Without the Word

Charles S. Mallie
Friday, January 1st 2010
Jan/Feb 2010

I can barely open my eyes this morning as I stumble out of my car into the pre-dawn mist and try to get my bearing. The wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee hits my senses and my body turns as if on autopilot. I reach for the door, tripping over the threshold as I step into the soft light and the morning sounds of beans being ground and the espresso machine giving birth to that mysterious dark elixir. The birth pangs continue as ordinary milk is transformed into a magical delight added to the more superior of coffee possibilities. Dr. Rosenbladt once posited that coffee was an ontological argument for not only the existence of God but also that he wanted us to pay attention. I am in complete agreement. I order my usual “Vente Mocha, triple shot with whip.”

“$3.87, Charlie. How’s it going today?” a friendly voice offers.

“Mm,” my words stick to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. Plumbing the depths of my pocket I manage a “Good, thanks,” as I hand John $4.12.

He looks utterly confused by my accounting, as if someone took a big monkey wrench and jammed it straight down into the gears of his mental machinery. He looks at the coins and then at the register and then at me. He tries to give back the change and says, “It’s only $3.87.” There’s a bit of an uncomfortable pause.

“I know,” I say, “but I need quarters for the meter,” but still there’s no understanding. It’s pointless. In my mind a voice is yelling, “I’m not even going to think about what they didn’t teach you in high school math.” “Never mind, just keep it,” I say, smiling.

I grab my beverage and walk over to the corner table and take a seat. As I take my first sip I think, “What if the world becomes like this?” More thoughts like these begin to swirl behind my eyes as I imagine a culture in which the ability to read becomes a lost art, math is treated like magic, and anyone who can make change at the cash register a modern magician. Can you imagine a world where doctors no longer have a competent grasp of human anatomy and physiology? Would you go under the knife knowing it was a gamble? How about a world where lawyers no longer understand the concept of justice? Wait–scratch that last one. Or what about a world where the church no longer bases its teachings on the Bible, or where Christians are completely ignorant of God’s Word? It’s that last thought that preoccupies the rest of my morning, and the issue that seems to be every solid pastor’s challenge these days.

Some would argue that we’re already there. I know, I’ve had those arguments with fellow pastors. I don’t think that all is lost, not completely, not yet. Things may be bad, but I know some real oases in this wasteland of American Christianity, and for them I give thanks. I hope and pray that all of you reading this are at some such place, a bastion of orthodoxy of some sort. But I also realize that in surveying the landscape, things are not as well as they could be among the Christians in this country. Trying to find water in the desert is becoming more of a challenge.

As an adult convert I can say that my first hundred or so encounters with Christians or with various churches didn’t impress me much. When I had courage enough to darken the doorway of some assembly, often I found the teachings shallow and gimmicky. There was so very little of the Word, if at all. I remember one mega-thon in Southern California where the “youth dude” was standing in for the main pastor one particular Sunday. When it came time to “do the Supper,” he had us all bow our heads and “in our hearts intensely remember Jesus,” and then he looked up and yelled, “Here’s to Jesus,” as if toasting the skylight with his little plastic cup filled with Welch’s. That was the last church I walked out of with five-thousand-plus people watching. So began the years of my church fast–and my struggle to find genuine biblical Christianity, one that was saturated through and through with the Word of God.

It occurred to me back then (now over fifteen years ago) that the very aspect of what pulled me with great velocity out of those churches seems to be what draws so many others to them. The emphasis on marketing rather than teaching, offering choices, rather than calling for commitment, entertainment rather than substance flows like a chapter out of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. If you look at it from 40,000 feet, regardless of the individual manifestations of the malady, the source is always the same: a lack of teaching founded on the whole counsel of God or at the very least an inoculation against such teaching. Why, in some places, you can have solid biblical teaching and have it be rejected wholesale remains, for the most part, a mystery to me. The parable of the sower may offer some explanation with the seed that falls upon the side of the road.

How dangerous is it to have a church that isn’t completely shaped by the Holy Word of God in doctrine and in practice? What’s the big deal? Can’t we just form a group of Christians based on whatever we feel will best serve our needs? We need to be culturally relevant and sensitive. As we look at the way the church has operated in the history of Christianity we can certainly say that there are more efficient models for conducting business. We’re modern thinkers; look at all the advances in science and technology–look at how much we now know about this human condition called life. Surely the church cannot operate as it has for the past two-thousand years. Surely the times have changed–and the church must change with it, right?

Maybe not. I hope you wholeheartedly disagree with the previous sarcastic statements. If you do in fact disagree, it is unquestionably the result of a particular thing in your history. Somewhere in your background the Word of God came to you. A passage that you read or that someone spoke stuck with you. Some pastor preached on a given text and it took root. You read your Bible and the Word was implanted. That living and active Word, the vehicle of the Holy Spirit, was buried in the soil of your heart and it grew. As that seed did its seedy thing, a small part of you was conformed to the image of the Sower. In that moment you were given discernment by the Word and the Word became a part of you. Because of that gift of being taught by the Holy Spirit through his Word, you can look at such silly assertions and say, “I think not.”

But that’s really the key, isn’t it? The Word. It all turns on the Word of God. Not just a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, but the very means that guard our steps as we walk with Christ who is the Way, the Truth, the Life. The Word, the Word, the Word! Sola Scriptura we Reformation folk like to say. Once upon a time, people thought it a principle worth fighting for and even dying for. But why? They thought it that important because they knew it was the Word that must be their foundation. They took passages such as Matthew 7:24-25 to heart. They believed 2 Timothy 3:16. They held fast to a whole host of testimony that if condensed said, “Sola Scriptura!”

Without the Word, we are sitting ducks for all sorts of trouble. If it is true that the devil roams about like a lion seeking to devour whomever he will and that the only weapon we are given is the Word of God–that double-edged sword of the Spirit that proceeds from the mouth of Christ–then without the Word we are truly vulnerable. Worse than that, we are helpless against whatever wind of doctrine blows through our doors. But I can only know such things from the Word. I will not come to the conclusion of such things by a careful contemplation of the starry sky–sorry, Mr. Kant. Without that transcendent eternal Word dropping down from the lofty realm of the neumena confusion, heresy, even apostasy becomes commonplace and talk of absolutes degrades into discussions of preference. Without a raft of revelation to sail me through this sea of doubt, there is no distilling ought-ness from is-ness. We are adrift in this sea of doubt, seeking and never finding, grabbing hold of whatever promises a remedy, even if it is just a temporary distraction from the pain upstairs that makes our eyeballs ache. The idea of victimhood gives credibility to this destructive narcissism as we become so singularly focused on our own needs to the exclusion of culture, community, and even family. The church fares no better, for it is filled with such individuals who are without the Word to straighten their inborn crookedness (in curvatus se), and instead it panders to their felt needs.

The recognition of this total depravity, without the mirror of God’s law, is merely an optimistic attempt to place bandages on the devastating cancer of our sin, topically treating an inborn propensity for death with modern-day snake oils, peddled by religious carnies. Without the salve of the gospel, the message of God’s salvation in Christ pro nobis (!), these souls are merely relegated to a hot and hopeless eternal existence, and an earthly life where meaning isn’t given from above but must be mined from the depth of the human condition. Tell me I’m wrong! But if this were not the state of things in these latter days, there would be no need of a publication such as this calling for a modern Reformation and a return to the solas! We are in dire need of the Word of God to be present in our churches.

And it’s not just that the Word be present but that we as the body of Christ persist and remain fluent in that Holy Word of God. The old Lutherans called this catechesis: the teaching, or the passing on of the teachings of the apostles, specifically those concerning Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. This we did from the passages and we believed catechesis was to be lifelong. The best of Lutheran orthodoxy on the subject reveals a deep understanding that the Word of God is to be understood as living and active. It is the creative, redemptive Word that is the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit delivers God’s law, illuminating our sin, and thereby showing us our need for our Savior, but it is also the means of communicating the gospel. That gospel, delivered by the Word, was the thing that got into your heart, soul, mind, and body, straightening you up to look anew at Christ’s death for you, absolving you of guilt and shame–forgiving your very sins–and that’s how you were conformed to his image, by putting to death the deeds of the old Adam in you. It was the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, that delivered the Holy Spirit to you personally; and once the gift was given, faith was created ex nihilo or, as the old Lutherans said, what was delivered was “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.”

Once upon a time every young Lutheran was expected to have memorized about twenty pages of questions with answers that were verses from the Bible in Luther’s Small Catechism. These days, many Lutheran churches no longer use the catechism at all. Don’t even ask me about their use of the Bible. Because of this, whether it was laziness on the part of the pastors or resistance on the part of the people, biblical ignorance abounds. Within my own church body, it is a huge struggle to try and teach out of several generations that took so much for granted. Scriptural familiarity is at an all-time low. That’s a dangerous place to be for a church body that claims to be roundly and soundly about Jesus. It leaves us open to all sorts of things that range from just plain silly to the outright demonic.

For without the Word to inform my life in Christ, what do I have? I will almost certainly clench tightly to flowery or fiery words that sound conservative or wholesome. The prophets to whom I give ear will be of my choosing, certainly not those of old to whom the Word of the Lord came. I will be drawn to messages and teachings that anesthetize and comfort my ignorance. I will do this because it is easy, comfortable, and familiar. What I will not do in this is confront my sin. At best, I will define my sin not in biblical terms but in humanistic ones, ways in which I can make progress and chart my ascendance. At worst, I will ignore it and bury it where it cannot be confessed and it cannot be forgiven. I will, given the inclination of my heart, rank myself among my peers and compare my “progress in enlightenment” to that of my associates. I will be a bigger Pharisee than I am already–and not just me, millions like me, all who call themselves Christian. Where will it end?

It’s one thing when a lack of biblical acumen affects my course in this life, but what happens when the problem becomes so widespread that it pushes the entire Christian church on earth off her intended heading? Students of history well realize this has happened before. The last, most significant realization perhaps, called for reformation when a young Augustinian monk, who, having had the stage set for him by a previous generation of humanists, heard the cry ad fontes and returned to the Holy Word of God for teaching and direction. We know the result; it’s a matter of history. For a time there was division, dissention, and destruction; but there was also life and as a direct result, after a while, real peace in a land marked by civil unrest. The gospel of Jesus Christ through Reformers the likes of Luther, Calvin, and others, came to the forefront in the life of the church. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ, understood as the real rescue of sinners sola gratia, came to be the center and the circumference of the public life and expression of the church, the benefits of that gospel flourished as well. God’s Word being given its rightful place did what God’s Word always does: it creates life.

But if it is God’s Word that creates life, then what about its absence? Well, if it is true that through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned, and that death reigned from Adam until this present age, and that through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, then through the one transgression there resulted condemnation of all men. That condemnation of sin reigns in death. Without the Word there is only death; without the Word of the gospel, that death is eternal. Without the Word of God–it matters little how you dress it up, market it, or in what words you couch it–it is merely the dry dusty breath of a dead man on his way to the valley of dry bones in the desert. To be without the Word is to be without Christ. To be without Christ is to be without a Savior. To be without a Savior is to succumb to that insidious hereditary darkness that results in our ultimate demise without hope of resurrection. The question is, “Son of man, can these bones live?” What can we say? Our own words fail, even here, “You alone, O Lord, know.”

What we do know, and that again from the Word, is that the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one death reigned through the one, how much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17). But here again, what I’m trying to show through example is that it is only a fluency in the Word and with the Word that best provides protection against all forms of this death that manifests itself both in the world and in the church.

I don’t think there are many in the various camps of the orthodox who would argue that American Christianity has drifted away from Scripture. The signs are too clear, the marketing too effective, the billboards are everywhere. If space permitted, a contrasting of a knowledge of Scripture over and against the smooth-tongued seductive attacks against the Word would make the case even clearer and the need and urgency to return to the Word rather stark; but this article merely paints with a broad brush, leaving the detail work to more competent individuals.

Before I close, I’d like to leave you with just a few thoughts. The Reformers understood very well that the entire Scriptures were about Jesus. He himself says as much in Matthew. But in addition to that, Luther and those who followed understood that the Word was not just casuistry concerning Jesus, but that it was about Jesus in a particular way. Holy Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, described in infinite detail the scarlet thread of redemption–Jesus primarily in his dying and saving office for sinners, of which you and I are included. Should we lose that message in its particulars and its entirety, we lose the ability to communicate our very salvation. Apart from God’s Word, the only knowledge of God we have is one of power and might, of justice and of law. We lose Jesus, we lose the Christ, and we lose our very salvation.

Can we have a church that is completely devoid of Scripture? Will it still be church? I’m afraid, given the current trend, this question might be answered for us all. May it never be, but nevertheless, come Lord Jesus.

Friday, January 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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