A Theology of Opportunity: Sola Scriptura and the Great Commission

by John Frame

1. Principle, Change, and Sola Scriptura

Introduction

I want to talk to you in these three sessions about the theology of opportunity. We have heard about many areas of present-day culture which present opportunities for Gospel witness. If you are like me, you want to reach out and grasp these opportunities. But how should we do this? Does the Bible have anything to say about the business of grasping opportunities?

As Reformed Christians, that should be our first question: what does the Bible say? For us, God must have the first and last word in our decisions, including the decision to grasp an opportunity. Our opportunity now as then is to reach people and their culture for Jesus Christ. But we know that historically attempts to reach the culture have resulted in compromise of biblical teaching. In the second century, Justin Martyr, a courageous, zealous, and intelligent Christian, tried to reach the Jews and the Greek philosophers of his day. But in doing so, he reinterpreted the Bible to make it teach Greek philosophy, distorting the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and of creation, among other things. In the thirteenth century, again out of an evangelistic motive, Thomas Aquinas bent the scriptural teachings to fit the philosophy of Aristotle. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, trying to reach the intellectual despisers of Christianity, rejected biblical authority entirely and replaced it with the authority of human subjectivity. Charles Finney, trying to reach the lost, advocated an Arminian, almost Pelagian,  version of human free-will. And so on it goes. Evangelism is a central biblical idea, but it seems so dangerous.

One of the dangers is a reaction on the other side. When Reformed people have taken note of the compromises made by prominent evangelists, they have sometimes become suspicious of evangelism itself. We all know that there are Bible-believing Presbyterian churches that are very critical of Arminian evangelism, but have found nothing to replace it with. They say much about what biblical evangelism is not, but they scarcely practice evangelism at all. Since the eighteenth century, American Presbyterians have fought many battles over “revivalism” and “new measures,” the results being that those Presbyterians who have remained doctrinally Reformed have often avoided any organized, disciplined, concerted emphasis upon evangelism in their churches. This is a very serious problem; in essence it amounts to a repudiation of our Lord’s Great Commission.

What I’ve said about evangelism is true to some extent of all Christian interactions with culture: social action, involvement with the arts, conversations with scientists and philosophers. On the one hand there is the tendency to compromise, on the other, the tendency to withdraw into our own subculture, forsaking both the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission.

But it’s not enough to say that there must be a happy medium here. We don’t get any nearer our goal by mixing a little compromise with a little withdrawal. Neither alternative is pleasing to God, and no combination of them can please him either.

If the biblical picture of the church tells us anything at all, there has got to be a way for us to reach our culture dynamically, powerfully, not by compromising our doctrine, but by being especially consistent with it; not playing it down, but pressing it hard; not holding it only theoretically, but living it out in the fullest way possible. That is God’s way.

In Scripture and history, the church has had the strongest, most lasting influence on society, not when it has accommodated itself to the world, but when it has been most true to its own confession against overwhelming odds. Consider Noah and Abraham, believing God’s promises against all the apparent evidence to the contrary. Consider Moses, standing boldly before Pharaoh to proclaim God’s word, demonstrating God’s power against the most powerful totalitarian dictator of the time. Consider Elfin, challenging King Ahab and the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah. Consider Peter, preaching to the murderers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost; Paul, taking the gospel through the world; the Christian martyrs of the first centuries; Athanasius of Alexandria, standing against the world for the doctrine of the Trinity; Luther and Calvin, protesting that salvation is entirely by God’s grace without human works; the Puritans, seeking to bring all of human life and society under the rule of God’s word.

All of these walked in the steps of Jesus, who set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem, to lay down his life in obedience to his Father and in submission to scriptural prophecy. No accommodation there; no compromise; but what cultural power! By his obedience to his Father’s word, Jesus creates nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwells righteousness. By his sacrifice of himself to the Father’s will, he fulfills the cultural mandate, filling and conquering the earth. By his sacrifice, he empowers the fulfillment of the Great Commission, spreading his grace to every corner of the earth.

In Scripture, then, and in history, we see that we are not forced into the dilemma of compromise on the one hand and withdrawal on the other. There is a third way, to borrow a phrase, that is attended by God’s blessing and by great spiritual power. But how can we define that third way? I have already given you the answer in essence: we must become more scriptural.

 

A Testimony

Let me pause here to make a few personal remarks, a kind of testimony, for I want to be honest with you about where I am coming from. There are, unfortunately, all sorts of parties in the church, and anyone who speaks on this kind of issue may rightly be suspected of making a partisan pitch. I try to avoid fitting neatly into clubs or cliques within the church, bearing in mind the apostle Paul’s condemnations of partisanship in 1 Cor. 1-4. And to tell you the truth, I haven’t been in the PCA long enough to really know much about its partisan structure, though perhaps I already know more about it than I really want to. But if, after hearing me out, you want to pin some kind of label on me, that is your decision. I just want to be up front with you, so that if you do pin a label on me you can do so on the basis of some informed thought.

First, let me say that theologically speaking, I don’t have a liberal bone in my body. In college I read J. Gresham Machen’s great book, Christianity and Liberalism, and saw liberalism up close and at its worst, in the university and in the church. That was my vaccination; since my sophomore year in college, I have never since had the slightest temptation to be a liberal. The whole idea of adjusting or rewriting the gospel to make it acceptable to modern man is an idea which I view with supreme contempt. I have always insisted that Christianity is entirely pointless unless it is a revelation from the true God; and if God has revealed it, then we are emphatically not free to pick and choose, or to make adjustments to suit our tastes.

Equally, I despise the idea, not uncommon in evangelical circles, that Christians have to follow all the intellectual, ethical, and political fashions: egalitarianism, pluralism, liberal divorce, abortion, gay rights, evolution, secular psychology, or whatever.

You know, we have it so easy in this country. There is so little persecution, really, compared with other historical and geographical settings. Cannot we even muster the small amount of courage it takes to oppose cultural fashions from time to time, when these are clearly contrary to the Word of God? God asks so little of us; the weakness of the church is shown in that it is so often unwilling to do even that little bit. To be a bit unpopular, a bit unfashionable…

Well, to continue my testimony, I also read Cornelius Van Til in college and studied with him at Westminster Seminary, and I can say that I am to this day a Van Til disciple, but not a slavish one. And over the years, my closest friends have been in those groups that are usually seen as the most highly principled: Van Tillians, Machenites (I was in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for twenty-two years, and I am still a Machenite), theonomists (I wouldn’t call myself a theonomist, but some of my best friends are theonomists), neo-Puritans, old schoolers, the ”truly reformed” or “T. R.’s” as we say in the PCA. For all my disagreements with these friends, and there are some, I’ve always felt that these are people I can talk with. For these are people who want above all to be scriptural, to make decisions on principle. With these people, you can disagree, but you always know where you stand, and you always know in general how to move from point A to point B.

I don’t relate easily to “barely reformed” types– the ”B. R.’s,” as we say — even when I do agree with their ideas. I’m sure nobody here admits to being “B.R.” “B. R.” is what Van Til used to call a “limiting concept;” there really aren’t any, but it’s convenient to measure yourself against them. But there are people, you know– again, certainly nobody here– who are kind of fuzzy thinkers when they talk about theological matters. They are not solidly grounded. As I say, I have a hard time relating to people like that. For when people are not solidly anchored doctrinally, you never know quite how to talk to them. You don’t know how to persuade them of anything, and you never know how you can learn from them. They’re always grabbing for ideas in the mists of their subjectivity, trying to be what? Up-to-date? User-friendly? whatever. That mentality, at any rate, is not going to produce the powerful witness that God expects of us today.

Most of us are combinations of the two mentalities to some degree, but some of us are weighted more on the T. R. side, others to the B. R. side, hence the party names. Methodologically, I am very much on the T. R. side.

Nevertheless, I confess that on many matters I find myself agreeing with people who are sometimes called “B. R.’s” over against the T. R.’s. The main reason is that in my estimation the T. R.’s are often so eager to be historical, to maintain traditional ways of doing things, that they don’t always listen closely to Scripture, as they know they are supposed to. The so-called B. R.’s, being less well anchored in historical models, are sometimes able to see things that the T. R.’s can’t see. Although they aren’t always terribly clear on the exegetical basis of their ideas, they sometimes see intuitively that Scripture is directing the church to take new steps, steps different from those taken in the past.

 

Repentance, Change, and Sola Scriptura

My suggestion is that we combine the T. R.s’ concern for exegetical rigor with the B. R.s’ openness to learning something new. The Bible, after all, is good news, something new. It is the living word of God. God didn’t give it to us to reinforce our prejudices, but to challenge us, to prod us to repentance and change. Remember: repentance always means change.

Over and over again, God’s prophets challenge the people to rethink their traditions. A while ago I listed some of the heroes of the faith in Scripture and in church history, as people who stood up for principle, for the word of God, against overwhelming odds. What I want to add now is that these heroes of the faith always stood for something new, because the word of God imposed upon them something new. It knocked them out of their routines, routines both of thinking and of living. From them we learn the lesson that when people think they have God figured out, reduced to a routine, God comes with his powerful word and shakes them to the roots.

Think of Noah and Abraham: how God shook up their routines. The flood had no historical precedent at all; God called Noah to do something entirely new. And God specifically called Abraham to tear up his historical roots and to start over in a new country, to become the father of a new people. He did not break all ties with his brothers and their families, but his move was a decided break with the past, and a commitment to a divine promise for the future that seemed from every human point of view quite incredible.

Think of Moses delivering God’s word to Israel in Egypt. Leave Egypt? Promised land? When Pharaoh hears this, he will only make us work harder! We have a routine here; let’s stick with it! And even after God brought them out of Egypt with a mighty arm, they remembered that routine: Didn’t we have great food in Egypt? Why, Moses, did you bring us out here to die in the desert?

All through the history of the Old Testament, people were tempted to mistake their routines, their traditions, for God’s word. The Lord says through Isaiah, “The people come near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” (Isa. 29:13) This passage is quoted in the New Testament in Matt. 15:8-9 and Mark 7:6-7. In these passages, we learn that the Pharisees dishonored their parents by their tradition of giving to God what would have otherwise gone to parental support. Jesus accused the Pharisees of making the word of God of no effect by their tradition. The example is multiplied, for Jesus said that the Pharisees did many other such things.

The Pharisees thought they were experts in the word of God, that they knew what God expected of them. They were the ones who in their time were considered the most principled in their adherence to God’s word. But they had developed various traditions, which they thought were applications of the word of God, and they had their pattern of obedience down to a routine. But Jesus told them their routines were wrong. The word of God actually challenged those routines and called for change.

The Pharisees also had their hermeneutical or exegetical traditions. They read the Old Testament and concluded that a certain kind of Messiah was coming: one that would restore the throne of David, the independence of Israel from Rome, and the earthly prosperity of the Jewish people. Again, they had it wrong. Their traditional ways of thinking prevented them from recognizing Jesus Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh to save his people from their sins.

In John 5:39-40, Jesus says to the Jews, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” A terrible indictment: they gave themselves over to study the Scriptures, to becoming experts in God’s word; yet they missed the entire thrust of it, its most important theme.

To two disciples who mourned the death of Jesus, not knowing that he had risen from the dead, the risen Christ complained, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26)? Again, these disciples had read the Scriptures, but had missed the whole point. But their hearts burned within them as Jesus taught them the Old Testament in a whole new way.

Similarly, through the history of the church, God has from time to time called his people to reconsider their traditions and to return to the purity of the word of God. Most of us would agree that the greatest of these occasions was the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a great time of housecleaning for the church– in theology, worship, preaching, and every area of the church’s life. The reformers were conservative in going back to the scriptural teachings; but they were radical in their attack on the traditions of men.

Thus came the slogan “sola Scriptura,” by Scripture alone. We sometimes refer to that principle as “the sufficiency of Scripture.” This was one of the great “alones” of the reformation, together with sola gratia, “by grace alone,” sola fidei, “by faith alone,” sola Christo, “by Christ alone,” and soli deo gloria, “glory to God alone.” The sufficiency of Scripture means that the ultimate authority for faith and life is the Scripture alone, not any ideas or traditions of men. Popes and councils may err and have erred. But God’s word does not fail. All human ideas, whether contemporary or traditional, are to be tested by the Scriptures. As Paul said to Timothy in 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Scripture is inspired of God, God-breathed, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Scripture is our sufficient rule; we need not and dare not supplement it with our own ideas.

At the beginning of this lecture, I said that we need a way of thinking and living which permits neither compromise of the truth nor withdrawal from the changing world. Sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture, is just the principle we have been looking for. If you adopt that principle and follow it consistently, you will be absolutely principled, and you will also be absolutely prepared for the changes God wants you to make. You will not be hidebound by human traditions, nor will you be carried this way and that by the winds of modern fashion. See the point: all human ideas are to be tested by Scripture: not only the modern ones; not only the traditional ones, but all of them.

Another slogan of the reformation was semper reformanda: always reforming; hence fides reformata reformanda est, “the reformed faith is always reforming.” That slogan also presents the balance we have seen in the principle sola Scriptura: both “reformed” and “reforming.” Our faith is “reformed,” based on unchanging biblical principle. But our faith is also “reforming,” challenging all human traditions and fashions by the word of God. Adopt this principle seriously, and you will find that you are in truth more conservative than the conservatives and more radical than the radicals– at the same time. It will be quite an adventure! People will misunderstand! Terrible things could happen to you! But you will be assured that the infinite power of God’s word will undergird your ministry. _

 

2. Three Misunderstandings of Sola Scriptura

In our last meeting, I suggested that the principle sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture, was central to the “theology of opportunity.” This time I will try to flesh out that principle for you, to show how it helps us to seize opportunities in our time.

First, it is important for us to make sure that the principle is not misunderstood. There are three misunderstandings which especially need to be corrected, in my view. One is the idea that sola Scriptura warrants traditionalism; the next is that sola Scriptura leaves no room for human creativity, and the third is that sola Scriptura leaves no room for the Holy Spirit.

I won’t say much about the first misunderstanding. I already dealt with that in the previous lecture, when I showed that in Scripture itself and in the reformation sola Scriptura is typically used against the traditionalist mindset. Nevertheless, people sometimes, oddly enough, seem to employ it in exactly the opposite way, especially when they are talking about worship. In Reformed churches, of course, worship is governed by the “regulative principle,” which is a form of sola Scriptura: nothing must be done in worship without scriptural warrant. Some have sought to use this principle to argue for a traditional Puritan style of worship in the church and to attack any practices which have developed in more recent times.

Now this is a very long argument. I have written a forty-page paper on the subject. Some people believe conscientiously that contemporary styles of worship do not have scriptural warrant, and that argument will have to be resolved issue-by-issue; I cannot do that here. But I fear that sometimes in the course of the argument one thing is forgotten: the regulative principle does not in itself contain any bias in favor of the traditional and against the contemporary. Indeed, as we have seen, the primary use of the principle in Scripture itself and in the reformation polemic is against the entrenchment of tradition. To hold the regulative principle is not to hold to the primacy of tradition over contemporary ideas; it is rather to hold to the primacy of the word of God over all human ideas, whether traditional or contemporary.

This is not a lecture on worship, but I believe this point is illuminating in a more general way. For not only in worship, but also in other areas of life, it is important to know that sola Scriptura contains no bias in favor of the old fashioned against the contemporary. Historically, sola Scriptura has liberated God’s people from bondage to the past, so that they could capture new opportunities. Of course, sola Scriptura also challenges contemporary ideas. But it creates a level playing field. It allows the contemporary to compete with the traditional on an equal basis. Both equally need scriptural warrant. Both equally must meet the test ofsola Scriptura.

The second misunderstanding is the complaint that sola Scriptura leaves no room for human creativity. Certainly, sola Scriptura places some limits on human creativity. We are not permitted to do as we please; there is no autonomy over against God’s word. Thus it might seem that the believer in sola Scriptura may never exercise his own judgment about anything.

But that also is certainly wrong. Indeed, every time we use the Bible, we use our own judgment. Reading the Bible is a rational activity, requiring human judgment. Choosing one text to study rather than another, for a particular purpose, is a rational activity. Interpreting the Bible is a rational activity, requiring a great deal of human judgment. And applying the Bible to people’s needs is also an activity requiring human judgment.

The step of application is what we are most interested in now, because it is at that step that we seize opportunities. Let’s say we wish to address a social question as Christians. It may be the question of abortion, or nuclear war, or government welfare, or genetic engineering. Well, the Bible doesn’t directly address any of these issues. Finding out what the Bible requires of us in these areas requires quite a bit of human knowledge and wisdom.

We want to find biblical principles that apply to these situations; but to do that requires quite a bit of extra-biblical knowledge. If you want to know what the Bible teaches about abortion, you need to know some biblical texts; but you also have to know what abortion is, and the Bible alone will not tell you.

So when we say “Scripture alone,” Scriptura sola, we don’t mean that the Bible alone will give us all the facts, all the information, all the detailed knowledge we need to apply it to contemporary situations. Scripture is not sufficient to do that. For that purpose, Scripture needs to be supplemented– by human logic, human knowledge, human wisdom– so that we can make the best use of God’s word.

What, then, is Scripture sufficient for? The answer is, it is a sufficient rule of faith and practice, as our confession puts it. Scripture is the only book in the world authored by the living God. Therefore it is ultimately authoritative, and it alone is ultimately authoritative. As ultimate authority it is sufficient. As our ultimate authority, it judges all of our wisdom, knowledge, and logic. We may need other information to apply the Scriptures; but we don’t need any more words of God.

But within the bounds that Scripture provides, there is plenty of room for the play of faithful human creativity. Indeed, Scripture requires us to use all our God-given gifts to apply his word.

Surely God expects us, not only to read the Bible, but to use it, to apply it to the situations of our experience. The Fourth Commandment says “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Well, what about operating a factory on Sunday: is that sin? Well, Scripture doesn’t say anything about factories. So are we simply to set that question aside? Certainly not. Scripture wants us to apply the principle of the Fourth commandment to all these issues.

To give another example: Some years ago I served on a committee in another denomination to study the question of abortion. Our committee gave to the general assembly a report which, one year before Roe v. Wade, was strongly opposed to abortion. I’m happy to say that the assembly did approve the report. But there were some in the assembly who opposed approving that report, arguing that the church should not speak about abortion at all. Why? Because the church is limited by sola Scriptura, and abortion is not mentioned in the Bible.

Well, it’s true that abortion is not mentioned in the Bible. I believe there are passages which teach a very high view of unborn life, and of course there is the sixth commandment, which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But the Bible does not mention abortion as such. But put that fact in context. The Bible says “thou shalt not kill,” but it doesn’t mention the killing of Presbyterian ministers between 35 and 45 years of age. So somebody might argue that although we may preach against killing in general, we may not preach against the killing of ministers between 35-45, or any other particular kinds of killing. The bottom line to that argument is that you can preach only generalities, not specifics. Or perhaps the conclusion of this is even more radical: you cannot apply the Bible at all, you can only read it. For what these people were saying was that the church can say only those things which the Bible itself explicitly and specifically says. That would mean that we could not use the Bible at all. That would mean that we could not preach, only read the text.

But that certainly is not what sola Scriptura means. Scripture requires us not just to read it, but to use it, to apply it to all the issues that concern us today. ”Preach the word,” Paul says to Timothy.

In Matt. 22:23-33, the Sadducees asked Jesus a fairly stupid question: a widow was married to seven brothers; to whom will she be married in the Resurrection? They thought that this question made the whole idea of Resurrection look silly, and they hoped, by asking it, to make Jesus look silly too. The critics of our abortion report might have answered by saying: Scripture does not address that question, so we must not address it either. But Jesus does not do that at all. He assumes that the word of God is not silent, even about the Sadducees’ stupid question. The Scripture has an answer to it. He says to them in verse 29, “You are in error, because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” See what he is saying? The Sadducees, in asking their question, showed ignorance of the Bible. The Bible had an answer, but they didn’t know it. They were ignorant. The answer was, first, that people don’t marry in the Resurrection. Second, the Old Testament does teach Resurrection from the dead. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is not God of the dead, but of the living. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still live before him. Notice that Jesus’s answer goes far beyond the explicit or literal words of Scripture. Jesus takes several broad biblical principles and puts them together, applying them to the Sadducees’ stupid question. And he says that because the Sadducees did not do this, they were ignorant of the Bible. You see the implication? You don’t even know the Bible unless you can apply the Bible to questions that arise outside the Bible. You don’t know the Bible unless you can use it rightly.

Yesterday I mentioned the 24th chapter of Luke, where the risen Christ speaks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. These men too were ignorant of Scripture. Jesus had to teach them, for they were foolish and slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken. What was it they didn’t understand? The passage does not say that they had failed to read some passage or other. The problem of these disciples was that they had failed to see the connection between the Old Testament writings and their own experience. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had entered their experience. In their experience, he had suffered and died for sinners, but they hadn’t understood, because they had failed to apply the Old Testament prophecies to the events of their own experience. So, says Jesus, they didn’t understand the Scriptures. Again: you do not understand the Scriptures unless you can apply the Bible to extra-biblical experience.

There are many other examples of this principle. In John 5:39-40, Jesus upbraids the Jews because they searched the Scriptures, but did not believe the Scriptures’ testimony to Christ. They didn’t apply the Scriptures rightly, so they didn’t understand the Scriptures. In Rom. 15:4, Paul says that the Scriptures, written long ago to be sure, were written for our learning. Remarkable statement, isn’t it? Of what other book can it be said that though it was written to instruct people living hundreds of years after its composition? Surely that testimony speaks to the divine character of the Scriptures. It also implies that God gave us the Bible precisely so it could address contemporary issues.

Scripture, according to Paul, is “profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” 2 Tim. 3:16-17. That’s the language of application. Scripture is given– not just to be read, but to be used, to be applied, to address current issues. In 2 Timothy, Paul is looking toward the day when he will be in heaven with Christ, and the church on earth will have to carry on without him. After Paul is gone, the church will face many challenges; Paul says that false teaching will abound, and the church will need to make judgments. The key to such judgments is Scripture, but Scripture applied intelligently to the new situations that arise. Scripture applied to extra scriptural knowledge. Therefore, as Peter says, also looking toward the same situation, Scripture will be a “light shining in a dark place,” 2 Pet. 1:19.

My conclusion is that God gave us the Bible for the purpose of application. To know the Bible rightly, you must not only have verses in your memory; you must also have the skill of applying the Bible to questions that come up outside the Bible, to questions that the Bible does not specifically and explicitly address, to states of affairs that are not mentioned specifically in the Bible.

This means of course that to understand the Bible we need to know some things from outside the Bible. To understand the Bible, of course, we need to know something of the biblical languages, of the history and geography of the biblical period. We also need to know our own time. We need to know what questions need to be addressed. We need to know some things about modern technology, modern culture, science, philosophy, art, music. We need to know our world in order properly to use the word of God. If we don’t know our world, we cannot apply the word to it; and if we cannot apply the word to our own time, we don’t really understand it.

So you see how sola Scriptura does not exclude the use of knowledge from outside the Bible. In fact, that knowledge is absolutely essential if we are to use the Bible to reform ourselves, our church, and our culture. sola Scriptura, in fact, is a divine mandate for human creativity. Relating Scripture teachings to contemporary problems requires considerable creativity. It engages all the gifts which God has given to us.

And there’s another dimension to this as well, which brings us to consider the third misunderstanding of sola Scriptura, the idea that sola Scriptura leaves no room for the work of the Spirit. Evaluating present-day situations is not merely a matter of taking the Bible and relating it to our extra-biblical knowledge. It is also a matter of spiritual insight, spiritual growth.

Many Christians, especially those who are inclined toward the charismatic movement, fault the Reformed for making the Christian life too much of an intellectual exercise. To them, the sola Scriptura principle looks like an academic way to God. You have a textbook; you read the textbook; you correlate it with other factual knowledge, and you act. But where is the spirit? Where is the personal relationship between ourselves and God?

I do believe that some Reformed teachers and writers can be justly criticized in this way. The idea of the “primacy of the intellect” has been prominent among some Reformed writers, and I believe that idea is not biblical at all. But the genius of Reformed theology is not at all to turn the Christian life into a kind of academic curriculum. Above all, our relationship to God is fully personal: covenantal, as the theologians say. Learning to apply Scripture to our present opportunities is also a personal process, the process of a developing personal relationship between ourselves and God.

Let us look at a familiar passage: Rom. 12:1, 2. We could also look at other passages, such as Eph. 5:8-10 and Phil. 1:9-10, where Paul uses a similar pattern of argument; but we’ll stick with Rom. 12 for now. In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul has expounded very systematically, but also passionately, God’s way of salvation in Jesus Christ. Then he comes to the question, “how shall we then live?” He says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The second verse tells us how to discover God’s will. The question, “how do I discover God’s will?” is a very practical question. High school young people ask it all the time. In Reformed churches, we tend to answer by saying “read your Bible,” and that answer is very sound. sola Scriptura; the will of God is the content of the Bible. But as we have seen, finding the will of God in the Bible and relating it to my life situations can be rather complicated. It is not just a matter of reading; it is also a matter of understanding your own times in the light of Scripture. And what Paul tells us here is that it is also a matter of spiritual transformation. It is when by God’s grace we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, turning away from worldly patterns of behavior, it is then that we come to know, and take delight in, the will of God.

1 Cor. 2:14 tells us that the “natural man,” the unregenerate person, cannot rightly understand the word of God; the word is foolishness to him, and of course his ideas are foolish to God. But when God comes and transforms a person by his Spirit into his image, a whole new way of thinking develops. Paul calls that in 1 Cor. 2:16, “the mind of Christ.” Rightly understanding and using God’s word, therefore, is a spiritual process, an ethical process, the outgrowth of our personal relationship with God.

It is those who walk with God who are able to discern God’s will for their lives. Perhaps that seems backwards to you. You might think that one must know God’s will before one can obey him. Didn’t J. Gresham Machen say that doctrine comes first, and then life is built on doctrine?

But of course it works both ways. Obedience is built on knowledge, but knowledge is also built on obedience. Knowledge contributes to obedience; obedience contributes to knowledge.

It sounds paradoxical, but of course we know how it works, don’t we? We’ve all experienced it. Regeneration comes first; that’s good Reformed doctrine. The first change in us is not something we do, but something God does. Unless a man is born again, he shall not see the kingdom of heaven. Regeneration creates both new knowledge and new obedience. The knowledge feeds on the obedience and the obedience feeds on the knowledge. Our knowledge of God’s word helps us to obey him. But as we continue to obey him, over and over, overcoming temptation, going through trials in a godly way, we find ourselves thinking differently. New patterns of thought develop. With new habits of life come new habits of thought. We look at Scripture in a new way, and our knowledge grows. That leads to more obedience and more knowledge, on and on.

Hebrews 5:11-14 tells us a bit about this process. The writer here intends to enter a rather difficult theological discussion, concerning Melchizedek and his relation to Christ. He pauses, however, to observe that his readers are not quite ready for this teaching. They are “slow to learn.” They should be teachers themselves, but at this point they need someone else to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. They need milk, not solid food. Who subsists on milk? Babies, of course; the Hebrews are spiritual babies. Theological babies, we might say, since they are not ready for heavy, though valuable, theological teaching.

Well, who are the mature? Are they the ones with more book learning, with academic doctorates and the like? Surprisingly not. The mature, the ones who can take the solid food, the meaty theology, are those “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil,” verse 14.

Notice that maturity here is ethical in character, rather than merely intellectual. Theologically mature people are people who are ethically mature, who are able to make proper distinctions between good and evil. And where does that ethical maturity come from? From “exercise” gymnazein. From ”constant use.”

Theologically mature people are not necessarily the most academically astute; they are, rather, the ones who have been on the front lines of the battle against Satan and sin and death. They are the ones who have fought the good fight. When you seek a fellow-believer’s help in discerning the will of God for your life, those are the people you should go to. Not the smarty-pants types whose sole accomplishment has been a string of As in college and seminary, but the people whose devotion to Christ you have come to admire: those who have made sacrifices for the kingdom; those who have suffered some persecution and ridicule; those who have been tested and, by God’s grace, have prevailed.

So when Scripture sets forth the qualifications for elders in the church, it demands people of this kind: above reproach, sexually pure, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, managing his own family well, having a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Not much there on academics, except perhaps for the ability to teach; but even there the emphasis is less on academic preparation than on the ability to communicate.

To summarize: We now know how to discern opportunities, to evaluate options set before us. First, there is God’s word, our sufficient final authority. Second, there is the work of applying that word to contemporary situations. Third, there is the work of the Spirit which transforms our lives and our minds so that we can make reliable judgments in the work of application. Next time, we will explore some examples.

 

3. Making the Most of Every Opportunity

In the last two sessions I’ve been focusing on the sola Scriptura principle as a key to principled change. It is through sola Scriptura that we can change to meet the challenges of our time, without compromising principle.

In this lecture I’d like to get more specific, dealing with some areas in which we have opportunities today to minister in old and new ways, without abandoning or compromising our foundation in the word of God.

The Apostle Paul says, shortly after one of the passages I mentioned last time, “Be very careful, then, how you live– not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Eph. 5:15-17) The King James version used to read that phrase, ”redeeming the time;” the NIV renders it, “making the most of every opportunity.” Note the negative and positive sides of that passage. Negatively, the days are evil, says Paul, and of course our days are evil too. We are not to copy the ways of the world, but as light is different from darkness, we must be distinct from it. In 5:6, Paul has warned us not to be partners with those who are wicked.

But there is the positive side as well. You might expect Paul to say, withdraw from the world, because the days are evil. Rather, what he says is “make the most of every opportunity.” And he says to take opportunities, not in spite of, but because of the fact that the days are evil. Paul is aware that there is danger of compromise when we seek to take advantage of opportunities. But he urges us not to be paralyzed by that danger. Rather, the evil of the world must motivate us all the more to spread the light.

 

The Opportunity For Simple Obedience

What are the opportunities before us? In Ephesians 5-6, the opportunities are deceptively simple. They are, simply, opportunities to live holy lives. Verse 18: don’t get drunk, but be filled with the Spirit. 19, sing to one another about the Lord. 5:21-6:9, maintain good relationships in households between husbands, wives, parents, children, masters, slaves. In 6:10-17, put on the armor of God, which includes, of course, God’s truth and his word. God’s soldier is one who lives and also speaks the truth of the gospel. In 6:18-20, pray, especially for Paul’s witness.

These are not the things we usually think about when we hear the word “opportunity” in a church context. They are not particularly sophisticated or jazzy, not distinctive to the 1990s, not likely to get us written up in Christianity Today or Leadership. They are not the kinds of things that usually get discussed in seminars on evangelism or church growth. Usually, we think of an “opportunity” as an open door for a new kind of ministry, social action program, witness to a particular group of people, or some new apologetic approach suited to the contemporary mind. The opportunites Paul mentions seem rather ordinary, not at all new and different. These are just opportunities to do the things God has always told us to do.

There is also a surprising epistemology operating here. We are often vexed by questions of how to identify opportunities in our time. In this passage, it looks pretty easy. There are plenty of opportunities right here in this chapter. They are as old and scripturally commonplace as the creation ordinances and the Ten Commandments. This reminds us that if our overall principle is sola Scriptura, then the first place to look for opportunities is right on the surface of the biblical text.

From this we can learn that God expects us to obey what we know of his will before expecting him to give us wisdom to discern the more obscure opportunities, to obey him in the commonplace areas before we get the opportunity to obey him in some exotic way. As we saw in Heb. 5, God gives his deepest lessons to those who have developed by his grace habits of righteousness, who have won battle after battle against the devil. It is those people who have been faithful in small things to whom the Lord will give greater responsibility.

 

The Opportunity For Conquest

But I don’t want to mislead you to think that Ephesians 4-6 deals only with simple, timeless morality. There is a context here. Paul is very much aware of his own time. The obedience of the Christians in this passage is constantly set against the background of the darkness of the world. Chapter four tells us how the Ephesians came out of paganism, how through grace God enabled them to live lives radically different from their pagan neighbors. They put off the old self and put on the new (4:22-24). When they live obediently, they send a bright light into the darkness. We are light, as Paul says, reflecting Jesus’s statement, “you are the light of the world.”

So chapters 4-6 of Ephesians are not a mere ethical treatise; rather, they are a battle plan. Living a holy life is not only good in itself, though it is that; it is a way of winning a spiritual battle, as Paul emphasizes in 6:10-18. It is a way of advancing God’s kingdom against the forces of Satan. It is pre-eminently an “opportunity.”

The light of godly Christian behavior exposes the evils of paganism for what they are, 5:11-14. It convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, as Jesus said his Holy Spirit would do in the world. It also brings the truth before the world, as believers are buckled with the truth, shod with the gospel of peace, armed with the word of God; this is Great Commission language. This passage has an evangelistic thrust.

We should then add this to our understanding of the passage: that the daily obedience of believers to God’s commands in word and life, their practical holiness, is itself a powerful force for the kingdom of God. It rebukes and evangelizes those outside of Christ. Imagine what a tremendous power it would be in our society today if all believers were simply to do the things they know they ought to do! To pray, to witness to the lost, to help the poor, to be hospitable, to be sexually pure, to love and be submissive to one another in the family and church. To trust God through pain and sorrow. If everybody in our churches behaved that way, how our society would be changed, and what a powerful witness it would be to the unbelieving world! Instead, we read for example that the level of premarital sex, for instance, among evangelical young people is about the same as in the general population. The world sees that, and winks.

As I said before, we haven’t yet had any really stiff persecution in this country during our lifetimes; God doesn’t expect much of us. Cannot we bring ourselves to carry out some simple obedience? And can we expect that God will provide exciting new breakthrough-opportunities if we cannot do these little things which he makes so clear to us in his word?

 

Prioritizing God’s Commands

There is a bit of complication which enters at this point, however. We want to obey the commands of God. Sometimes, however, we must choose which command of God to obey at a particular time. That sounds a bit strange; I’ve explained it rather fully in my book Evangelical Reunion. Let me just say here that we cannot obey all of God’s commands at once. We cannot pray, evangelize, teach our children, help the poor, seek social justice, all at the same time. We have to postpone some of them in order to do others. That means that we have the responsibility to prioritize God’s commands. That sounds very suspicious, doesn’t it? We want to say that all of God’s commands are absolute; all are of ultimate importance. How can we dare to arrange them on a scale of relative importance?

Well, some distinctions need to be made. God’s negative commands must, of course, be obeyed instantly and for all time. ”Don’t commit adultery” means stop it now if you’re doing it, and never do it again. Some positive commands are also to be obeyed instantly and for all time, like the command to believe in Jesus. But sometimes God commands us to do things that take definite periods of time to do, and he doesn’t tell us when or where. Praying, evangelizing, teaching, giving to the church, helping the poor are examples of such commands. With those commands, we must prioritize. We must decide what we are going to do, when and where. We must decide what emphasis we will place on these.

Every believer should pray, for example; but there are differences among us here. Scripture tells us that some people have (or had) the “gift” of prayer. Evidently there is something about the prayer life of such people that is different from the prayer lives of those who don’t have this particular gift. We are told that Luther prayed for three hours every day. If he did, I have no doubt that God honored that. But does that mean that it is sinful for someone else to pray for only two hours a day, or fifteen minutes? Not necessarily. Some people spend ten hours a week evangelizing neighborhoods; knocking on doors to make basic gospel presentations. Luther did not do that, to my knowledge. But I have no doubt that God honors those who do.

So even with regard to applying simple divine commands, there is a place for sanctified human wisdom. We must not only look at the scriptures, but also look at our own individual gifts and callings, and the needs of the church in a particular situation. There is, therefore, a place for using extra-biblical knowledge to determine where we can best expend our energies at a particular time. And there is a need for the wisdom of God’s Spirit to enable us to make godly judgments in these areas. Like Paul, we must be aware of where we are in space and time, and we must seek to do there what God calls us to do.

If there are such differences among individuals, there are differences among churches as well. In Evangelical Reunion I make the point that at least some of the differences between churches and denominations are not over doctrine, but over priorities. In Presbyterianism, we can sometimes distinguish among churches according to their relative emphasis on evangelism, doctrinal orthodoxy, or procedural regularity. We all believe in all three of these things. But some churches give relatively more time and energy to one, time that is necessarily not given to the others. Some analysts of the Dutch reformed churches say that these are divided into “piets, Kuyps and docts.” The piets, or pietists, emphasize personal piety; the Kuyps or Kuyperians emphasize the transformation of culture; the docts emphasize conformity to the Reformed Confessions. These emphases are not contrary to one another. The problem is simply that we are finite. None of us can do everything, so practically our emphases will be different.

Here we need to have more love and understanding of one another. People who emphasize doctrinal orthodoxy tend to look at those who emphasize evangelism as if the latter group were not interested in orthodoxy, and vice versa. There is, of course, room for us to stir one another up to more complete visions of God’s purposes. But our main attitude in such situations should be one of thankfulness to God that he has equipped others for tasks different from ourselves. Remember the New Testament metaphor of the body with many parts. The parts do different things; but none is absolutely superior or inferior to the others. The head cannot look down on the foot, nor the heart upon the liver.

What we should not do, certainly, is simply to insist that everybody do things in the precise way we have been doing them. Here again, it is important for us to recognize that sola Scriptura is very different from blind traditionalism. Under sola Scriptura we allow scripture to identify those areas in which we must all be alike; beyond those areas, we recognize those spheres in which we are free to be different. And under sola Scriptura, we are free sincerely to honor those who differ from us in such matters of emphasis.

And, if you can bear another point from Evangelical Reunion: it seems to me that when we learn to honor such legitimate differences of emphasis, we will come closer to breaking down the sinful denominational barriers that today keep Christians from working together. God intends for his church to operate as one, not as many denominations. Our lack of oneness, I am convinced, is one important reason for the church’s powerlessness in our time. For a church to be powerful, it needs to have the full variety of the gifts of the Spirit, and that means that it must have a wide variety of different prioritizations among the commands of God.

 

General Priorities: The Great Commission

We have seen that scripture permits considerable diversity among us in prioritizing opportunities for obedience. But there are some general, broad priorities, which all of us should share. As I pointed out, we are all equally obligated to repent and believe, to abstain from evil, to pray, to witness of Christ to the world, above all to seek the glory of God. And I believe there is also a single task that God gives to all of us as individuals and as members of His body, a task which encompasses all the other tasks, and which, therefore, can be described as the task of the church.

That single task is the Great Commission. In Matt. 28:18-20, Jesus tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Reformed theologians have sometimes asked how the Great Commission is related to the “Cultural Mandate” of Gen. 1:28, where God commanded Adam to fill and subdue the earth. It seems to me that the Great Commission applies the Cultural Mandate to the situation after the Fall. If we are to fill the earth with people who will subdue it to God’s glory, we must first evangelize and teach them. As such, the Great Commission has the highest priority in defining the task of the church.

It has often been pointed out that the Great Commission is not narrowly evangelistic. It does not single out evangelism as the church’s task over against the nurture of those who are already Christians; rather it includes both. We are to make and baptize disciples, but also to teach those to obey everything Jesus commanded us. Clearly, then, there is something wrong with a church which focuses on evangelism, but in which the new converts remain spiritual babies. On the other hand, and I think this is the greater danger in Presbyterianism, there is also something wrong with a church which spends all of its time nurturing believers and very little time reaching out to the lost. And there is something wrong with our nurture if we are not teaching our children how to evangelize, how to make new disciples. People grow best, they receive the best nurture, not in a hothouse that is isolated from the world, but in an environment where people are constantly leading others to Christ and discipling them.

I mentioned in the first lecture our historic tendency as Presbyterians to withdraw from the world, to be suspicious of evangelism and of involvement in society. A sola Scriptura Presbyterianism will not withdraw, but will reach out in simple obedience to claim those for whom Christ died.

Placing the Great Commission as our first priority will affect many other things we do. It will challenge us to train our people in evangelism. It will remind us also that even our worship must be intelligible to visitors, so that they will fall down and exclaim that God is in our midst.

Great Commission churches will think less of themselves and more of “seekers.” I agree with my former pastor Dick Kaufmann that churches should not be “seeker driven,” but they should be “seeker sensitive.” The ultimate authority for our ministry comes not from the preferences of unbelievers, but from the word of God. But for that same reason, we are not to be governed by our own preferences either, by what makes us comfortable. It is not ultimately important what music we like, or how long we like to sit, or how big a church we like to have, or how Presbyterians have always done things, our historical traditions. God’s word is important, and that word tells us to sacrifice our preferences for the needs of others, particularly the desperate need of the lost.

I do believe that God is calling us Presbyterians to a style of church life, a style of worship, teaching, and nurture, which is far more centered on evangelism than our tradition has historically been. Some have observed that the American Presbyterians lost the frontier in the early nineteenth century to the Baptists, Methodists, cultists, and secularists. Various reasons have been proposed, such as an unbalanced emphasis on an educated ministry, an unwillingness to make the best use of ruling elders and deacons, and so on. I think there is truth in these analyses; but perhaps we can sum it up by saying that for the Presbyterians in those days evangelism was not a high enough priority. They missed that crucial opportunity; and Reformed Christianity has been trying ever since to make up for that loss. In our time, we need to be very clear as to what the task of the church really is. That task must be taken from the scriptures, sola Scriptura, not from tradition or from our human preferences. That task is nothing less than our Lord’s Great Commission.

 

Techniques and Strategies

It is the Great Commission also, I believe, that helps us answer questions about the use of “techniques” and “strategies.” I am not one who condemns modern techniques or strategies with a broad brush. As I argued, sola Scriptura does not shut us up to doing only things that are mentioned in scripture. And the sovereignty of God in scripture is never opposed to human responsibility; God uses human beings to accomplish his great purposes, and he calls them to use the best means, the best techniques and strategies, they can use. Surely there are some techniques developed after the biblical period that none of us would question, such as the use of the printing press, or the microphone, or the tape recorder, to spread the gospel. Nor do any of us question the legitimacy of teaching and learning techniques in preaching. God can use a poor sermon, and he can withhold his blessing from one which is technically very good. But he certainly calls us in preaching as much as anywhere else to do the work heartily, as unto the Lord, not unto men. That means, surely, using the clearest language possible, together with the best logic, the best illustrations, the best speaking voices we can.

The same is true for every area of ministry. When people say that churches should never develop evangelistic plans, or that we should never plan for church growth, since it is all in God’s hands, they are not really talking seriously. The early Christians were methodical in spreading the Gospel. They expected God to add to their numbers through the preaching of God’s powerful word. They used the best human means that were available at the time. They went where the people were, not where the people weren’t. They went to the synagogues rather than the pagan temples. They spoke the languages of the people. Paul urged the Corinthians at great length to carry on their worship, not in unknown tongues, but in known languages, so that both unbelievers and believers could be edified. And the church mobilized all the believers to carry the word of God on their lips wherever they went. All of this was strategy and technique, done in faithfulness to the Great Commission.

Indeed, you really cannot avoid strategy and technique, unless you cut the brain out of your head. It is a simple fact of human nature that you cannot perform any rational action, as an individual or as a church, without a prior mental intention. That is, you can’t do anything without at least implicitly planning what you are going to do. The plan may be stupid or brilliant; but there will always be a plan.

That does not mean, of course, that every technique or strategy is biblically acceptable. It is hard sometimes to make judgments in these areas. What about telemarketing? What about modern sales techniques? (I wish I had a dollar for every famous evangelist who had a background in sales.) What about attempts to produce a “user-friendly” atmosphere in our worship services? What about drama and dance in worship? What about modern styles of music?

We are too close to the end to discuss these issues one by one. I expect to do some future writing on at least some of them. But as the conclusion to our “theology of opportunity,” let me make some suggestions on how to reach conclusions in these areas.

Negatively: we should not resolve these issues simply by referring to our tradition, or to what we are personally comfortable with. We should also pay little attention to objections to modern techniques that are based mainly on taste, granted that there is a fine line, especially in art and music, between matters of taste and matters of objective quality.

Positively, we should ask questions such as the following:

1. Does the technique achieve legitimate biblical values, such as clarity and intelligibility of communication?

2. Does it violate any biblical norms, such as the command against false witness, or the regulative principle of worship?

3. Does it communicate a false subtext? For example, does it encourage pride or complacency?

4. Does it spring from a right or wrong motive on our part? Are we seeking to glorify God and reach the lost, or are we trying to please ourselves? This question should not be answered quickly, but reflectively and prayerfully.

5. Does it tend to manipulate people into ill-considered, perhaps insincere, responses?

6. Does it give people false assurance, or unjustified fears, as to their standing with God?

7. Does it fit consistently into a comprehensive plan to evangelize and to teach everything Jesus commanded?

We have much yet to learn from the ancient principles of sola Scriptura and the Great Commission. The questions before us are not easy, but God has promised to give us wisdom when we ask him, and I believe that in many of these areas he already has, in the Bible. I am convinced that discussions of these matters to date have been focused all too much on what is traditional, or up-to-date, or respectable or comfortable or tasteful, and all too little on what God’s word actually says. May he honor that word in our ministries as we seek to be more faithful to him, for Jesus sake.