Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Danger of Getting Bored with the Gospel

By Doug Smith

This article is a part of the 2007 Reformation Day Symposium hosted by Tim Challies (www.challies.com).

Four hundred ninety years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Today, we celebrate Reformation Day to commemorate what took place through men such as Luther and John Calvin. Their study of the Scriptures brought them to a clear understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel had been obscured through ignorance, false teaching, and unholy living, but the Reformers helped to recover the Bible's clear teaching about the good news of Christ.

The Gospel is the good news that God sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins and raised Him from the dead. The holy God created man in His own image, to reflect His glory and worship Him. Man chose to go his own way and rebel against God, thus imaging a lie about God instead of accurately representing Him. Man therefore deserved eternal punishment for offending this great God. Yet, God in His mercy sent a Savior. Jesus was God in the flesh, who lived a perfect life as a man. He was a sinless substitute, bearing the wrath of God for all who would turn from their sin and trust Him alone for their salvation. God will forgive the sins of everyone who repents and believes in Christ. He will count Jesus' righteousness to their account, and give them eternal life and a guarantee that they will share in Christ's resurrection and enjoy God forever. The Reformers understood these things and knew that the salvation revealed in the Scripture alone is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.

It has been said that the Gospel is embraced by one generation, assumed by the next, and then forgotten or rejected. Although the Reformation helped recover the truth of the Bible concerning the Gospel, we are in danger today of losing it again. Far too many among those who call themselves Christians (and even "evangelicals," ironically, since that word comes from the Greek for gospel) assume or reject the Gospel. We are threatened with the loss of the true Gospel and the substitution of a false one.

Even in the early days of the Christian church, there were those who were in danger of embracing another Gospel. The apostle Paul addresses this matter in his epistle to the Galatians. He writes in Galatians 1:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (verses 6-9, ESV)

The Galatians were moving away from the Gospel Paul had proclaimed clearly to them. They were beginning to look like traitors. They were yet in the process of moving away, but they were moving. False teachers were agitating them so much that they were deserting the only hope and truly good news there was.

People are moving away from the Gospel in our day as well. People who know better are moving away from the Gospel. Churches and denominations blessed with a history of a clear Gospel witness are deserting the truth. False teachers are leading many astray. Why?

While ignorance, false teaching, and a love for popularity surely contribute to widespread defection, I think there is another malady much closer to home than many of us would like to admit. I believe boredom with the Gospel can plant the seeds for deserting the truth.

A friend recently attended a conference for ministers and overheard this response to a sermon: "It was very good, even if it was a simple gospel message." It would appear that some think that a simple gospel message is simply pedestrian and ordinary. No big deal; it's just the gospel, right? But when we begin to lose the wonder and awe we should have at the fact that the righteous God has lavished His mercy and grace through Jesus Christ on sinners who deserve His punishment, we should never be bored. We should forever be in shock that He would do such a thing! We should overflow in praise and thanksgiving upon hearing the Gospel, no matter how many times we have heard it.

Some say that the people of God need edifying messages, not another evangelistic message. But is the assumption that the Gospel is not necessary for edification, or that once you've "got" it, you can move on? Saints should never tire of hearing this good news that secured their salvation. And even if a text does not have an explicit summary of the Gospel in it, it surely touches on an element of the Gospel, such as God's character, how we deserve judgment for our sin, the person and work of Christ, and the need to turn to Him in repentance and faith. As Christ is the focal point of Scripture, so biblical expository preaching should always include a natural presentation of the Gospel, as each book and passage is part of God's big story. Paul never tired of preaching Christ and Him crucified, and neither should we. In this spirit, Spurgeon labored to make a bee-line to the cross from his text, and so should preachers today. Apart from the Gospel-context, sermons can easily tend toward moralism and a distortion of the purpose of the Bible.

Speaking of things people say, does the Gospel interest us enough that we actually tell other people about it? Yes, fear of man can squelch our evangelism, as can being overly busy, and failing to love others as we ought. But could it also be that we're not sufficiently interested in the Gospel? Could it be that we'd rather talk about our hobbies and aspirations and problems than the best news in the world? If it's true that we feel the deepest about the things we think about the most, should we not spend more time reading and meditating on God's Word, so that that Gospel will cause a spontaneous combustion in our lives that affects those we come into contact with? If we are interested in the Gospel, will it not result in us sharing the message of the Gospel?

What do our lives reveal about our interest in the Gospel? A holy life says that we take the Gospel seriously. A flippant, indifferent, careless attitude toward sin says that we never understood it in the first place or that it's really not that important.

Getting bored with the Gospel leaves us wide open to false teaching. We may even unwittingly distort the Gospel ourselves. It may mean that we eventually come to think that since the Mormons talk about Jesus and Christians talk about Jesus, that we're pretty much on the same page. However, this is a different Jesus and a different Gospel. Paul wrote of his fear that the Corinthians would falter in this area: "For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough" (2 Cor. 11:4).

We may be tempted to embrace heretical elements of the New Perspective on Paul that deny the Scripture's clear teaching on the Gospel (which the Reformers correctly apprehended). We too might end up calling imputed righteousness "nonsense," as Bishop N. T. Wright has done, if we are not sufficiently impressed with the biblical Gospel.

Penal substitutionary atonement might also fall by the wayside if we're bored with the Gospel. It's not too popular; it's been called "divine child abuse"; would God really require this? Yet, if there is no substitution of a sinless sacrifice in the place of sinners, there is no Gospel and no salvation.

Getting bored with the Gospel has many other ramifications. Boredom with the Gospel may mean that we turn to the business world for ministry models instead of viewing the Scriptures as sufficient. It may mean preaching gets squeezed out by entertainment and other things we think will better "reach" people. It may mean that we neglect private and family worship. It may mean that we seek our hope in politics and spend our time endorsing political candidates out of a misguided understanding of how we are to impact our culture, instead of proclaiming and living the Gospel. It may mean that we actually do begin to think and live as though "our best life" really is now, and pander to those who would rather hear that God wants them to find a good parking space rather than that God is so concerned that His name be honored and that His people have joy in Him that the Father punished the Son for our sins on the cross. Boredom with the Gospel will surely fail to prepare us for opposition and persecution for the sake of Christ.

Finally, and quite seriously, boredom with the Gospel that leads to its distortion also results in destruction. Paul could not have used stronger words for anyone who preaches a different Gospel: let him be accursed – that is, cut off from all blessing. Those who embrace and teach another Gospel have no hope, but only damnation in the life to come.

Reformation Day is something to celebrate, because of the recovery of the Gospel. But this day also reminds us that there is something we must guard. We must guard the purity and clarity of the message of the Gospel. But we must also guard our own hearts so that we never become immune, inoculated, or bored concerning the wonderful news that Jesus Christ really does save sinners. We must never assume that it is known, understood, and embraced. We must make sure that we know, understand, and embrace the Gospel ourselves and that we faithfully share it with others. Let us have the fires of our heart continually stoked with this good news, so that we may be faithful witnesses who speak and live in light of what God has done by His grace and for His glory.

----

In celebrating the Reformation all this month, I have posted several other articles:

· A Review of Reformation Resources

o Books

o Music

o Websites (including links to Reformation Day Celebration resources, such as a free activity/coloring sheet)

o Movies

· Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Luther's Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (by Dr. Rob Plummer of SBTS, published here with permission)

o Part 1: Introduction

o Part 2: Luther's Basis for His Prescription

o Part 3: Prayer

o Part 4: Meditation

o Part 5: Trials

o Part 6: Conclusion

· Book Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steve Lawson

· "The Call to Witness" – a sermon by Calvin on evangelism, election, and suffering for the Gospel

Free Reformation Day Activity and Coloring Page

HAPPY REFORMATION DAY! Be sure to check out "The Danger of Getting Bored with the Gospel," and other articles participating in the 2007 Reformation Day Symposium at challies.com. or email me at glorygazer@gmail.com for a 1 page, front-back bookfold version (it's about 5 MB, Word .doc). It includes a page similar to this with the Luther Rose: Luther Rose Coloring Page

Please use the following colors to show the message of the Luther Rose:

BLUE Field: Joy in Christ’s Provision of Salvation

RED Heart: Forgiveness and the Righteousness we have in Christ

BLACK Cross: Death of Christ as Substitute for our sin

WHITE Rose: Peace of God

GOLD Ring: Unending Duration – God’s Promise is Forever

The Luther Rose was Martin Luther’s seal. He gives an explanation of the colors here (copied from http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=11221):

"Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. For one who believes from the heart will be justified" (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal.This is my compendium theoligae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen."

From Martin Luther, Letter to Lazarus Spengler, July 8, 1530, as included in the translation by Amy Marga from "Luthers Siegel: Eine elementare Deutung seiner Theologie," in Luther 67 (1996):66–87. Translation printed in Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. XIV, Num. 4, Winter 2000, pg. 409-410. The text used for this translation is from Johannes Schilling, Briefe, Auswah, Ubersetzung und Erlauterungen in Vol. 6 of Ausgewaehlte Schriften/MartinLuther. The text of Luther's letter is also found in the Weimar edition of Luther's Works, Briefe Vol. 5:444f and in English translation in Luther's Works: American Edition, Vol. 49:356-359).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Book Review-The Expository Genius of John Calvin

Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin. (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2007), 142pp. reviewed by Doug Smith

Steve Lawson has a goal. He aims “to raise the bar for a new generation of expositors” (xiii). Lawson quotes with approval T. H. L. Parker: “Expository preaching consists in the explanation and application of a passage of Scripture. Without explanation it is not exposition; without application it is not preaching” (p. 79). This book gives us a look at the expository preaching of John Calvin as a model and gold standard for ministry. Calvin was committed to systematic exposition of the Bible, preaching each verse in the text he covered. This book is significant because people need to hear the Word of God taught and applied, not another self-help message or a man’s ideas artificially buttressed by proof-texts. Lawson wants to see a new reformation, and believes that a renewed commitment to biblical preaching is essential for it to happen.

DESCRIPTION

Lawson’s book is simple. This book is almost pocketsize and is an easy read. Eight chapters and 132 pages of prose distill Calvin’s philosophy and practice of preaching, delineating thirty-two distinct characteristics. Two appendices give examples of the textual units Calvin covered and the flow of one of his sermons. After providing the biographical and historical context of Calvin, Lawson proceeds to consider the elements of his preaching. Calvin’s presuppositions, personal devotion to Christ, and homiletical methods are surveyed.

One comes away from this book with a well-developed portrait of Calvin the preacher. Here was a man committed to the absolute supremacy of God’s Word, for himself and his congregation, knowing that “when the Bible speaks, God speaks” (p. 27). Here was a man committed “to behold the majesty of God” in the Word (p. 40) as he sought food for his own soul. Here was a man committed to discovering through diligent study the intended meaning of the text and declaring what it said and required of its hearers. He “made disciplined study a way of life, remaining in his study until the meaning was clear” (p. 41). Here was a man who approached the text with a literal (not literalistic) hermeneutic, rejecting fanciful allegorization. He said, “The true meaning . . . is the natural and obvious meaning” (p. 71). Here was a man who preached through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, not skipping over controversial, difficult, or unpopular material. He viewed the role of the preacher as that of “a dispatched messenger with the divine message” (p. 26), seeing not the preacher, but God’s Word as the final authority. Here was a man committed to prayer and a living orthodoxy, since the “light of truth must yield the warmth of devotion to God” (p. 44). Here was a man committed to a rigorous schedule, often preaching ten times in a two-week period! Although plagued by opposition from enemies and health problems, he preached as often as he could. Even when an invalid, he arrived at church, carried in on a stretcher to preach (p. 48)! While Calvin did take time to visit the sick and give counsel, he saw the pulpit ministry as that which took priority. Here was a man so committed to declaring God’s truth authentically that he left behind manuscripts and notes to speak simply from an open Bible. But this was no off-the-cuff discourse; rather “an entire lifetime of learning stood behind each message” (p. 58). Here was a man who spoke plainly to people in words they could understand, while retaining biblical terminology and avoiding the watering down of truth. Here was a man who did not waste time with trivialities outside the text, but tried to orient his hearers to the text as soon as possible, using his introductions “like a freeway entrance ramp” (p. 54). Here was a man who reasoned persuasively and used vivid imagery to drive home the point. Here was a man who relentlessly pressed upon himself and his hearers the demands of God on their lives.

EVALUATION

Lawson’s book is well researched, well organized, simple, and to the point. He does an excellent job portraying a model of expository preaching. His concise quotations of primary and secondary sources and succinct summaries of the elements of Calvin’s preaching make for a quick read (I read it in one evening; my wife read it over several days, taking a chapter a night), but provide enough depth for further meditation and review.

If the book had any weakness, it might be that it held up Calvin’s example in such a positive light that caveats against a slavish imitation of his habits were lacking. For example, although Calvin, to communicate more simply, used neither manuscript nor notes, it does not follow that contemporary preaching must avoid written aids to be biblical. However, some who read this book might be tempted to avoid the use of aids although their giftedness and personality may be much different from Calvin’s. Lawson points out that Calvin did not use homiletical headings (clearly articulated “points” of a sermon), but this structure may not be something that should necessarily be abandoned, so long as it does not get in the way of communicating the message of the text and is a help to the preacher and hearers in organizing and summarizing biblical truth. Likewise, although Calvin ushered hearers into the text soon with minimal or no extra-biblical material, contemporary audiences may need a bit longer ramp into the text, particularly if they are accustomed to hearing four to eight sermons a month (instead of twenty) at the most. However, the points are well taken that preachers should communicate simply and get people into the text soon, and Lawson does suggest that styles may vary among expositors, so long as they are faithful in discovering and communicating the message of the Bible (p. 84).

Pastors and aspiring pastors ought to read this book. It provides an excellent model for pulpit ministry, giving correction to those who need it and encouragement to those who are faithfully laboring in the Word. The Expository Genius of John Calvin would be a great book to use in mentoring another man in the ministry, as the chapters are ripe with potential for helpful discussion.

Although pastors are the most likely audience for this book, church members would benefit from it as well. Although this book is about Calvin, those who are not from his particular theological tradition will also profit from it, so long as they agree that the urgent need of people is biblical preaching. It is a good book for those looking for a church home or churches looking for a pastor, as it provides an excellent gauge for the type of preaching that most glorifies God and best meets the spiritual need of people.

This book ought to make those of us who have faithful preachers more thankful. It ought to encourage congregations to set men aside full-time to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer as soon as they can, if they are not already doing so. It should cause us to pray for fruitful study in the pastor’s life that results in fresh application of the truth to the heart of himself and his congregation. And we ought to pray for men training for ministry and those training them. Let us cry out to God, that He would continue to send forth laborers to proclaim His Word with honesty, clarity, and urgency.

CONCLUSION

Steve Lawson has given us a wonderful treasury of wisdom and a model of excellence and faithfulness in this book. I was convicted, encouraged, and had my appetite whetted for more. (He plans further books in this series, including Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon). There is nothing Christians need more than to understand and obey God’s Word, and nothing preachers need to be more devoted to than understanding, obeying, and declaring the whole counsel of God through systematic expository preaching.

Lawson’s goal is worthy, and this book certainly does “raise the bar” by holding forth Calvin as a model. But the standard required is no less than what God expects of his ministers: “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). May He raise up men devoted to this task and congregations that will encourage and grow from it, to the praise of His glory.

Monday, October 29, 2007

9Marks Workshop Online

Check out these 6 free .mp3 downloads from 9Marks' Northbrook workshop. This is an excellent resource on theology, preaching, the church, evangelism, and leadership.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Calvin Sermon on Evangelism and Election: The Call to Witness

I heard part of the second paragraph of this sermon paraphrased in a way similar to this: Calvin said that a failure to proclaim the Gospel is a leaving of Christ in the tomb. He also speaks of the unthankfulness and lack of faith evidenced by an unwillingness to suffer for the Gospel. This evangelistic emphasis is grounded in (not opposed to) the Bible's teaching on election. Please read this sermon and be edified, convicted, and stirred to obedience concerning our responsibility to spread the Gospel, to stand with those being persecuted for the faith, and to teach the whole counsel of God. I have slightly tweaked the wording to make it more readable to a 21st century audience.

The Call to Witness

by John Calvin


Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel, according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began. - 2 Timothy 1:8-9

Although God shows His glory and majesty in the gospel, yet the unthankfulness of men is such, that we have need to be exhorted, not to be ashamed of this gospel. And why so? Because God requires all creatures to do Him homage: yet the greater part rebel against Him; despise, yea, and are at defiance with the doctrine whereby He would be known and worshipped. Although men are so wicked as to lift up themselves against their Maker, let us, notwithstanding, remember that which is taught us in this place; namely, that we be not ashamed of the gospel; for it is the witness of God.

If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do Him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine. St. Paul here sets his own person before us: not that he wished particularly to be approved, but because we often get in difficulty, if we separate ourselves from the servants of God. When there is a minister of the Word of God troubled, molested, and persecuted, we are apt to forsake him in time of need, thinking it is but mortal man: but in doing this, we offend God; because this man that suffers, bearing the mark of the gospel: thus the cause of God is betrayed. Therefore, St. Paul says to Timothy, be not ashamed of me.

The mind of Timothy might have been shaken; therefore, St. Paul says to him, though the world despise me, though they mock and hate me, yet you must not be moved by these things; for I am the prisoner of Jesus Christ. Let the world speak evil of me; it is not for my offences: God allows my cause; for indeed it is His. I suffer not for my own evil doings, having His truth always on my side. Therefore, the cause of my persecution is, because I have maintained the Word of God, and continue to maintain it. You should not be guided by the world's judgment, for men are carried away with evil affections. Let it be sufficient for you then, that I am as it were a pledge for the Son of God; that He magnifies my person; that if it be reproachful to the world, it ceases not to be honored before God, and His holy angels.

Let us not betray Jesus Christ in the testimony we owe Him, by stopping our mouths, when it is needful to maintain His honor, and the authority of His gospel. Yes, and when we see our brethren afflicted for the cause of God, let us join with them, and assist them in their affliction. Let us not be shaken by the tempests that arise, but let us always remain constant in our purpose; and stand as witnesses for the Son of God, seeing He is so gracious as to use us in such a good cause. Let us mark well, whether men suffer for their sins, or for the truth of God. When we see one oppressed, we must not despise him, lest we do injury to God: we must ascertain for what cause men suffer. If they have walked in a good conscience, and are blamed, if they are tormented because they serve God, this is enough to remove whatever the wicked world can say against them. Therefore St. Paul adds, "Be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel."

There is no man but what would willingly escape affliction; this is according to human nature; and although we confess, without dissembling, that it is a singular grace which God bestows, when He enables men to bear affliction, and maintain His cause, yet there is not one of us, but what would willingly draw his neck out of persecution. For we look not at the lesson given by St. Paul, which says the gospel brings troubles. Jesus Christ was crucified in His own person, and His doctrine is joined with many miseries. He could, if it pleased Him, cause His doctrine to be received without any gainsaying. But the Scripture must be fulfilled: "Rule thou in the midst of thine enemies" (Psalm 110:2).

We must come to Him upon this condition; to be willing to suffer many bickerings; because the wicked lift up themselves against God, when He calls them to Him. Therefore, it is impossible for us to have the gospel without affliction. We must be exercised; we must fight under our Lord Jesus Christ. Does he not then renounce his salvation, that would get rid of the cross of Christ? What is the hope of life? Only in this, that we are bought by the sacrifice of the Son of God. Then will He have us made like unto Him, and have us transformed into His image.

We must not be ashamed of our brethren; when we hear evil reports of them, and see them cast off by the world, let us always be with them, and endeavor to strengthen them; for the gospel cannot be without affliction; as I have already said. It pleases God, that men should be so divided. But He calls all to the unity of faith; and the doctrine of the gospel is the message of atonement; but yet the faithful are drawn by the virtue of His Holy Spirit (as we shall notice more particularly hereafter); but the unbelievers remain in their hardness: thus the fire is kindled; as when thunder rumbles in the air, there must needs be trouble; so it is when the gospel is preached.

Now, if the gospel bring affliction, and it be the mind of Jesus Christ, that what He suffered in His person, shall be fulfilled in His members, and be daily crucified, is it lawful for us to withdraw ourselves from that situation? Seeing it is so, that all hope of salvation is in the gospel, we must rest thereon; and mark what St. Paul says; namely, we must assist our brethren when we see them in trouble, and when they are reviled by the wicked; and choose rather to be their companions, and suffer the rebukes and scoffs of the world, than to be otherwise honored with a good reputation, having our faces turned from them that suffer for that cause, which is ours, as well as theirs.

We are apt to be weak, and think we shall be swallowed up by persecutions, as soon as our enemies assail us: but St. Paul observes, we shall not be destitute of the aid and help of our God. He immediately arms us, and gives us an invincible power, that we may remain sure and steadfast. For this reason St. Paul adds, "according to the power of God." But as we have said, every man would be glad to have some cover or cloak, whereby he might withdraw himself from persecution. If God would give me grace, I would gladly suffer for His name; I know it is the greatest blessing that I could receive.

Every man will confess this: but they add, we are weak, and shall quickly be beaten down by the cruelty of our enemies. But St. Paul takes away this excuse, by saying, God will strengthen us, and that we must not look to our own strength. For it is certain, if we never come into conflicts with our enemies, we shall be afraid of our own shadows. Seeing we know this weakness, let us come to the remedy. We must consider how hard it is to withstand our enemies; therefore let us humble ourselves before God, and pray Him to extend His hand, and uphold us in all our afflictions. If this doctrine were well imprinted in our hearts, we should be better prepared to suffer than we are.

But we are apt to forget it; yea, we stop our ears, and close our eyes, when we hear it spoken of. We pretend that we wish God to strengthen us, but we cannot bring our sight to the power that St. Paul speaks of; we are apt to think, that we have nothing to do with it; although the Lord hath shown us, that His power will always uphold us. Therefore, let not our weakness cause us to withdraw ourselves from the cross, and from persecution; seeing God hath received us into His hands, and promised to supply our needs. St. Paul here adds a lesson to make us greatly ashamed, if we be not enticed to glorify Jesus Christ by suffering persecution. He says, "God hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling."

Behold! God has drawn us out of the gulf of hell! We were utterly cast away and condemned: but he hath brought us salvation, and hath called us to be partakers of it. Therefore, seeing God has showed Himself so generous, if we on our parts turn our backs to Him, is not this a shameful malice? Let us mark well the accusation of St. Paul against those that are unfaithful - those that are unwilling to suffer the assaults made against them for the sake of the gospel. Undoubtedly his mind was to comfort the faithful, for the time to come; he therefore shows what God has done for them already.

When God gives us any token of His goodness, it is to the end we should hope for the same at His hands again; and wait till He bring to pass what He has begun. Therefore, if God has saved us, and called us with an holy calling, do we think that He will leave us at midway? When He has shown us our salvation, and given us His gospel whereby He calls us to His kingdom, and opens the gates unto us; when He has done all this, do we think He will leave us here, and mock us, and deprive us of His grace, or make it unprofitable? No, no; but let us hope that He will bring his work to a perfect end.

Therefore, let us go on with good courage; for God has already displayed His power toward us. Let us not doubt but what He will continue it, and that we shall have a perfect victory over Satan and our enemies; and that God the Father has given all power into the hands of Jesus Christ, who is our head and captain; that we may be partakers of it. Thus we see St. Paul's meaning. God has witnessed, and we know it by experience, that He will never fail us in time of need. And why so? For He has already saved us, in that He has called us to the gospel, and redeemed us from sin. He has called us with an holy calling; that is to say, He has chosen us to Himself, out of the general confusion of mankind.

The Lord having drawn us to Him, will He not up-hold us, and guide us to the end? This is a sure confirmation of the power of God; that we always find Him ready to help us: therefore we put our trust in Him, knowing that we have already felt His power. That we may profit by this doctrine, let us know first of all, that whereas God has given us the knowledge of His truth, it is as much as if He had shown us already that we belonged to His heavenly inheritance, and that we were His, and of His flock. If we are persuaded of this, and resolved therein, we shall always go forward in the cause, knowing that we are under His protection. He has sufficient strength to overcome all our enemies, which makes our salvation sure.

Let us not fear, on account of our weakness, for God has promised to assist us. We should think upon this, and endeavor to receive that which is said to us. The Lord will bring our salvation to an end! He will assist us in the midst of persecutions, and enable us to overcome them. When we are once convinced of these things, it will not require much power of rhetoric to strengthen us against temptations. We shall triumph over all our enemies: notwithstanding we seem to the world to be trodden under foot, and utterly overwhelmed. But we must come to this declaration which St. Paul adds, concerning the salvation of which we have spoken, and the holy calling. He says, "Not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace."

For He had no respect to our works or dignity, when He called us to salvation. He did it of mere grace. Therefore we shall be less excusable, if we disobey His requirements, seeing we have not only been purchased by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, but He cared about our salvation before the world was made. Let us here observe that St. Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unfaithful to God, as not to bear witness of His gospel; seeing He has called us to it. And that He may better express this purpose, the apostle adds, that this "was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began; before the world had its course, or beginning: it was revealed at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When this great Savior made His appearance, the grace that was hid before, yea, and could not be reached by the knowledge of man, was made clear and manifest. And how so? The Son of God destroyed death, and also brought everlasting life! And we need not go afar off to find it, for the gospel leads us to it. When God sends us this message of salvation, we have only to receive the inheritance which He promised us. Let us open our mouths, that He may fill them; let us open our hearts, and give this testimony of the gospel permission to enter; and the immortality of the kingdom of heaven shall dwell within us; though we be poor, frail vessels, and have nothing but corruption and rottenness in us; yet notwithstanding, we do already lay hold upon this immortality, and have a sure witness of it, when we can accept this grace that is offered in the gospel.

That we may better understand what is here contained, let us remark that this word purpose, signifies the everlasting decree of God; which has no causes whatsoever. For when we speak of God's counsels, we need not dispute about who moved Him: as though we should imagine reasons, and say, this is the reason why God has determined after this sort; this is the cause why He would have it so. For God will have us use such soberness, that His bare will may suffice us for all reason. When it is said, God has thus appointed it, though our eyes be dazzled, and the matter seem strange to us, and we see no reason why it should thus be, yet we must not find fault. It is wisdom in us to do whatever God appoints, and never ask why.

But because men have busy heads, and given much to curiosity, St. Paul brings us to God's purpose; and tells us plainly, that we must consider it so deep that we cannot enter into it, to know who moved Him. He was moved only by His just will; which is a rule of all justice. Therefore, we are hereby informed, that our salvation depends not upon what we deserve: God never examined what we were, nor what we were worthy of, when He chose us to Himself; but He had His purpose; that is, He sought no cause of our salvation but in Himself. St. Paul shows clearly that this word purpose signifies this decree. But because men cannot by reason of the pride that is in them withhold themselves from imagining some worthiness of their own, they think that God is under an obligation to seek them: but St. Paul says pointedly, purpose and grace. This is as much as if he had said free purpose.

This is therefore to beat down all our works: that we be not so foolish and stubborn, as to think God chose us because there was something in us worthy of it. No, no; but we must know that God never went farther than Himself, when He chose us to salvation. For He saw that there was nothing but condemnation in us: therefore He contented Himself, by mere grace and infinite mercy, to look upon our misery, and help us; although we were not worthy. For better proof hereof, St. Paul says that this grace was given us before the world began.

We perceive by this, how void of sense men are when they vaunt themselves of believing that they are the cause of their own salvation; and have prevented God's goodness, or were before Him, and met with Him. What does our salvation hang upon? Is it not upon the election and choice that has been from everlasting? God chose us before we were. What could we do then? We were made fit, we were well disposed to come to God. Nay, we see that our salvation does not begin after we have knowledge, discretion, and good desires; but it is grounded in God's everlasting decree, which was before any part of the world was made.

What can we do then? Have we any means to put forth ourselves? Can we give God occasion to call us, and separate us from the rest of the world? Are we not then marvellously mistaken, when we think we have some worthiness of our own, and exalt our merits to darken God's grace, and be thus prepared of ourselves to have access to Him? We must mark well for what purpose St. Paul here mentions the election of God; saying, that grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began. They that think to abolish the doctrine of God's election, destroy as much as possible the salvation of the world.

This is the most fit instrument, used by the devil, to deface the virtue of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; to bring to nothing, and destroy the gospel; yea, and to put the goodness of God out of man's memory. The devil has no fitter instruments than those who fight against predestination; and cannot in their rage suffer it to be spoken of, or preached as it ought to be. If we detest the papists (as indeed they ought to be detested), because they have profaned the Holy Scripture, and have marred and depraved the truth of the gospel and the service of God, by infecting all the world with superstition and idolatry, much more are they to be detested who go about to bring to nothing God's election; and endeavor, by indirect and crooked ways, to stop men from speaking of it plainly and openly, and of preaching it as it ought to be.

Wherein consists the salvation of the faithful, only in God's free election? Would we not have men preach that God has chosen His, of mere goodness, without regard to any thing whatsoever? Will we not admit this to be such a mystery as cannot be attained to, shown and declared to us as far as God wished to reveal it? If we do not admit this, we enter into a conspiracy with Satan; as though Jesus Christ suffered in vain, and the passion that He suffered profited the world nothing. We may here remark that the gospel cannot be preached, that it is a profane gospel, or the doctrine of Mohammed, that there is no church nor Christianity, if God's election be abolished. The Holy Spirit who speaks here must needs be proved a liar, if this doctrine be not received.

Therefore, let us fight constantly; for it is the groundwork of our salvation. How can we build, and maintain the building, if the foundation be destroyed? St. Paul shows us here with what virtue we must fight, and how we shall come to this inheritance which was so dearly purchased for us: he shows us how we shall enter into the possession of the glory of God and make an end of this building and faith. My friends, we must be grounded upon the grace that was given us, not today nor yesterday, but before the world began.

It is true, God calls us at this day, but His election goes before; yea, and God chose us without any respect to our works, as we could have done nothing before: but we are debtors to Him for all; for He drew us out of the bottomless pit of destruction, wherein we were cast, and past all hope of recovery. Therefore, there is good reason for us to submit ourselves wholly to Him, and rely upon His goodness, and be thoroughly ravished with it. Let us hold fast this foundation, as I said before, unless we will have our salvation perish and come to nothing. This doctrine is profitable for us if we can apply it well to our own use.

They that would not have us speak of God's election will say, it is not necessary. But such men never tasted God's goodness, neither do they know what it is to come to our Lord Jesus Christ. If we know not that we are saved because it pleased God to choose us before the world began, how can we know that which St. Paul says to us; namely, that we should give ourselves wholly to God, to be disposed of at His will, and to live and die in His service? How can we magnify His name? How can we confess that our salvation cometh from Him only, that He is the beginning of it, and that we have not helped Him therein? We may say it with our mouths, but unless we believe it, as here set forth, it will only be hypocrisy.

Therefore, let us learn that the doctrine of God's election, whereby we are taught that He predestinated us before the world began, ought to be preached openly and fully, in spite of all the world that would stand against it. And not only so, but we should know that it is a very profitable doctrine for us; because we cannot lay hold upon the infinite goodness of God, until we come thither. Unless this point be well cleared, God's mercy will be always disguised. I say, unless this be made plain to us, that He has chosen us before we were born, and before we could prevent Him.

Men will frequently say that we were bought with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are not worthy that God should show us such great mercy: they will likewise say, who hath part and portion in such a redemption as God has made in the person of His Son? Even they that will; they that seek God; even they that submit themselves to Him. They that have some good motives, and are not rude; those that are good natured, and have some good devotion. When men make such a mixture, and think they are called to God, and to His grace, for something that is in themselves, that they bring something to recommend them to the favor of God whereby they may attain salvation, the grace of God is darkened, and rent asunder.

This is a sacrilege that ought not to be countenanced. For this cause, I said the goodness of God shall never be thoroughly known until this election be laid before us; and we are taught that we are called at this time, because it pleased God to extend His mercy to us before we were born. This doctrine must be explained more at large; but as time will not admit at present, we shall attend to it in the latter part of the day.

(HT: Way of the Master Radio, Colin Maxwell, Dan Campbell, and http://www.lgmarshall.org/Calvin/calvin_varsermon22.html )

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther's Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 6 of 6)

 

The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission.   Quotations of Luther's preface are from the following English translation: "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68.  An online version of Luther's preface is located at http://www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org/ResourceLibrary/LutherPreface.htm .

 

VI. Conclusion

 

In this short paper, I have offered my introduction to and reflections upon Luther's instructions for studying theology, as recorded in the preface to the Wittenberg edition of his German writings. While not wanting to neglect the valuable secondary studies available to us, the Biblical text itself demands our own prayers, meditations, and trying experiences. The strength of Luther's proposal, I believe, is its rooting in the hermeneutical method advocated in Biblical revelation itself, that is, in Psalm 119.

 

Luther's own words provide us with a fitting conclusion:

 

There now, with that you have David's rules. If you study hard in accord with his example, then you will also sing and boast with him in the Psalm, "The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces" [Ps. 119:72]. Also, "Thy commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep thy precepts," etc. [Ps. 119:98-100]. And it will be your experience that the books of the fathers will taste stale and putrid to you in comparison. You will not only despise the books written by adversaries, but the longer you write and teach the less you will be pleased with yourself. When you have reached this point, then do not be afraid to hope that you have begun to become a real theologian . . . (p. 67)

 

May God grant that we be such persons in our day.

 

Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.    He is author of Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission:   Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther’s Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 5 of 6)

 

The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission.   Quotations of Luther's preface are from the following English translation: "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68.  An online version of Luther's preface is located at http://www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org/ResourceLibrary/LutherPreface.htm .

 

V. Tentatio

 

Much energy in the Western world is directed at avoiding trials. Nearly one-fifth of the United States' Gross Domestic Product goes towards insurance – a way of protecting ourselves against unplanned car wrecks, house fires, or medical expenses. Ironically, the very difficulties we seek to insulate ourselves from are often the means God uses to mature us. They are the means, Luther claims, of taking our abstract knowledge of what the Bible says and making it experiential and real. The Reformer writes:

 

[A trial is] the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God's Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdoms. (p. 66-67)

 

And later Luther adds,

 

. . . as soon as God's Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God's Word. I myself (if you will permit me, mere mouse-dirt, to be mingled with pepper) am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil's raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much, That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have been otherwise. (p. 67)

 

Trusting and obeying God in the midst of trial leads to a more mature understanding of Christian truth. The Biblical authors so frequently link suffering to spiritual growth that it is difficult to know which of numerous examples to cite. James 1:2-4 reads, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Similarly, Romans 5:3-5 reads, "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." And in Philippians 1:29, we read, "For it has been graciously granted to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake" (my translation).

 

Just last week, I had planned to attend an all-day pastor's conference where one of the main topics was God's demonstration of his power through our weakness. On the morning of the conference at 3:45 am, my daughter began several hours of a difficult bout with a stomach virus. My exhausted, pregnant wife, meanwhile, was recovering from a difficult cold. Is it possible that changing vomit-soaked clothes and sheets over and over could teach me more about God's power in weakness than hearing yet another speaker on the topic?

 

If we survey the lives of prominent saints in the Scriptures (e.g., Abraham, Moses, Paul), we see very quickly that God's path towards understanding of and service in the kingdom is often a path through repeated trials. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

 

NEXT TIME: Conclusion

 

Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.   He is author of Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission:   Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006).  

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther’s Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 4 of 6)

The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission.  Quotations of Luther's preface are from the following English translation: "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68.  An online version of Luther's preface is located at http://www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org/ResourceLibrary/LutherPreface.htm.

 

IV. Meditatio

 

In addition to being a prayerless people, we in the western church are a hurried and unreflective folk. We may respond to forty ministry-related emails in one day and daily read large sections of our Bible, but where is the chewing, ruminating, and deep reflecting on the text that causes it to sink down in our souls - and by God's grace, change us. The great scandal of the church, one modern pastor has said, is large buildings filled with undiscipled people. Like skates on a frozen lake, the Word has skirted over our minds and hearts with little measurable effect.

 

Luther warns of the danger of unreflective Bible study. He writes, "And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken [the words of Scripture] once or twice, and that you have complete understanding. You will not be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe." (p. 66)

 

In some recent popular Christian writings, we are seeing a reaction to our unreflective and hurried lives. Is it any wonder that a minority, but growing number of Western Christians, are being drawn to the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence as they seek to unclutter their souls. Unfortunately, in some books on this subject, it seems to me that a form of unbiblical Eastern meditation (maybe via Oprah or Hollywood) has been adopted. The highest goal of this meditation seems to be some sort of ethereal, ineffable experience of relating to God with an "empty mind." From the Scriptures, however, it seems that God would have us meditate on his Word. Yes, we may seek moments of silence and solitude, but those are moments when God tries and tests our hearts – bringing to mind Scriptures, failings, obligations, words of encouragement, or challenges. Not an empty mind, but a mind convicted, filled, focused, and transformed by God is the goal of biblical meditation.

 

We are inclined to think of biblical meditation as sitting quietly and simply thinking about a text over and over. This is biblical meditation, but it is also much more. Luther rightly points to the multitude of ways in which David meditates on the Word of God in Psalm 119. The Reformer writes,

 

Thus you see in this same Psalm how David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night and always, nothing except God's Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc.., outwardly was not given in vain. (p. 66)

 

Thus, meditating on the Bible is not simply quietly reflecting on a passage, but singing, reciting, memorizing, and writing the word. Meditating on the Word is using whatever intellectual and creative energies God has given us to focus on his revelation in thought, action, speech, or image.

 

In the Epistle of James, chapter 1, verse 25, we read, "The man who looks intently into the perfect law, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it, he will be blessed in what he does." How desperately we as professors, pastors, students, and Christians in the pew need to be people who look intently into God's perfect Word – and to be transformed into people who do not simply hear the word, deceiving ourselves, but do what it says.

 

With added attention to the Word of God, some other things will likely have to be scaled back – such as attention to secondary literature. I recall with personal delight I. Howard Marshall's address on this campus in which he lamented the unnecessarily large number of books being published these days. I add my hearty "Amen," as I find it nearly impossible to even read a summary of all the publications in my field in New Testament Abstracts. Might it, in fact, be a good thing, to spend less time in secondary literature and more time in the Bible?

 

With his own "Amen" to this idea, Luther writes:

 

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is precious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah). (p. 63)

 

Becoming a more prayerful and meditative people will come at a cost. Could the popular "less is more" principle be true when it comes to our theological intake?

 

NEXT TIME: Tentatio (Trials)

 

Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.   He is author of Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission:  Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006). 

Monday, October 22, 2007

Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther’s Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 3 of 6)

 

The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission.   Quotations of Luther's preface are from the following English translation: "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68.  An online version of Luther's preface is located at http://www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org/ResourceLibrary/LutherPreface.htm.

 

III. Oratio

 

In our age of pragmatism (in which we seek seven simple steps to solve any problem), is it any surprise that we do not want to be told to wait? And prayer – a waiting and dependence upon God – has become less and less emphasized in Biblical study, whether that study be academic or pastoral. A survey of recent hermeneutics textbooks reveals the cursory attention given to prayer. Some hermeneutical discussion even implies that prayer biases the student of Scripture towards a pre-conceived conclusion. According to this understanding, it may actually be the non-believer who has the advantage in determining the meaning of Scripture, for he comes with little bias as to what the text will say, for it makes no authoritative claim on his life.

 

Daniel Fuller is the most recognized proponent of this view, though it has other prominent adherents. Fuller bifurcates understanding into cognitive and volitional categories. That is, there is cognitive understanding and volitional response, and the two are not to be confused. Fuller claims that supernatural intervention only functions on the volitional level ("The Holy Spirit's Role in Biblical Interpretation," in Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation, ed. W. Ward Gasque and William Sanford LaSor [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1978], 192).  In other words, it is only in inculcating a desire to obey the meaning of the text that God supernaturally intervenes in the life of the believer. Thus, determining cognitively the authorial meaning of the text is solely the application of acquired skill and natural reason.

 

It seems striking to me that Fuller, who would likely pray readily for a surgeon's increased skill in an operation, believes that prayers for increased exegetical skill are to no avail. "No," an objector will say, "What one needs is more lexicons, more grammatical study, more time in the text!" Undoubtedly, grammatical study, lexicons, and time in the text are essential. But, is there a place for God's supernatural aid in understanding, acquired through prayer and God's gracious intervention? If not, then the traditional Protestant understanding of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is incorrect.

 

More common than an outright rejection of the value of prayer or divine aid in the understanding of the text is brief lip service to the idea, with the subsequent wholesale neglect of it. Where in any modern hermeneutics textbook can be found a thoughtful and biblically-based discussion of how prayer should practically be used in study? By failing to appropriately emphasize and instruct our students in the school of prayer, we are implicitly teaching them not to pray. Jesus' disciples saw the prominence of prayer in his life, and asked, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1) When our disciples view our lives, do they ask this question, or do they ask, "How do you read so many books?" Or, "How do you write so much?" Or, "How do you sleep so little?"

 

Is it any wonder that modern sermons and Christian writings so rarely fail to expose and cast out the spirit of the age? Indeed, (to commit my own hermeneutical faux pas), "this kind can only come out through prayer" (Mark 9:29).

 

A brief survey of texts that discuss the doctrine of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit illustrate a lack of clarity and exegetical grounding. On the other hand, Fuller's system, while clearly understandable, is biblically unconvincing and dangerous. While I do not personally impugn Fuller or any who follow him, I believe his system does encourage an arrogant independence from God in approaching the text. A semi-Pelagian reliance upon one's unaided reason seems to me also dangerous and unbiblical.  The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that the entirety of the human person is affected by the fall – reason, emotions, will. We need the specific and supernatural aid of God to counteract our sinful nature in the regular study of the Scriptures. No one can win a biblical argument by claiming, "The Spirit told me," or "I prayed before I wrote this article." However, it appears to me that the Biblical evidence presents understanding as an indivisible mixture of both cognitive and volitional elements – an understanding in fallen creatures that can and must be aided by God's special intervention.

 

Does this mean, then, than non-believers cannot understand some portions of the Biblical text? No, but it does mean a believer who seeks God's aid in understanding a text has advantages over a non-believer with equal intellectual gifts, background, and skills. It is not that the Spirit provides additional information that is not in the text, but the Spirit helps in seeing clearly the information there and in the weighing of contextual and debated factors. It is as though the Spirit provides the spectacles that bring the picture into clearer focus. As believers wearing the spectacles of faith, however, we must make our arguments on the basis of the words before us in the text – not by appealing to supernatural assistance, regardless of how real and ongoing that assistance may be. As I observe the revelatory landscape along with my non-believing dialogue partner, I must make my argument on the basis of the facts in front of me. 

 

As I strain to see through my God-given spectacles, I might say, "I see a small white bird that has just landed in the cedar tree."

 

My unbelieving, un-spectacled partner counters, "I saw a movement in the tree, but a bird you did not see – only the wind blowing."

 

The same facts are there before us, but only one sees rightly.

 

NEXT TIME: Meditatio (Meditation)

 

Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.   He is author of Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission:   Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006).