John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Doodle: Keep Preaching to the Choir

“Now I know I’m preaching to the choir,” is something I have caught myself saying in the pulpit on numerous occasions, teaching on the importance of belonging to a local church. We say similar things when we discuss passages in small group that emphasise meeting together, encouraging other Christians and living in community. It is a cliché and therefore about as useful as it is original. When we meet together to hear God speak – as the Bible is read, taught, and applied – we may be the metaphorical choir but that does not make us any less in need of being convicted by the Spirit. Imagine a believer in the church who received the letter to the Hebrews shouting, after 10:25 was read, ‘Hey, we’re here; stop preaching to the choir.’ It’s ridiculous because God’s Word gathers us and addresses the gathered. Furthermore, you need only read Hebrews 10:24 to see that merely meeting together is inadequate, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”

ChurchThere is more to being a part of the church than meeting together. We must make no apology when emphasising the value as well as the purpose of meeting together, as if all of those who are gathered are committed to stirring one another up to love and good deeds. The gospel we preach does not simply say, ‘Come to church.’ That is the nominal poison believed and preached in many South African churches, especially among older generations. No, the gospel says that Christ has saved us for himself and to minister to his people. We need to keep preaching to the choir because there are people regularly attending church who play no active role in encouraging others. If people are uncomfortable with the demands of Jesus then it may be because they do not know or love him. Certainly, one of the ways we show our love for Christ is by being concerned for the interests of his people (Philippians 2:19-30). Keep preaching to the choir.

Christ taught that the numerical size of local churches is a fraught statistic, attendance can mean very little. Therefore, just as we do not apologise for preaching Christ and him crucified week after week, we should not baulk at challenging the gathered church about their personal investment in the local church. We preach the gospel Sunday by Sunday because it is a grave mistake to think the church visible is the church invisible. In a similar way, we keep seeking to convict Christians with regards to their love for God’s people, or lack thereof. Just as we keep preaching to spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1-3) we must keep preaching to the choir. We must regularly call for faith and repentance, not forgetting that all Christians still have much repenting to do. So keep preaching to the choir.

Since John Calvin kicked off this short series of posts thinking about our gifts and using them to serve the local church, I will quote him as we finish. “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves Christians…Either let them cease to boast of what they are not, in contempt of God; or let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ their teacher” (3.6.4).

A Note on Analogies

After the publication of my previous post critiquing Andrew Heard’s lifeboat analogy for the church, it was suggested to me that I develop some of my thoughts on analogies, or illustrations, in general. However I cannot pretend to have mastered the use of analogies; in my own preaching, I use them very sparingly. Briefly, in writing, I have explored an abused illustration from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“He’s not safe but He’s good”) and Jesus’ parable of the field, but those are not detailed studies in the praxis. So in this short post I will merely summarise some thoughts on illustrations I have borrowed from the appendix to Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Their purpose

AnalogyThe authors of Pierced write, “An illustration works well when it corresponds closely to the biblical idea it seeks to explain. Translating an unfamiliar concept into everyday terms can bring clarity and perhaps also a certain vividness and immediacy. It brings our world and the Bible’s world together, and puts us and our lives into the picture.” Illustrations function as useful bridges helping us understand something strange or peculiar by something familiar or easily understood.

The dangers

As we read above, illustrations are useful, but they can also be misleading. The thrust of my previous post is well summarised in Pierced, “Illustrations never correspond to reality at every point, and it is at the points of difference that they may mislead.” However, the authors continue, “The fact that an illustration does not correspond with reality at every point does not mean it will always mislead; merely that it ought to be used to illustrate only those aspects of reality with which it does correspond.” Therefore we must be aware of an illustrations deficiencies, which can confuse and obscure, the opposite of their intended purpose.

Though they are addressing the atonement, Pierced reads insightfully for any illustration, “Even if we choose (wisely) to illustrate just one aspect…we must take care we do not inadvertently distort other closely related themes…To avoid being misunderstood, we need to consider the specific strengths and weaknesses of any given illustration: what it captures well, and where it might fail.” On the topic of church, since that was my concern with Heard’s illustration, the lifeboat analogy distorts other aspects of the church’s mission by overemphasising evangelism at the expense of maturity. Obviously, those are closely related but – in my opinion – the lifeboat overlooks or redefines the importance of godliness and service by conflating maturity with evangelism. While the lifeboat illustrates the desperate urgency of the church’s mission it places far too little emphasis on the biblical emphasis and zeal we should have for maturing, tested, and transforming faith in Christ.

The authors of Pierced then call preachers to take care that their analogies are not pushed too far so that they inadvertently illustrate the wrong thing. As I said previously: there are better illustrations that inform us about the mission and shape of the local church as well as our place in it, so we should be cautious when an illustration not found in Scripture dominates our understanding. “To repeat: it is the points at which they fail to correspond to reality that are liable to mislead.” Should every Christian’s primary concern be the lost, hauling them up from the deadly waters, rescuing them from a Christless eternity? Yes, we should zealously long to see as many as possible saved. But, no, it is not the primary point of the church’s existence; it is one of them.

The careful approach

PreachingI think Pierced ties all of the mentioned dangers up well, “The risk of [overstretching an analogy] is increased when we are attempting to explain something complicated, for no single analogy will be up to the job.” I acknowledge that Andrew Heard was speaking at a conference on church growth, allowing for a selective approach. However, the church and Christian life is complicated, even when honing in on a single component, such as evangelism. As for most things, one analogy can only successfully illustrate part of the truth. I think that is why we are given such an abundance of them in Scripture. It is not enough to merely be aware of our analogies’ shortcomings; we must temper and supplement them with others.

In conclusion, and to stave off despair, “We may be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and concede defeat…no illustration is perfect, if by ‘perfect’ we mean it corresponds with reality at every point.” But that does not mean every illustration is invalid; we are not doomed to mislead with every analogy. We must recognise where they fall short, and ask if those deficiencies are unhelpful; make sure closely related concepts are not obscured; and resist overextending this great God-given tool.

Spurgeon on Church Gatherings

Lectures to my studentsIn February I plodded my way through Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and found it to be an immense store of practical but gospel motivated advice for those who teach and preach in the local church. Throughout the collection, Spurgeon comes across not merely as an influential luminary and iconic leader but as a man who loved the Lord Jesus and longed to see God’s people properly shepherded. There is unfortunately no summary of the work that will adequately substitute for reading the lectures yourself, which I heartily encourage you to do, and in this post I simply want to pick up on a few of Spurgeon’s passing but invaluable points about church meetings, corporate gatherings, “Sabbath services”, or whatever else you want to call them.

Hearing God’s Word preached is an act of worship

“Rightly to listen to the gospel is one of the noblest parts of the adoration of the Most High. It is a mental exercise, when rightly performed, in which all the faculties of the spiritual man are called into devotional action. Reverently hearing the word exercises our humility, instructs our faith, irradiates us with joy, inflames us with love, inspires us with zeal, and lifts us up towards heaven”. Many Christians today foolishly distinguish between aspects of our meetings that constitute worship, for which we have a “worship leader”, and others whereby something else is happening. Spurgeon continues, “True preaching is an acceptable adoration of God by the manifestation of his gracious attributes: the testimony of his gospel, which pre-eminently glorifies him, and the obedient hearing of revealed truth, are an acceptable form of worship to the Most High, and perhaps one of the most spiritual in which the human mind can be engaged.” The sermon does not only inspire worship, responding in hymns and prayer; hearing God speak to us through his Scriptures and by the work of his Spirit is an event in the life of the church where Jesus’ name is magnified and our hearts are moved to praise. Surely that is worship. As D.A. Carson writes in Basics for Believers, “The sermon is not un-worship; it is part of our corporate worship, both a sign of it and a profound incitement to it.”

Weigh each aspect of your service 

C.H. SpurgeonContinuing from the previous point, Spurgeon calls us to “feel very deeply the importance of conducting every part of divine worship with the utmost possible efficiency”. Just as we fall into the error of distinguishing worship and listening to God, so we sometimes fail to consider how each aspect of our corporate gatherings can declare the gospel, not only the sermon. Spurgeon calls us to remember that the salvation of a soul may hang on the choice of a hymn. Yet most Christians are more caught up with the style of their music rather than content. He challenges us to reflect that “God may very especially bless an expression in our prayer to the conversion of a wanderer; and that prayer in the unction of the Holy Spirit, may minister greatly to the edification of God’s people, and bring unnumbered blessings down upon them, we shall endeavour to pray with the best gift and the highest grace within our reach.” Yet we stupidly think prepared prayers unspiritual and lifeless. Lastly, Spurgeon says, “In the reading of the Scriptures comfort and instruction may be plenteously distributed, we shall pause over our opened Bibles, and devoutly seek to be guided to that portion of Holy Writ which shall be most likely to be made useful.” Yet I have visited numerous churches where Bibles are little more than stage props. Removing the public reading from Scripture from our meetings robs people of hearing from God, in his living and true word. We must prayerfully consider every element in corporate worship, for each has the potential to proclaim the gospel and encourage faith.

Vary the order of service

Still discussing the service as a whole, Spurgeon warns: “In order to prevent custom and routine from being enthroned among us, it will be well to vary the order of service as much as possible”. Spurgeon entreats us to allow the Spirit to work through innovation, not being in bondage to tradition and fixed rules as modes of worship. He also notes the irony where liturgy is vehemently resisted yet other prescribed rubrics reign over church meetings. “We claim to conduct service as the Holy Spirit moves us, and as we judge best. We will not be bound to sing here and pray there, but will vary the order of service to prevent monotony…Irregularities would do good, monotony works weariness.” It would be easy to highlight the charismatic churches’ repetitious singing at this point, but in my own Anglican tradition that makes frequent use of the Book of Common Prayer we are in grave danger of stifling our services with structure, both in week to week monotony and in the lack of space given to unprepared sharing, testimony and prayer. Being enslaved to an order of service can dissuade people of the liveliness and significance of God’s gathered people.

Direct all public prayers to God

C. H. SpurgeonFinally, I want to draw an incisive point from Spurgeon, as many preachers tend to treat their closing prayer as an “oblique sermon”, powerful rhetoric designed to stir their hearers’ emotions, or an opportunity to summarise their message. He smarts, “It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display,” for “the Lord alone must be the object of our prayers.” He then goes on, quite unsettlingly to state that, “Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers.” While we might aim through zeal to excite our hearers, “every word and thought must be Godward…look up, look up with both eyes.” This does not excuse embarrassingly personal or specific prayers. A prayer should harmonise with the rest of the service – from our songs to the sermon and even to confession – but this is to be done wisely, not slavishly, always remembering that God alone is the object of our prayers. I would add, in conclusion, that if it is God’s gospel of grace that we proclaim through our preaching, accept and find assurance in during confession, celebrate in our songs, and through which we humbly approach God in prayer, then not only would we be kept from falling into this trap uncovered by Spurgeon but it would be unthinkable that our prayers be directed to anyone other than our gracious heavenly Father.

What is Expository Preaching?

Expository PreachingI suppose the type of person who reads this sort of blog would, in general, be sympathetic to the notion of “Expository Preaching”. All the cool kids are doing it these days. All the people the cool kids listen to say it’s the only way to be faithful to Scripture and preach the full counsel of God. I must say, I pretty much agree (I’m cool like that). It seems, though, that the term and its meaning have become somewhat removed from one another.

Popular Parlance

When I hear the words “expository preaching”, the idea that is usually being expressed is that of a pastor preaching section by section (perhaps even verse by verse) through a chunk of the Bible – whether that chunk be Jude, Isaiah or Genesis 1-12). The point is, expository preaching is defined by what the sermon was on last week and what it will be on next week.

It’s great to do series through books. It can truly help people understand what the book as a whole is really about and knowing what’s coming could (in theory) enable people to read and think ahead for sermons that are still to come. That sort of engagement is, and would be, fantastic but honestly, it’s rare.

infrequentSomething for preachers to consider is the fact that today people consider themselves regular church attendees if they go once in six weeks – twice every three months. That’s not going to do much for continuity. What’s more, among those who attend every week, how many can tell you what the text of the sermon was from the previous week, never mind the main points? It’s terribly naive to believe that the average member of your congregation is reading ahead because you’re moving consecutively through a book.

Technical Meaning

What may be a surprise to many is that, technically, expository preaching is actually not about preaching section by section consecutively through a book or portion of Scripture. It’s not about what came last week and what will come next week. In actual fact, “expository” preaching is about “exposition”.

“Exposition” means that if you arrive at my sermon today and never hear anything else I preach, you should go away understanding this passage. Exposition is about presenting and explaining the idea or message embedded in the passage of the day. Exposition is an attempt to read the Bible in such a way as to understand it correctly.

Mary Poppins: I Never Explain AnythingIf we open our Bibles to Jeremiah 29:11, good exposition will guard us against thinking that we are ancient Israelites living in Babylonian exile. Good exposition will, however, also move us to the theological significance of a passage that promises prosperity. Good exposition will make sense to us today of a promise given thousands of years ago to a nation of people living in exile.

That means that if we’re wondering whether preachers (or even we ourselves) preach expositionally, the question is not, what was the sermon on last week. The question is, does the sermon make sense of the passage in the context of its place in the book and its place in the Bible and is whatever application stems out of that. The key is that such application is grounded in the meaning and message of the text.

Expositionally Topical

I often hear derision at the idea of topical sermons. I think we have even used to use preaching styles (expository vs topical) as a litmus test; demarcating conservatives and liberals. To be fair, “topical” preaching can be a facile excuse for an appalling use of Scripture. Essentially though, “topical vs expositional” is a false distinction. We could hear a series of sermons on humility (a topic!) taken from John 13, Philippians 2 and Jeremiah 9:23-24 and be listening to excellent exposition because humility is a major teaching point when each text is rightly understood. In contrast, I have heard plenty of sermons from consecutive passages that hardly dig into the meaning of the text at all, whose applications have little or nothing to do with the text in its context. However, “biblical” that sort of sermon may be, it’s not helping me understand the Bible.

The real question to ask of our preaching and our preachers is whether or not they are helping us understand the text. Exposition is an attempt to do exactly that: beware of false imitations.