This post deals with the content of the sermon I heard at Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church; the sermon itself can be heard and downloaded via SermonAudio [link]; it runs about 37 minutes, including opening and closing prayer. This post is a straightforward summary; I may follow up with comments, analysis, etc. in a later post.
The sermon text is Romans 1:17 “for in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written ‘the just shall live by faith’” [ESV].
Fry opens with prayer, a prayer that is partly to the Holy Spirit but mostly reminds us that the Scriptures are inspired and preserved, asks for protection against the Evil One, and a request for understanding and strength.
He follows with an appeal to our understanding of the ongoing struggle between terrorists and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and then-current resistance to TSA security measures and says the best of systems have their flaws, including the best security and judicial systems have their flaws. By contrast Jesus (in God’s courtroom) will give out “pure, absolute justice.” And punishment, both for the guilty and the innocent according to God’s law. The only innocent will be people who have kept God’s law perfectly. The multitudes of innocent people will have been declared righteous by God according to Jesus’s perfect obedience.
He then reads the text, starting at verse 8, apparently reading from the KJV or the NKJV.
The sermon outline has three points:
- Where can I find that which is needed that I might go through the day of judgment? Where can I find what is needed?
- What do I find? The righteousness of God.
- How does this become mine?
It has been revealed through the Scriptures; through the Gospel. The righteousness of God was revealed in the Old Testament. After all, Paul is steering toward a quote from Habakkuk, and has already spoken about how Abraham and David were justified by faith, prophetic faith in something symbolic of Jesus’s death. Fry references Hebrews 11 as being people who were saved by faith in the same way, not saved by sacrifices or other religious observances, but by faith; also 1 Peter 1:18ff. Concludes that men have always been saved by the righteousness of God. Also references Romans 3:25.
What do I find? The righteousness of God. Fry I think here makes a passing reference to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and what it means for this righteousness to be “of God,” but doesn’t delve, just saying that this is sometimes a reference to God’s character, His attributes of righteousness and justice. Fry wanders a bit here, making several references to Romans 3 before saying that there’s a righteousness God has and one He provides to sinners, and it is this provision that is good news and saying that this righteousness is shown in Jesus, who kept the Law perfectly.
Fry injects a subtle bit of humor into the sermon by asking us to consider how Jesus could be sinless while living in a real home with sisters and worked a job and dealt with customers. Also, any of us would have been stretched beyond what we could bear by dealing with the scribes and Pharisees.
God has provided righteousness for his people; Fry asks who would rejoice in the provision of the righteousness of God, and mentions that lots of people are out having fun on Sunday and aren’t concerned. Fry says those who seek righteousness are the ones who come under the sound of the Gospel and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. People who have made a real impact are the ones who have been the most convicted: Abraham, David, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Edwards, and Spurgeon. Fry says anyone who aspires to be a pastor should have a sense of how sinful he personally is; “the same should be true of us.”
How does this become mine? How does the sinner receive it? Fry mentions but doesn’t delve into the question of what “from faith to faith” means, then passes over it to “justified by faith,” and then goes on to the quote from Habakkuk, a contemporary of Jeremiah (PRBC is studying Jeremiah on Sunday evenings). He says saving faith isn’t natural; he contrasts this with ordinary trust, like a person exercises when riding in a car or plane, says it is a gift of God. After claiming that people want credit in salvation Fry says we seldom mention the righteousness of God as part of evangelism.
The closing illustration is about putting on a coat in cold weather; Fry says we should thank God for protection against cooler weather and says we should remember that God has covered us with His righteousness (against the day of His wrath).
The closing prayer asked God to convict people and draw them to Himself.
Like many people of a certain age I sort of gave Van Halen a miss after about 1985, so I totally missed the Van Halen III/Gary Cherone era. Here’s a live version of Fire In The Hole:
The last verse starts at about 4:48 and goes like this:
Rudder of ship which sets the course
Does not the bit bridle the horse
Great is the forest set by a small flame
Like a tongue on fire no one can tame
Which a gloss on James 3:3-5
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! [link, KJV]
Sadly the performance in the clip above is disjointed and kind of a mess. These guys don’t really look like a band; no wonder this lineup didn’t last.
To my taste a far better treatment of the same lyrical material can be found on the opening track of Third Day’s self-titled 1996 album:
Careful listeners will note that the same verses get a similar treatment in a similar part of the song. Funny; Van Halen III wasn’t recorded until the following year. Hmmm.
Here’s a live video of Soul Coughing doing Moon Sammy, a song off their debut full-length Ruby Vroom:
About 2:29 there’s a verse that goes
Babylon mystery // Mother of harlots // and all these abominations of the earth // that sits on many waters // drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus // and I wondered // with great admiration.
Which is just a slight gloss on the King James Version of Revelation 17:5-6:
And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration. [link]
I have to admit that of all the Scripture passages a crowd could dance to this is one of the strangest.
I may or may not get back to Mike Doughty’s use of Scripture again; he repurposed Scripture passages (always from The Revelation, I think) on several occasions. He also went through a recovery period after Soul Coughing when some redemption themes leaked into his lyrics. I’m sorry Doughty didn’t become a Christian; I’m hoping when his memoir (promised for mid-2011) finally appears it will shed some light on what happened to him instead.
One of the distinctives I grew up with dealt with the interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:18-22, which I’ll cite in the King James Version here:
18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. 19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. 20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak , or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die . 21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken ? 22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass , that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken , but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
This is a complicated passage, and I won’t attempt to put it completely in its historical context or parse out everything it means. I’ll just give the interpretation that had the greatest impact on me growing up: if a preacher says anything that isn’t true, he is a false prophet (or false teacher) and should be shunned.
This meant several things:
- If your preacher gets something wrong doctrinally you need to leave that church
- If your preacher says something that is factually wrong you need to leave that church
- If your preacher says something is going to happen and it doesn’t, you need to leave that church
- If you’re not willing to leave the church, you have to pretend/believe that your pastor is always right
The first three are just variants on what it means for something to be true, but they were at the root of our belief that everyone in our area who attended another church was going to Hell. If you add in our tendency toward separatism, especially separatism from those who continue fellowship with those from whom we have separated ourselves, and you have a complicated problem with a simple solution: we’re the True Church and everyone else isn’t.
We sort of backed into the fourth, because it had to be true by implication. If we were at the one true church, then our preacher could never be wrong; if he actually said something that was wrong we had to ignore the problem it presented us. We couldn’t leave our church because all the others were false.
Unfortunately this tended to put the preacher on a pedestal. As a result the pastorate attracted men who wanted to be on that pedestal and didn’t know how to get off. So we ended up with preachers who believed they couldn’t be wrong, brooked no dissent or discussion, and were incapable of learning anything that might lead them to admit they had previously been wrong.
This tendency to separate preachers into two categories: “true” and “false,” did not serve us well; it’s taken me years to learn to think differently.
They were shrill and prudish, they loved bad music and guns and NASCAR, told corny jokes and spoke in soundbites, were unshakably loyal to exposed liars, and their children were going to bully our children into prayer — Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers
This is the quote that hooked me into Welch’s Thomas Road Baptist Church travelogue. It’s her description of her preconception of evangelical Christians generally, circa 2004. And she manages to find some of these folks during her three or four years at TRBC, particularly folks who carry guns where they don’t need them and folks who tell corny jokes. To be fair she admits to being moved by some of the music (and she even takes in a performance of the Living Christmas Tree), and by the time she leaves TRBC the Ergun Caner situation is still three years away, so I have to imagine that the exposed liar she’s referring to is former President George W. Bush. She doesn’t say.
What really hooked me in this quote is the part I’ve bolded above, because I think it explained so much about how I grew up understanding the world from a fundamentalist/evangelical perspective. We tended to view the world as being explainable in terms of phrases lifted from the King James Version of the Bible, typically short ones lifted out of their original textual context, not to mention their cultural context.
We tended to see complex problems through the lens of simple un-nuanced references, as if the Bible had all the answers, the answers were unambiguous, and we were not engaging in any kind of interpretation but just reporting objective facts. I think we did this because
- We saw the Bible as a collection of independent segments of text, almost as if the verses had been compiled into the whole, rather than the whole being broken artificially into chapters and verses
- Our pastors tended to “camp out” on a single phrase or a single verse for an entire sermon, reinforcing a meaning that might or might not be implicit in the text and that might or might not fit into a coherent understanding of Scripture as a whole
- We tended to read the Bible over and over and memorize it a verse at a time, rehearsing the received meaning as we did, rather than attempting to discover any meaning in the text ourselves or attempting to match up what we read with any other view other than what we received from our preacher at our church.
We also tended to ignore the fact that the Bible, while it was written more or less by book (ignoring some of the books that have been broken into pieces and some of the composite authorship theories of higher criticism), the chapters and verses we use to index the Bible were not part of the original text, do not reflect authorial intent, etc.
Our sermons tended to be primarily topical and persuasive, rather than expository and exploratory. We weren’t looking for open-ended meanings.
We brought with us the expectations of poor people who, while not illiterate, had expectations of books generally that were more appropriate for a time when they were expensive and authoritative, rather than abundant and (for lack of a better word) helpful. Because the King James English was strange, we tended not to understand what it said, so we got in the habit of having what we heard from the pulpit be at odds with what we might understand from a plain reading of the text.
So I guess I would have to plead guilty to thinking and speaking in soundbites; it was (and to a degree still is) a part of the culture, and doing otherwise would have been almost unthinkable.