The following is an edited transcript from the Nexus 2023 Conference
An uneasy relationship with the Scriptures
As we start to explore what it means to tremble at God’s word, I want to suggest that our relationship with the Scriptures as God’s word is more complex than most of us are willing to admit. On the one hand, we know that Scripture is powerful, it is the Word of God. The preacher’s job is to get out of the way so that God’s powerful word can work in the hearts of people. We quote Spurgeon’s famous, ‘Defend the Bible, I’d sooner defend a lion. Just let the truth free and it will defend itself.’ We exhort each other to ‘let the word do the work’ and we share those wonderful stories of people who were converted just by reading Scripture. On this view, we as preachers are in danger of muddying the power and beauty and wonder of Scripture by anything that we say and do. Applying the word of God can feel like an activity where we move beyond the Scriptures and are taking responsibility for people’s godliness into our hands rather than leaving it in the hands of the Holy Spirit. However, it is easy to parrot the ‘let the word for the work’ line and naively misunderstand the power and responsibility we have in ministry. After all, we choose the books of the Bible we teach and the chunks they are taught in. Additionally, years are invested in Bible college education developing exegetical skills. Why do we invest so much time and money if the preacher is doing nothing? A moment’s thoughtful reflection should reveal that there are complex ities in what we espouse and what we do. I think we have what I might call an ‘uneasy’ relationship with Scripture.
What does it mean to be faithful Bible teachers? How powerful is God’s word? And what part do we play in bringing that word to bear and ministering it in people’s lives?
God’s powerful word
What God’s word does
A quick survey of the Scriptures reveals many ways that the power of God’s word is articulated. God’s word creates. God said let there be and there was. Ex Nihilo. Out of nothing. God did not fashion the world out of what already existed. He spoke, and things that were not, suddenly were. God is the creator, and we are the creatures. God is powerful enough, simply by a word, to create. The same word that creates also reveals. The God who spoke creation into being spoke to that creation. He made himself known. He explained himself to us, his world to us and he explained us to us (1 Cor 2:11; Rom 7:7). The word which creates and reveals must also be the word that judges. A holy and pure God cannot speak to fallen and sinful creatures without them experiencing the awfulness of sin and rebellion against God (Heb 4:12-13). It is with relief that the same word that creates, reveals, and judges, is also the word which raises the dead (John 11:43-44; 1 Pet 1:23). The Word which made something out of nothing is the same Word that brings life from the dead. God’s people are declared right, forgiven, cleansed, and made holy by the work of Christ brought to bear in our lives through the Word of God. And so, the word of God is powerful enough to relate us rightly to God and to each other, and to transform us to be like the one who was raised from the dead as our Lord and friend. We believe that the word of God is powerful, but how does it do all these things? How does it reveal, judge, relate us to God and transform us?
How God’s word does what it does
God’s relationship with his word
When we talk about God and his word, we speak of a relationship that is utterly unique in our experience. God’s word is not like our word in at least two very significant ways. Firstly, his words always represent him truly. There is no gap between what he says and who he is. Secondly, God is always present when his word is spoken. This is a very big difference from us. When we speak, our words can be reported by others. They can come in a letter, an email or a text that can be read and interpreted apart from our presence. But whenever and wherever God’s word is read, God is there. He is there working for salvation or for judgement.
For both reasons, God’s word is full of his power and goodness. God’s word does what God does because it comes with all the power, authority and goodness of God who is at work in his world. We live in a world where goodness and authority are opposed. In fact, goodness is what is necessary to stand up to authority because, by and large, authority is viewed as evil. Authority restricts my autonomy, and my humanness. And so, what is good is what thwarts authority and allows autonomy to thrive. Of course, we know from the Scriptures, that God’s world works in exactly the opposite way. The acceptance of God’s authority is fundamental to goodness because God is fundamentally good. There is no alternate truth, no container of righteousness, no abstract definition of good that stands over and against God in order that we might judge God; no, biblically, good is what God is. He is the origin and definition of all that is good. We live in a world that wants to define goodness apart from God, and God will ultimately judge it. But this also means that when he speaks into our world, we ought to expect people to reject His goodness at every turn. This is always the way the world has been: Satan questioned God’s goodness and Adam and Eve rejected God’s authority.
The prophets spoke and were scorned. We live in the last days when 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). God’s goodness and authority are mutually entwined in his person. They are deeply related issues in all of Scripture, fundamental to our understanding of sin and the human condition. In our sin we have rejected God’s authority and in so doing rejected God’s goodness. Nevertheless, God’s word has the power to judge us, raise us, relate us to him and transform us because God is present with his word and his word never fails to reveal him perfectly – in all his goodness and power.
God speaks intelligible words God speaks intelligible words.
They are not words that mean nothing until the Spirit changes their meaning in our hearing. In fact, the key issue as we come to the Scriptures is not so much comprehension, but obedience or disobedience. It is not that the Bible cannot be understood but that we refuse to trust the words God speaks to us. This word is powerful enough, when God chooses, to overcome our wilful misunderstanding and correct our vision, indeed reshape our future. The words of Scripture are the words by which God creates faith, and so rightly relates us to him. These words overcome hard hearts and bring spiritual reformation by relating us to Christ in such a way that God dwells in us by His Spirit. And that happens through the meaning of the words that God has given to us. So can I encourage you when you get up to preach or teach, in whatever situation, that you don’t pray prayers that sound like God is going to take what is incomprehensible and make it comprehensible. Pray for God to lead us to trust and obedience. That is a much better prayer.
God’s word situates us in his story.
God’s word relates us to himself, to Christ, to his people and to his world by situating us in a story. The Scriptures do not just paint a picture of who we are. They show you who you are by situating you in a story with a long and important past, and a glorious and vital future – it is an irrepressibly eschatological word. Understanding where we are in history, knowing our past and being able to see our future helps us to make decisions about how to live to please our heavenly Father now.
God intends for his word to be ministered.
This word that God gives us is intended to be a ministered word; it is intended to be preached. The truth about Jesus’ work of death and resurrection had to be preached into all the world (Luke 24:44-47). And so, Paul is commissioned to take that gospel into all the world. Wherever God establishes churches, elders ought to be put in place because this truth is to be guarded, error is to be refuted, and God’s people need to be led in hearing and responding to the word (Titus 1:5).
Furthermore, Paul encourages Timothy that he is responsible for the salvation of others.
1 Timothy 4:15–16 (ESV) — 15Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
It is easy to get caught up working out the details of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, but we shouldn’t. Of course, everyone who is saved is chosen by God, granted his Spirit, and raised from death to life by the power that was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead. However, that does not remove the responsibility of ministers for the salvation of those over whom they have been placed. We can see this in our favourite passage about Scripture:
2 Timothy 3:16–4:2 (ESV) — 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
Scripture is God’s word – breathed out by him and profitable, useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16–4:2). However, that is not a stand-alone statement. The point is that the word of God brings about the completion of the man of God and equips him for every good work. The man of God phrase here is not first and foremost about every Christian, but about the leaders of God’s people. Timothy will stand fast by being equipped by the word of God for every good work. While he means ‘every good work’, Paul then proceeds to speak of the particular good work that Timothy has been set aside to do. The charge is eschatological and weighty. The charge is to preach the very word by which he has been equipped. Notice the nature of his preaching – reprove, rebuke, exhort – and the overlap with the words used to describe Scripture. The preacher is to do what God is doing in Scripture. The man of God needs to be equipped for every good work by the word that is preached before he can do anything. We need to be chastised by God’s truth; have our error pointed out; be rebuked and corrected. Our lives are to be soaked and shaped by the truths we are called to speak to others. We are to act as God’s servants, showing neither fear nor favour. How long since you have been struck by the significance of what you are being called to preach? How long since you have been rebuked and repented? How long since your worldview has been challenged? Humility under God means a willingness to stand and do what God is doing in Scripture.
Standing in humble submission as preachers of the Word (reflections on Titus 2)
We stand in a place and time with particular pressures to turn away from the truth of God’s word, even in the name of what we think God is calling us to do. In Titus 2 the Apostle Paul instructs Titus on his role as a leader and servant of God’s people. He begins the chapter by instructing him to ‘teach what accords with sound doctrine’. What follows is a section in which he is told how to instruct older and younger, men and women. For each group, the way they are to live is the very thing that will make the gospel attractive or keep the haters at bay. However, the things that are supposed to adorn the truth are the very things that now cause people to revile the word of God. Train the young women to love their husbands and children? Outrageous! To think that encouraging them to submit to their own husband might keep the word of God being reviled is stupid. The fact that we believe and teach this leads to precisely the opposite of what Paul thought that it would. So, should we re-appropriate the truths of Christian living for our age? Learn to live it in a way that makes it pleasing to the appetites and delicacies of our age? No! A careful reading of Titus 2 suggests exactly the opposite: Firstly, the context of the whole passage is the sound doctrine that is in keeping with the gospel (Titus 2:1). Paul is adamant that the commands that he gives to each group are what accords with sound doctrine, and not just what will make that doctrine attractive. Additionally, this way of life is in accord with what Christ has done in giving himself up to train us to say ‘yes’ to godliness (Titus 2:11). Secondly, people living this way will adorn the gospel because there is a way of life that comes with Christ Jesus as Lord that has an internal consistency. When we live in line with the life that we have been given by the risen Christ, we adorn his doctrine by living as he calls us to live. The various truths of the Christian life outlined in this passage accord with sound doctrine in all ages and in all places. Thirdly, not everything Paul says here was attractive to the people in his day (Titus 1:12). Not everything that Paul espoused in chapter two was attractive to all members of Cretan society. We are quick to renounce things in this passage that make us feel uncomfortable, but Paul, who was very keen to commend the gospel, was aware that elements of the behaviour he was calling people to would be rejected. Those who scorn will ultimately be silenced on the day of judgement by the faithful obedience of God’s people to his word.
Preaching a good and powerful word
The power of God at work in his word is a power that God intended to be exercised by the faithful ministry of his word. Ministers are sinful people who need to be rebuked, corrected, and shaped by the word that they preach. But, in God’s economy, his plan was always to have sinful people preach it and minister it to others. We must never lose sight of the call to let the word do the work, but never assume that labouring in the word and with the word is a failure to let the word do the work. By God’s incredible grace and mercy, and by his unfathomable power, he wills to work in and through his word as we minister it. In the final verse of Titus 2, Paul called Titus to:
Titus 2:15 (ESV) — Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
The task for the faithful pastor is to cling to the truths of Christ revealed in God’s word. In every age, that will involve some things that are currently ‘acceptable’ or ‘attractive’ to the world around us and some things that are not. But our job, fundamentally, is to humbly submit to God’s word and to let it take us where it wants to rather than reading it through our cultural lens. The call of God in his word is to humble submission and obedience. God is powerfully present in all his goodness and power in and through his word. This word which he speaks to us is an intelligible word that helps us to see ourselves in light of God’s great eschatological story. This is the word that he charges his ministers to preach. So, watch your life and doctrine closely. Because by so doing you will save both yourselves and your hearers. This word is the word that creates, reveals, judges, raises the dead, relates us to our Father and transforms us into the likeness of Christ. It is capable of equipping you for every good work, and particularly for the good work of proclamation.