Lyin’ to Yourself

If you only know where to look, self-deception is all around us.  It’s in old 80s songs.  John Waite sang about lying to himself that he ain’t missing you.  It’s in literature.  One of my favourite examples is from C.S. Lewis.  The Magician’s Nephew is the first of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Narnia has just been created by Aslan.  The animals are meeting with Aslan and at a certain point Aslan begins singing.  All of this was observed by Uncle Andrew. This is what Lewis wrote next:

When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason.  When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song.  And he had disliked the song very much.  It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel.  Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (‘only a lion,’ as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make himself believe that that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing – only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world.  ‘Of course it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it.  I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order.  Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring.  Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.  Uncle Andrew did.  He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song.  Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to.

That’s a classic example of self-deception.

The Bible speaks about this phenomenon, especially in relation to people and their knowledge of God.  Nowhere is this more direct than Romans 1.  Romans 1 says that all people know, at some level, that the true God exists.  However, not all people acknowledge his existence.  There’s a crucial difference between knowing something and acknowledging something.  Romans 1:18 says that unbelievers “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” about God.  That’s telling us that unbelief isn’t an intellectual failure.  Instead, it’s a profound moral problem.  Unbelievers make the moral choice to pretend the true God isn’t there.  This is an evil choice for which they’re fully responsible.  Romans 1:20 says that they’re “without excuse.”  They have no ground to stand on before God’s judgment.  They’re going to be held accountable for their choice to know about the true God and yet refuse to acknowledge him.

The truth is every person knows deep within them that they’ve broken God’s law.  Moreover, they know they’ll stand in judgment for that.  Romans 1:32 speaks the truth, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”  What keeps an unbeliever from openly acknowledging this?  It’s simply the most irrational thing in the universe:  sin.  As it says in Romans 1:21, sin leads to futile thinking and darkened hearts.

What’s the way out of this profound self-deception with regards to the true God?  Regeneration by the Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit can bring light to the darkened heart.  Only the Holy Spirit can bring purpose and meaning to our thinking.  Only he can lead us to acknowledge God and, even more, trust in him.  But it’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit uses means.  He uses people who speak the truth of God’s Word to challenge the foolishness of self-deception (1 Pet. 1:23-25).  What the self-deceived need more than anything is someone to come along with the truth, to pull the façade down, to rip off the mask, and show the way things really are.  When we do that with the requisite love and humility of our Saviour, God can use that to work regeneration and faith.


‘We’ or ‘You’ in Preaching?

When he’s making his applications, should a preacher use ‘we’ or ‘you’?   There are arguments for and against both.  Using “we” sounds more humble and preachers don’t want to be accused of coming off arrogant and self-righteous.  But using “we” also sounds a bit weak-kneed, as if God’s Word doesn’t speak authoritatively and directly to the congregation from the pulpit.

In one corner is Alec Motyer, a ‘we’ proponent.  In his book Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching, he says he’s “not comfortable with the ‘you’ approach to preaching.  We are not like doctors diagnosing and prescribing for someone else’s complaint – in which case ‘you’ is appropriate and necessary.  We who preach are fellow-sufferers from the same disease!” (p.95)

In the other corner of the ring, we find, perhaps not surprisingly, Jay Adams.  In Truth Applied, Adams argues that effective application requires direct language directed to the hearer.  He says that applicatory language is “at once clear, simple, direct, personal, active and concrete” (p.115).  Whether in the introduction or elsewhere, the preacher has to direct his speech to the congregation.  It’s got to have punch.  That means ‘you.’

‘We’ or ‘you’ may appear a vexing question.  But what if the Bible gave us an answer?  What if there was a sermon addressed to a congregation of believers where we might be able to see not only how the early Christians dealt with this, but also discern God’s will?

While the book of Hebrews is often described as a ‘letter’ or ‘epistle,’ a good case can be made that it is actually a sermon from the apostolic church era.  One of the most compelling arguments is the use of the expression ‘a word of exhortation’ to describe the work in Hebrews 13:22.  Exactly the same expression appears in Acts 13:15 to describe preaching in the synagogue.  Moreover, numerous scholars have drawn attention to rhetorical devices used in the work – these devices are usually associated with spoken language rather than written.  While there’s no way to be absolutely certain, it’s quite likely that most of what we call Hebrews was originally a message delivered to one or more churches.

Now if that’s true (I think it is), then we could examine the applicatory language used by the author/preacher of Hebrews.  Does he use ‘we’ or ‘you’?  There’s plenty of applicatory language to be surveyed throughout the book.  I didn’t do a tally of all the uses, but I’m going to guess that it’s about half and half for ‘we’ and ‘you.’  Here are a few select examples of ‘we’:

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”  (Heb. 2:1)

“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”  (Heb. 4:11)

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” (Heb. 4:14)

Here are just a few examples of ‘you’ (second person plural):

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12)

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” (Heb. 10:35)

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”  (Heb. 13:5)

This variety of applicatory usage is found throughout the book, although it does start to clump up in chapter 13 with its large section of application.

If we take our lead from Hebrews, it seems that both ‘we’ and ‘you’ are equally valid ways of bringing application to bear in sermons.  But it would also seem that one shouldn’t be used to the complete exclusion of the other.  It’s good to be authoritative and direct with the congregation, but at times it’s also good to include yourself as a sinner equally addressed by the exhortations of God’s Word.  Let me give the final word to Bryan Chapell.  He writes in a footnote in Christ-Centered Preaching:

I encourage students to ignore the senseless arguments over whether preachers should exhort with the words we or you.   The arguments some preachers make for the exclusive use of one or the other are specious at best…Obviously, a preacher who never confronts others speaks without the authority Scripture grants, but a pastor who never identifies with sinners preaches with an arrogance even Jesus did not assume. (p. 143)


Can You Read?

When I first started in ordained ministry, I was a missionary in a small, remote community in north-central British Columbia.  Some of the people there were functionally illiterate.  A few could barely speak English.  My wife and I had the privilege – and the challenge – of bringing the gospel to this village.  It’s an experience that’s shaped me to the present day and one I’ll never forget.  A few years ago I wrote a book about our time there and all the ups and downs — you can find it here.

In that book, I mention a wonderful couple named Charlie and Marion.  They were involved with our little mission congregation from the start.  In fact, our sending church had been doing outreach in the village long before we arrived and Charlie and Marion were often involved.  They struggled with things in their life, but they were usually warm to the gospel.  When they were home, they almost always attended our worship services.

I also visited them regularly to read the Bible with them.  You see, Charlie and Marion were virtually illiterate.  Because of their age and other factors, they never did learn how to read.  And yet I wanted them to hear God’s Word, not just on Sunday, but through the week too.  They told me they wanted that too.

One day I was reading Evangelical Missions Quarterly when I spotted something about a unique way to reach illiterate people with the Word of God:  the Talking Bible.  The Talking Bible looked like a Bible, but it had a tape player inside it which would allow you to hear the Bible being read.  The Talking Bible (in dozens of languages) is still around, but of course, the technology has improved vastly.

Charlie and Marion seemed to enjoy their Talking Bible.  I say that because every week or two I still had to come and visit – but now to replace the batteries in their Talking Bible.  For these people who couldn’t read, they were now able to hear the Word of God every day.

If you couldn’t read, what measures would you go to still access the Scriptures?

When I was a seminary student, I read somewhere the story of William McPherson.  He lived sometime in the early twentieth century.  He worked at a stone quarry in Colorado.  He’d recently become a Christian when he had a terrible accident.  Some dynamite exploded in his face, blinding him, and also causing him to lose the use of his hands.  As he began his recovery, he had a hunger for the Word of God.  He heard of a woman in Britain who’d learned to read Braille with her lips.  McPherson couldn’t do that because the accident had damaged the nerve endings around his mouth.  But he still had his tongue.  He learned to read Braille with his tongue.  Over the next 65 years, McPherson read through the Bible four times – reading it in Braille with his tongue.  Talk about dedication!

Now, if you couldn’t read, what measures would you go to still access the Scriptures?

But you can read!  You’re reading this.  Yet how often don’t we neglect one of the greatest gifts God has given, his Word?  Dear reader, thank God today that you can read, that you have the precious gift of literacy.  Don’t take that gift for granted!  Thank God today that you have the Bible in your own language — you have unfettered access to all the wonders of the gospel.  Then let the prayer of Psalm 119:103 be your aspiration too:  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  Those words were never truer than when fulfilled by our Lord Jesus, but they’re to become increasingly true of Jesus’ disciples too.


I Recommend — Podcasts

School recently started up here again in Australia.  This year I’m spending 45+ minutes each morning bringing our daughters to school.  At first I looked at that as a bit of a drag, but then I realized it’s actually a huge opportunity.  I can use this time for listening to some great podcasts.  Let me recommend the following to you:

The White Horse Inn

I’ve been listening to the WHI off and on for a long time (since the early 2000s).  This past week, they had a great interview with Adam Duker, a comparative religions professor.  WHI is available on Spotify and other platforms.

Abounding Grace

Pastor Chris Gordon is a long-time friend and colleague of mine.  He presently pastors the Escondido United Reformed Church in California.  AG has been running for years (I used to participate in the Friday programs when Chris was in Lynden and I was in Langley — good times!).  A program that stood out for me this week was this one on “Christian myths and other famous quips.”  Does “God help those who help themselves”?  Is God a “gentleman”?  Check it out.

Christ the Center

CTC tends to be a bit weightier than the other programs I’m mentioning.  But it’s good to be challenged and stretch yourself intellectually.  CTC often has interesting topics and sometimes controversial guests.  This past week, I enjoyed their interview with Dr. David Van Drunen about his forthcoming book, Politics and Christendom.

Mid-America Reformed Seminary Round-Table

This podcast (available on Spotify) features MARS professors in discussion on topics they teach at the seminary.  Just this morning, I enjoyed this interview with Rev. Danny Patterson, who teaches introductory Christian counselling.  There’s some good conversation there, especially about the use of medication.

 


Human?

Hereditary chiefs of the Lake Babine Nation welcome a group of canoeists to their village.

Are First Nations people human beings or not?  Sounds like a strange question to us today, but to many people in the sixteenth century it wasn’t so clear.  In fact, in 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid on that very question.  On the one side was Bartholomew de las Casas, a Roman Catholic bishop.  Las Casas argued that Native Americans are fully human just as Spaniards and therefore every effort should be made to bring them into the Roman Catholic Church.  On the other side was Juan de Sepulveda, a Dominican friar.  Sepulveda argued that Native Americans may appear human, but they are not capable of becoming Christians and that they should therefore be enslaved.  It’s not clear who won the debate, but both attitudes have been found throughout history.

There have been always been those who say the gospel is only for some people and not for others.  In the days before, during and after the ministry of Christ on earth, there were many who believed that the message of the Bible was only for Jews.  God wouldn’t want anything to do with the dirty Gentiles.  Think of Jonah.  Think of his attitude to Nineveh.

But what about us?  Where do we stand on the question of who the gospel is for?  In principle, we might easily agree that the gospel should go around the world to people from different cultures and nations.  It’s easy when we’re talking about people far away.  But what about closer to home?  How would we react if, say, the Lord were to begin gathering homeless people to our church every Sunday?  Or perhaps people with a variety of social issues.  What we would do if our pews started filling up with those sorts of people?  Would we eagerly welcome them?

What would our Master do?  To answer that, you might study his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.  He met this Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Her daughter had an unclean spirit.  She heard that Jesus was in the area, so she seeks him and throws herself at his feet.  She begs for healing for her daughter.

Jesus gives her a curious answer.  He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  The comparison is implied:  the children are the Jews and the little household doggies are the Gentiles.  The bread is what Christ has come to bring in his life and ministry.  At first, the whole thing seems like a distasteful comparison, especially comparing Gentiles to doggies.

However, our Lord Jesus reveals himself to be a wise teacher who presents an argument to see what his pupil will do with it.  He wants her to make a good response so he can help her.  The woman has to justify her request.  She has to demonstrate her faith.  How desperate is she?  More importantly, how does she view Jesus and what he can do even for a Gentile like her?

Her retort to him is daring, shrewd, and at the same time stunningly humble:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).  She recognizes his authority by calling him “Lord.” She doesn’t argue with him.  She acknowledges her low status.  She basically says, “Are you comparing me with a little doggie?  I’m in agreement with that.  I’m not a child in your house.  I’ll accept what you say and I’ll even find some encouragement in it because I know that even the little doggies get table scraps.  Can I please have some of the scraps?”  She recognizes that the Jews have a priority in the history of redemption.  But she believes that Jesus is also a Saviour for Gentiles.  She believes that he won’t turn her away empty-handed, but will also give bread to her.  He’ll restore the life of her beloved little daughter and set her free from this evil demon.  Jesus does.  He commends her faith and heals her daughter.

Unless you happen to be Jewish, by nature you’re in the same boat as the Syro-phoenician woman – all of us are little doggies.  But through faith in Christ, we’re transformed into true children in his family.  We’re fed with his food, nurtured by his love, and promised his inheritance.  We become everything human beings were created to be.  We should never cease to be amazed that this is all grace.  If we hold that thought in our minds, that’ll also bear fruit in the way we regard others, also others who aren’t in the same social status as ourselves, who look different, or who come from a different culture.  God’s grace has been wide and deep for us — it has to be wide and deep for them too and that has to be reflected in the way we interact with them.  It was that way for our Master Jesus in Mark 9.  He gave bread to this woman and didn’t hold her Gentile roots against her.  It has to be the same way for every disciple of Christ.