This sermon is part of the sermon series "True North". See series.
True North Backstory
One reason I enjoyed preaching the sermons in this series was the contrast between a "head" message and a "heart" message.
The message on Scripture was a head message—didactic. We asked folks for questions about barriers to taking the Bible as authoritative, and there were so many good ones I had to rewrite the sermon on Thursday.
N.T. Wright's notion of the biblical story as a play with five acts was extremely helpful. This enabled me to demonstrate how the nature of a story carries authority, and what it means to read the Bible literally.
The message on grace alone was aimed at the heart. One question I always try to keep in mind is, What are people talking about this week? That week, people were talking about the deaths of Steve Jobs and Al Davis. So the message was simple: How successful, tough, talented, attractive do you have to be? The stories of high "bar-setters" helped set the stage for grace.
"Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path." God speaks. Last week, Nancy and I spoke for World Vision. It was a great day, except Nancy lost her voice. For one entire day, she could not speak above a whisper. Imagine a spouse who cannot say a word. Whatever claim I made, she could not contradict. Whatever issue came up, I was guaranteed to have the last word. All she could do was smile and nod.
I thought on the way home, It would be unbearable if she lost her voice forever. I know her voice better than any other. I cannot imagine not being able to hear her voice again, not to hear her laugh, or talk, or encourage, or express love, or disagree, or argue and then make up again. It was bearable, even enjoyable, for one day. But for life it would be unbearable. It would be tragic.
Where there is love and relationship, there are words. That is why Israel loved the Scriptures. So we are asking these questions: Does God have a voice? Does God speak? This is the third sermon in our series called True North. Today we will look at what the Reformers called sola scriptura—Scripture alone, the Bible alone, is the authoritative Word of God.
We received e-mails from many of you this week regarding deep questions like, "Don't people who even claim to follow the authority of the Scriptures pick and choose whatever they want to observe?" Or, "Can an intelligent, educated, twenty-first century person, who believes in science and critical thinking, and is opposed to ancient practices like slavery, read the Bible literally and seriously, believing it has the authority to determine our beliefs and behavior today?"
The authority of Scripture
The Bible says all authority belongs to God. The Bible never claims to have all authority. Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." So when we talk about the authority of the Bible, it is shorthand for talking about the authority of God. When we say the Bible has authority, we mean God uses the Bible to express his authority, his truth.
The authority of the Old Testament was recognized by the people of Israel and by Jesus. Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Then we have the books in the New Testament. There is a myth that the New Testament books were arbitrarily chosen in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine. However, by the fourth century, the books that would become the New Testament were already circulating throughout the Roman Empire, and they were widely recognized as having authority. The early church believed these writings could be traced back to Jesus' disciples. The church also believed these writings were consistent with the known teachings and life of Jesus.
A century before Constantine, a church father named Origen wrote, "The four Gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are the only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the world." The canonization of the New Testament writings simply acknowledged what everybody already recognized.
A great Edinburgh professor named William Barclay put it this way: "It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so."
The apostle Paul said, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." In other words, the Bible is authoritative because it has been uniquely inspired, breathed out, by God.
The nature of the Bible
But the Bible is not the kind of thing people in our day picture when they hear the word authority. It is important to understand not simply what the Bible is, but what the Bible is not.
The Bible is not primarily a book of commands, and it is not primarily a book of doctrines to believe. It is not an owner's manual for Christian living. My car has an owner's manual. An owner's manual is not a book you read recreationally. You use an owner's manual to find out how to fix what is broken. I was driving up Big Sur with my son yesterday, and we had a flat tire on an isolated stretch. That is a moment when an owner's manual is useful.
Many people think the Bible operates like an owner's manual. What should I do when I have doubts? Page 32. What's the right belief about the end times? Page 64. How do I fix my kid? Page 12 to page 942. Have you ever noticed the Bible is not arranged like that? People get confused and frustrated when they realize it does not function like a manual. Furthermore, the Bible has commands and it involves doctrine, but it is not mostly that. It is basically a story. It has a narrative arc.
The Biblical story
Part of what the doctrine of inspiration involves is a belief that the Bible is primarily a story, because God chose it to be a story. There are good reasons for this. Stories carry authority, and if you do not understand this, you will never understand the Bible.
My mom was a little girl during World War II. She had three brothers: Hack, Jack, and Mack, and they all fought in the war. They had to follow a lot of commands: how to conserve fuel, and so forth. There were also a lot of beliefs tied in with the war. Who is on right side? What is good? What is freedom? What is the right strategy?
On 10 Downing Street in London was a bowtie-wearing, cigar-chomping, prime minister named Winston Churchill. He told a story:
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. If we can stand, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world and all that we have known and cared for will sink into the abyss of a new dark age. Let us, therefore, so bear ourselves that if the British Empire lasts a thousand years, men still will say, "This was their finest hour."
People responded, "I'll give my life for that." Of course, he told the story eloquently, but it was not the artistry of the words that mattered most; it was the reality of the story. All kinds of commands, beliefs, and regulations would be a part of that story, but they make sense only if you grasp the story.
One of the rival statements in our day, part of what postmodernity says, is, "There is no great story. It is all random. You are all flotsam with no meaning or purpose. But the Bible says there is a story. It is your story. It is my story. Our stories are part of a bigger story: the biblical story. And if you miss this story, you will miss your story.
Tom Wright says it is helpful to think about the story of the Bible like a play. It has a trajectory, and you can divide it into five acts. It is important to know what the acts are and where you belong in the story.
Act one: Creation
Act one is creation: Genesis 1-2. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." That is why stuff is here. That is why stuff is good. That is why we have beautiful days. The sense you have that it is good to be alive is true. Life is good. God made it. It is not just a wish. It is not an arbitrary thought. It is true like gravity is true.
When I was driving up Big Sur with my son, we could see the ocean, mountains, cliffs, humongous Redwood trees, and sunshine. It was beautiful. These things are good and pleasing because God made all creation. He loves all creation. He especially loves California, but he loves all of creation because he made it. Because he made it, it is good. We learn about this in Act one. There is a reason why you get seized, gripped, and moved to tears by the beauty of this world. This world is good. But that is not the whole story.
Act two: the Fall
Act two is the Fall. Act two runs throughout most of the Bible, but we find it particularly in Genesis 3-11. Because of the Fall, oppression, violence, and injustice flood into our world. Marriage gets messed up. Adam and Eve begin to fight. A man named Lamech becomes a murderer and the first polygamist. The institution of family is corrupted. Cain kills his brother, Abel.
Act two tells us things on earth are not the way they are supposed to be. There is authority in this part of the story, because rival stories say all these negative things are accidental. There is no ideal world. Things are what they are.
But the story of the Bible tells us the world was designed with a particular purpose, but things are not what they are supposed to be. There is a reason why things are messed up, and it is not primarily because of ignorance or lack of progress. This world cannot be fixed by education or technology. This world is broken because of sin, because of what has happened to the human heart. This is what we learn in act two
"The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5). Sin affects all of our thoughts. "The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled." How is God going to deal with his grief? How will he deal with the tragedy of the Fall? Will he give up? Will the story end in hopelessness?
Act three: the chosen nation of Israel
Act three begins with the little country of Israel. God has not given up on the story. He takes a man named Abram, and he changes his name to Abraham. God tells Abraham he will be the father of many nations. This is an important part of story. This part of the story does not tell us God loves Israel more than anybody else; instead, God is going to use Israel to reclaim all the people in creation that he loves. God says, "All the peoples of the earth, Abraham, will be blessed by you."
He starts with one little group and makes a covenant: "I'll be your God." He gives them structure for worship, because the world does not know God, and he gives them an identity and a way of life. But many people get confused by the laws and the culture. They wonder, What's the deal with all the strange laws and regulations in the Old Testament?
For example, there are seemingly strange regulations concerning food. Leviticus 11:29-30 says, "Of the animals that move about on the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink, and the chameleon." Most of us have never heard of those animals, except for the gecko.
There are other seemingly strange regulations about cleanness and uncleanness. Leviticus 13:40 says, "When a man has lost his hair and is bald, he is clean." Good for him. Who celebrates that one? If God wanted Israel to obey these laws, why don't we have to obey them? Did God change his mind? Is our obedience selective?
For example, Deuteronomy 14:10 says, "Any creature in the water that does not have fins or scales you may not eat." I'm sure there are a few of us here who like to eat lobster or shrimp. Deuteronomy 5:17 says, "You shall not kill." Of course, we take that one literally and seriously. Even if you have difficult relatives and you don't think they should be on the earth, you still take that law seriously.
Because of Christ's work, our relationship to the Law has changed. A Reformer named John Calvin said there are three categories of Old Testament laws. These are not perfect categories, but they are helpful distinctions. He said the first category is civil laws. Israel was a nation. They did not have a separate constitution or a set of state laws. Thus, part of the Old Testament contains laws about how Israel was supposed to function as a nation. There are regulations concerning property, sentencing, and so forth. But since the people of God are no longer restricted to one ethnic group or nation, we do not have the same relationship to those sorts of laws as the people of Israel did.
Calvin said the Old Testament also contains ritual laws—also called cultic or ceremonial laws. These are largely about worship—proper sacrifices, what is clean, what is unclean, and so on. But the sacrificial system anticipated Jesus' redemptive work. It was fulfilled by his perfect sacrifice on the Cross. God's anger towards sin and his love for sinners was expressed once and for all through Christ's death.
It would be unthinkable for us to go back to these arrangements. If we did, we would violate their purpose. They will always be part of our story, but we live in a different act. Jesus spoke directly about this. In Mark 7:18-20, Jesus says, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?" Then he said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him." Mark adds some commentary on this: "Thus, [Jesus] declared all foods clean."
Jesus was saying something was happening in and through him. He was explicitly declaring that old dietary laws will no longer apply to his followers. More than that, he was showing that the categories of clean and unclean, which were important for Israel's development, existed to help people develop the concept of clean hearts. Once they understood that, it was time for Jesus to usher in a new day.
The Old Testament also contains moral laws, like Deuteronomy 6:5: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." Leviticus 19:18 says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Moral laws show us how people with clean hearts live. The Old Testament is not concerned with mechanical legalism. Old Testament laws are ultimately concerned about people having clean and upright hearts. Sometimes people have this mixed up idea: the Old Testament is about legalism; the New Testament is about grace. But both Testaments are primarily concerned with the human heart.
Deuteronomy 24:20 is another seemingly odd law: "When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time." While this seems strange and irrelevant, it actually teaches us we should have compassion for the poor. Old Testament laws offer examples, or paradigms, for obedient hearts. The reason why farmers were told to leave olives on their trees was so pickers could glean the leftovers. The idea is this: Don't take all the olives for yourself, so you can get richer. Leave some for the poor, who have limited resources.
If you had fig trees, you couldn't say, "Well, the Bible only mentions olive trees, so this principle doesn't apply to me." No, that principle applies to figs trees as well as olive trees. It is an example that teaches us how to love others. So the Law was never about narrow, legalistic, mechanical rule-keeping. It was always about the heart.
But some people ask, "If the Bible is God's Word, why does it allow practices like slavery and polygamy? Many people in America 160 years ago used the Bible to defend slavery. People have used the Bible to defend all kinds of terrible practices. It is important that we understand the nature of the Bible.
The Bible is quite different from The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, we are told, was given to Joseph Smith in one piece from heaven. It simply descended on earth. The Bible is not like that. The Bible is not a timeless set of principles that descended suddenly from heaven. It is not a generic, cultureless, timeless blueprint for social utopia. It was written by particular people, for a particular audience, in a particular culture, at a particular time. And God is going to use that to move people one step forward at a time.
If you become a student of the Bible, you need to take that seriously. You will never understand it otherwise. Part of what you have to keep in mind is the moral baseline of the human race after the fall. This is a barbaric time. We sometimes think life is bad in our day, and of course it is, but we take for granted the civilizing influence of Christian ethics and practices throughout history.
The Bible was written in a barbaric age. Infanticide was commonly practiced. Women were generally treated like possessions. Masters could kill slaves without any accountability at all. Religion was mostly superstition because people did not know God. Religion sometimes involved temple prostitution and human sacrifices. So God started to work with people where they were, so he could move them along, one step at a time.
He did not give a timeless, cultureless, blueprint for social utopia; he started in the ancient world. In the ancient world, slavery was ubiquitous. There was no social safety net. There was no welfare system. If a man went into debt, selling himself into slavery was usually the only means of survival. A slavery-free society was not an economic or social possibility. That was the world in which the Bible was written.
But here is what the Old Testament did: it constantly limited and undermined the institution of slavery. The Law limited the power a master had over his slave. The Law says a master cannot inflict punishment on a slave. It says slavery cannot be perpetual. After seven years, a master must free his slave. The master actually has to give financial resources to his slave. We need to understand that sort of treatment of slaves did not occur anywhere else.
So compared to the ancient culture, the Old Testament is constantly undermining the practice and power of slavery. When you get to the New Testament, this is even more pronounced. Paul wrote a letter to a man named Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul told Philemon that instead of punishing his slave for running away, he should set him free.
Paul said to the church at Galatia, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Thomas Cahill says that is the first egalitarian statement in all of ancient literature. So over time, Christians looked at the trajectory of the Bible—how the Scriptures were changing the ancient culture—and they realize slavery is not the best expression of God's will for human flourishing. It ought to be wiped out.
The great anti-slavery movements were primarily led by Quakers and Methodists, people like John Wesley and William Wilberforce. There were also similar dynamics around issues like polygamy and the treatment of women.
However, this does not mean that we can finesse the Bible into saying whatever we want it to say, or to justify sinful, cultural trends. For instance, our culture has become more sexually permissive over the past 100 years. When it comes to sexuality, study the Bible. The Old Testament was actually more restrictive than the ancient Mesopotamian culture was. It says sexual intimacy is to be reserved for the covenant of marriage. It is ironic that in our day people talk about sexual chastity as an old-fashioned idea. However, historically, it is not old-fashioned; it was a radical idea presented by the Bible. The Bible introduced a new concept to a sinful world.
Act four: the life and ministry of Jesus
Act four is Jesus' ministry on earth. When Jesus began his ministry, he used the phrase "The time is fulfilled." What does that mean? It means everything God has been doing in previous acts has been leading to Jesus. Jesus is the climax.
After Jesus' resurrection, he is talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke tells us, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).
Now, the word all is important. The idea is not that Jesus talked about a few messianic predictions. Jesus explained to them that everything in the Old Testament led to his life and ministry. The whole story is about him.
The movie The Sixth Sense, with Bruce Willis, has a wild twist at the end. When you see the ending, your perspective on everything that happened beforehand changes.
So do you get what Jesus is saying? Everything, the whole story—creation, the Fall, the nation of Israel—finally makes sense in light of Jesus.
When we see phrases in the New Testament like, "According to the Scriptures," we shouldn't think there are only a few isolated texts that have been fulfilled by Christ. Rather, these sayings imply the whole biblical story is about God's redemptive work in Christ.
Act five: the church
This leads to act five, which is focused on the church. Jesus ascends to the Father, he sends his Spirit, and he sends his followers out on a mission to the whole world, to proclaim the good news of God's redemption and God's love for sinful humanity.
These people, the ones who went out to proclaim the gospel, loved the Old Testament. They knew how to properly interpret acts one through four, and they realized their place in act five.
A book titled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible came out a few years ago. It was written by a non-Christian named A. J. Jacobs. It is a funny book, and he is a great writer. He spent an entire year committed to obeying Bible commands as literally as he could.
He lives in New York. He grew a beard, dressed like Moses, and started to eat kosher. The Bible in the Old Testament commands stoning Sabbath-breakers, so he would prowl around Central Park, looking for offenders. He did not want to get arrested, so he would stealthily pelt them with tiny pebbles from behind and then look the other way. Of course, it is absurd, and that is the point of the book.
He writes, "Millions of people say they take the Bible literally. A 2004 Newsweek poll put it at 55 percent, but my suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing. People plucked out the parts that fit their agenda." Part of what he intends to show is no one can take the Bible literally.
Of course, many people do pick and choose, so his critique is fair. It is a humorous book, but he is dead wrong. He missed the whole point of the Bible. If, like he did, you treat the Bible naively, like a list of disconnected rules as though it was an owner's manual, you are not taking the Bible literally. You have to know the whole story.
In April 1945, the German army surrendered to the Allies. The war continued. Japan still fought, even though Germany had surrendered. At this point, Allied soldiers who had been fighting against Germany began rebuilding Germany, all during the same war.
Imagine somebody looking back on World War II and saying, "That's odd. Sometimes Allied soldiers attacked Germans, and sometimes they helped Germans. I guess they randomly picked and chose what they wanted to do." But that is not literalism; that is "stupid-ism." That sort of conclusion comes from misunderstanding the story.
We need to remember that we are in act five, not act three. Reading the Bible literally means you read it as the author intended. For example, act one, the creation story, tells us the sun was created on day four. Remember, ancient people were not stupid. Ancient people knew the sun was important to the day. If the writer was intending day to mean one of our 24-hour planet rotations around the sun, then the writer probably would have included the sun in the story from the first day.
The writer's concern was primarily about theology, not the chronology of creation events. In the ancient Mesopotamian culture, many people worshipped the sun. So part of what the writer is saying is don't worship the sun. The sun is not the creator; it is part of the creation. Worship the Creator.
If you're going to read the Bible intelligently, understand it is not a blueprint from heaven, outlining every fact about reality. The writer of Genesis was not writing with a scientific agenda to twenty-first century people. He was writing in a culture when people worshipped the sun. Read the Bible like any other book; try to discern what the author intended.
Don't be quick to assume that scientific discoveries contradict the Bible. For example, we know the sun is the center of our solar system. But Christians many years ago said that cannot be, because the Bible says, "The earth is set on its foundation and will not be moved."
Eventually, the theory that the earth is round and rotates around the sun was proven correct. And many Christians agreed. They realized the psalmist's point was about God's sovereignty, not astronomy. Sometimes in the church, in our concern for the Bible's authority, we can make hasty dogmatic conclusions without thinking about what God is trying to communicate to us.
Fortunately, in act five, we have been given a wonderful gift: the Holy Spirit. Jesus sent the same Spirit who inspired the biblical writers to illumine the Scriptures to us. This is sometimes called the doctrine of illumination. So there are two important doctrines about the Bible: the doctrine of inspiration and the doctrine of illumination. God inspired the Bible, and he has sent his Spirit to help us understand it. This does not mean we do not need to study the Bible because we will immediately receive perfect understanding. Rather, we are sinful. On our own, we tend to distort the Scriptures.
The apostle John wrote to a church where some people tried to lead others away from Jesus. He said, "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you" (1 John 2:27). Now does this mean that a church should not hire a pastor to teach? Of course not. This is essentially what John meant: Don't let someone who claims to have a special anointing distort the Scriptures and lead you away from Jesus. Every Christian has received the Holy Spirit. Simply pray and read the Bible together with humility.
The Holy Spirit is given to each Christian. This is why in the Protestant Reformation people went to great lengths to translate the Bible into common languages. They wanted everyone to read it. This book has authority.
We had an absolute heartbreak this week. Sofima is a wonderful member of our staff. Her husband Juan is involved with a great ministry to at-risk kids. They had a 27-year-old daughter, April, who died in a car accident this week. Only the Bible can speak with authority to a situation like this. When people are in crisis, in a hospital bed, in jail, this is the book that is read. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." When a marriage dies or when hope gets lost, God's Word has power. God's Word accomplished creation. His Word brings conviction of sin. It brings hope in times of despair, power in times of weakness, and guidance in times of darkness.
His Word is a lamp unto your feet. It is a light unto your path. It is the story that gives your story meaning. It is worth the time and effort to read and study. People complain that it is not easy. But what in life is deeply worthwhile and profoundly transforming that is easy?
Listen to it in your car. Whisper it to yourself when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Write down parts of it on sticky notes. Get a daily Bible-reading program. Get a Bible app for your smart phone. Do whatever it takes to become a student of the Bible.
Study it, meditate on it, memorize it, and ask questions about what it says. But most of all, do what it tells you to do. Submit yourself to this book. Don't be driven by your experience, by your desires, or by what is culturally trendy. Let your life be driven by the Word of God.
The Bible says that one day Jesus is coming back. It says that sin and death will finally be defeated. It says this world will be made radiantly and gloriously new. One day, act five will be over, and we will enter a whole new story. And according to the Bible, the new story is better than the one we experience now.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.