(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.