Perry Noble and I agree on something important: his Christmas Eve sermon was no accident.
Late last week, Noble published a letter to his church that looked like he was apologizing for the sermon, though a careful reading shows that the apology was very limited, and the important theological problems created by the sermon were not only retained, but embraced. As I noted in a previous post, I wanted to give Noble the benefit of the doubt, so I contacted him privately to offer him the opportunity to clarify it in case I was missing something. NewSpring’s response was clear: he didn’t want to explain anything else, so at this point it’s not only fair, but important, to analyze the apology and the continuing theological disaster that is NewSpring’s Christmas Eve sermon.
To review quickly, Noble claimed that there was no word in Hebrew for command, which led to the main premise of the sermon that there weren’t really any Ten Commandments. My response, which was confirmed by many others who also critiqued the sermon, was that he was wrong on both counts. Denying the commandments was by far the worst part of the sermon, though the first claim about the Hebrew word was so obviously wrong that it hardly needed refutation.
Noble’s apology retracts nothing that wasn’t already obvious to us all. Let’s analyze it a little.
So I did this sermon on the Ten Commandments once and everyone loved it… 🙂
How many people loved it isn’t the standard that Noble should be using to measure his work. Was it faithful to Scripture? Was it true? Paul tells Timothy to preach the Word even out of season (2 Tim 4:2), indicating that there would be times when people would neither love nor respond to his preaching, even though good and right.
If by everyone Noble includes the leadership of his church, that’s troubling in itself. Did anyone on staff detect a problem with his message, and, if so, did anyone have the opportunity to confront Noble with corrective criticism? This blog didn’t publish anything about the sermon for more than a week afterwards, so there was plenty of quiet before the controversy hit for NewSpring’s internal governance structures to have fixed or anticipated this.
Before I give finality to this issue (it’s time to move on) I want to address a few things first.
#1 – I am imperfect. I make mistakes and fall way short of who I should be each and every day.
#2 – I fully understand and feel the weight of James 3:1 that clearly says that people who teach God’s Word will be judged more strictly.
Why, then, the antagonism towards people who do critique his preaching? A few days before the apology, he boasted to other pastors that through this controversy he was bravely taking a hit for Jesus, favorably comparing himself to the suffering Christ.
#3 – I take teaching the Bible very seriously and desperately want to always put forth my best effort as I really do believe that when God says “don’t” in Scripture it is more like Him saying, “don’t hurt yourself,” because, as a friend of mine often says, “choose to sin, choose to suffer.”
This mind-blowing paragraph showcases much of what’s wrong with Noble’s preaching. After asserting that he takes the Bible seriously and gives it his best effort, he proceeds to paraphrase it beyond recognition on the authority of a friend. Look at that line again: “when God says ‘don’t’ in Scripture it is more like Him saying, ‘don’t hurt yourself.'” How inconsiderate of the Holy Spirit to have expressed himself so carelessly in the original manuscripts, and how fortunate that we have Perry Noble now to clarify–mainly, to soften–what God said.
That being said I want to go back for a minute, try to shed some light on a couple of things and then make two apologies.
“That being said” is rather important. Noble has demonstrated his habit of arbitrarily rewriting Scripture to make it say what he thinks it should say, so from here it’s no surprise where the apology goes.
On Christmas Eve I really did feel The Lord pressing into me to do a different message than we had previously done in the days before. I wrestled with this for several hours before finally saying “yes.”
Noble doesn’t apologize for the false claim that he heard from God. Even if you think God does give people messages like this, you have to disqualify this one because God surely wouldn’t have asked Noble to proclaim such a huge error. The claim that God told him to preach this message has made it practically impossible for Noble to retract and properly apologize for the sermon. To do so would be to acknowledge that he can be wrong about his claims of divine revelation that are an important source of his authority within the church.
A quick point about hearing from God while we’re here. Noble reports that after hearing God speak to him, he wrestled with the revelation and asked his entire leadership team to confirm that it was God’s voice. It is interesting that the Bible nowhere tells us how to recognize when we’re hearing direct messages from God, yet we know that God did reveal himself to the men who wrote the Scripture. We don’t know exactly how that happened because the Holy Spirit didn’t tell us, though when God spoke to his prophets and apostles, they knew without a shadow of a doubt and didn’t need to poll their associates.
Instead of giving us advice on how to hear from God, Scripture gives plenty of advice on how to test the claims of people who say they heard from God. If God spoke to you, you wouldn’t need to test it, but we always need to test the people who say God spoke to them.
As I began writing down what I felt like He wanted me to say, I began to reflect on the teaching I have received while in Israel and how I had been told there was no Hebrew word for “command,” but that the 10 commandments were actually then ten sayings or the promises of God.
This set my heart on fire and I put the message together, believing it was from the Lord, and we saw over 200 people come to Christ as a result.
Noble’s heart, which like all of ours is sick and deceitful (Jer 17:9), told him that this was an excellent message. The important question is why the erroneous message so inflamed him.
As for the 200 people, they are why this is so important. Our argument is that Noble did not preach the gospel on Christmas Eve, so it’s not a useful defense to point to people who took an action (signing their name on a badge) that Noble claims represents their salvation. If the gospel wasn’t preached, by what means were they saved? Perhaps NewSpring’s pastors have contacted each one of the 200 and presented the true gospel to them, though if so, it would be proper and encouraging to see that mentioned in the apology.
And then it hit the fan!
Actually, before it hit the fan I had reached out to Noble with a private encouragement to fix the Ten Commandments problem quickly. His apology could have come well before the social media tsunami hit, and before he had twice more reaffirmed the sermon (here and here). I had published the original article on Thursday, Jan 1, and received the brief statement from NewSpring on the morning of Jan 2 that I appended to the first article: “We do stand by the message Perry gave to our church on December 24, 2015, and we do believe the Lord prompted Perry to deliver it as he did.” By that stage, the post hadn’t been read or shared by many, possibly because this blog had been dormant since the beginning of August, and I hadn’t written anything about NewSpring since April. Traffic was very light. On Friday afternoon, I sent my contact at NewSpring the following plea:
I’d suggest that Perry finds a way to gracefully back away from the commandments sermon. It’s pretty obvious to most observers, I think, that the claim is wrong (you can’t read far into the OT without seeing that word, so how does he explain what the underlying Hebrew is?). As I wrote in my post, I think he misunderstood a point about the Torah not labelling the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages as “The Ten Commandments,” which is indeed something that came later. Even so, everything on those lists is a commandment, which is what Perry erroneously denied.
The Ten Commandments are obviously a central part of the Bible and, therefore, of Christianity. Perry is quickly going to become known as someone who has disavowed them, and that reputation will be isolating, damaging and memorable. The mistake is explainable (he can even blame the 10-minutes of prep time, as he has already done in the preface to the sermon), so the faster he comes out with a retraction and apology, the better, I think. If he’s going to dig in on it, he’s going to be clinging to something that is obviously heretical, yet that I don’t think he really believes.
I’d rather Perry get it right and set the record straight than for him (and those of you associated with him) to be embarrassed by such a big and serious error.
If he does it, I think you’ll find that his critics will praise him (I will), not kick him. If he doesn’t, he’s going to be criticized on this for a long, long time.
The commandments teaching is a much bigger deal than the N-word thing and something that he can fix honorably and look good in the process.
The response to this was the statement from the pulpit a few days later, both affirming the message and characterizing his critics as angry and mean. The purpose of reproducing my message to Noble is to show that well before it hit the fan, Noble had the opportunity to forestall all of this. It was the day after this message to Noble that the post went viral.
Back to Noble’s apology:
I had no idea that I had stepped into a debate in which godly people are on both sides of the issue.
This isn’t a debate. The Christian church has always recognized that the Commandments are essential to the gospel and has always condemned teachers who attempt to preach grace without law. This post pulled together some examples of a diverse range of godly people who would be surprised that Noble thinks this is even an issue.
I have been on the phone, on the internet and on my face this week trying my hardest to see if what I preached in that message was true, as well as seeing if I made mistakes in that teaching.
Which leads to my two apologies.
#1 – I apologize for saying there was not an actual Hebrew word for command.
In way more research than I have ever done I realized that statement was not correct. (The original Hebrew is “metzaveh”.) In no way was I deliberately trying to mislead or deceive anyone. I simply recalled a conversation I had (which I now see I did not fully understand), looked back at my notes and taught the message. I now realize I should have put way more time into doing research before making that statement.
On one hand, it’s encouraging that Noble did listen to criticism and respond to it. This paragraph in the apology represents the only meaningful retraction from the sermon, though he’s simply acknowledging what many of us knew immediately: of course Hebrew has a word for command, otherwise most of the Old Testament would vanish into the air.
Although he now realizes he should have done more research, he’s not taking responsibility for the incompetence displayed in how he prepared, delivered, and even responded to criticism of this sermon. What will change now? What measures will he implement to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
However, what I am not apologizing for is saying that the Hebrew word for “command” is not used when the 10 commandments were given.
At first glance the lower-case c in commandments looks accidental until you realize the the entire statement is again denying that the Ten Commandments are a legitimate biblical concept. Noble is still insisting that there is no such thing as the Ten Commandments.
It literally means “sayings” – and, according to Exodus 34:28, can also be interpreted as promises.
Not according to Ex 34. It’s only according to his friends that it can be interpreted that way. Here, Noble is being either deliberately deceitful in his handling of Scripture or inexplicably careless with it. Here’s what Ex 34:28 says:
So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew word behind the English Commandments in this verse is dabar, meaning word. This is the basis for Noble’s claim that the commandments are just ten words, but the only way that you could claim that they’re promises is if you reason that word means promise. But I could argue that words can also be jokes, so they are really the Ten Jokes, or the Ten Curses, or the Ten Prepositions. Or whatever else kind of thing a word could be.
Though you might want to say that dabar gives you license to substitute anything you want in its place, the context of Scripture forbids it. The listings of the Ten Commandments are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, so someone reading Exodus from start to finish would have learned about the Commandments in Chapter 20. That means that when we get to Chapter 34, Moses is summarizing events that have already been revealed in explicit detail earlier. The ten words in Chapter 34 point us back to what we already learned from Chapter 20–they are the Ten Commandments written by God’s hand.
Let’s say I told you that Payton Manning threw two touchdowns in the first half of a game and another three touchdowns in the second half. After telling you a bit more about the game, I mention that Manning’s “five scores” were the most he’d had in a game this year. Would you be free to assume that he’d scored five goals, five baskets, or five runs? Of course not. The context of the account constrains you to interpret scores only one way: they were touchdowns.
As a friend from Israel shared with me…
“The word command, as well as commandment, is used to translate the Hebrew word mits’vah but does not properly convey the meaning of mits’vah. The word command implies words of force or power as a General commands his troops. The word mits’vah is better understood as a directive. To see the picture painted by this word it is helpful to look at a related word, tsiyon meaning a desert or a landmark. The Ancient Hebrews were a nomadic people who traveled the deserts in search of green pastures for their flocks. A nomad uses the various rivers, mountains, rock outcroppings, etc as landmarks to give them their direction. The verb form of mits’vah is tsavah meaning to direct one on a journey. The mits’vah of the Bible are not commands, or rules and regulations, they are directives or landmarks that we look for to guide us.”
Benjamin Shaw did a good job of dismantling this yesterday, so if you still suspect this is a sound argument Noble’s making, I recommend his post. Noble continues…
However, regardless of what Bible scholars and Hebrew speaking Christians in Israel believe the list of God’s 10 points in Exodus…
Again with Noble’s refusal to recognize them as Commandments.
…should be called (I have heard conflicting positions), the points themselves are clearly written as imperatives—“You shall…you shall not….” I did not, and would never deny that!
He did deny that. He told parents they were wrong to teach their children that there was a biblical imperative to obey them, and he told nonbelievers that “instead of Ten Commandments that you have to keep if you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, they’re actually ten promises.” According to Noble, they are not imperatives to obey, only promises.
The reality of it all is that all of us have broken all ten commands.
Again, he will not call them the Ten Commandments. This is careful and repeated biblical rebellion.
The Old Testament was not given to us to show us how awesome we are, but how sinful we are and how much we all need a Savior.
Yes! This is correct, but what in the Old Testament shows us that we are sinners needing a Savior? The Ten Commandments. If you eliminate them, there’s no sin and no Savior.
None of us are perfect.
All of us fall short of God’s standards for our lives.
All of us need Jesus.
My desire in sharing this message was to point people to Christ. And, it’s so awesome as I reflect back on this and know that even though I said an inaccurate statement…
Noble frames this as a minor mistake, just an inaccurate statement. The problem is that his inaccurate statement that there was no word for command led to a sermon that rescinded the Ten Commandments, and that’s the wider lesson that he continues to promote.
…to know what Paul said in I Corinthians 1:21 is true.
“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
What Paul said is indeed true, but not in the way that Noble is using it here to justify his foolish preaching. The foolishness is the preaching of the cross, through which Christ becomes our righteousness, our sanctification and our redemption.
If there are no commandments, Jesus cannot be said to be righteous for keeping them perfectly.
If we have broken no commandments, there’s nothing to be sanctified from.
If there is no penalty for breaking the commandments, there’s nothing to be redeemed from.
The Christmas Eve sermon was, and continues to be, a theological disaster. In other spheres of life, people or corporations associated with accidents and disasters do more than just look at the damage and issue a limited and late apology. They fix the damage then try to figure out what conditions caused the problem. Perhaps this is happening behind the scenes at NewSpring, though Noble’s insistence that this is the last time he will talk about it suggests this is a closed issue for him.
Given that there are other pastors like Noble and many others who want to be like him, it’s important to think about how this happened. Even if Noble won’t listen (and we still hope he will), this episode might serve as a warning to other preachers, and, just as importantly, to other Christians who see similar things happening in their churches.
(Update: Chris Rosebrough, who was first to raise the alarm on this sermon, has also analyzed the apology here.)