READ : 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Christians believe the Bible is the very Word of God. But God has given us his Word for a purpose. It is intended to do certain things in our lives, to perform a specific set of functions, and those functions are the subject of this message based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
The Christian attitude toward the Bible is well-expressed in a phrase from the first epistle of Peter. Speaking of the word of the Lord, the apostle urges us to, “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The Bible isn’t just a book; it is our life’s nourishment. With it, we mature and grow strong; without it we weaken and die spiritually.
If you’ve ever had a newborn child in your house, you know that when the baby is hungry, nothing else will satisfy it but its mother’s milk. You can play with it, sing to it, offer toys to it, and it will just keep screaming until it is fed. And that, says Peter, is exactly the attitude we should take toward the Bible. If we want to live, if we want to grow up to salvation, we need this Word, we must cry out for the Book and be satisfied with nothing else.
One of the key texts for understanding why the Bible is so important for us is found in another New Testament letter:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17, nrsv
In earlier programs of this series on the doctrines of revelation and inspiration we have considered what it means to say that the Bible is “inspired by God” or, to translate Paul’s phrase literally, that scripture is “God-breathed.” Because scripture is inspired, it is the authoritative Word of God. The Bible reveals to us the truth about God, the world and ourselves. It teaches the way of salvation, and it sets forth the response of faith and obedience which we must offer to God’s Word.
THE FOUR USES OF SCRIPTURE
Today I would like to focus on the second part of Paul’s statement. Because all scripture is the inspired word of God, says Paul, it is useful; that is to say, it is helpful, beneficial, and profitable. The Bible is good for something. In another of his letters the apostle uses this same word, useful, to refer to physical exercise. We all know that exercise and physical activity are beneficial to our body’s health; just so, the Bible can be good for the health of our inner selves, provided we use it.
Paul mentions four different things to develop his thought, four purposes for Scripture. The Bible is useful, he says, for teaching, for reproof or rebuke, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
The order in which the apostle mentions these four items is significant: it is an elegant literary construction. The first pair of terms refers to the Bible’s regulation of belief and the second pair to its instruction concerning our behavior. The first term is positive, the second is negative, the third is negative, and the fourth returns to positive.
So teaching means that the Bible sets forth Christian doctrine in positive terms, or what we must believe, if we are to embrace the Christian faith. To take the best-known and most obvious example, John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.”
Negatively, the Bible also functions to reprove, or rebuke, or refute false teaching. First Corinthians 15, with its magnificent exposition of the doctrine of the resurrection, was written to correct the mistaken notion of the Corinthian Christians that there was no bodily resurrection from the dead.
Paul’s third term, correction, means primarily to correct wrong or sinful behavior. The Bible exposes our sin, the way the prophet Nathan did to King David in the Old Testament. When it speaks of the attitudes and actions which are displeasing to God, it goes on to convict us by saying to our hearts the same words the ancient prophet used: “You are the one!” You are guilty!
Finally, and positively, scripture is useful for training in righteousness, for discipline in right living. It not only tells us right from wrong “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105) – the Bible also gives us the strength to follow the right path: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word . . . I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).
PROBLEMS IN USING THE BIBLE
So the Bible is a wonderful aid for our Christian life and growth. It teaches us the way of salvation through Christ; it shows us both how to live and what to believe in order to be pleasing to God. It gives us the positive things to think and do and the negative things to avoid and reject.
But it isn’t always easy to use the Bible “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” I can think of at least four obstacles standing in the way of the right use of the Bible and preventing people today from realizing scripture’s intended purpose in their lives.
The first is widespread Biblical illiteracy. There was a time in western society when everyone knew the Bible quite well, even if they did not always believe or obey it. But today people’s ignorance of even the most basic contents of the Bible is nothing short of stupendous. It’s ridiculously easy to find examples from public opinion surveys to illustrate this point.
Earlier this year I read about a poll reporting that the majority of pastors in one denomination could not name the Ten Commandments. Perhaps not surprisingly, that particular denomination was involved in a serious departure from biblical truth. How can we follow the Bible’s teaching if we don’t read it, if we don’t even know what it teaches?
A second obstacle to the proper use of the Bible is our contemporary rejection of outside authority. Increasingly in our society each person has become his or her own authority. There is a great reluctance to impose any views from anywhere on anyone, or to accept them from outside as applying to oneself. Even to suggest that a person might need to subject his or her own beliefs, practices or opinions on religious or ethical matters to a higher authority is to meet fierce opposition.
Because of this attitude, we are failing on all four counts of scripture-use. With teaching, we tend to belittle the importance of doctrine and theology today. As for refuting error, our easy-going relativism says there is no absolute truth. And when it comes to challenging and correcting sin or training for godly living, try talking in plain terms about that with the average person today and you’ll get your head bitten off. “No one can tell me what I should or shouldn’t think,” they insist defiantly. “No one has the right to tell me how to live my life!”
Really? No one? Not even the God who created us? Doesn’t the artist have the right to determine what his picture should look like? Can’t the composer tell the musicians how to play his song?
Here’s the third problem in using scripture rightly. It’s the tendency some people and groups have to make the Bible say what they want to hear, rather than what it intends to teach. A number of years ago the evangelical writer and editor James Sire wrote a very important book called Scripture Twisting in which he identifies and documents 20 different ways people misuse the Bible. These include: inaccurate quotation or translations of key passages, ignoring the context of a verse, mistaking figurative for literal language, deliberately slanting the biblical evidence, or selective citation of only a few texts rather than listening to the whole biblical witness, and finally, speculative or esoteric readings of prophetic sections.
It’s not enough just to claim to be teaching from the Bible; even the devil quoted scripture when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. We must read and use the Bible humbly, openly, honestly, wholly and entirely, interpreting it in company with the whole church through the ages. The great majority agrees on the great majority of biblical teaching.
And finally, if the Bible is to do its work in our lives, if it really is to prove useful to us, we need to let it have the last word in every debate and on every question. Some groups have suggested that they have another book to add to or complete the Bible’s revelation. Some people have claimed that they can receive direct words from God that are more immediate and alive than the written words on scripture’s pages. I like what the great 19th century preacher C.H. Spurgeon said about that:
God’s word to us is in Holy Scripture. . . I am plucked by the sleeve almost every day by crazy persons and pretenders who have revelations. One man tells me that God has sent a message to me by him; and I reply, “No, sir, the Lord knows where I dwell, and he is so near to me that he would not need to send to me by you.”
Another man announces in God’s name a dogma which, on the face of it, is a lie against the Holy Ghost. . . . the Holy Ghost never contradicts himself. If your imaginary revelation is not according to this Word, it has no weight with us; and if it is according to this Word, it is no new thing. . . .Scripture itself cannot be broken; we cannot take from it nor add to it. . . . The Scripture alone is absolute truth, essential truth, decisive truth, authoritative truth, undiluted truth, eternal, everlasting truth. Truth given us in the Word of God is that which is to sanctify all believers until the end of time. God will use it to that end.