This is the second sermon by Mr. Lane that we have chosen to review. We found it on Balmoral’s website.
Mr. Lane, Balmoral Bible Chapel, November 29, 2010, The Choice of Light or Darkness.
Summary: (Mr. Lane welcomes listeners to the weekly time of corporate discipleship, and goes on at some length about the related sermon-based life-groups.) John shows us who Jesus is in relationship to the Father. Warren Wiersbe, the great Bible commentator, says, “Remember, we are not studying a book; we are seeing a person.” That person, Jesus Christ, wants to have a relationship with you and me. And he wants that relationship to shape all of our other relationships. The first verses of John are very strong on the deity of Jesus Christ. But I want to get to the practical side of that message. ‘In the beginning’ implies that there is a story coming. It’s a story about God and his world. These three words link John’s gospel with the beginning of Genesis. This leads us to the other link of light and darkness. The gospel of John talks about a new creation, a spiritual creation; the book of Genesis is talking about the old creation. The same God, Jesus Christ, is responsible for both. Light is equated with life in the Bible. This word ‘life’ is ‘zoe,’ eternal life. It’s about truth, fullness, purpose, meaning, purity, holiness, obedience. We’re talking about the way God has intended for us to live. But when we talk about darkness we speak of death, falsehood, emptiness, rebellion, and something that is not the way. (He reads from John 1, then from Genesis 1.) In Genesis we come across a world that is formless and empty. God’s solution was, ‘Let there be light.’ When Jesus came into the world, it was the same, spiritually speaking, without purpose or meaning. The solution was the same. And the author was the same. And again we hear, ‘Let there be light.’ (Here he quotes from Isaiah, John, and Deuteronomy to bring the theme of darkness and light together.) The Bible tells us we have a choice to make, to live in the light of Jesus that is offered, or reject it for darkness, not only here but in the next life. My challenge and question to us is, ‘Have you come to the point of choosing the light Jesus offers us?’ (Here he relates a story about a friend who is in a coma on account of the bad choices he made.) We don’t know how much time we have. ‘This is the day of salvation,’ the Bible says. And if you have already chosen light, this settles your eternal destiny. But every day you are called to live a life worthy of this destiny. (He gives each listener an actual light to carry with them as a reminder, and a stone to remind each one of darkness.) Jesus wants us to reflect his light to a world that is in darkness. If you’re feeling nudged about crossing over from darkness into light, come up and wait for counsel. (Music and Communion follow.)
Remarks: This sermon goes to 28 minutes, six of which are about the sermon-based life-groups. This time the theme of the sermon is obvious. The linking together of Testaments by reference to John and Genesis is good. Lots of Scripture support is brought forward to throw light on the subject. And there is some emphasis (not in so many words) on both salvation and sanctification. Having said all this, the sermon is weak, lacks persuasion, and in spite of it being short, is a mile wide. Mr. Lane bounces across the Scriptures like a slick stone skipping across water. Like such a stone that is casually cast, this sermon doesn’t make it to shore, but just quietly sinks without disturbing anyone. Mr. Lane says that he’s looking forward to what the Lord has to teach. He invites the people to reflect as he prepares to take them on this journey. So we are made to anticipate. But everything is so general that not much is taught and therefore little is provided for us to reflect upon.
And many things are askew. (1) This teaching on relationship with Jesus is not sustained and developed by doctrines like justification, adoption, etc. Because of this we have relationship without religion, a fuzzy-wuzzy kind of puppy-love. Unless law and sin are preached, and repentance demanded instead of suggested, Jesus will appear (as he does appear in this sermon) like some lonely, pathetic soul who might disintegrate into nothing if he doesn’t get to have this relationship with sinners. In truth, the Godhead needs nothing from man, not even relationship. The Bible commands repentance and warns of judgment. This sermon is just timidly suggestive.
(2) We get the impression from this sermon that a positive relationship with Jesus depends all on man. A choice for Jesus is not balanced with God’s choice here, God’s choice being what the salvation of sinners is ultimately based on.
(3) The persons of the trinity are not given their due. For instance, Jesus as the Creator is not the whole truth. What part did the Father and Holy Ghost have in it? It is no defense to retort that one cannot say everything in one sermon. If this pastor were more deep than broad, he would discover that balance is possible in a short space. What’s more, systematic theology would guard a pastor from getting out of kilter. This is why theologies are written.
(4) There is a failure to distinguish. A denomination that prides itself on its ‘distinctives’ and dispensational categories ought to be able to spawn pastors who can distinguish. But the difference between an unbeliever’s darkness and the remaining darkness that a believer must work through is not handled here at all. Neither are the saved and the unsaved distinguished from each other, which is certainly necessary in a Sunday morning sermon to your congregation that incorporates an invitation to be saved! To speak as if all are saved and to follow this up with an invitation is a confusion that betrays the ineptitude of the pastor. All that a sermon tries to do will be nullified if it causes perplexity by an absence of biblical discrimination. Discriminating the sheep from the goats does not just happen on Judgment Day. It happens in the competent sermon also. Example: “But, beloved, we must divide our congregation before we send you away, and remind you that there are some of you to whom this does not belong. Perhaps some of you professors of religion may want this promise [‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’] badly enough; but it is not yours. The Lord is not your shepherd; you are not the sheep of his pasture, and the flock of his hand. You are not those who have gone astray; you are not sheep, but goats—unclean creatures, not harmless, and undefiled as sheep; but everything that is the reverse.” Then the gospel can be laid out; then an invitation to be saved can be given with at least a scintilla of hope for success. You see in this extract from The Good Shepherd that Spurgeon addresses each group distinctly; he hangs the law over those who need salvation, and he mentions the rest as those who have at least gone astray. No one is passed over. Nor are the regenerate and the unregenerate addressed as one. The gospel should not be preached, nor invitations to salvation given, without distinctions being made somewhere. This is what it is to preach responsibly. At the close of his sermon, Mr. Lane makes the comment that sin is sometimes as slick and attractive as the stones he is preparing to hand out for remembrance purposes. Up to this point no preaching on sin has occurred. But suddenly there is this chance on the heels of an acute comment! But he passes it up. Not one particular sin is preached in this sermon. Yet sinners are asked to come out of darkness! Until the conscience be pricked a little, how can we expect anyone to do so much as squirm toward salvation? The people go home once again without any idea of what sin even is; consequently, salvation can be hardly desired by them. Are you simply too scared to preach, Mr. Lane? The Bible is for preaching. People are not going to die if you preach to them. But many are going to hell while you tread on eggshells. Someone might get a hurt feeling if you really preach. Popularity will suffer. Less pats on the back. Some will scowl. The Ministerial will talk. Someone might even hate you. Are great preachers prevented by any of this? John Bunyan, in A Treatise of the Fear of God: “But what a shame is this to man, that God should subject all his creatures to him, and he should refuse to stoop his heart to God?…Sinner, art thou not ashamed, that a silly cow, a sheep, yea, a swine, should better observe the law of his creation, than thou dost the law of thy God?” We can imagine what Mr. Lane’s reply to this might be: ‘I’m not Spurgeon nor Bunyan; be realistic.’ No one expects you to be Spurgeon or Bunyan, Mr. Lane; nor do we suppose that you could become as greatly used of God as they. The problem is not that you fail to preach as sharply as they did, but that you will not preach. It is not just a suspicion but a certainty, that the ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching that pastors like this shun is really the gospel of Christ crucified properly and biblically delivered. Suggesting challenges and speaking of ‘what struck me’—this is conversational prating, not biblical preaching. This sermon lacks essential elements; and the tone is charming (though cautiously earnest) instead of commanding. “The heathen oracles were delivered privately by them that peeped and muttered; but the oracles of the gospel were proclaimed by one that stood, and cried” (Matthew Henry on John 7.37-44.)
Conclusion: You have to preach law and sin in order to preach grace and salvation. Otherwise you will resort to all kinds of oddities to produce results. When you preach a sermon that’s all smoothed over so as to make no one uncomfortable, you will be tempted to try all kinds of eccentricities to do the work that the preaching should have done. You might even resort to sending your audience home with some props to do the job you failed to do! Incidentally, on these props that are given out. Near the end Mr. Lane holds up the kind of light that members of the congregation will be given to take home. To his dismay this light he holds up is already flickering and on its way out. This is an apt incident, for the gimmick has no energy. It is a poor substitute for sermon substance! And a stone to represent sin (as if any prop at all should be used) is a poor choice for a symbol of darkness. Stones are often positive figures in the Bible. They are sometimes monuments, one time an object to take a giant down, and Jesus Christ is called a stone! You could dash your foot against a stone, which is unfortunate. Or you could have a stony heart, which is far worse. But to choose a stone to symbolize darkness is not a good idea, for the stone is not this or that. It is sometimes darkness and sometimes light. The only time we’ve ever heard of actual stones being used during effective sermons is when some were thrown at the heads of preachers for their strong preaching of sin. Stones are not given out by serious preachers; they are received upside their heads. A stone might be used to prop the preacher up if he has nothing else to stand on; but it will not hold a sermon up. A stone is not a strong enough support for that! Does Mr. Lane know anything about pricking sinners’ consciences enough to get called down, yelled at, or even frowned upon? He wants to deal with the practical side of those first verses of John, he says. Translated, this means he is going to be short on doctrine. How fitting that he calls Warren Wiersbe ‘the great Commentator.’ Mr. Wiersbe’s Commentary is formulated from his ‘Be’ series. You see, the focus is away from the doctrine that underlies all godly practice; it’s all about ‘be this’ and ‘be that’; what you are, a sinner, this is merely secondary! Who it is who commands, that too must be secondary, for it’s all about us ‘being.’ What God does, this must be subsidiary also. This is why sermons like this one are so shallow and ineffective. Follow men like Mr. Wiersbe, and it will be all about trying to get a harvest but without plowing first. Don’t disturb any soil, don’t even bother to seed, maybe, but look for plants to spring up anyway! Without having read even one section of the ‘Be Series’ commentary, we know, just by the title and the fact that it is subdivided into ‘be’s’, that it’s going to be shy on doctrine. Only a lopsided thinker who is scared of doctrine would write such a commentary. Preachers relying on this thing are going to be hurting for doctrine too. Mr. Lane relates that Wiesbe says, “Remember, we are not studying a book: we are seeing a person.” This might seem like a Christ-centered approach. But there is something subtle and pernicious here. Studying the Book is the only way to keep Christ at the center. What does Jesus say? “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5.39.) What does this mean? It doesn’t mean to belittle study and look for Jesus instead. It means to study the Book as diligently as you can in order to find Jesus and his salvation (which must involve doctrines, not practices) in it. Practice is not the foundational thing. This ‘Be Series’ is probably as bad, or worse, than our suspicion of it is, for the man who follows the author of it is doctrinally light, which is exactly what we should expect the correlation to be. One must read deeper than any well that is dug by a man who would divide the Bible up into a series of ‘be’s’! We are encouraged that Mr. Wiersbe has compiled a huge number of sermons by famous preachers in the ‘Classic Sermons Series.’ But we wonder if he has any warning in there about some of the men whose sermons he includes? Henry Drummond, for instance, was of the opinion that Redemption and Evolution are synonymous. (See page 413 of his Natural Law in the Spiritual World.) Wiersbe the ‘great commentator’ is not that discerning, which we can say even on the basis of having read his very general, light as a feather Victorious Christians You Should Know. Better men than Warren Wiersbe must be followed for one’s ministry to contain all that it should, and for it to be destitute of those things that should not be contained in it.
To sum up, this sermon seems okay, until you start going over what’s missing from it. This is the dead orthodoxy that you’ve heard about. And it is just the thing that drives churchgoers to extremes in search of life, right into the chaos of charismatic superstition, or perhaps all the way back to medieval religion: legalistic Rome. If it’s too much to call this dead orthodoxy (for some souls do live on it, and by its feeble stimulus plod through their troubles week by week), then it surely wouldn’t be going too far to call it orthodoxy-light.