Those are compelling words of wisdom from some perceptive screenwriter’s take on Johnny Cash’s fondly remembered brother. “If I’m going to be a preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. You can’t help nobody if you ain’t telling the right story.”
The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Your Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11
To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no light of dawn. Isaiah 8:20
These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, because they received the Word with eagerness and searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true. (Acts 17:11).
And one more:
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. Acts 18:24
Older versions of the Bible say that Apollos was “mighty in the Scriptures.” That reflects a literal rendering of the Greek dynatos from which we get our word dynamite. I like the old phrase “mighty in the Scriptures.” While it is perfectly accurate to translate the Greek as “thorough knowledge of the Scriptures”, it seems to me that “mighty in the Scriptures” packs a better punch.
A hallmark of the evangelical tradition of Christian faith is that its leading lights and influential voices have always been individuals mighty in the Scriptures and eager to produce others mighty in the Scriptures. When the Bible was first translated into English by morning lights of the Reformation John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, both men emphasized that they wanted to get Scripture into the hearts and minds of even common peasants. John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) said, “I will cause that every ploughboy in the fields shall be able to read it.” His successor William Tyndale (1494-1536) took up that same rhetoric, and wrote to some priests who opposed him, “If God spares my life, I will take care that a ploughboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.” It is as though Wycliffe and Tyndale could see 500 years into the future and hear ploughboy Jack Cash saying, “If I’m going to be preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. You can’t help nobody if you ain’t telling the right story.”
But even if Wycliffe and Tyndale could not see ahead 500 years, they could certainly look back 1500 years and see what the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy: “From your childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15).
My parents, thank God, were mighty in the Scriptures. When they were teenagers in the 1930s they were blessed to sit under the teaching of a man who had soaked his brain in the Bible since childhood. Harry Ironside of Moody Church had read through the entire Bible by the age of 10, and then once a year thereafter for the remainder of his life. It showed. His messages were full of Scripture.
Preachers like Harry Ironside remind us of something Charles Spurgeon said about John Bunyan. John Bunyan is best known for writing The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) which for centuries was the world’s number 1 bestseller outside of the Bible. In addition to The Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan wrote many sermons. Spurgeon had this to say about Bunyan:
“Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and...he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress...without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”
Spurgeon may have been too modest to say that about himself, but I’ll say it for him. I have read a number of his sermons. If you cut Spurgeon he would bleed Bible verses. Whatever you eat eventually finds its way into your bloodstream. So you can only bleed Bible verses (metaphorically speaking) if you eat a lot of Bible. Prominent evangelical preachers of yesteryear – John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon and Harry Ironside etc. feasted on the Word of God. They would be able to say with the prophet Jeremiah, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” (Jeremiah 15:16).
How is the evangelical tradition doing today with regard to knowledge of, and focus upon, Holy Scripture?
What I want to say about that might be best supported by exhaustive, quantitative analysis of evangelical sermons and books and songs. To prove my point I suppose I would need an armload of statistics rigorously researched and fairly presented. But I don’t have that, and I don’t know how to get it. What I do have are anecdotes, vignettes, personal observations and highly subjective impressions. That is what I am going to share with you.
One thing I have seen in evangelical preaching in recent years is an absolute explosion of simple factual mistakes. I am not talking here about interpretation or bad theology or viewpoints that I oppose. I mean just simple, in-your-face, easily discoverable errors that result from carelessness and brutal unfamiliarity with the Bible.
Before I give examples, I should clarify that everybody makes mistakes - especially when speaking off the cuff. I get that. The Bible is a big book, and I don’t know anybody who has memorized all of it. The best expositors have occasional slip-ups. I once heard James Montgomery Boice, who knew the Bible as well as any contemporary, refer to Philemon (the man, not the book) when he clearly meant Onesimus, Philemon’s servant. Oops. One time I saw online a video of D. A. Carson answering a question and he was unable to call to mind the name of the individual whom the Apostle Paul left sick at Miletus. Carson had to appeal to the audience to the supply the name, and of course I’m shouting at the computer screen “Trophimus!” Somebody say ‘Trophimus’!” Well, that happens, and we extend grace to one another because of the frailties and limits of the human brain. I myself once hastily prepared a handout for a Sunday School lesson, printed it up, and somehow did not notice that I had reversed the fates of the Egyptian cupbearer and baker in Genesis chapter 40. I still cringe at that.
But I have in mind mistakes that I consider to be less pardonable than that. Google the name Ed Litton, current head of the Southern Baptist Convention, and you will come across quite a few side-by-side videos of him plagiarizing his sermons. The plagiarism is extreme – often word for word, paragraph for paragraph, even repeating parenthetical asides and puns and telling other people’s stories as though they happened to him. Ed Litton is a liar with zero integrity and the fact that he has a job in the ministry is an indictment of his church and his elders, and the fact that he still leads the Southern Baptist denomination is a sign that our nation’s largest evangelical denomination is an ungodly disgrace and laughingstock.
But that’s beside the point. My topic of the moment is factual errors. One of the sermons that Litton plagiarized was from his predecessor as head of the Southern Baptists, J. D. Greear. In a sermon Greear related the iconic story of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 and said that that man’s servant owed him just one denarius and couldn’t pay it back. Greear emphasized how little one denarius was. But it wasn’t one denarius. It was a hundred denarii (Matthew 18:28). This is not an obscure text. It’s in a Gospel, and it has been preached on and treasured by Christians constantly for generations. I’ll bet you that 12-year-old Jack Cash could have told you it was a hundred denarii, not one. But when Litton plagiarized that sermon, he didn’t even notice the mistake – he repeated it, nearly word for word. It makes you wonder if he had read it at all. He certainly didn’t review it or study it. In sharp contrast to the noble Berean laymen of Acts 17 who searched the Scriptures daily to see if what the Apostle Paul said was true, we have an ignoble clergyman who can’t be bothered to crack open the Bible that he’s preaching from. And the largest evangelical group in America puts him at their head and leaves him there even after his biblical illiteracy and dishonesty have been thoroughly exposed.
Not long ago I saw a list of the largest churches in America. Number 2 on that list, just after Joel Osteen’s House of Mammon in Houston Texas, is an evangelical church, North Point Community Church near Atlanta, Georgia. Andy Stanley is the pastor. When he was speaking of the disciples’ discouragement following Jesus’ crucifixion, Stanley said, “There were no Jesus followers after the crucifixion. And there was no one on planet earth that believed Jesus was the Son of God when they saw him die.” That is an exact quote.
For any of you who have been a Christian for a few years, and have read through the Bible once or twice, and have been to church, what do you think of the statement, “There was no one on planet earth that believed Jesus was the Son of God when they saw him die”? I think at one time it would not have been hard to find a 12-year-old Sunday School student who would say, “Wait a minute, wasn’t there a centurion who saw Jesus die and said this was the Son of God?” Yes, there was. Mark 15:39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (You can see a parallel verse in Matthew 27:54 and Luke 23:47). I am slack-jawed in amazement that one of the best-known preachers at one of the biggest churches in the world can so easily spew out to his congregation the opposite of what the Bible says.
There was a church I was connected to some 10 years ago. When I saw that they got a new pastor a few years ago I decided to listen online to some of his messages and was immediately stunned because his sermons had a steady, constant drizzle of factual errors. For example he said that the Philip who spoke with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 was disciple Philip who spoke to Jesus in John 14. “Same guy!” he said. No it wasn’t. It’s a different Philip. The Philip who baptized the Ethiopian is the deacon Philip whom we first meet in Acts 6. This preacher also said that his favorite Bible story was the one where Gideon had to reduce his army of thousands to just 300 men by picking out just the left-handed men. No. His favorite Bible story said nothing about left-handedness. The army was reduced (at the end) according to the manner in which they drank water (Judges 7:4-7). He said that the 10 sons of Haman who were hanged in Esther chapter 9 all had a particle attached to their names which meant “self” which indicated that they, like their cursed father, were selfish and self-directed rather than God-directed. That is just idiotic. There is a particle connected to each name, but all it does is indicate the word is a direct object.
The pastor said in a Facebook post that he knew Greek and Hebrew, but in a sermon he said liked Greek better because Hebrew had weird things like the fact that it had no word for "cow" or "goat", but substituted phrases like (here he improvised) “that animal over there that stands on four legs and chews grass.” Actually the word in Hebrew for bull is par; cow is para; male goat is tayish and female goat is ez. It is pretty straightforward.
Do I sound like I’m being picky on this poor guy? Well the mistakes get non-trivial pretty quickly. He said repeatedly in his sermons that in the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), there is only one imperative in the Greek, and it is the word “Go”. It’s plural, he said, “Y’all go!”, and everything else - making disciples, baptizing them and teaching them – all fall under the main category of “going”. This understanding informs a church policy that he has called “Go to grow”. That is, don’t wait until you are a mature believer grounded in the Word before you go on a mission trip. No - just go, get out there, and you’ll grow along the way. I regard that as a recipe for missional disaster.
Anyone who has had one semester of Greek or who has paid attention to a minimally competent sermon on the Great Commission will know that the one imperative in it is the phrase “make disciples,” – not “go” or “baptize” or “teach”; those are all subsidiary participles. They’re dependent on the main verb which is “make disciples.” (One word in the Greek: “Disciple!” as a verb)
This pastor has described himself online as “a global teacher, speaker and consultant on leadership, culture and mission.” Something he said that I actually believe is accurate is that his church had made it onto a list of the fastest-growing churches in America. And for me to know that such a church is led by a biblical illiterate brings to mind words famously sung by Jack Cash’s musically gifted younger brother: “I hang my head and cry.”
Now there are two ways for a preacher to avoid making factual mistakes about Scripture – a good way and a bad way. The good way is to read the text, do your homework, and produce results that your humble, prayerful research has yielded. The bad way is one that I’m hearing with increasing frequency, which is, don’t mention the Bible at all. Or refer to it as little as you can.
That is the great scandal in much of what passes for evangelical preaching today. The Bible, in many places, is barely heard.
Again, my evidence is anecdotal, personal, and highly subjective. Here is some of it. You can hardly imagine how many times when I am driving in my car alone and listening to a sermon on WMBI, I find myself yelling at the preacher on the radio, “WHAT IS YOUR TEXT???” That's when I’ve been listening 5, 10, 15 minutes and haven’t heard a Bible verse.
Recently I was listening online to Reformed theologian James White give a critique of one of Andy Stanley’s messages in the form of an open video letter to Stanley. At one point, in complete exasperation, White says to Stanley, “Could you give us a Bible verse once in a while?” And that hits the nail of my complaint against much of evangelical preaching on the head. Could you give us a Bible verse once in a while? In preparation for next week’s message I forced myself to start to listen to one of Stanley’s abominations. 14 minutes into the sermon, and he still hasn’t read his text of Scripture.
Some years ago a friend gave me a written copy of a sermon from a popular associate minister at his church, a teacher who went on to have a prominent ministry elsewhere. I was asked for my response. I was horrified by this message, which was a full-throated exaltation of Sandemanism (also known as easy believism or cheap grace). But that’s not the point I want to make about it. Among the things that leaped off the page at me was the fact that apart from his principle text (one of Jesus’ short parables), the entire sermon referenced no Bible verses at all until the very last page when there was a passing reference to one verse.
Even if you are honestly in no position to evaluate the worthiness of a sermon, let this thought at least suggest itself to you: In a sermon, a preacher should quote more Bible passages than Satan did when trying to tempt Jesus. (For the record, Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 when tempting Jesus in Matthew 4:6). If a preacher can’t reference more than one Bible verse in a 30-minute sermon, you know that something is wrong. Really really wrong.
Just as something is really wrong when a man who is tasked with leading a church seems incapable of bringing Scripture to bear on questions and matters of importance and crises that come before him.
Forty years ago when I was a freshman at Wheaton College, my roommate, Doug Schmidt, told me that he happened to be present at an informal gathering where some student asked a question of college president Hudson Armerding. I don’t know what the question was. But Doug told me that in the course of Armerding’s answer he brought up Scripture after Scripture after Scripture. It just flowed out of him. I wish I could have been there to partake of that delight.
On May 26 of this year, congregants at Willow Creek gathered and passed on to pastors Shawn Williams and Dave Dummit some questions they had written down. One question was, “Why is Bill Hybel’s name rarely mentioned?” You can see online a video of their response. It’s 8 minutes and 47 seconds long. Commentators jumped all over their response because of their failure to acknowledge the victims that Hybels left in his destructive wake.
Maybe you can already guess my other objection to their response. Neither man referenced anything in the Bible when trying to answer the question. It would be good if the malnourished, Scripture-starved sheep of Willow Creek bleated out the James White question: “Could you give us a Bible verse once in a while?”
I took upon myself the liberty of providing a Bible-based answer for Willow Creekans to the provocative question, “Why is Bill Hybel’s name rarely mentioned?” Here it is. (The pastors of Willow Creek are free to use this if they find it. I even give them permission in advance to plagiarize it without attribution. Take it!)
We do not mention Bill Hybels here – except as a byword, and as a warning – because he was a false brother. Jesus said that the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8), but Bill, by anyone’s standards, has been impure in heart for decades. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9), but Bill has refused to confess even when faithfully confronted. Instead he has stuck to his lies and slandered those who spoke the truth. Followers of Jesus Christ cannot do that, because no one who is born of God continues to sin (1 John 3:9). Sexually immoral people (like Bill) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5). Revelation 21:8 says concerning sexually immoral people, liars, and other evildoers that “their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” As your pastors who will one day give an account to God concerning the watch that we have kept over you (Hebrews 13:17), we solemnly warn you that without holiness you will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). So, for the love of God and the sake of your souls, stay away from Bill Hybels and people like him. Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33.) Until he repents or openly acknowledges that he is an unbeliever, you can’t even eat at the same table with him (1 Corinthians 5:11). We don’t want any of you to go to hell. Along with our God, we want all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). We don’t want any of you to arrive with false confidence before the throne of Christ only to hear him say, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). If you are now in the condition that Bill Hybels proved himself to be in, repent, for kingdom of God is near (Matthew 4:17). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
Those of us who belong to the evangelical tradition already know, we should already know, that we must keep our eyes on the pages of Holy Scripture. Read it, listen to it, learn it, and absorb it into your soul that it might do its work of warning you, comforting you, taking you apart and putting you back together in the image of Jesus Christ. And as that Word does its work in us, so also it is to come out of us in our words and our speech so that by holy viral spread it might accomplish the same work in others. God said, “My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
The Bible is full of stories of the Bible itself, written to that point, being used to accomplish God’s good work. I think of Nehemiah 8, where Ezra read the book of the law to the returning exiles. The people paid close attention, and other Levites helped to explain the meaning.
Or Luke 24, where Jesus himself, right after his resurrection, conducted a Bible study with two disciples while on the way to Emmaus. Luke 24:27 says, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
Or Acts chapter 2, the first public Christian sermon preached after the resurrection is a message by Peter where he expounds upon three Old Testament texts and relates them to Jesus: Joel 2:28-32; Psalm 16:8-11; Psalm 110:1
Or Acts chapter 8, one of the first gentile conversions takes place where two heads are bowed over a scroll of Isaiah and deacon Philip tells the Ethiopian what the text means and Whom it is about.
I think that in light of the ignorance and casual neglect of Scripture that has multiplied in our day and plagued our churches, it is appropriate to close with Paul’s words to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-3:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires.
Let us pray.
God, by your mercy, awaken and revive your church by means of your Word. May we who preach it be faithful to it, earnest about it, and handle it with reverence, care and awe. And may your people listen and verify with solemn diligence and love. In the name of Jesus your Son, to whom all Scriptures point, amen.