The fall has had a terrible effect upon man—not only physically (in that he is now subject to death and its effects) but morally and spiritually as well. Morally, man is clearly defective. By virtue of becoming a sinner, the machinery of his moral being has, so to speak, been thrown out of gear. It may still work after a fashion (he is not without a conscience) but only in a flawed and imperfect way—hence the wide differences in attitude among men to with respect to morals. However, the effect upon the spiritual aspect of man, by reason of its greater delicacy and sensitiveness, has been absolutely disastrous. A cracked water–pipe may in measure serve its purpose, but no electricity will pass along a broken wire. Thus in the spiritual sphere man, though naturally a religious being, (in contrast to the lower creation), is absolutely dependent upon a divine revelation. In fact, nothing relating to man should be regarded with so much distrust as his religion, despite the fact that this is precisely the sphere where his self–satisfaction most prevails. Thus every one is convinced that all religions are wrong except one—the exception being, of course, the particular one with which he is associated!
A Revelation from God
Now since man belongs to a fallen race, and as it is in the spiritual sphere that the effects of the catastrophe are most felt, he ought to be always ready to test his religious tenets by whatever standard is the true one. Of course men may differ as to the standard, and as to how the testing process should be carried out, but all thoughtful persons will agree on the soundness of this principle.
So as Christians, and believers in the one true God, what guarantee do we have that what we believe is actually true? To many in Christendom, even the posing of this question will seem scandalous and profane. They will set themselves to angrily shout it down, just as the worshippers of Artemis did with what they deemed to be heretical (see Acts 19: 34). Such a reaction is indicative of a blind faith in which the intellectual faculty is wilfully disengaged. In real faith, the mind is enlightened. How is this brought about? By the Holy Spirit acting upon the soul through means of the Word of God. Thus in new birth, the one born again is not only born of Spirit but of water—water being a figure of the Word of God (see John 3: 5; Eph. 5: 26; James 1: 18; 1 Pet. 1: 23). I believe, because God has spoken to me, in His Word.
Now there are many so–called ‘holy’ books in this world, but the volume to which the Son of God habitually turned to as the standard of truth was the OT. He asked the Jews “What is written in the law?” (Luke 10: 26) and “Have ye never read in the scriptures?” (Matt. 21: 42), and three times he dismissed the attack of the Devil with the words “It is written” (Matt. 4: 4, 7, 10). He never referred anyone to any other book. Thus it is not possible to diminish in any way the unique position of the Scriptures, without at the same time bringing into question the uniqueness of Christ’s Person. If He was who He said He was, then Scripture occupies the place that He gave it. The two stand or fall together.
Thus the Bible is the divine revelation—the means by which we know what God has said, and hence that Christianity is true. Take the Bible away, and you are left with the mere thoughts, reasonings and feelings of men as to the what and how of religion. It may be dressed up in what looks like Christian garb, but without the revelation it can only be worthless mysticism. In genuine Christianity, we know, because God has told us, and He has told us in His Word. We are not left with vague uncertainties—the Bible is certain and tangible.
In the early history of the Assembly, we find the first Christians persevering “in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (Acts 2: 42). The OT revelation had been completed some four centuries earlier in the prophet Malachi, and the NT revelation was then being “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3: 5). Through the ministry of the apostle Paul, that final revelation was completed (see Col. 1: 25). Of course this does not mean that the Spirit does not speak today, but it is always with reference to the revelation. The Word and the Spirit, if I may put it this way, always go together.
Now of course many centuries have passed since the days of the apostles and the question naturally arises as to how far Christians have departed from “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v3). With very few exceptions, most who profess themselves Christians will reply that the measure of this must be Scripture, pointing us back to the Bible, and probably the NT in particular. Yet this unanimity is merely apparent not real. Many will object to a direct appeal to the Scriptures. Oh yes they believe that the Bible is the Word of God, but their interpretation and understanding of it must be governed by the traditions and customs of Christendom, and filtered through the thoughts and opinions of respected authorities. Is this attitude the exclusive preserve of the more superstitious wing of Christendom? No. You will find it in Protestantism, you will find it in Evangelicalism, you will find it everywhere. Indeed, it is hardly difficult to find persons who are very sound as to what they believe and practise, both individually and ecclesiastically, but with whom, in reality, the authority of the Scriptures have been diminished, whether unwittingly or not.
How is this brought about? By very subtle means. Let us look at four things that men set great store by, yet which the enemy of souls has craftily used to undermine the authority of God’s holy Word: Customs, Traditions, Intermediaries and Conditions. What I mean by these will become clearer as we proceed.
A custom is simply a common way of doing something, and there are many among Christians. Sometimes these are firmly based on Scripture but, more often than not, the connection is much looser, and in many cases they have arisen simply because it ‘seemed good’ to the brethren. Many saints, for example, insist on having a white cloth on the communion table. There is nothing wrong in this, and no reason for changing the practice, but the Scriptures mention neither a cloth nor its colour.
Customs have no authority in themselves—the only authority they carry (if at all) is that which is derived from the Scriptures. The less they are based on Scripture then the less the authority they have. Of course, it is very easy to blur the distinction between custom and what is definitely NT practice, such that the former is invested with all the weight of the latter. To hear some people talk, it is very clear that they regard the local company with whom they gather as being an exact replica of what pertained in NT times. This kind of attitude is plain silly. As Christians, we depend entirely on what God reveals to us by His Spirit in His Word—and He has not seen fit to give us every feature of Assembly practice in NT times. He has given us enough to walk pleasing in His sight, but it would be presumptuous to be dogmatic about details on which Scripture is silent. Those who are truly spiritual will be the first to admit that much of what they do is merely customary—which while commending itself to the conscience as being a good course of action, has, in reality, no explicit authority from the Word.
Customs that are longstanding in nature are probably better termed traditions—something that has been handed down—and it is here that Christians frequently run into more serious problems. By the very fact that traditions have the prestige of age attached to them, they assume greater weight in the mind than something which was only taken up yesterday. The test for both however is the same: What does the Word of God say? The scribes and Pharisees were great ones for traditions. In Matthew 15 they criticised the disciples for transgressing “what has been delivered by the ancients” (v2) in the fact that they did not wash their hands when they ate bread. The Lord is withering in His response: “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God on account of your traditional teaching? For God commanded saying, Honour father and mother; and, He that speaks ill of father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or mother, It is a gift, whatsoever [it be] by which [received] from me thou wouldest be profited: and he shall in no wise honour his father or his mother; and ye have made void the commandment of God on account of your traditional teaching” (vs 3–6). He takes them up on their own ground: they had made a stand on the traditions of the elders; He demonstrates that those traditions had nullified the Word of God. Traditions are thus exposed as being of no relevance when it comes to matters to which a soul should take heed. What matters is what God has commanded. There is an intended contrast between v4 “For God commanded”, and v9, “teaching [as] teachings commandments of men” (my emphasis).
Of course some will say that the persons the Lord had before Him were unregenerate Jews, and that is very true, but it would be a foolish mistake to think that genuine believers are immune from the obstinate grip of tradition. It is, for example, traditional for many believers to have regular rounds of meetings at which selected brethren are invited to speak. Such meetings have (in the past) proved very useful for the edification of the saints, and they surely continue to be so, but the fact that something is profitable does not make it Scriptural. In Rom. 12, the teacher is to occupy himself in teaching, and the exhorter in exhortation (see vs. 7, 8). There is no sense in Scripture in which he is to wait until he is invited—it is his responsibility to exercise his gift. Again, take the preaching of the Gospel. What is the testimony of Scripture? “How shall they preach unless they have been sent?” (Rom. 10: 15). Thus a speaker goes because he is sent, not because he is invited. Nor can the force of this be evaded by making out that invitation and sending are the same thing. Look at the OT Prophets—most were sent, but few invited. If this fact is to be dismissed by saying that the Jews were in a bad state, and the Church is something different, then why does Paul speak of a time when professing Christians “will not bear sound teaching; but according to their own lusts will heap up to themselves teachers, having an itching ear” (2 Tim. 4: 3)? Such a state is facilitated by brethren having an exclusive and quasi–clerical group from which speakers are selected. The responsibility of the company is not invitation, but ensuring that their arrangements are such that the Word of God can come to them, irrespective of the fact whether it is pleasing to their ears or not. As for the preaching the Gospel, well that is not actually the responsibility of the company at all!
In the well–known incident of the woman at the well, the woman went away into the city and told the men “Come, see a man who told me all things I had ever done: is not he the Christ?” (John 4: 29). As a result, “many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him because of the word of the woman who bore witness” (v39). However, when they were brought into actual contact with the Lord Himself, they said to the woman “[It is] no longer on account of thy saying that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world” (v42). This little story illustrates the mark of all those who are truly acting as ministers of blessing under God’s hand. The woman gives testimony to Christ and the men believe on Him through her. At this point the intermediary is of some importance. But things must not stop there: the minister is only a means to an end. That end is when the men are brought into direct contact with the Lord themselves at which point the intermediary ceases to be of importance.
What is the case with the One who is the living Word is also the case with that which is the written Word. Thus just as the objective of a true minister is not to gather a flock to himself but to bring his hearers into obedience to Christ, so he does not wish to bring them to rest upon what he says, but to lead them to a place where they are resting for themselves upon what the Scriptures say. Ministry that does not lead to this result is fundamentally defective and likely to produce a second–hand faith—one that appears healthy enough when things are going well, but whose shallowness is exposed in the trials of life. We need the Scriptures to build us up in our most holy faith otherwise we may find ourselves “always learning, and never able to come to [the] knowledge of [the] truth” (2 Tim. 3: 7).
Sadly, this state of things is more prevalent than might be supposed. Speak to Christians and you will find that many believe things, not because they are in the Bible, but because they have read them in some respected book or heard them said by one whom they hold in high esteem. They may not even be able to point you to any relevant Scripture references, but even when they can, they are often incapable of providing a satisfactory exposition themselves, merely parroting what they have got from others. Mr so–and–so saw it that way so it must be right! If you present Scriptures to them which appear to conflict with what they say, then they may be remarkably reticent to let go of what they believe as true. For them, authority rests not exactly in the Scriptures as such, but in the ‘approved’ exposition of it. In an attempt to rebut what I am saying, some will turn you to Acts 8 and what the Ethiopian eunuch said as to his inability to understand the Word of God: “How should I then be able unless some one guide me?” (v31). However, these overlook the fact that the eunuch was not yet a believer. No Christian should allow anyone to come between himself and the Word of God. As for the Christian teacher, the thrust of his ministry should not be to make his hearers (or readers) dependent upon himself, but to bring them into a Berean state of mind “receiving the word with all readiness of mind, daily searching the scriptures if these things were so” (Acts 17: 11).
Anybody ministering the Word among the saints ought to “speak—as oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4: 11)—that is, as a mouth–piece for the Holy Spirit. In connection with this, it has been said that since the assembly is God’s temple or dwelling place today (see 1 Cor. 3: 16, 17), then it follows that ministry delivered there (God being present) is invested with an authority that is lacking elsewhere. This appears to be a very plausible argument, and indeed the writer has great sympathy with it—at least in the sense that when the saints are gathered together under the right conditions, the ministry delivered is likely to be of a high calibre, and able to shed a good deal of light on the understanding of Scripture. Just as the OT saint would go up to Jerusalem to inquire of God in his temple (see Ps. 27: 4), so modern–day saints will find a unique help when assembled together under the hand of the Lord.
However, ministry has no authority of itself. Wherever it is delivered, and under whatever conditions, it is only authoritative in so far as it is in keeping with Scripture. The authority of ministry of the Word is the Word itself. Of course, ministry delivered in spiritual conditions is likely to be in accord with Scripture, but it is perverse when saints are not allowed to question whether the ministry is Scriptural simply because it is said to have been delivered under so–called ‘temple conditions’! The parallel between that kind of situation and the Pope speaking ex cathedra ought not to go unnoticed.
There is a very solemn passage in 2 Cor. 11 which speaks of Satan’s ministers as “ministers of righteousness” (v15)—that is, as operating in the religious sphere. And the fact is, the more spiritual the company and the more wonderful the ministry, then the more likely that Satan will infiltrate it with his own servants, and, being the arch–deceiver that he is, they will look and sound like the real thing. How are the saints to be preserved? In the language of the apostle John, they are to “prove the spirits, if they are of God” (1 John 4: 1). How are they to prove them? John instructs the saints to compare what they say, with what God has said. For us, the principle is the same. Everything, without exception, is to be tested by the Bible. Indeed, we ought to be very thankful that God has given us a very tangible resource by which even the simplest saint can be sure that what he hears or reads is according to the truth.
Paul writes to Timothy “that in [the] last days difficult times shall be there” (2 Tim. 3: 1). Those times have surely come. All around us we see standards slipping, truth being abandoned and evil advancing. In such a situation as this, what is the saint to do? What is his resource, and where is his place of safety? Is it in customs or traditions? Is it in following man or his ministry? No. “As for you let that which ye have heard from the beginning abide in you: if what ye have heard from the beginning abides in you, ye also shall abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2: 24, my emphasis).