were in hell at the very moment that he was supposedly paying the price for their sins.

Further, Paul makes it clear in Romans 5 that Christ’s death on the cross reconciled the Father to his chosen ones before they were even born. Thus we read in Romans 5:10, ‘For if; when we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.’ God doesn’t wait until I believe to be reconciled to me, but rather you and I believe because reconciliation has already taken place at the cross, before you and I were ever born. I do not believe in order to be reconciled to God, but I believe because of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross. Jesus’ death effectually accomplished what it set out to do, and sealed the redemption of a people whose salvation was already assured in eternity past by him who was slain and, ‘with his blood.. .purchased men from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev.5:9).

I know some will complain this is splitting hairs, and why can’t we just get along and avoid these controversies. Can we not tell others of Christ’s atoning work without going into the nuts and bolts as to whether his death was intended for all, or for those who will actually be redeemed? But my point is not to be taken lightly, because it bears on the glory of our God. If Gumbel can speak about an atonement that is universal but ineffective, why can we not speak about an atonement that is limited as to its scope, but absolutely and gloriously effective? It is no more difficult and eminently more correct to learn the Scripture’s clear teaching on the subject, than to have to unlearn and relearn the lesson at some future date. Further, it engenders a false hope in the unbeliever that somehow the whole thing is ultimately up to him, and fails to bring such a one to the necessary corrective of absolute dependence upon God for his or her salvation.

The question may properly be asked whether in presenting Jesus to those who are curious about the Christian faith, must we necessarily enter into the debate that asks the question, ‘for whom did Christ die?’ Certainly, in reading the book of Acts and the preaching of the apostles it is clear that they did not enter into the extent of Christ’s atoning work in their attempt to win men and women to Christ. Nor do I think it is necessary that we do either. The question is why Arminians always preach and teach that Christ died for everybody without exception? Why can they not simply say, ‘Christ died for sinners’ or ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ (see Romans 5) and leave it at that? I am convinced the reason is that modern day evangelicals, by and large, do not see man so much as a rebel deserving eternal damnation, but rather as a ‘victim’ deserving pity and compassion. They want to assure the rebel that God really understands their ‘sickness’ and has sent his Son to apply the remedy if they would just respond in kind. Truly, modern man needs to see himself as the Bible sees him, and that is not as a victim but as a rebel truly guilty in the eyes of a just and holy God, and that as a rebel he must cast himself on the mercy of God rather than being taught he is a victim for whom God feels sorry, and is doing all in his power to rescue and save.

There are certainly other flaws in the Alpha course that raise precautionary flags for those of us who are concerned for the Christian faith in our generation. The Alpha course is eclectic in its choice of quotes from the various religious communions. Gumbel quotes from the Puritans, Reformers, Charismatics, Catholics and Anglicans, Liberals and Conservatives without distinction or disclaimer. It might seem all fine and good to people who know little of Christianity, but the end result is to give the deliberate impression that there are no differences between Catholic and Protestant communions or Liberal and Conservative theologians. Believe me when I say that I am all for breaking down walls between separated brothers, but are all of these separated brothers? Some are enemies of the Gospel. While such a tack is fully in line with the way moderns look upon the world, one has every reason to fear that the homogenisation of Christianity will lead not a few astray and will weaken the witness of Christ’s true followers in the world.

The other serious flaw is that the Alpha course is that it is really an apology for the ‘charismatic’ faith. The person of the Holy Spirit is dealt with in an orthodox fashion, but the work of the Spirit centres primarily on the gifts of the Spirit. One wonders why the work of the Spirit’s regenerating power (1)(133-4) is hardly explained, while many pages are given to receiving the Spirit and utilizing the Spirit’s power? We are not told that regeneration is the sole work of the Spirit without any input on our part, and that we believe because we are born again, rather than that we are born again because we believe. Gumbel, like all charismatics, insists that receiving the Holy Spirit is a separate act from conversion. Gumbel, describes it this way, ‘We have an old gas boiler in our house. The pilot light is on all the time, but the boiler is not always giving out heat and power. Some have only got the pilot light of the Holy Spirit in their lives, whereas when people are filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to fire on all cylinders. When you look at these people, you can almost see and feel the difference’ (149).

The aim of Alpha, and I seek to be fair here, seems to be not how one becomes a Christian, but rather to show that coming to Jesus is a stepping stone to a higher and greater experience – being filled with the Spirit. In a world where one feels increasingly powerless and insignificant, getting control of others and one’s surroundings is a very attractive proposition to say the least. Thus, according to Gumbel, coming to Christ is not an end in itself; but rather an Alpha that finds its Omega in the second and far more productive and climactic event – being filled with the Spirit. This infilling is gained by a second experience more glorious than the first, as it makes you a useful, gifted member of the body of Christ, and until that happens, you are not firing on all cylinders for Christ. We are told that, ‘sometimes, when people are filled, they shake like a leaf in the wind. Others find themselves breathing deeply as if almost physically breathing in the Spirit’ (152).

In this regard we need to look at Colossians 2:6,7: ‘So, then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.’ Again and again Scriptures teach that we are not to look above or beyond our Lord Jesus Christ. He is sufficient for all our needs and is the total package. To believe on the Lord Jesus is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to live a life of love and holiness (Eph.4: 18). Yes, we are encouraged to go on being filled, meaning to go on being controlled by the Spirit, as we yield to his direction and guidance, seeking to be obedient in all that Christ has commanded. Such an infilling is always found in Christ as we find in him our sufficiency and the grace to live lives pleasing to God. The infilling is not a second grand experience, but the continuous and glorious fruition of the first experience, when we first trusted Jesus for all things pertaining to our salvation and the glory to follow.

Three things add to the confusion. First, many who claim an infilling may be coming to Christ for the first time. Because of teaching like the Alpha course, ‘Decisionism’ deceives many into believing themselves to be born again when God’s Spirit has not begun the work. Later, when they are wondrously converted, they see it as a second experience enhancing the first, when in fact it is simply conversion at its best. Second, Charismatics teach that the initial outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is normative and a blessing now available to all who call on the name of the Lord, rather than a unique moment in the life of the Church. Third, there is no distinction between the gifts given to the apostles for a specific purpose, and the gifts that are still available to us today for the edifying of the saints and the advance of Christ’s kingdom. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 12:12, ‘The things that mark an apostle, signs, wonders and miracles, were done among you with great perseverance.’ God authenticated their teaching with ‘signs and miracles’ (Heb.2:4), and that which marked the work of the apostles, ceased with the passing of the apostles. We too would encourage believers to be filled with the Spirit, but such a filling is an ongoing experience, and not a once in a lifetime happening separated from one’s initial conversion.

In Chapter 7 Gumbel deals with guidance, and maintains that ‘God has a great plan for your life,’ and all you need to do is plug into it. ‘God is saying,’ Gumbel writes, ‘Don’t you realize that I have a really good plan for your life?’ (104). This great plan has been prepared for us and all we need to do is discover it and follow the plan. To miss out of God’s wonderful plan for our life, is to live a second or third rate life, and, therefore, we need to discover what that plan is, and seek to live it so that we can be all that we should be. This concept of God’s wonderful will for your life while you live another plan is bizarre to say the least. Imagine the frustration of a God who has all these wonderful plans while most, if not all of them, are never fulfilled.

Gumbel fails to distinguish between God’s secret will and his revealed will. God’s secret will covers everything that happens both good and bad. He even decreed that Judas would betray his Master and bring about the crucifixion. That was part of the secret will of God, but that was not his revealed will. Judas was a covetous murderer, and God has a lot to say in Scripture about covetousness and murder. God’s secret, eternal ‘plan’ for our lives is something we can never know until after it happens. In his infinite wisdom, God sometimes uses wicked men to bring about his purposes. These men are never forced to do evil, it is their delight to do it, but God uses their schemes and sinful deeds to bring about his purposes. They are fully responsible for their deeds, and will answer for them in the last day, but still they do the will of God in terms of his secret purposes. God makes the wrath of man to praise him. The only thing that we need to be concerned about is to know the revealed will of God. We find it in the Bible. The more we read, study and meditate upon God’s Word, the more we shall know of his will for our lives. Where Scripture is not specific, God may use circumstances, the advice of others, and even occasionally, inward convictions; but as far as seeking the will of God we need to look no further than the Bible.

When I began reading the Alpha course, I began with some hope that it would prove a useful tool in the service of Christ and his church. The further one reads and ponders its drift, the more one can only be disappointed and disturbed. Rather than a useful tool, it seems more like a dagger thrust at the heart of Biblical Christianity. In a way, it is sad because Nicky Gumbel is an excellent writer and has an attractive way of presenting his ideas. As has been mentioned, there is much in Alpha that is biblical and truthful. But once that has been sifted through, there is far more that is simply unbiblical and, without questioning the sincerity, misleading. I fear it will do more harm than good, but would appreciate hearing from others their thoughts on Alpha and how it has impacted their lives or the lives of others.

From the Sovereign Grace Journal Vol. 7 Issue 1 January 2004 with permission.

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