Thanks be to God
With great joy in his heart, a friend of mine recently shared with me about how his son became a Christian.
The teenager had been reading through the story of Achan’s sin (Josh. 7:1-26) at youth group and upon reflection on the nature of sin, had come to trust in Jesus for salvation. I was wonderfully surprised! Wonderfully, for the boy had made the most important decision of his life by believing in Christ. Surprised, because – somewhat to my shame – my initial impulse was to be surprised that the account of Achan’s sin could have been the instrument of his salvation. I think, upon reflection, that I had forgotten something significant about God’s Word: that it is good, all of it. But perhaps it is possible to forget the other good aspects of the Holy Scriptures too?
For instance, is it possible to forget the sweetness of God’s Word? There is a certain taste associated with the Scriptures, which the Psalmist declares is sweet, “sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). Indeed, the Psalmist has in mind God’s righteous laws which call for his obedience. And although the commands and precepts of the Lord often function as a mirror to show up our sin, these statutes and decrees from God are good to follow and their ingredients produce a sense of sweetness in the soul of God’s people. Those who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” (Heb. 6:3) go on in life and relish the banquet set before them in the Bible. Now, it is true that not every serving of the Scriptures will be consistently experienced like the perfectly marinated and flame-grilled steak. An extremely enjoyable experience is far less important than the normal nourishment supplied by regular rations. What really matters is that the continual feeding on the meat of the Word is good for the soul. This process of digesting the Scriptures is behind the exhortation in Thomas Cranmer’s Homily on Scripture to “chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort, and consolation” of the Bible.
But when we read the Scriptures, I wonder if sometimes we find certain mouthfuls of the Word less palatable than others. For there are plenty of passages within Holy Scripture which run up against the grain of what passes for socially acceptable sentiments today. Christian teaching on money, marriage, men’s and women’s roles in church and family, frugality, sexual ethics, gluttony, the judgement of God upon sin, the uniqueness of Christ – these may be the tip of the iceberg. It may be worth asking whether we find the Bible’s teaching on these, and other things, sweet or sour? And it may be worth pondering why our spiritual tastebuds operate as they do. For some spiritual maturation may be required with some scriptural ingredients. This is why the Collect for the second Sunday of Advent assumes that reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Scriptures will be done through patience as we ever hold fast the joyful hope of eternal life. Our spiritual palate needs patience as it grows in piety.
Another question: is it possible to forget the medicinal quality of God’s Word It is unfortunate that modern prayers of corporate confession have dropped the Cranmerian phrase “there is no health in us”. For even those justified by faith alone in Christ alone need serious spiritual healing. We speak of sanctification today, and the old terms “mortification” (putting things to death) and “vivification” (bringing back to life) are the two concepts which concern its progression. And the Word of God, in conjunction with the operation of the Holy Spirit, is the chief medicine which brings us this spiritual progress. In other words, the Bible brings healing. And those who want more healing, want more Bible. Archbishop Cranmer once wrote that “to the reading of Scripture none can be an enemy, but only those either so sick that they love not to hear of any medicine, or else those so ignorant that they know not Scripture to be the most healthful medicine.”
I wonder why it is, then, that some contemporary evangelical church services seem like spiritual pharmacies running low on medicinal stock. There was a time, not long ago, when one could walk into almost any Anglican church in Sydney and receive a hearty dose of this Scriptural medicine. Bibles sat in pews, eagerly waiting to be opened. The service would start with a sentence from God’s Word, and peppered throughout the service would be a variety of verses and forms of words which resonated with biblical themes and ideas. Throughout the service, the Word was preached, the Word was prayed, the Word was sung, and the Word was tasted at the Lord’s Table. A banquet of the written Word would be plated up during the service, with various courses which included responsorial readings of the Psalms, and lessons from Gospels and other places from both Testaments. Commonly, after the lessons, the reader concluded with the phrase “This is the Word of the Lord”. And the congregation instinctively knew the reply: “Thanks be to God!”
Personally, I am grateful to attend a church which is Word-centric in this way. But what might it say about one’s theological convictions when an entire church service revolves around a sermon which is based upon an often singular, and frequently short, biblical reading which briefly appears before a lengthy homily? Have we forgotten the medicinal qualities of God’s Word? Have we slipped into largely passive and spectacle-oriented services requiring a mediatorial class of preachers to interpret the shrouded Scriptures and mediate God’s grace to us? I suspect that we are not so unreformed in our deepest convictions, and I suppose that we simply love a good sermon and a good few songs. But it may be worth asking what our love is also like for the marvellous medicine of God’s wonderful Word. Perhaps it could be good to ponder whether we have unwittingly wound down the dosage of the very medicine of the Word which we wish women and men would receive! Would there be a hearty helping of the Word of God if, for whatever reason, the preacher was unable to expound a sermon in church one week?
Is it thus, also possible to forget the usefulness of God’s Word? “All Scripture”, the Apostle Paul reminded Timothy, “is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The very fact that Paul had to remind Timothy (remember, of course, that he had known the Holy Scriptures from his infancy) about this fact, is instructive to us. We are forgetful people – which is the very reason why God so often commands his people throughout history to remember important things! But here is something else to note from this verse: Paul does not say that the sermons are God-breathed and useful for all these, he says that the Scriptures are. Little wonder then, that he also told Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13).
Christians have sometimes used the term “lessons” to describe the Bible readings in church services, and I think there is some value in reflecting on that. We believe in the clarity of the Bible and so a free-standing reading of Holy Scripture is to be considered a lesson from the Lord. It requires no interpreter except God himself. It is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Thus, what might it say about our theological convictions if we could not countenance the possibility of having an additional Bible reading in our service which was not expounded by a preacher? There may be some (probably not very many) reasons why this may not be preferable in some service settings. And there may be some change management involved with the introduction of such an endeavour. But it is worth interrogating our theological convictions on this point. Why would we not want to explore the benefits of unleashing more of God’s useful word upon the life of our congregations? It is, as the great Anglican Reformer Bishop John Jewel says, “the bright sun of God which brings light into our ways, and comfort to all parts of our life, and salvation to our souls; in which is made known to us our estate, and the mercy of God in Christ our Redeemer witnessed.”
Lastly, is it possible to forget the missional nature of God’s Word? “My word that goes out from my mouth”, declares the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, “will not return to me empty” (Is. 55:11). Just as the Son of God called his apostles to follow him, so too has he called us out of darkness and into his glorious light. And not only does the powerful proclamation of the gospel message have this wonderful effect but let us remember that the Holy Scriptures themselves were written so that we might believe and have life in the name of Christ (Jn. 20:30-31). This is why Article VI of the 39 Articles says that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation”. Or consider how Anglican theologian Richard Hooker put it: “The end of the word of God is to save, and therefore we term it the word of life.” And we could point to numerous other examples of this powerful and saving effect of the Scriptures: from St. Augustine, to Martin Luther, to Little Bilney, to John Wesley, to the teenage son of my friend, and probably to very many of our own spiritual stories too. The Scriptures summon men and women to salvation!
Thankfully, many of our great evangelistic courses have the missional nature of God’s Word embedded into them. And much of our interpersonal evangelism and one-on-one Bible reading ministries appreciate this vital point also. I wonder what other opportunities we have to wield this mighty spiritual weapon of the Scriptures. Could we invest some time to train and equip our church Bible readers to further realise the potency of the sword of the Scriptures (Heb. 4:12)? Could the post-COVID reintroduction of the pew Bible be a good move in a missional direction? I’m sure the good old Gideons are glad for this sort of thing. And isn’t the salvation of a single soul worth it? Perhaps a simple and open-ended staff or parish council discussion about the missional nature of the Scriptures would be profitable in ways which might be surprising. Let those creative juices flow, remembering that at the end of the day, what matters more than specific ideas is the general ideology that grasps the missional nature of the Word of God.
Friends, what a gift we have in the Bible. This is the good word of the Lord. It is sweet, medicinal, useful, and missional. Heartily, we say, thanks be to God! Indeed, much more could – and probably should – be said in praise of the written Word of God. In our Bibles can be seen the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings; the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world. In our Bibles is a paradise overflowing with delight which no tongue can fully express nor heart entirely enjoy. In our Bibles is a strange world inhabited by wisdom, knowledge, power, judgements, mercy, and the magnificence of Almighty God. It is an orchestra with innumerable instruments and heavenly harmonies, a school with unfathomable limits of learning, and a treasure chest brimming with bright jewels and rich bounty. Wherever we look we appreciate anew his mighty acts of salvation through judgement, and whatever we hear whispers the Name that is above every name. Indeed, in Christ, all Scripture holds together such that when we hold Scripture, we behold Him. That great lover of Scripture, William Tyndale, put it well:
The Scripture is that wherewith God draweth us unto him. The Scriptures sprang out of God, and flow unto Christ, and were given to lead us to Christ. Thou must therefore go along by the Scriptures as by a line, until thou come at Christ, which is the way’s end and resting-place.