Formulaic Christianity

May 2017 Credo

An Amusing Incident in Acts 19

Acts 19:11-20 recounts a somewhat amusing incident which took place in the city of Ephesus in the first century. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had a powerful ministry in this place, one which involved amazing miracles.

This demonstration of power greatly impressed some of the Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus. They wished to tap on this same source of power for their own ministry. So they tried to copy what Paul did, casting out demons “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” (v.13).

On one occasion, this approach backfired dramatically. The evil spirit which the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out was smart enough to discern that these exorcists were using the names of Jesus and Paul in an impersonal and mechanical way. The spirit’s answer to the seven exorcists was quite priceless, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” These seven sons of Sceva were then mauled so severely by the man with the evil spirit that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding (v.15-16).

What was wrong with how these Jewish exorcists treated the Christian faith? They saw Christianity only as a means to get what they wanted—power for their ministry. They discerned that the way to tap on this power was to depend on a formula: Just copy Paul’s actions.

What the exorcists had was a sorcerer’s view of the Christian faith. A sorcerer back in the first century sought to manipulate the various supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals, like chanting the correct words and using the correct paraphernalia. Once they have mastered these rituals, the sorcerers could repeat it as a formula, and the supernatural powers were bound to respond in the expected way.

We are told in Acts 19 that even those who have become Christians were not exempt from the pervasive influence of sorcery. When news about what happened to the seven sons of Sceva spread, Christians who had continued to practice sorcery confessed their wrongdoing and presented their scrolls for burning. The value of the surrendered scrolls was “fifty thousand drachmas” (v.19), which is a few million dollars in today’s terms. This shows how many Christians in one city alone had tried to blend their practice of sorcery with their embrace of the Christian faith.

The Sorcerer’s Perspective is Still Alive

What about us today? A careful observation of the Christian scene in Singapore reveals that very little has changed, and the sorcerer’s appropriation of Christianity is still very much alive amongst us.

Many Christians today want something from God very badly—it might be good health, success in our studies and careers, or the fulfilment of a long-held wish. Like the sorcerers of old, we try to manipulate God into giving us these things.

The only difference is that the things we do to induce God to act are not pagan chants and rituals, but “Christian” activities. So, for example, we might put more money into the offering bag, or devote more time to prayer (sometimes using words or sentences which we think have a special magical power), or try to behave well for the week, all in the hope that God will notice our contribution and fulfil the desires of our hearts.

Some Christian preachers actually encourage such an attitude by teaching that God has promised to reward us many times over for our faithfulness to him (in terms of our monetary offerings and righteous living) with health, wealth and other indicators of worldly success. The net result is a reduction of the Christian faith to a series of formulas: If we do this, God will be obliged to do that, and we can be sure of getting what we want.

Why is this tendency to reduce Christianity to formulas so enduring, that it has persisted from the first century to our era? One reason is that formulas give us a sense of much-needed control amidst the seemingly arbitrary vicissitudes of life. They reassure us that we are still in charge, because we can ensure that life will turn out a certain way if we behave in a certain way. They comfort us by telling us that we have an “inside track” to success, guaranteed by the One who is in perfect control of all things.

The Gospel of Self-Fulfilment vs. the Gospel of Christianity

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that such comfort rests on a distinctly non-Christian foundation. It is comfort derived from the assurance of self-fulfilment, and the gospel (or “good news”) of self-fulfilment is very different from the gospel of Christianity. The former exalts the self to the highest place, and subjugates God to a secondary role—as a means to the self-actualisation we seek.

God, moreover, plays this secondary role very well: He is as controllable and predictable as a vending machine. We just have to do the prescribed “thing”, and the desired blessing is bound to be dispensed. This gospel of self-fulfilment is ultimately a sorcerer’s dream come true—we have found a way to manipulate no lesser being than the almighty God himself (who turns out to be not so almighty after all).

The true gospel of Christianity presents an almost diametrically opposite vision: One where we die to our self-centred natures, and then rise again with Christ to a new life in which God takes centre stage. It is not about us anymore—not our self-fulfilment or self-actualisation. It is rather about the fulfilment of God’s will, and we joyfully take our place at the periphery to serve as instruments given the privilege of contributing to this fulfilment.

Paradoxically, it is only when this happens; when we truly die to ourselves and live to serve God, that we find true self-fulfilment. It is true self-fulfilment because we truly fulfil the purposes for which we were created—the worship of God. It is only in this type of self-fulfilment that we find real and enduring joy and peace. Did not Jesus teach that it is only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake who truly finds it (Matt 16:25)?

One of the most urgent needs for our churches in Singapore today is to rediscover a right relationship with God—one where he is at the centre, and not us. Too many of us gladly take on the label “Christian” and go through with enthusiasm all the prescribed Christian activities. But deep inside, we could well be doing all these with a sorcerer’s motivation.

We badly need a rediscovery of the fear of God. We need, in other words, an experience akin to what the Church in Ephesus went through in the first century. At the close of our narrative in Acts 19, we read of the people of that city being “seized with fear” upon knowing what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The result was that “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (v. 17), and the people repented of their attempts to syncretise sorcery and Christianity. By God’s grace, may such repentance from our formulaic Christianity sweep across our land as well.



Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church.