In the beginning, God created people in His image. This means that people inherently have a will. We desire to see things turn out a certain way or to happen a certain way. We were created in perfection, so we must believe that it is good for us to have a will. Since we are not God, our will is not God’s will. This is an indication that we not only need God as a shepherd now, but we will always need God’s abiding instruction if we are to have a place in His kingdom, which is under the direction of His will. It also means that our will, just as with Adam, will lead us into something other than what God desires. If all things are for God’s glory, then to abide in a will that is contrary to the will of God is to make our abode in rebellion and in darkness. This is why, like Caleb, we must be given a new spirit in order to obey God and follow Him entirely.
If our will is not the same as God’s and, when operated as if independent, leads us into darkness, what authority is there for the Christian and for the local church? This authority cannot be produced by the will of people, else it leads away from God. Tradition, scientific discovery, doctrinal statements of a denomination or church, ecclesiology, methodology, psychology or philosophy may all be good things, but they are all things produced by the human will. If left with those things alone, we will only lead ourselves into darkness. This is why statements like “We’ve always done it that way,” are dangerous in the church. It is why unregenerate church membership is hazardous to the health of any local body. It is why we fail to love and why we do not often witness God working in our midst even though He is. From where comes and what is the authority for the Christian and for the local church?
We are about to begin a new year! Over and over again, I hear almost everyone making their weight-loss resolutions and their resolutions to, by their own will, be a better person, go to church more, read the bible more, finish their degrees, find new jobs, pursue a new career, etc… I might even ask this considering the new year, from what authority should we resolve in the coming year? What sort of resolutions do we make as local church bodies and why?
Deuteronomy 31:1-13 HCSB
Then Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel, saying, “I am now 120 years old; I can no longer act as your leader. The Lord has told me, ‘You will not cross this Jordan.’ The Lord your God is the One who will cross ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will drive them out. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, as the Lord has said. The Lord will deal with them as He did Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and their land when He destroyed them. The Lord will deliver them over to you, and you must do to them exactly as I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For it is the Lord your God who goes with you; He will not leave you or forsake you.”
Moses then summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you will go with this people into the land the Lord swore to give to their fathers. You will enable them to take possession of it. The Lord is the One who will go before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid or discouraged.”
Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the Lord’s covenant, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of debt cancellation, during the Festival of Booths, when all Israel assembles in the presence of the Lord your God at the place He chooses, you are to read this law aloud before all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children, and foreigners living within your gates — so that they may listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law. Then their children who do not know the law will listen and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
Importance of God’s word
From the outset, before we get too deeply engorged in this part of the story, we must make the realization that the way in which we treat the Scriptures is an indication of our willingness to follow God. We have covered, up to this point, that God is working all things together for His glory and for our good. God receives all glory. Thus, the work of God presents God himself as preeminent, namely in the person of Christ. This is why Christ must be of one essence with God. People are never preeminent or central in the church. When we approach church in such a way that people are the central focus, whether by entertainment or by the exaltation of human-made doctrine or by the veneration of saints or even by the comfort of our pews, we fail to be a church. Christ is preeminent. This means that salvation and sanctification and the giving of rewards of any kind are by grace through faith alone, not from works. No person can boast. If people are not the central focus of the genuine church, if God alone is to receive glory, and if Christ is preeminent, then God’s word is the most important and authoritative document for the local church.
Thus, we arrive at the idea of Sola Scriptura. Moses, here, is at the end of his life and is telling the people of all the promises that God has made and about the plan to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites. This generation of promise is charged to be strong and courageous, not afraid or discouraged. He commanded the Law to be read at least every seven years so that every sort of people will learn to fear the Lord and be careful to follow all the words.
God did not say that one should read all of the ecumenical councils. He did not command His people to teach their children how to be good Baptists. He did not tell us to hold fast to our own confessions and creeds. While those things are of some import, God’s command to His people was to read His words so that people would know who He is and fear Him. This is the ideal that a genuine local church will embrace and we call it Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone).
What do we mean and why is it important for us to declare and live with Scripture alone as the authority for the Christian and for the local church? First, it cannot mean that we only use a certain English translation of the Scriptures or a certain set of human-made doctrinal beliefs as our authority. There are some bad translations, but mostly, the up-to-date genuine English translations of the Greek and Hebrew are reliable English renderings of the Greek and Hebrew autographs. Scripture alone also does not mean that tradition is altogether unimportant. It does not mean that science and philosophy and art are of no value.
What it does mean is that Scripture alone is all we need for life and for ministry. It does not contain all knowledge and I think it is just the very beginning of what God has for us through eternity. On this earth, it is our authoritative document and not one letter of its content will pass away. By our abiding in Scripture we can grow in all types of knowledge with humility. In 2 Peter 1:3 and verses 16-21, Peter even writes that God provides what is necessary for life and godliness (v. 3). He goes on to say that the apostles witnessed Christ, were amazed by their experience but returned to Scripture to be sure that they were correct about Jesus. Scripture alone is our authority for life and godliness. This must be the case if God alone receives glory, if Christ alone is preeminent, and if salvation is by grace through faith alone. We cannot add our words to God’s and hope them to be authoritative. We cannot add denominational doctrines to God’s word and expect them to produce fruit. We cannot change the word of God and hope that the change will bear any good fruit whatsoever in our lives or in our churches. It is Scripture alone, as God inspired it, that stands as our authoritative document. No document can be added as its equal.
In Deuteronomy 31:26, we even read that the Law was to stand as a witness against the people. It is the authoritative document. When we read, we are humbled. It divides us. It accuses us of our sin. It stands as a witness against us telling us that we need much grace. So, we don’t teach the Scriptures as a rulebook as if our willpower to follow its instruction will somehow save us. That is human-centered and self-glorifying. Scripture makes evident our need of God’s grace and draws us into greater obedience. Scripture is important and authoritative in its entirety because God is glorified and because Christ is preeminent. We are imperfect people and imperfect church bodies in need of much grace. The good news is that He supplies that grace abundantly and leads the genuine church and the true Christian in the way that He has prepared as He works all things together. Sola Scriptura.
Scripture is not a tool for the Christian arsenal, it is God’s abiding word.
Sufficiency of God’s word
What sort of people heard the word? What was the demographic? God made it very clear through Moses. All of the people in every tribe, of foreign nations, of every generation, and both male and female were to hear the whole of the law. I wonder if this instruction is reflected in our churches today? If we believe God’s word is sufficient because God alone is to receive glory and because Christ is to be preeminent, then we would consider it important for our own congregation, all of those outside of our congregation, all of those in every age group, and both male and female to hear and be impacted by the whole counsel of Scripture because Scripture is the abiding word that is authoritative and profitable for life and godliness. It’s like Moses is receiving and teaching Matthew 28:18-20- Make disciples of all nations! How are we to make disciples? It is not merely by evangelization or supporting missionaries financially. We are actually to have the whole counsel of Scripture in our hearts, singing it as we go, and making sure that everyone possible hears the whole of God’s word. God’s word is sufficient and God does not discriminate based on age, gender, religious affiliation, denomination, socio-economic status, our level of faith or even on our level of sinfulness. This is because God receives all glory and does not make the human person central. His grace is unconditional in this way, and to discriminate as to who will hear His word would be for Him to make the faith about people rather than about His amazing and redeeming grace. God’s word is sufficient. God’s word, then, is to be taught to all people, but we know that most people do not listen. There were those in Israel who did not listen (refer again to Judges 2 as this generation turns against God). For whom is Scripture profitable?
“But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching based on the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was entrusted to me” (1 Timothy 1:8-11 HCSB).
“For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
If we believe that we are righteous, then the Scriptures are of no value to us. If we are lawless, then the Scriptures grip our attention, convict us of sin, and draw us into the grace of God. If I am righteous, I cannot abide in God’s word. If I am a sinner, completely depraved and saved by grace, I can rest in the word of God and take hold of its promises- promises that are gifted by grace and that I did not merit so I cannot boast. We remember that God receives all glory. In God’s glory, we receive rest for our weary souls (application of Hebrews 4).
This implicates to true Christian life and to the genuine local church. First, it means that multi-ethnic, family integrated (all generations together) services are probably the most biblical model of church ministry in any meeting where the word of God is proclaimed. Secondly, it means that no matter your vice and no matter your sin, we want you to be here with us to hear the word that God has given for all people. It means that as we go out and make disciples, we are not just inviting people to church. We are engaging, everywhere and on every platform where people share ideas, in deep, honest, theological conversation so as to teach the whole world what God has said. This is why we share these messages on social media in our current age. It is why we fill our profiles with the same conversation we have in coffee shops and across the dinner table: conversation about what our King has shared with us- His amazing grace. If this is not what we see, I’m not convinced that we really believe Scripture to be sufficient; instead, talking about football, school, work, watching television and complaining about other people while forsaking the most important thing. If we truly believed God’s word to be sufficient, we wouldn’t dare skip church meeting, leave service as God is dealing with our hearts, choose to send our children to baseball practice rather than to train for life and godliness, forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. None of these other things are inherently evil and we can participate, but this whole life thing is not about us. We are not central. God receives all glory, Christ is preeminent, and He has poured His grace on us and has given to us an abiding word. How can anything else take precedence over God’s important and sufficient word? In a genuine church, we actually receive everything we need for every arena of life and for godliness. A genuine church will be interested in this sort of training because God’s word is sufficient.
God’s will is greater, therefore His word is greater.
The Fruit of God’s word
Scripture is profitable because it stands as a witness against us so that we might be drawn to pursue God in every arena. The only way that we know how to improve is if someone reveals our mistakes to us. The only way we know that we are depraved is if someone who is holy and good reveals that to us. If all people are depraved, we need God’s revelation above all because He is the only one who is good. To put it simply, we reap what is sown in life and in the local church. If we want to bear much godly fruit, we will not only hear the word, we will abide in it.
When it comes to local church methodology, have we abided in God’s word? When it comes to raising children, have we abided in God’s word? As we relate to our spouses, have we abided in God’s word? Have we, according to Deuteronomy 6, let the whole counsel of Scripture rest on our lips day and night as we go about our day, especially so that our children and grandchildren will be discipled? Do we strive to love people by making disciples of all nations?
As we read through the remainder of Deuteronomy, we notice that the proclamation of God’s word is accompanied by singing, particularly songs that are doctrinally sound and biblically valid. We have a tendency to sing songs that make people the center. I will receive a mansion in glory! I will be uplifted! I will be blessed! If Scripture stands as a testimony against this sort of thinking, then the music we sing for worship ought to reflect God’s word instead of our human-centered religion. Moses wrote a song that would be taught to the people so that they would remember the words of the Law as it testified against them. This song will ring as God’s judgment pours out against the world in Revelation 15, and we will sing forever about God’s grace and our rescue (Revelation 19:1-8). We should sing some church music in our churches about how terrible we are and how good God is! Rather, we should sing praises with which we decrease and in which God’s name and grace increases.
I am much less worried about the genre of our music and more concerned about whether or not the words we sing accurately reflect the word of God that we proclaim. When our attention is given to God’s word rather than our comfort or preference, no matter what part of local church life we consider, that is when we are abiding in God’s word. It is because of His transforming grace that we are able. When we abide in God’s word, not just in the preaching, but in song, in the giving of our offerings, in the ministries of the church, as we go from this place into the darkness to proclaim the gospel to others, Christ promises that He will produce much fruit in and through us (John 15).
Since God’s economy is not based on merit, we will always notice this as we abide in the Scriptures: Our tendency to stray, God is faithful, Christ shepherds His people, the responsibility of the local church is to, by the faith it has been given, abide in God’s word and proclaim this word to the whole of the world. So I ask, by what authority do you live? Do we operate the church by some human authority or by furthering God’s administration by faith? Do we believe ourselves to be able to will greater obedience or spirituality? In the new year, will our resolution be to lose the same thirty pounds that we didn’t lose after last year’s resolution? Or, by faith, will we resolve to abide more deeply in God’s all-sufficient word by faith, embracing the change and the transformation that God is working to bring to our lives and to our churches? God’s word is standing as a witness against us. How will God’s amazing grace enable us and motivate us to respond through faith and see the great things that He has done and will continue to do?
What plan does God have in the coming year for you and your family? What great things might God have in store for our local churches in the years to come? Let us, now by grace, choose to abide in Him. Let us give Him our yes, no matter the cost, and we will be amazed at what we see Him do in the years to come. God is always working all things together and He will accomplish His plan. We will either be a part of that or not.
The questions we ask are thus: Has God regenerated our hearts so that we might follow Him and obey Him as Caleb (Numbers 14)? Will we respond to God’s grace by abiding in His word? For the genuine Christian and the genuine local church, the answer is “Yes!”
God’s word apprehends, and His people abide in it wonderfully.