Pastor John, you have, for years stressed an approach to Reformed theology that is both hard-thinking and deep-feeling. Each of us will tend to fall on one side or the other, either an anti-intellectual feeling, or an anti-feeling intellectualism. Both are to be avoided. In today’s question, a listener wants to know this: “Dear Pastor John, in your 30+ years of ministry, what have you practically done to avoid mere intellectualism — cold academic study — in your Bible reading and in your exposition?”
1) The first thing I would say is that I need to be, we need to be, deeply persuaded that this really, really matters: this non-cold, non-intellectualistic, warm, practical, affectionate relation to the living Christ. We need to be persuaded. This really matters because there are a lot of people out there — I keep bumping into them — there are a lot of people out there who either for personality reasons or sometimes theological reasons think it doesn’t matter what your emotions do. That is, they think emotions are the caboose at the end of the train. They are just not essential at all. And it sounds like the person who wrote this question is persuaded that they matter, and it might be good to ask why. And here is my reason.
The first and greatest commandment is not to know the Lord our God — which is, of course, assumed — but to love the Lord your God. And that includes with all your heart (Matthew 22:36–37). And Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians: If you don’t love the Lord you are accursed (1 Corinthians 16:22). Love the Lord. And Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). In other words, the love that we must have isn’t just a kind of dutiful, commandment-keeping love. That is not what you have for your kids, nor your parents. It is the deepest, heartfelt, affectionate, relative kind of love, the kind we have for mother and father and son and daughter — only more, more for Jesus. And if we don’t have it, we are not worthy of Jesus.
“The first and greatest commandment is not to know the Lord our God, but to love him.”
So, this is the first thing I would say. We must be totally, John Piper must be totally persuaded that knowing God truly without loving him duly is eternally deadly, deadly. I must be persuaded of that. So, I am trembling at the thought that I could go about my academic work or my scholarly work or my writing work or preaching work or study work in some kind of cold frame with no awakened love for God, affection for God. So, the quest for overcoming what he is referring to as intellectualism is a life and death battle. That is the first thing.
2) The second thing I would say is that we should therefore read all things — Scripture and everything else, especially the word; the Scripture, but also the world and everything in it — we should read everything on the lookout for evidences of God’s value, not just evidences of his truth. The devil owns that God is true and probably knows more true things about God than we do. But the devil will not own that God is supremely valuable and supremely satisfying. The devil values himself above God. God’s presence gives no joy and no satisfaction to the devil whatsoever.
“Knowing God truly without loving him duly is eternally deadly.”
Therefore, our aim in reading the Bible should not be demonic. We are not aiming to rise just to the level of the devil. Our aim is, of course, to see what is really there, what is true about God — but always more, always more; namely, with a view to feeling what is valuable about God, treasuring the treasure that God is. The aim is to see the millions of reasons why God is a treasure, not just the millions of evidences that God exists or has certain attributes. All of our theological refinement should be for the sake of doxological embrace and enjoyment. This affects the way you read. This is what I try to do. I try to read. You read on the lookout for evidences of value, evidences of preciousness, evidences that he is beautiful and sweet and satisfying.
“Read the word and the world on the lookout for evidences of God’s value, not just his truth.”
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:1–3, “Long for the pure, spiritual milk” — and I think he means the milk of the word — “that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” What is the point of that if: if you have tasted? The point is that all the drinking in the world without tasting will not grow us up into salvation. The aim of drinking the word is tasting the Savior. It is the tasting that is the nutritional encounter with the living God that grows us up into salvation. So, that is the second thing I would say. In all of our reading, be on the lookout for evidences of God’s value, not just evidences of his truth.
3) Which leads now to the third thing that I would say, namely, that the goal of valuing or treasuring or feeling the preciousness of or enjoying the beauty of God in all of our reading confronts me immediately with the impossibility on my part of making it happen. You can’t make yourself value God. You can make yourself read. You can make yourself list off attributes of God that you see. You can make yourself list of ways that God behaves. But you can’t make yourself feel how wonderful they are. That is why the psalmist cries: Open my eyes that I may see wonders in your Word (Psalm 119:18).
“The aim of drinking the word is tasting the Savior.”
So, the third point is: Pray, pray, pray. And we pray not only for illumination to see what is really there about God, but to feel. We pray Psalm 90:14, “Satisfy [me] in the morning with your steadfast love.” Why in the world would the psalmist pray that, except that the human heart doesn’t naturally feel it when it hears and sees the beauties of God? God has to work this. We ask God to make us satisfied in God. So, prayer is absolutely essential not only that my eyes would be open, but that my affections would be awakened.
4) The fourth thing I would say is that, beyond the Bible, I read authors who have understood God deeply and felt him mightily and expressed both the understanding and the feeling with clarity and power. For me, that has been mainly Jonathan Edwards and John Owen and C.S. Lewis and the Puritans. You need to find the great seers of God and the great lovers of God and the great expressers of the seeing and the loving, so that they can feed your soul with true and large affections.
I know you, Tony, would put John Newton in that category and so would I — kind of a latter-day Puritan who saw things deeply and expressed things beautifully and felt things deeply. So that is number four.
“You can’t make yourself value God. So, we ask God to make us satisfied in God.”
5) And then, finally, I would say: Open your mouth and bear witness to family and friends and neighbors and colleagues to the beauty of God and your joy in him. It is precisely in giving expression to our joy that intensifies the joy itself. A shared joy is a doubled joy. God loves mission. God loves witness. God loves sharing. God loves loving people. And he does not love hoarding. Therefore, when we turn on our affections and express them to other people, God is pleased and our joy is intensified.
So, those are my five strategies against cold intellectualism. There are lots more strategies, but maybe that is enough to set the trajectory of discovery.
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