A Sure Sign of Unbelief: Keeping the Bible Out of the Hands of People

Ever since the Reformation put the Bible into the hands of everyman, opponents of the truth have decried the availability of the Bible to be read and understood by more than just an elite clergy. The pre-Reformation scholar William Tyndale made it his goal to translate the Bible into English so that even a plowboy could know more than the priest. The combination of the invention of the printing press and Martin Luther’s German Bible helped fulfill Tyndale’s dream for the German people. In a short time, the emphasis on education promoted by the Reformers, combined with new translations into the language of peoples in different nations resulted in an educated and biblically literate laity.

About a century later, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes expressed his horror at the prospect of an “everyman theology”:

After the Bible was translated…every man, nay every boy and wench that could read English thought they spoke with God Almighty, and understood what he said when by a certain number of chapters a day they had read the Scriptures once or twice over.

Thomas Hobbes, Works, ed. William Molesworth (London: n.p., 1839-45), vol. VI, 190.

Hobbes’ sentiment is a common one among those who reject the authority and inspiration of Scripture. For most of its history the Catholic Church has discouraged anyone but priests from reading and interpreting the Bible. And movements such as the emerging church which minimize Scripture as authoritative by making it just one of many ways that God reveals himself, do essentially the same thing. Even some conservative pastors, by their lack of exposition of Scripture, fail to encourage their congregations to be reading and studying Scripture.

The only way to avoid another spiritual dark ages, such as was much of the medieval age, is to keep the Bible in the hands of every believer, encouraging reading and studying. When people know the Scriptures, they are not easily led into error. Preaching should teach people how to read their Bibles by the progress of a sermon through the text, carefully connecting the content of the sermon with the text of Scripture.

Anything that encourages the reading and studying of Scripture is an important effort to ensure belief and buttress the truth. Anything that detracts from Bible study should be suspect. The Scriptures in the hands of everyman has always been the greatest defense against unbelief.

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If Your Bible Reading Is Not Changing You, You’re Doing It Wrong

Reading the Bible is one of the most important practices of the Christian life. But just because you read your Bible doesn’t make you spiritual, and reading on its own provides no spiritual benefit. The Bible is not a talisman that possesses magical power just for the reading. When Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the Word of God is living and powerful, it is telling us that the Scriptures have supernatural power because they are the very words of God that confront us in judgment and grace. We must read the Bible with the eyes of faith, expecting to encounter a Holy God, and submitting ourselves to the authority of the words and the searching eye of the Holy Spirit.

From the time I was a teenager, I read my Bible regularly. But for most of my high school and college years I read because I knew I should, not necessarily because I wanted to. This was not without benefit, for God used that greatly in my life to bend my heart toward him. In my second year of seminary, however, one particular morning in the Word became an epiphany for me. All the teaching and preaching in seminary on grace finally dawned in my heart, as I realized for the first time that I should read my Bible because I wanted to, not just because I should. That day the truth of grace sank deep into my heart. I wasn’t reading my Bible anymore because I thought I had to in order to remain right with God. I was reading because I understood that I had been made right with God through justification, not my own righteousness. This awoke an intense hunger for the Word I had never felt before. It awoke a desire for godliness and an intimate knowledge of God.

What was the difference? I was not reading the Bible anymore as an important book from which to gain comprehensive knowledge, or for preparation for the next Bible trivia quiz in school. I was reading the Bible to encounter the living God. This is an especially important point for anyone who teaches the Bible, whether in Sunday School, or as a college of seminary professor. The Bible was not given with the intent that we approach it as an object of neutral, objective research to be dissected and examined impartially.

Martin Luther, as scholarly as he was, knew the difference between an intense, experiential knowledge of the Word and a disinterested, academic knowledge:

Such a knowledge, even if it were possible, would only be the dead letter that kills. The Spirit makes alive! We must therefore “feel” the words of Scripture “in the heart.” Experience is necessary for the understanding of the Word. It is not merely to be repeated or known, but to be lived and felt (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Nashville: B&H, 1988, 85).

Luther believed that Scripture is designed to confront the reader with “the existential demand and promise of Scripture which requires a present response” (p. 85). In other words, Scripture makes demands upon the believer while at the same time comforting with promises. No Christian should be able to read the Bible without being moved and transformed by it.

Notice the confrontational nature of his sermon on the phrase, “I will call upon the Lord” from Psalm 118:5:

Call is what you have to learn. You heard it. Don’t just sit there by yourself or off to one side and hang your head, and shake it and gnaw your knuckles and worry and look for a way out, nothing on your mind except how bad you feel, how you hurt, what a poor guy you are. Get up, you lazy scamp! Down on your knees! Up with your hands and eyes toward heaven! Use a psalm or the Lord’s prayer to cry out your distress to the Lord.

Does our Bible reading look like this? It can, if we expect to encounter a holy God every time we open the Word. If we stop approaching the Bible as a duty and an object to be studied for its own sake, we can begin to experience the transforming power of the Word. When we “tremble at the threshold of the biblical text,” as one theologian has written, our Bible reading will take on a whole new meaning. As my mentor, Frank Hamrick always says, when we stop studying the Word of God and start studying the God of the Word, we will be transformed.

How To Deal With Doubts About Your Salvation

Many people struggle with assurance of their salvation. Even though they have placed their trust in Christ alone and believe that the Bible says this is the way to salvation, they agonize over whether they have been truly converted. Because they don’t always feel assurance, they doubt.

They are not alone. Even such an historical giant as Martin Luther wrestled with doubts. To those who were concerned that perhaps they may not have been one of the elect, his basic advice was, “Thank God for your torments.” It is characteristic of the elect, not of the reprobate, to tremble at the hidden counsel of God. In addition, he recommended a recognition that these doubts came not from God, but the devil. A believer ought to flatly reject the devil who brings such thoughts and fix his eyes upon the Savior. When a parishioner named Barbara Lisskirchen asked for advice regarding this issue, Luther responded:

When such thoughts assail you, you should learn to ask yourself, “If you please, in what Commandment is it written that I should think about and deal with this matter?” When it appears that there is no such Commandment, learn to say, “Be gone, wretched devil! You are trying to make me worry about myself. But God declares everywhere that I should let him care for me…”

The highest of all God’s commands is this, that we hold up before our eyes the image of his dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day he should be our excellent mirror wherein we behold how much God loves us and how well in his infinite goodness, he has cared for us in that he gave his dear Son for us.

In this way, I say, and in no other, does one learn how to deal properly with the question of predestination. It will be manifest that you believe in Christ. If you believe, then you are called. And if you are called, then you are most certainly predestinated. Do not let this mirror and throne of grace be torn away from before your eyes…Contemplate Christ given for us. Then, God willing, you will feel better.

Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. T.G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 116.

There Were No Golden Ages of Church History

How often have you heard people lament that these days are not like the “good old days”? Perceptions of the past state of the world or Christianity are often skewed, reflecting the selective memories of individuals or the selective reading of the historical record. We like to think that there was a Golden Age when true and pure Christianity was dominant and Christians all lived happy, holy lives, but the more history I read, the more I believe the idea is a fantasy.

Westminster Seminary church historian, Carl Trueman reminds us that this pining for an ideal era of Christianity has a long history that goes back at least to the Reformation:

One harmful but guiding assumption of much of Reformation and post-Reformation historiography has been that there are ‘golden ages’ such that the present state of the church pales in comparison to some perceived time when all was right with the church…

The Golden Age model has two faults. First, it typically smooths out the rough spots in a particular era by treating theology as though it dropped out of the sky, or, perhaps better, straight out of the Bible. It does not. Humans do theology in specific historical, cultural contexts, and theological issues are always more complex than the Golden Age model allows. One does not have to reduce everything to an extreme materialist model of history to acknowledge the truth of this statement.

In addition, it does not always allow for the fact that we live in the late twentieth century, not the sixteenth or seventeenth. If one wishes to appropriate the sixteenth or seventeenth century, for example, as a model for contemporary church theology, one must do without blinkers and with an awareness of the theological, cultural and philosophical developments between then and now. Ignoring the critical questions of history does not make them go away.

(Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment,ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark; Paternoster, 1999, xvi.)

With that last statement Trueman reminds us that we need to tell the whole story, a story that takes all the aspects of life into consideration: political, sociological, and cultural. We cannot imagine that none of these things mattered or had an influence on the times. Additionally, if we wish for the good old days of selective memory or reading, we have to take the good and the bad. If it’s the Reformation we wish for, we have to take the inherent violence and political instability of the times, in addition to the somewhat rudimentary post-Catholic church order and life. If we long for the great revivals of the 18th or 19th centuries we have to take the extreme emotionalism, moralism and nationalism that were often confused with the gospel.

Rather than wish for the “good old days,” we ought to take the advice of Solomon, who recommended against idolizing the past, and instead instructed us to enjoy the present, warts and all:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this…In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl. 7:10, 14)

Desiring God Is Unlike Anything Else

Because God is not bound by space or time, the desire for God is unlike desire for things in this world. When, for example, we have yearned for food or drink and receive what we have longed for, our desire ceases. Often our enjoyment falls short of our expectations, and in the very moment of satisfaction, we begin to desire something else. But our yearning to see God will be satisfied only by knowing God more fully and more intimately. The more we know, the more we desire to know.

Robert Louis Wilkin, summarizing the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century theologian, in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale, 2003), 301.

Hope Is the Key to Patience

For Tertullian the singular mark of patience is not endurance or fortitude but hope. To be impatient, says Tertullian, is to live without hope. Patience is grounded in the Resurrection. It is life oriented toward a future that is God’s doing, and its sign is longing, not so much to be released from the ills of the present, but in anticipation of the good to come.

Robert Louis Wilken, speaking of the Early 3rd Century Church Father, Tertullian (c. 160-220) in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale, 2003), 284.

Soccer and Human Nature

I had the great fortune (okay, providence) to have my transplant surgery just a week before the start of the FIFA World Cup. Besides thrice daily walks, I spend most of my days recovering in my recliner reading and playing cards with my kids. My television happens to be in the same room, so I have had the justification for watching almost every World Cup game so far. Here are two things about human nature I have observed repeatedly:

1. No one who is whistled for a foul believes they are guilty. They all respond with hands out and palms upward as if to say, “What??? Me???” How typical of human beings to deny even the most obvious violations of the law!

2. Everyone who is fouled, regardless of how slight the contact, goes down on the pitch as if they had been shot by a high-powered rifle, with excessive groaning, grimaces and grabbing of the leg. One second later they continue playing as if nothing ever happened. I’ve seen deer killed with said rifle that are less dramatic. How like human beings to magnify the offenses against us!

The Unhappiness of Beautiful People

I was sitting in Starbucks the other day when I saw three very attractive young women walk in together. They appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties, and could very well have been supermodels. But that is not what caught my attention. What I noticed almost immediately was that all three looked profoundly unhappy. The three neither smiled nor made eye contact with anyone around them. They hardly spoke while they prepared their drinks and when finished, went on their way. I couldn’t help wondering how people with such beauty could possibly be anything but radiant. Anywhere they go they will be stared at, envied and almost certainly afforded special treatment. The answer to such unhappiness, I believe, lies in the heart.

Our culture has made physical beauty an idol to be worshipped. As a result, those who possess it bear a terrible burden to maintain not only physical fitness and facial glamour, but they also have to bow to the gods of acting like a celebrity, which means not making eye contact with anyone who is not one of their own, or smiling for smiling’s sake.  As a father of two teenage girls, this issue is important to me. Beauty in our culture seems to require a detached air of coolness and a dispassionate demeanor. Beautiful people often seem to be preoccupied with maintaining their beauty, and as a result come off as very self-centered. They are working hard to maintain the status, admiration and perks that come with their social privilege. While this is certainly not true for all attractive people, and may not have been the case with the three women I observed, it is a common malady of the beautiful among us. And this makes them a most miserable lot, because they sense the truth that their beauty cannot be retained for long.

The wisest man who ever lived, the Jewish king Solomon, noted that “personality is deceiving, and beauty is fleeting…” (Proverbs 31:30). Those who possess great beauty know that every day after around age eighteen is a losing battle with death. Time adds wrinkles, sagging flesh, and general deterioration. Those who have bowed at the altar of beauty have every reason to be and look unhappy—their god will surely fail them. They will soon go down to their “long home”—the grave, a fate shared by everyone, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor.

Solomon finishes his wisdom saying with the words, “but she who fears the Lord will be praised.” The point here is that the kind of person who can light up a room is not one who meets the standards set by a glamour magazine, but one whose heart has been transformed by the grace of God, and overflows with gratitude for what has been done for her. This kind of person cannot help but express otherworldly joy, and that is what makes someone truly beautiful. Beauty is a gift of God, not to be worshipped, but to be used to display the ultimate beauty of the one who is to be worshipped.

The One Thing That Has Always Been Central to Truly Christian Thinking

From The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by University of Virginia history professor Robert Louis Wilken (Yale, 2003), xvi-xvii (with commentary):

The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a hellenization [“Greekification”] of Christianity has outlived its usefulness. The time has come to bid a fond farewell to the ideas of Adolf von Harnack [don’t let your eyes glaze over just because you see the name Adolf], the nineteenth-century historian of dogma [theology] whose thinking has influenced the interpretation of early Christian thought for more than a century [error has staying power!]…A more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism [Greek culture and thought], though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.

Neither does it acknowledge the good and right qualities of Hellenic thinking that Christians recognized as valuable, for example, moral life understood as virtues [and might I add, certain philosophical concepts]. At the same time one observes again and again that Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman culture, transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being [this is an interesting thought for missionaries struggling with cultural issues].

There are many ways to account for this transformation—for example the person of Christ and the events associated with him, the sacramental character of Christian worship [I don’t agree with his description of worship as “sacramental”], the communal life of the church [love this part of church]—and each has its place in the story I tell [stay with me, now, it’s about to get good].

But what has impressed me most is the omnipresence of the Bible in early Christian writings. Early Christian thought is biblical, and one of the lasting accomplishments of the patristic period [the first five hundred years of the church] was to forge a way of thinking, scriptural in language and inspiration, that gave to the church and to Western civilization a unified and coherent interpretation of the Bible as a whole.

[And now comes an important word about the importance of church history] Needless to say, this means that any effort to mount an interpretation of the Bible that ignores its first readers [I don’t think he means we have to accept every interpretation of the early church, but we should at least consider it] is doomed to end up with a bouquet of fragments that are neither the book of the church nor the imaginative well-spring of Western literature, art and music. Uprooted form the soil that feeds them, they are like cut flowers whose vivid colors have faded. [emphasis mine]

Suffering and Self-Pity, Part 2: Rooting Out Self-Pity

If anyone ever had a reason to pity-himself, it was the Apostle Paul. His fall from premier Pharisee in Israel to persecuted apostle is fantastic. His sufferings are recounted in 2 Corinthians 11, and they are as significant as any Christian in all of church history. He suffered physical, spiritual and mental abuse from others, extreme discomfort for long periods of time adrift in the ocean and in prison, hunger, thirst, insecurity, and exhausting toil. His life seemed to be a series of seasons of intense suffering, interrupted occasionally by relief.

So, is Paul’s description of his sufferings a case of self-pity? Not at all. The Corinthian church was challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, so to demonstrate his legitimate right to admonish them, he recounted his sufferings. In the chapter 12, Paul further demonstrates his proper attitude toward suffering regarding the infamous “thorn in the flesh.” After pleading with God to deliver him from it, Paul accepted God’s answer that the suffering remain and that he would rely on the grace of God to sustain him. If God’s power was perfected in Paul’s suffering, then Paul was content to suffer. Here is the suffering soul delivered from the demand for relief!

And Paul didn’t do this grudgingly. He bore it “gladly” because his suffering brought God glory. There is no scent of self-pity here. There is only joy and gladness in the midst of suffering, because he valued God’s glory so much. Paul didn’t want people to feel sorry for him, because he saw suffering as something glorious—not in its present experience, but in its eternal outcome. Earlier in the epistle, Paul says that it was the eternal weight of glory that made the present suffering bearable:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Paul would not seek sympathy beyond what was appropriate. He would not grimace a little more or wear a long face all the time. He modeled Jesus’ command to those who were suffering the deprivation of fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). He would not wear a gloomy face, but in effect “washed his face and anointed his head,” symbolism for the joy of celebration.

Paul’s example reminds us that our natural response to suffering must be overcome by the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ. By recognizing that God allowed his own Son to suffer incomparably for our eternal glory, we can, like Peter, rejoice in that we share in the sufferings of Christ when we ourselves suffer. This frees us from the feeling that God is not just or does not care that we suffer. The fact that he gave his Son shows us the lengths that God will go to ensure our eternal glory and freedom from suffering.

Now you may be thinking, “I believe that intellectually, but I don’t feel it.” I hear you loud and clear. Being able to write these things does not mean I always practice them. The last time I had to go to the emergency room at 11:00 at night for a crisis with my newly transplanted kidney, I was in the depths of frustration and despair. All these truths ran from my mind like people from a burning building. It was my wife who pulled me out of the pit of despair with these reassurances. She reminded me of God’s sovereignty, the worth of his glory and his sustaining grace to get us through. Exactly what I needed to hear.

So what do we do when we don’t feel the truth that we believe? It is through the training of our responses to suffering that we teach ourselves to speak the truth to ourselves, instead of listening to our doubts. Or as the Scottish pastor Sinclair Ferguson says, we must learn to talk to ourselves, and not to listen to ourselves. In other words, the more we tell ourselves the truth of God, the less we’ll be inclined to believe our thoughts of self-pity. Our self-centered suffering will be transformed into God-glorifying endurance.

So how do you know if you have fallen into self-pity in the midst of suffering? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I believe that my suffering is worse than everybody else’s?
  • Do I play up my suffering to gain more sympathy?
  • Do I post my suffering on Facebook before I pray to God for strength and relief?
  • Do I always talk about my suffering when someone asks how I’m doing?
  • Do I sympathize with and minister to others as much as I like others to sympathize with and minister to me?
  • Am I able to put on a brave and joyful face even when I don’t feel like it?
  • Do I speak of God’s blessings in my life as much as I do my suffering?

These questions should help us to root out self-pity and replace it with God-glorifying endurance.