It Is Not Enough To Be 'Bible Believing'
Two weeks back I finished off my series exploring how Christians ought to think about the Sabbath commandment. In the final post I shared some reflections from 1 Thessalonians 1 and Acts 17, offering an original argument against viewing Sunday as a ‘Christian Sabbath.’ In this post I put aside debates about the Sabbath but stick with 1 Thessalonians 1. Paul writes, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Below I hope to explore the distinction the apostle makes between merely receiving the gospel word and that reception being accompanied by the Spirit’s transforming power as well as personal conviction.
My Own ‘Bible Believing’ Church History
Since I started attended church around the age of 15 I have belonged to local churches that pride themselves on their high view of the Bible. But more than tipping their hats to what is today an almost meaningless banner ‘Bible-believing,’ these churches were all seriously committed to allowing Scripture to guide their ministry and shape their convictions. And I am tremendously grateful to God that this was the route I experienced into the Christian life. For that emphasis grounded me in the historically orthodox and theologically rich faith. Biblical truth is an anchor in the dangerous seas of personality cults, plastic morality, rampant subjectivism, and progressive Christianity (Ephesians 4:14).
A good marker of being committed to the Bible is usually the pulpit. In all of these churches it was Bible content—explained and applied—rather than the speaker’s own convictions, charisma, and personal experiences that took centre stage during worship services. Sermons were never pep talks or thinly veiled self-help to lend something ‘Christian’ to the worship concert that preceded them. They were serious, wrestling with Scripture while plumbing our theological heritage. Each church I have belonged for the past two decades was to a great degree devoted to what God says in his Word. I count this experience and grounding a rare privilege.
God Says, “Be Doers Not Hearers”
However, for all my Evangelical stripes, years of well informed historical-grammatical exegesis, and the celebrations of sola scriptura, there is certainly much more to being a Bible believing church than an emphasis on the centrality of the Bible.
For example, James 1:22-25 describes the Bible as a mirror, painting an arresting picture of a man who looks intently at his reflection only to forget what he looks like. It’s no use having a house full of prized mirrors if we never use them, learn from them what needs changing. James links this to merely hearing the Word, as opposed to being a doer of what God says. In other words, a true commitment to the Bible must issue in transformation, following meaningful introspection and the illuminating work of the Spirit.
Overemphasising The Bereans
This came home to me while teaching through 1 Thessalonians 1 last year. The only believers I’d ever been exhorted to imitate from the book of Acts are the Bereans. Luke reports that following Paul’s ministry among them they studied the Scriptures—or Old Testament—to test what Paul was preaching (Acts 17:11). For this reason teachers and preachers regularly exhort Christians to imitate the Bereans; by this they mean: be devoted to careful study of the Bible.
However, in the same chapter of Acts we meet the Thessalonians (Acts 17:1-10). And from Paul’s first epistle addressed to that church, we learn that they were in fact a “model” church community (1 Thessalonians 1:7). Thus I wondered if the readiness and regularity with which we enshrine the Bereans hints at an overemphasis on Bible understanding over gospel fruits. Do we prize theological acumen over personal holiness and obedience?
Being Mastered By The Bible
To adapt the words of D. A. Carson, the New Testament does not seem to care much about Bible mastery nearly as much as it celebrates people mastered by it. Put another way, God’s speech should be most evident from the way that we live rather than merely through what we believe or affirm.
One could draw countless examples from everyday life that illustrate this distinction. Most of us would affirm the truth that physical exercise is invaluable for our health. Yet how many of us actually exercise? Likewise, I know in my own life I quickly make a fuss of the Bible but am slow to follow that with obedience or introspection. Regardless of how erudite and orthodox, faith that does not produce works is dead (James 2:17).
One of my favourite quotes supplements the point I am trying to argue very well. In his Little Exercise For Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke writes, “I don’t believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflections. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden paths to the sources of life.”
These lines should be printed on the cover page of every work of academic theology. And it is easy to see how they apply to any and every Christian. Orthodoxy does not necessarily entail spiritual life or faith; on the other hand, heresy does not mean unbelief. The “sources of life,” as Thielicke writes, are none other than God and his gospel word, at work by the Spirit to transform us into the image of his Son.
Responding To God’s Word
At the outset of this post I said I mentioned 1 Thessalonians 1. But I have already written too much, following too many divergent paths. If you have read this far I hope my purpose is clear: believing what the Bible teaches is not the same thing as knowing the God who speaks through that same Bible. I worry that we measure spiritual health and Christian maturity by theological acumen, rather than a lively faith. Though far from comprehensive, the believers addressed in 1 Thessalonians provide some marks for what it might look like to not merely receive the gospel word but believe and enact it with conviction and in the Spirit’s power.
Four Marks Of Bible Believing Faith From 1 Thessalonians
- Imitating both the apostles and Jesus Christ (1:6), which I’ve written about this using 2 Peter and Philippians respectively. A life sacrificially devoted to the glory of God and the good of others is perhaps one of the most profound marks of being a Bible believing church or Christian.
- Delighting in God, despite countless reasons not to. We are told that the Thessalonians rejoiced in their affliction (1:6). They were marked by joy, with hearts fixated on God and fervent to know him more. Their satisfaction in God was not offset by suffering.
- Gospel proclamation consistent with Christian character (1:7-8). Commitment to the Word will show in commitment to gospel witness and proclamation. Bible believing churches should not retreat into spiritual ghettoes but rather advance into their communities holding out the gospel.
- Lastly, repenting from idolatry (1:9-10). These verses are so familiar that we easily pass over them. But a significant aspect of the Thessalonians’ reception of God’s Word was seen in them reassessing their priorities and redirecting their lives and worship back to God alone.