Why should I be concerned with doctrinal nuances? Isn’t that stuff just for preachers? This is a common question, or at least a common attitude, with which I have come into contact as a pastor. The richly diverse and meticulous language of Scripture, and a careful theology of Scripture, is often seen more as professional jargon for clerics than every day food for the souls of every day people. But nothing could be further from the truth.
It is important to recognize that the Christian life can be a series of ups and downs, confidence and doubts. However, the faith that God gives us in Jesus Christ is (praise God!) not based on our feelings or even on our faithfulness. Neither is God’s love toward us. This is important to remember, because discouragement is one of the most effective tools in Satan’s bag of tricks. In times, however, when I find myself (or at least feel to be) spiritually cold, it helps when I get back to the basics Lombardi-style (“Gentleman, this is a football”).
Imagine you are about to move to a new area. Not just a new location, but a whole new part of the world—surrounded by a new culture and new faces, and without any familiar friends or contacts. Besides the personal, emotional challenges of such a move there would obviously be some significant spiritual challenges to anticipate. Whatever spiritual habits you have in place will be changed or challenged; the fellow Christians by whom you’ve been encouraged and to whom you’ve been accountable won’t be nearby to help you.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking we must choose between knowledge and passion; but in fact the two feed each other, especially in relation to Jesus (2 Peter 3:11-18). The more we learn about Jesus, the more we will love and trust him; on the other hand, it is impossible to genuinely love or truly trust someone you don’t even know (Matthew 11:28-29; Romans 10:14). This is why knowledge is so important. And this is why every Christian should be a dedicated, life-time learner. A heart cannot be renewed by knowledge that the head never took in.
From the outset of any discussion about God, his being, and his attributes, there must be the open admission that we cannot possibly fully comprehend an infinite God with our simple and finite minds. Yet, because God has revealed certain things about himself in his Word, the Bible, we must strive to describe God so as to communicate and understand who this God is and how he reveals himself to us. While we cannot fully define God, our best description is nonetheless necessary.
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). Paul’s exhortation to be regularly testing the sincerity and purity of your own faith is not given in order to make you doubt your salvation every other day. Faith in Christ is exactly that: faith in Jesus’ finished work, not in our own faithfulness. However, we are to be regularly doing the hard work of honest self-appraisal.
Although the writing of the Bible spanned some 1,500 years and now even the most recent book of the Bible is almost 2,000 years old, the unashamed contention of historic Christianity is that the Bible is error-free from start to finish. The Bible makes numerous and uncompromising claims as to its own authenticity and divine origin (over 3,800 such claims).
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, interpretation is part of almost every human’s daily life. Communication would not be possible without a common understanding and means of interpreting. However, even with years of practice, we can all misjudge or misinterpret someone else’s—even our own spouse’s—words, actions, or facial expressions. This danger of misinterpretation is even greater when we come to the Bible.
The doctrine of the “perspicuity of Scripture” is a well-known and important teaching within the Christian faith. This doctrine refers to the fact that the Bible is clear, that it communicates perfectly. All scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible can be understood by anyone, barring mental handicaps (2 Timothy 3:15). This doesn’t mean it is easy to correctly understand; rather, the Bible requires careful, thoughtful study (2 Peter 3:16). Equally vital as the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity, however, is the balancing consideration of the “perspicacity” of the reader.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). Paul is speaking here to Christian believers, to those who have trusted their past, present, and future to Jesus as their Savior and Lord. And Paul reminds Christians that the Holy Spirit within us now gives us the true witness that we are his. The Spirit, it is important for us to recognize, is not lying to us. This is not merely some pep talk that the Spirit gives us, in order to make us feel better:
For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you … your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything (1 Thessalonians 1:8). Paul, writing to the church at Thessalonica, commends them for their “acoustics.” The message they had received was being reverberated throughout their community, and beyond.
True faith is an act of the will, in the sense that God gives us a new will in the new birth, along with faith (John 1:12-13; Ephesians 2:8). God does not make us robots; he successfully woos our hearts. Faith is not merely an act of the will, because it is also the act of the Holy Spirit in our souls, drawing us to Jesus Christ, and bringing us to trust in him as he is revealed in his Word (James 1:18).
While knowledge of the truth is very important, it is possible to put so much emphasis on the letter of it that the application is forgotten. Paul reminds us that knowledge alone just puffs a person up, while knowledge according to love actually builds up. So here is a thought for pastors, especially, and by implication the people in the pew as well.
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another (Romans 15:14). Paul, writing to everyday and average Christians in the church at Rome, insists that every Christian should be “able to instruct.” Paul gives two criteria for our being ready and able to give the right kind of counsel: being full of goodness, and being filled with knowledge. We can’t help others draw closer to God if we are not ourselves walking closely with God.
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Notice that Paul couches the amazing Christian claim that “Christ died for our sins” in both Scriptural and historical language: “in accordance with the scriptures.”