“I Don’t Need No Books…”

Pulpits are full of men who are saying something without having anything to say. Many of them put on quite the performance as they bang and clang, stomp and snort, fizz and foam, and display their newly learned Tae Bo kicks. This is because they have no words. They have no words because they haven’t gathered any. And without words the pulpit has no voice.

The reformation that is needed cannot be accomplished by men who will not or cannot read. This is more than a practical point; it is a theological one. It is unfortunate, but there are many Christians who believe in the supremacy of Scripture, but who do not believe in the fruitfulness of Scripture. For example, if a pastor is reading a work of systematic theology, some well-meaning soul will gently admonish him to put aside the works of men, and devote himself to the study of Scripture alone. Such an admonition, although well-intentioned, is actually dishonoring to the Scriptures.

Suppose someone does devote himself to the study of Scripture alone. He pours over it, and he is saturated in its teaching. It can be said of him what Spurgeon said of John Bunyan—prick him anywhere and his blood would run bibline. Will such a brother learn anything? The answer is obvious—he will learn a tremendous amount. Look at Bunyan!

But having learned so much, is it permissible for him to share anything that he has learned with other Christians? May he teach? Or must we interrupt any such conversation to admonish listeners not to listen to the words of a mere man?

Whenever the Book has been honored and studied, the result has always been countless multitudes of books—the inevitable fruit of that study. Those who fear the Lord speak often with one another, and one of the natural ways to do this is though the publication of books. This is because the Bible tells us how the saints are to be instructed, and it is clear that it is not though private time reading the Bible alone. The writing and reading of God-honoring books is not a substitute for Bible-reading; it is the result of Bible reading.

But we still have been told to go to the Bible alone—let us do so: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). “Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:7-8).

The teaching of Scripture on this points very clear. God requires uninspired teachers to expound His Word and apply it to the lives of God’s people. The Bible does not say that worship services should consist of Scripture reading only—with no interpretive voice inflections. On the contrary, the Bible tells us that we are to receive much of our religious instruction from uninspired sources—parents (Deut. 6:6-9), husbands (Eph. 5:25-27), elders (Heb. 13:7), and fellow Christians (Heb. 10:25).

And if some of the believers are tempted to give too much wide-eyed credence to their fallible teachers, then their teachers should warn them about that, just as they warn them about other sins. Since all human teachers are fallible, it is very important for them to stick as close to the text as possible. Those who refuse to listen to such teachers (and who refuse to read books by them) may do so in the name of honoring Scripture, but they are really kicking against the requirement of Scripture. They say, in effect, that the Bible should be honored—so long as it is kept barren and produces no teachers, and no books. And incidentally, it must also be remembered that although they maintain that they sit at the feet of no man, there is at least one kind of human teaching they do think highly of—whatever has been forged in the fevered heat of their own brain.

But someone may protest that there really is a genuine problem when people pay attention to the words of men rather than the words of God. Of course it is a problem! But how did our brother warn us of this danger? Through his own words—the words of a man. Should we therefore dismiss his warning? Not at all. It is a biblical warning. But in heeding this admonition, we are not at liberty to set aside what the Bible elsewhere tells us to do, which is to heed and honor our uninspired teachers.
And even though this is a genuine problem, how is it solved through the avoidance of publication and reading? So long as Christians speak with one another, as long as there are preachers and teachers in the body of Christ, there will be some who find it easier to follow men than to follow Christ. We cannot remove this temptation from the Church; this is part of how God made the world. A man who has a problem with lust should not beseech God to solve his problem by removing all of the women from the planet. Nor should we seek to solve the problem of hero-worship by removing the teachers. Rather, when there is a problem, we should address it the same way as we address other problems in the Church—through God-centered and biblical teaching.

So all attempts to banish scholarship and published learning will only result in theological know-nothingism. If we succeeded in getting the saints to avoid listening to scholars and godly men, we would only discover that they now line up at the cash registers to buy the books of ignoramuses and airheads. The only way to avoid this is to require every Christian to be his own teacher, and place us all under a vow of perpetual silence—which, as a solution, would also have the disadvantage of being disobedient to Scripture. And besides, who is going to teach us this requirement of silence? Not a human teacher, surely?

Nevertheless, we may still learn from this misguided attempt to empty the libraries and the minds of Christians. Although we cannot agree that uninspired books necessarily supplant Scripture, we may and must insist upon books which uphold the primacy of Scripture.

If someone is reading God-honoring Christian books (as opposed to the theological treacle which most Christian bookstores specialize in these days), those books will admonish, advise, teach and instruct. But above all, they will do what all godly teaching does—drive their readers back to the Scriptures. And that will result in more books.

All this means that ministers should glory in their books. They should of course be immersed in the Scriptures, but in addition to this, they should surround themselves with commentaries, works of theology, and history. As they participate in this process of reading, submitting themselves to the learning of others, they may come to the point where they feel they can contribute to the discussion, and write some books of their own.

Too many pastors feel like they read all they had to read in seminary, and after entering the ministry they do not have any time for real reading. Further, they have been fully trained, haven’t they?! Why read anymore? This attitude is a real dereliction of duty. Because it relates to what a minister knows, it could be considered a mere academic issue. But because it frequently proceeds from laziness, it has to be considered a moral disqualification as well.

In order to be a good and godly minister, a man must love God and His Word. He is a shepherd of souls, and so he must also love those among whom he ministers. But if he understands well, he will also love his library. “The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13).

Preacher, if you aren’t going to devote yourself to the acquisition and study of good books, then for the sake of the Kingdom, go sell cars.

“Do Not Disturb”

Cowardice in the pulpit begets corruption in the pews. This is much more than bumper-sticker theology. It is what George Jones would have called the “cold, hard truth.” Our culture is plagued with ten thousand social ills simply because the Church is at ease in Zion. The problem, then, is the pulpit, or at least the place where the pulpit used to be.

We live in a time when most believers have less understanding of the cultural impact of preaching than did some believers of another era. For example, in his classic work Moby Dick Herman Melville wrote,

What could be more full of meaning?—For the pulpit is ever earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is that the storm of God’s quick wrath is first decried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is that the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a chip on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

We may protest, saying that that this might have been true in his day, but in ours the pulpit does not set any cultural direction whatsoever. This is quite true, but beside the point, because it is also true that our culture has no direction whatsoever. Politicians may talk glibly about setting a course for the twenty-first century, but this has about as much directional content as determining to fall down when dropped. All our scholars, statesmen, politicians, bureaucrats, philosophers, musicians, and anchormen haven’t a clue. The trumpet blows indistinctly and gives and uncertain sound and we all think it is a new form of jazz.

Our cultural malaise began in the pulpits of America and is maintained in the pulpits of America. Every Lord’s Day, thousands of temporizing preachers assume their place and begin to speak. But they are not preachers, for the simple reason that they do not preach. They share, and chat, and tell anecdotes, and relate stories from the heart which warm the heart to a comfortable temperature of lukewarm.

A judgment of profound spiritual stupor rests upon our people—but this deep sleep must be understood for what it is. “For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed our eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” (Is. 29:10). In righteous indignation and wrath, the Lord determined to drive our nation into a covenantal stupor, and His instrument for doing this was to cover the eyes of the Church, the prophets and seers. The Church is asleep because the pulpit is asleep.

Who has given us all these pseudo-men, who caper so prettily on the stage for the televangelistic cameras? The Lord is clearly angry with us. Who was it that decided that churches should start having Super Bowl parties instead of Word and sacraments? This is nothing less than the hand of God upon us. The Lord did promise us that when we ask for bread He will not give us stones. But what happens when we ask for stones? “They soon forgot his works; they waited not for his counsel: but lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:13-15). Our fists are full of what we wanted, and we have just this kind of leanness of soul. The Lord has done it—He is the one who made the determination that we would be so emaciated, while happily feasting on the bread of idleness.

God has decided to inflict upon us the wasteland that is the American pulpit today. The Lord has brought us into this wilderness. Some might say this is all right because wandering aimlessly in the desert could be called an activity that is seeker friendly. But not all are so enamored with the new foolishness. We still have plenty of traditionalists opponents of all this who would lead us back to the ancient paths by whistling through their noses. God has done all of it, and may God deliver us.

This kind of language has far more hard and sharp edges than we like. We have heard too many smooth sermons from too many pretty boys to tolerate this kind of thing. “Oh,” we say, “God would never do that kind of thing to His people. All our low self-esteem in the pulpit, for that is what the problem really amounts to, just breaks his heart”—as though the Lord were up in heaven wringing His hands over what He could possibly do about those stinkers who preach.

Confronted with the hard evidence of the judicially-imposed stupidity that stands in the pulpit today, we broaden the extent of that stupidity by refusing to honor the Lord who has brought us to this point. We either think that the problem is not a problem, and sing another jovial chorus, or we think that the problem is just happening for no particular reason. Our stupor amounts to a rejection of God and His attributes. we are in love with our own notions of what God has to be instead of loving Him as He has revealed Himself to us. This idol would be very nice if He only existed.

To acknowledge that this is from the Lord is not to accuse Him. When God’s people are hard-hearted their sin does not disappear simply because the Lord wields absolute control over it. “O Lord, why has thou made us to err from thy ways, and harden our heart from thy fear? Return for thy servant’s sake, the tribes of thine inheritance” (Is. 63. 17). The Bible makes it plain as words can say that God remains God regardless of the circumstances, and that when the Church is drifting from one disaster to another, God is not standing helplessly by.

Spurgeon said somewhere that, “Oysters always whistle out of tune,” and we should not be surprised when men cannot accomplish their own salvation. We should not marvel that men cannot restore and reform the Church. How could they? We look to see if a man is asleep by looking to see if his eyes are closed. As we look to see if the Church is asleep, we should do the same. The eyes of the Church are the pulpit and the eyes of the Church are sightless because the Lord has brought this spirit of moronic stupor upon us. The pulpit today is the central problem in the midst of that fin de siecle disaster that we like to call our culture. With our indistinct mutterings, we have “preached” our way into the culture that we deserve. Because we are the problem, we cannot be the solution. “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Is. 33:22).

When the Lord turns to deliver us, He will do something according to His Word, which means that He will raise up men, men courageous enough to to preach the Word in season and out of season, whether the people want to hear it or not.

Pardon our Progress…

The Church is in dire need of reformation and revival. This should go without saying. But these be the days when things that need to be said aren’t being said and things that merit no airtime consume the airwaves.

To be clear, when I say that we need reformation and revival I do not mean that we need to add another ring to an already crowded circus. I concur with the late A.W. Tozer who once remarked, “If revival means more of the same then the last thing that we need is revival.” What we need is a return to a living confidence in the extraordinary power of the ordinary means of grace—preaching the Word, praying the Word, and seeing the Word in the sacraments.

It is one thing to recognize that we have a problem. It is something altogether different to start preparing our hearts to do something about it. This is where it often gets rather tricky. Sometimes the medicine is worse than the malady. When we begin treating the ailment we open the door to a whole new set of problems and temptations. One of them is to begin thinking that if we just start “preaching hard,” then reformation and revival will come instantaneously. But there are other issues as well, undergirded with the foundational understanding that none of them are really in our hands at all.

Although the Church is in desperate need of reformation and revival, we must begin with the recognition that we have no control over whether or not God will grant it to us. The central reason that the glory has departed from the Church has been our unfaithfulness to the central biblical truth that God is God and we are not. Consequently, we cannot consistently pray for revival as long as we continue in our man-centered rebellion against Him. All “revivals” organized and put together by man are nothing but religious enthusiasms—tub-thumping and arm waving enthusiasms.

But as we prayerfully wait on God, asking Him to restore and reform His Church, there are certain things that can be done now. Elijah could not, in his own power, make the fire fall from heaven, but he could prepare the altar, and that is what God had him do. So like him, we must be busy with preparation. Below are a few of the areas requiring such preparation from the pulpit. These are the stones that must go into the altar, and it is important that they be stones that men have not chiseled. They must come straight from the quarry of God’s Word.

First, there must be a return to the doctrines of sovereign and efficacious grace. Jesus did not come into the world in order to give men choices and possibilities. He came to bring salvation to the world, not a chance at salvation for the world. The cross, as many preach it today, receives whatever efficacy it has from the decision of the listener. This, of course, is not the cross of the New Testament.

There cannot be any powerful preaching of the cross as long as our underlying doctrine of the cross is impotent without the sinner’s contribution. The modern evangelist operates on the assumption that the cross is powerless to save until the sinner puts in his share, making a “decision” or a “commitment.” This thinking is lay-away religion.  That is, Christ paid the down-payment but expects us to take up the monthly installments–with interest added in.  Such an assumption is dishonoring to God, and it is not surprising when churches which tolerate such man-exalting puffery turn into a haunt of goats and jackals. But God is gracious and omnipotent; it is possible for dry bones to live, and for ruins to be restored. The prayer that this would happen is a prayer for real reformation.

Consequently, a precondition for such reformation is a simple and child-like affirmation of the sovereign election of the Father, the efficacious redemption by the Son, and the resurrecting call of the Spirit. We must repent of our idolatrous preferences—so-called common sense over Scripture, and human reason over the gospel—and we must repudiate the idea that man is in any sense a contributor to his own salvation. The gospel will not be preached in power until the gospel is recovered in its purity. And the gospel will not be recovered in its purity until we can, without embarrassment, say that salvation is, from beginning to end, a work of the Lord. It is Christ who saves, and not we ourselves.

There must also be a return to eschatological optimism. The modern evangelical church careens from one Second Coming scare to the next. But there is a job to do before Christ comes again, and that job is the evangelization of the world. The nations are to be brought to obedience and submission to the Lord Jesus.

Of course this is not something that we do on our own for Him. Rather, it is something He accomplishes in and through His Church. Obviously, the task cannot be done by us in our own power; it must be through the Spirit’s work as a recovered gospel is preached in plain power. But as the Spirit works in His people, one of the things He will overcome is the pervasive defeatist assumptions we have about evangelization. We assume that reformation cannot come, we assume that the Church cannot be restored, and we assume that the Church is destined for cultural impotence and spiritual irrelevance.

As long as we believe that the Church is destined to be defeated and cling to the conviction that the Antichrist is just around the corner with a nuclear missile, through our unbelief we attempt to reject the Spirit’s work in us. But Christ’s death was efficacious, and Christ died to save the world.

This means that the day is coming when the Church shall be greatly empowered, and China will be brought and laid at the feet of the Messiah. The Church will be restored, and Europe will be turned from her whoredoms. The Church will return to the faith of her fathers and the Jews will have their heart of stone taken away and will be given a heart of flesh—and then the blessing of the Gentiles will really begin. There shall be glory, all flesh will see it together. The living water will flow out from under the threshold of Ezekiel’s Temple, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Third, there must be a return to hard work in doctrinal and theological study. This point is related to the first two. The modern evangelical has a “convenience store” theology. We don’t want to buy anything unless we can consume it easily in less than 60 seconds. We want easy answers, quick solutions, and as one wit well put it, sermonettes for Christianettes.

Peter tells us that there are difficult things in Paul’s letters—difficulties which ignorant and unlearned people twist to their own destruction. These are things which God wanted the Church to understand, otherwise He would not have revealed them to us. The key to understanding these things is humble, diligent, prayerful study. The modern Christian attitude exalts man-centered ignorance—knowledge without study, and wisdom without books!

Our generation of Christians may not not be stupid, but we are ignorant and lazy. We must return to the Scriptures with a mind to work. And as we do so, we must remember that the time required for growth varies considerably between the mighty oak and morning glory.  Let patience have her perfect work…