If I were to speak with eloquence in earth's many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn't express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal.
- 1 Cor. 13:1
There are some things you never want to address. Some things you hope you don't have to.
Earlier this week I was online, watching a group of Christian intellectuals at a conference. They were all well-known apologists whom I highly respect. However I'm not going to name them here, because what I saw grieved my heart.
At one point their conversation turned to lambasting a well-known pastor in America. They avoided using the man's name, but gave enough details (including titles of the man's books) that anyone with two seconds and Google at hand could easily determine who it was. The person they took turns criticizing has done a lot of good things and has led thousands to Christ, yet they all expressed deep concerns and disapproval that Jesus wasn't mentioned in some of the man's writings. In other words, they were accusing this pastor of not spreading the gospel.
With the momentum of criticism (and borderline slander) at their backs, another one of the speakers brought up that he had been watching Christian television the other day and heard something that deeply troubled him. He then said he would refrain from using this person's name in order to "protect the guilty." And while he spoke that jovially, you could tell it was said in attack.
What he recounted watching was someone saying that, "no matter what you've done, how far you've fallen, how badly you've screwed up, God is not mad at you." As soon as the quote was released there was an audible groan from the crowd. The speaker then launched into how such a statement negates much of the New Testament. From there turns were taken explaining how people must be made to known the wrath of God in order to be saved. The crowd cheered.
Makes you want to cheer, doesn't it? That was a joke.
Other pastors demeaned, slandered and mocked. Fear promoted as the path to salvation. Worst of all, a profoundly wrong representation of the gospel presented. All before the cheers of men. All coming from men I've admired and respected for years.
My heart's been heavy ever since.
After the sweet initial experience of my salvation I soon gravitated toward the intellectual trend of western Christianity. To me, the more I knew and understood the holier I became. I studied and studied. I listened to every apologist I could find. My knowledge about God and the Bible grew and grew for years.
Over that time I never stopped to talk to God about it.
As I grew more confident in my knowledge I grew more political and more religious. I also grew more depressed. The more I knew the harder it was for me to keep going in my own strength. Everything simply got harder.
I'm so thankful I was delivered from that life!
My story is recorded more thoroughly in other places, but the short of it is that I started to have radical encounters with God. Like, for real. Experiencing Him and learning how to hear His voice. In a short time much changed as He led me to understand things on a deeper level. I learned that my knowledge wasn't bad, but my understanding of much of that knowledge was. For the past seven years I've been on a journey of learning the heart and nature of God. It's a journey that will last me through eternity, but in these short years I've learned more than I ever imagined.
Seven years ago I could have been a younger, less seasoned one of those panel members. I would have fit right in. Now I see them and hear them, and it hurts. They are so close, but so far.
One of the greatest deceptions in intellectual circles is the inherent belief that knowledge is power. This belief comes from Greek tradition and not God, yet because of the great influence of Enlightenment thinking in the early years of the Protestant Reformation most of our Christian tradition in the western church equates rationality and reason with the Gospel and greater holiness. This is exactly why large conference halls are filled to the brim when Christian intellectuals are hosted. We yearn to always know more.
Inherently there is nothing wrong with this. The danger lies in when we focus only on knowledge and ignore the heart. Without understanding the heart of God the words of scripture become cold and often harsh. When Scripture is reduced to factoids about God, when memorization takes the place of meditation, when reasoning replaces revelation, our knowledge becomes exactly what Paul warned about in 2 Corinthians 3:6:
He alone makes us adequate ministers who are focused on an entirely new covenant. Our ministry is not based on the letter of the law but through the power of the Spirit. The letter of the law kills, but he Spirit pours out life.
What I watched on that video was brilliant men, men who have been studying scripture much longer than I, who could think and reason circles around most of the world. They were also men who, at least in this instance, displayed a legalistic, wholly religious portrayal of the gospel. They missed the heart, the very part that gives those words life. They were speaking death and being celebrated as defenders of the faith.
Yes, death. Scripture is that powerful. When Biblical knowledge is used with the wrong heart it ensnares and imprisons. Paul knew this and warned about it. We're also given another warning in seeing the temptation Jesus experienced in Matthew 4. When satan speaks to Jesus, he quotes scripture:
(He) said to him, "If you're really the God's Son, jump, and the angels will catch you. For it is written in the Scriptures:
He will command his angels to protect you
and they will lift you up
so that you won't even bruise your foot on a rock."
- Matthew 4:6
The enemy quoted Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus, putting Jesus in the unenviable position of having to disagree with Scripture. Yet Jesus knew better, and without missing a beat Jesus countered with more Scripture. Both Scriptures were true. Both were inspired by God. One passage used by satan for evil, one passage used by Jesus to defeat evil. The difference between the passages was the intent, i.e. the heart.
Weigh the Words
he understanding of God's nature changes everything. It changes how we read scripture, how we interpret it. It's the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Only with the help of the Holy Spirit, with God's voice and perfect mind, can we get the fullest amount of wisdom from what is written.
Those brilliant men I once looked up to missed the heart of God, and they did it to the tune of thunderous applause.
Jesus faced the same problem with the religious Pharisees of the day. They knew their scripture but had no wisdom to accompany their knowledge, so it became simply religion to them. Those who were supposed to know God the best, who were looked up to by the people, found they couldn't recognize God when He stared them in the eye in person. Instead it was the people they were most critical of whom received the most from the King of Kings.
The deception of religion hides behind intellectualism just as much today as it did then. These men I watched possess powerful minds, yet their pursuit of knowledge apart from the pulse of God's heart has put a veil over their understanding. As they enjoyed the validation of one another and the crowd they forgot much of the very gospel they were claiming to teach. Deception closes the mind to simple truths. They displayed that in the following ways:
1. Dishonoring Fellow Ministers
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
- Phil. 1:15-18
The pastors who lead the church well should be paid well. They should receive double honor for faithfully preaching and teaching the revelation of the Word of God. For the Scriptures have taught us: "Do not muzzle an ox or forbid it to eat while it grinds the grain." And also, "The one who labors deserves his wages."
Refuse to listen to suspicious accusations against the pastors who lead the flock unless you have two or three witnesses to confirm the accusations. But if indeed you find that they have sinned, bring correction to them before the congregation so that the rest of the people will respect you.
- 1 Tim. 5:17-20
Paul gives us two interesting examples here. Firstly, he says very clearly that he doesn't really care about the motives of those sharing the gospel, he simply rejoices that it's being preached at all!
Secondly, he very clearly states that leaders in the church who preach and teach should be treated with double honor. This is because they have such a weighty task ahead of them! Double-honor means respect and also giving them the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, he describes how issues with them should be handled in the cases of sin. Two or three witnesses for confirmation then correction.
What I watched the intellectuals do was not honorable. It also had nothing to do with sin but rather, disagreement. They got so caught up in being right that they blatantly disregarded the scriptural guidelines for how to treat other ministers of the gospel. In the process they promoted dissension over such disagreements to thousands more who look up to them. They put being right over being in relationship, which is completely against Jesus' desire for unity (expressed in John 17).
2. Ignorance of Gospel Truth
Do the riches of his extraordinary kindness make you take him for granted and despise him? Haven't you experienced how kind and understanding he has been to you? Don't mistake his tolerance for acceptance. Do you realize that all the wealth of his extravagant kindness is meant to melt your heart and lead you into repentance?
- Rom. 2:4
This royal promise was not fulfilled because Abraham kept all the law, but through the righteousness that was transferred by faith. For if keeping the law earns the inheritance, then faith is robbed of its power and the promise becomes useless. For the law provokes punishment, and where no law exists there cannot be a violation of the law.
The promise depends on faith so that it can be experienced as a grace-gift, and now it extends to all the descendants of Abraham.
- Rom. 4:14-16a
Love never brings fear, for fear is always related to punishment. But love's perfection drives the fear of punishment far from our hearts. Whoever walks constantly afraid of punishment has not reached love's perfection. Our love for others is our grateful response to the love God first demonstrated to us.
- 1 John 4:18-19
There was no love in the exchange I watched. I realize I could be countered with the response, "It's actually loving to express truth!" and that's not necessarily wrong, but the way in which that "truth" was communicated was not loving. Also, as the verses above prove, it was not truth.
The greatest uproar from the crowd came when it was quoted that God is not angry with us, or anyone else, for that matter. The collective gasp and exasperation from the speakers about this phrase was disheartening. It displayed such a lack of understanding about God. it also showed a disregard for scriptural truth.
Romans 2:4 is very clear that God does not use fear to bring us into repentance. He uses his kindness and overwhelms us with his love. Furthermore John clearly writes that God is love, and love drives fear away. In other words, God has no desire to stir up fear in any of us. Does that sound like an angry God?
Finally, punishment (or "wrath", depending on the translation) was only a response to the Law. There is no wrath for us anymore, because none of us are under the Law. We have received the grace-gift of faith now, and that gift leads to righteousness. It also now rains on the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 5:45). There are consequences for our actions, but they are from the natural order of things and from spiritual or relational dynamics. They are NOT sent by God from heaven. There is a final punishment for those who don't choose God, but the lake of fire was never meant for man. Choosing eternal torment is not God's will for anyone. Rather it's the only place completely separate from him, the only place people can go if they never accept his gift of salvation. God will not be angry when he speaks the judgment, "I never knew you." He'll be doing it with tears in his eyes.
Nowhere, I repeat, nowhere is there any evidence in the New Testament, in the unveiling of who God is from the example of Jesus, that God is angry with sinners or his saints. This belief is a complete fallacy and horrible inaccuracy.
Must be that "Oil of Gladness..."
Once again, knowing the Bible does not also mean it's understood.
One of the greatest dangers in the church is the elevation of the intellectual over actual Truth. Those who sound smart all too often draw itching ears. But if what they are sharing isn't communicating love, unity, peace, joy, and righteousness, we don't need to listen. In fact, we're better off looking away.
Without love behind them our words are more harmful than helpful. God is not a God of wrath and anger. He's a God of love. Yes, he can get angry, but not at us. He gets angered at sin, and injustice, and the spirits behind them, but not at people. Your actions can anger God, but who you are cannot. You're made in his image, after all.
One of the best things to ever happen to me was for me to lay down my right to be right. To lay my intellect at His feet and say, "God, I really don't know if I know anything. Teach me your heart." He did, and he still is. And what I've found is that he didn't take away what I already knew, he didn't have me throw out all my years of study. Rather He amplified it. He added Truth to my knowledge. He added heart.
I didn't want to write this because it hurt to see some of my old heroes doing something I knew was blatantly wrong and against the heart of God. It hurt to see men I respected and admired choose religion over Truth. It hurt to see many other Christians celebrating them as they did so. It hurt because it showed me how far we still have to go.
But I have hope. New intellectuals are springing up all over the place. Men and Women who carry the brilliance and the right heart. They carry understanding, and when they speak crowds flock to them. Because they carry truth, and they do it with the love of the Father.
God is making all things new. That includes apologetics. It's getting better, and will continue to do so. I pray that those that previously knew the Bible so well but didn't understand it will come along for the ride. I know deep down they truly love the Lord, so I believe they will. If many of the Pharisees could finally come around to Truth (Acts 15:5), so can they.
I'd love to hear what they'd have to say.
Justin Carpenter has a passion for Christ and His body. Justin longs to see the body of Christ be equipped and sent out into all the world preaching the gospel of the kingdom with authority and power.