CBP: I don’t think a lot of people know your background; what’s your testimony? Would you like to share that?
Norm: My testimony is that I was reared in a non-Christian family. My parents were anti-religious, my father was an ex-Roman Catholic, my mother was an ex-Navajo Lutheran. The priest wouldn’t marry them in those days. Finally a priest asked my father for a $500 bribe to marry them and break the rules. My father told him to go and jump in a lake, and he never went back to church.
So I was reared in kind of a bitter ex-Catholic, non-religious family. My relatives on both sides -- I have about a hundred first cousins. My father had ten in his family, my mother eight. So I have over one-hundred first cousins. They’re all Roman Catholic. My favorite uncle was an atheist. He was kind of a lone ranger on my mother’s side. And when I was nine, the first time I remember going to church was at a funeral, and I saw a picture on the wall, and I asked my mother if that was Santa Claus. It was Jesus. I didn’t know the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus.
Shortly after, a little Sunday school picked me up for Vacation Bible School. A little community church, Bible church, and I heard the gospel, I knew it was right and I knew I should be saved, but I rejected. They picked me up on the Sunday school bus 400 times; every Sunday for eight years, till I was 17. And I’ve often thought, 398 times and this kid shows no hope whatsoever, let’s give up on him. They came back and I had a youth director come to the church and he spoke in Sunday school class, and I was so convicted. I went home got down on my knees by my bedside – I was a senior in high school then – and committed myself to Christ. It was kind of a 180˚ revolutionary thing, given my background and given my years of rejection.
So when I became a Christian on Sunday, Monday they took me door to door – these were very zealous people that discipled people quickly. Tuesday I did cold turkey street meetings, Wednesday was prayer meeting, Thursday was jail service – I met my wife in jail, she was playing the pump organ in the middle of church, and I was giving my testimony – Friday was city rescue mission, and Saturday was Youth for Christ, and Sunday was church. That was my week. I thought that everybody gave 100% of their time for the Lord. I thought that’s what Christians did. That’s what everybody I knew who was a Christian did.
A few weeks later, I was in what was called “skid row,” the ghetto we call it now. Downtown Detroit, where I’m from, and I was witnessing -- had my Bible – and a drunk staggered up to me and this is what he said, “I’m a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and you’re not supposed to be doing this.” And I said, “What?” “Telling people about Jesus.” He grabbed my bible – it was a red-letter edition – pointed, the guy said, “Read that.” Jesus said, “Go and tell no man.” He said, “Now, get out of here. Jesus doesn’t want you to do this.”
I had no idea what that verse meant. But it had already been twisted by Jehovah’s Witness, and Mormons, and I had to make a decision. I was making a fool of myself out there because I couldn’t answer anybody’s questions. All I knew was I was saved and John 3:16. I was either going to have to get answers or stop witnessing, so I decided to get answers.
And so I spent the next 20 years going to college and graduate school getting two Bachelors’, two Master’s, and a Doctorate degree, and this is my 45th year of teaching now. Teaching others – of course my passion is apologetics – so the rest is history, as they say.
CBP: Now, based on what you did, going to school to learn about God so that you could respond to people, what do you think the average Christian’s responsibility is to know the Word. How far should we go, should we all get Master’s and Doctorate’s?
Norm: No, but we should all get answers. Not everybody has to get a Master’s degree but they can get answers. I Peter 3:15 was not just written for people who are ministers or teachers. It says that every Christian should set aside the Lord in our hearts and be ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks us a reason of the hope that’s in us. And Colossians 4:6 says, “Let you speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
So, everyone needs to get answers and get equipped. I had the raw material when God picked me, I was way behind you. I couldn’t read, I was a senior in high school, I had never read a book. I made it all the way through high school without ever reading a book. I got kicked out of literature class in the 11th grade because the teacher asked me, “How did the Tale of Two Cities End?” And I answered, “With a period.” And she had no sense of humor, the period ended for me, I was sent to the principal’s office. So that was me before I was a Christian. I was in remedial reading class in the 11th grade; I went to school for two reasons and two reasons only, sports and girls. If it hadn’t been for sports and girls, I would have never made it through school. But I did. I made it through. Sports kept me there, and then in my senior year I started getting serious and made better grades that last semester, and then from then on, as they say, the rest is history.
There was a Bible school nearby – and the Bible is God’s Word. I just got saved, and He wrote this whole thing for us, what else do you do? I didn’t make any decision about going, that’s just the thing to do. And from then on I went to Bible school, I finished college, I went to Wheaton College, went to graduate school, University of Detroit, Northwestern University, Loyola University, I went to six schools in 20 years; one wife, six children and five degrees later. So if God can do it with me, He can do it with anybody.
CBP: That’s quite a story. Now you have a set of volumes about Systematic Theology, what are they focusing on?
Norm: Well, it’s a four-volume set. It’s really two volumes in one – it’s really an eight volume set. The first one is introduction and Bible program, bibliology. The second one is God and creation, and the third one is sin and salvation, the fourth one is church and last things. And that’s written, but it takes a full year to process it because each volume was a thousand-pages-long manuscript, so I’ve written a thousand pages a year for the last four years, which keeps me off of drugs and off the roads –
CBP: We’re all grateful for that, too.
Norm: And before that I wrote the encyclopedia for apologetics and that was three-thousand pages, and I did a thousand pages a year for three years. That boils down to about four hours a day, five or six days a week for seven years just for those five books.
CBP: So, is it a culmination of all the study you’ve had? Because if you’re writing steadily that much, then you’re not doing a lot of research I would think.
Norm: I am, I am. I’m doing research and writing at the same time. It’s equivalent of writing a 15-20 page term paper every day for seven years.
CBP: And somebody has to go through and edit that too.
Norm: My dear wife is – I’m good at big ideas and she’s good at getting the details.
CBP: Well, how do you recommend to someone who is a believer and knows the basics, to educate themselves better?
Norm: What motivates me to get up in the morning is ignorance. I have an insatiable desire to learn God’s truth. I just love truth, I love the Bible, I want to know, and I want to share. It boils down to motivation. They have to be motivated first. They have to see some reason and purpose for it.
Where to start – when I started out, that was 1950, so I’ve been really, for all intents and purposes, full-time ministry since the day I was saved, which is 54 years ago now – and literally full-time pastoral ministry, I was ordained in 1954. When I started out, I didn’t know much either, but you just have to keep reading and keep learning.
The key to that to me is the old IRA , impression, repetition, association. It’s got to impress you. If the Word of God doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what’s going to impress you. Repeat: You’ve got to share it over and over with other people. Association: I memorized hundreds and hundreds of verses when I was first saved. It’s what the people around me did. They say you’ve got to memorize the Bible, know verses that you can give to people. And I associate them with things, you know, verses on sin, verses on assurance, verses on whatnot, so that’s the key. To get motivated, repeat it over, use it, share it. A few verses that I haven’t used much I’ve forgotten, the rest of the verses I use, I remember.
CBP: That makes sense. It’s just like speaking a language, if you don’t speak it then you lose it.
Norm: If you don’t use it, you lose it.
CBP: Well now, who do you think is going to read A Systematic Theology, being almost a thousand pages?
Norm: Well, everybody because everybody needs to know who God is and how we relate to Him, and how He relates to His universe, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s the theory of everything. Everybody has a world view, and if they’re a Christian they have some kind of Christian world view for better or for worse. And A Systematic Theology is what puts it all together.
What I would say to the average housewife, the average whatever it is ninth grade housewife who’s listening to Dobson doing the dishes, and reads all the books out there – everything in your kitchen, you have all the plates in one place and all the cups in another place, and all the glasses somewhere else, and all the silverware drawer, you have all the knives, forks and spoons all organized, right? You don’t just go in the kitchen and they’re all piled together. Well, that’s what A Systematic Theology does; it puts it all in categories: there are all the verses about God, here’s all the verses about sin. It may be a big two words – Systematic Theology—it’s just organizing God’s truth so that you can categorize it and understand it better.
CBP: Do you think people use it as a reference, or as something that they can read straight through?
Norm: Well, actually it’s good for insomnia. Fifteen minutes before bedtime, it’s a sure cure for insomnia.
There are people who just sit down and read it. They read so much – like my assistant at school is an avid reader. She reads the encyclopedia straight through at bedtime. Yeah, I think they can use it as a reference book. And they can look up – it has an index, it has verses in the back, you can find anything you want to find and find out how it fits together and how to explain it, you can look up topically. It’s an introduction and Bible.
CBP: Well, speaking of salvation, because I know that you’re also talking a little bit about your book about being chosen –
Norm: Chosen but Free?
CBP: Chosen But Free, sorry. I have the book and I actually bought it myself. What do you think the major misconception is about salvation that you run into?
Norm: Of course on the broad scale people think that somehow our works have something to do with salvation, they don’t. It’s God’s grace. It’s by grace alone, through faith alone, through the finished work of Christ alone, based on the Bible alone, for the glory of God alone. There’s a lot of “alones” there but they’re very important in the thing. But on a more popular scale, I think people don’t realize how comprehensive it is. Salvation is a total process from the day – from before you’re born actually. God choosing us in whom before the foundation of the world is working on us by the Holy Spirit. Is reaching and convicting us of our sin, it regenerates us.
The three stages of salvation: Justification, sanctification, glorification. Those are big words but it boils down to be saved from the penalty of sin, the moment you trespass, that’s a lifelong of being saved from the power of sin, and then you’re finally saved from the presence of sin. And I think most people have no idea how big it is. They think, “Well, I got saved.” They think in the past tense. Throughout 1950 I was saved. You got started on the process of salvation – it’s a big thing. From here to eternity you’ve got the rest of it.
CBP: Well, that being the case then, is it consistent to say that you can have Christians that are alcoholics, or addicted to pornography, or something like that. Because we read that we are no longer slaves to sin, we are slaves in righteousness in Christ.
Norm: Well, you can have Christians who are that, but they’re not good Christians, they’re not consistent Christians, and they’re Christians who might have been saved, but they’re not being saved. The present tense of their salvation is getting robbed by the fact that they’re yielding to sin rather that getting the victory over it. They’ve accepted Christ’s victory over the penalty of their sin, now they need to accept Christ’s victory over the power of their sin. In Roman’s 7, The lamb who so delivered me from the body of this death, praise God through Jesus Christ our Lord. And that’s right in the middle of the sanctification section in Romans. So they need to look at Romans 6 – it’s not 12 steps AA, it’s 3 steps: know, reckon, yield. They know Christ did it, they’ve got to count it so, and they’ve got to yield their members as members of righteousness to get that victory.
CBP: I’ve read that section that you’re referring to in Chapter 7 is more allegorical than it is about Paul, because it says that he was more righteous than any of the Jews at the time, and yet he was still lost in sin.
Norm: He says as touching the law he was totally righteous. In other words, from a legalistic, technical, outward standpoint, but when he looked inside his heart, he saw the two natures struggling just like the rest of us.
CBP: So you think he was really talking about himself.
Norm: I do. I think he was talking about himself and he was talking about a post-conversion state, not a pre-conversion state. There are two views on that.
CBP: Why is theology so important?
Norm: I’ll tell you why it’s so important. Did you see that survey that came out a while ago about how many born-again Christians have a Christian worldview? Absolute crying shame because it was a pretty good definition of a born-again Christian, so it wasn’t nominal, and it was a pretty good definition of a Christian world view, you know, believing in moral absolutes. And to think that something like 8% of born-again Christians have a Christian worldview, that’s absolutely ridiculous to think that it’s that low, and some people it’s as low as 2%, that’s because they don’t study theology.
Theology is what gives you a worldview. Putting it all together and thinking about every area of life Christianly. Thinking through a Christian perspective, not just being a Christian personally, and then intellectually, morally, and socially, you’re totally pagan. I used to think of Romans 12:2 when I grew up which was kind of a semi-legalistic context of all the things you don’t do. I don’t smoke, drink, or chew or associate with those that do. But Romans 12:2 don’t be conformed to the world or as Phillips translates it, don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold, is exactly what the survey is about. We don’t have a Christian world view.
CBP: Do you think it is the responsibility of the church to train people, or is it the responsibility of each believer to seek that information out for themselves?
Norm: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think it’s an either or, but it’s definitely the responsibility of everyone – everyone’s responsibility boils down to their own choices. Everyone is going to stand accountable before God alone. But the church has failed miserably in providing that education for people. Even if they wanted it, they sit there every Sunday and hear the same basic sermon. Some churches you hear you must be born again every Sunday – well, you only have to be born again once according to my belief. I’ll give you something else I think – you asked the wrong question –
CBP: Rephrase my question.
Norm: The church today, in general, especially the contemporary church movement, is geared to make people feel better, not to make people be better. The contemporary church movement is built around entertainment, not around edification. There is a great article by Charles Spurgeon – must be over 100 years ago, it’s on the internet – it’s entitled “Feeding the Sheep or Amusing the Goats.”
What we do in the contemporary church is we amuse the goats, not feed the sheep. If he came back today, he would be absolutely shocked because nothing like what’s going on today was going on in his day. And we’ve got to stop amusing the goats and start feeding the sheep.
CBP: Do you see ministries out there that are feeding people, that are feeding the sheep?
CBP: Who do you think is doing a good job?
Norm: I just came back – on the youth level, I just came back from the best one in the country. Summit Ministries in Colorado Springs. Dobson’s son was wandering around aimlessly until he went there and it totally changed his life. Dobson told the story on his radio program, and they’ve had a waiting list ever since. Eight hours a day, they’re in classes studying theology, philosophy, apologetics, they take tests -- this is summer camp, two weeks.
CBP: It’s for high school?
Norm: Senior and junior high school and freshman, sophomore college age. They’re doing a great job; churches are doing a terrible job. I was in Vienna speaking to a group of Christians over there once, and they said, “How is Christianity in America?” I said, “About three-thousand miles wide and about an inch deep.” It’s very shallow. Who is doing a great job? If you look at that survey the percentages went up -- Baptists were doing better than Presbyterians, Catholics were the worst as I recall, less than 2%, and the best were independent churches like Bible churches where they still teach something of theology.
An eight-year-old kid came to me, granted his father is a seminary student, he was taught well. I preached on the immutability of God. He said, “Pastor, you said God can’t change, but the Bible says He can do anything. If God can do anything, He can change if He wants to.” Now, most adults aren’t smart enough to think up that question, let alone answer it. And I said to him, “God can do anything that’s possible, but he can’t do what’s impossible. He can’t make a square a circle, He can’t stop being God, and it’s impossible for Him to change.” And he said, “Oh, thank you very much.” He went over to his mother and she told me later that he said to her, “Mother, I’m going to like this church because they answer my questions.”
A typical church would have said to that little kid, “You don’t ask questions like that. Just believe.” And that starts them on the road to unbelief because they think there are no answers. We’ve got a church full of teachers who know apologetics, who know philosophy, who can answer little kids’ questions. We’re teaching them apologetics in grade school level, let alone junior high and high school. One of my books is for high school level apologetics, called “Living Loud,” published by Broadman & Holman. It’s an apologetics text on a high school level.
CBP: Is that a newer one?
Norm: It’s been out for a year. I’ve got so many books, even I can’t keep up with them. I think I’ve written 60 books now.
People – the Puritans – they taught this from the pulpit. These people used “dumb farmers” back then – you read Jonathan Edward sermons and, you know, he’s teaching Romans I, and he’s giving cosmological arguments for the existence of God when he gets to verse 19 about invisible God known through a visible world. It’s real stuff.