(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] At desiringgod.org one can read or hear the full sermon of, “Why God Inspired Hard Texts.”)
“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you that you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But fortunately, it works the other way around. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself” (97; quoting C. S. Lewis, no reference given).
The implications are huge that God has made a book so crucial in the preservation and declaration of saving truth. These implications become more remarkable because the book has some parts that are really difficult to understand. What does it mean for life and culture and history and worship that God has given Christianity a book with some mind-straining texts and then built the church on it?
These thoughts were inspired as I was preaching through Romans and came to Romans 3:1-8. My brain almost broke trying to understand the complexity of that paragraph. So I stepped back and asked, “What was unleashed into the world by the fact that Christianity not only declares salvation through faith in Jesus but also builds its arguments and fixes its message in a book, the Bible, and in letters like the Letter to the Romans, and in paragraphs like Romans 3:1-8? (97-98)
Consider that God is love (I John 4:8, 16), and that God is God (Isa. 45:22; 46:9). In the truth that God is God is implied that God is who He is in all his glorious attributes and self-sufficiency. But in the truth that God is love is implies that all of this glory is moving our way for our everlasting enjoyment.
Now those two truths from the Bible have unleashed different impulses into the world. And we will see that a balance is introduced here, lest we make of Christianity an elitist affair, which it definitely is not (102).
First things first: Because Piper’s brain almost “broke” while seeking to understand Romans 3:1-8, it does not mean we need to shy away from that passage and its understanding. Instead, we need to get a tourniquet for our brains and have the EMTs on standby to zip us to the cognitive emergency room. I do not need to retreat; I need to come to the text prepared. If Piper’s truck could not pull the boat, I need to be prepared for the transmission on my sedan to blow. But I still plan to get the boat to the water and enjoy the trip, but with a blown transmission and my car being towed to the shop. And if this is what is needed for Romans 3:1-8, even more is needed when you get to Eph. 4:1-9 and James 4:5, among other NT difficulties.
Epinephrine, stat! Write a post-opt prescription for vicodin. But let’s get in there and get to these hard texts!
Second, in this chapter, Piper wishes for us to recognize that some “impulses” have been “released” by God into the world. Specifically, Piper wishes for the reader to see that God has inspired hard texts in order to unleash impulses in the world that will educate us toward the knowledge of the glory of God in the revelation of God’s Love and Being. Ten times he speaks of something God is unleashing; sixteen times he speaks of impulses in relation to what is being unleashed. The hard texts are not given to hide God or cover his truth. Instead, they are given in order that the complexities of his beauty will shine forth like the brilliance released when light hits a perfectly clear diamond or when the sun at full height in the sky reflects off pure white fields of ice-capped snow. What then does Piper say is unleashed?
(1) Desperation (A sense of utter dependence on God’s enablement). “I should feel desperation, a desperate dependence on God’s help. That is what God wants us to feel. That is something He has unleashed by inspiring difficult texts” (99).
(2) Supplication (Prayer to God for help). “This follows from desperation. If you feel dependent on God to help you see the meaning of a text, then you will cry to Him for help. I see this in Psalm 119:18, ‘Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law….’ By inspiring some things hard to understand, God has unleashed in the world desperation which leads to supplication—the crying out to God for help” (99).
(3) Cogitation (Thinking hard about Biblical texts). “It is the Lord who gives understanding. But he does it through our God-given thinking and the efforts we make, with prayer, to think hard about what the Bible says. So when God inspired texts like Romans 3:1-8, he unleashed into the world an impulse toward hard thinking” (100).
(4) Education (Training young people and adults to pray earnestly, read well, and think hard). “If God has inspired a book as the foundation of the Christian faith, there is a massive impulse unleashed in the world to teach people how to read. And if God ordained for some of that precious, sacred, God-breathed book to be hard to understand, then God unleashed in the world not only an impulse to teach people how to read but also how to think about what they read—how to read hard things and understand them and how to use the mind in a rigorous way…. [Education] is helping people (young or old) learn how to get an understanding they didn’t already have. Education is cultivating the life of the mind so that it knows how to grow in true understanding. That impulse was unleashed by God’s inspiring a book with complex demanding paragraphs in it” (100-101).
Why then are these impulses unleashed? So that a “folk ethos” might by fostered by “God is love,” and a “fine ethos” might be fostered by “God is God.” The former helps us revel in the intimacy of God singing softly to us, and that the latter helps us revel in the “transcendent majesty of God” singing with profound exultation (103; read the chapter to see how these great apparent dichotomies come together to give us great joy in all that God is for us in Jesus).
Let God unleash something through you and your people – something like an impulse to boldly give the lost the message of Christ from a book many people have yet to read or even know it exists.
Give your people the hard stuff. Illustrations about towing boats are easy. But we all need exegesis and preaching of hard stuff like Romans 3:1-8 in order to enjoy the ship of salvation on which we have embarked—the impulse released to us from the Cross of Christ. Yet it remains that we are not preaching to aristocrats and bourgeoisie on a transatlantic ocean liner, but to paupers given a free pass to enjoy pages of deep treasures of sights on a schooner being blown by Christ to Zion.
(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] At desiringgod.org, online one can read the full text of “Brothers, Read Christian Biography”)
Christian biography, well chosen, combines all sorts of things pastors need but have so little time to pursue. Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as C. S. Lewis calls it). It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading (90).
I wish every Christian could read the biographies of Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Jonathan Edwards, and Martin Luther. Someone else might suggest Muller, Brainerd, Calvin, Whitefield, Lloyd-Jones, Singh, Carey, Moon, Studd, or Packer. But I have forever been encouraged by reading of men and women of great prayer, who trusted God for the impossible, lived under incredible circumstances, experienced incredible suffering, maintained an undying burden for the lost and remained faithful to the Gospel to the very end.
Judson, my hero among Christian missionaries, translated the Bible into Burmese and created the first Burmese dictionary – this while losing child after child to death. Edwards, the poster child for Christian resolve in the life of a hated-but-righteous-shepherd, endured through that halfway covenant controversy about the Lord’s Supper (and history has exonerated him) and was dismissed as pastor after twenty-six years of faithful ministry. What hope and encouragement I have gained from these two during the toughest hours of ministry. The latter says to me, “hang in there; you can endure it.” The former says to me, “are you really having it that bad?” Both say, “keep proclaiming the Gospel, for you will be raised from the dead.” Their lives stand upon the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection and they witness to the authenticity of the message of Christ. The world is unworthy of them. When I grow up more in my faith, I want to be just like them.
Find some heroes. Read Christian biography.
(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] At a link related to Union University, online one can read the full text of “Brothers, Bitzer Was A Banker.”)
“The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry!” (p. 82, quoting Heinrich Bitzer, ed., Light on the Path: Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1982],10.)
Weakness in Greek and Hebrew also give rise to exegetical imprecision and carelessness. And exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology. Where pastors can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of Biblical texts, they will tend to become close-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended pluralists who don’t put much stock in doctrinal formulations. In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error… We have, by and large, lost the Biblical vision of a pastor as one who is mighty in the Scriptures, apt to teach, competent to confute opponents, and able to penetrate to the unity of the whole counsel of God. Is it healthy or biblical for the church to cultivate an eldership of pastors (weak in the Word) and an eldership of professors (strong in the Word)? (84)
I stand rebuked by Bitzer the banker. The sheep entrusted to me get their share of Greek exegesis and the fruit thereof. However, their shepherd’s Hebrew exegesis leaves much to be desired. After years of keeping up with reading Greek and using resources to keep the exegetical axe sharp in the text of the New Testament, I cannot say the same for the Hebrew. I am hamstrung in Hebrew – reviewing, but not advancing to where I should be—at the level of reading fluently and that as a daily habit.
It is important for pastors and sheep to see that in the last five lessons of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, Piper has been giving flesh to the pastor’s practice of Acts 6:4: (1) He must take time and be granted time to pray, and to pray without being on the run, (2) he must take time and be given time to read above and beyond sermon and teaching preparation, one hour a day minimum; (I will add here that Baptists congregations as a whole would do well adopt a practice from PCA churches in which an annual two-week study leave – which differs from and does not shorten a pastor’s vacation – is part of the calling of a pastor to a local assembly), (3) he must make time to meditate for long periods on the texts of Scripture, querying apparent difficulties, and (4) he must give himself over to the daily reading of Hebrew and Greek, least he become a table waiter for liberal theology. I need grace to pick up the Hebrew. Yet I and my sheep are being graciously saved in my Hebrew recovery period as I currently am preaching through Acts and teaching through Romans.
I wish the practice of reading the original texts of Scripture and preparing sermons and teaching based on careful exegesis of the biblical text would become something cherished in African American pulpits. Of course there are those faithful few that you know who went to schools where exegesis was the core of the degree program, who now faithfully use their training to provide sound biblical teaching. But for so many African Americans, the closest thing one gets to exegesis in a sermon is a chain-link study through an English text, or quotes from the words of texts by Jakes, Osteen, Bynum, or Albom. The riches of God’s word remain buried under layers of spiritual pabulum, (and we wonder how false-exegetes like those from the Watchtower are making inroads into our communities).
I have pondered what it would take to read as an African American pastor or layman who is part of a church in the African American tradition. I would suggest the following: (1) One must prioritize reading over watching music videos, sporting events and home improvement shows, (2) one must value writings other than the writings of African Americans, whether the writings are classic or modern, academic or popular, (3) one must become concerned about the life of the mind and its significance toward Christian growth and the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:1-4; I Pet. 3:15), (4) one must desire effects that are not always immediate and tangible, so that one can move past reading only what is pragmatic and shallow, (5) one must acknowledge that our great God has mediated the grace of his beauty through the minds and pens of others, (6) one must not use the late-coming of the African American church into the history of the church as an excuse for why one cannot appreciate Christian works predating the establishment of the Silver Bluff, First African, and/or Bethel churches, and (7) we must impress upon our children and grandchildren the importance of reading, of reading good works, of reading classical works, of reading in classical languages, and we must read to and with them good works.
For shepherds, there is no excuse. Our discipline also must include daily exegesis. Otherwise, we should become something else, like bankers…. Oh yes, that’s right: many are already acting as bankers from their exegesisless pulpits.
Carlotta Morrow’s The Truth About Kwanzaa is available as an e-book. Carlotta has been the markman leading the sniper assault on Kwanzaa’s attempt to advance on Christmas and the Gospel in the African American community, and she does not miss. It is an important book. From the forward I write:
Writing with simple truths, yet not simplistic, Marrow gives us a work with great significance toward the religiously-pluralistic nature of Christianity as practiced by many African Americans as a whole! In doing so, she challenges the duplicity and isolationist nature of the assimilation philosophy of African Americans—one that embraces every thing “Black” or “of African origin” while rejecting anything that is accepted by the American majority-culture. Well-researched in its investigation of the history and theology of Kwanzaa and its founder, The Truth About Kwanzaa demonstrates that Kwanzaa is a practice intended to replace the celebration of the incarnation of Christ, the worship of Christ as God the Son, and the identification with Christ by African Americans. It also reveals Kwanzaa’s elevation of “race” to an honorific place it has in no other currently-practiced American celebration, being more socially exclusivist than the religiously exclusivist Christianity it seeks to replace. Marrow convincingly demonstrates that adopting a practice of Kwanzaa is both anti-Christian, and – in it’s inherent separatist nature – anti- African-American. She has given the church a much-needed resource that should be in the hands of leaders and laymen alike.
Give the book to your neighbor who is lighting Kwanzaa candles instead of – or worse, in addition to – Advent candles. For the white liberal attach on Christmas and the Gospel, you have Machen. For the African American liberal attack, you have Morrow. Get her book. It is only 46 pages long. Even people who could not make it to the end of my 112-page tome – ? – can finish this one. (And remember to get and give 83 Things I Wish The Black Church Would Stop Doing.)
(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] Online one can read nearly the full text of “Brothers, Let Us Query the Text.”)
If we are going to feed our people, we must ever advance in our grasp of Biblical truth. We must be like Jonathan Edwards who resolved in his college days, and kept the resolution all his life, “Resolved: To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in knowledge of the same.” Growing, advancing, increasing—that is the goal. And to advance we must be troubled by biblical affirmations. (74)
Take two hours to ask ten questions of Galatians 2:20, and you will gain one hundred times the insight you would have attained by quickly reading thirty pages of the New Testament or any other book. Slow down. Query. Ponder. Chew.” (75)
We must train our people that it is not irreverent to see difficulties in the Biblical text and to think hard about how they can be resolved. Preaching should model this for them week after week.” (76)
He has called us to an eternity of discovery so that every morning for ages to come we might break forth in new songs of praise. (77)
Skipping the hard stuff in Scripture is so easy to do. Much harder is to wrestle with an apparent discrepancy or apparent contradiction the way Luther wrestled with what appeared to be a contradiction between Paul and James on the righteousness of God and justification by faith. Luther got it wrong where it concerns James – and now many others are making studies on righteousness from Romans and Galatians that amount to modern epistles of straw – but we can forgive him for an honest attempt to defend the truth of justification by faith. We should not skip the hard stuff.
Of course, preaching through the books of Scripture, staring with 1:1 in a book and going to the last verse, whether the last verse is 1:25 (Jude), 25:30 (2 Kings), 66:24 (Isaiah; Ray Ortlund helps with the long journey through Isaiah!), or 150:6 (Psalms), forces querying. Going through means not skipping, but wrestling, pondering, meditating, arguing, and waiting on the Spirit to reveal. Going through you will have to harmonize “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” with “keep yourselves in the love of God” with “now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling” (Jude 1:1, 21, 24).
Going through the Psalms means you will challenge your people to consider the stunning implications of Ps. 139:7, “blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,” for an uncompromising Christianity. They will have to ponder a Christian faith in which our Avenger promises to crack open the skulls of the children of the enemies of God’s people who are also his enemies, and that God’s people will bless him for it without turning away from resolutely pro-life positions on abortion on abortion and adoption. The implications are stunning, especially when we consider how Elisha wept over the revelation that Hazael would do such a thing in Israel (which we find as we go through 2 Kings – 2 Kgs. 8:12; cf. Isa. 13:16; Hos. 10:14; 13:16; Nah. 3:10). We must be a people who would rather hang our harps than sing for our captors. Query Psalm 137 for a few days and see for yourself! Going through the Scriptures makes us query; querying makes us pray; praying freely grants us grace from the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit unleashes the word through us to a people who need to query. It is amazing that Ps. 139:7 was included in the Psalter so that we could sing it back in praise to God, querying the whole way!
This chapter reminds us:
Ray Ortlund’s, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners (Crossway), is a tremendous commentary on Isaiah. Although it is in the Preaching the Word series, it easily could be read as a devotional book or used for a year-long Sunday School lesson. Challenge your people to query through Isaiah for a year – twenty minutes per day – with helps from Ortlund.
(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.])
Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.
The great pressure on us today is to be productive managers. But the need of the church is for prayerful, spiritual poets. I don’t mean (necessarily) pastors who write poems. I mean pastors who feel the weight and glory of eternal reality even in the midst of a business meeting; who carry in their soul such a sense of God that they provide, by their very presence, a constant life-giving reorientation on the infinite God. For your own soul and for the life of your church, fight for time to feed your soul with rich reading. Almost all the forces in our culture are trivializing. If you want to stay alive to what is great and glorious and beautiful and eternal, you will have to fight for time to look through the eyes of others who were in touch with God….
We think we don’t have time to read. We despair of reading anything spiritually rich and substantial because life seems to be lived in snatches (66).
I love to read! But a busy church planter and professor, I have to fight for time to read.
I grew up in a home where reading was a priority. When I was a young child, my mother would say to me, “read everything.” (Thank you, mom!) Reading relaxes me, refreshes me, rebukes me, reveals new ideas and new possibilities to me, stretches me, and deepens me. I fear not being able to offer my people deep treasures of God’s word or to expose them to the glory of God in all things. I do not like when the candle-burning thing reduces my reading time to “snatches.”
People who do not read, in my humble experience – which I must admit is largely, but not exclusively, African American – are not simply disinterested in books or untrained in interpretation and meditation. Instead, they are fearful of learning new things, undisciplined, arrogant, shallow and petty. This is more true for the pastor who does not read (but instead watches Soap Operas and endless reality courtroom TV) – another criticism which is also drawn largely from my experiences with the aforementioned group – or reads only popular-level and pragmatic works. He is doomed to become a depleted barrel, feeding his people from the dregs of spiritual and intellectual insufficiency.
What the non-reader misses is enjoying the fact that others have done great thinking! (One individual cannot do all the good thinking in this world!) Others have said things in imaginative, creative, inspiring, striking, beautiful, unusual, poetical, God-revealing and people-motivating ways that any one of us might not have been able to say in the same manner!
For example, I love the way Psalms 8 and 24 speak of our Sovereign Creator, and of how Piper draws out the Scriptures to describe him as “the eternally happy God.” But I also have fallen in worship after reading C. S. Lewis’ depiction of God through the theophanic figures of Malacandra and Perelandra in Perelandra, of his Space Trilogy series (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). In one scene, the two god-like figures, one male and one female, known as eldils, attempt to reveal themselves to the protagonist, Ransom, a human, so that they can evaluate if they can take shapes appropriate for creatures to see. Here is the extended description:
“The very faint light—the almost imperceptible alteration in the visual field—which betokens an eldil vanished suddenly. The rosy peaks and the calm pool vanished also. A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom. Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void. ‘Stop it… stop it,’ he yelled, and the scene cleared. He gazed round blinking on the field of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that this kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations. ‘Look then on this,’ said the voices again. And he looked with some reluctance, and far off between the peaks on the other side of the little valley there came rolling wheels. There was nothing but that—concentric wheels moving with a rather sickening slowness one inside the other. There was nothing terrible about them if you could get used to their appalling size, but there was also nothing significant. He bade them to try yet a third time. And suddenly two human figures stood before him on the opposite side of the lake.
They were taller than the Sorns, the giants whom he had met on Mars. They were perhaps thirty feet high. They were burning white like white-hot iron. The outline of their bodies when he looked at it steadily against the red landscape seemed to be faintly, swiftly undulating as though the permanence of their shape, like that of waterfalls or flames, co-existed with a rushing movement of the matter it contained. For a fraction of an inch inward from this outline the landscape was just visible through them: beyond that they were opaque.
Whenever he looked straight at them they appeared to be rushing toward him with enormous speed: whenever his eyes took in their surroundings he realized that they were stationary. This may have been due in part to the fact that their long and sparkling hair stood out straight behind them as if in a great wind. But if there were a wind it was not made of air, for no petal of the flowers was shaken. They were not standing quite vertically in relation to the floor of the valley: but to Ransom it appeared… that the eldils were vertical. It was the valley—it was the whole world of Perelandra—which was aslant. He remembered the words of Oyarsa long ago in Mars, ‘I am not here in the same way you are here.’ It was borne in upon him that the creatures were really moving, though not moving in relation to him. This planet which inevitably seemed to him while he was in it an unmoving world—the world, in fact—was to them a thing moving through the heavens. In relation to their own celestial frame of reference they were rushing forward to keep abreast of the mountain valley. Had they stood still, they would have flashed past him too quickly for him to see, doubly dropped behind the planet’s spin on its own axis and by its onward march around the Sun.
Their bodies, he said, were white. But a flush of diverse colours began at about the shoulders and streamed up the necks and flickered over face and head and stood out around the head like plumage or a halo. He told me he could in a sense remember these colours—that is, he would know them if he saw them again—but that he cannot by any effort call up a visual image of them nor give them any name” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra: A Novel. New York: Collier Books, 1944: 197-199).
What a description! Yet what fuels worship and feeds our souls is not the words themselves, nor the Scriptures from which the images of theophanic revelations are drawn (although my mind has reflected on many during the rereading and writing of this passage). The worship is fueled by knowing that even the picturesque descriptions by Lewis do not come close to what it will be like to stand in the presence of God! Reading Lewis fuels and recharges the shepherd. The words also give me a means to speak to my people poetically about God!
Piper’s challenge to the non-professional is to read faithfully, daily, for twenty-minutes, three times per day. I say shepherd and sheep alike should take him up on the challenge so that we might finish off works like Perelandra, or those that Piper recommends: The City of God, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Pilgrim’s Progress to name a few. (Pilgrim’s Progress is a great book to read together with your children, or to read together as a couple! It is a great – if not the all-time most sold and read – Christian classic.)
Piper is not looking to make us readers for reading’s sake however. Quoting Spurgeon, he reminds us that “a student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them” (68). As he concludes, “the point is not to read many books. The point is to stay alive in your soul, to keep the juices flowing, to fan the flame again on Monday and have it burning bright on Saturday night” (71). Brothers, let’s read and fight for our lives.
If you want to work on becoming a better reader, I would highly recommend Susan Wise Bauer’s, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Norton), James Sire’s, How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension (Shaw), and Gene Veith’s, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Crossway). Of course, there always is the classic by Mortimer Adler and Charles vanDoren, How to Read a Book (Touchstone).