If you walk into any evangelical or pentecostal church, you are unlikely to find a pastor or church leader who will deny the authority or inerrancy of the Bible. Those parts of the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura are not under direct attack in today’s churches. However, a lesser known part of sola scriptura, namely the sufficiency of Scripture, is being mercilessly thrown under the bus. Churches may affirm the authority of the Bible, but if you look at the content of preaching in many places, the Bible is not front and center. Anecdotal stories, pop psychology, managerial techniques, tips for living, the latest prophecy or word of knowledge, or whatever good idea the preacher came up with on Saturday night is the main attraction. The Bible is only perfunctorily consulted and used to support main ideas that come from someplace else. The Bible serves as merely a source of inspiration and a launching pad to get started in preaching, but does not set the direction and content of what is preached. No one comes out and says it, but it is implicitly affirmed that just teaching the Bible isn’t really enough to help people grow in Christ and face the challenges of modern life. The unspoken message in many places is that the Bible may be sufficient for getting saved, but to really grow in the Christian life, what we need is….. [fill in latest trendy idea or technique here].
So is the Bible really sufficient? Is it enough? Or do we need to heavily supplement from elsewhere in order for God’s people to know God and know what he wants us to do?
To answer those questions, we need to ask, “Sufficient for what?” What do we mean by sufficiency and what are the limitations of that sufficiency? Since the Bible is our ultimate authority, let’s see what the Scriptures have to says about their own sufficiency.
First of all, we learn that the contents of the Bible are profitable for equipping the people of God for every good work. Not just some good works, but every good work.
“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.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17 ESV)
The implication in this verse is that the Bible informs and equips all of our efforts to obey and serve God. It is the Bible that sets the agenda for what we are to believe and do as Christians. In order to know who God is and what He requires from us, we look to the Bible, and not to other sources. As Peter points out in his first epistle,
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV)
There are couple important things to notice in this verse as it pertains to the sufficiency of Scripture. First, we notice that God has given us all things for life and godliness. This sets the extent of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not contain all there is to know about everything in the world. But rather, it contains all that we need for “life and godliness.” In other words, the Bible is a sufficient guide in teaching us to live a holy, Christ-honoring life. And how is it that the Scripture teaches us these things? It is through “the knowledge of Him,” namely Christ. The key to the Christian life is knowing Christ. Lots of people talk about Christ and write books about Christ, but the only infallible, inerrant, inspired source of knowledge about Christ is the Scriptures. Many people want to hear from God, and to know what He wants to say to them today. But as Martin Luther once said, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.”
Scripture positively affirms that the Bible is the place to hear God’s voice because it is the the place where the Son of God is revealed. The writer of the book of Hebrews begins his letter with these words:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV)
If we want to know God and what he requires of us, and if knowledge of Christ is the key to life and godliness, and the Scriptures are the perfect revelation of Christ, then why would we want to look anywhere else? If Christ is perfectly revealed in Scripture, why would we want to seek God in other places than Scripture? Why would we make anything other than the Bible the mainstay and center of our teaching and preaching in the church?
With that said, we do need to add some qualifiers to the sufficiency of Scripture. In “The Case for Traditional Protestantism: the Solas of the Reformation,” Terry Johnson points out that “Scripture is sufficient to do what it is designed to do but not sufficient to do what it is not.” The Bible is designed to reveal Christ and equip us for all godliness and every good work, but it is not designed to tell me tomorrow weather, why my wife is mad at me, or which job offer I should take. Summarizing some articles by David F. Coffin and T. David Gordon, Terry Johnson qualifies the sufficiency of Scripture in three ways:
- “The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal the way of salvation only in conjunction with the work of the Holy Spirit, both in regeneration and illumination.”
- “The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal the whole truth of God only in conjunction with God’s revelation in nature.”
- “The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal the truth and will of God only in conjunction with the right use of reason.”
The Bible is sufficient to reveal Christ to us but unless the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, our sinful minds will refuse to behold that revelation.
The Bible is sufficient to reveal to us the particulars of Christ and salvation, yet the things that God has created also reveal to us truth about God and the universe (see Psalm 19, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinth. 11:14).
God has given us both general revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture), but we need to use our minds to understand, interpret, and apply the things that God has revealed to us. One of the reasons people end up denying the sufficiency of Scripture is because they expect God’s truth and His specific will for their lives to be handed to them in a neat, detailed package like some kind of divine download. But Jesus expects us to know God and His will by thinking hard about what God has already said. “Jesus condemned the scribes for not having deduced the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead from the verse, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Note the steps that reason must take to reach the doctrine of resurrection: ‘am’ is present tense, Abraham therefore must be alive; if alive, the dead must be raised (Matt. 22:23-33).”
In sum, the Scriptures affirm that they are sufficient for knowing and obeying God so far as they are used in conjunction with the regeneration and illumination of the Sprit, with general revelation, and with reason. The Bible is sufficient, but that does not mean that we must stick our fingers in our ears and block out the rest of the world and the Holy Spirit in order to think we are depending on the Scriptures alone. However, we must keep other sources of knowledge in their correct places, and realize that the work of the Spirit, the knowledge we gain from creation, and our own reason are tools that God uses to point us back to the perfect revelation of Christ in the Scriptures. For that reason, the Bible must stay front and center in the teaching and preaching of the church.
(This post is the first of a 3 part series. Part 2 will look at reasons why people deny the sufficiency of Scripture, and part 3 will suggest ways to promote the sufficiency of Scripture in our churches.)