Before Anything Fails, Read the Directions

At a news conference on February 21, 1985, President Ronald Reagan, in mentioning his own recent return to regular reading of the Bible, announced, “ . . . the Bible contains an answer to just about everything and every problem that confronts us, and I wonder sometimes why we won’t recognize that one book could solve our problems for us.”

This is the wonderful discovery that lies before believers in Jesus Christ: the way that the Bible speaks to their lives. This is the discovery that so many have made: the way that the Word of God brings encouragement, comfort, direction and correction. Even more, they make the discovery that the more effort and time put into the study and meditating on the truth of the Bible and in following the command of the Bible, the greater is the blessing of God upon their lives.

A healthy and secure Christian life is the result of attention to the Bible as the inspired Word of God, as the ultimate source of what to believe and what to do. The antidote to the weak, superficial and secondhand faith of so many professed believers in Christ comes down to giving to the Bible the significance in their lives that it deserves as the Word of God. But much of the the spiritual weakness of North American Christians is due to their reverence for the Bible with little knowledge of the Bible. Up to 80% in surveys have expressed their belief that it is the revealed Word of God, but there is so much that is unbiblical about the lives of so many due to Biblical illiteracy and negligence. So there is the great need to call so many who call themselves Christ followers to give due attention to the Word of God, to find his strength, foundation and direction for their lives, beyond a hearsay faith of social conformity with others.

Paul’s words to Timothy are one of the best known witnesses of the Bible to itself as the inspired Word of God, and to its necessity and usefulness to grow believers to spiritual maturity and effectiveness. Paul stressed the necessity and centrality of the scriptures for the man in ministry, but his words also apply as well to any believer, so that he or she can grown in spiritual maturity, stability and effectiveness. So here is what Paul had to say:

“All scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

The Bible itself states that it is the inspired Word of God. It is the message, written down, translated and circulated worldwide, which God specifically gave to the men and women of this world. And because it is God’s message to us, it must command our attention. And even more, it is the written message of God that will truly satisfy the spiritual hunger of those who have been truly born again by faith in Jesus Christ.

The divine inspiration of the Bible means that it’s God’s own Word. That’s what is meant by calling it God’s own Word. It means that it expresses the exact meaning that God intended to be expressed to mankind. This means that it is more than simply great human writing, even though some parts of scripture definitely qualify as literary masterpieces and others are maybe not great in literary terms. But rather, it means that the Bible is to be read, studied, followed and treasured not so much because God was behind the authorship of scripture.

In the simple statement of Paul, that, “All scripture is God breathed . . .” comes the basis of calling the Bible divinely inspired. Other translations render that, ‘inspired by God.’  It definitely means that scripture is more than simply great human writing; some parts of scripture are definitely literary masterpieces, such as the Psalms and Isaiah, but other parts are not so great by a merely aesthetic evaluation. With that statement, Paul was not denying that the books of scripture had human authors, and that they each had their own individual ways of expressing themselves and their own individual styles of writing.It definitely does not mean entire dictation, but certainly some dictation in some parts, where there is the explicit declaration, “Thus says the LORD.” But rather, this is the declaration that the personalities of the human authors were so empowered and directed by the Spirit of God that what was recorded was the exact message of God. And this then carries with it the conclusion of its inerrancy and infallibility through its being divinely inspired. But just to be sure, there has also been the statement that this does not mean that there have not been some scribal and typographical errors in different manuscripts or printed editions over the years, or that any translation is perfect – certainly, with his rabbinic background, Paul was aware of differences in manuscripts and the different translations into Greek of the Old Testament, as were the other apostles — but that what was originally given was the message of God and it continues to speak to us as such even with minor errors of transmission and translation.

The divine inspiration of scripture guarantees the constant relevance of the Bible. Scripture will never cease to be trustworthy in what it says to our faith and what it commands for us to obey. It remains the Word of a living Lord who inspired it and who continues to stand by it and work through it. It is meant to be our regular, even daily, guide to a present relationship with the Lord and Savior. And this is the basis of an informed reverence for scripture, which isn’t superstitious or based upon hearsay or tradition, nor do we regard it with spookiness or as magic writings or the physical book as a magic talisman. John Calvin once said, “We owe to scripture the same reverence owe to God,” and by this he meant that we owe it submission and obedience as the Word of the Lord, because through the Bible, God has spoken. This does not mean that we worship the Bible – described by that pejorative straw man phrase of Bibliolatry – but that we recognize that God has spoken in the scriptures, and because we worship and reverence him, we give reverence, that holy respect and submission, to what he has spoken.

But look — Paul didn’t just write that scripture is divinely inspired, but that all scripture is divinely inspired. By his statement, inspiration extends to the entire Bible. From this he meant that all of the Bible deserves our attention, faith and obedience, because divine inspiration extends to the entire Bible. All that is scripture is divinely inspired. This means that for every believer in Christ in every age all the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. This inspiration occurred it happened when God inspired the writer of scripture to write down what was his will to write: “Understand this thing first, that no prophecy of scripture came about through personal interpretation; because no prophecy came about by human intention, but holy men spoke from God as they were carried by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:20-21).  Here Peter spoke about prophecy – direct revelation from God – and that is reflected in the teaching of the truth about God and what he commands. And this kind of prophecy can even be found in the historical books such as Samuel, Kings and Chronicles and in the gospels. In such books there was definite historical investigation, and the use and evaluation of other sources – see Luke 1:1-4, for example – but also definite revelation of God’s view on the events which took place – such as II Chronicles 32:31. And this same kind of historical account with divine interventions, divine explanations and divine commentary (with implications for all God’s people in all times and places – not just for the time they were written) took place even in the books of prophecy where there were a number of direct declarations of God, with an explicit ‘Thus says the LORD.” – see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, for example.

This declaration of the inspiration of all the Bible then brings up question of canonicity. How can we be sure that all the books in the Bible are inspired? First, the question of the canonicity of Old Testament comes both by prophetic attestation,  and it is corroborated by the personal citations and authority of Jesus and the apostles (see J.W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, for one defense of this view). And contrary to modern historical fallacies, the New Testament canon is not  based on a report or a recommendation that done by an identifiable committee, such as the Council of Nicaea. (That view comes from a list of the modern list of the canon in a letter by Athanasius, who happened to have been part of the Council of Nicaea). For most of the New Testament, such as the four gospels, the book of Acts, the letters of Paul and I Peter, there was an immediate recognition of inspiration of their inspiration, and they were cited and circulated as scripture by the end of the first century A.D. Several books, such as Revelation, took some time and evaluation to be included, but they generally were recognized as such. Then the individual books took some time to be collected together and to be brought into unified bindings (called a codex or codices), though, and maybe more a development of the personal convenience of the codex and parchment to replace individual scrolls and papyrus rather than any less doctrinal conviction of their not being inspired any less than any other books of scripture.

So the divine inspiration of the Bible means that it is the most important thing that we will ever read in this lifetime.  If we are to live in consistency with a genuine belief in the inspiration of the Bible this will mean that we will live opposite to the inattention to and neglect of the Word of God that we see in the lives of so many in our churches who are in attendance at our services but woefully ignorant of many basic Biblical truths and in disobedience to many clear Biblical commands.

The truth is that very often attitude of a professed believer in Christ to reading and studying the Bible and meditating on the Word is an indicator of the quality of his or her present relationship to God. Generally, growing believers will be hungry to learn more and more of the Word of God, backsliders will avoid spending time in the Word of God, and unbelievers will be not put in any effort to learn the Word of God and remain content to remain ignorant. Generally, though, devotion to God will mean devotion to his Word over the course of one’s life and in the path of following Jesus Christ.

But this also means that there needs to be great care in interpreting the scriptures as a part task of preaching and teaching the scriptures and of reading and understanding the scriptures. This is the task of both the spiritual leader and the person who is to receive the preaching and teaching of the scriptures. Because the Bible is the Word of God the preacher and teacher must take great care in the interpretation of the scripture that is behind his or her preaching and teaching. The command goes to the preacher and teacher to present oneself as an unashamed worker who correctly uses the Word of truth (II Timothy 2:15 – the prior context to this passage under discussion). But the command to prove all things is laid upon the church, from the pastors and elders to every believer (I Thessalonians 5:21-22), lest anyone come under the bondage of distortions and deliberate misinterpretations. (See my earlier post on handling minor disagreements on how far to take this.)  Rather, even where there might be different interpretations of scripture on minor points, they should be  reasonable and based in sound, often centuries old, guidelines for scriptural interpretation, and interpreted in historical and literary context, and corroborated by agreement with other interpretations. And because of this,  over the centuries Biblical interpretation and exposition has been found in the churches of Jesus Christ worldwide to be an occupation that is worthy of the most careful scholarship and learning and an occupation of many of the greatest intellects of humanity throughout history. So, anyone that would seek deliberately from any reason to dumb down the intellectual demands upon a pastor or anyone who handles the scriptures is at variance with the reverence due to scripture as a subject and pursuit worthy of our every power of sanctified, reverent and prayerful intellect. And indeed it was the lifelong pursuit of the most pure, incisive and insightful intellect the world has ever known, that of Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God himself.

The inspiration of the Bible, moreover, also insures that it is the most reliable thing that you will ever read. It will mean freedom from and less attention to the opinions of other people, even fellow Christians, and therefore growing freedom from the fear of man. It will free a person just from listening to the teaching of others and repeating second hand nuggets (which may well be fool’s gold rather than the real thing). It will draw a person to the personal reading, study and meditation on the Word of God. It will rather mean the development of a habit of examining all teaching within the church, by whatever pastor or teacher, how ever much esteemed, by consistency with the Word itself. And that habit in eternity can gain nothing less than the approval of God himself.

Understanding that the Bible is inspired by God and therefore the most reliable thing anyone will ever read should then bolster our security in the scriptural gospel of justification by faith through the grace of God in Jesus Christ and in the central doctrines such as the Trinity, deity of Jesus Christ, personhood of the Holy Spirit. These central doctrines have withstood constant challenge in every age of the church, but have just as much been vindicated as the declarations of the Word of God reasonably and rightly interpreted. So, this unshakeable confidence in scripture can give the believer in Christ to assert alongside the apostle Paul, “For I am disclosing among you, brothers, the gospel with which I evangelized, that it is not of human origin . . . ” (Galatians 1:11).

Moreover, this understanding of the entire inspiration of the Bible should draw us away from a modern tendency that I will call Biblical favoritism. This is where a believer approaches the Bible in piecemeal fashion and parks himself or herself in dealing with isolated portions, favorite verses, preferred books of scripture. We often may gush in the currently fashionable cliché that, “I LOVE this verse,” but for many this may rather be a symptom of a selective faith and selective obedience when it comes to the whole of scripture. This may even be a symptom of avoiding those portions of scripture which require some more digging and those which correct and challenge us. We need to understand that though there are difficult and challenging parts of scripture, this tendency is inconsistent with acceptance of the teaching of scripture itself that it is all inspired. Rather it is more consistent with ultimate belief in one’s own inspiration ultimately treating the Bible simply as source material for one’s own self directed moral inspiration and emotional encouragement (doctrinally a confusion of inspiration with illumination). The evangelical Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle saw this tendency in his own day, and frankly saw it for what it is: “. . . he is the narrow minded theologian, who pares down such parts of the Bible as the natural heart dislikes, and rejects any portion of the counsel of God.”

But if we give up this ‘childish thing’ of Biblical favoritism, this means the stupendous truth that in every book and in every chapter there are lessons to be learned, commands to be followed and promises to be embraced. Even more, it keeps in front of us the tremendous possibilities of discovering new things previously unknown to us and the reminders of truth which needs to be reinforced and deepened as we spend time in scripture.  This then can bring us to a constant humble, prayerful expectancy of learning from God’s Word, whenever it is read, studied, meditated upon, preached or taught. And this should motivate us to make sure that we have the right attitudes to come to scripture (I Peter 2:1-3, James 1:20-21, and see also Ephesians 1:15-23 as fulfilled through illumination of the scripture and the prayers of the Psalmist in  Psalm 119.) And even more if our task is the preaching and teaching of the scriptures, it makes even more plain the challenge of the apostle in II Timothy 4:1-2: “I charge you before God and Christ Jesus who is going to judge the living and the dead, and his appearance and his kingdom: Preach the Word, be ready when and when there are not appropriate opportunities, correct, rebuke, encourage, in all patience and teaching.”

But the inspiration of the scriptures is more than an assertion of doctrine. Moreover, there is a stupendous consequence for the believer in Christ in the divine inspiration of the scriptures. The Bible, as the Word of God, is the foundation of spiritual capability. It forms the basis of spiritual growth and usefulness. Knowing and following the Bible as the Word of God is the pathway to spiritual security, maturity and effectiveness. This is what we often miss in the modern church when we give undue emphasis to other authorities alongside the Bible even when we profess belief in its divine inspiration. And often we can find the basis of spiritual weakness, immaturity and ineffectiveness to be due to both the ignorance and hidden disagreements with the Word of God among believers. They may have internal, unexpressed conflict with the clear teaching of the Word of God which in turn sap their spiritual strength and vitality, and leave them weak and passive in the face of a world where their faith is often treated with disdain and hostility.

So let us define here spiritual capability. It is the preparation for every spiritual challenge. It is not knowing a list of facts and notions, but rather knowing what to do, what to believe, what to say, from the knowledge of the Word of God.

With the statement,  “. . . that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work . . . ” the apostle describes the intended result of scripture in the life of the believer in Christ. This is the result when the Bible is believed and obeyed entirely: thorough equipment for every spiritual challenge. This is the same kind of phrase that was used to describe a soldier who was fitted out with complete provision and complete weaponry and who was and completely trained for the battles and skirmishes ahead. Equipment for spiritual battle, not a head filled with fun facts or a heart filled with half understood but emotionally uplifting platitudes, is what the goal of knowing scripture is all about.

The intended result of being grounded in the Bible is therefore for the believer to be fully prepared for full faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ. This means scriptural preparation for every incident calling for exercise of faith and for every falsehood calling for refutation and for every opportunity calling for witness and for every situation calling for obedience to a command from the Word of God. Again, this will mean a believer avoids of the extreme of knowledge without obedience: this is the classic trap of head full of Biblical facts but a life lived in disobedience and unbelief. This will mean avoidance of the opposite extreme of spiritual naiveté, of attempted faith and obedience without the knowledge of the actual teaching of scripture or on hearsay knowledge that tries to be capable by watching what other do, social conformity to the opinions of the social group. It means personal communion with Jesus and  his personal teaching of his Word through his Holy Spirit to us. This is what Charles G. Finney explained to those new in the faith: “The Bible is the medium of introduction to him personally. What is there said of him is designed to lead us to seek after a personal acquaintance with him. It is by this personal acquaintance with him that we are made like him. It is by direct, personal [fellowship] with his divine mind that we take on his divine image.”

This growth in spiritual capability, then, comes through deep application of the Bible to our thoughts and actions. It yields immediate and excellent results, but still continues over the process of a lifetime. It is learning and doing the Word of God, and it is a long term process of acquisition, not a short term dabbling nor something that comes just through giftedness, talent or nature.

So this is how the spiritual capability comes about: because the Bible is inspired by God, it . “. . . is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness . . .”. The result of spiritual capability comes through application of the Bible in what it’s useful for, and this is the  result of patient, consistent study and meditation upon the Word of God, and reception of the preaching and teaching of the Word  and even through informal conversations. These are all ways of getting the nourishment of the Word of God into one’s life and building spiritual capability.

Spiritual capability not simply achieved by growing older or by how long a person has spent warming a pew or being associated with a religious group. Rather, it comes through the Word of God. It comes through learning the Word of God, as it rebukes, corrects, guides and trains us. It comes as the Word of God is distilled into the life through spiritual experience and moral direction. And this can be at times both hurtful to us and extraordinarily uplifting. Again, Charles G. Finney has an incisive remark on this: “I have long been satisfied that the higher forms of Christian experience are attained only as a result of a terribly searching application of God’s law to the human conscience and heart.”

Therefore, the believer who wants to please his or her heavenly Father, will find his or her capability to do so in relation to his or her knowledge of and obedience to the Word of God. Attention to the Word is the first step to  address any immaturity, incapability or spiritual and moral dysfunction on our part. This will mean that we find not only scriptural answers to our problems, but also scriptural wisdom for the assistance of others, and this will answer the great demand for those today who are able to help others with the love, acceptance and compassion of Christ.

So many within our churches profess the belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. This belief calls for our respect for it as the Word of God. This respect will be real when we start to give it the attention that it deserves as the living and active Word of the living God, and  believing what it says, obeying what it says and communication of what it says both among ourselves and to the lost and dying world around us, that needs the good news of Jesus Christ which is found within its pages.

So, then, let each one of us personally invest our time and effort in reading, studying and meditating upon the Word. This will be an investment in spiritual capability, and it will mean a tremendous benefit upon ourselves, and our family and friends. But most of all, it will be a life invested in learning what is pleasing to God, who gave us the Word for our ultimate and eternal good. This means setting aside the time to spend in the Word and making systematic effort to learn the Word, acquiring and using proper helps certainly, but most of all reading with a reverent, submissive attitude and recording and sharing our observations and lessons. And since the Word will never fail us, this means seeking to understand and receive what the Word promises to us, to follow its commands.

In our churches, then this means that the guide for the fellowship is always the Word of God first and foremost. How little the Word of God guides so many of our churches can be seen in how shocking that statement would be to so many who attend our churches and so many long time members. But the Word of God supersedes all traditions and routines for the church, and we need need to make and keep it first and foremost as the way that we live as a church fellowship to be in any way a church which can claim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But most of all, the Bible as the Word of God is the Word which contains and explains the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no gospel which saves which is not faithful to the Word of God. But even more, having a Biblically centered gospel is behind having the spiritual capability to witness powerfully and articulately among those in this world that need the gospel of salvation.

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