A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.
In the previous post I examined how an individual’s experience of the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ creates a desire in the human heart to live for the glory of God. In this post I would like to examine a bit more closely the most common means by which this happens.
Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead he appeared for the last time to the disciples. He gave them one final note of encouragement and instruction before he ascended into Heaven. Luke records it in his book, The Acts of the Apostles.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:8-9 ESV)
There is much that could be said regarding this little excerpt from Acts but for our present purpose I will zero in on two things. First, Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit is coming and more than that, he will “come upon you.” Second, Jesus will no longer be physically present with the disciples as the following exchange with the disciples makes clear.
And while they (the disciples) were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11 ESV)
The very simple point following from this is that Jesus is not physically present with us any longer. There was a time when people experienced the sovereign grace of God in a very earthy, physical way. For example when the Son of God placed his hand on a sick person, called the dead out from their grave, and spoke a word of pardon over desperate sinners. But Jesus was “taken up from you,” and though there are notable exceptions in the unreached places of the world, by and large we should not expect to have a personal visitation from Jesus. That is, we should not expect to have an experience of sovereign grace in the same way as those who walked the earth with Jesus did 2000 years ago.
So how then can we, who can no longer enjoy the direct benefit of Jesus’ physical presence, experience the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ? While in college I remember reading an excellent book by Civil War historian Shelby Foote. The book was called Shiloh and I found it to be a real page turner. Foote had such a vivid style about him that at times I was convinced I could feel the wet, spring dew of the Tennessee countryside and smell the pungent stink of black powder spewing from the Enfield rifled muskets of the combatants. The point I’m trying to make is that if you can’t be present at an event one of the best ways to experience the event is through a well written book. You and I cannot see the miracles of Jesus however much we wish we could have. You and I cannot see the savior’s eyes when he says “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Nor can we behold the man on the cross, who gave up his life with the cry “It is finished!” But just because we can’t see these things doesn’t mean we can’t have some experience of them. One way by which people for thousands of years have experienced the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ has been through a good book, a book so vivid that the characters and events within its pages spring to life.
In an interview with Albert Einstein first published in the Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th 1929, the famed theoretical physicist had this to say of his experience reading the New Testament:
“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
Einstein’s experience reading the New Testament is worth drawing particular attention to two features. First, he said that reading the Gospels made him feel “the actual presence of Jesus.” Second, he remarked that no matter how well told the story, “no myth is filled with such life.” What are we to make of this? What we might ask is whether or not the Bible is more than just a good story. No matter how engrossed I was in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, never for a moment did I feel the actual presence of General Ulysses S. Grant, or any of the protagonists at Shiloh for that matter. And yet, when I read the Bible I find that I have an experience remarkably similar to what Einstein described. Why is this?
The night before Jesus was murdered he spoke of his “going away.” He said that it was necessary that he go away so that something special would happen. Here’s what he said:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7 ESV)
What does this mysterious “Helper” do? Jesus said that the Helper would come and convict us of sin (John 16.8), of righteousness (John 16.10) and judgment (John 16.11). Also, Jesus said that the Helper would come and lead us into all truth (John 16.13). As a crescendo to this whole section, Jesus said that the Helper would “glorify me,” that is the Helper in a very special way brings glory to Jesus (John 16.14). I would suggest, if you wanted to simplify the work of the Holy Spirit, you could say that everything he does can be summed up under the banner of bringing glory to Jesus.
So the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ “Helper” has a job to do. Most jobs require tools. The doctor uses the scalpel. The construction worker uses the hammer. The writer uses the pen. The Holy Spirit in this regard is no different. He has a job to do and he has a tool. The Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing glory to Jesus is principally done through Scripture. Paul says in 2 Tim 3.16 that all Scripture is “breathed out” by God.
This is why when Einstein read the Gospels it felt to him as if a living, breathing Jesus was present alongside of him. This was nothing short of the Holy Spirit of God, playing the chords of the reader’s heart like a skilled musician gently pulls on strings to make a beautiful melody.
This not only gives us a way of thinking through why the Bible has a vitality which other books do not, but it also gives us an important clue as to how we are meant to read the Bible. If the Holy Spirit’s principle work is to bring glory to Jesus, then this must also be the principle work of the Bible. The concept is put well in the Jesus Storybook Bible from which I excerpt a long quote from their introductory chapter:
Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.
No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far away country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne- everything- to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life
You see, the best thing about this story is- it’s true!
There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.
One more thing remains to be said. The Bible is but one of many voices that proclaim the wonderful story of “how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.” C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one such voice that proclaims the Gospel story through allegory. Your Pastor may be another voice that proclaims the Gospel story through preaching. And of course the church, throughout the centuries has endeavored to be a voice for this wonderful story of how God “loves his children and comes to rescue them.” What, if anything, differentiates the voice of the Bible as it proclaims the Gospel from the voice of the church, or your pastor, or C.S. Lewis? To answer this most important question we turn to Jesus’ trusted disciple Peter who had this to say of the Bible:
And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)
Lewis is helpful, but we have something “more sure.” Your pastor may be helpful, but we have something “more sure.” The Church has indeed throughout history been very helpful, but we have something “more sure.” What is this that we have? The “prophetic word,” which Peter here understands to the be the Scriptures. He says that in the Bible men speak, but they speak as “from God,” because they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In no other book, speaker, or institution is the promise to hear directly from God attached. Thus it is in Scripture alone, or as the Reformers said Sola Scriptura, that one has the assurance that he hears from God. And because it is in Scripture alone that we have the promise that God himself speaks “you will do well to pay attention to is as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” Thus the Reformed Christian pays attention to the Scriptures like a man lost in a mine will look for sun’s light. Here are three quick applications in closing.
- The Reformed Christian loves the Scriptures as a man lost in a mine loves sun’s light. It is after all through seeing the sun’s light that the lost man is given hope for a way out.
- The Reformed Christian follows Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will follow the path laid out for him by sun’s light. It is after all through following this light that the man has a course charted for his own salvation.
- The Reformed Christian adheres to Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will adhere to sun’s light. Other voices may encourage the lost man. Other voices may seek to guide the lost man. Those voices that encourage the man to love and follow the light he listens to. Those voices who seek to guide him closer to the light he is grateful for. Those voices who cause him to stray from the light he disregards. He disregards these voices because he adheres to the light, and he judges every encouragement, suggestion, claim, and guidance by how well it too adheres to the light.
In closing, I will say that just because we have something “more helpful,” does not discount other things from being helpful. It simply means that whatever help you do find, you will find nothing as helpful as the Bible for it is the only place where we are spoken to as if “from God.” In my next post, I would like to identify some helps and spell out exactly how they are helpful. Topics I will address in the next post will be the Church in general, the role of tradition, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.