Chip Thornton

“God Told Me” . . .

Just because we have an emotional experience, goose bumps, warm fuzzies, or a dream doesn’t mean it came from the Holy Spirit of God. A man once told me, “The Holy Spirit gets a lot of credit for saying things the Holy Spirit never said.” He was spot-on. I’ve had people say to me: “God-told-me-to-tell-you . . .”.  If it truly was God, we should reduce it to writing and staple it to the back of our Bible. “Why?” they ask. Because if God said it, it constitutes divine revelation. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to attract people who’ve had the strangest spiritual experiences imaginable. A man in Ft. Worth, Texas once told me a wild tale about how he’d died and gone to hell. He looked up and saw a bright light. Jesus told him he could return to the living if he would tell everyone of his experience. When he opened his eyes, he was on a gurney, in a morgue, with a sheet over his head! He even claimed he had a tag on his big toe! He got up, walked out of the morgue, and ran home . . . completely naked! You may think I’m joking, but this conversation truly happened. I met him in the Ft. Worth Stockyards.
Did this this man meet Jesus? I can neither prove nor disprove his experience. Yet, these stories seem so appealing to people, even Christians. Surely, you’ve heard similar stories (without the nudity, we hope!). Perhaps this example is extreme, but how can we verify when people claim God spoke to them?
Scripture is Sufficient
D.A. Carson’s book, The Gagging of God, deals with the key issue at-hand:
“Many [Christians] now rely far more on inward promptings than on their Bible knowledge to decide what they are going to do in a situation.”1
Donald Whitney, in The Compromised Church, states:
“The evangelistic method of Jesus and the apostles was not to urge people to seek direct experiences with God; instead they went about preaching and teaching the Scriptures (see, for instance, Mark 1:14-15). And Jesus did not say that once we have spiritual life we live by direct mystical experience with God; rather, we ‘live . . . on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4). . . .
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Which Rabbits are You Chasing?

We all tend to have an exalted view of our oratorical abilities, but strength is not always in the length. Sometimes, brevity is better. Yet, honoring the sufficiency of Scripture in our delivery is best of all. 

We were discussing the length of the preacher’s sermon in one of Paul’s letters. “Which rabbits are you chasing?” my friend asked rhetorically, “Are you chasing Paul’s rabbits or your own?” Often, our sermons are too long because we’re chasing the wrong rabbits.
As mentioned, actual sermons in Scripture (and in church history) vary in length (see our previous survey). We agree with Calvin and Luther: Often, we preach “too long” (Luther) and/or fail to consider “what the weakness of men could bear” (Calvin). Or, as my faithful deacon (a retired school teacher) stated, “The mind can bear no more than the rear end can endure!” We’ve all been there before.
Rather than quibble over whether to preach 60-minutes vs. 12-minutes, though, we are interested in a more pertinent issue: The minutes you allot to each point within the sermon (no matter the sermon’s length). We feel the implications of those “minute-allotments” have a direct bearing on the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. No preaching book I know of makes this connection. We wonder why.
To truly uphold the sufficiency of Scripture, you must “weight” your points in alignment with the biblical author’s emphases (see prior articles: here, and here). Ultimately, this comes down to assigning a specified number of minutes to each point, sub-point, sub-sub-point, etc. To allot more minutes to a minor point and less minutes to a major point “could” misconstrue the biblical author’s intent. Who grants us the authority to take such liberties? If God has spoken in Scripture—and He has—isn’t it only fair (and right) that we reflect His “breathed-out” emphases in our presentation to men?
For instance, our sermon may have three points, but the biblical author might emphasize the last point more than the others. The last point demands more minutes within the sermon than the other two. Otherwise, we implicitly deny the sufficiency of Scripture by over (or under) emphasizing points more (or less) than did the biblical author.
Again, imagine someone stood to explain a short letter you wrote about an urgent issue. In their 30-minute explanation, suppose they spent 2 minutes on the urgent issue and 28 minutes expounding your 3-word salutation? How would you feel about that? In principle, it’s no different than Joel Osteen accentuating the positive portions of a preaching-text and minimizing (or ignoring altogether) the negative injunctions. It denies the the sufficiency of Scripture in the delivery.

Four Words That Changed the World

Tyndale had cracked the foundation. Common people began reading the New Testament, for the first time, in their own language . . . and they acted with righteous indignation. They realized they had been kept in darkness, for centuries, from the light of Holy Scripture. A movement swept through England which already was sweeping through Europe: The Protestant Reformation. This reformation spawned denominations we know today as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and many others who are having an enormous impact on societies all over the world. 

William Tyndale was taken to a high platform in public view. Bishops flanked him, robed in their priestly vestments. Anointing oil, symbolically, was scraped from his hands. The Lord’s Supper was placed before him and then quickly removed, tauntingly. Tyndale was wearing priestly vestments. They were stripped away from his body. Finally, he was handed over to the hangman. In his last moments, he cried-out, “Lord! Open the king of England’s eyes.” They strangled him above a pyre of brush. He was burned. Gunpowder had been placed in the brush. His body was mutilated by the explosions. All for what? What was his crime?
He translated the NT into the English language.
Tyndale, the Man
William Tyndale was brilliant. He was fluent in 8 languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and of course, English. He was, first and foremost, a translator, but he was much more than that: A defender of gospel truth, a parser of words, a coiner of terms, a pitcher of phrases, a genius in language, a man of steely conviction. He was God’s English wordsmith. He not only gave us the Bible in our language. He “gave us a Bible language.”[1]
He coined a litany of now-famous phrases:

Let there be light.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
The salt of the earth.
Fight the good fight.
Let not your heart be troubled.
A city that is set on a hill.
As sheep having no shepherd.
Ask and it shall be given.
Twinkling of an eye.

He invented English words never before used: scapegoat, Passover, atonement, etc. His gift for language was magnificent, so much so that 90% of the King James Version Bible comes from Tyndale, directly transposed.
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The Danger of Atomistic Preaching

The pattern of emphasis dictated by the text keeps verbal meaning in its rightful and prominent position in the interpretive process. All of this is not to say that implications ought not be expounded; indeed, they should. However, implications must remain submissive to the author’s intent—and to the degree that the original author wills them. Otherwise, we comprise the sufficiency of Scripture since the biblical author’s emphases are, in fact, God’s emphases. 

My previous article suggested the greatest danger in preaching, even among expositors, is not honoring the relative emphases of the biblical author. Most often, this occurs when a preacher extracts a “part” of a text and gives it more weight than did the biblical author. Sidney Greidanus calls that “part” an “atom.”
Atomistic Tendencies
Atomistic tendencies extract an implication (or sub-meaning or sub-point) of the author and cause it to dominate the author’s single verbal meaning. The result becomes an alteration of the author’s original meaning. Greidanus calls this the “isolation of certain ‘atoms’ within the text from the inner coherence, the central thrust of the text.”[1]
An “atom” might be a Bible personality’s attribute, experience, or behavior which the preacher extracts and expounds as the main emphasis of the message. The problem with this practice is the main thought of the passage is either ignored or reduced to secondary importance. In either case, the verbal meaning becomes different (or other) than that of the biblical author.
Greidanus explains:
Should any of these “atoms” be treated independently in the sermon, the result would be atomism—making absolute that which is a dependent part—and a loss of the central thrust of the text. Should one, for the sake of a unified sermon, place one “atom” central, the central thrust is displaced by that which is not central. In either case the meaning of the text will be distorted.[2]Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura
Greidanus claims this tendency produces sermons that become monotonous because they lose the uniqueness of the text.[3] For example, one can preach essentially the same sermon from the “doubt” of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:1-6) and the “doubt” of Thomas (John 20:24-29); or, one could apply the “testing” of the faith of Abraham (Gen. 22) in the same way as the “testing” of the faith of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21ff.).[4]  He rightly asserts: “[T]he ‘atom’ (doubt, testing) is lifted out of its textual (historic) environment into another realm where, though still called ‘doubt’ or ‘testing,’ it has lost its unique connections and therefore its special meaning.”[5]
The Danger of Atomistic Tendencies
We can reduce the problem of atomistic tendencies to one basic issue: The degree of relative emphasis an implication (or sub-meaning) should receive within the sense of the larger whole. The chief concern occurs when the preacher presents an emphasis (or set of emphases) which is different than the biblical author’s, and the interpretation spawns a different meaning. Therefore, we agree with Greidanus’ argument. Further, we see no reason why we should limit it to exemplary or biographical tendencies. The argument equally is valid for those sermons which take a sub-point within the verbal meaning and cause it to dominate the central thrust of the sermon. We must never stop asking, “Who gives the preacher the authority to change the King’s emphasis? Certainly, not the King; and if not He, then who?”
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