Open Letter to Preachers #3

THE SPIRIT AND STUDY

Dear Preacher

I thought I’d write one last time, for now anyway, to try to encourage you to return to expository preaching and to your task of making clear the message of the gospel. I thought I’d challenge a most disturbing teaching that has gained some currency in popular evangelical and charismatic circles, and that comes dressed in spiritual guise, but is, I think, an evil of the reddest, most sulphurous kind.

In it’s crudest form, teachers are prone to declare that what they preach is not the product of study, but rather came to them at ‘the leading of the Spirit’. This teaching appears many different ways. Christians are discouraged from receiving theological education, because seminaries apparently suck all of the joy and zeal from one’s faith. Or, theological study is called ‘too academic’ or ‘head knowledge’, which, for an unexplored reason, is supposed therefore to be responsible for quenching the Spirit.

Now, we know why preachers wish to be seen to be ‘lead by the Spirit’ as opposed to have worked out a sermon through exegesis and methodical study. We’d all love to be like Paul, who claimed not to have been taught his gospel by any man, but to have received it without mediation from the Spirit Himself (although to align yourself with this experience, you’d tacitly be claiming apostleship of a kind not offered to you by the New Testament, and more importantly, ignoring what Paul actually received from the Lord for us teachers). There may well be other motivations at play. Claiming unmediated inspiration from God is a good bullying tactic to cause your listeners to think twice before disagreeing with you. Or, for the lazy, claiming the Spirit’s leading is a lovely way to avoid doing any actual work for your minister’s salary during the week, and it gives spiritual currency to your impromptu rambling.

[I’m more baffled by the kind of talk that sees study as a means of spoiling a perfectly good Christian. Firstly, how can we make such a claim and then expect the same person to listen to our teaching, even if we ourselves practice the ‘leading of the Spirit’? Like it or not, we’re teachers, and so we’d be spoiling our hearers by our own definition. Furthermore, there may well be seminaries that do little more than sow doubt and confusion — yes, I’m talking to you, Theological ‘Liberalism’ — but what has that to do with theological education in principle? If bad colleges spoil the hearer, then advocate the good ones. My theology degree was the most consistently uplifting and spiritual experience of my life.]

When we look at what Paul and the Apostles were like and what they taught other teachers to do, we discover time and again that knowledge of the scriptures was paramount, and that ignorance is deadly. Spirit-led preachers are those that study the word, and that faithfully deliver the Apostolic gospel. It is the ignorant and the false that lead others along with themselves into destruction. There is no time for an exhaustive list, but consider the following:

2Ti. 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Ac. 17:2-3 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ [Or Messiah] had to suffer and rise from the dead.

Ac. 18:24-28 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Ac. 17:11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

1Ti. 1:5-8 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.

Ja. 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

2Ti. 2:2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.

2Pe. 3:16-17 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.

So, if Paul, Apollos, the Bereans and many others were commended for their knowledge of the scriptures; and if, in Acts, the great book of the Spirit’s work, He used the learned to prove from the scriptures that Jesus was Messiah; and if it is to the qualified and those who are workmen in regard to the scriptures that the gospel is to be entrusted; and if it is the ignorant who have wandered away to meaninglessness and who twist the scriptures to their own destruction; on what grounds do we still think it a virtue to stride to the pulpit unprepared? On what scriptural basis do we disregard all of the exhortations to careful teaching and the warnings against ignorance, such as those listed above, and in its place put a vague and irresponsible expectation of a Spirit-empowered miracle of inspiration in the pulpit? Surely if God has indeed spoken to us in scripture, there can be no more Spiritual task than to attempt to plumb the depths of what He has said?

It is our awesome, terrifying task as preachers to address God’s people as His messengers with His gospel. If you’re expecting the Spirit to put God’s words in your mouth and to miraculously prevent you from speaking falsehood, He is able, but He won’t. We’ve already been warned that there are false teachers abroad in the world. And what’s more, not all of them are malicious; some are just ignorant. Without study in fear and trembling, that means you.

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