I wonder how passion became a Christian virtue. The word is now used frequently in evangelical blogs, books, and conference presentations to describe an essential quality of earnest Christian disciples. Here is an example from conference leader John Maxwell:

Passion powers achievement and provides fuel for great accomplishments. If you have passion about how you live, you’ll keep going even when the chips are down and everyone says you can’t do it. Passionate people don’t stop until they succeed.

If you’re passionate about something, you’ll act with enthusiasm and energy. You’ll keep going until you achieve your objective. There really is no substitute for passion when it comes to making the most of your personal talents.

John Maxwell, Talent Is Never Enough
(BusinessNews Publishing: 2014).

Best-selling author and radio evangelist John MacArthur says passion attracts people to his preaching:

There is a totally new joy in my preaching, a new sense of adventure that [listeners] can sense even in the way that I preach and the passion of it. It’s all fresh because it’s been informed with fresh new insights…I’m speaking my convictions with greater passion because I’ve had to test them from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22. And so what I’m holding on to, I’m really holding on to. The people are catching some of this joy. They listen not only to what I say but to the passion with which I say it. And you transfer to them not only an understanding of the Scriptures but an enthusiasm and excitement about it, too.

John MacArthur, “A Passion for Exposition,”
in Preaching with Power, ed. Michael Duduit (Baker Books: 2006).

Louie Giglio of Atlanta sponsors a massive annual rally of college students called the Passion Conference, “uniting students in worship and prayer for the purpose of spiritual awakening in this generation.” A generation ago, we would have called that a Holiness Conference.

In fact, the word passion now seems to be substituted for the work of the third Person of the Trinity. Think I’m exaggerating? Try substituting Holy Spirit for passion in the the quotes above, or the phrase filled with the Holy Spirit for the word passionate.

Sadly, we Americans tend to discount the value of our vocabulary as time goes by. We use words carelessly, without regard to what they really mean. But I don’t object to these exhortations to passion because I’m fastidious about language (though I am). I object because it implies that we can whip up our emotions and screw up our confidence to do what only God’s Holy Spirit can do.

We are not called to be filled with passion, but to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18).

OK, class, repeat after me…

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Book. Whoever believes in that Book shall not perish but have eternal life.

What? You say you’ve memorized another version? All right, recite that one if you please…

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Yes, I like the poetic cadence of the King James Version of 1611, too, but don’t you think its rendering of this verse is rather outdated? I mean it’s so…pre-modern!

Ever since the Enlightenment (which was just beginning to dawn in 1611), Western civilization has placed its faith in books. We have believed that if you read, studied, and assimilated the facts of the greatest book on any subject, you could master that subject. Do you want to become a skillful diesel mechanic? Hit the diesel books. A French chef? Julia Child wrote the book.  A brilliant nuclear physicist? Hie yourself to yon physics research library.

Of course, the greatest of all great books is the Bible, so we modern Christians have assumed that the same principle holds: Read the Book; memorize the Book; comprehend the Book; master the Book and you will master the subject. Hence our Revised Modernist Version of John 3:16 — “God so loved the world that he gave his only Book…”

One problem with that: The subject of this Book is God.

Even if we comprehend this Book, we do not comprehend God. Even if we master this Book, we have not mastered God. Even if we follow all the personal examples in this Book, our skillful imitation does not make us followers of God. God is a Person, and learning everything ever written about that Person would be no substitute for knowing the Person himself.

This is not a plea to dispense with Bible study because, as the apostle Paul advised young Timothy, all Scripture is “profitable” for understanding the ways of God. But it is not sufficient. To trust God and let Him become part of your own life story, you have to know Him personally.

Muslims traditionally call Jews and Christians “people of the Book,” because we cherish and study many of the ancient Scriptures they cherish. But if we suppose that phrase really describes what we’re about, we’re just as mistaken about the essence of Christianity as the Muslims are.

We are not just people of the Book. We are people of the God who became incarnate in human flesh, who lived among us, and now lives within us. As the writer of John’s Gospel said, all the books in the world cannot contain that story.

Bible Study Resource Guide

Thirty years ago, Thomas Nelson Publishers released my first book, The Bible Study Resource Guide. It’s been in print with scarcely a break for all this time, has gone through 3 editions, and is now with its third publisher with a new name: Swords and Whetstones.

I’ve encountered the book in expected places across the years: at a Christian bookstore at Sarnia, Ontario; in the open stack of a Reformed college library; and in the studies of pastors from various denominations (including that of a famous radio preacher).

It has spurred some unexpected long-distance telephone conversations, too. I remember getting a call one Saturday night from a Sunday school teacher down South, who had used the book to prepare her lessons. She got my phone number from the publisher and called to say, “Thank you.” A few months ago, the dean of a Christian college in Kansas City called to purchase some copies. “I’m glad it’s still in print,” she said. “It’s been the textbook for our introductory Bible study course for years.”

I can only marvel at how God multiplies our efforts for his Kingdom. He said they would be “like bread cast upon the waters” to disintegrate and scatter to the far corners of the world, feeding his creatures everywhere. And so they have.

Recommended reading for the week: Chaplain Mike Spencer’s new post on “Two Churches that Closed Down the Show.” He shares the provocative story of two pastors who guided congregations into an era of rapid growth by using “entertainment evangelism,” a model that’s often imitated in the evangelical world today. Then they came to realize that their church members were little more than consumers of ministry, not ministers themselves. One of these pastors (Walt Kallestad) explained it this way:

Too many were observing the show but not meeting God. They meandered in and out of relationships but weren’t in real community. They sought their spiritual fix but didn’t give themselves fully to Christ.

This has been a burden of my heart for some time now. Christ seeks disciples who will grow in order to help others grow,  be spiritually enriched so he can enrich the lives of others through them. We rarely see communities of spiritual transformation comprised of believers like this, but they are what the world desperately needs.

The apostolic church lo0oked like this. I believe the church of the future will look like this, too.