Imprisoned but Not Silenced

One of great ironies of Christian history occurred in the latter part of  seventeenth-century England, in the little town of Bedford. Despite more than a century of attempts at reforming both church and state, the struggle for religious freedom had been long and hard in coming. A poor tinker (mender of pots and pans and such) named John Bunyan had recently begun to preach the gospel with uncommon effect. In increasing numbers the people began to give him a hearing, and it was evident to all that his preaching was greatly blessed of God.

            But Bunyan was not part of the established church, and he was not properly licensed to preach. This didn’t matter to him, because it was under the orders of the Lord Christ that he preached the gospel. But it did matter to the authorities, and they demanded that he stop. Under orders by a higher authority, of course, he would not stop. He continued preaching with great effect. And for his crime of preaching the gospel without proper authorization, and in order specifically to keep him from preaching, Bunyan was locked up in the Bedford jail.

            The irony of the story is that as a direct result of their shutting him up in prison his voice has been heard by more people than most any preacher in history. Not only did he preach often even while in prison to a very “captive” audience, but languishing there he turned to writing and produced many popular works of Christian literature. And among his many titles, begun it seems during his later imprisonment, is the renowned Pilgrim’s Progress, the most widely published book in all history, second only to the Bible itself.

            We are told that Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more than two hundred languages, and it has passed through countless English editions, with millions of copies worldwide. It was a runaway best seller in his own day, it has been continuously in print ever since, and never before or since has a book ever been published that can rival it — the Bible only excepted. It has been a staple in Christian homes for three and a half centuries, and even in secular studies of literature it has been studied and hailed as the greatest allegory ever written. This from a man shut in prison in order to keep him from being heard.

            I love this story, and preparing recently to teach again on Bunyan and his immortal classic I have been impressed once more with the wonders of divine providence. Bunyan was imprisoned more than twelve years, all told, in attempt to shut him up. And yet he still speaks. Indeed, not only does he still speak, few men in history have been heard more!

            Of course, not all Christian suffering results in such obvious triumph. God’s providence is mysterious, and he has often allowed his children to suffer with little evident consequence. We trust him in either case. But it is encouraging indeed to be reminded how easy it is for God to give success to the gospel and accomplish the advance of his kingdom. Let the world do as it will, no one will ever stay his hand or frustrate his purpose (Dan. 4:34-35). He works all things according to the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11) — so infallibly, in fact, that even the wrath of man shall praise him (Ps. 76:10).

            Such a God we can surely trust.

Preachers, Know When to Quit!

There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it.  I think I’ve heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length.  Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That’s all that’s necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’   And, as usual, Luther got it right.

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher, II”

Are You Sanctified?

Simeon was a fifth-century monk who subjected himself to severe practices of asceticism in his quest for what he thought was holiness. He became somewhat of a celebrity in his day, widely known for his extreme practices of depriving himself of the basic necessities of life. Crowds began to seek him out for advice and prayer.

Unable to escape the world horizontally, he attempted to do it vertically. He climbed up a pillar among some Syrian ruins with a narrow platform at the top, determined that there he would live out his earthly days. With meager food and drink brought to him by boys from the village, he lived atop the pillar for 39 years, refusing to come down even for his own mother’s funeral. There, consistent with his wish, he died.

“Saint Simeon the Stylite” inspired many isolationist imitators, and pillar-sitting became quite popular for a time. Others apparently bought into his philosophy – that the best way to avoid contamination from the world is to avoid contact with the world.

The problem is, Jesus had a larger agenda for his followers than just not being contaminated by the world. In His prayer recorded for us in John 17 (including eighteen mentions of “the world”), He made it clear that He desired us to remain pure and obedient, yet fully engaged in a redemptive mission to the hurting people in the world.

“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” (John 17:15-18)

We don’t achieve “sanctification” by climbing atop a pillar and isolating ourselves from unbelievers. Rather, we live in the world, but we march to the beat of a different drummer. Our ethics, our values, our purpose in life – all of these are distinct from the unbelieving world around us and derived from our daily study of God’s unchanging Word. This is the sanctification Jesus asked the Father to grant us: obedient to the Word, yet still connected in redemptive mission to those who need to hear the gospel. Are you sanctified . . . or just sitting on a pole?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You a Word-Centered or a Spirit-Centered Christian?

A choice commonly placed before believers at some time in their Christian experience is the suggestion, or even demand that they center their lives on the Bible, or alternately, on the Holy Spirit. Either they live their lives according to the written Word, or they live guided by the Spirit. This great divide has never been more obvious than today. Some Christian traditions emphasize strict adherence to the Bible, while others believe such an approach is too mechanical, and would rather be led experientially by the Spirit. Which approach is correct? A look back into history may help.

While most evangelicals associate Martin Luther with the Lutheran church and erroneous views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and rightly so), Luther was one of the first Reformers to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church by declaring the primary authority of Scripture over the papacy. Luther was Word-centered and demanded that everything be judged by the Word of God (the fact that he failed to do so completely is clear, but anachronistic).

In contrast, the radical reformer Thomas Müntzer emphasized a Spirit-centered Christian life. He stressed an inner-oriented hearing by man that would lead him from bondage to freedom. For Müntzer, “the God who speaks is the God who is experienced directly in the heart” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996, 151).

For many Christians today, this sounds appealing. Who doesn’t want to experience God directly in the heart? Who doesn’t want a dynamic walk of faith where God speaks directly to you? But this approach also has a dark side. It appeals to our narcissism and rebellion by doing away with an objective authority for truth and making our own individual experience with God supreme. The example of Müntzer is instructive because of the direction that his Spirit-centered theology took. Unmoored from Scripture, he began to teach that the knowledge of God was not teachable, but could only be conferred in connection with a spirit-worked faith saturated with experience. Thus, he called for a reversal from the traditional movement from the external to internal. He concluded that the living Word of God must be heard from God’s own mouth and not from books, not even the Bible.

This is always where Spirit-centered theology leads. Luther was right to demand a Word-centered faith. While a Word-centered faith can at times become cold and clinical, with little evidence of the Spirit or His fruits, without the foundation of the authority of Scripture over experience a person’s Christian life will be built upon sinking sand. There are plenty of examples of supposed Word-centered churches, ministries and people with little evidence of the Spirit of God. But life that is properly centered on the Word will exhibit both the stability of revelation and the vitality of the Spirit.

How can you tell which you are? Ask yourself a few questions:

Þ   Do you savor every chance to read, meditate on, memorize and apply the written Word of God? Or does your Christian life consist primarily of “talking to God,” with little attention to the Word?

Þ   Is it difficult to go a day or two without the Word? Or do you find it hard to get yourself to open and read the Bible?

Þ   Do your prayers flow out of what you read in the Scriptures today? Or do they revolve primarily around yourself, your problems, and your concerns?

Þ   Are you right now pursuing some intentional study of something in the Bible? Or is your Christian walk a passive “go with the flow”?

It has been my experience that Spirit-centered Christians tend to judge their own spiritual maturity far more positively than perhaps they should, and the reason is simple: they are judging everything by feeling. While they claim that they are being led by the Spirit, and not feelings, their faith is as subjective as any theological liberal. They have forgotten a fundamental biblical and theological truth:

The Spirit works primarily through the Word!

That is, the choice of being Word-centered or Spirit-centered is not an “either-or” but a “both-and” with the Word being primary. We must be Spirit-centered people, but that only comes through being Word-centered. Paul captures this truth in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he speaks of the reading of God’s Word:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord [in the written Word], are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Transformation by the Spirit only comes through beholding Christ in the Word. The Scriptures must be primary in a believer’s life. It is only through being Word-centered that we can be assured of the truth AND live a Spirit-filled life.

The Benefits of Weakness and Suffering

No one likes illness, suffering, or pain, yet the results of these things can have eternal value. It has been said that if dependence upon God is the objective, then weakness is an advantage. Weakness and suffering have tremendous advantage for our salvation and sanctification. The sixteenth-century theologian, Theodore Beza attributed his conversion to a severe illness and the consequent fear of death:

He approached me through a sickness so severe that I despaired of my life. Seeing his terrible judgment before me, I could not think what to do with my wretched life. Finally, after endless suffering of body and soul, God showed pity upon His miserable lost servant and consoled me so that I could not doubt His mercy. With a thousand tears, I renounced my former self, implored His forgiveness, renewed my oath to serve His true church, and in sum gave myself wholly over to Him. So the vision of death threatening my soul awakened in me the desire for a true and everlasting life. So sickness was for me the beginning of true health (letter to Melchior Wolmar, May 12, 1560).

In a similar vein, the apostle Paul spoke of the benefit of weakness and suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

If we love eternal things more than our temporary comfort and convenience, we will be willing, like Paul, to suffer for our own good and the glory of God. This is what God has been teaching me today!

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