Literalists Lacking in Spiritual Understanding

My previous post (HERE) on the disciples’ insight into parables mentioned that there was a point (or points) when they demonstrated real perception into Christ’s teachings. Of course there were times when they didn’t as well. Related to that, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book, Spiritual Depression (a personal favorite of mine), he likens the disciples to the blind man (at first only partially-)healed by Jesus, recorded in Mark 8. When Jesus asks the man if he can see, the man responds, “I see men as trees, walking.”

From this, Lloyd-Jones argues that Jesus’ miracle was performed this way intentionally in order to demonstrate a spiritual principle to the disciples. Like the prophet Nathan with David, Jesus was pointing the disciples to this partially-healed man saying, “You are the man.”

MLJ puts it this way:

It is difficult to describe this man. You cannot say that he is blind any longer. You cannot say that he is still blind because he does see; and yet you hesitate to say that he can see because he sees men as trees, walking. What then – is he or is he not blind? You feel that you have to say at one and the same time that he is blind and that he is not blind. He is neither one thing nor the other (p. 39).

He goes on to say that many struggling Christians are like this. It can both appear that they are and are not a Christian. This, however, is not my point in this post. So let me get to it.

MLJ describes the disciples in this way: the event of the healing of the blind man (in Mark’s narrative) is fresh off the heals of a discussion with the disciples about leaven (in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you not understand? Do you not see? Do you not remember?'”). Because he told them to beware the leaven of the pharisees, they began talking about literal bread. So, MLJ says, “they were literalists, they were lacking in spiritual understanding.” Jesus proceeds to call them out on this.

A literalist, in this sense, is someone who cannot see beneath the surface of a story or illustration or principle (and perhaps someone who cannot see beneath the surface without detailed explanations; maybe they see eventually, but it takes a lot of work). You might call this being spiritually obtuse.

I try to teach myself, my children, and want to teach my church, to be able to get beneath the surface of a story (a book, a movie, an illustration, and even the Bible itself) to see the Truth that is being conveyed – “to bring out treasures old and new” (Matt. 13:52). Call this insight or discernment or being spiritually-minded or whatever.

Douglas Coupland regularly makes the claim that only 20% of people worldwide are hardwired to recognize irony when they see it. I fear it’s maybe the same or less for Christians being able to recognize Truth when they see it: being able to see the not blind, not seeing man and recognize that we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. The distortion/illustration is meant to allow us to see more clearly. But we find ourselves being stared down by Jesus as he asks, “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see?”


Banner of Truth Giveaway

Banner of Truth trust is giving away an entire set of Puritan paperbacks, an entire set of Lloyd-Jones’ commentaries on Romans, and Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. The more referrals you make the more times you can enter the draw. So, by all means, please use my referral link if you’re interested. You have to answer one question. And I’ll give you a hint. Spurgeon was not from Australia or the United States. Here’s my link:

“When the devil finds a person sleeping, he enters. But when Christ finds him sleeping…”

Sin brings one low in desertion. This is a deep abyss indeed. Psalm 88:6, “You have laid me in the lowest pit.” Desertion is a short hell. Song of Solomon 5:6, “My beloved has withdrawn himself and was gone.” Christ knocked—but the spouse was loath to rise off her bed of sloth and open to Him immediately. When the devil finds a person sleeping—he enters. But when Christ finds him sleeping—He is gone. And if this Sun of righteousness withdraws His golden beams from the soul, darkness follows.

-Thomas Watson, The Mischief of Sin

The Puritans (like Thomas Watson) and their ilk were not shy of bringing up passages from Song of Solomon such as the one quoted above and applying them to the Christian life. Octavius Winslow gives us another example:

I sleep, but my heart waketh.’ Here was the existence of the Divine life in the soul, and yet that life was on the decline. She knew that she had fallen into a careless and slumbering state, that the work of grace in her soul was decaying, that the spirit of slumber had come over her; but the awful feature was, she was content to be so. She heard her Beloved knock: but, so enamoured was she with her state of drowsiness, she gave no heed to it – she opened not to him…A believer may fall into a drowsy sate of soul, not so profound as to be entirely lost to the voice of his Beloved speaking by conscience, by the word, and by providences: and yet so far may his grace have decayed, so cold may his love have grown, and so hardening may have been this declension, he shall be content that this should be his state (Personal Declension and the Revival of Religion in the Soul, pp. 21-22).

By the way, I couldn’t recommend Winslow’s book more highly. It is one of my favorites.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was fond of saying that the fact that the Holy Spirit is likened to a dove points to his gentleness and propensity to be grieved and quenched. When he is grieved he withdraws. That is not to say that he withdraws in such a way as to remove himself wholly from the believer’s life. Rather, it is to say that he exercises less influence and offers less consolation and aid.

The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. And Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). In the Context of Revelation 3, this was an offer/promise to believers.

The spiritual sleeper, the one who hesitates to answer the door of Christ’s calling, leaves himself vulnerable to Satan. That is Watson’s point. Jesus will not force himself on you. Satan is another story. So get up and answer the door.

I say all of this as a Calvinist of course. I am not saying that God’s effectual call can ever be resisted. It cannot. The point is that the believer who becomes a spiritual sluggard is asking for trouble.

Let’s say you’re married. Your wife is hinting that she needs some time with you. She has her ways of doing this. You should have learned them over the years. Maybe you should have read the Love Languages book. If you are not sensitive to her overtures and subtle pleadings, then your relationship is not going to flourish.

And so, be sensitive to Christ’s knockings. Don’t let sin and sloth put you in such a frame that you are blinded and vulnerable to Satan.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on C.S. Lewis

A commenter on the blog brought an interesting quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones to my attention (one that I had never heard). In his first sermon in his famous series called Revival, the doctor said this:

Do you remember the vogue of CS Lewis? You don’t hear much about him now, but why all the excitement? Ah, here is a philosopher. And it indicates our pathetic faith and belief in these methods, which are nothing but apologetics. As exactly in the beginning of the 18th century they were pinning their faith to Bishop Butler and his great Analogy of Religion…

The doctor is nothing if not irenic! (or not). Interestingly, that comment about C.S. Lewis was edited out of the sermon when it came to be published in book form. I checked again tonight. It’s simply not there. But you can find it at the 39 minute mark of the original recording HERE. This sermon was preached, it appears, in 1959, just four years before Lewis’ death. ‘You don’t hear much about him now…’ would certainly not apply in 2015.

Here is another anecdote about MLJ and Lewis I’ve come across. In The Fight of Faith, the second volume of Iain Murray’s biography of Lloyd-Jones, he records a letter written by the Doctor in 1941 to his wife, which says,

There is nothing special on Thursday but meetings in different colleges. On Friday I am due to have breakfast with William Riddle’s son – a second edition of his father. Then I will go with him to a lecture given by C.S. Lewis (author of The Problem of Pain) an I am to have lunch with Lewis…

In the footnote, Murray writes,

Lewis is said to have valued ML-J’s appreciation and encouragement when the early edition of his Pilgrim’s Regress was not selling well. Vincent Lloyd-Jones [MLJ’s brother] and Lewis knew each other well, being contemporaries at Oxford. ML-J met the author again and they had a long conversation when they both found themselves on the same boat to Ireland in 1953. On that later occasion, to the question, ‘When are you going to write another book?, Lewis replied, ‘When I understand the meaning of prayer’ (p. 52).

Another interesting tidbit was a line from MLJ in Christianity Today in 1963, shortly after the death of Lewis:

C. S. Lewis had a defective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement.

The purpose of the post is simply to document these statements, so I will end here without further comment.

Update 8/22/17: I found another one:

This comes from a sermon Lloyd-Jones gave right after the death of C.S. Lewis. From Lloyd-Jones’ sermon on Romans 10:9-10 (audio can be found HERE, at around the 15:00 mark). ML-J compares Lewis’ teaching to a dry sort of intellectualism that doesn’t involve the heart, specifically comparing it to Sandemanianism. He summarized that teaching in this way: “if you accepted the teaching [i.e. Christianity or the doctrines of the gospel] with your mind, and were prepared to say so…that was sufficient, even though you felt nothing at all…If you accepted the teaching and were prepared to say so, that saved you, in the absence of any feelings whatsoever.”

There are certain tendencies in this direction even in our own day and generation. I had already purposed to say this before I read in the press last weekend, or heard on the wireless, of the passing of Professor C.S. Lewis. I regret to say this, but that was more or less his teaching also. He believed that you could reason yourself into the Christian faith. The first book he ever published was a book called The Pilgrim’s Regress. And the whole point of that book is to say that by clear thinking, you can think yourself from a rationalist or atheistical position into the Christian position. And he actually, at one time, founded in Oxford what he called the Socratic Club, which used to meet on Monday nights, in which he used to try to show people how to reason themselves into Christianity. ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.’ You cannot do it merely by a process of intellectual reasoning.

Top Ten Posts in 2014

This will likely be my last post of the year (with the holidays and all), so I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

In the meantime, I give you the mandatory ‘top posts’ post. If there’s anything on the list you haven’t read before, why not give it a look? Here are the most read posts from the blog for the year:

1. Myths About the Bible: Noah Was Mocked? The Fight Against Apathy
This marks the second year in a row that this post is number one. It had about 1,800 views for the year.

2. A List of Benedictions
In the top 3 for the third straight year. Everybody needs a good list of benedictions.

3. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton: Reading, Fairy Tales, and Mental Health
The same top 3 as last year. I still think that reading fairy tales is a balm for the soul.

4. God Is Love, But Love Is Not God
This one’s the first newcomer to the list. Here I take on not only modern culture, but no less a giant than St. Augustine.

5. Recent Reading: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers: Part 1 – Summary of the Argument for a Trinity in Creative Art
This marks the second year in the top 5. I go back to this post fairly regularly to brush up on Sayers’ points.

6. The Misused Passages: 1 Corinthians 2:9, Eye Hath Not Seen, Nor Ear Heard
This is my take on how people misuse the famous words, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man, what God hath prepared for them that love Him.’

7. Charlotte’s Web: Dr. Dorian, Miraculous Webs, Animals Talking
I share a favorite quote from Charlotte’s Web.

8. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Method of Pastoral Counseling and Diagnosis
I am glad this one cracked the top 10. I worked very hard on this post in an attempt to distill the basics of the pastoral counseling method of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I work harder to actually try to put his wisdom into practice. I still highly recommend the book on which this post is based: Healing and the Scriptures.

9. Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Here’s a taste: “Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die…”

10. Him that is Unjust, Let Him be Unjust Still: What does it mean? (Revelation 22:11)
It’s a line from the Book of Revelation that has entered into the modern consciousness via Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. I remember early in the season there was an SEC football commercial that used this song. I thought there was an ironically fitting display of southern culture as I saw images of Les Miles and Nick Saban as this song played in the background.

Sunday Hymn: Jesus, My Great High Priest

As is my Saturday custom, I was listening to a sermon by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tonight. In it, speaking of ‘the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,’ he quoted the words of this great hymn:

Jesus, my great High Priest,
Offered his blood and died;
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside.
His pow’rful blood did once atone,
And now it pleads before the Throne.

Jesus, My Great High Priest is another beauty from Isaac Watts. The tune, Bevan, is very easy to pick up. You can click the link HERE for the words and tune. You can find it in the Trinity Hymnal at number 306. Here are the lyrics:

Jesus, my great High Priest,
Offered his blood and died;
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside.
His pow’rful blood did once atone,
And now it pleads before the Throne.

To this dear Surety’s hand
Will I commit my cause;
He answers and fulfills
His Father’s broken laws.
Behold my soul at freedom set;
My Surety paid the dreadful debt.

My Advocate appears
For my defense on high;
The Father bows his ears
And lays his thunder by.
Not all that hell or sin can say
Shall turn his heart, his love, away.

Should all the hosts of death
And pow’rs of hell unknown
Put their most dreadful forms
Of rage and mischief on,
I shall be safe, for Christ displays
His conqu’ring pow’r and guardian grace.

Does God Exist?

A little quirk happening made me think of a quote by G.K. Chesterton from The Everlasting Man:

One of my first journalistic adventures, or misadventures, concerned a comment on Grant Allen, who had written a book about the Evolution of the Idea of God. I happened to remark that it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen. And I remember that the editor objected to my remark on the ground that it was blasphemous; which naturally amused me not a little.

I was watching a debate on YouTube and saw the title of a video which began, “Does God Exist?…Dan Barker Debate” But in my first (very quick) glance, I actually thought it said, “Does Dan Barker Exist?” I think that would be a much more interesting video and topic of debate.

God is not to be discussed or debated. God is not a subject for debate, because He is Who He is. We are told that the unbeliever, of course, does not agree with that; and that is perfectly true; but that makes no difference. We believe it, and it is a part of our very case to assert it. Holding the view that we do, believing what we do about God, we cannot in any circumstances allow Him to become a subject for discussion or debate or investigation…God is always to be approached ‘with reverence and with godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’…

We believe in the almighty, the glorious, the living God; and whatever may be true of others we must never put ourselves, or allow ourselves to be put, into a position in which we are debating about God as if He were but a philosophical proposition (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, pp. 46-47).

Rise Up and Walk

…St. Dominic, even more than St. Francis, was marked by that intellectual independence, and strict standard of virtue and veracity, which Protestant cultures are wont to regard as specially Protestant. It was of him that the tale was told, and would certainly have been told more widely among us if it had been told of a Puritan, that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, “Peter can no longer say `Silver and gold have I none'”; and the Spanish friar answered, “No, and neither can he now say, `Rise and walk.'”

-G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, p. 23

My studies this week about the smallness of Bethlehem brought this quote to my mind. Bethlehem went from being the least among the clans of Judah (Micah 5:2), to ‘by no means the least’ (Matt. 2:6) simply on account of the presence of the newborn Christ.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that Christianity, or even the local church, is a movement. It survives movements because it is not a movement. It survives fads and fashions because it is not a fad or fashion. Spurgeon says, ‘he who marries today’s fashion is tomorrow’s widow.’ He is right.

The church is a rock that grows. A vine that sprawls. It is a family that reproduces. Not a bus, but a bush. Not a fad, but a family. Not a movement, but a miracle. Don’t be deceived into thinking that it will be the size, strength, health, wealth, high culture, politics, or general influence of the church that will save the world. The church’s message is ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ It is the healing, blessing, saving presence of Christ that makes us; nothing more, nothing less.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him, “are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” (11:3). Why are you out in Galilee? Why aren’t you in Jerusalem, Jesus? Why aren’t you standing before the politicians? Why aren’t you seeking the overthrow of Rome? Perhaps you’re not the Messiah after all.

Jesus’ response is simple and plain:

‘And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me”‘ (11:4-6).

He may not have stood before Caesar, but he was the Christ. His glory may have been a cross, but that was true glory. Therefore,

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Technologies (And People) Tend To Produce Their Opposites (Living Into Focus)

The simple fact, as philosopher Albert Bormann reminds us, is ‘that people regularly make choices that are counterproductive to the happiness they want’…

Something’s not working. ‘Labor-saving’ devices make us busier. The faster computers go, the more time we give to them. As highways and cars improve, we drive farther and vehicles become increasingly expensive. Email speeds up communications but eats up greater amounts of time. With the ongoing invention of ‘essential’ devices (even energy-efficient ones), we consume growing quantities of power. I don’t know about your house, but we have power strips in numerous rooms; wall outlets no longer suffice…

Gregg Easterbrook convincingly shows that ‘society is undergoing a fundamental shift from ‘material want’ to ‘meaning want,’ with ever larger numbers of people reasonably secure in terms of living standards, but feeling they lack significance in their lives.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. xvii, xix, xxi

Brian put these quotes together. “Something’s not working” is right.

I often quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who was quoting someone else), who often said that ‘every institution tends to produce its opposite.’

Boers is not talking about institutions per se. He is talking about people and their devices. But people and devices do tend to produce the opposite of what they intend. This is a theme that Boers will return to, and I am sure we will as well. Here’s an example:

Communication devices were supposed to bring us closer to family by allowing us to work at home; instead, they often detract from time and attention for spouses and children. Computers and cybercommunication were going to help us become paperless, but we consume growing quantities of paper…While computers and online connections get faster, the time we spend on them keeps going up. The better we are at responding to email, the more we are inundated by it. While it gets easier to assemble meals and food becomes convenient, our society shows greater problems with obesity (p. 70).

This is the case in virtually every realm of life. Sin has so turned things upside down that we often get the opposite of what we want. The question, then, becomes, how do we respond to this fact? My only answer is that we must be constantly checking and re-checking; constantly taking inventory. I think that many modern folk understand this. That’s why ‘vision’ and ‘goals’ and ‘instructional design’ have become so firmly entrenched in our vocabularies. But we are not talking about business models here. We are talking about life.

But, as I run the risk of sounding like I want to professionalize life, I think it is absolutely essential that we question our motives in virtually everything. Why do I need the new iPhone? Why do I need to get fast food today? Why do I need to check my email right now? If the answer is simply ‘to save time,’ then we need to ask ourselves if we are really saving time; and if we are, where is that time going? Is my ‘save time’ going into other actions that are also done for the sake of saving time? Am I so busy saving time that I don’t actually have any time left? Has my ‘saving time’ actually become its opposite?

So, here’s my bottom line: take the time to ask yourself what the opposite of your goal or purpose is, ask yourself how your pursuit of that purpose could lead to that opposite, and take inventory regularly to see if you are veering toward that opposite.

The Business of the Preacher and Teacher is to Open Out and Expand (MLJ)

Commentaries are of great value in arriving at an accurate understanding of the text, yet at their best they are only of value as scaffolding in the erection of a building. Moreover, it is vital that we should understand that an epistle such as this is only a summary of what the Apostle Paul preached. He explains that in chapter 1 verses 11-15. He wrote the Epistle because he was not able to visit them in Rome. Had he been with them he would not merely have given them what he says in this Letter, for this is but a synopsis. He would have preached an endless series of sermons as he did daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19.9) and probably have often gone on until midnight (Acts 20.7). The business of the preacher and teacher is to open out and expand what is given here by the Apostle in summary form.

Not only that, we must ever remember that the Truth of God while meant primarily for the mind is also meant to grip and to influence the entire personality. Truth must always be applied, and to handle a portion of Scripture as one might handle a play of Shakespeare in a purely intellectual and analytical manner is to abuse it. People have often complained that commentaries are ‘as dry as dust.’ There is surely something seriously wrong if that is the case. Any kind of exposition of ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God’ should never produce such and impression. It is my opinion that we have had far too many brief commentaries and studies in the Scriptures. The greatest need today is a return to expository preaching. That is what happened in the time of the Reformation and the Puritan Revival and the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th Century. It is only as we return to this that we shall be able to show people the grandeur, glory and majesty of the Scriptures and their message.

-D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Atonement and Justification, An Exposition of Chapters 3.20-4.25, p. xii

I discovered this quote a few years ago while reading the book and, for some reason, haven’t shared it. It is one of the most helpful statements on preaching I have ever read – and it’s from the foreword of a book of sermons on Romans. He’s always helpful, even where you wouldn’t expect it. Though I have more disagreement with Lloyd-Jones on some of his interpretations of Romans (chapters 7 and 11 for instance) than anything else I have read by him, I have never encountered better examples of expository preaching than those from his Romans series. By the way, you can hear all of his sermons on Romans for free HERE.

The main takeaway from this quote was, for me, that my job as a preacher is not simply to go down, down, down into the text. We are to do that, especially in our studies, but from there we must go out, out, out – like a fire that expands and spreads – in order to bring the doctrine of the text to bear on issues we are facing in our present world. And, in line with the fire metaphor, there should be heat as we do so.

  • But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9).
  • On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight (Acts 20:7).
  • I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. 14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome (Rom. 1:13-15).