Last Sunday (5/3) I made the comment in my sermon from 2Timothy 3:16-17 that while Paul was not giving us a full-blown doctrine of Scripture in his words in that text, he was also not contradicting anything he stated elsewhere regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in our knowledge of and obedience to God’s word. His emphasis in 2Tim. 3:16-17 was on the origin, character and function of God’s word, and not on the relationship of God’s Word to God’s Spirit. Still, along with this point I mentioned that in our thinking and practice we must not disconnect God’s Word and Spirit. Of course, truly we cannot in actuality separate God’s Word from God’s Spirit, but we can think and act in various ways and to varying degrees as if they are separated. This led to the question: What does it look like, practically speaking, when we disconnect God’s word and Spirit? This is an attempt at briefly answering this question.
What may surprise some of us is that in the end to the degree that we emphasize God’s Word to the detriment or diminishing of God’s Spirit, or emphasize God’s Spirit to the detriment or diminishing of God’s Word we actually engage in the same sin—we overemphasize our role as humans in the interpretation and application of God’s word. It is simply that this sin manifests itself differently. Sadly, though, these different manifestations are perhaps too often thought of as fundamentally different sins. There is a kind of difference that marks them, but, I would argue that this difference is on the surface or level of appearance; it’s superficial not substantive. In both instances we have enthroned our sin and placed too much confidence in our abilities in the interpretation and application of God’s word. The sin just wears different clothes. While the person who overemphasizes God’s Word to the detriment of God’s Spirit equates their thinking with God’s Word, the person who overemphasizes God’s Spirit to the detriment of God’s Word equates their feelings or emotions with God’s Spirit. In both instances the individual has mistaken themselves for God. Yet both can appear righteous or godly.
Emphasizing God’s Word to the Detriment of God’s Spirit
Let’s be clear: We are to emphasize God’s word! Yet, God’s Word and Spirit are united. To rightly emphasize the one will result in rightly emphasizing the other. What we are addressing here is an emphasis that is warped or distorted. An over-emphasis on God’s word to the detriment of God’s Spirit will mean acting as if we can grasp the whole of biblical truth in our intellectual understanding and that this will automatically result in our advancement in holiness or being set free from sin. When we think this way we regard our reading, memorization, and reception of the preaching and teaching of God’s word as having virtually the automatic consequence of changing us to be like Jesus. It amounts to thinking that an accurate understanding of some of God’s truth passes for a complete or total understanding of God’s truth, and thereby obedience to it. Perhaps a historical incident in the life of Peter the apostle committing a form of this sin can help us understand it better and fight against it.
In Matthew 16:15 when Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This was a completely correct answer; it was inerrant! Peter knew who Jesus was. Well, at least on one level, we might say. After all, even after Jesus said that Peter was blessed by God the Father, had been given this knowledge regarding Jesus, and was the rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, Peter turns around and rebukes Jesus for Jesus stating the need for his own death and resurrection. You see, Peter had some truthful knowledge regarding God’s Word but it was joined to some very erroneous and sinful understandings of God’s Word.
We are in this condition our entire earthly life. We all stand in need of a better, fuller more morally accurate understanding of God’s word. Still, we cannot then take this latter truth and think and act as if filling our minds with God’s word, through the faithful preaching and teaching of it, or our reading of it, will then automatically equate with us reaching perfect maturity as Christians, even as it does move us further down that road. By the way, notice that after Peter rebuked Jesus, Jesus rebuked Peter, calling him Satan and then declaring that in order for God’s word to reach its appointed end for every one of Jesus’ true disciples they would have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24).
In other words, if we are rightly emphasizing God’s word we repent of our sin that God’s word exposes in us as the Spirit of God takes that word and convicts us of the sin that the written text of Scripture exposes. When we are rightly emphasizing God’s word we anticipate that we will be convicted of sin and challenged to change particular thoughts, attitudes, desires and actions, and we will change them because the power of God’s Spirit is with us! Along with this will be a confession of our sin to God and to some degree our sin against others who have been in various ways involved in our sin. Our sin is never simply ours and it is not in some isolated and antiseptic way simply related to God; in being toward and against God it is touching upon our place in God’s creation and that unavoidably means it affects others (this is the union and order in the Ten Commandments). We have obligations to others, and in our sin we fail in various ways and to varying degrees to fulfill those obligations.
When we wrongly emphasize God’s word we can be ever learning it but merely have the appearance of godliness through this learning and never come to a knowledge of truth that results in repentance (2Tim. 2:25; 3:5, 7). This means no substantive changes in our lives. When I wrongly emphasize God’s word I think that a mere accurate confession of some of God’s truth is synonymous with a changed life, or having done my full duty to God. When we wrongly emphasize God’s word to the detriment of God’s Spirit we minimize the importance of receiving God and his power through the sacraments, because in actuality the latter are not confined to our abilities to intellectually comprehend them. When we wrongly emphasize God’s word to the detriment of God’s Spirit we see little need for children sitting in the worship service, because, after all, what can they understand of what is going on? We have reduced what we receive in such worship to simply what can be intellectually grasped. This is not simply a mistake it is sin.
When we rightly emphasize God’s word we resist reducing what we receive from God through his word to what we can grasp intellectually. We feel the weight of God’s word and Spirit confronting us with our eternal and infinite duty to the holy, eternal and infinite God, as well as our duty to others. When we rightly emphasize God’s word, we are given through God’s word by the power of God’s Spirit a better understanding of how far short we fall from doing our duty, how inaccurate our thinking is, how twisted our desires are. In short, we gain a better understanding of how much we have to repent, and we repent. In this repentance I grieve and hate my sin, and I recognize the mercies I have in Jesus, and I turn to him and I pray asking for forgiveness and the power to live in obedience to him. True Christians receive this forgiveness and it is seen in becoming more like Jesus as they demonstrate the fruit of God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Because this is a perpetual process in the Christian life, a true Christian prays—a lot—for themselves and others. When we rightly emphasize God’s word we look to God’s Spirit to apply it to us, yes, even through an experience that cannot be fully comprehended by our intellect and is not dependent on our intellect for it to take place! I believe this is one of the most important arguments for weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.
Emphasizing God’s Spirit to the Detriment of God’s Word
Those who wrongly emphasize God’s Spirit to the detriment of God’s word also fail to actually repent of sin. They equate God’s Spirit with their individual feelings or emotions and/or their intuitions. They reject or perhaps gloss over the hard work of studying the written text of Scripture and minimize or disregard all that is necessary to engage in the sizeable intellectual task of comprehending and apprehending God’s truth. They do not see the latter task as working in harmony with the work of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit could not possibly be at work in the midst of such mundane and intellectual tasks! In this way of thinking and operating, reliance on God’s Spirit in the interpretation of God’s Word is thought to be instantaneous and according to our intuitions; just read, pray and feel. This sin also demonstrates itself in failing to recognize how God’s Spirit has been at work across many generations in the cumulative work of the church’s Spirit-gifted preachers and teachers. The result, then, is a failure to recognize that God’s word and Spirit produced creation and work in and through it, not in contradiction of it.
Like over emphasizing God’s word to the detriment of God’s Spirit, those who over emphasize the Spirit to the detriment of God’s word do too little questioning of themselves. They place too much confidence in their perceptions (they’re simply more emotive than cognitive) and fail to recognize the comprehensive corruption that marks them due to sin. They fail to pay attention to the fundamental truth that God’s Spirit does not work apart from or in conflict with the written text of Scripture written over 1500 years of human history. This text is obviously supposed to be read and studied in order to commune with the living God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Psalm 119; John 8:31-32; 2John9-10). They fail to pay attention to the truth that we have no right understanding of even how to discern what a work of the Holy Spirit is apart from the written text of God’s Word that by the very nature of it involves us in understanding human language and history that God ordained to work through. Finally, they fail to recognize that the Spirit’s gifts to the church are in accord with the Spirit’s will and these are first and foremost revealed in God gifting particular men to preach and teach God’s written Word so that God’s people are enabled to receive the work of God’s Spirit (1Cor. 12:28-31; Eph. 4:7-16).
In the end, when we function with a right understanding of God’s word and Spirit we submit to both; we recognize that God’s word is given to God’s people first and foremost through those gifted and ordained by God’s Spirit to deliver that written word to God’s people. Since the final goal that God has for his people is that they would be holy or like Jesus, we know that we are operating with a harmony between God’s word and Spirit when we prioritize our lives so that we receive God’s word and Spirit through the preaching and teaching of God’s word so that we are convicted of our sin, given the gift of repentance and strengthened to obey our heavenly Father.