Tag Archives: Scripture

“The external word is the instrument, the internal word the aim” by Herman Bavinck

“The difference between Rome and the Reformation in their respective views of tradition consists in this: Rome wanted a tradition that ran on an independent parallel track alongside of Scripture, or rather, Scripture alongside of tradition.

The Reformation recognizes only a tradition that is founded on and flows from Scripture. To the mind of the Reformation, Scripture was an organic principle from which the entire tradition, living on in preaching, confession, liturgy, worship, theology, devotional literature, etc., arises and is nurtured.

It is a pure spring of living water from which all the currents and channels of the religious life are fed and maintained. Such a tradition is grounded in Scripture itself.

After Jesus completed his work, he sent forth the Holy Spirit who, while adding nothing new to the revelation, still guides the church into the truth (John 16:12–15) until it passes through all its diversity and arrives at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 3:18, 19; 4:13).

In this sense there is a good, true, and glorious tradition. It is the method by which the Holy Spirit causes the truth of Scripture to pass into the consciousness and life of the church. Scripture, after all, is only a means, not the goal.

The goal is that, instructed by Scripture, the church will freely and independently make known “the wonderful deeds of him who called it out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

The external word is the instrument, the internal word the aim. Scripture will have reached its destination when all have been taught by the Lord and are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Vol. 1, Ed. John Bolt, and Trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 493–494.

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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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“When the Bible runs dry, then I shall” by Robert Murray M’Cheyne

“He spoke from the pulpit as one earnestly occupied with the souls before him. He made them feel sympathy with what he spoke, for his own eye and heart were on them.

And while his style was singularly clear, this clearness itself was so much the consequence of his being able thoroughly to analyse and explain his subject, that all his hearers alike reaped the benefit.

He went about his public work with awful reverence. So evident was this, that I remember a countryman in my parish observed to me: ‘Before he opened his lips, as he came along the passage, there was something about him that sorely affected me.’

In the vestry there was never any idle conversation; all was preparation of heart in approaching God; and a short prayer preceded his entering the pulpit. Surely in going forth to speak for God, a man may well be overawed.

Surely in putting forth his hand to sow the seed of the kingdom, a man may even tremble! And surely we should aim at nothing less than to pour forth the truth upon our people through the channel of our own living and deeply affected souls.

After announcing the subject of his discourse, he used generally to show the position it occupied in the context, and then proceed to bring out the doctrines of the text, in the manner of our old divines. This done, he divided his subject; and herein he was eminently skilful.

‘The heads of his sermons,’ said a friend, ‘were not the mile-stones that tell you how near you are to your journey’s end, but they were nails which fixed and fastened all he said. Divisions are often dry; but not so his divisions,—they were so textual and so feeling, and they brought out the spirit of a passage so surprisingly.’

It was his wish to arrive nearer at the primitive mode of expounding Scripture in his sermons.

Hence when one asked him, If he was never afraid of running short of sermons some day? he replied, ‘No; I am just an interpreter of Scripture in my sermons; and when the Bible runs dry, then I shall.’

And in the same spirit he carefully avoided the too common mode of accommodating texts,—fastening a doctrine on the words, not drawing it from the obvious connection of the passage.

He endeavoured at all times to preach the mind of the Spirit in a passage; for he feared that to do otherwise would be to grieve the Spirit who had written it.

Interpretation was thus a solemn matter to him. And yet, adhering scrupulously to this sure principle, he felt himself in no way restrained from using, for every day’s necessities, all parts of the Old Testament as much as the New.

His manner was first to ascertain the primary sense and application, and so proceed to handle it for present use. He regarded the prophecies as history yet to be, and drew lessons from them accordingly as he would have done from the past.

Every spiritual gift being in the hands of Jesus, if he found Moses or Paul in the possession of precious things, he forthwith was led to follow them into the presence of that same Lord who gave them all their grace.

There is a wide difference between preaching doctrine and preaching Christ. Mr M‘Cheyne preached all the doctrines of Scripture as understood by our Confession of Faith, dwelling upon ruin by the Fall, and recovery by the Mediator.

‘The things of the human heart, and the things of the Divine Mind,’ were in substance his constant theme. From personal experience of deep temptation, he could lay open the secrets of the heart, so that he once said, ‘He supposed the reason why some of the worst sinners in Dundee had come to hear him was, because his heart exhibited so much likeness to theirs.’

Still it was not doctrine alone that he preached; it was Christ, from whom all doctrine shoots forth as rays from a centre.”

–Robert Murray McCheyne and Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Edinburgh; London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1894), 71-73.

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“Chart and compass” by Thomas Watson

“The Scripture is the chart and compass by which we sail to the new Jerusalem.”

–Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1692/1970), 35.

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“Where the lamb may wade and the elephant may swim” by John Owen

“We look on the Scripture and receive it not as the word of men, but as it is indeed, the word of the living God… In those very fords and appearing shallows of this river of God where the lamb may wade, the elephant may swim. Everything in the Scripture is so plain as that the meanest believer may understand all that belongs unto his duty or is necessary unto his happiness; yet is nothing so plain but that the wisest of them all have reason to adore the depths and stores of divine wisdom in it.”

–John Owen, “The Causes, Ways and Means of Understanding the Mind of God,” The Works of John Owen, Volume 4: The Work of the Spirit (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1678/2004), 4: 193.

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“The whole Scripture” by John Newton

“I agree with you, that some accounted evangelical teachers have too much confined themselves to a few leading and favourite topics. I think this a fault, and I believe when it is constantly so the auditories are deprived of much edification and pleasure, which they might receive from a more judicious and comprehensive plan.

The whole Scripture, as it consists of histories, prophecies, doctrines, precepts, promises, exhortations, admonitions, encouragements, and reproofs, is the proper subject of the Gospel ministry.

And every part should in its place and course be attended to, yet so as that, in every compartment we exhibit, Jesus should be the capital figure, in whom the prophecies are fulfilled and the promises established, to whom, in a way of type and emblem, the most important parts of Scripture history have an express reference, and from whom alone we can receive that life, strength, and encouragement, which are necessary to make obedience either pleasing or practicable.”

–John Newton, Letters of John Newton (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1869/2007), 275.

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“Behold the glory of God in the pieces of His art” by Stephen Charnock

“Study God in the creatures as well as in the Scriptures. The primary use of the creatures, is to acknowledge God in them.

They were made to be witnesses of Himself in His goodness, and heralds of His glory, which as the glory of God the Creator ‘shall endure forever’ (Psalm 104:31).

That whole psalm is a lecture of creation and providence. The world is a sacred temple. Man is introduced to contemplate it, and behold with praise the glory of God in the pieces of His art.

As grace doth not destroy nature, so the book of redemption blots not out that of creation. Had He not shown Himself in His creatures, He could never have shown Himself in His Christ. The order of things required it.

God must be read wherever He is legible. The creatures are one book, wherein He hath writ a part of the excellencey of His name, as many artists do in their works and watches.

God’s glory, like the filings of gold, is too precious to be lost wherever it drops. Nothing so vile and base in the world, but carries in it an instruction for man, and drives in further the notion of a God.

It’s as if He said of His cottage, ‘Enter here.’ God disdains not this place.

So the least creature speaks to man, as well as in the highest creature. Every shrub in the field, every fly in the air, every limb in a body: ‘Consider me, God disdains not to appear in me; He hath discovered in me His being and a part of His skill.’

The creatures manifest the being of God and part of His perfections.

We have indeed a more excellent way, a revelation setting Him forth in a more excellent manner, a firmer object of dependence, a brighter object of love, raising our hearts from self-confidence to a confidence in Him.

Though the appearance of God in the one be clearer than in the other, yet neither is to be neglected. The Scripture directs us to nature to view God.

It had been in vain else for the apostle to make use of natural arguments. Nature is not contrary to Scripture, nor Scripture to nature, unless we should think God contrary to Himself who is the Author of both.”

–Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Vol. 1 (Robert Carter & Brothers, 1682/1853), 86.

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