What Does It Mean to Believe the Bible?
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
September 8, 1996
Every church has a story. Ours begins 81 years ago in a small house not very many blocks from here. A group of men and women had gathered to discuss the possibility of starting a brand-new church in our village. Most of them lived in Oak Park and nearly all of them attended one of the major churches. Even back then Oak Park was known as a city of churches. It was the place where “the saloons end and the steeples begin.” We were justly proud of our beautiful church buildings in 1915, many of which still stand today, including the Unity Temple, Pilgrim Congregational Church and the First Presbyterian Church.
Why start yet another church in a town that already had more than its share? What could a new congregation possibly hope to offer? In marketing parlance, what niche would we fill?
The men and women who gathered on that cold weeknight in February knew the answer to that question. They were tired of denominationalism and dead orthodoxy so they wanted a church that would be forever independent. They rejected the social gospel so they wanted a church that would emphasize the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. Because they believed in world missions, they wanted a church that would send out missionaries to the ends of the earth.
One Issue Above All Others
All those things were on their mind back in January 1915. But one burning conviction stood out above everything else. Our founders wanted a church that would believe the Bible—all of it, every word of it, from first to last and everything in between . You see, those were the days of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in which every major 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 and ultimately out of those denominations.
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 great 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.
They Would Be Surprised!
The men and women who founded this church were decidedly fundamentalist in their theology. Although that word has been debased and abused in our day, to them it simply meant that they believed the Bible was the Word of God. In the beginning the word had no other negative connotations. A fundamentalist then would be much the same as an evangelical today.
What does it mean to believe the Bible?
In saying all of this, I simply mean to point out that our heritage lies with those who believe the Bible. Much has changed in the last 81 years. I’m sure that intrepid band of pioneers would hardly recognize our church today. They would be amazed to know that over 1000 people worship here every Sunday and even more surprised to know that we meet in the buildings that once housed the First Presbyterian Church. They knew nothing about VCRs, computers, jet airplanes, or pagers. Television had not just been invented. No one had even thought of something like rap music or MTV or compact discs. Things we take for granted weren’t even on the drawing boards back then. I’m sure many of them would be scandalized by our clothing, our cars and our contemporary worship.
But one thing would cheer them up. We still believe the Bible just like they did in the beginning. Through all the incredible changes of the 20th century this congregation has never wavered for one second from the most important truth that brought us into existence. Whatever else you can say about us, we are a Bible-believing church.
With that as background, and using the words of the apostle Paul as our guide, I want to answer one very important question: What does it mean to believe the Bible? Our text 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.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
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. There is a difference because it’s very possible to listen to preaching and not be changed by it. It’s something else to welcome God’s message into your heart and let it transform your life.
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.
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.
We Don’t “Correct” God’s Word
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.
The Bible comes from God therefore we must bow in submission to it.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is 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 platform 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 thesis where the writer submits it and says, “What do you think?”
A friend in Texas sent me an e-mail last night saying that he had just received the first two chapters of his dissertation back from the library. They covered his pages with red marks. Change this, delete that, follow a different form in your footnotes, use this kind of paper, indent this many spaces, and so on. He has to do what they say if he wants to get his degree. After all, he’s not writing a new book of the Bible. It’s just a dissertation and therefore can and will be corrected in many places.
Not so with the Bible. 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”
It reminds me of the story of a church that 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.”
So it must be for you and me. The Bible stands approved as read, without correction, without change, without deletion, without addition.
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. Underline four words please—“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.
What I Learned at Word of Life
Let me stop here to make a simple application. Twenty-five years ago I spent a summer at Word of Life Island in Schroon Lake, New York. While I was there as a counselor I was exposed for the first time to a concept called “the quiet time.” A quiet time means that you set aside a few minutes each day to read the Bible and pray. The people at Word of Life were so committed to it that they actually set aside 30 minutes every day when the whole camp stopped and we all went off and had a quiet time. We even had a little diary that we filled in with our thoughts and prayers.
Some people would call it devotions, others the morning watch. It makes no difference. In the years since then I have been to Christian college, four years of Dallas Seminary, further study at three other seminaries, and completed 18 years as a pastor. I have studied and read hundreds of books on the spiritual life. When all is said and done, I know of nothing more important for maintaining a warm relationship with Jesus Christ than this—a consistent, regular, quality quiet time.
Believing the Bible means accepting its authority in every area of your life.
I also testify that it has not gotten easier over the years. In many ways it has gotten harder. It almost always does because we tend to substitute our knowledge and Christian activity for this simple discipline of a daily time with God and his Word.
I commend to all of you the practice of a daily quiet time. How can we say we believe the Bible and accept its authority if we do not daily spend time in the Word?
If you are an elder or a deacon or a deaconess, if you attend a Christian college or if you work for a Christian organization, if you have been a Christian for many years, if you teach Sunday School or serve the Lord in some way, I exhort you not to rationalize that your knowledge makes a quiet time unnecessary. New Christians rarely have to be convinced about this. It’s experienced Christians who tend to drift away.
So what does it mean to believe the Bible? Our first answer is very clear. Believing the Bible means accepting its authority in every area of your life. Verse 14 offers us a second answer.
II. Believing the Bible means accepting the opposition it brings.
“For you, brothers, because imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.” (1 Thessalonians 2:14)
Here we have a piece of bad news. If you believe the Bible, you’re going to have some strong enemies. Here’s the really bad news. When Paul uses the word “countrymen” he uses a word that is absolutely unique. It’s not found anywhere else in the New Testament. It means the people closest to you. If you decide to believe the Bible is the word of God, many people who are close to you will not share your faith at all.
Earlier this week I received an urgent message from a member of our congregation asking if I would pray for a 32-year-old man dying of AIDS. On Monday he was given 48 hours to live. On Tuesday his sister who is a Christian flew from Houston to see him. She asked for prayer because her brother did not know the Lord. He had chosen the homosexual lifestyle, had contracted AIDS, and was not interested in Jesus Christ. He died on Tuesday night. As far as anyone knows, he died without Jesus—though God is the final judge of the heart.
The funeral was held at a large church in Chicago. One of our members attended and sent me this message:
I came away with a number of impressions, not the least of which was a genuine concern for the shallowness and emptiness of it all – and the seeming abuse of the house of God in somehow endorsing and encouraging a lifestyle that brought death to a man of 32 without learning any lessons from it.
Those present were encouraged to contribute to a memorial fund, proceeds of which will be used to advance AIDS and HIV research, AIDS patient outreach, etc.I want to honor the young man and his family, but I don’t want to encourage the lifestyle or endorse the worldly ends of the community that cost him his life.
The church is a beautiful cathedral with all the traditional decoration – including two massive archways in the nave bearing the likenesses of two dozen or more of the saints and martyrs of the faith. That was truly inspiring, as were the Latin words and the music and the stained glass Gospel stories. Still, I had a feeling that somehow I was involved in something sacrilegious, invoking selected portions of Scripture to rationalize and obfuscate the meaning of AIDS and the waste of a life. Had he died in an automobile collision, there would have been many, many words about safety and enforcing the law and bringing to justice those who abuse the privilege of driving. It seems to me there should have been many, many words about Christ and the continuing working out of the wrath of God on Sodom, and bringing to Christ those who violate God’s clear directives.
The latter approach could have been offensive – but so could Pastor Bob Boerman’s observation about Satan playing hockey before God’s church would be used for a wedding involving an unbelieving or non-believing bride. The latter approach could have cost the parish some revenue – but all the money spent on AIDS research (like all the money spent researching malaria) is a total waste if the swamps aren’t drained. Spending money swatting mosquitoes instead of eliminating their breeding grounds is pure folly.
Lest someone think those words impertinent, I can only comment that he and wife earned the right to say them by their love for the young man who died as well as for his brothers and sisters.
No One Likes to Be Unpopular
I am sometimes encouraged by well-meaning members of our own congregation that I should not speak out so boldly about sin in our community because in so doing I risk turning away the very people we are trying to reach. Deep in my heart, I understand their concern and I share it. No one likes to be unpopular. I know full well there are people in Oak Park who don’t care for Calvary Memorial Church. I also know that some of you have been embarrassed when friends say, “Oh, you go that that church?” and they don’t mean it as a compliment.
Our deepest commitment is to the word of God and not man.
That’s no fun. It would be better if everyone in Oak Park loved us. But they don’t. If they despise us for telling the truth about homosexuality, then so be it. If they think we are narrow-minded and bigoted, then so be it.
The truth is much different, of course. This church is filled with people who love God and love people. Let us say it and say it clearly: We don’t hate anyone. We welcome everyone in Oak Park—regardless of their lifestyle—to attend our services. Our doors are open to all people without exception. We don’t run background checks on those attend our services—and we’re not going to start.
But our deepest commitment is to the word of God. We will preach it and teach it and proclaim because it is the only hope for a dying world.
Here, then, is the sober truth. Believing the Bible means accepting the opposition it brings.
There is yet a third answer to our question.
III. Believing the Bible means accepting its judgment on society.
“Who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16)
These are sobering words. In these verses Paul mentions four way that the Jews opposed the early Christians:
1. They killed Jesus and the prophets
2. They drove the apostles out of Jerusalem.
3. They are hostile to all men
4. They hinder the preaching of the gospel.
The last point is that one that grips Paul’s mind and heart. You see, it’s one thing to say, “not for me, but it’s okay for you.” It’s something to say, “Not for me, and not for you either.” If you prefer to stay in darkness, that’s your privilege. But it is a terrible sin to put out the light so that others cannot see.
There is something fundamentally wrong with any religion that cuts off a man from his fellow man. Such a religion is not of God. Mark it down, please. The greatest sin is not in refusing salvation, but in trying to keep others from believing.
Don’t Take Others With You
If you prefer to go to hell, that’s your business. But please don’t try to take others with you.
There are those who will never attend an evangelistic meeting, but will do anything to stop others from attending. They will never pray in the public schools, and will threaten a lawsuit against anyone who does. They never go to church but use the zoning laws to keep churches out of their neighborhoods. They never attend a home Bible study but get irate if a neighbor hosts a small group. They will not accept Christ but mock a co-worker who comes to faith. They will not lift a finger to save the unborn but they ridicule those who work in a crisis pregnancy center. They create an ungodly atmosphere at work and then attempt to intimidate Christians into compromise or silence.
Such people are all around us today. Not all unbelievers fit this pattern … but some do. They do all they can to actively oppose Christians who are actively seeking to win others to Christ.
Full to the Brim
Verse 16 tells us two things about God’s judgment on such people:
1. They heap up their sins to the limit. The word means to “fill to the brim.” They is a limit, a line, and a point of no return for each person. No one knows when or where that point is. But that point of no return comes for nations, for families, and for individuals.
2. Wrath has come upon them. The word is both present and future. Although our God is patient, his patience has its limits. Eventually the storm clouds rolls in and finally break over the heads of unbelievers. Though they be long delayed, the fires of hell will come at last to those who reject our Lord.
Please understand. This is God’s judgment on any society that rejects his revelation. No nation or individual can reject him with impunity. No nation can sin forever without reaping a divine punishment.
This is the final answer to the question: What does it mean to believe the Bible? If you believe the Bible, you must accept its judgment on society.
Two Concluding Thoughts
Let me wrap up this message with two concluding thoughts:
1. There are certain unchangeable facts which are true and which must be believed if we are to be truly Christian.
These truths are not like the shifting tides of human opinion. They do not change with the latest Gallup Poll. These truths make Christianity what it is and if they are neglected or denied, our faith loses its foundation.
Our only basis of authority is the Bible. Like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, we say, “Our conscience is bound by the Word of God. Here we stand. We can do no other.”
Our only basis of authority is the Bible.
Such a stand will not win us brownie points with the world …or with the local newspapers. But be that as it may, we have been standing on the word of God for 81 years and I see no reason to stop now.
Let me sharpen the point just a bit. Suppose someone were to ask why you are a Christian. It is not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus because he solves all my problems” or “I come to this church because I meet so many nice people here.” That’s beside the point. We must not claim to be Christians simply because of some advantage we receive. We must believe because the message is from God and is therefore true. No other answer will suffice.
2. God’s wrath is a terrible reality that comes upon every individual, institution and nation that turns away from him.
There is such a thing as true moral guilt. You are a sinner by nature, by birth, and by choice. If we deny this, or soften, or shy away from it, then we do not believe the Bible no matter what we say. This truth is badly needed today and we do not help people by hiding it from them.
Only when men see they are under the wrath of God are they ready to hear about God’s great love for them. To paraphrase Billy Graham, you have to get people lost before you can get them saved. Once a man or a woman acknowledges their personal need, then you can tell them about Jesus and how his death and resurrection provides the full payment for their sins. Once they know that, they are ready to enter into a personal relationship with God.
This means that every person faces a most solemn choice: To go their own way and face judgment and wrath … or to turn to God in Christ and receive salvation, forgiveness and a brand-new life.
When a man says in his heart, “I have decided to follow Jesus, “ he has made the choice to step off the path of death and onto the path of life. He turned off that steep road that leads down to hell and set his feet on the path that leads to heaven.
Good News, Sad News, Bad News
I suppose you might sum up my message by saying that there is good news, sad news, and bad news today:
*Good news that the Bible is true and when we believe it, God’s power is released in your life.
*Sad news that those closest to us will often oppose our Christian faith.
*Bad news that God’s wrath comes upon those who reject his Word.
There Is No Substitute
In 1915 this church was founded on a bedrock belief in the Bible. Although much has changed over the years, that hasn’t changed at all, and by God’s grace, it will never change.
Like the campfire song says, “No turning back, no turning back.” Believing the Bible is serious business. No turning back, no turning back.
On Thursday I drove to Moody Bible Institute to eat lunch with a friend. As I was walking back to my car after the meal, I happened to see a beat-up blue church van parked on Wells Street. It was from a church down on 110th street in a tough part of the city. As I looked I noticed the most unusual slogan I have ever seen on a church van. Under the name of the church were these words: “There is no substitute for the Word of God.”
It’s not very catchy but it’s true. And it sums up everything I’ve been trying to say this morning. There is no substitute for the Word of God. Our founders believed it and that’s why they started this church 81 years ago. We still believe it and with God’s help we will continue to believe it until Jesus comes again. Amen.