Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a day of teaching with Dr. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. of Asbury Seminary. Dr. Mulholland’s book Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation (Upper Room 2001) is a defining text for me; one of the ten most important books that I have ever read. His distinction between the “informational” use of Scripture – how it fills our heads with divine truth to be pondered – and the “formational” use of Scripture – how it fill our hearts with the spiritual power that we need for our transformation – has become one of the normative categories that I now use in how I personally approach and vocationally apply the Bible.
In the Reformed spiritual tradition (which is our most natural spiritual habitat as Disciples) it was not uncommon for ministers to put the letters “V.D.M.” after their names. F.F. Bruce explained these three letters – “No letters indicating academic achievement or public honor can match in dignity the letters ‘V.D.M.’ applied to the pastor’s name on some Reformed churches – ‘Verbi Divini Minister’ – ‘Servant of the Word of God.’” And that’s all I have ever tried to be; it’s all I have ever aspired to be. My personal mission statement concludes: “And when I am done, all I want said of me is – ‘We know God in Jesus Christ just a little bit better because he was here for a while’.” And I understand that the only way to do this – to help people become “just a little bit better acquainted with God in Jesus Christ” – is to lead them to the Scriptures; to be a “V.D.M.”
Recently John Piper wrote about how he as a preacher has been deliberately and necessarily “tethered” to the Word of God. This perfectly describes my own understanding of things.
By personal calling and Scripture, I am bound to the word of God and to the preaching of what the Bible says. There are few things that burden me more or refresh me more than saying what I see in the Bible. I love to see what God says in the Bible. I love to savor it. And I love to say it.
I believe with all my heart that this is the way God has appointed for me not to waste my life. His word is true. The Bible is the only completely true book in the world. It is inspired by God. Rightly understood and followed, it will lead us to everlasting joy with him. There is no greater book or greater truth.
…In honor of tethered preaching, I would like to suggest the difference I hear between preaching tethered to the word of God and preaching that ranges free and leans toward entertainment. The difference between an entertainment-oriented preacher and a Bible-oriented preacher is the manifest connection of the preacher’s words to the Bible as what authorizes what he says.
The entertainment-oriented preacher gives the impression that he is not tethered to an authoritative book in what he says. What he says doesn’t seem to be shaped and constrained by an authority outside himself. He gives the impression that what he says has significance for reasons other than that it manifestly expresses the meaning and significance of the Bible. So he seems untethered to objective authority.
The entertainment-oriented preacher seems to be at ease talking about many things that are not drawn out of the Bible. In his message, he seems to enjoy more talking about other things than what the Bible teaches. His words seem to have a self-standing worth as interesting or fun. They are entertaining. But they don’t give the impression that this man stands as the representative of God before God’s people to deliver God’s message.
The Bible-oriented preacher, on the other hand, does see himself that way—“I am God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.” He knows that the only way a man can dare to assume such a position is with a trembling sense of unworthy servanthood under the authority of the Bible. He knows that the only way he can deliver God’s message to God’s people is by rooting it in and saturating it with God’s own revelation in the Bible.
The Bible-oriented preacher wants the congregation to know that his words, if they have any abiding worth, are in accord with God’s words. He wants this to be obvious to them. That is part of his humility and his authority. Therefore, he constantly tries to show the people that his ideas are coming from the Bible. He is hesitant to go too far toward points that are not demonstrable from the Bible.
His stories and illustrations are constrained and reined in by his hesitancy to lead the consciousness of his hearers away from the sense that this message is based on and expressive of what the Bible says. A sense of submission to the Bible and a sense that the Bible alone has words of true and lasting significance for our people mark the Bible-oriented preacher, but not the entertainment-oriented preacher.
People leave the preaching of the Bible-oriented preacher with a sense that the Bible is supremely authoritative and important and wonderfully good news. They feel less entertained than struck at the greatness of God and the weighty power of his word.
Paul began his letter to the Romans with the declaration that he wasn’t “ashamed of the Gospel” because it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16). And while the Gospel and the Bible are not the same thing, it is the Bible that delivers the Gospel to us. As that children’s hymn we’ve all sung puts it so simply: “Jesus loves me this I know (that’s the Gospel), for the Bible tells me so (that’s the delivery system).” To get people into the Bible is to expose them to the “power” (“dunamis” is the Greek word for “power” here in this verse, and it’s also the root of our word “dynamite”) that can change them and their worlds fundamentally and irrevocably (that’s what the word “salvation” is talking about). An “informational” engagement with Scripture – discovering what it says and means – will have a “formational” consequence in the lives of those who “take up and read.” I believe that nothing I do as a preacher/teacher/pastor has the potential for making a bigger and more lasting difference for people than getting them into the Word.
In 1981 Leadership published an article by John Hesselink, a Reformed Theologian and Seminary President, about the power of the Word. I have kept a copy of it in the Bible I use for preaching and teaching ever since, and will often read it again before I get to Sunday morning to preach.
My missionary career in Japan began with less than two years of language school in Tokyo. I was then assigned to the large city of Fukuoka on the southwest island of Kyushu. My principal assignment was student evangelism, but soon I began to pick up other responsibilities.
One was the exciting but formidable task of teaching three Bible classes in the local prison, an equivalent of our state penitentiaries. I was asked to do this for a year by a veteran missionary who was about to leave on furlough. Only as I approached the first session in the fall did it begin to dawn on me that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. My predecessor had been born in Japan and knew well both the Japanese language and culture. I could barely carry on a simple conversation. I had a miniscule biblical and theological vocabulary in Japanese, and could not even give a simple testimony with any fluency. Yet I was going to conduct Bible classes in Japanese with three groups of prisoners, most of whom knew practically nothing about the gospel!
Moreover, two of these three groups were in the wing where the condemned prisoners were kept. “Condemned” means they had committed murder and were waiting for the day when a directive would come from Tokyo that they were to be executed.
Despite these well-founded fears and apprehensions, I kept going to the prison week after week. The excitement soon wore off and discouragement increased. The setting was grim: a small, dark, drab room in which eight to ten men in each group gathered, accompanied by an unsmiling armed guard who sat off in one corner.
As winter set in, the unheated rooms were even more depressing. More important, I became increasingly aware of my ineptitude in reading my meditations on Philippians, which a student assistant had translated for me. I had the feeling at times that nothing was getting through to these prisoners. The only bright spots were the singing of the men- especially in one class-and the friendliness of two men in one group. They had become Christians the previous year and exerted a wholesome influence on the others.
I never seriously considered quitting, but I began to long for the return of the senior missionary. 1 had no opportunity to get to know these men, for the guard quickly led them back to their cell blocks after each session; and all I could conclude from their expressionless faces was that I was against a stone wall.
One spring day, however, something unusual occurred. I noticed after one class two men were arguing with a guard. Suddenly he relented and I heard him say, daijobu (okay), and then three men approached me while the guard stood nearby. “Reverend Hesselink,” they began, “for several months now we have been studying God’s Word with you. You have told us that God loves even condemned prisoners like ourselves, and that Jesus died for our sins and will forgive us if we repent and believe in him. We do believe this. We also have read that we must be baptized and confess that we trust him as our Savior. Will you baptize us?”
Soon afterward the senior missionary returned; and shortly after that a number of condemned prisoners were executed-including my three brothers in Christ. My missionary friend was with them prior to their execution, and he told me they left this world with quiet assurance and the joyful anticipation of seeing their Savior face to face.
The lesson here is one we need to learn again and again. There is the temptation to believe that it is not so much the Word itself but our presentation of the Word that brings about conversion and new life in Christ. Without realizing it, we may subtly indulge in a form of an old heresy called synergism. That is, in reality we believe God’s Word and Spirit alone are not sufficient; much also depends on the effectiveness of our witness. I don’t care how high a view of the Word of God you may have; I submit that most, if not all, of us believe that for God’s Word to be effective, our competence is not unimportant.
Please don’t misunderstand. The reception of the gospel by both believers and unbelievers is greatly influenced by the credibility of the one who bears witness and the clarity of that witness. But where saving faith results, hopefully, we can conclude with Luther, “The Word did it.”
To paraphrase Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might, nor by power”-nor, I would add, by our eloquence or cleverness or charm-“but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” We are mere servants and stewards of the mysteries of God (I Corinthians 4:1). We can plant and water, but it is ultimately God who makes possible the harvest.
Recently I was asked by someone in a Sunday school class after leading them in a lively conversation about the meaning and relevance of the New Testament book of Revelation to the church today if I thought that I was “successful” in what I was do as a minister. I’m pretty sure that what the person who asked the question wanted to hear was a report about my “statistical good works” – “How many?” “How much?” “How big?” Instead I pointed to what had just taken place, a roomful of adults gathered around an ancient text talking about what it says and why it matters, and I explained that this is what I am called to do as a “V.D.M.” – a Servant of the Word of God.” It’s my job to help get you into the Word, because when that happens, something else happens that I want to write about next week… DBS+