The Savior or the Scriptures?
Seeking a Proper Balance Between
the Person of Christ and the Word of Christ
Throughout history men have fallen into one extreme view or another. This is as true in the spiritual realm as in every other realm of life. Instead of maintaining a balance of truth, we follow one truth to the neglect of an equally valid truth. Others, in reaction, may focus their attention on the neglected truth but thereby fail to give proper attention to the truth that others have wrongly made their exclusive concern. Let us explore how a proper balance has been violated in regard to two equally important and vital truths.
Our Focus on Jesus Personally
The Lord Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).(1) Jesus Himself is the focus of our faith, our life, and our discipleship. Again and again, Christ drew our attention to Himself Personally:
- ” I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7).
- ” I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
- ” I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
- ” I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
- ” I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
This focus on the Lord Jesus is clearly revealed in John, chapter 6. Our Lord declared, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (v. 35). Throughout this chapter, Jesus emphasized how essential it is to come to Him (vv. 44-45), behold Him (v. 40), and believe in Him (v. 40). We must even “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood” (vv. 53-56). Only through personally appropriating Him or spiritually consuming Him will we “live forever” (vv. 51,58) and “not die” (v. 50). Only through Him can we have life in ourselves (v. 53), an eternal life (v. 54) that issues in the resurrection (v. 54). Through responding to Jesus personally, particularly in His flesh and blood sacrifice, we will abide in Him and He in us (v. 56). Indeed, our entire life now and forever is utterly dependent on our personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus knows that our spiritual life now and eternally is directly related to Him personally. In the words of the hymn writer, we must cry to the Lord, “Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord, my spirit pants for Thee, O living Word.”(2)
Christ is the theme of the entire New Testament. Through a perusal of its pages we discover that Jesus was the object of preaching. Philip “preached Jesus” to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:35). Paul likewise declared, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Describing his preaching to the Galatians, Paul said that “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” before their very eyes (Gal. 3:1).
The New Testament writers stressed that through Jesus Himself and through our response of faith in Him, we have such blessings as redemption and forgiveness (Eph. 1:7), the promised Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:14; Eph. 1:13), reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:10-11), a heavenly inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3-4), and experience the grace of God (1 Cor. 1:4). It is quite clear that no personal merit, no good deeds, nothing within ourselves can appropriate Jesus or His salvation blessings. We can merely respond to Him in a submissive, obedient faith (Romans 3:24-25; John 3:36; Heb. 5:9). Salvation is of the Lord!
The apostle Paul was passionately devoted to the Lord Jesus after he was delivered from sin. He wrote of this devotion on many occasions: “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him” (Phil. 3:7-9a). At another place, Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Just as Paul saw the necessity of having this deep and rich spiritual relationship with Christ personally, so we must see and experience it. We must trust, love, know, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ and abide in Him.
Our Focus on Christ’s Word
There is a parallel theme in Scripture to what we have noticed above. The Word of Christ or the Word of God does not conflict with focusing our faith and life on Jesus personally but rather complements this. The Word of God itself is emphasized again and again, not in competition with Christ Jesus but as His active and powerful agent in accomplishing His saving purposes.
Notice how this underlying theme is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). We “live” (or find spiritual life) through God’s word, just as we noticed above that we “live” through Jesus, the Bread of life. Furthermore, Jesus said that the “words” He spoke “are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). Later He said that if one “keeps [His] word he shall never see death” (8:51). While discussing the truth with His opponents, Jesus showed His entire devotion to God’s Word with the statement: “The Scripture cannot be broken” (10:35). Jesus held the Word of God in highest esteem. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus said, in prayer to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (17:17). Jesus so elevated His words that He could affirm, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).
Not only did the Lord Jesus emphasize His Word (which was actually the Word of God), but this same theme is conveyed in the remainder of the New Testament. In the book of Acts, the apostles began to “speak the word with boldness” (4:31) and were careful not to “neglect the word of God” (6:2). The Samaritans and the Gentiles “received the word of God” (8:14; cf. 11:1). Sergius Paulus “sought to hear the word of God” (13:7) and nearly the whole city of Antioch “assembled to hear the word of God” (13:44; cf. v. 46). We also notice that “the word of God kept on spreading” (6:7) and “the word of the Lord continued to grow and be multiplied” (12:24; cf. 19:20). When Paul preached Christ to the Bereans, “they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so” (17:11).
As we continue reading, repeatedly we find references to the Word of God. In Romans, Paul uses the Scriptures, or the written Word of God, as the basis of his reasoning and argument. He frequently quotes it to end all dispute. He asks, “What does the Scripture say?” (Romans 4:3). To Paul, God’s Word is inspired or God-breathed and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” and through the written Word “the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Scriptures give encouragement (Rom. 15:4) and lead to salvation through faith in Christ (2 Tim. 3:15). The Hebrew writer reminds us that “the word of God is living and active” and is “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). Peter refers to ” the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23-25).
An Unbalanced Focus
on Either Christ or Christ’s Word
We have noticed how the theme of Christ Jesus Himself and the theme of Christ’s word (or God’s word) are parallel themes that run through the entire New Testament. Both emphases are true and both are essential. We would have no faith in Christ Jesus were it not for the testimony to Him that the Scriptures bear. But we would have no Scriptures were it not for the fact that God inspired them to bear witness to His dear Son. Jesus Christ is the object of our faith and devotion—but so are the Scriptures, the written Word of God. From the time of Christ until the present age, men and women have often emphasized the one while neglecting the other.
Consider a prominent illustration of a nearly exclusive emphasis on the Scriptures alone. Even in the time of His earthly life, we find Jesus interacting with the Pharisees who were intense students of the Scriptures and of the accumulated traditions that were meant to interpret the Scriptures. Yet, very often, all of this devotion to the Scriptures merely involved a dry and academic exercise of the mind that left the Pharisees void of any real devotion to God Himself—the ultimate Author of the Scriptures that they professed to know and obey!
Jesus exposed this hypocrisy by saying to them, “I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves” (John 5:42). He said that they were hypocrites who were outwardly righteous and devoted to God but inwardly they were “full of robbery and self-indulgence . . . of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:25,28). They worshipped and honored God with their lips but their hearts were far away from Him (Matt. 15:8-9). Although they studied the Scriptures, they did not understand them or the power of God (Matt. 22:29).
The tragedy of the Pharisees was that they seemed to be devoted to the Scriptures but in reality they closed their hearts to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). They searched for eternal life in the Scriptures and, in a sense, this is the very source of our knowledge of salvation and Him who gives it (2 Tim. 3:15). But the tragedy is that they went no further than this. They were unwilling to come to Christ Himself, the author and object of Scripture, that they might indeed have eternal life! The example of the Pharisees should be a warning to us of the danger of emphasizing the written Word of God while neglecting a warm and loving relationship with God through Christ Himself!
Others besides the Pharisees have had a misplaced emphasis on the text of Scripture without the needful and corresponding love for the Author of the Scriptures—the very God who inspired them! They too have stressed the importance of knowing the Scriptures. They may spend countless hours reading, studying, and meditating on the written Word of God. All of this is good—and needful. But these same people who seem to be devoted to the Bible may be spiritually dead, void of the Spirit, lacking in a love for Christ, and separated from any deep emotional response to God the Father.
We must acknowledge that most professing Christians plainly do not have a burning desire to know, love, and serve Jesus Himself. They may be like those in Ephesus who left their first love (Rev. 2:4) or they may have allowed their love to “grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). They may be similar to the Laodiceans who were lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, in their devotion to the Lord (Rev. 3:15-16). They make some form of commitment, claiming to be Christians, but their hearts are not ablaze for God! They tragically “profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (Titus 1:16; cf. 1 John 2:3-6). Although they hold to “a form of godliness,” they have “denied its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Inwardly, like the Pharisees, they are cold and devoid of spiritual life.
However, in addition, we must also observe that most professing Christians do not have a burning desire to search the Scriptures, know the Scriptures, and obey the Scriptures (John 5:39-40; Luke 8:21). They have neglected to read, study, and seek truth in the written Word of God. They have either minimized the importance of the Bible or have become entangled in their “desires for other things” that “enter in and choke the word” so that “it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). In short, they neither have a fervent devotion to glorify and love Jesus personally nor do they have a firm commitment to His Word or delight in seeking the truth of Scripture.
Reactions in History
History reveals a variety of reactions to this spiritual deadness and coldness described above. Various people and movements were unable to tolerate the spiritual apathy, indifference and unconcern around them. They realized that God desires a heart of fervent devotion to Him, a heart of love toward Christ, and a heart full of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they pulled away from the spiritual hypocrisy, cold ritualism, and traditional formalism that they found within the established churches of Christendom. Let us examine several of the forms of reaction that we find written on the pages of history.(3)
By the latter part of the second century, professing Christianity had grown worldly and complacent. Having lost the hot zeal of following Jesus in true discipleship, a lukewarmness had settled into the church. At least so it seemed to some devoted souls who saw this condition as a departure from what they read in the New Testament Scriptures. This condition provided a fertile ground for a reaction to spring up. In about 170 or 172, a man named Montanus in Phrygia of Asia Minor began to prophesy and was soon joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla. They claimed to be mouthpieces for the Paraclete or the Holy Spirit, as they spoke forth their utterances in unconscious ecstasy. They claimed that a true prophet would speak “without the cooperation, and hence potential corruption, of the prophet’s rational mind.”(4)
Montanists demanded a strict asceticism, food to be eaten dry, long fasts, no sexual relations in marriage, and no second marriage after the death of one’s mate. They forbade fleeing from persecution but enthusiastically welcomed death for Christ. They urged Christians to face persecution with boldness, even longing for it: “Do not hope to die in bed . . . but as martyrs.” Forgiveness after serious sins was denied. The Phrygian communities of Pepuza and Tymion were called “Jerusalem” and Christ’s return was expected. Maximilla declared, “After me there will be no prophecy, but the End.” Montanist communities spread from Asia Minor to Rome, and on to North Africa, even attracting the able Tertullian as a devoted follower in about 208. Presumably, he turned to the movement not because of its emotionalism, but because he “saw in it a moral and spiritual rigorism which the contemporary church lacked.”(5)
This might well be called “a Holy Spirit movement” since the followers looked to the Spirit to reveal more truth to them through ecstatic utterance. Montanus “contended that inspiration was immediate and continuous and that he was the paraclete or advocate through whom the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church as He, the Spirit, had spoken through Paul and the other apostles.”(6) Montanus uttered the words, “Behold a man is as a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum,” with the “I” referring to the Holy Spirit.(7) The rigorous followers of these prophets tended to rely on the prophets’ direction rather than a careful devotion to Scripture itself. Although the movement was opposed by the dominant Church, it continued underground as “a protest against growing formalism and worldliness in the official church.”(8) It continued until the fifth or sixth century. Here we can see that some where willing to reach out for a relationship with Christ, a depth of spirituality, a direct contact with the Holy Spirit, and an ecstatic experience—but they departed from Scripture in the process! They were led into practices and beliefs that in the end opposed the truth of the God they claimed to serve.
Another movement of ones who sought Christ and God arose during the third century in Egypt. Hermits (eremites) or anchorites retreated from civilization, fleeing to the desert to seek spiritual perfection and contact with Christ as they observed the growing laxity and worldliness in the established church. Anthony was perhaps the most notable of these early hermits. Born about 250, Anthony sold all of his possessions at age 20 and fled to the desert where he engaged in constant prayer, work, vigils, fastings, at last concluding that he had overcome evil forces in the world. Others gathered around him, intent on saving their own souls as they attempted to “follow Christ” in the desert.(9)
By the fourth century, cenobitic (common life) monasticism also began in Egypt, under the leadership of Pachomius (d. 346). Here small communities of devoted men submitted themselves to a common rule of life in their search for a spiritual experience with Christ. They ate together, followed a common schedule of spiritual exercises, and submitted to a strict obedience to their superiors.(10)
However, this ascetic movement produced some extremes. Simeon the Stylite (ca. 390-459), in an effort to achieve a greater spirituality, was buried in the ground up to his neck for several months. He then lived on a high pillar at Telanissus in Syria, gradually increasing its height to sixty feet. For 36 years Simeon lived in extreme deprivation on the platform and never came down. There he sought God and preached to the thousands who came to see him. Daniel the Stylite (409-493) raised two pillars and lived on a small platform at the top for the rest of his life. He only descended once in 33 years to reprimand the emperor. The Bosci or Boskoi (Grazing Ascetics) were other ascetic men who lived in the fields and ate grass like cattle. Ammoun never took his clothes off or bathed all the days he was a hermit. Another ascetic lived naked near Mt. Sinai for fifty years.(11)
The cenobitic movement became more organized and less extreme, with monasteries formed in the East and later in the West. Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine of Hippo in North Africa all supported these retreats of ascetics. Eventually the Rule of Benedict (ca. 540) dominated the monastic movement in medieval Europe.(12) Monks would rise in the middle of the night for prayers and worship, would observe weeks or months of silence, and sought for a higher spiritual plane as they carried out their extensive spiritual exercises and as they submitted to their spiritual superiors. Communities of women likewise submitted to celibacy and resorted to convents, living with similar deprivations in their search for spiritual experiences. The Monastic movement led people to withdraw from society and give their lives in “total commitment to God.”(13)
This brief account highlights once again how people attempted to find spiritual life, devotion, and commitment to Christ but in the process they departed from vast areas of God’s truth in this quest. As the various orders of ascetics arose in the Middle Ages, they aligned themselves with the apostate church that prevailed in both eastern and western Europe. Men such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Cluny, and Thomas a Kempis were all monastic mystics who sought God in their respective localities yet they all were devoted to an apostate system, holding to numerous false teachings rather than the plain and unadulterated Word of God.
The seventeenth century Quietism movement also illus-trates a mysticism in which one seeks God apart from an objective study of Scripture. Championed by Michael Molinos (1640-1697) and later by Madame Guyon (1648-1717) and Francis Fenelon (1751-1715), quietism emphasizes “passivity of soul as the way to open oneself to the impartation of divine light from God. In such a state the human will was not even to be exercised.”(14) Molinos, from Spain, set forth a form of medieval mysticism in Spiritual Guide (1675). He sought perfection through “the annihilation of the will, and oneness with God, to which all external observances, even the overcoming of temptation, are an obstacle.”(15)
Madame Guyon was a French mystical writer who also promoted a form of quietism. Unhappy with her own spiritual life, she received counsel from a Catholic Franciscan who told her, “Your trouble comes from seeking externally what all the time is within you. Accustom yourself to seek God in your own heart, and you will find him there.” This led to an intense quest for God. She began “the methodical practice of ascetic usages, scourging herself till the blood came, wearing nettles next to her skin and a girdle set with sharp nails, drank bitter drafts to spoil the taste of the little food she allowed herself, and broke off all intercourse with the world.”(16) She then consulted the prioress of the Benedictine nuns in Paris and through this relationship, Guyon entered into a mystical espousal with Christ.(17)
Guyon wrote a number of volumes advocating “passive contemplation of the Divine as the method and absorption into Divine as the goal of mystical experience.”(18) She believed that she found a “unitive state” with the divine in 1680 in which “God-me” replaced “self-me,” then in 1781 she began to have visions and revelations from God. During this time, from 1781 to 1788, she was associated with Lacombe, a Catholic Barnabite friar, whom she accepted as her spiritual director. Guyon followed him from place to place seeking to give birth to spiritual children. During this time she wrote some of her better known mystical writings. Fenelon was educated as a Jesuit and later became archbishop. He sought to convert the Protestant Huguenots back to Catholicism. He also turned to quietistic emphases through the influence of Molinos and Guyon.(19)
Quietism is “an exaggeration of the orthodox doctrine of interior quiet, and of elements found in the medieval mystics.” It teaches that “the human soul’s highest attainment is passive contemplation of the divine.” This movement says that “the soul surrenders to God in one decisive act after which it enjoys, despite all temptations, irrefragable union with the divine,” and it teaches that “the renunciation of self and of desire is reached only by disregarding thoughts of heaven and hell and all external distractions, including spiritual exercises and the ordinances of the church. The result is a state of ‘mystic death,’ a dehumanization of man and a vague pantheism which is closer to Buddhism than to Christianity.”(20) The passivity goes so far that the person does not even have an interest in his own salvation. It is not possible to sin. “Temptation may come, and even compel the Quietist to perform actions which would be sinful in others. But because he no longer has a will of his own, the actions are not sins.”(21) One authority describes this Quietistic quest for annihilation of the will and abandoning of self to God in this way: “This state is reached by a certain form of mental prayer in which the soul consciously refuses not only all discursive meditation but any distinct act such as desire for virtue, love of Christ, or adoration of the Divine Persons, and simply rests in the presence of God in pure faith.”(22)
Again we can see the spiritual danger of seeking mystical experiences and a relationship with Christ apart from a reliance on the objective standard of the Word of God. For example, it was possible for Fenelon to be a loyal Catholic ecclesiastic and defend the infallibility of the Church while holding to this Quietistic theology. When the Word of God is abandoned, nearly any spiritual experience or false belief and theology may be justified.
Consider the account of George Fox (1624-1691) from England who began a search for spiritual truth in 1643. By 1646 he believed that he had a mystical experience, causing him to think that he had found God. In the 1650s, Fox announced the New Age of the Spirit. Converts were won to his movement and began meeting together. The movement fostered a great missionary zeal, with numerous people won to Fox’s views. By 1661, more than 3,000 Quakers had been imprisoned in England for their convictions.(23)
In the Quaker meeting, people waited in silence until one believed that the Spirit spoke in him or her. This “Inner Light” was as important as Scripture. In fact, the Quakers “set aside the doctrines of an organized Church and the Bible as the sole and final revelation of God’s will in favor of the doctrine of the Inner Light by which they meant that the Holy Spirit can give immediate and direct knowledge of God apart from the Bible.”(24) The Quaker theologian was Robert Barclay (1648-1690) who wrote Apology for the Quakers in 1678. “To him the Spirit was the sole Revelator of God and the Source of the Inner Light within man which gave him spiritual illumination. The Bible was but a secondary rule of faith, and the inspiration of the writers was placed on the same level as the inspiration of Fox or any Quaker.”(25)
The Quakers believed that “Christ is revealed by the ‘inner word’ of God, or ‘inner voice,’ which is given directly to human hearts by the Spirit of God. Hereby the Christian’s relationship to God, the nature of Christian doctrine, and the correct interpretation of Scripture are revealed.”(26) Obviously, this perspective on personal revelation and the written Word of God had great implications. Literal baptism was rejected along with a literal observance of the Lord’s supper. “The sacraments are inward and spiritual verities. The outward elements are not merely unnecessary but misleading.”(27) The Biblical teaching on the woman’s role was abandoned so that a woman could have part in Quaker worship and leadership.(28) It is true that Fox said that personal revelation would not contradict the written Word of God, but history proves that their experience had this very effect. When one believes that the “Inner Light” is directing him to take a course of action that differs from the revealed truth of God in Scripture, we can see how easy it was for the Quaker mind to choose the inner mystical experience over what was written in God’s Word. Here lies one of the chief dangers, even in our modern times, of emphasizing personal experience and de-emphasizing Scripture. In reality, seeking Christ and His ways will not conflict with what He has revealed in His Word.
Mystics through the ages have attempted to communicate with Christ and God through spiritual exercises and personal divine encounters. Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) from Sweden was one of these. In a spiritual crisis in 1743-1745, Swedenborg believed that he had a vision of Jesus Christ who endorsed his version of Christianity. He maintained that he could communicate with heavenly beings and wrote of his findings in eight volumes, Heavenly Secrets, and in many other books, including The True Christian Religion. One reviewer said that Swedenborg “spiritualized the Bible to correlate it with the revelations that these heavenly visitants brought to him,” and “his views led him and his followers into error because he gave Scripture a mystical meaning instead of accepting its real meaning.”(29) After Swedenborg’s death, the New Church or New Jerusalem Church was formed to promulgate his mystical teachings. While most today would not go as far as Swedenborg did, we can once again see the danger of departing from the Word of God and relying on personal subjective experiences in search for Christ or a relationship with God.
The “modernist” movement of the nineteenth century is another example we might briefly cite. Encouraged by Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, many theologians and churchmen led their denominations into a thoroughgoing liberalism that denied the supernatural elements of the Bible, including special creation, the virgin conception of Jesus, His atoning death and resurrection, and His literal second coming. Yet, at the same time, this movement sought to follow Jesus—not as Savior and Lord but as a great teacher and perfect example. While emphasizing the “man” Jesus, they rejected nearly all that He taught! Although this movement differs from the others we have examined, inasmuch as it denied the supernatural, we can yet see the danger of departing from the solid foundation of Scripture in order to follow Jesus.
In the 1920s and 1930s a movement arose in Europe that became known as neoorthodoxy. Leading in this movement were Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Emil Brunner (1889-1966). They reacted against the extreme and naturalistic views of liberalism that dominated theology. They said that Jesus was more than a great man; He must be the object of our faith since He is the means of our salvation. However, they taught that “truth is not perceived on the level of historical investigation, but through encounter by faith.”(30) Barth rejected Protestant Orthodoxy since traditionally it had emphasized the inspiration of Scripture. He said that God’s revelation was found in Christ personally rather than in a supernaturally-inspired Book. In the words of the historian Cairnes, “Both Barth and Brunner accept the principles and results of higher Biblical criticism. Thus they cannot accept the Bible as God’s infallibly inspired objective, historical revelation. To them the Bible can only be a human witness to God’s revelation until the Holy Spirit reveals God to the human heart in the moment of crisis.”(31) Barth, Brunner, and their fellow-neoorthodox proponents were able to reject the inspiration and authority of the written Word of God while still stressing the need for an encounter with God through Christ. “Salvation . . . can only come through the miraculous super-natural piercing of history by God Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Word of God.”(32)
These theologians separated the Scriptures from the “Word of God.” They asserted that “it is a mistake on the part of the orthodox, with the most serious consequences, to identify the words of Scripture with the Word of God. It is human to err and the Bible, though unique, is human and therefore bears the Word of God to us only in a broken and imperfect form. For this reason the neo-orthodox accept, some more, some less, many of the higher critical views of Scripture commonly rejected by the orthodox.”(33) They claim that we must accept and preach the “Christ of faith” rather than being concerned about the “Jesus of history.” God’s means of salvation is Christ and not a fallible depiction of Christ found in a fallible Bible. Once again, we see a theological system and movement that attempted to show loyalty to Jesus Christ but rejected the infallible Word of Christ that must direct our lives.
Closer to our own day, some have reacted to the formalism of liturgical churches by emphasizing an inner relationship with God through Christ. Others have turned from a dry, academic study of denominational theology to a more vibrant emphasis on a “personal relationship” with the Lord. Since the 1960s, some within liturgical Lutheran, Episcopal, and even Catholic churches have turned to Neo-Pentecostalism, forming what has become known as the Charismatic Movement. We must acknowledge that one result of this movement has been a renewed interest in Bible reading and Bible study. This is to be commended. The increased emphasis on knowing Jesus personally is also positive. Yet, regretfully, the obsession on personal revelation has led many Charismatics away from accepting clear Scriptural teaching on a variety of subjects (e.g., Christ’s view on materialism, separation from the world, the role of women, denominationalism, baptism, etc.). Too often their jubilant celebration of Jesus masks a lack of seriousness in their commitment to His teachings.
What we are learning about the dichotomy between Christ and His Word is needed on many different theological and ecclesiastical fronts in our day. Evangelicalism does accept, to some extent at least, the inspiration and authority of the Bible.(34) Although there is some effort to preach Christ, as faulty as this may be, there seems to be a widespread unconcern about careful obedience to Christ’s teachings. Some of the more fringe movements in Christendom also display this same unbalanced perspective. The “Local Church” sect emphasizes praying to Jesus and talking about Jesus in order to achieve a mystical encounter with Him, but adherents seem almost to have a disdain toward the “doctrine” or teachings of Christ. “The Way, International” movement likewise professes allegiance to Christ but seems to be little concerned about careful obedience to His words. In contrast, some conservative, “Bible” oriented groups seem to be very much concerned about the proper interpretation of the teachings of Christ but too often fail to emphasize a trustful, loving, and heartfelt relationship with Christ personally.
Today vast numbers of professing Christians want to think about Jesus, sing about Jesus, and talk about Jesus. Yet their perspective in life leads many of them to deny the teachings of Jesus whom they claim to serve! They are willing to turn from vast areas of Scriptural truth because of their reliance on what they are convinced is personal revelation from God. This is reflected in what people say (Matt. 12:34). For instance, we often hear, “God spoke to me,” “The Spirit led me,” “I feel impressed of God in my heart,” and “I know what I have experienced!” While not all of these expressions are inherently wrong, they do reveal a subjective emphasis in many religious circles. What is particularly troublesome with this perspective is the view of God’s Word that results. Many are more willing to accept these inner voices and impressions than they are willing to accept the objective truth of Scripture. In their quest of Christ on their own terms, they often depart from His plain but difficult teachings!
We also observe that some people say we should only “preach Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) but they neglect preaching the word of Christ. They say that we should follow Jesus and love one another, and leave behind all “doctrinal” differences. Like the neoorthodox emphasis on “the Christ of faith,” these people say we should only stress that Jesus is Savior and not emphasize that He has all authority in heaven and on earth. The stress is on the Person of Christ while there is a lack of emphasis on His Word and teachings. We must rightly recognize that it is unbalanced to emphasize the Word of God, as the Pharisees did, while neglecting Christ and God who gave the written Word. But it is likewise unbalanced to emphasize Christ while neglecting His teachings. We must not so emphasize Christ alone that His Word is neglected and we must not so stress Christ’s Word alone that Christ Himself is neglected! These perversions must not exist if we would be true to the Lord of Scripture.
Christ and His Word
Christ Jesus and His Word are so intimately related and connected that if we rightly emphasize Christ we will necessarily emphasize His Word or teaching. Likewise, the Scriptures are so centered on Christ Jesus that to focus on the Word of God is to focus on Jesus in all of His glory. We cannot divide Christ from His Word that bears witness to Him.
Notice several passages that reveal this relationship quite clearly. Jesus said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). These two relationships—abiding in Christ Himself and His words abiding in us—cannot be divided. It is impossible to abide in Christ if we refuse to allow His words to abide in us. And it is impossible to have Christ’s words abide in us if we refuse to abide in Him!
In another place, Jesus said, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:48). Judgment will come to those who reject Jesus and do not receive His words or teachings. It is not one or the other—but both.
Consider another instance. Jesus declared, “Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34). It is not simply being ashamed of Jesus alone but also being ashamed of His words as well. Jesus is so closely related to His words that we must not separate them.
Peter could see this relationship. After the disciples of Jesus walked away from Him because His teaching was too difficult for them (John 6:60,66), Jesus asked the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” (v. 67). Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68-69). He was convinced that Jesus was the Holy One of God. But he also was convinced that Jesus spoke “words of eternal life.” He saw the relationship between Christ and His words—a relationship that we also need to see.
At the conclusion of His “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Once again we can see that there is a relationship between Jesus and His words. It is one thing to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and respond to Him personally but this is only genuine if one actually accepts what Jesus has taught and obeys it. One cannot accept the Person of Jesus while rejecting His teachings.
This intimate relationship between Christ and His words is seen very clearly in John 14. Notice how Jesus expresses this: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me” (v. 21a). We relate to Jesus personally when we are willing to respond to His words. He continues, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word . . . . He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (vv. 23a, 24a). It is not simply a matter of loving Jesus and disregarding His words. Nor is it a matter of obeying Jesus’ words and neglecting Him. Instead, we must love Him personally as well as respecting and obeying His words.
These passages are sufficient for us to see how Christ and His Word must both be accepted. We are never justified in emphasizing Christ while neglecting His Word nor are we justified in having a preoccupation with His Word while neglecting Him personally.
Has it ever come to your attention that some of the same descriptions are given to both Christ and His Word? Notice several of these:
(1) Christ and His Word give life.
Christ: “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25b).
Word: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63).
(2) Christ and His Word will judge.
Christ: “Not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).
Word: “The word I spoke will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48).
(3) Christ and His Word save.
Christ: “Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Word: “In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21b).
(4) Christ and His Word make disciples.
Christ: “Whoever does not carry his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Word: “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:32b).
(5) Christ and His Word are truth.
Christ: “I am . . . the truth” (John 14:6).
Word: “I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37).
(6) Christ and His Word will prevent spiritual death.
Christ: “This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:50).
Word: “If any one keeps My word he will never see death” (John 8:51).
What are we saying by these comparisons? We must conclude that these comparisons may be made because the Word of Christ is an extension of Christ Himself. Christ is revealed or manifested through His Word. Christ is so identified with His own Word that what is affirmed of Him may be affirmed of His Word. Therefore, we must never emphasize Christ to the exclusion of His Word nor must we be so engrossed in His Word that we neglect the One who gave that Word.
Christ as the Word
It is helpful for us to remember that Jesus Himself is called the “Word” (Greek, logos). John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He then identifies this Word: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). The Word became flesh and was born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judea 2,000 years ago. The Word was God’s “personal manifestation.”(35) Thus, John could write, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (v. 18). Christ, the “Word” has made the Father known to us (cf. NIV). Therefore, His name is declared to be “the Word of God” (Rev. 19:13), and He is called “the Word of Life” by John (1 John 1:1). He has revealed or manifested or personalized God the Father to us (cf. John 14:9-11).
Christ is the personal, living “Word” of God. But He also speaks the word of God. Jesus said, “The things which I heard from Him [God], these I speak to the world. . . . I speak these things as the Father taught Me” (John 8:26b, 28b; cf. 7:16; 8:38). In prayer to His Father, Jesus said, “Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them” (John 17:7-8a). He explains this more fully in this way: “I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me” (John 12:49-50). He said, “The word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me” (John 14:24b; cf. v. 10).
Christ’s words were God the Father’s words. As we listen to Christ we are listening to God speaking to us! The one who receives Christ is receiving God and the one who receives Christ’s words is receiving God’s words (cf. Matt. 10:40; John 13:20). The one who rejects Christ is rejecting God and the one who rejects Christ’s words is rejecting God’s words (cf. Luke 10:16). This shows the sober responsibility of responding to both Christ personally as well as the words of Christ!
What Have We Seen?
We began with the observation that Christ Jesus is the theme of the Scriptures (cf. Luke 24:25-26, 44-47; John 5:38-40). The Gospels reveal His coming to earth to be the Savior of the world and show how, through His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, Jesus is the only way for people to be reconciled to God. The book of Acts shows us how Christ was preached and people responded to Him for the forgiveness of their sins. The remainder of the New Testament documents show how our faith in Him is to be manifested in our personal lives and in the body of Christ or community of believers.
We also noticed how crucial the Word of God is to our life. Through God’s Word we are led to faith in Christ and nourished in our spiritual life. What we know about Christ is what we have learned from the pages of Scripture. We know the will of Christ and of God from what we see in the written Word.
We know that vast numbers of professing Christians have departed from this proper balance regarding Christ and His Word. Some have searched for a rich, deep, and meaningful relationship with Christ but have neglected the written Word of God. They have wandered into mystical experiences, emotional excesses, aberrant theology, and false teaching because they have wandered from their Scriptural moorings and have suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Perhaps some few others have diligently applied themselves to the Scriptures and academic disciplines in an attempt to please God and know His will. However, they have become lost in intellectualism or tradition or cold and heartless religion. They have failed to find a rich and real relationship with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Tragically, most professing Christians have taken neither of these routes. They have neither had mystical experiences through a spiritual quest nor have they become preoccupied with God’s will in Scripture. They have been content to remain in a worldly and superficial form of religion.
What does God have planned for us? God our Father has reached down to us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and has made provision for our present and eternal salvation from sin, death, and eternal destruction. Those who come to God through Christ enter into a deep, rich, and fulfilling fellowship with Him and with others who are savingly related to Him as His children. This personal and corporate relationship with God in the Holy Spirit has been created, formed, and sustained by God’s written revelation that we know as holy Scripture. Through God’s Word we are saved, forgiven, born again, and given new life; through it we grow and are nourished in our new life; and through it we are encouraged to endure to the end. The Word of God is God’s divine agent in accomplishing His purposes with men and women. We disrespect God and Christ if we neglect the Scriptures, and we disrespect the Scriptures if we neglect God and Christ who give us their Word in Scripture.
God’s “Love Letters”
Let us imagine that a young man loves a girl but must be parted from her for a long period of time. Each day he writes his beloved a letter, explaining his day, aspects of his character, and describing his continued love and devotion for her. What if we discover that the girl continually receives these letters of love and carefully places them on her dresser—without opening them and without reading them? She may profess to love this young man, but we must question whether she really knows the meaning of love. Why? Because the man’s letters are extensions of himself; his words reveal his heart, his mind, his character, his plans, and his dreams. His words also reveal his response toward this girl whom he loves. If the girl really loves him and receives his love, she will eagerly read each letter as soon as it arrives. She will open it expectantly, read over it receptively, search out the meaning of his words and expressions, and find deep delight in his words of love toward her! If she does not respond to his words in this way, her profession of love is in vain.
There is a lesson in this illustration for us. Christ loves us and wants us to respond to Him by responding to His Word. If we do genuinely love Christ and are devoted to Him, we will have a delight in reading, studying, discussing, listening to, and meditating on His revealed Word. If we do not respond to Him by believing His Word, loving His Word, and obeying His Word, we thereby demonstrate our lack of devotion to Him personally.
Think of it in this way. Jesus said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt. 12:34b). Christ speaks to us from what fills His heart. Therefore, we learn something of the heart and mind of our Savior by being receptive to what He has spoken—whether personally or through His chosen apostles and prophets (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 4:2; 2 Peter 3:2; 1 Thess. 2:13). Since Christ’s thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (cf. Isa. 55:8-9), the only way we can learn of His mind and heart is through what He has revealed to us. This is why it is so utterly vital that we respond in faith and love to His revealed Word. And this is also why we must respond in humble submission and total obedience to what He has make known to us in Scripture. We respond to Jesus Christ personally by responding to His Word, the Scriptures!
We must never separate what God has joined. We must never seek a relationship with God or with Christ on our own terms—through subjective revelations or mystical experiences. But neither must we fall into a cold and heartless devotion to the Scriptures that leaves us devoid of spiritual life and without a warm and vibrant fellowship with God through Christ. Paul warns, “If anyone advocates a different teaching and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the teaching conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3-4a). We must have an absolute commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and we must have a like commitment to the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything less than this dishonors both Christ and the Word He has given.
- Unless otherwise noted, the New American Standard Bible is used in this booklet.
- The words are from “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” by Mary A. Lathbury.
- Information on the following pages come from several volumes: Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967); Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985); James North, A History of the Church From Pentecost to Present (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1983); Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977); J.D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974); Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett Ferguson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990); Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol 1 (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1975).
- Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, sv. “Montanism,” p. 622.
- North, p. 92.
- Cairns, p. 110.
- Walker, p. 70.
- The New International Dictionary, p. 674.
- Walker, pp. 154-155.
- Ibid., p. 155.
- Cairnes, p. 165.
- The New International Dictionary, pp. 282, 671, 672, 905; Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, sv. “Monasticism,” pp. 612-614.
- Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, p. 618.
- Cairnes, p. 412.
- The New International Dictionary, p. 670.
- Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1909), sv. “Guyon,” p. 102.
- The New International Dictionary, p. 670..
- Ibid., pp. 372, 445.
- Ibid., pp. 818-819.
- Eerdman’s Handbook, p. 498.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1983), sv. “Quietism,” p. 1357.
- ,Walker p. 562.
- Cairnes, p. 414.
- Ibid., p. 415.
- Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, sv. “Quakers,” p. 752.
- Walker, p. 561.
- Ibid.; cf. The New International Dictionary, p. 393.
- Cairnes, p. 412; cf. The New International Dictionary, p. 944.
- The New International Dictionary, p. 697.
- Ibid., p. 482.
- Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, sv. “Neo-Orthodoxy,” p. 375.
- There are large numbers of Evangelicals who do question parts of the Bible and do not consider them inspired and authoritative. They say that the Scriptures are accurate when they speak on salvation but may be mistaken when they address matters of history and science. Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible exposes this glaring inconsistency in contemporary Evangelicalism.
- W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, sv. “Word.”