In this month’s post regarding matters related to the Christian faith, I am reacting to a comment made during the Men’s Prayer Breakfast at Christ Presbyterian Church a couple of weeks ago. The format for this weekly gathering is very informal. There is an assigned reading schedule of five Old Testament chapters and two New Testament chapters per week, and each Friday morning men from the church gather to eat and discuss that week’s readings. There are no real leaders or “lesson plans,” just honest and sometimes “delightfully unstructured” discussion, though generally speaking we do a good job of staying on task. Because our church subscribes to the Westminster Standards as its confessional basis, there is little danger of wandering into the morass of “this is what it means to me” discussions of Scripture that reach few if any valid conclusions.
In the meeting to which I am referring today, the assigned Scripture passages included a matter of some difficulty with regard to interpretation and application. Although the difficult question had to do with a minor issue in the text, I decided to point out the particular verses and ask the hard question. The particular passage and question involved isn’t particularly relevant to my discussion here—Scripture includes many “hard parts.” Suffice it to say that a lively discussion ensued, with many “what ifs” introduced by several individuals, though I think in the end the group arrived at the correct conclusion.
Just as the meeting was ending, one young man asked a different question. I will confess that I am not entirely sure that I heard him correctly, but I believe he asked, in effect, “Does this really matter?” The question was asked out of a concern for evangelism. In light of the thousands that die each day without knowing Christ, are debates about such theological and biblical minutia worth having? Are they a worthy use of time and energy, or do they reflect a fault with which Reformed Christians are sometimes justly charged, that we are more concerned with theological precision than with evangelizing the lost?
Again, I may have heard the question incorrectly, and perhaps the individual I am thinking about intended to ask something entirely different. Nevertheless, this event prompted me to ask myself that question. In light of the tremendous need for evangelism in our day, and the admitted failure of Reformed churches in particular to reach out to the unchurched and preach Christ and Him crucified to them, do discussions of questions regarding secondary and tertiary issues in Scripture really matter? My answer is that they do, and for the following reasons:
1. The Bible discusses these things.
God’s written revelation of Himself to us is actually fairly limited in its scope. This is necessary if for no other reason than that God is infinite and we are finite; a comprehensive revelation of Himself would be neither possible in our language nor comprehensible by us. What we do have is an inspired document—indeed, an inspired series of documents—which contains within its pages all that we need to know for life and godliness. We read the following in 2 Timothy:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Paul tells us that the entire Bible is good and useful for us, and it contains all that we need to know to be reconciled to God and to live lives of service and devotion to Him. That he expressly says this of all of Scripture denies us the right to gloss over passages and questions that we find confusing or divisive or that we believe to be less important.
Referring again to our denomination’s confessional standards, the Westminster Divines said the following about Scripture, in several paragraphs extracted here from Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646):
VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men….
VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
Those godly men that gave us the Westminster Standards told us, as Paul told Timothy, that all we need to know for “salvation, faith, and life” is found in Scripture, but they wrote further that not everything in Scripture is equally plain. They then exhorted us to not simply “skip over” the places that give us difficulty, but to search throughout the Scripture so that we can know what the Lord intends in those more difficult passages.
What all of this means for the present discussion is that if God included something in the Bible, it is worth knowing, worth discussing, worth “digging down deep” to find the treasures of wisdom, knowledge, and godly counsel that are found even in the “hard places” of Scripture. This is worthwhile if for no other reason than that this is God’s Word, and we should desire to know it better. And yet, there are more reasons that these things “matter.”
2. Many Non-Christians have read some or all of the Bible, and will ask the “hard questions.”
Secondly, these difficult and even divisive questions are important for a reason directly related to evangelism: some of the people we seek to reach with the gospel have read the Bible, or at least parts of it, and are quick to point to passages that they believe to be bizarre or contradictory when Christians speak to them about the faith. Indeed, just like that Serpent of old, they are quick to say “Yea, hath God said?” (Genesis 3:1) to any part of Scripture they find odd or unpalatable. A few even seem to derive a perverse type of enjoyment from watching dumbfounded Christians flounder when confronted with a question about the Bible that they have never thought about or are unable to answer. Consider Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), the evolutionary biologist famous for ridiculing Christianity, who wrote in a recent article:
People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality…. I have even heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.
Dawkins then proceeds to list stories and commands in Scripture which he believes to be so self-evidently nonsensical that if a person bothered to read the Bible at all he would be entirely relieved of any notion that it is a reliable guide to morality, to say nothing of its claim to being the self-revelation of God Himself. Dawkins said as much in his conclusion:
Whatever else the Bible might be—and it really is a great work of literature—it is not a moral book and young people need to learn that important fact because they are very frequently told the opposite. The examples I have quoted are the tip of a very large and very nasty iceberg. Not a bad way to find out what’s in a book is to read it, so I say go to it.
To any Christian that has read and studied the Bible to any significant level of depth, the portions Dawkins finds so ridiculous can be effectively answered and demonstrated as internally consistent. Those given to taking such “cheap shots” count on the Christians that they address to be too ill-informed to effectively challenge and answer their assertions. Sadly, they are too often right.
The hard questions “matter” because those that we want to embrace Christ will ask those questions, sometimes out of genuine curiosity, and other times out of a desire to ridicule Christianity and Christians. In either case, we should seek to be ready even in this instance to “make a defense to anyone that asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us].” (1 Peter 3:15)
3. Some seemingly minor issues have a big impact on core Christian concerns.
Finally, that a particular scriptural or doctrinal argument lies beneath the surface doesn’t mean that it is unimportant, nor does it prevent one’s position related to that argument from having a direct effect on his thinking and acting upon doctrines one might consider more central to the Christian faith.
To illustrate this point by way of example, consider the question of God’s sovereignty in salvation, or the Calvinist/Arminian debate. Those that have read my earlier post on the subject of Calvinism know where I stand on this issue, and mounting a defense of that position is not the subject of my post today. In fact, to make my point here, I actually need to indicate major areas of agreement between orthodox believers on both sides of this debate, including the following:
- All men are, by nature, prone to sin and separated from God. (Romans 3:23)
- God’s ultimate punishment of unrepentant sinners will be unending and severe. (Romans 6:23, Mark 9:41-48)
- God freely offers salvation from that punishment to all that come to Him through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. (Acts 2:38-39)
- Christians are called to spread the “good news” of salvation in Christ to all people; preaching, as George Whitefield (1714-1770) wrote, “promiscuously to all.” (Acts 1:8)
- “Everyone that calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
So if we agree on that much—and these really are major agreements—why discuss, debate, and argue about the question of God’s sovereignty in salvation? Does that really matter? Can we not simply proceed with evangelizing the world on the basis of the doctrinal agreements listed here? To a certain extent, we can—in fact, my involvement with The Gideons International depends upon this, since that association accepts members from all evangelical and Protestant denominations, and, by my observation, counts far more non-Calvinists than Calvinists among its members. In spite of our various denominational commitments and doctrinal disagreements, we all agree that God saves sinners, and the reading of His Word is one means by which He has been pleased to draw people unto Himself (cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism 89). And so, in the context of the Gideon ministry, we happily lay aside our differences and join hands in the work of bringing the gospel to all that will hear and/or read it.
And yet, this doesn’t mean that the question of God’s sovereignty in salvation is unimportant. In fact, it will have important effects upon one’s approach to aspects of the faith one might consider to be more essential, including evangelism. Here is a short and incomplete list of considerations:
- Is man “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)? Really dead, in need of having new life breathed into him, or simply lost, in need of assistance or perhaps convincing? A person that believes man is dead will not rely upon his own cleverness or persuasiveness to bring others to faith. Instead he will plead with God to “take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). A person that believes man is merely lost might be tempted to think the salvation of another depends upon his own persuasive abilities. The tendency—sometimes an unwitting tendency—to “water down” the message to make it more palatable and thus an “easier sell” soon follows.
- Has God chosen a people for Himself in Christ “from the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:3-4) or is the ultimate success of the gospel totally up to us? The person with the first opinion will enter into evangelistic work with joyful confidence, knowing that God will not fail to bring in all of His elect. The person with the second opinion, again, might think that the success or failure of the gospel depends upon him. This can lead to self-aggrandizement when the Lord blesses his work with success, or unnecessary self-abasement when the work is not going as well.
- Has God decreed not only who will be saved, but also the means by which He draws people to Himself? If we believe that He has done this, then we will limit ourselves to those means—namely, the proclamation of the Word both preached and read (Romans 10:14-15)—in our evangelistic efforts, trusting God to save sinners even as He has promised. If we do not so believe, then we will, with good but misguided intentions, employ any and every means simply to “get people in the door” of the church. This is unbiblical, and the temptation to preach “ear tickling” (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3) sermons and introduce any number of innovations in order to “keep them in the door” follows. As James White (b. 1962) is fond of saying, “what you win them with is what you win them to.”
I will leave this discussion here for the sake of brevity, though more could be said in this vein.
The question of Calvinism—the question of the sovereignty of God in salvation—is, in a sense, a secondary matter. People on both sides of this issue agree on essential questions regarding the gospel message, and we all rejoice in that. And yet, what one believes about this “secondary” issue does in fact affect how one approaches bringing that message to others. Calvinism may be a “below the surface” issue, and it may sometimes spark arguments that create “more heat than light” within the church, but its influence upon more central matters makes the question a worthy one to be asked, and the correct answer worth vigorously defending. Likewise with many other topics some might consider less important. These secondary issues do matter.
I’m afraid I’ve rambled on a bit this week, though I hope my point has not been lost. I’ll conclude by encouraging you to read your Bible. Don’t gloss over the difficult teachings, because they do matter. Instead, “dig down deep.” Consider the writings of godly authors that have spent their lives studying God’s Word and have ably answered the difficult stuff. Consider the old creeds and confessions, which provide such a helpful framework for studying and understanding Scripture as a whole. Talk with your pastor. Have edifying discussions with fellow Christians and “hash out” these hard questions. They are worth asking and worth discussing, and in the process your soul will be nourished with the “strong meat” (cf. Hebrews 5:12-14) of God’s Word.
You might even emerge more prepared for effective evangelism.