The Self-Evidencing Power of the Bible (Cunningham)

 Thy Word Is Still Truth William Cunningham (d. 1861) was a Scottish pastor and also a professor of theology and church history.  Some of his lectures were published after he died, including a series of lectures on the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here’s a short section from “Lecture XXII” which was a commentary on WCF 1.5.  These comments make me think of Psalm 119, which constantly tells us that the Word is effective for helping us walk God’s way and avoid sin:

“…Certain it is, from the experience of all in every age who have made the attempt, that the more men study the Bible with diligence and humility, and with prayer for the divine blessing and guidance, the more clearly will they see through it all the traces of God’s presence and agency, the more fully will they experience its self-evidencing power, and the more thoroughly will they be persuaded by what they see and feel, as well as by submission to the authority of God clearly revealing this truth by his apostle, that it is all given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness.”

“Believers are liable to be assailed by temptations to error as well as to sin, and they are not always exempted from occasional temptations even to the fatal error of infidelity.  And they are commonly enabled to resist these temptations, and to hold fast their profession, through the Spirit opening up to them more fully, and impressing upon them more deeply, what they may have previously seen of the self-evidencing power of the Bible, and what they may have formerly noticed of the efficacy of its doctrines and statements upon themselves, in changing their natures, in enlightening their understandings, in sanctifying their hearts, and in regulating their conduct. Thus they are persuaded that the Bible could not possibly have been a cunningly devised fable, that it must have come from God, and that it is only by cleaving to it as a light unto their feet, and a lamp unto their path, that they can be guided in the way everlasting.”

William Cunningham, “Lecture XXII” in Thy Word is Still Truth, p. 520.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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God’s Word in the Straw’s Mouth

Product Details Martin Luther constantly talked about the power of God’s Word.  This theme came up in his famous hymn that we’ve all heard: “That Word above all earthly powers…one little Word shall fell him.”  Here’s part of a sermon Luther gave on Luke 11:14-28; in it he talked about God’s powerful Word.  Look for Luther’s excellent straw illustration/analogy:

“…We should never speak in a derogatory or careless way about God’s Word….  True it is that the preached Word is but an ordinary Word and the people who preach it are but ordinary people.  But when it emanates from Christ’s command to preach it and is coupled with faith, then it possesses the kind of power that can make the devil flee.  God has set his almighty power in a very lowly instrument and a very fragile vessel.  Against Satan we human beings are but straw, so that were he able to unleash his power against us he would demolish us in a flash.  So what does God do?  He kindles a little flame against this arrogant, mighty spirit, that is, he puts his Word in the straw’s mouth, and that selfsame word is a heavenly fire which, wherever it goes, scorches the devil, so that he doesn’t know where to run.”

“That is indeed an almighty power, as St. Paul calls it in Romans 1:16, able to save those who believe on it.  It has the power and might of God and is able to bring people out of sin to righteousness, from death to life, from hell to heaven, out of the devil’s kingdom into the kingdom of God, to save them.  Surely there is no more wonderful, mighty power than that of the Word, which empowers the poor straw with such potency that it can drive Satan away and free those who believe it from sin and death, and bring them righteousness and everlasting life.”

-From a sermon Luther preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, 1534; found in Luther’s Sermons, volume 5, pages 342-3.

shane lems

Haggai and God’s Instrumental Word

Minor Prophets, The: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary One of the big themes of Haggai is the power and efficacy of God’s word in the lives of his covenant people.  In BC 520 Yahweh, through his prophet Haggai, rebuked Israel for procrastinating and neglecting to rebuild the temple.  He also called them to renewed obedience.  And the Jews (both leaders and laymen) responded with reverence, repentance, and obedience – attitudes and actions that God’s presence and “stirring” produced in them (see Hag. 1).  Alec Motyer summarizes this well in his commentary on Haggai:

“The call to fetch timber (1:8) and build the house [temple] has met with a positive response.  The disinterested people have become the listening, obedient people.  It is to such that the Lord came with quickening power (1:14) – a quickening that promoted active obedience to the word they had begun to heed.”

“Thus a new pattern emerges: a) responding to the Word (v 12), b) encouraged by the Word (v 13), a’) quickened by the Word (v 14-15).  This sequence is deeply important, for it contains the whole truth about the crucial matter of renewal, the revitalization of God’s people.”

“When we begin to respond to the Word of God (1:12), he immediately uses his word for our further encouragement (1:13) and follows with a renewing, inward work in our spirits to mobilize us for obedience (1:14).  The word of God is his chosen instrument of renewal, in which the key human factor is obedience and the key divine factor an energizing work of God making that obedience possible.”

So in Reformed theology we say God’s Word is his primary means of showering grace upon his people.  He uses his Word to convict people of sin, fear his name, repent, believe, and move forward in obedience.  Haggai shows us God also uses his Word to bring renewal to his people – renewed repentance, renewed fear of God, and renewed obedience along with motivation to obey.  This is one big reason Paul didn’t tell Timothy (or the church today) to entertain or amuse, but to preach the word! (2 Tim. 4.2).

The above quote can be found in The Minor Prophets, volume 3, ed. Thomas McComiskey.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church
hammond, wi

The Adversary Never Relents

 Luther’s sermons have been a great source of comfort, joy, and help for me in my Christian life.  I love how he is clear, bold, and constantly focuses on the gospel.  Here’s one great example from a sermon in 1534.  It has to do with how Christians should handle Satan’s attacks.

“All Christians face such attack, for the adversary never relents but continues to try to wrench us away from Christ and our baptism by means of hunger or persecution, by worldly fame and wealth, or by heresy or false interpretation of Scriptures, so that we give way to despair and vain glory.  If such tricks fail, the devil tries to get us by the throat and strangle us to death.  We can learn from Christ’s encounter with Satan how to deal with and overcome this adversary, so that he’s forced to let us go.  However, this happens only through faith in God and his Word.  Whoever thus arms himself properly will be able to withstand the devil; but whoever fails to do so will certainly be helpless against this deadly adversary.”

“It is the bounden duty, therefore, of every Christian to earnestly hear God’s Word and its preaching, diligently learn and become well-versed therein.  We should also persevere in earnest prayer that God would let his kingdom come among us, not lead us into temptation, but graciously deliver us from all evil.”

Martin Luther, Complete Sermons,  volume 5 page 313.

shane lems

We Need Propositional Facts

He is There and He is Not Silent Here’s some food for thought found in Francis Schaeffer’s book, He Is There and He Is Not Silent:

“Evangelicals often make a mistake today.  Without knowing it, they slip over into a weak position.  They often thank God in their prayers for the revelation we have of God in Christ.  This is good as far as it goes, and it is wonderful that we do have a factual revelation of God in Christ.  But I hear very little thanks from the lips of evangelicals today for the propositional revelation in verbalized form which we have in the Scriptures.  He must indeed not only be there, but he must have spoken.   And he must have spoken in a way which is more than simply a quarry for emotional, upper-story experiences.  We need propositional facts.  We need to know who he is, and what his character is, because his character is the law of the universe.  He has told us what his character is, and this becomes our moral law, our moral standard.  It is not arbitrary, for it is fixed in God himself, in what has always been.  It is the very opposite of what is relativistic.  It is either this or morals are not morals, but simply sociological averages or arbitrary standards imposed by society or by the state.  It is one or the other.

Schaeffer, p. 33-34.

shane lems

Why Aren’t You Listening?

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community One thing that I notice from time to time is the fact that some Christians don’t listen.  As a pastor, I often get questions about various topics.  Sometimes I can tell that the person is not listening to my answer because he has already mind made up his mind even before he asked the question.  He was simply looking for someone to agree with his viewpoint and the question he asked wasn’t an honest one.

I also believe that the mass of Christian information on the internet and in print has hurt our ability to listen well.  A Christian can download all the sermons and podcasts of his favorite Calvinistic or Reformed celebrity pastor, read all this person’s books, and spend hours in front of blogs, FB posts, and You Tube video clips.  What sometimes happens then is that this person – largely self-taught – starts to get selective hearing.  He’s a solo listener, a solo reader, and he doesn’t know how to listen well because his learning has been a solitary self-led endeavor.  It is very difficult to change this person’s mind because in his own self-educated world his theological mind has been made up.  As one of the fathers said, “He who has self for a student has a fool for a teacher.”

We need to take to heart these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God’s love for us that he not only gives us his Word but also lends us his ear.  So it is his work we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.”

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.  They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.  But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.  This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.  One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.”

“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.  It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.  This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”

Not being able to truly listen is indeed a spiritual problem.  It may be good for Christians to get away from downloading sermons, stop reading blogs of their favorite popular pastor, and quit reading so many books alone.  It will help us listen better if we pay attention on Sunday to the pastor God has given us in our local church, interact with him and other Christians face to face, attend lectures and Bible studies in person, and read books in a group setting.  These types of things will help us listen better and contribute to the fellowship of the saints.

Bonhoeffer is right: if we can’t listen to other people, most likely we have a hard time listening to God.

shane lems

How To Listen to a Sermon

This is a repost from May, 2008

Christopher Love (d. 1651), a Welsh Presbyterian pastor, wrote a helpful little book of sermons on mortification called The Mortified Christian (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1998). The whole book is worth reading, but the last section is what I’ll note for now. The chapter is called “The Right Hearing of Sermons.” Here are seven practical directions for listening to the preaching of the gospel.

1) Take heed that you hear the Word of God preparedly. As the preacher must take care to find acceptable words, so the people should labor to bring acceptable affections to the work – when we come to the service of God we should hear with all attention and pray with affection.

2) Hear the Word attentively, as those did in Acts 8.6. Those who hear the Word with gazing eyes, wandering thoughts, and sleepy bodies cannot hear it attentively, but are to be reproved.

3) Hear the Word of God retentively. Labor to keep in your memory what you hear, that you may put it into practice for your life. Hearing is for practice’s sake. This also has to do with treasuring the Word, so it will have a continual impression upon your hearts.

4) Hear the Word understandingly. Christ called the multitude and bade them hear and understand. This is what the Bereans did.

5) Hear the Word applicatively. If a patient has never such excellent counsel given him, never so powerful a medicine prescribed, if he does not apply it, it will do him no more good than if he had never known it.

6) Hear the Word of God reverentially. Many people represent God to themselves in such familiar notions that they ultimately breed a contempt of God which we ought not to have. We must demean ourselves with a humble reverence in His presence.

7) Hear the Word of God obediently. Come…ready, prepared, and disposed to stoop and submit to all the instructions, corrections, and reproofs of the Word of God, like those spoken of in Acts 10.33.

shane lems