The entire Bible—from "In the beginning" to "Amen"—sings of one overarching story, like a multipart ensemble supporting one another's voices in a unified oratorio. In it, we see God's manifold wisdom displayed as a multifaceted, beautiful tapestry of truth and love. No color is missing. No voice is flat.
Unfortunately, pastors in the American church have too often cherry-picked from the Scriptures those warm and fuzzy verses that make us feel good. In so doing, we functionally ignore the other "difficult" or "embarrassing" portions, leaving them behind. To be sure, the Bible is full of passages that make many of us blush and squirm: Israelites stoned adulterers, God told Israel to kill whole people groups, and Jesus taught that people go to hell. All of these texts (and many more) have led some to simply abandon Scripture altogether.
But for those pastors who truly affirm that "all Scripture is breathed out by God" (2 Tim. 3:16) for our profit, joy, knowledge and salvation through Christ, we humbly embrace the entire Bible. Or do we?
Not long ago, as I flipped through the Psalms in my Bible, I noticed something disturbing. I had underlined and highlighted those passages that communicated God's steadfast love, His gracious care and the joyful praise of His people. At times, my red pen seemed to hum along in a triumphal ink-letting until I hit, "Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God" (Ps. 139:19).
That's when it stopped. My pen did a hop, skip and jump to "and lead me in the way everlasting" (v. 24). Looking through other portions of my Bible, I noticed the same trend. From Genesis to Malachi, Matthew to Revelation, it seemed as though I didn't want to read the offensive and edgy. I didn't want to ponder the scientific improbability of the sun standing still (Josh. 10:13) or why the man with crushed testicles wasn't allowed to enter the assembly of worship (Deut. 23:1). It seemed as though I wanted to run from the historical creation account of Adam and Eve like those loonies running from the bulls in Pamplona. Am I embarrassed by the Bible?
Cherry-Picking the Scriptures
Many self-professing Christians today cherry-pick the Scriptures for a feel-good faith without realizing they're doing it—and their pastors don't help. This type of churchgoing, John 3:16-affirming picker is oftentimes "functionally embarrassed" by the Bible. We're not openly or blatantly embarrassed by Scripture, but we functionally reveal our embarrassment of the truth of the Bible by affirming, discussing, quoting and preaching only certain passages while overlooking many others. Let me give you a few examples.
Some of these onward-Christian pickers march into cultural wars with their unashamed condemnation of one or two social evils (such as homosexuality or abortion) to cover up their functional embarrassment of other offensive and seemingly archaic portions of the Bible. Others simply don't see the inconsistency. For example, what does a red-letter edition of the Bible really communicate? For many, it subconsciously communicates the lie that the words of Jesus are more important than other inspired words in the biblical text.
My daughter loves the Berenstain Bears books, especially The Forgiving Tree. When we read before bed, she often reaches for this book. Not long ago, I opened the cover and read, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." Bring out the fuzzies! It's a wonderful quote from Matthew 6:14. But notice that the publisher left out the second part of Jesus's instruction: "But if you do not forgive men for their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins" (v. 15). Ouch. You see, it's fine to rally around the glowing reminder that our heavenly Father forgives us when we sin, and we should! But we don't want the nagging reminder that if we don't (or won't) forgive others, God won't forgive us.
Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference for a church in Philadelphia. As I engaged in worship with their community, I noticed something rather unusual, at least to me. The people stood for the reading of the Bible out of reverence for God's Word (which I loved!) but only for readings from the Gospels. When they read from an Old Testament passage or from one of Paul's epistles, they remained seated. Was it because Luke's account of the life of Jesus was "holier" than Genesis, a book that Jesus Himself considered inspired text? When I asked my host why we stood for only the Gospel readings, he said he didn't know. It hadn't even crossed his mind.
As a "recovering picker" myself, I'm not suggesting that you join your local chapter of Pickers Anonymous (if there were such a thing). But I am suggesting that we take an honest evaluation of ourselves as pastors before God.
Making God in Our Image
One of the main areas that we "censor" in the Bible is the full character of God. From a casual survey of the American landscape, it seems that we like certain attributes of God (His love, grace and so on) but not others. Many self-professing Christians prefer a tame, cuddly, grandpa-like god to God as revealed in the pages of Scripture. We're embarrassed when we read that God "shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked" (Is. 11:4). Then—like a televised version of an R-rated movie—we bleep out the bad parts, "creating" a new god in the process. Sometimes pastors are as guilty of this as their church members.
But we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) not the other way around. He is the Creator, and we are the creation. He is the Potter, and we are the clay. By His grace, He molds and forms us into the likeness and holiness of His Son. Oh, how the American church and its leadership need to reclaim a God-centered faith—one that begins with the freedom and glory of God, not the freedom and glory of man.
Again, we may not intentionally aim to censor the Scriptures, but we functionally do this without realizing it. We functionally proclaim the half-counsel of God.
Swinging for the Fence
Growing up, I had what you might call a "little-man" complex. My friends labeled me "Small Fry" at an early age, and I made it my mission to prove them wrong. While I loved soccer and running—which came naturally to me—I wanted to play baseball. But because I lacked the natural faculty to stay calm and stationary, my dad (rightly) insisted that I get my energy out running after a soccer ball rather than standing in the outfield and waiting for a ball to come my way. Thus, my high school baseball career found an outlet in PE class.
During PE, the students converged on the diamond to choose teams, which I hated. Yes, I was that nervous last pick, impatiently waiting for the makeshift draft to end. When I stepped up to the plate, however, I wanted to overcome my little-man complex, and so I would swing with all my might. I believed in swinging for the fence—go big or go home—but I always struck out.
Many Christians today believe in swinging for the fence. They want to be passionate, "sold-out," radical followers of Jesus, but they're giving their all for the wrong god. Just because some people are passionate doesn't mean their lifestyles are healthy or right. You can be passionate about all sorts of unhealthy, harmful things, such as mullets, porn or the mysterious McRib sandwich. When we invent a god in our image—like a divine buddy who is at times weak, pouty and needy—we are no longer talking about the God of the Bible.
A number of years ago, my wife and I bought a house in Atlanta—one that the real estate agent called a "handyman special." She told us that the "bones" were structurally sound; it just needed some TLC. With my handy-dandy DeWalt drill in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, I got to work! The daunting project, however, quickly became a fund-raising program for my local Home Depot. Despite my lack of carpentry and plumbing skills, I felt empowered by Home Depot's slogan, "You can do it. We can help." I kept telling myself, "I can do it!" My wife wasn't so sure.
It's a bad day, however, when the church begins taking its theology from a home-improvement store. I sometimes listen to sermons from TV preachers or skim through their New York Times best-sellers, and when I do, I seem to hear Home Depot's slogan in the back of my head, but with a twist: "You can do it. God can help."
The message in many of these sermons, books and blogs is simple: You and your efforts can earn God's blessing. If you're in a pickle, just pull yourself out (what the Reformers might have called sola boot-strapia!). With a dash of God's help and a sprinkle of Dr. Phil, you can achieve anything! If you just have enough faith, God will reward you with health, wealth and prosperity. That's right, friend (cough), no harm will come to you if you really believe in Jesus! Try selling that to Jesus' disciples.
Home Depot theology, simply put, is idolatry—magnifying the gifts of God above the Giver Himself. It's like the prodigal son wanting his father's possessions but not the father. In the end, the subtle "You can do it; God can help," message puts the positive spin of self-help in the place of Scripture, covering it up like a fig leaf.
But we need to teach our people that God is not their co-pilot. Jesus doesn't take the wheel when we hit a patch of ice. Our Lord isn't standing outside in the cold and rain just waiting for you to bring Him in. He's El Shaddai, God Almighty, who lives and reigns as the sovereign and self-sufficient triune God of all eternity. He uses His disciples in His mission on earth not because He needs us but because He loves us.
Embracing the Whole Counsel
The apostle Paul proclaimed, "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). He preached Christ crucified from both easy and difficult texts of Scripture because he understood that—while the Holy Spirit led him to communicate God's revealed will (2 Pet. 1:21, 3:15-16)—he was not the arbiter of truth.
Paul's task was not to censor the Scriptures in hopes that people would be saved by hearing a partial gospel; his task was to preach the whole counsel of God because "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). When we as pastors censor the Scriptures for a feel-good faith, we snub the authority of Christ.
When I question or decide which passages to preach on, I can miss out on the truth that sets my church free. When we avoid the biblical practice of church discipline, for example, we miss out on the joy of seeing wayward sinners reclaimed or seeing Christ establishing greater peace and purity in His bride. When we avoid the doctrine of hell in our preaching and teaching, we miss the experience of gratitude for what we are saved from and the hope of what we are saved for.
Jesus didn't call us to a halfhearted, partially committed, self-empowering journey called "Christianity"; He called us to deny ourselves, take up His cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). This is nothing less than the electric chair for our flesh. Pastors need to put to death our fear of man—to be accepted by the world—and return to a right fear of God, who didn't waste words when He gave us His Word. Jesus calls us into an upside-down kingdom, where we die to live, give up to gain and worship a King who wore a crown of thorns not gold. Embracing the entire Bible acknowledges Him as the everlasting author of truth, the Bulwark never failing.
The beauty of the gospel is that our sin is no match for God's grace. Pastor, if you've been guilty (as I have) of censoring the Scriptures in your preaching and teaching, you can take rest in the promise that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Take up your dwelling in the promises of God, humbly confess your sin and thankfully receive His forgiveness—maybe even search out those difficult passages and set up camp beside them. Ask God's Spirit to teach you new and wonderful things in His Word, and share them with your congregation. And as the old hymn reminds us, "The things of this world will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace."
Brian Cosby serves as senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and is a visiting professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta. He is the author of numerous books, including Uncensored: Daring to Embrace the Entire Bible (David C Cook, 2015).
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