Yesterday evening I spoke at North Bradley Baptist Church on Holy Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. I was attempting to reflect on the relationship between God, the Bible and the Church. Here is the concluding section on the how Holy Scripture serves the revelatory presence of God in the Church.
1. Holy Scripture and the Church
i. The Word of God and the formation and growth of the church
The Bible is not simply a text book that shapes and informs the beliefs of the church, it is the God-given script that the people of God have been called to perform in the theatre of this world. The church was called into existence by the Word of God and she was founded upon that Word, Ephesians 2:19-20. The church exists to perform the Word of God and proclaim the gospel of salvation to the nations, 1 Peter 2:9.
There are lots of church growth theories these days. Some of them may be more or less helpful. But it is noteworthy that in Acts Luke attributes the church growth to Word growth, (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). It is important to remember that Luke sets such statements in the context of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5-8, 2:1-4). He makes it clear that preachers need to be filled with the Spirit to empower them to proclaim the word boldly and effectively, (Acts 4:31). Where the agency of the Word alone is mentioned in Scripture it is assumed but not always stated that it was the Holy Spirit who made the word effective in the salvation of sinners.
We should always remember that the Church will only grow as the word of God has free course and is glorified, 2 Thessalonians 3:1. How important it is that the church is centred upon God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture.
ii. The people of God need to hear the Word of God read
According to the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, the reading of Holy Scripture in the context of public worship is one means by which the Lord builds up his people in their most holy faith,
Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we; acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean[s] sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.
The reading of Scripture was vitally important for Israel as the Old Testament people of God Deut 8:3, 31:9-13, 2 Kings 22. God acts by his word as it is read, Jeremiah 36:1-3, 6-7, Nehemiah 8:1-3, 7-8. Also in the New Testament: Jesus, Luke 4:17ff, Paul, 1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16.
A good portion of Scripture should be read out in worship services, not just a few verses. If the sermon is based on a short passage, then those leading worship should read the whole or at least a good portion of the chapter in which the verses are set. If the preacher is engaged in a series of sermons on a Bible book, preaching through chapters a few verses at a time, then a related passage of Scripture should be read. This will ensure that a decent portion of God’s Word is read out and will give a sense of how Scripture fits together as a coherent whole. As Paul charged Timothy, "Give attention to reading", 1 Timothy 4:13.
iii. The people of God need to hear the Word of God preached
2 Timothy 4:1-5. The Holy Spirit gave us the Bible and he continues to speak through Scripture. He transforms the lives of preachers and empowers them to so preach Christ that sinners are saved and the church is built up. God is actively present in the church by the power of the Spirit when the people of God assemble to hear to the Word of God proclaimed.
Given our acceptance of Scripture as the written Word of God, it follows that all preaching should be expository, 2 Timothy 2:15. Preach the Word in the form that it was given. But even when not preaching a series, our aim should still be to expound the meaning of the passage. I am commending expository preaching. Bible studies have their place people need to be taught and given the relevant Bible knowledge. But preaching involves more than that. We need to aim at conveying the communicative action of the text so that by the power of the Spirit the message takes effect in the lives of those who hear it 1 Thess 2:13. The aim of our preaching should be to enable our people to faithfully play out their roles in the drama of redemption. What is God saying and doing with the text on which we are preaching? Is he making a promise? “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”. Then he wants the people to believe it. Is he issuing a command? “Be holy for I am holy”. Then he wants us to obey it. Is he giving us a warning? “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.” Then let us so preach that people heed the admonition.
The Second Helvetic Confession states that,
THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: (Chapter 1).
The Holy Spirit is the one who gave us the inscripturated Word of God and it is his mighty voice that continues to speak as the message of the Bible is proclaimed. Knowing this encourages us to preach the Word in prayerful dependence upon the Spirit, expecting that he will work by his word to fulfil his gracious purposes. The Spirit's empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power. Romans 1:16, 10:17. Let us then seek to preach the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven!
iv. Scripture and confessions of faith
If as William Chillingworth said, “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants” what need do we have of confessions of faith? It is sometimes assumed that the Protestant Reformers swept aside the theological heritage of the church and looked to the Bible alone. But their commitment to sola Scriptura did not mean that the Reformers saw no value in the historic teachings of the church. They rejected the unbiblical traditions of the Rome on the basis of the supreme authority of the Bible. But they valued the ancient creeds and the writings of the church fathers. The Reformers drew up confessions of their own in order to state and defend biblical truth in their own setting. The solo Scriptura attitude of Fundamentalists who claim to eschew all tradition for the sake of the Bible alone is quite different to that of the Reformers and tends to an individualistic reading of the Scripture.
Creeds and confessions of faith are not infallible. They are open to revision and correction in the light of Scripture. Also, confessions of faith need to be updated to address contemporary errors and concerns. The great Reformed confessions gave more attention to the authority of Scripture and justification by faith than the historic creeds because they were the issues at stake. If we were revising WCF, SDF or 1689 what modern day errors would we want to address?
2. Holy Scripture and the Christian
We tend to take it for granted that Christians have access to copies of the Scriptures in their own language. We stress the importance of personal Bible reading. But it is only since the advent of the printing press in the 16th century that ordinary Christians were able to possess a personal copy of the Bible. Before those times believers encountered the Bible as it was read in church and its message proclaimed in preaching. While it is good that believers have their own personal Bibles, there is perhaps a danger of today’s Christians having an overly individualistic attitude to God’s Word. It is all about what God’s Word means to them, which can sometimes lead to highly subjective and irresponsible readings of the Bible.
We need to stress that the Christian reads the Bible as a member of the people of God. Their reading should be informed by the preaching and teaching of the church. Preaching should model responsible interpretation of the Bible and application of its message. It is beneficial for believers to use commentaries and study notes which help to explain and apply the Scriptures. The Geneva Bible helped to make the English a people of the Book largely because it was a Study Bible, complete with notes. There are various modern day equivalents such as the ESV Study Bible. These aids can make prayerful Bible reading more meaningful and helpful.
John Webster writes the, "Faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming." (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, p. 87). How we ought to remember that when tempted to skim through our daily Bible readings! We need to cultivate and commend to our people a deep, meditative and prayerful engagement with Scripture. Timothy Ward helpfully suggests that we should approach Scripture with the question, "What is God wanting to do to me and in me, through the words I am reading?" (Words of Life, p. 176-177).
“as newborn babes [may we] desire the pure milk of the word that we may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
Holy Scripture serves the revelatory presence of God, as the Father brings his people into fellowship with himself through the work of the Son by the power of the Spirit. It is for the church to believe, perform and proclaim this living and active Word.
‘The grass withers, and the flower falls but the word of the Lord remains forever’. And this word which by the gospel was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25).