“I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:26–27)
There is a body of teaching that Paul calls “the whole counsel of God.” It is so crucial that he says the people’s blood would be on his hands if he had not declared it to them. Verse 26: “I am innocent of the blood of all.” Why? Verse 27: “Because I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
Which means that this summary of truth, called “the whole counsel of God,” was so essential that without it a person would likely perish. I think that’s what Paul’s words imply when he says that their blood would be on his hands. He’s not saying that this body of truth can keep them from shedding their blood in persecution or martyrdom. On the contrary! Possessing and believing this whole counsel of God would, in fact, cause that kind of blood-shedding. What he’s saying is that this body of truth will keep them from perishing, keep them from final judgment.
Acts is not the only place where Paul spoke of this whole counsel. He had at least two or three other ways of describing it. For example, Romans 6:17: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” There is a standard or pattern of teaching that Paul assumed all the believers in Rome had come to know and believe.
Another example is 2 Timothy 1:13–14, where Paul says to Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words (Greek hupotuposin exe hugiainonton logon) that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (ten kale paratheken fulaxon).”
So now we have at least four terms describing this body of teaching: 1) “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), 2) “standard of teaching” (Romans 6:17), 3) “pattern of sounds words,” and 4) “good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:13–14).
So in the early church, as the New Testament was coming into being through the apostolic word, there was a unified, complete, summary of the truth that Christians needed in order to be saved and to live a life that would lead to heaven. This body of truth is not identical with the Bible — some of the Bible wasn’t written yet. But we can only know this body of truth from the Bible. The Bible is the only authoritative explanation and illustration — across centuries of redemptive history — of the whole counsel of God.
Paul draws out the connection between the Scriptures and the whole counsel of God. He describes the whole counsel of God as “the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17). And then he makes the connection by saying that it is the God-breathed Scriptures that are profitable for teaching (2 Timothy 3:16). So it’s the Scriptures from which we can distill this body of teaching, this whole counsel of God. If we lose the Scriptures, or the authority of the Scriptures, we will lose this body of truth called “the whole counsel of God.”
That’s the tragedy of those who surrender the authority of the Scriptures. When you disown the truth of Scripture, you sooner or later lose the the pattern of teaching that surrounds and explains and upholds the gospel of the cross and resurrection. And with that, you lose salvation.
Therefore, the surest way to secure the whole counsel of God for the generations to come, so that their blood is not on our hands, is to secure the Scriptures. And specifically to secure them in the hearts and minds of our children.
For the last two years, I have focused in a greater way than ever before in my life on the question of how we know that the Christian Scriptures are completely true, and then, in view of that, how we should read them. The overflow of that focus and that thinking is now in two books. The first was released. The title is A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness.
So what I would like to do in our time together is help you, as parents and leaders of children’s ministries, to see how the Bible authenticates itself in the life of a Christian — so that your own confidence is unshakeable. Then I’ll try to apply this same process of coming to know the truth of Scripture to our children, and give some guidance for how to help them know that the whole Bible is true.
And the upshot I pray for is that the Scriptures would be secured in their hearts and minds and they would discover and know and love and obey the whole counsel of God.
Can We Know Enough to Die?
Ever since I first got serious about the question how we know the Bible is true, it has seemed to me that the most urgent question is not how to provide arguments that convince modern atheists (like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, or the late Christopher Hitchens), but rather how it is that an uneducated, Muslim villager in the bush of Nigeria, or a pre-literate tribesman in Papua New Guinea, can know that the message of the Bible is true — so that, three weeks after hearing and believing it, he would have a justified, warranted courage to die for his conviction. So that he could die for the truth of the Scriptures, and not be a fool.
That, to me, is a far more urgent question than how to answer secular skeptics. And by implication, you can see that, for me, this conference on ministering the whole Bible to our children poses a more urgent question than if we were debating with the new atheists, and how to persuade them that the Bible is realizable. Here the question is: Is there a way that children — who in some ways are like the preliterate tribesman with no formal education — is there a way for children to have a well-founded confidence that the Bible is true?
“Is there a way for children to have a well-founded confidence that the Bible is true?”
One of the reasons this question began to be so relevant for me when I was about 22, and wrestling with the issues of biblical certainty, is not that uneducated people are more precious than educated people, or more in need than educated people. That’s not true. The reason had to do with my own quest for confidence. When I was exposed to the best arguments for the reliability of the Bible, I was wonderfully encouraged and helped. They seemed right to me. They were compelling.
But what I discovered was that a week or two after studying them, I couldn’t remember all the pieces of the argument. I remembered that the argument seemed solid, but I couldn’t reproduce the argument in the present moment. And what made that so troubling was not mainly that I couldn’t remember all the steps in the argument for the sake of the debate; but worse, I couldn’t remember them all for the sake of my soul. And on top of that, there was the nagging sense that I would meet some highly educated person who would point to something in my argument that I had overlooked, and I would be stumped. So basing my confidence on a fairly sophisticated sequence of history and logic felt fragile to me.
So you can see that my question about how a pre-literate villager with no formal education can know the Bible is true, or how can a child know, is very similar to asking, How can I know in a way that doesn’t depend on complicated historical and logical arguments? So for me this issue is not mainly about debates with the new atheists or other educated skeptics. This is issue my own soul, the mission task globally, and the raising of our children.
Help from Edwards
The person that helped me most in wrestling with this issue is Jonathan Edwards — the New England pastor and theologian who died in 1758. Not because he is brilliant — which he is — but because he posed the question exactly the way I did, and he directed me to the Scriptures that answered my questions.
What many people don’t know about Edwards is that from 1751 to 1758, after he had been dismissed from his church in Northampton, he was the pastor of a tiny church in the frontier town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and was a missionary to the Indians. Here’s where he connected with my concern. He wrestled with how the Indians — with no knowledge of history, or of the wider world, or any ability to read, or any formal training in logic — how would they be able to have a well-grounded confidence in the message of Scripture, the whole counsel of God? Here’s what Edwards wrote:
Miserable is the condition of the Houssatunnuck Indians and others, who have lately manifested a desire to be instructed in Christianity, if they can come at no evidence of the truth of Christianity, sufficient to induce them to sell all for Christ, in any other way but this [path of historical reasoning]. (Works, Vol. 2, 304)
Thus a soul may have a kind of intuitive knowledge of the divinity of the things exhibited in the gospel; not that he judges the doctrines of the gospel to be from God, without any argument or deduction at all; but it is without any long chain of arguments; the argument is but one, and the evidence direct; the mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory. (298–299)
Unless men may come to a reasonable solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel, by the internal evidences of it . . . viz. by a sight of its glory; ’tis impossible that those who are illiterate, and unacquainted with history, should have any thorough and effectual conviction of it at all. (303)
So Edwards is arguing that the path to a reasonable, warranted, well-grounded conviction of the truth of the gospel, and the Scriptures — and the whole counsel of God reveled in them — is a path that the Nigerian villager and the Papuan tribesman, and perhaps even a child, can follow. It is the path of seeing the peculiar glory of God in the word of God.
I do not doubt that hundreds of you in this room have experienced what Edwards is describing even if you have never thought of it in these terms. It’s almost always the case that God saves and gives us faith, and only later do we see in the Bible how he did that, and what language the Bible uses to describe our experience. It’s like a baby being born. He’s alive and breathing and crying and eating, before he knows how to describe any of that. Experience often precedes the ability to describe the experience.
So let me try, with three biblical analogies, to help you grasp what Edwards and I mean by gaining a well-founded conviction about divine truth by means of seeing divine glory. If you see these analogies, you may be able to interpret your own experience with biblical categories and language. And if you can do that, then you may be able to see how to guide a child into this same well-founded confidence in the Scriptures.
See His Glory in Creation
God intends for us to have a well-grounded conviction that he is the powerful, wise, merciful creator and sustainer of the world by means of a sight of his glory.
Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” Notice! The heavens — the sun and moon and stars and galaxies — are not themselves the glory of God. We are not pantheists. The heavens are not God. And their glory is not the glory of God. They are telling — pointing to — the glory of God. Which means you must have eyes to see through the glory of nature to the glory of God. Many non-Christian scientists see glory in the universe. Charles Misner said said that Einstein had seen much more majesty than the preachers had ever imagined, and it seemed to him that they were just not talking about the real thing (Quoted in First Things [December 1991], 63 [italics added]). So we have Psalm 19:1 showing us that the sight of glory can give us a well-grounded confidence that this universe is of God.
Then even more importantly, Paul says in Romans 1:19–21,
What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
My guess is that very few of you have stumbled over the claim that God’s invisible power and divine nature are revealed in the creation, and that we are accountable to see his glory and know that he made the universe and that he is powerful and wise and beneficent. But you do not see this with your physical eyes. Your physical eyes see the wonders of the universe. They become the lens through which your spiritual eyes — what Paul calls the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18) — see the very glory of the God.
And my argument — Edwards’s argument is that the same thing happens when you read Scriptures. The Scriptures reveal themselves to be the word of God the way nature reveals itself to be the world of God — God’s glory shines out from the meaning of these words, and authenticates their divine origin the way God’s glory shies out from the creation and authenticates its divine origin.
See His Glory in Christ
Here is a second analogy of how God’s glory authenticates his divine reality — namely, the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the God-man.
God expected people in Jesus’s day to see the glory of God in him and know that he was the Son of God, even though he was really human, and looked like other ordinary people.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:8–9)
Many people looked at God-incarnate and did not see God. And many people hear God’s word today and do not hear God. But the Son of God was really there for those who had eyes to see, and the word of God is here, for those who have ears to hear. The glory of God in Christ was missed my many. And the glory of God in the word is missed by many. But neither is deficient.
See His Glory in the Gospel
Here is one final analogy — the most important one — of how God’s glory authenticates the word of God — namely, the way the glory of God vindicates the gospel.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The gospel — the story of how God came to save sinners — emits a supernatural light to the eyes of the heart — the “light of the gospel of glory of Christ.” Christ’s self-authenticating glory shines through the gospel. And God shatters the blindness in verse 6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
So the light is called in verse 4, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And the light is called in verse 6, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Paul is saying that the way we come to know that the Christian gospel, as recorded in Scripture, is true is by a sight of its glory. The glory of God in the face of Christ. The glory of Christ, the image of God.
I call this a “peculiar glory.” It’s a glory that shines through all of the Scripture, but most brightly in the gospel of the Son of God crucified for the sake of sinners. What makes the glory of God in Scripture, especially the gospel, peculiar is the way God’s majesty is expressed through his meekness. God reveals himself in Lion-like majesty together with his Lamb-like meekness.
Isaiah cries out that this glory is utterly unique in the universe. “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). God magnifies his greatness in condescending to help us, save us. He magnifies his greatness by making himself the supreme treasure of our hearts, even at great cost to himself (Romans 8:32), and in that way satisfying us — serving us — in the very act of exalting his glory. This is the peculiar brightness shines through the whole Bible, and comes to its most beautiful radiance in the person and work of Jesus Christ, dying and rising for his enemies.
And my conclusion is, that just as God confirms that the world is his by revealing his glory through it, and that Jesus is the Son of God by revealing God’s glory through him, and the gospel is the gospel of God by revealing his glory through it, in the same way, the whole Bible authenticates itself by shining with the glory of the one who inspired it. Which means that we know that the Scriptures are the word of God because in their true meaning we see the self-authenticating glory of God. Or to use the words of Jonathan Edwards, “The mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory.”
“The whole Bible authenticates itself by shining with the glory of the one who inspired it.”
Of course, the problem is that by nature we are blind to the glory of God. We suppress it. We love the darkness, Jesus says (John 3:19). Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” We have eyes but we do not see. Ears but we do not hear.
The only hope for us to see the glory of God in Scripture, and have a well-grounded confidence that it is the word of God, is for God to perform a miracle and take away our spiritual blindness that we are all born with. And Paul says God does, in fact, do this. God comes to us and he speaks a word of new creation just like he did in the old creation and says, “Let there be light.” And we are given life and new spiritual eyes. As in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
You know Christ is real. You know the gospel is real. And you know the Scriptures are true, because God’s says, “Let there be light.” You see the peculiar glory, and you know this is not the mere work of man. This is of God.
Which brings me finally now to some suggestions about how this may be experienced by children.
How to Teach It to Children
1. Children believe the Bible is true at first because their parents, or the person caring or them say it is true, and treat it as true. This is a good thing. But it is entirely natural and not supernatural. Children in Muslim homes will believe that the Koran is true. Jewish children will believe the Tanach is true.
We should be glad if our children yield to our guidance in this way, and we should build as much of the Bible into them in these days as we can. We should make it enjoyable, and help them to associate the Bible with your joy in Christ, and your love for them. We should never say, “Well, since this is not truly spiritual, but mainly natural, therefore, I will wait till there are evidences of awakening before I get serious about filling them with Scripture.” That is folly, for three reasons. First, because God uses early natural learning for later spiritual purposes. Second, because you cannot discern the moment when a child is becoming spiritually receptive. And third, God uses Scripture that has been received naturally to bring the very awakening we are looking for.
“We know that the Scriptures are the word of God because in their true meaning we see the self-authenticating glory of God.”
So my first observation is that children follow their parents and believe the Bible in the very earliest stages because their parents do. And we should rejoice in that and fill their little minds with as much Scripture as they can hold — which is always more than you think. And we should be praying for them daily and earnestly that God would, in his time, do the miracle of opening their minds to understand and their hearts to see and savor the glory of God in the Scriptures.
2. As the children grow in their capacities to understand things and feel things, the parents and all the adult Christians in their lives, should be helping them see the right understanding of the Scriptures and, in all that growing understanding, be drawing their attention to the peculiar glory of God.
This happens in at least two ways. The first is that the parents and other adults in their lives should embody the peculiar glory of God in the way the children are joyfully loved and cared for and disciplined. I base this on 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” This is a massively important word for parents and children’s workers: “Beholding the glory of the Lord we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
This says not only that the way for us to be changed into effective models for children is to “behold the glory of the Lord” ourselves, but it also says the change that happens in us as we behold the glory of the Lord, is that we take on aspects of his peculiar glory. So if our aim is to point children to the peculiar glory of the Lord, this is the most pervasive and foundational way it happens. It happens as they live with us and watch us.
The second way it happens is by teaching. When we explain Bible stories to them, we draw attention to God. We draw attention to Christ. And we show them — we point and we explain and we illustrate — the peculiar glory of Christ.
For example, you might be teaching them what happened to Jesus and the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is a scary and wonderful and terrible story:
Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And look! one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:50–54)
Now there are lots of things to talk about here with the children, and lots of questions you could ask them. But where’s the peculiar glory? The stunning glory is in the fact that Jesus could, if he wanted to call twelve legions of angels. And you could say, A legion is about 3,000 angels. And twelve legions would be 36,000 angels. Do you know how many that is? Well, there are about 1,000 sworn police officers in greater Indianapolis. So it would like an army of all the police of thirty cities coming to save Jesus. That’s how powerful Jesus is. One word from him, and they would all serve him.
“The only hope for us to see the glory of God in Scripture, and have a well-grounded confidence that it is the word of God, is for God to perform a miracle and take away our spiritual blindness that we are all born with.”
But Jesus would not do it. He did not use his power to escape? Why? Because the Bible had been telling the story for centuries of God’s plan to save us from our sins, and Jesus wanted to obey those Scriptures, and he wanted to love us. And so he chose to be arrested and suffer in our place. And you help them see the peculiar glory in the majesty and meekness of this moment, and the whole event of Good Friday and the Resurrection.
So you point your children repeatedly to the peculiar glory of God throughout Scripture. And you do it first with your life of loving service from a positon of parental strength — modeling the glory of Jesus. And you do it by teaching the true meaning of Scripture whole drawing their attention to the glory of God. And all the while you are praying that God will give them eyes to see.
3. At some point — we don’t always know when — God in his mercy moves in supernatural power on the hearts of our children and opens the eyes of their hearts (Ephesians 1:18). He says, “Let there be light.” He takes out the heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. He causes them to be born again, come to faith, and have a new sight and taste of spiritual reality.
There are so many issues to be dealt with here in discerning the reality of this awakening. But I think the one thing I should say is this: a child — just like a newly converted adult — may experience new supernatural, spiritual sight and taste of Jesus and his work, long before he can articulate with biblical accuracy what has happened to him. So we need great wisdom in helping a child put into words his maturing sense of God’s realness in his life. He may discern spiritually the peculiar glory of God and the word without knowing this is what happened. We don’t want to force words into his mouth that don’t correspond to his true experience. But we do want to make sure to provide him with all the biblical help we can to give him biblical categories for expressing what he is seeing and feeling. And we are always praying — praying without ceasing — that day by day God would open his eyes to see wonderful things in God’s word that confirm to him: God is real and this word is true.
4. Finally, there is the maturing stage of a child’s faith as he grows through young adulthood. This, we pray, will be a time of deepening capacities of seeing and savoring the glory of God above all things. And not only deepening capacities to see and savor God’s glory, but growing capacities to understand and describe biblically what is really happening in his life.
So, in summary, my answer to how a child can know that the whole Bible is true is that the peculiar glory of God shining through the lives his parents or other caring adults, and shining through the Scriptures, is seen to be what it really is. And even before he can articulate what is happening, God may open the eyes of his heart to receive a divine and supernatural light. And his mind ascends to the truth of the Scripture by one step, the sight of its self-authenticating divine glory.
May God give you that sight, and make you a beautiful reflection for the sake the children.