The Sufficiency of Scripture

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Over the years I've asked lots of people, 'What made you join this church and settle here?' And there have been all sorts of answers, like: 'It was where I came to faith'; 'It had good stuff for our kids'; 'I found a peer group here'; 'I love Victorian buildings and sitting on pews.' (I made up that last one.) Which is fine as far as it goes. But at some point you need to ask: what does a church stand for? So then you think, 'Well, I know JPC is part of the Church of England… so what do they believe?' To which the answer, looking at the statistics, is everything and nothing. For example, recent surveys of Church of England ministers found that:

• Only two thirds believe in Jesus' bodily resurrection;
• Only half believe in the virgin birth;
• Only a third believe Jesus is the only way to God;
• And one in five don't even believe in a personal God at all.

But that's because the denomination lacks discipline, not because it lacks a doctrinal statement of beliefs. And the official and legal statement of beliefs is this:

The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures [ie, the Bible], and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal. (Canon A5 of the Church of England)

Ie, we stand on the Bible as our bedrock source of truth, but we also have summaries of what it says – and the crucial summary is the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Well, this time last year, we looked at Articles 1 to 5 – which are about God. And from this Sunday we're going to look at Articles 6 to 8 – which are about the Bible. So if Articles 1 to 5 are asking, 'What is God like?', 6 to 8 are asking, 'How do you know that?' So we start today with the first bit of Article 6 (and this is the modern language version of it):

Article 6
The sufficiency of Holy Scripture [ie, the Bible] for salvation
Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Consequently whatever is not read in Scripture nor can be proved from Scripture cannot be demanded from any person to believe it as an article of the faith. Nor is any such thing to be thought necessary or required for salvation.

So would you turn in the Bible first of all to Hebrews 1, and the first point we need to understand is that:

1. God has made himself known in history (Hebrews 1.1-2)

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1.1-2)

So have a look at this picture:

Picture 1:

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The box stands for history where we live, the stickperson stands for us, and he or she is wondering, 'How can we know God?' And the Bible's answer is: 'You can only know him if he makes himself known – and he has.' So now look at this next picture:

Picture 2:

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The crown above the box stands for God, and Hebrews 1.1 says:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets (Hebrews 1.1)

So those dotted arrows coming down into the box stand for God acting in history (eg, in bringing his people out of Egypt at the Exodus) and speaking through people like Moses and Isaiah in Old Testament times. Then, verse 2:

but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1.2)

So in picture 2, the solid arrow coming down into the box stands for God the Son becoming human in the person of Jesus – above all, to die on the cross for our forgiveness. And then the solid arrow going back up stands for his resurrection and return to heaven.

So that is how God has made himself known. The trouble is, we weren't there to witness it. But God was fully aware of that, which is why part of God's plan was to have it written down. Which brings us to point 2:

2. God has fixed in the Bible what he has made known in history (2 Timothy 3.14-17)

Just turn back in the Bible to 2 Timothy 3.14, where Paul says to Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3.14-15)

So at the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy, 'the sacred writings' (or that phrase is often translated, 'holy Scriptures') meant the Old Testament plus those bits of the New Testament that had so far been written. Today, the 'sacred writings' (or 'holy Scriptures') means the Old Testament plus the complete New Testament – the whole Bible as we have it. And in the next verse, v16, Paul says:

All Scripture [ie, all that sacred writing] is breathed out by God… (2 Timothy 3.16)

Which is a 'word-picture' of how God guided the writing of the Bible. So imagine you're standing in front of a cold mirror. If you breathe out on it, you'll create a patch of condensation exactly where you breathe. And the picture here is that, as the human writers of the Bible did their stuff – for example, Luke researching and writing and editing his Gospel – God by his Spirit breathed out through them to create exactly what he wanted to end up in the Bible. The Christian jargon word for that is 'inspiration' and here is one helpful definition of it:

'Inspiration is that supernatural work of God's Holy Spirit upon the human authors of Scripture such that what they wrote was precisely what God intended them to write in order to communicate his truth.' (Don Carson, Approaching the Bible, introductory essay in New Bible Commentary, IVP)

So, here next is the simplest picture of what the Bible is:

Picture 3:

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The Old Testament (OT) captures everything God said and did that pointed forward to Jesus, while the New Testament (NT) captures everything we need to know about what happened when he came and the implications for us (ie, how he wants us to respond). And that's why Article 6 says the Bible is sufficient [ie, enough] for salvation – 'it contains all things necessary for salvation.'

So just imagine Jesus were to return to earth and visit JPC one Sunday. Obviously we'd waive the preaching program and ask him to speak. And you can imagine us all on the edge of our seats to see what he'll say. And he gets up and simply starts reading the Bible. And that's all he does. And then he sits down again. And that would get across that he was God's final Word to the world and that the cross was God's finished work for our forgiveness and so, for us to be saved from living without God and heading for his judgement, nothing more than is in the Bible needs to be said. It just needs to be preached and accepted.

And the Bible doesn't just contain everything you need to come back into relationship with God, but also everything you need to live in relationship with him and serve him for the rest of this life. Look back to 2 Timothy 3, v16:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3.16-17)

Now in the first place, that was written to Timothy, and 'man of God' was Paul's way of addressing him as a pastor-teacher (borrowing that phrase from the Old Testament where the prophets were called 'men of God'). So he's not being sexist – he was originally writing to a man. And he's saying to Timothy: the Bible contains everything you need as a pastor-teacher to teach your church. So by extension it's also saying the Bible contains everything we (all) need to hear to live in relationship with God and serve him in this life.

So let's see how Article 6 applies the truth of the sufficiency of the Bible. The first application is:

3. Stick to the Bible alone – not the Bible plus

The Articles were written back in the 16th century, and that period is called 'the reformation' because the church at that time needed reforming – because it was requiring people to believe things that are not in the Bible. For example, it was requiring the belief that in communion services the bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of Jesus – or 'transubstantiation' to use the jargon. The unreformed church was teaching that. To which Article 6 says, no:

Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Consequently whatever is not read in Scripture nor can be proved from Scripture cannot be demanded from any person to believe it as an article of the faith. Nor is any such thing to be thought necessary or required for salvation.

So if you hear something taught (including from this pulpit) or you read something in a Christian book, or you hear something said by another Christian, and you're wondering whether you should believe it, Article 6 says, 'Ask these two questions:

• No.1: is it read in Scripture? Ie, is it explicitly said in the Bible? So, for example, it is explicitly said in the Bible that Jesus was and is the divine Son of God (eg, Hebrews 1.1-3). Or for example, it is explicitly said that believers are not to get drunk but always to be under the controlling influence of Jesus (Ephesians 5.18).

But if it's not explicit in the Bible, it may still be implicit, so the other question is:

• No.2: Can it be proved from Scripture? So for example, the Bible never uses the word 'trinity' or explicitly says, 'God is three persons of one being.' But I'd argue it can be proved from Scripture, by putting together all sorts of verses which add up to that. Or, for example, the Bible doesn't explicitly pronounce on cannabis. But from what is explicit about drunkenness, the Bible implicitly rules out being under the influence of drugs.

But let's return to the original background to the Articles. Look at this next picture:

Picture 4:


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Roman Catholic

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What we've seen is that the Bible is all we need for salvation for all time. But the unreformed church was saying, 'No. You need the Bible plus the unwritten traditions that Jesus gave the apostles, and which has been passed down through the teaching office of the church (from Peter to his successors as 'Pope').' And that's still the official position of the Roman Catholic church today – and its official teaching includes transubstantiation, purgatory, prayer to and through Mary, and the infallibility of the Pope.

So I'm often asked, 'What's the difference between Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches?' And you can only answer in terms of their official position – what individual churches and ministers are like on the ground is another matter. But the first crucial difference the Articles deal with is this one of how you know what God is like and the way to come into relationship with him. A Protestant church (like JPC) says, 'Through the Bible alone.' Whereas official Roman Catholic teaching says, 'Through the Bible plus the teaching of the church.' And Christian-sounding cults have a similar position. For example, the Mormons say you need the Bible plus the book of Mormon.

But in fact, anything that says you need 'the Bible plus' is really saying you need 'Jesus plus'. It's really saying that in Jesus we don't have God's final Word and finished work.

But something very similar to the Romans Catholic thing of Bible-and-tradition (which soon becomes Bible-replaced-by-tradition) is now happening in the Church of England as, increasingly, the Bishops are writing reports – eg, about sexuality – which contradict the Bible and say things that are not in the Bible. But the claim about these reports is that God's Spirit is guiding us into fresh truth. But that's not true, because it's not necessary, because God has already said all we need to know to come into relationship with him and then live in relationship with him.

So, stick to the Bible alone – not the Bible plus. The next application of Article 6 is:

4. Unite around what the Bible says is primary

Article 6, again, says:

Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Consequently whatever is not read in Scripture nor can be proved from Scripture cannot be demanded from any person to believe it as an article of the faith. Nor is any such thing to be thought necessary or required for salvation.

That shows the reformers knew that churches do 'demand' or 'require' certain beliefs of people – and rightly so. For example, if someone said to me, 'I do believe in a God in a vague sort of way, but I don't believe in Jesus… Can I still be baptised as a Christian?' the answer would be, 'No.' But that's because the Bible requires of an adult baptism that the person being baptised can say, 'Jesus is Lord.' That's an example of requiring of people what God, in the Bible, requires of people. And Article 6 is saying we must not require of people what God doesn't – ie, we must not require of people what goes beyond the Bible. Equally, we must avoid falling short of requiring what God, in the Bible, requires of us.

So take the question, 'Should – or may – Christian parents baptise their children?' Well, let's ask our two questions:

• No.1: is it read in Scripture? Are there explicit examples of infant baptism or explicit commands to infant baptise? No. So,
• No.2: can it be proved from Scripture – to the same level of certainty that you can prove, for example, the truth of the trinity? Again, no.

But, on the other hand, are there explicit examples or commands about Christian parents waiting and, God-willing, seeing their children come to baptism as teenagers? No. Can that way of doing things be proved from Scripture over against the other way? No. So where do you go from there? I take it that we should conclude that infant baptism (or the other way of doing things) is not to be demanded or required. And Article 6 means we can unite around what the Bible says is primary – ie, necessary for salvation – and agree to disagree under the same roof on things that are secondary – like infant baptism; or the mode of baptism – how wet you need to get; or the time-scale of creation; or whether spiritual gifts like tongues and prophesy still happen or not; etc.

And that's one of the benefits of an Anglican church like this: it unites people from all sorts of denominational backgrounds, with all sorts of differences of conviction on secondary things. Whereas some churches require a particular view on a secondary issue (like baptism) in their statement of beliefs. So for example, if you're convinced that infant baptism is permissible, you may not be able to become a 'full member' if that requires signing the statement of faith. But if and when you move on from JPC, a church like that might be the best option – you might wish it didn't make so much of a secondary issue, but it might be clearly the best on primary issues – which is what obviously matters above all.

Just on what you have to do to be a member of a church, someone asked me midweek whether they had to assent to the Thirty Nine Articles to be at JPC. And the answer to that is: those of us who are ordained to teaching leadership do have to assent to them. And that's because our role is to anchor the church doctrinally in the Bible. So you have the right to expect us to understand our statement of beliefs and operate within them. Now because I think the Articles are a good summary of crucial Bible truth, I'd hope you'd agree with it as you get to know the Bible better. But you don't have to assent to it or sign it to belong here. And you certainly don't have to understand it all to be a Christian. I came to faith in Jesus on very little knowledge of the Bible and if you'd asked me the day after about the trinity or the work of the Holy Spirit or 101 other things I'd have looked completely blank.

The final application of Article 6 to mention is:

5. Trust that you don't need the Bible to say more than it does

Article 6 is entitled:

The sufficiency of Holy Scripture for salvation [ie, 'for coming into relationship with God and living in relationship with God']

So on the one hand it needs to be said that Scripture is not sufficient for everything in life. For example, say you're a Christian airline pilot. +What does the Bible say to you about work? Well, the saem as it says to every Christian: 'Do it well; do it as if you were doing it for Jesus.' And in your case, that obviously means, 'Land the plane.' That's how you serve God and the people on board. But the Bible isn't sufficient for that. The Bible tells you – implicitly – that landing the plane is what it means to do God's will in your workplace. But you're going to need much more than the Bible – like the Airbus A380 manual – to tell you how to.

On the other hand, we must take care not to conclude superficially that the Bible doesn't speak to an area of life when it does. So for example, the Bible doesn't explicitly mention embryo research. But remember the two questions: no.1: is it read in Scripture (explicitly); and no.2: can it be proved from Scripture (is it there implicitly)? And the Bible does speak about the status of the unborn human from conception; so it does implicitly speak against embryo-destructive techniques.

Lastly, there are plenty of things where you look in vain for specific, decisive guidance in the Bible. For example, there is no verse telling you what course or job to do or who to marry or where to live – and so on. But we're to trust that we don't need the Bible to say more than it does. So look at this last picture:

Picture 5:

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The Bible draws for us the line of that outer circle, between what is right and wrong. So, for example, if I'm worrying about the question, 'Should I be a bank-robber?', the answer is, 'No: that question is specifically answered and decided for us by the Bible.' But then imagine I'm a maths graduate asking, 'Shall I be an accountant or a teacher?' That's not a right versus wrong question – it's good versus good question, a permissible versus permissible question. So the Bible doesn't decide it for you. You have to make the decision. And the Bible gives us wisdom for making wise decisions, for trying to see and do what's best from God's perspective. But one of its pieces of wisdom is that we should consult the wisdom of others – which is, again, the Bible's way of saying that it isn't sufficient for everything – it's not everything we need for everything. But we are to trust that we don't need the Bible to say more than it does. That's not easy to believe when you wish God would add a quick chapter (Revelation 23!) about your life choices – or at least that he'd send an angel to give directions. But it is true.

So, let's stick to the Bible alone for what we should believe about God; let's unite around what the Bible says is primary; and let's trust that we don't need the Bible to say more than it does. Because, as Article 6 says, it is sufficient.

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