And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
For our purpose, we may divide Paul’s preaching ministry into the two aspects of revelation and publication. Revelation – that is, the reception of revelation – refers to the source of his ideas, and the way in which he received them, whereas publication refers to the expression of these ideas through spoken and written proclamation, argumentation, exposition, and so on. Regarding the source of his teachings, he writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). As for the manner of publication, he says, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
Thus Paul is consciously aware that his message originates from divine revelation and not human invention, and that it is the Spirit who chooses the words by which he conveys the message. He deliberately asserts this in several places. Whenever he does so, he does not describe it as a negotiable theological position or a mere scholar’s opinion. And he does not describe those who agree with him on this as having achieved some special breakthrough in faith that other people, who are also believers, have yet to attain. He does not portray the belief that his message is the very word of God as belonging to a higher spiritual plane or level of development among Christians. Rather, he notes that when a person receives the message of the apostles as the very word of God, he is simply receiving the message for what it is – it is the word of God. In our verse, he is referring to Thessalonians’ reception of his preaching at their conversion. He is not describing a superior reception among many acceptable options, but the only acceptable reception of the gospel is to receive the word of God as the word of God.
But this also means that when a person regards the message of the apostles as something less than or other than the word of God, he is not receiving the message for what it is, which necessarily means that he does not receive the message, since by definition, if something is received as something that it is not, then it is not truly received. If the gospel is the word of God, and a person regards it as the word of mere men and thus receives it as the word of mere men, then this person does not in fact receive the gospel. And since the gospel is the only message that saves a person through faith, it is biblically impossible to reach any other conclusion than that a person who does not perceive and receive the gospel – the gospel preached by the apostles and recorded in the Bible – as the very word of God is not a Christian at all.
There is no justification for welcoming him as a brother or thinking that he is a believer of Jesus Christ. Rather, by irresistible logic, Scripture compels us to regard him as an unbeliever, still in his sin, coming short of repentance and true belief in the gospel, doomed to endless torture in hellfire. To regard the word of God as the word of mere men is not faith, not even weak faith, but non-faith, unbelief, and blasphemy. The difference is not a matter of “more or less,” but one of “either-or,” not a matter of degree, but of truth and reality. Thus to regard the doctrine of the apostles as the word of men is to deny that it is the word of God – it is to reject the gospel, the only message that saves.
Whether we are dealing with the teachings of the apostles in their preaching, or with the same ideas in their writing, the divine inspiration that governs their thinking and propels their preaching is such that to receive their word as God’s word is to receive it as what it really is, the word of God. Since the words that they speak and write are the words of God because of divine inspiration, the same principle by which the words spoken and written by men are identified as the words of God applies to the prophets as well, since they were also divinely inspired, and without question, also to the Lord Jesus, for he spoke as one who had the Spirit without measure and who was himself God incarnate, the express image of his person.
This is why in a number of places “God” and “Scripture” are interchangeable in the Bible. For example, Galatians 3:8 says, “the Scripture…foresaw…and announced,” when in the Genesis record, it is God who did these things. Sometimes it is said that God or the Holy Spirit speaks “through” this man or another. That is, the divine person is the speaker, but he communicates “through” a human instrument, so that all the ideas and words that come forth from the human instrument in fact originate from the divine speaker (see Acts 1:16, 28:25; Hebrews 4:7).
God and Scripture are so identified, that for many purposes, it causes no confusion to regard them as the same. Between the two, there is no difference in thought, no difference in expression, and often no difference even in identity. It necessarily follows that between the two, there is no difference in authority. And since there is no difference in authority between God and Scripture, there can be no difference in the responsibility that each imposes on men. Because God has absolute authority to legislate everything about human thought and behavior, it follows that Scripture has this authority as well, since there is no difference. And to speak against Scripture, to blaspheme it, is to blaspheme God. There is no difference. Man is accountable to Scripture in the same way and to the same degree as he is accountable to God. Unless this is what we believe, we have no doctrine of actual revelation or inspiration, and in fact, no gospel at all.
Some objections against this principle of equivalence, that there is no difference between the word of Scripture and the word of God (and all the implications that this entails), hinge on the means or the agents by which the message is delivered. There are those who find it inconceivable that a message delivered by men could be the very word of God – the exact verbal expression of the mind of God – as if men err on a constant basis, as if men can never receive communication from God, as if even an Almighty God can never reveal the ideas and words that he wills to be proclaimed and recorded in writing, as if one person can never deliver a message for another with precision and accuracy, as if an Almighty God can never create some men whose background, disposition, character, and other qualities make them fitting instruments for the reception of revelation, and as if an Almighty God can never control these men that he has created to speak and to write the exact words that he wishes to be proclaimed and recorded.
To the extent that these objections focus solely on the means, they neglect to examine the content of the revelation itself, and ignore its inherent beauty and perfection, its undeniable coherence, its undefeatable rationality. Those who decide that the biblical documents were written by men, and therefore could be nothing more than the fallible and errant word of men, think that they know about men apart from these biblical documents. So they are imposing by pure assumption on the biblical writers flaws that they find in themselves, and not flaws that they are able to demonstrate from the biblical documents. The epistemological hurdle here is insurmountable – these criticisms against Scripture amount only to self-criticisms.
But if they are compelled to refute the infallibility of Scripture by examining the actual content of Scripture, then they must admit that they cannot refute the Scripture solely by imposing the assumption that men always err, that there is no such thing as divine inspiration, or if there is, that it cannot even momentarily overcome men’s fallibility. Again, if men are so constantly errant that even divine inspiration cannot overcome it, then we have every reason to dismiss these men’s objections, since they are necessarily errant. To repeat, at this time, we are considering only those objections that hinge on finding fault with the means or agents by which God conveys his ideas and words to humanity. And it is determined that these objections cannot succeed. The implication is that to argue against the infallibility of Scripture, one must deal with the actual content of Scripture.
It would be instructive to consider some possible alternatives in the means or agents by which the word of God was delivered. Some might think that the Bible would be infallible if it was delivered by angels, but the assumption is unjustified. What makes an angel infallible without God’s infallible control? The word of an angel is still not the word of God, even if it contains no error. But if God creates and controls an angel to deliver his message, then why could he not do the same with a man, that is, to create and control a man to deliver a divine message?
There are some who scoff, and say that if God were to directly speak from heaven, or appear on earth and speak to them, then they would believe that the message comes from God. And they issue a challenge based on the assumption that if there is a God and he speaks to men, then this is the way he would do it. Of course, this assumption is without justification and requires no further response. The actual effect of this challenge is that it yields insight into the level of intelligence of those who think like this. Have they thought about what God would sound like? As the Gospel of John records, God had indeed spoken from heaven, but some thought it thundered. And what would God look like? What do they expect to see? If a bright light appears and speaks to them, does it follow that it is God speaking? How do they know?
In one way or another, objections that complain about the means by which divine revelation was delivered – namely, by human agents – ignore the content of the message, but target the credibility of the means of the message’s delivery as judged by their sensations, apart from the ability of the source of the message to secure an infallible delivery. Thus objections that target the means apart from the content or the source are sensual rather than intellectual. Those who advance these objections not only do not think, but they do not want to think, and so they do not deal with the content of the message. This accords with what we understand about the disposition of the reprobates. They are sensual, empirical, non-intellectual, non-thinking people – they are as animals, who depend on seeing, hearing, touching, smelling…but not thinking.
Unbelievers cannot perceive the word of God for what it is because it is spiritually perceived. They lack the disposition and competence to perceive it for what it is with their minds. They think that men wrote the Bible, and therefore it must be the word of men. They make this judgment without regard to the heavenliness of the content. Yet some claim that they would believe if the same message were delivered to them in conjunction with some spectacular display of divine presence. But this just shows that they are sensual and irrational, and not intellectual.
This is part of the reason Jesus could say, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). If they are irrational and non-intellectual, then what would a shock to the senses do? They would still lack the intellectual disposition and competence to recognize the true nature and source of an intellectual message. But if they possess the intellectual disposition and competence to recognize intellectual truth, then they would not need a shock to the senses. This intellectual enlightenment is what is granted to the elect in conversion. Reprobates remain in darkness and a mentally disabled condition.
A cat becomes excited if you wave a feather back and forth in front of it, but if you recite an intellectual discourse to the cat, it will probably turn its back on you and take a nap. It does not appreciate it. Why? Because compared to humans, cats are stupid. And compared to Christians, non-Christians are stupid. Oh, I admit that many Christians are stupid, and that is because they are either false believers, or because they have not continued to renew their minds by the word of God after conversion. But non-Christians are always worse.
Although we no longer have Paul among us in the flesh, we have in the Bible the same message that he preached to the Thessalonians, a message that both he and the Thessalonians recognized as “the word of God.” As in his day, it is also the case today, that those who are unenlightened and inferior in intelligence, who therefore focus only on the means, would perceive this word of God as the mere word of men. But the message has not changed – it remains the word of God. In fact, even the means and the agents are the same, since it is still the same man, Paul, who delivers the same message, the faith of Jesus Christ, to the church and to the world. And just as he published his message through both speaking and writing, and the writing would record what he preached in his speaking, in the Bible we now possess the same message that he published to his generation.
Therefore, in the Bible we have the same “word of God” that he delivered in his day. The crucial issue for us is whether we will receive it as what it is, that is, the word of God, or as what it is not, that is, the mere word of men. Because it is the same word of God, it carries the same authenticity and authority as when Paul delivered it – it carries the same authenticity and authority as Almighty God himself, for there is no difference. And because the Bible carries the same authenticity and authority as God himself, it imposes the same accountability upon all men as when Paul preached it to his hearers. In other words, anyone who rejects the word of God, in the sense that he refuses to believe what it says, or that he refuses to perceive it as what it is, the word of God, defies Almighty God himself, and will suffer the appropriate punishment of everlasting hellfire. Those who received it as the word of men and disobeyed it will be punished as if they had disobeyed the word of God, because it is indeed the word of God.
If we are concerned that hearers should receive the word of God as the word of God, what should we think of preachers who regard the word of God as the mere word of men, and who propagate this falsehood? We must publicly expose and expel them from the ministry and the church. We must condemn them in much stronger terms than we do even murderers, adulterers, and kidnappers. If this seems harsh or offensive to you, it is only because your thinking has fallen far from the biblical standard. Your mind has been captured by the devil, and desensitized to wickedness and rebellion. We can place part of the blame on these preachers who regard the word of God as the mere word of men for the prevalence of all kinds of sins, and we can also blame you for tolerating and encouraging these false preachers. It is your fault, since you do not do your part to throw them out of positions of influence. You are responsible. You share in their guilt.
To receive the message of the apostles as the word of God, which is what it really is, is not a spiritual height to be attained or a theological conclusion to be reached after prolonged deliberation, but Paul assumes that it is the starting point of the Christian life, an event that occurs at conversion, and in fact, an indication of conversion. If you do not receive the message of the apostles as the word of God, then on what basis do you say that you are a Christian according to God? On what basis do you say that you have faith toward God or a positive relation to God, as defined by God? Should we not, by your own standard, regard you as a non-Christian? If any part of the gospel is an invention of men, then by what message are you saved? You are still in your sin. And those preachers who deny that the Bible is the word of God, on what basis do they instruct us, or exercise any authority over us? Rather, must we not regard them as deceivers, as anti-christs, as demons from hell? We have no authority to think or behave otherwise.
If you are under a church or seminary leader who does not believe that the Bible is the word of God, that it is the perfect verbal revelation and communication from God, then it is your Christian duty and your moral obligation to overthrow him. Take him down from the pulpit. Expel him from the church. Throw him out of the seminary. Do this, and do it today, lest you share in his guilt and also his punishment. There is no need to become overly suspicious or critical. In our day, thousands of preachers and professors condemn themselves on this issue by their explicit testimony.
Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). If the Bible is his message and thus his voice, and you do not recognize it, then what does that make you? How can you be his sheep? Ah, I hear his voice in the Scripture – it is the word of God. There is no difference between the voice of the Bible and the voice of the Almighty. When you read the Bible, what do you perceive? When you listen to the Scripture, what do you hear?