What Does It Mean to Believe the Bible? Part 1
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
October 5, 2012 | Ray Pritchard
If Oprah Winfrey asked you on national TV to give your position on homosexuality, what would you say?
That’s the dilemma that Dallas megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes faced several months ago. Before I tell you what he said, I want to point out one fact. This is a tough question in one sense because the tide is most definitely running against those of us who believe in the traditional family and who accept the Bible as the true Word of God. A recent LA Times article carried this provocative headline: “Americans Increasingly in Favor of Gay Marriage, Gun Rights.” That’s an unusual combination to be sure. The article says that 47% of those surveyed favor gay marriage while 43% oppose.
Whenever Christians speak out on homosexuality, we face certain challenges:
1. We are likely to be opposed.
2. We may be branded as bigots.
3. We may be misunderstood by our own people.
Times have changed even inside the evangelical church. Many people are pressing us to stop calling homosexuality sinful and to admit gays and lesbians to church membership. Sometimes we are unfairly linked with extremists like that crazy church in Kansas that spouts hateful rhetoric at funerals.
We know from experience that shouting at people doesn’t work. We also know that we are to speak the truth in love, but how do you do that to a generation that denies the very concept of truth?
Let me go back to T.D. Jakes for a moment. I’m aware of the controversy surrounding his views of the Trinity and the “prosperity gospel.” Those are very serious issues that need further discussion, but that’s not my point in this message. I’m simply using him as an illustration since he was in fact asked by Oprah Winfrey to give his stance as a pastor on homosexuality.
Oprah is one of the most beloved women in the world. Whether or not we watch her is beside the point. Millions hang on her every word. How do you communicate the essence of the biblical viewpoint in just a few sentences when the cameras are rolling?
This is how T. D. Jakes answered the question:
“I’m not called to give my opinion. I’m called as a pastor to give the scriptural position on it. Doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you to love you. I don’t dislike anybody. I love everybody.”
Then he expanded that just a bit:
“I think that sex between two people of the same sex is condemned in the Scriptures, and as long as it is condemned in the Scriptures, I don’t get to say what I think. I get to say what the Bible says.”
“I’m not called to give my opinion.”
I think this is fine way to handle a difficult topic on national TV. You could always say more, but on this point T. D. Jakes is exactly right. The preacher isn’t called to give his opinion on anything. He is called to say what God says.
Here are good words for every preacher to ponder:
“I don’t get to say what I think. I get to say what the Bible says.”
Recently I spoke at a “Ministry Summit” for Word of Life, the worldwide youth ministry founded by Jack Wyrtzen. For my first message, I was asked to speak on the importance of the Word of God. I began my message by quoting from the first sentence of the Word of Life Statement of Faith:
“We believe that all the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired of God, and they are without error in the original writings, and they are the supreme and final authority for faith and life.”
Now as statements of faith go, that’s completely unexceptional. Hundreds of churches and ministries have similar statements about the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. It’s that last phrase that caught my attention:
The Bible is . . . “the supreme and final authority for faith and life.”
If you are an evangelical Christian, that’s the kind of statement you might read a hundred times and not think about because we take it for granted.
The Bible comes from God.
God is the Ultimate Authority.
Therefore, the Bible is our final authority.
This means that in a world of competing truth claims, for the Christian the Bible is the “Supreme Court.” We study and learn from history, tradition, and human wisdom, but in the end we believe the Bible speaks with divine authority.
What the Bible says, God says.
What the Bible says, God says.
This is not a small issue. The modern evangelical movement was born out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900s in which every major Protestant denomination was torn apart by a struggle between liberals and conservatives. If you read the history books, you will discover that the liberals won every battle. They won in the Methodist church, the Baptist church, the Presbyterian church, the Episcopal church, and the Congregational church. Slowly but surely the liberals, aided by the compromising moderates, drove the conservatives out of power.
Looking back on those days, we can see clearly there was really only one issue at stake. Is the Bible the Word of God and will we insist that our ministers preach the divine inspiration of the Bible? Everything else was secondary. Even the creation-evolution debate ultimately came down to the question of whether or not Christians would believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis are literally true. The modernists answered no, the fundamentalists said yes.
In this day of enlightened skepticism when unbelief seems to be on the march, we have to face this difficult question:
Will we believe the Bible, all of it, every word of it, from first to last, and everything in between?
Will we believe the Bible, all of it, every word of it, from first to last, and everything in between?
Our spiritual ancestors had no problem answering Yes to that question. But we struggle mightily with it. That controversy over the Bible continues to our present day. With that as background, and using the words of the apostle Paul as our guide, I want to answer and answer one very important question: What does it mean to believe the Bible? It’s one thing you say you believe the Bible, it’s another thing to live that out on a daily basis. So what do we mean when we say that we believe the Bible?
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 suggests three answers to that question.
I. Believing the Bible Means Accepting Its Authority in Every Area of Life.
“And we thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you have heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (v. 13).
Paul uses two words in verse 13 to explain what he means:
1. You received the word of God. That’s the hearing of the ear. It’s objective. It’s like signing a receipt at the post office so you can accept a package. Paul means that the Thessalonians listened intently to the message he preached because they knew it came from God.
2. You accepted it as the word of God. This word means to welcome a visitor into your home. This is the hearing of the heart. It’s subjective. It’s one thing to listen to a sermon. It’s something else to welcome God’s message into your heart and let it transform your life. This explains why some people can come to church for 60 years and never be changed. We have all known lifelong church members who were as grouchy and greedy and cranky and mean-spirited at the end as they were at the beginning. They received the Word week after week but they never accepted it as God’s divine message for them so they were never changed on the inside.
The focus here is crucial. You heard the message from man but you recognized that it came from God. You heard from us (the human side) God’s message (the divine side). So you responded not as if it were the opinion of man but as God’s word.
If the Bible is the word of God, then it is utterly and completely authoritative.
That’s why the debate over the nature of the Bible is so crucial. If it is only the word of man, then it is changeable, fickle and unreliable. But if the Bible is the word of God, then it is utterly and completely authoritative. If God has spoken in the Bible, then what he says has final claim on my life.
Let me summarize this point with two simple statements:
If the Bible comes from man, we are entitled to sit in judgment on it.
If the Bible comes from God, we must bow in submission to it.
What do you believe about the Bible?
Ladies and gentlemen, this leads to a crucial question: What do you believe about the Bible? Does it come from man or from God? Is it on the level with the daily newspaper or does it speak with divine authority?
If you say it is the word of God, then you must also say that it is not simply one message among many. It is not like the Republican or the Democratic platforms that came about through debate and consensus. If the Bible is the word of God, it is utterly exclusive in its claims. It does not beg for our approval. The Word of God is not like the first draft of a term paper where the writer submits it and says, “What do you think?” God never asks us to correct the New Testament. He never asks us to review Isaiah and make a few changes. And he won’t abide by those who add to or take from the Book of Revelation.
“The Bible Stands As Read”
A church was going through a difficult controversy. No one could agree on anything. At a business meeting one night the various factions were arguing about the minutes of the last meeting. When the pastor read a passage of Scripture, an old man stood to his feet and said, “Mr. Chairman, I move that the Bible stand approved as read.”
God never asks us to correct the New Testament.
So it must be for you and me. The Bible stands approved as read, without correction, without change, without deletion, without addition.
If you think about it, Christians believe something very profound and fundamentally very radical. In an age of moral and spiritual anarchy, we believe there is a God in heaven who has spoken to the human race. God has spoken and he has not stuttered. He spoke and made himself clear in his Word, the Bible. Writing in the Manchester Guardian (October 28, 2003), Cristina Odone describes the principle this way:
We believe in authority. In an era that prizes individual freedom, Christians believe in a supreme being who dictates our words and deeds. To modern ears, the concept sounds outrageously autocratic. From when to die to when to give birth, from whom to have sex with, to how to spend their money, the chatteratis believe they should enjoy unlimited freedom. But for the Christian, freedom is not an end in itself. Unfettered individualism can mean greed and selfishness, the evasion of personal responsibility, the destruction of the family. Christians believe that from an all-powerful authority stems a clear system of judgment which teaches that there is a right and a wrong.
The serpent’s first attack in the Garden of Eden came at precisely this point. He challenged Eve with this question: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). The church must once again declare the truth of God with boldness. One reason God has used Billy Graham so greatly has been his constant repetition of this phrase, “The Bible says.”
To a world that rejects authority, the church must declare the authority of God.
To a world that rejects authority, the church must declare the authority of God. The world says, “We want freedom.” God says, “If you want freedom, obey my Word.” We must proclaim the truth of God even to those who reject it because it is the truth that sets men free.
God’s Energetic Word
This much we already know. But ponder the last phrase of verse 13, “which is at work in you who believe.” Here Paul ties the power of the word of God to the response of a believing heart. Note the last four words: ”Which is at work.” The Word works. There is power in the Word of God when its divine authority is accepted in a believing heart.
That word “works” is like our English word “energy.” The word is energized within us as we believe it. It is like farmland that bears a rich harvest. It is a like a gold mine that delivers great riches. It is like an investment that pays a huge dividend.
That’s good news. When we hear the message outwardly and welcome it inwardly, when we allow God’s word to rule over every area of our lives, it energizes us and produces a wonderful harvest.
The Word works.
It is at this point that evangelical ministries such as Word of Life have had a powerful impact. I was raised in a church where we heard a great deal about the Bible, but I never knew how to study it on my own. That changed in the summer after my sophomore year in college when I spent three months as a counselor on Word of Life Island in Schroon Lake, New York. It is hard for me to convey how greatly my life changed in those three months. Up until then I had lived a fairly cloistered life, having grown up in a small town in Alabama. I was raised Southern Baptist and didn’t know much about the wide world outside that small town. Back then we didn’t have computers or cell phones or email or text messages, and we didn’t have the Internet or satellite radio or hundreds of channels on TV. Facebook was many years in the future. It was a big deal to make a long distance telephone call. Traveling to another state was a major event.
So I piled in a car with a bunch of other college students from Chattanooga bound for upstate New York. I shake my head as I think about how little I knew about anything. That summer we had kids come to camp from all over the Northeast, from little towns in Pennsylvania and from big cities like New York and Baltimore. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of different cultures and backgrounds. I also remember the shock of having a daily “Quiet Time” where all of us–counselors and campers alike–were given time to read the Bible and then write down the answers to two questions:
1. What is this text saying?
2. How does this apply to my life?
Even though I had grown up in the church, that was brand-new to me. I never thought I could study the Bible on my own and learn for myself what it said.
You can understand the Bible!
This for me was a truth as revolutionary as Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. That’s not an inapt comparison because the heart of the Reformation rests on the fact that God’s Word is not chained to the pulpit, with truths that only the clergy can understand. Luther and Calvin believed that the central message of the Bible was clear enough for any believer to read and understand.
If we’re going to believe the Bible, then we must accept its authority in every area of life.
There is more to be said on this topic. We’ll cover the rest of this text in the next message. But for the moment, just ask yourself two questions:
Do I truly believe the Bible?
If so, what difference does it make in my life?
Every Christian needs to think about that because we live in days of spiritual anarchy where society has rejected the word of the Lord. Are we willing to be men and women “under authority” who do what we are told even when it isn’t popular? God help us to answer yes and show the world by how we live that we truly believe what the Bible says.