Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.
I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?
The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”
Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:
“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”
It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).
Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:
“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”
Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.
The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:
My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.
Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.
It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.
When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.
In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.
Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?
My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.
I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.
The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.
“And God saw their works, that they had turned from their way of the evil, God grieved over the evil which he had threatened to do to them and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10)
Now, before you go running off to burn all of your copies of John Calvin’s Institutes and to declare to me that this verse proves that God changes his mind, let’s stop for just one minute and see what it is that is going on in this passage and place it in the context of the rest of God’s revelation. As well, let us keep Ephesians 1:11 and Job 23:13 before us, being reminded that God has ordered all things (not just some, but all) according to his will. Also, God’s will is perfect and right and he does not need to go back to the drawing board periodically to modify his plan to suit the happenings of the world.
God is infinite, timeless, changeless, and boundless; there is no measuring him or constraining his will and plan. At the same time, we are finite and bound by time. For us, there must always be a chronological sequence of actions and reactions—we understand cause and effect, not infinite design. Thus, God condescends to us within history, not because history in some way binds him, but because he wishes to be understood and this is the only way we will understand his revelation. Thus, at times, when God’s activities are described in manners like this, they are described in terms of cause and effect that we might be able to understand what it is that God is doing.
Thus, the language here is not the language of God changing his mind, but it is describing in terms that we can comprehend, all that is going on. Was God’s threat to destroy the city a real one then? Yes, indeed! At the same time, God intentionally moved on the hearts of the king of Nineveh and the people of the city and brought them to repent of their sins. God is a God of mercy, and in bringing them to repentance, he relented of his threat to destroy the city (at least for a time). This is the mercy of God.
Beloved, this mercy of God is the most important thing that you walk away with from this verse or even this chapter of Jonah. God is merciful and kind and those who repent of their sins and turn to God through his son, Jesus Christ, will find forgiveness—that is not just a nice, theological statement, but this is revealed fact. What God has promised, he will do and he does not change his mind mid way through the process. Friends, cling to the mercy of God that is in Jesus Christ. Remind yourself that if God is willing to forgive even the Ninevites, he will also be willing to forgive you of your sins and even the most vile pagan of his or her sins as well. There is no sin too terrible that the blood of Christ can not wash it clean—this is God’s promise to us, and oh, what a blessed promise it is!
Arise, my soul, arise,
Shake off your guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears;
Before the throne my Surety stands,
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.
Recently, I was asked for some input on how I would structure a discipleship program if I were to have about 6 months of fairly intensive time to work with a small group of men. I thought that I would share my initial thoughts here.
When I began doing homeless ministry, I spent some time looking at some of the sermons found in the book of Acts to gain some insight into a model to base evangelistic preaching/teaching on. The model I came up with covered things in this order: 1) God’s glory, 2) man’s fallen state, 3) the work of Christ, 4) the promise of salvation coupled with the hope of ongoing sanctification in this life.
Unpackaging this in terms of a longer study would look something like this:
I. God’s Glory
a. Who is God?
i. names of God which reflect God’s character
ii. character traits of God
b. What has God done?
ii. Ordaining and Governing history
II. Man’s Fallen State
a. What does it mean to be made in God’s image?
i. the doctrine of the Imago Dei
ii. human dignity as a result of the Imago Dei
iii. the doctrine of the Imitatio Dei (how do we imitate God?)
b. What happened when Adam and Eve sinned?
i. Genesis 3
ii. The promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3
iii. Inherited sin guilt and the impossibility of our paying God back that sin debt on our own merit
c. How has the fall corrupted and contorted the Imago Dei?
i. Our aversion to the things of God and suppression of the truth
ii. The problem of pain–why do bad things happen to good people?
III. The Work of Christ
a. Who is Jesus and why is a Savior important?
i. the person and character of Christ
ii. the names of Christ
iii. the Old Testament prophesies of Christ
iv. The work of a mediator and paraclete
b. How Did Christ save us?
i. the preexistence of Christ
ii. the humiliation of Christ in life and in death
iii. the exaltation of Christ and his ongoing work as mediator at the right hand of God the Father
IV. The Promise of Salvation and the Hope of Sanctification
a. Who is the Holy Spirit?
i. the person of the Spirit
ii. the work of the Spirit
b. What is Faith and how is that tied to salvation?
i. The nature of Faith (Hebrews 11:1)
ii. Regeneration, Conversion, Repentance
c. What does it mean to be saved?
d. What happens next once I am saved?
i. Sanctification as a means to prepare for glory
ii. Living all of life “Coram Deo” or “Before the Face of God”
iii. 2 Peter 1:3-11 and adding to the faith as “Partakers of the Divine nature” (untwisting the Imago Dei–like having broken bones set)
iv. The fruit of the Spirit
v. The gifts of the Spirit