A failed experiment?

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts…

Jeremiah 4:4 NIV


In the early days of the Salvation Army, a decision was made that we should not celebrate “the ceremonies known as sacraments”. This was a courageous decision, although it seems that the motivation for it was quite mixed, and the Army has spent considerable time and energy over the past hundred odd years attempting to defend it. The Booths’ central argument, however, was neither radical nor even original: Salvationists were not to build their faith on external rites or ceremonies, but were to live a religion of the Spirit, with hearts and minds changed from within.


This idea of religion as primarily a matter of the heart and mind dates back to the Hebrew prophets, and especially Jeremiah, prior to the fall of Jerusalem in the 6th Century BC. Despairing of the Judeans ability to “change their spots”[1] Jeremiah realises that they will never be able to do God’s will of their own accord. Instead, he preaches a new covenant, based not on the Law of Moses or the rites of the Temple, but on a direct act of God to change the people from the inside; “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”[2] This is the “circumcision of the heart” – and now no-one will need to teach another the knowledge of God, for all will know God equally.


The same ideas are central to the theology of Paul in the New Testament. Although Paul makes much of the symbolism of baptism, it is clear that this rite was for him only a symbol of The Holy Spirit’s activity in the believer. Indeed, Paul almost quotes Jeremiah in Romans 2:29 –


No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.


In this way the “gentile” Christians become a part of the People of God, not by an outward rite, but by the act of God in the heart and mind. Although Paul is often quoted by sacramentalists, he is in many ways one of the most spiritualistic authors in the New Testament, writing as he does of the believer’s mystical union with Christ, and with other believers, in the life of the Spirit. Discarding the yoke of Jewish legalism as he did, it can hardly have been his intention to replace it with a new “external” religion.


The same might also be said of Jesus himself. Like his forerunners his main thrust was not against the externals of religion as such, but against the hypocrisy of a religion which consisted only of externals. For Jesus, as for Paul and Jeremiah, it was the heart and mind that was of significance.


For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. [3]


The Sermon of the Mount, far from being a book of rules to rival the Law of Moses, contains rather Jesus’ teaching that the thoughts and motivation behind our actions are at least as important as the actions themselves. And in the parable of the two men who went to pray in the Temple[4], Jesus points out that the man who went home “justified before God” was the penitent sinner, not the self-righteous man who must be assumed to have lived a blameless life as far as “externals” are concerned.


There are countless examples like these which show that the Booths’ conception of religion was entirely in accordance with Biblical teaching. But how successful were these experiments in “inward religion”?


Jeremiah’s view of religion as a personal, inward matter clearly had some influence on the subsequent development of Judaism. Nevertheless it was the twin pillars of Temple worship and the Law that were to dominate in Israel after the exile. Jeremiah’s grand vision of a people who all lived in the intimate knowledge of God was replaced by a religious elite who indulged in endless casuistry. The British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, suggests that Judaism has moved “from a world in which God speaks to a world in which there is dialogue between God and humanity, to a world in which human beings speak and God listens but He doesn’t speak”[5]. First there is revelation – then there is interpretation. How far is this from Jeremiah’s direct encounter with God!


The religion of Jesus and Paul, it seems to me, was a direct challenge to these “twin pillars”, insisting on personal, inward religion as the only genuine worship. “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks”[6]. Yet it was not long before the Christian Church was itself a prisoner of ritualism, with a new caste of priests standing between the people and their God, administering sacramental rites which were (and often still are) thought of as being effective “ex opere operato” – by the mere fact of their being performed. Apart from the absence of animal sacrifice, this was the worship of the Temple all over again. At the same time, Christians developed methods of interpreting of the Bible which in many ways matched the nit-picking arguments of the “Scribes and Pharisees”.


Of course, this is only half the story. Both Judaism and Christianity have had periodic revivals of a personal piety that goes beyond externals into the heart, and some have also achieved a synthesis which combines the formal and academic aspects of religion with worship “in spirit and truth” – John Newman, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and later a Roman Catholic Cardinal, is an example of the latter, with his famous dictum “cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). For all its faults, the Church has never been entirely given over to empty formalism.


Salvationists, however, were to be saved from formalism not by filling the symbolic rites of the Church with deeper meaning, but by simply not using them at all. In theory, the whole of life was to be regarded as sacramental, in the sense that God’s presence could and should be felt equally whether at work or at worship. Albert Orsborn’s hymn is so often quoted as to be almost a cliché, but it remains one of the best expositions of what Salvationists mean by “sacramental living”: “My life must be Christ’s broken bread, My love his outpoured wine…” Such is the theory; Yet while Salvationist worship at its best is undoubtedly as rich and powerful as the most profound sacramental experience, we must also admit that our worship at its worst is as shallow and superficial as any of the ceremonies we have rejected can be. General Frederick Coutts wrote (quoting Barclay) that we prefer “the power to the form, the substance to the shadow” [7]. It would, I think, take a brave man to argue that all of our meetings, much less our everyday behaviour, always reached that standard. In many ways it can be argued that our non-sacramentalism has merely led to the invention of a host of other “externals” upon which we have come to rely almost as much – the uniform, the mercy seat, the emotional “appeal”.


Must we then admit defeat? Is the Biblical ideal of inward religion a holy grail attainable only by a few? A standard to be raised from time to time by prophets and saints, but not sustainable over time?  The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli regarded the sacraments as merely symbolic acts, and so might be regarded as the Protestant leader most in tune with what came to be the Salvationist position. But even Zwingli regarded baptism and communion as nevertheless necessary, as public confessions of faith. Mankind, as physical beings, seem to need a physical as well as a spiritual point of contact with God. Perhaps this applies at least as much today, in an age when we are constantly bombarded with audiovisual stimuli. Whether it’s lighting candles or raising hands, surely we need concrete actions to express our faith. And in that case – why not use the rites that are hallowed with two thousand years of tradition, alongside (or instead of) the formalities of Salvationism, or the more informal customs of the modern church? The Bible, after all, has never condemned formal religion as such, only its divorce from inward spirituality.


But here is the crux of the problem. If our return to the sacraments is motivated by a confession of failure in our goal of sacramental living or inward worship, then how will the reintroduction of such rites help us? Surely we will simply take our failure with us, and end up with a life and worship that is only externally different from what we have now. The true question is not concerned with which external rites we use or do not use, but to what extent these rites truly reflect an inward religion of “spirit and truth”. To break bread, to light a candle, to kneel at the mercy seat – to raise your hands, to play in the band, to wear uniform – all of these may be expressions of the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Or they may be the empty, even hypocritical, acts condemned by the prophets. The danger is that we will fall into the trap that Booth was so anxious to avoid, that some of our people will mistake the form for the substance – whatever the form is. The only way to avoid this is to insist that “form”, however hallowed by tradition, whether in the Army or outside it, is essentially a matter of no consequence. It may well be that mankind – or the majority of us – cannot get by without some kind of ritual. But it surely must be possible for that ritual to be founded on an inner spirituality that takes precedence over it.


Of course we need to talk about externals as well. The ways in which we express our faith – what sort of music to use, what kind of uniform to wear, which ceremonies are appropriate – do raise issues of cultural relevance which need to be addressed. But let us at least remember in our discussions that such issues are secondary. What matters – as we all know, but too easily, in the heat of argument, forget – is the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. This, after all, is not merely William Booth’s, but God’s great experiment; the transformation of mankind from within. As the Spiritual Life Commission said in the language of church bureaucracy:


“We affirm that the consistent cultivation of the inner life is essential for our faith life and for our fighting fitness.”[8]


Jeremiah said it better:


Circumcise your hearts…




Paul M Waters



(Published in “The Officer” magazine, 2004)

[1] Jer 13:23

[2] Jer 31:31-34

[3] Matt 15:19

[4] Luk 18:9-14

[5] Lecture  “Revelation – Torah from heaven” – 26 March 2001

[6] John 4:23

[7] ”No ContinuingCity” chapter 12

[8] International Spiritual Life Commission Report §6


One thought on “A failed experiment?

  1. Pingback: På innsiden | Get Deeper

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