(Originally titled “There’s No Such Thing As a Sunday School Alumnus”)
The following is taken from a sermon I originally gave on August 11, 1991, at First Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama. My role in that church was Associate Pastor of Christian Education and Youth, and this sermon was originally intended partly as a “commercial” to promote adult Sunday School. Since many churches today no longer have adult Sunday School classes, portions of the sermon as originally given were not very relevant for today. So I’ve significantly revised it to try and preserve the parts of the message I felt remain applicable today.
Deut 11:18-22 (Revised Standard Version)
18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
Heb 5:7 – 6:3 (Revised Standard Version)
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.
11 About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; 13 for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.
6 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
My sermon this morning is really a follow-up to a sermon I preached back at the end of May, when I first started here as your new Associate Pastor of Education and Youth. In that sermon I focused primarily on the importance of Christian Education in the lives of the children and youth of our church.
Today, however, I want to speak about the place of Christian Education in the lives of adults. I touched on this issue briefly in that previous sermon, but that was mainly to emphasize the significance of Adult Education as a means of helping us raise our children within the context of the Christian faith. This morning, though, I want to focus on Adult Education for its own sake, apart from the benefits it provides our children.
You Can’t Graduate From Spiritual Growth
Now when I use the words Christian Education and Adult Education, I don’t mean simply the programs and classes the church offers under those headings. For education is much more than just programs and classes. It’s ultimately a process by which we learn and grow in our faith; the classes and the programs are just vehicles where this process can occur. Nevertheless, Sunday School is one important means by which Christian Education can take place, so I will be talking about it some in this sermon.
Maybe it’s true for you as it is for me that when I hear the words “Sunday School,” the first image that pops into my mind is one of little boys and girls in a classroom, singing and listening to stories from the Bible. “Sunday School” doesn’t bring to mind a roomful of adults engaged in thoughtful and careful study.
Why is this? Maybe it’s the word “school.” Outside of church, school is something we attend for a certain number of years until we graduate, then we leave and move on to our career. And it so happens that about the time we finish school is also when we become adults. And so school is something we associate with childhood.
Spiritual growth is different, though. You can’t ever graduate from Sunday school. For spiritual growth isn’t something we can ever fully master and say “OK, I’ve got that now, I don’t need to learn or grow anymore.” God is so big and awesome, and beyond our ability to comprehend, that no matter how much we try to understand him, there’s always more to learn. If we study engineering or law or medicine, there comes a point at which we can be certified that we’re ready to practice in that area. But when it comes to spiritual matters, we’re always learners.
Even though I graduated from seminary, that doesn’t mean I graduated from the need to grow in my faith. In fact, a seminary education can be a hindrance because it can fool you into thinking that just because you’ve mastered certain facts or “theology,” that means you’re spiritually mature. You can gain a lot of “head knowledge” but still not understand spiritual truths in your heart.
A seminary education and denominational certification can fill a person with pride. As 1 Corinthians 8:1 reminds us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” There’s a world of difference between knowing about God, and actually knowing God. Your mind can be filled with facts and theories and theologies, and you can still be as lost as an Easter egg.
Knowing the Basics
Now don’t get me wrong. Knowledge of the Bible is necessary. The Bible tells us the history of God’s dealings with humanity, and most of all it tells us the story of Jesus and how he saves us. Scripture also tells us about how to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and how God wants us to live and behave. That knowledge is the basic foundation of the Christian life, and if we don’t learn it, we won’t get very far.
And sadly, this type of basic knowledge is lacking among some Christians today. But knowing Jesus starts with knowing Him through the Bible. The Jesus we meet and receive for salvation is none other than the Jesus we first encounter in the pages of Scripture, and our relationship with him is always tied to the revelation he has given of himself in the Bible. So we do well to read the Bible until it becomes a part of us. The Bible speaks of hiding God’s word in our hearts, and when we do this, the Holy Spirit brings it to mind at key moments when we need his guidance, or to show us what God would have us do.
So I’m not knocking basic Bible knowledge. It’s the foundation of our Christian lives.
So if you had to take a Bible knowledge quiz, how would you do? If you’re thinking you might not do very well, you’re probably not alone. My experience is that Bible knowledge isn’t one of the stronger areas for PCUSA Presbyterians as a rule. While we may be strong in the areas of mission and service, we Presbyterians don’t tend to be as strong when it comes to Scripture and theology.
All candidates for the ministry in the PCUSA are required to take and pass what is known as the Bible Content Exam before they are allowed to be ordained as ministers. Quite a number of my friends in seminary failed this test of basic Bible knowledge once or even twice before they finally passed, after feverishly cramming for the test. (As I recall I made a 93 out of 100 on the Bible Content Exam the first time I took it; at any rate I passed with no problem.)
Our New Testament lesson today speaks to this issue. It is, frankly, a very strongly worded passage aimed at motivating its readers to become more actively involved in the pursuit of spiritual growth.
We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, nor do we know exactly who its intended audience was. But we do know the writer, whoever he was, was addressing a particular Christian community that was experiencing pretty harsh persecution. This community was made up of Jews who had become Christians. As a result of persecution the community was in danger of giving up their faith in Christ and lapsing back into Judaism. So the author wrote Hebrews to inspire them not to give up hope.
In the passage we read from today, the writer seems concerned that his readers have lost their zeal for teaching and learning about their faith. They’ve become apathetic. He accuses them of becoming “dull of hearing.” Maybe the persecution is slowly beating them down. The author says that by now they ought to be teachers, but instead they still need someone to teach them even the most basic doctrines of the Christian faith. He draws a comparison between physical and spiritual nourishment, saying these Christians ought to be ready for solid food, but instead they’re only able to digest milk—the most basic aspects of the faith. They should be adults by now but spiritually they’re still just babies.
The author gives a list of basic Christian teachings: “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2). The basics he mentions are
- salvation by faith
- baptism (that’s most likely what the reference to “ablutions” is about)
- the laying on of hands
- the resurrection
- eternal judgment
These he refers to as being foundational and calls them “elementary doctrines.” “Elementary” means easy–simple–basic–doesn’t it?
And yet some Christians today stumble over these very basic doctrines and can’t get past them:
- What is repentance?
- Is it really true we’re saved by faith and not by our good works (which the author calls “dead works”)?
- What is baptism? Do I really have to be baptized? What’s the proper mode of baptism–sprinkling or immersion? And is it infant baptism or believer’s baptism?
- What is the laying on of hands and why is it important? (Some churches don’t even practice this anymore! But as we see, they should.)
- Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Can we be sure that we’ll be resurrected?
- And “eternal judgment”?!? That’s not a popular one today!! A lot of people today don’t want to hear anything about judgment.
Many of these teachings are things modern Christians get “stuck” on, especially the doctrines of the bodily resurrection of Christ and the judgment. People today struggle to believe these doctrines or to understand them, and so they just can’t move past them on to maturity.
And yet the author of Hebrews says these are the basics. These are teachings that should be assumed and non-negotiable for Christians. We should be well-versed in them. These doctrines are the foundation of our faith and Christians should be unwavering in them. The author of Hebrews says if we’re not new believers anymore we should get to the place where not only are we established in these doctrines—we should be able to teach them.
So how about it? How do we stack up? Do we know these doctrines well? Would we be able to explain them to someone else? Do we really believe them ourselves? If the answer to any of these questions is no, or “I’m not sure,” then the writer of Hebrews says we have some work to do.
As we’re evaluating our spiritual maturity it’s so important that we don’t confuse our expertise in other areas with our understanding of spiritual things. You can be an expert in business and still be a babe when it comes to the gospel.
There’s another misconception we often see in churches. Some seem to think spirituality and spiritual knowledge is only the job of the pastors. It’s what they’re paid to do, after all, right? So, the thinking goes, they’re the only ones who really need to read the Bible and spend time in prayer.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Ephesians 4:11-12 tell us the job of pastors is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (emphasis added). That’s you guys, because in the New Testament a saint is not some especially holy person. A saint is simply a Christian, any Christian, all Christians.
So ministry and spirituality are the responsibility of all Christians, not just pastors. Therefore, another purpose of Christian education in the church is to equip believers for the works of ministry God has called them to.
Just Do It!
If you feel like the description in Hebrews 5 and 6 applies to you—if you feel like you might be a baby Christian who still needs to learn the basics—there’s no need to despair. It’s never too late to start learning.
There are many ways to go about growing in these areas. Attending an adult Sunday school class is only one of them. I also highly encourage you to start reading and studying the Bible on an individual basis. You can also get together with friends who share a similar interest and form a Bible study.
I realize one reason people sometimes hesitate to do these things is because they feel their knowledge and understanding of the Bible is just too inadequate to try reading it on their own. But really the only way we’re ever going to improve our Bible knowledge is to just get in there and start reading it. It’s never too late.
Besides, it’s not like you have to do this all by yourself. We have the Holy Spirit to help us. The Bible says one of His purposes is to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). We can’t understand the Bible without the Holy Spirit’s help anyway. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says “The unspiritual (or natural) man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” But Holy Spirit’s purpose is to help us understand the things of God.
The bottom line is that one doesn’t have to have a degree in theology to be able to study and understand the Bible. Simply sitting and reading it together and discussing it may be all that’s required. And there are all kinds of study tools available in the way of commentaries and concordances which can also help in learning the historical and literary setting of the Bible.
Thank goodness there isn’t any such thing as a Sunday school alumnus. For wouldn’t life be boring if there weren’t anything else to be learned? One of the most inspiring things in the world for a young man like me is to see one of my retired mentors still learning and questioning and growing in his faith. May it always be so with each one of us.
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