What True Presbyterians Believe: Sola Scriptura
II Timothy 3:14-17
For four generations now, members of my family have served in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. For nearly forty years now, I have given my life to the service of Christ through the Presbyterian Church. I love the Presbyterian Church. However, over the last 15 years particularly, many within the Presbyterian Church have begun to devalue and diminish the great beliefs upon which the Presbyterian Church was built. I am not one of them. Therefore, over these next several weeks, I wish to focus upon the core beliefs, the essential tenets of our great Presbyterian/Reformed faith in the hope that you will join me in standing firm for “What True Presbyterians Believe. ” Today I focus upon Sola Scriptura — the Bible alone.
Years ago when our children were young, we decided to get them one of those jungle gym backyard swing and play sets. It had everything: swings, rings, monkey bars, a slide, a ladder, a trapeze. The children were going to love it. I knew it, and they knew it! Well, to make a very long story short, this wonderful play set came in a box . . . unassembled. You can’t believe how unassembled it was! There were an unbelievable number of parts: bars, brackets, chains, bolts, lugs, locknuts, hooks, washers. On top of this great smorgasbord of parts was a small booklet of instructions which I, in typically “macho style” tossed aside. I then spread all of the parts out in the backyard and started to work. I worked at it for hours, but I couldn’t get it together. One attempt ended with not enough parts; another with parts left over. The gathering frustration was intensified by the constant barrage of questions from the children: “Daddy, are you about through? Daddy, why is it taking so long? … Daddy, it didn’t take Missy’s father this long to put her swing set together!” About four hours into this project, with my religion vanishing like the light of day at sunset, I noticed a bright yellow card lying on the bottom of the box in which the swing set had come. Printed on the card in large block letters were these words: “By the way, when all else fails, read the instructions!”
I think that is something of a parable for us. Life is like that, isn’t it? It’s hard to put it together when we fail to read the instructions. That’s why the Bible is so critically important for us. It’s our survival kit, our instruction manual. It has the answers we long for and the solutions we need to make life work the way it’s supposed to work. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that finding life’s answers is as easy as falling off a log or thumbing through the yellow pages. It is not easy. It requires hard work, but it can be done. That is the message Paul was trying to deliver to his young son in the faith, Timothy. These words are among the very last words Paul wrote before he was executed. I want us to look at them carefully because of what they teach us about the Bible: II Timothy 3:14-17.
First, Paul makes it plain that the Bible gives us instruction about knowing God.
Paul writes in verses 14 and 15, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the Bible enables us to know God. The purpose of Scripture is not to know Scripture, but to know God. You can know Scripture without knowing God, but you cannot know God without knowing Scripture.
There was a time when the preacher could stand in the pulpit and make an incidental reference to a Bible story, and everyone in the congregation would immediately know the story to which he referred. No more. Certainly that is true in the Presbyterian Church today. Once upon a time, Presbyterians were called “The People of the Book,” but no more. Frankly, I think it’s the fault of many ministers in the Presbyterian Church today. You see, there are too many ministers today who read books about the Bible but who do not read the Bible itself. There are too many ministers who proclaim their own words rather than the Word of God. There are too many ministers who seem to believe that it is a sign of intelligence to call into question the authority of the Bible. There are too many ministers who try to water down or rationalize away the teachings of the Bible which they do not wish to hear or which do not fit their personal agenda. As a result, we are in danger of rearing a generation of young Presbyterians who do not know the Bible and who do not build their lives upon its matchless teachings. Unfortunately, as the Bible states “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”
Let me be specific at this point. I want to encourage those of you with small children to take the Bible seriously. Don’t let your Bible gather dust in your home. Read it to your children every single day. It doesn’t have to be a long and involved process. The Bible is one of the most incredible collections of riveting stories ever compiled. Read those stories to your children. Especially I encourage fathers to do this. If there is no father in your home or if the father has no spiritual life, then mom, by all means, you do the reading. But please let your children grow up hearing the Bible read to them every day. We are certainly learning how the words of the Quran are being pounded into the minds and hearts of Muslim children all over the world today. Wake up call. So parents, plant the Word of God in the heart of your child for then at a very tender age, they will begin to grow in faith, and they will begin to develop a love for the Lord.
I want you to understand that, while there may be those in the Presbyterian Church today who do not claim the Bible as the absolute authority and the infallible Word of Almighty God, that is not true for me, and that is not true for this church. Here we claim the great truths delivered in our Presbyterian Confessions of Faith. Let me share with you what true Presbyterians believe about the Bible. The words are drawn from the Book of Confessions which is the center piece of our Presbyterian Constitution. I lift up just a sampling for you. The Scots Confession (1560): “As we believe and confess the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make perfect the man of God, so do we affirm and avow their authority to be from God and not to depend upon men or angels.” The Second Helvetic Confession (1566): “We do not admit any other judge than God Himself who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647): “The authority of the Holy Scripture for which it ought to be both believed and obeyed dependth not upon the testimony of any man or church but wholly upon God (Who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.” The Confession of 1967: “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures which are received and obeyed as the Word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” And then there is this authoritative word passed by The Presbyterian General Assembly in 1923 and never retracted or renounced: “It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide, and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error.” That’s what Presbyterians have always believed—that this Book is the Word of Almighty God. Sadly now, there are those in the Presbyterian Church seeking to diminish the authority and inspiration of this Book as the absolute, infallible, unchanging, unerring Word of God. Not I. Not this Church. We choose to stand with the great Confessions of Faith which have arisen from the Presbyterian Church to declare that the Bible is the Word of God written, the only infallible rule and source for everything we are to say, believe, and do in life. Yes, I believe that, and I tell you I would be willing to lay down my life for that belief.
Paul then goes on to say that the Bible gives us instruction in sowing truth.
Paul writes in II Timothy 3:16, 17: “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, if we sow the seeds of truth in our lives by studying the Bible then our lives will be radiant and righteous. Some time ago, I was in a hotel room in another city. I decided, just for the fun of it, I would try to note all of the influences that surrounded me just in that room. I looked over on the TV. There was a placard encouraging me to spend $7.95 to watch a movie, 3 of the movies on that list were X-rated. No one would ever know, right there in my room — influence #1. Next to the TV was a small refrigerator. They called it a mini-bar. Inside was a vast array of alcoholic beverages to suit any taste. So simple, just drink it, and it will be charged to your room—influence #2. I opened the drawer on the bedside table. There was a phone book. I opened to the listing under “escort services,” a half column of them, just one phone call away, just one credit card number away—influence #3. After pondering how vulnerable I was to the pervasive pressure of evil in that room, I went to the other bedside table and opened the drawer. There it was. I knew I would find it—a Gideon Bible, full of God’s truth and God’s presence. Suddenly, I felt safe again. It occurred to me then that that hotel room experience was a microcosm of what we have to face every day in life. Where do you go when you are surrounded by the whispered lure of evil in your experience? Dear friends, go to the Bible.
John Wesley said, “I want to know one thing—the way to heaven. God himself condescended to teach that way. He has written it down in a Book. Oh, give me that Book at any price. Give me the Book of God. Let me be a man of one Book.” Isn’t that a great phrase? John Wesley understood that this Book contains the truth. It contains all we need to know about what is right and what is wrong in life. Say it in your own experience, “Let me be a man or a woman of one Book.”
Well, let me finish with this . . .
Billy Graham tells how, early in his ministry, he was disturbed by those who were questioning the truth and the truthfulness of the Bible. Adding to his frustration was the advice of a good friend who had accepted some of the more liberal understandings of the Bible. It came to a head one day in 1950 when these two were together at the Forest Home Conference Center in the mountains outside of Los Angeles, California. As they were talking together, his friend said to him that if he continued to claim and to preach his old views of the Bible, he would be limited to a very narrow interpretation of the Scripture and thus his evangelistic ministry would be curtailed. People would write him off as being irrelevant to the times. Well, Billy Graham was so disturbed by all this that after supper instead of going to the evening service at the conference center, he went out for a walk on the hillsides. There under a star-filled sky, he tried to decide what would be the direction for his life. It was a moment of crisis for him. Here is how he describes it: “I dueled with my doubts, and my soul seemed to be caught in the crossfire. Finally in desperation, I surrendered my will to the living God recorded in the Bible. I said, ‘Lord, many things in this Book I do not understand, but You have said that the just shall live by faith and so here and now I by faith, I accept the Bible as Your Word. I take it all. I take it without reservation. Where there are things that I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light. If this pleases You, then give me the authority to proclaim Your Word from Scripture.’” Within 6 weeks after that moment, Billy Graham’s first crusade began in Los Angeles, and you know what has happened since.
My beloved, the decision to simply accept the truth of God revealed on the pages of the Bible is a decision which is ours to make. I have made that decision. I stand with what true Presbyterians have always believed. That is why whenever I stand to read the Bible, I always say as firmly and as categorically as I can, “This is the Word of God.” I believe that. This church believes that. I call you to believe it, too.