The absolute confidence Advent Christians have historically held concerning the Bible has always been two-fold: a confidence in what the Bible is (the word of God), and also in what the Bible does. Advent Christians realize that the Bible was never intended merely to inform them of God’s existence and standards, but it was designed to do more. It was designed as a tool to transform them into the people God wanted them to be. Many Advent Christians came out of other movements which stressed the role of the Holy Spirit in personal sanctification.
Human nature is not what it should be. The entrance of sin into the mix has corrupted our DNA and our minds and hearts as well. The human race in general – and every person in particular – is off kilter. We may not be as bad as we could be, but nobody is as good as we were supposed to be. We need help.
God has a wonderful plan for your life, but you do not qualify for it, and neither do I. Something is wrong inside – and that something has disqualified us all for the destiny God has in store. Christ’s death on the cross applied by faith removed the penalty of sin which restores our relationship with God, but it did not immediately transform us into the kind of people who are fit for eternity. God has provided his word to begin that process.
We need to apply the words and message of the Bible to our lives. This allows God’s word to transform us into who we were intended to be. The apostle Paul explained the mechanics of this process when encouraging Timothy to stay true to the faith and not follow the deceptions of apostates (2 Tim. 3). He explained that the apostates who would come would soon be shown to be fools (vs. 9), but that Timothy would be vindicated because…
“…from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
Paul called the difference that protected Timothy from apostasy wisdom. The source of that wisdom was the sacred writings, a term that Paul used to refer to the Hebrew scriptures. Now that the New Testament has been written, the term all scripture includes those writings as well.
Notice the elements of the process that Paul describes. Each element is crucial for transformation, and in each element the Holy Spirit actively uses the word of God to affect change.
Element #1: The light of “wisdom that leads to salvation.”
This is the foundational element. No one can be sanctified if they have not come to the cross and accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. One of the reasons for this prerequisite is that this event (conversion) is when the Holy Spirit comes inside the believer. He comes to us when we are saved, and he comes in order to sanctify. Skeptics often wonder why Christians make so much of the Bible when it does not appear to have much effect. But the transformation which Christians enjoy only comes after they have professed faith in Christ, not before.
The Bible does contain a great deal of wisdom which anyone can profit from. For this reason, a great many unbelievers who have obeyed scripture because it has been incorporated into the human laws of their state have profited from that obedience – gaining peace and perhaps even a measure of prosperity they otherwise would not have enjoyed. Much of the Old Testament Wisdom Literature (e.g. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) offer that kind of wisdom.
But Paul says the Bible also offers a different kind of wisdom. It is “the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” It is the ability to see beyond the mundane problems of the day and to recognize an ultimate problem: sin, and its resulting estrangement from God. The wisdom of which Paul speaks addresses that ultimate, eternal issue. It is an answer to a problem which is more important than those the secular world can address.
One of my wife’s relatives is a very talented artist. He painted a scene in which a young family is sitting at the table in their home, and are obviously in distress. The child has tipped over his glass of milk, and both parents are in tears. Yet, also in the painting is a window, and through the window observers of the painting can see what that young family does not. A giant funnel cloud from a tornado has formed, and is heading straight for the home. The family is so preoccupied with the spilled milk that they are oblivious to the real danger which is imminent.
That painting is a parable which describes the plight of so many people in this world. It is so easy to get carried away in search of answers to problems which appear to be important, but that pale in comparison to the issue of one’s eternal destiny. The only way to explain such ignorance is to admit that deception has occurred. The world has been deceived into believing that there is no eternal destiny. Therefore its population runs screaming from one spilled milk crisis to another.
Paul explains that Timothy is different because he has allowed the sacred scriptures to give him a different kind of wisdom – rather than a worldly wisdom he has been given a next-worldly wisdom.
The apologist Cornelius Van Til compared the scriptures to “the sun in the light of which all things are seen and without the light of which nothing is seen for what it is.”1 It sheds light on that ultimate reality, enabling believers to understand why Jesus had to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the world’s sin. But that light is not just a spotlight, focusing myopically on the crucifixion itself. The light is like a sun, which illuminates the whole world. So, for the believer, accepting Christ is the essential starting point of a new life, now ordered by the new realities revealed in God’s word.
Element #2: “Teaching:” The Light that Reveals True Doctrine.
After the Holy Spirit changes the heart through conversion – He gets to work immediately on informing the mind through teaching. He does not have to invent a new teaching for each new convert. Instead, he utilizes “whatever was written in former days,2” (i.e. The Bible) because the old truths revealed there remain true, and they are just as powerful as they always have been.
The difference between texts of scripture (which always carry God’s authority because they are God’s word) and human doctrines (which are our human attempts at answering our own questions)3 must be maintained. However, it is those texts of scripture which lead us to those doctrines, and that is God’s intention. He wants us to understand the world we live in, and the way we are supposed to live in it. He wants us to be aware of where our problems will probably come from, and what resources are available for us to deal with those problems.
Within the body of Christ (the Church), The Holy Spirit provides certain ministries who exist to help the believer grow in maturity.4 One of the roles of these equipping ministries is to help the believer to tell the difference between a teaching which has been cleverly devised to distract him, and a teaching which was intended by God to mature him. Each of these equipping ministries had a teaching component.5 Each of them drew heavily upon the word of God as the basis for their authority and ministry.
Legitimate Bible teaching ministries encourage people to follow Christ – not themselves. They submit to the ministries of other Christians rather that dominate through the pulpit or lectern. They can also tell the difference between essential truths (where Christians tend to be unified) and distinctive doctrines (where Christians tend to manifest diversity). Their emphasis is on the essentials, while not neglecting the issues that form the distinctives.
Element #3: “Reproof:” The Light that Exposes False Doctrine.
The same light that reveals true doctrine also exposes false doctrine. This appears to be the idea behind the word reproof.6 Part of the maturing process is submitting to the word of God, and allowing it to expose areas in ones understanding that have been tainted by deception or ignorance. Conversion to Christ involves a changing of one’s mind, but does not guarantee that false understandings and perceptions will be immediately eliminated.
The true disciple loves God with all her mind (Mark 12:30), and seeks to have her life transformed by the renewing of her mind (Romans 12:2). She will “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). She will “not despise prophecies, but (will) test everything; (and) hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21). She will allow the the light of the word of God to reprove her for false doctrines she has held in the past.
Element #4: “Correction:” The Light that Exposes Improper Behavior.
God teaches us how to live by giving us commands in the Bible. He has also provided the Bible as a kind of mirror, by which we can evaluate our behavior to see if it measures up to God’s intention. This is what James implies:
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless (James 1:23-26).
The mirror simile is a reminder that believers need to change their deeds as well as their doctrines. The Bible provides a means for both.
An Old Testament story illustrates this mirror role of the Bible: the story of king Josiah in 2 Chron. 34:1-21. While refurbishing the temple, one of the king’s officials found a copy of the Book of the Law of the House of the LORD, and brought it to Josiah. When Josiah realized that the priests and people had been disobeying God’s law, he tore his clothes as a sign of remorse. He realized that Israel had incurred God’s wrath for being disobedient. Josiah showed discernment in stark contrast to most of the Israelites of his day. A children’s book author has compared C. S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian to king Josiah because he “was considered a boy- king who rejected the wickedness of his ancestors and worked to restore his nation.”7 He realized that ignorance of the word of God had led to sin, and God was bound by his own nature to punish that sin.
Element #5: “Training in Righteousness:” The Light that Produces Proper Behavior.
The psalmist alluded to this role of God’s word in the longest psalm, 119:
“Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to keep your righteous rules” (Psalm 119:104-106). The Bible serves as a training manual, giving believers understanding that keeps them on the right path. The believer determines to keep God’s righteous rules. Just carrying around a copy of the Bible will do nothing.
In this New Testament passage (2 Tim. 3) Paul identifies the Bible as a means by which Christ trains believers in righteousness. In a previous letter he had encouraged Timothy to “train (himself) for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). He defined godliness in his letter to Titus, as “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
The Bible trains believers in righteousness in a number of ways: 1) by condemning improper behavior, 2) by defining and promoting proper behavior, 3) by illustrating each with biographical examples in both testaments, 4) by encouraging us to draw on the power available through the Holy Spirit for godly living, 5) by steering believers to congregate and have fellowship, which fosters spiritual growth toward Christ-likeness.
There is a sixth, more subtle effect on the believer as well. As she spends quality time every day in God’s word, thinking God’s thoughts, reliving God’s reactions, she cannot help but pick up more of God’s character. The exposure itself changes her, somewhat like a missionary is changed by living in another culture. The proverb GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) works the other way as well. Sustained exposure to the words and principles of the Bible is bound to affect the words that the believer says, and her thoughts and actions.
The Bible, then, is a tool that the Holy Spirit can use to change us. Like any tool, its usefulness increases the more it is used, because the user becomes more adept at its operation. This generation has a multitude of Bibles and Bible versions available. Only time will tell if they have been utilized properly.
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