One of the great things about the Confession is the high view of God to which it holds. Because of sin, the default human position is to have a low and distorted view of God that makes him more like us. We can control that God, or we at least don’t have any fear or reverence for the god that we create in our heart and minds. While we need to apply Scripture to our lives, sometimes the application of Scripture is simply a renewed awe of the blessed Trinity.
“God, having all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself, is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them.”
John 5:26 tells us, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” God’s self- or all-sufficiency teaches us that the existence of creation is not in itself necessary for God to be God. When God created the universe, he did not change because of it. We call this God’s “immutability”, meaning by nature that God is unchanging.
John is saying that God did not receive life from any other source. He himself is the source of all life. He is the only eternal one. Out of his own life comes all other forms of life. This is not some esoteric babble from an ivory tower. For God to be God, there must be none beside him. Just consider how worthy of honor and glory he is simply because of his good and eternal nature.
The Confession also reminds us that “he alone is the fountain of all being.” Everything that has life and breath has come from him. All the things that no human eye will ever see, that exist simply to glorify its creator, came from his word. Over all those things, the enormous and the minuscule, he exercises complete dominion and authority. He sees and knows with perfect understanding the things that no human mind can, all because he created all things.
Job 22:2 asks the question, “Can a man be profitable to God?” It’s not a question meant to demean mankind, but it does teach us that our service to God does not change God. Though God commands us, our obedience does not add anything to him. Neither does our disobedience take anything from him. He is holy in himself, apart from his creation.
One of the greatest statements on the self-sufficiency of God and man’s place before him comes from Paul in Acts 17:24-25. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
Man makes car engines, coffee machines, and combines to serve himself. When these things work as they’re intended, they add value to our lives. Our labor is more profitable to us, for which we should praise God. The same is not true for God. He has all that makes him God in himself.
Because has made all things and is outside of creation, “in his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain.” There is a branch of theology called “open theism” which says that God has chosen to not know some things about the future so that man might exercise a modicum of free will. There is another branch called “Molinism” which says that God possesses a kind of knowledge that can see all possible scenarios, how man might respond in each of them, then orchestrates events so that history works out to his intention. Niether of those represents the biblical doctrine of the God’s knowledge. In open theism, God is simply ignorant. In Molinism, God is Dr. Strange who can see 14,000,605 possible futures but only 1 where he wins.
God’s knowledge is complete. Contrary doctrines seek to give man more free will than he has. If free will is the deciding factor in world history, then we need to repent of it up immediately. Free will is what has damned each and every one of us apart from God’s mercy. If that’s how we define free will, then we are hopeless.
We must, however, harmonize God’s knowledge and man’s responsibility. Does God simply know what we do, or does he ordain what we do? Perhaps we can’t perfectly understand the complex interdependence of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, but we certainly cannot elevate one over the other.
God is also “most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands.” This statement returns us to consider God’s goodness. Nothing he commands his creatures or ordains in creation is contrary to his good and perfect nature. Finite minds may not understand, but knowing that he does not do anything to do us harm protects us from cursing God when things or people are taken from us or horrible things happen to us.
This is not to denigrate or belittle the horrific events that happen to real people. But it is to reframe them. If “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28), then we must reconsider how we face what comes our way.
Finally, “to him is due from angels and men, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience, as creatures they owe unto the Creator, and whatever he is further pleased to require of them.” Our worship may not change God, adding or taking away from him, but it is still owed to him.
The first two sections of the Confession’s doctrine of God and the Trinity have described what can be said about all three Persons. Next week, we’ll take a dive into what distinctions there are between Father, Son, and Spirit.
Chapter two of the Second London Baptist Confession concerns the doctrine of God in three short paragraphs. That might seem a trifle compared to the ten paragraphs devoted to the doctrine of Scripture, but you will be surprised how much the authors of the confession can fit in these clauses. As we move to the second chapter of the Confession, I will remind that us while these documents are by not binding in themselves, they do faithfully carry the truth found throughout Scriptures and are helpful insofar as they communicate divine truth.
The first paragraph begins with “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection.” When Moses is again giving the Israelites the law, he reminds them that “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Moses is not only saying that the Israelites only have one God, but that in all creation there has only been and will forever only be one God.
There have been scholarly arguments that the early Hebrews, perhaps even into the time of Moses, were actually henotheists. Henotheists believe in many gods but only worship one god as the supreme being. Because people are sinful and by nature idol-worshipers, the idea that in practice they believed in many gods is feasible. However, the individuals that Scripture pulls out to mention were clearly monotheists, or those who believe that only one God exists. Think of Noah; he did not believe that he was building the ark because one god out of many told him to do so. Jacob told his family to remove all the idols from their homes. Certainly as the Israelites built a golden calf as Moses was “delayed” up the mountain they may have had a tendency toward henotheism, but that is simply a description of what idolators did, not what was true. Even then, they worshiped the calf, not God. They were idolators, not henotheists.
Next the Confession says that God is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions,” and “immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute.” This almost sounds like it comes from Paul’s lists of attributes of God.
God is not made up of parts. Theologians call this “divine simplicity.” “Simplicity” in this sense refers to God being a whole. God is not 25% wise, 25% eternal, and 50% holy, but 100% wise, 100% eternal, 100% holy, and so on. “Holy” does not just describe God as if God does holy things, but God is holy in his essence. God cannot lose or gain wisdom, eternality, holiness, or any of his other attributes.
Why does this matter? Because often our default is to think of God as just the greatest of all created things, even if we know better. In the ocean of creation, we are plankton and God is a white whale. However, this lowers God to the level of a created being, and we start to assign creation attributes to God. God is totally outside of creation and is in no way bound by anything he has created. You and I are made up of parts. We have arms, legs, and fingernails, as well as a soul. As entirely spirit, God is not comprised of parts. I regularly have to do a gut-check on my awareness of God's simple nature.
Perhaps we lose the immensity of God at times. How often do we praise God with our lips but treat God like our buddy? The human condition is to keep God tucked away in a church building or a temple. God does not live in a temple we created (Acts 17:24). The whole world is his temple! The other fallacy is that we can worship God anywhere, which is almost always used to justify not worshiping him at all. The gathered church is the temple of God, where God especially dwells on the earth. This is a foreshadow of the age to come when God dwells among his people without sin. Believers who avoid the gathered church and justify it because they can worship anywhere are in sin and must repent.
God is also “working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory.” God is unchanging and unbending. He determined the course of this world in eternity past. I am not overly fond of describing Christ’s atoning work as a “rescue mission”, because it implies that God was not expecting us to behave this way, although I respect the sentiment. Perhaps from our perspective, we are being rescued. But from God’s perspective, every blessing and every disaster has a role to play God’s righteous and unchanging will.
How does that play out, that good things and evil things alike work to bring about the will of a benevolent God? First of all, we should not be so blind as to think that God is only benevolent. This is why there is usually an order to building a theology of God and why we do not start with the problem of evil. As completely outside the fishbowl of creation, God sees things and orders events in ways that bring about his righteous will.
So people ask, “If I go out and kill someone, which everyone agrees is evil, that could be a part of God’s will?” The better question is, “If everyone agrees that killing is evil, and you are the one who did it, why are you blaming God for your wickedness?” That is not to avoid the question. In faith, we must be like Job, who questioned God’s righteousness and finally put his hands over his mouth and admitted he did not understand (Job 40:4). Job’s sin was that he tried to justify his own anger at what God had done rather than justifying God’s right to order his own work of creation however he pleases (Job 32:2). God is not our servant, here to please us without hesitation. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. While he loves us, we must not lose sight of who he is and who we are.
When it comes to redemption, God is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” God is also “the rewarder of them them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”
Along with God’s immensity (what a wonderful word!), postmodern man is also suspicious of a god who judges. There are those who love to point out God’s judgment and yet turn a blind eye to the mercy he shows. It is intellectually dishonest to privilege one attribute over another. What is the fear of a god who judges? What have you done to be judged, that you fear him? If we are wronged, should not you and I use the court system to enact justice? Why should God not be just? If God were not just, he would not be good. A judge who shows mercy can still be good and just. But a judge who lets murderers and thieves go free, turning a blind eye to their evil, is himself wicked.
Not only is God the judge of the wicked, but he is “the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Psalm 53 and Romans 3 both say that no one seeks after God, but the people in mind in those verses are the unregenerate, made clear by the context. Those who seek after God are those whom God has already sought. You can only seek God if he has renewed your heart for himself. And when we seek him, he rewards us with eternal life.
Next week, we’ll see what the Confession says about God’s self-sufficiency.
The London Baptist Confession seeks clarity. So, there are 10 paragraphs about the doctrine of Scripture. And not only that, but the authors placed the doctrine of Scripture before the doctrine of God. They say less about the Trinity that they do about Scripture. Why would that be?
When it comes to the Trinity, you either believe that it is the teaching of Scripture or you don’t. To say that you’re a Trinitarian Christian is like saying you have a chickeny chicken. Trinitarianism is so part-and-parcel of the Christian doctrine of God that to lose the Trinity is to lose the particularity of the Christian faith.
All that is to say that the argument for Trinitarianism proceeds from a robust doctrine of Scripture. That’s why the authors began there.
I think we can summarize paragraphs 7-10 about the doctrine of Scripture without losing the essence today.
Paragraph 7 speaks to the clarity of Scripture, saying that anyone “in a due sense of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding” of the necessary teachings of Scripture. That does not mean that all you have to do is drag your eyes across the page and you will understands the deep things of God. What it does mean is that what God has revealed can be understood through regular effort, or “ordinary means”.
Someone might say that he has read the Bible several times and there are still passages he doesn’t understand. That fact alone does not bring this doctrine into disrepute. We must realize that clarity does not equal easy. And what might cause you to be unable to sleep at night might very well be as clear as a freshly cleaned window to someone else and vice versa.
Peter even says that some of the things that Paul wrote were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). But he also says that people twist his words to distort its meaning. So, difficulty of understanding does not mean impossibility of understanding.
Clarity is also understood to mean that the church does not need an authoritative teaching office to decide the meaning of Scripture. Remember that these confessions came out of the Reformation, the response to the abuses of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Rome has the magisterium, which has the authority to interpret Scripture and the authority to demand the people accept its interpretation. The problem with that notion is that the authority is removed from Scripture and given to the magisterium. Protestant denominations may diverge on particular points of doctrine, but that’s because we share the belief that Scripture is the final authority. We follow the teaching of Scripture wherever it leads us.
Paragraph 8 essentially makes a statement that it is right and good for the Scriptures to be translated. From the start, Christianity has been a translating religion. Before the time of Christ’s incarnation, the Jews had already translated their Bible into Greek from Hebrew and Aramaic. This Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint. In places like Luke 4, Jesus read from the scrolls, and it seems as though he was reading the Greek instead of the Hebrew. Either way, what comes to us in the gospels is quoted from the Septuagint. When Jesus quotes Isaiah, the quote follows the Greek (the translation), not the Hebrew (the original).
Besides that, Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. But there’s no Aramaic in the New Testament! At minimum, that means that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and their associates were quoting a translation of both the Old Testament and Jesus’ words. Christianity is a translating religion.
Paragraph 9 says, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.” That’s it! Basically, let the clear passages interpret the difficult passages.
You should never ask yourself, "What does this passage mean to me?" Have you ever asked yourself what the instructions on the back of your detergent mean to you? Of course not. You simply ask what it means period. You might very well apply a passage in a number of ways, but it only means one thing. Cults are formed because people love novelty. I generally tell people to avoid cults.
I have loved doing this read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan with the church. It’s basically a daily Bible study with about 50 people so far for a whole year. People are asking all sorts of awesome questions, which tells me they’re hungry for it. And when people have questions, I do my best to answer questions about Scripture with Scripture. I have no delusion that I have all the answers. But if there are other interpretations, then they also require evidence from Scripture.
Finally, paragraph 10 applies the authority of Scripture to decrees made by man. Our highest judge is none but “the Holy Scriptures delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.” All church councils, all seminary textbooks, all free daily devotional literature published by para-church organizations, and blog posts must be judged for truthfulness by the standard of Scripture.
Having said all that, I want to leave you with a helpful acronym that was once given to me to help summarize the teaching of the Confession. If you want to remember the doctrine of Scripture, just remember SCAN.
Sufficient: Scripture is the sufficient source of knowledge concerning matters of salvation. Where Scriptures is silent or charitable, so must we be. In those matters, the light of nature must be brought to bear.
Clear: Scripture is clear in its teaching. With the required amount of effort and energy, the Bible can be understood and, more importantly, obeyed.
Authoritative: Scripture is the revelation of God to his creatures. As the highest authority both inside and outside of creation, his word carries the same authority.
Necessary: Scripture is necessary to knowing and understanding God’s way of salvation for mankind. Without God’s divine revelation, we are lost in our sins and destined for eternity apart from him.
Next week, we’ll see what the Confession says about the Three-in-One.
The sixth paragraph of the London Baptist Confession on Scripture introduces a new aspect of interpreting Scripture: it is sufficient for all it claims to do and teach.
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
The Christian faith is different from other religions in many ways, but the greatest distinction is that the one true God has revealed himself in order to save us while the false gods wait for men to find them.
Most clearly, God has revealed himself in Christ. He says that if you have seen him, then you have seen the Father (John 14:9). The author of Hebrews tells us that God has spoken finally through his Son (Hebrews 1:2). Peter teaches that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). To know God, we must know Christ.
So how do we know Christ? We must know the word he has given to his apostles. When Paul is writing to Timothy, he makes sure Timothy understands the connection between Christ and Scripture. Paul commends Timothy for his understanding of Scripture, which he’s been taught since his childhood. Scripture makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
Paul tells the church in Galatia that there is one gospel, and any other gospel is no gospel at all. He warns them, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul isn’t fooling about the singular, unchangeable message of Christ. And where did Galatia receive this gospel? From Paul, an apostle.
What the apostles have written down, under the inspiration of the Spirit, who relays to them the truth, is to be received as if it is from Christ himself. To know the way of salvation, how to worship God, and how to rightly order our lives, we turn to Scripture.
The Confession reminds us of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible already contains all that we need for God’s glory, our salvation, and living. It may not say all we wish it did, but what it does say is enough to be faithful to God’s will. Nothing quiets our spiritual anxiety quite like knowing that.
The other side of the sufficiency of Scripture is that we must not add anything to it. The only authors of Scripture were prophets (primarily of the Old Testament) and apostles (in the New Testament, as well as their associates), and those biblical roles have not replicated themselves to the present day. Any claim to truth must have a corresponding body of biblical evidence.
It’s all too easy to become Pharisaical in our traditions. We may have all the right intentions in setting up guardrails to protect ourselves and others, but a careful Christian recognizes that he is not the one imbued with the authority to do so. Set all the guardrails to protect yourself that you can; but traditions of men are not binding on the consciences of others.
Paul warns us in Colossians 2:21-23, "'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."
It’s possible that people reject traditions out of a contrarian mindset. But it’s also possible to accept the traditions of others as if they were gospel. Both extremes are mistakes.
When the Confession speaks of “the light of nature and Christian prudence”, that is referring to how to live, worship, and behave when Scripture may give a general principle but no direct command. We’re told to receive communion but not how often, only “as often as you do this…” (1 Corinthians 11:25). So how often do we receive it? Once a week? Once a month? Once a year? “Often” would seem to imply more regularity than not, but what is the intent of the command? Paul is writing about receiving the ordinance rightly, not how often. What does Christian prudence require of us?
What if we have a person or people in the congregation who are not believers but attend worship often? Does Scripture not tell us to behave in such a way precisely because there will be unbelievers in the congregation (1 Corinthians 14:23)? So, we generally welcome unbelieving people into the worship services in hopes that the Spirit convicts them of their sin and applies the blood of Christ to them. But what do we do when they start to be disruptive? What constitutes disruption? When do we ask an unbeliever to leave? What does Christian prudence require of us?
We must always observe “the general rules of the Word” and use Christian prudence to faithfully determine the best practice or way forward.
It’s at this point we can rightly define and apply sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. When pulled from its historical/Reformation context, sola Scriptura is how the church defines where saving knowledge comes from and the limits of its scope.
We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.
Nature shows us that God exists and leave us without excuse. But to truly know God as Redeemer, we must turn to Scripture alone.
We’re continuing our look at the London Baptist Confession’s statement on Scripture. The Confession is not binding on us, but it is a wonderful guide.
It consists of several paragraphs that each address an important component of a fully-orbed doctrine of Scripture. Last week we saw how Scripture is special revelation from God himself through the words of men. It is sufficient for knowing the way of salvation and God’s will.
The next paragraph simply enumerates the books that make up the Old and New Testaments, followed by a brief statement on the Apocrypha: they are useful books for devotional reading but are not to be binding on the consciences of God’s people.
The following (fourth) paragraph speaks to the binding authority of Scripture, especially its source. Scripture is authoritative because God has give it its authority. The Confession says:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependenteth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.
Why is this something that is necessary to say? The question that the Confession is answering is, “Who says that the Bible is true?”
The Bible is not true because the church declared it to be true in church councils. If that was the case, then the truthfulness of Scripture is almost arbitrary.
The first time that we are given an account of a canon, or an authoritative collection, of Scripture, is the year 170. It was called the Muratorian Canon. It consisted only of New Testament books. However, it did not list Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, or 3 John. Further down the road, both the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage (both in the 390’s) listed the same 27 New Testament books we affirm today.
Not every part of the world, early on, may have received a copy of a certain biblical text and therefore did not include it initially in their canon. But when they did receive it, it was received with joy and an acknowledgment that they should do so based on the witness of the church at-large and its apostolic roots.
Some have argued that because we do not have a list of New Testament books until the end of the fourth century that the early church did not care as much about the authority of Scripture as we do. But that is a gross misreading of church history.
The apostle Peter says that Paul’s letters are sometimes difficult to understand and that evil people twist the meaning, as they do the other Scriptures. Peter affirms Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), and therefore he affords Paul’s writing the same status as the Old Testament, which the Jews received as authoritative.
Paul often ended his letters with a command to pass it around to other churches. He tells the Colossian church to send that letter around and to wait for a letter from Laodicea. Paul, as he wrote his epistles, was fully aware that he was writing Scripture on par with Moses and the prophets.
The point is that within the pages of the New Testament you see the seedlings of a canon of Scripture. To deny it is to willfully ignore the actual words.
So why did councils make pronouncements about a canon? Because there were those who were going against the well-established canon before the councils took place. Some were making declarations that the church had got it wrong and that only what they said about the Bible was true. The councils were attempts at returning to the earliest witnesses about the authority of Scripture and which texts were in fact Scripture.
Why did a council make a declaration about the divinity of Christ and not the humanity? Because some were saying that Christ was not fully divine. Why did a later council make a declaration about the humanity of Christ and not his divinity? Because there were those who were teaching that Christ was not fully human.
Many times, a council is not the one being novel. Councils were convened to reject the novelty of something the church did not believe.
When it comes to the Old Testament, the same kind of questions remain. How do we know we have the collection that God intends?
By the time of Jesus, Josephus, a Jewish historian, lists 22 books that lines up nicely with ours. We have 39 Old Testament books in our Bibles, but that’s partly because scribes later divided some books into two (Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles). Ezra and Nehemiah seem to have been a single book at one time. In some places, books of the prophets were also grouped together into a single book. These were simply traditions that did not erase the peculiarity of each author or its authority.
Besides, Jesus and the apostles quote from the Old Testament. For all the quotations, there are no disputes within Scripture that someone quoted something that they shouldn’t have. Jesus and the apostles do not quote anything in the Apocrypha, and the Jewish leaders with which Jesus had so many blowups never do, either.
Some have argued that just because there are questions of authorship on some books that that means we cannot have any assurance that we know anything at all. That kind of sentiment is wholly untenable, and no one uses it in everyday life.
Here is just one example. We do not know who wrote the books of Hebrews with complete assurance. Probably the best educated guess is that it is a teaching of Paul given through the words of Luke. It has plenty of Luke’s high-brow Greek and Paul’s high Christology. The author mentions “our brother Timothy” toward the end (13:23). He has allies in Italy (13:24). However, the author says that he received the gospel from others (2:3), something Paul always rejects; he received it directly from Christ. All of the internal evidence suggests it was not Paul but a close associate with a better education that most. The apostolic companion and physician fits the bill, and he has already written two volumes of the New Testament against which we can compare the vocabulary and grammar. An early collection of the New Testament had Hebrews directly after Romans. Romans was titled “The Apostle Paul to the Romans.” Then Hebrews was called “And to the Hebrews.” So even the early church at least recognized the Paul-ness of the letter, and they were far more attuned to who wrote it.
In the end, we believe in the authority of Scripture not because of what we think but because of what it says. The Holy Spirit is ultimately the one who shows us that glorious truth, to which we will turn next week!