Not Empty Words

For [the Law of Moses] is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

There are many types of literature that I pass by when I go to a bookstore. I care little for romance novels or science fiction; I have little interest in cooking (my interest is just in the eating!) so cookbooks and nutrition guides are easy to ignore. My real interest is in the ideas that drive us to do what we do, so I peruse books on philosophy and theology and classic literary stories. The rest are just empty words.

Many people today view the Bible as a large book of empty words. The stories coming from ancient times don’t seem to have any relevance to their lives today, and they can’t imagine how a 2000—4000 year old book could be relevant in an age of such advanced technology. Sadly I am talking about people who claim to be Christians.

Biblical theology claims that the God that created us has revealed Himself to mankind. He has not left us to wonder if He exists or what His will is; the Bible asserts forthrightly that its words are the very Words of God. (There are some who choose not to believe that the Bible is God’s Word, but there is no question that the claim to authority is made in the text.) To read those claims for oneself, a person merely needs to turn to the end of the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy and read into the first few verses of chapter four. Jesus Himself told us that the words of Scripture will never pass away (Matt 5:18).

If, as Biblical theology also claims, the realm of this God is our everlasting destination, and this space-time existence is only temporary, it seems logical to figure out how He has communicated to men through the ages and what He has said to them. For all our advanced technology, after all, we are still just created people — even as they were in every other age. We must also understand that the Bible’s 66 books claim to be the complete revelation (Heb. 1:1—2:4); don’t be fooled by the claims of some that God added an addendum (see Gal. 1:6-9).

This understanding is the rationale for Moses’ statement that the Law God gave him was not an “empty word, but [our] very life” (Deut 32:47). It is relevant to us today, just as it was when it was written, even though we have to filter the ideas through our changed culture. An initial reading may take us through parts that are difficult to understand (we might even describe them as “boring”), but with some understanding of ancient cultures those difficulties can be overcome — by any normal adult. Some parts are understandable even to preschool children. We simply must begin with the understanding that these are not “empty words.”

Many years ago I decided for myself that if these are indeed the words of God, nothing is more important than for me to understand them, so I began to read the Bible cover to cover each year. No decision has had a more profound effect on my life than this one.

My Fundamental Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).

I had a rough week last week. I learned that I am diabetic. For all of my adult life I have been healthy and whole, generally speaking. My back surgery in high school limited some of my activities, but not significantly. A dozen or so years ago I learned I had high blood pressure, but that was attributable to some OTC sinus medications, which I have cut out. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but no one would consider me to be significantly overweight.

I was really shocked when my doctor informed me of my diabetes. In fact, I was in denial for a couple of days. I considered myself to be a healthy man that had an occasional illness. In fact, I haven’t even had a major cold or flu for a couple of years. How could I have this fundamental flaw in my body? Yet multiple tests confirmed the diagnosis. Instead of viewing myself as a healthy man with an occasional illness, I must now consider myself to be a flawed individual, seeking to control my symptoms.

Americans (in fact, all mankind) today face the same issue as I do — to view ourselves as fundamentally flawed rather than generally whole. Like me, the society is mostly in denial. How could we be the biggest and best, the richest and most technologically advanced, and have a basic flaw to our character? Yet, the evidence should convince us, like the additional tests did for me. Justice is what the vocal minority opines it to be rather than an objective standard in our society; we (taxpayers, that is) continue to fund the barbaric practices of the abortion rights lobby that would make Attila blush; and, contrary to the most basic natural knowledge, we have declared the legality of same sex marriage. Yet we go on believing that the problems in our society come from outside ourselves — we’re good, the environment is not.

Biblical Christianity is the only religious system that views mankind as basically sinful, instead of basically good. All others — even the pseudo-Christian groups — mask the evil in our hearts by suggesting that a certain combination of good works will overcome any moral deficiency in us.

Several years ago, after one of the school shootings in our society, I heard a local radio personality interview a mental health professional. As they deplored the violence the host asked his guest, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (echoing the book by the same title that was popular at the time). The underlying assumption was that we are good people, and that bad things happen to us from outside ourselves. Jesus was clear, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, ESV, emphasis added).

The Founding Fathers of our country lived in an era when the foundational tenets of the society were Biblical. A generation before the Revolution the Colonies experienced a religious event known to historians as The Great Awakening. The moral courage that was required for them to put at risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” came from the Great Awakening. (Do you think any of our current crop of politicians would put their lives and fortunes at risk? Most are there to make a fortune!) The writings of Washington, Adams, Madison and Jay are steeped in a Biblical worldview, a worldview in which they understood that the human heart is “desperately sick” as Jeremiah noted (above).

To this condition the Bible declares that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the answer. The Apostle Paul declared that “[that sacrifice] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Many have been tried, but no other solution will work.

I now recognize the fundamental flaw in my body, leading me to significant changes in my lifestyle. Assuming I get this under control, it may not affect me as it does some other people. But I can never look at a restaurant menu from the perspective of a healthy person again. Until and unless the people of our society change their perspective, the problems we face will continue to spin out of control, as surely as the blood sugar of us diabetics.

The Pursuit of Truth

O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent (Jeremiah 5:3, ESV).

These ancient words are profoundly contemporary.

We live in a world where expediency is more desired than truth. Americans (especially) have always had a pragmatic bent to them. We like to use phrases like “like a well-oiled machine,” “We’re clicking on all cylinders,” and “now we’re cooking with gas” to describe the aspects of our lives that are going well and progressing. When things aren’t going so well, we assume that the machinery is somehow wrong.

This mindset is wonderful for overcoming obstacles that are physical in nature — we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and figure out where the machinery is deficient. But not all problems are physical in nature; sometimes things don’t go well because we have failed to pursue the truth that the Lord is trying to communicate to us. He is — at least according to Christian orthodoxy — continually revealing His will to men.

Such was the case in Jeremiah’s day. God brought judgment because the people resorted to idolatry. They didn’t listen to His Word or His prophets or the Laws that their ancestors adopted. Instead, they chose to worship false gods and were surprised when they were “struck down” and “consumed.” They didn’t need better mechanics — they needed to repent.

Repentance is not preached much from America’s pulpits any more — to our detriment. Repentance is how we get right with the God that created us and how we stay in a right relationship. We usually define repentance as an act of turning from sin to Christ, and this is a proper definition. It implies, though, that this is a one time action. Contrition is a related word, but implies that the repentance is a “state,” an ongoing expression of repentance.

The price of repentance/contrition is often too high for us as Americans. Like the proverbial “average” student in school we assess what is the minimum amount of work to get by and we do that. For many of us it’s enough that we put on a show of repentance even if we have not really done so in the integrity of our hearts. Repentance involves real sorrow for sin; it involves the true admission guilt; it involves a lifestyle change that begins in our thoughts and carries through to our actions. It doesn’t mean perfection; but it does mean honesty. When David repented, he stated, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being (Psalm 51:6, ESV).

The people of our day are much like the people to whom Jeremiah was preaching in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of his prophecy. They are harder than rocks; they refuse to repent (5:3) because they have ignored the truth for expedience.

Intellectual Honesty

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV).

I first read this passage shortly after I put my faith in Christ. I was a student at a theologically liberal, liberal arts college affiliated with a mainline Christian denomination. The Religion/Philosophy department at that college had a disdain for those of us who held an evangelical faith, who believed that the Bible was indeed the revelation of the Living God. In their minds we were not “intellectually honest”; we were silly enough as to believe that Moses did part the Red Sea, Noah did preserve the human race on an ark, and Jesus did rise from the grave.

On the day that I first read this passage, something unusual happened that I have trouble explaining. I was captivated by the text; it filled all of my thoughts for a period of time; I sensed that God Himself had met me in that hour. Since that day the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have had a special place in my thinking.

I knew that what I had experienced was just the opposite of what I was being taught at my college. I also knew that I didn’t have the intellectual and academic background to take on the professors and students that scoffed at what they would call “psychological or religious experiences.” They would dismiss my experience as the result of the previous meal’s pepperoni pizza, even though I knew it was not. I held on to this tension and the question of “intellectual honesty” for several years until I discovered the writings of an evangelical author — Dr. Francis Schaeffer — who had himself wrestled with these same issues.

As is often the case, the open disdain these students and professors had for the Scripture drove me to consider it more deeply. I wanted to know the truth. Is there a God that is outside the realm of humanity, that created men, before Whom we would give an account? Is He still active in this world? How can I know Him? This was the time that I discovered the reality of God’s words to Jeremiah, “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (29:13, NASB).

Is it “intellectually honest” to believe the Bible? The answer is an unqualified, “YES!” The lack of intellectual honesty is really on the part of those professors and clergy who deny the Bible. They are the ones who draw their salaries from the gifts of people in the pews of these mainline churches who still hold to the authority of the Bible, at least to some degree. The people often have not yet discovered that these professors don’t believe that the God described in the Bible even exists.