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Tampering with God's Word (2 Cor. 4:2)

Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:17, the apostle Paul spoke of those who were “peddlers of God’s word”. In our meditation on that passage, I explained that he had in mind someone who dilutes the full strength of the gospel, perhaps eliminating (or at least minimizing) its offensive elements, or altering certain theological points, so that the finished "product" will be more appealing to the audience. The aim was obviously to gain as large a following as possible, and especially the money that comes with it.

In 2 Corinthians 4:2 Paul returns to that theme, but with a slightly different emphasis. Here he declares that he refuses “to tamper with God’s word,” but instead is committed to “the open statement of the truth.” Whereas in 3:17 the motivation appears to be monetary gain, in 4:2 the agenda is unclear. Certainly money may still be in view, but other factors ought also to be considered.

People often “tamper” with God’s word either to retain or expand their power base, to increase their popularity, or to avoid controversy and the discomfort it often creates. Some do so because of personal distaste for the hard truths of Scripture, to protect themselves against the contempt of those whose respect and acceptance they cherish, or in the interests of any number of personal agendas that require God’s truth be treated as malleable and merely a means that may be manipulated to achieve whatever end is in view.

A brief glance across the broad spectrum of professing Christendom, if only here in America, reveals several expressions of the sort of “tampering” that Paul might well have in view. Let me cite a few examples.

One of the more explicit instances is the increasing trend toward either marginalizing or rejecting altogether the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Such folk often insist they haven’t rejected penal substitution but wish only to recast it in such a way that its unsavory elements are discarded lest we give unnecessary offence to a society that longs for a more compassionate and less “violent” Christianity. Others argue that they still embrace penal substitution but have simply repositioned it to a subordinate, tangential role in our understanding of atonement. In other words, penal substitution isn’t altogether denied, it is simply de-throned from its formative status as the dominant and controlling model for what Christ accomplished and relegated to “one of many valid metaphors” for the sake of maintaining a more “holistic” view of Christ’s saving work. Once this is done, the notion of penal substitution is, for all practical purposes, never heard from again.

In the final analysis, few if any of these efforts to redefine the doctrine of atonement can escape the charge of having “tampered” with God’s word. The unadulterated, sharp edge of the message of the cross in which Jesus Christ has, in our stead, propitiated the wrath of a holy God is more than they can swallow. Many contend that they’ve merely adapted the gospel to a post-modern world but have stopped short of tampering with the truths of Scripture itself. I’ll leave it for you to judge if that’s true.

Another example of “tampering” with the text is the tendency to disregard certain teachings because of the difficulty they pose for life in the 21st century. I’m thinking particularly of the explosive growth among evangelicals of egalitarianism and the repudiation of any distinctions in role or responsibility between male and female, whether in marriage or ministry.

Again, of course, those who’ve yielded to this temptation would never countenance my use of the word “disregard”. They would consider that an unfair, inflammatory, and pejorative assessment of what they’ve done. What they insist has occurred is that a new hermeneutical paradigm or model for reading Scripture has emerged that enables them to see that certain NT guidelines or principles previously thought to be timeless and binding on the conscience of Christians everywhere were, in fact, culturally accommodated or merely part of a trajectory of truth that liberates us from the explicit boundaries of NT teaching and elevates the church into that “ultimate ethic” toward which the text is, allegedly, pointing.

I’ve found that in many cases (not all, mind you, but many) it wasn’t that complementarianism was found to be biblically deficient or lacking in exegetical consistency. Rather, it made them feel like “fundamentalists” and threatened their acceptance and status within the broader evangelical community, especially the academy. Not wanting to be perceived as obscurantist or theologically naïve or culturally out of step, they relished these new proposals that appeared to undermine the traditional “hierarchical” (their word) understanding of the relationship between male and female in home and church. Wanting to be seen as progressive and in touch with the cutting edge of contemporary scholarship, a complementarian view of men and women was abandoned for an “easier” and “more palatable” perspective.

Another example of what I consider “tampering” with God’s word would be the growth of what George Barna has called, in the title to his most recent and popular book, the Revolution among professing evangelicals who now find active participation in local church life unappealing and, worse still, unnecessary.

Then, of course, there are those who don’t like being branded as narrow-minded and arrogant exclusivists when it comes to the issue of salvation. The redemptive work of Christ may well be necessary as the foundation for any possibility of eternal life, but conscious faith in him alone is being discarded in favor of an inclusivism that now recognizes saving power in all (or most) non-Christian religions. The next (and seemingly inevitable) step for many is salvific universalism. Hell exists only in this life and on this earth, but is denied its eternal and penal dimensions.

Much could also be said of those who’ve tampered with God’s word to justify in their own minds an embrace of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle and same sex marriage as a “right” that should be recognized in our society.

Perhaps the most egregious and destructive example of “tampering” with the text doesn’t involve any one doctrinal issue but reflects a diminishing loss of confidence in the functional authority of Scripture and a failure to believe and act upon the life-changing power of God’s word.

I’m persuaded that this is why we see so little expository preaching in our pulpits today. Although they would be extremely reticent to admit it publicly, countless pastors simply no longer believe that the biblical text, accurately explained and passionately applied, has the power to build the church. Operating with a secular standard of what constitutes “success” and under pressure to facilitate church growth (in every sense of the term), they have resorted to gimmicks, props, marketing techniques, and entertainment to the obvious detriment, and all too frequent abandonment, of exposition.

This inevitably leads to a loss of the functional authority of Scripture in church life. Whereas most would be quick to affirm the inspiration of the Bible in their statements of faith, few actually bend their beliefs to conform with Scripture or subordinate their personal preferences to the principles of the text. Affirmation of biblical authority is all too often only affirmation, with little effort made to actually yield or submit to the dictates of what God has revealed.

An illustration of this latter point is found in the national survey recently conducted by Christianity Today International and Zondervan Publishers, the results of which were given in Leadership magazine (Fall 2007). To cite only one example, a man named James Smith identified himself as a Christian but said that he does not necessarily believe that his God is any different from the one his Muslim friend worships. “I don’t think that God would be a God who would shut others out of heaven because they don’t use the word ‘Christian’ to describe themselves,” said Smith (19-20).

With all due respect, and allowing that I may have misinterpreted his comments, it doesn’t matter what Smith (or Storms) thinks. Christians are not free to retain what they want to be true and spurn the clear teaching of Scripture. If Scripture is inspired, it is authoritative. And if it is authoritative, we must bow to its principles and truths even when they are uncomfortable, unpopular, or put a strain between us and friends who may believe otherwise. We dare not tamper with God’s word. Ever.

Whatever our calling in life, whatever our career or ministry, my prayer is that we would say with Paul: “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).