Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1372
October 28, 2018 James 1:16-27
Rev. Dr. Ed Pettus
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“The Authority of Scripture”
Today marks our sixth year in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination. Over those six years I have been asked what prompted our church to move away from the PCUSA and into the EPC. I usually run through the expected answers of abortion, support for Israel, sexuality issues, but I also tell people that the main reason was the question of the authority of Scripture. Scripture has certainly taken a beating in our culture and unfortunately also in some parts of the Church, particularly when those churches seem to bow down to cultural views rather than biblical views. Those influences from the culture have either led to a twisted view of Scripture or an abandonment of Scripture altogether. Either way, it diminishes the authority given from those who no longer trust God’s Word on the issues that have caused division. But, it does not diminish the true authority of Scripture, which does not need our endorsement, nor those who seek to diminish its authority.
The Holy Scripture is its own authority. This is the Word that enables us to discern the issues of the day and if our belief in its authority is diminished, then our understanding of God’s will for any of these issues will become distorted. To honor our 6 year old journey in the EPC, I want to speak to the authority of Scripture, how we handle the Scriptures, and how we are called to respond in obedience to the Word.
The opening paragraph of the EPC Essentials of Faith state:
All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life. The infallible Word of God, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified witness to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.
This opening paragraph affirms our belief that the Word is its only authority, that it is Truth, and that we seek to submit to its authority in life and faith. Let’s look first at the self-attesting truth.
Self Attesting – God Breathed
Turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Paul writes about Timothy’s faithful following of Paul’s teachings. Following Paul’s teachings led Timothy, or course, to follow Jesus, as he says in verse 12, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus.” That life will lead to persecution because bad people who oppose Jesus will go “from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (3:13). Timothy and all who believe are encouraged to continue in what we have been taught and firmly believe from the sacred writings. The final two verses in our reading bring us to the understanding we have about its self-attesting, God breathed nature.
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.
All Scripture is breathed out by God. It is inspired by God. It needs no other authority than this. It stands on its own. Its authority is not subject cultural norms or to any outside authority. This means that rather than the Scripture being held up to any other authorities, that all things outside of Scripture are to be held up to the self-attesting authority of Scripture. Take for example the rise in sexual immorality as described in Scripture. Many of the changing cultural views are not subject to the Scripture, but the Scripture has been viewed differently by some through the mindset of culture. Many people in the world and the church accept sexual discord as normative rather than holding those issues up to the standards of God’s Word. They would rather change the traditional interpretation of God’s Word to fit the cultural belief rather than stand firm in what God has said for the good of humanity and society.
On the issue of abortion the world would rather debate the cultural assumptions of a woman’s right to choose abortion rather than adhere to the biblical truth that life is a gift from God, that God forms children in the womb. The right to choose becomes the standard rather than the woman’s obligation to care for and nurture that which God has formed in the womb.
When Paul writes that all Scripture is breathed out by God, it includes all the Scripture we have in our Bible. We receive it as holy and sacred and inspired. It is living and active (Hebrews 4:2). It is like no other word, no other book. The inspiration of Scripture is authenticated by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to our spirit as He opens our hearts and minds to receive and understand it. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:13-14,
13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the 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.
Ours is a spiritually inspired text that escapes the understanding of those without the Holy Spirit. The inspiration of the Word is from God and given through the work of human writers, but the Word itself is God-breathed. God uses humans and human words to articulate for us His revelation of existence and character and works culminating in the work of Christ for salvation.
Rightly Handling the Word of Truth
Understanding this is the living and inspired Word of God, we are called on to handle it rightly. Turn to 2 Tim 2:14-19.
14 Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. 19 But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
How do we rightly handle the Word of Truth? There may be two meanings here, one is to how we receive and study and interpret the word, the other is in how we teach and preach and share the word.
On receiving it:
One thing is to accept its authority. That helps! If people do not consider Scripture the authority on all things pertaining to life and faith, they will certainly not treat it with respect and dignity and will not handle it appropriately.
Another consideration is to work under the affirmation that Scripture interprets Scripture. One of my favorite disciplines in Scripture study is to learn how Scripture itself helps us to understand it. Take for instance the gospel of Matthew. Matthew quotes the Old Testament multiple times so that we can see how Jesus fulfills the prophetic words given. Much, if not all, of what is written in the New Testament is better understood when we study the Old Testament. The same may be said as well when the Newer helps us more fully comprehend the Older.
We can also pay close attention to those who have gone before us, apostles and Reformers and teachers and preachers who have shared their interpretations and shown how to handle the Word. These are not the authority, the Bible remains so, but they contribute to our understanding of the authority. They help us to handle the Word with integrity and wisdom.
Another way to rightly handle the Truth is to humble ourselves before it. We humble ourselves by being obedient to its Truth and by following the way of life it commands.
On sharing it:
We are called to preach in and out of season, ready to give a defense of what we believe (1 Peter 3:15). Paul shares later in 2 Timothy 4:1-4,
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. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
We rightly handle the Word when we teach what God has given unpolluted by the world and worldly cultural influences. We give the Word faithfully just as we have received it. There are far too many teachers and who distort the Word either either for their own gain or just to satisfy “itching ears”.
We rightly handle the Word when we carefully present the truths it reveals essential to life and faith. We rightly handle the Word when we skillfully present the God revealed. We rightly handle the Word when we respectfully present the salvation given in Jesus Christ.
Obedient to the Word
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
Notice the three uses of the Word in this passage. We have been brought forth by the word of truth. That is we are saved by this word, this gospel, this Word that became flesh and lived among us. We have within us the implanted word. God has written His Word on our hearts that we might do the Word and live the Word and proclaim the Word. The third is the perfect law, the law of liberty. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free (John 8:32). These three uses encourage us to be doers of the Word, that is, to be obedient to it because it is the Word of Truth, it is implanted in our hearts, and in its freeing perfection we persevere.
Jesus commands our obedience in passages like John 15 where he tells us to abide in His Word. In John 15:10 Jesus says, If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.
The Old Testament also calls for our obedience to the Word in many places. The most prominent is Psalm 119 which includes 176 verses all about the Word of God. Psalm 1 calls us to meditate on the Word day and night. What all of these passages show is that we demonstrate our view of the authority of Scripture by our obedience to it. Disobedience denies the witness of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The Authority of Scripture
The Holy Scriptures are the Words of God and our authority for all things related to our life and faith. Our view is that all things fall under the authority of Scripture and it is never the other way around. Everything we need for faith and life is found here. Everything we need for growth and discernment is found in this book. Everything we need for salvation and knowing God is here. We affirm that all of the Bible is authoritative.
You may have read or heard about Andy Stanley recently claiming that we need to “unhitch” from the Old Testament. It seems he is seeking to reach younger people who might be over sensitive to some of the hard passages of the Old Testament. I’m not sure how we can unhitch from our Scriptures and still present the gospel with integrity. His method or suggestion seems to be a bait and switch scheme and at worst a presentation of the Bible to those with “itching ears”.
It’s a good thing Jesus did not unhitch Himself from the Old Testament. Could he have ever said spoken of fulfilling the law and the prophets if he disconnected from the Old Testament? 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 (Matthew 5:17). If Jesus did not unhitch, nor should we!
We are a part of a denomination that takes seriously the authority of Scripture. For that we can be thankful. This is our authority. This is the revelation of God. This is breathed out by God. It receives this authority from no other source than God. We work to become obedient to this Word and to know the God who uttered these words. It is not subject to outside authorization, not reason, not science, not philosophy, not politics, not history, not archaeology, nothing.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). Everything we see and know has come from the Word first spoken at creation and the Good News is that the Word became flesh, and in this is our salvation, our hope, and our authority. Amen.