This is the second sermon by Mr. Fox to review, and the seventh from Balmoral Bible Chapel. We listened by podcast.
Mr. Fox, Balmoral Bible Chapel, September 18th, 2011, Believe and Grow.
Summary: (Mr. Fox begins by touching on his past; he then reads part of Psalm 78; he follows that up with a word on the nature of the Church and the responsibility of discipleship; then he reads from John 20.30, 31; and then he goes over some basics on the apostle John.) What we want to do now is to look at John’s life after the cross, after the resurrection. This is a great time of reformation in
. Judaism is coming to a
close. John is witnessing the Holy Spirit being poured out on Pentecost. He’s
part of all of this. John begins to see the older apostles dying, one by one.
But he’s journeying through that in faith. Many are coming to Christ, and
trusting in his sacrifice, but many are not. Eventually John is put into a pot
of boiling oil. During all this persecution, he is a faithful example of suffering.
Praise God! He is the only apostle to die of natural causes. So he is sent to
an island. There he gets an incredible revelation. I want to connect an
important dot for you: John was a man who made disciples; he taught, baptized,
and taught others how to make disciples. One of his disciples was Polycarp,
bishop of Israel .
John tells him in that letter to expect persecution. Polycarp gets tied to a
stake and lit on fire. But nothing happens to him. He goes on proclaiming the
praises of God, the wonderful works of Jesus. Finally, they hit him with a
spear to shut him up and kill him. That brings us back to John, my favorite
pastor. (He reads 1 John 2.1.) That’s the heart of the Father. Back to John 20.
The signs recorded there are for our benefit, that we might believe on the Lord
Jesus Christ and have life. To believe is to trust that Jesus is the Christ,
that he is sent by the Father as the Messiah that the Old Testament prophets
pointed to. It’s in his name alone that we have life, salvation. Jesus Christ
is God. None but God could redeem us or justify us. None but God can make us
holy. None but God can bring us to heaven. (He closes with an exhortation to
study and teach at home, then says a prayer.)
Remarks: The only positive points we can come up with are these: Mr. Fox reads the Bible with seriousness and enthusiasm; he states that faith means trust; he stresses that faith must be in Jesus Christ alone; and he mentions a string of doctrines near the end. If the sermon were good enough to be called tolerable, we could devote more time and space to speaking positively.
For content, spirit, form, and method, this sermon is one of the most poverty-stricken that we have ever heard. In a word, this sermon is worthless.
The content. Was the apostle John a disciple of John the Baptist? Maybe he was, but where did Mr. Fox get the proof? He didn’t get it from the Bible. He states the opinion so matter-of-factly that persons knowing no more than Mr. Fox does might simply receive the dubious dogma as a biblical fact. And what if someone decides to check this assertion out by the Bible? He will find that the Bible says no such thing and he will be tempted to doubt the religion that Mr. Fox professes. This is why opinions that are biblically insupportable need to be tempered. Stating opinions from the pulpit as if they are facts taken straight from the Bible, even on minor matters, can cause unbelievers to become more skeptical and cynical than they already are. They will doubt some particulars, and on good grounds, and then they will resolve to continue disbelieving the Christian message. A mistake like this on the beginnings of John is not a large doctrinal fault. But it goes a long way toward making a listener suspicious. Why should a listener be comfortable believing anything Mr. Fox has to say? He has no reason to. We found two sources on the internet for this opinion on John: allaboutjesus.org and Wikapedia. (We do not, of course, mention Wikapedia as a reliable source for interpretation of sacred truth; we mention it because it seems that Mr. Fox may have used that secular site to get some of his sermon material from.) We did not find this opinion about John among the commentators that we resort to: like Matthew Henry, Albert Barnes, and Adam Clarke. We did find it in Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, where it is dogmatically stated, but without reference to the Bible because the opinion cannot be found there. What about the apostle John being dipped into hot oil without suffering any harm? This ‘anecdote’ can be found on Wikapedia too, which mentions Tertullian for a source. John Foxe, in his Acts and Monuments, gives the story as a legend that may be true. He’s a bit of a heavyweight. But usually, when you find this story being shared in a reputable book, it is presented as a legend, not a historical event. And that is the safest way to handle extra-biblical, sensational anecdotes that touch on biblical characters, themes, or doctrines. State mere opinion as fact about some subject in the Bible, and what happens? People listening to you believe it, the opinion spreads, and what may be merely legendary begins to loom as large as biblical truth. Is that not how the cult of Mary began? Begin to throw opinions out as facts, and the thin edge of the wedge has begun, and heresies will follow through the gap. Both Albert Barnes and Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown are very careful to give this story out as legendary. No matter which way we lean, either this way or that, a story like this must be shared with reserve and qualification. Mr. Fox does not exercise any caution. What about Polycarp being lit on fire and ‘nothing happens to him.’ This is a misrepresentation of how the story is generally related. No doubt Mr. Fox gives it out like this in order to parallel with, and build on, what he believes happened to John in the notion of boiling oil. Even Wikapedia (which we never recommend as a source to go to for confirmation of any sacred matter) is more careful than Mr. Fox is. There it says that Polycarp was stabbed when the fire failed to touch him. This agrees with John Foxe’s communication on the same: the flames encircled his body like an arch, and so the executioner was ordered to put him to death by piercing. (John Foxe probably gets carried away when he adds that the blood came out so much as to extinguish the fire.) What should be especially taken note of is that the way Mr. Fox presents the story of Polycarp confirms what we warned of above: an opinion given out as a fact is the thin edge of the wedge for more of the same; it is the avenue making way for more. Mr. Fox does not stop with stating the doubtful story about John being dipped in oil and not suffering harm from it. The temptation is to build on this, to go a little further for effect. And this is probably why we get the strange spin from him on the martyrdom of Polycarp. Just look at how these ‘accounts’ are presented by Mr. Fox. The apostle John is dipped in oil and ‘nothing happens.’ And so Polycarp is lit on fire and ‘nothing happens to him.’ Do you see the progression of sinful assumption here? Mr. Fox encourages his crowd to read Commentaries. But he does not mention any. Maybe he’s too embarrassed to say who is sources are. Either this pastor reads good Commentaries carelessly (not minding the provisos), or he reads to receive whatever uncritical Commentaries have to say. In either case, he ends up preaching uncritical remarks from the pulpit. What we have said so far could leave the impression that this sermon contains actual content, albeit of doubtful legitimacy. In truth, there is almost nothing in it. The history of himself, his own sons being sons of thunder, the notice of his mentor’s death, the word ‘church’ being reserved for persons, not buildings: this is pretty much what the sermon consists of, and all of this space-filling, time-consuming information has nothing at all to do with the title of the sermon: ‘Believe and Grow.’ And if you are going to give out your testimony, even in part, is it not a good idea to tell us something more significant about it than that you were picked up by a Presbyterian bus and brought to church? Should such vacuous biography convince anyone that you got saved? There just isn’t any content in this message: not in the testimony, and not in what follows it. We have encountered this often by now: pastors talk a lot about what they aim to say, but they end up saying nothing. There can be no idea in this pastor’s head that his job is to wrestle with a text of Scripture in order to get some substance out of it. The idea should be there, for this is what he tells his listeners to do: “to wrestle with the things that the Bible teaches concerning the book of John.” Those are his words exactly. What kind of Bible-school could have been content to send a man out to teach who has not even learned that the Scriptures must be mined? The doctrines he tacks on at the end are so disconnected from the rest of the sermon that we wonder why they even appear. There is no sense of progression here, no connexions, no reason, no content, and the result is a confusing mess. Almost any man with a wee bit of talent for speaking, any man, saved or unsaved, could give us, without any study, more biblical truth than what this sermon contains. This pastor gives us nothing. How can the Holy Spirit use a message that has nothing in it?
The spirit. The spirit of this sermon is like the juvenile, immature atmosphere that swirls around the campfire at your conventional Bible-camp for teenagers. There you might hear someone read a verse, and then remark, ‘That’s the heart of the Father.’ Mr. Fox, this is no acute observation. The whole Bible is the heart of the Father. Another error of the spiritual sort is committed when the meeting at the mount of transfiguration is brought up. Peter wanted to raise tabernacles, or booths, there. But maybe it wouldn’t be hip enough to use biblical terminology. So let’s have Peter say something like, ‘Let’s just camp here.’ Yes, and maybe they should have cracked open a twelve-pack or even a two-four! Maybe they might have put some steaks on the bar-b! That’s what Mr. Fox’s street-style is suggestive of, and what it may yet come to if he doesn’t get sanctified. At some other point in the sermon, he remarks, ‘How’s about the suffering in the garden?’ Yes, how’s about it, Mr. Pastor, how’s about actually telling us something about the tormenting event that led to the death that you claim to be saved by? How about doing some work on your sermon so that death can be elevated in the eyes of the people who have come before you to receive Communion? How about becoming a trained, serious, holy pastor of souls? How about that? Another fault is committed when he goes on about who his favorites are. The apostle John is his favorite pastor. The apostle Paul is his favorite theologian. And the theology of Paul trumps that of J. C. Did you know that? When I heard this comment, my first impression was that there must be some pastor going by those initials in the congregation. But then I began to wonder. Is that possibly a reference to Jesus Christ? I have since learned that J. C. for Jesus Christ is popular shorthand among churchgoers these days. The Analyst must get out more, for he did not know this! That is an amazingly telling anecdote! Is that where churchgoers are at, spiritually? We can be so familiar with the Saviour of our soul that we may refer to him by an acronym now?! Oh, he must be on the same level as Pastor Dan, Pastor Shane, and those guys! What a marvelous revelation! It must be so easy to get a high place in heaven when the Person who decides on whether you get there or not is your bosom-chum! Now, having John for a favorite pastor, Paul for a favorite theologian, and to maintain that the theology of Paul trumps that of our Lord, what does this remind us of? (Let’s pass quickly over the fact that to put the sayings of Jesus and the writings of Paul in competition with one another is a false dichotomy since the Spirit is the underlying Author of all Revelation.) We stated in the first analysis that Balmoral has, to our appearance, a babe in its pulpit. And here is more evidence that he is in fact no more than a babe, and possibly something less. His emphasis on who his favorites are reminds us of the baby Corinthians when they were choosing favorites: “I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1.12.) Mr. Fox, “was Paul crucified for you?” (verse 13.) If you are truly saved by faith in Jesus Christ, take heart, little Corinthian, for “all things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas” (3.21, 22.) You are on the verge of idolizing John and Paul. And, “Ye have not so learned Christ” (Ephesians 4.20.) The spirit of this sermon is babyish and irreverent. By the pastor’s way of speaking, you get the feeling that if he met Jesus, he would, instead of falling down to worship, punch him on the shoulder, and exclaim, ‘J. C., how’s it going, dude!’ And maybe after punching him on the shoulder, he would take Jesus aside to discuss who the best theologian is. Try addressing the Lord Jesus Christ as ‘J. C.’ at the second coming and see how far you get into God’s kingdom! Let’s wait and see if the Lord’s theology is ‘trumped’ on that day! (If the pastor means to denote some peer by the acronym, we apologize for making an issue out of nothing. We both hope and doubt that the apology is necessary.)
The form and method. A pastor should preach his text, or announce that preaching will be trumped by testimony today, or fold his testimony into the sermon somewhere, succinctly. To have your testimony (if we may call it that) take up more than half your sermon, what is this done for? Because you have nothing to say? Because you have no real sermon on ‘believe and grow’ after all? It seems like this pastor went all over his imagination and disreputable commentaries in search of sermon material, then scattered these bits pell-mell and then called the grubby pile a sermon: fait accompli. The first sermon of his that we reviewed was ordered like so: speech about being a pastor; textual context; reading of passage; preaching; prayer; preaching. This one is ordered like so: testimony; reading of passage; chat about Balmoral; preaching; chat on family worship; prayer. He has no fixed idea on how to order a sermon. It’s like he got his methodology, not from a reputable Bible college, but from a commercial for Bits N’ Bites: ‘every handful is whole new ballgame.’ When there is no rational arrangement to guide an effort, the production will look like an object created during a fit of madness. The sermon doesn’t even begin until minute eighteen! Then, not only does nothing of consequence happen, but the sermon lasts for nine minutes, at which time it is entirely abandoned to make way for another chitchat! Now that should seem like madness to anyone who cares for order. When there is no order, there is no flow, and therefore no reason to proceed from one subject to another. This makes the pastor appear ridiculous. For instance, after telling the story of Polycarp, he says, “This brings us back to John chapter 20.” No it doesn’t. It brings us nowhere. He’s just jarring into another disconnected segment: reaching for the next piece from his bag of Bits N’ Bites. There is no order because no good sermon prep was done. That’s what it comes down to. This pastor fails to show up for work, as it were. He might as well be absent for all the good this sermon can do. Just look at the nonsense that happens when a sermon has nothing to say: “I want to connect an important dot for you: John was a man who made disciples.” Does anyone in church need a dot like that connected? Who in the whole wide world, except for a few jungle natives, needs that dot connected? This is what we mean when we say that this sermon is about nothing. It is absurd enough to laugh at. But we reprove ourselves for laughing. The pulpit is in a bad way! That’s no laughing matter. The elemental cause of this disaster is whatever training center this man was unleashed from. Do professors really tell their students to go about any order at all in the construction and delivery of sermons? What are they thinking, anyway, giving out licenses to preach to men who have no idea how to command a pulpit? The professors, whoever they are, cannot be very fit men themselves.
Conclusion. There is some talk here about the need to press into Christ and to make disciples. But what these acts imply is never told. There is some talk, too, on the necessity of study. But the only thing we get on that is the poor example Mr. Fox sets. What an insult to be told to study by a pastor, who not only does not do it himself, but who has no idea how! The people are told to go out and learn. But being taught nothing about how that may be done, what will happen but some disorganized aimless effort? When there is no teaching from the pulpit, how will your disciples learn and make disciples? To call this sermon ‘believe and grow’ is an insult to these very words. You would think, or even hope, that some of the more mature saints in this church would rise up, raise a ruckus, and get this man relieved from his charge. That would be the responsible, merciful thing to do. A mature congregation would have him sit in the pew for instruction purposes. Pulpit work has become a sideshow, and few persons realize it. We are not required, you know, to be so gracious as to believe this man was called by God to pulpit-speak. The Bible is not that gracious. We do not have to exceed the Bible in grace. “A bishop then must be blameless…apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3.2.) Mr. Fox may be a fine family man, a nice guy, and charming to all, but the one thing he is not is the thing a bishop must be: ‘apt to teach.’ There must be some precious few souls in this church who are being tortured by sermons like this one. To patiently endure without saying something is a terrible sin to the pastor and to the body as a whole. If someone is working, say, in the oil industry, but he’s not cutting the mustard, then he gets told that he should move on and get into something his capabilities and talents can handle. Why shrink so much from doing the same here? A major qualification for the ministry is aptitude for teaching. The Bible tells us so. The Bible should be obeyed, especially when it is most uncomfortable to do so. There is some talk in this sermon about martyrdom. Would this message encourage a saint to die for his faith? Would it show anyone what the gospel is? A sermon called ‘believe and grow’ should accomplish both of these things. It does nothing. Like when John was in the oil and Polycarp was in the fire, ‘nothing happens.’ This pastor may be a saved man. But we will raise a question just in case. If faith without works is dead, and he is failing this badly at his greatest work, is his faith dead or alive? It is easier to suppose him saved if we can leave out of consideration his ministerial work. If we must consider it a work, then what shall be said about his faith, for can his faith be proved by this work? If we accept that he has not been truly called to do what he’s doing, then we at least might know his Christianity by other fruits than ministerial. Moreover, we have a right to know more about his faith than what he tells us in his testimony before we believe it to be genuine. It’s not wrong to desire more than nothing. Listener, go back and listen, please, to the beginning of this sermon. Listen close to this man’s testimony. See if there is even one doctrine there; see if you can detect a conversion there; see if you can call that talk a testimony of faith. Go and listen, and you will not find any mention of repentance, faith, justification, redemption, cross, or blood there; you will find nothing like that in there at all. There is nothing there but a ride to church and a divorce. Is he called by God to do what he is attempting but failing to do? There is nothing to convince us that he is called, nothing in the content, nothing in the spirit, nothing in the form, and nothing in the method by which the form is discharged. Is he a saved man? We wish so. But there is nothing to convince us of that in this sermon, not by the testimony, and not because of any content or spirit. No good can be done for this man’s soul by being as nice to him as he himself comes across. There is a time to be nice; but this is a time to refrain from doing so. We must let honesty have its way once the examination has yielded its deductions. No one should get upset when proofs on calling and salvation are desired and asked of him. We should all be blessed to receive queries that compel us to self-examination. If someone is upset on Mr. Fox’s behalf, then that person should ask himself if it’s a good idea to discourage someone from examining his present standing with God.