The Bible: The Living Voice of God

How can I be sure the Bible is the Word of God? Among evangelicals who believe that Scripture really is God’s Word, the immediate answer is often: “Because the Bible says it is the Word of God.”

But is this an adequate biblical response?  And does it end all discussion?   In itself it raises two questions. Some might see them as objections, and indeed they are often expressed as such.  But in fact these questions can stimulate richer biblical convictions about the Scriptures.

SCRIPTURE’S OWN CLAIM REALLY?
The first question is this: Does the Bible actually claim to be the Word of God?   Before shooting back a sharp  “Of course. 2 Timothy 3:16. Issue settled”  it may help to think of this as the friendly inquiry of a fellow believer rather than a sceptical rejection of biblical authority (notoriously illustrated in our own time by the Old Testament scholar James Barr in his attempted  “hatchet job” book entitled Fundamentalism).

So, let us try the question again. Does the Bible itself claim to be the Word of God?  Barr’s prima facie  objection to this was in essence: “How could it, since until the ink dried on Revelation 22:21 there was no such object as ‘The Bible’ to make such a claim?”   In this sense what would be required to enable us to say “The Bible claims to be the word of God” would be a closing note at the end of the last book of the Bible informing us that the books and letters listed by the author claim to be God’s Word.  

Raising the question in this way underlines that we need a more sensitive New Testament answer than simply “2 Timothy 3:15: The Bible claims to be the Word of God.”  This involves fleshing out at least the following four principles:

1:  The Lord Jesus, our Divine Authority, placed his imprimatur on the Old Testament as the word of God. For him it was “the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). What came from that mouth and became Scripture “cannot be broken” (John 10:35).  It was written in to his attitude to Scripture that anything it said must come to pass.  His view of the Old Testament is reflected in 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

2:  As our Divine Authority the Lord Jesus called and equipped his apostles to add to Scripture. This was inter alia what he had in view when he taught them in the Upper Room.1 For this purpose he later breathed his Spirit on them (John 20:22) and commanded them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20) as his witnesses (Acts 1:8).  Indeed, logistically this small apostolic band could take the gospel to the ends of the earth only if their message were written down and disseminated in that form.

3:  In light of this the apostles were conscious that Jesus had equipped them to be his shaliachim and promised his Spirit to enable them to speak and write on his behalf and with his authority.
Shaliach (the singular) is the Hebrew equivalent of the New Testament’s word apostolos.  The nearest English equivalent is “Power-of-Attorney”—someone given full authority to act on behalf of another. This principle explains a number of otherwise puzzling statements in the Gospels (for example Matthew 10:40 and John 20:23).   The Christ who, by his Spirit, gave the Old Testament Scriptures through his shaliachim whom he empowered by his Spirit (1 Peter 1:11; 2 Peter 1:21) now equipped the apostolic fellowship as his shaliachim  and empowered them by the same Spirit to author the New Testament.

4. The apostles themselves were conscious of this aspect of their office. Hence Paul’s insistence on his apostolic calling (1 Corinthians 9:1;  15:8-11). This undergirds Paul’s comment that the Thessalonians received the (apostolic) word “not as the word of men, but as it really is the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  This was true whether the word came by mouth or by letters (2 Thessalonians 2:15).   

Throughout the New Testament the authors give various hints that they are  consciously communicating revelation that matches the authority of the Old Testament while possessing fuller content. They consciously function as those appointed “Power-of-Attorney to the Lord Jesus.”

Thus throughout the New Testament we are confronted by  (i) our Lord’s confirmation that the Old Testament is the word of God, and in addition by (ii) the apostles’ consciousness of their speech and writing constitute nothing less than the word of God.  As Peter famously comments, Paul’s letters belong in the same category as what he calls “the other Scriptures.” 2
Thus the Scriptures of both Old and New Testaments exude a self-conscious awareness that they constitute the very word of God.   In this sense (contra James Barr), the Bible does indeed “claim” to be the word of God.

But we need to say more, for this leads directly to the second question.

CONVINCED?
From one point of view it is not sound or convincing logic to say: “The Bible is the word of God because it claims to be the word of God.” After all, we would challenge any logic that stated: “We believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God because it claims to be the word of God.”   Expressed thus these syllogisms involve the fallacy known as petitio principii, i.e. the argument is circular; the conclusion needs to be smuggled into the premise to make the argument work.

A more biblical approach is suggested by the words of Paul earlier cited from 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonians accepted the word of God as the word of God as it really is. To use the language of the older theologians, the Bible “doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God”4 and therefore it is appropriate for us to recognise that this is indeed the case.
This is often referred to as the autopistic character of Scripture. The Bible provides us with self-conscious indications that it is God’s word. These not only include the claim of “thus says the Lord” and the apostolic consciousness of adding to Scripture, but also the more specific statements made by Jesus and the apostles.

The [Westminster] Confession of Faith expresses this succinctly notes that, "The heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God."

As has often enough been pointed out, the difference between inspiration and mere authorial perspiration is immediately obvious when one reads the writings of the earliest post-New Testament authors. The Bible does indeed possess objective indications of its unique character.
This aspect of the doctrine of Scripture goes hand in glove with another vital element, namely the internal testimony (or witness) of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, The Confession of Faith rightly adds that while

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture . . .

Yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.

THE SPIRIT’S WORK AND WITNESS
The central biblical basis for this testimony is found in Paul’s powerful discussion of the Spirit’s  work in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16. Using a human analogy he reasons that just as a person’s thoughts are known only by the person’s spirit, so only the Spirit of God knows the mind of God (he does not mean here to exclude the Son of God).  We therefore need to receive the Spirit’s help if we are to bow to Scripture as the word of God.

But there is a complication.  For I am a “natural (psuchikos) person, and not a “spiritual (pneumatikos)” one.   As a result I am incapable of accepting spiritual reality; indeed it seems foolish to me. I cannot understand “the things of the Spirit of God” because they are spiritually discerned.   Or, to use Paul’s language in Ephesians, because I am “dead in  . . . trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) I therefore need more than the words of Scripture in order to believe that it is the word of God. I need a spiritual resurrection that will give me new life and also enable me to grasp, appreciate, and receive that to which I was blind and indifferent.  Just as we need “a spirit of  . . . revelation (= illumination) in the knowledge of Christ, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17-18), we need a parallel internal work to be sure that the Scriptures are indeed God’s word.

But how does the Spirit give this testimony?  Does he speak to each of us immediately (i.e. without mediation)?

The parallel between the assurance that Christ is our Saviour and the assurance that Scripture is God’s word is helpful here.   Just as “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3), it is also true that “No one can say ‘Scripture is God’s word’ except by the Spirit.” Yes, in both cases we can utter the words, but we cannot be convinced and assured in our hearts..

But the parallel goes further yet.  For the Spirit convinces us about Christ by taking what belongs to him and showing it to us (John 16:14).  Thus the Spirit works in such a way that it is who and what Christ himself is that convinces us about Christ!  The Spirit adds nothing to Christ; rather through his ministry our eyes are opened to see who he really is.  

In the same way the testimony of the Spirit to Scripture does not add anything to Scripture.  While distinct, it is not separable from Scripture. There is no voice whispering to us “You can be sure the Bible is the word of God”.  His testimony comes to us through the Scriptures which he himself inspired, and thus their divine character becomes clear to us.

In this context it would be poor psychology as well as bad theology to think that we simply “decide” to believe that Scripture is God’s word written.  For when the Spirit employs the word to open our eyes to its divine authority we cannot but believe it.  In this sense we are compelled by the Scriptures to believe in the Scriptures.

Abraham Kuyper, the multi-talented theologian who became Prime Minister of the Netherlands, was already a young minister before he experienced this himself.  Here is his description of what happens:                                                                                                                                                                     
The veil is gradually pushed aside.  The eye turns toward the Divine light that radiates from the Scripture, and now our inner ego sees the imposing superiority.  We see it as one born blind, who being healed sees the beauty of colours, or as one deaf, whose hearing being restored, catches the melodies from the world of sounds, and with his whole soul delights in them.

Among Rembrandt’s best known works is his “Portrait of the Prophetess Anna Reading the Bible” for which his mother sat as the subject. One of the most impressive features of the painting is the way in which the Bible she is reading appears to be the source of the light by which she is reading it. This wonderfully (and deliberately) captures the point. The Spirit does not add to Scripture in order to persuade us of its divine origin and character. Nor does he speak apart from, or even alongside Scripture to bring us to this persuasion. He speaks through the Scriptures themselves. In its light we see light.  Or, as John Calvin put it:

Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.

This is why many Christians, when asked how they came to believe the Bible is the word of God simply say: ‘I was reading it (or hearing ir preached) one day, and it all began to fall into place. The words came to me now with power and authority. I understood, and I trusted. Once I was blind—the Bible was a closed book to me.  Now I see.’  

This is what happens when the Spirit who inspired Scripture through the prophets and apostles also bears witness to our spirits through those self same Scriptures that they are the word of God. We then bow in humble reverence, faith, and worship because we know we are hearing the living voice of God.10

Does Inerrancy Matter? The Legacy of James Montgomery Boice

“[I]f part of the Bible is true and part is not, who is to tell us what the true parts are? There are only two answers to that question.  Either we must make the decision ourselves, in which case the truth becomes subjective.  The thing that is true becomes merely what appeals to me.  Or else, it is the scholar who tells us what we can believe and what we cannot believe... God has not left us either to our own whims or to the whims of scholars.  He has given us a reliable book that we can read and understand ourselves.”

These words, arguing the logic of an inerrant Scripture, were part of a sermon preached on May 23, 1993 by James Montgomery Boice (see, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009], 69). The sermon was preached on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pastorate at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Boice began by drawing attention to the fact that the doctrine of Scripture had been the most important thing that Tenth Presbyterian Church had stood for in its (then) one hundred sixty-four year existence.

At the close of 1977, ten years into his pastorate at Tenth, Dr. Boice helped in the foundation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and subsequently chaired it. A few years later, Boice published, Standing on the Rock: Upholding Biblical Authority in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1984) in which he answered the question, why does inerrancy matter? He noted that most of his contemporaries seemed more preoccupied with having a “personal relationship” with Jesus than addressing the doctrine of Scripture. But who is this Jesus with whom we are to have a personal relationship if not the Jesus accurately (inerrantly) portrayed in Scripture? We live a relativistic age, Boice argued, where there is no such thing as truth, only “what’s true for me.” “When people operate on that basis, they usually think they have found freedom because, in not being tied to absolutes, they have freedom to do anything they wish. They are not tied to God or to a God-given morality. They do not have to acknowledge any authority. But the consequence of this kind of freedom is that they are cast adrift on the sea of meaningless existence.” (Standing on the Rock [1994 edition], 17).

Absolute truth

Inerrancy is important, Boice argued, in a postmodern culture, to provide the individual with a basis for absolute authority in doctrine and morals. Without absolutism, we are adrift in a sea of relativism and subjectivism. Without a trustworthy Scripture, there is only a mere potentiality of meaning actualized differently in differing circumstances. We are trapped in the present, our own historical circumstances, and cannot understand the past or have any certainty of the future. Truth lies in community and the voice of the Spirit – all subjective entities – wisps that appear for a moment promising much and delivering little.

Ultimately, as Boice argued all too well, if there is no ultimate meaning, nothing I say makes any sense, including the words “there are no absolutes”! What Boice saw was that without inerrancy, the relevance of Christianity diminishes. Why should anyone commit their lives to the institution of the church if there is no certainty that what she stands for is true. Relativism as to truth leads to relativism as to behavior and commitment. The moral drift of the last thirty years with its accompanying.

Authoritative Preaching

What is preaching? It is either Truth delivered through personality (as Philips Brooks suggested), or it is the opinion of men (and women). The steps from the original autographs to text, translation and meaning is a complex one, involving a commitment to providence as well as a rigorous hermeneutic (and hence, the Council of Biblical Inerrancy also issued a statement, “Formal Rules of Biblical Interpretation”). “It is only when ministers of the gospel hold to this high view of Scripture that they can preach with authority and effectively call sinful men and women to full faith in Christ.” (Standing on the Rock, 24).

Preachers have no right to meddle with the consciences of men and women unless what they say is based a correct understanding of the written Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience…” (Westminster Confession of Faith 20:2). The inerrancy of Scripture commits us in advance to an understanding the Bible is God speaking (in the present tense). What Scripture says is what God says.

Preaching involves coming to grips with what the Bible is actually saying, breaking it down in order to put it together again and applying to the mind, will and affections in today’s context with today’s issues and concerns sharpening the direction of application.  Preachers can therefore say, “Thus says the Lord,” without suggesting that the preacher himself in infallible – he is not! Preachers are all too capable of shoddy preparation and misunderstanding. But when “rightly divided” the sermon reflects the true meaning of Scripture and therefore authoritative.

Apart from a commitment to inerrancy, preaching drifts into personality and popularity cults. Ministry becomes “skinny jeans and soul patches” – more about the preacher than about Scripture. Boice foresaw this trend toward celebratory ministry and vacuous preaching.

True Reformation

Unless the Bible is true, “inerrant in the whole and in its parts,” true reformation (of belief and practice) will not take place. Errant Scripture distorts the character of God and nature of Christian discipleship. Christians get preoccupied with peripheral and transient issues.

Boice saw clearly the need for Scripture to govern the life of the church in all of its details. Without a commitment to inerrancy, churches will flounder and die. But he also expressed a concern that inerrancy in itself was not the real issue facing the church at the end of twentieth century. The real issue he said was the sufficiency of Scripture. It is all too easy to give lip-service to inerrancy and say, but we need more than what we find the Scripture to address the complexities that we face today. “Do we really believe God has given is what we need in this book? Or do we think we have to supplement the Bible with other man-made things? Do we need sociological techniques to do evangelism? Must we attract people to our churches by showmanship and entertainment? Do we need psychology and psychiatry for Christian growth? Do we need extra-biblical signs or miracles for guidance? Is the Bible adequate for achieving social progress and reform?” (Standing on the Rock, 133; cf. Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, 72).

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Dr. Boice came to understand that for all the value of the Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy that resulted from it, events have shown clearly that conservative Christians may affirm it and ignore it. It is not that Boice saw no place for extra-biblical data (he affirmed a doctrine of general revelation).General and special revelation are inter-dependent, but our understanding of what general contributes cannot contradict what is expressly set down in Scripture. When God prohibited Adam from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he did not stop to explain what a “tree” was, or how to distinguish fruit from leaves. Adam already possessed that knowledge. The doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency does not rule our extra-biblical knowledge, but it does prioritize Scripture. And it is perhaps here that the issue of inerrancy has failed to address contemporary discussions and debates over creation, counseling and conversion, to name but three.

One of the fears surrounding the use of the term “inerrancy,” Boice and others feared, was the gestalt surrounding the term that suggested a closed mind to all research and scholarly enterprise, committing interpreters in advance to absurd harmonization without regard for biblical genre, or an over-restrictive understanding of creation days. But perhaps we face the opposite – the tendency to disbelieve that the Bible has a discernible authoritative point of view – witness the numerous books, “Four Views X” and “Five Views of Y” imperceptibly suggesting an intentional and accommodating multiple meaning point of view on the part of Scripture (the meaning of Scripture is “not manifold, but one”; cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9).

Thus, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in Article XI and XII, affirms the following: “that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses,” and is therefore, “inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.”

And it denies, “that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions,” and “that biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history or science.”

Along with Norman L. Geisler, J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Carl F. H. Henry, Roger Nicole, and Francis Schaeffer, to name but a few of the participants of the ICBI, James Montgomery Boice was hugely influential in convincing a generation of evangelical leaders of the need for a robust defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. As Boice so aptly put it, “God has not left us either to our own whims . . . He has given us a reliable book that we can read and understand ourselves.” We don’t need to embrace the post-modern pessimism that says “that’s just your interpretation.” No, we can be assured that Scripture has a valid interpretation, for it comes (in its entirety) from the one God. For those things that are sure, those things that are of primary importance and which are clearly conveyed in Scripture, let’s be willing to die for those things.

Preaching the Glory of God from the Old Testament

Moses said, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).

This request was made by Moses following the Lord’s acceptance of his intercession on behalf of idolatrous Israel. God had threatened the removal of his presence from his people because of their sin, and, according to the narrative, Moses’ pleading for God to relent from this unthinkable occurrence is successful.

Moses is subsequently emboldened to ask God to reveal to him His glory, and, on a rock in Horeb, he is shown the ‘back parts’ of God - his grace, mercy and covenant faithfulness. Protected by the hand of God, safe from being exposed to, and annihilated by, the full measure of the glory of God, Moses glimpses something of God’s sovereign goodness as ‘The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord’ (Exodus 34:5).

In a sense, this dramatises for us what we are about as preachers called to proclaim the glory of God from the Old Testament. We want both to see and to show the sovereign wonder and eternal majesty of the God who speaks to us in the Law, the Writings and the Prophets. He is the God who, in the fulness of the new covenant, mediates his glory to us in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Yet it was the spirit of the same Jesus who was in the prophets (1 Peter 1:11), and who were instruments of revelation of the same glory.  Our people come to the word saying to God ‘Please show me your glory’. As preachers, we must wrestle with the text of the Old Testament with the same prayer.

So what is the relation between the Old Testament and the glory of God? Let’s explore this along four trajectories.

REVEALED GLORY
First, the glory of God is revealed. It has to be; how would we know it otherwise? Moses has to request God to show his glory, and God accedes to his request, accommodating himself to Moses’ understanding. He does that by proclaiming His own name, and by republishing the words of the covenant (Exodus 34:1, 10). God discloses himself, revealing himself to be a personal God, entering into covenant with his people.

The most fundamental way, therefore, in which we as preachers handle the text of the Old Testament is with the premise that a personal God is speaking to us in the language of covenant and commitment. Our handling of the text - our reading of it, our singing of it, our preaching of it, our translating of it - must be done reverently and cautiously. In the text of the Old Testament the God who cannot be seen makes his voice heard, and he enters into a relationship with his people. In our preaching, God shares his secrets with and befriends those who fear him, making his covenant known to them (Psalm 25:14). They, in turn, ought to respond with awe, gratitude and delight as the house of God becomes for them a theatre in which the beauty of the Lord may be seen (Psalm 27:4).

CREATIVE GLORY
Second, the glory of God is creative. The Old Testament opens purposefully with the narrative of creation, carefully weaving a pattern of distinctions. God is distinct from his creation. Light is distinct from darkness, day from night, earth from sea, man from animals, male from female, Sabbath from the other six days of the week. The stage is being built upon which the great dramatic purpose of God will be enacted, and its grandeur praises its Maker well.

Little wonder the text of the Old Testament marvels that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), as God silences us by asking if we were present when he made the earth (Job 38:4). In our preaching we extol the God whose invisible attributes are displayed in everything he has made (Romans 1:20), reminding our hearers that he made us, and not we ourselves (Psalm 100:3), that the awesome nature of his creation sets his special love to man in glorious disproportionate perspective (Psalm 8:3-4), and that the power of the Creator of the ends of the earth is deployed for the help and protection of his people constantly (Isaiah 40:28-31).

Preaching the Old Testament means emphasising the core doctrine which is there from the beginning: that God is the sovereign God of creation, history and all that transpires in the providences that shape this world. Before him we are less than nothing and vanity (Isaiah 40:17), yet in covenant the Lord remembers us (Psalm 40:17).

REDEMPTIVE GLORY
Third, the glory of God is redemptive. It is particularly as the redeemer of his people that God displays his glory. He promised deliverance to man by intimation of the ultimate destruction of Satan (Genesis 3:15); he redeemed his people out of Egypt because of his covenant faithfulness (Exodus 2:23-25), and he restored them to their land out of the exile of Babylon for the sake of his own name (Ezekiel 36:23-24).

The history of Israel in the Old Testament is thus bracketed by concrete acts of redemption, from bondage in Egypt and from exile in Babylon, and both of these redemptive acts are displays of the glory of God (Exodus 15:11-13; Nehemiah 9:31). The same redemptive glory that is displayed in our salvation in Christ is displayed throughout the Old Testament. Our preaching of the gospel from the Old Testament is to direct the attention of men and women to that great fact.

There are at least four elements to this. First is the fact that the Old Testament supplies us with the vocabulary of redemption. By the time we have read through Genesis and Exodus, the first two books of the Bible, we have mastered the basic vocabulary necessary for the communication of the gospel. We have learned about God, creation, sin, covenant, redemption, blood, law, grace, sacrifice: they are all there, like the building blocks which the New Testament will use to construct the completed glorious gospel.

Preaching through the Old Testament, therefore, is to be constantly interacting with the grand themes and rich word groups in which the good news of God’s salvation comes to us. When Christ and the apostles proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through faith in the blood of the Lamb, they already had the lexical and conceptual framework in which to do it. The glory of God in the Old Testament is couched in a language the jot and tittle of which will not fail.

Second is the fact that the Old Testament tells a history of redemption.  Whichever Old Testament text or passage is being expounded is located on a line of history that runs from creation to consummation, of which Jesus Christ is alpha and omega, pivot and foundation. Into the darkness of man’s fall a light shines, almost imperceptibly, gradually rising like the slow dawning of the sun, so that over time the world is prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. By the time the sun has risen, so much glory light has been revealed that only one person can fulfil every prophecy and prediction, every type and analogy. Our gospel proclamation must do justice to the nature of the revelation given at particular points along the line, doing justice to the biblical story as a developmental axis of redemption.

That fact ought to guard us from a mere moralising of the Old Testament, from treating it only as a compilation of examples of how we are to live. To be sure, we will miss some of the great themes of the Old Testament if we do not take to ourselves lessons of faith, just as the author of Hebrews does in Hebrews 11. But the story is a story of warfare, the story of God championing the cause of his people. The song of Moses contains the glorious insight that ‘The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name’ (Exodus 15:3). That is the song of Heaven, and the song of the Lamb (Revelation 15:3). The Bible’s story is a particular interpretation of history, in which every detail is designed to highlight the theme of God’s determination to rescue his people from the grip of sin and Satan. If we do not highlight the glory of God in the work of redemption as we handle the text of the Old Testament, we have missed the key element of the record.

Third is the fact that the Old Testament provides a theology of redemption. In addition to being located on a historical timeline, every Old Testament passage is also located within the circle of the Bible’s theology. So if we are preaching on the tabernacle, for example, the special tent constructed purposefully to domesticate the glory of God within the camp of Israel (Exodus 40:34), we must do justice both to the primitive nature of revelation at the time, and the full disclosure of that revelation in the wider canon of Scripture, in which tabernacle language is used of Jesus (John 1:14) and of his people (2 Corinthians 5:1). We cannot preach all our theology in any given sermon; but we can, and must, shape our sermon in the light of the totality of the theology God has given.

Can we preach on the passover redemption of Exodus 12 without bringing to bear on our exposition the deep theology of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, whose substitutionary death and vicarious bloodshed are the very heartbeat of the gospel? Can we preach on Isaiah 6 and the prophet’s vision of God without shining onto it the light of John 12, where the New Testament tells us that it was Jesus whom Isaiah saw? Can we preach the passages of the Old Testament which are quoted in the New without nuancing our interpretation in the light of the use which the New Testament makes of them?

I think not. The Scriptures, no less than the heavens, declares the glory of God; and to isolate texts from contexts, or pericopes of Old Testament theology from the wider context of the completed canon of Scripture is to do a disservice to the God whose word we are proclaiming. We show the glory of God in our preaching of the Old Testament precisely as we demonstrate how each individual passage is organically connected to the whole, and how God’s covenant of grace with us in Christ is the theological principle which binds all of Scripture together.

Fourth is the fact that the Old Testament produces a hymnody of redemption. The worship wars of our churches are an interesting window into the cultural impact of society on the church. Our churches are what our churches sing. And whatever our position on singing the Psalms, there is no doubt that the Old Testament, in supplying its own praise book, calls us to magnify, and exult in, the glory of God. It does that by rehearsing the great acts of redemption, such as in Psalms 78 and 105. It does it by describing the perfections of the God who redeems his people, such as in Psalms 111 and 145. And it does it by expressing the personal experience of redemption, in both the best and the worst circumstances of the believer’s life. To sing - or at least to preach - the Psalms is to proclaim the glory of God within both a public and a private context.

EXPECTANT GLORY
Ultimately, of course, the glory of God in the Old Testament is seen in anticipation. The ministry of the law was glorious, but that of the Spirit, though organically connected to it, excels in glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Moses could see only the back parts of God; we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Everything in the Old Testament looks forward to that moment, since the prophets, through the Spirit of Christ, spoke beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and subsequent glory (1 Peter 1:11).  But that was because everything in the Old Testament drew its significance from that great act of God’s self-disclosure when the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).

Like Mary, the mother of the Lord, the Old Testament is pregnant with the expectation of an even greater revelation of glory than any - even its most significant figures - could anticipate. And as we preach the Old Testament to our people, may they be able to say, like Mary, ‘he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’ (Luke 1:49).

Why Expositional Preaching Is Particularly Glorifying to God


George Whitefield believed in preaching and gave his life to it. By this preaching God did a mighty work of salvation on both sides of the Atlantic. His biographer, Arnold Dallimore, chronicled the astonishing effect that Whitefield’s preaching had in Britain and America in the eighteenth century. It came like rain on the parched land and made the desert spring forth with the flowers of righteousness. Dallimore lifted his eyes from the transformed wasteland of Whitefield’s time and expressed his longing that God would do this again. He cries out for a new generation of preachers like Whitefield. His words help me express what I long for in the coming generations of preachers in America and around the world. He said, Yea…that we shall see the great Head of the Church once more . . . raise up unto Himself certain young men whom He may use in this glorious employ. And what manner of men will they be? Men mighty in the Scriptures, their lives dominated by a sense of the greatness, the majesty and holiness of God, and their minds and hearts aglow with the great truths of the doctrines of grace. They will be men who have learned what it is to die to self, to human aims and personal ambitions; men who are willing to be ‘fools for Christ’s sake’, who will bear reproach and falsehood, who will labor and suffer, and whose supreme desire will be, not to gain earth’s accolades, but to win the Master’s approbation when they appear before His awesome judgment seat. They will be men who will preach with broken hearts and tear-filled eyes, and upon whose ministries God will grant an extraordinary effusion of the Holy Spirit, and who will witness ‘signs and wonders following’ in the transformation of multitudes of human lives.

Mighty in the Scriptures, aglow with the great truths of the doctrines of grace, dead to self, willing to labor and suffer, indifferent to the accolades of man, broken for sin, and dominated by a sense of the greatness, the majesty, and holiness of God. Dallimore, like Whitefield, believed that preaching is the heralding of God’s word from that kind of heart. Preaching is not conversation. Preaching is not discussion. Preaching is not casual talk about religious things. Preaching is not simply teaching. Preaching is the heralding of a message permeated by the sense of God’s greatness and majesty and holiness. The topic may be anything under the sun, but it is always brought into the blazing light of God’s greatness and majesty in his word. That was the way Whitefield preached.

That is my longing for our day—and for you. That God would raise up thousands of broken-hearted, Bible-saturated preachers who are dominated by a sense of the greatness and the majesty and the holiness of God, revealed in the gospel of Christ crucified and risen and reigning with absolute authority over every nation and every army and every false religion and every terrorist and every tsunami and every cancer cell, and every galaxy in the universe.

God did not ordain the cross of Christ or create the lake of fire in order to communicate the insignificance of belittling his glory. The death of the Son of God and the damnation of unrepentant human beings are the loudest shouts under heaven that God is infinitely holy, and sin is infinitely offensive, and wrath is infinitely just, and grace is infinitely precious, and our brief life—and the life of every person in your church and in your community—leads to everlasting joy or everlasting suffering. If our preaching does not carry the weight of these things to our people, what will? Veggie Tales? Radio? Television? Discussion groups? Emergent conversations?
God planned for his Son to be crucified (Rev 13:8; 2 Tim 1:9) and for hell to be terrible (Matt 25:41) so that we would have the clearest witnesses possible to what is at stake when we preach. What gives preaching its seriousness is that the mantle of the preacher is soaked with the blood of Jesus and singed with the fire of hell. That’s the mantle that turns mere talkers into preachers. Yet tragically some of the most prominent evangelical voices today diminish the horror of the cross and the horror of hell—the one stripped of its power to bear our punishment, and the other demythologized into self-dehumanization and the social miseries of this world.

Oh that the rising generations would see that the world is not overrun with a sense of seriousness about God. There is no surplus in the church of a sense of God’s glory. There is no excess of earnestness in the church about heaven and hell and sin and salvation. And therefore the joy of many Christians is paper thin. By the millions people are amusing themselves to death with DVDs, and 107-inch TV screens, and games on their cell phones, and slapstick worship, while the spokesmen of a massive world religion write letters to the West in major publications saying, “The first thing we are calling you to is Islam . . . It is the religion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil with the hand, tongue and heart. It is the religion of jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme.”5 And then these spokesmen publicly bless suicide bombers who blow up children in front of Falafel shops and call it the way to paradise. This is the world in which we preach.

And yet incomprehensibly, in this Christ-diminishing, soul-destroying age, books and seminars and divinity schools and church growth specialists are bent on saying to young pastors, “Lighten up.” “Get funny.” “Do something amusing.” To this I ask, Where is the spirit of Jesus? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25). “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:29). “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22). “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44). “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). “Some of you they will put to death . . . But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19).

Would the church growth counsel to Jesus be, “Lighten up, Jesus. Do something amusing.” And to the young pastor: “Whatever you do, young pastor, don’t be like the Jesus of the Gospels. Lighten up.” From my perspective, which feels very close to eternity these days, that message to pastors sounds increasingly insane.

A Portrayal of the Glory of God
What you believe about the necessity of preaching and the nature of preaching is governed by your sense of the greatness and the glory of God and how you believe people awaken to that glory and live for that glory. From beginning to end nothing in the Bible is more ultimate in the mind and heart of God than the glory of God—the beauty of God, the radiance of his manifold perfections. At every point in God’s revealed action, wherever he makes plain the ultimate goal of that action, the goal is always the same: to uphold and display his glory.

Nothing affects preaching more deeply than to be struck almost speechless—almost—by the passion of God for the glory of God. What is clear from the whole range of biblical revelation is that God’s ultimate allegiance is to know himself perfectly, and to love himself infinitely, and to share this experience, as much as it can be, with his people. Over every act of God flies the banner: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isa 48:11; cf. 42:8).

The God’s glory becomes visible in the world is not mainly by passionate acts of corporate worship on Sunday morning—as precious as those moments are—but by the changes that it produces in our lives. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). The light that shines through our deeds and causes people to see God, not us, is the all-satisfying worth of his glory.
It works something like this: When the glory of God is the treasure of our lives, we will not lay up treasures on earth, but spend them for the spread of his glory. We will not covet, but overflow with liberality. We will not crave the praise of men, but forget ourselves in praising God. We will not be mastered by sinful, sensual pleasures, but sever their root by the power of a superior promise. We will not nurse a wounded ego or cherish a grudge or nurture a vengeful spirit, but will hand over our cause to God and bless those who hate us. Every sin flows from the failure to treasure the glory of God above all things. Therefore one crucial, visible way to display the truth and value of the glory of God is by humble, sacrificial lives of service that flow only from the fountain of God’s all satisfying glory.

The Implicit Call for Expository Exultation
If it is the purpose of God that we display his glory in the world, and if we display it because we have been changed by knowing and enjoying it, and if we know and enjoy it by beholding the glory of the Lord, and if we behold that glory most clearly and centrally in the gospel of the glory of Christ, and if the gospel is a message delivered in words to the world, then what follows is that God intends for preachers to unfold these words and exult over them—which is what I call expository exultation.

Each word matters. It is expository because there is so much about the gospel that cries out to be exposited (opened, unfolded, elucidated, clarified, explained, displayed). We see this when we focus on five essential dimensions of the gospel message.

The gospel is a message about historical events: the life and death and resurrection of Christ—summoning us to open them with thorough expositions of texts.

The gospel is a message about what those events achieved before we experienced anything or even existed: the completion of perfect obedience, the payment for ours sins, the removal of the wrath of God, the installation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah and king of the universe, the disarming of the rulers and authorities, the destruction of death—all of these summoning us to open them with thorough expositions of texts.

The gospel is a message about the transfer of these achievements from Christ to particular persons through our union with Christ by faith alone apart from works—which summons us to open for our people the nature and dynamics of faith by the exposition of dozens of texts.
The gospel is a message about the good things that are now true about us as the achievement of the cross is applied to us in Christ: that God is only merciful to us now instead of wrathful (propitiation), that we are counted righteous in Christ now (justification), that we are freed now from the guilt and power of sin (redemption), that we are positionally and progressively made holy (sanctification)—all of which summons us to open these glorious realities for our people week after week with thorough expositions of texts.

And finally the gospel is a message about the glorious God himself as our final, eternal, all-satisfying Treasure. “We . . . rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5:11). The gospel we preach is “the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” If our gospel stops short of this goal—enjoying God himself, not just his gifts of forgiveness and rescue from hell and eternal life—then we are not preaching “the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Our ultimate goal is knowing and enjoying God. As we saw in the beginning of this chapter, that is why we were created—that God might share with us the knowledge and enjoyment of himself. This is what it means for him to love us. This is what the cross ultimately obtained for us. And this too, by every text of Scripture—all of it inspired by God to awaken hope in his glory7—calls for the richest exposition that our people may be fed the best and highest food of heaven.

Exposition of texts is essential because the gospel is a message that comes to us in words and God has ordained that people see the glory of Christ—the “unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph 3:8)—in those gospel words. That is our calling: to open the words and sentences and paragraphs of Scripture and display “the glory of Christ who is the image of God.”

Which leads us finally to the second word in the phrase expository exultation. Woe to us if we do our exposition of such a gospel without exultation—that is, without exulting over the truth we unfold. When Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord,” the word he uses for “proclaim” is kerussomen—we herald Christ as Lord, we announce Christ as Lord. The kerux—the proclaimer, the “preacher” (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11)—may have to explain what he is saying if people don’t understand (so teaching may be involved). But what sets the herald apart from the philosopher and scribe and teacher is that he is the herald of news—and in our case, infinitely good news. Infinitely valuable news. The greatest news in all the world.

The creator of the universe, who is more glorious and more to be desired than any treasure on earth, has revealed himself in Jesus Christ to be known and enjoyed forever by anyone in the world who will lay down the arms of rebellion, receive his blood-bought amnesty, and embrace his Son as Savior, Lord, and Treasure of their lives.

O brothers, do not lie about the value of the gospel by the dullness of your demeanor. Exposition of the most glorious reality is a glorious reality. If it is not expository exultation—authentic from the heart—something false is being said about the value of the gospel. Don’t say by your face or by your voice or by your life that the gospel is not the gospel of the all-satisfying glory of Christ. It is. And may God raise up from among you a generation of preachers whose exposition is worthy of the truth of God and whose exultation is worthy of the glory of God.

Getting the Gospel Right

 

You have written a book entitled Getting the Gospel Right. Perhaps the best place to begin is, what is the gospel?

There is probably no term used more loosely in the church than the term “gospel.” You hear preachers say all the time that they are “ministers of the gospel” or that they “preach the gospel,” but many times they have no idea what the gospel actually is!

During my years teaching seminary, one of the D.Min. classes I taught was on justification. What I would characteristically do is put the word “gospel” on the blackboard and ask the ministers who were present to give me a definition of the gospel. They would say things like, “getting peace in your life,” “being reconciled with God,” “gaining purpose and self-esteem.” All of those things were true to a degree, but none of them qualified as a definition for the gospel. Several years ago, Michael Horton conducted a survey of one hundred people at a convention for Christian Booksellers asking the question, “What is the gospel?”. These were people who were seriously involved with Christian education. Yet when their responses were evaluated, only one adequate answer was provided.

To answer the question “What is the gospel?” is rather simple. The gospel is Jesus, the person and work of Christ—who Jesus is and what He did. The gospel also describes how the benefits of His ministry are subjectively appropriated. That’s why the doctrine of justification by faith alone was so pivotal at the time of the Reformation, because it wasn’t a secondary matter but rather had to do with the gospel. Essentially, the pressing question that the gospel answers is, “How can an unjust person become just in the sight of God?”

Another way of approaching the question is to examine the apostolic preaching, particularly the preaching in the book of Acts. Historically, when speaking of the gospel message, we have made a distinction between the kerygma and the didache. The kerygma was the proclamation the early church made to the world, and once people respond to that they receive the didache, or the teaching. When Paul went to Athens and preached, he didn’t have time to start with Abraham and go all the way through Malachi. Yet he was able to present in a nutshell the message of the truth of God and of the history of redemption, which culminates in the person and work of Christ.

If we analyze that kerygma found in the book of Acts, we will see the message that this Man was born of woman, of the seed of David, according to the Scriptures. He lived a sinless life, made a sacrificial atonement on the cross, was raised by God from the dead for our justification, and ascended into heaven to the right hand of God, where He is crowned Lord of lords and King of kings, from where He will return and judge the world. The benefits of this is reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, and justification, from which we get peace with God, which is received by faith alone. That is the gospel.

One of the biggest problems we face in the church is preaching to people who are unconverted but think they are converted. They have made a profession of faith by walking an aisle, raising their hand, or signed a prayer card, and they think because they have done those things they have been truly converted. Just because we profess to have faith doesn’t mean that we have it.

I think can of two classical sermons that address this same theme. One was from Gilbert Tennent, “The Danger of the Unconverted Clergy,” and the other was from Jonathan Edwards, “A Warning to Professors.” This was Jesus’ great warning: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Matt 15:8). He ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Mt 7:21–23).

For me, it is liberating to be a pastor in a single location for a long time, because that allows me to preaching verse-by-verse through whole books of the Bible. I don’t have to lay awake thinking what verse I should preach; the text dictates that for me.

Preachers are accountable to preach the whole counsel of God. So, if I’m not bound to preaching through books, I can intentionally or unintentionally fall into the “hobby-horse syndrome” of preaching only the texts I like or want to preach. But when the preacher is dedicated to verse-by-verse exposition, he can’t avoid preaching the whole counsel of God.

Within expository preaching more broadly, I have found it tremendously encouraging to preach through the four Gospels. I enjoy this so much, because it is an excellent opportunity to tell people as much as you can about Jesus. Every single night, I pray for an awakening in our church. Getting the Gospels in front of people as much as possible allows their minds to be filled with Christ, that the Spirit might bring them all to a saving knowledge of Christ.

What are some of the distinguishing marks of preaching with a desire for conversions?

Sunday morning worship is primarily for the believer. I don’t establish our worship on the needs or desires of “seekers,” because no one seeks after God by his or her own initiative. Instead, I establish our worship for believers. But, at the same time, as Augustine said, the church is always a “mixed body.” This idea did not originate with Augustine but with Jesus. So, we know that on any given Sunday morning, the odds are great that there are going to be unbelievers present at our worship service.

On the one hand, if you preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday morning and focus your attention on the unbeliever exclusively, you have missed the point of corporate worship. The church is there to grow into the maturity of Christ through learning from the expounded Word of God. On the other hand, at the same time that my primary focus is on expounding the text for the benefit of the believer, I am also acutely conscious that there are unbelievers present. As a result, I almost always make an evangelistic appeal to unbelievers, letting them know that if they died tonight they would wake up in hell. There are many ways to make evangelistic appeals without spending the primary time doing so.

I do not believe I personally have an extraordinary anointing of God during my preaching like some men such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others experienced during their ministries. Therefore, I struggle with the inadequacy of my preaching. This struggle is exacerbated by not seeing the kind of response that I would love to see in response to the Word of God. That is why I pray all the time that God will move the people listening to the preaching of His Word.

Even though I often feel very inadequate, I am fully and completely confident in the power of the Word. The Word is not going to return void. When I preach the Scriptures, week in and week out, in an expository manner, people may not remember what I preached on several weeks ago, but there is still a cumulative effect that is building up in their lives. The power of the Word is what changes and transforms the hearts of people.

As Spurgeon ascended to his pulpit, he would repeat over and over to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” As I am walking up into the pulpit of my own church, I remind myself, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord” (Ps 121:1). God has revealed Himself in His Word, and there is no substitute for that.

I am reminded of the well-known illustration of Vince Lombardi picking up a football before his players and saying to them, “This is a football, am I going too fast for you?” Before today’s modern preachers, I would pick up a Bible and say to them, “This is a Bible, am I going too fast for you?” In other words, when we start anywhere other than with the Bible, we go every way but the right way. I am not providing a technique for success. This is the job and duty of the preacher of the Word of God. Forget your entertainment and other gimmicks, and preach the whole counsel of God!

All biblical preaching puts Christ at the center of the message. Why do we say the message we preach is an exclusive message?

I cannot imagine an affirmation that would meet with more resistance from contemporary Westerners than the one Paul makes in 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” This declaration is narrow and downright un-American. We have been inundated with the viewpoint that there are many roads that lead to heaven, and that God is not so narrow that He requires a strict allegiance to one way of salvation. If anything strikes at the root of the tree of pluralism and relativism, it is a claim of exclusivity to one religion or one God. A statement such as Paul makes in his first letter to Timothy is seen as bigoted and hateful.

Paul, of course, is not expressing bigotry or hatefulness at all. He is simply expressing the truth of God, the same truth Jesus taught when He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Paul is affirming the uniqueness of Christ, specifically in His role as Mediator. A mediator is a go-between, someone who stands between two parties that are estranged or involved in some kind of dispute. Paul declares that Christ is the only Mediator between two parties at odds with one another—God and men.

Why, then, does Paul say there is only one mediator between God and man? I believe we have to understand the uniqueness of Christ’s mediation in terms of the uniqueness of His person. He is the God-man, that is, God incarnate. In order to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity, the second person of the Trinity united to Himself a human nature. Thus, Jesus has the qualifications to bring about reconciliation—He represents both sides perfectly.

People ask me, “Why is God so narrow that He provided only one Savior?” I do not think that is the question we ought to ask. Instead, we should ask, “Why did God give us any way at all to be saved?” In other words, why did He not just condemn us all? Why did God, in His grace, give to us a Mediator to stand in our place, to receive the judgment we deserve, and to give to us the righteousness we desperately need? The astonishing thing is not that He did not do it in multiple ways, but that He did it in even one way.

Notice that Paul, in declaring the uniqueness of Christ, also affirms the uniqueness of God: “There is one God.” This divine uniqueness was declared throughout the Old Testament; the very first commandment was a commandment of exclusivity: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). So, Paul brings all these strands together. There is only one God, and God has only one Son, and the Son is the sole Mediator between God and mankind.

In thinking through the narrow terms of the exclusivity of Christ and of the Christian faith, let me ask you to think through the ramifications of putting leaders of other religions on the same level as Christ. In one sense, there is no greater insult to Christ than to mention Him in the same breath as Muhammad, for example. If Christ is who He claims to be, no one else can be a way to God. Furthermore, if it is true that there are many ways to God, Christ is not one of them, because there is no reason one of many ways to God would declare to the world that He is the only way to God.

There is much discussion today about the role of the law in preaching the gospel. What is the relationship between the law and the Christian?

“O how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97). What a strange statement of affection. Why would anyone direct his love toward the law of God? The law limits our choices, restricts our freedom, torments our consciences, and pushes us down with a mighty weight that cannot be overcome, and yet the psalmist declares his affection for the law in passionate terms. He calls the law sweeter than honey to his mouth (Ps 119:3).

What is it about the law of God that can provoke such affection? In the first place, the law is not an abstract set of rules and regulations. The law reflects the will of the Lawgiver, and in that regard it is intensely personal. The law reflects to the creature the perfect will of the Creator and at the same time reveals the character of that Being whose law it is.

When the psalmist speaks of his affection for the law, he makes no division between the law of God and the Word of God. Just as the Christian loves the Word of God, so we ought to love the law of God, for the Word of God is indeed the law of God.

The second reason why the psalmist has such a positive view of the law is that the law, by revealing God’s character, exposes our fallenness. It is the mirror that reflects our own images—warts and all—and becomes the pedagogue, the schoolmaster that drives us to Christ. The law does not drive us out of the kingdom but rather ushers us into the kingdom by directing us to the One who alone is able to fulfill its demands.

The most wonderful function of the law, however, is that it shows us what is pleasing to God. The godly man is the one who meditates on the law day and night (Ps 1:2), and he does so because he finds his delight therein. By delighting in the precepts of God, he becomes like a tree planted by rivers of living water, bringing forth its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3). Our Lord said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15), but we cannot show that love for Him unless we know what the commandments are. A knowledge of the law of God gives to us the pattern of loving obedience. If we love the Lord, we must also love His law. To love God and despise His law is a contradiction that must never be the profile of the Christian.

God gives us His law not to take away our joy, but rather that our joy may be full. His law is never given in a context of meanness, but in the context of His love. We love the law of God because God loves His law and because that law is altogether lovely.

As expositors, we are responsible for preaching and presenting the message of the gospel. Our responsibility stops there, for it is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw the soul to Christ. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation?

The monergistic work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit is an immediate work. It is immediate with respect to time, and it is immediate in the sense that it operates without intervening means. The Holy Spirit does not use something apart from His own power to bring a person from spiritual death to spiritual life, and when that work is accomplished, it is accomplished instantaneously.Here we have a classic either/or situation. A person is either born again, or he is not born again. There is no nine-month gestation period with respect to this birth. No one is partly regenerate, or almost regenerate. When the Spirit changes the disposition of the human soul, He does it instantly. A person may not be aware of this internal work accomplished by God for some time after it has actually occurred. But though our awareness of it may be gradual, the action of it is instantaneous.

When the Holy Spirit regenerates a human soul, the purpose of that regeneration is to bring that person to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That purpose is effected and accomplished as God purposes in the intervention. Regeneration is more than giving a person the possibility of having faith; it gives him the certainty of possessing that saving faith.

The result of our regeneration is first of all faith, which then results in justification and adoption into the family of God. Nobody is born into this world a child of the family of God. We are born as children of wrath. The only way we enter into the family of God is by adoption, and that adoption occurs when we are united to God’s only begotten Son by faith. When by faith we are united with Christ, we are then adopted into that family of whom Christ is the firstborn. Regeneration therefore involves a new genesis, a new beginning, a new birth. It is that birth by which we enter into the family of God by adoption.

The Key to Evangelistic Success

In the early years of my life as a theological student, an article appeared in a journal intended for candidates for ordination. It bore the title, “Evangelism and Election: friends or foes?” Well, to be honest, at that stage in my Christian life, if you had pressed me for an answer,  I think I might well have said “foes.” Did not the doctrine of election teach that God had already chosen a people for himself before the foundation of the world? And didn’t the wider doctrine of the sovereignty of God imply that God was in complete and final control of everything in the universe? Then what is the point of calling people to come to Jesus Christ for salvation?

Shortly afterwards, there was published a book by Dr. J. I.Packer entitled, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. It was the very book I needed, and I devoured it. The most useful thing I could say in this article is that if you have not already done so, you should devour that book also.   It clarified to me that, far from being an obstacle to evangelism, the doctrines of divine election and divine sovereignty were the key secret to driving our evangelism and saving us from becoming discouraged and daunted in it. The rest of this article will seek to justify that statement.

God’s Sovereign Redemption
Let me begin with the Apostle Paul’s experience in Acts 18. He is the evangelist par excellence,  but in Corinth he was facing blasphemous opposition to his evangelism. Paul was discouraged,  but the Lord spoke to him in a vision “Do not be afraid” He said, “but go on speaking and do not be silent.” And then God gave him the reason for this encouragement, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10).

Now the striking truth is that these people of whom God is speaking had not yet believed the Gospel. Many of them had not heard it, but God declared that they were His. They had been, as Luke puts it in Acts 13:48  “appointed to eternal life.” Now this is the doctrine of God’s sovereign initiative in salvation, but used in the way Scripture uses it. That is, not as a bullet to be fired by Calvinists, nor as a bomb to be dropped on Arminians, but as a bulwark for God’s people, to save them from discouragement, fear and a lack of confidence in God and the Gospel.   Paul heard these words and “settled there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). As John Stott puts it, “This conviction of God’s sovereignty in salvation is the greatest of all encouragements to an evangelist.”

It is important to clarify why this is so. Earlier, in the fourth chapter of Acts, in a situation of even greater crisis, the Apostles are driven into the presence of God in prayer. The word they use in addressing God is rightly translated in some versions  “Sovereign Lord,” and they go on to ascribe absolute sovereignty to God in both creation and redemption. Listen again to the way they describe what happened in the darkness of Calvary, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27–28).

You see, the essence of the apostolic conviction is that the Sovereign Lord was the ultimate moving power behind everything in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.   When human wickedness seemed to have reached its nadir, the sovereign, controlling hand was God’s.  Jesus put the same truth to Pilate in this way in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above.” So in history’s darkest hour, the fact of God’s sovereign rule encouraged and enabled the Apostles in two vital areas: prayer and  preaching.

Prayer
Most of us have been involved in conferences focussing on the most effective evangelistic methods for our generation. What I miss is an emphasis on the primary evangelistic method,  which of course is prayer. Do you know these words of E. M. Bounds? I will never forget the day I first read them:

“We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organisations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and effficiency for the Gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man, or sink the man in the plan or organisation. God’s plan is to make much of the man. This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget, and the forgetting of it is as baneful in the work of God  as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods but through men.  He does not anoint plans but men––men of prayer.

The searching question we need to ask in the light of that is, why then is it that in so many evangelical churches and ministries, prayer is supplemental rather than fundamental? Could it be that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation is not as fundamental and supreme as it should be? Or could it be that we do not really believe that God, and only God, can save the lost and raise them into new life in Christ? Of course there are so many things we can  do. We can persuade people intellectually, we can move them emotionally, and much else. But only God can regenerate them spiritually, and it is a work of regeneration for which we are seeking, is it not?    

Preaching
As the Sovereign Lord, this is the other area in which God empowers us. The first implication of that is that when God takes a man up and uses him in the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, the result should not be that people come out from the occasion saying “What a man!”. Rather, the most natural thing to escape their lips would be the words “What a God!”,  “What a Saviour!”,  “What a Gospel!”.   It is for this reason that Paul says  “We do not preach ourselves,  but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5). Significantly,  the doctrine of God’s sovereignty does not ever inflate the human ego, or make a man self-important and proud. By contrast, it humbles us from two sources. One is the nature of the biblical gospel which insists, as Archbishop Temple once said, that “the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my salvation is the sin which makes it necessary.” The other is the teaching of Jesus about fruitful Christian service in John chapter 15: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself . . . neither can you unless you abide in me . . . apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Of course, growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ is growing in genuine selflessness and humility, as John the Baptist saw so clearly when he said  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

I will bring this article to a conclusion by setting out five principles which I believe should guide our ministry of pulpit evangelism:

The Word of God in Holy Scripture is our only infallible authority for the substance of the gospel message. One implication of that is that all our preaching should in some sense be an exposition of Scripture. In pulpit evangelism, we shall of course be careful to expound relevantly  in relation to the people who are present.

The gospel’s theme is Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners (cf. Peter’s preaching in Acts 2).

The Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed to us in the whole of Scripture. That means that we should find the Holy Spirit convicting and saving sinners through the message of the whole Bible and not just from a few “Gospel texts.” This is the example Jesus gives us in Luke 24:27 on the road to Emmaus, “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.”

4. We must be clear that it is not the Bible which saves us. It is Christ who saves us. But the only Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed in the Bible.

2 Corinthians 5:14–21 is a significant passage in connection with evangelistic preaching. It makes clear that there are two elements in the preaching of the message of the Gospel. The first is proclamation, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The other is appeal, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Don’t miss the remarkable truth here: as Christ is the agent through whom God achieves the reconciliation of sinners, so we are the agents through whom He appeals to them, or “begs” them. We are nothing less than God’s ambassadors. As John Stott puts it with typical neatness, “There must be no proclamation without appeal,  and there must be no appeal without  proclamation.”

My own impression is that while most of us would be confident that we know what the proclamation involves, we are less certain about the appeal. This is partly because the word appeal is associated with a procedure seen at evangelistic occasions in many parts of the world. Whatever we think of that kind of public “going forward,”  it is certainly not what Paul is referring to. What he is speaking about is an appeal to the heart and conscience of his hearers to receive by repentance and faith the riches of God’s grace in Christ. Now while Scripture makes it clear that both repentance and faith are gifts from God, it is equally clear that God does not repent or believe for us.

But that must never diminish the idea that it is God Himself who implores sinners through our preaching to lay aside all forms of resistance, and come gladly and eagerly to Jesus Christ to receive the salvation He has gained for us at the cross. We must never get used to the mystery that the Sovereign Lord of the universe should stoop so low as to make redeemed sinners His  ambassadors.

What differences should resting on this doctrine make to the man in the pulpit? I think there are chiefly two: 1. It should make him an intercessor even more than an expositor, and 2. It should make him quietly confident, but not self-confident.

Why Faithful Ministry Must be Counter-Cultural

One of the most pernicious tendencies in the church today is an obsessive hankering for applause, academic stature, political clout, large crowds, personal celebrity, and all the other badges of social standing and earthly esteem. Evangelicals seem to have forgotten that we are forbidden be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2). Our minds are supposed to be set “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). We are not to crave accolades—especially from a world that is filled with hatred for our Master (John 15:18–20).

But if you read popular blogs and bestselling books on church growth and ministry philosophy, you might get a different impression. It seems evangelicals no longer believe that worldliness is a sin. The movement’s main trendsetters relentlessly pressure pastors to contextualize their ministry and message so that the church can stay in step with these postmodern times. The result is an army of young ecclesiastical entrepreneurs and would-be megachurch moguls desperately trying to be as inclusive, pluralistic, and broad-minded as possible, in order to accommodate the new values of a postmodern culture. If we appeal to the world that way, they suggest, we can find favor in the eyes of unbelievers and thereby win them for Christ.

But the unbelieving world will never be won by entertainment, public relations campaigns, or a toned-down message that caters to people’s felt needs. God’s plan for evangelism in every age is the same: the church must proclaim the unadulterated gospel with clarity and conviction—and without change or compromise. “It is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16), and “God [is] well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21).

Missional strategies that truncate the gospel or overshadow it with gimmickry and entertainment are not going to win the culture in this or any other age (Rom 10). In fact, the quest for the world’s approval is nothing less than spiritual harlotry. That is precisely the imagery the apostle James used. He wrote: “[Adulterers and] adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

There is and always has been a fundamental, irreconcilable incompatibility between the church and the world. The Bible’s message of sin and redemption is inherently counter-cultural in a fallen world. Christian thought is out of harmony with all the world’s philosophies. Genuine faith in Christ entails a denial of every worldly value. Biblical truth contradicts all the world’s religions. Above all, we believe in the exclusivity of Christ—the truth that Christ alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (John 14:6). That runs counter to every popular value of this age. Christianity itself is therefore antithetical to virtually everything this world admires. “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
It is impossible to be faithful to Christ while currying the world’s favor. In fact, Jesus expressly repudiated the notion that worldly popularity is a measure of effectiveness in ministry: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way” (Luke 6:26).

He further explained: “The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7). In other words, the world’s contempt for Christianity stems from moral, not intellectual, motives: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19–20). No matter how dramatically worldly opinion may vary, Christian truth will never be popular with the world.

Yet, in virtually every era of church history there have been people in the church who are convinced that the best way to win the world is by catering to worldly tastes. Such an approach has always been to the detriment of the gospel message. The church has only made any significant impact on the world when the people of God have stood firm, refused to compromise, and boldly proclaimed the truth despite the world’s hostility. When Christians have shrunk away from the task of confronting popular worldly delusions with unpopular biblical truths, the church has invariably lost influence and impotently blended into the world. Both Scripture and history attest to that fact.

And the Christian message simply cannot be twisted to conform to the vicissitudes of worldly opinion. Biblical truth is fixed and constant, not subject to change or adaptation. Worldly opinion, on the other hand, is in constant flux. The various fads and philosophies that dominate the world change radically and regularly from generation to generation. The only thing that remains constant is the world’s hatred of Christ and His gospel.

In all likelihood, the world will not long embrace whatever ideology is in vogue this year. If the pattern of history is any indicator, by the time our great-grandchildren become adults, worldly opinion will be dominated by a completely new system of belief and a whole different set of values. Tomorrow’s generation will renounce all of today’s fads and philosophies. But one thing will remain unchanged: until the Lord Himself returns and establishes His kingdom on earth, whatever ideology gains popularity in the world will be as hostile to biblical truth as all its predecessors have been.

Modernism
Consider the record of the past century, for example. A hundred years ago, the church was beset by modernism. Modernism was a worldview based on the notion that only science could explain reality. Modernism stems from the presupposition that nothing supernatural is real.

It ought to have been instantly obvious that modernism and Christianity were incompatible at the most fundamental level. If nothing supernatural is real, then much of the Bible is untrue and has no authority; the incarnation of Christ is a myth (this nullifies Christ’s authority as well); and all the supernatural elements of Christianity—including God Himself—must be utterly redefined in naturalistic terms. Modernism was anti-Christian at its core.

Nonetheless, the visible church at the beginning of the twentieth century was filled with people who were convinced modernism and Christianity could and should be reconciled. They insisted that if the church did not keep in step with the times by embracing modernism, Christianity would not survive the twentieth century. The church would become increasingly irrelevant to modern people, they said, and soon it would die. So they devised a “social gospel,” devoid of any message about personal sin, salvation, or substitutionary atonement.

Of course, biblical Christianity survived the twentieth century just fine. Wherever Christians remained committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, the church flourished. But ironically, those churches and denominations that embraced modernism were the ones that became irrelevant and all but died out before the century was over. Many grandiose but nearly empty stone buildings offer mute testimony to the deadliness of compromise with modernism.

Postmodernism
Modernism is now regarded as yesterday’s way of thinking. The dominant worldview in secular and academic circles today is called postmodernism.

Postmodernists have repudiated modernism’s absolute confidence in science as the only pathway to the truth. In fact, postmodernism has completely lost interest in “the truth,” insisting that it is impossible to be certain of any absolute, objective, or universal truth.

Modernism was indeed folly and needed to be abandoned. But postmodernism is a tragic step in the wrong direction. Unlike modernism, which was still concerned with whether basic convictions, beliefs, and ideologies are objectively true or false, postmodernism simply denies the possibility of settled knowledge.

To the postmodernist, reality is whatever the individual imagines it to be. This means that what is “true” is determined subjectively, as a social construct, and it is therefore subject to change. According to the postmodern way of thinking, there can be no such thing as objective, authoritative truth that governs or applies to all humanity universally.

The postmodernist naturally believes it is pointless to argue whether opinion A is superior to opinion B. Having given up on knowing objective truth, the postmodernist occupies himself instead with the quest for “understanding” the other person’s point of view. Seen in this light, the words truth and understanding take on radical new meanings. Ironically, “understanding” requires that we first of all disavow the possibility of knowing any truth at all. And “truth” becomes nothing more than a personal opinion, usually best kept to oneself.

That is the one essential, non-negotiable demand postmodernism makes of everyone: we are not supposed to think we know any objective truth. Postmodernists often suggest that every opinion should be shown equal respect. And therefore, on the surface, postmodernism seems driven by a broad-minded concern for harmony and tolerance. It all sounds very charitable and altruistic. But what really underlies the postmodernist belief system is an utter intolerance for every worldview that makes any universal truth-claims—particularly biblical Christianity.

In other words, postmodernism begins with a presupposition that is irreconcilable with the objective, divinely-revealed truth of Scripture. Like modernism, postmodernism is fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Postmodernism and the Church
Nonetheless, the church today is filled with people who are advocating postmodern ideas. Some of them do it self-consciously and deliberately, but most do it unwittingly. (Having imbibed too much of the spirit of the age, they are simply regurgitating worldly opinion.) The evangelical movement as a whole, still recovering from its long battle with modernism, is not prepared for a new and different adversary. Many Christians have therefore not yet recognized the extreme danger posed by postmodernist thought.

Postmodernism’s influence has clearly infected the church already. It’s the very reason so many churches want to tone down their message so that the gospel’s stark truth claims don’t sound so jarring to the postmodern ear. It’s why evangelicals now shy away from stating unequivocally that the Bible is true and all other religious systems and worldviews are false. It’s why some who call themselves Christians have gone even further, purposefully denying the exclusivity of Christ and openly questioning His claim that He is the only way to God.

The biblical message is clear. The apostle Peter proclaimed to a hostile audience, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The apostle John wrote, “He who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Again and again, Scripture stresses that Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation for the world. “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Only Christ can atone for sin, and therefore only Christ can provide salvation. “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11–12).

Those truths are antithetical to the central tenet of postmodernism. They make exclusive, universal truth claims declaring that Christ is the only true way to heaven and that all other belief-systems are erroneous. This is what Scripture teaches. It is what the true church has proclaimed throughout her history. It is the message of Christianity. And it simply cannot be adjusted to accommodate postmodern sensitivities.

Instead, many Christians simply pass over the exclusive claims of Christ in embarrassed silence. Even worse, some in the church—including a few of evangelicalism’s best-known leaders—have begun to suggest that perhaps people can be saved apart from knowing Christ.

Christians cannot capitulate to postmodernism without sacrificing the very essence of our faith. The Bible’s claim that Christ is the only way of salvation is certainly out of harmony with the postmodern notion of “tolerance.” But it is, after all, just what the Bible plainly teaches. And the Bible—not postmodern opinion—is the supreme authority for the Christian. The Bible alone should determine what we believe and proclaim to the world. We cannot waver on this, no matter how much this postmodern world complains that our beliefs make us “intolerant.”

Tolerant Intolerance
Postmodernism’s veneration of tolerance is its most obvious feature. But the version of “tolerance” peddled by postmodernists is actually a twisted and dangerous corruption of true virtue.

Incidentally, tolerance is never mentioned in the Bible as a virtue, except in the sense of patience, forbearance, and longsuffering (cf. Eph 4:2). In fact, the contemporary notion of tolerance is a pathetically feeble concept compared to the love Scripture commands Christians to show even to their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28; cf. vv. 29–36).

When our grandparents spoke of tolerance as a virtue, they had something like that in mind. The word used to mean respecting people and treating them kindly even when we believe they are wrong. But the postmodern notion of tolerance means we must never regard anyone else’s opinions as “wrong.” Biblical tolerance is for people; postmodern tolerance is for ideas.

Accepting every belief as equally valid is hardly a real virtue, but it is about the kind of only “virtue” postmodernism knows anything about. Traditional virtues (including humility, self-control, and chastity) are openly scorned—and even regarded as transgressions—in the world of postmodern thought.

Predictably, the beatification of postmodern tolerance has had a disastrous effect on real virtue in our society. In this age of tolerance, what was once forbidden is now encouraged. What was once universally deemed immoral is now celebrated. Marital infidelity and divorce have been normalized. Profanity is commonplace. Abortion, homosexuality, and moral perversions of all kinds are championed by large advocacy groups and enthusiastically promoted by the popular media. The postmodern notion of “tolerance” is systematically turning genuine virtue on its head.

Why does authentic biblical Christianity find such ferocious opposition from people who think they are paragons of tolerance? It is because the truth claims of Scripture—and particularly Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God—are diametrically opposed to the fundamental presuppositions of the postmodern mind. The Christian message represents a death blow to the postmodernist worldview.

But as long as Christians are being duped or intimidated into softening the bold claims of Christ and widening the narrow road, the church will make no headway against postmodernism. We need to recover the distinctiveness of the gospel. We need to regain our confidence in the power of God’s truth. And we need to proclaim boldly that Christ is the only true hope for the people of this world.

That may not be what people want to hear in this pseudo-tolerant age of postmodernism. But it is true nonetheless. And precisely because it is true and the gospel of Christ is the only hope for a lost world, it is all the more urgent that we rise above all the voices of confusion in the world and say so.

 

Preaching an Exclusive Gospel in an Inclusive Age

Deep within the soul of every expositor, there must reside an unwavering commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the cultural currents of the day, and regardless of the changing of the times, he must be persuaded that faith in Jesus Christ alone is the only way of salvation. From Genesis to Revelation, the whole Scripture speaks with one voice, testifying that there is not one drop of saving grace outside the cross of Jesus Christ. Though the world is constantly changing, this truth of salvation in Christ alone never changes.

No preacher can afford to be wrong at this point, as though the gospel can ever be adapted. To be wrong about the gospel is to be wrong everywhere else that truly matters. To be wrong here is to stand in opposition to the saving mission and sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ. To be wrong here is to contradict the meaning of the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Christ. To be wrong here is to divert souls away from the only way that leads to God and to usher them onto the broad path that leads to destruction.

The very essence of the gospel itself demands that every pulpit guard its exclusivity. When the message of the cross is rightly defined, the singularity of the saving purposes of God is automatically established. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—period, end of paragraph, end of discussion. To this truth, the Bible has a “zero tolerance” policy for any equivocation outside of its borders.

This cuts against the grain of the spirit of this age. In this postmodern world, tolerance is the new virtue. An acceptance of every opinion about religion and morality is applauded. We find ourselves preaching in a postmodern culture in which there are no moral absolutes. What is truth for one person may not be truth for another. In this complex maze of competing worldviews today, every philosophy and ideology has some contribution to make to contribute to the larger body of knowledge.

This eclectic approach to finding the truth may look attractive to some. But the Scripture is adamant that truth is absolute. Further, it asserts that Jesus Christ is the only way to find acceptance with God.

This exclusive nature of the gospel desperately needs to be guarded. So-called efforts to contextualize the gospel today often result in its disappearance. In many cases, the issue is not what is being said from the pulpit, but what is not said. A gospel message that does not present Jesus as the only way is not the gospel message. The singular nature of the Christian gospel must be proclaimed with conviction and clarity. To be sure, there is no other way of salvation.

The apostle Paul addresses this very issue in the opening section of his letter to the Galatians. In the churches of this region, the gospel had come under siege. The message of salvation had been conflated with another gospel, which is, Paul says, no gospel at all. The message of saving grace of God in Christ had come under attack and was no longer being preached as Paul had delivered it.

Within the churches of Galatia, false teachers known as Judaizers were mixing law with grace and fusing works with faith. These defilers of the gospel claimed that salvation must be earned by keeping the law and that sanctification was achieved through the works of the flesh. These perverters of the promises of God sought to change the good news into claiming that salvation was not a gift for the guilty, but a reward for the righteous. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In light of these damning distortions, the apostle Paul could no longer remain quiet. He penned a fiery letter to the Galatians in order to fight the noblest fight any preacher could undertake. Paul contended for the faith, that salvation solely comes through the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

In the opening verses of Galatians, Paul minces no words. He breathes holy fire. He tells all corrupters of the gospel they are going to hell. He is shocked with the Galatians, who have so quickly been duped by these false teachers. Paul must speak directly to the believers in Galatia and confront them with this present danger at hand. He does not try to win them over by emphasizing the common ground between the gospel of Christ and this “different gospel” (v. 6). He does not say it is merely a matter of simatics. Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter: this gospel is a false message.
 
Such words need to be proclaimed today by every man who stands before an open Bible to declare its truths. The gospel is not subject to negotiation. Those who think so are, in Paul’s words, “accursed.” This is all the more reason that the whole gospel of Christ—including its exclusive nature—must be heralded by every preacher.

Deserting the Gospel
Paul begins this epistle to the Galatians by expressing his astonishment over how easily they have been led astray. He writes, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him” (v. 6).  This word, amazed (thaumazo), means “to be astounded, bewildered, or shocked.” Paul is dumbfounded and perplexed with the Galatians. He is stunned that they have so quickly deserted the gospel he had preached to them. He had just been with them in person and proclaimed to them the truth. It was this apostolic message they received by faith, and by it they were saved. But Paul had no more left town than these Judaizers had moved into the vacuum created by his absence and seduced the gullible Galatians.

According to the apostle, to desert the gospel is to abandon “Him,” namely God Himself. This is to say, God is the gospel. To believe the gospel is, in reality, to receive God into one’s life. No one has God in his or her life without having put their whole trust in the message of the gospel. Apart from the gospel, every person is separated from God. An enormous chasm separates holy God from sinful man. If anyone is to know God, that person must believe His saving gospel.

Deserting God and forsaking the gospel is one and the same. If anyone alters the gospel, he has become a spiritual turncoat toward God. The word “deserting” (metatithēmi) is a military term used to refer to a soldier who abandons his post in the heat of battle. By falling prey to the false teachers, the Galatians were doing just this. They were forsaking their singular loyalty to God and were abandoning their exclusive allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. The verb “you (plural) are deserting” is in the present tense. Even as Paul is writing this, they are at that very moment falling away from their fidelity to the true gospel. This makes them defectors of the worst kind, leaving God and joining with the enemy of their soul, the devil.

Paul has to remind the Galatians that it was God, “who called you by the grace of Christ” (v. 6). By sovereign grace, God irresistibly summoned them out of darkness into the glory of the light of Jesus Christ. Apart from any foreseen goodness in them, the Lord Jesus Christ effectually drew them into fellowship with God the Father. Paul charges them with abandoning the very saving call of Christ upon their lives.

The Galatians are leaving the truth, Paul writes, “for a different gospel” (v. 6). This implies there are two kinds of gospels. There is the true gospel, and there is a false gospel. Put another way, there is the saving gospel and a non-saving gospel. There is the message of divine accomplishment, and there is a message of human achievement.

The Galatians had been saved under the true gospel based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ at the cross. But now, they were giving up this truth in order that they might have a different gospel, a gospel of man, one that linked salvation to man’s actions. The word “different” (heteros) denotes a message of a totally different kind. This gospel is not simply a little different; it is completely different. Those who have been deceived have exchanged the gospel of God for a lie. This gospel offers no true salvation at all. This other gospel is a sham—a counterfeit gospel with a mangled message. It is nothing more than a rip-off religion that will damn its followers.

Concerning this contrary gospel, Paul asserts it is “really not another” (v. 7). This is to say, a false gospel is not a gospel at all. There is no other gospel by which holy God and sinful man may be reconciled than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only by the true gospel is the wrath of God propitiated toward sinners. Only by this gospel are sinners redeemed from the curse of the law. Only by this gospel is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to hell-bound sinners. Only by this gospel can unworthy rebels be presented faultless to stand before the throne of God. The gospel of Christ is the only true gospel. When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6), He meant it. The Lord Jesus tells us that He is the one and only entryway into the presence of God. Every other path leads to eternal perishing.

The rest of the Bible affirms this reality. Jesus emphatically declared, “Enter through the narrow gate” (Matt 7:13). This passageway is not a gate, but the gate. Standing before the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders in Israel, the apostle Peter declares, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). What part of “no” could they—or we—not understand?

To Paul’s son in the faith, the aged apostle asserts, “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 2:5). There are not multiple mediators between God and man from which to choose, but only one. The apostle John was equally definitive about who inherits eternal life when he stated, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Nothing could be more clear. There are not many ways to God, but only one way, and it is through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

For every preacher there are hills worth dying on. Wise is the expositor who knows upon which hills to lay down his life. This truth of the exclusive gospel is one of the hills that he is called to guard and defend. Paul’s amazement at the Galatians should be our amazement at so-called Christian preachers in this hour who tolerate another gospel. Now we can understand why the apostle Paul is so dogmatic. To abandon the gospel of Christ is to abandon salvation altogether.

As we look around Christendom, we note those who have tampered with the gospel by adding the necessity of human works or who preach that other religions can lead one to God. We, too, should be astonished at such widespread apostasy. We, too, should imitate Paul by confronting such error head-on.

Diluting the Gospel
As Paul addresses the Galatians, he describes the enemies of the cross who have become his avowed adversaries. He writes, “there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). This is Paul’s first reference to the false teachers who are seeking to retain old covenant practices in the new covenant church. These teachers give primacy to Mosaic law, not the gospel, in matters of salvation. But the truth is, even under the old covenant, sinners were saved not by keeping the Law, but by the grace of God in Christ.  

When Paul uses the word “disturb” (tarassō), it means “to trouble, agitate, shake up, shake back and forth.” This is precisely what the false teachers were doing to the spiritual lives of the Galatian believers. They were not causing true believers to lose their salvation. Such is impossible. But they were weakening their allegiance to God by diluting the gospel. And in so doing, they were undermining the stability of the church. No church can stand strong when it has forfeited the purity of its gospel message.

These who are disturbing the Galatians are “distorting” the gospel of Christ. This word “distort” (metastrepsai) carries the idea of “changing something into its opposite form.” These false preachers were changing the gospel into the very antithesis of grace. They were modifying the message of Christ into what is entirely contrary to true grace. They were tampering with the saving message by diluting it. To be sure, to alter the gospel is to trouble the church at its deepest level.

More specifically, these Judaizers were teaching that faith in the gospel of grace is good, but only as far as it goes. They claimed this message was not enough to save. Neither can it sanctify. They maintained that, for salvation, human works are necessary to be added to the gospel. They asserted that the Galatians must keep the law in order to be righteous before God. Moreover, they taught that believers are sanctified by obedience through their own strength, apart from the inward ministry of the Holy Spirit. They even taught that Gentile believers must be circumcised like Jews in order to find acceptance with God. They asserted that Christians must keep the Ten Commandments and observe the holy days in order to be received by God. In short, Gentiles must become Jewish proselytes and submit to all the Mosaic Law, or they cannot be saved and sanctified.

To combat this heretical error, Paul wrote, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:21). This is to say, if the Galatians could become right with God through law-keeping, then the cross was the blunder of the ages. In fact, if a person could be accepted by God apart from the death of Jesus Christ, then God was guilty of child abuse by needlessly subjecting His only Son to the cruelty of the cross.

Throughout church history, and especially during the Middle Ages, some form of “works-righteousness” has infiltrated the true teaching of the church. But in the sixteenth century, the Reformers stood firm upon Scripture, raised their voices, and declared that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The whole Reformation was fought over this little word, alone. Where the Church of Rome said and, the Reformers pronounced alone. That, in a nutshell, is the entirety of Protestant Reformation. It is this message that must be declared again in our day. Today many claim that salvation is by faith and water baptism, faith and speaking in tongues, faith and hail Marys, faith and taking Mass, faith and last rites, faith and the treasury of merit, faith and buying indulgences. There is no end to what can be added to faith and.

These false additions to the gospel continue today. Most modern-day preachers acknowledge a place for the cross in their message. But they do not preach the primacy and centrality of the cross. Neither do they proclaim the finality and sufficiency of the cross. These religious hucksters use the right Christian vocabulary, all while assigning different meanings to these biblical words. They claim that salvation is by faith and many additional things such as water baptism, church membership, and good works.

Yet another type of adversary is also prevalent today. These are the cult leaders who deny the doctrine of the Trinity. These blind leaders of the blind disavow the absolute deity of Jesus Christ. These whitewashed sepulchers reject the Bible’s teaching on the virgin birth of Christ, His sinless life, His substitutionary atonement, His bodily resurrection, and His second coming. Still others withhold the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. But if Jesus is not the only way to heaven, then He is not any way to heaven. In a world enamored with “both-and” thinking, here we have an “either-or”: Jesus Christ either is the one, true way to His Father, or He is not who He says He is.

Deviation from the Gospel
In order to propagate their lies, these false teachers had to undermine Paul’s teaching. Consequently, the apostle must respond boldly, because the purity of the gospel was at stake. Paul writes, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (v. 8). When he says “we,” he is referring to himself or any of his associates, whether it be Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, or Luke. When he adds “an angel from heaven,” he includes Michael, Gabriel, a seraphim, a cherubim, a ruling or guardian angel, or any elect angel. If any creature speaks a different gospel, Paul announces, he is to be accursed. This word accursed (anathema) means “to be devoted to destruction.” It indicates to be imprisoned in the flames of hell. The idea is to be eternally condemned. To put it bluntly, such a messenger is to be damned.

By focusing on the true gospel and not on himself as the messenger of the gospel, Paul makes another important point for Christian teachers and preachers. The gospel is not about the one proclaiming it. The gospel is not true because of one’s individual authority or the sanction of his associates. Rather, the gospel is the gospel and speaks magisterially for itself. No matter who God choses to use in the proclamation of His good news, what matters is that the teaching is true to Christ’s gospel as stated in the Bible, and not because of any preacher’s individual words. This is a helpful reminder that the expositor’s job is not to get others to agree with him. Rather, his task is to proclaim the gospel of Christ to all who will hear it, and to take issue with those who proclaim another gospel.

As Paul comes to this point in the passage, he is absolutely seething. He is rightly filled with holy indignation. Martin Luther put it this way, “Here Paul is breathing fire. His zeal is so fervent that he almost begins to curse the angels themselves.” The German reformer is an example to every preacher, who likewise should be worked up over that which angers the heart of God. No one who stands in a pulpit should ever be indifferent toward that which violates the way of salvation. There can be no room for neutrality when it comes to preaching the gospel. There must ber no place for passivity in the ministry of the Word. When the way of salvation is at stake, the man of God must step forward and repudiate any false gospel threatening his flock.

To this very point, James Montgomery Boice writes in his commentary:

How can it be otherwise, if the gospel Paul preaches is true, then both the glory of Jesus Christ and the salvation of men are at stake. If men can be saved by works, Christ has died in vain; and the cross is emptied of all meaning. If men are taught a false gospel, they are being led from the one thing that can save them and are being turned to destruction.

Boice is right. Those who contaminate the gospel contribute to the damnation of lost souls. Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). By these words, Jesus means, it is better for a person to suffer death than to teach a false gospel. It would be better not to be alive than to lead others down a path that ends in eternal punishment.


Rather than back down from these strong words, Paul reloads. He will not merely gloss over the damning errors of these false teachers. He reiterates what he previously said with yet stronger language. Mind you, Paul is putting this on the front doorsteps of this book. At this very place in his other epistles, he brings his thanksgiving, saying, “how I thank God for you,” or “you are in my every thought.” But there are no such encouraging words of appreciation here. Paul is not thankful. Rather, he is rightly filled with holy anger because the gospel has been corrupted in the churches of Galatia. His righteous indignation cannot be contained.

So, Paul must confront this damning error again. The apostle restates, “As we have said before, so I say now again” (v.9). He is referring to that time in the recent past when he was there in person. As Paul said to the elders in Ephesus, he undoubtedly told the churches in Galatia that after his departure, there will be ravenous wolves who will come into this church. With such a danger lurking, the shepherds must defend the flock. These spiritual leaders must not give a warm reception to these troublers who will inevitably come. Where the truth is preached, false teachers will be drawn to infiltrate those churches. But they must be exposed and repudiated.

When Paul writes “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received,” he uses the present tense. This implies that, presently, at that very moment, men are preaching another gospel to them. This is not a hypothetical situation about what might happen in the future. As Paul writes, there are dangerous men in their midst preaching this false gospel. The Galatians had received the true gospel from Paul when he was there in person. He preached the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in His substitutionary death. That is what they had welcomed into their hearts. But now, these teachers of another gospel were administering death with their listeners.

In no uncertain terms, Paul states that such purveyors of perversion will be devoted to the destruction of hell. They will reside where there is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. They will be consigned where there is utter darkness and no relief for the soul. And those unbelievers who follow them share in their destruction. Paul’s strong words of damnation speak to the seriousness of corrupting the gospel. Unless such false teachers repent, they will be in the lake of fire and brimstone.

The idea of false teachers was not new with Paul. Jesus Christ had already warned there would be propagators of a false gospel. Wherever there is the preaching of the true gospel, there will be those who will seek to divert people onto the broad road headed for destruction. By way of analogy, Jesus said there are two gates standing closely positioned next to each other (Matt. 7:13-14). Travelers in life must exercise great caution concerning which gate through which they pass. Both gates are marked as leading to heaven, but only one actually takes a person there. The other gate—easily accessed and heavily traveled—leads to hell.

There are deceptive men, Jesus asserted, standing beside the broad gate that is headed to destruction, urging people onto the broad road (Matt. 7:15-20). They are positioned between the two gates, exerting their deceptions to dupe people through the broad gate. People must look past these slick-talking hucksters and examine their fruit. Some do not think we should examine other people’s fruit. But we must open our eyes and examine their personal conduct, twisted message, and false converts. Examine the kind of fruit being produced and subject it to this one test: is this the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?.

Devotion to the Gospel
Paul concludes this section by getting down to the bottom line. Here are the two questions that Paul asked himself: “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men” (v.10)? If Paul were seeking the favor of men, he would certainly tone down his rhetoric about these false teachers. Such stinging polemics is no way to expand his ministry base. But Paul is not courting the approval of men. Neither is he seeking the favor of the Judaizers. Nor is he courting the support of anyone sympathetic to their soul-damning message. By stating what he is expressing, Paul is seeking the approbation of God alone. This confrontational language by Paul was hardly calculated to win the approval of men. Men-pleasers do not speak such anathemas. Paul understood that if you please God, it does not matter whom you displease. And if you displease God, it does not matter whom you please. In this sense, preaching is very simple. Put simply, please God.

Paul concludes, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (v. 10). Paul says that seeking to please men and serving Christ are polar opposites. These two are mutually exclusive, not mutually inclusive. Such diametrical extremes are either/or, never both/and. Either you are primarily seeking to please God, or you are seeking to please men. It can never be both. Any preacher seeking to please men will be displeasing God. And the expositor who seeks to please God will often be displeasing men. No preacher can have it both ways. Jesus affirmed it this way: “No one can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt 6:24). The one who preaches will either be a servant of Christ or a slave of the approval of men. Choose wisely which it will be.

For every preacher, the bottom line in the pulpit must be a preeminent desire to please God and never modify or adjust the truth in order to please men. The expositor must lovingly share the truth of God’s gospel despite the repercussions they will receive from those who oppose such truth. We demonstrate authentic love to individuals by speaking the truth of God to them. We genuinely desire their best when the truth is proclaimed to them. But when we seek the applause of men over the approval of heaven, we are in serious danger of compromising the truth and bringing devastation to those under our preaching.

The apostle Paul wrote elsewhere, “we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). In the last day, it will not be before men that we will stand and give an account. Rather, it will be before God that every preacher will stand. The Bible says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). It is certain that those who preach and teach the word will be judged with a far stricter scrutiny by God for what they have said because their words effect others. Paul warned that too many preachers succumb to the snare of pandering to people and becoming ear-ticklers. Paul warned, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3–4). Men-pleasing preachers are, in reality, little more than ear-ticklers, back-slappers, and ego-massagers, but certainly not God-pleasers.

As Paul makes this statement at the very beginning of this epistle, he is saying to the Galatians—and he is saying to us—there is only one way of salvation. Anyone who tampers with this exclusive message of salvation in Christ alone is accursed. Fighting the good fight of the gospel requires that every preacher uphold the standard of sound words and guard the treasure entrusted us.

In a postmodern world, every expositor must decide whether he will cave in to the spirit of this age or uphold the standard of sound words. If he is to win the approbation of God, he must proclaim the unchanging message of God’s unmerited grace. Of those who corrupt this message of the sufficiency and the finality of the substitutionary death of Christ for sinners, he must say with Paul, “let them be accursed.” May this never be said of us.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.