The Whole Counsel
From Gospel Translations
“How to Deal with Your Stress.”
“How to Manage Your Money.”
“How to Raise Your Children.”
These are not the titles of courses at your local community college. They are the titles of sermons appearing often on the sign boards and in the advertisements of churches — and not just liberal churches, but evangelical congregations insistent on their belief in the Bible.
What do such titles reveal about the state of these evangelical churches and the use they make of the Bible? Why do such sermons seem to offer therapy and self-help programs rather than the Gospel? How did we get to where we are in American Christianity? The short answer is that many evangelical preachers and teachers long have treated the Bible as a collection of stories rather than as a single system.
THE BIBLE AS STORIES
In many Sunday school classes for many decades, well-meaning teachers have presented the Bible as stories. And, of course, in one sense much of the Bible does consist of stories. From Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Joseph, from Moses to David, from Jesus to Paul, the Bible is rich in fascinating glimpses of the lives and activities of important and interesting people. Such stories are attractive to children, as well as to adults. Telling and learning those stories is a useful way of acquiring a knowledge of the content of the Bible.
Such an approach, however, has serious limitations. One is that many parts of the Bible are left out. Large sections of the Scriptures are not stories. Stories are a good approach to the historical sections of the Bible. But they do not work for the laws of the Pentateuch, the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs, the visions of the prophets, or the instruction of the epistles. Treating the Bible as stories means that we know only parts of the Bible.
A second limitation results from the uses made of the stories in the Bible. We can identify this evangelical methodology by the title of the children’s hymn “Dare to Be a Daniel.” When presented in this way, the Bible’s stories are treated not just as interesting and inspiring bits of history; they are turned into examples of the way we are to live. Teachers eagerly tell the story of Daniel — how as a young man in the court of the king of Babylon he abstained from eating foods forbidden by the Law and refused to worship false idols. After telling this heroic tale, many teachers then say to their classes: “So you too should be faithful and courageous. You too should live for God without compromise with this world. Dare to be a Daniel!”
Such advice is no doubt good and useful. But is it what God means the story of Daniel to teach us? The story is really a part of the great account of the ways in which God preserves a people for His name. The book of Daniel shows us how God protects His own even when He is punishing them in the exile. The Lord delivers them from many dangers in order to bring forth from them His Christ, the one who will save His people from their sins.
The motive of many evangelicals in using the Bible in this way is laudable in many ways. They want to inspire God’s people to holy living through moral examples and imperatives. But this approach has prepared the way for what we see in many churches today. If the recurring message found in the Scriptures is a word of moral exhortation, then it is a small step from “dare to be a Daniel” to “don’t get burned out the way Elijah did” or “learn five ways to manage your money from Solomon.”
Concerns about stress, money, and children are understandable in a society that is falling apart. Those using the Bible to address such themes believe that they are making Christianity relevant to the needs of our time. They believe that they are making the faith seem attractive and practical to the unchurched. In other words, they are trying to save our culture, our families, and our souls. But the irony is that the evangelicals — whose very name derives from “the evangel,” the Gospel — are in danger of losing the Gospel in the process. They are allowing the needs that the unchurched feel to shape the message of the church.
Such uses of the Scriptures may be very understandable in the context of our world. But these evangelicals miss the real meaning of the Word of God. They also miss the real need of the unchurched, namely, the grace of Jesus Christ. To find that true meaning, we must turn from stories to a system.
THE BIBLE AS SYSTEM
No doubt many recoil when they hear the wordsystem used with reference to the Bible. Many evangelicals have learned to regard the Bible and system as mutually exclusive. They believe that the Bible is a wonderful, moving book of stories, whereas a system is cold and rationalistic. Worst of all, they see a system as something that men (particularly Calvinists!) impose on the Bible. But the idea of the Bible as a system of truth is not cold, deadening, or imposed on the Bible. Rather, the idea is inherent in the teaching of the Bible about God and about itself. The God of the Bible is truth, and that truth is coherent in Him. He is not a mass of irrational or internally contradictory truths; He is always consistent with Himself. And since the Bible is the revelation of that same God, the Bible is internally consistent. It is not bits and pieces of religious thoughts that bear no relation to one another. The Bible is the progressive unfolding of God’s plan and activity to save His people in Jesus Christ.
The Bible is a book from which emerges a clear and coherent system of doctrine. Doctrine means “teaching.” Reformed Christians have always believed that the teachings of the Bible form a system that we can comprehend, express, and summarize. We express that summary in the confessions of our churches.
The great system of the Bible, briefly stated, is that God created man good, but man rebelled against God, losing his original goodness and any ability to restore his relationship with God. To redeem fallen man, God formed a people from whom His own eternal Son would be born as a man. That Son, Jesus, perfectly obeyed the law of God, suffered on the cross bearing the wrath of God in the place of His people, rose gloriously from the dead, and ever lives to rule over and protect His people. One day Jesus will return in glory to make all things new. In the meantime, His church is to preach His Gospel, calling sinners to faith and new life in Him. The great message of the Bible from beginning to end is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
As the church teaches this great system of the Bible, it focuses on God, Christ, sin, and the grace of salvation. It recognizes that while the Bible may be useful to overcome stress and raise good children, that is not its primary message. Christ calls His church to make known the great things of the Bible. Otherwise, the church loses the Bible — and the Gospel.