Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life by J.I. Packer
The title of this chapter brings together three of the weightiest and richest words that Scripture uses for the renewed existence of those who know God’s sovereign grace. Each of these words has an everyday meaning — life and health referring to one’s physical condition and peace signifying inner and outer calm — but here what they express is the spiritual well-being of the born again. Life — eternal life, as the New Testament regularly calls it — is the state in which one recognizes, receives and responsively relates to God in Jesus Christ: in other words, Jesus Christ the Lord in his identity as God the Redeemer, who now calls us into fellowship with himself and with God the Father through God the Holy Spirit. Health is a concept focused by the New Testament adjective healthy, which has traditionally been translated “sound” (as when we describe horses as sound in wind and limb); it is the state of well-being in which our spiritual system functions steadily and strongly the way it should,
in faith, hope and love Godward. Peace is a word of wide meaning that covers the state of being divinely pardoned and accepted; of knowing that this acceptance, based on Christ’s cross, is solid and lasting fact; of accepting and loving oneself as the person God made in his image and loves and has redeemed and is restoring; of accepting one’s circumstances, whatever they are, as divinely ordered for one’s good; of facing the unknown future in calm reliance on God’s promises; and of refusing to respond in kind to any violence and hostility shown to one by others. Life, health and peace are three words that together sum up the essence of Christian life.
The point becomes more vivid by contrast. The reality of life is opposed to the state of unresponsiveness to God, which is called death in Ephesians 2:1, 5, and Colossians 2:13 on the analogy of a corpse, which is totally unresponsive to any stimulus of any kind. The reality of health is opposed to the inner sickness of unloving, self-serving, God-defying lifestyles, which exhibit human nature out of sorts and indeed wasting away, for these are the degenerative diseases of the soul. The reality of peace is opposed to the stress and strain, the anxious, fearful, troubled, resentful, bitter, vengeful, addictive, adversarial way of living that so many moderns and postmoderns are anchored in nowadays. By contrast with these wretched alternatives life, health and peace appear as words of deliverance and delight.
The first to link these precious words together was Charles Wesley, in a classic celebration of the impact of Jesus Christ, known and understood for what he is, on benighted humans:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!
Jesus — the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears;
‘Tis life and health and peace.
But these words may with equal fitness be applied to the impact of the Holy Scripture upon us. Look at the following, by other Christian poets. First, Anne Steele:
Father of mercies, in thy word
What endless glory shines!
For ever be thy name adored
For these celestial lines.
Here the Redeemer’s welcome voice
Spreads heavenly peace around;
And life and everlasting joys
Attend the blissful sound.
Here springs of consolation rise
To cheer the fainting mind:
And thirsty souls receive supplies,
And sweet refreshment find.
Now look at this by Henry Williams Baker:
Lord, they word abideth,
And our footsteps guideth;
Who its truth believeth
Light and joy receiveth.
Who can tell the pleasure,
Who recount the treasure
By thy word imparted
To the simple-hearted?
Word of mercy, giving
Succour to the living;
Word of life, supplying
Comfort to the dying.
O that we discerning
Its most holy learning,
Lord, may love and fear thee,
Evermore be near thee.
And at this, by Bernard Barton:
Lamp of our feet, whereby we trace
Our path when wont to stray;
Stream from the fount of heavenly grace,
Brook by the traveller’s way;
Bread of our souls, whereon we feed,
True manna from on high;
Our guide and chart, wherein we read
Of realms beyond the sky;
Word of the ever-living God,
Will of his glorious Son,
Without thee how could earth be trod,
Or heaven itself be won?
Lord, grant that we aright may learn
The wisdom it imparts,
And to its heavenly teaching turn
With simple, childlike hearts.
The thought that all these lyrics express is that the gift of life and health and peace comes to us from God through Holy Scripture.
Christ and the Bible
The link between Christ and the Bible, as previous chapters have shown, is direct, organic and multiple. So it is only true to say that life and health and peace come from either if at once you add that they come from the one through the other — from Christ, that is, through the Scriptures or from the Scriptures through Christ. Various aspects of the connection have already passed before us. The canonical Scriptures of the two Testaments are the interpretive and applicatory record of God’s redemptive program in history, the program that has now climaxed in the life, death, resurrection, enthronement and present heavenly ministry of the Lord Jesus and in the ongoing pentecostal ministry of the Holy Spirit. These Scriptures are also, and equally, a revelation from God: a revelation
of his own identity, character and purposes; of his wisdom, will and ways for achieving our salvation; of his words of specific instruction, partly indicative, partly imperative, for the sanctifying of our lives; and of his invitation to the world to turn to Christ and find life. The meaning of biblical inspiration is that through the agency of the sovereign Holy Spirit the sacred text is at once God’s didactic witness and people’s celebratory witness to salvation through Christ — eternally planned, long prepared for, accomplished through incarnation at the appointed time and now to be proclaimed everywhere as Scripture sets it forth. The person and place of the Christ of space-time history is the interpretive key to all Scripture; the Old Testament is to be read in the light of its New Testament fulfillment in and by him, just as the New Testament is to read in the light of its Old Testament foundations on which that fulfillment rested. For the Christian there is no Christ but the Christ of the Bible (specifically, of the New Testament teachers) and no understanding of the Bible but that which matches the expressed mind of Christ and his apostles (specifically, as they interpret the Old Testament and relate themselves to it).
As regards authority, it is impossible to give too much weight to the fact that Jesus, who was himself God speaking, would have consistently viewed the words of his Bible as God speaking and should have lived his life and fulfilled his vocation of teaching and suffering in direct and conscious obedience to what was written. Now, in effect, from his throne he tells all who would be his disciples that they must learn from him and follow his example at this point and submit to becoming disciples of the canonical Scriptures. His authority and the authority of the Scriptures upon us are one. What then should we do? We should look to the Holy Spirit, who inspired the biblical text and who authenticates it to regenerate hearts as God-given by sensitizing us to the impact of its divinity, to make clear to us not only what God said in and through the text to its original readers but also what he says to us via the same text here and now. We should ask for the Spirit’s illumination, especially for our attempts at applicatory thinking. We should settle it in our minds that everything the Father and the Son say to us in and through Scripture relates, one way or another, to the person, place
and purpose of Christ, to the realities of God’s kingdom and to faithful following of Christ through what Bunyan called the wilderness of this world. That is what the Christian Bible is all about, and we are not to go off at tangents away from this when we read it. We are always to remember that whatever the Bible teaches has divine authority, and we are to bow to that authority at every point, confessing that here we have both truth and wisdom. This is the way of true discipleship, the path of life and health and peace.
The Holy Spirit and the Bible
Earlier we heard Charles Wesley telling us that the source of life and health and peace is the “name,” meaning the knowledge, of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is fitting now to quote him again as he invokes the Holy Spirit to mediate through Scripture the communion with Christ out of which our new existence comes. It is a recurring reality of Christian experience that those who explore the Bible with a purpose of humble obedience to all the Spirit shows them in the text find that the fruit of their exploring is more than factual knowledge of God’s work and will; it is in truth fellowship with their Lord in person. Conviction of truth, consecration of heart, communion with Christ and confidence in his love become aspects of a single ball of wax when Christians open themselves to what the Westminster Confession calls “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10). In John Wesley’s Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists (1779), these verses by Charles are set to be sung “Before the Reading of the Scriptures”:
Come, Holy Ghost, (for mov’d by thee
The prophets wrote and spoke:)
Unlock the Truth, thyself the Key,
Unseal the sacred Book.
God, thro’ himself, we then shall know,
If thou within us shine:
And sound, with all the saints below,
The depths of love divine.
He also wrote this:
Come, divine Interpreter,
Bring us eyes thy Book to read,
Ears the mystic words to hear,
Words which did from thee proceed,
Words that endless bliss impart,
Kept in an obedient heart.
When quiet in my house I sit,
Thy Book be my companion still,
My joy thy sayings to repeat,
Talk o’er the records of thy will,
And search the oracles divine
Till every heartfelt word be mine.
O may the gracious words divine
Subject of all my converse be!
So will the Lord his follower join,
And walk and talk himself with me;
So shall my heart his presence prove,
And burn with everlasting love.
The approach to Scripture, the valuation of it and the expectations from it that Charles Wesley expresses here are in no way unique or eccentric; rather, this is the characteristically Christian perspective. Wesley is in the mainstream. So is his contemporary William Cowper, who in his days of Christian sanity, before the delusion of damnation struck him, connected the divinity of the Scriptures, the Spirit’s help in exploring them, the reality of fellowship with Christ through them and the resulting state of love, joy and hope (to which, as is plain, life, health and peace correspond) in a similar fashion:
The Spirit breathes upon the Word
And brings the truth to sight;
Precepts and promises afford
A sanctifying light.
A glory gilds the sacred page,
Majestic, like the sun:
It gives a light to every age;
It gives, but borrows none.
My soul rejoices to pursue
The steps of him I love,
Till glory breaks upon my view
In brighter worlds above.
Such verses strike an echo in the heart of Christians everywhere.
I wrote above of Christians who explore the Bible. This is the point at which to say that the word explore takes us further into the way we should relate to Scripture than the familiar words read and study do. Exploring is not, of course, less than reading and studying, but it is more. You can read books mechanically, without interest, and study facts mechanically, without focus, but exploring territory is a process of search, thought and correlation that demands both interest and focus. Exploring Scripture is more than a routine for gathering data. It has to do with memorization, meditation and interrogation. In exploring you poke and dig and ask questions and make and test guesses and try to see how everything ties in with everything else. Exploration is exciting! I spoke earlier of the need to ask what each biblical passage is saying about God and about the human condition and about one’s own life. These are the questions with which biblical exploration begins, and it is through seeking the Holy Spirit’s help in answering them that the knowledge of Jesus Christ and of life and health and peace through him becomes ours.
The members of John Wesley’s little society (small group) at Oxford in the 1730s — the Holy Club, as their detractors described them — were
Bible explorers in this sense, and as a result they were ridiculed as “Bible moths,” eating up scriptural teaching as moths eat woolen clothes. They were Bible moths before they came to saving faith in Christ, and they were right to be, and when they received full assurance they became more of Bible moths than they were before. I hope all who read this book can tell a comparable story.
But can we? Well-worn Bibles are rarities these days; in many homes there is no Bible at all, and the ignorance of what Scripture contains that has come to mark not only our secular community but our church attenders, too, is truly horrific. Not so long ago it was common for the Bible to be read at daily prayers in Western families and for children to be taught Bible stories at home, and it was a sign of an educated person to have some idea what the Bible is about, even if you made no Christian profession — but not anymore! And in too many churches the Bible has ceased to be an item of congregational use. For the preacher to speak with Bible in hand, turning up and citing Scripture as he goes along, is nowadays an unusual event, and as a direct consequence his hearers have no Bible in their hands either, even when one is set before them in the pew rack. They have learned that they are not likely to need a Bible in order to follow the sermon. Some pastors who do engage in reading the text of Scripture, give the impression that their own speech is more highly to be valued than the Word of God; witness, for example, how often the pastor will say, “… if you have your Bible, open it to the third chapter of John’s Gospel.” Then fifteen to twenty minutes of pastoral “introduction” transpire, while the congregants quietly close their Bibles and wonder why they were told to open them. I know of several instances where, having once been told to “open your Bibles,” the Scripture was never read!
The Sunday school will probably boast a range of visual aids for topical instruction, and the stories taught will be mostly from the Bible, but the Bible itself in the teacher’s hand as authority and focus is missing more often, it seems, than not. The Bible remains the world’s bestseller, and no part of the human family has ever had so many accurate and attractive new translations to choose among as has the modern English-speaking West, nor so many dozens (yes, dozens!) of reliable study Bibles. Yet despite all this, it seems that on the whole the book of God is being less and less read. Bible moths today are few and far between.
But suppose one resolves before God to make the quest for life and health and peace through Jesus Christ one’s priority and to that end to become a latter-day Bible moth. How then should one view the Bible as one approaches it? To what wavelength of concentration and expectation should one’s mind be tuned?
In academic biblical study, where the main concern, according to the conventions of the professional guild, is with the anatomy of past facts and the history of past ideas, the state of scholarly opinion is the springboard from which one starts, and biblical languages, biblical history, biblical criticism (investigating the origins and sources of the canonical books), the historical understanding of each book, sentence by sentence, in its sociocultural context, and the varieties of biblical theology are the main agenda items. For those whose vocational role is to preach and teach the Bible, these disciplines are of major importance, even though their bearing on relational knowledge of God here and now is only indirect. But I am posing the question of approach from the standpoint of seekers and saints as such — persons, that is, for whom relational knowledge of God and the receiving of life, health and peace from Jesus Christ is what matters most. I will now address this question directly, answering it in a way that is different from and broader than (though not contrary to) the merely academic. Pulling together the threads of things that have been said in earlier chapters, I offer now a spectrum of seven points, each of which, I believe, highlights an aspect of the approach that is critical for the God-glorifying communion with Christ and enrichment from Christ that we all, I trust, are seeking.
1. A Library
First, think of the Bible as a library, a collection of sixty-six separate pieces of writing, some of them composite in themselves, one of them (the Psalter) consisting of 150 separate items. From the literary standpoint these books are a heterogeneous mix, histories and biographies rubbing shoulders with visions, sermons, poems, philosophical reflections, genealogies, statistics, rituals and much else. But the books are bound together by a common purpose and by an extraordinary unity of subject matter as they fulfill that common purpose. Their common purpose is to inform us about God and godliness and to draw us, one way or another, into a responsive life of faith, hope, love and praise. In light of the fact that these
books were written over a period of something like fifteen hundred years in a number of different cultures, the unity of their presentation of God and his ways is simply stunning. In terms of basic principles about God’s person, power and plan, humankind’s dignity and destiny, and the realities of God’s saving grace, everything in the sixty-six books converges. Amazing? Yes, but demonstrably true. Grasp, then, the diversity of the Bible within its unity and the unity of the Bible within its diversity.
Early in his career as a theologian, Karl Barth spoke of the “strange new world of the Bible” — the real, God-centered world that stands in stark contrast to the human-centered world that modern human beings, like their counterparts in Bible times, imagine instinctively, though improperly, that they occupy. In this strange new world God the Creator appears as God the Redeemer, actively furthering a great plan for recreating a race and restoring a cosmos that sin has spoiled. The backbone of the Bible is the narrative histories, from Genesis to Acts, telling of a covenant people, an exodus from captivity, a promised land, a monarchy that over the centuries became a focus of unfaithfulness, a national captivity and return from exile, a prophesied Savior who died and rose and reconstituted the covenant people in faith-union with himself, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to make the beginning of heaven’s life a matter of experience here on earth. The rest of the biblical material is linked to this backbone in terms of its content, just as your rib cage, the other bits and pieces of your skeleton, and your nervous and muscular systems are linked one way or another to your backbone. The Old Testament prophetic books and wisdom books and the New Testament epistles explain and apply the truths about God that are displayed in the history and tell us how to live in response to them. The Psalter models for us the practice of prayer and praise, complaint and celebration, and the book of Revelation gives visions of final victory when Christ comes again. Such is the organism of Bible teaching; such is the vision of the world’s story seen from God’s point of view on which the sixty-six books converge.
This convergence is in fact a pointer to the nature of the books as
revelation. Without in the least restraining or inhibiting the human factors in each compositional process, thereby diminishing the human quality of the work that resulted, God so guided and overruled the writing that the substance of what was written was his own true and trustworthy witness to himself, presented in the form of honest and well-meant witness to him by the human writers. This, as in prophecy and supremely in the incarnate life of the Son, God uses his gift to us of language to tell us things about himself. He is not the dumb God of philosophy since Kant, nor the feeble God of modern process theology, but the vocal Lord, sovereign in both speech and action. Words and deeds belong together in his self-disclosure. In his plan for world salvation through Christ he not only did what he intended, but both before and after the key events he spoke, using human language to tell his servants, and through them us, what was afoot and what had already been accomplished. Scripture might from this standpoint be labeled God’s logbook, his record of word decided on in advance and now definitively done. Such is the biblical revelation. The narratives, the explanations, the predictions, the mandatory and modeled responses all come to us as direct verbal instruction from the God we serve. So the ideal way to introduce readings from Scripture in church (or anywhere else, for that matter) is with the venerable formula “Hear the Word of God, as it is written in such-and-such a chapter of such-and-such a book.” For when we hear Scripture read, or read it for ourselves, it is God’s own utterance that we encounter, and we should never allow ourselves to think of it as anything less.
A common view in recent decades has been that though God is indeed the mighty Lord of history, he does not speak. What he does instead is illuminate the minds of good people so that they can guess more or less correctly the meaning of what he has been up to. So (it is argued) we should read Scripture as embodying a set of fairly shrewd guesses about God — guesses from which, however, we may allow ourselves to depart if we have sufficient reason, for after all no human guess has final authority. But this is wrong. The truer analogy is the requirement in Britain’s advanced driving test that you give the examiner a running commentary
on what you intend and foresee as you drive — why you are speeding up or slowing down, what hazards you detect and what action you are taking to meet these hazards and so on. God has acted like that: as he operated in history after the Fall to maintain justice, redeem sinners and set up his kingdom, so he spoke to his people in prophecy and in narrative, in commentary and in commandment, to make plain to them what he was doing, why he was doing it and what they and others should do about it; and in due course he prompted the recording of what he had said and shown so that it might be permanently and universally available. Holy Scripture is thus God’s self-testimony, and its substantive content is, as Calvin puts it, doctrina Dei — teaching given, first to last, by God himself. The sixty-six books that make it up are all supernatural in this sense, that though their production involved something like forty human writers, the primary author of each single one of them is God. It is of crucial importance that we be clear on this.
2. A Landscape
Second, see the Bible as a landscape, that is a panorama of human life. Not only is it teaching from God about God, but it is also a people book, narrating stories of good and evil, faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, spiritual blessing and spiritual disaster in the lives of some of the most vital, virile, forthright, fascinating people you can imagine. As we read their stories, we learn a steady flow of lessons about right and wrong ways to live; we are shown the moral and spiritual pitfalls that surround us and the triumphs in God that are possible for those who believe and do right; and we find ourselves encouraged, both outwardly and inwardly, to follow the good examples and avoid the bad ones. To explore the Bible from this point of view is absorbingly interesting and teaches many precious lessons for the managing of our own lives.
When people hear that the Bible is God’s teaching, they often jump to the conclusion that the really significant parts of it must be the doctrinal generalizations (in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Hebrews, for instance) and that the biographical material is unimportant by comparison.
So, for instance, they may review the life of Abraham in Genesis with eyes only for its teaching on justification by faith and God’s covenant of grace, plus its typical foreshadowing of Calvary at Mount Moriah, and they will miss altogether the lessons about faith and unbelief, fortitude and cowardice, patience and impatience, humility and boldness before God, spiritual immaturity and growth, and right and wrong ways of managing the marriage relationship, which are there for our learning in the story. The truth is that the Bible is jam-packed with narrative material about godly and godless behavior, and it is full of wisdom about the business of living, most notably (you would expect this) in the wisdom literature. Of the five wisdom books of the Old Testament, it has been classically said (I think by Oswald Chambers, though I cannot find the reference) that the Psalms will teach you how to pray, Proverbs how to live, Job how to suffer, the Song of Solomon how to love, and Ecclesiastes how to enjoy. That dictum seems to me wonderfully insightful, and it is totally reinforced by James, the New Testament wisdom writer, who speaks to all these themes most forcefully within his five brief chapters.
So the landscape of life in Scripture, in both its biographical and its philosophical presentation, offers us lessons about practical godliness in abundance. Study Bible people and Bible wisdom, then you will learn much about serving and pleasing God.
3. A Letter
Third, look upon the Bible as a letter addressed to you personally by the divine Lord. To do this is not soft sentimentality, warm but fuzzy; it is hard theology, thoroughly thought through. Let me explain.
What is a letter? It is a written document addressed to a particular person or persons, expressing to them the writer’s mind and thereby defining in some way the writer-reader relationship. There are business letters, love letters, circular letters, thank-you letters, begging letters, lawyer’s letter and many other kinds. The New Testament contains apostolic pastoral letters (Paul to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians, for example, whom he knew, and to the Romans, whom he did not know;
John to the surviving community from which the Gnostic separatists had just walked out; and so on). These pastoral letters, sent out in love as a gesture of concern by a writer with authority, are the biblical items with which the Bible as a whole is most directly comparable. How so? In the fullness of his foreknowledge and the wisdom of his providence, God has so designed Holy Scripture that it comes to each of its readers on every occasion as a communication tailored to that reader’s need, addressed to that reader’s head and heart, and asking that reader for a specific response to what the divine writer is saying. For the breathtaking truth is that Holy Scripture in its entirety is the Word of God directed personally to everyone whom it reaches in order to set up, deepen and enrich a personal love relationship between the divine sender and the human recipient.
You have a Bible, and in the front of it your name is written. Think of that as if the Lord himself had written it, as your human correspondents write your name on the envelopes in which they send you their letters. Think of your Bible as a gift received from the hand of the Lord Jesus, with the words “Here is your handbook for following me.” Think of each page as having the letters RSVP written at the head of it. A charming misprint on the contents page of a book I wrote long ago told the world that RSVP means Revised Standard Version, but of course it doesn’t; RSVP is a request in French — répondez s’il vous plaît, reply if you please. That is what God, who gave us the Word and in whose presence we read it, says to us in effect all the time. The promised life and health and peace will not become ours without an appropriate response of thought, thanksgiving, trust, hope, praise, prayer, self-searching, repentance or whatever to the things that we read.
It is not always noticed that the thought of the Bible as personal address is already present in the famous passage where Paul reminds Timothy of the source, function and fruitfulness of Holy Scripture. Its presence, however, becomes evident if one follows the flow of thought. Paul is telling young Timothy that in the face of constant adverse pressures he must “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Tim 3:14), and he gives him two reasons why. The first is “because you
know those from whom you learned it” — his grandmother Eunice, his mother, Lois, and Paul himself (1:5, 13), all of whom should have credibility in Timothy’s eyes because of the power of faith he had seen in them. The second reason is that “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:15). The credibility of the Scriptures should be beyond doubt for Timothy, since “all Scripture is God-breathed” (3:16) — in other words, was produced by the Holy Spirit, who is God’s creative breath. Says Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” — a statement in the last words of which Christian readers rightly find a reference to the Holy Spirit, whose very name (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) has “breath” among its meanings. Scripture too is a product of the Holy Spirit, and its divine origin guarantees its truth and trustworthiness in all the affirmations that it makes.
Furthermore, God-breathed Scripture, says Paul, is given precisely for the purpose of functioning as a means of spiritual and vocational formation: it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (3:16-17). And “man of God” on Paul’s lips means “You, Timothy!” The apostle is not generalizing but particularizing. “Man of God” was an Old Testament designation for a prophet, God’s messenger; Paul applied it to Timothy directly in 1 Timothy 6:11, and here he uses it the same way, to remind Timothy that as one entrusted with the truth of the gospel he stands in the prophetic succession, where fidelity to the message given is virtue number one. Paul is thus telling Timothy: “God wrote the Scriptures for you as much as for anybody; he addresses them specifically to you, as he does to every reader of them; he wrote them of set purpose to shape you for the service he had in mind for you; he wants you to be faithful and fruitful as a minister of the gospel.” And from that point Paul sweeps straight on to insist that Timothy must at all times express his continuing Bible-based conviction about Jesus by consistent, Bible-based proclamation of Jesus: “Preach the Word” (4:2), that is,
proclaim the Christ of the Scriptures according to the Scriptures. So Timothy’s ongoing ministry of the gospel must be his personal response to the charge not only of Paul in this letter but of God himself addressing Timothy throughout the biblical text.
In this passage Paul was speaking, of course, of what we call the Old Testament, which was all the Bible that he and Timothy had, but his reasoning applies to all Scripture as such, so when we relate it to ourselves, we may properly extend it to cover the New Testament also and thus the whole Christian Bible.
Paul’s words here might be said to present the Bible as a business letter, dealing with work to be done and what it may cost, and this is indeed one side of the truth. God is businesslike in choosing and training leaders and preparing them for their tasks; all Christian service is “the king’s business” (Dan 8:27); Timothy would have done well to admonish himself in writing, as did William Perkins the Puritan, “Thou art a minister of the Word: Mind thy business.” But the other side of the truth is that just as the Bible is not an open letter to people in general but a word of specific address to each particular reader, so it is not just a business letter but is also a love letter, one in which God’s redeeming love, plus a loving invitation to avail oneself of love’s gifts, is the focal theme.
We take love letters very seriously. We love to receive them, and they fascinate us. We read them over and over, trying to squeeze out of them the last drop of meaning that the lover who wrote them put into them. Sometimes the writer’s words of love affect us so poignantly as to take our breath away. I am bold to tell you that if we read the Bible seriously as God’s love letter, this will be our experience time and time again. Start now, and see if I am not right.
4. A Listening Post
Fourth, think of the Bible as a listening post where you go to hear the voice of God. This thought follows on from the last.
Listening posts have long been key items in spy stories, as perhaps they have been in the world of real espionage. They are the places where the
hero (or villain) can listen in to the bug placed in the villain’s (or hero’s) hotel room or get a message on a private telephone that nobody knows about except himself. In describing the Holy Scripture as a listening post I am pointing to its instrumentality as the means whereby we are enabled to understand the mind of God toward us, as I have been assuming all along that we actually can do. That is what I want to speak about now.
The key truth here is that our hearing of the specific things God has to say to us at this moment begins with our overhearing what he said to others long ago — to Abraham and Moses, for instance, by direct revelation, or to Israel via Moses and the prophets, or to the Romans or Corinthians or Philippians via the apostle Paul. In the Psalter we overhear David and others at prayer; in the Gospels we overhear Jesus talking to his disciples and to the Pharisees and to the woman at the well and to many others besides, in addition to overhearing his own prayers on a number of occasions. All this material is normative, one way or another, for forming our idea of the nature and character of God and coming to understand his will, work and ways, his purposes, proposals and principles of judgment and action. We saw earlier that from one standpoint, that of telling God’s story, the narratives of Scripture are the backbone to which all the didactic revelations from God and about God are attached. From the present standpoint, however, that of grasping God’s mind, God’s messages are the backbone (think of them as so many vertebrae, all joined by the spinal cord of God’s comprehensive cosmic plan and purpose) and the narratives of divine action in creation or control whereby God has fulfilled his word all come in as indicators of the real meaning of the messages themselves. As we watch God dealing with his world and with particular people in it, according to his words of purpose and promise, or of warning and threat, the significance of those words becomes plain, and increasingly we overhear with understanding. At our listening post we listen, we hear and we learn.
As we have already noted, the Bible must be interpreted rightly if we are truly to hear its message. Just as in the spy stories you cannot hear anything intelligible if the phone in your listening post is being scrambled,
so you will not get an accurate grasp of God’s mind from a Bible that is being misinterpreted. About this, however, our present discussion requires us to say only two things.
Interpretation through the text itself. My first comment is that on the face of it the Bible is self-interpreting. Every one of its sixty-six books, we may confidently say, was written to be understood by its own first readers, and that means that we can understand it, too, just as we can understand the secular classics written in Latin and Greek. As with the classics, so with the Bible: every now and then we need to have a bit of historical background filled in for us, or we will get hold of the wrong end of the stick. But most of the time these documents, being written by persons with hearts and minds like ours, yield up their meaning to anyone who reads them with ordinary care.
Even enigmatic books like the visionary sections of Daniel and Revelation, which seem to us to be written in code, made sense to their original readers, they are in fact written in an idiom called “apocalyptic,” a highly imaginative, imagistic, symbolic style that had been developed for dramatizing the conflict between God and chaotic tyrannical evil. The apocalyptic idiom of these books was well understood by their original readers and is well explained in present-day commentaries. The wise traveler, heading for foreign parts, reckons at least to buy a phrase book and start learning the lingo, and those who want to explore the exotic portions of Daniel Revelation would be well advised to behave similarly — though it should be said that the exotic visions in both books are only orchestrating and reinforcing the essential lessons taught in Daniel 1-6 and Revelation 1-3.
Most of the time, however, the Bible is written in ordinary, straightforward language with a clear, logical flow; the big and central things that it has to teach us are repeated and presented over and over in many different ways; and the sixty-six books are constantly throwing light on each other. So anyone who declares the Bible to be obscure is in fact bearing witness wither to ignorance of the text or to some sort of blockage in the mind. There is nothing intrinsically puzzling about the Bible as a whole.
In pre-Reformation days the leaders of the Western church thought it a dreadful thing to let ordinary laypeople read the Bible. Such readers, they thought, were bound to get things wrong and end up challenging the church for not endorsing their own mistakes. The Bible was held to be a very difficult book, which none could properly understand without official guidance, and the Lollards (John Wycliffe’s followers, who treasured their vernacular Bible and affirmed the supremacy of Scripture and the right of all to read and interpret it for themselves) were actively persecuted as heretics. Against this the Reformers declared, over and over, “If you find the Bible difficult, the darkness is not in the Word but in you. You need to go to God and acknowledge that sin has blinded your mind, and ask him to remove that blindness and enable you to see what is plain and clear in the pages of God’s book.” Surely they were right, and surely the encouragement that following Vatican II, four centuries later, the Roman Catholic leadership has begun to give its laity to read their Bibles is a step forward.
Interpretation through the Christian heritage. My second comment is that, on the face of it, interpreters of Scripture should be aware of and attuned to the church’s heritage of biblical study and exposition. For almost two thousand years the Holy Spirit has been teaching God’s people truth and wisdom from the Scriptures, and it would be both ungrateful and stupid to ignore these resources. Did you know that Augustine and Chrysostom in the fifth century were fine biblical preachers? that Luther and Calvin and their peers established modern standards of biblical exposition? and that Calvin’s commentaries on most of the Bible are of a quality that keeps him up with the leaders in the world of biblical scholarship today? Did you know that Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible (nearly three hundred years old and still in print) skims the cream off more than a century of deep biblical exposition by Puritan writers? that first-class biblical elucidations fill the pages of theologians like John Own, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Charles Hodge and Gerrit Berkouwer? and that more reverent, scholarly, well-informed and reliable commentaries and commentary series are in print today for
English readers than were available in any previous generation? Do you know how wide is the range of biblical truth that the currently available sermons of men like Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones and books by men such as Arthur Pink, John Stott, R.C. Sproul and James Montgomery Boice actually cover, crystallize, predigest and bring down to earth for us? The resources are vast, and the extent to which they mesh in with each other is amazing; why then do we not make more use of them?
There is, of course, nothing infallible about any tradition of teaching; intellectual sanctification is no more perfect in this life than its moral counterpart is, and anyone who is usually right can still be wrong about this or that particular item. All expositions of Scripture must finally be tested by the Scriptures they seek to expound; the Bible must always have the last word. But anyone who ignores the help in understanding that this rich heritage can give is bound to end up with an unduly narrow, and perhaps actually eccentric, view of many things. And that will be, to say the least, a pity.
Problems have been created among God’s people from the first by men and women whom we may fitly describe as the Pied Pipers of religion: magnetic, confident, masterful teachers who appeal to the Bible but whose expositions are eccentric. The pattern is familiar. They claim superior enlightenment; they gain a following of captivated admirers who treat them as virtually infallible; they found their own organizations, associations and churches; they dismiss corrective criticism as intellectually perverse, spiritually second-rate and not worth bothering with; and they lead many out of the Christian mainstream into a closed-off, sectarian way of life.
A recent example was the first half century of the Worldwide Church of God, founded and run by Herbert W. Armstrong on an antitrinitarian, anti-Christendom, Anglo-Israelite, Saturday-sabbath, Jewish-festival-calendar, end-times-oriented, prediction-focused reading of the Bible, largely legalistic and shackled to pre-Christian patterns of life. Unusually for a body of this type, after Armstrong’s death in 1986 there was a total
rethinking, and the WCG has been led by the Bible’s own self-interpretation, which its ongoing leadership could no longer negate, to become a generically evangelical Protestant community, living, as its own spokesmen now insist, under God’s new covenant in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ruth Tucker tells the story in Christianity Today, July 15, 1996.)
But most groups with Pied Piper origins continue as they began — or, at least, claim to be continuing as they began, according to the direction set by their founder(s), never mind what actual changes may in fact be made as they move along. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are examples of this. Such is the unhappy legacy of the pied pipers who decline to get help in their own biblical understanding from the church’s heritage of biblical faith.
The paragraphs above would be misunderstood, however, if they were read as an attempt to discourage believers from reading and rereading the text of Scripture as such, as if reading other people’s expositions would be a better option. Some, indeed, do follow the path of reading only what others say that the Bible says — and they lose by it. Those who regularly read the text itself, seeking always to know God better and to grow in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, find that again and again biblical statements leap out at them and speak to their hearts as from God directly. Within the limits and outlook established by the “fly-on-the-wall” method of interpretation that was described above, those who approach the Bible as their listening post and listen for God as they read it really do hear the divine voice. (I mean, they are made aware of particular things that God is saying to them about his relationship with them and their relationship with him.) Which leads us on to the next point in our analysis of the Christian way of approaching the Bible.
5. A Law
Fifth, be clear that Holy Scripture, which as we have already seen, comes to us from God as a library, a landscape, a letter and a listening post, is also a law for us — the law of God, which is his map of the ideal life, and as such his syllabus for the saints. This is law in the sense of the Hebrew
word torah, that is, affectionate instruction on behavior as from a father to his family, given in the expectation that the children will take it to heart and faithfully obey their father’s directives. Moderns, hearing the word law, at once think of the law of the land, a formidable set of requirements and restrictions put in place by remote bodies (Congress, Parliament, the Supreme Court) or by dictatorial governors with whom ordinary citizens have no direct links. The law of the Lord, however, differs from the law of the land — any land — in at least two major ways.
To start with, it contains more than bare formal requirements and restrictions; it includes promises alongside its precepts, and wisdom about life’s meaning and purpose and about the plan and work of God alongside both. Torah covers everything that God sees fit to tell us for his glory and our good, about creation and providence, about sin and salvation, about present pressures and future hopes, as well as about right and wrong ways of behaving. When we realize that all that is set forth in Scripture is God’s torah and that the context of all his commandments is his covenant of grace, we can better understand why the psalmists say: “The law of the LORD is perfect reviving the soul . . . . The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart” (Ps 19:7-8); and “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Ps 119:97; see also verses 47, 127, 163, 165); and “Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD” (Ps 1:1-2). May the fullness of this blessing become ours!
Then, secondly, as was said above, God gives his servants his law within a family frame. It was so when Moses, in his role as prophet — that is, spokesman for God, relaying revelation — first declared God’s law to the Israelites. It came to them at Sinai from God who had already taken them to be his family and had earlier sent Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me’ ” (Ex 4:22-23; see also Deut 32:6; Is 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:9; Hos 11:1; Mal 2:10). It remains so under the New Testament order of things. Thus the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus appears as the new Moses restating God’s torah for the kingdom era then beginning (God’s new age, as we might call it), has at its heart the proclamation of God as heavenly
Father of all Jesus’ disciples. Matthew 6 contains a dozen explicit references to God as Father, and the child-Father relationship is the theme of the whole chapter. Pharisees and Judaizers seem to have thought of the law in its precepts and prohibitions as a means of winning God’s favor on a merit basis, but both Testaments view it as a family code for those whom God has graciously taken into his favor and made his children already. Now, as God’s covenant family, enjoying his pardon and peace, they must honor and glorify their heavenly Father by living to his praise, and God sets before them his torah to show them how this is to be done.
Earlier we saw that the backbone of the Bible is its history of redemption, on which hang all its teachings about worship, lifestyle and service. When biblical behavior is our focus of inquiry, therefore, we should always interpret God’s imperatives from within this framework. That means understanding them as pointing always to the ideal form of a believer’s life, in which the basic reality is the desire to love, exalt and glorify God for his mercy and to please him by loving others for his sake, modeling toward them the love God has shown to oneself. Theological logic, therefore, leads us to conclude that biblical commandments mean not only “do this, and don’t do that,” which was all that the scribes and Pharisees thought they meant, but also “be (that is, become) the kind of person who does this and doesn’t do that.” This is a dimension of the law’s meaning that the Jewish pundits seemed to miss entirely but that Christians properly highlight whenever they speak of Jesus as the law incarnate and embodied and go on to proclaim the power of the Holy Spirit to transform believers into the Savior’s image.
It needs to be said, before we move on, that living by biblical torah can be costly. Society will press Christians to do things that God’s law forbids and to omit things that God’s law requires. Christian nonconformity to others’ ways will be felt as an insult and a threat. In the early centuries Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire because they would not join in emperor worship. Persecution is rife today in Muslim and Marxist countries where toleration is not part of the culture and Christians are seen as subversive of national goals. In the West, Christian
physicians who will not do abortions are marginalized in their own profession, and in many circles Christians who still see homosexual practice as sin are, to say the least, disliked. Christians, however, must obey God rather then humans when there is a clash (see Acts 4:19; 5:29), and if that means trouble, so be it: we have to learn to commit our cause to God and stand steady, seeing the situation as a testing of our faith. But living by Scripture as one’s law in this way can cost a great deal, and we must face that fact realistically.
Further, it needs to be said that living by biblical torah can be disturbing. It has been said that either the Bible will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from the Bible. What is meant is that the Bible will jolt us to the roots of our being by zeroing in on our weaknesses, shortcomings, vices, disobediences and neglects and will sensitize our consciences to the displeasure of God and the imperative need to make changes. At such times we will find that the temptation to stop taking the Bible seriously will be very strong indeed. Jesus pictures the price that the changes may involve by speaking of the cutting off of a hand or foot or the gouging out of one’s eye (Mt 5:29-30; Mk 9:43-48): he is envisaging action that in prospect looks like a diminishing of one’s life. The renouncing of addictive sin always appears like this. That the fruit of such renouncing is a truer freedom and a larger life is something we do not discover till we have taken the plunge and done it, looking to God to enable us to maintain our decision once we have made it.
C.S. Lewis illustrates this unforgettably in his fantasy The Great Divorce, where the lizard of lust sits on a wraith’s shoulder telling him he cannot live without it while an angel asks leave to kill it; and once the wraith consents and it is killed, there is a transforming resurrection whereby wraith and lizard become rider and hose, galloping gloryward. The resurrection-out-of-death principle that flows from Calvary guarantees that all the renouncings of evil for which Scripture calls will sooner or later bring enrichment of life. But as Lewis makes a point of showing, the renouncing may hurt acutely at the time of doing it, and the battle for obedience may be far from easy to win.
Also it needs to be said that living by biblical torah can be very humbling. Pride is the sinful infection of all our hearts, and to a degree we are all proud of our opinions. But if, as we let Scripture instruct us, we find it teaching something different from what we have hitherto assumed and contradicting what, as we say, we “like to think” (ominous phrase!), then it is so much the worse for our former thoughts, and we have to change our minds. To admit that you were wrong can be painful, but those who take Scripture as law for their lives must be prepared for this.
6. A Light
Sixth, always approach Holy Scripture as Psalm 119:105 in effect directs when it says: “You word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” See in your mind’s eye the picture; never get away from it. You have to take a journey across open country, and it is dark. Traveling in the dark across open country — rough country, too — you are at risk. The easiest thing in the world will be to lose the path, stumble and fall over some obstacle that in the dark you could not see, and do yourself serious mischief. The likelihood of your reaching your destination in the dark is small. However much you squint your eyes and glare into the blackness, you are still unable to see the way to go. There is a path — you know that — but without a light you cannot hope to keep to it. You need a light (it was oil lamps in the ancient world, but think of a flashlight as what you need today) — and God in his mercy puts one into your hand. You shine it in front of you, and you can see the next bit of the track, so that step by step you know where to put your foot. You walk without stumbling; you follow the path; you move ahead toward your goal. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
One of the museums of biblical archaeology, so I am told, displays a little oil lamp made with a hook in its base so that it cannot stand upright. Archaeologists puzzled for some time over it until someone saw that the purpose of the hook must have been to fasten the lamp to the strap of a sandal, so that the traveler would have his lamp at his feet — actually on his foot — to guide his steps through the dark. Exactly! That is the
psalmist’s picture to perfection.
What does the picture mean? It means that a Christian can always find in the Bible guidance as to the next step in obedience, whatever perplexities his or her life situation may currently present. Walking by the light of Scripture is not like walking by daylight, any more than shining your flashlight is like the rising of the sun. Beyond the little circle of vision that your flashlight gives you, the darkness remains, and it is through this continuing darkness that you travel. You are regularly in the dark, in the everyday slang sense, unable to find meaning in the things that happen around you. But Scripture enables you to see each next step that you must take, so on you are able to go.
All of us, I am bold to say, walk through life with a quiverful of unanswered questions about the ways of God. Why this? Why that? What is really going on here? We don’t know, for God does not tell us. All he tells us, as we consult his Word, is how to cope Christianly with this and that as it comes and to get on with our life of worship and service through it all. You may find yourself similarly placed when you drive a car. You cannot imagine why so many people on the road behave in such strange ways. But you know the principles of watching for hazards, driving defensively and driving correctly despite the oddities of other motorists’ behavior, and so you are able to move along despite everything. The Bible leads us across the rough country of life in a comparable way, not giving us answers to all the theoretical questions we like to ask (Did God create life on other planets? Why did God allow the Holocaust? Will anyone be saved without knowing about Jesus Christ? and so on) but enabling us to follow the path of fidelity, wisdom and righteousness as Jesus and Paul and so many more did before us. We must learn to come to Scripture in that healthy state of mind in which we have given up on our own wisdom and are vividly conscious of needing light from God to guide us through life’s problems. A sense of one’s own inner darkness and need of God’s illuminating instruction is the best possible preparation for exploring one’s Bible and discovering what it has to say to you — that is, what light God has to give you through it — at each point in life’s journey. I try to maintain
that sense, and I hope you do too.
A very striking New Testament passage makes a point parallel to that of the psalm, namely, 2 Peter 1:19-21. Having referred to his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration as warrant for his assertion that what he had taught about “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 16) was fact, not fantasy, Peter moves on to say, literally in the Greek, “And we have something surer, the prophetic word [of the Old Testament].” Most commentators and all modern translators take this to mean that Peter’s experience of seeing Jesus’ glory confirmed the prophetic word about him, written centuries before. But since Peter says “surer” (adjective), not “confirmed” (passive participle), and since the current Jewish view was that prophecy was always more reliable than any vision or voice from heaven, it is better to take Peter as saying in effect: “The prophetic Scriptures are surer than any experience I have to share, so I appeal to those Scriptures to confirm what I have just told you.” This is right in line with the very strong assertion that Peter takes time out to make in verse 21 — “prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Note now his statement about the prophetic word of Scripture in the second half of verse 19 — “you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The word for “dark” implies murky and messy. Peter identifies as the fallen human heart the dark place where the day must dawn (that is, where firm conviction about “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” — in other words, his divinity, mediatorial role and reign, present requirements of moral and spiritual advance, and future return to judgment — needs to be established). It is there that murk and mess are found, in the form of unbelief, misbelief, uncertainty, bewilderment, confusion, apathy and distortion, not only about the person and place of Jesus but also about the Christian way to live (see chapters 2 and 3 of Peter’s letter), and there that the light of Scripture needs to shine to give clarity, stability and discernment of the proper path. So — “pay attention to it!” Let the light do its work!
7. A Lifeline
Is it fanciful and strained to affirm that the seventh category for our approach to Holy Scripture should be that of a lifeline? I do not think so. A lifeline is a rope to which a drowning person clings while being pulled ashore. Drowning is a condition of being invaded and overwhelmed by water, which gets into your lungs so that you cannot breathe. Metaphorically, you can be said to drown in sorrow or grief or any other invasive mood that disrupts normal personal life. Now we are surrounded today by people who are drowning inwardly in the raging waters of hopelessness. The proverb rightly says that while there’s life there’s hope, but the deeper truth is that only while there’s hope is there life: when the light of hope goes out, and there really seems nothing to live for anymore, life itself becomes a killing burden. We are so made that we live very much in our future, and the desolation of feeling that there is nothing worthwhile to come, nothing good ever to be expected again, eats the soul away like a corrosive acid. To moderns drowning in hopelessness, disappointed, disillusioned, despairing, emotionally isolated, bitter and aching inside, Bible truth comes as a lifeline, for it is future-oriented and hope-centered throughout. The God of the Bible, whom Christians know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit united in a shared divine life, is both a very present help in trouble and a very potent hope in times of despair. The triune God, we might say, is the lifeguard, who comes in person to the place where we are drowning in order to rescue us; the Holy Scriptures are the lifeline God throws us in order to ensure that he and we stay connected while the rescue is in progress; and the hope that the Scriptures bring us arrests and reverses the drowning experience here and now, generating inward vitality and renewed joy and banishing forever the sense of having the life choked out of us as the waves break over us.
That the Bible throughout is a book of hope is not always appreciated, but it is so. From the giving of the promise that the woman’s seed will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), the Old Testament constantly looks forward to great restorative things that God will do for his people and his world. The New Testament nails down this hope by its repeated assurances
that the Lord Jesus Christ, our divine sin-bearer and present heavenly friend, is with us by his Spirit to keep us sane and safe till he returns to re-create the cosmos and lead us all into unimaginable endless glory with himself. Meantime, he gives our lives permanent and satisfying meaning by making us his servants, with jobs to do, and that is a relationship that will continue forever. In a world in which the individual’s natural sense of significance is so largely snuffed out, such a hope is a lifeline indeed.
The deep-level story of the twentieth century is of hope destroyed. In 1900 the hope was that the twentieth would be “the Christian century” (the title of a liberal Christian periodical that was founded to chart its course). The twentieth century was expected to see unprecedented Christian advance. The church would spread, the ethnic religions would crumble, all humankind would be Christianized, and the kingdom of God would come on earth. These hopes failed to reckon with the titanic energy of human sin and the spiritual shortcomings of liberal Christianity and have come to nothing. What happened was the opposite of what was looked for. The twentieth century saw two nightmarish world wars, each followed by a spectacular failure to win the peace and make militarism a thing of the past. Wars continue. Meanwhile, Christianity in all its forms has lost its grip on the West, which now leads the world in materialistic, relativistic and hedonistic secularization. The size of its arms industry is the measure of its cynicism; the size of its abortion industry is the measure of its paganism. The global culture that has established itself is not a Christian ideology but a technological monster, raping the planet for financial profit and generating horrendous ecological prospects for our grandchildren. The great Asian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, have come to new life to oppose global Christianity. Our era has turned into an age of atrocity, in which the barbarian obscenities of terrorism, genocide, torture and religious and political persecution have reestablished themselves on a grander scale than ever before. The prospectus of an overseas hotel catering to English-speaking tourists declared: “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for” — a classic example of
not saying quite what you mean, so that your words become a joke. But anyone who said that the twentieth century leaves us nothing to hope for would undoubtedly be expressing exactly what was meant, and what was meant would be true, and the very opposite of a joke. At such a time the Bible’s message of personal and cosmic hope beyond the present order of things is lifeline for us indeed.
Scripture and Hope
Four and a half centuries ago Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his colleagues, discerning the crucial link between Scripture and hope, composed for the Anglican prayer book the following petition:
Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Several points should be noted with regard to this prayer.
First, it is set for use each second Sunday in Advent, when Romans 15:4-13 is the New Testament epistle reading that follows it. It echoes the epistle; it is in fact the message of the epistle distilled into petitionary form. This demonstrates to us the right use of the Bible in the devotional life. God’s Word comes to us so that we may know how to speak our word to him. God approaches us humans in and by his Word, disclosing himself there; we worshipers take that word of revelation and turn it into praise, prayer and adoration as we approach God in response. Christian prayer in essence is never blind groping but always builds intelligently on what God himself says.
Second, the prayer echoes 2 Timothy 3:16 as well as Romans 15:4 in affirming that all Holy Scripture has in the providence of God been written for our learning — learning, that is, on the part of every congregation and individual in any and every age. So in the life both of the church and of the individual, the whole Bible is to be used. We all tend to limit
our Bible reading to our own favorite passages or books, and this can lead to inadequate views of God and unbalanced spiritual development. At one time many Christians possessed a promise box, packed with divine promises from Scripture on separate slips of paper, to be drawn out at random as a kind of pick-me-up when inspiration and encouragement were felt to be needed. So far, so good, but should these saints not also have had a precept box, or even a threat box, beside their promise box to counterbalance this one-sided practice? In any case, boxed texts cannot set before us anything like the full sweep of Scripture. Nor should we restrict our biblical diet, as some do, to a few familiar psalms and the four Gospels. No doubt there is in any one of these portions of Holy Writ more than we will ever fathom, but we are less likely to plumb their depths if we isolate them from the rest of God’s revelation. By all means let us read and reread our favorite passages as often as we want to, but all Scripture should be regularly read as well.
Third, this prayer tells us that we who are literate should not only read Scripture for ourselves as well as hear it read in church but should mark, learn and inwardly digest it. A progression of intensity in application is being outlined here. We are to read Scripture attentively and retentively. Learning by rote — that is, memorizing — has gone out of fashion, but we can hardly afford to do without it. Bishop Nicholas Ridley, one of the English Reformation martyrs, looked back to the days when “I learned without book almost all Paul’s epistles . . . Of which study, although in time a great part did depart from me, yet the sweet smell thereof I trust I shall carry into heaven; for the profit thereof I think I have felt in all my life time ever after.” Marking and learning the Scriptures (that is, taking full note of them and appreciating their full weight) requires some form of memorization; then masticating them (the first step toward inwardly digesting them) requires meditation (probing imagination, prayerful reflection and personal application); and absorbing them into one’s spiritual system requires appetite — a constant craving to know God and his truth.
Addictive drugs stimulate the appetite they satisfy in a way that undermines character, producing instability and desensitizing conscience.
The Holy Scriptures, by contrast, stimulate the appetite they satisfy in a way that fortifies character, producing a concentrated focus on seeking God’s highest and best. It is a striking fact of Christian experience everywhere that the Bible feeds not only the hungry heart but the hunger itself, constantly increasing our appetite to know more of God and hence our passion to dig more deeply into his Word. We see this in the psalmist, to whom God’s words were sweeter than honey (Ps 119:103) and whose longing for God’s commandments — that is, for insight into them and fulfillment of them — nagged at his heart as hunger and thirst nag at our bodily consciousness (see vv. 18, 20, 123, 131).
Fourth, the prayer tells us that “comfort” from Scripture sustains Christians in their hope that unfailing present grace will lead them on to unfading eternal glory. “Comfort” here carries the strong, sixteenth-century, King James Version sense drawn from the Latin verb confortare, which means “make strong.” Comfort of this sort is not the soothing that ends tension and makes you relax but the strengthening that comes from encouragement that energizes and puts new heart into you. The Bayeux tapestry celebrating the Norman conquest of England depicts King Harold urging his troops forward at the Battle of Hastings, and confortat (comforts!) is the verb used in the caption. Encouragement, the majority rendering in modern versions of the English Bible, is the word that best expresses what Paul meant when in Romans 15:4 he wrote of the paraklesis of the Scripture, and also what Cranmer meant when he echoed this phrase in the prayer, using comfort for the purpose.
To illustrate the power of Scripture as a lifeline that sustains hope, let me be autobiographical for a moment. I do not think of my experience as having any special significance except to me, but I would like to share it because it happened. For fifteen years I worked to fulfill a vision of evangelical quickening in England through theological education, spiritual formation, pastoral enrichment, profound preaching, wise evangelism, functional Christian unity and every-member ministry in local congregations — a vision generated by the type of pure biblical theology that some label Puritan Calvinism. Put like that, of course, this vision sounds grandiose to a fault, and though I retain my
hold on it — or, rather, it retains its hold on me — I am not here concerned to defend it against its critics. I simply record that after fifteen years of actively promoting it came several years during which, through what people with other visions did in perfectly good faith to block, more or less directly, the things I was after, I lost all the vantage points I had had for implementing the purposes that the vision dictated. I found myself marginalized, isolated and required to work to unfulfilling and, I thought, flawed agendas, in a manner that made me think of the Israelites having to make bricks for Pharaoh; and for political reasons I was not free to say what I thought about this state of affairs. Outwardly appreciated, at least by some, as a useful Christian performer, I lived, like Moses in Midian, with frustration in my heart, wondering what God, who as I believed gave the vision in the first place, could possibly be up to. The Bible, however, kept assuring me that God knows his business, so even though I expected to soldier on where I was till retirement, I had hope.
During those years my spiritual education was proceeding. Here are the main lessons that God through his Word hammered into my heart.
1. Goodwill — I should not get bitter or lapse into self-pity or spend time complaining or angling for sympathy. God was using my ministry, and I was forbidden to get fixated on my frustrations.
2. Hope — I was not to become cynical or apathetic about the vision I had been given or to abandon it because there was no immediate way of advancing it. God is never in a hurry, and waiting in hope is a Christian discipline.
3. Faithfulness — As husband, father, teacher, honorary assistant pastor and occasional author, I had plenty each day to get on with, and I could not honor God by slackness and negligence, whatever discontents I was carrying around inside me.
4. Compassion — Clearly I was being taught to empathize more deeply with the many Christians, lay and ordained, male and female, who live with various kinds of disappointments and thus were in the same boat as myself.
5. Humility — I must never forget that God is supreme and important, and I am neither, and he can manage very well without me whenever he chooses to do so.
God alone knows how far I managed to live out these lessons, but there was no lack of clarity as he presented them to me from the Scriptures.
In due course things changed. With clear guidance from inner conviction and outward circumstances, both biblically judged, my wife and I emigrated, and today I follow the gleam of the original vision of reformation and revival in a larger world than England. Tabasco sauce (often imitated, never duplicated, as its labels say) gains its flavor from the oak barrels in which it matures. I suspect that those final years in England were a sort of oak barrel period for me, but I leave that for others to decide.
There are many things about my life that I do not know and do not expect to know till the books are opened. The mother of a school friend was clairvoyant, though as a Christian she wished she was not, and in any case she was not always able to tell her genuine second sight from her own wishful thinking. Before I was a believer, she surprised and, I confess, amused me by assuring me that I would end up in the Christian ministry. I remember her also admonishing me in those far-off days that I should need to remember the proverbial wisdom that Kipling versified in the line “he travels the fastest who travels alone.” Her first word was verified; whether the second has been I cannot tell as yet. But I have totally verified the wisdom of David’s words in Psalm 27:14 — “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” — and so far as ongoing hope is concerned, truths I keep meeting in Scripture have taken me back over and over again before and since the years of frustration, to words of Anna Waring that have been in my heart since I learned them as a student more than fifty years ago:
In Heavenly Love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear,
And safe is such confiding,
For nothing changes here.
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid,
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed?
Wherever He may guide me,
No want shall turn me back;
My Shepherd is beside me,
And nothing can I lack.
His wisdom ever waketh,
His sight is never dim, —
He knows the way He taketh,
And I will walk with Him.
Green pastures are before me,
Which yet I have not seen;
Bright skies will soon be o’er me,
Where the dark clouds have been.
My hope I cannot measure,
My path to life is free,
My Savior has my treasure,
And He will walk with me.
The Bible a lifeline? It has certainly been so for me, and I hope it will prove itself similarly so for everyone who ever reads this book.
A Most Precious Thing
I often make reference in public to the words set to be spoken by the moderator of the Church of Scotland in the British coronation service as he hands the new monarch the Bible. He calls it “the most valuable thing that this world affords, . . . wisdom . . . the royal law . . . the lively oracles of God.” The goal of this book has been to confirm that estimate and to bring my readers to the point at which, with John Newton, their hearts say:
Precious Bible! what a treasure
Does the Word of God afford!
All I want for life or pleasure,
Food and medicine, shield and sword;
Let the world account me poor —
Having this, I need no more.
Those who have reached this point will also find their hearts saying, with John Burton :
Holy Bible, book Divine,
Precious treasure, thou art mine;
Mine to tell me whence I came;
Mine to teach me what I am.
Mine to chide me when I rove;
Mine to shew a Saviour’s love;
Mine art thou to guide my feet;
Mine to judge, condemn, acquit.
Mine to comfort in distress;
If the Holy Spirit bless;
Mine to shew, by living faith,
Man can triumph over death.
Mine to tell of joys to come,
And the rebel sinner’s doom;
Holy Bible, book Divine,
Precious treasure, thou art mine.
Though not outstanding as poetry, these verses of Newton and Burton are outstanding expressions of the Bible-moth Christianity that I write to advocate. Bible-moth Christianity is, so I urge, the truest, deepest, strongest sort of Christianity, the sort that knows most about the supernatural life into which the new birth brings us and the sort that has most power to stand against the onrush of secularity that we face today. Western Christianity has become superficial and shallow: we do not give ourselves time to soak ourselves in Scripture; and stunted spiritual development, which includes an undervaluing of the Bible, is the unhappy result. We need to be clear that, other things being equal, it is the Bible-moth Christians, those who eat up the Scriptures on a regular basis, who are likely to achieve most for our Lord Jesus Christ in the future, just as it was Bible-moth Christians
who achieved most for him in the past.
Will we see in these days a return to Bible-moth Christianity, in which the precious treasure of God’s written Word is honored for what it is and used as it should be for life and health and peace? As Martin Luther King had his dream of an America freed from racism, so I have my dream of Christianity freed from relativism, skepticism, anti-intellectualism and antibiblicism — a Christianity whose adherents are all learning to testify to the truth and power of the Scriptures, and to stand together to proclaim biblical truth as it is in Jesus. I believe I have seen something of this already, in the very remarkable worldwide evangelical advance during the past half century; will I see any more of it in my lifetime? I do not know. But God is on the throne, and I have hope in him.
Meantime, I am thankful for this opportunity of showing the world how excited I am about the Scriptures and of sharing my enthusiasm as I have been doing. God grant to all my readers a share of that same excitement and a full measure of that divine life in Christ to which love for God’s written Word opens the door.