Work continues on my evangelistic book. While you wait, here’s another sample chapter as it currently stands. I’d love to get your feedback. All biblical translations here are my own. —GPO
Since you’re this far in the book, why should you listen to me? Sure, I do have a four-year seminary degree, so I do happen to be educated on the topic. So are many people with whom I disagree. Everybody has an opinion on religion. And who wants to be the next person to Google for the number of religious sects currently in the world? You may or may not be terribly familiar with the inner workings of debates between religious groups, but a great number of them can be reduced down to a single question:
Who or what is the authority?
Before I take this to a higher-altitude discussion, think about this in your own life. Who or what is the authority over the decisions of your life?
“Me” (that is, you) might be a perfectly honest answer, but it’s not a good answer. Adam thought he knew better than God when he ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden (Genesis 3:6). But with so many religious denominations out there, how does one begin to figure out what each one of them is saying, what the differences between them are, and how exactly we are supposed to go about figuring out which one is right? Can they all be “true”? And how exactly do I as an author fit into all of this, thinking that I can somehow provide a better answer than anyone else and somehow convince people that I or my own group got it right as opposed to everyone else?
Nearly every human central religious authority will claim some kind of commission from God. Roman Catholicism, for example, claims that the Pope has the authority of apostolic succession based on Peter being declared the first Pope in Matthew 16:18, though this is a case of reading theology into the text rather than out of it. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a central Governing Body, currently composed of eight members, which historically has claimed to be the “faithful and discreet servant” of Matthew 24:45. Again, this is reading theology into the biblical text rather than out from it.
But if we can take this question all the way back to what we just mentioned with Adam in the Garden, we find that there are two possible answers to this question. Who is the authority, I or God? If we choose correctly (the answer is not ‘I’), the next question then becomes, “How do I listen to God?” And the answer to that is the Bible itself.
The Bible is God’s message to us. Therefore, the Bible is the authority by which we must order our lives. In this chapter, we’ll look at some passages that specifically convey this truth to us and call out a few incorrect approaches to the problem.
Inspiration Has Consequences — 2 Timothy 3:14–4:4
In 2 Timothy 3–4, Paul writes to encourage Timothy, a young pastor in leadership over a local church. Here’s a core encouragement and warning from that letter.
14. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and what you are confident of, knowing from whom you learned it,
15. and how from infancy you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
16. All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
17. so that a man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
1. I solemnly urge before God and Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by His manifestation and His kingdom:
2. preach the Word, being ready when convenient and when inconvenient; reprove, rebuke, encourage, with great patience and instruction.
3. For there will be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine, but in accordance with their own desires they will accumulate for themselves teachers to tickle their ears,
4. and will turn away their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Various religions have human centers of authority who dictate what true doctrine is. Within true Christianity, Scripture is the sole infallible authority. Any teaching that doesn’t accord with Scripture is rightly called “myth.”
Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
—The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (portion)
Here’s a shorter version of that statement: inerrancy is a good and necessary consequence of the nature of God. Because God breathed the very words of Scripture, and because God is not a liar, Scripture is entirely trustworthy in everything that it says. We need no external authority to verify that the Bible is true.
It’s important to note that the doctrine of inerrancy applies only to the text of the original manuscripts on which the biblical text was originally written. As for the transmission of the text over time and the translations of these manuscripts, the formal doctrine of inerrancy does not apply. We’ll address issues of textual transmission later in this book.
The Holy Spirit Opens the Minds of Believers to Recognize and Understand Scripture — 2 Corinthians 2:10–16
Even if we know and accept that the text is inerrant, that doesn’t mean we’re going to understand and believe it. Fortunately for us, the Holy Spirit illuminates the Scripture so that we can.
10. For to us God has revealed these things through the Spirit, for the Spirit fathoms all things, even the depths of God.
11. For who among men knows the things of a man except a man’s spirit within him? So also, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.
12. For we have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God in order that we should understand the things which are freely gifted to us by God.
13. And we speak not in words taught in human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
14. The natural person does not accept things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
15. The spiritual person judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.
16. For who has understood the mind of Christ so as to instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
(2 Corinthians 2:10–16)
Especially in the context of considering religion, we often may intentionally set a very high standard before we decide to change our position about something. Take any political position you might hold to very strongly. In the current political climate in which I’m writing this, that issue might be gun control. At what level of evidence contrary to your position would you consider changing your position? If most of us are honest, we might admit that almost no level of evidence is enough to change our minds because we simply do not believe that such a stack of evidence can ever be mounted. People generally believe what they believe about gun control and stick to it strongly.
If that’s hard enough for just a political position, what about religion? I’m not just talking about following a religion because of its extraneous benefits upon your personal happiness. The Bible is clear that the Christian faith is worthless if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14). Real Christians are actually convinced and convicted of the Bible’s truths to the exclusion of all contrary claims. On top of that burden, we’re talking about finite creatures arguing about the nature of an infinite God.
How do people come to true belief and true understanding of the Bible’s truths? This passage reveals the Holy Spirit to be the person of the Trinity who grants us divine wisdom. This passage may be best understood in three parts. In verses 10–11, the passage explains how God reveals divine truth to us. In verses 12–13, the passage explains how God gave “the things freely gifted to us,” i.e. the Scripture. Then in verses 14–16, the passage explains how the Spirit illuminates Scripture, enabling us to understand and apply it. This cannot be done by “natural” men, i.e. unbelievers, people who do not have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. Perhaps that might be you at this moment. Would you earnestly pray for the Holy Spirit’s illumination right now?
Scripture is a Most Sure Prophetic Word — 2 Peter 1:16–21
Most people who express a measure of interest in the Jesus story, even at just the literary level, will readily state that they would be interested to climb into a time machine and see what the historical Jesus was really like. The Apostles obviously had this privilege (without the time machine). Purely from a historical perspective (rather than just a religious one), if you’re wanting to learn about what Jesus was about from that time period, common sense says that we should read things written by Jesus’ own eyewitnesses. In this particular account, Peter recalls the transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–37). Shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion, He visibly appeared to His disciples in his full, divine glory. To Peter, his personal experience of Jesus’ transfiguration is far and above any “craftily devised myths,” and for good reason.
16. For [we] did not follow craftily devised myths when we made known to youᴾ the power and the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
17. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance was brought to him by the majestic Glory: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
18. We ourselves heard this utterance from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
But Peter doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe and uphold the nature of Scripture.
19. And we have also a most sure prophetic word, to which youᴾ do well to give heed as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
20. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of the prophet’s own imagination,
21. for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God, being driven by the Holy Spirit.
You will never get to step into a time machine to go witness the transfiguration or resurrection for yourself. You don’t have to. You have access to the Bible, which is the product not of any human’s imagination or interpretation but the very breathed words of the Holy Spirit. You can trust Scripture just as if you were actually there.
Believers Should Check All Teaching Against Scripture — Galatians 1:6–10
We visited a portion of this in the preceding chapter. Now I want to bring in a little more context so that we can see what the author is doing.
I am extraordinarily disturbed that youᴾ are so quickly turning away from the one who called youᴾ by the grace of Christ into another gospel, not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are unsettling you and want to distort the gospel of grace.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to youᴾ a gospel which is contrary to the one we preached to youᴾ, let him be anathema. As we have said beforehand, so I now say again: if anyone preaches to youᴾ a gospel which is contrary to what youᴾ received, let him be anathema.
For am I now appealing to men or to God? Or do I seek to please men? If yet I were seeking to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
For I make known to youᴾ, brothers: the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man, for I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it [by man], but [I received it] by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Here might be a good opportunity to introduce you to the Apostle Paul in case you’re not familiar with him. Before his conversion to Christ, Saul was one of the most learned Jewish scholars of his time and a persecutor of the church. He is even recorded in Acts 7–8 as being present at the stoning of Stephen and approving of it. But the risen Jesus Himself intervened and brought Saul to repentance and faith, made him one of the twelve Apostles, and he wrote more than half of the New Testament. If there’s any man other than Jesus who would have authority to pronounce anything new, it would be Paul.
And yet, Paul claims no such authority. The Gospel that he preaches is not by the authority of any mere man but by Jesus Christ. And in writing to the Galatians, he makes clear that the Gospel is not subject to human opinions.
The predominant view of religion in the English-speaking West these days largely says that everyone is free to choose a religion based upon his or her own personal convictions. What works for one person may not work for another. But if God really inspired the Bible as the Bible itself claims, that changes everything. It means that Jesus is God. It means that the Holy Spirit is God and opens the minds of those who repent and believe. It means that God has really spoken to us.
And on any issue where God has spoken, there is no longer is room for debate or differing opinions. God has no opinions, as He Himself is truth.