Monday, April 29, 2013

The Problem with "What does the Bible mean to me?"

This is the third installment of a series of reflections on Joel Van Hoogen’s messages at this past year’s Rocky Mountain Bible Mission Shepherd’s Conference.  Joel spoke on removing the rubble from the wells of our salvation.  The rubble is the dispossessed doctrines of the Christian life.  The well is the refreshing life that comes from Christ.

The first type of rubble the enemy would like to see in our wells is doubt and unbelief.  We discussed this problem in a previous blog posting.  A second type of rubble that finds its way into the wells of our salvation is a distance from the authority of God’s Word.

The fact is, people approach God’s Word, the Bible, in an increasingly subjective manner.  They approach the Bible with a subjective purpose – to find out what it means for them personally.  This type of attitude appears in all kinds of shapes and forms.  Recently a gal sat in my office talking about her struggling marriage and she said to me, “I don’t believe God wants me to be unhappy.”  In other words, her temptation was to approach God’s Word with the purpose of making her feel better and perhaps giving her personal justification to walk away from her marriage.  Again, we come to the Bible with an attitude that says, “What does the Bible say to me?”

Don’t get me wrong.  The Bible has an awful lot to say to each of us personally.  But when we approach the Bible with that attitude, we become sovereign over the Scriptures.  We become the authority, not the Bible.  We decide what the Bible means.  We read the Bible only for personal application.  We craft the Word around our felt needs.  Pragmatic emotionalism trumps any sense of the rational authority of God’s holy word.  There is no sense of approaching the Bible because it is God’s revelation of Himself, His salvation and His plan and purpose for the world.

As a pastor, I feel this temptation as well.  Not necessarily to approach the Bible this way personally, but rather to pander to this idea in my messages.  Churches and ministries tend to grow large and prosperous when their leaders speak to felt needs.  That is what people want to hear.  Of course, I am not saying that proper application should be absent from messages.  Personally I work very hard at applying the passage I am preaching, first to my own life, and second to the lives of my congregation.  For me, application is probably the hardest part of the sermon process.  But proper application and a purely subjective approach to the Bible are two different things.

So how do we make sure that when we open God’s Word, we do not fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from the authority of God’s Word?  Here are some things to keep an eye on:
1.         Make sure when you read the Bible, you take your seat before the Almighty God as a listener, not a reader.  You have no authority over the text.  It is not yours to do what you want with it.  The text – and the God who stands behind the text – has the authority over you.
2.         Be careful not to read it as a personal word for yourself – rather listen to the voice of our Master.  The Bible is first and foremost God’s revelation of Himself to the world.
3.         Ask yourself – what does this passage reveal to me about God Himself?  The goal of reading the Bible is to know God better.  When we know God more deeply, we will increasingly know how to live for Him.
4.         Do not neglect the doctrine of illumination.  God’s Holy Spirit is willing and able to illuminate the Scripture to us.  We should believe that He is able to use the Word to speak to our hearts.  We should both study with our intellects and trust the ability of the Spirit to illuminate meaning. 
5.         Approach God and His Word with a hungry heart.  Listen to wise words from Proverbs:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Prov. 2:1-5, ESV)

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