Gospel Riches and Church Poverty


Although the subject of tonight’s talk was left to my choice, it was suggested that the subjects of “Biblical Infallibility” or the “State of the Church” might be of special interest. With a view to these suggestions it seemed desirable to choose a more comprehensive subject which could in some measure take in both of them, but place them in a more meaningful framework than if either were discussed separately. I decided to outline a few observations about “Gospel Riches and Church Poverty.” Under this subject we can consider the importance of the Bible and try to deal with present church problems in a constructive way. Let’s think about the gospel heritage and then about what the church seems to be doing (or not doing) with it. And let’s consider that gospel heritage under two sub-points: 1) A Biblical Revelation, and 2) A Real and Total Salvation.


The Bible often describes its revelation as a treasure of infinite value. The Lord once said (Matt. 13:44), “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field; which a man found, and hid! and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath and buyeth that field.” This treasure is revealed and conveyed to us by means of the Bible.

The Problem: What Shall I Believe?

I was driven to appreciate this Biblical character of God’s revelation by a perhaps more difficult route than many are. Born in a Christian home and reared in a parsonage, I was educated in public schools until the second year in college. Of all of the teachers during those years in the “progressive (or Liberal), mostly California schools, I remember only one who gave indications of being an evangelical Christian. Crowing up in a home and church which were trying to teach a Christian view of everything and in schools which were teaching an opposite, secular or nonChristian view plunges one into all kinds of problems. Teachers were not so much attacking the Christian faith as ignoring it as irrelevant. While I did not accept many of their ideas, I early picked up and assumed the underlying principle that an educated man accepts nothing without adequate proof he accepts nothing on mere authority. Proceeding on this kind of assumption, one becomes adept at attacking and exploding all kinds of old prejudices and traditions, but is left with the nagging question, What (if anything) can one believe? Is there anything of which the educated man can be sure? The Christian home’s and churches’ answer is, “We must accept things by faith.” But that leaves one with the question “Faith in what and why?” These were the questions that troubled and threatened my faith during those years. It is a striking fact that a half century later they are the questions that seem to be troubling, threatening and shaking the faith of many in our churches and of the churches themselves. The problems are easily stated but what are the answers?

Troubled by those questions more than some who have not had to deal with the problems of such a contradiction between a Christian home and church and a non-or anti-Christian school, I was driven back, as many others have been, to the Bible itself to find it answering more frankly and fully than any later Christian writers, those questions.

The Influence of Barth

It may be of some interest that in the college years I was intrigued and influenced by Karl Barth whose writings were attacking the liberal rationalism so characteristic of what I had been taught at school. His The Word of God and the Word of Man rather effectively exposed the fallacies of liberal religious leaders who put in place of the Word of God only “the word of man written in big letters.” (I remember arguing in something of Barth‘s way too against the rather uncritical traditionalism of Dr. James Daane and Dr. Harry Boer in the seminary days when we roomed together.) Although Barth attacked rather effectively the rationalism of Liberalism and spoke much of Revelation, it was also soon apparent that he (like many other thinkers) did not really escape from the problems of the movement he criticized. The reason for his failure in that respect was that he, in spite of all his talk of the Bible, still shared the Liberal critical approach to it.

The Bibles Answer

For real answers one must go back to the Bible itself, which from first to last came with the claim of being God‘s revelation to men who were hopelessly lost without it.

The pagan world in endless variety demonstrated that lostness, and God in the Old Testament revealed Himself to men who were lost without Him. He revealed Himself in His mighty actions: “He made known his ways unto Moses, His doings unto the children of Israel” (Psalm 103:7). But that revelation was not merely an act-revelation; it was also a revelation in words, to be spoken, taught, written, preserved in the Book of the Covenant (Deut. 17:18f; 28:58; Ex. 24:7; II Kings 23:2; 21). Living by the light of this revelation was to separate those who had it from the moral and spiritual darkness of those who did not (Deut. 18:9-19). Upon the coming of Christ and the New Testament age this revelation is completed and “fulfilled” but not fundamentally altered. One of the most fascinating passages which deals with our questions about revelation in the New Testament is found in the first two chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. There we are taught that we are completely dependent on God’s Self-revelation. “Seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God—and the centuries of man‘s intellectual history continue to document that—it was God‘s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe.” This “foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:21, 25). He points out that it is really not surprising that we should be so dependent on selfrevelation if we are really going to know other people! “Who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. That Spirit, the Apostle said, he had received, “that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual words” (2:11–13).

And so God has seen fit to reveal Himself and His “Mind” to us by means not only of actions and influences, but by words –words received, spoken, written and passed along by people like ourselves, but inspired, preserved and used by His Spirit. These words of this Book, as the Apostle Paul wrote, in the growing confusion which he predicted, “are able to make . . . wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” because they are “inspired of God” (II Tim. 3:13–17). They are like “a lamp shining in a dark place,” as the Apostle Peter wrote, because they are neither the result of nor subject to “private interpretation” so that anyone can make of them what he pleases, as false teachers would and do, but “men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:19–2:3). That is the way the Lord’s “divine power has granted unto us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Christ” (1:1–4).

The Historical Critical Fiasco

Now we are being told that this view of the matter is much too naive for anyone educated in today’s world to continue to hold. Scientific discoveries and historical and literary research have made this old “childish” way of thinking about and believing the Bible no longer acceptable. (This reaction, by the way is not as new as most who share it usually think. Notice how Paul faced it among the Greeks (I Cor. 1 and 2) and Jesus met the same thing in the Sadducees (Mark 12:18–27) attributing it not to their assumed superior insights but rather to their ignorance of “the scriptures” and “the power of God.”)

The continuing conflicts between scientific and historical theories and the “naive” view of a verbally inspired Bible press us to retreat from or modify this view of the Bible. Don’t we have to “face facts,” reckon also with “the human side of the Bible”? After all we are saved by faith in Christ not by faith in every word of the old Book. Cant we settle for just believing in its “message,” consider its “authority” as restricted to “its content and purpose as saving revelation of God in Christ,” as the formula of the 1972 Synod’s notorious “Report 44” suggested? This suggestion appears as a tempting way to avoid a lot of problems and arguments. Unfortunately it creates more and greater difficulties. It raises the question of what in the Bible belongs to the authoritative “saving message” in distinction from what may be ignored or discarded. If the Bible itself is being subjected to this kind of critical study and judgment it cannot be the standard by which the judgment is made. Some other “canon” or standard by which to make that judgment must be found. A little book recently published in English, The End of the Historical Critical Method, by Gerhard Maier, traces the totally frustrating results of the 200 years efforts to find such a satisfactory “canon within the canon.” J. I. Packer‘s little 1965 book God Speaks to Man, Revelation and the Bible (perhaps the best book 1 have found on this subject) calls attention to the fact that today’s vast amount of study of the Bible has led the churches into total confusion about everything they should believe and do (a situation like that described in Amos 8:11f.). He shows how this condition is the result of the critical method of study which by “driving a wedge between revelation and the Bible,” (1) produces a new hierarchy of scholars who determine what the Bible is supposed to be saying, (2) “raises a doubt about every . . . biblical passage,” and (3) “destroys the reverent, receptive, self-illustrusting attitude of approach to the Bible, without which it cannot be known to be ‘God’s Word written’” (pp. 11–13).

The increasingly total confusion about everything a Christian ought to believe and do (a confusion which is also increasing daily within our own churches), as these and other writers have ably pointed out, is the direct result of compromising and retreating from taking the Bible on its own claims and terms. God who went to the length of sending His Son to save us did not then consign us to th is kind of total confusion about what it all meant and how we had to receive and experience this salvation. He chose to spell it out in words that defined and explained it in the same way that we communicate with one another. That is what the Bible tells us. If we discard His instructions we are ourselves to blame for our resulting confusion.

The Bible as Covenant or “Contract”

The fact that God clearly reveals Himself and His will to us in words is emphasized in the remarkable expression found so often throughout the Bible, “Covenant” or “Testament.” Recently it has been suggested that God’s revelation is “covenantal” or personal and relational rather than factual and capable of being defined in words. “Covenant” does indeed express a relationship, but it is not a vague and uncertain one; the word “Covenant” used both in and for the Bible (Old and New “Testament,” are in Greek and Hebrew the same words generally translated by “covenant”) expresses a relationship that is carefully defined by means of words or documents. Important relationships in business or society arc among us carefully defined and expressed in words in the form of contracts or similar documents. That is the only way we can be certain of them. Paul in Galatians 3:15 compares God’s covenant, with such contracts. “Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man‘s covenant, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void or addeth thereto.” His argument is that if even men‘s contracts give that kind of defined assurance about details, much more can we depend upon the words of God‘s contract—and his subsequent argument is built on the difference between a singular and plural. I have often observed the way in which marriage licenses include a footnote warning against tampering with or misusing these legal documents that are so important to the family, sometimes even suggesting the penalty provided by law if the officiating preacher gets careless. It is significant that the Bible as Gods Covenant to and with us concludes with the same kind of reminder and warning: “Blessed is he that keepeth the words of the prophecy of this book.” “If any man shall add unto them God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18, 19).

Problems Don’t Justify Unbelief

There are, as there have always been, problems in interpreting the Bible and questions which we, with our limited knowledge cannot answer. To use those problems and questions as arguments or excuses for denying the verbally defined character and authority which the Bible attributes to itself as God‘s Word, as is everywhere being done today, is to ask for and to get exactly the kind of judgment God‘s Word warned us would follow those who tamper with it. The Lord concludes His “sermon on the mount” with the prediction that whether our houses will stand or fall will depend upon whether or not they are built upon His words (Matt. 7:24–27; Luke 6:46–49).

(to be continued)

A lecture given in the Calvin College Lectureship Council’s Series at Colvin Seminary on November 10, 1977.