Love Letters from Home
Dr. Jim Denison
Billy Graham was thirty, and already a well-known evangelist, when he came to a crisis of faith. Could he believe the Bible to be the word of God? His friend Chuck Templeton and others were raising doubts in his heart. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, he tells the story of what happened next.
He took a walk in the moonlight of the San Bernardino Mountains in California. He dropped to his knees in the woods, opened his Bible and put it on a tree stump before him. He prayed, “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”
Finally he was able to say, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
He says, “When I got up from my knees at Forest Home that August night, my eyes stung with tears. I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months. Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed. In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won” (Just As I Am, 139; emphasis his).
He was right. And you know the results.
Billy Graham is a Baptist. Like him, Baptists have always been “people of the book.” We have always opposed creeds, man-made statements of faith which are required for Christians. But we have strongly believed the Bible to be the word of God. Augustine called the Bible, “love letters from home,” and we agree. “No creed but the Bible” is our motto historically.
Today I want to tell you why that is so, and especially why our beliefs about the Bible matter to your soul this day.
Learning from the Source
Luke 24 tells one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Remember how these two people are walking home to the village of Emmaus, 7½ miles to the west of Jerusalem, on Easter Sunday evening. One is named Cleopas; we’re not told the name of his companion.
They’ve been to Jerusalem, and know all about Jesus.
They know that he was “a prophet, powerful in word and deed” (v. 19).
They know that the chief priests and rulers “handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him” (v. 20).
They had hoped that he was the Messiah, “the one who was going to redeem Israel” (v. 21).
And they have heard the rumor that “he was alive” (v. 23).
A more compact Christology, one cannot find in Scripture.
But while they knew about Jesus, they didn’t know Jesus. As he joined them along the road, “they were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). And so he showed them who he really was, and what he came to do: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27).
“Moses and all the Prophets” refers to the Old Testament, as we call it today.
To “explain” is to teach, to translate, to interpret. This is the Greek word from which we get “hermeneutics,” which means “to interpret.”
He showed them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
He could have shown them how his virgin birth was predicted in Genesis 3:15, his lineage was described through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesse, and David; his birthplace predicted in Micah 5:2; his ministry in Isaiah 9; his suffering in Isaiah 53; his death and resurrection in Psalm 22; his return in Daniel 7.
He could have referenced the 48 major messianic prophecies he fulfilled. The odds of fulfilling just eight of them is one in ten to the seventeenth power; to picture this, fill the state of Texas two feet deep in silver dollars, mark one with a dot, and ask me to find it. He showed them all the ways the Scriptures tell his story.
With this result: “They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'” (v. 32).
“Burning within us” is an ongoing experience in the Greek here, not a single act or feeling. All the time Jesus was teaching the Scriptures to them, their hearts were aflame. Jesus had only to speak through his word, and their lives were forever changed.
So it has been from then to now. St. Augustine, the greatest theologian after Paul in Christian history, was converted when he picked up the Bible and read its truth. Martin Luther was converted to personal faith in Christ through his study of Scripture. John Wesley began the Methodist church after attending a prayer meeting where he said his “heart was strangely warmed” by Jesus through his word. Dr. Bill Tolar, long-time academic dean at Southwestern Seminary, came to Christ by reading the Bible. Jesus can still speak to our hearts through the word of God.
This week I have been applying this message to my own life. As I have opened the Scriptures each morning, I have asked Jesus to teach me as he taught these two on the way to Emmaus, and he has. I have sensed a new life, a new fire, a new power in God’s word as Jesus has spoken it to me.
What he is doing more and more in my heart, he wants to do in every heart. He wants you to say today, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us … and opened the Scriptures to us?” And tomorrow as well.
How can we hear Jesus today?
So, how can we experience what these two did? How can this place of worship be our Emmaus road? Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He is just as able to speak to us by his Spirit in his word as he was then. So, what must we do to hear him?
First, believe that the Bible is the word of God.
Jesus was clear in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets: I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus had a deep appreciation for the Scriptures as the word of God.
So should we. The Bible is the best-attested ancient book in the world. Manuscript evidence, archaeological data, fulfilled prophecy and internal consistency all document its absolutely trustworthy nature. The Bible is what it says it is: “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). This is the word of God.
I believe that every word of the Bible is the word of God. This book does not merely contain the word of God—it is the word of God. I used to tell my seminary students that this book is the only word God is obligated to bless. My words are not God’s word—Scripture is.
I don’t use the word “inerrancy,” so common to Baptist denominational battles, because the word is not found in the Bible. Additionally, the word “inerrancy” has eight different definitions and twelve qualifications. I don’t know what it means, so I don’t use it. But I believe that every word of the Bible is the absolute, authoritative word of God.
This is why traditional Baptists have no creeds, no man-made statements of faith you must accept. We believe the Bible, so we have no creed but Scripture. This is one of the problems our church has with the newest edition of the Baptist Faith and Message. This statement of Baptist beliefs now calls itself “essential for faith and practice” and an “instrument of doctrinal accountability.” Baptists have never believed this. We have no creed but the Bible. We are people of the Book. We believe that the Bible is the word of God.
This is the first, essential commitment to make if you want Jesus to speak to you from his word—believe in that word.
Second, we interpret the Bible according to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Jesus showed them that the Bible is fulfilled in himself. Here, as throughout his ministry, he told them what the text means. In his Sermon on the Mount, again and again he said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you….” Jesus, the living Word of God, taught us how to understand the word of God.
Baptists have historically believed that this is the way to understand Scripture: ask first what Jesus said and did. “WWJD” applies here. All the way back to the Anabaptists, we have believed in the Christological principle of biblical hermeneutics: interpret the Bible according to the teachings of Jesus. He is the “criterion,” the means of interpreting the Bible. This is what traditional Baptists believe.
Third, we interpret according to the intention of the authors.
It was the ultimate intent of the Law and the Prophets to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus “opened the Scriptures” to them (v. 32) and taught them according to the clear intention of those who first authored the text under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
To know this intended meaning, ask these questions. One: what is the background of this book? Who is the author? Who are the readers? What is the situation being addressed? Two: what do the words and sentences mean? Three: what historical data can help us understand the text? Four: what theological truths are being revealed? And five: what practical application should I make today? (There is much more on this method of Bible study in the brochures available at the door today.)
Last, obey what you learn.
Someone bragged to a rabbi, “I’ve been through the Law four times.” The rabbi replied, “The question is not whether you’ve been through the Law, but whether the Law has been through you.”
Oswald Chambers, the spiritual genius and devotional writer, once said, “The only part of the Bible we understand is the part we obey.”
Every time Jesus speaks to you through his word, he will give you something to do. These two disciples had to run back to Jerusalem, over seven dangerous miles at night, because the word of God had just shown them that Jesus is the risen Lord. And they had to tell the world. They had to obey what they had learned. So do we.
Let me ask you: do you have a daily appointment to meet with Jesus in his word? Wherever you are can be your road to Emmaus. What Jesus did for them, he will do for you. This church believes that the Bible is the word of God. We do not believe in creeds, but in Christ. We do not ask a creed to interpret the Bible, but Christ.
Believe that the Bible is God’s word. Interpret it according to the life and teachings of Jesus, with his help. Seek the intended meaning, and apply what you learn. And your heart will burn with in you as he talks with you on the way.
Dr. John Newport was the academic vice-president and provost, emeritus at Southwestern Seminary until his recent death, and my theological mentor. At his funeral I saw many friends from years ago at the seminary. One was Isaac Mwase, now associate professor of philosophy of religion at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas.
Isaac was a student of mine. His story is remarkable. Ten years before I knew him, Isaac had been a Muslim terrorist, plotting the overthrow of the government in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His friends wanted to make him the dictator of the country.
Then a Christian gave him a Bible. Isaac would not go to a church, or meet a preacher, or listen to a sermon. But in reading the Bible, Jesus spoke to his soul and he was converted. Now he teaches at Ouachita, and one day he will return to Zimbabwe. Not as the dictator of the country, but the president of the seminary.
What Jesus said to him, now Jesus waits to say to us. Are you listening?