Lately I’ve been reading a book by William Perkins entitled, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA: 2002). Perkins was a late sixteenth-century Puritan (1558-1602) who had an “enormous impact on generations of preachers” (foreword, vii). So much of what he says speaks to modern times that I have often forgotten I was reading an ancient book!
In the preface of the book he writes, “In keeping with its dignity, preaching has a two-fold value: (1) It is instrumental in gathering the church and bringing together all of the elect; (2) It drives away wolves from the folds of the Lord. Preaching is the flexanima, the allurer of the soul, by which our self-willed minds are subdued and changed from an ungodly and pagan life-style to a life of Christian faith and repentance. It is also the weapon which has shaken the foundations of ancient heresies, and also, more recently cut to pieces the sinews of the Antichrist.”
I was particularly struck by the idea that one of the chief functions of preaching the Word of God is to drive away the wolves and shake the foundations of ancient heresies. If this is true, then the opposite is also true: when the church exchanges the Word of God for politics, right or left, or psychology or sociology or anything else, it invites the wolves into its fold and sooner or later they will kill their prey.
Recently a colleague of mine was at a church planting assessment center where he listened to a church planting candidate wax eloquent about the “fact” that we have for too long chosen Paul’s gospel over Jesus, and that this has led us astray. The most grievous thing about this for me is that this man was approved for church planting. Can you imagine that? A man who rejects the apostle Paul, and therefore at least thirteen books of the Bible, was approved for church planting by a panel of evangelicals.
How did the evangelical church get here? The answer probably does not boil down to one factor, but I think that the main factor this: in the 1980s the evangelical church, at least to a large extent, exchanged the preaching of the Word of God for psychologically based, felt-needs, topical messages. Instead of the Word of God being the meat of the church, it became the “book of quotes” that was used to prop up the points of the message and set up cute stories, alluring illustrations, and movie clips. And because the Word of God was not there to drive the wolves away, they have settled in and are sinking their teeth into their prey even as we speak.
Robert Schuller, who is by many accounts the father of the seeker movement via his great influence on Bill Hybels, once said in my presence that he did not have time to develop biblical sermons because he had to lead. He said that he could discuss and debate theology with the best of them, but that biblical preaching was inappropriate for Sunday morning worship because it hampered church growth and swallowed up too much of the leader’s time. He pitted leadership against biblical teaching, and thus, he exchanged the Word of God, at least in the prominent services of the Crystal Cathedral, for the power of positive thinking and interviews with famous people. I’m sure that Robert Schuller did not make a conscious decision to invite the wolves in to devour the church but that is exactly what he did.
And so have other prominent church growth leaders. And in the process many evangelicals have become so biblically illiterate and theologically ignorant that they cannot even spot heresy, and what is worse, when they do, their souls do not grieve over it and their mouths do not war against it.
Oh brothers and sisters, how desperate a time is this? Let us not pit leadership against the Word of God but rather let us lead by the Word of God. Let us feed the sheep, allure souls to worship, and drive the wolves away with that great Sword of the Spirit.