A feminine focus
Building A Firm Foundation Sally Davey
Maybe you have noticed that some ministers, around the world, seem to have a real passion for teaching people and seeing them firmly established in the faith. Not all gifted men who have a good grasp of theology academically are able to pass it on to others in an enthusiastic, clear, and heart-felt way. One man who did, and who did this very well, was James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for 32 years. I had the privilege of knowing him, and hearing his regular preaching week by week, for the three years I was a student in the city of Philadelphia. Boice was a real teacher: he loved God's truth, and he loved passing it on to others. Though he had been a scholar (studied at Harvard, Princeton, then the University of Basel, in Switzerland), he had the gift of utter clarity, and infectious warmth and vigour. Whenever I think of him now, it seems as if his name suggests the best adjective for his preaching style: energetic, exuberant, even boisterous!
A Defender of the Truth
He was also a fearless defender of the truth: when I was a member of Tenth Presbyterian, Boice was leading the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, an organization founded to defend the complete trustworthiness of Scripture against liberal attacks on it. Our church also, having defended biblical faithfulness for years in a liberal denomination (the United Presbyterian Church), made the serious decision to leave that denomination (one it had been part of for about 150 years) and join a more faithful one (the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, which later became part of the Presbyterian Church of America). The discussions surrounding this decision were so careful, thorough and biblically-based that I learned a great deal from observing them as a young Christian.
Later on, Boice helped found the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a group of Presbyterian, Reformed and Lutheran Christians concerned at the desire of some evangelicals to work closely with Roman Catholics, and thus water down the solid distinctives of the Reformation. He also became increasingly concerned at the weakness, lack of conviction and general worldliness of the modern evangelical world in America (and I might add, the same is the case all over the western world). People seem to be losing sight of the importance of truth, and treating true doctrine as optional or even irrelevant in the Christian life. But Boice, along with others such as David Wells, continued to insist that without true knowledge, there is no faith at all. (See Hosea 4:6, for instance).
His Life Showed In His Death
Now, all the above sounds rather academic: and, to some extent, it is. We need people who have a clear knowledge of the truth, and of the issues that surround it; and who are able to teach us. But Boice as a man was also a warm, hearty believer in it. His life abounded in instances of his devotion to Christ. He wrote hymns that speak of this delight in the cause of Christ, the Word of God. Nowhere, though, was his love of God and his unwavering faith better proven than in his death. Last year, in the midst of his ministry, he suddenly discovered he was terminally ill with liver cancer. The news was broken to him on Good Friday morning, two hours before he was due to preach. He went right on and led the service, preaching on the crucifixion. As the church was due to host a conference on reformed theology the following weekend (a favourite annual occasion he had helped found 27 years before) he did not tell the church of his illness, lest it distress people on such a public occasion. He spoke several times at this conference; then, broke the news the following week. At the next Sunday morning service (the last time, as it turned out, that he was able to speak in public), he said these words to the congregation he had served for over 30 years:
A number of you have asked what you can do, and it strikes me that what you can do, you are doing. This is a good congregation, and you do the right things. You are praying, certainly…A relevant question, I guess, when you pra,y is pray for what? Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you're free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to do miracles - and He certainly can - is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place. So although miracles do happen, they're rare by definition … I think it's far more profitable to pray for wisdom for the doctors…they're not omniscient and they do make mistakes… Above all, I would pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying Himself in history and you say where, in all of history, has God most glorified Himself? He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn't by delivering Jesus from the cross, though He could have. Jesus said, `Don't you think I could call down from my Father legions of angels for my defence?” But He didn't do that. And yet that is where God is most glorified…
If I were to reflect on what goes on theologically here, there are two things I would stress. One is the sovereignty of God. That's not novel. We have talked about the sovereignty of God here forever. God is in charge: When things like this come into our lives, they are not accidental. It's not as if God somehow forgot what was going on, and something bad slipped by… God does everything according to His will. We've always said that. But what I've been impressed with mostly is something in addition to that. It's possible, isn't it, to conceive of God as sovereign and yet indifferent? God's in charge, but He doesn't care. But it's not that. God is not only the one who is in charge; God is also good. Everything He does is good. And what Romans 12:1 and 2 says is that we have the opportunity by the renewal of our minds - that is, how we think about these things - actually to prove what God's will is. And then it says, “His good, pleasing and perfect will.” Is that good, pleasing, and perfect to God? Yes, of course, but the point is that it is good, pleasing and perfect to us. If God does something in your life, would you change it? If you'd change it, you'd make it worse. It wouldn't be as good. So that is the way we want to accept it and move forward, and who knows what God will do?
The Testimony Of A Faithful Teacher
Those words were the testimony of a teacher dying in reliance upon what he had taught. When someone teaches such truths publicly, it is always a comfort when they themselves testify, by their lives, that these truths can be relied upon; and when they do not crumble in the face of adversity.
Boice was, first of all, a preacher; and almost all of the 60-odd books he either wrote or contributed to were edited versions of his regular weekly sermons. When you read his books, you are really listening to the man preach. It is like sitting in the pews of Tenth Presbyterian, being taught and encouraged from the pulpit. Many of his books are commentaries on books of the Bible, since his preaching was an expository working-through of books from beginning to end.
Even the particular book that I want to introduce this month arose from his preaching. This book, The Foundations of the Christian Faith, is Boice's largest-scale work: a systematic explanation of the major doctrines contained in the Bible, written in a friendly, clear and simple way for the ordinary Christian person. This book was his conscious effort to provide a helpful introduction to bible teaching for people “whose chief goal in life [is] knowing God better.” When he wrote the book, he believed there was a distinct lack of such a work… “For years I had looked for a work that could be given to a person (particularly a new Christian) who is alert and questioning and who could profit from a comprehensive overview of the Christian faith, a basic theology from A to Z.” The result was a four-part set of books (the first coming out in 1979), which originated as sermons to the congregation at Tenth Presbyterian. These four books are now printed as one volume, Foundations of the Christian Faith.
How His Work Is Useful
This book is such a useful one that I want to highlight some ways we could put it to use. In my view, it is one we should all have in our houses for personal profit; or at the very least, order for our church libraries for corporate use! First of all, we all need to grow in understanding of our faith. Again, as Boice puts it, in a practical and spiritual sense, we all should want to know God better. It is knowledge about God and His ways that sets our hearts on fire to love and serve Him; and we do not gain this without putting in effort. The gaining of knowledge in the Christian life doesn't begin and end with Sunday school classes, or with catechism. We need to be students of the Word our whole lives. As long as we are alive, we have a duty to be learning. Life is so short, and there is so much to learn!
What are some of the ways we need this knowledge, and how can Boice's book help us? Consider our children. I'm sure most of us have had a child come home from school with a difficult question. “Mum, the teacher said in class today that the Bible is only one way of finding God's guidance. Is that right?” or, “Freddie [who happens to go to another church teaching quite different doctrines] said God told him last night to do… When will God speak to me like that?” How do you respond? By saying, “Ask your father… Ask the minister… ?“ No doubt, worthwhile suggestions! But really, we should all be wanting the answers to these questions ourselves, and have a source of such answers at our fingertips until we have them in our own heads and hearts. Our children should be able to see us as good examples of seekers after truth, and people who want to know God. Try Boice's short, conversationally-friendly chapters on “The Authority of the Scriptures”, “The Proof of the Scriptures” and “How True is the Bible?” There is also one on how to interpret the Bible, and one on modern biblical criticism (making a daunting subject considerably more comprehensible for the non-academic reader).
Then, what about the non-Christian friend who has questions that put you on the spot? She asks you (as one friend asked me recently) - how do you know there is a hell, and that it's eternal? “My father says, as a father, he wouldn't condemn his children away from him eternally, so why would a God of love?” (Well, apart from the fact that this question also involves the issue of who are God's children), it requires that we have more than a passing acquaintance with the idea that there is a hell. We need to be able to give an account of what hell is, what God's purpose for it is, and what the Bible says about who goes there, why, and for how long. Then comes the question of evil - sin, as Christians call it. Why does God allow it to go on and on, if He is good? Why do good people suffer? Such questions are often genuine, serious, and deserving of a considered answer. In fact, it has usually been questions like this that have shamed me, and spurred me on to gain knowledge that I ought to have had in the first place. That is where Boice's book is so helpful. There are sections that deal with details of this nature: in the case of the final judgement (the answer Psalm 73 gives those wondering why God seems to allow evil to continue), about one page of clear, practical teaching that explains the content of several Scripture passages.
Situation three occurs when you are sitting in church listening to a sermon. As an aside, the preacher refers in passing to the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity. Now, this might not be the major theme of the sermon, but the reference puzzles you. Maybe the point is one you had never thought of before. Perhaps it has implications about God's character that excite and intrigue you. You want to know more. Perhaps, even, the point made sounds strange - you're wondering if it is correct. You want to be a Berean, and check this out to see if it is true… But the question of the Trinity is a hard one to “search” by looking up Scripture texts in isolation. That is where a systematic treatment of Bible doctrines is so helpful - you can turn to the work of someone else who has done the investigation thoroughly, and who anticipates most questions you might ask. Boice is exceptionally good in this regard. He really wants people to be satisfied, biblically, with his answers - and you'll find that his answers seem to emerge, naturally, out of his careful discussion of a biblical passage.
So, do you want to be well-grounded in the faith? Here's a good place to begin…