Today, if you walk into any evangelical or pentecostal church, you are unlikely to find a pastor or church leader who will deny the authority of the Bible. The authority of the Bible has been a firmly held belief in Protestant churches since the 16th century, when Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin reaffirmed the authority of the Bible over the teaching of the Pope and church traditions. They believed in “Sola Scriptura”, a Latin phrase that means “Scripture Alone.” The Bible alone is authoritative and sufficient for teaching and leading the Christian life.
Many people equate "Sola Scriptura" with the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. However, another important part of Sola Scriptura is the sufficiency of Scripture. Churches today may affirm the authority of the Bible, but if you look at the content of preaching in many places, the Bible is not front and center. Anecdotal stories, pop psychology, managerial techniques, tips for living, the latest prophecy or word of knowledge, or whatever good idea the preacher came up with on Saturday night is the main attraction. The Bible is only perfunctorily consulted and used to support main ideas that come from someplace else. For many preachers, the Bible serves as merely a source of inspiration and a launching pad to get started in preaching, but does not set the direction and content of what is preached. No one comes out and says it, but it is implicitly affirmed that just teaching the Bible isn’t really enough to help people grow in Christ and face the challenges of modern life. The unspoken message in many places is that the Bible may be sufficient for getting saved, but to really grow in the Christian life, what we need is….. [fill in latest trendy idea or technique here].
So is the Bible really sufficient? Is it enough? Or do we need to heavily supplement from elsewhere in order for God’s people to know God and know what he wants us to do?
To answer those questions, we need to ask, “Sufficient for what?” What do we mean by sufficiency and what are the limitations of that sufficiency? Since the Bible is our ultimate authority, let’s see what the Scriptures have to say about their own sufficiency.
What the Bible teaches about the Sufficiency of the Bible
First of all, we learn that the contents of the Bible are profitable for equipping the people of God for every good work. Not just some good works, but every good work.
“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 Timothy 3:16–17 ESV, emphasis mine).
The implication in this verse is that the Bible informs and equips all of our efforts to obey and serve God. It is the Bible that sets the agenda for what we are to believe and do as Christians. In order to know who God is and what He requires from us, we look to the Bible, and not to other sources. As Peter points out in his first epistle,
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV)
There are couple important things to notice in this verse as it pertains to the sufficiency of Scripture. First, we notice that God has given us all things for life and godliness. This sets the extent of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not contain all there is to know about everything in the world. But rather, it contains all that we need for “life and godliness.” In other words, the Bible is a sufficient guide in teaching us to live a holy, Christ-honoring life. And how does the Scripture teaches us these things? It teaches us through “the knowledge of Him,”namely Christ. The key to the Christian life is knowing Christ. Lots of people talk about Christ and write books about Christ, but the only infallible, inerrant, inspired source of knowledge about Christ is the Scriptures. Many people want to hear from God, and to know what He wants to say to them today. But as Martin Luther once said, “"Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.”
The Bible positively affirms that the Bible is the place to hear God’s voice because the Bible is the place where the Son of God is revealed. The writer of the book of Hebrews begins his letter with these words:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV)
If we want to know God and what he requires of us, and if knowledge of Christ is the key to life and godliness, and the Scriptures are the perfect revelation of Christ, then why would we want to look anywhere else? If Christ is perfectly revealed in Scripture, why would we want to seek God in other places than Scripture? Why would we make anything other than the Bible the mainstay and center of our teaching and preaching in the church?
With that said, we do need to add some qualifiers to the sufficiency of Scripture. In “The Case for Traditional Protestantism: the Solas of the Reformation,”Terry Johnson points out that “Scripture is sufficient to do what it is designed to do but not sufficient to do what it is not [designed to do].”(p.40) The Bible is designed to reveal Christ and equip us for all godliness and every good work, but it is not designed to tell me tomorrow’s weather, why my wife is mad at me, or which job offer I should take. Summarizing some articles by David F. Coffin and T. David Gordon, Terry Johnson lists three qualifiers to the sufficiency of Scripture:
“The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal the way of salvation only in conjunction with the work of the Holy Spirit, both in regeneration and illumination.”
“The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal the whole truth of God only in conjunction with God’s revelation in nature.”
The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal the truth and will of God only in conjunction with the right use of reason.”
The Bible is sufficient to reveal Christ to us but unless the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, our sinful minds will refuse to see that revelation.
The Bible is sufficient to reveal to us detailed information about Christ and salvation, yet the things that God has created also reveal to us truth about God and the universe (see Psalm 19, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinth. 11:14).
God has given us both general revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture), but we need to use our minds to understand, interpret, and apply the things that God has revealed to us. One of the reasons people end up denying the sufficiency of Scripture is because they expect God’s truth and His specific will for their lives to be handed to them in a neat, detailed package like some kind of divine download. But Jesus expects us to know God and His will by thinking hard about what God has already said. “Jesus condemned the scribes for not having deduced the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead from the verse, 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Note the steps that reason must take to reach the doctrine of resurrection:  'am' is present tense,  Abraham therefore must be alive;  if alive, the dead must be raised (Matt. 22:23-33).” (Terry L. Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism, p.43)
To summarize the meaning of the sufficiency of Scripture, the Bible affirms that it is sufficient for knowing and obeying God so far as it is used in conjunction with the regeneration and illumination of the Sprit, with general revelation, and with reason. The Bible is sufficient, but that does not mean that we must stick our fingers in our ears and block out the rest of the world and the Holy Spirit in order to think we are depending on the Scriptures alone. However, we must keep other sources of knowledge in their correct places, and realize that the work of the Spirit, the knowledge we gain from creation, and our own reason are tools that God uses to point us to the perfect revelation of Christ, the Scriptures. For that reason, the Bible must stay front and center in the teaching and preaching of the church.
Why People Deny the Sufficiency of Scripture
Even though the Bible is clear in teaching that it alone is enough for Christian belief and life, there are still many people who want something more. In many places today, we often don’t see the Bible at the center of the life and worship of the church. Whether it is the pulpit, Sunday school classroom, small group studies, or personal conversations about God and His will, many people are looking elsewhere to know God and to figure out what they should do. Why are people dissatisfied with the Bible? I want to suggest three reasons why people regard the Bible as insufficient:
1. They don’t know Bible well.
Some people don’t bother to read, study, and meditate on the Scriptures on a regular basis, and as a result, they don’t really know what is in the Bible. And since they only know a small fraction of what Scripture actually contains, they are quick to conclude that the Bible doesn’t have the answers they need.
2. They don’t know how to use the Bible.
The Bible is a big book that can be difficult to understand, especially for new readers. There are many different genres of writing (history, poetry, parables, prophecy, etc.) written over a long period of time. Unless a person has someone to help direct and guide their Bible reading, it is easy to read the Bible with the wrong expectations. The Bible is not written as a casebook of what to do in every instance of life, nor can we just flip open to a random page and expect to get what God has for us today. Occasionally that happens, but we shouldn’t expect God to speak to us like that on a regular basis. Churches need to teach believers how to read their Bibles and how to understand difficult parts.
3. They have been taught to seek direct revelation in preference to searching the Scriptures.
There are a good number of churches who, either explicitly or implicitly, teach that believers should expect fresh supernatural words from God on a regular basis. They claim that the normal Christian life is a life filled with miraculous and supernatural experiences. Those who are in tune with the Spirit will hear from God personally and directly. The net result of this atmosphere is that believers often learn to value searching the Scriptures less than waiting for something fresh from God.
In each of the cases above, the same people who would deny the sufficiency of Scripture with their actions also affirm the authority of Scripture with their mouths. But these two can not be separated. Terry Johnson writes, “We can build a convincing case for biblical inerrancy and authority. But if in the end we deny its sufficiency, treating Scripture like a scythe in an age of power mowers, an ox cart among eighteen-wheelers, storing it in an old barn where it collects dust, unused and unread, its authority is useless.”(Terry L. Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism, p.39)
If we truly believe in the authority of the Bible, we need to show through our actions that we also believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. We can hardly call Him “Lord” if we don’t take the time to listen to what He is saying to us. If we truly desire to submit ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we need to seek a renewal in belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. We need to believe that the Bible is enough. We need to act on the belief that the Bible is enough.
How to Promote the Sufficiency of Scripture
It is one thing to point out the error of denying the sufficiency of the Bible, but what can be done about it? What should we do to promote a renewed faith in the sufficiency of Scripture? I want to suggest seven ways to help us positively work towards a more Bible-centered faith and practice in our churches:
- We ourselves need to be people of the Bible. Do our Scripture reading habits and personal decisions show that we believe Scripture is enough? We need to look at our own spiritual life, answer truthfully, and make changes accordingly.
- We must model preaching and teaching that is Scripture heavy, and demonstrates that what we are teaching is from Scripture.
- We need to read longer sections of Scripture, and a greater variety of sections of Scripture in our worship services. If church members hear little Scripture being used in gathered worship on Sunday, it is likely that they will give little attention to Scripture in their personal devotion and their worship at home, school, or work.
- We need to encourage people to read and study the Bible. The people in our churches may not naturally think to spend time reading the Bible at home, so we need to help them do that, giving guidance for what and how to read. If they are not accustomed to reading, or are semi-illiterate, we need to find oral and audio based approaches to help them dig into the Bible.
- We need to gently but firmly encourage people to follow the lead of God’s Word rather than rely on uncertain extra-biblical sources of knowledge. Christ has revealed Himself perfectly in the Bible, and that is where we must continually point people, no matter how excited they are about a dream, a prophecy, a word of knowledge or something else they think God told them.
- Examine (and encourage others to examine) the latest methods and trends in light of Scripture. Christians today are inundated with many books, videos, seminars, and conferences that claim to be the next best thing in helping them know and obey God. Some of these resources are excellent and biblical. Others should have a millstone hung around their neck and be tossed into the sea. We need to know the Scriptures well enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, the true from the false, and help others to do the same.
- Choose worship songs that draw heavily from Scripture. The plague of modern worship music is that the lyrics often don’t have much to do with Scripture. Many songs contain lots of general praising and rejoicing, but not much content in terms of who Christ is and what He has done, or what Christ will do in the future. If we include more Psalms and other songs that lean heavily upon specific Scriptures for their theme and content, we will do a great service to worshippers in learning to know Christ. After all, some people will remember the songs long after they have forgotten the sermon.
If we are able to implement some (or all) of the above suggestions in our churches, we will be well on our way to reviving a belief in the sufficiency of Scripture in our churches. But, of course, it is not just verbal affirmation of sufficiency that we are looking for, but practical, daily striving after the risen and glorious Christ in the place where He may be found: The Bible.