So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word
of Christ. – Romans 10:17
66%* of American Christians never or rarely read their Bibles. This heart breaking number is enough to alert us to this reality: The Reformation (among 21st century American Christians) has practically failed. Today, 494 years after a learned German monk posted his disputations regarding indulgences and the lack of access to the gospel upon the public church door of the Castle Church in the University town of Wittenburg, Germany is a good time to ask if those concerns have been assuaged. The “formal cause” of the Reformation was the question of the authority of Scripture alone. This was the heartbeat of the Protestant Reformation: that the Word of God be made available in the vernacular tongue of the people at large, so that they might have access to the Gospel.
Trevin Wax recently stated, “The Church is not a group of people who enjoy the Bible as a hobby.”And we treat it that way, don’t we? We like to think of the Bible as a collection of sayings to help us or to entertain us, or we like to buy expensive prints of certain verses to adorn our walls – we like to debate about it, we like to have many versions, and different covers – but what good does any of this do if we never read it?
One of the simplest songs kids learn in church at Vacation Bible School simply goes like this: “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the word of God, The B-I-B-L-E.” Yet, many of these very same kids have multiple Bibles that were given to them for special occasions that are collecting dust or still are in their original boxes, gold leaf untarnished. One of the saddest realities in our churches today is that the majority of people in church rarely actually read the Word of God for themselves, even though it has been translated time and time again in many different fashions just to be more readable and accessible. Most have forgotten that there was a day when the Bible was neither available nor accessible to a non-priestly, non-scholarly class. That issue alone was enough to drive many Reformers to hiding, and caused them to be persecuted, burned, and strangled. Further still from our minds is the fact that there are many people groups around the world still literally dying without the Word of God in their hands – let alone their hearts.
A few weeks ago, I attended Catalyst conference in Atlanta. During this conference I was given two New Testaments. The first was the Voice, a new work not yet released with the Old Testament, that is intended to make the Bible more accessible to an over stimulated, visually sensitive and art drenched generation. This is admirable, as there is something to the Reformation heartbeat in regards to the generational vernacular at work here. Many scholars, poets, pastors, and artists worked painstakingly to produce an almost lyrical work. As fascinated as I was as a Biblical languages nerd with this volume, I was forced sober with the second New Testament I was given. It looked much like something you would give a high school graduate with its burgundy bonded leather cover and gold leaf title “Holy Bible”, but when you flip through the leaves to find John 3:16, it’s not there. Neither is the book of John. Nor the letters of Paul, including Romans! Or even the one single page of the book of Jude. No, it was entirely blank. And this is what the Bible looks like for millions of people in the world. Millions of people we have been instructed to
preach the gospel to. Millions of people who have no hope.
As I held this volume, I had to think again about the other volume I held. I do not disparage the publication of the Voice in particular, because if I did, then I might have to ask myself how I also feel about the recent updates of the New International Version, the Holman Christian Standard, or even the one that will eventually come for my beloved English Standard Version. This eclipse is coming full shadow today by the news that HarperCollins has now acquired Thomas Nelson Publishers (they already own Zondervan). This means that this humongous publishing house now owns fifty percent of Evangelical Christian publishing – that includes Bibles. Is there greed in the Bible Publishing industry? Absolutely. That reality alone should probably cause us to immediately shut down the printing presses and think twice about how many Bibles we should purchase this year, but it won’t. The question at stake here should pierce our hearts as deep as a two-edged sword: Do we really need another English Bible, with all the production, publication and promotion costs that entails, while the American Church is satisfied to place it on the shelves next to all the others while thousands of people groups do not have a single syllable of the word of God in their heart language? The
Bible brings life, and for every day that passes, enough people to fill 16 Boeing 747s die without hearing the Gospel in their own language. More than the population of the United States lives daily with the reality that they will slip into hell, without receiving the word. More than 2,000 distinct languages have not a single verse of scripture in their native tongue. *
One time after a backyard Bible club in college where I had spoken, I was proud of my little leather strap Bible that fit snuggly in my back jeans pocket. As we were playing games with the kids one little boy ran up to me and tugged on my shirt sleeve. He asked me, “How many Bibles do you have?” I thought of the many translations, various editions, paraphrases, and collectible volumes on my shelf, and instead of producing a number I said, “several”. He asked, “Can I have that one in your pocket?” Then I (at the time reluctantly) reached in my back pocket – ironically, where my wallet usually went – and gave the volume to a smiling kid.
If we believe everything we say we believe about the Bible, then do we not think that we ought to get it into the hands of those who do not have it?
Perhaps we should hear and heed once more the lyrics of an old Fanny Crosby Hymn:
“Millions grope in darkness waiting for Thy Word, set my soul afire Lord, set my soul afire.”
* These numbers can be found here: OneVerse http://www.oneverse.org/, and are made available by the Seed Company, a ministry partnered with several groups, including the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Their mission is to complete the task of seeing the gospel translated into the language of the peoples of the earth who do not have the life-giving word of God in their language.