Why this matters
I have a friend who was once told by an itinerant ‘Prophet’ that it was not God’s will for her to marry or have children, but that she was to become a missionary to Africa for the remainder of her earthly life. This was devastating to her because she was sure God wanted her to be a mother at some point. This so called prophecy did not come true, but it did destabilize a young Christian woman for quite a while.
At some point in their journey, every Christian will have to come to terms with how God guides them. Is it Sola Scriptura? The Bible plus Holy Spirit? Bible. Holy Spirit and good teachers? Getting a firm grip on the truth here is of paramount importance to the Christian for a small error here will lead you miles off target given enough time.
Teachers who abuse their position
Recently I spent some time with a couple who have come out of what can only be described as a cult. They are convinced of that, yet as they come to terms with the truth, they remain confused about what it is they are supposed to believe. This is because their cult leader told them everything they were supposed to believe.
I suspect they never really learnt to read the Bible for themselves. I know they did read it, but they were never given permission by this autocrat to interpret it themselves. Surely every Christian, whether they heed the counsel of other believers or not, are entitled to listen to what the Spirit has to say when they read the word.
This couple are now facing the problem of having to work out what they must purge of their doctrine and what they should keep. They fired question after question at me. What about Christmas? What about tongues? What about prophecy? What about the end times?
Some of the issues I regarded as minor and a bit of a distraction, but for this couple they were important because they were sifting through their belief system trying to put everything into either an “orthodox” or “unorthodox” box. (And isn’t it interesting to note the same hobby horses these cult leaders seem to ride!)
Back to Genesis
As with all good doctrine, the place to start is at the beginning where the creator gives us his guidelines for humanity. What we shall discover is that his guidance has always been the same and it was there from the beginning.
Certainly, things have changes since the garden of Eden. There is sin for a start which distorts everything. It changes the way our brains operate, our ability to take in information, to sift through it, digest it, understand it and apply it. We get tired, we’re forgetful and have the occasional attitude problem. All this makes hearing God’s voice more difficult than was originally intended.
However, God knew all about what was coming and does not let sin thwart his plans, so built into his economy is a method of communication which would survive the entire history of humanity. It is his revelation through nature, the human conscience and his word (ie the 3 C’s of Creation, Conscience and Christ).
Understanding these and their relationship to each other is critical to a healthy spiritual life. As Graeme Goldsworthy put it,
Before the fall, mankind perceived the truth about God from nature and conscience, but always needed the supernatural word, the word which came directly from God and not through nature. Without the supernatural word even sinless humanity could not interpret the universe correctly. Natural revelation always needed supernatural revelation. Original sin involved the suppression of the truth of God in nature and conscience, and also rebellion against every supernatural word from God. Ever since the original sin of Adam, all of mankind has been involved in it and is characterized by it. 1
In the garden of Eden, the created order worked perfectly and its relationship with God was exactly as he intended it. Not a molecule was out of place. It was perfect harmony. Adam was no more likely to slip off a cliff and kill himself than we will be when we are in paradise enjoying eternity with God. He is able to completely and utterly sustain his creation when he decides to do so.
Think about it, during the wilderness wanderings, God sustained his people to the point where for 40 years neither their clothes nor their shoes wore out (Deut 29:5). (I wonder if this was more a punishment on the women than the men. No new clothes or shoes for 40 years!) Exactly how he did it we are not sure, but one thing is clear; when God decides to preserve his creation, wearing out is not even an option. The laws of physics are suspended exactly where needed, but no further.
Imagine a world where there is no corruption due to sin and where God, therefore, completely sustains the created order. That’s the world Adam and Eve knew for a time. It was perfect, but it was not free of communication from God. Quite the opposite.
In Genesis chapter 1, we are given our first glimpse of how humanity was to enjoy this world. It was to be experienced within certain boundaries given by God’s word.
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so. (Genesis 1:26-30)
So we see even here, within the perfect created conditions of earth, humanity is still required to understand the world around him through the lens of God’s revealed word. There was not a lot of it, but it was clear enough. Here is what you are to do & this is how you are to do it. There was never such a concept as total freedom despite what some think. We were always guided by and answerable to God.
The Bible confirms creation speaks loudly of the creator.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Psalm 19:1-6)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.(Romans 1:18-20)
Natural revelation, therefore, is valuable but always required what Goldsworthy called ‘supernatural’ revelation to be correctly understood. Today we love the created world around us, but if we view it in isolation (ie apart from God’s word) we will not necessarily find the God who created it.
This is particularly important for students of science who will inevitably come under the teaching of people who understand the natural world very well, but who do not listen to the voice of God. God warns us this leads us away from him into darkness and that he will hold them to account.
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13)
There is a strange paradox at work here. Men can get wiser and wiser in their field of human endeavour, but get more and more ‘foolish’ at the same time. If it was important to understand natural revelation in Eden, it can be no less important now.
We should not have to spend much time convincing Christians they should, at least in part, be guided by their conscience. After all, this is one of the mechanisms God has created to keep us on the straight & narrow. You can see this from Paul’s words to Titus:
To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. (Titus 1:15)
Man in sin has a corrupted conscience. It was intended as a safeguard so that we might correctly apply God’s revealed word to the world we live in. Only then would we be able to live in way which pleases the creator.
Adam did not obey his conscience and was stung by a severe sense of guilt. It is clear his conscience was sharp enough to let him know he had stepped outside the boundaries God had given.
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" (Genesis 1:8-11)
This was a new and painful experience for Adam and he has passed this ‘guilt’ onto every one of his descendants and it remains with us to this day. It is a reminder to us of how we relate to God in this age of sin as the New Testament shows.
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.(Romans 2:15-16)
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:5)
For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor 4:4)
Note in this last text, Paul claims to have a clear conscience but he does not claim that he is therefore acquitted by God. A clear conscience is only part of the issue. Our consciences only work properly up to a certain point for, as we read in Titus 1:15, they too have been corrupted and cannot be relied up to give accurate readings. God alone remains the judge and we must continue to return to his word to see if we are in line with his will.
And so here is the problem. Original sin involved the distortion of God’s revelation in nature, a dulling of the human conscience and rebellion against his supernatural word.
It should be noted by that by the term “the Word of God” the Bible’s authors could be referring to either his inscripturated word (the Bible) or Jesus himself (John 1:1). The relationship between the two is intricate as Goldsworthy explains;
The relationship of Jesus Christ to the word of God in Scripture is that he sums it up, brings it to fulfillment and interprets it. Thus, the Word of God is Jesus Christ. Every word in Scripture points to Jesus and finds its meaning in him. Furthermore, John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:16 tell us that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God by which the universe was created. These two passages indicate that his saving work in the world was not an afterthought because of sin, but was the eternal purpose of God.2
So we can see that by talking about “the Word of God” we are really talking about Jesus. In the garden of Eden God guided Adam and Eve by his Word and he does the same with us except that Jesus is now the full manifestation of that word. We, therefore, obey him.
Today we speak of the Bible as the word of God. We believe it is inerrant and fully sufficient for anyone who wants to please God in this life. It guides us into all truth, but it does not outrank Jesus and nor do we worship it. We worship God alone, who appeared in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
Knowing God was not a problem in the garden of Eden. He was there, walking in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8) and speaking to his creation. Now, however, God has internalized the process by giving the gift of his Holy Spirit to all who believe in his revealed word. So now, in order to listen to God’s supernatural revelation (our duty from the beginning), we must hear the Spirit as he testifies to God’s work in nature, prompts us in our conscience and interprets Gods’ word (ie Scripture) to us as it is read.
Since Pentecost (Acts 2) this has only been possible with the Holy Spirit. We can see this in Matthew 16:15-17 where Peter confesses that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the messiah. This, Jesus said, was “revealed” by God himself.
The disciples, having been baffled by Jesus’ teaching on a daily basis, actually had to wait until the day of Pentecost to discover the full meaning of what he said. It simply was not possible to fully understand it without God’s Holy Spirit.
In Luke 24 we get the most striking example of this. Jesus is walking to Emmaus and joins two men on the journey. After explaining the entire Old Testament to them they sit down to a meal. At this point, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” (v31) Later we’re told, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (v45)
So, for us to even recognize Jesus for who he is and to understand Scripture properly, God must be at work through his Holy Spirit. Without this, we are lost in sin.
The three C’s
To be sure, there is a lot more to the Christian life than what has just been described. We must remember the importance of the Church’s teachers and the wise counsel of mature believers for our continued growth. There is also great encouragement to be gained from serving and being served through the correct use of spiritual gifts.
However we need to come back to God’s original design for guidance for he has not superseded it. Natural revelation (creation), the internal prompting of the Holy Spirit (conscience) and God’s Word (Christ). The three C’s. May they be your constant companion.
1. Goldsworthy, G., According to Plan, Inter-Varsity Press, 1991, p. 75
This is important for all Christians to understand, but particularly for those, like my friends in the cult, who are influenced by liberal Bible scholars. When the human conscience is given primacy above God’s revealed word, you get the moral failures so common to today’s Church.
It is not only the moral failures that are a concern, but the approval which these lifestyles find amongst believers. The Episcopal Church in America already has one homosexual Bishop and looks set to have another (the first lesbian) if their plans continue in the current direction.
There is only one way these things can happen in the Church; Christians have deliberately placed God’s word below their own moral compass. How sad. Their conscience is choking with sin, but even when it worked perfectly its rightful place was under God’s word. God’s warning could not be clearer. He will judge the sexually immoral.
Christ as the Word of God