Finding God’s Word in Our Time
Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord, just as gays are an abomination. Why stop at protesting gay marriage? Bring all of God’s law unto the heathens and the sodomites. We call upon all Christians to join the crusade against Long John Silver’s and Red Lobster. Yea, even Popeye’s shall be cleansed. The name of Bubba shall be anathema. We must stop the unbelievers from destroying the sanctity of our restaurants.
This is how the website godhatesshrimp.com tries to mock Christians for their belief that homosexuality is still a sin in the eyes of the Lord. If you’ve listened at all to the debate raging across North America, you’ve heard people on opposite sides claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and claim the Bible for their position either for or against homosexuality. There is mass confusion in our time, in the visible church, over whether God actually has spoken and if so, where has He spoken.
The Word of God as a topic of doctrine is fundamental to what we as Reformed Christians think about God (theology) and how we live a godly life. The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) opens with an article about God (art. 1) and then six articles with how we know him in his revealed Word (arts. 2–7), summarized in this line: “We believe that those Holy Scriptures [of the Old and New Testaments] fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” (art. 7). To this we say, “Amen!” But because this is such a given in our churches, we can take it for granted. We say the Bible is the Word of God, but do we know why? Then we hear the challenges to biblical faith every day from neighbors and in the media. Are we going to muster as soldiers in the army of the Lord to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) or lay down our arms before the pressure of the world?
It was only a few years ago that a fellow pastor in a nearby URC congregation renounced his vows to uphold Reformed doctrine and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. Then a year later, a student I knew at a local Reformed seminary converted to Roman Catholicism. Even more well known was that a popular PCA pastor whom I knew and whose blog was popular with many of my parishioners announced that he no longer believed the Protestant doctrine of Scripture but believed the claims made by the Roman Church. At this moment our classis has a study committee dealing with the claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church because several local congregations are losing young members.
These and other events and pressures should stir our passions to proclaim “the sum of your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160) and to defend that truth. As for me, I have sworn a solemn oath “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend” the doctrine contained in our confessional documents whether in preaching, teaching, or writing. I also have sworn that I “not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine . . . but that [I am] disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert [myself] in keeping the Church free from such errors” (Form of Subscription). Although you may not have taken that oath, I trust that you will stand with me and say that while the grass will wither and the flower will fade “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).
And so I plan to write to you a series of articles on our doctrine of Scripture. At the heart of why I will be writing is that too many of God’s people do not always have such assurance and confidence that their Bibles are the very words of God—what our forefathers called ipsissima verba. Because the sin nature we inherited from Adam is like a dead body that still clings onto us (Rom. 7:24), the doctrinal truths we affirm with our heads do not necessarily translate into the experiential reality of our hearts. Because of this I believe Scripture evidences that every generation of God’s people needs to appropriate for itself its truth as foundational and fundamental for saving faith. As our Heidelberg Catechism says, “true faith” includes “a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true” (Q&A 21). If we do not recommit ourselves to the Scriptures, I believe Scripture teaches that we will see a rapid shift from this generation into another “that did not know the Lord” (Judg. 2:10).The Need to Find God’s Word
There is an urgent need to find the authentic Word of God in our time. While statistics can be misleading if they are abstracted from the moment they are calculated, they do give a glimpse of reality at that moment. Back in 2000 one survey revealed that 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “God helps those who help themselves.” Then in 2005 another survey revealed that 11 percent of “born-again” Christians said they did not believe the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings. These statistics go hand in hand with the sad anecdotal reality that many of us have that Americans as well as professing Christians are turning from the Word of God to alternate spiritualities, different religions, to themselves, or to no religion at all for their version of the truth. This evidences that we are in the same kind of famine the Lord once sent upon Israel: “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). And sadly, we read that in those days “they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:12). This describes the apostate church as it blindly wanders from the sentimentality of Protestant liberalism, to the so-called authoritative and immovable word of Rome or Orthodoxy, to the relativistic Emerging Church, to the skeptical Bart Ehrman, to the happy Joel Osteen, and the list goes on. There is a lot of searching but no finding.
People are asking in their own way, “Where can I find God’s Word?” We need to proclaim that God “makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word” (Belgic Confession, art. 2), that is, in the inspired, infallible, and canonical Scriptures of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven of the New Testament. This where the authentic Word of God to humanity is found. We need to proclaim this confidently. How firm will you be when co-workers tell you that they read the latest Dan Brown novel or saw the latest television program during Christmas or Easter season that said the manuscripts of the Bible contradict? How will you answer when you hear the assertion that the early church used power politics to decide what books were Scripture while leaving out other viable books?
The need of our time is no different from that of times gone by. In his second epistle to young pastor Timothy, Paul gives several characteristics of the “last days” (2 Tim. 3:1), that is, in the days since our Lord’s ministry on earth in his incarnation (Heb. 1:1–2), crucifixion (Heb. 9:26), and effusion of His Spirit (Acts 2:1–4, 17).
The first characteristic of the last days is that the church exists in an age of apostasy from the true faith. Paul says “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4).
The second characteristic of the last days is that the church exists in an age of ungodliness: “people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2–5).
Now, stop and ask yourself this question: What is so different about Paul’s day and ours? The answer is absolutely nothing. I’m not arguing for “the good ol’ days” of the 1950s or 1550s. The church has always struggled with the struggle we are facing in finding the Word of God in our time. It is imperative that we to find God’s words so that we can speak them to the world. His words are like a beacon in the darkness of falsehood and like a light that exposes the darkness of our sinful hearts. And when we find the Word, we find an anchor for our souls in the midst of the turbulent storms of false theology and false piety that beat against our faith.
The Place to Find
Where can we find the true Word of God? The place to find it is in what we call the canon of Scripture. A canon was an ancient way of describing what we call a ruler. Our ancient forefathers adapted this word for describing the Word of God, saying that we have in the Old and New Testaments the ruler, the true measure of authentic faith in God and genuine life before His face. Later in 2 Timothy 3, Paul speaks of Timothy’s upbringing in the faith of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:14, 16). Yet Paul’s statement that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” extends to the writings of the New Testament as well. For example, Peter equates Paul’s letters with the words of our Lord (2 Pet. 3:16). And our Lord’s words through His apostles have come to an end with the Revelation of John (Rev. 22:18).
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are canonical because they are inspired, literally, “God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). As Peter says, that breath of God carried along the writers of Scripture like a sailboat upon the water (2 Pet. 1:20–21). These Scriptures are also sufficient. They are what we need to be “complete” and “equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).
“But how can I know this? There are so many religious books out there, after all.” The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 4) gives us several basic reasons by which we know the Scriptures we have are the very Word of God.
First, they have the qualities of majesty and purity, as we would expect from the mouth of God. One reading of the Bible next to the Apocrypha, the Book of Mormon, or the Qu’ran will evidence this.
Second, all the different parts of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, in all the different genres of narrative, laws, poetry, prophecy, and letters, written over a vast expanse of sixteen hundred years, on different continents, in different languages have a consent in these various parts as well as a unity of purpose: “to give all glory to God.”
Third, they give light to the spiritually blind and are powerful to convert spiritually dead sinners. And afterwards, they are able to comfort and build up converted believers in their salvation.
Fourth, and most importantly, the same Holy Spirit who breathed them out (2 Tim. 3:16) also bears witness by and with them in our hearts that they are true (cf. Rom. 8:23–27). As God, the Holy Spirit alone is able fully to persuade us that these books are the very Word of God.
We live in that famine of the Word of God which the ancient prophet Amos spoke of (Amos 8:11–12). What are we to do as those made alive by the Spirit to know His Word? We need to reengage in the practice of finding the Word; and when we find it, continually mine it for its riches by meditating on it (Ps. 1:1–2; Col. 3:16), continually seek to conform our lives to it (Ps. 119:1–8), and continually express our utter thankfulness for it (Ps. 119:62; 164). And when we appropriate the Word for ourselves in this way, we will be equipped to contend for the Word (Jude 3), by preserving it as well as proclaiming it. May God help us to do so for our souls’ sake, for the sake of our children, and for the sake of our churches.
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA.