Preach the Word: Responding to 5 Common Arguments for Not Having to Preach From the Bible
In 1 Timothy 4:13, the Apostle Paul instructed, "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching." Later he wrote, "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word. Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."
Yet there are liberal theologians who argue that we don't need to use the Bible when we preach. We can talk about Jesus without the Bible, they say, what He said and what He did, even though we don't know about any of that without the Bible. Ironically, they have biblical arguments to explain why they don't need to preach from the Scriptures. (If all of this sounds confusing, that's because it is.) The following is a response to the five most commonly (mis)used passages.
This is part 2 of my critique of Andy Stanley's 7,500 word article in Outreach Magazine last week, "Why 'The Bible Says So' Is Not Enough Anymore." But this didn't start out being a part 2. I began writing this blog two weeks before Stanley's article and was delayed in finishing it. When Stanley presented 4 of these 5 exact arguments, it just made sense to turn this into a response to Stanley.
Stanley labels his arguments Exhibits A, B, C, and D, all taken from Luke who wrote the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. I'm going to add an Exhibit E which comes from John's gospel.
Exhibit A: Peter and the Jews
After Christ's ascension into heaven and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles went into Jerusalem and delivered the first "Repent and believe!" sermon in the history of the church. Acts 2:5 tells us that the crowd consisted of "devout Jews from every nation under heaven," and by the power of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, they heard the gospel in their own languages. Peter showed them how Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the Scriptures, quoting also from Joel and the Psalms.
"This Jesus, delivered up according to the definition plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it. For David says concerning Him, 'I saw the Lord always before me, for He is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.'" (Acts 2:23-28)Stanley says, "Throughout the message, Peter leverages his version of 'The Bible says,' 'The Scripture teaches.' This makes perfect sense given Peter’s audience. This was a group that held their Scriptures in high regard. If their Bible said it, that settled it. It didn’t hurt that most of Peter’s audience believed those particular Scriptures pointed to a future Messiah. Peter simply connected the dots. He connected their existing belief, which was informed by the Jewish Scriptures, to a current event."
The reason Peter referenced the "Jewish Scriptures," Stanley argues, is because the Jews already accepted the Scriptures as authoritative. We can't use that same method for preaching the gospel in a Post-Christian culture that Stanley says knows the Bible (they don't) because not all millennials accept the Bible as authoritative. Here are three points in response.
First of all, that's wrong. There's nothing in the New Testament that indicates the Old Testament Scriptures were reserved for the Jews who accepted them as true. In fact, in Acts 17 at Berea, the Scriptures were given to both the Jews and the Gentiles who came to hear Paul speak in the synagogue. "Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men" (Acts 17:12). Paul quoted and explained the Old Testament to both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 3:10-18, 1 Corinthians 1:19, Galatians 3:6, and Ephesians 4:8). He said the Scriptures were written for our instruction (Romans 15:4), and said this even to those who didn't yet accept it as true (1 Corinthians 9:10).
Secondly, consider this: At what point does the word of God become authoritative? When God says it, or when people accept it as authoritative? In Exodus 20, the entire nation of Israel heard the voice of God deliver the Ten Commandments, yet clearly the people didn't revere His word. After they heard Him say, "You will have no other gods before me," they turned around and worshiped a golden calf. Should God have withheld His words until the people were ready to receive it as authoritative? According to Stanley's reasoning, He should have.
Third, just because an apostle wasn't referencing an Old Testament writer by name doesn't mean they weren't referencing the Scriptures. I'll elaborate on this point in the next exhibit.
Exhibit B: Peter and the Gentiles
In Acts 10, Peter preached to the Gentiles at Caesarea. But unlike his sermon at Pentecost, Peter didn't reference Old Testament names like Joel and David. But again, that doesn't mean what Peter said wasn't from Scripture. After all, when he talks about the resurrection of Christ in verse 40, it was in accordance with the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 45-46, 1 Corinthians 15:4).
What does it mean to reference the Scriptures? Obviously it doesn't mean quoting chapter and verse because the chapter and verse markers didn't come about until the 15th century, so Peter didn't have them. Does it mean that Peter has to name the Old Testament prophet he's referencing? Can he still use their words without mentioning their name, and that's still a Scriptural reference?
Instead of going back through Peter's message at the house of Cornelius, let me select a shorter example. Consider this sermonette preached by Paul and Barnabas to the pagans at Lystra:
"Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." (Acts 14:15-17)Now where did Paul and Barnabas get these phrases like "vain things" and "living God" who "made the heaven and the earth" and that He "allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways" yet gave them "rains from heaven and fruitful seasons" and "food and gladness"? These are all references to the prophets.
- Vain things: "And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty." 1 Samuel 12:21
- Living God: "My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God." Psalm 84:2
- Maker of heaven and earth: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1
- Allowed all nations to walk in their own ways: "For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever." Micah 4:5
- Rains from heaven and fruitful seasons: "I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." Leviticus 26:4
- Food and gladness: "These all look to you, to give them their food in due season... and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man's heart." Psalm 104:27, 15
Here's something to keep in mind: Andy Stanley is a pastor of a church making excuses for why he doesn't need to preach the Bible to his church. Yet notice the examples he's using are non-church settings. Preaching to the Jews at Pentecost or the Gentiles in the home of Cornelius was not the church, for they were not yet sealed by the Spirit of God. The church is instructed to be devoted to the reading of the Scriptures, encouraging and admonishing one another by them (Colossians 3:16). This is a point I'll come back to as we go on.
Exhibit C: Paul and the Jews
Here is perhaps the most abused Scripture in Stanley's exhibition hall; his use of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. He uses this to compare Paul's sermon at Antioch (Acts 13) with his sermon at the Areopagus (in Exhibit D), but for the sake of brevity, let's just stick with his Corinthian argument. Paul said the following:
"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings." 1 Corinthians 9:19-23Paul expounds upon this in the next chapter: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1).
That's the explanation. This is very simply Paul being a humble servant, counting others more significant than himself (Philippians 2:3), being considerate and not causing anyone to stumble by anything he does, showing empathetic love for others so to leave the door open for the gospel and building them up in the faith.
This wasn't just Paul's conviction, as he says that all of us are to be imitators of him. He explains it this way to the Romans: "We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up" (Romans 15:1-2).
Now, Stanley's explanation for 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is very exclusivist, meaning that he attempts to interpret these five verses on their own and disregard every other verse outside of them. Here's what he says (and pardon me for the odd paragraphing, but this was how he put it):
Let this phrase rattle around in your mind for a few minutes:
"… so that by all possible means I might save some."
Which means, Paul?
"All possible means."
So, you may take one approach one day and a different approach a different day? Am I reading you right?
"All possible means."
Is that really necessary? Doesn’t the Spirit do the work?
"All possible means."
But isn’t it enough to preach the Word and let the seed fall where it may?
"All possible means."
And why do you go to such lengths?
"… for the sake of the gospel."
What if we just did that for a year? What if we opted for the "all possible means" approach? What if we decide to do whatever it takes?The work of the Spirit (Titus 3:5), sowing seeds (Matthew 13), and being all things to all people are intertwined. The way Stanley words this -- whether or not it's his intention -- it's like he's singling out "all possible means" and mocking the concepts of the work of the Spirit and sowing seeds. Yet they're entirely biblical concepts. We're not meant to reach people simply by "all possible means" alone without the gospel or the Spirit of God.
You can be all things to all people until you're blue in the face. Unless the gospel is declared and the Holy Spirit works in the heart of the hearer, no change will ever take place. Paul said previously to the Corinthians that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). He came to them not with lofty words of wisdom but with the testimony of the gospel to be received by spiritual people.
"For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:11-14)You can't do 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and ignore 1 Corinthians 2:11-14. Do you know what happens when you think you can save people by "all possible means" without understanding the power of the gospel or the Spirit of God? You open the door to sinister slicks like Todd White who does his street-magic healings making people think he's growing a person's leg out to even it with the other one and solve their back problems. It's a total con and he knows he's lying. But if it means a person comes to know Jesus, who cares? It was by "all possible means," right?
Another thing that happens is an evangelist can become an outright jerk. He'll beat people over the head with signs or berate them with a "turn or burn" gospel that they've heard twenty-two times today alone. He skewers people with his spiritual sword and shouts in triumph only for his hearers to harden their hearts even further. After all, it's by "all possible means," right?
"All possible means" does not mean "absent the gospel of Jesus Christ." It doesn't mean lie to people or yell at people. We should be able to lovingly relate to others and empathize with them, so that we may by "all possible means" share the gospel. The gospel and good doctrine still need to be ever-present, with gentleness and respect. It is the Spirit of God who saves, not us. Jesus said, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63).
Exhibit D: Paul and the Gentiles
The Apostle Paul and his missionary brethren came to the Greek city of Athens, a city full of idols. He preached in the synagogue and in the marketplace the words of Jesus and about His resurrection. Now, the Greeks were a people that valued new knowledge, so even though they thought this resurrection-speak was complete craziness, they wanted to hear more. So Paul went to the Areopagus, or Aries Rock (later named Mars Hill by the Romans), a place used for public discourse in the presence of the gods. It is there that Paul preached:
"Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
"And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for, 'In Him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed His offspring.'
"Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead." (Acts 17:22-31)It's interesting to me that as much as Stanley loves Exhibit D, he doesn't reference the actual words of Acts 17 all that much. Instead, he summarizes it this way: "[Paul] tells the Athenians they need to repent of their idolatry. But that’s it. He doesn’t reference all the other things they needed to repent of. And the list was long. But the most unusual facet of his message to this elite group in Athens is that he never mentions Jesus."
There's a couple of problems with that loose summary. First, Paul didn't just tell the Athenians to repent of their idolatry. He told them to repent because the judgment of God was coming. Why repent from worshiping false gods? Because if you don't, the true God will destroy you. By the way, that's something you won't hear Andy Stanley talk about in his sermons: the judgment of God upon all evil-doers. For all his chest-beating, saying he's doing things Paul's way, Stanley doesn't actually preach the way Paul preached even at the Areopagus.
Secondly, Paul did mention Christ! He was known in Athens for preaching about a God named Jesus rising from the dead (Acts 17:18), and that's why the Athenians wanted to hear what he had to say at the Areopagus. Paul was, to use Andy's term, connecting the dots. He was saying, "The one who will come in judgment is the one I've been preaching about all this time."
Here's another very important distinction: the Areopagus wasn't church. It was open-air evangelism in the public square. Stanley proudly admits he sometimes preaches entire sermons without ever referencing the Bible, and Paul's message at the Areopagus is one of the examples he uses for why he doesn't need to. But Paul wasn't in church. He was speaking in the presence of pagan idols, making a particular point about an "altar to an unknown God" whom he points out is actually known and will judge all the earth through this Jesus he had been preaching about. Context, Andy!
Acts 17:22-31 is not permission to preach sermons without the Bible. Because again, we are to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching. Where does 1 Timothy 4:13 fit into Stanley's method? How about 2 Timothy 3:16 which says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Why does Stanley put more energy into explaining why he doesn't need to use the Bible instead of teaching the Bible? What the Apostle Paul said was Scripture. What Andy Stanley says is not.
Charles Spurgeon once said, "A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home and never preach again." A sermon without the word of God in it is a sermon without Christ in it. For it is Christ who is defined as the very Word of God (John 1:1).
Exhibit E: Jesus and the Woman at the Well
This is an Exhibit that Stanley didn't use, but I hear it referenced fairly often when it comes to seeker-friendly preaching: Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. It's a longer example, 45 verses in length, but I'll try to keep it brief.
Jesus and His disciples were passing through Samaria, which Jews just did not do because Samaria was full of Samaritans. He sat down by Jacob's Well while the disciples went to find something to eat. While He was there, a woman came by to draw water and Jesus asked her for a drink. She said, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?"
Jesus replied, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water." Not knowing what He was talking about, the woman proceeded to argue with Him, but He said, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
The woman said, "Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water." Jesus said, "Go, call your husband, and come here." The woman answered, "I have no husband." Jesus said, "You right to say you have no husband. For you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is quite true."
The woman said, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship." The mountain she referred to was Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans believed true worship ought to take place (according to Deuteronomy 11:29). The Jews claimed that true worship was to happen on Mount Moriah, which was where the temple was built. Indeed, it was built there by the command of God (Genesis 22:2, 2 Samuel 24:18-19, 2 Chronicles 3:1).
The Samaritans actually had an incomplete Bible. They only accepted the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Law written by Moses. This is why Jesus went on to tell her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews."
When He says, "You worship what you do not know," He was saying the Samaritans worship in ignorance because they've rejected the words of the other prophets of God. If she knew the Scriptures, she'd have known that the promised Messiah, whom the Samaritans also believed in, was coming through the Jewish people, specifically the tribe of Judah whom the Jews are named for. Saying that He would give her "living water" was a reference to the prophets who foretold about this living water (Jeremiah 2:13, Zechariah 14:8, Isaiah 12:3). Get that: Jesus was making references to Old Testament prophets she, as a Samaritan, didn't accept as authoritative!
Jesus went on to say, "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
The woman said, "I know that Messiah is coming. When He comes, He will tell us all things." In other words, she's appealing to moral relativism. She's saying, "You believe what you want to believe, and I'll believe what I want to believe, and when that Messiah shows up, He'll be the one to tell us who's right and who's wrong."
That's when Jesus lovingly drops the hammer: "I who speak to you am He."
The woman ran back into town and brought scores of people with her to hear the testimony of this man claiming to be the promised Messiah. Up until that point, He'd not yet made a claim to be the Messiah to anyone in Judea. But He revealed His identity to this woman in Samaria, and "Many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me everything I ever did'" (John 4:39).
Many liberal theologians will reference this story and say that Jesus didn't use Scripture in His witness to the Samaritan woman, therefore we don't have to use Scripture in our witnessing. But as I've demonstrated, there were plenty of Scripture references. I gave some of the citations to help understand the meaning behind Jesus' words and the woman's responses.
Liberal teachers are also fond of saying that Jesus didn't tell her to repent of her sins, but that's a misunderstanding of the context of the exchange. He did in fact point her sin out to her, and she knew that He did. Jesus is the one who searches mind and heart and judges the thoughts of man (Jeremiah 17:10, Revelation 2:23). Remember, it was by that testimony of the woman, "He told me everything I ever did," that people believed in Him as the Messiah.
But again -- and this goes back to the point I made earlier -- this is not a church setting, and Jesus is God. Whatever He says is the word of God. You can't say Jesus didn't reference the Scriptures with this woman when everything He said became Scripture. The words of Jesus and the words of His prophets and apostles are the words of God. The words of a pastor are not. This is why a pastor's sermon needs to be under the full authority of the Scriptures, preaching the word, not twisting Bible verses for his own personal use.
Stanley makes several appeals in his 7,500 word article for pastors to leave the old way of doing things, and instead do things his way. I'd like to offer a counter-challenge. Put the Scripture back into your sermons. If you really want to meet the unchurched or the dechurched or the post-churched where they are by "all possible means," then go to where they are, which is not in church. Go out on the street and do Acts 17 evangelism there. To those who say, like the Athenians did, "We will hear you again about this," invite them to church to hear more Scripture, which the Spirit of God has conditioned their heart to receive.
Stanley is also sure to mention that he doesn't use notes when he preaches, and Paul didn't use notes when he preached either. Well, I also don't use notes when I preach -- it's just me and a Bible (unless the sermon I'm doing features a number of quotes, in which case I'll have a print-out of those quotes in front of me). But even if I have the passage I'm reading memorized (my fellow elders will testify to this), I will still open the Bible and read it so that the congregation will see that these words are not mine. It is not by my authority that I speak. I submit to the authority of God's word. Sometimes I do quote entire sections from memory. But otherwise, I want people to see I got this from the Bible.
I take no teaching instruction from anyone who says, "Try it my way," if that way includes excuses or "exhibits" for why we need to stop saying "the Bible says so." As Dr. Mohler pointed out, a mature Christian faith will say more than that, but no less than that. It is the gift of God to His ministers that we might be able to stand before His people and declare, "Thus says the Lord!" God willing, I will preach the word until my dying day.