Idolatry of Earnestness

Sincerity or earnestness seems to be all that matters. The culture at large seems incapable of distinguishing between thought and emotion. No matter how stupid or ignorant a point of view is, it must be honored if it is sincere.

Because someone is earnest in what they are saying, they are immune to critique. People no longer discuss things rationally. Forget giving an argument, and forget what people say. Forget consistencySincerity trumps it all!

Sadly, this is not just how the unbelieving culture thinks. It is not even limited to the inclusivity of Rome, where earnest people of any belief system will go to heaven.

Many professing Christians think this way, as well. You are no longer allowed to disagree with someone (no matter how heretical) if they claim to be earnest for Jesus. Look at the social media uproar cause by theological debate. Look at the “defense” raised for false teachers that are criticized.

Should Christians be this way? Not at all. Scripture actually has something to say. There’s such a thing as “zeal, but not according to knowledge.”

I recently came upon something written by J.C. Ryle that addresses this very issue. I am once again astonished at how contemporary Ryle is. I should be used to it by now. Again, this is why I always have some Ryle in my diet, because you run into bits like this all the time. Anyway…

Beware of supposing that sincerity alone can ever make up true zeal—that earnestness, however ignorant, makes a man a really zealous Christian in the sight of God. There is a generation in these days which makes an idol of what it is pleased to call “earnestness” in religion. These men will allow no fault to be found with an “earnest man.” Whatever his theological opinions may be—if he be but an earnest man, that is enough for these people, and we are to ask no more. They tell you we have nothing to do with minute points of doctrine, and with questions of words and names, about which Christians are not agreed. Is the man an earnest man? If he is, we ought to be satisfied. Earnestness in their eyes covers over a multitude of sins. I warn you solemnly to beware of this specious doctrine. In the name of the Gospel, and in the name of the Bible, I enter my protest against the theory, that mere earnestness can make a man a truly zealous and pious man in the sight of God.

—J.C. Ryle, “Be Zealous

Now if that doesn’t just nail the current attitude right in the face. He could have written that five minutes ago it fits our current atmosphere so well. He actually lived 1816-1900.

It just goes to show you that sinful man doesn’t change. Any who claim Scriptural truth can’t be relevant to us “modern” people are simply out of touch with how repetitive humanity is, especially regarding sin.

These idolaters of earnestness would make out that God has given us no standard of truth and error, or that the true standard, the Bible, is so obscure, that no man can find out what truth is by simply going to it. They pour contempt upon the Word, the written Word, and therefore they must be wrong.

These idolaters of earnestness would make us condemn every witness for the truth, and every opponent of false teaching, from the time of the Lord Jesus down to this day.

Are we really going to admit that the Bible does not show us what is truth? Are we really going to put a mere vague thing called “earnestness,” in the place of Christ, and to maintain that no earnest man can be wrong? God forbid that we should give place to such doctrine! I shrink with horror from such theology. I warn you solemnly to beware of being carried away by it, for it is common and most seductive in this day.

—Ibid

Ryle may have a heart attack were he alive today. Many have indeed been carried away by this doctrine. What he saw is exactly what we still see happening before our eyes.

Set aside the infallible rule for life and doctrine! Sincerity is now the ultimate judge. And what that means practically is that it takes the place of Jesus Christ. If sincerity is sufficient, does it save? It must, if you can disagree with Christ’s infallible Word, but still be acceptable before God because of your earnestness! It truly does cover a multitude of sins.

If sincerity is enough, we don’t need the Word of God, and certainly not the atoning death and perfect righteousness of Christ. “Saved by earnestness alone” is this (old) false teaching. It is common and most seductive in evangelicalism, today.

The church must uphold the Word of God as the sole infallible rule of doctrine and life. The Word must be expounded, hearts being formed by Scriptural teaching. All must be warned not to be seduced by that false teaching. Discernment must be developed.

“Be Zealous” available in this collection, free: 109 Sermons and Tracts by J.C. Ryle.

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A Cloak of Religion

Formerly, Christianity was expedient. In some contexts it still is. In that situation, there are many people active and zealous.

This leads to two dangerous responses.

First, we become more comfortable than we should. We draw invalid conclusions. Because there are so many professing Christians, so much zeal, we think our society more “Christian” than it actually is. This leads further to complacency and assuming that everyone knows who Jesus is or knows someone who does. We take it for granted that there’s a “Christian consensus.” Evangelism and discipleship becomes lax. Expounding the Scriptures becomes sloppy, as we assume everyone has the background to understand us. We don’t define our terms, especially the biblical ones. We get comfortable with our jargon or “code” speech.

It takes current events like those in the United States to disillusion us. “Evangelicalism” declines rapidly. That leads to the second dangerous response.

We panic. “Oh no, Christianity is dying!” The numbers are down, we’re in trouble! And we think this because we’ve been playing the numbers game for so long.

“Evangelicalism” is on decline? Is that such a bad thing? From more sober thinkers, it is suggested that perhaps those who found it beneficial to profess Christianity now realize it isn’t. Many who identified as “evangelical” now do not. It’s not a decline in Christianity, but an increase in honesty. Before, you were strange if you weren’t evangelical. Now, there are social consequences, sometimes severe ones, for being identified as an evangelical. Those who were never of us are simply comfortable with being honest about it, all of a sudden.

But how can that be? Didn’t the zeal of all these people prove that they were the real thing? We look at all the activity, all the service, all the sharing of Bible verses and all the activism. How could that have been a facade?

There is such a thing as zeal from more SELFISHNESS. There are times when it is men’s interest to be zealous in religion. Power and patronage are sometimes given to godly men. The good things of the world are sometimes to be attained by wearing a cloak of religion. And whenever this is the case, there is no lack of false zeal.

—J.C. Ryle, “Be Zealous

Once again, J.C. Ryle is extremely relevant to our time. There it is! Zeal from selfishness. Many are zealous because it’s in their best interest. When it gets you the good things of the world, wear that cloak of religion. I believe this helps explain what we are witnessing, today. As the culture is shifting there seems to be a decline in Christianity. But this could simply be because it is no longer in their best interest. Time to take the cloak of religion off. That will only get you bad things, now.

I believe it’s merely the false zealots walking away, and finally being honest. The selfishness remains, but will find a new way to get the good things of the world. Christianity is no longer profitable.

In short, don’t panic because “evangelicalism” (whatever that means) is in decline. Not all zeal is true. There is such a thing as selfish motivation. We know that’s true if we only know our own hearts.

“Be Zealous” available in this collection, free: 109 Sermons and Tracts by J.C. Ryle.

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Stop Worshiping

Previously: Keep the Truth, or Keep the Peace? and Unity by Sacrificing Truth

Leaving a church is a big deal. It’s a serious decision, not one to be taken lightly or made hastily. There is a huge, blurry, gray area between the extremes of never leaving a congregation no matter what and being promiscuous with Christian community (neither of which are biblical).

There are many factors at play in this decision. J. C. Ryle helps out with one element: the doctrine preached.

True Doctrine

He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is unsound, is a very unwise man. . . . But I do believe, if false doctrine is preached in a local church, a Christian who loves his soul is quite right in not going to that local church. To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in every year is a serious thing. It is a continual dropping of slow poison into the mind! I think it almost impossible for a man willfully to submit himself to it, and not be harmed.

—J.C. Ryle, “The Fallibility of Ministers

Since stating the obvious is always helpful, I’ll say this: the local church does not replace your brain. The pastor does not replace your personal judgment. You do not surrender your responsibility to discern. God in his word has made it clear that you are personally responsible to distinguish between truth and error.

Now, the church is supposed to help with that, and actually train the people to do that. But, sinful as we are, sometimes the opposite is done. Sometimes false doctrine is being peddled to the congregation. And you as a student of Christ with the Bible in your hand are responsible to detect when the teaching is contrary to sound doctrine.

Do you think it might be a good idea for you to stop worshiping at that church, then? J. C. Ryle thinks so:

I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to “Test everything” and “Hold on to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I see in the Book of Proverbs that we are commanded to “Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27). If these words do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if positively false doctrine is preached in it, I do not know what words can.

Does any one mean to tell us, that to attend your local denominational church is absolutely needful to a person’s salvation? If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.

If false doctrine is being preached, then you are justified in leaving that local church, according to the mandates of Scripture.

Notice that question of Ryle’s regarding a denominational church. He’s pointing out an objection that is still around today. There are believers, who out of loyalty to their denomination (or non-denomination), will never leave their local congregation no matter what. Even if false doctrine is preached, it would be wrong to leave the church, because it’s our denomination! Non-denomination, movement, whatever label you prefer, that tendency is still there. I know first hand. I’ve seen it.

Ryle asks why would you stay even in the face of the preaching of false doctrine? Will leaving the denominational church compromise your salvation? If anyone dares make such a preposterous claim, please, step up to the microphone so everyone can hear you.

Now, if that wasn’t far enough, Ryle points out this ugly fact of life:

There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better than Roman Catholicism. Ought the congregation of such churches to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.

Ouch. That hasn’t changed since Ryle’s time, either. I was just reading yesterday this excellent article by K. Scott Oliphint. Evangelical seminary graduates are sliding over to Rome, partly because they already have epistemology and synergism in common. As Oliphint says, “In agreement with Rome, these authors were taught that “God is not a divine rapist” (p. 53); conversion is not a monergistic work of God, but is synergistic.”

Evangelicalism (in the theological sense of the word) is very similar to Roman Catholicism. “By evangelicalism we mean . . . the general non-Reformed Protestantism” (Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Edition, pg. 308; also Defending the Faith kindle loc. 36). In other words, Arminianism. So there are not only outward similarities in evangelical practice (like moralism, the authority given to pastors), and preaching (Law without Gospel), but also presuppositionally. If you want to look into that, read The Defense of the Faith (4th Edition) by Cornelius Van Til, where he says “evangelicalism has retained something of Roman Catholicism both in its view of man and in its view of God” (pg. 102). Some of the essays in the book were first published as a six-part series which is available for free: Defending the Faith.

The migration of Evangelicals to Rome would not be so easy if evangelical churches weren’t already teaching like Rome. I know of a Roman Catholic who visited a large, popular, local evangelical church. After the service concluded, she commented: “it’s not that different.” That’s the kiss of death, right there.

That’s not even as bad as Christians, who believe in justification through faith alone, choosing to remain in the Roman Catholic church and attend the mass.

J. C. Ryle keeps going:

There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better than morality. The distinctive doctrines of Christianity are never clearly proclaimed. Plato, or Seneca, or Confucius, could have taught almost as much. Ought the congregation in such churches to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.

I’ve been there. It was emotionally difficult to come to grips with, and admit it to myself. But I had to conclude at one point that the church I was a part of was not marked by the preaching of the Gospel. The preaching was morality. Some friends and I labeled that “Mosque.” Bryan Chapell says “Synagogue sermons.” The point is, you could take many evangelical sermons and preach them in a synagogue, a mosque, the kingdom hall, or the Mormon church, and walk out of there alive. Why? Because what makes Christianity different from them is entirely lacking in that preaching. It’s just morality. Ryle says we should not sit quietly with that. Make some noise. Because the truth is more important.

Division!

But division! That dirty word. Forbear everything, anything, to avoid even being remotely associated with divisiveness. The unforgivable sin, that is. Keep the peace, at all costs!

Yet, Christ said he brought a sword, to divide. Jesus Christ’s coming to earth caused division. Another classic case of “What Would Jesus Do?” that everyone seems to forget. What is worth dividing over? As in, detaching from your congregation? Truth. Remember, truth before peace. As Ryle says, returning to the matter of loyalty to a denomination,

But it is useless to expect attachment to the denomination, when the minister of the denominational church is ignorant of the Gospel, or a lover of the world. In such a case we must never be surprised if men forsake their denomination, and seek truth wherever truth is to be found. If the denominational minister does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel, the conditions on which he claims the attention of his congregation are virtually violated, and his claim to be heard is at an end. It is absurd to expect the head of a family to endanger the souls of his children, as well as his own—for the sake of “the denomination.” There is no mention of denominations in the Bible, and we have no right to require men to live and die in ignorance, in order that they may be able to say at last, “I always attended my local denominational church.”

And all the non-denominational types said, “Amen!”

But honestly, all are addressed, here. Whether you want to admit to being a denomination or not, whatever label you choose, this is just as likely to happen. If the preacher, in any church, part of any “movement”, does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel, his claim to be heard is at an end. Seriously, saying at last, “I always attended my local non-denominational church” doesn’t sound any better.

But division is bad!

Is division always bad? Not according to Ryle, based on all the Scriptural reflection up to this point.

False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue—and not a sin.

There you have it. Separate. Without fear, but with confidence that the Scripture itself promotes truth before peace. Separating from your congregation is a serious thing. But false doctrine and heresy are also serious. Peace is a good thing and something to pursue, but not at the expense of truth. Disruption needs to happen when the God’s truth is at stake, as Paul did with Peter at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-16).

Just because it is the right thing to do doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly. Just because you should get out, doesn’t mean it’s easy. It may be painful. To have remained silent and still would have been easier. Things would be more peaceful. False teaching is toxic.

To separate from a church that teaches false doctrine is wisdom. To sit still, be content, and take it quietly is harmful and demonstrates that the truth of God’s Word is not valued. Rather, to separate is a virtue, and praiseworthy. Indeed, we should show ourselves as disciples of the one who is Truth (John 14:6).

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Unity by Sacrificing Truth

Previously: Keep the Truth, or Keep the Peace?

J.C. Ryle, in talking about unity, says:

Unity which is obtained by the sacrifice of truth, is worth nothing. It is not the unity which pleases God. The Church of Rome boasts loudly of a unity which does not deserve the name. It is unity which is obtained by taking away the Bible from the people, by gagging private judgment, by encouraging ignorance, by forbidding men to think for themselves. There is quiet and stillness enough in the grave, but it is not the quiet of health, but of death. It was the false prophets who cried “Peace!” when there was no peace.

—”The Fallibility of Ministers

Around here, the Church of Rome literally takes away the Bible from the people. It’s even believed that if a normal person reads the Bible they will go crazy. How can one even exercise private judgment when the very truth that would allow him to test their teaching has been taken away? So much for “test all things.”

You claim to have unity (that “unity” is grossly exaggerated, by the way). But at what cost? The cost of truth.

Lest you think that is merely a Roman Catholic problem, allow me to disillusion you.

The cults do it too. Gagging private judgment is the number 1 characteristic of a cult, in my mind, at least. That artificial unity and critical thinking do not mix. Ignorance must be cultivated, lest anyone think for themselves and realize what’s really going on. That’s why you’re not allowed to read any books/authors from outside the movement.

Now, lest you think that is merely a Roman Catholic and cult problem, allow me to further disillusion you.

There are plenty of Protestant denominations, movements, and congregations that do the exact same thing. When a church engages in “gagging private judgment, encouraging ignorance, forbidding men to think for themselves” in order to maintain unity, I think cult-like. Even if the gospel is not formally tampered with, that is not a healthy unity. And any disruption of the peace is punished. Such scare-words as “divisive” are used to suppress any valid criticism. Even questions are not allowed. Don’t disturb the peace.

But wait? Certainly that’s true for the “little people.” But, perhaps if you rise up into leadership, it’s not so bad. Certainly then you’ll have some voice, right? First, that doesn’t excuse gagging everyone else’s private judgment. Second, wrong. Say you’re in a place of regional leadership in a large church network. You notice truth being compromised throughout your movement. False teaching is spreading. What should you do? Per “chain of command”, you write letters to the ruling council expressing the areas of concern and asking what if anything will be done about it. Next: you are removed from your position.

Too hard to believe? Sadly, it’s a true story. For the sake of unity.

You claim to have unity. But at what cost? The cost of truth. Not only in Ryle’s day but even today, truth is so often sacrificed upon the altar of “unity.” Maintain the peace, even if it means losing the truth of Scripture. But hey, graveyards are peaceful too.

That is not true peace. It is a worthless unity and displeasing to God.

Peace and Unity — Ryle

What’s it like at your church? What kind of “unity” is there? Are you really allowed think for yourselves on the basis of Scripture? I ask “really” because I know plenty of congregants who will readily affirm that they are, even though ignorance is perpetuated by their leaders. Which is the authority, not just in theory, but practically: the leadership, or the Scriptures?

Is the leadership open to questions? Can you approach with the Bible in hand and say you think there’s a conflict between the teaching/practice of your local church, and what the Bible says? Is there more than just a superfluous encouragement to “be a Berean”?

Is there more than mere lip-service to having an educated congregation? Is there an unwritten rule against the people researching, reading books, and listening to outside sources?

Furthermore, what is the basis of your unity? What is your local church united on?

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Keep the Truth, or Keep the Peace?

The text is Paul rebuking Peter to his face at Antioch, Galatians 2:11-16, which reads:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

In this shocking episode, the Apostle Paul confronts the Apostle Peter. Not so bad? Well, he did it publicly. *Gasp*

Shouldn’t it have been in private? Apparently not. Why did Paul do such a thing as oppose Peter to his face? Because Peter did something wrong. Hypocrisy to be exact. And such that others followed Peter in his hypocrisy. So naturally, a public opposition was in order.

But, why disrupt the peace? You’ve got two Apostles of Jesus Christ, co-workers. The church is gathered together. Why did Paul have to oppose Peter to his face in front of God and everybody, just because Peter didn’t hang out with the Gentiles when the Jews arrived? Talk about killing the mood. So disruptive. So divisive. Why stir up a conflict?

Not only did Paul oppose Peter in public, in front of everybody, but he *deep breath* recorded it for everyone to read. Oh no. Paul wrote it down, and sent it to others. It was copied and forwarded. And people have been reading about this public rebuke for 2,000 years.

If something like that happened today, I can see the Christian-social-media-lynch-mob starting a Twitter-storm of rebuke for such unloving, divisive, un-Christlike behavior.

Why would the Apostle Paul do such a thing?

Because, Paul saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel (v. 14).

Let us now take a lesson gleaned from this text of inspired, infallible Scripture.

I now pass on to the second lesson that we learn from Antioch. That lesson is, “That to keep Gospel truth in the Church—is of even greater importance than to keep peace.”

—J.C. Ryle, “The Fallibility of Ministers

What? Balderdash! Not today! We avoid confrontation and conflict like the plague. Double that if you’re in a more indirect culture. Sprinkle some postmodern influence on top, and you’ve got a Christianity that never wants to disrupt the peace even if someone is contradicting the gospel. Never tell someone they are wrong. Especially if they are in authority.

As I’m heavily implying, this peaceful niceness attitude has more in agreement with cultural preferences than with the authoritative, infallible Word of God.

Losing truth is worse.

Ryle helpfully points out some details from the Galatians text that are obvious, but easy for us to miss. As I have personally discovered to be true, stating the obvious is always helpful. J.C. Ryle notes,

[Paul] runs the risk of all the consequences which might follow. He takes the chance of everything that might be said by the enemies of the Church at Antioch. Above all, he writes it down for a perpetual memorial, that it never might be forgotten, that, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, this public rebuke of an erring Apostle might be known and read by all men.

Now, why did he do this? Because he dreaded false doctrine; because he knew that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, because he would teach us that we ought to contend for the truth jealously, and to fear the loss of truth more than the loss of peace.

False doctrine is serious, and not to be tolerated. A little bit spoils everything. Therefore, we must fight for the truth. Even if that means disrupting the peace. Conflict. Confrontation. Losing the truth is worse than losing the peace.

Many people will put up with anything in religion, if they may only have a quiet life. They have a morbid dread of what they call “controversy.” . . .

So long as they have outward calm, smoothness, stillness, and order, they seem content to give up everything else. I believe they would have thought with Ahab that Elijah was a troubler of Israel; and would have helped the princes of Judah when they put Jeremiah in prison, to stop his mouth. I have no doubt that many of these men of whom I speak, would have thought that Paul at Antioch was a very imprudent man, and that he went too far! I believe this is all wrong.

I know from experience that J. C. Ryle is right. Many people will do anything to avoid controversy. Any disagreement over the truth is the worst thing ever. “Stop fighting!”As long as there’s peace, they don’t care what lies and heresies are flying about. Anything is better than controversy. We shouldn’t worry about what we believe, “doctrine divides.”

You bet it does. The truth makes controversy. The examples Ryle listed are but a few. I think also of Amos and Micah who were told to stop preaching. John the Baptist who was beheaded. Christ himself announced that he brought a sword, to divide people.

Paul should have just agreed to disagree, you know. At least, that’s the prevailing attitude I see from those who claim the name of Christ. As long as they can appear calm and peaceful, they will sacrifice everything else.

If you want a tweet from J.C. Ryle, here it is:

Sacrificing Truth — Ryle

In our churches, let us follow the infallible teaching from God in Galatians rather than the “culture of niceness” that sacrifices everything to avoid controversy. Let us jealously guard the truth and contend for it, even if it means losing the peace.

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We Love to Have a Pope

Protestants sometimes laugh at Roman Catholics for having a pope and placing implicit trust in him.

Yet, we often do the same thing. We just don’t (usually) use the title “pope.” I only know of one movement that actually did use that title.

Too many Protestants, sadly, still think and act like Roman Catholics. One of the chief ways is in how they relate to that man of authority in the church.

This tendency is nothing new. J. C. Ryle observed:

We all naturally love to have a pope of our own. We are far too ready to think, that because some great minister or some learned man says a thing, or because our own minister, whom we love, says a thing—that it must be right, without examining whether it is in Scripture or not. Most men dislike the trouble of thinking for themselves. They like following a leader. They are like sheep, when one goes over the hill all the rest follow.

—J.C. Ryle, “The Fallibility of Ministers

Nothing has changed. Perhaps it’s even worse today, given that ministers now have a far wider reach over the internet and the conference circuit. “Celebrity” pastors hold the implicit confidence of potentially hundreds of people that they’ve never even met. And because it is “some great minister or some learned man”, whatever they say must be right. No examining the Scriptures to test whether it is true.

Most people still do not like to think for themselves.

Is there respect due to the office of minister? Of course. In fact, submission to their teaching and authority, and imitating their faith is not optional. However, as some friends are quick to remind everyone, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time.” He’s just a man. He’s not infallible. There is a difference between that biblical submission to teaching and authority, and implicit confidence in the man.

Men soon took up the saying, “Do nothing contrary to the mind of the minister!” But what are ministers, preachers, and deacons? What are the best of ministers but men—dust, ashes, and clay—men of like passions with ourselves, men exposed to temptations, men liable to weaknesses and infirmities? . . .

Ministers have often driven the truth into the wilderness, and decreed that to be true, which was false. The greatest errors have been begun by ministers!

—Ibid.

J. C. Ryle would remind Protestants that infallibility is only in the Scriptures. As Protestants, we confess that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and life.

Why then are so many Protestants functionally Roman Catholic when it comes to church leaders?

We should follow them so far as they teach according to the Bible, but no further. We should believe them so long as they can say, “Thus it is written, thus says the Lord,” but further than this we are not to go. Infallibility is not to be found in ordained men, but in the Bible alone!

—Ibid.

In contrast to not thinking for ourselves and just following what the minister says, we should test their teaching by Scripture. Scripture, not man’s opinion, is to be followed.

It may be a tired example, but it is in the Bible: the Jews at Berea were commended not because they nodded and believed without question what the great and learned Paul said. No, they were commended for examining the Scriptures to check if what Paul said matched. Though they eagerly welcomed his message, they examined the Scriptures daily to test it. Their final authority for doctrine and life was the infallible word of God. “Consequently, many of them believed” (Acts 17:10-12). They would follow the teaching of Paul as long as it was thus written, thus said the Lord.

Too many Christians who claim the Bereans as an example to imitate still treat their minister as a pope. They are still unwilling to do the hard work of thinking for themselves and examining the Scriptures. They would rather lazily play follow the leader. “He’s the pastor, he must be right!”

Don’t just be a Protestant of convenience. Be one of conviction: Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and life. Infallibility is not found in ordained men.

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Preach the Text, Preach Christ

I was reading a short treatise by J.C. Ryle, and couldn’t help but go off on two minor points.

Just Say What the Text Says

Beware . . . of taking up what I call “fanciful subjects” and “spiritualizing texts”—and then dragging out of them meanings which the Holy Spirit never intended to put into them. There is no subject needful for the soul’s health which is not to be found plainly taught and set forth in Scripture. This being the case, I think a preacher should never take a text and extract from it, as a dentist would a tooth from the jaw, something which, however true in itself, is not the plain literal meaning of the inspired words. The sermon may seem very glittering and ingenious, and his people may go away saying, “What a clever person we have got!” But if, on examination, they can neither find the sermon in the text, nor the text in the sermon, their minds are perplexed, and they begin to think the Bible is a deep book which cannot be understood. If you want to attain simplicity, beware of spiritualizing texts.

—J.C. Ryle, “Simplicity in Preaching”, in 109 Sermons and Tracts Kindle loc. 17141

I’ve been hearing too much spiritualizing and metaphorizing of biblical texts, lately. This is quite unfortunate because the Reformed tradition is strong in preaching the word properly.

The point of expository preaching is to say what God says, right there in that place in the Bible. What the human author meant, and the divine Author meant. Not for wonderful biblical truths that can be found elsewhere. If that is what you really want to preach, then go there. It’s okay, really.

The point about the effect on the people is huge. Preaching gives an impression about the Bible and how it is read. Pulling a message out of thin air (instead of the text) is not helpful for the listener on the street who needs to read his Bible. If he’s looking at the text wondering, “Wow, where did he get that?” then how can we expect him to pick the Book up on his own and read it? He’s already been taught by example that what the text plainly says isn’t really what it means, and that he doesn’t have the formula to extract the message. No wonder there is a gross illiteracy in the congregation (hardly anyone brings their Bible, anymore). Perhaps a lack of sound and plain treatment of the text is factor.

Preaching is Useless without the Gospel

J.C. Ryle makes the profound and (tragically) necessary point that simplicity in preaching does no good if you don’t fully and plainly preach the Gospel:

If ‘Christ crucified’ has not His rightful place in your sermons, and ‘sin’ is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do—your preaching is of no use!

—J.C. Ryle, “Simplicity in Preaching”, in 109 Sermons and Tracts Kindle loc. 17325

Since when do monologues without the Gospel get a pass as sermons? Since when are Christless talks about Scripture tolerated?

I’ll tell you, I don’t need your personal stories. I need that one story. We need the message about Christ. Not only for regeneration but for sanctification, we need the Gospel. We need to receive Christ himself in the hearing of God’s word. I don’t need a motivational speech that has no power to move us to action. If Christ has not been proclaimed as Savior (not merely as our example), then no one has been ministered to. You have not preached, as far as I’m concerned. It may have been a nice talk, some entertaining stories, a motivational speech, or whatever. But there has been no renewal. Nobody was changed by it.

I appreciate the words of C.H. Spurgeon: “If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it, it ought to be his last” (read more juicy quotes).

Indeed, preacher, be of the same spirit as the Apostle Paul who said,

For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation is placed on me. And woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

—1 Corinthians 9:16

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