What does it actually mean to believe in the sufficiency of scripture?

Before we can begin looking at the doctrine of scriptural sufficiency, it would help to work out what it actually is. Let’s be clear from the outset, the sufficiency of scripture does not mean you will find the answer to any and every possible question you might conjure up within the pages of the Bible. If you want to discern the deeper meaning behind a particularly complex film plot or you don’t know how to fix your bike and are after some pointers, clearly the Bible is not going to give you the answer. In those cases, you’re looking for the sufficiency of YouTube. There are, of course, swathes of questions we may have to which the Bible has nothing to say. So, let’s be clear from the get-go, the Bible is not sufficient to answer every question under the sun.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarises scriptural sufficiency this way:

Q. 3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Similarly, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states it this way:

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.

It argues that the scriptures ‘are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life’ and are for ‘the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church’.

In the more modern English of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches statement of faith, it is defined this way:

God has revealed himself in the Bible, which consists of the Old and New Testaments alone. Every word was inspired by God through human authors, so that the Bible as originally given is in its entirety the Word of God, without error and fully reliable in fact and doctrine. The Bible alone speaks with final authority and is always sufficient for all matters of belief and practice.

So, fundamentally, scripture is sufficient for a particular task. As Carl Trueman paraphrases: ‘they reveal who God is, who man is in relation to him, and how that relationship is to be articulated in terms of worship’. The Bible is our final source of authority – there is nothing extra needed to attain saving knowledge of God, faith or how to live a life pleasing to him. It is the highest authority to which we can appeal in any matter relating to faith or Christian practice.

If, then, we really believe in the sufficiency of scripture three basic principles necessarily follow. First, if scripture says we must do something then our doing it is necessary for faith and practice; obedience to God requires us to do it. Second, if scripture says we must not do something then our not doing it is necessary for faith and practice; obedience requires us not to do it. Third, if scripture neither says we must, or must not, do something then it is not necessary for faith and practice; it does not impinge upon our obedience to God and should not be insisted upon.

For example, the Bible tells us to meet together regularly (Heb 10:25). This is therefore necessary for all true believers and our obedience to God can be measured by it. It is something which can, and should, be insisted upon. Alternatively, the Bible tells us not to show partiality to people in church e.g. treating the rich as more important than the poor (Jam 2:1-13). It is therefore necessary for all true believers not to do. It is something that can, and should, be insisted not to happen among believers. Finally, the Bible makes no comment about what time church services ought to start. Therefore, our obedience to God cannot be measured by the timing of our church services and particular times should not be insisted upon as though they were divinely appointed.

If we really believe in the doctrine of scriptural sufficiency, there are three primary outworkings of this for the church.

First, it means that we ought to have scriptural grounds for all that goes on in our churches. At the very least, that means we shouldn’t be able to point to portions of scripture that invalidate any part of our praxis. But it also means the vast majority of what goes should have some scriptural warrant. That is, all parts of our praxis should either be directly commanded in scripture or the relationship of scriptural principles been applied to every part of our church service.

Second, it means we oughtn’t to personally insist upon things within the church that are not insisted upon in scripture. We may have personal preferences over all sorts of ministries but if they are not required by scripture, they equally should not be required by us. Our style of music, our particular preference for outreach (as opposed to outreach being done in any form at all), our particular desire for doughnuts, muffins or biscuits before or after the service. Trivial as these examples may be, the application of the principle is legion. These are all things we may have a view on but which the Lord clearly doesn’t see as necessary for faith or practice. To insist upon them is to require something the Lord does not deem all that important.

Third, it means that we shouldn’t appeal to any higher authority than scripture and we should submit to it as our highest authority when presented with it. It is simply no good to rely on feelings, intuition or even what we might deem ‘words from the Lord’. That is not to say God may not speak to us through any of these things but that none of them trump scripture and none of them can be insisted upon apart from some scriptural backing. To insist upon something intuitively or based upon a strong feeling is to make scripture subordinate to them. Though we may have a strong feeling about something, or a sense of intuition about it, apart from the word of scripture we mustn’t insist upon it. The reason the same applies to what may be termed ‘words from the Lord’ is for no other reason than the inherent difficulty in distinguishing our innate desires from God’s inner promptings. This point is made powerfully by Tim Keller, by way of George Whitefield, in his book Prayer:

The eighteenth-century Anglican clergyman George Whitefield was one of the spearheads of the Great Awakening, a period of massive renewal of interest in Christianity across Western societies and a time of significant church growth. Whitefield was a riveting orator and is considered one of the greatest preachers in church history. In late 1743 his first child, a son, was born to he and his wife, Elizabeth. Whitefield has a strong impression that God was telling him the child would grow up to also be a “preacher of the everlasting Gospel.” In view of this divine assurance, he gave his son the name John, after John the Baptist, whose mother was also named Elizabeth. When John Whitefield was born, George baptized his son before a large crowd and preached a sermon on the great works that God would do through his son. He knew that cynics were sneering at his prophecies, but he ignored them.

Then, at just four months old, his son died suddenly of a seizure. The Whitefields were of course grief-stricken, but George was particularly convicted about how wrong he had been to count his inward impulses and intuitions as being essentially equal to God’s Word. He realized he had led his congregation into the same disillusioning mistake. Whitefield had interpreted his own feelings- his understandable and powerful fatherly pride and joy in his son, and his hopes for him- as God speaking to his heart. Not long afterward, he wrote a wrenching prayer for himself, that God would “render this mistaken parent more cautious, more sober-minded, more experienced in Satan’s devices, and consequently more useful in his future labors to the church of God.”

The lesson here is not that God never guides our thoughts or prompts us to choose wise courses of action, but that we cannot be sure he is speaking to us unless we read it in the Scripture.

If we really believe in the sufficiency of scripture we will be readers of it, listeners to it, hungry to hear it expounded, ready to hear it taught and active doers of it. If we really believe it is our final authority, we will settle for nothing less than searching it deeply. A true belief in scriptural sufficiency won’t merely end in relentlessly doing what it says but will also keep us from the inherent pride of insisting our particular views, preferences and beliefs – no matter how they are derived apart from the Bible – ought to be implemented without fail.