I am convinced that the theology I received from Augustine, Luther, C.S. Lewis, Pastor Kreuger, and others—the theology I’ve described up until now—is entirely grounded in the scriptures. However, as you no doubt know, the Bible is interpreted in so many different ways. So before wrapping this up I offer here my suggestions for those who are like I was, trying to sort out what to believe about God.
As I noted in the first chapter, when I first read the Bible it was difficult to understand. Actually, it was incomprehensible. I did not know where to start. I could not seem to get a foothold anywhere. From Genesis to Matthew’s gospel, to Philemon and 1 John, I was looking for something, anything, that could show me which way to God.
My experience was not uncommon. Many people I have talked to over the years have voiced a similar struggle. They ask, “When I read the Bible, what am I looking for? What is the point?” “I was taught in Sunday school that BIBLE stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Is that true?” “Is the Bible a series of illustrations of holy men and women, whose example I’m supposed to follow if I want to get into God’s good graces?” “Can the Bible help as a guide for those who are doing their best to live a good life?” “If I try to live my life the way the Bible teaches, is there any hope for me that God will fill in the spots with his grace and mercy where I make a mess of things?” These are the questions that I have been and continue to be asked by those still seeking to understand God and his disposition towards his creation.
When I first read the Bible, and for many years thereafter, I did not so much seek to understand God’s Word as I wanted to “overstand” God’s Word. What I mean by this is that I went into the Bible to find solutions to my problems with God, my friends, family, and myself. I went through the Bible hoping to collect data that could help me out of the troubles my addiction had created for me. I wanted the Bible to lay out for me what was the point of life, the universe, and everything. Which God was the real God? What happens after we die? How do I change my doomed existence into something worthy of God’s love and attention?
Despite our best efforts at interpretation, in the end only God’s Spirit can reveal the truth of scripture to us.
When we read the Bible seeking answers to these questions we actually end up attacking God’s Word. We fail to realize the true intent of God’s Word for us because, although we can judge the basic meaning of the biblical texts easily enough, we fail to understand the purpose and goal of God’s Word. More than that, though, despite our best efforts at interpretation, in the end only God’s Spirit can reveal the truth of scripture to us. We must pray that God lifts the sinful veil from our eyes. What we will find is that the Bible is less about us and more about Jesus. In fact, what we find is that Jesus is the primary purpose and goal of all scripture. This makes all the difference for us when we go into the Bible.
A perfect and common example of how we often go searching for personal meaning in the Bible centers on the topic of predestination and election. When Christians read the Bible and encounter a text that speaks specifically about predestination, as in Romans 8:29, they get hung up on the question about whether God numbers them among the elect. The next question usually involves what they must do to prove to themselves and other Christians that they are, in fact, predestined for heaven rather than hell. This is a topic that strikes at the very heart of old Adam sinners. It is troubling because at its core the question exposes to us that we are not in control of our destiny as much as we may convince ourselves otherwise.
An example from the life of Luther will help illustrate this. In his Letters of Spiritual Council, Luther responds to a laywoman, Barbara Lisskirchen, who is troubled about what she has been taught about predestination . He counsels her to consider what God’s Word says about election. In particular, he encourages her to consider predestination evangelically in relation to Christ and his cross.
What Luther essentially does in this letter is to urge Barbara to approach the teaching of election in and through Christ Jesus. In this way, we do not use the Bible to prove that the doctrine of election is a teaching that comes before Christ crucified. Instead, we understand the question as an aftereffect of the fact that Jesus alone is the God and Lord who saves sinners. Using the New Testament’s imagery of Christ alone as the foundation, Luther remarks that Christians start with the foundation (Christ) and not the roof (predestination):
In Christ, God has furnished us with a foundation on which to stand and from which we can go up to heaven. He is the only way and the only gate which leads to the Father. If we despise this foundation and in the devil’s name start building at the roof, we shall surely fall.
The intent of God’s Word is to foster the preaching of God’s promise of Christ crucified for the sin of the world.
Learning from Luther, it is important that we understand God’s Spirit is the active player in the matter of predestination and election. God acts through the scriptures. The scriptures are the Word of God. They are not just words about God but the Word from God. This means that we must distinguish, when we read God’s Word, between human words about God and words spoken from God. Human words search for meaning, but God’s Word does what he says it does. This distinction is impossible for us. In our religious zeal to locate meaning for our lives, we actually end up using the Bible as a defense mechanism against God. When old Adam sinners get religion, like I did, we use the scriptures as a tool by which we bring God to heel. Our interpretations, which are just theories in search of solid footing, are used to make God our debtor. But then we are caught in a trap of our own design. We construct a theory about God’s relation to us that is supposed to win God over by its attractiveness. But that is not the purpose and goal of God’s Word. The intent of God’s Word is to foster the preaching of God’s promise of Christ crucified for the sin of the world.
Christ Jesus embodies all of Holy Scripture. He pries open the seals that were shut and reveals the will of God. Scripture is not interested in presenting us with theories for how to live a pious Christian life in relation to our God. God is concerned with the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin. Because of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit all of the scriptures have been unlocked and therefore are clear for the proclamation of the forgiveness of sin. God’s Word is clear about this. We are the ones who are deluded and confused.
God’s saving of us old Adam sinners is the purpose and goal of holy scripture. God’s Word comes to godless people so we may receive Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin and eternal salvation. Yes, there is much hidden from us by God, but there is nothing hidden in God’s revelation of the Son. Because of Christ, all scripture is revealed to us and is clear for the proclamation of the gospel. In Jesus, everything we need to know about God is preached and revealed to us because in Christ is the “fullness of the image of God” (Colossians 1:15). Likewise, as Jesus says, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). And most important for our understanding of the whole Bible, Jesus is the Word of God who makes God known to us because, as John writes, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 6:46).