Pressing Truth to the Extreme
The Errors of Jessie Penn-Lewis

by G. Richard Fisher

Author Mary Garrard perceptively wrote, “All error is ‘truth pressed to extremes.’”

Christians often sing: “Be like Jesus, this my song,” but so often we want to imitate others. Copying other Christians flies in the face of what we know deep inside and what we know from the Scriptures.

No thinking Christian really believes that they have to have a conversion experience exactly like the Apostle Paul. No thinking Christian believes he has to be exiled to a barren rock island like the Apostle John. No balanced Christian accepts for a moment that he has to be put in a pit in the earth like Jeremiah. The ups and downs of Jacob’s erratic life can’t be duplicated by others. The emotional roller coaster of David in the Psalms may at times help us in our struggles but we cannot match David exactly, experience by experience, nor do we have to. No one is exactly like anyone else and that the Bible makes amply clear. Varied accounts of believers’ lives are given to us by God in Scripture to show His diversity with us. The vast variety in life and nature tell us the same thing.

To make any other Christian’s life the ideal model to copy and follow is definitely wrong. Unfortunately, this does not stop many from rushing around to frenzied meetings to get a rubber stamp “anointing” someone claims to have. Jesus, in John 21:17-23, rebuked Peter for making these kinds of carnal comparisons and stressed our individuality and individual calling. Though we may learn from others, we are not to be clones (1 Corinthians 12:4-12). Christ is our ultimate model (1 Peter 2:21-25).

Even the subject of this article, Jessie Penn-Lewis said: “The enemy pushes truth too far, so that it becomes error; and even what is true can absorb you too much, so that you become blind to all else.”1 Regrettably, in her search for “self abandonment,” Penn-Lewis ignored her own advice.

SEND IN THE CLONES

To make anyone’s Christian life a pattern for everyone else’s is misleading and unhealthy. It is a sure way to cripple growth. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 shows that the confusion in Corinth had its genesis in those who pressed for one gift for everyone and had a one-size-fits-all philosophy in regard to tongues. We are all unique individuals and all uniquely gifted. Body life in the Church like the human body consists of various unique parts. This is a basic and fundamental truth that was somehow misunderstood in the genre of Christianity prevalent at the mid-to-late 18th century. Many Christian leaders gave lip service to some differences but created a mold to enter “the higher life.” These views still predominate today in some parts of the Church at large.

Almost every Christian in the time of Penn-Lewis (1861-1927), was expected to move into experiences that were variously called the “higher life,” “holiness” and also called “entire sanctification” and “Keswick holiness.”2 This grew out of some extremes in the Wesleyan movement.

Not that those promoting it were always that holy, for the movement often produced pride, judgmentalism, elitism, obstinacy and division. Many of its leaders, before and after Penn-Lewis were shamefully inconstant.3 Some strains of “the higher life movement” taught that the believer could get to a state where they would not and could not ever sin again. There was a spectrum of contradictions and extremes.

Though Penn-Lewis asserted, “Let us not ask Him to put us all in one mold of experience,” a few sentences later she reverses field and says, “There is no gradual deliverance from sin, no gradual process of death to sin or deliverance from the world, or the flesh.”4 So every believer was to look for this instantaneous experience.

It was into this cultural religious milieu that Jessie Jones (who, at age 19, married William Penn-Lewis) was born on Feb. 28, 1861. Though born to a Calvinistic Methodist pastor father, she often is called a Welsh mystic because of her wide exposure to and connection with the Quakers in her formative years.

ERROR REPEATED AND MULTIPLIED

Penn-Lewis cannot be understood or analyzed without some grasp of the Christian subculture in which she swam. Though the experiences to be sought after conversion were sometimes referred to as “the baptism in the Spirit,” it had nothing to do with Pentecostalism or tongues-speaking. Penn-Lewis saw most of that as “demonic,” especially in her later years. That and other things led her to believe and teach that Satan had invaded the earth in a new, direct and intensive way, fulfilling parts of the Book of Revelation. Her days, she truly believed, were the last days. Everyone’s days were numbered.

This kind of intensive paranoia is not new in the history of the Church. As far back as the 12th century, Joachim of Fiore promoted end time scenarios as did the later misled Seventh-day Adventists of the 19th century.5

Time has shown that Penn-Lewis did not have the inside spiritual information on the future that she claimed to have but that it was a product of her overactive imagination and her times. We can be affected by society and not Scripture. She seriously misread her days.

The unfortunate thing is that her strange twist on Satan’s domination of the Church led Penn-Lewis to teach that Christians could be inhabited by invading, indwelling demons — an error repeated by many today with Penn-Lewis as the source.6

Respected pastor and theologian Donald Grey Barnhouse commented strongly that demons cannot come into one who is born again since they have become the temple of the Holy Spirit:

“We put forth this statement categorically in spite of the works of the English group known as the Overcomers, whose bible is frequently Mrs. Penn-Lewis’ book, War on the Saints. We know of no more insalubrious idea than that which would turn Christians to introspection, looking for attacks of Satan within, or to a circumspection that would have Christians seeing defilements in shaking hands, or touching in any way a person who might be possessed by the devil.”7

Regarding the times of Penn-Lewis, there was a rigid subjective master plan for the sanctification of all believers which had to be sought vigorously and entered into since there was little time left. Names associated with the so-called holiness movement or perfectionistic/victorious life movement were Charles Finney, Asa Mahan, Pearsall Smith (Hannah Whitall Smith’s husband), and W.E. Boardman, though these did not have Penn-Lewis’ spin on the lateness of the hour. These teachers moved from the historical Reformed and Puritan view of progressive sanctification as a life-long daily struggle to a subjective perfectionism.

Historically the Church had viewed our only perfection as being in our standing in Christ and our growth as believers as a daily ongoing struggle throughout life. The radical difference between standing and state must always be kept in view. The historical and Reformed view of sanctification is presented clearly and succinctly in Kris Lungaard’s fine book, The Enemy Within.8

The “fullness” teachers, as they were called, saw two levels of Christians. There were Christians who were only saved and in their view powerless and those Christians who were both justified and fully sanctified. Some argued for the eradication of all sin while others opted for a state of not having any known sin — a kind of practical perfection. Penn-Lewis fell into the latter camp. Some also put forth a contradictory idea of somehow confessing unknown sin. Penn-Lewis went even a little further out (as this article will show) suggesting that demons could sin for us as believers.

BE LIKE JESUS OR BE JESUS?

Others in these times following the lead of some medieval mystics over-pressed identification to Christ to bizarre extremes, teaching that even the self was exterminated. Penn-Lewis reported a rather strange “vision” in which she merged into Christ:

“I went to God about 4 p.m. and, as I knelt, I was suddenly within the veil. It seemed as if I and the Lord were one. He stood before the Father holding out His pierced hands, but it was I who stood there, too, in Him. He was saying ‘Father I have died,’ but I was saying it, too.”9

Is there a subtle Arianism here as well?

For an in-depth treatment of the roots and fruits of perfectionism, see the classic work by B.B. Warfield, Perfectionism. It is massive, detailed and invaluable.

WHY?

Dr. Harry Ironside was part of the extreme wing of the perfection or holiness movement for many years and tells of the struggle and physical/mental breakdown of trying sincerely to attain to perfection in his partly autobiographical, Holiness: The False and The True. It is compelling reading from one who was on the inside of the movement and shows a sincere but misguided attempt to be absolutely perfect.

Dr. Jay Adams addresses the issue of why people adopt “second blessing” and similar beliefs when he writes, “It is the desire to find a satisfying way of life that transcends that of struggling every day with our sin in a sinful world.”10

Adams, though discussing the “Biblical Sonship Course” by Jack and Rose Marie Miller, fleshes out how movements that are always seeking “something more” often see the struggles of the founder or teacher as the only model:

“...there is no place for anyone who doesn’t fit. So the founders’ experiences (together with a lesser number of their disciples’ experiences) are made the norm for everyone. ... The danger in making the peculiarities of a highly volatile couple of sinners the norm for others is that those who follow in their steps find it necessary to reproduce in their own lives the turmoil and tensions that the Millers experienced. Much (possibly most) of this effort to reproduce similar experiences is likely to lead to posturing and pretending.”11

In Edwin Orr’s book, The Flaming Tongue, The Impact of 20th Century Revivals, Penn-Lewis is given only passing reference although she was part of the Welsh revival in 1905 and 1906. Unfortunately the revival was short-lived and came to a screeching halt with the emotional and physical breakdown of its prime mover, Evan Roberts. That was preceded by a storm of protest and criticism over the emotional excesses in the revival. Roberts convalesced at the home of Penn-Lewis for two years and served long after in her shadow. He never fully recovered a solo public ministry and at times became reclusive.12

Roberts further discredited himself with his so-called “burden message” in which he stated that the rapture was absolutely imminent in 1913. Given the outcome and fruit of this (Welsh) “revival,” it seems it has been overplayed and over-hyped by well meaning historians and had no lasting value and very dubious fruit with continuing lasting damage.

HONEST ADMISSIONS

Penn-Lewis herself reported the cessation of the Welsh revival because Satan was working in it to draw off great numbers into “Theosophy ... Christian Science ... and Spiritism” and other “spiritualistic manifestations.”13 Penn-Lewis believed that the revival stirred and angered Satan in a new way (unknown in all the history of the Church), unleashing his fury and special work against the Church especially through the newly born Pentecostal movement which, she believed, was one of Satan’s tools.14 It is hard to understand why some Charismatics own her and quote her.

Penn-Lewis traveled extensively as a spokeswoman for the YWCA. This gave her exposure and notice beyond what she ever imagined. She became a prolific writer. There are 23 books and 10 booklets of hers still available. These have made her larger than life.

INTO THE MAZE

Penn-Lewis’ teachings are very complex and very complicated. For some they are a labyrinth that can be interpreted in various ways. They are definitely filled with confusion and contradiction. At times they are so subjective and wordy it is almost impossible to decipher what she wants to get across especially as she is telling the reader to incorporate her directions into their experience. Did she even know what she really meant?

Her system can be condensed in broad strokes as follows. There is a twofold work of the cross. The first part is salvation but it hardly does much to equip one for the Christian life. Penn-Lewis did not understand that sanctification flows out of salvation and out of our position in Christ in a progressive life-long difficult growth pattern. In talking of the “message of the cross” she most of the time meant the “higher life” not the Gospel, the new birth experience or evangelism. There was an urgency to get into the “higher life” since time was short and one might be derailed by invading indwelling demons.

Penn-Lewis believed that a Christian would be crippled, not progress and be mincemeat for demons unless they actually pressed into the second part of the twofold work (the first part being salvation). The actual fact was that Penn-Lewis used her emotional and spiritual experiences as the template for all Christians. Only as Christians entered this second definite phase could they be “overcomers.” There was a salvation aspect of the cross and there was a “victory aspect.”15 Most of her references to “the message of the cross” refer to finding this higher life.

Penn-Lewis, like others of her time, departed from a biblically based view of sanctification as a progressive struggle. Though Penn-Lewis may have taught that Christians ultimately had individual callings, all had to enter through the “higher life” experience to be equipped and get to their calling. There were battles with bodily ailments and demons along the way but only those in the “higher life” could hope to win.

GOING UP

To oversimplify for the sake of illustration, Penn-Lewis believed that once a person became a Christian, he or she could take an elevator immediately to the top floor as opposed to a lifelong climb up the stairs. In opposition to Penn-Lewis, the long slow climb proves to be the real biblical model as seen in Philippians 2:12-13, 3:12-14, 2 Timothy 4:7-8 and Hebrews 12, among others. The lives of the biblical characters show a long and diverse climb in Hebrews 11. Not everyone’s mountain was the same nor was everyone at the same place on their mountain. Also everyone’s mountain had a different contour and a different mileage chart.

In biblical terms, the start of the climb and the continuance is only possible because of regeneration, grace and the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is the historical, orthodox and biblical view. The guidebook for the climb is the Word of God and the renewed strength comes from the promises of God and all the means of grace (Bible study, prayer, fellowship, worship, and the ordinances of the Church).

Not that there were not struggles on the top floor for Penn-Lewis but the struggles were more with health, Satan and demons, not self or the flesh or even sin. However, the worst form of self can be the delusion that there is no self. One way or the other, for Penn-Lewis and others, the view was that you could rise above sinning and sinful behavior altogether. Perfection as a goal is one thing. Perfection as an absolute attainment in this life is another.

The prevailing view of the Bible is that sin has to be mortified (put to death) everyday by the believer (Romans 6). We must stay humble and dependent on God, realizing that even our best works have tainted motives at times. Denying sinful self daily is Christ’s mandate to us.

INGRAINED INDWELLING SIN REMAINING NOT REIGNING

Once you have practiced any sin it is like learning to ride a bike — you can always do it. That is why vigilance is always required and is the constant concern for one’s testimony and influence.

John Owen, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and a Puritan author who substantially wrote on sin, sanctification and mortification, taught that sin pervades and pollutes the whole man and “is continually putting itself upon us, in inclinations, motions, or suggestions, to evil.”16 Owen rightly believed that sin never leaves and we must properly distrust ourselves because of the power and presence of sin. He states: “To keep our souls in a constant state of mourning and self-abasement is the most necessary part of our wisdom.”17

In the Introduction of the new release of Owen’s work, Sin and Temptation, theologian J.I. Packer draws heavily from Owen’s words and offers this:

“‘Sometimes a soul thinks or hopes that it may through grace be utterly freed from this troublesome inmate. Upon some sweet enjoyment of God, some full supply of grace, some return from wandering, some deep affliction, some thorough humiliation, the soul begins to hope that it shall now be freed from the law of sin. But after a while ... sin acts again, makes good its old station,’ and the fight has to be resumed. No one ‘gets out of Romans 7’ in this world.”18

Packer further states:

“... a Puritan model of godliness will highlight for us aspects of spiritual reality which the better-known models — patristic, medieval, sixteenth-century, eighteenth-century, twentieth-century, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Wesleyan, Lutheran, Reformed — do not focus so clearly; and there is no doubt that among all the Puritan models Owen’s is the richest. If our concern is with practical Christian living today, a Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin.”19

Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield would agree and had as his main critique of perfectionism an “inadequate notion of sin.” He believed that the illusion of perfection in humans could not be maintained if one had a profound sense of sin.20

Packer further acknowledges that he taught consecration and faith techniques of the higher life movement but now sees them as “heap powerful magic” and concludes:

“I nowadays think that the way to deal with temptation is at once to say no, and with that to ask the Lord for strength to keep saying no and actually to mortify — that is, do to death, squelch, and enervate — the sinful urge.”21

Jay Adams unpackages the word “sanctification” with the following:

“The word sanctification means ‘the process of setting one apart more and more from sin to righteousness.’ It is a process that takes place over a period of time and is, therefore, progressive in nature. It is not a one-time act whereby one meets the requirements of some formula and is immediately catapulted onto cloud nine where from then on he leads a higher sort of life. No, it is that difficult day-by-day struggle with sin that the Spirit enables the believer to carry on successfully. Sanctification is growth. Where there is life, there is growth. Where there is spiritual life there is growth. Where there is spiritual growth and life it is because the Holy Spirit is producing it.”22

Herbert Lockyer concurs:

“Terms like running, wrestling, fighting, striving, and warring indicate that the race is by no means easy.”23

FIVE FATAL FLAWS

Penn-Lewis’ flawed thinking, excesses and errors involve five subjects, which become the foundation of her theological system.

• She views her own writings as divinely inspired.

• She tilts toward rudimentary Word-Faith view.

• Her views of sanctification were really the views of her time and of her own spiritual struggles. She locked believers into what she had experienced.

• Her views of the inner nature of man led to introspection and confusion.

• She viewed the Great Tribulation period as beginning about 1906 with the great and intense outpouring of demons on the Church and into Christians.

Penn-Lewis laid the seedbed for “territorial demon” teaching, prayer walks, and the likes of Frank Peretti novels. She claimed to have unique insights into the unseen world, which grew out of her obsession with the tribulation and an almost dualistic view of spiritual warfare. Her superstitious slant on demons as being territorial and bewitching certain geographical areas are lifted out of the teachings of a 17th century writer, Dr. Goodwin.24

Another confusing quirk of Penn-Lewis was to call sin and some emotional conditions “demons.” She expressed her view this way:

“There is the drink wickedness: that is the spirit of drink. The tattling wickedness: that is the spirit of tattling. Perhaps you haven’t understood the ‘wickednesses that are spirits’ when these foes were attacking you and pushing you to do things that you did not want to do in your heart. ... Then, too, there are the private meetings of the Lord’s children when they pass on from one to the other the spirit of depression, which they do not recognize and immediately refuse because they do not discern the working of the ‘power of the air’ at work around them! ... Evil things that come into your mind are not yours if you recognize their origin and refuse them.”25

Penn-Lewis was sick all of her life with recurring lung problems. She claimed to have been healed early on but she still had life-long bouts with hemoptysis (coughing up blood). Her weight varied between 80 to 90 pounds.

She claimed to have read the Bible at four years of age.26 She heard for the first time in 1883 from Rev. Evan Hopkins “of victory over the bondage of besetting sins, through the Blood of Christ, of the joy of full surrender, and the possibilities of a Spirit-filled life.”27 Depending on how one interprets the Spirit-filled life and besetting sins, the above could be fine but Penn-Lewis pressed things out in an extremely different way.

Let’s now consider her five fatal flaws.

DIRECTLY FROM GOD

Penn-Lewis viewed her writings as divinely inspired. In Garrard’s Memoir, we find the words of Penn-Lewis and her evaluation of her own writings: “I am not a literary woman. I cannot write one sentence unless I receive it from God.”28 If this were true, her literary efforts would be equal to the Bible. She could only write what she received directly from God, she says.

There is no doubt that Penn-Lewis believed her pennings were divinely inspired and straight from God. She further asserted:

“God gave me ‘the Word of the Cross’ on March 28th, and from that moment it seemed as if all hell was roused. His Hand was upon me, writing all He showed me, and I wrote in the teeth of it for a week.”29

If she wrote only what God showed her, there can be no errors or mistakes in her books, since God is perfect. It is odd that her main work, War on the Saints, has been edited, abridged with large parts expunged. Her publishers do not seem to take her thoughts too seriously or think they were inerrant. In reality, they are embarrassed by some of her extremes.

Her admirers also felt that her writings were directly from God. Garrard, personal secretary to Penn-Lewis, says of her book on Job: “‘Job’ was written under the hand of God with the same wonderful liberty and heavenly unveiling as the message on the Song of Songs.”30 This certainly goes further than illumination and application of the text that godly gifted writers experience.

Another strange quirk in regard to Penn-Lewis’ books was the idea that in writing them, she actually shared in some real, direct and mystical way the sufferings and experiences of the Bible characters she was writing about. It went far beyond just trying to understand and sympathize. Garrard also expresses this view in regard to Penn-Lewis’ writing on Job as she cites a review of the work:

“Mrs. Penn-Lewis ... proves herself not merely to have intellectually and intelligently comprehended the book, but to have entered spiritually and experimentally into its inmost thought, and to have in spirit passed through, in some degree, the sorrows of the patriarch.”31

So it was suggested that Penn-Lewis actually experienced the sufferings of Job. Certainly a claim like this, if true, would put her a few notches above the average.

Penn-Lewis’ bent toward mysticism and her assumed and claimed direct divine revelation really come out of the fact that she immersed herself in the writing of 16th century mystic heretic Madame Guyon.32 Guyon was given to occultic experiences and strong delusions, yet Penn-Lewis says, “I also owe a great deal to the books of Madame Guyon, and the way she shewed me the path to the life ‘in God.’”33 It appears that Penn-Lewis did not possess doctrinal discernment.

Biographer Brynmor Pierce Jones says as well that Penn-Lewis was influenced by the mystical treatises of Fenelon.34 He also points out that Penn-Lewis reproduced and distributed Guyon’s writings.35

In fact, initially Penn-Lewis struggled against Guyon’s teachings and wanted nothing to do with them. Against common sense and better judgment, she refused to listen to her own internal warnings. Having no formal theological training, Penn-Lewis was no match for the deceptions of Guyon. (Guyon herself in later years renounced her mysticism and heresy.) But of her struggle against her own inner warning system Penn-Lewis writes:

“At first I flung the book away and said, ‘No, I will not go that path, I shall lose all my “glory” experience.’ But the next day I picked it up again, and the Lord whispered so gently, ‘If you want deep life and unbroken communion with God, this is the way.’ I thought, Shall I? No! and again I put the book away. The third day I again picked it up: once more the Lord spoke, ‘If you want fruit, this is the path. I will not take the conscious joy-life from you; you may keep it if you like, but it is either that for yourself, or this and fruit — Which will you have?’”36

So we are to believe that Jesus debated and negotiated with Penn-Lewis over the acceptance of writings both mystical and heretical.

Penn-Lewis taught a strange kind of fusion that could occur between Christ and the believer that blurs the lines between the Creator and the creature. There is no doubt she got this mystical confusion from Guyon. In her book, The Warfare with Satan, she proposes:

“This is the deliverance of Calvary which the adversary most fears for the redeemed one to know, for it draws the believer right out of his reach by merging him out of sight into the crucified Lord, making way for the Christ Himself to possess the earthen vessel and manifest His life and power.”37

Identification and union with Christ is never pressed this far in Scripture. There must always be a Creator/creature distinction. We cannot “merge” with Christ so that our bodies are taken over and entirely possessed by Him. Our union with Christ can never ever be understood this way or pressed to this extreme.

THE SEEDS OF WORD-FAITH

While Penn-Lewis predates the Word-Faith movement, she moves in that direction. This takes the form of positive speaking when she asserted:

“The words quoted, ‘Have faith in God,’ are really, as shown in the margin, ‘Have the faith of God’ (Mark 11:22) ... The ‘faith of God’ is this, that when He speaks the word the thing is done. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. The words you speak are of the greatest importance in the prayer life. In this spiritual sphere, what you say creates.”38

Does God need faith? The Scriptures nowhere affirm such a premise. God is self-sufficient and does not have to rely on anyone or anything. Faith always implies an object of trust. Penn-Lewis and her modern-day Word-Faith counterparts make faith a force that we can use to create and not a living trust in the Living God and His Word.

Can we create by speaking? Again there are no Scriptures that indicate this at all. Is Mark 11:22 telling us that God has faith? All of the major works by Greek grammarians tell us that God is the object of faith in Mark 11:22. As well, all the major versions correctly translate it “have faith in God.” The Greek structure allows for no other rendering39

BE LIKE ME

There is no question at all that Penn-Lewis parroted the views of her time in regard to sanctification and used her own experiences as the mold for all. She wrote of full surrender:

“...the ‘all’ of Calvary’s triumph is given on the condition of the surrender of ‘all’ to Calvary’s Victor. Because the ‘all’ the Lord gives is from heaven and the ‘all’ the soul resigns is of earth, ‘Keep back part for self’ is therefore the tempter’s whisper, as he enlarges upon the terrible consequences of committing all to God. Something kept for self gives place to the devil and keeps the Redeemer from His throne in the heart, and the full control of His Kingdom in the redeemed one.”40

The “cross” to Penn-Lewis was a gate to lead to “the higher life” (through a crisis experience) and one could miss that:

“When the soul learns the meaning of the cross in deliverance from the bondage of sin, whether it be at the time of conversion as it was at Pentecost, or later in what has been described as a ‘second blessing,’ it then enters upon the first stage of the overcoming life and upon a path of victory it never knew before.”41

So the message of the cross was not just to find Christ and eternal life but rather to just enter one stage allowing the possibility of a higher life and a “second blessing.”

Penn-Lewis never saw or made a distinction between legitimate self (proper God-oriented self) and sinful self. She confuses her hearers by seeing all of “self” as sinful. The self as oriented to God is a proper thing. The self as oriented to sin is to be denied. There are not two selves but rather inclinations in all of us. There are propensities to good and evil in our “selves.”

At some points in her writings she seems to allow for some distinction as she states:

“It is true that while the ‘flesh’ is to be crucified in an ethical sense, we do ‘walk in the flesh’ in a physical and lawful sense.”42

Yet her distinction is muddied and unclear in other written statements: “...we renounce ‘I myself’ and thereby give way to Christ Himself to reign within.”43 At best, Penn-Lewis is imprecise, confusing and contradictory.

We must recognize that though sanctification and glorification are made possible through the cross (and grow out of initial salvation), they are not the same as the message of the cross which is salvation.

W.E. Vine points out “‘the word of the cross,’ R.V., stands for the Gospel.”44 In Galatians 6:14, Paul uses the word “cross” metaphorically to speak of his separation from the world and not a separation of himself from himself.

Note Penn-Lewis’ words as she confuses sanctification with the “message of the cross”:

“And again it was the Message of the Cross, showing the experimental aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer, the putting away of all known sin, deliverance through identification with Christ in His death, and the definite reception of the Holy Ghost as a necessity for all in the service of God.”45

That her experiences were the pattern for what she called “the fullness” (shorthand for entire sanctification or the deeper work of the cross) and very subjective is obvious:

“It has been written from experience, and confirmed by numbers of letters in the writer’s possession, as well as by the witness of God to many another soul. There is no desire to dogmatise or systematise, or to insist upon one point more than another, only to show in the main, the experimental pathway.”46 Though she says she does not want to dogmatize or systematize, she does.

Penn-Lewis claims to have experienced three steps in the abolishment of her self life. The first she called the unveiling of the self life which was an experience of horror and self abasement. The “unveiling” was the step to once for all subjective crucifixion of the self. The second was an endowment of power and the third the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.47

It would be hoped that all of us as believers would have a continuous unveiling of our motives and desires and that repentance and horror toward sin would be life-long.

THE INNER MAN

Penn-Lewis’ views on the inner nature of man were confusing, introspective and not really biblical. She dissected man’s inner nature in ways the Bible never does.

She saw the “soul” as “flesh” and only the spirit as redeemable:

“...when Adam fell the spirit sank down into the vessel of the soul, and the soul down into the body — the ‘flesh’ — and he ‘became flesh.’ Instead of the spirit ruling the flesh, the flesh dominated the spirit.”48

To further add to the confusion she adds, “You can only tell what is of the soul and what is of the Spirit by experience.”49 This is nothing but hopeless naval gazing.

Penn-Lewis is extremely confusing and convoluted here. She throws words around willy-nilly and never defines them probably because she had no idea of precise biblical meanings and contextual variations.

Though Penn-Lewis claimed direct divine inspiration for her writings, she borrowed her concepts of soul, spirit and flesh from the Father of the South African Keswick movement, Andrew Murray and his book, Spirit of Christ.50

Penn-Lewis used Colossians 2:9-11 to say that the spirit of man had to be cut away from the flesh and soul51 and referred to these insights as “Bible psychology.”52 The verse in question clearly teaches that the new believer is cut away from the penalty of his sin and the guilt and condemnation of the law.53

Penn-Lewis confuses the works of the flesh and the literal flesh or body and makes them one.54 This just compounds error upon error. She even taught that there can be a deliverance from “desires of the flesh,”55 making no distinction between legitimate desires and sinful ones as the Scripture does (1 Timothy 4:3-5).

The flesh (sarx in Greek) can mean the physical body in some contexts and in those cases do not necessarily mean evil. The body of Jesus is “sarx.” Even though glorified, the resurrection body is still referred to as sarx, (spiritual body or glorified flesh). Where Paul uses the term “flesh” for the old nature (remaining corruption) or the body as it is addicted to sin, he there and only there connects the flesh to evil. Penn-Lewis was totally in the dark on these issues.

J.A. Schep discusses the use of the word flesh in the Old Testament after the Fall:

“Most occurrences of ‘flesh’ (Hebr. basar) in the Old Testament from Genesis 4 and onwards have an ethically neutral sense. ... the flesh and sexual life function as not evil in themselves and not as the source of sin, but as the instruments through which man’s sinful and corrupt heart reveals its evil desires and purposes.”56

Penn-Lewis’ ideas are rendered foolish by Psalm 63:1, “My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You.” Here the words are used for the whole man.

Penn-Lewis was sure that somehow the spirit and soul had to be in their own separate and tight compartments:

“If you know the life in the Spirit, when your spirit is truly freed from the soul-entanglements and joined to the Lord you will understand how Jesus went to that tomb.”57

Apparently we cannot understand facts about Christ and deeper truths through just the Word of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit but need something else. Unless we somehow disconnect and free our spirits from our evil soul, we can’t understand the death of Christ. Salvation and the indwelling Spirit are not quite enough. Yet David said his soul thirsted for God (Psalm 63:1).

To show the absurdity of Penn-Lewis’ view of the soul, we quote from three verses of Scripture:

“Come and hear all ye that fear God and I will declare what He has done for my soul” (Psalm 66:16).

“No man cared for my soul” (Psalm 142:4).

“We are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:39).

Penn-Lewis believed that the message of the cross including some kind of radical separation of soul and spirit was needed to be mature and do “conflict in the heavenlies.”58 No doubt her followers were pushing themselves through impossible mental gymnastics and experiential hoops.

Making sharp distinctions between soul and spirit can lead away from a true biblical anthropology, as Jay Adams so clearly shows:

“...all that is said of the soul and the spirit is said of the heart. ... the word soul (in one way or another) always depicts the non-material aspect of human nature in relationship to (or in unity with) the material, so the word spirit always refers to the same non-material aspect out of relationship to (or disunited from) the material. Heart, on the other hand, refers to the non-material side of man in contrast to his material side (usually with an emphasis upon the visibility of the latter and the invisibility of the former). That, then, is how the three words differ and may be distinguished. That is why there are three (not one or even two). Yet, all three refer to the same entity: the immaterial person.”59

One contemporary (1909) of Penn-Lewis observed that she had “an entire row of books on psychology” in her study room.60 So it is more than likely that she drew some of her speculations on man from these since her mental creations do not match up with the Bible.

WAS IT REALLY LATER THAN THEY THOUGHT?

In 1927 (the year of her death), Penn-Lewis wrote:

“There is no doubt ... that we are increasingly moving on into the shadow, if not having a foretaste, of the great tribulation.”61

However, she had been making these claims since 1906.62 Now almost a century beyond her first predictions, we know that she is neither a prophetess nor a good discerner and interpreter of Scripture.

It is amazing to this writer that she is extolled, applauded and accepted. Warren Wiersbe writes in an admiring way and quotes R.A. Torrey as saying that Penn-Lewis was “one of the most gifted speakers the world had known.”63 Pretty amazing words for a woman who was strongly criticized by some of the leading expositors of her day. It is unfortunate that Penn-Lewis’ life has become more hagiography than history.

As early as 1911, under criticism for her teaching, she had withdrawn from the Keswick movement. A former colleague, Dr. Pierson, sounded an alarm saying that her language “sounded like the mystic cults.”64 This only increased her paranoia and sense of the lateness of the hour.

Her view of the tribulation as being imminent if not already on the Church also affected Penn-Lewis’ view of Satan and demonology. As already indicated, she believed because of the lateness of the hour, demons had been poured out on the earth in a more intense, immediate, powerful and direct way. She was frantic in her warnings to Christians with regard to protecting themselves from invading, indwelling demons. She believed that lack of prayer in the Church had caused hosts of demons to rush “in upon the church and the world.”65

Penn-Lewis had earlier taught “a warfare belonging to the Time of the End, and therefore practically unknown and unprepared-for in the literature of the Church.”66 So the Church had to now face something that even Jesus and the Apostles never had to deal with.

THE PARTY IS OVER

Collaborating with Evan Roberts, Penn-Lewis released her best-known book, War on the Saints (1912), which provoked a fire storm of criticism and division. Even Roberts eventually relented and asked Penn-Lewis to make revisions. She refused. Penn-Lewis had upset everyone.

The main critiques are spelled out by biographer Brynmor Pierce Jones:

“Firstly, the psychologists noted that the writers were blaming Satan and his demons for the kind of behavior that springs out of what they called the subconscious. Acute frustration and dark self-disgust, for example, are not to be attributed to an invasive force from outside but are natural parts of the human mechanism. Maybe Jessie and Evan forgot that Jesus had given His disciples a list of the horrid forces that came out of the heart of man.”67

Jones moves on:

“Secondly, the teachers of pastoral theology and counseling were horrified by the Jessie Penn-Lewis/Evan Roberts thesis that men and women born of the Spirit could be ‘possessed’ by the devil. Readers had not noticed Jessie’s broad and too loose definition of the word ‘possessed’ as meaning, ‘any hold which evil spirits have in or upon a person in any degree.’ What Jessie and Evan meant to warn against should be called ‘harassment’ or ‘oppression.’”68

Jones next notes how obstinate Penn-Lewis became under criticism:

“Instead of backpedaling, however, Jessie stated dogmatically in The Overcomer that the more a man was in the Spirit, the more he needed to be guarded from the entrance of evil spirits. She even claimed, ‘IF THEY GET INSIDE, THEY WILL MAKE HIM DO WHAT THEY WILL.’ Large numbers of Christians, then as now, rejected this theory in its entirety. Demon possession is not an option for those who are born of the Spirit, the Water, and the Blood. That which the Spirit has sealed cannot be usurped, or ‘hijacked,’ in this way.”69

Some Pentecostal leaders became upset as they “were convinced that everything written about phenomena and about counterfeits was aimed at them.”70

Not to be left out, Calvinists also complained because they “would have nothing to do with [the] dispensations, raptures, the millennium, etc.” in the Penn-Lewis and Robert’s volume “they found a new cause for objecting to such teachings.”71

Jones further notes:

“Both Jessie and Evan had been taught that the prayers of earnest saints could hasten divine events and that the hesitations of saints could hinder and delay them. So the Body of Christ — that is, the entire fellowship of believers — could now delay the dispensation’s ending, the return, and millennial age. In reply to this, the critics would say, quite correctly, that prayer-petitions are cooperative acts and not manipulative acts, and that they cannot change God’s timings.”72

Penn-Lewis took her demonology to incredible extremes even claiming to know exactly where demons could reside in the body of a Christian. This is purely gnostic: personal, subjective, secret, unmediated knowledge, at worst — and wild imagination, at best.

She proposed in War on the Saints that demons:

“... bury themselves in the very structure of the human frame, some acting directly upon the organs or appetites of the body, others upon the mind or intellect, sensibilities, emotions and affections, and others more immediately upon the spirit. In the body they specially locate themselves in the spinal column, nervous system, and deepest nerve centres, through which they control the whole being; from the ganglionic nerve centre located in the bowels, the emotional sensibilities, and all organs affected by them, to the cerebral nerve centre in the head, the eyes, ears, neck, jaws, tongue, muscles of the face, and delicate nerve tissues of the brain. They may obtain access gradually and insidiously, as already shown, but there are instances where they make a sudden assault, so as to rush the victim into involuntary surrender.”73

From the perspective of Penn-Lewis, there was hardly a part of the body safe from pestiferous spirits. Likewise in her view, demons could jump into and/or onto almost any part of the body at any time and possess believers. No wonder most of the circulated editions of War on the Saints are abridged and cleaned up with the extreme nonsense edited out. The book belongs in the “scary science fiction” section of your local Barnes and Noble bookstore alongside the X Files.

Penn-Lewis put forth the impossible premise that demons could sin through the believer, causing the believer to be confused and think they were sinning when they were not. She called it counterfeit sin:

“Evil spirits can also counterfeit sin, by causing some apparent manifestation of the evil nature in the life, and matured believers should know whether such a manifestation really is sin from the old nature, or a manifestation from evil spirits. The purpose in the latter case is to get the believer to take what comes from them, as from himself, for whatever is accepted from evil spirits gives them entry and power. When a believer knows the Cross and his position of death to sin, and in will and practice rejects unflinchingly all known sin, and a ‘manifestation’ of ‘sin’ takes place, he should at once take a position of neutrality to it, until he knows the source, for if he calls it sin from himself when it is not, he believes a lie as much as in any other way; and if he ‘confesses’ as a sin what did not come from himself, he brings the power of the enemy upon him, to drive him into the sin which he has ‘confessed’ as his own. Many believers are thus held down by supposed ‘besetting sins’ which they believe are theirs, and which no ‘confessing to God’ removes, but from which they would find liberty if they attributed them to their right cause. There is no danger of ‘minimizing sin’ in the recognition of these facts, because in either case, the believer desires to be rid of the sin or sins, or he would not trouble about them.”74

There is a multiplicity of errors here. The Bible does not take the position that besetting sins can be “supposed.” Hebrews 12:1 tells us we are to deal with our besetting sins precisely because they are ours. As well, Scripture nowhere teaches the concept of “counterfeit sins.”

This presents a dilemma for the believer. If he wrongly believes that the sin a demon committed (within him) is to be confessed as his own, he will bring even more of the “power of the enemy upon himself.” This could drive sensitive untaught believers to distraction or despair.

So, Penn-Lewis claimed that some of our sins may not be our sins and we are not responsible and in worse shape if we confess them. They are, in fact, the sins of the demons. But how could one ever really know?

I MADE ME DO IT

It cannot be stated too strongly that all personal sin is the person’s sin and must be confessed as such (James 1:14-16, 1 John 1:9). We alone are responsible for the sins we commit (Ezekiel 18). There is not one verse of Scripture that would suggest that demons can do their sinning through the mind, will and body of a believer. This ascribes to demons far more power and ability than the Bible does.

OCCULTIC SUGGESTIONS

Penn-Lewis rightly condemned automatic writing as occultic and spiritistic. Within spiritism, people can become mediums and in trance-like states write down messages and revelations they believe are from the other side.

Having denounced this evil practice, Penn-Lewis then suggests that Christians can practice a form of automatic writing under divine guidance. She suggests that the Scriptures were written this way and in so doing is close to saying that our writings can be tantamount to Scripture.75 The occultic God Calling ideas were not new to A.J. Russell.76

To suggest that we could write anything even remotely close to Scripture, given directly by supernatural inspiration from the Holy Spirit, minimizes Sacred Writ and is a serious misunderstanding of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures (Jude 6 and Revelation 22:18-19).

There is nothing being penned today that even remotely resembles Scripture for many reasons. Gerhard Maier points out:

“Now, there can be no doubt that revelation understands itself as a fundamentally closed entity. When Joshua is commanded to proceed according to the Law ‘in all things,’ and is at the same time warned ‘to turn neither to the right nor the left’ of what the Law says (Jos 1:7f.), then it is clear that the Torah is complete and unalterable (cf. also Dt 4:2; Mal 3:22). It is just as clear that for the New Testament writers, the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament were a closed entity that could not be expanded or reduced at will (cf. Mt 5:17ff.; 22:40; Lk 24:44f.; Jn 5:39; 10:35; 2Ti 3:16). In 2 Peter 3:15f. Paul’s epistles are likewise spoken of as an entity that is in principle complete. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul himself spoke out against the danger of letters circulating falsely under his name. Jesus’ words, too, have a definite scope, according to 1 Corinthians 7:10ff. Finally, Hebrews 1:1f. states that God’s revelation culminates definitively in the time of Jesus. What these and other observations amount to is this: biblical revelation arrives in its final form in the time of Jesus. It informs us that the history of revelation has now arrived at its goal. Its completion is found in the Messiah. That is, it clearly informs the church that further revelations are not to be expected, though that which was given earlier should remain in force.”77

IN CONCLUSION

Penn-Lewis’ life is an example of the following dangers:

1. Exalting certain concepts in Scripture above all others and losing balance (as she does) in the areas of sanctification, demonology and prophecy.

2. Being thrusted into the limelight as a teacher without training or background.

3. Taking too seriously one’s own feelings, moods, impressions and experiences as a good guide or as a definition and model for all other believers. It has been said that experience can at times be a good handmaid but never a good guide. Penn-Lewis was locked into the loam of her religious culture and the extremes of the Keswick Movement.

4. Having a demonology of impression, feelings and experiences and not Scripture.

Though Penn-Lewis taught some truths, which may even be helpful to some, her writings are so overladen with error, human emotion and overwrought subjectivism, she is not a safe teacher to follow. Ideas in print may seem impressive but they must be filtered through the Word of God. We ought not to ever think that strange new doctrine and mystical theology is deep truth. Truth pressed to extremes leads to all kinds of error. This is never more evident than in the life and teachings of Penn-Lewis. Believers should always be wary of following someone just because they have their ideas in print. God save us from truth pressed to extremes.

Penn-Lewis issued another warning that she herself never heeded:

“But it is so ‘human’ to go to extremes! It is only as we know the danger, and rely upon God to guard us, that we can be kept spiritually sober, and balanced in truth. When we are conscious of the difficulties of it on account of our human limitations, we are less dogmatic in our statements to others about ourselves and our ‘views.’”78

Would that Mrs. Penn-Lewis had taken her own advice.

Endnotes:

1. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Spiritual Warfare. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1998, pg. 44, italics in original.
2. This is not to be confused with America’s Keswick in Whiting, N.J. where a balanced view of working and growing faith is taught. See further, “What’s the Difference” by the Rev. William A. Raws, America’s Keswick, Whiting, N.J.
3. See for example this author’s article, “The Secret of a Christian Classic — The Unhappy Life of Hannah Whitall Smith,” The Quarterly Journal, Jan.-March 1997, pp. 1, 15-17.
4. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Centrality of the Cross. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1996, pg. 42, italics in original.
5. See further, Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 51-86. Also see the video, Seventh-day Adventism: The Spirit Behind The Church, Grace Upon Grace Productions, Phoenix, Ariz., 1998.
6. See for example this author’s articles, “Mark Bubeck and Spiritual Warfare — The Cloning of Jessie Penn-Lewis,” The Quarterly Journal, July-Sept. 1996, pp. 1, 14-18 and “Demons, Demons, Where Are the Demons? — The Unchanged and Unchanging Neil Anderson,” The Quarterly Journal, July-Sept. 1997, pp. 1, 14-17. 7. Donald Grey Barnhouse, The Invisible War. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965, pg. 166.
8. Kris Lungaard, The Enemy Within. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 1998.
9. Brynmor Pierce Jones, The Trials and Triumphs of Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis. North Brunswick, N.J.: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1997, pp. 88-89.
10. Jay E. Adams, Biblical Sonship. Woodruff, S.C.: Timeless Texts, 1999, pp. 10-11.
11. Ibid., pg. 15.
12. See Edwin Orr, The Flaming Tongue. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973, pp. 1-28.
13. See Mary N. Garrard, Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir. Ontario, Canada: Ontario Christian Books, 1989, pp. 229-230.
14. Ibid., pp. 227-229.
15. Ibid., pg. 233.
16. John Owen, Sin and Temptation. Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1983, pg. xx.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., pg. xxii.
19. Ibid., pg. xxiv.
20. B.B. Warfield, Perfectionism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 1967, pg. xi.
21. Sin and Temptation, op. cit., pg. xxviii.
22. Jay E. Adams, Maintaining the Delicate Balance in Christian Living. Woodruff, S.C.: Timeless Texts, 1998, pg. 22.
23. Herbert Lockyer, Daily Promises. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984, entry for October 21, italics in original.
24. See further, Jessie Penn-Lewis, Life in The Spirit. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1995, esp. pp. 25 and 29.
25. Ibid., pp. 13, 15-16, 34-35, italics in original.
26. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 2.
27. Ibid., pg. 8.
28. Ibid., pg. 54, italics in original.
29. Ibid., pg. 151.
30. Ibid., pg. 190.
31. Ibid.
32. See further this author’s article, “The Mindless Mysticism of Madame Guyon,” The Quarterly Journal, Jan.-March 1997, pp. 4, 12-15.
33. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 34.
34. The Trials and Triumphs of Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis, op. cit., pg. 61.
35. Ibid., pg. 230.
36. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 34, italics in original.
37. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Warfare with Satan. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1997, pg. 70.
38. The Spiritual Warfare, op. cit., pp. 56-57, italics in original.
39. See further, Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis. Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1993, pp. 89-91.
40. The Warfare with Satan, op. cit., pg. 57.
41. Ibid., pg. 62.
42. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Centrality of the Cross. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1996, pg. 18.
43. Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Cross of Calvary. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1996, page 162.
44. W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1984, pg. 249.
45. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 223, italics in original.
46. Ibid., pg. 56, italics in original.
47. Ibid., pp. 21-26.
48. Jessie Penn-Lewis, Life in the Spirit. Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1995, pg. 39.
49. Ibid., pg. 54.
50. See The Centrality of the Cross, op. cit., pg. 61.
51. Ibid., pp. 64-65.
52. Ibid., pg. 61.
53. See for example, notes on Colossians 2:11-17 from the New Geneva Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996, pg. 1888.
54. The Warfare with Satan, op. cit., pp. 64-65.
55. Ibid., pg. 67.
56. J.A. Schep, The Nature of the Resurrection Body. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964, pp. 24 and 29, italics in original.
57. Life in the Spirit, op. cit., pg. 52.
58. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 275.
59. Jay Adams, More Than Redemption. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 115-116, italics in original.
60. The Trials and Triumphs of Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis, op. cit., pg. 224.
61. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 296.
62. Ibid., pg. 228.
63. Warren Wiersbe, “The Woman God Could Use,” The Good News Broadcaster, November 1983, pg. 28.
64. The Trials and Triumphs of Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis, op. cit., pg. 197.
65. Jessie Penn-Lewis, A Memoir, op. cit., pg. 262.
66. Ibid., pg. 228.
67. The Trials and Triumphs of Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis, op. cit., pg. 205.
68. Ibid.
69. Ibid., emphasis in original.
70. Ibid.
71. Ibid., pp. 205-206.
72. Ibid., pg. 206.
73. Jessie Penn-Lewis with Evan Roberts, War on the Saints. New York: Thomas E. Lowe, Ltd. Publishers, 1998, Unabridged Edition, pp. 162-163.
74. Ibid., pp. 146-147, italics in original.
75. Ibid., pp. 116-117.
76. See “God Calling... A Critical Look at a Christian Best-Seller,” Personal Freedom Outreach Newsletter, July-Sept. 1986, pp. 1-2, 6.
77. Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994, pp. 155-156, italics in original.
78. The Centrality of the Cross, op. cit., pg. 58.

 

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