We have so far spoken of the Bible’s nature as the Word of God written; its authority as the very voice of God, even though written by men; and its inerrancy or infallibility because it is the Word of God himself who cannot lie. But we have not yet addressed the most fundamental question about the Bible. We don’t doubt that it claims to be the Word of God and Christians have long claimed that it is the Word of God, but Muslims say the same thing about the Koran. We say that the Bible is truth itself as the Word of God, but there are plenty of intelligent people who don’t agree with what the Bible teaches. They may, as we said last time, think the Bible has mistakes in its teaching – errors of fact – and they may certainly disagree with its doctrine and ethics. Feminists disagree with its teaching about men and women; many modern people decry the Bible’s sexual ethics; in a tolerant and pluralist age, a great many people repudiate root and branch its exclusivity, its teaching that Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we may be saved. There are a large number of people who think that the Bible’s doctrine of the last judgment and hell is the perfect example of cruel and unusual punishment. There are so-called experts who tell us we shouldn’t spank our children as the Bible tells us to do, that the Bible’s doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement – Christ suffering and dying in our place to satisfy the demands of divine justice – encourages child abuse, that the Bible’s strict views on marriage and divorce create unnecessary pain, that the Bible’s doctrine of capital punishment is barbaric, and so on. Christians may well think that to know the Bible is to love it, but more people would probably disagree with that statement than agree with it. The Bible produces a great deal of disgust among many in this world and always has. Here is Voltaire pouring his contempt upon the Bible and its teaching.
“May the great God who hears me – a God who certainly could not be born of a girl, nor die on a gibbet, nor be eaten in a morsel of paste, nor have inspired this book with its contradictions, follies, and horrors – may this God, creator of all worlds, have pity on the sect of the Christians who blaspheme him.” [Cited in P. Jensen, The Revelation of God, 13]
Far from being impressed with the Bible, Voltaire thought the teaching of the Bible in many respects immoral and also incredible. And there would certainly be a large number of learned people in our colleges and universities today who think the same way.
So, why are we so sure that the Bible is the Word of the Living God containing the absolute truth necessary for man to know: that it holds the key to reality and shows us the way to eternal life? This is, after all, the key question. Everything we believe as Christians, everything we believe about God, about ourselves, about salvation, we believe because we read it in the Bible. Our answers to the great questions of life and our unique and often controversial positions among the religions and philosophies of mankind all come from the Bible. We are staking a great deal on our conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God that endures forever. How do we know that? How can we be sure?
Well, different Christians have answered that question in different ways, very different ways. Roman Catholics say that we know the Bible is the Word of God because the church says that it is. But that simply leaves us with the same question: how does the church know that the Bible is the Word of God?
Our Westminster Confession of Faith, in answering this question, begins by saying that there are many indications in Holy Scripture itself of its divine origin. The Confession mentions such things as the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, and the consent of all the parts. A Christian, to be sure, finds all of that in the Bible and we have no doubt that everyone ought to be amazed at the Bible for those very reasons and, accordingly, ought to recognize that it is indeed the Word of God. But, of course, there are a great many people who don’t find any of that in the Bible. They are so far from finding the matter heavenly and the doctrine efficacious that they are positively offended by the Bible’s doctrine. What is more, they don’t think that all of the various parts of the Bible agree with each other. From Marcion in the 2nd century to G. Bromley Oxnam, the United Methodist Bishop of the 20th century, many have thought the God of the Old Testament an unworthy figure; in Oxnam’s words, a “dirty bully.” The God of the New Testament is a vast improvement!
But the Confession goes on to say that notwithstanding these internal witnesses to the Bible’s divine origin, our conviction that the Bible is the Word of God does not rest on these things but upon the “inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” It is John Calvin who worked this argument out for all times in his Institutes. He too admits that there are many reasons why men are without excuse for not recognizing the Bible to be the Word of God. There is objective evidence that ought to persuade any reasonable man that the Bible is unlike any other book in the world and that it bears the marks of its divine authorship on every page. But he goes on to argue that trying to establish the divine nature of the Bible and its divine authority by such arguments amounts to “doing things backwards.” [I, vii, 4]
Our conviction regarding the Bible is not produced by a papal pronouncement, nor does it rest on an argument, either by inference or deduction. It is rather a belief, a conviction, a knowledge that the Holy Spirit himself produces in our minds. As Calvin puts it:
“…the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.” [Ibid]
Calvin continues, “Some good folk are annoyed that a clear proof is not ready at hand when the impious…murmur against God’s Word.” But, says Calvin,
“Let this point…stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning…. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork!
“…we feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there. By this power we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey him, yet also more vitally and more effectively than by mere human willing or knowing.
“Such, then, is a conviction that requires no reasons; such, a knowledge with which the best reason agrees – in which the mind truly reposes more securely and constantly than in any reasons; such, finally, a feeling that can be born only of heavenly revelation.” [II, vii, 4-5]
You see Calvin isn’t saying that there are not reasons to believe the Word of God: there are many and men will be held without excuse for failing to reckon with them. The Christian conviction is eminently reasonable. But our conviction does not come from such arguments. It comes directly from the voice of God speaking directly to us in and through the Word.
This is what John means when in his first letter (2:20) he writes:
“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.”
This is what Paul is talking about when in 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 he discusses precisely this question: how does someone come to understand that the message of the Bible is true? And his answer is that such truth is “spiritually discerned,” it comes in words “taught by the Holy Spirit.” The man without the Spirit does not accept the truth but men with the Spirit will.
But what is meant by this? How does this happen? Well what Calvin does not mean, what the Westminster Confession of Faith does not mean is that a person comes to a conviction about the Bible first. The Holy Spirit in some way proves to him that the Bible is indeed the Word of God and, armed with that new conviction, he starts to read the Bible and learns there what he is to know about God and about salvation. It doesn’t happen that way. Our confidence in the Bible, Holy Spirit given and Holy Spirit worked as it is, comes in train with our encounter with Jesus Christ himself. Let me give you several examples.
At a crucial turning point in the Gospel history, about a year before the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, the Lord asked his disciples the fateful question: “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, speaking for the group, replied, “You are the Christ [the Messiah], the son of the Living God.” Peter had gotten it right. But what did Jesus say in response? “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
Now think about that response for a moment because this is what Calvin means by saying that our confidence in the truth of Holy Scripture rests on the unshakeable foundation of a revelation from heaven. Peter hadn’t experienced a trance. He hadn’t seen a vision. He had not heard a voice from heaven saying that Jesus was the Christ. He had witnessed the Lord’s ministry. He had heard his sermons and seen his miracles. But the same could be said of many others and they did not have the same convictions about Jesus that Peter had come to have. What happened was that the Holy Spirit had used all that Peter had heard and seen to create a conviction, a certainty, a knowledge in Peter’s mind and heart. I would think it a virtual certainty – it certainly is the unmistakable impression of the Bible’s narrative – that Peter had no knowledge of this work of the Holy Spirit within him. He didn’t think the Spirit of God was changing his mind or opening it up to knew convictions. It just came to him what all of this meant. In our modern parlance, we would say that “it dawned on him” that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, no one less. [Gordon Clark, “How May I Know the Bible is Inspired?” Can I Trust My Bible, 27] It dawned on him that was the truth about Jesus and that is what still happens to people today.
Paul and Zacchaeus and others in the New Testament had like experiences. They didn’t come first to a new conviction about the Bible and then from their reading of the Bible come to believe in Jesus. They, in their different ways, realized that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that realization, they later learned, had come from the Holy Spirit. Others saw Jesus, even witnessed his miracles, and never drew the conclusion that he was the Messiah; Paul and Zacchaeus, on the other hand, knew it to be true as surely as they knew their own existence. Now, to be sure, once this realization dawned on them, they saw very clearly how many more good reasons there were for their faith in Jesus and their confidence in the Word of God, but that conviction about Jesus first simply dawned on them. The Spirit of God put it there as surely as he produced the Bible in the first place. Whatever else we may say about this, this is not only the way it happens but the way it must happen. Man in sin is hostile to God and to the truth about God and unless God overcomes that hostility man will not believe no matter how many innocent facts must be murdered to justify his unbelief. But, in any case, this is the way the Bible says that confidence in the Bible comes and this is the way we see it come. God the Spirit works in and through the message of the Bible to bring a person to this conviction. God has spoken to him in the Bible: that is how he knows it is the Word of God! God reveals himself and with that revelation comes the knowledge that the Bible is the Word of that living God.
Many of you have read the books and articles of J.I. Packer, the English churchman and theologian who combines in himself two things that are rarely found together in the same man: a world class theological mind and an attractive and luminously clear prose style. His book Knowing God became an instant classic and, I believe, will be avidly read two hundred years from now, but he has written many other books and articles of great value, many for a general audience, some for specialists.
Packer had been raised in a typical British home in Britain of the 1930s. His parents were Church of England people and their son was confirmed in the parish church but the issues of personal salvation were never raised. In the early 40s, in his last years of high school, Packer encountered the writing of C.S. Lewis, especially the Screwtape Letters, and heard his radio addresses, later to be published as Mere Christianity, and felt a growing interest in the truth of Christianity. At this point in his life he did not actually own a Bible of his own. Shortly before he went off to Oxford, a school friend of his was converted and began speaking to him of the importance of saving faith, which somewhat mystified Packer because his friend obviously thought that whatever this saving faith was he didn’t think Packer had it! The friend urged Packer to attend the meetings of the Oxford University Christian union when he arrived at the University and so Packer did.
It was the years of the Second World War. Packer was unable to serve in the military because of a childhood accident – if you’ve ever met Dr. Packer you can still see the dent in his forehead that is the lasting result of that accident – and so went directly to University. Early in his first term he attended a service put on by the Christian Union but he recalls nothing of the message. It left him unmoved and uninterested. But two weeks later he attended another event sponsored by the Christian Union. The first half of the sermon, rather ponderous he remembers, left him unmoved. But the second half was electrifying. In it the preacher described his own conversion at a boy’s camp. There had been some thefts and some of the boys and leaders had stayed up all night to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more. During that night one of the camp workers had challenged him as to whether he was a Christian or not. That personal challenge had led him to admit that he wasn’t really a follower of Christ and that honest admission had led to his personal commitment to Jesus. As the preacher spoke Packer realized for the first time that he was not a Christian. We might say again that it dawned on him that he was not a Christian. He knew the church; he knew its doctrine; but he was an outsider; he had never come in. Where did that realization come from?
At the end of the sermon the preacher appealed to the small group of students to come to Christ and Charlotte Elliot’s famous hymn Just As I Am was sung. And so, about one hundred feet from where George Whitefield committed himself to Christ in 1735, Jim Packer made his own personal commitment to the Lord. He went back to his room and wrote a letter to his parents telling them what had happened to him. The preacher had accomplished what Packer’s school friend had not been able to: to convince him that he did not have saving faith and that he needed “to come in.” Was it the preacher who had convinced him of his need for true faith?
He was now a Christian. What now? Packer’s initial attitude to the Bible was typical of someone who had grown up in the fairly skeptical outlook of the English schools of those days. He tended to think of the Bible, he recollects, as nothing more than “a mixed bag of religious all-sorts, of which one could not accept more than the general outlines.” Although he now read the Bible with a new devotional frame of mind, he continued in his “partial skepticism” for several weeks. Six weeks after his conversion, he attended a Christian Union Bible study on a Saturday evening, at which a visiting speaker – Packer recalls him as an eccentric old man from Cambridge (it was Basil Atkinson, certainly eccentric but very learned and by all accounts a saintly man) – presented an exposition of one of the chapters of the book of Revelation. At the beginning of the meeting Packer was a general skeptic; by the end he was convinced that the Bible was the Word of God. It had dawned on him as he heard the Bible expounded that the Bible was not man’s word about God but was God’s own Word to man. Later, after studying Calvin, Packer would describe his own experience as what Calvin called “the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.” [The above from A. McGrath, J.I. Packer: A Biography, 8-19]
That is how people become convinced that the Bible is the Word of God. It dawns on them that it is. And that realization is from the Holy Spirit. Afterwards they add reasons, but it was not the reasons, it was the Holy Spirit speaking in and through the Bible that convinced them, that proved to them that this book was the very voice of God.
John Stott, tells a similar story about his own conversion and its aftermath with regard to the Bible. He had become a Christian suddenly at Rugby, the storied English boy’s school. All sorts of things dawned on him as a result. Walking down a street in Rugby he was suddenly conscious of a new awareness of being in love with others and in love with the world. Schoolboy antagonisms and antipathies had dropped away. “I had no enemies left,” he remembers. He also realized, without having to be told, that he now belonged to a large family, all others who believed in Jesus as he did. When he worshipped at the Rugby chapel the words of the ancient hymns that were sung suddenly were full of meaning they had never had before. But the greatest realization of all concerned the Bible.
Like Packer, Stott had read the Bible in his life up to the point at which he became a Christian. But he read it superficially and with little personal interest or understanding. And he was a skeptic about much of its teaching as he had been taught to be. But now, suddenly, the Bible was a new book to him. He put it this way:
“Before I was converted I used to read the Bible every day but I did not begin to understand it. After I received Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, one of the first ways in which I knew that something had happened to me was that the Bible became a new Book. As I read it God began to speak to me; verses became luminous, phosphorescent. It was as if I heard the very Word of God through the Scriptures.”
“I read the Bible daily before I was converted, because my mother brought me up to do so, but it was double-Dutch to me. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was all about. But when I was born again and the Holy Spirit came to dwell within me, the Bible immediately began to be a new book to me. [This and the above from T. Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Biography, vol. i, 98-99]
This is what is meant by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. A person is not conscious that this conviction is coming to him through the work of the Holy Spirit – he or she only realizes this afterward – but it dawns on him or her that the Bible is the Word of God because the message penetrates the soul and carries with it self-authenticating power to change thoughts, convictions, and feelings. In that message one meets God himself and no one can deny God!
William Grimshaw, the Great Awakening preacher, says a similar thing about the Bible as he viewed it before and after his conversion. He told a friend that
“…if God had drawn up his Bible to heaven, and sent him down another, it could not have been newer to him.”
Now, to be sure, it isn’t always like this. There is not always this dramatic before and after. Many Christians, like myself, grow up believing in Jesus Christ and in the Bible as the Word of God. That conviction came early to us. But its origin is the same. If you ask us how we know the Bible is the Word of God, our answer would be the same as J.I. Packer’s or John Stott’s: the Lord convinced us. He spoke to us in the Word and speaks to us still. You cannot deny the existence of the sun when it is shining its brilliance all around you and when you are baking in his heat!
So the question: how do I know that the Bible is true, in actual fact and experience is virtually the same question as: how do I know that the gospel is true, that God is real, that Christ is the Savior and the Son of God. And the answer to those questions is that God has revealed himself to me. People may wish for more than that; may wish for an answer that bears a greater similarity to a mathematical proof with a QED at the bottom. But, there are no such answers to any of the great questions of human existence. God has spoken and it should surprise no one that upon that fact rests the certainty of those to whom he has spoken. The question is whether one really believes that God does speak and does reveal himself to men by the Holy Spirit.
Is this not why it has been through the ages such a common phenomenon that men and women have been converted hearing or reading the Word of God? If God speaks in and through that Word no wonder the soul hears and believes! The church father Cyprian became a Christian reading the prophecy of Jonah. Augustine, you remember, experienced the light of truth flood into his heart reading the last verse of Romans 13. William Cowper became a Christian reading Romans 3:25. J.C. Ryle, the saintly 19th century Anglican bishop and writer became a Christian hearing a minister read out Ephesians 2:8. The conviction came with, in, and through the Word of God because the Holy Spirit himself spoke through it. And that is why it is an unassailable conviction.
Here is another great difference between Christianity and Islam. Islam does not permit any critique of the Koran. If you ask why this or that, if you raise your problems with its teaching, you risk being branded an infidel. The Christian church, however, has always subjected Holy Scripture to the severest analysis. Its problems and difficulties have been openly discussed through the ages. The church has even been willing to admit that there are problems that it is, as yet, unable to solve. And the reason it feels free to say this is because there is no question in its mind about the divine origin of the Bible, or its authority, or its inerrancy because believers have heard and continue to hear the very voice of God in the words of that book. One cannot get round that reality. There is no getting round it.
It is precisely the inward witness of the Holy Spirit that accounts for the fact that the Bible is the very Word of God to many people and an impenetrable, inhospitable, and gloomy book to many others. So Luther said to Erasmus.
“Leave us free to make assertions, and to find in assertions our satisfaction and delight; and you may applaud your skeptics and academics – till Christ calls you too! …The truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it.” [Bondage of the Will, 70]
And I have found this remarkably true many times. Children in this congregation will come up to me and thank me for a sermon or comment on some point that I made in the sermon; while educated adults will tell me that they couldn’t understand what I was saying. In the Holy Spirit’s hand the Word of God becomes clear and powerful. Without the Holy Spirit it remains just words written in a far away place in a long ago world. So when Paul says to the Thessalonians that the gospel came to them “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” he does not mean that power, the Spirit, and conviction are three separate and different things, but that when the Holy Spirit accompanies the gospel, the words that are communicated powerfully impress themselves upon the heart and the mind.
No one can appeal to an authority higher than God himself. So when God speaks, all uncertainty is resolved. So it is not a circular argument to say that we believe that the Bible is the Word of God because God himself has told us that it is. For while the Bible says that it is the Word of God it is not the Bible’s saying so that convinces us but God himself saying the same thing to us in and through that Word. That is not only what the Bible teaches us to be the case, it is what we everywhere find to be the case. It is the reason why people come to believe the Bible and why they are sure it is the Word of God. They have heard the Holy Spirit himself speak in and through it.
Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.