Put the Attorneys to Work

How to Give the Bible Functional Authority in Your Speech and Writing

Sovereign Grace Churches Pastors Conference | Indianapolis


The reason I say “speech and writing” instead of simply “preaching” is that pastors have always been called upon to speak with authority and helpfulness into more situations than preaching. You are called on to counsel people with an amazing array of problems. You stand by dying saints with family all around and they expect you to speak words of unimaginable importance on the brink of eternity. You speak at banquets, and small groups, and staff meetings, and family devotions, and gospel encounters on the street. And today many of you write blogs and use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. And I am very jealous that you only say things that conform to the authority of God’s word. That is, that you give the Bible functional authority in your speech and writing.

Intrinsic Authority

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 in the world, 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. I’m talking about absolute authority, final authority, decisive authority — God, and his will revealed in Scripture.

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 absolute, ultimate, final, decisive 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). And Jesus himself said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). And, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

And my own view is that, when all historical, philosophical, apologetic reasoning for the truth of the Bible is done, the uneducated Christian villager in the bush, the preliterate Christian tribesman of south sea islands, the eighth grade Christian in your youth group, the brand new convert from the utterly unchurched in your city — these all know that the Bible is God’s word because they have seen with the eyes of the heart (as Paul says in Ephesians 1:18) the self-authenticating light of the glory of God in the word (2 Corinthians 4:4–6).

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. 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 our best — when the Spirit is holding fullest sway in our hearts — we love it, 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). Not only my duty or obligation, but my soul-sustaining, soul-satisfying food. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” 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.

And one of the reasons I am giving this message is that I see so many people who call themselves Christians, young and old, who don’t seem to live on this food. They don’t seem to love or live in the happy shadow of the wing of God’s absolute authority. They don’t eat obedience with relish. You get the distinct impression that the world and not the word is the functional authority in their lives. And I don’t want God’s shepherds at Sovereign Grace to be that way.

So this message is mainly an effort to help us speak and write in a way that gives the Bible functional authority in our lives and ministry. What does it mean practically to speak and write under the authority of the Bible?

Test Your Own Words

To set the stage for my practical suggestions let’s look at two passages of Scripture.

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. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–22)

Verses 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.

Don’t Assume You Should Speak

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.

If we go back to 1 Thessalonians 5:20, (“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good”), we know that a person 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.” “Hold fast to what is good.” If a person should test his thoughts and find them to be of the Spirit and still decide for the good of church order not to speak them (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:32), 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.

The Apostle’s Test

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 speak with true prophetic insight, you will acknowledge that the words of the apostle have higher authority that your thoughts, your words, your prophecies. If they disagree, your thoughts are not true prophecy. They are not true at all.

And if this is true of spontaneous ideas that 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 meditation, and thinking, and reasoning — whether over the secular media, or over the Scriptures. 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 biblical meditation, or rational reflection, should be spoken or written only if conforms to apostolic truth.

And when I say apostolic truth I mean the truth of the entire Christian Scripture. Because part of the apostolic truth — just as part of the truth of Jesus’s teaching — is the truth that all of the Old Testament Scriptures are God’s word. So to make the point again: Every thought that comes into your mind, by way of prophetic insight, spiritual intuition, or biblical meditation, or rational reflection, should be spoken or written only if conforms to biblical truth.

Steward Your Speech

Now before I spell out some practical implications of this, let’s look at one more text.

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. (1 Peter 4:10–11)

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.

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 meditation, or reasoning, and then testing them by what Scripture says, before we speak them or write them. This is the mindset, the discipline, the habit I am urging in this message. Some of you have this reflexively. Others don’t. I would like help that happen.

So what I want to talk about in the time that remains is how we do that in a more detailed, practical way and what good effects may come from it

Sound Like the Bible

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 sounds like it supports this sentence?” and “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”

First, five clarifying comments about what I mean. Then I’ll give three illustrations.

1. If you have seen so much misuse of proof-texting that you don’t regularly use sentences from the Bible to govern your thinking and speaking and writing, that’s an overreaction, and you need to get beyond it.

Sentences in the Bible have a true meaning — rightly understood in their context. And it is right and good — I would even say necessary — to use those sentences to nullify false thoughts that come into your head before to speak them.

2. Remember I am saying: Cultivate the habit of mind that asks, as every debatable sentence forms in your mind, “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds like it 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. Thoughts often come too fast and too interwoven with each other to be separated out at that moment and tested. That would be the end of all spontaneous and extended communication. So I am not saying we should apply this test to every sentence you speak. I am saying: use this test on 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. It’s more than you think. But you must make judgments. That is your Spirit-given wisdom.

3. The more public your sentences are (say a sermon versus a personal conversation or a blog versus a personal email), the more you should be inclined to show others the part of the Bible that confirms your point.

There are ways to do this that are not tedious, and not pedantic. They can flow with vibrancy and authority from your mouth, rather than interrupting like a footnote.

4. I’m saying apply this double test to your thoughts: “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds like it supports this sentence?” and “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”

The reason I say “sounds like it supports” and “sounds contrary” to your thought is that you may decide in the end that it may sound supportive or sound contrary and not really be supportive or be contrary. But being aware of the apparent contradiction between the Bible and your thought will make you a wiser and more compelling communicator. I’ll give you some examples in just a moment.

5. This means that in many situations you will not have your computer handy, and the only concordance you can use to search for supportive or contrary texts is the one in your mind.

The only sieve you have available on the go is the Bible that is in your memory. So the implication is: never stop growing your store of Bible in the mind. It is an amazing and wonderful thing to run a thought — a sentence — through the Bible grid of your mind and have a half dozen verses rise, some saying, “Great point,” and others saying, “Not so fast.”

The Biblical Attorney

To repeat, my main point my main point for how to give the Bible functional authority in our speech and writing is to put the thoughts of your mind and the sentences you are about to speak or write through the sieve of the word like this: Apply the positive test: “Is there a passage in the Bible that sound like it supports this sentence?” And apply the negative sentence: “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”

Call into service the biblical defense attorney in your mind, and the biblical prosecuting attorney in your mind. The defense attorney will defend the sentence you are about to write, and the prosecuting attorney will oppose the sentence you are about to write. And your job is to do what Jesus said in Luke 12:57, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?,” and what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:15, “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”

But make sure that as you judge, you are deciding between biblical attorneys, not ego attorneys, or shame attorneys, or greed attorneys, revenge attorneys, etc. There are all kinds of motives to write sentences that are not biblical — they feed the ego, they avoid embarrassment, they make money, they get back at your enemies. Don’t listen to those attorneys. We are only talking about how to give the Bible functional authority — not how to give ego or shame or money or revenge functional authority. So put your biblical attorneys to work — defense and prosecution. “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds like it supports this sentence?” and “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?

Five Effects of Defending and Prosecuting

Before I give you three illustrations let me just mention five effects I think it will it have if you cultivate this habit of mind? I think your speaking and your writing will increase in five important ways: You will have:

  1. more depth,
  2. more precision,
  3. more authority,
  4. more faith-awakening
  5. and God-glorifying effect.

Five Illustrations of the Test

Forgiveness

Suppose the thought rises in your mind to speak in a small group lesson or write in a blog or tweet, or say in a sermon: “You are forgiven in order to forgive; you do not forgive in order to be forgiven.” I read that from an evangelical leader. It’s punchy. You like the sound of it. You think it may be helpful in your message. So you run it through your Bible knowledge: Is there a passage that sounds like it supports this? Yes, Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” “You are forgiven in order to forgive.”

Good, so you start to write it down in your notes. But you stop and ask: 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 indeed forgive in order to be forgiven. But the sentence you are so excited about says, “You are forgiven in order to forgive; you do not 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 deep and careful. They will recognize that you take it all seriously, rather than just glossing over problems. And that way of exalting the word will be more faith-awakening and more God-glorifying because faith comes by hearing, and faith glorifies God as trustworthy.

What God Has Done

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, ‘If you do this deed, I will do that.’ It says, ‘Done.’” Again, it sounds so good, so catchy. So gospel-rich. So grace-exalting.

Then you put this to the positive test: Is there a Bible passage that sounds like it supports this? Yes. The words of Jesus, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Done! And many others. But what about the negative test: Is there a Bible passage that sounds contrary to this? Yes. There are many gracious “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).
  • “If you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

So you 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 say “Do,” and make us promises which are conditional on our Spirit-empowered 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 believe and submit to what you say, and glorify God for his word.

Through Faith Alone

Just last week I received a document asking for my signature of support. It was a great statement about the abiding need for Reformation teaching over against Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. I rejoiced in the intention of the document. But I didn’t sign it. When I sign a document I believe I should be able to affirm every sentence in it, not 98 percent, but one hundred percent. I think that’s what my signature means. My signature means: I affirm these sentences. Every one of them is mine. This is my claim to truth.

In that document was this sentence: “The Protestant Reformation was ultimately a call to . . . appreciate afresh the fact that salvation comes to us through faith alone.” So I put that sentence through the positive grid. Any biblical support? Who would not think of Ephesians 2:8–9, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Then the negative grid: Any opposed? Yes. 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you . . . to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Saved through sanctification. And Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

So I wrote to my friend,

How I wish I could have made some suggestions before this was finalized, because in the disputes I am engaged in on justification it is absolutely crucial to keep “justification” and “salvation” as distinct terms, with “salvation” being the larger all-inclusive term of all God’s acts to bring sinners to final glory, of which justification is only one such act. The reason this is crucial is because our Spirit-enabled works do indeed become part of how God “saves” us (Hebrews 12:14), though they are not at all part of how God “justifies” us. I just read in my devotions this morning, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). This is why “justified by faith alone” and “saved by faith alone” do not have the same meaning.

But this document repeatedly conflates the terms “salvation” and “justification.” I am almost certain those who drafted this intend “justification” when they write “salvation,” but that is not always the case in biblical usages. For me to deal with the people I have to interact with, greater precision of wording is required.

God’s Word Settles It

So let me sum up what we’ve seen, and make my plea one more time. The Bible has its own intrinsic self-authenticating 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. His Word settles it.

Our calling as his creatures, and all the more so, as his children redeemed by the blood of Christ, and even more so as shepherds of God’s flock, 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 sounds like it supports this sentence?” and “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?”

What happens when we cultivate this habit, in the power of God’s Spirit, is that we are driven from apparent contradictions, and surface differences down into the deeply rooted unity of Scripture; and, therefore, our speaking and writing take on more depth, more precision, more authority. and more faith-awakening, God-glorifying effect.

That’s my prayer for myself and for you as and the entire Sovereign Grace movement.