Jesus, the Bible, and Our Children
We are warned that a significant portion of churched young people become de-churched in their college years. In an August 2016 sermon, Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint in Alpharetta, Ga., tells us one of the reasons for what he calls “deconversion.” Christians, Christian parents, and most churches rely too much upon the Bible rather than upon Jesus. He says that a Bible-foundation for our faith is “as fragile as a house of cards.”
In making his case, he claims that church did just fine without a Bible for the first four centuries of her existence. This is a remarkable claim since the church had a Bible – the Old Testament, which Jesus fully affirmed (see Matthew 5:17-19; John 10:35) and constantly utilized. Within two decades after Pentecost, the New Testament Scriptures began to be written by the apostles, with its content completed, in my opinion, by 70 A.D. The apostolic writings were immediately identified as “Scripture” (2 Pet. 3:16), for the simple reason that they originated from his authorized, Spirit-inspired apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; John 17:20). The apostolic Scriptures were commanded to be read in the churches (Col. 4:16) and were the canon of truth, the rule of faith, as numerous early church fathers testified and copiously quoted as “Scripture” in their writings.
That there were not bound Bibles as we now have them is irrelevant; the apostolic church always lived by the Bible, the “Book,” as they possessed it in the Old Testament and as it was growing in the New under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. In their ministries, the apostles preached from the Old Testament – fulfilled prophecy loomed large in their gospel defenses – encouraged faith and repentance on the basis of the Old Testament and its minute fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and commended the disciples for searching the Scriptures. Thus, Stanley’s claim is ignorant, dangerous, and, if true, would dismantle the foundation of the Christian faith.
The Jesus whom Stanley says is accessible apart from Scripture is not. The only Jesus whom the Father sent and told us to “hear him” is he who was revealed in the law and the prophets and promised in the covenants of promise from Genesis 3:15 to the new covenant. His name is the Word of God. He is the eternal Word of God who spoke God’s word and promised God’s Spirit to his apostles so that they would speak and write God’s word. He makes himself known to us through the preaching of his word, which is God’s power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). He directs his disciples to abide in his word (John 8:31; 15:7), which we cannot do unless we are students of Scripture (Acts 17:11). While all Scripture was given through the “Spirit of Christ” speaking through the prophets and apostles (1 Pet. 1:11; 2 Tim. 3:16), our Lord personally directed John to write down his word to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 1:11). Therefore, the idea that Jesus may be known apart from his own word, or that we can have a Bible-less relationship with him, denies Jesus’ own witness of himself, his divine-human person as the Word of God, and his commands to us.
Stanley’s concern is that the Bible is subject to many attacks from unbelievers and that young people are unable to meet those attacks. If we make faith in Jesus dependent upon faith in the Bible, then once our faith in the Bible is demolished, our faith in Jesus will similarly suffer. His solution? Give up trying to defend the Bible and go directly to Jesus. Ah, but how do we learn how to go to Jesus? How do we know his will for our lives? How do we know that the Jesus we profess to believe in is in fact the true Jesus or a figment of Stanley’s imagination? Only in the Bible. Faith in Christ stands or falls with the Bible. This is because the Bible is his Book.
Stanley does not like this and does not want to do the hard work of defending God’s word against its many critics. Perhaps he does not feel that it can be adequately defended in this day of rockets and computers. He apparently prefers creative genius when it comes to preaching and discipleship rather than “study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Thus, he cringes when speaking of trying to defend the walls of Jericho falling down? He would not have our faith in Jesus to depend upon the historicity of the Old Testament. He also mentions chronological difficulties, which can only mean that he has not studied the issue sufficiently or prayerfully. If the Old Testament miracles and histories are problematic, then the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ miracles, and salvation through his divine-human person, the greatest wonder of all, must soon fall, as they have in liberalism. Then, you are left with a denuded Jesus, a great moral teacher, a wonderful example of love, but not the Jesus of Scripture. If this is the Jesus Stanley wants to defend, he is welcome to him. He can save no one, for he does not exist. He has been a lifeless phantom in the dead waters of liberalism for a century and a half. If we are to have the Jesus who saves men from their sins, calms the seas, and raises the dead, we learn of him solely from the Bible.
Therefore, if you give up the Bible – an infallible, inerrant, all-sufficient, and inspired Bible – you have to give up Jesus as well. Everything we know about Jesus comes from the Bible. Stanley could not have preached this sermon without the very Bible he belittles. Jesus based his entire work upon “that it may be fulfilled” and “thus it is written.” He defended “every jot and tittle” of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Bible is his book, inspired by his Spirit (1 Pet. 1:11). A true disciple receives him and his word. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him.” And when he came, he directed us to the Scriptures. “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25).
It would be preferable to dismiss Stanley as horribly misguided by his obsession with removing obstacles from unbelievers coming to Christ, but as he distorts God’s truth with a slick media presentation, speaks as though he is your best friend, and dresses like an urban millennial, it is necessary to take him to task. In a 37-minute sermon, he dismisses the whole history of the church’s painstaking defense of God’s word (1 Pet. 3:15), belittles the Bible, and actually introduces numerous obstacles to anyone believing. He reminds me of James Sire’s book from two decades ago, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All,” in which he makes the astounding claim that Christians might be wrong. This is the best way to defend our faith? To admit ultimate skepticism? Sire did not go as far as Stanley, God be thanked, but if you dismiss the Bible, then you are left with “Jesus loves me this I know, for my feelings tell me so.” Or, “Jesus loves me this I know, for I had a direct faith encounter with him that needs no Bible.” On Stanley’s scheme, the Bible is the problem – not sin, not churches that do not preach the Bible, not preachers who do not preach Christ and him crucified from the Bible. This is not a surprising place for Stanley to come in his thinking, for in his attempt to immerse himself in the unbelieving mind, he has embraced unbelieving principles. The Bible must be the next obstacle to fall in Stanley’s attempt to win the lost with blue jeans, media magic, and lower than the lowest common denominator orthodoxy. Our Lord warned us to beware of false teachers, and he is a tragic example of one who sits in God’s temple but speaks lies (2 Thess. 2:4).
Having said all this, what are we to make of his concern that young people are losing their faith because the Bible is under attack and churches will not provide answers? It is a valid concern, but I would suggest very different reasons and make some very different observations. First, if a child “loses his faith,” he never had it. Again, the Bible Stanley so easily dismisses helps us here, for we learn from Jesus’ own mouth as recorded in the Scriptures, that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give unto them eternal life: and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). This means that no college professor or unbelieving boyfriend is able to pluck Christ’s true sheep from his hand. Earlier he said, “And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him” (John 10:5). If our children know the Shepherd, they cannot be lost. They will not abandon their faith. If they “go out from us, it is because they were never of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19).
At the same time, there are influences that seriously attack a young person’s faith and that Satan can use to pluck away the good word they are hearing. Exposure to the unbelieving lies of atheistic education is one of them, and for this reason parents are commanded to give their children a Christian education of one form or another (Deut. 6:7-8; Psalm 78:5-6; Col. 2:3-8). If college is necessary for their particular calling, it should be close to home if at all possible, under the oversight of parents and a faithful pastor, and with active interaction with what they are hearing. Another is harsh parents whose version of Jesus is parental dictatorialness, all in the name of “children obey your parents.” When discipline lacks the most earnest, affectionate, and intelligent entreaties to come to Christ, it will alienate children and leave a very sour taste in their mouths – even if they do not abandon their faith. Another is the church’s failure to promote an environment of love and Christ-obsession, so that every truth and duty is related to him, seen in its relation to his divine-human person as our only Prophet, Priest, and King.
Churches also lose their children when they are not true churches. A “church” that downplays the Bible and encourages “follow the Spirit” is sure to produce thoughtless, brainless, ill-prepared, and easy prey young people. Churches have a responsibility to encourage diligent study of God’s word and of its own history of engagement with unbelief, for the barrage of worn-out objections to the Bible and the Christian faith were thoroughly refuted within the first four centuries of her existence. However, a hipster sermon, three ditties, and a slogan or two are not the church being “the pillar and ground of the truth.” If a church’s version of Christianity is “me-ism,” Jesus on my terms, Jesus saving me but my staying in my sins, the world will gobble them up. The world always does “selfish” and “autonomy” and “freedom” better than the church, and if you try to beat the world at its own game in order to win the world, children will find a more authentic version of radical selfishness in the world, without all the strings attached, the commands they have no heart to keep, and the guilt manipulation of parents and pastors. It should not surprise us that Christless, cheap grace, easy believism Christianity cannot retain its own. Who would want to stay? Only Christ in his Word meets the true needs of man’s heart and life.
Moreover, the church’s ignorance of the Bible because of the lack of expository preaching that Stanley disdains, explains the inability of Christians and their children to respond cogently to attacks against it. There are ample resources available to counter the arguments of critics. One was answered just this week in the deciphering of a 2,000 year old fragment of the Hebrew Old Testament. Critics have long stated that we do not know what Bible Jesus used. This argument can be easily refuted on presuppositional grounds, but if a man wants concrete, “scientific evidence,” this deciphered text was from Leviticus, and it is word for word what our present copies read. In other words, the Leviticus Jesus read (and inspired – 1 Pet. 1:11! – for the Son of God did not begin to be the Prophet of the church after his incarnation but has always been the Word) is the Leviticus we possess. All the arguments of critics are answered in time, but until then, as Peter said, we have something much stronger than any evidence that unbelievers will accept. We have the “sure word of prophecy, to which we must take heed as unto a light that shines in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). As Jesus said in his parable, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31). The best armor against the attacks of men and Satan is not evidence that independently verifies the truth of Scripture but Scripture itself, for it is God’s eternal word, the very breath of our Savior’s mouth, and his living power that demolishes every stronghold raised in opposition to him. Yet, this is the very Bible Stanley says gives the church a fragile foundation. If we would prepare our children for the onslaught of wicked men, teach them the truth, answer their questions, and give them a solid understanding of church history. The counterfeits will fall by the side, assuming they have “ears to hear and eyes to see” the wonders of God’s truth.
Much more might be said, but I will close with this. The main reason children are lost to the church is the failure to present Jesus Christ in all his personal glory and saving power. If every sermon is decisional, if there is no systematic setting forth of Christ the wisdom and power of God, if preachers and parents alike know and speak little and with less enthusiasm and awe of Jesus Christ, if we do not unfold his unsearchable riches as the divine-human Mediator, our suffering and saving Priest, the only wise Prophet sent from heaven to reveal the Father, and our sovereign, ruling King, then, yes, we have little expectation that our children will embrace our faith. The true Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, always saves and secures his children. His powerful, wise, beautiful presence, spreading his gifts and grace through the whole, manifesting his love and tenderness, and proclaiming the wonders of eternal truth, draws and keeps children in the Master’s powerful hand. Short of this, we do not have a message that is worth presenting and will not attract. Jesus Christ works through his word. “If ye continue in my word, then ye shall be my disciples indeed.” “And the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.”
Thus, if we would see our children drawn to Jesus, in love with Jesus, and stalwarts for Jesus, they must hear us speak of him with rapture. They must see us worshipping him – not our feelings – but him. They must quickly be weaned from the milk toast preaching that is so prevalent today and fed the solid, wondrous meat of our Savior’s word. They must see us obeying him in our lives and hear us praising him with our lips. He is the “Christ, the Son of the living God,” and we learn this not from mystical contact with him but through his living voice, the reading, hearing, and preaching of his word. In the final analysis, the Bible is not the enemy. It is not the obstacle to unbelievers coming to faith in Jesus. The obstacle is men, perhaps including me, who do not know how to handle skillfully the word of righteousness. It is parents who lack deep commitment to the true Jesus, the Jesus of Scripture, the Jesus who tames our hearts, the Jesus whose preaching through his humble ministers they do not avail themselves of with zeal, preferring who knows what to their Sabbath meetings with the living Christ in his congregation. Ignorance of this Jesus and his word is what has weakened the church and injured many children. May God deliver us from our self-imposed famine of the word, for this famine is really a famine of Jesus in the soul!