How the Believer and Unbeliever Critically Differ in their Study of the Bible

“I mull over the text, I pray. I meditate and exegete. I talk to my Bible, and ask questions of the text. I take notes. I think. I sweat. And then God gives me what he wants me to have.”—Warren Wiersbe

Like many things in the Christian life, the preparation and delivery of a sermon is neither solely the work of the Holy Spirit nor is it solely the work of the preacher. The former leads to mysticism and poorly prepared sermons that are more heat than light and the latter leads to sermons that are devoid of the power of God.

In order to gain a better grasp of how the Holy Spirit acts within the preparation of biblical exposition we must first recognize that any study of the text which seeks to be accurate and God empowered is a work of the Spirit which carries along the expositor in his study as much as in his delivery.

A Preliminary Distinction

Before we can launch into the working of the Spirit in the study of the Scripture by a regenerate Christian, we must understand how it is that an unbeliever can accurately study any given text and still accurately understand what the text is saying to a certain extent. By examining how this is possible, we will be able to better understand how the Christian expositor is different and how his resultant study will yield spiritual fruit. To accomplish this, it is helpful to distinguish between comprehension of a biblical text and apprehension of the Word of God.

Comprehension

Comprehension as I am using it here is the ability to gain a knowledge of the text of Scripture through the technical sciences and application of hermeneutical principles. Comprehension allows for the accurate observation of such elements as grammar, syntax, and other exegetical and linguistic features of the text, i.e. the unbelieving exegete is not prevented by the noetic effects of sin from recognizing the verb forms of a biblical passage. He may gain additional insights regarding the biblical text from his knowledge of archaeology, background, culture and a multitude of other disciplines. 

However, it must be acknowledged that the unregenerate exegete cannot come to the text in a purely “scientific” way because his presuppositions will taint his methodology and will not allow for the Bible’s claim to be the voice of God. His comprehension will be flawed and be limited as he or she seeks to understand the fact of the text in light of their intended meaning.

Apprehension

Different from a raw knowledge of the facts of a text’s features and most basic meaning is what can perhaps be referred to as “apprehension.” Apprehension would include in addition to the comprehension of the text the additional aspect of the reception of the meaning of the Word of God in heart and conscience and communicates the intention of the passage and the desired response of the Holy Spirit to those that hear the message “with ears to hear.” This apprehension may include the preacher as well as those who hear the message. Paul wrote about this reception of the Word in 1Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV) 

The contrast between the understanding of the biblical text by the unbeliever and the believer is most markedly different in the comparison of these two aspects—comprehension and apprehension. 

The inability of unredeemed men to comprehend the meaning of Scripture nor can they hear the revelation of God in any form is expressed in such passages as:

  • Romans 1:18–20—They are “truth suppressors” and cannot grasp what God has made plain, yet they are without excuse.
  • 1Cor 1:18-25; 2:14—The Word of God is “folly” (Gk. moros) to the world’s wise men. Not only are they foolishness to the natural person, but they are incapable of understanding them. 
  • Eph 4:17-19—Unbelievers are marked as living “in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding…”

This suppression, mocking and darkened understanding affects some comprehension and prohibits apprehension of the Word of God when it is studied by the unbeliever, no matter his depth of knowledge in biblical studies.

Biblical Examples of Comprehension without Apprehension

  • The murderous Jews who searched the Scriptures but could not accept Jesus as the Christ—John 5:18, 39-47
  • The indifferent chief priests and scribes who had no apparent desire to seek the Christ-child in spite of knowing some were seeking his birthplace—Matt 2:1-6
  • The ignorant, yet searching Ethiopian who studied the prophet Isaiah but could not find Christ on his own—Acts 8:26-30

The missing element that links Comprehension and joins exegesis to the heart is the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.

Comprehension and the Work of the Preacher

“Exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology. When pastors can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of Biblical texts, they will tend to become closed-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended pluralists who don’t put much stock in doctrinal formulations. In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error.”—John Piper

It is necessary to state that the necessity of Holy Spirit working through the believer for the comprehension of the biblical text does not guarantee that the interpretation of the text is the correct one. Many passages in the Bible have been a matter of debate by believers and Christian scholars for centuries. Simply because the Holy Spirit is present does not automatically mean that serious exegetical study is not required, nor that such study guarantees the outcome of that study.

However, without Spirit dependent exegesis and the careful application of hermeneutical principles, the correct understanding of any given passage of Scripture will not be able to correctly interpret the passage as the Holy Spirit intended it to the original audience then applied to the present audience being addressed.

Accuracy with the biblical text assures that the message of the Scripture is understood accurately, but the work of the Holy Spirit is not complete. He must still work to bring about the apprehension of the message he intends.

Apprehension and the Work of the Preacher

Beyond the need for proper hermeneutical principles and accurate exegesis, there is the necessity of the work of God’s Spirit. As Paul reminded the church in Corinth:

“and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:4–5, ESV)

Accompanying the words of the message there must be the Spirit and his power. A sermon that is empowered by God himself must be more than simply an accurate message, although it cannot be less. The inerrant Word will only successfully penetrate the heart when the Spirit acts.

I. Howard Marshall is correct when he writes:

“Once the sense of the text has been understood, there is the task of seeing what it has to say to a particular audience, be it the probable readers of a book or a congregation listening to a sermon. The sense of Scripture is something that can be determined with a measure of objectivity as something that is fixed; it is what the original writer intended his original readers to learn from what he wrote. The application of this to new sets of readers in new situations can be very varied. It is here that the expositor particularly feels his dependence upon the Spirit in the task of making Scripture speak again in the new situation. In a sense he is trying to repeat what the original authors had to do—to speak forth God’s Word in a way that would grip their audiences; receiving Scripture as God’s Word, he now has the task of speaking it forth so as to grip his audience. If the original authors were dependent upon the inspiration of the Spirit to do so, how much more is the modern expositor thrown back upon the guidance and illumination of the Spirit in his task?”

Conclusion

The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit refers to the Spirit-given ability to understand the Word of God as it is studied or as one considers its implications for life. Paul referred to the inability of the natural mind to understand the spiritual mind of God in 1 Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). It is not that the unbeliever is not able to understand the bare words and thoughts of the Bible, but he cannot understand their spiritual meaning or their application to his own soul. This is best illustrated in the account of Nicodemus in John 3. Although he was a preeminent teacher of Israel, Nicodemus could not conceive of the new birth, even though Jesus condescended to teach him these things in natural pictures, relating the new birth to a human birth.

Jonathan Edwards related this to the unregenerate man having some sense of what is being referred to, but being incapable of having a total understanding of the matters of Scripture:

“The natural man discerns nothing of it (agreeable to 1 Cor. ii.14) and conceives of it no more than a man without the sense of tasting can conceive of the sweet taste of honey, or a man without the sense of hearing can conceive of the melody of a tune, or a man born blind can have a notion of the beauty of the rainbow.”

Although every believer has the ability to understand the Word of God because he has the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), the remaining effects of sin nature impede thinking and understanding. Thus, a preacher needs to be continually renewing his mind with the Word of God (Rom 12:2), asking God for clarity and understanding as he searches the Scriptures to glean its truths and apply them to his life and the lives of his hearers. 

The Pastor in His Study

The effect of illumination on the heart in preaching is two-fold. Illumination must occur as the pastor prays over Scriptures and wrestles with the text that is to be preached to his congregation. The doctrine of illumination is not meant to be pitted against the need for careful study and preparation. Millard Erickson has written that, 

“…illumination by the Holy Spirit helps the Scripture reader or hearer understand the Bible and creates the conviction that it is true and is the Word of God. This, however, should not be regarded as a substitute for the use of hermeneutical methods. These methods play a complementary, not competitive role.”

Illumination also occurs as the pastor stands in the pulpit and preaches the Word to the congregation. The words that are spoken, though they have illumined the heart and mind of the pastor in his study, will fall dead if the hearts and minds of the congregation are not also illumined by the Spirit to hear and understand. It is here that one sees most clearly the interrelatedness of the Spirit and His Word working through the Spirit-filled man of God.

John MacArthur, well known for his dedication to diligently present the Word of God, describes the necessity of illumination:

“What is our responsibility? The answer is in Ps. 119:130; “The unfolding of Thy words gives light.” God’s words are unfolded to us first by discovery. Through diligent Bible study, we unfold or unwrap God’s truth. We discover that meditation with a view to applying the truth deepens its impact. Discovery and meditation combined bring the brightest light of illumination to our hearts.”

Recognizing that the Word of God energizes the preacher and the hearer does not give pastors the right to become lazy. The Spirit most frequently works through means rather than directly in applying His Word to the human mind. Believers have been commanded to love the Lord God with their whole being, and that includes the mind (Matt 22:37). Erickson writes that even though the Spirit gives an inner testimony of the truthfulness of His Word:

“He [the Holy Spirit] creates certainty of the divine nature of Scripture by providing evidences that reason can evaluate. He also gives understanding of the text through the exegete’s work of interpretation. Even Calvin, with his strong emphasis on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, called attention to the indicia of the credibility of the Scripture, and in his commentaries used the best of classical scholarship to get at the meaning of the Bible. Thus, the exegete and the apologist will use the very best methods and data, but will do so with a reiterated prayer for the Holy Spirit to work through these means.”

The Fool’s Dilemma (weekend repost)

Even though the fool says in is heart that there is no God, his claim is contrary not only to the facts, but his raging against the God that he says does not exist shows that he does not believe his own words.

Read the rest of the post here: The Fool’s Dilemma

Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: Unable to Resist God’s Calling

Dragged against your free will?

Resistance to the Gospel

If a person is elect, what assures that they will actually answer this divine call? The Arminian/semi-Pelagian, seeing everything through the lens of libertarian free-will, assumes that man can walk away from the drawing of the Spirit of God. But clear and straightforward passages such as the so-called “golden chain of redemption” in Rom 8:28-30 show that the process once begun by God cannot be thwarted:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30, ESV)

Again, if the Lord God is sovereign in all things, he must have the power to overcome the deadness of sin and the resistance that inevitably comes from the naturally sinful desires of the elect before they are regenerate. The one who rejects the irresistible calling of God point to the observable reality of those who on a daily basis reject the gospel call of the evangelist.

But this general or universal declaration of the world to be saved is not the call of salvation we are speaking of here. This universal call is, of course rejected every day by many. We are speaking here of the “electing call” of God. This is the act of the Spirit of God moving, changing, provoking the will of the sinner so that all at once he sees his guilt before a holy God and his spiritual predicament, he also sees his need for a Savior, and he sees the beauty of Christ and how irresistible the call to come and drink of the living waters is. 

Dr. Lloyd-Jones says of this doctrine:

And again I could refer you to Ephesians 1:18 and to 1 Thessalonians 1:5 once more, and to Philippians 2:13. In other words, there are proofs positive of this statement that it is the internal operation of the Holy Spirit upon the soul and the heart of men and women that brings them into a condition in which the call can become effectual. And when the Spirit does it, of course, it is absolutely certain, and because of that some people have used the term—which I do not like myself—irresistible grace. I do not like the term because it seems to give the impression that something has happened which has been hammering at a person’s will and has knocked him down and bludgeoned him. But it is not that. It is that the Holy Spirit implants a principle within me which enables me, for the first time in my life, to discern and to apprehend something of this glorious, wondrous truth. He works upon my will. ‘It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do.’ He does not strike me; He does not beat me; He does not coerce me. No, thank God, what He does is operate upon my will so that I desire these things and rejoice in them and love them. He leads, He persuades, He acts upon my will in such a way that when He does, the call of the gospel is effectual, and it is certain, and it is sure. God’s work never fails, and when God works in a man or woman, the work is effective. [1]

When Paul and Silas approached the women who worshipped by the river in Philippi, it says in Acts 16:14 that “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” The Lord did not destroy her volition, but as the Sovereign Lord, he overcame her inability to see and understand and believe so that she paid attention to the gospel and believed.

Those who say that they believe in the sovereignty of God yet, because of love, God allows man to have a free will to choose or reject him is biblically, theologically and logically flawed. If God gives up his sovereignty in the area of salvation, he is not truly sovereign, because God cannot ordained the end without ordaining the means. God’s saving grace overcomes the internal resistance by changing the will of those whom he will save so that they have ears to hear and eyes to see and a heart to behold the glories of Christ, the One who died to set them free from their sins.

[1] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 73.

God and the Fool

foolishness

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 53:1–3, ESV)

These words, quoted by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of his letter to the Romans, are a stark reminder that the spirituality of this age that we live in is not a genuine seeking for the One true God, but rather is a seeking after another idol that can alleviate the void that is felt outside of God.

Even though the fool says in is heart that there is no God, his claim is contrary not only to the facts, but his raging against the God that he says does not exist shows that he does not believe his own words.

From God’s perspective, as he looks not only down on humanity, but looks into the darkened hearts of men, he does not see anyone who truly desires a relationship with him. Truth be told, humankind would be completely satisfied in pushing their Creator out of the picture totally—filling the void of their soul with anything else that they can find or create. In our futility and desperation, we have grown in our corruption. We even claim to be morally good, while God’s own estimation is much different.

Without the saving grace of Jesus Christ, we are living in a mass delusion. We are living as if there is no God, as if there was no moral standard except for the one that we have made, and that we are good according to our arbitrary standards. No wonder God calls us fools.

Jesus Christ is our only hope. He is the answer to our greatest need. He is our Creator, our Savior and Justifier. He takes out the hardened heart in men that is like stone, and he gives us a new heart that is tender toward him. He puts his Spirit in us so that we can grieve once again over our foolishness, and rejoice over the forgiveness that we have received. He gives us eyes to see his beauty and the beauty around us and ears to hear his voice as he calls and leads us.

Do you know this Jesus? He is God. He is Savior and Lord. He is calling to sinners and fools to depart from your sin and folly and call out to him for mercy. He will surely give it.

Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: Radical Depravity

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Theological Commitments

Theology drives our commitments and practices. Ideas have consequences. In order to have a biblical commitment to evangelism, we must understand what the Bible teaches about five elements that will have a bearing on how we evangelize.

Depravity: How Deep Does it Run?

  • Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23, ESV)
  • We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)
  • The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

This doctrine is critical in the issue of the sovereignty of God in the gospel because the doctrine of the radical depravity of man reminds us that it will take more than fiery sermons and emotion driven appeals to sinners in order for them to come to salvation. Ephesians 2:1 tells us that our gospel-prospects are incapable of responding to our gospel sermons, tracts, debates, and appeals. They are dead! Charles Spurgeon said,

“I shall not attempt to teach a tiger the virtues of vegetarianism; but I shall as hopefully attempt that task as I would try to convince an unregenerate man of the truths revealed by God concerning sin, and righteousness, and the judgment to come.”[1]

The Arminian/Wesleyan view is that because of the death of Christ, all of humanity was given “prevenient grace” or “preventing grace.” Prevenient means “going before” and the idea is that when Christ died on the cross, his death made it possible for all men to come to Christ—it is said to be a grace that goes before all men so that they can believe if they exercise their free will. Arminian/Wesleyan theology teaches that radical depravity/total depravity did exist at one time, but that the death of Christ has enabled all men everywhere to now exercise faith on their own.

But as we can see clearly in Ephesian 2:1-3, the Apostle Paul clearly saw that ongoing inability in humanity is still a reality after the death of Christ. Historically, for some Arminians/Wesleyans, this doctrine of prevenient grace has led to the heretical view of universal salvation (universalism), where all men are saved because they believe that Christ’s death really did affect all men so that Christ’s death was applied to all men in a very real sense, it logically should mean that all are able to be saved—and then it is a short path to saying that all are saved.

Our understanding of man’s state before God (anthropology) is a critical starting point not only for the believer as they think through the issue theologically, but it must be the first issue tackled when evangelizing. If a person does not understand the holiness of God (Heb 12:14), they will not see the sinfulness of men in general, and themselves more particularly. A person who is not a sinner in their own mind will not see the need for salvation. John Calvin said,

“It is plain that no man can arrive at the true knowledge of himself, without having first contemplated the divine character, and then descended to the consideration of his own. For, such is the native pride of us all, we invariably esteem ourselves righteous, innocent, wise and holy, till we are convinced by clear proofs, of our unrighteousness, turpitude [moral wickedness], folly and impurity. But we are never thus convinced, while we condone our attention to ourselves, and regard not the Lord, who is the only standard by which this judgment ought to be formed.”[2]

Our charge as preachers of the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ is to do no less than to raise the dead! We are called, like Elisha, to bring the widow’s son back to life. We are to do the work of Ezekiel, to call to the masses of men, women and children, to call out to those dead bones, because we know that God raises the dead. Christ raised Lazarus, and Christ raised us! What is impossible for man is possible for God.

Now, if you have an understanding of man that says that he is anything less than spiritually dead, then there is some hope for mankind being talked into the kingdom of heaven, persuaded or convinced with mere intellectual arguments, contra Paul’s words that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1Cor 2:14).

But for those of us that grasp the biblical view of man as utterly incapable to come to God on his own (Mk 10:26-27; Jn 6:44), then we know that every salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry (n.p., 1900;  reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 322.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols., in The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.1.35.