First in a 5 Article Series on ‘Things Worth Dying For’
by Kel Willis
Interact Magazine 1999
Volume 10 Number 1
The presentation was superb, the stories gripping and the quotes stimulating. We were kept on the edges of our seats with anticipation. However apart from an initial reference to a verse or Scripture there was no Bible content in the sermon at all. I left the church that day wondering if the preacher believed that clever, emotional presentation and logical argument alone would convince people to follow Jesus. there was nothing in his sermon to indicate a conviction that people are brought to faith by hearing the Word of God (Rom.10:17).
I believe with a passion that our preaching and teaching must be presented in a relevant way. We must understand our audience and communicate in a way that is interesting and understandable. But there is little point in being relevant and communicating well if we present less than the gospel. Whilst it’s important to engage our audience, we must never lose sight of the central focus of our message, where it comes from and how it impacts people.
There is an idea abroad today that says we need less cognitive sermons because people these days don’t have long attention spans. Invariably what happens is that such sermons have less Bible with their stories to focus on being ‘people friendly’. If we believe that God still speaks to us today through His Word, surely the Bible should not be what gets lost! Rather, we should learn how to skilfully teach and affirm the truths that we believe with conviction and passion.
Throughout the history of the church there have always been those who have sought to add a dimension of human reasoning to the gospel to make its message more ‘palatable’, more reasonable and acceptable. They have ridiculed the miraculous and divine and called into question such things as the Virgin Birth, the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus, etc. In so doing they have ignored, diminished or eliminated altogether the role God has in impacting the lives of people.
I once heard Os Guiness say, ‘Evangelism and church growth that are not solidly anchored in Bible principles are a contradiction in terms … both are about the intervention of God in people’s lives. The truth is you can build a large church, without God really having anything to do with it!’ Good programs that are well run may bring people into the church (or club!) and make them feel comfortable, but unless these same people understand and embrace biblical truth, it will not be a work of God.
An Authentic Bible
The issue really boils down to biblical authority. Do we really believe that the Bible is wholly God’s Word? All we can ever know about the gospel comes from the Bible. We can only ever know about God – His nature, character and purpose – because He has revealed Himself through His Word. We can only comprehend the person and work of Jesus, the nature of humanity, the wonder of all He has in mind for His church and how to be godly, mature believers through God’s revelation to us in Scripture. Without embracing the complete integrity and authority of the Bible we revert to human wisdom and present a less than adequate, indeed a distorted, gospel.
Theologians use different terms to define their views of Scripture. However, it’s possible to use the correct terms and not really embrace what they imply. A view of Scripture that in any way undermines its integrity or authority in the church or in a Christian’s life is to be rejected. If we don’t have an authoritative Bible we haven’t got an authoritative message.
I believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture, by which I mean that God so moved in the hearts and minds of those who wrote the Bible that we received in its original form is what God intended. It is the very word of God without human error and is therefore God speaking to humanity.
I’m sure this statement will evoke at least two responses – one a positive ‘Amen’, and the other a question: ‘What about the apparent discrepancies in the biblical documents?’ At this point we need to ask whether the Bible has integrity. Is it authoritative? How should we view its message?
One cannot hope to have answers to all of the questions put forward by the critics. However it’s of interest to note that the questions being asked about the Scriptures 30 years ago are no longer being asked today. Instead they have developed a whole set of new ones, which will doubtless be dropped or changed in time. Packer, in his book Truth and Power, makes the following comment:
Biblical Criticism developed in Germany had scepticism built into it from the start in the form of Kant’s denial that God communicates verbally with man (a denial which strikes at the Bible’s main claim and message), plus the eighteenth-century rationalist assumption that miracles do not happen. Naturally, the scepticism present in its premises comes out of its conclusions. [J.Packer, Truth and Power, Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois (1996) 48.]
James Montgomery Boice, dealing with the claim that scholarship is actually shown that the books of the Bible are fallible, writes:
“Has scholarship actually shown that the books of the Bible are fallible and therefore only written by men after all? Not very long ago claims like these were made by many influential scholars. They spoke of the ‘certain results’ or ‘assured findings’ that were imagined to have laid the orthodox conception of the Bible to rest forever. Today, as anyone who has had the opportunity to delve deeply into such questions knows, these phrases no longer occur with such frequency. In fact, they hardly occur at all. Why? Simply because, as the result of biblical and archaeological investigations, many of these so-called ‘assured findings’ have blown up in the faces of those who cited them.” [J.M.Boice, Does Inerrancy Matter?, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Wheaton, Illinois (1979) 27.]
Boice then proceeds to give a number of examples and concludes:
“The results of scholarship, far from discrediting the Bible, actually support its truthfulness. Of course, they do not prove inerrancy. We will probably never have all the data that would be necessary to do that. But they do point in the direction of reliability and reveal nothing that is not compatible with the highest view of Scripture. Even Time magazine acknowledged this in a cover story on the Bible (December 30, 1974): After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived – and is perhaps the better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms – historical fact – the scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack. [ibid. 28. ]
Our view of the Bible will potentially impact every part of our lives.
I recognise that there ought to be some evaluation of Higher Criticism at a theological training level. Indeed, when such a process includes a clear and definite affirmation of the Bible’s integrity, the student’s confidence in the Bible is promoted all the more! If we can teach confidence in the Bible in the face of Higher Criticism, how much more confident of it will our pastors be in their ministry? Should not that be the goal of our colleges?
Several pastors I have spoken with tell me that they have never consciously called on the material of Higher Criticism in their ministry. I think that is significant. We should use Higher Criticism to aid in our understanding of the authority of the Bible, rather than allow such study to bring it into question, for this would take authority away from the Bible and give it to the critics. If we hold a lesser view of Scripture than verbal inspiration as defined above, who determines what is inspired and what isn’t, and where then does authority lie – in the Scriptures or with the interpreter?
A Bible We Can Trust
Although it may be going over old ground for some, I think it’s helpful to periodically reaffirm what we believe and why. This is especially so of our convictions concerning the Scriptures.
Those who were instruments through whom God gave us the Scriptures had no qualms about claiming that they were passing on what God had said. Indeed expressions like ‘God said’, ‘the Lord said’ and ‘the word of the Lord came to me saying’ are used over 3,800 times in the Old Testament and the content of Scripture constantly affirms the truth of these claims.
After affirming the authenticity of Jesus both through the reports of eye witnesses and the more sure word of the Old Testament prophets, Peter said that the scriptures didn’t have their origin in human beings. Rather, ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 2:21). In other words, what was written was what God intended. God in the fullest possible sense governed the human instrumentality used to convey His Word to humanity.
This is what Paul believed as he wrote the Epistles: ‘The gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ (Gal.1:11,12), In 2 Timothy 3:16 he affirmed that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed’, that is, it is a direct consequence of divine intervention. The church at Thessalonica certainly believed that what Paul wrote came from God: ‘And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe’ (1 Thess.2:13).
There are of course many other reasons why we can with confidence embrace the Bible as God’s Word to us – the consistent testimony of other New Testament writers (Acts 1:16, 28:25; Heb.4:12), the affirmation of Jesus (Matt.4:1-11; Luke 4:18,19; Luke 24:25-27), the Reformers, the Revivalists, and church leaders of great significance throughout history all believer in an infallible, authoritative Bible.
Why does all this matter? It’s really about two things – having a Bible that is absolutely trustworthy in all that it affirms, without which there is no certainty in Christian experience, and about God’s authority in the lives of His people.
Indeed our view of the Bible will potentially impact every part of our lives, not only our understanding of God and His gospel be also our response to its message. For those of us whose role it is to preach and teach the Bible, what we believe about its authenticity will determine both the way we preach and the place that Bible teaching has in the congregations we serve.
Historically, great movements of God have been inseparable linked to the clear exposition of God’s Word. That’s because God speaks through it. Indeed all spiritual life and growth are a direct consequence of understanding God’s Word (Rom.10:17, Eph.1:15-19, 4:11-16, Col.1:9-11). In our approach to the Bible we must never forget the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. He not only inspired the Bible but also gives the capacity to comprehend its truth. He is still at work today illuminating His Word (John 16:6-10). Paul wrote that the unbeliever hasn’t the capacity to comprehend the wonder and mystery of the gospel, but ‘God has revealed it to us by His Spirit (1 Cor.2:10).
Paul went on to say, ‘We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor.2:12-14).
It’s a very great privilege to be a preacher and teacher of God’s Word and to see Him at work as the truth of scripture is expounded. I never cease to wonder at His gracious work in bringing people to an understanding of His truth. Sometimes even from the platform one can see people whose faces light up as they become excited about fresh discovery of truth.
I believe we should work very hard at being the best preachers we can possibly be. The approach to preaching will differ from person to person. Some are very good at telling stories, whilst others have minds that can recall great quotes that encapsulate the points being made. Some are able to graphically illustrate their sermons. Whatever our approach there are some fundamentals that every effective communicator of the gospel keeps in mind.
Effective preachers who have lasting impact have a deep conviction about the authority of the Bible. They believe that when they expound the Scriptures God is speaking through them and that in some wonderful and awesome way the Holy Spirit is taking His Word and giving understanding to the hearers. Effective preaching is biblically driven. The stories, illustrations and the presentation must never overshadow the message or the whole point in preaching is lost. Effective preaching takes time to prepare well, to research, to think and pray through the issues to allow the sermon to impact our own hearts. then we will preach with passion and conviction and these are essential to good preaching.
Paul constantly challenged those whose teaching was less than ‘sound doctrine’ for it did not have at its very core the person and work of Jesus (1 Tim.6:3; 2 Tim.2:8). Such teaching, he said, did not lead to godliness. This is a great challenge to me personally. Do I consistently proclaim a message that helps people grow in godliness? I believe this is a primary goal of the gospel, for ‘through the gospel God saved us and called us to a holy life’ (2 Tim.1:9).
Rick Warren’s statement that healthy churches are growing churches is a great principle for us to keep in mind. However it’s also true to say that healthy churches are those with healthy members and true spiritual health is a consequence of having a biblical foundation upon which to live and function Christianly. This only happens as we develop clear strategies to enable us to understand gospel principles. Strong Christians have a good grasp of spiritual truth (1 John 2:14). Strong growing churches have functioning discipling strategies (Matt.28:19,20).
Psalm 119 is a great psalm to read and digest, especially for preachers. It’s about the impact of God’s Word on people’s lives. throughout it the psalmist asks God for understanding of His Word. He affirms his commitment and response to what God is saying and at the same time expresses his great thankfulness for the constant resource and impact God’s Word provides: a guard against sin (v.9-11), a ‘lamp to my feet, and a light for my path’ (v.105), ‘the unfolding of you words gives life’ (v.130). The concept is wonderful, isn’t it. As we read the Bible of hear its truth expounded, God illuminates our understanding. Isn’t that what Paul meant in Ephesians 1:16-18 when he prayed that the Father would give ‘the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better … that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.’ When we consistently expose people to the principles of God’s Word they have the potential to grow to maturity and be contributing members of our churches.
More Than Orthodoxy
I need to say that in pleading for a greater focus on structured biblical teaching in our churches, I’m not suggesting that ‘correct doctrine’ alone is the answer to unhealthy Christians or declining churches. We all know individuals or church groups who are thoroughly orthodox in their beliefs, but who also lack any vibrancy in their Christian lives. They exhibit no passion for godliness and no real concern for others. They lack freedom in both their personal lives and in their worship of God.
When the truth of Scripture isn’t an integral part of our everyday lives, setting us free to become what God intended, that very truth to which we hold so tenaciously becomes a liability, for it deceives us into thinking that having ‘the truth’ makes us correct (James 1:22). God’s purpose is giving us the gospel is to recreate and restore the character of Jesus within us so that we reflect His image in our everyday walk and relationship with others.
Danger also lies in accommodating cultural thinking and seeking somehow to make our message completely ‘fit’ it. Such attempts may rob the gospel of its power and produce shallowness in the church.
At a conference for pastors last year, some were ridiculing the very idea that we today could understand what God intended when He spoke to the Ephesian church 2000 years ago. It’s not important to know what God intended then, they argued. What is really important is to know what a particular passage means to us today. The problem with this approach is that it leaves one with no criteria by which to determine what the Bible is saying at all. The result has to be distorted, confused teaching that has only one basis for authority – the person determining what the passage means to us today!
The focus for such ministry becomes personal experience. When our confidence in the Bible is eroded and we aren’t sure that God still impacts people as His Word is expounded, we tend to look for alternatives. That’s one reason why there is such a focus today on having an ‘experience’ of God. However spiritual experience that doesn’t flow from an understanding of revealed truth is as dangerous and destructive as having truth without the experience of God that that truth affirms. Experiences can be very transitory. We need both truth and experience to give balance in a daily relational walk with God.
In the process of seeking to understand and exegete a passage of Scripture we need to ask four simple questions:
To whom was it written? – What can we find out about their culture, philosophy and background?
Why was it written? – What issues does it address?
What is the context of the passage under consideration? – What is being said immediately before and after it, and what is said about these issues in the wider context of Scripture?
What is the passage saying to us today?
The answers to the first three questions give us the basis for determining the answer to the fourth. Throughout the process we depend upon the Holy Spirit to give us insight and understanding.
Throughout history, when the church has tried to accommodate academia and cultural pressure, it has always given ground and compromised on its theological framework. When that happens ‘the gospel’ becomes human-centred. the consequence is always a decline in evangelism, growth and vitality in the church.
It’s a good practice to periodically restate those things that constitute our essential framework as Christians – those core truths that make up the gospel. These then become the criteria for our response to what is happening in our world.
I’ve chosen to address the authority of the Bible first in this series because having a Bible that is authentic and trustworthy is essential to confidence in the gospel. Without it there is no authoritative message. It’s the starting point, the foundation upon which to build our understanding of ‘the faith’, the resource from which we gain an understanding of other essentials that are core gospel issues. That’s why it’s worth going to the wall for!
Perhaps before the next edition it would be a helpful exercise for you to reflect on what for you are the core issues – the ‘things worth dying for’ in the realm of your Christian faith.
Rev Kel Willis is the Director of Christian Growth Ministries Inc.
© Kel Willis (1 March 1999)