You can Trust the Bible by John R.W. Stott 1991
LET ME REHEARSE BRIEFLY the territory which we have traversed. We have thought about God and the Bible because he is its author, about Christ and the Bible because he was the means of its inspiration, and about the church and the Bible because the church is built upon it and is called to guard its treasures and make them known. We conclude with something more personal and individual: the Christian and the Bible.
I do not hesitate to say that the Bible is indispensable to every Christian’s health and growth. Christians who neglect the Bible simply do not mature.
When Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy to the effect that human beings do not live by bread only but by God’s Word, he was asserting that the Word of God is just as necessary for spiritual health as food is for bodily health. I am not now thinking of remote Christian tribespeople into whose language the Bible has not yet been translated, nor of illiterate people who may have the Bible in their language but are unable to read it for themselves. To be sure, such people are not altogether cut off from the nourishment of God’s Word, for they can still receive it, though at one or two removes, from a missionary, pastor, relative or friend. I am bound to say, however, that I think their Christian life would be enriched if they could have direct access to the Scriptures, which is why such heroic work has been done to have the Bible translated into the languages of the world. I am not thinking of these situations. I am thinking rather about ourselves. We have a plethora of Bibles in a variety of editions and versions. Our problem is not that the Bible is unavailable to us, but that we do not take advantage of its availability. We need to read and meditate on it daily, to study it in a fellowship group and to hear it expounded during Sunday worship. Otherwise we shall not grow. Growth into maturity in Christ depends upon a close acquaintance with, and a believing response to, the Bible.
I want to try to answer the question which may be forming in your minds: just how and why does the Bible enable us to grow?
As an illustration of its effectiveness as a means of grace, I have chosen the story of Jesus’ washing of his apostle’s feet, recorded in John 13. When he had finished, put on his outer garment again and returned to his place, he immediately referred to himself as their teacher. “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (v .13). The implication is clear, that through his act of foot washing he had been teaching them certain truths and lessons which he wanted them to learn. There seem to have been three.
1. He was teaching them about himself. Jesus’ actions were a deliberate parable of his mission. John seems clearly to have understood this for he introduces the incident with these words. “Jesus, knowing … that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper …” (vv.3-4). That is, knowing these things, he dramatized them in action. Perhaps the best commentary is Philippians 2, which unfolds the stages of his self-humbling before he was highly exalted. Thus Jesus “rose from supper,” as he had risen from his heavenly throne. He “laid aside his garments,” as he had laid aside his glory and emptied himself of it. He then “girded himself with a towel” (the badge of servitude), as in the Incarnation he had taken the form of a servant. Next, he began “to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel,” as he went to the cross to secure our cleansing from sin. After this he put his garments back on “and resumed his place,” as he returned to his heavenly glory
and sat down at the Father’s right hand. By these actions he was dramatizing his whole earthly career. He was teaching them about himself, who he was, where he had come from and where he was going.
2. He was teaching them about his salvation. He said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8). In other words, the forgiveness of sin is a necessary prelude to fellowship with Jesus Christ. Unless and until we have been washed, we cannot have anything to do with him. More subtly still, Jesus distinguished between two different kinds of washing: the bath on the one hand, and the washing of feet on the other. The apostles were familiar with this social distinction. Before visiting a friend’s home, they would take a bath. Then on arrival at their friend’s, a servant would wash their feet. They would not need another bath, but only a foot washing. Jesus seems to have used this well-known cultural distinction to teach a less well-known theological distinction: when we first come to him in penitence and faith we get a bath and are washed all over. Theologically, it is called “justification” or “regeneration,” and is symbolized in baptism. Then, when we fall into sin as Christians, what we need is not another bath (we cannot be rejustified or rebaptized) but a foot washing, that is, the cleansing of a daily forgiveness. So Jesus says in verse 10, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.”
3. He was teaching them about his will. We know from the synoptic Gospels that, before sitting down for
the meal in the upper room, the apostles had been squabbling about who was to have the best seats. They were so preoccupied with questions of precedence that they sat down to the meal unwashed. Evidently there had been no servant to wash their feet, and it had not occurred to them that one of them might assume that lowly role and wash the feet of the others. So during supper Jesus did what none of them would have demeaned himself to do. And when he had finished, he said to them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master … If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (vv. 14-17). Our Lord stooped to serve. It is his will that we do so too.
Here, then, were Jesus’ three lessons from one incident: first about his person, that he had come from God and was going to God; second about his salvation, that after the bath of justification we need only the continuous washing of our feet; and third about his will, that we must wash one another’s feet, that is, express our love for one another in humble service. Or, put another way, he taught three lessons which required three responses. In giving them a revelation of himself, he was asking for their worship. In giving them a promise of salvation, he was asking for their trust. In giving them a commandment to love and serve one another, he was asking for their obedience.
I do not think it an exaggeration to claim that all the teaching of the Bible can be divided into these three categories. Throughout Scripture there are revelations of God demanding our worship, promises of salvation demanding our faith and commandments about our duty demanding our obedience. Having considered the foot washing as one example, let us look at this threefold pattern a little more fully.
Revelations of God
The Bible is God’s self-disclosure, the divine autobiography. In the Bible the subject and the object are identical, for in it God is speaking about God. He makes himself known progressively in the rich variety of his being: as the Creator of the universe and of human beings in his own image, the climax of his creation; as the living God who sustains and animates everything he has made; as the covenant God who chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants to be his special people; and as a gracious God who punishes idolatry and injustice among his own people as well as in the pagan nations. Then in the New Testament he reveals himself as the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the One who sent him into the world to take our nature upon him, to be born and grow, live and teach, work and suffer, die and rise, occupy the throne and send the Holy Spirit. Next he shows himself as the God of the new covenant
community, the church, who sends his people into the world as his witnesses and his servants in the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally he reveals himself as the God who one day will send Jesus Christ in power and glory to save, to judge and to reign, who will create a new universe and who in the end will be everything to everybody.
This majestic revelation of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — which unfolds from the creation to the consummation, moves us to worship. When we catch these glimpses of the greatness of God, of his glory and grace, we fall down on our faces before him and bring to him the homage of our lips, our hearts and our lives. It is impossible to read the Bible with any sensitivity and not be a worshiper. The Word of God evokes the worship of God.
Promises of Salvation
We have already seen that God’s main purpose in giving us the Bible is to instruct [us] for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). So the Bible tells the story of Jesus, foretelling and foreshadowing him in the Old Testament, describing his earthly career in the Gospels, and unfolding in the Epistles the fullness of his person and work. But it does more. The Scripture does not just present Jesus to us as our all-sufficient Savior; it urges us to go to him and put our trust in him. And it promises us that, if we do so, we shall receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the liberating Holy Spirit. The Bible is full of salvation promises. It pledges new life in the new community
to those who respond to the call of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave one such promise to Peter in the incident of the foot washing when he said to him, “You are clean” (John 13:10). Peter’s mind must often have grasped that promise and believed it. Even after he had denied Jesus, he was not repudiated. Of course, he needed to repent, to be forgiven, to be recommissioned. But he did not need another bath, since already he had been made clean. The words of Jesus must have reassured his heart and pacified his nagging conscience.
Do you remember how in Pilgrim’s Progress, after the disastrous experience in Bypath Meadow, Christian and Hopeful found themselves on the grounds of Doubting Castle? Its owner was Giant Despair, who found them asleep when they should have been praying. He then “put them into his castle,” writes Bunyan, “in a very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men. Here, then, they lay from Wednesday morning till Saturday night, without one bit of bread, or drop of drink, or light, or any to ask them how they did.” In the morning, at his wife’s instigation, Giant took “a grievous crab-tree cudgel,” and “fell upon them and beat them fearfully” — with doubts, of course. The next day his wife advised him “to counsel them to make away with themselves,” which Giant did, “either with knife, halter or poison.” That is, since they were never likely to escape, they might as well take their own lives. Giant Despair is always whispering to his victims about suicide. On the third day he took them into the castle yard and showed them
the bones and skulls of their predecessors. “These,” he said with glee, “were pilgrims, as you are, once, and they trespassed on my grounds, as you have done; and when I saw fit, I tore them in pieces; and so within ten days I will do you. Get you to your den again.”
All that day Christian and Hopeful lay there, says Bunyan, “in a lamentable case, as before.” There seemed no possibility of escape. Then at about midnight “they began to pray, and continued in prayer till almost break of day.” A little before then Christian “brake out into this passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk in liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That’s good news, good brother, pluck it out of thy bosom, and try.” So he did, and “the door flew open with ease” — then the outward door, and then the iron gate, and they escaped with speed. Awakened by the creaking of the gate, Giant rose to pursue them, but he “felt his limbs to fail, for his fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them.”
You too have a key in your bosom called Promise, for God has given it to you in the Scriptures. Have you ever used it to escape from Doubting Castle? When Satan harasses our conscience and tries to persuade us that there is no forgiveness for such sinners as we are, only a trustful reliance on God’s promises to the penitent can liberate us from his harassment. We have to learn in perplexity to rest on the promise of his guidance;
in fear, on the promise of his protection; in loneliness, on the promise of his presence. The promises of God, his promises of salvation, can garrison our hearts and minds.
It is in this connection that I think I should refer to the two Gospel sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Although Protestants have different ways of formulating their understanding of these ordinances, we should be able to accept the dictum from the Second Book of Homilies (1571) that they are “visible signs to which are annexed promises.” That the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion are “outward and visible signs” is obvious. More particularly, however, they are signs of God’s grace, signs which visibly promise his cleansing, forgiveness and new life to those who repent and believe in Jesus. So they elicit and strengthen our faith.
Commandments to Obey
In calling out a people for himself, God told them what kind of people he wanted them to be. They were a special people; he expected from them special conduct. So he gave them the Ten Commandments as a summary of his will, which Jesus underlined in his Sermon on the Mount, uncovering their disturbing implications. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). It would be greater in the sense that it would be deeper, a righteousness of the heart, a glad and radical inward obedience.
It is particularly important in our day to emphasize God’s call to moral obedience because at least two groups of people are denying it. First, there are the advocates of the so-called New Morality or Situation Ethic, developed in the 1960s. They argue that God’s one and only absolute command is love, that all other laws have been abrogated and that love is by itself a sufficient guide to Christian conduct. Whatever is expressive of love is good, they say; whatever is incompatible with it is evil. Now certainly true love, the sacrifice of self in the service of others, is the pre-eminent Christian virtue, and to follow its dictates is extremely demanding. Nevertheless, love needs guidelines, and it is this direction that God’s commandments supply. Love does not dispense with law; it fulfills it (Romans 13: 8-10).
Second, there are evangelical Christians who interpret Paul’s assertions that “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4) and that “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14) as meaning that Christians are no longer under obligation to obey God’s moral law. To try to do so, they say, is a legalism which contradicts the freedom Christ has given us. But they misunderstand Paul. The legalism Paul rejected was not obedience to win God’s favor and forgiveness. This is impossible, he wrote, for “no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law” (Romans 3:20).
Once justified by God’s sheer grace, however, that is, declared righteous in his sight by his free and
undeserved favor through Christ, we are then under obligation to keep his law, and want to do so. Indeed, Christ died for us precisely “in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:4), and God puts his Spirit in our hearts in order to write his law there (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:27; Galatians 5:22-23). Our Christian freedom, therefore, is freedom to obey, not to disobey. As Jesus said several times, if we love him we shall keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21-24; 15:14). And it is in Scripture that God’s commandments are to be found.
Thus in the Bible God gives us revelations of himself which lead us to worship, promises of salvation which stimulate our faith, and commandments expressing his will which demand our obedience. This is the meaning of Christian discipleship. Its three essential ingredients are worship, faith and obedience. And all three are called forth by the Word of God. Worship is the response to God’s self-revelation. It is an adoring preoccupation with the glory of God, and, as William Sangster once put it, it can “disinfect us of egoism.” Faith is a restful confidence in the promises of God. It delivers us from the seesaw of religious experience — up and down, up and down, Sunday night, Monday morning. Nothing can deliver us from that but the promises of God. For our feelings fluctuate, whereas God’s Word remains forever firm. Obedience is a loving commitment to the will of God. It rescues us from the bog of moral relativism and sets our feet upon the rock of God’s absolute commands.
Moreover, worship, faith and obedience — the three ingredients of discipleship — are all outward looking. In worship we are preoccupied with God’s glory, in faith with his promises, in obedience with his commands. Authentic Christian discipleship is never introverted. The Bible is a marvelously liberating book. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us instead obsessed with God, his glory, promises and will. To love God thus, and to love others for his sake, is to be set free from the tyrannous bondage of our own self-centeredness. The Christian who is engrossed in himself becomes as paralyzed as the self-conscious centipede in the humorous modern parable:
The centipede was happy quite
Until a toad in fun
Exclaimed “which leg comes after which?”
This put his mind in such a pitch
He lay distracted in the ditch
Considering how to run!
While lying in this sorry plight’
A ray of sunshine caught his sight
And bursting into happy song
Unthinking he began to run
And quite forgot the croaker’s fun.
Only rays of light from God’s Word, which lift our eyes to him, can deliver us from the paralysis which comes from self-preoccupation.
The vital place of the Bible in the Christian life exposes the grave consequences of liberal theology. By undermining public confidence in the reliability of the Bible, it makes Christian discipleship all but impossible. Let me explain. All Christians agree that discipleship includes worship, faith and obedience. They are essential parts of our Christian life. We cannot live as Christians without them. Yet not one of them is possible without a reliable Bible.
How can we worship God if we do not know who he is, what he is like or what kind of worship is pleasing to him? Christians are not Athenians who worship an unknown God. We must know God before we can worship him. And it is the Bible which tells us what he is like.
Again, how can we believe or trust in God if we do not know his promises? Faith is neither a synonym for superstition nor another word for credulity. Faith is a reasoning trust. It rests on the promises of God and on the character of the God who made them. Without promises our faith shrivels up and dies. And God’s promises are found in the Bible.
Again, how can we obey God if we do not know his will and commandments? Christian obedience is not blind obedience, but open-eyed and loving. For God has given us commandments in the Bible and shown us that they are not burdensome.
So then, without God’s revelation worship is impossible; without God’s promises faith is impossible; without God’s commandments obedience is impossible.
Without the Bible discipleship is impossible. Do we realize how blessed we are to have a Bible in our hands? God has graciously made provision for our discipleship. He has revealed to us himself, his salvation and his will. He has made it possible for us to worship him, trust him and obey him — in other words, to live as his loving children in the world.
We need then to come expectantly to the Bible each day. The great curse of our Bible reading, whenever it becomes just a stale and boring routine, is that we do not come to it expectantly. We don’t come with confidence that God is willing, able and eager to speak to us through his Word. We need to come to the Bible every day with the petition of Samuel on our lips, “Master, speak; your servant is listening.” And he will! Sometimes through his Word he will give us a revelation of himself: we shall perceive something of his glory, our heart will be deeply moved within us, and we shall fall down and worship him. Sometimes through his Word he will give us a promise: we shall grasp it, lay hold of it and say, “Lord, I’m not going to let it go until I inherit it and until it becomes true of me.” Sometimes through the Bible he will give us a command: we shall see our need to repent of our disobedience, and we shall pray and resolve that by his grace we shall obey his command in years to come.
These revelations, promises and commandments we shall store up in our minds until our Christian memory becomes like a well-stocked cupboard.
From its shelves in moments of need we shall be able to take down truths or promises or commandments which are appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. Without this we condemn ourselves to perpetual immaturity. Only if we meditate on the Word of God, listen to God speaking to us, hear his voice and respond to him in worship, faith and obedience, will we grow into maturity in Christ.