Why we can trust the Bible

If I asked you, “Why do you believe the Bible?” some of you might respond by sharing your personal experiences, how the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of God’s Word within your spirit. You might describe how he helped you to just know that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God. I have no interest in challenging this kind of assurance because I know the Spirit does work like this in our hearts and minds. But is this the only reason for trusting the Bible?

Imagine if you were talking with a Mormon. He asks you why you believe the Bible is the Word of God, and so you share your Spirit-given assurance. He responds by telling you about how he prayed to God to let him know if the Book of Mormon was really true, and how he felt a “burning in his bosom” from God that assured him the Book of Mormon was indeed the Word of God. What now? Do your spiritual experiences cancel out each other? Are both conclusions true (even though they contradict each other)? It seems we need some objective criteria in seeking to determine the validity of the Bible.

Start with Jesus
In establishing the authority of Scripture in the life of the believer, I don’t begin with the Bible itself, but with Jesus. The historic Christian faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And even without an inerrant Bible, we can have complete faith in Christ. For instance, we have very convincing historical evidence confirming not only the existence of Jesus, but the historical events of his ministry, crucifixion, burial and physical resurrection. [For more on this, you can see my series on the historical Jesus, beginning with In search of Jesus. I’ve neglected this series for too long, but hope to add to it soon.]

Many scholars who study Jesus and early Christianity don’t believe the New Testament is divinely inspired or infallible, but most of them still accept the New Testament Gospels as generally reliable historical sources. Not only do we know historically that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as God, but we’re also challenged by Jesus’ own teachings as recorded by people who heard him. These statements are so striking they’ve caused people such as CS Lewis to make observations like this one:

I am trying here to prevent the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis later concluded: “Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

[I realize I’ve just barely scratched the surface regarding the historical evidence for Jesus, and that I haven’t addressed here any of the counter arguments. This is why I’m devoting an entire series to this topic. I would encourage you to be clear about what you believe about Jesus before tackling the exact nature of Scripture. I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus, not the other way around.]

I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus.

But how is this emphasis on Jesus relevant to our current questions regarding the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture? Well, if we accept the New Testament Gospels as generally historically reliable (as most scholars do), and if we’re convinced by the historical evidence concerning who Jesus was and what he did, and if we want to follow Jesus and pattern our lives after him, then what Jesus believed and taught about the Scriptures becomes incredibly important. And we get a clear picture of his views on the pages of the New Testament Gospels.

Jesus’ view of Scripture
It doesn’t take long in our reading of the Gospels before we see how Jesus consistently relied on and appealed to the Scriptures. When he is tempted repeatedly by Satan in the wilderness, each time he responds with the words of Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11).  We see this appeal to the authority of Scripture in his frequent challenge “Have you not read . . . [e.g. Matthew 12:3; 22:31; Mark 12:10].”

When Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, he responds by telling them, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures [Matthew 12:29].” He goes on to quote a specific passage of Scripture and use this passage to teach definitively about the resurrection from the dead and the nature of God. In Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus challenges an unbiblical practice of the Pharisees, saying, “You cancel the Word of God for the sake of your own tradition.” In other words, he uses the Scriptures to determine the validity of someone else’s spiritual practice. In John 10:22-42, Jesus quotes a certain passage of Scripture, emphasizes a single, specific word, and then insists that “the Scriptures cannot be altered.”

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he spoke to two disciples who didn’t realize who he was. Finally, Jesus lovingly rebuked their hopelessness:

“You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27 

Over and over again, we see the place of absolute trustworthiness and authority the Scriptures held in the life and ministry of Jesus. One could be excused for describing Jesus’ view of the Scriptures as “evangelical.” It seems apparent that we should follow him in his devotion to the Scriptures.

Jesus’ apostles
In Matthew 10:1 (and parallel passages), Jesus chooses 12 of his followers to be his apostles. Later, Paul and James are also described as apostles of Christ. What does it mean to be an apostle? One aspect of their ministry is fairly common to us today. We’re very familiar with someone representing and speaking for another person or group, and even exercising authority in their name. If a US ambassador or the Secretary of State speaks to a foreign government in an official capacity, everyone understands they speak with the authority of the US president.

This is what the apostles were; they were official, personally-commissioned represent-atives of Jesus Christ. They taught and wrote his words with his authority. This is intrinsic to the role of the apostle, and it was universally understood in the 1st century church. This is why, in their letters, both Paul and Peter identify themselves as apostles of Christ. This is why they write with authority, instructing the believers regarding salvation and the Christian life.

This is why Paul could remind the Corinthians that what he wrote was a command from the Lord himself (1 Corinthians 14:37). This is why he explains how God was revealing his eternal plan through his apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:1-5). This is why they could make demands in the name of Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:6; Philemon 1:8). This is why, though Paul sought to lead in humility and gentleness, he makes clear that he will exercise his apostolic authority for the sake of the flock (2 Corinthians 13:2-10). This is why they could decisively and authoritatively correct false teaching (for a clear example of this, see the entire letter to the Galatians). And this why they could praise the Thessalonians with these words:

Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.

1 Thessalonians 1:13

And the Thessalonians weren’t alone in this. From the very beginning, the followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [Acts 2:42].” Years later, Peter would write this about the letters of Paul:

This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Did you notice how Peter includes Paul’s letters with “other parts of Scripture”? The earliest believers universally followed this devotion to, and adherence of, these apostolic writings, viewing them as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture.

The Bible’s claims about itself
The Old Testament is filled with strong claims about its own authority. But let’s look at two claims from the New Testament:

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, these prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

2 Peter 1:20-21

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Now, don’t misunderstand. We’re not saying we have to believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says it’s the Word of God. We don’t want to return to the circular reasoning we discussed a few weeks ago. But the Bible does make some very strong claims about itself. These claims challenge us just as the statements of Jesus challenge us. These claims demand that we make a tough choice: Is the Bible what it claims to be, or not?

If these claims are wrong, they’re either the diabolical rantings of 1st century charlatans, or the grandiose fantasies of well-intentioned, but self-deluded, fanatics. The idea that the Scriptures are not truly the inspired, inerrant Word of God, but that they’re still somehow spiritually beneficial to us and even authoritative for the church is ultimately incoherent and nonsensical. To paraphrase Lewis, the biblical authors have not left that open to us. They did not intend to.

If the Scriptures are neither evil spiritual manipulation
nor wide-eyed fairy tales,
then they must be what they claim to be—the Word of God.

The internal consistency of the Scriptures
Imagine trying to compile writings on a single theological subject from a 100-year span, all by authors who were native English-speakers and who were educated at Oxford. Would anyone mistake these writings for the work of a single author? Would these works even fit well within a single compilation?

The Bible was written in three different languages; on three different continents; by more than 40 authors of incredibly varying educational, social and cultural backgrounds; over a period of 1,500 years. And yet it uncannily seems to be the product of a single, unifying mind. And this perception isn’t diminished by in-depth study. No, the more one digs below the surface in the Scriptural texts, the more the cohesive nature of Scripture is hard to deny. Though there were many human authors responsible for the biblical books, it’s difficult to escape the guiding hand of a divine Author who stands behind the whole. The more one studies, the more unavoidable the conclusion that the Author of Genesis is also the Author of Revelation.

But what about things in Scripture that do seem inconsistent? What about passages that appear to be problematic? We’ll look at some of these issues next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible [see above]

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Staying in balance seems difficult for people at times, and that’s true for Christians too. It’s much easier for us to fall into one extreme or another. What are the extremes we should avoid when we pray?

Some teach that God will give us precisely what we ask for in prayer, but we must be absolutely, 100% certain God will do what we’ve asked him to do. If we waver in our rock-solid certainty, then we’re somehow denying God through our doubt and it won’t work. (Of course, this prompts the question in what sense we’re asking God for anything if we’re guaranteed to receive anything we confidently “request.”)

Some even take this further and teach how we need to be specific in our prayers. Don’t just ask for a bike, we’re told. Specify a red, 10-speed bike, if that’s what you want. I guess it’s like placing your order. You want to make sure you get it your way. Others go further and don’t really ask God for anything, they “claim it in the name of Jesus.” Never mind, that the Bible never tells us to claim anything in this way. (FYI: The Bible doesn’t tell us to “bind” or “rebuke” the enemy when we pray either.) This kind of prayer goes from making requests of God to presumptuously declaring what God is going to do for us. This is a dangerous extreme.

But there are problems on the other end of the pendulum swing too. Many of us are leery of Christians who are too loud and demanding in their prayers. So we tend to bend over backwards the other way. “May your will be done” can come to essentially mean: “We’re not really expecting anything at all to happen here. We’re not really sure why we’re praying about this, but here we go anyway.”

What should we expect from God when we pray? Obviously, we need to go to the Bible for our answer. But we need to examine the Scriptures carefully and thoughtfully. There’s an old reminder that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’ It’s way too easy to rip one verse out of context and ignore all the other passages that teach about prayer. We need to get a well-rounded, thoroughly biblical concept of prayer.

For instance, we could look only at a passage such as Matthew 21:21-22:

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

At first glance, this actually seems to confirm one of our extremes, doesn’t it? Isn’t this giving us an absolute promise that we can pray for anything we want to and—if we really believe—that we’ll get it? Assuming this promise is for us (some scholars feel Jesus is speaking specifically to those who would be his Apostles, with the corresponding power to do signs and wonders), is Jesus giving us carte blanche to throw mountains into the sea at will? Is he giving us a blank check to ask for anything we happen to desire?

Would you give your children such a promise? Would this be responsible parenting? Maybe the Bible has more to say than just this. And maybe we need to take all of what God says about prayer into consideration.

Imagine this scenario. You take your kids to the store and tell them they can buy anything they want up to $20. Your youngest keeps bringing items up and asking, “Can I buy this?” “Can I buy this?” Finally, you insist, “You can have anything you want!” Whereupon—before your very eyes—your innocent 8-year old child morphs into a shrewd lawyer. “Anything I want?” So now you have to add a clarifying legal clause: “anything up to $20, just as I told you before.” Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re like that child, aren’t we?

So what other things has God told us that show us what to expect when we pray? Let’s look at some more passages.

Pray with right motives
James explains why we sometimes don’t get what we pray for:

. . . you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

James 4:2-3 

Sometimes we pray for something, but we’re praying from entirely wrong motives. Why should we expect God to give us what we ask for when we ask from a wrong heart? This only makes sense, doesn’t it? We may even be praying for something God would be delighted to give us, but he’s more concerned about our long-term well-being than he is our immediate gratification. So we have to pray with right motives.

Pray in Jesus’ name
There are many passages that give promises to us when we pray ‘in Jesus’ name.’ Here’s one classic example:

You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!

John 14:13-14

This is a wonderful promise. But what exactly does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Does it just mean tacking on “in the name of Jesus” at the end? “Lord, please provide me with a brand new Porsche—in the name of Jesus.” Is this some kind of magical incantation like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘Simon says?’ Or does it have a deeper meaning?

When I was a kid, I loved swashbuckling movies. Remember the scenes when they would pound on the door and say, “Open this in the name of the King!”? What did that mean? It meant they were acting in the king’s stead. The king had given them the right to do something in his place. They represented the king.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, and we need to keep this in mind. This may color the way we interpret and apply the promise. They were directly commissioned to be his representatives Apostles of Jesus Christ. If anyone was able to act ‘in Jesus’ name’ it was surely these Apostles. But even if we apply this to us today, what does it mean? It means that if we are acting in Jesus’ stead, doing what he would do, asking for what he would ask for—then we can ask for anything and God will do it!

So we have to actually pray and make our requests, we need to pray with right motives, and not only with right motives but with the motives of Christ himself. This may seem like somewhat narrow criteria, but why would God answer prayers that were asked with selfish, un-Christlike motives? And did you notice what Jesus’ motivation is in this verse? “That the Son can bring glory to the Father.”

Pray in strong relationship with Christ
In another place, Jesus says:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

John 15:7 

We should have expected something like this if we are to pray in Jesus’ stead. To be motived by the same things that motivate Christ, to act in his place and to ask for what he would ask for, we must be in vibrant relationship with him. Everything that we are as the true branches flows from the true Vine. And notice how, in the following words, Jesus connects granting our requests with us bearing fruit:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

Apparently what we are asking for—because we are remaining in Christ, praying in his stead, praying with his motives—has to do with us bearing spiritual fruit. And, once again, we see the ultimate emphasis on bringing glory to the Father.

Pray according to God’s will

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.

1 John 5:14-15

When does God hear our prayers? When we ask for “anything that pleases him.” Older translations read here: “according to his will.” But how can we know what’s according to God’s will? Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?

Can we know whether it’s God’s will for Sally to be healed? Can we be certain that God intends for Tom to get the job he applied for? We have to acknowledge that God doesn’t promise us—in this life—to always receive healing, prosperity, success, etc. [If this is a surprise to you, let me know and we can explore this at greater length in a future post.]

So, how can we know what God’s will is? Well, is it God’s will for us to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for us to become more like Christ? Is it God’s will for us to learn how to love unlovable people? Is it God’s will for us to help those who are hurting? Isn’t this how Jesus prayed for us according to God’s will:

. . . keep them safe from the evil one. . . . Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word . . . I pray that they will be one . . .

John 17:15-21

Does this mean we never pray for anything if we aren’t certain it’s God’s will? No. But we need to remember that, though every prayer is answered, sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ and sometimes it’s ‘no.’ Paul prayed for healing three times, and each time God told him ‘no’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). If we don’t know exactly what God’s will is in a situation we don’t presume to declare what will happen. That’s God’s prerogative, not ours.

But we also don’t pray passively, not expecting anything to happen. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his will, that he will act in power, that he will act out of his love and grace and wisdom and perfect timing. We expect him to directly act in the situation; we just don’t presume to tell him how he should do that. We make our requests as best we can with the wisdom he’s given us, and then we do what Moses told the people to do: “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today [Exodus 14:13].”

Why does God sometimes say ‘no?’ Because he’s a wise, loving Father. Sometimes he has to say no because the timing isn’t right yet, like a 10-year old asking for a driver’s license or a child asking for a candy bar when—unbeknownst to them—there’s cake and ice cream waiting at home. Sometimes we’re wrong, like an irresponsible child asking for a puppy or a wasteful teenager asking for a huge sum of money. Sometimes we’re asking for something that can harm us—even if we don’t realize it—like a child asking for a pet alligator or a stick of dynamite.

Some people may be frustrated with these answers and biblical qualifications. ‘Why does God want us to pray at all if we’re only supposed to pray for what he wants anyway?’ But this reveals a faulty understanding of God and prayer. Why are we praying? To convince God to do what we want him to do? That’s not a biblical understanding of prayer, it’s a pagan one. We’re not trying to coerce or cajole God into answering our prayers. Prayer doesn’t bring God’s will down to match ours; it raises up our spiritual eyes until our will conforms to his. As CS Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me.” If I’m in a boat and I reach out with the boathook and pull, am I pulling the land to me? Or am I pulling myself closer to the shore? This is what prayer does for us.

God wants us to be involved in what he’s doing. He’s made us part of his mission. And our prayers are partly how we share in that. The more we pray, the closer we grow to God. The closer we grow to him, the more we’ll share his concerns, his motives, his desires, the more we’ll pray according to his will—and the more we’ll have absolute, rock-solid assurance that the will of God for which we pray will be accomplished. And that, through this, God will be glorified.

But what about passages that say we shouldn’t give up, but keep on praying? Does this mean we’re supposed to somehow wear God down with our prayers? We’ll look at this next week.

Prayer series:

Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer [see above]

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up