PreCon 02: The Word of God

“… do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God …? Do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this doctrine in life and death …?”

When you make public profession of faith, you pledge allegiance to the Word of God, that is, to the contents of the Bible. You will say to God and to his church: Yes, I believe that this book teaches the absolute truth. Not only do I believe it, but I will put it to practice in my life until I die. I will listen to the Lord and obey his instructions.

Why the Bible?

Why would you pledge to believe this book, out of all the books in the world?

First of all, the Bible tells us the gospel truth we need to know. We need to know who God is and how he should be worshipped. We especially need to know about Jesus Christ, our Saviour. We need to know how we can have this salvation, and how to live a holy and God-honouring life. The Bible tells us all these things. The Heidelberg Catechism (LD 6 q&a 19) says it this way:

From where do you know this?

From the holy gospel,
which God himself first revealed in Paradise.
Later, he had it proclaimed
by the patriarchs and prophets,
and foreshadowed
by the sacrifices and other ceremonies
of the law.
Finally, he had it fulfilled
through his only Son.

Note that the catechism calls the entire bible “the holy gospel”. All parts of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, are gospel, that is “good news.” In Gen. 3:16, Adam and Eve were promised the coming of a Saviour. When God called Abraham, he promised a blessing for all nations. The sacrifices at the Tabernacle and Temple were a picture of forgiveness of sin. The prophets promised that God’s anointed Saviour would come. And, of course, the New Testament records what Jesus said and did, and explains how he saves us. Thus, the Bible is the book with essential information about our Saviour and our salvation.

Second, the Bible is a powerful book. Paul wrote (Rom. 1:16-17):

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Elsewhere (2 Tim. 3:15-17), he said:

… the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The message of the Bible has saving power, if it is received in faith. And even when the Holy Spirit gives people faith, he uses the gospel. If ever you feel that your faith is weak, or that you are unsure if God is really there for you, the best advice is to continue using the Bible. It is there where you can expect him to speak to you and to strengthen your faith.

Third, the Bible is inspired and inspiring truth. In the quote from 2 Tim. 3 above, you see that Paul called the Bible “breathed out by God”— in the Greek language, theopneustos, “God-breathed”. This means that God himself gave the Bible writers the right ideas and the proper words. The Bible says (2 Pet. 1:21):

No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Not only was the Holy Spirit at work when the Bible was written. He is also at work when the Bible is used. The work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people is connected to the “means of grace”, one of which is the reading and preaching of the Word of God.

Fourth, the church has been blessed by using the Bible for centuries. Many Christians have lived before us; and they have all told the same thing: God spoke to me in the Bible, and in the preaching of the message of the Bible. Our Belgic Confession, art. 5, says: “the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God.” We do not believe in a vacuum but stand in a long history of Christian believers. It would be foolish not to listen to their experience!

But it would go too far to say that the Bible has this great authority because the church says so. The church has an important role to play, in proclaiming and preserving and defending the Biblical gospel. But ultimately we don’t believe the Bible because the church says so; we discover for ourselves its truth and power. The Bible proves its own worth!

The perfections of Scripture

It should be clear that the Bible is a unique book. Reformed theologians have summarized its “perfections” in four points.

  1. Authority. The Bible has the ultimate say-so in the life of Christians and in the church. There are other important documents, but they all take second place. (We’ll talk about that next time.) Whenever things are unclear in the church, we go back to the Bible to find out what it has to say.
  2. Necessity. As we discussed above, we need the Bible to tell us about our salvation. As Reformed churches, we believe it is also important that every Christian uses the Bible intimately: personal readings, Bible studies, and listening to preaching. The word of God is one of the “means of grace”, which the Holy Spirit uses to grow faith. It is foolish and disobedient to ignore the Bible.
  3. Perspicuity (= “transparency”). The Bible’s message is clear. It is not a code book that needs deciphering. Some parts may be hard to understand (even for preachers and theologians!) but what we need to know is clearly told to us. When you use the Bible with a faithful and humble heart, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit gives you the understanding you need.
  4. Sufficiency. The Bible is enough. We do not need priests or ministers to explain what it really means; all we need to know is clearly there. Nor do we need extra revelation from the Spirit. Even the highest authorities of the church have no business teaching things that are not clearly based on the Bible.

What is the Bible?

The Bible is a collection of 66 books, written over a vast period of time. It is good to realize that God did not drop a complete Bible out of heaven; rather, he worked through history through prophets and apostles to write the Bible book by book.

The Old Testament was written between 1700 BC and 400 BC. Most of it is in the old Hebrew language (a few chapters are in Aramaic). The Old Testament consists of roughly four sections:

SectionWrittenContentBooks
Law of Moses, Pentateuch, Torah1700 BC by MosesThe origin of God’s covenant people, the law of God.Gen., Ex., Lev., Num., Deut.
(Other) historical books1500 – 400 BCThe history of God’s covenant people in the Promised land, until after the exile.Jos., Jdg., Ruth, 1/2 Sam., 1/2 Kings, 1/2 Chron., Ezra, Neh., Esther.
Writings, poetic and wisdom books1000 – 400 BC by David, Solomon, othersSongs of praise, wise sayings, other wisdom.Job, Ps., Prov., Eccl., Song
Prophets (major and minor)700 – 400 BC by various prophetsProphecies warning of judgment and promising deliverance.Major: Is., Jer. (Lam.), Ezek., Dan.
Minor: Hos., Joel, Amos, Ob., Jon., Mic., Nah., Hab., Zeph., Hag., Zech., Mal.

In general, the Old Testament proclaims the gospel of Jesus in promises, pictures, and prophecies.

The New Testament was written between 50 AD and 90 AD, in the Greek language. (In that time, Greek was the language used for international communication.)

SectionWrittenContentBooks
Gospels60 – 90 AD by “evangelists”The words and works of Jesus.Mat., Mark, Luke, John
Acts70 AD by LukeThe history of the early church and Paul’s mission.Acts
Pauline epistles50 – 65 AD by Paul (except perhaps Hebrews)Explanation and application of Jesus’ words and works to the churches.Rom., 1/2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., Col., 1/2 Thess., 1/2 Tim., Titus, Philemon, Heb.
General epistles50 – 65 AD by various church leadersExplanation and application of Jesus’ words and works to the churches.James, 1/2 Pet., 1/2/3 John, Jude
Revelation90 AD by JohnA symbolic vision about the church age and its end.Rev.

This list of books that are received by the churches as the Word of God is called the canon of Scripture. The definition of the canon took some time. Read more about it here.

We don’t have the original manuscripts of the Bible. Instead, we have thousands of old copies made over the centuries. Some of these copies contain only a few verses; other copies are complete Bible. The oldest copies go back to around 150 AD; many are more recent. One of the challenges for Bible scholars is that these documents show small differences. It is not always easy to determine what the original text may have been; but there is no doubt about the core message of the Bible.

Because the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we need translations. Today there are many good Bible translations. They differ a bit, because translators use different translation philosophies. Some stick more closely to the “literal” text; others aim a clearer English. Translations like the NIV, ESV, NKVJ, and CSB are quite good and can generally be trusted. If you really want to learn more about a confusing passage, it is helpful to consult a commentary, where Bible scholars often explain the original text and why its translation may be difficult.

Conclusion

If you profess your faith in a Reformed church, you wholeheartedly say that the Bible is a life-giving book of truth. The world around you will disagree. At best, they think the Bible contains some inspirational stories. But you have learned to see the Bible as the Word of God, powerful and inspired, telling you all you need to know for your salvation.

Make sure to get to know this book well. You should make Bible reading and Bible study a part of your daily routine. Most Christians read the Bible when they get up and before they go to bed, as well as at one or more meals. This is a good practice; work on it!

Discussion

  1. Summarize the four perfections of Scripture in your own words.
  2. Many people use a devotional to suggest Bible readings and explain them. What are the advantages of this? Why may it also be good to read the Bible for yourself without using a devotional?
  3. “I can know God by looking at his world and by meditation. I don’t really need the Bible for that.” What would you say to a person who makes that claim?
  4. Find some Bible passages that speak to the beauty and importance of the Bible.

Homework

Memorize: LD 6 q&a 19 and 2 Tim 3:16-17.

Read: The canon of the Bible and apocrypha.

Journaling: Make a schedule (daily and weekly) of the times when you read or study God’s Word. Do you do it alone or with others? Do you just read the Bible or use other resources? Don’t just write what you are doing now, but also think about ways to improve it. Be realistic!

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