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Where Do Pastors Get The Idea That The Bible Is Practical?

You have no idea the number of pastors who tell me that their unique gift is to teach the Bible from a practical perspective. They focus on helping their congregation understand the Bible in practical ways. I assume they mean like the owner’s manual of a car, or the instructions for operating a computer. But the problem is – the Bible may be the least practical book ever written. In fact, I wonder if you’re teaching the Bible from a practical perspective, you may not be grasping the Bible at all.

The drama of a God who allowed His Son to become a sacrifice to redeem the entire human race is the least practical thing I’ve ever heard. The story of redemption isn’t practical at all. If you want practical, then you’re looking in the wrong place. The incarnation, the mystery of salvation, the power of miracles, how the Gospel message transforms lives – all those things aren’t the least bit practical.  And how about the Sermon on the Mount?  And turning the other cheek?

It wasn’t remotely practical for William Tyndale to spend his entire adult life on the run from authorities, living with smugglers and hiding out so he could translate the Bible into English.

German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t defy the Nazis to keep preaching a practical message.

When Jim Elliot and four other missionaries were slaughtered in the Amazon jungle, it wasn’t for practical reasons that their wives continued trying to make contact, and eventually won the tribe’s hearts – the same tribe that killed their husbands.

The Bible is SO much bigger than “practical.”  The Bible is a mystery. It’s an unfolding, eternal drama. It’s the power of life and death. It’s the unexplainable love of a God that looks beyond our sin and sees something worth making the ultimate sacrifice to redeem.

Do Biblical principles help you get a better job, get out of debt, become a better leader, or help pay off your mortgage? They can – but if that’s what you’re preaching, then you’re giving your congregation candy when they need steak. This is my beef with the fringe TV evangelists who drone on and on about one thing – money. Wow. You’re reading the Bible and that’s the best you have to offer?

God is big. God is mysterious. God is beyond anything we could imagine or dream. Preach that. Preach deep. Preach a message that isn’t practical at all – because that’s the message that will change people.

Today’s culture knows practical.  What they don’t know, is something beyond.

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  1. I totally, one hundred percent agree.

    I love the fact that I DON’T understand God. There are so many mysteries surrounding his entire existence, but I almost don’t want the answers because the questions are so intriguing. Because he loves me in such a profound (and indeed impractical way), I cannot do anything but follow him.

    With that in mind, Biblical financial principles are little more than a sideshow.

  2. The way up is to go down … not practical. Giving what you have results in more … not practical. Preferring other people more than your own interests … not practical.

  3. I sort of agree. It is not practical to my daily life to understand the great narrative sweep of salvation history as told in scripture. But it is practical to my Christian faith to understand how God works in the world.

    So if you are saying we should not be preaching ‘5 steps to better parenting from proverbs’ then I agree.

    But I have explicitly heard some say we should not try to help people know how the bible relates to their daily life. And if that is your point then I disagree.

    The bible is clearly not a users manual, but it is our guide to understanding God and the Christian life. So I think your provocative post goes a bit too far because practically, we have no Christian faith unless we are teaching people the bible.

    1. And by teaching, I mean that more is needed than just telling us what is in the bible and/or biblical history and greek word meanings. Preaching is not a lecture, they are different things. If the pastor is only lecturing on the bible, then that should be done outside the Sunday morning sermon.

      Preaching is opening up God’s word to make God more apparent to the congregation. That may include history, and greek word meanings, and context of scripture, but it can’t only be those things.

  4. Phil,

    good hook Phil (as always), but when the problem is a pietistic approach to life (a major problem in American Christianity for the last 100 years), we haven’t considered how our theology should impact your view of vocation, economics, social justices, . . . we need practical wisdom . . but the term practical needs a defintion 🙂

    so many Christians don’t have any practical application for How God says to care for the poor, or understand how the gospel interacts with their vocational / ethical conundrums, or who to even deal with marital problems.
    I have friends in Syria who found all their practical wisdom for running a Christian school right out of the book of Proverbs. it does provide practical guidelines for living a life the way God wants you to live it, and being a wise, God-fearing man or woman.

    i appreciate what you are poking at, but I think you have fallen off the other side of the horse.

    The twist is this, if you want the world’s goals, and want the Bible to give you “practical means” to achieve a worldly goal . . . then i would agree with you Phil.
    But many pastors want to preach something practical who are not asking for money, who are in small churches (the majority), struggling to get by and give “practical advice” on how to count the cost, love their neighbor, be a witness, and be innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents.
    i am frustrated with many TV evangelists just like you are, but they are a few compared to thousands in the trenches who also eschew what you eschew.

    peace to you brother

  5. Phil, I agree with you totally. I read your blog all the time and I never figure out how you can continue to plow new ground week after week. Keep up the Kingdom work.

  6. Great point, Phil. A while ago I did a sermon series entitled “The Bible: Exploring God’s Glorious Mess”, in which we spent time in the hard, unexplainable parts of scripture. The congregation loved it.

    The only ones who had a problem with it? Other pastors. Especially with the title. More than one thought it was a typo and that I meant to have the title “God’s Glorious Message”. When I explained that “mess” was intentional, they acted like I was being sacrilegious. The idea that we would acknowledge and celebrate the mystical, confusing and even awful parts of scripture was inconceivable to many of them.

    But it still stands, for me and the congregation as the most enjoyable and enriching series I ever did.

  7. WOW! Phil, this post really sheds light on why people are disheartened with the Gospel. It’s because they are taught wrong. When you’re taught wrong you have false expectations and your faith is placed on lies. I love that you have the courage to speak out on this very important issue. Jesus was clear about His message. His message wasn’t practical.

  8. Phil, it took me a while, but since you invited my thoughts on this, here is the intro to the blog post you inspired…

    As someone who firmly believes that the Bible is the most practical book, I felt motivated to share some of the reasons I see this ancient book as relevant, helpful and solidly useful for this life—and the next.

    Lest I slight Mr. Cooke, let me first say he made some good points and had an important motive.

    His main argument was that the sacrifice of Christ to redeem the human race “is the least practical thing I’ve ever heard.” I assume by that he means it doesn’t make sense from a human perspective. Why would the Creator God be willing to die for us puny, sinful humans?

    God’s mercy and love are so far above our natural thinking, He was willing to put up with the most terrible injustice in history and pay the death penalty for those who truly deserved it!

    Mr. Cooke also listed examples of people enduring persecution and sacrificing physically to serve God. Again, these actions do not appear to bring any practical benefits—in this life.

    Mr. Cooke’s main concern seemed to be about those who call the Bible practical in order to promote a “health and wealth” gospel. “This is my beef with the fringe TV evangelists who drone on and on about one thing—money.” The Bible has many warnings about a wrong focus on material things—and it has practical advice about avoiding this pitfall! (For example, see Matthew 6:19-34 and James 2:1-9.)

    The God who created an orderly, law-abiding universe also made universal laws that are designed to bring order and make life work.

    But where does the impractical come from?

    Why did Christ have to die? Why is there death and suffering in the world? Why is it that even people trying to serve God endure persecution and trials?

    The answer to all of these questions is sin. Not Christ’s sin. Not necessarily the sins of Christians. But all suffering and death are the result of the cascading effects of sin—starting with the rebellion of Lucifer and continuing on through the disobedience of Adam and Eve until the whole world is steeped in sin and its effects.

    How do we know the effects of sin? Because the Bible gives us clear and practical principles, such as cause and effect. This is a key theme throughout the Bible: Obeying God brings life and blessings, and disobeying God brings death and curses. … [you can read the rest of my thoughts on the Insights blog… at ]

    1. All good thoughts Mike, and no argument from here. Yes – the Bible does have practical applications, but my worry is that if that’s all we preach, we miss the real power of the most remarkable book ever written. Just as C.S. Lewis described Jesus as either a lunatic, or someone we must fall down and worship, I feel the same way about the Bible. There is no middle ground, and I don’t believe we can really appreciate it without understanding it’s awesome mystery.
      Thanks for your thoughtful post!

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I appreciate your focus on the awesome mystery of the Bible. I believe it has incredible depth and unsearchable wonders, but I also believe it has a firm and simple foundation. God is love, and His revelation is love. His laws are based on love. His plan of salvation is based on love.

        God is not capricious, but faithful. His foundational Word is practical, and on that foundation is built a glorious and beautiful message that we can learn from throughout our lives. Its glories are beyond our wildest dreams. It is practical, life-changing and beyond compare.

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