I have always been a bit of a skeptic. I'm not just talking about matters of faith – I am skeptical about anything a politician says, any “amazing” event captured on video, any “unbelievable” trick or discovery. I tend to start from a position of doubt and questioning. And of course, skepticism can be healthy, it has its place in our lives. We should not be quick to believe every claim that people make, otherwise people can take advantage of us and do us harm.
But we should not let our skepticism take control. There's a time to question and a time to accept answers. There's a time to doubt and a time to believe. The same skepticism that chases away the snake-oil salesman should not keep us from receiving life-saving medical treatment.
As we continue to study what the Westminster Shorter Catechism has to say about how we read and hear the Word of God, we reach the fourth characteristic of effective hearing. The question posed at the beginning was “How is the Word to be read and heard that it may become effectual to salvation?” Remember, we're not just talking about casual hearing. We're talking about the kind of hearing that produces results. The catechism summarizes the answer of Scripture, saying “That the Word may become effectual to salvation we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer, receive it with faith...”
We must receive the Word of God with faith. In short, that means we must believe the truth of what we hear from God's Word. An example of this is in Hebrews 4:2, “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” The “them” described in this verse is the people of Israel, standing just outside the promised land. Having sent spies in to explore the land, they heard the report that the land was good and fertile and beautiful. But it was also occupied by hostile people. Two of the twelve spies tried to persuade the people that, because God had promised them this land, they could be confident that they would be able to take it. But the people didn't believe the promises of God. So the good news they heard was of no benefit to them, because they didn't believe it (read the whole story in Numbers 13-14).
The Bible makes some amazing claims about reality. It contains bold promises from the eternal God to his faithful people. Promises he expects us to act on and respond to. Promises around which we are to order our lives. God will avenge and punish evil, therefore love your enemies. God will provide for all your needs, therefore be generous. God has gifted you for service in the church, therefore connect with others and find ways to minister. Jesus will return to renew and restore all things, therefore do not seek your happiness and security in things that will pass away. If we hear these promises and instructions without faith – that is, without believing their truth – then we will not act on them. If we do not act on them, we will not benefit from them.
Such faith-less hearing is not new. Remember the serpent in the Garden of Eden? When tempting Eve, the serpent questioned the truth of God's Word (Genesis 3:1-5). The serpent called Eve to doubt what the Word said and to instead make her own judgment about what was good and true. The serpent suggested she receive the Word of God without faith that what it said was true. You might not even realize it when you are listening without faith. Ask yourself, “Am I arguing with or criticizing the Word of God when I read or hear it?” “Am I looking for the problems or possible objections?”
One of the challenges to hearing with faith is that there are many messages in our life that we must receive with skepticism. What we learn in school, what we hear on the news, what we are told in advertising, and many other words we hear should be listened to critically. We should listen with an ear to analyze and evaluate and perhaps reject. But not so with God's Word. His Word comes to as loving instruction from a Father to his children. And it comes as the authoritative Word from our loving Creator and all-wise King.
For those who have settled in our hearts that the Bible is the Word of God, our skepticism needs to give way to faith. Faith indeed partners with diligence and prudence and careful reading, recognizing that we don't always understand the Word correctly. But in those situations, the skepticism is directed at our own understanding and not at the Word of God. What we read and what we hear, we receive with faith that it is God's Word for our good and for his glory. When we receive it in such a way, with faith, it will be of great benefit, producing the blessing which God intended.