Rev. Larry Christenson, a Charismatic Lutheran Pioneer


Are the Holy Spirit and his supernatural gifts and visitations realities present only in the Bible stories? Not at all. Even today their manifestations happen even in the driest theological settings.

One Lutheran minister in the United States became a charismatic powerhouse after a power encounter with the Holy Spirit. He became one of the most prominent Lutheran theologians in America.

Rev. Larry Christenson (1928-2017) was a pioneer of the charismatic renewal not only in the Lutheran Church in America, but in other mainline denominations 50 years ago.

In his early 30s, Christenson was a Lutheran pastor in San Pedro, California, who came to believe at the start of the 1960s that Jesus Christ still heals the sick today as He did 2,000 years ago.

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That belief led Christenson to accept that the other gifts of the Holy Spirit were also still available.

He himself was baptized in the Spirit and began to speak in tongues at a local Assemblies of God church he visited in 1961.

Christenson decided to stay in his Lutheran denomination, where he became a major advocate for and leader of the charismatic renewal sweeping through mainline churches.

His own San Pedro church became so popular that it could well have become a mega-church as Lutherans curious about the baptism in the Holy Spirit flocked there. But he always encouraged them to return to their own congregations to be a strength and light.

Christenson’s books, “Speaking in Tongues” (1968) and “The Christian Family” (1970), became bestsellers. “The Christian Family” has sold more than two million copies and been translated into over a dozen languages. Others included “The Renewed Mind” (1974); “Charismatic Renewal Among Lutherans” (1976) and “Welcome, Holy Spirit” (1987).

Christenson also wrote an introduction of my e-book “Theology of Liberation versus Theology of Prosperity,” published in 2013. This booklet was pioneer against the Theology of Integral Mission, the Protestant version of the Liberation Theology. In the e-book he said,

“Julio Severo points up a reality of the Christian community in Brazil that finds expression in other countries as well. Liberal churches and theologians try to wed the Christian faith to socialism, a secular political philosophy. The net result: they talk mostly to each other while their churches decline in members and influence. Meanwhile Pentecostal churches have reached out to the poor and powerless, and more recently, with the spread of the charismatic movement in many churches, to people from all walks of life. Their message is a biblical and uncomplicated message of salvation through Christ, and new life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Their churches grow, people’s lives are changed. I hope the truth in this little booklet will impact the lives and understanding of many people in Brazil. And, who knows, even beyond Brazil!”

After the publication of my e-book, Theology of Integral Mission, which had gone unopposed for decades in the Brazilian mainline churches, especially the Presbyterian Church, began to receive the first signs of solid resistance and opposition. The Brazilian Lutheran churches, which are far away from the baptism in the Holy Spirit and his spiritual gifts, are also very close to Theology of Integral Mission. Read my article to understand: “Theological Faggoting: Liberation Theology and Theology of Integral Mission Environment Producing Gay Theology in Brazil.”

If a church is not filled with the Holy Spirit, the vacuum will be filled with Marxism and other kinds of theological liberalism.

So it is no wonder that the best opposition to Theology of Integral Mission and its theological liberalism was born among charismatic evangelicals.

The Holy Spirit can do much more against such liberalism.

According to Christenson, in his book “Answering Your Questions About Speaking in Tongues” (published by Bethany House Publishers, with foreword by Corrie ten Boom):

“No Scripture suggests that some of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit were meant only for the Apostolic Church. This is a purely human doctrine and rationalization to explain away the embarrassing lack of the supernatural in the Church, while still clinging to the doctrine of an inspired Scripture. Martin Luther, commenting on Mark 16:17,18, says, ‘These signs [including speaking in new tongues] should he interpreted as applying to every individual Christian. When a person is a Christian, he has faith, and he shall also have the power to do these signs.’”

In his systematic theology “Welcome Holy Spirit” (Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), he said,

“Even though imperfectly understood and used, spiritual gifts are a practical part of the gospel ministry” (p. 252).

“In German pietism there was some experience of charismatic gifts. This had little direct influence on the present-day charismatic renewal, though the parallels are instructive. In the 19th century, Christoph Blumhardt’s congregation experienced revival accompanied by healings and exorcism. In his preaching Blumhardt kindled hope for a new Pentecost. By the turn of the century, regular Pentecost conferences were being held, with an emphasis on revival on the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 355).

With Lutheran minister Blumhardt, Lutheran Germany had a chance to move to a better spiritual course. Yet, according to Christenson (“Welcome Holy Spirit,” p. 356), in the Berlin Declaration of 1909 German Lutherans declared spiritual gifts today, including tongues, as “demonic.”

After this formal rejection of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, Germany faced World War 1, which eventually led to World War 2. If the Lutheran churches had not rejected the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, could they have had more spiritual discernment against the dark forces that came over Germany, including esoteric Adolf Hitler, who deceived both Catholics and Lutherans through his anti-Marxist speech?

Fierce opposition to the charismatic movement in Germany 100 years ago extinguished hope for revival in the Lutheran churches and opened the door for demons, including Nazism.

Today, detractors criticize the charismatic movement as being too based in shallow emotionalism. Yet, Christenson’s own sharp and quiet intellect contradicted the stereotype.

In his book “The Charismatic Movement, An Historical and Theological Perspective” (2010), Christenson said:

Religious movements are often dated from a particular event that pinpoints its outbreak into the public arena. We date the Reformation from the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, or Methodism from the meeting in Aldersgate Street in 1738 when John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed.” The charismatic movement is usually dated from the Sunday morning in 1959 when Dennis Bennett announced to his Episcopalian congregation in Van Nuys, California, that he had been baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. In little more than a year similar events occurred in a variety of Protestant congregations in the United States, including Lutheran churches in California, Montana, and Minnesota. (p. 1, 2)

In 1959 classical Pentecostals numbered about 25 million, worldwide. With the advent of the charismatic movement, Pentecostals and charismatics burgeoned to 553 million by 2005, trending toward 811 million by 2025. They constitute 28% of Christians worldwide, growing at the rate of nine million annually. “There is nothing quite like it in the history of the church,” said Presbyterian pastor and historian Robert Whitaker. “Earlier movements have been limited geographically and denominationally. This one has penetrated every denomination and is present on every continent of the globe.” (p. 3)

The Greek word for “spiritual gifts” — charismata — gave the name to the charismatic movement. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly those listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, became a popular hallmark of the renewal. The emphasis on spiritual gifts was prominent to begin with simply because things like spiritual healing, visions, miracles, and speaking in tongues were new for most believers in mainline denominations. Charismatics enthusiastically told their first-hand experience with spiritual gifts and asked, “Why haven’t we heard about this before?” while skeptics scoured the landscape for signs of fanaticism. Over time spiritual gifts became in a sense more ordinary among charismatics. Sharing a vision, or a prophecy, or a prayer for healing became as normal as getting up and going to work. The manifestation of spiritual gifts became a settled reality in their understanding of life, and of Scripture. (p. 4)

Renewal movements often focus on a particular aspect of the Christian faith. The Lutheran Reformation highlighted justification by grace through faith. The Wesleyan revivals stressed sanctification. Charismatics underscore the belief that followers of Jesus should “receive” or “be baptized with” the Holy Spirit. (p. 7)

The prophecy of John the Baptist that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit is recorded in all of the gospels (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33). Jesus repeated the prophecy before His ascension (Acts 1:5). The book of Acts records several instances of people receiving the Holy Spirit; taken together, they help us understand how this prophecy happened in the life of the early church —

* Receiving the Holy Spirit was a discrete aspect of Christian initiation. It was closely associated with repentance, faith, and baptism but it did not happen automatically when someone believed in Jesus or was baptized.

* It required no particular ritual. Sometimes people received the Holy Spirit in connection with prayer and the laying on of hands, but it could also happen spontaneously.

* Receiving the Holy Spirit was not a secret or unconscious event in the life of a believer; it was a noticeable, remembered happening. “The effectual presence of the Holy Spirit cannot be assumed simply because a person agrees to correct doctrine. It is possible to hold the doctrine on the Holy Spirit, yet not experience His presence and power. The doctrine must find expression in personal experience.”

* When new believers came to faith and were baptized, but did not receive the Holy Spirit, their initiation into the Christian faith was considered incomplete; prayer was invoked for them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Charismatics do not understand “receiving the Holy Spirit” as a comprehensive term for the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a distinctive happening in the life of a believer whereby the Holy Spirit becomes more manifest. Today, behind this understanding of Scripture, stand millions of believers around the world and throughout the body of Christ who testify to “receiving” or “being baptized with” the Holy Spirit. Many would describe their life beforehand not much differently than the disciples the apostle Paul met in Ephesus, some twenty years after Pentecost —

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

“We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

Asked to explain how or why it happened in their lives, charismatics most likely say, “Somebody told me about it.” Faith comes by hearing. The charismatic movement has spread because a neglected truth of Scripture has been proclaimed. (p. 7, 8)

Now, God does not do foolish or unnecessary things. If God appointed certain gifts and ministries in the church, it is not for us to weigh whether they are good or necessary, but rather to ask, “Why did God do this? What does He have in mind?” (p. 11)

That is why the Christian life involves more than living by principles. Jesus was much more than “a man of principle.” He said, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). How many sick people did Jesus step around at the pool of Bethesda to speak God’s word to one invalid? (John 5:2) Jesus did not have a “preferential option” for the poor, or the sick, or the disadvantaged; nor for the rich and influential. He had a preferential option for the FATHER! Jesus did not intend His disciples to be guided simply by commonsense application of spiritual principles. Not even the truths that He had taught them stood alone. He said, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Helper . . . he will teach you all things, and will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:16,26) Christ calls us into a totally new dimension of living. Our life as Christians is not meant to be guided simply by principles, commonsensically applied. Our life is under the direction of a living Person, the Holy Spirit. By His power we partake of the divine nature. The Lord is in us, we are in Him. (p. 23)

The central message of the Holy Spirit Renewal — “receiving the Holy Spirit,” or “being baptized with the Holy Spirit” — calls the church back to its scriptural roots, to a faith defined not simply by its knowledge — doctrinal agreement, however biblical — but by a heightened awareness and experience of life-union-with-the-Lord. Pentecostals and charismatics need steadfastly to live in and declare this central reality that God quickened to the church in the 20th century: your life and ministry depends upon divine presence. Receive the Holy Spirit! (p. 26)

With information from CBN.

Portuguese version of this article: Rev. Larry Christenson, pioneiro luterano carismático

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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