OUR APPROACH TO THE SCRIPTURES
Transcript of address by the Rev. D. Fountain, M.A., at the Annual Meeting of the Trinitarian Bible Society, 1967.
Is it not an astonishing thing that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came down to this world, preached, wrought signs and wonders, and yet very few believed on Him. Men beheld His glory but very few realised who He was, or understood what He said. Well did He say, ‘Take heed how ye hear”. It is a wonder that although so many millions have Bibles, few understand them. In this country, surely, there is scarcely a house without a Bible, and yet how many know its message and its Author?
Consider the many who study and teach the Bible, and yet are blind
to the message of the Word of God. They cannot see the Lord of glory there, no more than could the children of Israel when they looked at Moses’ face. How do we account for this? You may say, “They need the
Holy Spirit – they must have their eyes opened”. This is true, but what does He do to enable a man to understand the Word? Surely the first thing He does is to show a man how he must approach the Word of God. He teaches him what attitude to adopt as he handles this Book.
When Paul wrote to Timothy he was concerned about this very thing. ‘As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: from which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm” (1Tim. 1.3-7).
Firstly, let us look at this passage of Scripture and see the concern that the Apostle Paul had. He was anxious about certain people at Ephesus who had misunderstood the very purpose for which God had given them His Law. They failed to realise that the end, the object to which the Law was pointing, was “love out of a pure heart, from a good conscience, and faith unfeigned”. Instead of recognising that this Word of God was to point them to the Lord Himself, and having gazed at Him, to produce love in their hearts, they thought that it was the means whereby they could attract attention to themselves. Their aim was to gain a reputation as teachers, and here was a great opportunity to parade .their knowledge of the Word of God, and to argue about the finer points. They raised questions, but did not cause godly edifying since their aim was wrong.
They handled the Word of God in a way in which was never intended. Instead of realising that it was given to produce love to God, by leading them to Christ, they seized upon it as the means of establishing for themselves a reputation, and so they missed the mark. They turned aside, and as a result they misunderstood the message and ended in confusion.
We know that in the Church at Ephesus there was first coldness, then false teachers came in, and finally the Church disappeared. But it began with a wrong approach to the Word of God.
Secondly, as we look in the wider context of the Word of God, we shall see this same principle working. The Jews were given a wonderful revelation by God of His redemption, but made the same mistake of approaching His Law in the wrong way. Instead of realising that it was
given to them to point them to Christ, they seized upon it as a means whereby they could parade themselves as a religious nation. They gloried in the show of the worship, and failed to see the chief object of it.
“The children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished.” This wrong approach led them to a misunderstanding of the character of the One who should come to be their Messiah, and consequently they rejected Him and apostasized. So the Jews as a whole made a wrong approach to the Word of God.
Thirdly, some have made a right approach (those whom God has chosen and ordained to eternal life). We know that God hides His truth from the wise and prudent, and reveals it unto babes, so that a man must first become a babe before he can understand the truth. David was just such a man. He realised that he could never understand the truth of God unless God opened his eyes. “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” The Word is alive. We do not agree with those “modernists” who say that the Word of God must become alive to us, for it is alive, and we are dead. David approached the Word of God realising its spirituality, his own deadness and the purpose of it. “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Having understood why it was given he fulfilled it, and so understood the truth fully. “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.” He knew that the keeping of God’s commands affects the understanding of them.
Veil taken away
Wherever there were Jews like David, who turned to the Lord, the veil was taken away. Christ Himself said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine”. Those who are wrought upon by the Spirit and seek to obey the Word of God understand. His words were never intended to satisfy men’s curiosity. Truth is a talent only given to those who know how to use it. It is only understood as it is lived.
Sound doctrine is health-giving doctrine. The word “sound” means “in health”. We may say that a man has the truth in his head, but not in his heart, but it cannot really be so. We may say that a man has the doctrines of grace, but not the grace of the doctrines, but this cannot truly be so, because truth has to be experienced to be understood – “I understand . .. because I keep thy precepts”.
Let us consider two applications of this principle. Firstly, let us see this fact briefly worked out in history. How true this is, for instance, of Calvin. What a mighty instrument of God he was, but I venture to say that he would not have been known by us were it not for the famous interview he had with Farel, who made him stay at Geneva. This is not
simply because he was put in a place that was well-known, but because it had an effect upon him personally. To use his own words, “His heart was set on private and unseen studies”. He was anxious to hide himself away somewhere and study. I venture to say that if he had done this he would not have understood the truth in the same way, but he would have speculated and philosophized. God put him in a place where it was impossible to become remote and abstract. He learned to use his talents for others in a way that, as a recluse, he would never have done. He was made to see the end and object of the Word of God, to produce love and faith, in himself and others; and God gave him the light to do this.
Threat of scholarship
We may think of many examples ourselves. It is a fact that our fathers, both in England and Scotland, made terrible mistakes in this very matter in the last century. The Non-conformists in this country, and the Free Church of Scotland, made the same mistakes. They were conscious of the threat of the modernistic scholarship of German theologians and felt that the best way to overcome them was to beat them at their own game by producing men of greater scholarship who could compete with them on their own ground.
In England evangelicals were anxious to impress society. They had been kept out of Oxford and Cambridge, and when they were let in they cried to make an impression by their academic attainments. Theology was studied in precisely the same way as mathematics, history, or science. The fatal mistake was made of approaching this Book as any other book by studying it only to gain credit with the world. “Desiring to be teachers of the law . . .” They approached this Book in a way in which it was never intended to be approached – in order to impress the world. But the same mistake is still being made, and shows little sign of abating.
I remember some thirteen years ago, when contemplating the Christian ministry, a minister said to me, “If you have no theological degree, you will never have a church”. I felt sure that if God had called me He would provide a church, and I felt my task was to prepare myself for when God gave me a church – and He did. The widely accepted viiew is that you must gain qualifications. In many walks of life this may be necessary, but in spiritual things we should not seek after credentials that impress the world. What a temptation there is for men to want to make an impression on the ungodly and to demonstrate that they are Â“qualified”. Truth that comes to us in a classroom atmosphere leaves us in the same way. Bunyan preached that which “he felt most smartingly”. As soon as we treat this Book as other books, and approach it in an academic way, it leads to disaster. It was never intended to be handled in this way.
What of ourselves?
Let us apply the lesson to ourselves. We must never just look at others and say, “I thank God that I am not as other men are”. We are reminded in the first Psalm, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night”. Is the Word of God a delight to you? Do you love to read it? Does it bring you into company with God? We can make the mistake of approaching the Word in a mechanical way. We can have our times of prayer and reading, merely because our conscience tells us we should.
Mr. Walkey, of the West Amazon Mission, recently told of an experience in the Amazonian jungle. Senator Robert Kennedy was visiting the Brazilians and he wanted to talk with some of the Indians in a remote part of the jungle. He asked them questions and he said to one who happened to be a Christian, “What is it you like doing most?” expecting him to say fishing, hunting, or building or something of the kind, and the answer came back, “Being occupied with God”.
What an answer! Are we occupied with God? That is why God has given us His Word. Do you read it primarily for any other reason? We should be like that blessed man described in Psalm 1, who wanted to keep company with God. We may be so “religious”, so “active”, but are we “occupied with God”? Do we find that our eyes are open to the glory of this Book? Is it a blessed, precious book to us? Paton said: “Scarcely can we fix our eyes upon a single passage in this wonderful Book which has not afforded comfort and instruction to thousands, and has not been wet with tears of penitential joy, sorrow or grateful joy, from eyes that will weep no more. You read the pages, and you may see nothing there, but others have seen much there, and there is much there to see. Thousands have had great blessing from these pages”. That passage which you read this morning – others may have read it and received a great blessing.
Do you love to keep company with God? Does this Book lead you into the company of God. That is why it has been given. Men heard none other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and because they had the wrong approach, they understood not His words. They were not seeking to know Him. We spread this Book, the Bible, far and wide, and we thank God for the circulation of the Scriptures. We must pray that men receiving this Word may approach it in the right way and handle it in the right way. Let us pray indeed that we ourselves may approach this Word in the right way. William Cowper wrote, “My soul rejoices to pursue the steps of Him I love. ‘Til glory breaks upon my view in brighter worlds above”. God has given us His Word, that we may behold His glory, through the Word, and beholding His glory be changed into His own image.