"Son of man, eat this book that I am giving you. Make a full meal of it!" (Ezekiel 3:3)
It is a plain and simple fact that what is known as Evangelicalism today is desperately sick, and rapidly losing its vitality and power. Not its political power. Good riddance to most of that, as far as I am concerned. It has been a confusion of the Two Kingdoms which has not saved very many souls but has engendered compromise after compromise on our part, and bitterness on the part of our political opponents.
Instead, by “its power,” I mean its power to speak God’s truth to individual men and women in a way that the Holy Spirit blesses and uses, and which saves souls in eternity and gives transformed and abundant life now.
The least healthy segments of the Evangelical church are running as fast as they can down the road to classical theological liberalism, making the same mistakes in the name of “cultural relevance” that the mainline church made a hundred years ago. The world will always hate the gospel. When your gospel is not offensive to the world and you are not an object of ridicule to the unconverted, then you can be pretty sure that your gospel is not the true gospel, and that you have begun to tread the path of Friedrich Schleiermacher, trying to win over the “cultured despisers” as the expense of truth. Nothing but the sovereign power of the Spirit of God can make the gospel acceptable to lost and wicked men and women.
The healthiest segments of the Evangelical church, those who adhere most closely to what I will call “classical Protestantism” are marked by a knowledge of true doctrine, even a zeal for true doctrine, but also seem to possess little power. It often becomes knowledge which puffs up. (1 Cor 8:1) I say this as one who comes perilously close to this condition myself, and perhaps have slipped into and out of it before. I love classical Reformed Orthodoxy. I love the Regulative Principle of Worship. I love the Sabbath. I love the Westminster Standards. I love the system of doctrine and think it is the biblical system of doctrine. I think Presbyterianism is the biblical system of church polity and will put you to sleep telling you all about it if you’ll let me. I am what some call a “T.R.” (which stands for “Totally Reformed,” a pejorative term employed by my less theologically precise brethren in the PCA.) I love knowledge. In my worst moments, I love knowledge just for knowledge’s sake, or just to boast that I have more of it than someone else. But I’ve discovered that the mere collection of knowledge does not necessarily transform my heart. I think I am not alone in that discovery.
I believe there are many factors which contribute to this state of affairs, Deo volente, exploring them with you, but I think the most important factor has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the scriptures, the nature of their authority, and most of all, the nature of their power and how we access that power for the transforming of our lives. We no longer know how to “eat this Book.”
This was not always so. The Puritan movement in England, 17th and 18th century Scottish Presbyterianism, and the Nadere Reformatie in Holland were all concerned with what was often called “experimental religion,” which we would call “experiential Christianity.” It was a zealous attempt to marry doctrine and personal experience. It was a desire to taste biblical truth like honey and feast on it like a banquet. One of the key components of a life so ordered was the spiritual discipline of meditation.
Thanks to the hippy movement, with its introduction of Eastern concepts of meditation, Christians are very likely to run screaming from the word, and see some nefarious plot of the Devil being hatched by anyone who brings it up. The Devil is involved, I assure you. He is involved in besmirching and making unattractive a very necessary and biblical means of forming Christ in us.
The core concept of Eastern types of meditation, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, is the emptying of the mind and laying it open to whatever is out there. Obviously this is a bad idea. Biblical meditation is just the opposite. It involves filling the mind with the truth of God and chewing on it over and over again, like a cow chews its cud. Meditation is what the Lord commands the Children of Israel to practice in Deuteronomy 11:
You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…
In Psalm 1, we are told that the blessed man is the one who meditates on the law of the Lord day and night. Isaac “went out into the fields towards evening to meditate.” (Gen 24:63) God’s own have always been marked by meditation on the Word of God.
Joel Beeke has recently edited the translation of a wonderful four volume systematic theology by Wilhelmus A Brakel, who was a 17th century Dutch “Puritan.” It’s called The Christian’s Reasonable Service. This is the first time it has been available in English. It was republished in Dutch for over 150 years, if memory serves, and was often used by Dutch families as a part of their family worship. This is not theology for academics. This is theology for laypeople, and the modern translation makes it very easy to read.
The Third and particularly the Fourth volumes are pure gold. In Volume Four there is a chapter on Spiritual Meditation. Let me give a modern understanding of how meditation works.
Have you ever driven somewhere familiar, say, to the grocery store, and upon arrival realized that you really don’t actually remember the journey? It’s obvious that you drove, and drove safely. You weren’t reckless or careless. You weren’t asleep at the wheel. If a car had pulled out in front of you or a child had run into the street, you would have responded appropriately and done everything possible to avoid an accident. But the journey was uneventful and you pretty much drove “on autopilot.” Some part of you had so mastered the journey and the act of driving that it all came more or less automatically.
But when you first learned to drive, or first moved to your town and were unfamiliar with everything, it took a lot of mental effort to drive to the grocery store. You had to give constant care and attention to the task at hand. Women have a better natural ability to function in this way. This is why men have to turn the car radio down when they’re trying to find an address or follow detailed directions.
At some point you mastered the necessary skills, and you were able to perform those functions more or less automatically, that is, without consciously attending to them all the time. The same is true of a golf swing, or learning to shoot a freethrow. Every child of the 1980’s remembers Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel-san karate by making him wax cars, paint fences, and sand boardwalks (Wax on! Wax off!) This autopilot ability allows your mind to be free to engage in other activities and still move through daily life in a relatively efficient manner. Your autopilot can be trained and retrained. It’s how you learned to read and type. It’s how you learn a foreign language well enough to read or speak it.
Your soul has an autopilot function as well. I have noticed that very often my sinful responses are so difficult to discipline and conquer because they are so automatic. How often I’ve said, “It happened before I even have time to think!” I respond to life’s situations with an automatic flare of temper, or a burning lust, or a covetous longing or a lying word because of how my soul’s automatic responses have been formed. Once that train has left the station, it’s very difficult to stop it. I respond the wrong way because I’ve been carefully programmed to believe lies and respond to them as though they were true. I’ve been programmed to think of things that are destructive as though they are necessary for my wellbeing. I have been programmed to think that evil is good and good is evil. The Devil has been using my own sinful heart’s desires and my fallen environment to program me since birth.
I have discovered that the Spirit of God can reprogram me, and that careful, disciplined meditation on the Word of God is the primary means of reforming my soul so that its automatic responses are truer and more Christlike. That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot or will not sometimes use a faster or more direct route in certain circumstances, but his primary way of changing us is for us to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.” (Col 3:16) Obviously what is sometimes derogatorily referred to as “head knowledge” is a prerequisite for this process. The problem I see with myself and my fellow truth-lovers is that the head knowledge never makes its way into our souls to transform them. Surely the Devil laughs. He likes nothing better than to take something given for a tremendous blessing and turn it into a curse. There is great spiritual power available here if we will make good use of it. Let us decide today to make use of that power in an intelligent and systematic way so that we become the sort of people who consistently and automatically do what Christ commands, for such a thing is well within the realm of possibility for the true child of God who "hath the Spirit."
Brian Carpenter is the pastor of Foothills Community Church (PCA) in Sturgis, South Dakota. He and his wife Laura have two lovely daughters, Evelyn and Jordan, ages 2 and 3. His interests include automotive and motorcycle repair and rebuilding, welding and metal fabrication, economics and monetary theory, philosophy, classical education, church history, and really expensive Scotch whisky. Brian blogs at TheHappyTR and AFiresideChat. His sermons are available online at SermonAudio.com.