Category Archives: Bible

“Plain Reading” = Misleading

There’s a tendency in theological debate for people to appeal to the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture as some sort of trump card.

“This is the plain reading…”

“Oh if that’s the case, then it’s settled then.”


Appealing to the plain reading very rarely settles anything. You end up having a debate about what exactly this ‘plain reading’ might be, as both sides want to claim that honour for their own point-of-view.

My suggestion: let’s abandon this whole method of argumentation altogether. Why should the ‘plain reading’ be the right reading or even the better reading?

In fact, what does the ‘plain reading’ refer to anyway?

Is the ‘plain reading’ the reading that deals only with the surface meaning of the text, without taking into account genre or literary devices or historical, cultural, linguistic factors or authorial intent? If that’s the case, then almost no Christian I know would argue that the plain reading is the best reading.

But if the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture is the reading that accounts for the complexity of genre, translation, background etc., then what purpose does it serve when we label it as the plain reading? Why use the term at all? Why not argue for the ‘best reading’, or the reading that makes most historical, linguistic and contextual sense?

Indeed, to use the ‘plain reading’ argument is, in my mind, just a way bullying the other person to accept your  position without actually having to defend your case. In other words, it’s an exercise of power. “This is the plain reading…” is not a neutral statement. It carries with it the assumption that the ‘less-plain’ reading is  automatically the wrong reading, and that somehow simplicity is self-authenticating. Where does this assumption come from? Is it actually true? Has the assumption itself been tested? (And if it has been tested and found to be true, I doubt that the test itself would be very simple.)

So I reckon let’s quit appealing to ‘plain readings’. It’s lazy argumentation and is a roundabout way of exercising power. By all means put your reading out there as the better reading but be prepared to defend it. Whether it’s the ‘plain reading’ or not shouldn’t matter.


Punishment, Discipline and Grace

Thinking aloud here:

  • Discipline is different to punishment.
  • The goal of discipline is restoration and growth; the goal of punishment is retributive justice.
  • Therefore discipline, when exercised correctly, is always in the context of grace, regardless of how harsh it may appear to be.
  • It is grace because restoration of relationship is always the goal. Justice does not and can not take into account relationship, or it would not be just.
  • Discipline stops when a person is restored. Punishment only stops when justice has been served.
  • The God-given role of government is primarily that of retributive justice (and therefore ‘punishment’). There may be disciplinary and restorative elements built into a compassionate legal system, but justice must be its primary function. Cf. Romans 13:4.
  • God’s stance over his children is always grace, and therefore he does not punish us for the sins that Jesus has already paid for but disciplines us for our good. This is not in opposition to grace, but because of his grace. If God were to punish us, then there would be no possibility of restoration and he would simply ‘give us over’ to our sins and let us suffer their consequences (cf. Romans 1:18-32).
  • Part of God’s discipline for us may be for us bear the legal ramifications (i.e. punishment) of our actions (e.g. when we commit a crime), but as far as God is concerned, he is exercising grace in his relationship toward us, because he is seeking our repentance, restoration, and growth.
  • Church discipline and parental discipline are mirrored on God’s discipline. We don’t punish our church members or our children for the sake of justice, we discipline them out of love. This is grace. Cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
  • To ask: ‘How do I show grace in discipline?’ is the wrong question. To discipline is to show grace. Seeking a person’s restoration after an offence is always more than that person deserves.
  • Therefore parents and church leaders need to remember that the same hand that deals discipline is also simultaneously dealing grace. They are not in opposition to one another; and you do not undermine discipline by showing grace, nor undermine grace by exercising discipline.

Roadblocks to Discernment

Have you ever found it difficult to discern the truth of a matter, especially when it’s a biblical or theological issue that tends to polarise people? Well I frequently find that to be the case.

Here are some quick thoughts on what sort of things get get in the way of me actually properly weighing up and discerning the truth of a matter. These are some of the common roadblocks to discernment that I suffer from:

  1. Assume that everyone else is biased except you.
  2. Don’t actually read the arguments of an opposing view but only as they are represented by those with whom you agree.
  3. Take the opposing view to its most extreme and unhelpful logical conclusion and dismiss it on the basis of that.
  4. Find caricatured examples of people who hold the opposing view and reject that.
  5. Take on the weakest arguments and knock down those ones while ignoring the significant (and often more recent) contributions to the debate.
  6. Get your information from the blogosphere and assume that if it’s blogged about or in Wikipedia, it must be true.

And in light of the last point, maybe you should stop reading this.

Jesus and M&Ms

(This post is adapted from an evangelistic sermon I preached at last week’s UTS mission, “MORE”)

I really love this little tucked-away story in Luke chapter 10:

Luke 10:38–42  As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”’

Every time I read this passage to someone and ask them who they identify with the most out of the two sisters, almost invariably they say, ‘Martha!’

It’s true isn’t it? I identify with Martha. I feel her frustration. After all, this is her home and she is playing host. Jesus has come to be their guest. She, like me, belongs to a ‘face culture’. Your welcome as a host is found in the kind of meal you prepare for your guest.

And like Martha, who hasn’t felt frustrated at the sibling or friend who isn’t pulling their weight? Or you may remember the group assignments at uni where you’re the only one who’s towing yours and everyone else’s workload. You remember those road trips where you’ve done all the planning and itinerary, and the rest of the group just has fun and complains when things go wrong.

Martha was feeling unappreciated, frustrated, angry… but who hasn’t been in her shoes?

And yet, it’s not Martha who’s commended by Jesus but Mary. Why?

Well, did you notice what’s behind Martha’s fretfulness? Jesus says ‘You are are worried and upset about many things.’ He’s hit the nail on the head. Her problem wasn’t with Mary, it wasn’t with playing host, it was within herself. It was her reasons for being so busy that were causing her to worry and grumble. And what was her reason for working so hard? Simple: she thought that in order to please Jesus she had to perform. She thought that in order to be a good follower, she had to work for his approval. And that’s exactly the problem.

Jesus turns the tables on Martha. He says to her, “Look, you don’t have to be worried about many things. These many things that you’re doing that you think would make me approve of you and be pleased with you are completely unnecessary. There’s only one thing that’s necessary, and it’s what Mary has chosen! Look at her!”

Do you see what Mary was doing? Mary, unlike Martha, understood that you didn’t have to perform to please Jesus. You didn’t have to work for his approval. She knew that when you’re Jesus’ follower, you’re already infinitely accepted, infinitely loved, infinitely approved. In fact, Jesus was on his way (v. 38) to the cross in order to secure that eternal acceptance, love and approval. Jesus doesn’t want us to serve him in order to please him. He came to serve us so that we would please him for all eternity.

Martha didn’t understand that, but Mary did. And because Mary did, she wasn’t there to work for Jesus, she was there to enjoy Jesus.

What about you? In your daily walk with Christ, is he the distant Lord you are afraid of letting down, obliged to serve, hoping to please? Or is he your intimate, your friend, your security and do you know that through his perfect sacrifice you are already completely accepted and utterly beloved?

Get this, and it will change your prayer life. Get this, and you will be closer to the kind of true worship the Father delights in.

What I’ve Learnt Along The Way About Discernment (re: Charismatic Stuff)

As I’m getting into more and more conversations with younger people – many of whom are wonderfully passionate about Jesus in their lives, almost all of whom will be the next generation of leadership in our churches and in our city – the one thing that holds my heart suspended in my chest in many of these conversations is my fear that they can be dangerously undiscerning. In seeking deeper, richer, more intimate, more vibrant experiences with God – all of which I am enthusiastic about – I fear, however, that a lot of the foundations are being neglected, or even at times deliberately set aside in reaction against a perceived drier, older orthodoxy.

I plead with those who are on that road, please, please, please: be discerning. Have your Bibles open. Have your leaders be your sounding boards. And remember this advice I helpfully got from my mate Mikey Lynch (head AFES dude in Tassie): ‘What you learnt from those who taught you the gospel is most likely still right.’ (That was an inadequate paraphrase. What he meant was: don’t go too far from your foundations. What seems new and exciting is probably not right. What is closer to the old and solid stuff that led you to Christ is most likely still correct.)

So what does discernment look like?

I preached a sermon about a year ago that was my attempt at giving the young adults of my former congregation at Chinese Christian Church Milson’s Point the fruit of my journey. As some would know, I dipped into a bit of Charismatic teaching over the past few years, being as sympathetic and willing to learn and be changed as I could. And while I would still put myself somewhere around the John Piper mark when it comes to my view of Charismatic things, I have learnt a heck of a lot in the past few years, mostly about what it means to be discerning of something that can be so good, and (I still believe) a genuine work of God, and yet not be without some very significant problems.

I thought about blogging the main arguments of my sermon in a few posts, but being short on time (and basically lazy), I thought the sermon on its own to listen to is probably still the best way of accessing what I had to say.

It’s not definitive. It’s not going to be entirely correct. Be discerning about that too! But I hope it’s helpful. You can find it here.

Please Don’t Talk About Heaven!

It’s pretty clear from Scripture that our final hope as God’s people isn’t for a disembodied existence in ‘heaven’ but for a bodily and a resurrected future in a new creation. We are not Platonists, who value the spiritual over the material. Neither are we escapists, who see that our ultimate destination is an escape from earth to go to heaven. Rather, the Bible is clear that in the end, it is heaven that will come down to earth and renew the entire cosmos as that final home which God has prepared for those who love him (Rev. 21-22).

Now most thoughtful Christians I know believe that. And yet, I still find so many use slippery language when speaking about this future. What do I mean? Well, many of those who believe in a resurrected renewed creation still use the term ‘heaven’ to describe that final state. And when I’ve tried to encourage a more precise use of terminology, I’ve been told things like: “Of course when I use the word ‘heaven’, I don’t mean a disembodied existence in the clouds; I mean the new creation. We mean the same thing, so don’t get too hung up on the terms.”

Well, call it a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, but I think in this instance terminology does matter. I reckon it matters a lot when we use the term ‘heaven’ to mean ‘new creation’, and here are a few reasons why:

1. The Bible doesn’t ever use ‘heaven’ to mean our final hope as believers. Certainly there are different ways in which the term ‘heaven’ is used. It can just mean ‘sky’. It can also be a merismus when used with ‘earth’ (i.e. ‘the heavens and the earth’ – Gen. 1:1) to mean the totality of the created order. It’s also used to mean the spiritual abode of God who reigns in and from heaven (Psalm 2:4). And finally, it’s also used as shorthand for the new world order that God has established (hence ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – Matt. 3:2). However, when the Scriptures speak of the new creation, ‘heaven’ isn’t the term used, ever.

When we use a Biblical term like ‘heaven’ but add to its meaning (i.e. ‘new creation’ or ‘final salvation’), it invariably affects our exegesis. A clear example is when Jesus speaks about ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ (Matt. 6:20). Because we think that ‘heaven’ here means ‘the place you go when you die’, we think Jesus is speaking about storing up wealth for when we get to the new creation. But I don’t think that’s at all what Jesus meant. I think he meant ‘heaven’ more in terms of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, and since the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s new world order that has already broken into the present by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is actually talking about treasure in the here and now, not the future. Now what I actually think that means I’ll save for another post, but you can see how easy it is to read unbiblical meanings into a Biblical word just by the way we use a Biblical word in unbiblical ways.

2. Who says words don’t matter? Frankly, words and terms matter a lot, especially for those who might hold to a high doctrine of inspiration! I find it a little ironic that some of the very people who value the words of the Bible enough to go and spend three or four years studying Greek and Hebrew are a tad blase about the use of words in this instance!

The truth of the matter is, words and their meanings do matter. When a word is used enough to mean something it doesn’t mean, over time, the meaning of the word changes. Take for instance, the adjective ‘terrific’. Most people today would say it’s a positive term (and I used it in this way in a recent sermon), but its original meaning would be quite the opposite. In fact, ‘terrific’ and ‘terrifying’ were more or less synonyms once upon a time (as were ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’). Word usage matters. Meanings change.

Now of course many a postmodern would delight in such changes. “Ah the slipperiness of language triumphs again,” the closet Derridean extols! Sure, with words like ‘terrific’, ‘cool’, ‘sick’ etc. I’m not really fussed about. But Biblical words? I dunno about you, but I’d like to think that precision matters a lot in cases like this.

3. You can’t use the term ‘heaven’ without carrying the notion of escapism. Even if you mean ‘new creation’ by the term, the very nature of the word ‘heaven’ is that it has a counter-term: ‘earth’. And since we’re on earth and we are looking forward to ‘heaven’, we necessarily speak of ‘going to heaven’. It’s a going… a going away… a getting out of earth. Sure you may not mean that, but you can’t help but imply it.

When, however, you use ‘new creation’, the ball-game changes. It’s a tad unnatural to speak of ‘going to the new creation’. It’s more natural to speak of ‘waiting for the new creation’, or ‘being a part of the new creation’. Where’s the escapism in that?

4. ‘Heaven’ is already a commonly used term in our culture, and it already carries with it many wrong notions that (even in Christian circles) are Platonic and escapist. So when we use a term like ‘heaven’, even though we might mean ‘new creation’, people hear ‘sitting in the clouds playing harps’. We’re not helping anyone by using this term when there’s a perfectly wonderful Biblical alternative like ‘new creation’. That terminology hasn’t been overused and I believe it will implant the correct Biblical notions in people’s minds.

5. Sometimes I find myself using the terminology of ‘going to heaven’ just out of sheer laziness. Quite frankly it’s much easier to speak about salvation in those terms, especially to kids and teenagers. I find myself thinking: “I just want them to understand salvation. I don’t really want to complicate things at this point.” And as a consequence it’s just quicker and easier finding common ground and using the term ‘heaven’ to mean our final salvation.

Probably many of you resonate with this (what I call ‘laziness’ – ‘coz let’s be honest, it is!). However, let’s think about what’s lost as well as what may be gained. What we’ve done is this: right at the beginning of a person’s spiritual understanding we’ve plant a skewed concept of salvation that will invariably affect them down the track. Who says that a Platonic, spiritual over material, escapist eschatology doesn’t matter? Aren’t we, in all sorts of ways, paying the price right now for this sort of laziness by having to go back and explain to people, ‘Ah well, no, salvation isn’t quite what you think it was. It’s not just about your soul, or just about going to heaven, or even just about YOU… it’s about the whole creation…” Wouldn’t it be better for our new Christians, children and youth to understand all this right from the outset?

(It just occurred to me that this may be the same reason why in our gospel presentations we often gloss over the resurrection of Jesus. Mmm… perhaps more food for thought?)

So please, stop using ‘heaven’ when you mean ‘new creation’. Use ‘new creation’ instead. With my kids, I talk about ‘God’s new world’ or ‘when Jesus comes back and makes everything new’. You may have better terms for kids and teenagers. If you do, I’d love to pinch them. But whatever you do, please, don’t mince your words. Don’t talk about heaven.

Why I (sort of, but not really) believe in TITHING

When it comes to tithing and Christians, I think (off the top of my head) there are three common views:

  1. Tithing (giving 10%) applies as much to new covenant believers as it does to old covenant believers. Christians are to give one tenth of their (ideally gross) income as offering.
  2. Tithing is an old covenant command that does not apply at all to new covenant believers. Christians are not commanded to tithe but to give generously.
  3. Tithing is an old covenant command but still has ‘guideline’ relevance to new covenant believers. Christians can use 10% of their income as a minimum guideline and give generously on top of that.

What’s my view? Well, as the title suggests, I sort of believe in tithing, but not really. In essence, I don’t subscribe to any of the above views as I think the Biblical picture is more nuanced than any of them.

So this is what I’ve gleaned so far from the Bible’s teaching on tithing:

  1. When you remember the context of the old covenant, you will see that the ‘tithes’ applied to Israel in terms of land and produce, not cash and money. Furthermore, it operated as a taxation system as well as social welfare.
  2. It is a mistake to think that giving one tenth of income was a ‘flat absolute’ even in the old covenant. If you look at the Biblical material, you’ll find that at least two (some argue three) different ‘tithes’ existed: (i) The Levitical tithe, in order to support the Levites who served God full time and didn’t have their own land and ability to produce. Lev. 27:30. (ii) The Festival tithe, in order that the Israelites may celebrate in the presence of the LORD every year. This tithe was on top of the tenth that were given to the Levites. Deut. 14:22-27.
  3. In addition to these two tithes, the Levites themselves were to ‘tithe’ as an offering to the LORD (Num. 18:21-32). And every third year, the ‘Festival’ tithe was to be stored in their own towns in order to bless the poor, the widows and the Levites who live among them (Deut. 14:28-29 – some would say that this is the ‘third tithe’, though my reading is that it’s a variation of the second tithe). I’m not sure how the numbers got crunched, but I’ve read that something more like 23.3% of their income was ‘tithed’, rather than 10%.
  4. The tithe in the old covenant existed in the midst of general commands to generosity (Lev. 19:9-10) and the various kinds of cultic and freewill offerings (Lev. 1-7). In short, it seemed like the LORD was more interested in establishing an open-handed ‘giving culture’ than to give a hard-and-fast rule about how much to give.
  5. There is no evidence that the poor, sojourners, widows, servants or those who didn’t own land were ever required to tithe in the Old Testament. The exception, as already mentioned, was Levites and priests who themselves received tithes but were also commanded to tithe back to God (Num. 18:21-32).
  6. The tithe existed before the Mosaic Law as something of a cultural norm for giving. Thus Abraham ‘tithed’ when he gave to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17-20), and Jacob ‘tithed’ as well (Gen. 28:22).
  7. The New Testament only speaks about tithing eight times and never as a command in relation to giving. Five of the eight times tithing is mentioned is in Hebrews 7, and that had nothing to do with commands about generosity or giving; it had to do with Jesus as our High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. The other three times are in the gospels (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42; Luke 18:12). In those passages Jesus neither affirms or overturns tithing. He does, however, condemn the Pharisees who were known to tithe, but do so hypocritically. When it comes to giving in the New Testament, the encouragement is towards open-handed generosity (2 Cor. 8-9) and thoughtful and disciplined giving (1 Cor. 16:2).
So what does that mean for us?
  1. It is a mistake to think that tithing exists either for old covenant or new covenant believers as an absolute standard for giving. So to ask the question: ‘Does the Bible require us to give 10% of our income?’  is the wrong question.
  2. The ‘tithe’ for Christians can perhaps function as a guideline in multiple kinds of giving. It’s more in answer to the question: ‘When I give (and whenever I give), how much should I think about giving?’ For new covenant believers, the 10% is there as a way in which we can think about the various kinds of giving that we are encouraged to do. For Christians it’s not meant to be law but a principle of realising your desire to be generous because God has been generous to you.
  3. You might be thinking, well, isn’t that just view (3) outlined at the beginning? i.e. the tithe is an old covenant command but a new covenant guideline. Well no, not exactly. How I differ from view (3) is that I reckon tithing is not a ‘flat’ guideline for how much to give of our total income but a ‘dynamic’ guideline for giving on lots and lots of occasions. Christians are commanded to be generous, particularly to the poor. We should be moved to give in lots of different ways: money, time, energy, resources; both in ‘planned’ giving and ‘spontaneous’ giving. Where tithing can be a guideline is when a Christian wants to give on any of these occasions and doesn’t know how much to give, 10% is a good start to consider giving.
  4. The net result is that Christians should be giving in lots of different ways and be giving significant amounts of whatever they are receiving from God. The ‘tithe’ is just one way Christians can use to think about how much each ‘gift’ might equate to.
  5. Therefore the wrong way to use ‘tithing’ is to look at your total income (gross or net), draw that 10% line, give, and keep the 90% for yourself. The right way is to give lots of ‘tithes’: yes 10% of your pay, but also 10% of your time, and 10% of the wedding presents and birthday gifts, and 10% of your Christmas bonuses, and indeed, just lots and lots of 10%s! But then, why be limited by 10%? The ‘spirit’ of the law is to give open-handedly and generously. 10% is merely a way to ensure that our giving is significant, costly, and reflects 100% of our lives which should be dedicated to God.

The Gospel Drives Application

This is a continuation of a series on application. The first post and linked headings can be found here.

This is the last ‘theological plank’ that needs to shape the way we apply the Scriptures to those we teach. Again, not too much needs to be said here. If we are to take the entire Bible seriously and follow God’s progressive revelation from Genesis to Revelation, then there is no other conclusion that we can reach except that the good news about Jesus as the Christ who died and rose again is at the centre of God’s plans for the cosmos (2 Corinthians 1:20; 1 Peter 1:12).

If this is the case, then all Biblical teaching, including application, must be driven by the gospel and driven to the gospel. Here are a few ways we can see this in light of my previous posts:

  • The gospel is God’s Word for today. When we preach the gospel we are delivering the most relevant word for all people everywhere.
  • The gospel is the power to change. Only the gospel brings new birth and therefore only the gospel provides possibility for transformation. Furthermore, it is the gospel that motivates those who are born again to change.
  • The gospel presents an integrated worldview, a redeemed culture, a new family, and new individuals. If we are to apply the Scriptures over and against fallen and rebellious human worldviews, culture, families and individuals, then it is the gospel that offers the glorious alternative.
  • The gospel deals with our liberalism and legalism. It deals with liberalism in that the gospel doesn’t ‘let up’ on God’s holiness and our sinfulness and yet graciously meets our needs by standing in the gap between his holiness and our fallenness. It deals with legalism in that the gospel is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and not by our works, merits or power.
  • Preaching the glory of Christ in the gospel is the only way to replace idols.

God’s Word Will Meet With Resistance At All Levels

This is part four of my post on applying the Word of God. For the first post and linked headings, go here.

Having seen how God’s Word needs to impact us at all levels, it’s now appropriate to look at the next related theological truth that we need to keep in mind regarding application.

c. Human Sinfulness Will Resist God’s Word

The ‘flesh’ doesn’t give up easily. When God’s Word and Spirit comes to convict the world and ourselves of sin, judgement and righteousness, it meets with resistance. Romans 8:7 puts it starkly: ‘the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.’ And although the hearts and minds of our listeners may be regenerated, it’s clear that until the new creation, our flesh still co-resides with the Spirit and a battle happens every time the Spirit attempts to gain the upper ground (Galatians 5:17).

How does this affect what we do with application?

i. Anticipate Objections

Firstly, we must expect opposition at all the levels that God’s Word speaks against: whether worldview, culture, family or individuals. There is no truth that God’s Word states that isn’t going to be met with some opposition at some or even all of these levels.

This means that in our preaching and teaching we must anticipate and answer objections. In our preparation and teaching we must keep asking: ‘How will each level of human sinfulness (i.e. worldview, cultural, family, self) try to side-line or reject this Word?’ We can never just state a truth and expect a smooth passage from the hearers’ minds into their hearts and wills. Good teaching will answer their objections in order to break down these walls of resistance. This is something that apparently the Puritans did very well. Their sermons constantly answered anticipated objections in the hearts and minds of their hearers.

ii. Anticipate How The Word is Minimised

Secondly, we will do well to understand the ways in which the individual person will try and resist the Word, because it’s rarely going to be a simple outright rejection. In fact, the more ‘religious’ we are, the more sophisticated we also become at minimising or sidelining the Word.

In the last post, I dealt with the human person at three levels: mind, affections and will. It’s helpful to see how each of these levels will try and offer resistance to God’s Word. And here’s the thing: even if the Word does trickle down from one level to another, the flesh will try and ‘stall it’ at that level and not allow it to penetrate thoroughly.

So firstly our minds will resist the Word. The initial objections to God’s truth will often come at the level of enlightenment. Only when are minds are renewed (Romans 12:1-2) can there be true transformation.

But then once the Word is understood what we’ll try and do is to keep it ‘stalled’ or locked up in our minds so that it stays there. How many of us are religiously enlightened but only have the Word remain ‘head-knowledge’? Our hearts will try to prevent deep transformation at the level of our affections and will.

However, even when the Word does get to the level of our affections – and perhaps we feel great emotion or remorse at what’s being said – we’ll again try to ‘lock it up’ at that level and not allow it to progress any further and actually change our wills. So we might feel strongly about our sin and want to repent and change, but it’s easy to then let it stop there instead of allowing God’s Word to go deeper and actually change our behaviour and patterns of living. We may even comfort ourselves that at least we felt strongly about the desire to change though it didn’t actually change the way we live.

Good Bible teaching that is strong on application and impact will recognise what’s likely to go on at all of these levels of the human self: mind, heart and will, and seek to anticipate and address these ways in which we will attempt to minimise God’s Word.

iii. Liberalism and Legalism

In the end, I reckon you can see the flesh’s opposition to God’s Word as coming in two familiar forms: Liberalism and Legalism.

Liberalism is when I try to discount the actual truth of God’s Word by either sidelining it or by massaging its pointedness or by outright rejecting it. It’s when we say to ourselves: ‘Did God really say…?’ ‘Does God really reject this or that way of living…?’ ‘Surely God can’t mean….?’

Legalism is when I accept God’s Word but I keep it on the surface rather than let it penetrate and transform me completely. The religious will always fall back to disciplines, routines, rules, traditions, and ultimately self-righteousness in order to dodge the Word as a Word against them. The legalist will keep the letter of the law but miss the spirit of the law. The legalist will be quick to point the finger at others and agree enthusiastically with the preacher that ‘others need to hear this’ while at the same time dodging how they themselves need to hear it as well. Legalism is resistance from the religious and is so prevalent in our churches.

Therefore if we fail to really apply God’s Word on a deep level and only ever go for behavioural changes rather than transformation at every level, what we’ll end up with is a church full of legalists who think everything is okay because they are ‘evangelising’ and ‘doing their quiet times’.

Speaking Against Sin At All Levels

This is the third part of my post on application. For the first post and linked headings, go here.

The next theological ‘plank’ that is relevant to the subject of application is this:

b. God’s Word speaks against human sinfulness at all levels

The Word of God doesn’t come in a vacuum. God’s revelation of himself and his works comes in the context of a rebellious and fallen world, and he therefore speaks in order to save and reconcile the entire cosmos to himself. The Holy Spirit’s work, according to Jesus in John 16:8, is to ‘convict the world in regard to sin, righteousness and judgement’. Therefore when we teach and preach the Word faithfully, we must see it as engaging, impacting and challenging our human rebellion at all levels. However, I reckon it’s the little qualifier ‘at all levels’ that we tend to miss when it comes to application.

When it comes to considering the scope of impact for God’s Word, we must widen it beyond the levels that we’re used to, or even just the areas in which our hearers are ‘itching’. If sin causes not only fracture and fallenness in humanity but  also our culture, our environment and our world (Romans 8:20-22), then God’s Word must be brought to bear on all of these levels. So here’s where I reckon our application must hit:

(i) Worldviews

The Bible is more than a random collection of tales, historial narratives and morals. The Bible is a coherent worldview that answers questions such as: What is ultimate reality? Who are we as human beings? What is our meaning and purpose? Where are we going? How does this affect the way we live?

Therefore when we read and teach the Bible, we must point out the levels in which its worldview will clash with our worldviews, whether our worldviews be nihilistic or naturalistic or new age or postmodern.

(ii) Cultures

A culture is a set of shared norms and meanings for a group of people. It can be based on nationality, ethnicity, socio-economics, or even hobbies and careers. We belong to many different cultures and sub-cultures as human beings. It’s how we derive meaning and significance in this world.

The Bible doesn’t create a single ‘mono-culture’ (e.g. Christendom). The picture in Revelation 7 is that many people from different cultures and languages are united around the throne of God. However, though the Bible doesn’t advocate one culture above others, it does critique every human culture at some point, because all human culture since the Fall has its idols and blindspots. And the plan of God is to one day sanctify many diverse cultures so that they are enhanced and purified for his glory.

How often do we, in our teaching of the Bible, see how the Word impacts our cultures and sub-cultures? How often do we critique our own cultural blindspots and idols as well as those of other cultures and sub-cultures? To bring it home a little more, it’s asking questions such as: ‘What God have to say about our Western individualism? Our greed and materialism? Our hedonism?’ Or alternatively: ‘What does God have to say about the Eastern love of ‘face’? The value it places on family honour? Its unconditional piety to parents?’

(iii) Families

In many ways, your family is your little ‘sub-culture’. And yet because it’s a sub-culture that we are situated in from birth, it’s one in which the assumptions and ‘idols’ tend are least reflected upon.

The Word of God will speak against human sinfulness on this level as well. For so many people (and especially those from Asian cultures), our families are our biggest blindspots. What we assume is normal and right may not be right at all when measured against the standard of God’s Word – e.g. the role of a father or mother in the home; the expectation of children; when children are considered as ‘adults’ and what that looks like; the appropriate expression of love and affection in the home, etc.

(iv) Individuals

And of course, the Word of God will address us as individuals as well. But here, it is helpful to see at what levels the individual should be addressed, for we know that sin affects us from the inside out. Therefore the Word’s impact on a person should, at the very least, be targeted at these three levels:




I’ve heard it said: ‘What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.’ God’s Word addresses sinfulness in the way we think, in what we feel and desire, and in our choices. Application so often just aims for the ‘will’ – i.e. ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’. But what that does (as we’ll see in the next post) is it leads to legalism and ultimately powerlessness to change. Effective teaching of God’s Word will see the person as an interaction of mind, affections and will and aim not only for the ‘dos and don’ts’ but for the thoughts, attitudes and desires.