“Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts…” Hebrews 3:7
I. The Battle for the Bible
In a very real sense, Christianity is the religion of a book – a book, however, of no mere human origin, but a book that is a Divine production. Apart from that revelation, the Christian faith is nothing more than another school of philosophical thought or human speculation. Take this book away from the church and she ceases to be the church.
For that reason, the integrity of the Bible is a crucial issue. Everything we believe about God, Christ, sin, salvation, life, death, heaven, and hell finds its basis in the Bible. Christians are people who believe and affirm that Holy Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, is divinely inspired, the very word of God, and the only rule or standard of faith (what one believes) and life (how one behaves).
Historical Christianity affirms the absolute authority of the Bible. Until the 18th century, Biblical authority was more or less universally accepted among professed Christians. The advent of the scientific revolution, however, changed much of that confidence. In the face of modern advances, many now took great pangs to reconcile the Bible with new knowledge and “science” became the supreme authority. Assaults on the integrity of the Bible were in vogue. Higher Criticism emerged within scholastic circles as a school of thought that presumed to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of Scripture’s historical claims. Rudolph Bultmann, one of the leading scholars of Form Criticism in this century (he died in 1976 at age 92), utterly rejected the possibility of miracles. Operating from the anti-supernatural premise that science has proved that miracles cannot occur, Bultmann argued that the references to the supernatural in the Old Testament indicated that the Bible is a collection of myths and legends; consequently, it is historically untrustworthy. He believed that we must treat science as our only source of knowledge about the external world. The purpose of the Bible, according to Bultmann, was to give people a new “self-understanding.”
One of the original proponents of this school of thought was Julius Wellhausen. In his book Israel and the Jewish God, he ridiculed the account of the miracles at Sinai (Ex. 20ff) asking, “Who can seriously believe all that?” In 1895, he refined a hypothesis (known as “the Documentary Hypothesis”) that promoted the idea that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but was compiled years after Moses died from four different documents and authors known anonymously as J, E, D, and P. For those who subscribed to this school and its aim to demythologize the Bible, the men and the women in the Pentateuch were either fictional human beings, or at best, idealized heroes. In the light of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and theories of “natural selection,” these scholars dismissed the Genesis account of creation as a mere legend. In fact, the Wellhausen theory called into question the credibility of the entire Old Testament and cast a shadow of suspicion on Biblical inerrancy from which modern man has still not recovered.
This theory was accepted by many seminaries and textbooks on the Old Testament and is still popular in many (but not all) academic institutions and curricula of Biblical studies. Even in places where the ideas of Higher Criticism have been discarded, the effects of its blatant unbelief can still be witnessed in the skeptical attempts to tone down the Bible and soft-peddle its more unpopular concepts (e. g. the wrath of God, the depravity of man, etc.). In fact, though it is impossible to accurately measure, I believe that the skepticism concerning the authenticity and credibility of the Bible spawned by these 19th century rationalists has had (and still has) a debilitating effect on the contemporary church.
Our culture virtually bombards us with doubts and not-so-subtle innuendo regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible. Many professed believers and regular church-goers have long since bought the lie that science has disproved the claims of the Bible. Television and other forms of media constantly attack belief in the Bible, ridiculing its precepts as outmoded and its adherents as ignorant, naïve, and credulous. Behind it all is the old serpent who deceived the woman with a question that held God’s word suspect: “Yea, hath God said…” Because Adam hearkened to his wife (who listened to the devil) instead of to God, he was banished from Paradise. The issue today is still, “To whom will we listen – God or the devil?” The Battle for the Bible is still the primary conflict in which the church is engaged.
II. God Has Spoken (Is the Bible the Word of God?)
The loss of confidence in the integrity of the Bible and, consequently, loss of emphasis on the absolute authority of Holy Scripture has created a situation in which there is today “a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). J. I. Packer lists a number of ways in which skepticism about the Bible has weakened the church.
First, it has undermined preaching. Where doubt exists concerning the Bible as the verbal revelation of God, preaching loses its authority. It ceases to be the means by which God communicates His will to man, and becomes instead a form of entertainment in which self-proclaimed experts proffer their own private opinions.
Second, it has weakened faith. Without a trustworthy word from God, there is no basis for faith. Faith is then sheer mysticism or positive thinking.
Third, it has hidden and obscured the true Christ. Where confidence in the reliability of the Bible is held in question, the Jesus of history is discarded for the Jesus of existential experience. A popular movement known as “the Jesus Seminar” is a classic example.
In the face of these modern problems, renewed confidence in the authenticity and Divine authority of the Bible is vital. Why does Biblical trustworthiness and authority matter? Because once we entertain the notion that Scripture cannot be fully trusted, we will have no standard to determine what to believe and what to deny. Only truth can have final authority and Scripture cannot have such authority further than it is true.
Two convictions, then, are indispensable for Christians today: (1) The conviction that God has spoken; (2) The conviction that God still speaks through what He has spoken.
How common it is to hear people today deny these basic propositions. “The Bible is not the word of God,” someone says, “but it contains the word of God: we must look for the basic message in the Bible but we can afford to ride loosely to the facts.” But Jesus believed that the Bible was the word of God? He displayed total confidence in Scripture. “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth” he prayed (Jno. 17:17). In John 5:46 and Luke 24:44, Jesus shows that he accepts the whole of the Old Testament as Scripture. He believed the Genesis account of creation and accepted Genesis 1-3 as literal history, including the historicity of Adam and Eve as actual persons: “…have ye not read that He which made them at the beginning made them male and female…” (Mt. 19:4 – emphasis mine). Three times in the wilderness, Jesus quoted from the Book of Deuteronomy in response to Satan’s temptation: “It is written…It is written…It is written…” (Mt. 4:1ff). He affirmed the inerrancy and total trustworthiness of the Old Testament when he said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (Jno. 10:35). If Jesus affirmed the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the Genesis account of Creation, can a person who denies these things truly be classified as a follower of Jesus Christ, i.e. a Christian? Let God be true and every man a liar! The issue that modern man faces is simply this: Am I going to believe Christ or the critics? Christ or the critics? What will it be: Christ or the critics? The question “Is the Bible the word of God?” is a question that involves the following essential doctrines.
Revelation is the affirmation that ‘God has spoken’. The term refers to “the initiative that God has taken to make Himself known.” It is a very humbling word because man would have never known Him apart from revelation: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him, but God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit, for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea the deep things of God” (I Cor. 2:10-11). Left to himself, man would have never arrived at a knowledge of God by the sheer power of his intellect (Job 11:6-7). In His grace, however, God has taken the initiative to make Himself known. He has spoken (Heb. 1:1-3)!
If God had not spoken to reveal Himself, we would not dare to speak, for any attempt to describe the Almighty apart from what He has revealed is mere conjecture and human speculation. His revelation is a complete and sufficient word. He has spoken once and for all. Nothing remains to be added, nor needs to be removed. Everything we need to know about God’s character and covenant, His ways and His will, for time and eternity, has been once and for all revealed. He is not now giving further revelation. Revelation, like redemption, is a “finished work” (Jno. 17:4). Yes, God has spoken. The Bible is His very own word.
“But the Bible,” someone says, “was written by forty different men. How can it be the word of God and the word of man at the same time? How do you explain this dual authorship.” It is true that God used men to write the Bible. Not only did God speak, but men also spoke: “…holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21). That brings us to next important doctrinal tenet regarding Biblical Authority.
B. Inspiration & Inerrancy
Inspiration is “the process by which God has made Himself known by speaking through the Biblical authors.” Notice 2 Peter 1:21 again: “…holy men of old spoke as they were moved [lit. carried or borne along] by the Holy Ghost.” Did God employ men in the writing of the Bible? Yes. Were the words they wrote their own words? Yes again, as the fact that their writings bear the stamp of their own respective personalities (e. g. Peter said Paul wrote things “hard to be understood”) demonstrates. They were not mere automatons or robots channeling words dictated from heaven.
Someone objects, “Well, then, here is the weak link in the chain. Because they were men, and because men are fallible creatures, the Bible cannot be totally trusted. If man participated in the process, then the outcome must of necessity be flawed.” It is precisely here that the doctrine of inspiration comes into play. Yes, God used human writers as the means by which He made himself known, but these men were supernaturally and providentially directed! In fact, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit! Inspiration is the vehicle by which revelation was given. It is verbal, that is, the very words of the Bible are inspired, and it is plenary, that is, every word is inspired. The whole Bible is the word of God.
Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” Theopneustos, the word translated “inspiration” literally means “breathed out from God”. The written word that is the Bible, in other words, is the very spoken revelation of God. The implications of this fact are simply staggering. If you and I could hear God speak today, He wouldn’t say anything more or less than what He has already said in His word! Because it is inspired, the Bible is inerrant, that is, it is totally true and trustworthy in all that it says, for God cannot lie.
By the way, to those who suggest “Only the original autographs are inspired, but not the copies,” I would encourage consideration of the verse immediately preceding 2 Tim. 3:16. There Paul says that Timothy, from a child, had known “the Holy Scriptures.” Then, immediately, he adds, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God….” Question: If only the original autographs are inspired (v. 16), did Timothy and his family have access to an original manuscript from Moses or Isaiah or David, or did they have a copy? Any reasonable person must answer “a copy.” Notice, then, that Paul called the copies of the Old Testament to which Timothy’s mother and grandmother taught him “Holy Scripture”!
So, in Augustine’s formula, we must say, “What Scripture says, God says.” When the Biblical authors spoke, in other words, they were so superintended by the Holy Spirit that the words they uttered and subsequently penned were the very words God would have them to say. “Behold, I have put my words into thy mouth” God told Jeremiah (1:9). In Romans 9:17 and Galatians 3:8, Paul prefaces a quotation from the Old Testament by saying, “For the Scripture saith…” The original passage is very clear, however, that God uttered the words under consideration. Thus, Paul equates the testimony of Scripture with the word of God.
1. Proofs of Inspiration
The internal testimony of Scripture is conclusive in its claim to inspiration. The Bible claims to be inspired over 3800 times. Consider, for example the following verses: 2 Sam. 23:2; Ps. 45:1; Jer. 36:2; Acts 4:23; Acts 1:16; Mr. 12:36; Acts 28:25, Heb. 4:7; Rev. 2:7; Rev. 14:13, etc. Scripture is “the word of the Lord” as prophets declared over 1200 times. Consider several further proofs for the “divine nature” of the Bible.
a. The Indestructibility of the Bible – The longevity of the Bible argues for its Divine authorship. Very few books survive fifty years; still fewer are in circulation one hundred years. Just a very small percentage of books survive one thousand years. The Bible, however, has outlived all other books. The God who inspired it has also promised in His providence to preserve it. In fact, even the words in the word are kept by God (Ps. 12:6-7; Mt. 24:35; Mt. 5:18). Though modern skeptics and critics have, like King Jehoiakim cutting Jeremiah’s roll with his pen knife and burning it in the fire, cut and sliced at the Bible with the pen knife of “Higher” scholarship, the word lives on long after they have returned to the dust from whence they came. The Roman Emperor Flavius Diocletian once thought he had rid the earth of the sacred volume. After the final mighty bonfire, he ordered a medal to be struck and inscribed with the words “The Christian religion is destroyed and the worship of the gods restored.” Little did he know that one can burn every known copy of the Holy Scriptures, but cannot exterminate it, for God has promised to preserve it. Without an army to defend it, a bank account to finance it, a government to protect it, or a company to promote it, God’s Holy Word survives!
b. Fulfilled Prophecy – Perhaps the most convincing proof for the Divine authorship of the Bible is the fulfillment of predictive prophecy. There are over 2000 predictive prophecies in the Old Testament alone. Each is very specific and precise. Peter Stoner, a mathematician, says that the probability that 8 prophecies would be fulfilled by coincidence in one in 1016. For 40 prophecies, the probability is one in 1070. What would be the probability that all 2000 would be fulfilled to the most minute detail? Predictions concerning Tyre and Sidon (Eze. 28:21-23), Samaria, Babylon, Edom, Ninevah, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum have all been fulfilled with an exactness that defies mere coincidence.
Other proofs such as the honesty and integrity of the Bible writers, the unity of the Bible, and the dramatic influence of the Bible in human history could also be cited.
2. Historical Accuracy and Reliability of the Bible
“But hasn’t science disproved many of the historical claims of the Bible?” someone asks. In fact, it has not. Even though the Bible makes no claim to be a science textbook, not one claim that Scripture makes that can be tested in the realm of science has proven scientifically inaccurate. Psalm 8:4-8, for example, refers to the existence of systematic ocean currents (‘the paths of the seas’). Matthew Maury, the father of oceanography, claimed that his research was inspired by that phrase in Psalm 8. Isaiah 40:22 plainly asserts that the earth is a sphere. Ecclesiastes 1:7 describes the hydrologic cycle, and Job 26:7, the gravitational field. Furthermore, manuscript evidence argues for the historical accuracy of the Bible. There is more manuscript evidence to sustain the proposition that the Bible has been preserved intact from its original autographs to the present than any ten pieces of classical literature combined. Perhaps the most convincing proof for the historical reliability of the Bible is the abundance of archaeological evidence. Jesus once said, “If these should hold their peace, the rocks would immediately cry out.” Interestingly, at the same time that “Higher Criticism” began its assault on the integrity of the Bible, the archaeologist’s spade began to unearth relic after relic, and artifact after artifact that verified the historical claims of the Bible. It is worthy of note that no single archaeological discovery has ever contradicted the testimony of the Bible. The preponderance of evidence asserts without hesitation, “Christian, you can trust the Bible.”
So, the Bible is the word of God. It is God’s Revelation, given by Inspiration, preserved by Providence. It is, consequently, authoritative. Biblical Authority is the touchstone issue of the day. To say that Scripture is authoritative is to say that we believe, affirm, and obey all Biblical teaching, and submit every human opinion to the judgment of that teaching. A Christian is someone who believes that the word is truth – not pop-theories and ideas. Any idea that does not correspond to its teaching must be discarded. And every controversy or difference must be settled by an appeal to “thus saith the Lord.” The buck stops here! That which is authoritative has the right to govern. God, therefore, exercises His government over His people through His revealed word. The case for Biblical Authority is worked out like this:
1. God’s authority over men is grounded in the fact that He is our Creator.
2. It is further based on the fact that He is our Savior God, who died and rose again, being invested with “all authority [exousia] in heaven and in earth.”
3. He exercises that sovereign authority over His people through the Bible.
The forms that authority takes in “Christendom” are three. The first two, however, are illegitimate forms of authority.
1. The Church as “authority” – This is the idea that is prominent in Roman Catholicism that views the “Church” as infallible. The Church in this instance is the interpreter of Scripture. The question intrinsic to this ecclesiastical form of authority is “What is the position of the Church?”
2. The Individual as “authority” – Liberal theology claims that the Bible is a mixture of wheat and chaff; therefore, man’s reason and subjective understanding is the final court of appeal. Experience is viewed as infallible. The word of God is defined according to this paradigm as “that which speaks to you.” The question intrinsic to this kind of authority is “What do you feel?” People who subscribe to this mode of thinking tend toward a kind of relativism that says, “You determine what is true for you and I’ll determine what is true for me and we’ll both be right.”
3. The Bible as “authority” – This is the position of historical Christianity. God’s inspired and inerrant word is the only rule for faith and life. The Bible sits in judgment on the church and on my own understanding. It has the last word. It is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all opinions, ideas, and creeds are to be examined by it. Sola Scriptura! Scripture Alone! Scripture, and Scripture alone is the canon (measuring rod or standard) of faith and practice.
It is at this point that we need to address the question, “But how do we know that the Bible as we have it is the word that is intended to be authoritative? How do we know that the Apocryphal books, or the epistle of Barnabas are not Holy Scripture? Should these be included in the Bible? Is it possible that some of the books that are included in the canon of Scripture are not, in fact, inspired?”
These are legitimate questions. By what criteria did the Bible as we have it today come to be? Who determined what is Scripture and what is not Scripture? Should other writings perhaps be included as authoritative?
The Lord Jesus Christ conferred authority on His apostles. He rules His church, therefore, by and through the apostles. The test of “apostolicity”, then, is the criteria by which New Testament books were judged by the early church. Whether or not a book was judged to be apostolic, whether directly from an apostle or indirectly from one who was in the inner circle of the apostles (i.e. John Mark, Luke, etc.), was the test.
How did the “canon” then emerge? Over a period of several centuries, “through a gradual, un-coordinated, seemingly haphazard and erratic process…”, the various churches “came to recognize the extent and limits of the God-given canon, by checking and cross-checking the pedigree and contents of the many books that bore apostolic names, or were alleged to proceed from the apostolic circle, to find out which of them could make good their claim to be genuine apostolic products, embodying the revealed truth of which the apostles were trustees” (J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken, p. 119).
“Apostolicity” was determined by examination of the various books to see if they were indeed products of the pen of one of the apostles (or again, one in the inner circle of the apostles). After three centuries of inquiry, there was consensus among Christians regarding which books possessed intrinsic authority. The Bible, as we have it, then, was commonly received and accepted by the early church.
Could the early church’s verdict, however, be flawed? Textual criticism has been interested to answer that question for the past fifteen hundred years. The evidence that Paul was actually the author of his letters, Peter of his, John of his, etc., is so conclusive that the answer to the question must be “no.” When one further remembers the Lord’s promise to providentially preserve His word, all uncertainty dissolves.
Since the “church” agreed regarding which books were canonical and which books were not, does the “church” have authority over the Bible? Roman Catholicism says ‘yes.’ But the “church” did not give us the Bible, any more than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the law of gravity. Newton merely recognized the law of gravity that God had created; moreover, the “church” merely recognized which books were “apostolic” and hence, inspired and authoritative, but God is the giver of Scripture. The real question is not “Do we have evidence to accept the canon as the Word of God?” but “Do we enough reason not to?”
This brings us to the second conviction with which we must approach the Bible. Not only do we affirm that “God Has Spoken”, once and for all, we also believe that:
III. God Still Speaks Through What He Has Spoken (Is the Bible Contemporary?)
The Bible is not just a collection of ancient documents, a faint echo from a distant past, but a living message to living people from the Living God. It moves with the times and continues to address each generation with fresh and contemporary relevance.
“His Spirit floweth free, high surging where He wills: In Prophet’s word He spoke of old, He speaketh still…”
– From the Yigdal by Daniel ben Judah
God’s word has an abiding application across all ages.
A. The Contemporary Voice of God
Hebrews 3:7 warns, “Today, if you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” That verse is a quotation from Psalm 95. Notice, however, that the writer to the Hebrews prefaces his quotation with the words “As the Holy Ghost saith.” By using the formula “as the Holy Spirit says” (present tense), he implies that the Holy Spirit is TODAY making the same appeal he made centuries earlier in Psalm 95.
The point is powerful: The Holy Spirit who spoke the word by inspiration, still speaks through that word in terms of illumination and interpretation. Through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit teaches, witnessing both to its Divine Authority and meaning, assuring believer’s of its truthfulness, and interpreting its application to us today. Charles Wesley wrote these lines, to be sung “Before the Reading of the Scriptures”:
Come, Holy Ghost, (for mov’d by thee The Prophets wrote and spoke: ) Unlock the Truth, thyself the Key, Unseal the sacred Book. God, thro’ himself, we then shall know, If thou within us shine: And sound, with all the saints below, The depths of love divine.
Revelation chapters 2 and 3 plainly declare that the same Spirit that inspired the original seven letters is still speaking to the churches, through those letters. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith [is saying] to the churches.”
Now, God does not still speak today in terms of giving further revelation. Revelation is complete. Neither does God still speak today (as a rule) apart from Scripture. That is mysticism. I am not a little skeptical of those who boast of regular dialogue and direct conversation with God. I am not the least bit hesitant, however, to admit that part of the Holy Spirit’s function is to bring specific Scripture to mind at various times in one’s Christian experience with a power, reality, and relevance to specific situations that is just as much a form of communication as if he had spoken audibly. This, I submit, is His regular means of communicating with believers. God still speaks through what He has spoken in terms of illumination and application.
B. The Preacher as a Mouthpiece for God
The preaching of God’s word is then, in the light of these tremendous truths, a very significant event. Through preaching, that is, expository or thoroughly Biblical preaching, God, in a very real sense, communicates to His people. The act of proclaiming, explaining, exhorting, and applying Scripture is the most powerful means God has chosen to speak to men in the New Covenant.
The conviction that one is speaking as a mouthpiece for God is, therefore, indispensable for preachers: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracle of God…” (I Pet. 4:10). By the same token, the congregation’s conviction that the words they are hearing are more than a mere “sermon” from the preacher, but an actual word from God, is equally indispensable: “…when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (I Ths. 2:13). It is crucial that preacher and people alike develop the habit of approaching the proclamation of the word with the eagerness, anticipation and expectation that God will speak today through His word.
“We come to hear Jehovah speak, to hear the Savior’s voice; Thy face and favor, Lord we seek; Now let our hearts rejoice.”
“What will the Lord say to me today through the preaching of His word?” is the proper approach to public worship. That sense of the (may I coin a word?) “today-ness” of His word is, it seems to me, one of the greatest needs of the hour: “Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your heart.”
It is a fact that we must serve the Lord in the day and age in which we live. We must serve our own generation. Though I once thought I would have liked to have lived 100 years ago, I didn’t, and I don’t, and I never will. Our Christianity must be contemporary so that we, like David, can “serve our own generation by the will of God” (Acts 13:36). In the providence of God, we live today. The battles we fight, consequently, must be the battles of today, not the battles of fifty years ago or one hundred fifty years ago. Martin Luther wrote: “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
C. Knowing the Times (Rom. 13:11)
We are living in truly momentous times. One has the sense that we are at a turning point in human history. Of course, people have always tended to exaggerate the importance of the age in which they lived, but, in my opinion, the dramatic changes we have witnessed in our lifetime are unprecedented in human history. This century alone has witnessed two world wars. In the realm of transportation, the horse, the fastest mode of travel in the 19th century, has been replaced by the locomotive, the automobile, the jet airplane, and the space shuttle in the 20th century. Knowledge is literally exploding as the cybernetics revolution brings new technologies into the public domain virtually every day. Politically, we are witnessing a radical reshaping of the world’s governments. In our own country, one wonders if we are not witnessing the last days of the America in which we were born. Scientifically, genetic research and the neurosciences are almost daily taking giant steps forward as modern man continues to build his tower to the sky.
In the church, these are also remarkable times. Today we are witnessing great religious turmoil both within and without the church. At times, it appears that conditions are ripe for a mighty revival, a fresh visitation of the Spirit of God. At other times, one wonders if the creeping spiritual apathy and malaise that has set in upon us will be reversed. All appears to be in a state of flux and change and uncertainty. Neo-Pentecostalism is making steady advances into mainline denominations; the spirit of ecumenism has revived under the accord between Evangelicals and Catholics and through movements known as “Promise Keepers.” Ancient Gnosticism with its mystical emphasis on “feeling” is making a comeback, both in society, disguised as “The New Age Movement,” and in “Christendom”, under the canopy of popular psychology. We are living at a truly significant and exciting time in the history of the world.
These are indeed days of darkness and distress. The parallels between the modern situation and the pre-flood world in the days of Enoch and Noah are striking. But as the night of time darkens, the dawn of a new day is at hand: “Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us who are of the day be sober…”
In the light of these tremendous times, how can God’s servants remain contemporary? Do we have a message for today’s man or woman? What does it mean to be a mouthpiece for God at the close of the 20th century? Three particular emphases, it seems to me, are vital and fundamental to the times.
1. The Evangelistic Note in Preaching
The preachers most basic task, that is, the work of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ the Lord, is one dimension in which the preacher speaks as a mouthpiece for God. God still speaks through the preached gospel to urge the hearer to repent, believe, and acquiesce to Him: “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20); “At the times of this ignorance God winked at, but now he commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). As long as people are sinners, they need to hear the basic gospel message. The Bible speaks today to those whose who “feel after Him” (Acts 17:27), whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, bond or free, whether in the West or the East, to “turn to God from idols to serve the living and the true God” (I Ths. 1:9). The preaching of the gospel message is supremely relevant today. What does the Christian “evangel” involve? It involves:
a. An Biblical View of Man
Man is not “the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.” He is, in fact, totally depraved. It is only the Gospel that depicts man as he really is – born in chains, antagonistic to God and his fellow man. Freud taught that man is the victim of his environment and consequently, not culpable for his behavior. Carl Rogers said that man has all the answers to life prepackaged in himself and is “at the core of his being essentially good.” B. F. Skinner teaches that man is nothing more than an animal. It is only the Christian gospel, however, that presents a Biblical anthropology. Man is not an animal, but a being created in the image of God. Evolutionary sociology suggests that man is just an advanced animal, a body without a soul (By the way, much modern psychology attempts to explain human behavior in strictly physiological terms, i.e. the claim that homosexuality or alcoholism is a genetic tendency. In its attempt to treat “spiritual” problems with chemicals, it confuses the human “brain”, a physical organ in the body, with the human “mind”, the spiritual dimension of man, and consequently, discounts the spiritual dimension of man’s makeup.). Hinduism and neo-Gnosticism teaches that man was intended to be a soul without a body and that the body is evil and the spirit is good. Ultimate salvation, therefore, is defined in terms of release from the physical and union with the mystical. But Jesus taught that man is both “body and soul,” composed of both a material or physical and immaterial or spiritual side (Mt. 10:28) and that both body and soul have been infected by sin. Man’s problem, therefore, is not that he is socially underprivileged but that he is corrupt at the very core of his being: “Out of the heart proceed murders, evil thoughts, adulteries, lasciviousness, coveteousness, and abominable idolatries.” You see, it is only the gospel that explains human behavior. Modern psychology fails to even consider man’s sinful nature as a possible explanation of human behavior. Could it be that people steal not because they were mis-nurtured, but because they have a sinful and fallen nature? Could it be that people commit adultery not because they are genetically predisposed to multiple partners like their animal ancestors, but because they are born with a rotten heart? Could it be that trouble in marriage arises not because two people are temperamentally incompatible, but because each is by nature a prisoner in what Malcolm Muggeridge called “the dark little dungeon of my own ego”? The Christian “evangel” speaks today because it is the only message that describes man accurately: Made in God’s image, but now born in sin and predisposed to evil and righteousness.
b. A Lofty View of God
It is only the gospel, furthermore, that paints an accurate picture of the character of God. It is not uncommon to hear people say today, “’When I think of God, I don’t think of the angry, wrathful, jealous God of the Old Testament, but as a kindly, benevolent ‘grandfather’ in the sky’; or, ‘I believe in a God of love, not a God who would punish sin’.” Until one understand, however, the truth of the Holiness of God, he will never appreciate the message of God’s Grace and Love. God is Sovereign and Holy, Great in Glory and Great in Grace. He is “the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity whose name is Holy.” He dwells in the “High and Holy Place.” Until one grasps the truth of His transcendence, the next phrase will have no meaning: “He dwells…with him also that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at his word” (Is. 57:15). Because man is a sinner, He is under God’s wrath. That is a message for today!
c. A Glorious View of Christ
The Christian “evangel” begins with the tragic view of man in sin under God’s wrath. Then it points the hearer, stripped of his self-righteousness and intellectual pride, to the only solution for sin – the Blood of Christ. It says, “He is your wisdom, your righteousness, your sanctification, and your redemption. Christ is an all-sufficient Savior. In Him, you are justified. In Him, you are holy. In Him, you are free from the penalty of sin and the curse of the law.” This is a word for our day! Sinners still need to hear the glad tidings of “Christ crucified.”
2. The Prophetic Note in Preaching
Although preachers are not prophets in the sense that they receive “direct” revelation from God, neither do they have the capacity to predict future events beyond the parameters of Holy Scripture, they do indeed “prophesy” (I Cor. 14:1ff; I Ths. 5: 20). Prophesying is the act of speaking or declaring God’s revelation intelligibly. Not the same as the sign gift of prophetic utterance, post-apostolic ‘prophesying’ is the Spirit-given ability to proclaim God’s word already revealed. “Despise not prophesying” (I Ths. 5:20) means “don’t look down with contempt on any utterance coming from gifted men that is in agreement with God’s word.” So, every preacher who teaches the Scriptures is, in this sense, a prophet.
The “prophetic note” to which I refer here, however, is something different. I am talking now about a Jeremiad kind of ministry that speaks unusually direct, specific, and probing messages that have a particular relevance to the times. Writing to his wife about the spiritual needs of his congregation after World War II, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I feel that there is a tremendous opportunity for preaching. At the moment what is wanted is the comforting note to help people over the shock. But, following that, the need will be for the prophetic note to awaken the people.” Prophets say things such as “Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” They bring a message of warning. The prophets commission is “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Is. 58:1). Let me give a more specific definition.
The “prophetic note” is the act of exposing current trends and conditions among God’s people to the reality of God’s law (or word), thereby bringing people face to face with the spiritual consequences of their behavior and hence, to the crisis of decision. It is the kind of preaching that cries “Woe unto them that go down to Egypt for help” and that laments “O why will you die, O house of Israel.” It is the kind of preaching a Hosea, or Amos, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Joel, or Zechariah, or Malachi would do.
Prophetic preaching is preaching that seeks to awaken slumbering consciences. It is preaching that emphasizes that God deals personally and individually with people and that He does not respect any man’s person. It is preaching that searches the hearts and consciences of the hearers, calling upon them to explore their hearts and lives through the discipline of self-examination. It is preaching with a note of authority – a “Thus saith the Lord.” It is preaching that brings people to the awareness that God is real, that He is holy, and that He is jealous for His own glory. It is preaching that exposes sin, and then, attempts to persuade people to respond in repentance. The prophet first probes the wound and reveals the problem, then urges the people to amend their ways.
In both the major and the minor Old Testament “prophets”, there is a double theme. The somber tone of Divine judgment upon the disobedient rings loud and clear. But there is another theme in every Old Testament book. It is the promise of renewal, restoration, and revival in the event that God’s people turn from the evil of their doings and seek Him with the whole heart. This double theme is “the prophetic motif.” The prophetic word, therefore, also emphasizes the promise of revival. It forecasts the future of God’s people either in terms of God’s judgment or His restorative grace, contingent on their response to His message. This kind of preaching is sorely needed today.
3. The Pastoral Note in Preaching
The relevance of God’s word to our times also takes the form of “pastoral” preaching. We are living in a day not only when people need the basic gospel message, and the stern prophetic warning couched in the prospect of spiritual renewal, but also when they need direction and encouragement and help to live their daily lives to the praise of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible speaks today in terms of the fact that it has the answer to the searching questions of life with which ordinary people struggle. What is the purpose of my existence? Does life have meaning? Is my life worth living? What really matters in this world? These are the questions with which people struggle, and these are the questions to which the Bible and the Bible alone has the answer. The Bible gives counsel and direction to the burdened soul weighed down with a guilty conscience, pointing him to the blood of Christ which continually cleanses the conscience from all sin. The Bible speaks to our fears and gives us courage to face the future by reminding us of the promises of God (see Is. 41:10; 43:2; Heb. 13:5ff, etc.). It is the Bible that enables the confused and despairing soul to regain a heavenly perspective on his troubles by reminding him that God is in sovereign control of his life and that He has promised “grace sufficient” for every trial. The Bible speaks today to the burdened pilgrim saying, “Lift up your head, for your redemption is drawing nigh; Jesus lives as your great High Priest, ever living to make intercession for you. He has pledged to return one day in all of his regal glory to finally make an end of all adversity, sin, and Satan.” Is that a message needed today?
The Bible speaks today, encouraging us in our weariness that there is hope for restoration. 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 reminds us that “now” and “today” God is hearing prayer and coming to the aid of His people. This pastoral note of comfort and encouragement is the order of the day.
In these momentous times, a renewed conviction that we hold in our hands the very word of God, inspired, inerrant, and authoritative, and that this word is timeless in its relevance and powerful in its application is crucial to the preacher of the word. May we commit ourselves anew to the diligent study, faithful exposition, and courageous and gentle proclamation of this word. “Remember,” said Lloyd-Jones to some brethren in the ministry, “that He is taking special interest in you. He will be with you in some lonely village, and when the end seems to have come, remember that you are preaching a Savior who rose again: ‘Remember that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead’….” (p311, The Fight of Faith).