“But to each one of us was given the grace according to the measurement of what is given freely by Christ.”
Paul has just been speaking about the unity of the body in the unity of our faith and then puts an exclamation point on what he is saying by reminding the people that the gift that they have been given is based fully and entirely on the work of Christ — that gift that Christ gives freely to God’s elect. It is nothing we have earned, it has been given. It is nothing to which we contribute; Jesus has given it freely.
The notion of unity in here is a subtle one, but an important one to bring forth. Given that none of us has done anything to be made a part of Christ’s glorious body — it is a work of God’s grace — we all are on the same humble footing before the Lord. There are not kings and princes amongst us in this Kingdom. There is one King — King Jesus. There is one Prince — the Prince of Peace. There are no High Priests amongst us — we are all priests and we have a High Priest in Jesus Christ. And, there are no prophets in our midst — we have one Prophet in Christ Jesus who is greater and fuller than all of the human prophets that came before Him. We are all on equally humble footing and there is no place for arrogance or boasting in our midst.
You see, unity naturally flows out of right doctrine, but so often we humans become rather arrogant in the doctrines we hold — especially amongst those who are leading the church astray. Over the years, people have often opposed things that I have sought to teach and while that can be frustrating at times, I have sought to make it my practice simply to point to the text and say, “But what does the Bible say?” I may be well-read (and Christians — especially pastors — must be!), but ultimately, I don’t care what men have said unless it aligns with what God has said. I have also often said, “If you don’t like this teaching, please don’t get upset with me, take it up with God because He is the one that said it.” These statements are not meant to be snarky or to avoid the debate, but simply to remind all that it is God’s Word that we are called to be stewards of — I confess that I don’t know all things and I don’t always get everything right, but don’t try and convince me by personal preferences; convince me by the Word of God.
There are many in our culture who puff themselves up for their own ends. There is no place for this in the church. There are many who pursue and cherish titles and degrees and status. There is no place for that in Christ’s church. There are indeed, different gifts and those gifts are given in different proportions. Yet, none of these gifts are for the building up of man; they are for the glorification of Christ and the building up of Christ’s body as a unified whole. These words of Paul’s reinforces the notion that there is no room for boasting in Christ’s kingdom…none whatsoever…unless we are boasting in Christ. We are fellow servants, united not just in the knowledge of God, but also united in a position of humble worship before Christ’s throne.
In the Greek New Testament, the common word for “witness” or “testimony” is μαρτυρέω (martureo), which which we get the English word, martyr. There are variations of this word that can be used as a noun or communicate that there are more than one who is witnessing, but the root word remains the same.
The objective behind this word study begins with Jesus’ statement to Pilate that Jesus’ purpose is to “bear witness to the truth” or, depending on how you wish to translate John 18:37, “testify to the truth.” When I think about testifying regarding a matter, the first thing that comes to mind are the creeds and confessions of the church. I think of the Latin phrase, Credo, Ergo Confiteor — “I believe, therefore I confess…” So, when we find Jesus making a testimony — giving a witness as it were — before Pilate, it ought to draw our attention to his words.
Usually, when we see this language in John 18:37, we focus on the words before it, “for this I was born, for this I came into the world.” There are a handful of things that Jesus says he came into the world to do — something extremely important to look at — but for our purposes here, I wanted to focus on the idea that Jesus is testifying to the truth…and really, on a more significant level, to the idea of testimony in John’s writings. It should be noted that the other Evangelists also used the word “testify,” but not nearly as regularly as does John. As John carries his use of this term into his Epistles, those references have been included in this study as well.
In John’s prologue, he employs this term three times: John 1:7,8,15. What is interesting about this is that all three of these references are to John the Baptist and his bearing witness to the Messiah. John is called one who bears witness to the light so that men may believe. Without a witness, faith does not emerge from the heart of men — as Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ.” Verse 15 builds doctrinally on this matter in that it introduces the preexistence of Christ. It is a reminder that for John, even in the beginning of his Gospel, the idea of witness carries with it factual content — doctrine — not just personal feelings.
As we continue into the narrative and find John the Baptist’s ministry introduced, we find three more uses of the term in verses 19, 32, and 34. Verse 19 introduces what is the “testimony” of John. What is that testimony? He testifies that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness of whom Isaiah speaks (Isaiah 40:3). In verse 32 we find John’s testimony as to the anointing of Jesus as the dove descends upon him and in verse 34 we are given the definition (again a doctrinal statement) that Jesus is the Son of God.
What I want to highlight is that already we are seeing doctrinal elements showing up as part of the testimony of the believer. In this case, they are of the eternality of Jesus and of the fact that he is the Son of God. While much can be written as to the meaning and significance of these statements, I want to confine my observations here to the point that both of these ideas will become prominent in the early creeds of the church. Perhaps to present it a different way, the Creeds of the church do not teach us what to believe; they articulate for us what the True Church has always believed.
John 2:25 is the next use of the terminology. Here we are told that Jesus does not need someone to “bear witness” or to “testify” as to the nature of man. We need to say little here other than the fact that once again, we have something of the divine attributes of Christ (omniscience) being presented, though not necessarily in the context of a creed but simply mentioned in the historical narrative.
In John 3:11, we find Jesus engaged in a dialogue with Nicodemus. Jesus’ condemnation against Nicodemus is that he and his disciples are testifying to what they have seen but that the religious establishment that Nicodemus represents does not accept it. Yet, what is this testimony that has been seen? The testimony finds itself laid out in the dialogue that goes before — and it is a condemning one. No one can believe unless the Holy Spirit gives rebirth. How have Jesus and the disciples “seen” this? It is clearly seen in the rejection of Jesus by the religious establishment. It is a reminder to us today of just how much damage is done to the church of Jesus Christ when those who are not regenerated are permitted to hold positions of leadership or influence. In the case of Nicodemus, Jesus’ condemnation seems to have shaken him up as we see Nicodemus returning in John’s narrative later, but that time as a “secret disciple” of our Lord.
John 3:26 and 28 return us to John the Baptist and his testimony. The first verse again asserts that John has borne witness as to Jesus being the Messiah and in verse 28 we find John’s testimony that he is the forerunner.
Again, we find this language in chapter 3. In this case, verses 32 and 33. Here John the Apostle speaks of Jesus’ witness to what he has seen and heard (verse 34 helps clarify this that these things are from God the Father). Again, the Jews have denied this but God has sealed the testimony as being true. How has it been sealed? Arguably with the miracles but also with the Spirit given to the ones who believe (verse 34).
In John 4:39 we find the Samaritan woman testifying to the townspeople what she knew about Jesus. Again, this is more of a narrative description than a theological one, but it reminds us of two important principles. First, that we are all called to “witness” or to “testify.” What does that look like? It means we testify to others what we know to be true. How interesting that our Creeds do just that. Thus, how important our creeds are to the faithful witness of God’s people. And, if we ignore the historic creeds and confessions, what we tell others about Jesus is purely subjective.
John 4:44 is the very familiar proverb that a prophet has no honor in his own country, yet it stands in stark contrast to the words of the Samaritans that come just two verses earlier, that Jesus is “the Savior of the world,” again language that is fundamental to later creeds and confessions.
John 5 contains extensive use of the term testimony in the context of those people and entities that testify to Christ. We find the word found in verses 31,32,33,34,36,37, and 39. Verse 31 is Jesus’ statement that he is not alone in bearing witness to himself (an allusion back to the Old Testament model of needing two to three witnesses to substantiate major crimes), In verses 32, 33, and 34 we find references to the testimony that John the Baptist brought, remembering too that John was a priest and priests were responsible for the testimonies of God to the end that even the Tabernacle was referred to as the “Tabernacle of Testimony.” Verse 36 refers to the works (miracles) that God did through Jesus as testimonies of who he was and in verse 37, Jesus refers to the Father himself who had testified to him. In fact, Jesus goes on in verse 38 to say that if you deny that Jesus is who he said he is, then you deny the Father and do not have the Father’s word abiding in you. Finally, in verse 39, Jesus speaks of the Scriptures as bearing witness to him and closes the section with a blazing condemnation in verse 46 — if you deny Jesus you deny the Scriptures and you are accused by Moses (who also wrote of Jesus). Indeed, it is a reminder that the Jews (even of today) who reject Jesus also reject Moses.
In John 7:7, Jesus testifies that the world hates him because Jesus testifies that the works of the world are evil.
John 8:13,14,17, and 18 again form a unit. Even after Jesus’ statement in chapter 5 that others have testified about him, the Pharisees come back to the same notion and again accuse Jesus of testifying to himself (verse 13). Verse 14 begins with the language that he can testify to himself because his testimony is true (Proverbs 12:17) and then condemns the Pharisees by telling them that they do not know from whence he came. He indeed came from heaven, thus the Pharisees are rightly accused again of not knowing God. In their zeal to obey the letter of the Law they lost the Lawgiver himself. In verses 17 and 18, Jesus comes back to this and affirms that when he speaks, the Father is speaking through him. His testimony is the very testimony of God. This statement is not only an affirmation that Jesus is a prophet (a prophet’s job is to testify the word of God to God’s people) but also that the content of Jesus’ message, that he is the Son of God, is true.
John 10:25 echoes John 5:36 that the works he does testifies to who he is.
John 12:17 is a narrative account that those who saw Jesus raise Lazarus testified to who Jesus was. Who but God has the power over life and death?
John 13:21, at first simply looks like a simply narrative comment — namely that someone at the table (Judas) would betray him. Yet, when you once again look to the historical confession of the Christian church, the betrayal of our Lord holds itself as a prominent doctrine reminding us too that the enemies of our Lord, like Judas, will be remembered forever as accursed by God.
John 15:26 and 27 speak of the Holy Spirit testifying about Jesus to the Apostles and then of the Apostles testifying about Jesus to the world. John also testifies that those with the Holy Spirit need no teacher because the Spirit teaches them (1 John 2:27). Yet, of whom does the Spirit testify? Jesus. One of the testimonies against the prosperity preachers and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) today is that they typically only speak to build themselves up or to build up their brand of theology. That very act testifies that it is not the Spirit of God who is guiding them.
Chapter 18 brings us into the false trials of our Lord. Verse 23 is Jesus rebuking the High Priest for striking him without reason and verse 37 is his statement to Pilate that he is testifying to the truth.
John 19:35 takes us back to the language of the Holy Spirit testifying as to the person and resurrection of Christ. Again, these are essential themes to the historical confessions and creeds of the Church and in John 21:24 we find John testifying to the truth of the words of his book.
As we move into the Epistles of John, you will notice that John places more emphasis on those things that must be a part of our Christian witness — things that are reflected in the historical creedal and confessional language of the church.
1 John 1:2 — that Jesus is the source of eternal life
1 John 4:14 — that Jesus is the Savior of the World
1 John 5:6-7 — depending on your translation, that the Holy Spirit testifies to the reality of who Jesus is
1 John 5:9 — the witness of God is greater than that of men and God’s witness is that Jesus is his Son.
1 John 5:10 — the one who believes has the witness in himself (Holy Spirit) and the one who does not believe does not have this witness. Spiritual life comes through faith.
1 John 5:11 — part of the witness God has given us is that of the gift of eternal life.
3 John 3 — the witness that the church is walking faithfully
3 John 6 — the witness that the church genuinely loves the body
3 John 12 — Demetrius’ good witness
Most certainly, the witness of Jesus that is truth has to do with who he is and arguable with the idea that there is salvation in none but he. Yet, with that said, we ought to note how many doctrinal passages are included in these references. It stands as a reminder to us that the witness of the Church is not an arbitrary thing, but it includes a body of ideas and teachings that must be held if one is claiming to be a Christian. These things have historically been included in the creeds and confessions of the Church…language that the church today has largely abandoned to our great harm.
One of the attributes of the church, toward which we are called to strive, is unity. Indeed, how “good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1) and how important it is that we strive to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” that must exist within the church (Ephesians 4:3). Truly, it is a wonderful and a beautiful thing to see Biblical unity growing amongst the body of Christ.
But Biblical, Christian unity is hard and it takes work. As a result many other things often get put in its place. Sometimes the church becomes busy with activities, something akin to the work of a beehive, with everyone buzzing around consumed by the things that must be accomplished. At times like this, there is so much going on that it feels as if people are united, though no one has the time to notice that the unity is tenuous at best. Activities unite them rather than the worship of Christ. How sad it is that churches often fall into this trap.
Sometimes those activities take the form of a program — things to research, demographic studies, and drawing conclusions about the community around them. Sadly, of course, most of the conclusions drawn are fairly obvious to those who have lived in the community for any length of time; nevertheless, such studies are often pursued with great energy and vigor. The church that I attended as a child was much like this — there was always a program going on and when a program ran its course, there was a pursuit of a new program to fill the void.
Then something happens and the activities either slow down, come to a close, or are halted for one reason or another. In the absence the activity or program, the problems that these things covered up come to the surface and people begin to face the reality that they have to either avoid one another or begin engaging in more authentic ways. Truly, this does not have to be a bad thing; in fact it is a very healthy thing for the body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is an uncomfortable thing that many people are unwilling to confront and many fall away, seeking other busy places.
Sadly, busyness is not the only thing that the church sometimes substitutes for Biblical unity. Sometimes unity is confused with tolerance. Tolerance is the practice of being willing to accept ideas and practices that one disagrees with for the sake of avoiding strife. This does not need to be an insidious thing, but it becomes so when tolerance is only a public persona and, when in private, the gossip begins. Then tolerance becomes little more than disgruntled resentment. Once again, authentic relationship is avoided lest the anger or frustration come to the surface and the facade of unity be laid bare and shown to be the hollow thing that it really is.
The sister of tolerance is compromise. How often people fail to face or take stands on difficult subjects because of fear of disagreement. Rather than working through differences in submission to a standard (the Bible), those differences are considered to be secondary and non-essential to unity. While indeed, some differences are non-essential to unity, when one begins down the pathway of compromising truth for the sake of unity, eventually essentials will be placed in the category of non-essentials. Further, compromise in this way is often a denial of both the notion of absolute Truth, the belief in the understandability of the Word of God, and also a denial of the rules of logic.
Compromise denies the notion of absolute Truth because it assumes that there is no absolute True answer to a given question. When there is a disagreement, there are only three possible options: Person “A” is right and person “B” is wrong, Person “A” is wrong and person “B” is right, or both Person “A” and “B” are wrong. And since God has given us minds to think and reason as well as His Word to study, shall we not labor to determine the right answer and not compromise?
Compromise denies that the Scriptures can be properly understood when it comes to important matters. In theological terms, we speak of this in terms of “perspicuity” or “clarity.” In other words, we say that the scriptures are crystal clear when it comes to the essentials for salvation while there are other things that are more opaque in nature. Does this principle, then, teach that there are things on which we must compromise? Not really. It simply teaches that there are some things on which we must labor more carefully and dig deeper. Yet, many of these matters have already been fleshed out for us by those who have gone before us and have written the Creeds and Confessions which we have inherited as a church. In this fashion, the church worked through the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, but it also spoke of baptism, worship, and many other things that we still debate about. Isn’t it interesting that our tendency to “pick and choose” what we like from an early council or confession leads us into compromise?
Compromise also denies the rules of logic. Logic no longer seems to be “in vogue” these days, but nevertheless, logic is essential for communication, invention, and life in community. While society might like to play fast and loose with logic, the church must not. The most basic principle of logic is referred to as “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” This can be summarized as the idea that “A” cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same way. For our purposes, we must be clear that two mutually-exclusive ideas cannot both be correct. For instance, either the sprinkling only view or the immersion only view of baptism is correct. Both cannot be so as they are mutually contradictory positions. Churches that choose to accept any view you hold are making a compromise for the sake of unity, but in doing so, deny the basic laws of logic.
More importantly, in all of these areas (compromise, tolerance, and busyness) we end up seeking to create a kind of unity by human means, not by divine means or by Biblical means. Isn’t it interesting that as much as the Bible speaks about Christian unity, Christians rarely look to the Bible to provide the means and definition of said unity. Whether we attribute it to our sin nature or to our downright active rebellion against God, we as the Church, must address what God says about our unity and then pursue God’s means of achieving it.
To begin with, true Christian unity, begins with an attitude of the heart. King David writes: “Instruct me, Yahweh, in your way so that I can walk in your truth; unite my heart to the fear of your name.” (Psalm 86:11). In other words, if we are going to have any sort of unity in the church, our hearts must first be united in the fear of the Lord and we must be a people who are committed to the instruction of the Lord’s ways. Yet, how often this is the last thing that church bodies look toward when it comes to binding together in unity. Nevertheless, it is the first step in moving in that direction.
The Apostle Paul builds upon what it is that David says when he writes: “I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in order that you all agree and that there might not be divisions amongst you. Yet, be united in the same mind and in the same intent.” (1 Corinthians 1:10). One of the great problems that Paul was addressing in the Corinthian church was divisions and factions which were tearing the church apart and creating all sorts of avenues for sin. Yet, you will notice Paul’s solution. It is not compromise or tolerance or activities. Paul’s solution is to be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. In other words, Paul is saying that the church must have a united world-in-life view before these factions and divisions will go away. And how will that united worldview develop? It develops by sitting under the instruction of the Word of God that we might be united in our fear of Him.
Paul develops this idea further in Ephesians 4:11-16. Paul writes:
“And he gave the Apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers to train the saints for the work of service, for the building up of the body in Christ, until we all arrive at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, into mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, in order that we may no longer be infants tossed about and carried about by every wind of doctrine or the cunning of men by craftiness and deceitful schemes. But being truthful in love, we should grow up in every way into Him who is our Head, Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together and brought together — every ligament with which it is supplied, working as each is designed — makes the body increase and be built up in love.”
While there is much that can be said about this passage, for our purposes there are two points that should be made. The first is found in the language of God’s goal for the body — that it grow up into maturity. What does that maturity look like? The church is not thrown about as a ship on rough seas by every wind of doctrine and human cunning. In other words, a mature church is a doctrinally sound church. Further, given that a mature church is also a united church, to unite a church means that we must unite the church around true doctrine or teaching. Until that happens, the church will always be thrown to and fro.
The second point that is worth making is that the united body that speaks truth in love is one that is built up into mature doctrine. You cannot speak truth in love if you are not first committed to instruction in the fear of the Lord — the theme of David once again. The point is that right doctrine has an effect on the way people live out their lives. It is not separate from it. And thus, if you are doctrinally sound, you will speak truth in love. And, until you are doctrinally sound, what truth you know will not be spoken in love.
In the end, we are left at the same place we were when we started. If we want unity in the church, it cannot be achieved by man’s rules and ways. It can only be achieved by God’s. And God’s design for unity in the church begins with unity around the Word of God — around doctrine — around truth. If the body is committed to truth, there will be Christian unity. If the body is not committed to Christian truth, no matter how much work you do, unity will never be achieved.
“Okay, Pastor Win, lay it all on the table — you preach a lot about doctrine, you teach the Confirmation students a lot about doctrine, you write books about doctrine, and you debate with people over what doctrines are right and what doctrines are wrong — is it really that important? Doesn’t doctrine just divide the church into camps and keep us fighting with each other instead of uniting to work together for good? Wouldn’t it just be easier to focus on what we all agree on rather than drawing lines in the sand?”
I must confess, it would be much easier to just focus on what we all agree on and just affirm that if you love Jesus you must be okay. Humanly, it would be far easier if we could just all get along and be one big happy body. A lot of those people whose doctrine I reject as in error are friends of mine and I care deeply about them. Even furthermore, some of the people whose views I claim are heretical are really nice people and I like them a lot — some are even family members, my own family members. But easier isn’t always right. In fact, easy is often the pathway that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). And that is not what we are called to as the Church.
Here’s the thing. Biblically, my most basic job as a pastor is to train you, the church, so that you are equipped for he work of ministry and to build up the body to “mature manhood” (Ephesians 4:11-13). What does that look like practically? Paul goes on to say that a mature church is not “tossed to and fro” by every wind of doctrine, human cunning, and deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:14). In fact, Paul writes that the only way a church finds itself built up in love (Ephesians 4:16) is if we grow into this mature manhood.
Now, in the world around us, doctrines abound, some good — mostly bad. Doctrine is taught to us in school (from preschool up), on television, in movies, on the internet, on billboards, and on the radio as we drive down the road. Some of the bad doctrines even proclaim themselves to be Christian.
So, how will we decipher good from bad so that we are not tossed to and fro? The only way it can be done is by teaching good doctrine. And how do we identify good doctrine? We must measure it by the teaching of the Scriptures — the scriptures alone and the scriptures as a whole. How often I have corrected people on doctrine with the words, “That sounds nice, but that is not what the Bible teaches…” It is not meant to be mean or contentious (okay, maybe a little contentious, but never mean), it is just meant to get us back to our only rule for faith and practice: the Bible.
Yes, there are things that we all agree on — “do unto others as you would have them do to you” or “do not steal.” But then again, both the Mormons and the Muslims I have known over the years would pretty much attest to these things too yet their souls are destined for the fires of Hell. I don’t know about you, but the seriousness of that statement weighs on me. Further, there are people in our families, in our communities, and in our circles of influence that are destined for Hell unless they repent and believe, and all the while, we are happily singing, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” There seems to me a certain disparity in that reality if we are not actively pointing these people toward Christ. Yet, how will we point people such as this to what is true if we do not know what is true in the first place?
Paul writes that the church is to be a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). How can we do that unless we are first grounded solidly in the truth of God’s word? How can we do that unless we ground ourselves solidly in Biblical doctrine? How can we do that if the teachers of the church do not commit themselves to teach Biblical doctrine and the members of the church do not commit themselves to studying it? Remember, the purpose of the church is not to make her people feel good while going unnoticed by the community. The purpose of the church is to tear down the strongholds of hell in our midst and the weapon of our warfare is the Word of God — we must train in it.
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.