Author(s)Nick Gowers
Date 4 February 2022
Categories Bible and Theology
Tags Bible and Theology

So, the Bible can be understood Trinitarianly. That’s what I introduced in the first part of this series: the Bible as the Holy Spirit’s words about the Father’s message of grace about his Son. In this second and longest of three parts, I want to start to explore why I have found this useful.

How this understanding of Scripture helps

Why have I found this so useful? The reason is that it can help us see the difficulties we get into if we neglect any one of the three words of God and it can help us better relate to our fellow brothers and sisters, perhaps removing some of the suspicion and fear.

The word of God: The Holy Spirit’s written words

If we neglect or downplay Scripture as the words of the Holy Spirit the Bible is no longer our supreme authority. One obvious way of doing this is to take a more liberal approach to Scripture. Some of the official C of E liturgical documents now entitle the Bible reading “Listening for the word from God” and instead of responding with “this is the word of the Lord: thanks be to God” it is watered down to “for the word of the Lord: thanks be to God.”  However, the Bible doesn’t just contain or convey the word of the Lord, it is the very words of the Holy Spirit.[1]

But there are other ways of downplaying Scripture as the words of the Holy Spirit. These include neglecting the genres of Scripture. One example is neglecting the swathes of poetry in the Old Testament. I am not just talking about the wisdom literature but, as Eugene Peterson points out, the writing prophets were poets. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just challenge and convict.[2] The Holy Spirit loves poetry. And he loves word pictures… And songs… And stories…  And honest emotions. When we neglect Scripture as the Holy Spirit’s words it has knock on implications for how we approach all sorts of issues, including many of the current presenting issues. We cannot preach and pastor only in the frames of truth and morality, as important as they are. We have to engage with emotions, with lament, with creativity, with beauty, with story-telling, with testimony and corporate identity. So it is worth thinking through how we make the Scriptural poetry and emotion of the Holy Spirit part of our preaching and services. How do we use the Holy Spirit’s words to express our corporate emotions? That then raises questions of how we engage with the emotional state and spiritual temperature of our church family or small group.

However, and this is a crucial point, we can neglect and downplay Scripture as the Word of God and still believe and know the other two “words of God”, namely the Father’s message of grace about his eternal Son given for us. As I say that, many of us will be concerned. Rightly so. If we downplay the full Holy Spirit-inspired nature of Scripture, crucial foundations for a full revelation are missing. The result is that pieces of the jigsaw will either be absent or out of place. But the Father’s message is all of grace centred on Jesus. A right understanding of Scripture, if we have it, is a gracious gift, but it alone does not save us. So, it is very possible for someone to neglect or downplay the Bible as the word of God and yet have just as good, if sometimes not better, understanding and experience of the Father’s message of grace about his Son than someone who holds to the Bible as the word of God. Not only should that foster humility and rejoicing towards others, it is the only hope of salvation for all of us; for who really has a perfect understanding of Scripture? What matters is what we do with what we have.

The word of God: The Father’s message of grace

What then are some of the symptoms of downplaying the Father’s message of grace? This is the area that has been so transformative for me. I have discovered that in my preaching ministry so far, I have had at least three approaches to grace, often unconscious.

The first is ‘gappy’ grace: “God’s grace makes up for our failures.” It might not be explicit, but effectively what I sometimes preach is “try really hard… but if you fail, Jesus picks you up… or picks up the can for you.” The self-disciplined and the second-rate pharisees love this. And in order for you to love Jesus more I need to persuade you of a bigger gap. It tends towards a ministry of works and condemnation, with a hole-filling Jesus and forgiveness that inspires guilt. It lacks joy.

The second is ‘law-y’ grace. God’s grace enables you to obey. Again, it is often unconscious, but in my preaching and pastoring I can give the impression that the purpose of God’s grace is for you to obey Scripture. Here in a nutshell is one of the instabilities within the conservative evangelical world. Some of us don’t down-play the Bible as the Holy Spirit’s words but overplay it. We make grace to be the means to obedience to Scripture. The goal is conformity to the law. Preaching will talk much about grace and love and forgiveness but feel and sound like it comes from Sinai rather than the crucified saviour. It ends up primarily about truth and error, right and wrong. Grace and love effectively equals forgiveness. Again, the self-righteous and self-disciplined might love it. The broken and the beat up will despair as the number of impossible commands accumulate. The congregation will slowly lose joy.

The third is relational grace. As Sinclair Ferguson points out in The whole Christ, God’s grace is not a thing, it is a person.[3] Jesus didn’t come primarily to make up for our failures, or conform us to his word. He came to reveal his Father and bring us back into his family and, dwelling there, make us into the family likeness. Jesus is not a gap-filler or a means to an end: he is absolutely everything. The Father is in Him. We are united to Christ by faith, we are covered by Christ, he takes all that is ours and gives us all that is his. In Christ, even my sin God uses for good in my life and his good purposes. “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” says our Saviour who is our all in all.

This issue of the Father’s message of grace is the area that our spiritual sensitivity perceives but we can’t necessarily rationalise. We may have sat in sermons that treat the Bible as God’s written word, grace has been mentioned, even Jesus is at the centre of it all, and yet there is something that doesn’t sit quite right. And we can’t put our finger on it. Some of us won’t spot it because we’ve become so used to it or had our spiritual sense neutralised by our tick list (law) of what makes a good sermon or service (you can probably imagine what is on your list: it is from the Bible, treats it as the word of God, is exegetical and has powerful application etc. etc..). As a friend has pointed out to me, there is a huge difference between preaching the grace of forgiveness and preaching “a love-relationship with a grace-natured and grace-shaped holy God” who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love”.[4]

I confess that I have got this horribly wrong. As a preacher I have approached Scripture as the word of God – the Holy Spirit’s words. I have talked about grace, and yet, without realising I’ve been preaching gappy grace or law-y grace. Those sermons (or Bible studies) as they accumulate, in the end leave people wanting to run away, stagnate, fight harder, or despair. And there is certainly no increase in joy, love and peace, even though in some there may be increased obedience.

But when we get this right, we are preaching to hearts and affections. Sin is not just about disobedience, and repentance is not just about obedience. It becomes about how we see God and the sort of father that he is. This is about what we love. It is turning from the underlying sin of Adam and Eve which, at the serpent’s instigation, was to see God as an ungracious unloving father who would withhold good things from his children. It is turning from our curved in-ness which can be expressed in self-determination (like the younger brother) or self-righteous obedience (like the older brother).[5] We turn from our wrong views of our heavenly father to his reality revealed supremely in Jesus. We remember that he is holy, just and righteous, and slow to anger, abounding in love and compassion. We remember that it is his kindness in withholding his judgment that is meant to lead us to repentance. We remember that he does not desire the death of the wicked but that they turn to him and live. We remember that he did not withhold his only Son but gave him freely for us in our place. We remember that he delights to give his kingdom to us his little flock. And we remember that the words of God through the OT writing prophets come after hundreds of years of the Lord’s patience with his people and are usually written to the whole of his people, not to individuals. This is not to deny the necessity of commands or the importance of the fear of God and lived holiness in the Christian life, but rather we attend to them as the words of our gracious Father that are for our good and Jesus’ glory.

It is here, as already mentioned, that there is an instability particularly in the evangelical tribe in which I naturally identify. When preaching one passage we might preach gappy grace, another passage lawy grace, and another passage real relational grace. The congregation are confused, because we are. Some preachers have a centre of gravity in one particular conception of grace. It is a real blessing when preachers, entirely by God’s mercy, don’t just preach Scripture, they preach it suffused with the Father’s message of grace. And our souls sing.

In the final part of this series, we will consider the word of God: the Son of God and then conclude with some thoughts about lived experience. For now, it is worth taking some time to reflect on some of these things.

[1] Note: many rejections of this start from a presumption that the Bible is not the word of God and, funnily enough, conclude that! However, we need to start by looking at what the Apostles themselves assert, e.g. in 2 Peter 1.

[2] Eugene H Peterson, The Gift: Reflections on Christian Ministry (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995), 156.

[3] Sinclair Ferguson The Whole Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 134.

[4] Psalm 103 and thanks to Rob Brewis for this comment.

[5] See Sinclair Ferguson’s superb The Whole Christ, particular chapter 4. Ibid.