I’m sure I’ve said this of myself more than once. I am cautious to jump on ‘band wagons’, hesitant to go along with a crowd, wary of ‘new’ teaching and suspicious of the visiting preacher that brings it. Does this make me a skeptic? Maybe so. And likely in some areas it’s true. We all hang on pretty dearly to our most cherished values and it becomes hard to see beyond our blind spots without a third-party view. It’s good to get an outside opinion and to pay close attention when things/people offend our sensibilities…
But I am also a believer. I believe in things that have proven true. I prize the Word of God as the ultimate test of truth. I love turning its pages, comparing Scripture with Scripture, digging for context and meaning, making notes and reading, reading, reading-- knowing I can rely on the Spirit to teach me from its pages.
[I may as well put in a plug for my favorite Bible study tool while I’m at it: BLUELETTERBIBLE.org. Never has Bible study been so easy. In an easy to intuit format that comes with a tutorial if you like, multiple versions, concordances, cross-references and commentaries wait at your fingertips. Audio and print messages are easily accessible for any given verse or passage. God’s gifts to the Church: preachers and teachers, modern and long-gone-to-glory, still speak. Read Luther for yourself, or Spurgeon, or R.A.Torrey. Or sample audio messages from more contemporary preachers. Once you get started you won’t want to quit. It’s wonderful!]
But I was saying…I don’t like being thought of as a skeptic. I would prefer to be known as a lover of truth, a discerning believer, a student of the Word. But each of these labels has also come into disrepute to some degree by those who protest: We don’t need more theology! We need action! (Or: ‘obedience’, ‘disciples’, ‘doers’). I hear these objections increasingly and I see circles being drawn which suggest that genuine discipleship can exist quite distinctly from diligent study of the Word of God. “Theologians” are scoffed at as irrelevant. Bible students as overstuffed notebooks without practical usefulness. And discerning spokesmen for truth are scorned as ‘nay-sayers’. What is happening? Is the pursuit of Biblical truth really so at odds with fervent discipleship?
As believers, we long to see God at work in His Church and in our world. Many sincere godly believers are praying for revival and watching for ‘breakthroughs’, for change, for new life! And it can be tempting to think we just need an action plan. But is this true? Do we just need to get out and DO something, anything! (As though our activity will force God’s hand to act.) Is the malady of the institutionalized church of our day that we’re just not obeying?! The analysis goes that instead of acting on the Word, believers are preoccupied with hearing, analyzing, affirming, memorizing and categorizing God’s Word.
An amusing illustration is made of the parent who instructs his child to clean up his room because company’s coming. The child wanders off to contemplate those words, to memorize them, to translate them into Greek and to mull them over thoroughly, but fails to DO them. This is said to be the problem of the modern church particularly with respect to the Great Commission. We’re just not DOING it. The illustration can be made much of. It can be told with great humor. But I am not ultimately amused because I think that the premise is false and a hazard to the church.
Fun is obviously being poked at serious students of the Word but I don’t believe this zeal for Bible study characterizes the average believer in the pew. I have not seen a problematic epidemic of the reading and study of the Word of God in the modern church! Therefore, I don’t think this casting of blame is accurate.
Now, one could argue that we have possessed the Bible in the West for many years and its influence has faded to a low ebb, failing to produce ardent followers in our times, while droves leave the institutional church in search of something more. It is true that nominal religiosity has diluted much of western Christianity. But is this because we have been ardent students of the Word and just failed to put it into practice? Is this your problem? Is it mine? I shudder at this mocking of Bible study as though it were a grave problem in the church. Without knowing the Word of God how will we discern what pleases God? What will be our yardstick of a ministry? It looks good? It sounds good? It seems right… (Consider Pr.14:12)
I would suggest there is a bigger picture we are missing. As believers living in a non-Christian culture with an increasingly anti-Christian bent we may well gaze about with a rising sense of alarm. When was the last new convert you saw? Where is the vital sense of community that characterized the New Testament church? Are we missing something? It does seem that the love of many is growing cold and that the church is failing to propagate itself to the rising generation…What are we to do?! Is this even up to us?
Into this vacuum step multiple para-church ministries with solutions that guarantee results. If you’re looking for signs and wonders, they’re out there. For a re-enactment of the healing ministry of Jesus? just do this. For increased enthusiasm in the pew, try this video course… But is the solution to get out and DO something?! Must we formulate a method anyone can follow and then start promoting it with great enthusiasm and just a sprinkling of guilt-inducement? A one-size-fits-all strategy, is this even Biblical?
Methods of evangelism have come and gone throughout modern church history-- embraced, flogged, and laid aside with limited success. Each has its own twist. Some have been more grounded in Scripture than others. But what seems to be missing so often, is true converts with an insatiable appetite for the Word of God AND a love for their Savior that compels them to obedience. The two go hand-in-hand and are two of the most compelling evidences of true conversion--new appetites that lead to transformed actions! “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” II Cor.5:17 Only the Holy Spirit can produce these results. Man can conjure imitations. Jannes and Jambres, the magicians that opposed Moses, could do many of the things he did. II Tim.3:8 Scripture forewarns that miracles will be done in Jesus’ name without His sanction or favor and will deceive many Mt.7:22,23. Paul’s letters are replete with cautions about teachers who will distort the gospel, preach another Christ, and offer another Spirit. (eg II Cor.11)
How do we discern truth from error? How do we avoid setting ourselves up for deception without becoming universal nay-sayers and perennial skeptics? It is crucial that we must monitor our values and expectations. They will have a pre-disposing influence on us—whether for truth or for error.
What we most want to hear, to see happen, or to experience will be what we seek. In short, to the extent that our desires are rooted in the temporal, expecting satisfaction in our lifetime, to that extent we can expect to be lured by ‘this lifetime’ guarantees.
Think of it this way, if we are desperate to see God ‘do something’ (dramatic) in our day, if we are insistent that a great revival is just around the corner, if we are eaten up with discontent over the quality of life we are experiencing and sure there is a quick fix out there for us…these expectations will pre-dispose us to welcome whatever and whoever seems promising. We will be more readily deceived by appearances and more open to pursuing unsound teachings when our expectations are rooted in discontent with our present situation and distrust in God’s sovereign purposes in everything.. It is imperative that we ground our expectations in the Word of God or they will lead us into temptation and deception. Paul warns of times when people will want their ears tickled and seek out teachers who will tell them the things they most want to hear II Tim.4:3. Our desires must be constantly in check, even our most ‘spiritual’ desires, to see if they really align with the Word of God. Are we demanding temporal relief that God has not promised? Do we expect more to happen in our lifetimes than is warranted? And have we learned the secret of contentment in Christ and what He chooses to provide?
Well, as you can see, I don’t believe the diligent study of the Word of God is at all in conflict with radical, intentional discipleship. And I do believe strongly there is a place for critical Biblical analysis of any ministry that claims our attention and seeks to propel us to action, no matter how ardent and well-intended its agenda. This is not a role for the skeptic but for the lover of Truth. Love of the truth, even when it disrupts our most cherished values, will protect us from deception.
Could the ardent Bible scholar use some prompting to make sure his/her head knowledge translates into real live discipleship? Absolutely. Are there cautions for him/her in the Word of God as well? Certainly. More on that next time (hopefully).
We have much to learn from each other in the Body of Christ, lest in our haste to fulfill our individual callings we disparage another’s gifts and calling and miss out on what they have to offer us. We are after all in this Body together.
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.…So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. (2Th 2:13-17 ESV)
Jesus: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” John 17:20-23
There is one body and one Spirit…one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Eph.4:7 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. I Cor.12:4-7