05 June 2008

Whole counsel, or full-of-holes counsel

by Dan Phillips

Paul told the Ephesian elders, "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). But not all can truthfully make that claim.

Early on in my Christian life, I was exposed to the deadly danger of taking a concept, phrase, saying, metaphor, or even truth, extracting it from the rest of the Bible, free-associating, and then erecting a structure on it.

My first regular pastor post-conversion was a deeply-Biblically-educated man. He had been reading the Greek NT for some thirty years at the time, and stressed the need for the pastor to be "immersed" in it. He was very patient with me, encouraged me, got me started in my Christian life and in pastoral training.

But he had this theory, this paradigm, of preaching. He believed in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. "Me too!" you all say, and, well, me too. It's a true concept. But here's how he applied that true concept: he refused to prepare or outline sermons. He disdained the very idea of following any structure whatever in constructing his sermon. (A friend of his, not very kindly, once observed to this pastor that he made his way through a sermon like a drunk through a church.)

This pastor read the passage in Greek, did some kind of study, prayed, trusted that the Holy Spirit would guide him, got up, did a free translation of the text, straight from Greek — and then talked about whatever came into his mind. Whatever came into his mind. And, sadly, what came into his mind seldom had the slightest relationship to the text: Nixon going to China, nuclear physics, life in general, anything, everything. Except the text.

How serious was he about this? Very. Once a Christian friend and I grew so concerned, and were so starving, that we shared our concerns with him. We noticed that nobody brought Bibles (go figure). Even more, we knew that he had so much to give — we just wanted him to give it! "Feed us!", we were pleading.

He did not receive it well.

"Gentlemen," he replied very intensely, leaning towards us and fixing us with his eyes, "when I get up to preach, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me. If I believed that He could mislead me, I would leave the ministry!"

We were devastated. We didn't want him to leave the ministry! We walked away, abashed, shamed, crushed.

Was it bad of us to ask him to "preach the Word"? No. What was the real problem? The real problem was that he had abstracted one Biblicaloid notion from all the rest of the Bible. If he'd taken the whole Bible into account, and all the data it provides, his distaste for planning and order and structure would have met a lot of counter-evidence and correctives. He would have noted (say) the intricate, ingenius, and very deliberate design in many of the psalms and prophecies. Here were men writing under the direct inspiration of the Spirit, yet they framed and structed what they said like master sculptors. Taking in all the data, this pastor would have pondered the structured art-form that of the Proverbs, from verses like 2 Timothy 3:15-17, and 4:1-4.

But he did not. Bereft of Biblical controls, the concept he had isolated and developed his own way had taken on a life of its own, like a deadly virus.

This dangerous practice of extrapolating erroneously from a truth is extremely common, and often subtler still.

Here's a warning-sign: beware when someone says something catchy, cute, and memorable, and then goes on to develop that idea, build on that metaphor or paradigm, perhaps with a couple of fleeting Biblical allusions, rather than building on a carefully-laid (and demonstrated) Biblical foundation.

Craig Schwarze put it really excellently in the meta of a post from 2006:
...we can't abstract the attributes of God from the scriptural revelation of them. The Bible not only tells us that "God is love" - but it also tells us what that looks like.
What Craig wisely says we "can't" do is precisely what too many do do.

For instance, take Steve Brown. He takes the very rich and Biblical concept of grace, and erects a superstructure on it that makes me pretty uncomfortable, to be charitable. His way is winsome, engaging, interesting; he clearly delights in his self-image as an iconoclast. But Brown has taken a golden concept (grace), and abstracted it from such texts as Titus 2:11 — 3:1, to say nothing of John 14:15; 15:16, 1 John 5:3, and so forth. So instead of a well-balanced, full portrait, he's sketched out a giant nose, with a few vestigial appendages tacked on as afterthoughts.

You could suggest many others, no doubt. Many who stress a "relationship" with God define and develop that relationship by modern standards ("Now, in a relationship, you do X, you don't do Y"), rather than by the whole Biblical picture. Or they stress the living nature of the church, and its disconnection with any business model — but downplay (or deny) extensive Biblical teachings of the organized nature of the church and the gifted men God gave to lead it. Or they are all about "transparency," but to the exclusion of balancing concerns for the love for God or man.

There is a reason why we hold a Bible as the word of God, and not a sack-full of isolated inspired fortune-cookies. God means us to grasp, and be grasped by, "the whole counsel."

Otherwise, our counsel will be full of holes.

Dan Phillips's signature


James Scott Bell said...

I used to think (WAY back) that free form, extemporaneous "sermonizing" was the purest. Real, you know?

Not anymore. The pastor who does not sweat and struggle to put together a Biblical sermon in an orderly fashion is just short changing his flock. If he can tell great stories and go off on entertaining tangents, so much the worse, for he will be popular for all the wrong reasons.

Also, pastors who are good at extemporaneous, free form preaching can easily fall into the sin of pride, and become the "star" of the sermon. There may be no real pointing back to the Bible, or Christ.

MacArthur and Piper are popular, of course, but for the right reasons. They truly work at it and are "bibley" throughout.

Penn Tomassetti said...

I feel like I've been fed solid food from a man who has been taught by the Word. Thanks.

DJP said...

Johnny D — thanks for reminding me that I don't want to keep "Biblely" in the Pyro glossary.


FX Turk said...

You have just ground up the golden calf in this post, DJP, and I expect that those whom you specifically mention as needing to drink it will be greatly concerned and grieved.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Excellent post! Expands on the idea/concept/fallacy of "reductionism" which is to absolutize the partial.

This is a keep-and-save post.

olan strickland said...

As a pastor I do systematic exposition in order that I may preach the whole counsel of God. Not only are there difficult subjects that God deals with that one wouldn't "choose" to preach otherwise; there are also difficult passages that are not easy to understand that require a great deal of thought, research, and prayer.

God uses this to both equip me and my congregation.

DJP said...

Thanks Frank, TUAD, Penn. It's actually a post I've had on-tap, mostly-finished, for some time now. When neither of my betters ("peers" in this context is clearly not le bon mot) posted, it seemed time to put the cherry on the top, sprinkle the almond bits, and serve it up.

Solameanie said...

You mean you actually expect a preacher to preach the whole counsel of God? In this day and age? We're supposed to be blown by the wind of a spirit as we chant and skip-to-my-Lou through a labyrinth. With jasmine incense. A certain former English professor who fills pulpits will be very displeased with you for posting this.

Seriously, amen and amen. I guess I've been spoiled by working with associates of John MacArthur and like minded men. Anymore, I have little use for sermons that have more in common with Cliff Notes or Readers Digest than they do with verse-by-verse exposition.

One problem. What to do with a generation that has the attention span of a gnat and can't read anything more complicated than Dr. Seuss?

David Rudd said...

he's sketched out a giant nose, with a few vestigial appendages tacked on as afterthoughts.

wonderful quote in a fantastic post, dan. i'll probably borrow it.

Joe Mama said...

I have listened to a great number of sermons from one pastor (a well known popularizer of Open Theism) spanning a good 10 years, and heard exactly what you were talking about in your second point. He began with a phrase about God's unsurpassable love for his creations, and slowly turned that phrase, which was a fixture in his sermons, until he was urging his congregation to ascribe unsurpassable worth to people.

This is only one example of taking a truth from scripture, isolating it, and developing that understanding until it bears no resemblence to the truth you started with.

Mike said...

That's too bad about the guy who refuses to keep the sermon topic on the Bible. My pastor doesn't use notes (or sometimes he does, I haven't noticed), but he knows the Bible inside and out. One guy that impressed me even more is a guy named Willard Cantelon. He was an apostle. He quoted scripture (correctly) without referring to a Bible. He didn't use notes.

When you're starting out as pastor, they need to structure their sermons. Our young pastors all do this. But when you've got some 40 years of ministry (and studying), you wouldn't need necessarily to structure your sermons.

But it's never OK to go off topic and talk the about world's methods.

Nice post.

FX Turk said...

I don't want to abuse DJP's topic here (though it might turn out that way), but I think Dan's point here is not preaching from fully-prepared scripts: I think it's making adequate preparation and intending to say something rather than opening the Bible and hoping (even praying) for the best.

One of the best sermons I have ever heard was at a chapel service at Midwestern Seminary when the President at that time was about to retire. He preached on Titus 1:5 for 45 minutes as the charge to pastors.

Never opened the Book; never glanced at a note. Yet it was wholly obvious that his remarks were not only prepared but in fact studied and well-considered. He had, at least, done that passage before.

It is one thing to come to the text hoping your devotional time is going to give the Holy Spirit something to grab onto, and another entirely to have preparation time over and above your devotions some that the Holy Spirit will definitely use you.

DJP said...

Exactly right, Frank. I was offering Biblical criticism of the thought that preparation, order, and forethought are somehow antithetical to the operation of the Holy Spirit.

I remember thinking, "What -- the Holy Spirit can't deal with you a week ahead of time, when you start studying in earnest? And five days ahead, when you start thinking yourself clear? And three days in advance, when you jot down some notes and find an outline that clarifies the text?"

Random, chaotic, arrogant, irresponsible impulsiveness is not a spiritual trait.

Penn Tomassetti said...

"The cloke that I left at Toas with Carpus, when you come, bring with you, and the books, but especially the parchments." (2 Tim. 4:13).

Obviously Paul was doing some study or preparation or something.

However, that did not mean he never preached spontaneously (Acts 21:31-22:22).

Do any Pastors ever preach outside of their pulpits? What about all those poor souls walking down the street outside? [I ask that to promote some thought, and perhaps some testimony, not to be derogatory].

Grace and peace to those who love Christ Jesus sincerely.

olan strickland said...

djp: Random, chaotic, arrogant, irresponsible impulsiveness is not a spiritual trait.

Amen! However those who think that those characteristics are marks of "super-spirituality" like to take this verse out of context to support their nonsense: "When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say" (Luke 12:11-12).

Penn Tomassetti said...

I should have asked if any reformed/calvinist/non-evanjellybean pastors ever preach on the spot, when necessary, without having to map everything first? Evangelism is what I was kind of getting at. But that is changing the subject, and I read a comment about that in another post the other day about keeping to the subject. Sorry.

GUNNY said...

"But here's how he applied that true concept: he refused to prepare or outline sermons."

The irony to me by these guys is that they limit the Holy Spirit, presuming that He can't/won't guide during the preparation process as well as the delivery of the sermon.

Mike said...

Frank's comment:

"Never opened the Book; never glanced at a note. Yet it was wholly obvious that his remarks were not only prepared but in fact studied and well-considered. He had, at least, done that passage before."

Yes, there's nothing I disagree with in Frank's post. I was not clear enough, I guess.

greglong said...

Gunny, you stole my thunder.

Exactly what I was going to say...and what my seminary homiletics professor, Dr. Ralph Turk, used to tell us.

Anonymous said...

The story of your pastor reminds me of my time in college and then in youth ministry. I wish I had kept track of the times someone had told me they hadn't done any of their reading or studying, and asked me to pray for grace to help them pass a test. Or people who don't make a budget and run up all kinds of debt, and pray that God would just bring in a bunch of money to take care of them. Or don't bother thinking about the consequences of a decision, and just blindly trust God will lead them through opening/closing doors.

The Bible says plenty of stuff about prayer and trusting God. Nowhere do I find anything suggesting the Holy Spirit is a license to abdicate your duty to study, or budget, or shepherd your flock. I'm not sure where God promises to be a bailout for our laziness.

Rachael Starke said...

I may have an example of Biblical "extemporaneous" preaching, from MacArthur himself. Years ago, I was at a GCC college study being led by Mark, his son. He led the study using his Dad's Bible, inside which were his notes from the previous day's chapel at the Master's College. Mark commented that he had been sitting with his dad during chapel and watched him write out those notes during music before he got up to speak. IOW, John just sat there and came up with the entire outline, subpoints, etc., in the ten or fifteen minutes before he got up to preach for forty or so. I had been in that chapel. While today I don't remember what he preached on, I do remember that it had one Biblically-originated, Biblically-developed idea, with plenty of supporting texts and the typical trademark MacArthur alliterative style. And so what struck me when Mark commented that that had all just "come out of his (John's) head" was that his head was just crammed full of Scripture, and so that's what "spontaneously" came out...

So if I'm not mixing up my seminoid terms,that John did was exegesis; what you, Dan, experienced wasn't even eisegesis, more like ay-yi-yi-segesis....

Mike Riccardi said...


We began the thread with an old term from the TeamPyro glossary, and now I think we just added a new one.


Dave .... said...

31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Cor. 14:31-33)

The cessationist in me believes that this has to do with biblical exposition as the "prophetic gift" in the church. And this is the check an balance that gifted, studied, and PREPARED folks have to offer. Sounds like a working example of the "whole counsel" to me.

But, of course, I just admitted to a isogetical approach. Get the kindling! ;-)

Dave .... said...

Just in case you're LOOKING for new terms, try this: Evan-Gumby-lical (ee-van-gum-BEE-li-cal, emphasis on the BEE). "Evangumbylicals have a soft, pliable theology that can be twisted and bent to suit almost any audience without breaking."

If you like that one, we need to work Pokey into the act somehow.

DJP said...


I like it!

Strong Tower said...

"I was offering Biblical criticism of the thought that preparation, order, and forethought are somehow antithetical to the operation of the Holy Spirit."

I have actually heard this stated as the standard plea of a true Pentecostal Preacher. Many times. Some were like your pastor and simply refuse to "dilute" the power of the Spirit by preparing a sermon.

Answering Penn's question, there is a difference between evaglelstic preaching and pulpit preaching. The first is directed toward the unsaved, the second to the church. They both have like effect, preaching is teaching and teaching is preaching, however the second is, and should be more systematic for it is intended for the building up of the body of believers in a systematic way. In other words, it is intended not just to bring a saving knowledge but to equip for maturity so that each will work having something to give to others.

In both venues spontaneity is not ruled out. In the case of evangelism, I suppose it depends on how that is being staged. If it is in small group or individual contexts, then I would say by all means try to reach some. In that case conversational approaches that by nature are spontaneous are fine so long as there is the systematic study prepared behind it. In the case of large evangelistic outreach though, it would again make more sense to approach a crowd with clearity and simplicity with the primary concern that it is comprehended by the greatest number. It is just not possibible to answer all the questions attending the message. In church, however, we have follow-up, classes where such questions concerning the preached message can and should be asked and addressed. And yes, as Reform/Calvinist when opportunity avails itself, I would not hesitate to preach spontaneously. But, if given the time I would prefer to study to show myself approved a workman who needs not to be ashamed. Remaining instant in and out of season is requisite to service, but for the teacher who must show himself apt at teaching then the conveyance of knowledge takes center stage. The best means is a sytematic approach that will not leave others guessing where you have been or where you are going.

Hope that helps.

SolaMommy said...

DJP, what you've described is exactly what Beth Moore does at her conferences. No prep; entirely "Spirit"-led. Same results. I went to one of her conferences a couple years ago and will never go back.

greglong said...

Dave, the nature of prophecy may be debated, but I don't know too many who view it as "biblical exposition."

It primarily involves communicating God's message to His people, not expounding an already-existing message.

Solameanie said...

Reformed Mommy,

Are you saying that the eisegesis is more akin to the Frito Bandito?

(That is, if anyone here remembers the Frito Bandito)

GUNNY said...

Aye - Aye - Aye - oh
I am the Frito Bandito
Give me some Fritos
and I'll be your friend.


Rachael Starke said...

Ha! Oh no, I'm sure I'm waaaay to young to remember him... :)

It's one of the many extra-Biblical expressions my husband and I have for church and theology-related shenanigans, as in -

"How was the womens' tea, hon?"

"Well, we started by singing 'In the Garden'"


In this particular (excellently described and denounced as usual) case, there's also the oldie but goodie "RTWS" or "Random Thoughts While Strolling"...

Strong Tower said...


GUNNY said...

Strong Tower, you rock!

What a flashback that was.


Solameanie said...

And wouldn't you know, the Frito Bandito received an instant, automatic and permanent ban, LOL.

Thanks, Strong Tower, for the fun memories. I actually had one of those erasers until the teacher confiscated them all from the class. I can still remember her shouting verbatim...

"From now on, there will be NO MORE FRITO BANDITO in this classroom!"

Anonymous said...

". . . a sack-full of isolated inspired fortune-cookies." Sounds like a gnostic gospel to me. But then, that is fitting, considering the expectation of direct, mystical guidance by "the Spirit" on the part of such pastors.

I can relate to your words about your former pastor in my current experience, but I must say yours is more extreme. But that's what I get for settling for a 4-point Calvinist who preaches a Keswick form of sanctification. At least he brings an outline to the podium to provide some guidance to his thinking as he thinks up what to say on the fly.