Fence or Source

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 10:3 (Autumn 1992)

Fence or Source

Evangel 10:3 (Autumn 1992)

Several months ago I had the responsibility of taking a final session at the end of a busy day at an evangelical conference. Addressing the subject of preaching, I had made the point that the great need for good preaching lay in the fact that God is revealed in his word by his Spirit. Thus, there is a great need for men and women who can ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ and, under God, explain and apply the word of Scripture since it is in this way that we hear the prophetic word of God today.

  After completing my address a young man came up to speak to me. Among a number of comments he made was the observation that I had just directly contradicted everything else that he had heard during the day!
 
  Sadly, he had identified what appears to be the greatest malaise among popular evangelicalism today; the failure to have an adequate and applied view of Scripture. Moving in evangelical circles of different sorts, it is increasingly evident that the Bible is not viewed as God’s unmediated message to his people, as the very source of their knowledge of him. Knowing God is no longer a matter (as classic evangelicalism has always had it) of encountering him in the words of Scripture as his Spirit helps us to understand what we read and to apply what we hear.
 
  Today, doubtless under the influence of the subjectivism and individualism which underlies so much popular thinking, the Bible has become something which we should be careful we ‘don’t worship’. It may be that the Bible can ‘spark’ in some mystical way a revelation of God to us. However, the idea that it is the true source of our knowledge of God has been largely replaced by the notion that the Bible is a fence; not providing the content of the revelation but defining the limits of what might be or not be ‘revelation’.
 
  But in pointing the finger at others it is well that we ourselves engage in some self-examination. Could we, in fact, be a partial cause of this sickness? Sadly, it would appear that the answer is ‘yes’.
 
  Several years ago I expressed an admittedly controversial opinion in a gathering of reformed evangelicals. The response was interesting! One brother vehemently opposed what I had to say by appealing to a particular reformed confession that he subscribed to; but at no point did he seek to correct me from Scripture.
 
  Listening to contemporary sermons is interesting too. Among the more conservative evangelical preachers today there is a genuine attempt to engage in what is called ‘expository preaching’. However, time and again, it is not the text under consideration that is opened up and applied. Rather, a subject which is touched upon in the text becomes the basis of a ‘thematic’ message. This is all well and good on occasion and all preachers should give such messages. But such cannot become the staple diet. If it does, then the word itself is seldom heard and our hearers are given no example to follow and apply to their own reading of Scripture. No wonder so many place an exaggerated importance on Bible reading notes; lacking the fertile mind of the preacher they have no basis upon which to know how to hear God for themselves. Small wonder, too, if other and inferior (if not positively unbiblical) means are adopted to ‘hear God’.
 
  There is, therefore, a real danger that while we speak of Scriptural authority and ‘sola Scriptura’ we fail to live this out and show how it applies.
 
  The present issue in Evangel is the first of two dedicated to issues relating to mission and church growth. Interestingly, several of the articles hint at the fact that it is a failure to have an adequate practical grasp of Scripture that underlies many of the debates and has created many of the problems. This is especially evident in the essay by John Davis.
 
  Yet it is the engagement of evangelicalism in cross-cultural contexts that indicates the need to engage still more zealously in the task of working out an adequate evangelical hermeneutic. We need to be ever engaged in seeking to listen more carefully and accurately to God’s word in order that we can communicate it with the minimum of distortion to others. The world out there needs to hear God speak and not merely hear an echo of its own voice (however preferable that might seem!).
 
  So we need not only to call evangelicalism back to its biblical roots but we also need to demonstrate by our words and our lives that we ourselves live under Scripture and in so doing enjoy an intimate encounter with the living God which cannot be known expect by his Spirit in Scripture. It is easy to point the finger, but we need to be sure our house is in order and we will be far more effective if we lead by example rather than criticise from the wings. May God give us grace to do so!
 
  I trust that readers will permit one final personal comment. During the preparation of this issue of Evangel my father died. In preparing for the address at the funeral service the one thing that struck home to me was the reality of the relationship that my father evidently had to the LORD, especially in the last days of pain. He lived and died in application of what is advocated here. And this is surely the point. When all else fails and proves ephemeral or illusory, it is only our relationship with God nurtured through his ‘conversation’ with us in Scripture which is able to sustain us in the dark hour.

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