The Bible Alone
By David Feddes
I turned on my television just in time to see a preacher saying, “If you have financial problems, or family problems, or depression, or a sickness such as arthritis or cancer, God can help you. All you need to do to release his power in your situation is to sow a seed of faith.”
His face became more intent as he went on. “The Lord told me that those who plant a seed of faith by pledging a dollar a day for the next year to this ministry will see their troubles vanish, and God’s blessing will overflow in their lives.”
The preacher’s voice grew more urgent: “If you want God’s blessing on your family and finances and health or anything else, then listen to God. Pick up that telephone right now. Sow that seed of faith! Pledge a dollar a day for the next year, or give a one-time gift of $365. You may say, ‘I really can’t afford that right now. I don’t have much money, and I have bills to pay.’ Don’t say that! You need to act in faith. Don’t wait till you think you can afford it. Sow that seed of faith now, or you’ll never be able to afford it.”
The preacher’s voice dropped to a pious murmur. “I’m not making this up,” he said. “I tell you before God, with all the integrity of my spirit, that God himself spoke to me, and that’s exactly what he said: he will solve the problem of anyone who plants a seed of a dollar a day. So call the number on your screen right now, and have your credit card ready.”
I reached for my TV remote and hit the “off” button. It felt good to silence that pious pleading and make that greedy face disappear. I’m not against donating money to good causes, but I am against preachers who claim their fund-raising gimmicks came as a direct revelation from God. I knew that at that very moment, some gullible people would be on the phone, giving their credit card numbers in the hope that God can be bribed for a dollar a day. Far too many religious people are quick to believe any person who says, “The Lord told me.”
Then there are the psychic hotlines that run ads on some TV stations. Some washed up former celebrity comes on screen and urges you to call a number immediately to talk with your own personal psychic. She says that your psychic can tell you what your future holds and give you supernatural help. Meanwhile, as the TV face makes these grand promises about supernatural revelations that will change your life forever, some fine print at the bottom of the screen says, “For entertainment only” and states that you will be charged $4 per minute for your call. That fine print protects those phonies from fraud charges, I suppose, but it doesn’t prevent people from calling and paying $4 a minute to seek a message from another realm.
How about adding something else to those psychic hotline commercials? How about putting on the screen a warning with these words of the Bible in Isaiah 8:20? “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? … To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn… They will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” It’s bad enough to lose $4 a minute to a phony phone psychic, but it’s far worse to lose your soul.
If you want supernatural truth, don’t turn to a psychic. Turn to God. And if you want to know what God says, don’t go to a preacher who is always saying, “The Lord told me.” Go to the Bible. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.”
The Bible, and the Bible alone, must be our final authority. The Bible reveals Jesus, and since Jesus is God’s final revelation, the Bible’s testimony to him is God’s final word to us. The fact that the Bible is authoritative means that anything which contradicts the Bible is not of God. Everything the Bible reveals is true, and nothing can be subtracted from it. Also, the fact that the Bible alone is the final authority means that any claim to reveal something about God beyond what the Bible reveals is not of God. The Bible is complete, it is final, and nothing can be added to its message.
This means that we need to beware not only of attacks on the Bible but also of additions to the Bible. When we start looking to sources other than the Bible to reveal God and his ways, when we make our final authority the Bible plus something else, we’re headed for trouble. There are various ways of doing this. It may be the Bible plus personal experiences and visions; the Bible plus some other supposedly sacred book; the Bible plus church traditions that go beyond Scripture; the Bible plus modern efforts to “improve” on what the prophets and apostles wrote–but whatever it is, the moment we give anything else the same level of spiritual authority as the Bible, we are on a path that leads away from God and his truth. Let’s look at how other claims to authority contrast with the final authority of the Bible alone.
First, let’s think about personal experiences and private revelations. Some people like to say, “The Lord told me this” or “The Lord told me that.” If you challenge a belief of theirs with a statement from the Bible, they might say, “You only have your theology; I have my experience.” But the fact is that the written Word of God stands above personal experiences and revelations.
God inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Bible as a record of who God is and what he wants. The Lord said very plainly that any deviation from that written record, even if it came with amazing predictions and miraculous signs and wonders, could not possibly be of God. God said through Moses:
See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it. If a prophet or one who foretells by dreams appears among you and announces a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 12:32-13:4)
All sorts of people claim to have a message for others that comes directly from the supernatural realm. Often these claims are made up by phonies running a get-rich-quick scam. But what if they sincerely believe in what they’re doing? Just suppose they really did have a vision or hear a voice from the spirit realm. Just suppose they get supernatural ability to make predictions or to perform signs and wonders. According to God, that doesn’t prove anything. Just because something is spiritual doesn’t mean it’s the Spirit of God. There are also evil spirits. Just because something is supernatural doesn’t means it’s divine. It could be demonic.
That’s why God, speaking through Moses, warned us not to listen to any dreamer or miracle worker who speaks contrary to God’s written revelation. That’s why God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, denounced mediums and fortune-tellers, and pointed people back to the written law and testimony of God. And that’s why God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, said to stop equating experience and imagination and dreams with divine revelation. The Lord said through Jeremiah,
“I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ … Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully… ‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?… I am against those who wag their own tongues and yet declare, “The Lord declares.” Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,’ declares the Lord. ‘They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them'” (Jeremiah 23:25-32).
Is the Bible the final authority for your faith? Do you love the God of the Bible? Do you believe and obey what he says on the Bible’s pages? Or do you count on feelings and experiences in isolation from the Bible, and take your cue from those who claim to have special powers and spiritual insights beyond what the Bible reveals? The Bible, not experience, is the final authority.
I’m not saying that Bible-believing Christians never have spiritual experiences. They do. But those experiences, if they are truly of God, come when the Holy Spirit applies biblical truth to our hearts, not when we’re stirred by some dream or voice or feeling that has no grounding in Bible truth. The Holy Spirit of God use the laws and warnings of the Bible to show us our sin and humble us; he uses the Bible truth about Jesus to fill us with faith and confidence in the Savior; he uses the promises of the Bible to fill us with peace and joy; and he uses the biblical revelation of God’s majesty to fill us with awe. These are profound experiences, but they are experiences that cannot be separated from the Scripture, and they do not add to Scripture.
I’ve had various spiritual experiences. At times I have experienced horrible sadness over my sin and felt an overwhelming hunger for God. At other times I have sensed God’s leading and have been thrilled at God’s goodness. I have even dreamed of heaven. But my experiences, feelings, and dreams can’t replace the Bible or add to what God says in the Bible. At best these things can only confirm what God says in the Bible. Whatever experiences I do or don’t have, I base my relationship with God on his Word, not my feelings. And when I speak to you, I don’t want you to base your faith on any experience of mine but only on the sure truth of God revealed in Scripture. My experiences might deceive me, and if I preached my own experiences as gospel, it might deceive you. But God’s Word never deceives.
The Holy Spirit applies Bible truth to us and helps us to grow in our understanding and experience of what he says in the Bible. But the Spirit never reveals anything about God that hasn’t already been revealed in the pages of the Bible, and the Spirit never contradicts what he says in the Bible. So, then, although spiritual experience and a sense of God’s leading flow out of God’s truth in Scripture, the final authority is the Bible alone, not the Bible plus personal experiences.
Closely connected with experience and claims to dreams and personal revelations is the question of whether anyone since the time of Jesus’ apostles has written anything that has authority equal to the books of the Bible. In the centuries after Jesus, various individuals have claimed amazing revelations, and some have written books. As a result, there are certain religious groups which say that the Bible is God’s Word but not God’s complete Word. Some other book (written by the founder of their group) is also God’s Word. Is it possible that the Bible isn’t really final, and that other books can be added to it?
The answer is no. The Bible is complete. No new experience can add to the Bible, and no new book will ever have the same infallible and final authority as the Bible. In the Bible God has already said everything he wants us to know about him and his salvation–or at least as much as he wants us to know until we see him face to face in heaven.
There was a time, of course, when the Bible wasn’t yet complete and the process of revelation was still unfolding. During the Old Testament period, inspired writings were added to Scripture from time to time. But even these writings weren’t just a matter of personal experience. Each book that was added to the Bible was consistent with the books that were already part of Scripture, for it was the same God speaking in each book, and each book was pointing ahead to the coming of the Savior.
At last Jesus came, in fulfillment of the Old Testament revelation. Then, while eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were still alive, God inspired the writing of the truth of Christ in its clearest and fullest form. Those writings now form the New Testament part of the Bible. Once Jesus had come and the full testimony about him had been written, the Bible was complete. What had begun to unfold in the Old Testament had now been completely revealed in Jesus and in the New Testament testimony about him. As the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus is God’s final revelation, and the books which testify to him are God’s final Word. No other book can add to God’s book.
Does this mean that all books except the Bible are bad? No, but it does mean that any book claiming to be on a par with the Bible is bad. Many great Christian books have been written throughout the centuries, and you can certainly benefit from reading some of them. But these books don’t have the same authority and infallibility as the Bible, and they don’t claim to. Instead, they seek to base their content on the Bible, and they encourage readers to check the accuracy of their ideas by going back to the Bible itself. The final authority is the Bible alone, not the Bible plus some later sacred book.
The Bible alone is the final authority. This rules out “the Bible plus private revelations” and “the Bible plus other sacred writings,” and it also rules out “the Bible plus tradition.” Some major church groups affirm the truth of the Bible but say that Sacred Tradition stands alongside Sacred Scripture and has the same authority. Pronouncements of church councils and decrees of church leaders are given the same weight as the Bible. In fact, there have been times in history when Tradition was not only made equal to Scripture but, in practice, was exalted above Scripture. Religious leaders discouraged Bible reading and wanted their followers to depend only on their leadership and traditions.
Placing tradition alongside or above Scripture was already a problem at the time of Jesus. Jesus and his friends didn’t always follow the traditions of the religious elite. For example, they didn’t perform elaborate ceremonies for handwashing and for ritual purification of cups and pitchers and kettles before they ate. So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?”
Jesus fired back, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? … You nullify the word of God by your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with the lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men’” (Matthew 15:1-9). Jesus insisted that when it comes to a choice between human traditions and the Bible, the Bible must always be the final authority.
Each new generation must test its traditions, its inherited beliefs and practices, over against the Word of God. Otherwise, we end up doing what those Pharisees did. We make our nit-picky traditions more important than God’s commands. Even worse, we start treating these things as part of the way of salvation, instead of trusting that salvation is by God’s gift alone and received by faith alone in Christ alone. Religious leaders are constantly tempted to add something of their own to God’s Word and to his way of salvation in Christ.
But the Bible says, “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6). In another place the Bible says, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). And near the end of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, there’s a stern warning not to tamper with what God has said: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).
Adding human tradition to God’s Word and giving it the same divine authority is a deadly serious business. Does this mean that all traditions are bad? No, but any tradition which has no root in the Bible and yet claims the same authority as the Bible–such a tradition is very bad indeed.
Tradition can be good, however, in its proper place. It can play a positive role when it is a tradition of studying and applying the Bible. This is the true value of tradition. We shouldn’t pretend that we’re the first and only people ever to read the Bible. Other Christians throughout the ages have also studied God’s Word. They have applied it to many situations and have used it to refute many errors. This tradition of biblical study and application is enormously important. The combined wisdom of the church is very valuable. But it is valuable only to the degree that its authority is rooted in the Bible, and it must always be tested and corrected by the Bible. The final authority is the Bible alone, not the Bible plus tradition.
Now, if even church tradition can’t be placed on a par with the Bible, then surely brand new ideas about God and innovations in moral teaching must not be given the same authority as the Bible. To make your final authority the Bible plus modern philosophy, or the Bible plus modern psychology, or the Bible plus modern science, or the Bible plus modern literary or historical theory, or the Bible plus modern feminism, or the Bible plus a modern political ideology, is to deny the final authority of the Bible.
Many of us trust too much in whatever the latest research and the latest fad happens to be. We think that if it isn’t new, it isn’t true. To those of us who are like this, the Bible says in Jeremiah, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it'” (Jeremiah 6:16).
Ancient paths–this doesn’t mean you have to live in the past and ignore new insights and discoveries. It doesn’t mean that the Bible teaches everything there is to know about everything. But the Bible does teach everything God wants us to know about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation and the way of holy living. The ancient paths are the good way, because God’s holy standard is ancient and unchanged, and because his way of salvation through faith in his promises is ancient and unchanged, even as it is always fresh and lively.
In every age, there is a temptation to let the ideas of that age stand alongside the Word of God and even take precedence over it. Modern research can have great value, but not when it meddles with what God has revealed in the Bible. The Bible must stand above these other fields of inquiry; modern ideas must not stand alongside or above the Bible. The Bible alone is the final authority for faith and life, not the Bible plus recent research.
“To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin. The Bible alone is the standard by which all Christian teaching and behavior must be measured. The Bible alone, not the Bible plus! “Every word of God is flawless. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” The Bible alone is the final authority. Now the only question is, do you accept the Bible alone as your final authority?
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.