Category Archives: Sola Scriptura

“Your Bible is a bottomless treasure chest” by Matt Smethurst

“Your Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of beauty and wonder, strength and joy. May you approach it for the rest of your days as if that’s true, because it is.”

—Matt Smethurst, Before You Open Your Bible (Leyland, England: 10Publishing, 2019), 79.

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“Why do so many people listen to John MacArthur?” by Hughes Oliphant Old

“What one hears from John MacArthur’s pulpit is a very straight Christian message—conservative, to be sure, but free from the wrangling, the defensiveness, and the bitterness of the fundamentalism of a generation or two ago. If one were to call MacArthur a fundamentalist, a label that, I gather, he would not reject, one would have to admit that his is a very impressive sort of fundamentalism. His expository sermons are instructive and edifying. Twice a Sunday he draws a very large congregation that sits attentively for an hour-long sermon.

To get a feel for the way MacArthur handles the ministry of the Word, I ordered his ten sermons on the eighth and ninth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. I chose this collection because I myself had tried to do a number of sermons on these two chapters and found them extremely difficult to preach. In the two chapters nine of the most spectacular miracle stories of the Gospel are recounted about healings, exorcisms, and the stilling of the storm. The preacher has to deal with some tough questions in these two chapters. I was curious how someone with a reputation for solid expository preaching, such as MacArthur has, might interpret these passages. Listening to these sermons was a rewarding experience, even if I have a number of reservations and hesitations about MacArthur’s approach to preaching.

MacArthur fills these sermons with a wealth of factual material. In the way of human interest stories one finds, on the other hand, very little. The illustrative material focuses on the biblical story. It is the passage of Scripture that is illuminated rather than a principle drawn out of the passage.

MacArthur also has an amazing ability to explain Scripture by Scripture. He spends a great deal of time studying the parallel passages in the other Gospels. Most of the material in Matthew 8 and 9 is also found in Mark, Luke, or John. The harmonizing of the different Gospel accounts is not excessive. A good example of his moderation as a harmonizer is found in the sermon on the exorcising of the Gadarene demoniac (Matt. 8:28-34). One Gospel tells us of two demon-possessed men while the other tells us of a single man.

Particularly illuminating is the way MacArthur emphasizes the similarity between Matthew and John on the one hand and Matthew and Paul on the other. This is in contrast to much twentieth-century New Testament scholarship, which tended to see Matthew and the Synoptic Gospels over against John. Often to make his point he will run through a list of five to ten examples. He spits it out machine-gun style so he does not overburden the sermon with material that only the more initiated members of his congregation can follow, but for the more serious listener these parallel passages make the sermon richly informative and mightily convincing. Again MacArthur gives a great deal of time to coordinating the message of the Gospel of Matthew with that of the epistles of Paul.

Realizing that a significant school of modern biblical scholarship has denied that Paul’s elaborate theology was based on the simple gospel of Jesus, our preacher is careful to show the similarity between the two. It is very interesting to note that the polemic implied does not come to the surface. MacArthur simply shows how Paul preaches the same gospel as Matthew. One gets the impression that MacArthur is first of all an expositor and only after that a polemicist. This speaks enormously to his credit.

Having said this, however, one has to admit that our preacher has a very clear line of interpretation on these miracle stories in Matthew 8 and 9. As he sees it, these miracles are above all the proofs of Christ’s divinity. They are not examples of what the power of faith can do. Much less are they the myths that symbolically express the devotion of the early Christians to their extraordinary teacher. One never gets the impression that this preacher has the least shadow of doubt but that these miracles took place exactly as they are recorded. But, again, there is never any argument that they could have taken place just as they are recorded. Defending the accuracy of the Bible seems to interest MacArthur not at all. He simply assumes it is all quite reliable. This basic assumption that the text of Scripture is reliable is part of the foundation of his effectiveness as an interpreter.

Difficulties arise when one assumes that these stories could not possibly have happened the way they are supposed to have. If they did not happen then they can’t prove anything about Jesus. They may tell us what the early church believed about Jesus, but again if they didn’t happen, that suggests that the faith of the early church was mistaken. So much of the New Testament interpretation of the last century was devoted to salvaging some kind of Christian faith for an age that cannot accept the miraculous. For the last couple of generations the idea that one should make the major theme of these two chapters that the miracles proved the divinity of Jesus was about the last thought an enlightened preacher would try to make. That, however, is just the point MacArthur does make. He makes the point very successfully. He shows from the structure of the text itself that this is what Matthew is trying to say. He supports it with parallel texts from both the Synoptic Gospels and the Johannine literature. What is surprising is that there is no vitriolic attack on the ‘higher critics’ or the ‘modernists.’

The one direction in which MacArthur does let loose a moderate amount of polemic is toward the charismatics and faith healers. Charismatics take a very different tack in interpreting the healings and exorcisms of the Gospels. Charismatics see miracles as an ordinance of the church. Like the sacraments, they should be a continuing part of the Christian churches’ ministry. When MacArthur argues that the purpose of the miracles was to make it clear that Jesus was the Christ, he means we should not therefore expect this kind of healing ministry in the church today. It had its function in New Testament times but, since we have the inspired witness of Scripture today that is sufficient witness to establish both the true divinity and the true humanity of Christ, miracles are no longer necessary.

As I have mentioned, these sermons on Matthew 8 and 9 have a particular interest for me because I once tried to preach through these chapters and was very unhappy with how I did it. Where MacArthur succeeded and I did not may well be in his complete clarity on just how he stood on some of these issues. While I would insist that Jesus did perform miracles, I have to admit that the caveats of the Enlightenment still obscure my thoughts from time to time. I suppose I am troubled by a shadow of doubt, but then the same would be true of many in my congregation.

The place where I have always had the greatest trouble is the whole matter of exorcism. I really do not believe in Satan, demonic spirits, and demon possession. Maybe I ought to, but I don’t. I am willing to agree that I may have been too strongly influenced by the intellectual world in which I was brought up to fully grasp the full teaching of Scripture, but that is the way it is.

What is more than clear to me after listening to these sermons is that those who can take the text the way it is seem to make a lot more sense of it than those who are always trying to second-guess it. Surely one of the greatest strengths of MacArthur’s preaching ministry is his complete confidence in the text.

Let us look for a brief moment at our preacher as an orator. One could evaluate his oratory very differently. My first impression is that he has little to offer from the standpoint of the art of oratory. Listening to the tapes, one has to say that he is the antithesis of Lloyd Ogilvie. Thinking about it a bit longer, however, I have to admit he does have techniques of getting people to listen that we should not overlook.

The strength of his preaching is his content, but he has mastered some devices as well. He seems to have a feel for the use of rhythm in his preaching. He uses a variety of rhythms. He will often deliver a whole series of phrases in the same rhythm almost as used in the Odes of Horace. Sometimes his rhythms are very rapid and sometimes very slow. Sometimes they are highly artificial. One is easily offended by his preacher’s cant, but one wonders at times whether one does well to be offended. These pulpit rhythms, which we think of as being hopelessly old-fashioned, are being used by preachers today quite effectively. They somehow make it possible for the listener to absorb and retain quite a bit of material over a long period of time. Could this be why the epic poets told their long stories in rhythmic meters? MacArthur’s rhetoric is terribly out of date, but maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

Why do so many people listen to MacArthur, this product of all the wrong schools? How can he pack out a church on Sunday morning in an age in which church attendance has seriously lagged? Here is a preacher who has nothing in the way of a winning personality, good looks, or charm. Here is a preacher who offers us nothing in the way of sophisticated homiletical packaging.

No one would suggest that he is a master of the art of oratory. What he seems to have is a witness to true authority. He recognizes in Scripture the Word of God, and when he preaches, it is Scripture that one hears. It is not that the words of John MacArthur are so interesting as it is that the Word of God is of surpassing interest. That is why one listens.”

–Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 7: Our Own Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 551-558.

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“It was right there in the text” by D.A. Carson

“Paul assesses the significance of Israel and the Sinai covenant within the larger biblical narrative. It is this essentially salvation-historical reading of Genesis that enables him to come within a whisker of treating the Sinai covenant as a parenthesis: the law’s most important function is to bring Israel, across time, to Christ—and to bring others, too, insofar as the ‘law’ is found among those ‘without the law.’

Here, then, too, we obtain a glimpse of how something could be simultaneously long hidden / eventually revealed and long prophesied / eventually fulfilled. It was right there in the text (provided one reads the Scriptures with careful respect for the significance of the historical sequence), even though, transparently, this was not how it was read by Paul the Pharisee.

Doubtless it took the Damascus road Christophany to make Saul of Tarsus recognize that his estimate of Jesus was wrong: Jesus could not be written off as a (literally) God-damned malefactor if in fact His glorious resurrection proved He was vindicated, and so the controlling paradigm of his reading of the Old Testament had to change.

But when it changed, Paul wanted his hearers and readers to understand that the Old Testament, rightly read in its salvation-historical structure, led to Christ.

In other words, as far as Paul was concerned the gospel he preached was announced in advance in the Scriptures, and was fulfilled in the events surrounding the coming, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—even if this gospel had long been hidden, and was now revealed in those events and thus in the gospel Paul preached—the gospel revealed, indeed, through the prophetic writings.”

–D.A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul (ed. Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid; vol. 2, 181st ed.; Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament; Grand Rapids, MI; Tübingen: Baker Academic; Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 2: 427–428.

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“Profound humility should always be ours” by John Murray

“It would be culpable beyond words to close this preface without making the acknowledgment that is supreme. The epistle to the Romans is God’s Word. Its theme is the gospel of His grace, and the gospel bespeaks the marvels of His condescension and love.

If we are not overwhelmed by the glory of that gospel and ushered into the holy of holies of God’s presence, we have missed the grand purpose of this sacred deposit. And it is only because the God of grace has put treasure in earthen vessels that we men have been given the task and privilege of undertaking exposition.

If any success has attended this effort it is only of the grace of the Holy Spirit by whose inspiration the epistle was written and by whose illumination the church has been led in the interpretation of it.

Profound humility should always be ours. The excellency of the power is of God and not of us and to Him alone be all praise and glory.”

–John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 1: xi.

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“Read Scripture as a divine book” by Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum

“Consider what it means to read Scripture as a divine book— from God to us!

If God wrote every word, sentence, paragraph, chapter and book, then the Bible is unified. The Bible’s sixty-six books really form one book from one Author.

It’s also coherent. If we’re confuses about the meaning of a certain text, we may assume that we’re the ones confused, not God. The Bible coheres with itself and with the world in which its readers live.

It’s complete— the Bible is what God wanted us to have. If it raises questions that it doesn’t completely answer, then that must be on purpose.

And not only is it complete, but it’s also sufficient for what we need.

The Bible is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with it. Every word is good and true.

The Bible is also urgent. If God has spoken to us, then nothing is more important than for us to listen to its message.

All of these truths about Scripture have major implications for how we interpret the Bible.

We should read it with creaturely humility because these words are from our Creator and Lord.

We are to read with expectation. If we look forward to the release of a new novel by a favorite author, how much more should we look forward to reading God’s Word!

We should also read with caution, recognizing that we are inclined to misunderstand what God has written, given our finitude and sinfulness.

That means we should read the Bible patiently to accurately discern what God has said. We cannot assume that what first comes into our minds matches what’s in God’s mind.

We read and we reflect, and once we settle on an interpretation that is faithful to the text and aligned with previous interpretations, we submit to God’s Word.

If we disagree with something the Bible teaches, we assume that our thinking must change, not God’s. We don’t stand over Scripture; we stand under it in submission to God (Isa. 66:1-2).

We are aware of the Bible’s divine authorship, and we are aware of our creaturely position as readers.”

–Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum, Christ From Beginning to End (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 44-45.

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“Scripture is the handmaiden of Christ” by Herman Bavinck

“If Scripture is the account of the revelation of God in Christ, it is bound to arouse the same opposition as Christ himself who came into the world for judgment (κρισις) and is ‘set for the fall and rising of many’ (Luke 2:34).

He brings separation between light and darkness and reveals the thoughts of many hearts. Similarly Scripture is a living and active word, a ‘discerner’ of the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12).

It not only was inspired but is still ‘God-breathed’ and ‘God-breathing.’ Just as there is much that precedes the act of inspiration (all the activity of the Holy Spirit in nature, history, revelation, regeneration), so there is much that follows it as well.

Inspiration is not an isolated event. The Holy Spirit does not, after the act of inspiration, withdraw from Holy Scripture and abandon it to its fate but sustains and animates it and in many ways brings its content to humanity, to its heart and conscience.

By means of Scripture as the word of God, the Holy Spirit continually wars against the thoughts and intentions of the ‘unspiritual’ person (ψυχικος ἀνθρωπος). By itself, therefore, it need not surprise us in the least that Scripture has at all times encountered contradiction and opposition.

Christ bore a cross, and the servant (Scripture) is not greater than its master. Scripture is the handmaiden of Christ. It shares in his defamation and arouses the hostility of sinful humanity.”

–Herman Bavinck, Eds. John Bolt and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 439-440.

 

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“An ever-continuing battle” by Herman Bavinck

“All believers have the experience that in the best moments of their life they are also most firm in their belief in Scripture. The believer’s confidence in Christ increases along with their confidence in Scripture and, conversely, ignorance of the Scriptures is automatically and proportionately ignorance of Christ.

The connection between sin and error often lies hidden deep below the surface of the conscious life. One can almost never demonstrate this link in others, but it is sometimes revealed to our own inner eye with respect to ourselves.

The battle against the Bible is, in the first place, a revelation of the hostility of the human heart. But that hostility may express itself in various ways. It absolutely does not come to expression only—and perhaps not even most forcefully—in the criticism to which Scripture has been subjected in our time.

Scripture as the word of God encounters opposition and unbelief in every ‘unspiritual’ person. In the days of dead orthodoxy, an unbelieving attitude toward Scripture was in principle as powerful as in our historically-oriented and critical century. The forms change, but the essence remains the same.

Whether hostility against Scripture is expressed in criticism like that of Celsus and Porphyry or whether it is manifest in a dead faith, that hostility in principle is the same. For not the hearers but the doers of the word (James 1:22) are pronounced blessed. ‘The servant who knew his master’s will but did not make ready or act according to his will will receive a severe beating’ (Luke 12:47).

It remains the duty of every person, therefore, first of all to put aside his or her hostility against the word of God and ‘to take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5). Scripture itself everywhere presses this demand.

Only the pure of heart will see God. Rebirth will see the kingdom of God. Self-denial is the condition for being a disciple of Jesus. The wisdom of the world is folly to God. Over against all human beings, Scripture occupies a position so high that, instead of subjecting itself to their criticism, it judges them in all their thoughts and desires.

And this has been the Christian church’s position toward Scripture at all times. According to Chrysostom, humility is the foundation of philosophy. Augustine once said: ‘When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery’; what was the second rule, ‘Delivery’; what was the third rule, ‘Delivery’; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility.’ ” Calvin cites this statement with approval. And Pascal cries out to humanity: ‘Humble yourself, powerless reason! Be silent, stupid nature!… Listen to God!’

This has been the attitude of the church toward Scripture down the centuries. And the Christian dogmatician may take no other position. For a dogma is not based on the results of any historical-critical research but only on the witness of God, on the self-testimony of Holy Scripture.

A Christian believes, not because everything in life reveals the love of God, but rather despite everything that raises doubt. In Scripture too there is much that raises doubt. All believers know from experience that this is true. Those who engage in biblical criticism frequently talk as if simple church people know nothing about the objections that are advanced against Scripture and are insensitive to the difficulty of continuing to believe in Scripture. But that is a false picture.

Certainly, simple Christians do not know all the obstacles that science raises to belief in Scripture. But they do to a greater or lesser degree know the hard struggle fought both in head and heart against Scripture.

There is not a single Christian who has not in his or her own way learned to know the antithesis between the ‘wisdom of the world’ and ‘the foolishness of God.’ It is one and the same battle, an ever-continuing battle, which has to be waged by all Christians, learned or unlearned, to ‘take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5).

Here on earth no one ever rises above that battle. Throughout the whole domain of faith, there remain ‘crosses’ that have to be overcome. There is no faith without struggle. To believe is to struggle, to struggle against the appearance of things.

As long as people still believe in anything, their belief is challenged from all directions. No modern believer is spared from this either. Concessions weaken believers but do not liberate them. Thus for those who in childlike faith subject themselves to Scripture, there still remain more than enough objections. These need not be disguised. There are intellectual problems in Scripture that cannot be ignored and that will probably never be resolved.

But these difficulties, which Scripture itself presents against its own inspiration, are in large part not recent discoveries of our century. They have been known at all times.

Nevertheless, Jesus and the apostles, Athanasius and Augustine, Thomas and Bonaventure, Luther and Calvin, and Christians of all churches have down the centuries confessed and recognized Scripture as the Word of God. Those who want to delay belief in Scripture till all the objections have been cleared up and all the contradictions have been resolved will never arrive at faith. ‘For who hopes for what he sees?’ (Rom. 8:24).

Jesus calls blessed those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29).”

–Herman Bavinck, Eds. John Bolt and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 440-442.

 

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