The following quote is from Charles Spurgeon. For more information on what “Staying on the Line” is all about, please visit the Charles Simeon Trust.
More information here.
Never strain passages when you are expounding. Be thoroughly honest with the word: even if the Scriptures were the writing of mere men, conscience would demand fairness of you; but when it is the Lord’s own word, be careful not to pervert it even in the smallest degree. Let it be said of you, as I have heard a venerable hearer of Mr. Simeon say of him, “Sir, he was very Calvinistic when the text was so, and people thought him an Arminian when the text was that way, for he always stuck to its plain sense.” A very sound neighbor of ours once said, by way of depreciating the grand old reformer, “John Calvin was not half a Calvinist,” and the remark was correct as to his expositions, for in them, as we have seen, he always gave his Lord’s mind and not his own. In the church of St. Zeno, in Verona, I saw ancient frescoes which had been plastered over, and then covered with other designs; I fear many do this with Scripture, daubing the text with their own glosses, and laying on their own conceits. There are enough of these plasterers abroad, let us leave the evil trade to them and follow an honest calling. Remember Cowper’s lines—
“A critic on the sacred text should be
Candid and learn’d, dispassionate and free;
Free from the wayward bias bigots feel,
From fancy’s influence and intemperate zeal;
For of all arts sagacious dupes invent,
To cheat themselves and gain the world’s assent,
The worst is—Scripture warped from its intent.”
C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: Commenting and Commentaries; Lectures Addressed to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle., vol. 4 (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1876), 55–56.
William G. T. Shedd
“The Christian minister is not obligated to run out Christianity into all its connections and relations. Neither he, nor the Church, is bound to watch over all the special interests of social, literary, political, and economical life. Something should be left to other men, and other professions; and something should be left to the providence of God. The Christian preacher can do more towards promoting the earthly and temporal interests of mankind, by indirection, than by direct efforts. That minister who limits himself, in his Sabbath discourses, to the exhibition and enforcement of the doctrines of sin and grace, and whose preaching results in the actual conversion of human beings, contributes far more, in the long run, to the progress of society, literature, art, science, and civilization, than he does, who, neglecting these themes of sin and grace, makes a direct effort from the pulpit to “elevate society.” In respect to the secular and temporal benefits of the Christian religion, it is eminently true, that he that finds his life shall lose it. When the ministry sink all other themes in the one theme of the Cross, they are rewarded in a twofold manner: they see the soul of man born into the kingdom of God; and then, as an inevitable consequence, with which they had little to do directly but which is taken care of by the providence of God, and the laws by which He administers his government in the earth, they also see arts, sciences, trade, commerce, and political prosperity, flowing in of themselves. They are willing to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and find all these minor things,—infinitely minor things, when compared with the eternal destiny of man,—added to them by the operation, not of the pulpit, or of the ministry, but of Divine laws and Divine providence. But, whenever the ministry sink the Cross, wholly or in part, in semi-religious themes, they are rewarded, with nothing. They see, as the fruit of their labors, neither the conversion of the individual nor the prosperity of society. That unearthly sermonizing of Baxter, and Howe, so abstracted from all the temporal and secular interests of man, so rigorously confined to human guilt and human redemption,—that preaching which, upon the face of it, does not seem even to recognize that man has any relations to this little ball of earth; which takes him off the planet entirely, and contemplates him simply as a sinner in the presence of God,—that preaching, so destitute of all literary, scientific, economical, and political elements and allusions,—was, nevertheless, by indirection, one of the most fertile causes of the progress of England and America. Subtract it as one of the forces of English history, and the career of the Anglo-Saxon race would be like that of Italy and Spain.”
William G. T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1872), 247–249.
The question of Biblical literacy came up in a recent Facebook conversation, and it is a concern for many of us here. I wonder if we are not a victim of our own success, in a way. In the earlier years of the RM, and in the first half of the last century, many Americans were well-read in the Scriptures. Theological liberalism began to attack the Bible, but many Christians doubled-down on the Bible during that time, and Bible teaching demonstrated to be very important, by its frequency: Sunday School, Biblical preaching, Sunday night, Wednesday night, etc.
The RM took the Bible seriously. That is why I am no longer a Lutheran. I was raised in the liberal LCA synod, was confirmed, but was introduced to the Bible by other high school students from First Christian Church in Council Bluffs. These students told me what the Bible said about being saved, and how. That’s something I never heard in the Lutheran church.
I became a Christian there, and without knowing it, a member of the RM (Restoration Movement). I might add that it was High School students, and their college friends, who recruited me to attend Manhattan Christian College.
What impressed me, at age 15, was that the Bible was so important, and this church took it seriously. I wonder if that is so much the case today. We have taken the Bible seriously for so long, that we assume we are still doing it, without remembering that each new generation must be taught to have that same concern.
Don Carson, in speaking of the Gospel, says that though a generation or two take the Gospel very seriously, later generations begin to ASSUME the Gospel. So the Gospel is less proclaimed, but assumed, as other things are done: arts, music, counselling, social work, other ministries, etc., etc.
So I wonder if we, sometime in the 70s or 80s, began to do “other things,” and tacitly set aside the Bible. In the 1800s, philosophy is said to have taken “a hermeneutical turn” which has changed the course of philosophy from that time to the present.
In evangelical churches, not only the RM, I think we have taken a “relationship turn,” in our approach to all things, including Deity and Man. This is marked by a move away from propositional Revelation to feeling, from Word to deed, from foundations to structure. Relationships became the main thing–and it was around that time that we heard that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” Interestingly, my liberal Lutheran church national youth group was called “Lutheran Youth Encounter.”
Some call it Neo-orthodoxy, a move to separate “fact” from “truth,” but I’ll stop digressing.
In the rush to keep people coming back to church, there has been a subtle change to treat disciples of Christ as the customers of Christ, so that people who profess Christ as Lord must be constantly wooed back to Him. We want them to like us. My take on the entertainment-as-worship phenomena is that is not so much that non-Christians won’t come if they’re not entertained, but it takes a circus to keep people, who are supposedly Christians, coming back. A man or woman who understands the seriousness of their lost-ness will be put off by levity, not drawn to it. How can a person who truly understands their guilt before God, be beholden to silliness in preaching? Is it the Word of God and His Spirit that draws a man to Christ or the band?
It takes a special kind of immaturity to be captive to entertainment, and that especially so when the consequences of falling short are eternal.
Staying with this consumer motif for a moment, we can see then that churches simply aren’t selling what people are buying. If there are faithful, Bible-preaching empty churches on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, it could mean that there is an oversupply of Bible. That overstock is not fault of the church. There is, indeed, a famine for the Word of God, but no felt hunger among the starving (Amos 8:11). People need the Bible, but aren’t aware of that need. Replacing what is needed, the Word of God, with other business will save no one.
If we are trying to gather a shrinking market share of people who want Bible, and entertainment works, then that will be what is done; I think that this has been the trend for over 30 years now. If “Christianity lite” edges out the gravitas of the Faith, Sunday after Sunday, there will be few left who really do hunger for the Bible.
When I say “doing other things,” I’d like to offer some examples, and ask some questions:
- How often does preaching get set aside for other things on Sunday mornings? Special services, reports from missionaries (which do need the time, but need a longer time), skits from the youth group, all are used to replace preaching.
- I have seen advertised, from all sorts of churches, “An Evening of Praise” or “An Evening of Worship.” Are you aware of the success of anything like, “An evening of preaching” or “A night of teaching,” with back-to-back Scriptural exposition? Why would this not gather as large a group of people as would something involving music and drama?
- Has our preaching shifted from Scripture to needs based subjects? I firmly believe in the need to address needs, but from what I can tell, much preaching is no longer exegeting the Bible and applying it to life as the text brings them up, but first looking at problems faced by many and then finding texts to address those problems. This, though, tends to fragment our understand of Scripture, and makes the Bible more of a go-to book of advice.
- If you preach, in sermon planning do you start with Scripture, or your audience? Why?
- I assume that if you are reading this that you are a preacher or an elder. How many times have you read the Bible through in your life? Have you done so?
- Are students graduating from our colleges and seminaries Biblically literate? Have they read the Bible through? In what things are they literate?
- How soon after becoming a Christian did you read the Bible?
- If you were to start publically reading the Bible each Sunday (1 Timothy 4:13), and assuming you followed a plan or lectionary so you don’t just cycle through favourite texts, would your church push-back, and say that’s too much Scripture, or that it takes too much time?
- Can you imagine a worship service with no preaching, but just worship, offering, music and the Lord’s Supper? Can you imagine a worship service with only the Lord’s supper, offering, and preaching, but with no music? Which of these two are harder to accept?
I can think of others, but the few I listed above give some hint as to the kind of trouble we have in our churches now.
I do believe that the average preacher, elder, deacon, and church member knows much less of the Bible, is reading it less, and comprehends much less of the Biblical worldview than even 30 or 40 years ago.
Speaking now to the older preachers: Do you remember in the 70s, the Baker Book House catalogue that came out two or three times annually? Almost all the books sold in that catalogue were reference works about the Bible or theology. Even the early Christian Book Distributors catalogues leaned heavily upon doctrine, theology, Biblical studies, commentaries and Biblical languages. Now consider the top-selling books today: Christian fiction, relationship repair, and Bible study guides that state the painfully obvious that could be gleaned by a simple reading of the Bible (Lucado and Warren come to mind). Among Christian bestsellers are few books that actually enable one to understand Scripture better. We are awash in books, but know the Bible less.
If the pool of people who really respond to the preaching of the Bible is small, and shrinking, it is our duty to cultivate and grow that pool.
I think that elders and preachers need to encourage the reading of Scripture, in their entirety, more. This means that Christians ought to expect to read the Bible through, repeatedly, for the rest of their lives. Preachers and teachers must be reading more than what is necessary for the next lesson or sermon.
I also think that preachers and elders ought to model, and encourage, the “plucking out the eye” and “cutting off the hand” of much of popular culture. It simply is not that important to be up on every song, movie, play, novel, trend or sporting event. We only have so many hours in our lives, and we need to get past the entitlement mentality when it comes to our entertainment.
So, are we doing other things, or doing what matters?
With respect to the authority of Scripture, the greatest challenge facing Bible-believing churches today is not the disbelief aimed at the Bible from outside the faith; nor is it the attack against it from unbelieving theologians cloaked with Christian terminology.
The greatest challenge facing Christians are pulpits where the inerrant Word is wholeheartedly affirmed but routinely side-stepped and ignored. If your preacher is not preaching the text, he is not preaching the Bible, and functionally denies its authority. It does little for the church to affirm the authority of the Scriptures, if the church’s preachers are not shaped by it. If the preachers and elders of the church are not fed on the Word of God, with what do they feed the sheep entrusted to them?
Thomas Boston wrote this in 1699, and it is as true now as ever. Failure to pray through a sermon is failure to preach well:
“(1.) That thou mayst have a word from the Lord to deliver unto them; that thou mayst not preach to them the product of thy own wisdom, and that which merely flows from thy reason; for this is poor heartless preaching.
(2.) That thy soul may be affected with the case of the people to whom thou preachest. If that be wanting, it will be tongue preaching, but not heart-preaching.
(3.) That thy heart may be inflamed with zeal for the glory of thy Master; that out of love to God, and love to souls thy preaching may flow.
(4.) That the Lord may preach it into thy own heart, both when thou studiest and deliverest it. For if this be not, thou shalt be like one that feeds others, but starves himself for hunger; or like a way-mark, that shews the way to men, but never moves a foot itself.
(5.) That thou mayst be helped to deliver it; and that, (1.) With a suitable frame, thy heart being affected with what thou speakest; (2.) Faithfully, keeping up nothing that the Lord gives thee; and, (3.) Without confusion of mind, or fear of man.
(6.) That thou mayst have bodily strength allowed for the work, that thy indisposition disturb thee not.
Lastly, That God would countenance thee in the work with his presence and power in ordinances, to make the word spoken a convincing and converting word to them that are out of Christ; a healing word to the broken; confirming to the weak, doubting and staggering ones, &c.; that God himself would drive the fish into the net, when thou spreadest it out. In a word, that thou mayst be helped to approve thyself to God, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: A Soliloquy on the Art of Man-Fishing, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 5 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 34–35.
. . . or of truth-telling: