The Role of Human Experience In Reading The Written Word of God

I remember a pastor at seminary giving us the terrible advice that you shouldn’t preach against abortion because you will have members who have had abortions—“they might get hurt or be offended.” I said, “So we shouldn’t preach against sins that might have happened in the past? There would be no sin left to preach on! We warn of the dangers of sin. We don’t ignore sin; we name sin so that it can be forgiven.”

You have heard pastors teach in Bible class the proper use of fallen human reason when reading God’s Word. We are to put human reason under Scripture (a ministerial use of human reason) in service to It, rather than to put fallen human reason above the Holy Scriptures (a magisterial use of reason).

What does this mean? When our human reason can’t grasp what God says, we submit to God’s Word rather than making God’s Word submit to what we understand. A classic example is when Jesus takes bread and says, “This is my body.” Human reason can’t understand how that is. This is why many change God’s clear Word “is” to “isn’t” or “symbolizes.” So, as Bible-believing Lutherans we confess as true what God says even if it blows our minds—from communion to the virgin birth to the resurrection of Jesus.

However, I wonder if the devil has used our life experiences to deceive in a similar manner like he has used fallen reason to lead many away from the clear Word of God. I have observed many Lutherans try to make God’s Word submit to their life experiences instead of the other way around. Just as reason is ‘offended’ over bread being the body of Jesus, so too are sinners [unjustly] ‘offended’ when God’s Word seems to contradict or confront our life experiences. (As a side note: being offended doesn’t necessarily mean an offense has been committed. Many are offended at the teachings of Scripture. The problem is not God’s Word or the one preaching It, but the sinful ears that despise what they hear.)

What does this look like? It is the one who is offended when a clear verse of God’s Word is read and he is offended because it confronts him or someone he loves. For example, God’s Word clearly says that those “who practice homosexuality” will not inherit the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 6). Yet, parents might get offended because their child has just announced that he has stopped struggling against the temptation to sexual immorality.

They get offended, “Zion Lutheran Church, can’t you tone it down? I’m offended! You are going to drive people away.” Do you see how their life experience is leading them to deny clear verses of Scripture?

How about Ephesians 5, “Husbands love your wives…wives submit to your husbands in everything.” If these verses were used wrongly in someone’s past, might he or she get offended and end up throwing out the baby with the bath water? “I don’t like the words “love” or “submit.”

What about Jesus’ preaching against divorce (Matt.19)? Scripture is clear on divorce. Yet, if you have been divorced, might these verses offend you? What about God’s Word to “obey your pastor (Heb. 13)?” If you had an unfaithful tyrant-pastor when you were a child, might you be quick to dismiss God’s Word outright?

So, is the problem God’s Word or the baggage we may bring to our reading of God’s Word? I am convinced that if I got into the pulpit and read certain verses verbatim that I would get angry phone calls by the many non-members who listen to our service on the radio Sunday morning. Additionally, I think we too should do some reflecting on teachings that we find “offensive.” Are we justified in being offended? Was a wrong committed? Or is our real beef with God and His Word in view of our life experiences?

What is the answer? Obviously, submitting to God’s Word above our emotions and experiences. And I would add, God has graciously given you a shepherd—a pastor—to lead you. Bring your questions about the verses you don’t understand or don’t like—pastors won’t be offended. Don’t remain in willful ignorance and despise God’s clear words. Grow in knowledge and understanding. Let your pastor lead you to a proper understanding so that you can understand your life experiences correctly under the Word of God.

Friends, God is not out to make us miserable, rub our noses in our past sins, or against us in any way. No, He is on our side, He is for us, and wants the best for us. He sent His Son to die for all our sins—the sins in marriage, homosexual sins, divorce—all sin. All of God’s Word is good and profitable.

By God’s grace, may we submit to Christ, Who is the head of the Church, Who gave His life up for us!

About Pastor Clint Stark

Pastor Clint Stark is from Dallas, Texas. He is married with five young children. His undergraduate degree is from The University of Texas at Austin. During college he was converted to Lutheranism from the Southern Baptist creeds. After college he taught high school Spanish and coached basketball. He was graduated with an M.Div. from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN in 2007. He has been an LCMS pastor for a decade, and is currently pastor of St. John Lutheran in Frisco, TX. He enjoys smoking meat and spending time with his family.


The Role of Human Experience In Reading The Written Word of God — 6 Comments

  1. Good address, pastor. I hope your congregation is doing well. I enjoyed visiting your church.

  2. I don’t know which professor may have given you that advice. Back in the mid 80s there was a professor, who probably was no longer teaching when you entered seminary, who told us: “do not preach against sins such as abortion or homosexuality unless you also directly apply the Gospel to them at the same time because you will never know if there is a teen girl in your congregation who has had an abortion or a teen boy who is attracted to other boys.” His fear of causing offense was not the fear of someone being insulted by what was said but the fear of offending against someone’s conscience by the application of law only to a repentant sinner so that they fell into despair.

    As a celibate same sex attracted man, I want to hear pastors speak about homosexuality, if, at the same time, they directly and strongly apply the Gospel. Unfortunately, the vast majority of times I hear or read pastors and church leaders address homosexuality, the gospel is either completely absent or is included in only a brief, truncated form.

    What is interesting to me is that in the book “Ethics of Sex; Taboo to Delight” from CPH, the essay on marriage includes a brief section addressing divorce. In that rather brief section the Gospel is included twice, using two different and rather powerful illustrations from the Bible. While they were not illustrations I myself would have picked, they did demonstrate that the author of that essay had put quite some thought and effort into making sure divorced and remarried people were assured that they were loved and forgiven by God. I am now 55. Since I first realized I was attracted to other males at the age of 12, I have never, not one single time, witnessed any pastor put anywhere near that much effort into applying the Gospel to homosexuality.

    Yes, speak about life experiences and put them into the context of Scripture. But make sure you actually do the full job and don’t leave already scared and ashamed 14 and 15 year old kids believe that they have no hope and future but hell.

    Probably putting the Gospel into the two last and briefest paragraphs of sermon or article is not the way to do it

  3. Agreed. To put it succinctly: small law (while used a mirror) = small gospel = a very small god, and can lead to despairing or proud people. As painful as it is, we need to be mindful of who we are as sinners and what we’ve done before we can appreciate and embrace what Jesus has done for us, and what we are in Him.

    Beautiful statement: “Friends, God is not out to make us miserable, rub our noses in our past sins, or against us in any way. No, He is on our side, He is for us, and wants the best for us.”

    What can God do for a man who refuses to look in the mirror? What can a pastor do with the gospel when he refuses to hold up the mirror? Offense? Please offend me. That’s why I’m here! Don’t kid me; I’m a schmuck that needs to be saved!

  4. @Mathew Andersen #2

    That is a great point. It reminds me of something my brother taught me from his time in vicarage that I will not forget. When someone asks you a question about a topic, such as “Is abortion a sin, Is homosexuality a sin, etc.,” it is best not to answer immediately with the law or gospel. The best thing to do is to ask the question, “Why are you asking?” If someone is asking because they are thinking of acting out the sinful action, proclaiming the law might be the appropriate response. But if that person is asking because maybe they have engaged in a sinful act, but are repentant or at least inclined toward repentance, then the appropriate response might be to lead with the gospel. It seems that we can and should be equally judicious in sermons, bible studies, etc. One of the toughest skills of a pastor is knowing his congregation/audience and proclaiming the word judiciously to achieve the greatest impact.

    The other thing worth considering is that we often treat specific sins with a special kind of invective which in most cases is inappropriate. So in your example, and I think there is merit to this, it seems that the sin of same sex attraction is treated on a level that is above and beyond for example the sin of heterosexual lust. It is the same sin, but maybe we give special consideration to those sins we identify with personally. So I think you make a great point.

  5. @Ken Thompson #3

    It is true that when the law is weak, the gospel is also weak. However the reverse is NOT true. Strong law of itself does NOT produce strong Gospel. One very disturbing trend I have seen in LCMS preaching and writing in the last 15 years seems to be the assumption that if you have hit with the law sufficiently hard enough then all you need to do is say “God forgives you” and the that will be enough Gospel. This is especially evident when the topic is one like abortion or homosexuality. The documents from the task force on sexuality are clear examples of this mistaken thinking. The Gospel is reduced to a sentence or two on the forgiveness of God. But, though the lack of law can weaken the Gospel, the law can never impart strength to the Gospel. Since the pastor will likely have both repentant and unrepentant sinners in his congregation, he should spend at least as much effort and time on applying the Gospel as he does the Law. I truly believe it is the lack of examples on how to apply the Gospel to such topics that causes parents to affirm their children’s sins rather than the lack of law. When you have no idea of how to show grace you have only two options, defend you child or deny your child. The lack of examples of how to apply Gospel has made many a parent into an affirming ally rather than someone who is able to remain firm on their principles while also loving their kids.

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