I was about to finish up a Friday afternoon in my class at Littlerock High School where I’m teaching currently. Two of the students in the front row were talking about the Bible. The boy was saying how his mom tells him he’s Christian, but he never reads the Bible and doesn’t go to church. He said he doesn’t want to, either, because Christians can’t agree on what is right and wrong anyway. So, he thinks it’s best for him to decide that for himself. In some ways, he’s not wrong.
The girl was saying how she was baptised Catholic, but spent most of her childhood going to a Jehovah’s Witness church. She said she believes in God, but is frustrated that no one can seem to agree about what the Bible teaches also.
You might think this is a rather sophisticated conversation to overhear in a high school, but I assure you it’s not. Many young people are very interested in spiritual things, but they are also increasingly frustrated by us as Christians, because we can’t seem to think rationally about what the scriptures teach.
I went over to talk to the kids. I totally agree with them, actually. I’m frustrated by the churches inability to read the Bible the way God intended it to be read. I’m also frustrated that Christians disagree about very important doctrinal and moral issues, even within a local church body. And I’m extremely frustrated when someone wants to have a conversation about biblical truth, but they don’t know how to handle the scriptures.
A survey of 3,000 people conducted by LifeWay Research and commissioned by Ligonier Ministries found that although Americans still overwhelmingly identify as “Christian,” startling percentages of the nation embrace ancient errors condemned by all major Christian traditions. ~ Publication: The Federalist
Lifeway Research Group, a Southern Baptist Affiliate ministry, found that Christians today are falling prey to the same ancient errors that have plagued the church since it’s inception, since the very beginning of the church.
And we aren’t talking about minor points of doctrine, but core ideas that define Christianity itself.
What did Lifeway find?
Let’s look at the data:
30% of professing Christians do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.
40% of professing Christians do not affirm that Jesus is both human and divine.
Over 50%+ of professing Christians affirm that Jesus is the first being created by God.
Almost 70%- believe that all people sin a little bit, but insist that people are morally good by nature.
75% said that small sins don’t deserve God’s wrath — and they define small against their own personal bias, i.e. their sins are small and other people’s might be bigger.
60% believe that all people will eventually go to heaven.
This isn’t intentional though. The analysis suggests that most Christians who hold these beliefs are only accidental blasphemers. They aren’t meaning to be wrong, they just don’t care enough to find out what’s right. No one is out to redefine Christianity. Rather, American Christians just don’t understand or even care what the Trinity means or how their beliefs effect the Gospel message itself.
That’s the data.
This survey was taken by people who broadly identify as Christian. And you understand that there are many, many people in that group who we wouldn’t necessarily call Christians. And Lifeway realized that so they analyzed the data for people who claim to be Evangelical Christians and who are active in their faith. The research group hoped to find that this group—us!—would perform better than the broader umbrella of Christians. But, they actually found that evangelicals perform worse on virtually every point of essential theology.
The Federalist, an online news source reporting on this survey, snidely commented that, “Evangelicals didn’t even study for this test.”
So, what’s the problem?
Well, it’s not the teaching in churches. Everyone wants to belittle preachers for ‘watered down preaching,’ but studies of pastors and Bible teachers demonstrate that very few pastors and Bible teachers within the Evangelical traditions actually believe anything that could classify as heresy. Most Bible teachers and pastors are pretty solid.
The problem is listening and reading. Evangelical Christians aren’t reading their Bibles correctly and they aren’t submitting to the sound teaching of their preachers and teachers.
And the implications of this are staggering. If the average Christian denies the divine nature of Jesus Christ and believes that all people go to heaven eventually because they are generally good, then they are not even, by definition, Christians. Consider the implications. The Christian church grew historically because people shared their faith with others, but 1/2 or more of Christians—even those who read their Bible and attend church regularly—cannot share the Gospel with other people because they don’t even believe the Gospel! And if they do have conversations of faith, the conversations are not likely to point people to the true, biblical, and historic Jesus, but to whatever new age beliefs people are reading into the historic Christian faith.
What I intend to do today is point you to the biblically appropriate pathway of learning truth and forming doctrinal convictions. And for hopefully obvious reasons, I’m going to do that from the Bible.
The absolute, hands down, most important pathway of truth and conviction is to listen to your…
You have to listen to your teachers. We live in an individualistic self-absorbed culture where each person believes that they are qualified to interpret the scriptures for themselves. The idea that you are the highest authority on what you experience has been classified as a post-modern belief, which means it should belong to young people. But, when it comes to the Bible, it’s actually been the position of most Christians for the past couple hundred years.
Oddly, when I was talking to those students in my 6th period class, they knew that they could not interpret the Bible correctly. But, they believed that no one else is doing it right either. So, I asked them a couple of questions. I asked first,
Does our inability to interpret the Bible change the truth that God intended by it?
And second I asked,
What if I told you there are right and wrong ways to read the Bible and that most Christians have not been taught how to read the Bible well?
They were both very interested in knowing what it is that God really says. They proved to be very teachable. And yet, in the church Christians are listening to their teachers and preachers for points of agreement where they can say ‘Amen’ while throwing the majority of the sermon in the garbage. I’m not asking anyone to stop saying ‘Amen.’ I think it’s healthy to affirm your teachers. But, I’m asking everyone to consider everything that is taught even when it sounds foreign or odd to you or it conflicts with something you already believe.
When you listen to teaching you really need to ask yourself,
How much training do I have to interpret the scriptures?
The reality is, most Christians have very little training. But, your teachers, most of them have quite a bit. I don’t mean to be arrogant as though I’m the be all end all of what the scriptures teach, but this is why I went to seminary. And this is why I continue to study interpretive theory today. This is why I read dozens of books every year on the method and discovery of biblical interpretation. It’s because I want to know more. I don’t pretend to know everything because I went to seminary. Even I submit myself to those who have greater wisdom than I do.
The fact of the matter is, the older I get and the more experienced I get with interpreting the scriptures, the more I saturate myself in the wisdom of contemporary and ancient scholars. Because, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews knew this. He wrote,
I think it is great that we have easy access to the scriptures. For most of the church’s existence, most people had to go to a pastor or priest if they wanted to know something about God. All they had was the teaching of the church. But, today you can read the Bible for yourself. And that’s great!
But, don’t miss this. Reading the Bible yourself is not the primary means by which you are supposed to learn God’s word. This passage clearly states in plain English that anyone can understand: your leaders speak God’s word to you. And you are supposed to carefully observe the way the teachings apply in the lives of your leaders.
If you try to figure it out on your own, the author of the letter seems to believe that you are in danger of being led away from the truth by strange teachings of various kinds.
And then, you are supposed to obey the teaching of your leaders since God is going to hold your leaders accountable for the beliefs of the church. The burden isn’t on you, it’s on your leaders, so you should listen to the preaching and teaching of the church.
Therefore, a point of application, the author of Hebrews says you ought to let your leaders declare the truth with joy, not struggling against them and causing them grief—not being argumentative and difficult.
Because it’s mean? No.
Because it’s bad for your teachers? No. Most of us can handle it.
You submit to the teaching of your leaders because it is better for you. It is better for you. Remember, at least 50% of people who claim to be faithful Evangelical Christians have been led astray by various kinds of strange teachings, so much so that their beliefs are not even inherently Christian.
How does that happen? How can so many people sit under good, sound teaching week after week and walk away absolute heretics?
It’s because they are not obeying the teaching of their leaders. There is simply no other explanation.
If you want to know truth, and want mastery over the truth of God’s word, you won’t get there on your own. You need a teacher.
And even when you think you’re getting a handle on biblical interpretation and you think you read the Bible well, don’t listen to the lies. You haven’t arrived. Solomon wrote,
There is always someone wiser and someone more educated that you can learn from. There’s always another level. Never be content.
And I’m just going to be honest here. If you think you understand the Bible better than I do, I won’t let that hurt my feelings. You need to do one of two things. You need to either go to seminary where you can start learning from people you and I both know are way smarter than both of us put together. Or you need to go to a church with a preacher that actually knows more than you. That’s the reality.
But, be careful with that sort of thinking.
The disciple and teacher James who was the first head of the church in Jerusalem wrote,
In other words, don’t be too quick to consider yourself an expert on the scriptures; you might just be wrong to your detriment. You might think it’s uncomfortable to be challenged in the things you believe, but it’s statistically probable that you believe a lot of things that are incorrect about the scriptures, about God, about Jesus, and about the Gospel.
So, what? Do you stick with the devil you know? Or do you stretch yourself, listen to the teaching of the word and obey it?
James didn’t make up this thing about judgment, by the way. His big brother taught it to him. Jesus said,
Heaven forbid you would be so arrogant as to hold a belief that defies the scriptures and then you teach it to someone else. Jesus is a little nicer than James, because at least Jesus seems to say you’ll make it to heaven. You’ll just be the least in the Kingdom. James seems to extrapolate that further into judgment.
At any rate, neither of those options are as good as being humble and submitting to the teaching of those who have been appointed to lead you.
And I assure you, I do the same as I go to my mentor, and to our Director of Missions in our High Dessert Association, and I seek counsel from state advisors and seminary professors. I submit to the teaching of those who lead me as those who keep watch over my soul. Because that’s the teaching of the scriptures.
A quick note—and many of you might be thinking about this already. The disciple Luke recorded this about the Apostle Paul’s journey to the city of Berea. He wrote,
This verse has been used to argue that the congregation should receive the pastor’s message with skepticism and that it is their responsibility to make sure what the pastor says is true.
That, however, is an immature and thoughtless interpretation. Notice a few things about this verse. They recieved the word with eagerness. To be a Berean—if you will—is to listen to preaching expectantly. You should expect to learn something new from your teachers. You should not be a skeptic. You should expect that they will point out the flaws in your thinking so that you can be renewed in your thinking. ‘How glorious it is, when you find that you were wrong about the teachings of the scripture, and now you have come to the truth!’ That is the thinking of the Berean. They were not skeptics.
And Luke says that the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonicans. If you go back to the Thessalonian’s story in Acts 17, you find that Paul was teaching them that Jesus was the Messiah, the savior of Israel, and rather than listen and be thoughtful, they were offended because of their traditions and they formed a mob to try to drive the Christians out of town. But, the Bereans were noble and were interested in listening.
Now, the point about examining the scriptures has to do with looking at what we call the Old Testament and comparing the prophesies regarding the Messiah to the life and deeds of Jesus. That means that they got their local Bible experts and compared the teachings about Jesus to see if it is possible that Jesus was actually the Messiah. They were being thoughtful about the scriptures and submitting to the clear teaching of the scriptures.
So, this text cannot be used to argue that you need to keep your teachers in check in some way. By all means, check what I say in scripture. But, do so not to prove me wrong. Do so, rather, with eagerness to see your mind and heart molded and shaped by the reality of God’s word brought to life in the teaching of it.
So, the first and most important pathway of truth and conviction is to listen to your teachers. The second is to…
Notice, I did not say ‘read the Bible.’ I said ‘learn the Bible.’ This is why.
The Apostle Paul wrote,
The story of the Bible has been called ‘The greatest story ever told.’ And I would agree with that. But, we don’t use the Bible just for entertainment. It is a great story. But, that’s not what we are supposed to do with the Bible.
In fact, Paul doesn’t even say that scripture is good for reading. But, he does say it’s good for some other things. It’s actually really good for these other things.
First, if you are a gifted teacher, Paul says that it is good for teaching. And if you aren’t a gifted teacher, then by inference, you can find a gifted teacher who teaches from the Bible, and then the scripture is good for learning.
Second, the Bible is good for reproof. That means correcting false doctrine or correcting false beliefs. In some ways, that’s what we are doing right now and I hope you are allowing yourself to be challenged by the teaching. But, it’s also what we do with issues like the trinity.
What do you do when someone doesn’t believe that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are three personas of one God?
Well, I’m glad you asked! You take them to the scriptures. The Bible is hands down the best resource you will ever find for correcting false beliefs, because it is the inspired and infallible word of God.
Third, the Bible is good for rebuke, which means correcting behavior. The Bible is not just a guide on beliefs, but on morality.
And fourth, the Bible is good for training in righteousness. And this is why learning the scriptures takes a great deal of humility. Because when you listen to sound teaching from the Bible, and you listen to reproof from the Bible, and you listen to rebuke from the Bible, you are going to find at every turn that you have allowed your selfish flesh to govern the reality around you: how you see your family, how you see your job, how you see the church, how you see God.
And the scriptures are going to attack your flesh at every turn and it’s going to hurt. You’re going to listen to the scriptures, you aren’t going to get a fluffy self-help kind of teaching, you’re going to be laid bare and naked—so to speak—before an almighty God who will demand that you give up your false beliefs and defunct hopes and infectious dreams so that you can fall at the mercy of Christ and allow Him to build in you, through His word, the hope of eternity with Him, and cause you to dream dreams of glory for humanity, and live a life that is truly pleasing to God.
If you want to really learn the Bible, it’s going to take a great deal of humility on your part. And wherever you read the word humility in scriptures, you can just read ‘training in righteousness’ right into that verse, because the most humble and lowly man to every live was Jesus Christ and it’s not by any coincidence that He is also in every way perfectly righteous.
Quit reading your Bible. Humble yourself, and start learning your Bible.
So, listen to your teachers.
And ask your teachers for the right books to study to help you learn the Bible in your own time.
And here’s a good one. Meditate on the Bible. And I don’t mean the type of meditation where you empty your mind as in Eastern religions. I mean the kind of meditation where you fill your mind with truth and consider it’s implications. The Psalmist wrote,
The Psalmist had alarms set on his iPhone for every three hours and he would get up and meditate on the promises of God. Pick your promise! God promised to care for those that are his. Spend a week evaluating every corner of your life and ask the question, does this reflect a trust that God provides for my needs? Or does this reflect a faulty belief that I am going to have to take care of my own needs?
Give it a shot. If you want righteousness in your life, that’ll train you in righteousness, quite a bit I imagine.
And then when you have done all that—you’ve been taught, reproved, rebuked, you’re being trained in righteousness, and you’re meditating on the truths of scripture and applying the scriptures to your life, then if you have any time left, you can read the Bible.
But, when you read the Bible you need to read the story. Read big. What story is being told. That’s how ancient people wrote and that’s how we should read.
Consider Genesis 1, for example. Don’t get caught up on the minutia and the arguments until you understand the story.
So, what do you think the point of Genesis 1 is?
I’ll give you a hint. The point of Genesis 1 is not to prove that creation took place in 6 literal days.
The primary point of the story in Genesis 1 is that God is the all-powerful sovereign creator of the universe.
Secondarily, you might say that Genesis 1 is about the goodness of what God created.
Thirdly, you might say that Genesis 1 is about God creating all things, including humankind, for submission to His good and perfect purposes.
Fourthly, you could argue that Genesis 1 is about human responsibility for the creation God has made.
Fifthly, Genesis 1 is definitely about the nature of humankind as opposed to the nature of other divine beings.
Do you get my point?
I hope you do. I don’t even know where on the list literal 6-day creation shows up in my mind, because it’s not an issue of the story. It’s a detail of the story, but it’s in no way an issue of the story, so it’s not the point of the text. It’s just not that important of an issue. It wasn’t the point of Genesis 1 when it was written and it isn’t the point today.
The reason that so many of you think about a literal 6-day creation when you read Genesis 1 is because you know that it’s an issue, an argument among Christians. And so you read the issue into the text. But, that wasn’t Moses’s issue when he wrote the book and it shouldn’t be ours either.
You have to learn to read the Bible with fresh eyes. Forget what you think you know and let God teach you. And you may not know this, but the men and women who translate our Bibles aren’t just experts on Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and other ancient languages, but they are experts on the English language. If you want to do PhD work and become that level of scholar you have to pass a rigorous English Grammar test before a university will even look at you.
And that means that if you want to read the Bible, you also must be an expert on the English language and understand how to handle the grammar and syntax if you want to understand what it says. Owning a Bible isn’t the only thing you need to read it correctly. You need to be able to handle the English language at an advanced level.
I’m not kidding about this. If you want to get better at interpreting the Bible, reading the Bible more won’t help you. Go to AVC and take some English classes. That can help you a lot.
So, learn the Bible however you have to, but make sure you are being teachable and humble as you do. And a final pathway to truth and conviction is…
What I mean is this. Don’t make assumptions about truth. Instead ask questions. If you don’t understand something don’t just guess. People text and email me questions all the time. I love it. Admit you don’t know and be humble enough to ask someone who does know. This can be about anything, really. But, if you want to know truth and you want to live by that truth, God has a system in place to make that happen.
He’s gifted men and women in the church with gifts of knowledge, wisdom, discernment, teaching, prophesy and the like—all gifts designed to bring the truth of God into the life of the church. Take advantage of that gifting.
One great place to ask questions is in our small groups. If you feel you have a lot of questions, maybe you need to join a small group where you can hash those things out.
I made a new friend this week and he’s not a Christian, but he was raised Christian. He said that he left the church because he couldn’t get good answers to his questions. So, don’t let your questions go unanswered. Get answers.
And if someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to, go and get it. Don’t give a half-baked response to try to get out of the question. Do the hard work. Research. Ask for help. Etcetera. But, get the answers.
And when you ask questions, you need to be ready to hear the answer. Don’t ask a question just to start an argument. Ask a question to learn.
Sometimes we use questions as catalysts to flaunt our opinions. But, truth is not a matter of opinion. Ask a question to learn, not to flaunt your opinions.
With all that said, I want to revisit what I already said. I’m not the authority on the interpretation of scriptures. But, I’m very studied. And I keep myself accountable to people who help me think well about the scriptures. And I have been gifted by God to discern the scriptures and teach them to you and that is why I’ve been called by God to preach here to you at this time.
So, I just ask you to give what the scriptures command. There’s only one answer for the lack of biblical truth in the church today. Stop reading your views into the scriptures and start learning the truth from those who have been called to give an account for your souls.