Wednesday @ Westminster: What's in the Bible?
March 2, 2016
If I asked you the name of Noah’s wife, would you answer, "Joan of Ark?" Sadly, many would today. The level of biblical illiteracy today among the professing Christian church is sad. Recently arch-atheist Richard Dawkins commissioned his foundation to survey those who claimed to be Christian in the 2011 census in England. One of his questions was which was the first book in the New Testament. Only 35% chose Matthew while 39% chose “Don’t know.” We often shudder at the so-called one thousand year old “Dark Ages,” but is it any different today? When the prophet Amos said the Lord was sending a famine he said it was not of bread or water “but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). One wonders if he didn’t foresee our day.
This is why Q&A 5 of the Westminster Larger Catechism is so vital. It is short but sweet:
What do the Scriptures principally teach?
The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
Note well that adverb, “principally.” The divines drew from their academic theological vocabulary and the concept of principia. These are fundamental principles. In Reformed Scholasticism there were two principia theologiae (foundational principles of theology): Scripture and God. But what are the foundational themes of Scripture? What we are to believe (Q&A 6–90) and what we are to be (Q&A 91–196). In other words, faith and obedience, grace and gratitude, gospel and law, theology and practice.
There are so many things found in the Bible and each of those details can consume us until eternity. But in order to give us the panoramic view of Scripture, the Catechism divides up the Word in a helpful summary. In his final epistle, Paul exhorted Timothy to follow (2 Tim. 1:13) and to guard (2 Tim. 1:14) “the pattern of sound words you have heard from me.” And Timothy was to do so “in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
What We Are to Believe
What’s in the Bible? First, what we are to believe. Hebrews 11:6 states this point so well, when it says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seeks him.” In terms of what we are to believe, the Bible proclaims that we must believe that God is and that God rewards those who seek him.
We are to believe God exists. Recall what Q&A 2 has already said. There are three reasons we believe in God: creation, conscience, and the canon. These evidences are used by the Holy Spirit to lead us to a certain faith in God. Believing in God leads us to believe he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Gen. 1:1). As those created, we also recognize that something is terribly wrong with us, and the world God created. That something is sin. And our sins cause in us the sense that God is also the Judge (Gen. 3). His perfect justice means that we are distant from him, that we are separated from him who is our life.
This is why we are also to believe God rewards those who seek him. But how can we seek him in our sinful state and how can we expect God to reward us? The answer is that God is not only Creator, Sustainer, and Judge, but that he is also Redeemer. He graciously draws us into his reward, which is a repaired covenantally intimate relationship with him. He does this by the power of the Holy Spirit who leads us to Jesus Christ who leads us to the Father (Eph. 2:18).
What We Are to Be
What’s in the Bible? Second, what we are to be. What we believe about God causes us to be a certain way for God. When we read the Bible we learn about “what duty God requires of man.” This “duty” is in no way to be understood as an overly legal way of conceiving of the Christian life. Because of what Jesus has done for us both to justify and to sanctify us (Rom. 5–6), we willingly submit to this duty. Because of what we believe about God we understand what we are to be because we have been liberated from being “slaves of sin” to being “slaves of obedience” (Rom. 6:16), to being “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18), and to being “slaves of God” (Rom. 6:22). In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are now obedient to the God “whose service is perfect freedom.”
What are we to be as slaves? What is our service? It is a loving obedience to God as outlined by the Ten Commandments (Q&A 91–153). We are to love God above all else and love our neighbor with an equal love as we love ourselves. It is also diligent use of God’s outward and ordinary means of grace. We are to have a jealous devotion to the Word of God (Q&A 154–160). We are to have a thankful reception of the sacraments (Q&A 161–177). And we are to be committed to offering up our desires to God in prayer (Q&A 178–196).
The Bible is a big book, but we need not remain in the dark as to what is in it. Take it up and read, always asking yourself two questions: “What does this passage say about what I am to believe? What does this passage say about what I am to be?”