When I was a kid, I would manipulate my parents. I would ask my mom if I could go over to my friend Wayne’s house, only to be told that it was too late at night or that the family had other plans. Upon receiving the answer I did not want from Mom, I would seek the authority of Dad. “Dad, can I go over to Wayne’s house?” “Sure,” would come the response. Now my desire was covered. I could go over to Wayne’s house with a clear conscience. Though two major authorities (Mom and Dad) clashed in my life, I felt free to obey the one whose answer I liked best.
As you can imagine, that kind of result did not happen often. In fact, the manipulation eventually came to a screeching halt. Problem: Mom and Dad talked! After a while, my dad’s answers to such questions became depressingly rote: “Go ask your mom,” or “What does your mom say?” Dad would not play the game. He would always punt to Mom. The authority became united with no conflicts. In essence, with this type of stuff, Mom was the final and only infallible authority!
Your Christian life is not so different. When we first become Christians, the biggest question is, now what? What should I expect? Where should I go? Who do I ask? What should I believe? What do I do? Who do I trust? Who has the final say? We look for sources of authority to guide and direct our lives, and we have all kinds of options (Moms and Dads, if you will). And you know what? These options will not always agree. So where do you go for authority in your Christian walk?
The first authority in our lives is the Bible. In Protestant circles we use the fancy Latin phrase sola Scriptura. The doctrine of sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the final and only infallible source of authority for our faith. We might say the Bible is the “ultimate authority” or the “eternal trump card” (for those who like to play cards). We will talk more about sola Scriptura shortly, but hang with me as I tell you a bit about the Bible.
The Bible is a collection of sixty-six ancient books. I am not sure that “books” is the best way to put it, but it will do for now. The Bible is made up of history, poetry, personal letters, community letters, genealogies (that sometimes seem endless!), short pithy statements of good advice, eternal laws, temporal laws, and biography. The oldest books of the Bible date from around 1,500 years before Christ. The last book dates to the end of the first century. No books have been added to the Bible since its completion, and Christians don’t expect to ever have anything else added to it.
The books that make up the Christian Bible are called the canon of Scripture. (Scripture and Bible are often used interchangeably. They mean the same thing.) Protestant Christians hold to a sixty-six book canon (Catholics add a few to the Old Testament, called the Deuterocanonical books or the Apocrypha). The Bible is divided into two testaments or covenants. The first testament is called the Old Testament. It deals with the general history of man, his creation by God, his fall into sin, and God’s promise to fix what man, through sin, broke (we will talk more about that in the next chapter). The primary focus of the Old Testament is the nation of Israel. God gave the nation of Israel a promise through the father of the nation, Abraham. God said that, in his old age, Abraham would have a son, and one of his descendants would become a great blessing to the whole world. We later come to know this great blessing as the Messiah or Redeemer (i.e., the one who will fix everything). Though the Israelites did not know exactly what to look for, they waited anxiously for this Messiah. The second testament is called the New Testament. While the Old Testament covers thousands of years, the New Testament puts on the brakes and covers about seventy-five to one hundred years. Its primary focus is on the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. This Messiah is Jesus Christ, the very Son of God. How did God fix everything? Through sending his Son, God in the flesh, to take the punishment for the sins of God’s people on a wooden cross. The New Testament is an account of this sacrifice and the implications that it should have on our lives.
While the Bible is a story about what we are to believe concerning God, the fall, and the salvation of man, it is also a kind of instruction book on how to live. By both direct command and example, it teaches us what God’s will is for our lives. The Bible is called “God’s Word.” This means that when it speaks, God speaks. We call this inspiration. While God is very involved in all of history (as we will see) and we should expect his movements through experiences in our lives, we should not expect to actually hear his literal voice or see his literal face. He speaks to us through his Word, the Bible.
Notice what Paul says concerning the Bible:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16–17)
The Bible equips us for every good work, not just some good works. It is given to make you a competent disciple. The Greek word for inspired literally means “God breathed.” Can you believe that? The Bible is the breath of God! Every word in the Scriptures is exactly what God wanted to write. However, God used over forty men from all walks of life—from fishermen to kings—to write his Word, and he did not sacrifice their personality or circumstances in the least. This is one of the great mysteries of Scripture.
Peter puts it this way: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). In other words, as these men wrote the Scriptures, they were carried along by the Spirit as a boat is carried along by the wind. God used man by moving through their thoughts and words.
We will return to the authority of Scripture in a moment. But before we do, we need to look at four other sources that God uses to communicate truth.
God wants us to use our minds—and to use them well.
Let me get a little technical: Reason is the human capacity and inclination toward rational, logical, and analytical thought. For example, if I met a gentleman walking on crutches and wearing a hat that said “Ski Aspen,” I would probably draw the following conclusions. First, I would think that his leg was broken. Second, I would think he broke his leg while skiing. I would not need to have read a book to draw such conclusions. And I would not need to be really smart to do so. I would simply employ the rational way of thinking that we are all born with. If someone has a cast on his leg, this normally means his leg is broken. If his leg is broken, there is a cause for its breaking (i.e., it did not break on its own). This is not rocket science.
In the Christian life, God has given you the ability to think, reason, and draw conclusions. Your abilities in this area are by no means perfect, but they are abilities nonetheless. God created you with a mind to think for a reason. He wants you to be reasonable! Reason or rationality is another authority in your life and a valid source for information about God. It is not a Christian virtue to go around believing things that don’t make sense. You are not supposed to check your brains at the door once you become a Christian. God expects you to think and to think well.
Here’s another illustration. When the Israelites were worshiping gods that they made out of the wood from trees, using half the wood for idols and the other half for their fire, God chastises them for their irrationality. Translation: they were not thinking well.
No one considers [stops to think], nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” (Isa. 44:19)
It was irrational for the Israelites to worship blocks of wood, and God calls them on this. God wants and expects you to use your brain.
But reason is not perfect. It can go bad. We can misuse it or misinterpret the data. More often than not, we lack data because we don’t have access to all the information and make assumptions. For example, I think I could reasonably conclude that the gentleman in the cast broke his leg while skiing. But what if I was missing some information or misinterpreting what I saw? What if the broken leg was not broken? What if it was a torn ACL from a car accident? What if the hat was the man’s brother’s, and he had not been to Aspen at all? All of these things are possible and demonstrate the limits of reason. Only those with all the information are able to draw perfectly sound conclusions. And people, being limited, don’t normally have all the information.
The Bible, on the other hand, being the Word of God, is never lacking in perspective. Everything it speaks about, it does so with complete truthfulness and accuracy.
God wants to meet you in your experience. As a disciple, you can see God’s hand in the agency of life. But be careful!
The best way to explain experience is to describe it as information that comes through direct encounter, participation, or observation. As a Christian, you should expect to encounter God in your life. While the Bible plainly says that you will not see him with your eyes (1 Pet. 1:8), this does not mean that he is not active. Every day you are to pray for direction and guidance. You might pray for “open doors” and “closed doors.” For example, the Bible may tell you nothing beyond general stewardship principles about whether to take this job or that, or to buy this house or that, but you don’t want to discount God’s desire to guide you through such endeavors. God will open doors through your experience, and he will close doors through your experience.
I am married with four kids. Before my wife and I met many years ago, I was not looking through the Bible to find out what the name of Michael Patton’s wife would be. Nevertheless, I did pray that God would prepare a wife for me and that he would guide me to her through the mundane travels of life. Now that I am married, I am fully confident that God did guide me. Through subtle but definite movements, God will often guide and direct your life through experience.
Remember, God is a God of history. He did not finish writing the Bible and go AWOL. When the last book of the Bible was complete, God did not turn into a cheerleader on the sidelines of history. He is still involved. You should expect that he hears your prayers and moves in time, accomplishing his will through you.
But experience, like reason, can be misinterpreted and abused. Experience can be dangerous. Sometimes we can try to manipulate the will of God by making our experience say something that may be at odds with God’s will. Allow me to use an extreme example. I could have prayed to God while thinking about whether I should marry Kristie, “Dear God, if Kristie is the one I should marry, make a car come down the street next. If she is not the one, make it a truck.” Don’t go there. God cannot be manipulated in such a way. You are to always be looking for his movements in your life, but don’t force them.
Again, the Bible is in authority over our experience. If our experience says one thing and the Bible says another, the Bible wins.
God wants to speak to your heart. He loves emotions. After all, he created them. Look for God in the depths of your heart.
Emotions are subjectively experienced psychological feelings. We often look down on emotions as a second-rate form of guidance. We talk about not being “too emotional” when we make decisions. It is good to be cautious, but we don’t want to dismiss emotions too quickly. God will move through them. For example, the Bible tells us that one of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin (John 16:7–8). Conviction is an emotion from God that we dare not ignore. The Bible also talks about the peace of God that comes into our lives that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). Emotions are powerful, and I encourage you to invite God to comfort and guide you through them.
But emotions can be misleading. I have a Christian friend who just fell in love with his “soul mate.” However, his so-called soul mate is not a Christian. The Bible is clear that Christians are not to marry unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14). My friend’s emotions are conflicting with the Bible. He thinks the love he has for this woman is from God and is guiding him to marry her. But Scripture says something different. The Bible should always win.
I have another friend who does not “feel” God’s presence in his life. He does not “feel” as if God loves him. His depression and inability to be happy, for him, are proof of God’s absence. Again, emotions are telling him something that is not true. They can do that. They do it all the time with me. We must be careful.
I want you to welcome God to talk to you through your emotions, but your emotions are not the final arbiter of truth. The Bible is the final arbiter of truth and has authority over your emotions. If your emotions go left (i.e., God does not love me) and the Bible goes right (i.e., God does love me), always go right.
Finally, we need to look at tradition. We should look to the past to find wisdom for the present.
The best way to describe tradition is “those who have gone before us.” In the Christian faith, we have a heritage. The church is made up of more than your local assembly meeting in the building on the corner. It is more than all the Christians who are living around the world. The church is made up of all of those who have trusted in Christ, both living and dead. God the Holy Spirit has led and guided a multitude of saints that have gone before us. Their common confession through their deeds and beliefs forms an authority for the Christian life. Their witness builds a foundation of truth and beckons us to follow them.
A man once came to me and pointed to a particular portion of Scripture. He told me that he believed that the Holy Spirit had given him an understanding of this particular passage the night before. As he told me about his interpretation, I realized one problem: no Christian before him had ever interpreted the passage that way. His interpretation was completely outside the great Christian tradition that has been held for the last two thousand years. If his belief was true, then multitudes of Christians who had come before him had missed it, even though they were being led by the same Spirit as he supposedly was. This should give us pause. In fact, it should scare us a bit. Look into tradition. Become a student of the great believers of the past. Read biographies on them. Read their works (we have lots of them). Let them become close friends.
However, tradition is not perfect. People who have gone before us have misread and manipulated the Scriptures. While tradition stands guard beside the Scriptures, it is always judged ultimately by the Scriptures. In other words, rightly interpreted Scripture affirms or corrects all traditions. You must look to the community of God, both living and dead, for guidance. You must stand in fear of coming up with something “new.” However, you must never place tradition above Scripture.
We have many sources of authority in our lives. In addition to emotions, experience, reason, and tradition, we also have pastors, governments, and parents. These are all from God. All of them carry varying degrees of authority. However, none of them are as authoritative as Scripture. Scripture is your final authority in all things. When it speaks clearly, it does not matter what your emotions say, it does not matter what your reason says, and it does not matter what the government says. God’s Word is final.
In the book of Acts, shortly after Christ ascended into heaven, the apostles were taken into custody by the governing authority in their land. They were told to quit preaching about Christ or suðer the legal consequences. Here is what they said:
But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20)
We also know that the Christians in Berea fact-checked the apostle Paul against the Scriptures, and they were commended for it!
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:10–11)
When I went to my dad for permission to go to my friend’s house, I was trying to circumvent the word of my mother. I was attempting to manipulate authorities in order to get my way. If you allow yourself this liberty in the Christian life, you will consistently fall on your face, outside of the will of God. Most importantly, you will be a fish out of water. As a believer in Christ, the best place you can be is under the authority of the One who loves you and made you. He knows what is best. Why would we seek anything else?
As a Christian disciple, you must build a respect for all the authorities that God has given. Yes, God is the ultimate authority in your life, but the ultimate way in which God has chosen to communicate this authority is through the Scriptures. This is why as a Christian you must read, meditate on, and study the Bible as often as you are able (more on this later). It is indispensable for Christian discipleship.
- How has your understanding of Christian authority grown?
- In what ways do you think emotions could conflict or support the Bible? Give examples.
- Why should we trust Scripture over experience? Give examples of where experience might support the Bible.
- Why is tradition dangerous and wonderful? Give examples outside of Christianity, too.
- If Scripture seems to come in conflict with modern scientific opinion, what should we do? Give examples.
Taken from Now That I'm a Christian: What It Means to Follow Jesus, by C. Michael Patton. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
You’ve become a Christian. Now what? Michael Patton unpacks the basics of the Christian faith, helping you think carefully about God and live fully for God as you begin your new life in Christ. In ten easy-to-read chapters, this book will introduce you to the foundational teachings and life-giving practices of Christianity—from the doctrine of the Trinity to reading and understanding the Bible.