I began the last letter by saying that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther and others set about reforming the church according to God’s word. To mark the anniversary I said I might write on some of the great doctrines of the Reformation in my letters this year. In the last one, I wrote about justification and how sinners are justified (pardoned and accepted by God) through faith alone. In this letter I want to write about the importance of the Bible.
The reason why the Reformation was necessary in the first place was because the Reformers became convinced that the Bible and the Bible alone is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the church. In other words, we must turn to the Scriptures and to the Scriptures alone in order to know what we’re to believe about God and how we’re to serve him. Since various unbiblical doctrines and practices had been introduced into the church, reformation was necessary to bring the church back to the Bible.
The Reformers were faced with two competing views. On the one hand, there was the Catholic Church which taught that while the the Sacred Scriptures are necessary to know God and his will, they aren’t sufficient. We therefore also need the Sacred Tradition of the church which adds to what the Bible says about God and his will. Both are necessary.
On the other hand, there were the Anabaptists who also believed that while the Bible was necessary, it not sufficient to know God and his will. We therefore also need the Holy Spirit who is able to reveal new things to us which are not contained in the Bible. Both are necessary.
So, the Catholics said we need the Bible and Tradition to teach us about God and his will. The Anabaptists said we need the Bible and new revelations from the Holy Spirit to teach us about God and his will. The Reformers said all we need is the Bible, because the Bible is the only infallible rule for faith and practice.
So, listen to what our church’s Confession of Faith says: ‘The whole will of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, and for our salvation, faith and life, is either expressly stated in Scripture, or by good and necessary reasoning may be deduced from Scripture’ (Westminster Confession, Chapter 1 Paragraph 6). So, everything we need to know about God and his will is found in the Bible or it can be worked out from what the Bible says.
The Confession goes on to say: ‘Nothing, whether new revelations of the Spirit or human traditions, is ever to be added to Scripture’. So, the Confession rejects the view of the Anabaptists (‘new revelations of the Spirit’) and the Catholic Church (‘human traditions’).
However, the Confession adds: ‘Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit to God to be necessary for the saving understanding of the things that are revealed in the word.’ So, while we’re not to expect new revelations from the Spirit, we’re to rely on the Spirit to help us to understand what the Bible says. Without his help, we can’t understand or believe the Bible. That’s why I pray for God’s help before I preach; and that’s why we should all pray for God’s help before studying the Bible on other occasions.
Of course, none of this is ancient history, because it’s still very relevant today. Sometimes what churchgoers believe and do today is determined by tradition. This is the attitude which says: ‘This is what we’ve always believed’ and ‘This is what we’ve always done.’ However, there may not be any biblical basis for what they have traditionally believed and done.
On the other hand, many churchgoers today expect new revelations from the Holy Spirit. They expect the Holy Spirit to speak to them directly in that still, small voice which only the person himself or herself can hear. However, our church’s Confession warns us away from expecting new revelations from the Spirit.
So, instead of relying on unbiblical traditions and instead of relying on new revelations, we’re to rely solely on the Scriptures alone. In the Bible God has revealed to us what he is like. In the Bible God has revealed to us what he has done for our salvation. In the Bible God has revealed to us what we need to do in order to receive salvation. In the Bible God has revealed to us how we’re to live as his people: how we’re to worship him; how we’re to organise the church; how we’re to reach out to others; how we’re to live our daily lives. And in the Bible God has revealed to us what the future holds. It’s all contained in the Bible.
As Paul taught Timothy: ‘the sacred writings … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ and ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:15–17). The Scriptures, therefore, teach us what we need to know for salvation and they equip us for every good work. In other words, they teach us what to believe and what to do. Furthermore, since the Scriptures are breathed out and inspired by God, we know that they are true.