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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Evil Pragmatism vs the Christian's Right Focus

By Dan Philips

There's a world of difference between practicality, and pragmatism.

One of my least-favorite classes in seminary gave me an excellent mental image which I may have shared before. The prof asked us preachers to envision a really extraordinary individual in our audience. He said we should make him unmissable — huge, orange-skinned, green suit, hat with a flower in it.

He sits in the front row, squarely in front of us. He only knows three words in English. He repeats them over and over again.

The words?
"Tell me how."

I happen to think that, taken in the right measure, this was an excellent piece of counsel. It could be over-pressed, with the result that pastors would never preach on passages or Biblical themes they judge "not practical," such as the doctrine of God, election, atonement, and on and on. That would be a great betrayal, and a great failure as a pastor.

At the same time, it serves as a bracing caution against those of us who live too much in the ivory tower, too enamored with abstract theology or philosophy. It tells against ivory-tower thinking divorced from the dailiness of life. It wouldn't hurt one bit if we looked over the first draft of our sermon manuscript and envisioned someone asking, "So... what am I supposed to do with that?"

Certainly Jesus and the apostles could never be accused of such baffling, misty abstraction. If Paul gave three chapters of rich doctrine in Ephesians, he follows it up with four three chapters of wrapping the truth in shoe-leather. The Gospels and Epistles deal with money, marriage, parenting, childing, morality, relationships, church polity, and a host of other specific issues.

If I dare whisper the thought, I think this was a shortcoming of Spurgeon's — at least in all the sermons I know of. He preached glorious, timeless sermons on the person and work of Christ, the covenants, and the authority of Scripture. But I don't think I've yet come across a "Tell Me How" sermon opening Scripture on marriage, work, or the like. Those topics must feature in preaching the whole counsel of God.

Practicality, then, is (A) Biblical, and (B) light-years removed from....

"If it works, it's good" is not a Biblical notion. We can see the inherent, fatal flaw if we bring to light the generally-unstated definition of "works": "achieves our desired results." We identify goals and imbue them with a self-justifying quality. That is, if we achieve the desired result, whatever we did to get there is eo ipso good.

Self-justifying goals Christians have set include:
  • Increased "giving" (invariably financial) among churchgoers
  • Increased attendance
  • Increased professions of faith
  • Increased actual (i.e. conversion) baptisms
  • Happier people
  • People who report feeling closer to God
  • Greater book sales
  • Compliant children
  • Better reputation among the lost
I envision two sorts reading that list:
  1. Those who don't see a thing wrong with these as self-justifying goals.
  2. Those who have actually read their Bibles.
Speaking of which....
The Bible
I may exaggerate, but not by much. The Bible is absolutely crystal-clear on at least three things, if you'll forgive one last enumeration:
  1. The Christian's goal must be to please God (Deuteronomy 6:5f.; Matthew 6:1-6, 33; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Peter 1:13-17, etc.).
  2. Doing what pleases God may be the direct cause of temporal disaster.
  3. Doing what pleases God will be the direct cause of eternal delight.
Be perfectly clear: doing what pleases God, in the right way and from the right heart, may result in —
Of course, that's just a sampling. But it is enough to condemn pragmatism once and for all.

So here's the bottom-line: Christian living is a lot like flying a jet in a deep fog at night. The instruments are your only friend.

Except in our case, the "instruments" are the Word, alone.

(HT: Pyromaniacs)

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