My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers
If I remember correctly, I enjoyed reading My Utmost for His Highest the first time I read through it. I don’t think I have the discipline to follow it as a daily devotional though. My Utmost for His Highest is a collection of snippets from Oswald Chambers’ sermons, put together into a book form by his wife after his death, and in my mind the book largely reflects that. Reading it is similar to reading proof texts from the Bible; it lacks that cohesion that the whole has. Because each day’s reading is a snippet from a sermon, I find myself unable to read just one. I certainly don’t dwell on each one as I would a chunk of scripture or a chapter from another book such as Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. It’s hard to develop a complete idea or teaching in just two or three short paragraphs that were meant to be part of a larger whole. There just doesn’t seem to be enough meat for my mind to grasp on to.
All that to say that in the past couple of days I’ve read maybe 40 or so entries in My Utmost for His Highest, in chunks of 10-12 entries at a time. I found myself reflecting a lot more on the book this time around then before. And there is one idea I just can’t seem to get around: why is this book so popular amongst Christians? I can understand why books such as Augustine’s Confessions or the aforementioned CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity are popular, but I’m sort of at a loss for the popularity of My Utmost for His Highest. Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the book as I mentioned above, and because I read so much, I find short disjointed paragraphs hard to digest. I’ve never seen the appeal of devotionals such as My Daily Bread (“Crouton”), and perhaps this is just a continuation of that.
I don’t in any way mean to suggest that My Utmost For His Highest is trash or not worth reading. I’ve many friends who find daily inspiration in Oswald Chamber’s teachings, and I wouldn’t take that away from them. I think the book is important to many people and should be read by everyone at least once.
There was one thing that stopped me up cold though, as I was reading through some of the entries. It’s a throwaway line, but it instantly raised a red flag in my mind through the Holy Spirit. Oswald Chambers refers to something as “entire sanctification”, and that intrigued me enough to research Oswald Chambers some more. I guess if a document is incredibly important to a lot of people, you should take the time to find out where it came from, who wrote it, what their beliefs are, etc.
And sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed: Oswald Chambers is, for better or for worse, a Christian mystic. Reading through a biography or two of him online, he grew up in a Baptist household, was converted through the ministry of Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers as he’s been called, founded a Bible school, married, and then eventually served as a champlain in World War I, dying at a young age. As for who the influences in his life were, obviously he was raised in a Baptist home, but that is incredibly hard to define as there is no one core set of Baptist beliefs (meaning not all Baptists are Calvinists or Arminians), and converted under Spurgeon’s Calvinism views (Spurgeon also identifies as a Baptist). One biography mentioned that he audibly heard the voice of God at the age of 20 calling him into ministry and service, an experience that led to him becoming involved in a parachurch organization called the League of Prayer (warning sign #1). Like many young folks in such organizations, he found plentiful opportunities to preach from pulpits, whether or not he was qualified and trained in the Word to do so.
Later on, Chambers was heavily involved in Holiness meetings (warning sign #2), and counted as his spiritual leaders such authors as Johann Tauler (a 14th century Christian mystic who allegorized and demoted Scripture in favor of experience and personal holiness)(massive warning sign #3), P. T. Forsyth (contemporary of Chambers who formulated new ideas of “holy souls” and demphasized justification by faith in favor of justification by holiness)(warning sign #4), and the leaders of the Keswick Movement (of whom Chambers heavily influenced in return), a group that emphasized “practical holiness”, achieving a higher level of the Christian life, which is an man-made means of sanctification and separation of Christians into classes (warning sign #5).
Frankly, I consider all of these people and groups as either heretics or else horribly misinformed and deceived. Which is a shame, because I’m sure they all loved the Lord, but their theologies have led thousands astray. Oswald Chamber’s idea of “entire sanctification” can’t be defended Biblically, and seems to be nothing more than a man-made attempt to feel better about themselves. It’s a distinctly human response to the problem of sin that is everyone’s life. Historically the Church has always taught that we are justified by faith, and that sanctification is an ongoing process that will never be completed in this lifetime. There are also three main causes of sin: Satan and demons, this fallen earth, and our fallen human nature. Entire Sanctification and other positions say that in Christ, after a unique experience brought upon by crisis (a “second work” of grace), man’s fallen human nature is essentially gone and done away with, never to trouble us again unless we consciously will it to (therefore, sin is always a conscious choice and can be consciously avoided), and since we have Christ’s authority, we can control on demand the influence of the world and Satan in our lives, thus truly making us “little Christs”. And that’s a completely unbiblical, demonic idea.
I like how this one commenter on My Utmost For His Highest put it in regards to the Christian mysticism and Keswick influence in the book:
The Christian faith he taught is privatized and individualistic. The golden thread of the covenant woven in the Old and New Testament is missing. My Utmost for His Highest communicates a fairly radical version of the Keswick’s movement’s stress on self-denial. It lacks joy and some even term it “morbid.” Its key phrases are “are you prepared to let God take you into union with Himself… are you prepared to abandon entirely and let go?” “yielding to Jesus will break every form of slavery in any human life,” and “God makes us broken bread and poured-wine to please Himself.” My Utmost for His Highest reflects Chambers’ spiritual journey, his focus on introspection, his search for reaching holiness at all cost, and his own experience of what the mystics called “the dark night of the soul,” a period of long agony which was lifted only after he presented himself without reserve to the Lord. Although he rarely referred to it directly and certainly didn’t expect other Christians to imitate him, Chambers’ own mystical experience of “a second blessing,” was based on his reading of Luke 11:13 “If ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”. It was a turning point in his life.
I know this is a hard thing for many to get, and I struggled with it myself, but all my holiness comes as a result of my justification, not my sanctification. I can’t possibly be purified enough to be allowed anywhere near God, my sanctification. The only way I can come near God at all is through Jesus Christ, my justification. The Bible is clear that any all righteousness we bear is no more than dirty menstrual rags in God’s sight; that includes the new born Christians efforts or the old saint’s efforts. Sanctification is a by product of justification, a way for us to grow more like Christ, thus enabling greater unity in the church as well as providing a more visible reflection of Christ to the world around us. But in God’s eyes, it’s less than nothing. Only our justification in Christ matters to God, ultimately.
To me, that’s the most joyful thing I could hear. But to many, such as Oswald Chambers, that’s not enough. And I get that, I truly do. Some pursue a works-based sanctification, doing all they can to grow in personal holiness. Others redefine terminology to trick themselves into believing they are holy (“if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth”). I know I’m not holy. Far from it. I learned at a young age that those who are mature in the faith are more certain of their sinfulness, so I internalized that as a truth a long time ago. And it’s born out in my own life: as I grow older, and grow to know the Lord more, the more sinful I realize I am. I am far from holy. And yet I know that through Jesus I am holy before God, justified, freely forgiven. And that is the gospel of grace to me.
I’ve learned that there is very little that is holy about the Holiness movement and all that has come out of it. In its short history, it has produced nearly every single heretic the Church has had to stand up against, starting with Pelagius and up to the present. In the last century and a half it has produced more genuine cults than any other theological branch of Christianity, and probably directly contributed to the spiritual darkness that has descended across America and other countries where these ideas have flourished. If one were to honestly look at the theological beliefs and the fruit these beliefs produce, it can only be concluded as an utter and destructive failure.
And yet it’s born out of a belief to want to live holy before God. What could be more inspiring? Such a shame. I grieve for those caught in these lies.
I still think people should read Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost For His Highest. There is a lot of good, inspiring stuff there. But I fear that those who are not grounded in the Word and proper theology will be led astray by sentimentality and the zeal for holiness of their own making and not Christ’s. Read with caution, but read.