Becoming Spiritually Literate


For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
—Hebrews 8:10-13

I don’t normally jump all over someone else’s posts. Nor do I encourage rancor in the Godblogosphere since it (100 percent of the time) accomplishes nothing good for the Kingdom. But I saw something this weekend that just made my jaw drop.

Over at the Council of Reforming Churches, Tony Carter wrote an innocuous-looking post entitled “Reasons for Reading.” As an avid reader, I fully support reading. If I can look back on one good thing I did for my son, it’s that I got him reading at a young age—and enjoying it immensely. He goes over to another kid’s house and scopes out the books before the toys. If nothing else I do for him educationally, at least I know he’ll have a love for books.

No, what troubled me more than anything was Carter’s reasoning for why all Christians should be avid readers:

[Reading] is the primary means through which God has chosen to communicate to his people.

In short, no. Not even close.

Now before I get a hundred Scripture verses tossed my way, let me make a very simple (and historically) accurate statement: The reason that reading CANNOT be the primary means through which God has chosen to communicate to His people is that for most of human history, very few people could read. Illiteracy is the primary state of most humans throughout civilization, and only the cultural and governmental elite possessed a literacy rate worth mentioning.

I shouldn’t have to draw out this conclusion, but if most people in human history are/were illiterate, than that goes for most of the people labeled “Christian.”

This poses a horrid problem then, for if what Carter says is true in his statement, then most Christians were fundamentally cut off from communicating with God.

Let’s go even further and understand that even for those Christians who could read, very few of them had a Bible. Even during the days of the early Church, only a few households had any written Scriptures at all to select from. The situation gets worse when we consider the plight of the Gentiles, who had little access to what were then considered Jewish writings.

Further historical analysis shows that Christianity swept through the Roman Empire largely through the poor, who rarely had the kind of education that would allow them to read or write. The common people who embraced Christ so readily had almost no reading material of any kind, much less anything considered Biblical.

More to the point, it would be a millennia and half before the printing press even made owning a copy of the Bible possible, and still possessing copies of the Scriptures lay beyond the reach of the large majority of Christians.

So simply from a historical and sociological standpoint, it’s impossible to claim that reading is the primary means by which God communicates with His people.

But if not reading, what?

Well, for one, we know that oral communication made up much of what the people heard of God. Those few who could read may have been able to use that skill as a stepping stone to teaching others the Gospel. Again, history shows that the leaders of the Church possessed some level of literacy, or at least the ability to pass on what they heard orally. This explains the need for solid preaching—many people had no access to the Scriptures except from the preaching they heard.

But even this poses problems, for the second you remove the leaders from the life of the Christian, the common people end up deaf to God.

No, what is needed is the ability to always come before God, to hear Him, and to communicate with Him in such a way that even the most powerless, poverty-stricken disciple can talk with Him. That ability must not discriminate. It can’t be reserved for one special group or another. It must be available to all.

So what is God’s primary means of communicating with His people?

The Holy Spirit.

Not a believer exists who exists without the Spirit. Access to Scriptures may come and go. One may be able to read the KJV with total comprehension or one may be unable to even read or write one’s name. But no matter what, God gave us a means of communicating with Him and with each other through the Holy Spirit.

Need more proof?

When did the Church come into existence? At Pentecost. And what was the sign of Pentecost? Tongues of fireThe Holy Spirit coming to indwell Man. And what was the sign of proof for that indwelling? A communication gift—tongues.

Even better, what distinguished the Church from the old Temple-based system in Israel comes down to access. The Temple system demanded literacy and was restricted to a priestly class of elites. The glory of Christ’s sacrifice to gather to Himself a a Bride is the rending of the Temple veil and a Holy God making his home in even the lowliest person. By the Holy Spirit alone are we made equals. Literacy or illiteracy, the Holy Spirit is the equalizer, transcending man-made barriers.

The Bible itself states that there are limitations to the written word:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
—John 21:25

Truthfully, those books have not been written in pen and ink. If we consider carefully, those “books” are you and me, in that what Christ has done in us by His Spirit fills those unwritten books. Not by any means that can be read in print, but in transformed lives that “speak” and attest to the power of God by the very fact that you and I testify to Christ.

But it all comes by the Holy Spirit.

Because the depths of the wondrous workings of Jesus in our lives hasn’t been codified in its entirety (as is evidenced by the concluding statement of the Gospel of John above) , no limit exists to what we can know of the Godhead or His wonders. And who reveals the depths of the Lord to us?

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”– these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
—1 Corinthians 2:7-16

I wrote a few weeks ago that we in the American Church continue to give short shrift to the Holy Spirit. Instead, let’s cherish the Holy Spirit and give Him the rightful place as the primary means by which God communicates with His people.

22 thoughts on “Becoming Spiritually Literate

  1. The results of a poll from Christianity Today

    Today, God speaks …
    Exclusively, through the Bible, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit

    Through the Bible and church tradition

    In new revelations from the Holy Spirit

    Through extra-biblical messages directly from God.

    In many ways, such as the Bible, others’ advice, circumstances, feelings, and dreams.

    Through the Bible and extra-biblical messages directly from God.


    None of the above

    Total Votes: 740

    When some US denominations teach and insist on believing in biblical inerrency should we be surprised at these results?

    • BD,

      I’ll start by saying right off that I’m an inerrantist, but I do not conk people over the head with that belief. I also am the kind of person who goes out on a ledge and says that many Christians never owned their own Bible and consequently got almost all their exposure to it through solid preaching. Even today, in the Third World, where revival is sweeping through some of the poorest lands in the world, the people there do not have their own Bibles. Obviously, that’s a lack that needs to be corrected, but it also shows that something is going on here that doesn’t rely solely on sitting down and reading through Titus.

      Reading your poll results, I’m not sure what the distinction is between extra-biblical revelation and receiving a new revelation from the Holy Spirit. As A.W. Tozer so aptly noted, God is still speaking. He didn’t stop doing so when we codified the canon. Now different Christian sects will label that speaking in different ways, but whatever the case the truth remains.

      I tend to fall in with the 59% in that God speaks in many ways:
      1. Through the Scriptures.
      2. Through the Creation.
      3. Through the Holy Spirit.(Via the gifts and through the still, small voice. Also through visions and dreams.)
      4. Through other people. (Preaching, for instance.)

  2. Dan,

    I agree 100% that Carter’s statement about reading is jaw-dropping.

    As for your argument that “God’s primary means of communicating with His people [is] the Holy Spirit”. Well, yes and no.

    Your statement is correct so far as it goes, but this then raises the question of how the Holy Spirit carries out his role of communicating the gospel to us. And (I think you can probably guess where I’m about to take this!) the answer is: through the church’s proclamation of the gospel, and through baptism, absolution and the Lord’s Supper. “Word and sacrament” for short.

    I find myself going back time and again to Article V of the Augsburg Confession, which says (in reference to the faith by which we receive justification):

    So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel…

    We cannot and must not separate the work of the Holy Spirit from the ministry of the church. Equally, the ministry of the church accomplishes nothing except insofar as it is used by the Holy Spirit to work faith.

    You are right that plenty of people have become Christians without reading a word of the Bible. But no-one becomes a Christian without the spoken proclamation of the gospel being involved – whether through the “formal” ministry of the church or by more informal means. Though in some cases it may be that a period of time elapses between the two, so that the individual experience is of an unmediated, direct element to their coming to faith.

    • John H,

      Thanks for adding more nuance to my post. I noticed that your site has several references to Lutherans, and having grown up in the Lutheran Church, I still consider that much of my theology stems from a Lutheran perspective. So yes, I agree with what you say about the Word and the sacraments.

      Yet, I also believe there’s even more to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit than this. I came to Christ as a Lutheran, but I also experienced what some call the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a Lutheran and that experience with the Spirit showed me there had been some lacks in my understanding of how the Holy Spirit transforms the lives of believers.

      For this reason, I tend to write more about that experience in the life of the believer than I do about what you added to this post. For me, this is not an oversight by any means. I simply hope to bring more understanding to what is already a well-discussed base at many other sites. Very few charismatics blog, while at times it seems that nearly every blog out there comes from a strictly Reformed or “Reformational” view (including the site that spawned this post). Because I consider myself “Reformational” (since Reformed churches seem squeamish as calling Lutherans “Reformed”), I hope to cross-over and bring a link between the Reformed and charismatic view (although I don’t like that word “charismatic” at all). That makes Cerulean Sanctum a unique stop on the Internet. It also makes it a great place for readers because they add so much to what I sometimes underplay.


      • Dan, thanks again for your response. I’ve found this (and our related discussion on EM/IM) constructive and hope you have too. While I’m sure we are still not 100% agreed on everything (and in particular I stand by my criticisms of the EM/IM terminology), it’s always helpful to identify more clearly the areas of agreement and disagreement.

  3. In this age of information and scientific proofs, the working of the Holy Spirit in the mind and heart of humankind does indeed get short shrift. I don’t think a person can read the Bible and make sense of it unless God, through the Holy Spirit, opens the heart of the reader. I believe an “outsider” can pick up the Bible and come to salvation without another person explaining it to them. BUT, and here is a conditional: I believe it is the will of God that He prefers that salvation be handed from heart to heart. Unfortunately, too many Christians feel that this is the work of someone with a piece of paper from a seminary.

    We are fortunate to have the Bible. We need to read it every day, meditating on it constantly, and sharing what we find with one another in the body, and living it before those inside and outside the body. It is a sign of our focus on science that we insist on things being one way or another, and lose sight of the possibility that all things are possible including a spirit talking to our hearts. We are fortunate to have the Bible available to us to test the things of that spirit. But we have, I think, given up something in our easy use of the Bible: Talking things over with God, amongst ourselves, and in our hearts. The early church grew on letters handed about, and by retelling a particular story, talking it over, and agreeing (or disagreeing) on it’s salient points. We have lost that communion of spirit, I think, in our personalization of the gospel, claiming as individual what was meant to be corporate.

    • David,

      When I tell my story of faith and join it to the history and plan of salvation from the beginning of time, that makes my story part of the larger Gospel. I think we profoundly misunderstand this truth in some parts of the Church. The woman at the well who said, “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done”–that’s Gospel telling.

      I had some reservations in writing this post because I was sure someone would come along and accuse me of denigrating the Bible. By no means! I’m just hoping to frame the reality for the Church throughout time in its proper perspective to the written Scriptures. Thanks for concluding your comment with the correct perspective.

      • Oh, I try to get the correct perspective, but one of the things I’ve noticed in writing my blog or responding to someone else’s is that, no matter how hard I try to be clear and concise, someone will take whatever I’ve written and look at it from a corner I had never imagined existed and make me sound like an utter loon. It’s all a part of the whole “communication” thing. Were it that we could send our spirit to our readers to explain in the depths of the night just what it was we meant.

        But we can’t. I think one of the more difficult skills that all Christians have to learn is communicating the love of Christ. Pulling out a book and explaining things is not generally the best way.

  4. francisco

    When false dichotomies are presented, we end up in a mess like I fear this discussion will turn.
    On one corner, we have those charismatics who overemphasize the role of the Holy Spirit, make the next logical leap and abandon the Scriptures altogether. Then we complain when a superevangelist claims extra-revelation from God and starts raising support to purchase a 8-million jet.
    On the other hand, extreme cessationists who overemphasize Sola Scripture (to what I dearly hold too!) end up no better than their overzealous charismatic counterparts. It is most likely that we get to see joylesness in many of them.
    Well, that’s my two cents. And my advise is hold dearly to the Scriptures. If you can’t read (like many in my country, including my grandma) seek a bible-believing church where the Savior is proclaimed. If you read, (and how I like reading too!) share what you read with others who may not even have a chance to read what you are reading. Finally, if you really care about literacy in the third world (and I assume you do and I hope Dan agrees in this too) support a missionary overseas financially, especially bible translators so that the peoples may read the Bible in their own language.
    Now, if you are a cessationist get acquainted with a charismatic and read the Bible with him. If you are a charismatic, get together with a cessationist and pray earnestly that God’s kingdom come!
    Ok, I hope this does not sound like a ranting, but I get tired of these endless discussions that lead nowhere. We ought to take ACTION.

    p.s. Or join a SGM church! (ok, that was a little out of place 🙂

    • Francisco,

      I’ll second that amen. And I’ll also second your comment that we should all desire that all peoples have access to the Scriptures and that we help them to understand them–and that goes for helping them become literate. (Again, I had to go to the far other side to make my point, and yes, that does open me up for a broadside!)

      If I can accomplish one thing for the Lord through this blog, it’s that we have taken a unified Faith and broken it down into its component parts, one denomination overemphasizing this portion, while de-emphasizing another, and on and on from denomination to denomination. I thank God that he blessed me by having me part of disaprate churches with different emphases. That has helped me understand our tendency to compartmentalize the Faith and “fall in love” with only one small aspect of it. It’s also the reason I don’t like being critical of others, because I know that many of us grew up in one environment and we simply haven’t seen the vast panoply that represents Christ’s Church here on Earth. I hope to remedy that lack by standing in the gaps. More than anything else, I am blessed to see that strict Reformed, hard-line Pentecostals, Third-Wave charismatics, cessationists, continualists, and a whole host of other branches of Christianity, even Eastern Orthodox, link to Cerulean Sanctum. This isn’t ecumenism at work, but a desire to find the unification of the Faith in the things of God that last, that trump division.


  5. Dan,

    I have lovingly (and as carefully as I know how) disagreed with you on this one, which probably comes as no great surprise ;-).

    I have posted a response to this post over at our blog HERE.

    I do appreciate the thought-provoking post. It served its purpose well!

    • Ken,

      Read your response, but saw no ability to comment!

      Carter’s entire post is about being an avid reader. His point is to pick up a book and read it! It’s within that context that he frames his point.

      So I don’t believe you can say that the issue isn’t about reading when Carter’s entire post is about reading.

      You also quote Revelation to support writing, but in the process missed what instead bolsters my point. How did John receive his vision and command? The Spirit spoke it to him!

      In fact, all of Scripture came to us through the Spirit’s speaking to men. Again, the Holy Spirit is the primary means by which God communicates with Man.

      You also state that the written Word is the cornerstone of our faith. Well, not really. Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. (As John Piper entitled his book, God is the Gospel. ) And each believer has Christ living in Him through the Spirit. The government can knock on my door tomorrow and take away my Bible, but I would be no less a Christian than I was the day the before. Yes, that would be a blow, but my faith does not vanish should someone take the Book away from me. Abraham had no written Scripture, nor did Isaac or Jacob, yet they are pillars of Christianity. How?

      Each Christian needs to ask this question. I believe answering it rightly before the Lord will open up new vistas of faith to us.

      Again, I fear that this discussion will paint me as diminishing the written Word. By no means! I just want us to understand that we have an underdeveloped pneumatology in both theory and practice. Misunderstanding the Spirit’s place in our lives is one of the reasons the American Church is so anemic.

  6. Juan Zavala

    Great post, Dan I have to agree with you on “God still speaks and He can use other people, Scriputre, nature and the Holy Spirit.” I wonder how many of us know people who have a Bible but it is never read. I minister to alot of people who do not have a high school education and they have come to the Gospel by hearing. I am a Pentecostal and I love it but I have seen so much abuse that my focus is not “the craziness” but I focus on walking everyday with Christ. I may be having a bad day or going though a valley and God can use a song, a Bible verse, another person, etc. to give me the strength to keep walking. I thank God for working in the chruch age through the Holy Spirit.

    • Juan,

      In the United States, at least, Pentecostals tend to be their own worst enemy. Because they believing that God is open to doing anything and will do it (a positive), they tend to go running after anything that even remotely looks like “God doing something” (a negative).

      I attend (and will soon become a member of) a Pentecostal church, but I think one of the things I like about it are the number of people attending who come from non-Pentecostal backgrounds. That brings some balance you wouldn’t find otherwise.

      Sometimes an advanced education helps further the believer’s understanding, but in many cases it detracts. The most ardent and genuine Christians I’ve met in my life never got past a high school education. We so easily out-think the Gospel, but those folks don’t and I admire them for it.

  7. Mike

    Great, great post. Just yesterday I preached from this lectionary text:

    “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
    Acts 9:3-4

    Later, Ananias has a interesting communication from the Lord:

    In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
    “Yes, Lord,” he answered.
    Acts 9:10

    It’s not my intent here to get into the interpretive schema of “Descriptive, Normative, or Prescriptive?” But, I may end up there! Frequently, we (the Christian community of the West) take a rather naive or less than reflective approach to how God communicates with us.

    So, a perceived message from God, if it is exclusively through the written word, e.g., Carter’s post, or uniquely from some serendipitous occasion or relationship, believers have- forgive me- drawn a circle around it, baptized it as “God’s word for us” and gone on our merry way. The sense of ethical void to worship, community, and mission yawns back like the Grand Canyon. OK: I exaggerate…some…but, I’ve heard and seen two versions of outcomes to this approach: both related to missionary service. And it brings me up short.

    One version involves persistence in “getting to the field” (relax, Dan, I’m not trying to stir you on this one!), learning culture and language, and living in relative isolation to spread the Gospel. Some fruitfulness does emerge: new churches. The other version does the same thing: and no Christian community results. Maybe the one or two converts do get introduced to each other; but no other evidence of fruitfulness.

    But, both versions got a “word from God,” and they trusted it, painfully so. I’m not sure I’ve got only one point here. But, the variety of communications that God uses also points to another phenomena: a variety of responses and a variety of outcomes from those responses.

    Anyway, I asked the Presbyterians I worshiped with yesterday, “What do you think about that idea: that God might speak to you in a dream or a vision regarding your way of life and mission together?” Most had the blank-stare going on, less were slightly alarmed, and a very-few had faces that got wistful…

  8. MikeL It’s possible your Presbyterians were just being polite, y’know. Friendly towards their guest, rather than treating your remarks as a three-alarm fire and piling in with counter-arguments. (I, on the other hand, have no such scruples ;-).)

    And I notice you don’t acknowledge the possibility that people might disagree with you on reasonable grounds. They are either completely ignorant, frightened, or secretly in agreement but afraid of being put out of the synagogue.

    My response would be this: if I had a dream or vision of this nature, am I required to obey it? If I don’t obey it, am I disobeying God? But this decision will impact greatly on those around me – friends, family, church members. So are they required to knuckle under and accept my decision and its consequences, on the grounds that it’s a commandment from God?

    I’ve heard charismatics say that words of this type can never be used to command somebody else – i.e. if I have a dream about another member of my church becoming a missionary, I can’t tell them God requires this of them. But – quite apart from the fact that I do not see what possible basis there is for making this distinction, for disregarding visions/dreams concerning the “way of life and mission” of others – real-life decisions don’t segment neatly between things that only impact on me, and things that impact on others.

    • Oops, that should begin “Mike:”, not “MikeL”, and should have been in reply to Mike’s original comment. Apart from that, I think I managed to work the system just fine. 😉

    • I should think, that if I had a vision, and testing it against scripture found it to be truth, I would be required to obey it. My entire life should be one of obedience to God. On the other hand, if once tested the vision is shown to be false, I am equally bound to disregard it.

      The key is testing the spirit and finding if it be true or false. And that can really only be done in a mature relationship with God, and is best done with spiritual help and encouragement from a good body of believers.

      My life is not my own. Neither are the lives of those around me who call themselves Christians. If I am attempting to live according to some concept of personal choice, then I am living a lie.

  9. Mike

    Dan: Thanks, but, an analogy of a time bomb might also be at work!

    John H: Thank you, as well.

    Re: The Presby’s behaving politely, as well as my not acknowledging the possibility of reasonable disagreement. Amen to both. I suppose I could have filled in more with a description of my relationships within the church. And included a sentence or two of how I dig around afterwards to learn if anything from the preaching got under the skin of anyone., So, I suppose that I’ve omitted both of those possibilities.

    I’m a Minister of the Word & Sacrament; I’m one of the Presby’s. And, I could fill in tons more of the nature of my familiarity with this congregation, and their familiarity with me. It’s an omission, albeit a selective one on my part.

    So, I would have welcomed impolite behavior! I was expecting the possibilities of unreasonable disagreement! For many within that particular congregation-although it does not take much imagination to include other congregations- the only expectation of hearing a message from God is from the lectionary readings and preaching on a Sunday morning: that is is it.

    I am not sure what you refer to when you write the following:

    My response would be this: if I had a dream or vision of this nature, am I required to obey it? If I don’t obey it, am I disobeying God?

    Forgive me if what I originally commented on lead you to this reply. But, I think I understand your point:”required to obey it?” No. “Am I disobeying God?” I don’t know!

    But, we both agree here on something prior: that God may have spoken to someone- me, you, a Presby- in a dream/vision and now we are in the unusual (to be sure) situation of having to respond. Perhaps we would agree on this response: I would commend the risk of talking with one another, and your idea from above that fear might prevent one or more from speaking up is well put here. Nonetheless, some communication risks would need to be taken to assist the one receiving the dream in a discernment process.

    I’d conclude by suggesting that, John H, we’re probably a lot closer on this matter than not, i.e., that the people who hear our preaching and teaching stand to benefit from having increasing expectations that the Lord still communicates with us, although that form or media may not always be tidy, scheduled, “on-demand”, pain-free, or accessible through a table of contents.

    Thanks for your comment, and I’ll aim to make your concerns explicit in my next message. 🙂

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