Everyone’s talking about it. Zesty one-liners liked on Facebook. Blurbs teasing on Twitter. Even primetime television shows are buzzing about the new book by a so-called Christian author. It’s quite easy to discern this new publication is trendy. But discerning whether the new rage is doctrinally sound is another matter altogether. And if God’s people are to be faithfully committed to sound doctrine, how do they determine whether the newest book abuzz in the media upholds doctrinal integrity, or is the product of those puffed up and using godliness as a means of gain (1 Tim. 6:3-5)?
The apostle Paul’s timeless admonition in 2 Tim. 3-4 rings especially germane today where he writes, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but have itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Such itching ears are the essence of the vestige of sinful flesh that remains in us. Our flesh naturally itches for teachings that conform to our fallen faculties rather than desiring to be conformed by God’s Word. This is such a concern to Paul that in the three pastoral epistles, Paul takes up the importance of sound teaching 26 different times. Think about that! Paul is consistent throughout the NT in encouraging believers to mature towards developing the mind of Christ so that we will cease acting like children tossed back and forth by the latest fads and deceitful doctrines (Eph. 4:14).
So what should be our reaction when a new book proffered by a “Christian” author makes the rounds, being lauded on all the major media networks? First, I must ask myself why the world is endorsing it. Not always, but generally speaking, an endorsement by the world means a reduction of the gospel. How can we say this? Perhaps we should ask Jesus Himself, who counseled us, saying, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:18-19).” So our Lord Himself instructs that if the world loves us, we are not His, but if we are His, the world will hate us.
Jesus reinforced this teaching in the high priestly prayer, noting, “the world has hated them because they are not of the world.” Therefore, if a literary work is marketed as “Christian non-fiction” and the world loves it, due diligence requires that we ask what kind of reductionism has occurred, or what doctrines have been watered down, in order for the world to embrace it because as we just read according to Jesus, their natural response is to hate His word. The Apostle Paul also echoes these sentiments concerning the world’s default response, noting that not only is the cross an offense to non-believers (Gal. 5:11), but that it is also folly (“moronic” in the actual translation) to those unregenerate who are incapable of understanding spiritual truth. I must therefore conclude that some offense has been removed to make the “cool” literary work palatable to unconverted ears.
Our response then, knowing the presupposition that Jesus and Paul have laid forth, is to contend and test for the truth. Such is Jude’s imperative (Jude 3-4), telling us to contend for the faith once given to us (a faith when in the Greek means a completed act, ergo, there is no new revelation) against ungodly people who have crept in unnoticed who pervert the gospel by encouraging antinomian behavior (the belief that because one is saved and therefore free to sin with impunity). We should not be silent, but contend. Paul instructs us likewise to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). John warns to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” John’s contention is as true today as it was then. We should not just assume carte blanche that a book or study, no matter how popular it is, (or, especially how popular it is) accords with sound doctrine.
If we truly are seeking a new study or book to facilitate our sanctification, and are not doing so out of a motive that seeks the approval of man over the approval of God – after all, as Paul says, if we were trying to please men we would not be servants of Christ (Gal. 1:10) – what should we look for in a new book or study? Is there a simple guideline to help steer us straight? In response to this frequently asked question, here are three tips to help guide you on your quest to find material that rightly handles the word of truth:
1. Does it point to Christ, or external sources, for our sustenance?
Christ is the source and sustainer of our salvation. However, we are a culture fixated on quick-fixes, and one pervasive symptom of the quick fix bug is to look to ourselves, or another tangible, visible authority for sustenance rather than looking to the cross. Pointing to Christ, we see not only is His grace sufficient for us, but a dual submission/admission that we are incapable of doing it alone, which is the very heart of the gospel. This is liberating!
Edifying resources are those pointing to Christ by engaging His inerrant Word, not the word of another person given privy before Him. Conversely, there resources abounding today that feed off the impulse to look to ourselves or to some other fallible figurehead “paraphrasing” for God, about how to figure it out. Unfortunately, we often find a profusion of literature that recycles trivialized iterations and countdowns, such as 5 ways to a happier ____. This follows a step-by-step list of things to do to secure happiness, a virtue that often subjugates sanctification and Christ-likeness as the chief aim. But in pursing happiness, rather than holiness or Christ as the chief aim, these authors also impose another impediment to their readers’ sanctification by pointing to external sources rather than the sufficiency of Christ for their sustenance.
This is not to say we are to be self-loathing killjoys who forsake even the appearance of happiness. Rather, our joy is grounded in Christ and knowing Him more intimately. This kind of joy found in pursuing the holiness of God leads to the kind of contentment that Paul spoke of when he said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). Do we really believe that? Or do we prefer following teachers that point to their own human-centered self-help methods, and away from Christ, for nourishment? Ultimately, this approach fails because it points to more law through a sense of appeasement, rather than pointing to grace through a sense of yielded entrustment. Remember, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). So before you dive into a study, browse through it to see to whom it points as the chief protagonist.
2. Does it hold to the primacy of Scripture?
Simply put, Scripture is that special revelation which God felt necessary to reveal to us for our salvation, growth, and sanctification (John 17:17). You should always, before embarking on any study, do your homework to determine if the author holds to a high view of Scripture. Said another way, determine whether they believe that God’s Word is fully authoritative for our lives, or simply some wise proverbs in order to live a happier life. Does the author believe God’s Word is no longer applicable for today’s culture, and thus, is to be interpreted fluidly according to shifting cultural values, or does the author affirm a hermeneutic that places meaning only by the original author’s intent to the original audience? If the former, then quickly run away and don’t look back or collect your refund when passing “Go.”
One helpful tip is to always be mindful to determine whether the author’s core tenants and buzz-phrases are supported by Scripture. Does the author undermine Scripture by proclaiming they are the recipients of “new revelation,” claiming that God has uniquely spoken to them, thus contradicting the Bible itself (Heb. 1:1-2; Rev. 22:18-9; Jude 3)? Or, is the closed canon Scripture sufficient? Does the author encourage obedience to Christ as a means of loving Christ, such as what Jesus proscribed when stating, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? Or, are they quick to lambast those contending for normative biblical truths as “legalists,” thereby tacitly advocating a form of cheap grace that marks much of the “live and let live” mores of American Christianity today? You can tell a lot about an author by their view of Scripture. The Lord tells us that not only is all Scripture inspired by Him, but that it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). An author who affirms anything less would not be profitable for your growth in Christ-likeness.
3. Does it proclaim the gospel?
Bottom line, we should always ask, “Does the study proclaim the gospel?” That is, the person and work of Christ, and how we acquire the benefits of His person and work. Sadly, in a quest for quick stimulus happiness, the gospel is mutually excluded in many popular publications. Oft driven by expediency, this strategy is simply a quick-fix, a counterfeit, that doesn’t give its audience what it truly needs after the fleeting feelings of feel-good. The gospel offends, because in order for there to be good news, there must be bad news, and that bad news is antithetical to modern humanist views, or to selling books, for that matter. The bad news is what bad people, such as all of us, don’t want to hear: that we are all proud and corrupt, naturally hostile to God, and deserve divine justice with no way of helping ourselves (Rom. 8:7).
“But God…” those two words, perhaps the most beautiful in all the New Testament from Ephesians 2:4, bridges the bad news to the good by ushering in God’s rich mercy and love, and should be an integral inclusion to any work that seeks to rightly handle the Word (2 Tim. 2:15) and give the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). At a minimum, some element or semblance of the gospel should be present in any work that expressly markets itself as Christian or some related facet of developing Christian disciplines. This gospel is the power of God unto salvation. That’s good news that can never be written and printed enough.
Paul tells Timothy in two different books to “guard the deposit” entrusted to Him (1 Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim. 1:14). All too often we find soaring inspirational stories that itch the ears and make the listener feel good, but when the program is over we find the entire platform was devoid of the gospel. If we are to guard the deposit given to us, if we are to discern good doctrine, if we are to rightly handle the Word, and if we are to truly love people, we will make sure we put nothing before their faces that settles for anything less than Christ, His Word, and the gospel.