My topic this morning is “How to Give the Bible Functional Authority in your Speech and Writing.” Let’s begin by explaining the terms in this title.
Clarifying the Topic
By authority I mean the right to direct. The right to guide. The right to decide what is good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, true and false. There are degrees of authority ranging from the absolute which only God has to the authority of a six-year-old whose mother authorizes him to take his three-year-old brother to the park.
We don’t give the Bible its intrinsic authority. The Bible has its authority from God. God is the ultimate authority in the universe since he made it, and thus owns it completely, and understands it perfectly, and is infinitely worthy of its allegiance. So God is the ultimate authority in the universe.
Therefore, when he speaks, his speaking has supreme authority over our lives. And the Bible is the place where God has spoken. “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). In the Bible “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Thus they said things like: “the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
So we don’t give the Bible its intrinsic authority. It has its authority from God quite apart from any decision on our part. But in another sense we do give the Bible it’s functional authority in our lives. Which simply means, we submit to its intrinsic authority. We give in to it. We acknowledge it. Own it. Embrace it. Approve it. And, at out best, we delight in it. In our highest moments we say with Jesus, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). We are satisfied in happy obedience to God’s beautiful authority. The strength of our souls and the satisfaction of our hearts is to walk in willing step with the absolute authority of God.
So this message is mainly an effort to help us speak and write in a way that gives the Bible its functional authority. What does it mean practically to speak and write under the authority of the Bible?
Two Passages of Scripture
To set the stage for my practical suggestions let’s look at two passages of Scripture.
1 Thessalonians 5:12–22
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
Verse 20–21: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” Almost everyone assumes, when they read these commands that the prophecies we are to test are the prophecies of others, not our own. And that is surely what Paul primarily intends. But the principle holds for your own as well. If you are about to say something you believe is from the Lord, test it, and if it proves not to meet the test, don’t say it.
One reason I think I am warranted in drawing out that implication is that, when Paul was dealing in prophesying in 1 Corinthians 14 he told them to control their own speech, at least in the timing of it. Let two or three speak and only one at a time, then he adds, “and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). In other words, you can control your own Spirit-given utterance, and should not assume that everything you believe the Spirit gives you should be spoken.
So we know that someone speaking by the Spirit has the capacity to control that speech and make a decision whether the word should be spoken or not.
So if we go back to 1 Thessalonians 5:20f, (“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good”), we know that someone can control whether his own prophecies should be spoken or not, even if they are from the Holy Spirit. How much more now would we say that a person can test his own thoughts to discern whether they are indeed from the Holy Spirit—whether they are “good.” If a person tests his thoughts and finds them to be of the Spirit and should still sometimes decide for the good of church order not to speak them, then how much more would you not speak the thoughts you test and find to be not of the Spirit and not good for the people.
And if we ask, “By what shall we test the thoughts that come into our mind?”, Paul gives a clear answer in 1 Corinthians 14:37, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” In other words, your claim to be a reliable spokesman for God’s truth is tested by whether you put your thoughts under the apostle’s writings. If you claim to speak with true prophetic insight, you will acknowledge that the words of the apostle have higher authority than your thoughts or your prophecies. If they disagree with the apostle’s thoughts, your thoughts are not true prophecy.
And if this is true of spontaneous ideas the come to your mind possibly from the Holy Spirit, how much more true is it for all other thoughts that you come to by your own reasoning. So when we put 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (Test all things, and hold fast to what is good) together with 1 Corinthians 14:37 (Reliable spokesmen for God submit their thoughts to apostolic authority), we can say: Every thought that comes into your mind, by way of spiritual intuition, or rational reflection, should be spoken or written only if conforms to apostolic truth.
Now before spell out some practical implications of this, let’s look at one more text.
1 Peter 4:10–11
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Peter tells us how to be a good steward — a good manager — of God’s grace when we speak and when we serve. When we serve, we will manage grace well by relying on the strength of God from outside ourselves. And when we speak, we will manage grace well by relying on the oracles of God from outside ourselves. In other words, if you are a steward of God’s grace in serving submit yourself to God’s power. If you are a steward of God’s grace in speaking, submit yourself to God’s word.
How Do We Give Functional Authority to the Bible?
So when we put all this together, what emerges is that we should give God’s word—the apostolic word, the oracles of God, the whole Bible—functional authority in our speaking and writing. And the way we do this is by taking note of the thoughts that come into our heads, whether by intuition or reasoning, and then testing them by what Scripture says, before we speak them or write them.
So what I want to talk about in the time that remains is how we do that and what good effects may come from it. How do we give the Bible functional authority in our speech and writing? And what will be the effect if we do?
In a sentence what I recommend for giving the Bible functional authority in your speaking and writing is that you cultivate the habit of mind that asks, as every debatable sentence forms in your mind, “Is there a passage in the Bible that supports this sentence?” and “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”
I know it’s unrealistic to say that every sentence that passes through our mind should be tested this way. For one thing, it would take too long. And for another thoughts often come to fast and too interwoven to be separated out at that moment and tested. So I am saying: test the debatable sentences that arise in your mind. And part of your maturity and wisdom and audience awareness will be the ability to make good judgments about what sentences are debatable.
But the main point is: apply the positive test: “Is there a passage in the Bible that supports this sentence?” And apply the negative sentence: “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”
And the reason I say “sounds” contrary to your thought is that you may decide in the end that it may sound contrary and not really be contrary (e.g. Luke 14:26, “if anyone does not hate his mother”), but being aware of the apparent contradiction will make you a wiser and more compelling communicator. I’ll give you some examples in just a moment.
The Effects of Giving the Bible Functional Authority
But first, what effects will it have if you cultivate this habit of mind? My answer is that your speaking and your writing will be strengthened in five important ways: they will have 1. more depth, 2. more precision, 3. more authority, 4. more faith-awakening 5. and God-glorifying effect.
Let me give you two examples of what I mean and then draw out from them why these five effects are so.
Suppose the thought rises in your mind to speak in a small group lesson or write in a blog or tweet: “You are forgiven in order to forgive; you do not forgive in order to be forgiven.” You like the sound of it. You think it may be helpful in your lesson. So you run it through your Bible knowledge: Is there a passage that supports this. Yes, Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Good, so you start to write it down in your notes. But you stop and ask: “But is there a Bible passage that sounds contrary to this?” You run it through your Bible knowledge. “Yes there is.” What about Matthew 6:14-15, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That sure sounds like: We must forgive in order to be forgiven.
You give the Bible its functional authority in your life by thinking: “I have work to do. I have to figure out how this all fits together. I know there is no contradiction between Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 6:14–15. But I need to think this though and dig down to the unified root of these texts.”
And when you do that work your speaking on forgiveness will have more depth (down to the root) and more precision (not glossing over difficulties but describing different meanings in different verses precisely) and more authority because people will see your grasp of Scripture is not superficial but solid.
Or consider another illustration. The thought rises in our mind: “The gospel is not the message of what we must do for God, but what he has done for us. Grace never says to us, If you do this, I will you do that. It says, Done.”
Then you put this to the positive test: Is there a Bible passage that supports this? Yes. “It is finished” (John 19:30). And many others (e.g. Hebrews 7:27; 9:26). But what about the negative test: Is there a Bible passage that sounds contrary to this? Yes. There are many “If I do, God will do” sentences in the New Testament.
• “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). • “If we walk in the light . . . the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7). • “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12). • “If we draw near to God, he will draw near to us” (James 4:8).
So it’s not accurate to say, “Grace never says, ‘If you do this, I will do that.’” So we take the time to think through: In what sense is the work “done” by Jesus with nothing to be added? And in what sense does God have the right to say “Do,” and make us promises that are conditional on the doing? And in thinking this down to the root, you go far deeper into biblical truth, and you become more precise and careful in your expression, and therefore what you say takes on a greater authority, because spiritual people will see this kind of submission to all of scripture and they will be more ready to submit to what you say.
So let me sum up what we’ve seen, and make my plea one more time. The Bible has its own intrinsic authority because it is God’s word, and he is the ultimate authority in the universe. He has the final right to tell us what is true and false, good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly.
Our calling as his creatures, and all the more as his children redeemed by the blood of Christ, is to give that Bible functional authority in all our speaking and writing. One way we do that is to cultivate the habit of mind that asks, as every debatable sentence forms in our mind, “Is there a passage in the Bible that supports this sentence?” and “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”
What happens when we cultivate this habit is that we are driven from surface differences down into deeply rooted unity; and, therefore, our speaking and writing take on more depth, more precision, and more authority.
And our words increase in faith-awakening and God-glorifying effect, because the word of God is rendered more fully and more faithfully in what we say. And God has said, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And Paul prayed that the word of the Lord would “run and be glorified” (1 Thessalonians 3:1). Where the word of the Lord is more fully and faithfully rendered, it will be more fully glorified.
The faith of the world and the glory of the word, is worth giving your lives for. So cultivate the habit of giving God’s word its fullest functional authority in your speaking and writing.