PHIL: Hi, I’m Phil Johnson. I’m executive director of Grace to You and I’m here with John MacArthur. And today, John, we’re going to talk about sola scriptura, what it means and why it matters. And we don’t usually use Latin on Grace to You.
PHIL: But we are today. We’re going to talk about the principle of sola scriptura. Explain to us what is that and why does it matter?
JOHN: Well that was the watershed mantra, really, of the Reformation. Let’s go back to Scripture. “Sola” means “alone.” “Scriptura” means “Scripture.” This was the cry of the Reformers, who said we go back to Scripture alone. And out of that came sola Christus, Christ alone; sola gratia; sola fide, sola Deo gloria, the Glory of God. But it all started with sola scriptura. It’s when the Reformation was born because the leaders grasped the fact that there was a single authority in terms of the spiritual world and the revelation of God, and that was Holy Scripture, as over against the Roman Catholic dual authority: the Bible on one hand and tradition and the magisterium drawn out of experiences and councils and popes, and all of that. So they were rejecting tradition as a parallel source of divine authority and coming back to Scripture alone.
PHIL: Now you said that’s the starting point. They called it the “formal principle” of the Reformation.
JOHN: The formal principle.
PHIL: How do those other solas sort of come out of that?
JOHN: Well, when you say “Scripture alone,” then you go to the Word of God and you realize that there’s only one Savior, Christ alone, that you can appropriate His salvation only by grace alone, not by works, and only through faith alone, again not by works. And all of that to the glory of God alone. So that’s why they followed those up. Those would be the gospel elements that come out of Scripture alone.
PHIL: And what it means then, then is that all truth that’s necessary for salvation and godliness is in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly? How would you say?
JOHN: Well, I would say that is true. All truth necessary for life and godliness, to borrow Peter’s phrase, is contained in Scripture. There is more truth than is in Scripture about God, about His glory, about His nature, about His majesty, about His purposes. There’s more. God is infinite and the Scripture is not everything that could be said about God, everything that could be said about His mind, and His work, and His purpose, and all of that.
But it is the complete sufficient revelation of God for life and godliness to bring the truth before sinners about them, and their condition, and their destiny, and bring the remedy, the gospel sufficiently so that they can be saved and sanctified and headed toward eternal glory.
PHIL: And you point out that there are other sources of revelation. Scripture itself says God has revealed Himself in nature. What does sola scriptura say about that?
JOHN: I think we would – theologically, we would – identify general revelation as non-written revelation. That is God has revealed Himself. Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament shows His handiwork.” And Romans chapter 1, there’s enough of God revealed in human reason and in the law of God written in the heart so that the sinner is without excuse. We see that as general revelation. That is enough to reveal God, the Godhead, the nature of God, the power of God, the greatness of God, all of that. And that is enough, also, to indict man. It’s enough to damn man. But it’s not the message that saves him. For that, he has to have Scripture. And that presents the gospel of salvation.
PHIL: Would you say also, though, that Scripture is a higher authority than nature?
JOHN: Well, Scripture is the specifically defined interpretation of everything. You could look at nature, and if all you had was nature, you would say, “Well, there’s got to be a power behind this,” unless you met an evolutionist, and then he might deconstruct that, if you met an atheist. But once you open the pages of Scripture, that debate ends because you start out, “In the beginning, God created.”
So what is generally apparent in reason and in the law of God in the heart and in the rational mind that grasps the universe, what is generally apparent becomes absolutely specific in the revelation of Scripture so that Scripture gives us the specific truth about salvation, but it also gives us the specific truth about all those things that are a part of general revelation.
PHIL: And the implication of that would seem to be, then, that we have to interpret nature in light of Scripture, and not vice versa.
JOHN: Absolutely. And that is why there is this endless debate about creation and evolution because there are people on the creationist side where we are who say, “We will interpret general revelation by specific Scriptural revelation.” And there are others who say, “We will make the Bible serve science.” And so they use the general revelation - misinterpret it, I should say, sort of a pseudo-science approach – to interpret Scripture and to change what Scripture says.
PHIL: The problem at the heart of that, then, is a violation of the principle of sola scriptura.
JOHN: It is absolutely a violation of that principle. Anything that tampers with the Word of God. Just to broaden that a little bit, I would even see typical psychology as a violation of Scripture, because it offers a non-biblical human definition of behavior and solutions to behavior, pathways to being a better person. I would see psychology as superimposing itself over a biblical definition of man, his problems, and his solutions. So it’s not just creation. It’s pseudo-science and sort of pseudo-anthropology.
PHIL: Right. So sola scriptura is about the supremacy of Scripture, the authority of Scripture, what about the sufficiency of Scripture?
JOHN: Well, you have to believe that Scripture is sufficient. Psalm 19, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” So you have enough to be saved and enough to become wise. And then he goes on in Psalm 19 to cover every other aspect of life. The Word of God is completely sufficient.
That’s an Old Testament passage. You go to the New Testament and you find that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and it profitable to make the man of God complete. That is a well-known passage. It does everything it can to confront his sin, to break down error, to change behavior, and then give a path of righteous conduct. It is a complete message. To put it this way, Scripture must provide truth sufficient to save and truth sufficient to sanctify. And that is what it claims.
Jesus in John 17 says in His priestly prayer, “Sanctify them by thy truth. Thy Word is truth.” Peter says we’re begotten again by the Word of Truth. Or in the words of Paul, “Faith comes by hearing the Word concerning Christ.” So we know Scripture claims to be sufficient to save and sufficient to sanctify, to bring the believer to full maturity. So, yes, it is a sufficient Word.
PHIL: Yes. So it thoroughly furnishes us – I think these are Paul’s words from the text here.
JOHN: “Thoroughly furnishes us to all good works.”
PHIL: - to all good works. So I think people misunderstand what we mean sometimes when we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture. We’re not saying that the Bible exhaustively treats every issue it deals with. For example, no one would imagine that every word Jesus or the apostles ever spoke is recorded for us in the gospels.
JOHN: No. And I’m right now teaching through the gospel of John and we’re going into the third chapter. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, and Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and they probably talked for hours. And you can read the conversation there in about five minutes or four minutes. So no. The Scripture gives us sort of a cryptic touch on the critical issues of a conversation. It’s not exhaustive.
Another illustration of that would be I wish the Bible said more about divorce and remarriage. I wish the Bible gave us a few more specific, definitive statements about that and maybe about certain other things. We have issues in society and culture that the Bible doesn’t necessarily address. I look at the issue of alcohol, and I wish it was as simple as the Bible says, “Do not drink anything with alcohol in it.” Then we’d solve all the dilemma. So no. We’re not assuming that the Bible says everything that could be said or even everything God thinks about every subject. But it is sufficient to do what God has deemed its purpose to be, that is to bring us to Him and to conform us to Christ.
PHIL: Yeah. Sufficient, but not necessarily exhaustive. Even at the end of John’s gospel, he says that if all the things Jesus did had been written down, the world wouldn’t contain all the books it would -
JOHN: When I was a young guy, that verse used to bother me because I used to think, “Well, come on. I want more. What did you leave out? Please. Why even say that?” That’s like when your parents said to you when you were a kid, “I have many more wonderful surprises for you, but I’m not going to tell you.” Well, if you didn’t tell me you had those, I wouldn’t be feeling cheated. So, yeah. But I understand.
PHIL: Well, I’m an old guy, and I still feel that way. But I figure we’ll hear a lot of that stuff in heaven.
JOHN: When we get to heaven. Yeah. I can never get enough, as you well know. I’ve gone through the gospels. It took me 25 years to get through four gospels. And now I’m going through John again, and I love every hour of my study, every moment of it. I can never get enough and to think that there’s vast amount beyond that makes heaven attractive to me. And that’s a point that I don’t think people make. Heaven doesn’t attract me because I want to sit on a cloud and play a harp. It doesn’t attract me because I want to see what transparent gold streets look like or massive jeweled gates and pearls.
I’m driven – and you know this, and you are, too – I’m driven by the knowledge of God. I’m driven by wanting to know everything about Christ that I can know, everything about heaven that I can know, everything about God’s character that I can know, the vastness, and just to find out – and maybe that’s why that verse is there – that heaven holds for me the complete knowledge of God, the complete knowledge of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the complete knowledge of everything glorious and wonderful, vast and accessible to me. That’s a hunger in my heart that I look forward to heaven filling.
PHIL: Yeah. Well, also when we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture, we’re not saying that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture, right? You couldn’t learn the Korean alphabet or even find out all the rules for filling out your income tax forms from Scripture. So there is truth that you don’t find in Scripture.
JOHN: Yeah. And even basic things like how to cook and things like that. There’s not a whole lot in there of even basic things that you think about in a physical sense and what do you do when a child comes into the world? How is the best way to help a mother to give birth to a child? That’s pretty routine, common thing, but the Bible doesn’t give instruction about that.
JOHN: It doesn’t give instruction about how to deal with certain kind of illnesses. God knows the cure to everything. He could have revealed sort of God’s Merck manual back in the Old Testament, and here’s all the cures for all the diseases. That’s not there. So there are lots of things that are beyond the scope and the intention of Scripture. But all of those other things fall in the category of God’s providential care over His people where he leads them and brings them to the understanding and to the solutions to the issues of life in His purpose.
PHIL: Now you’ll often hear people citing that fact, that the Bible doesn’t reveal every single fact. There are things we know that aren’t in the Bible, such as the distance from earth to the moon. We know that exactly, but Scripture doesn’t tell us that. And then they’ll say, “But all truth is God’s truth.” And there’s a sense in which that’s true, but is somehow the truth that’s revealed in Scripture more important, more sure, more necessary than -
JOHN: Yeah. Well, the problem with the statement “all truth is God’s truth” is what is all truth? You’re starting extra-biblically. You’re starting outside the Bible and saying, “Okay. All this truth I’ve collected is God’s truth.” Well, maybe not because maybe it’s not truth. Maybe it’s human perception. Human perception is flawed because of fallenness, and sinfulness, and ignorance, and limitations, and finitude, and all of those kinds of things.
So I would never say the statement “all truth is God’s truth.” Not because in a sense, of course, that is true. What is is, and reality is reality, and God made reality. God has a perfect understanding of everything in the universe, everything in the universe. So in that sense, everything fits into the knowledge of God and by the creative hand of God. So He understands it perfectly. But when you say, “all truth is God’s truth,” I think you give too much importance to things that men think are true. So I don’t like to say that.
JOHN: I would rather say, “God’s truth sheds light on all ideas, on all other reality.” I’d rather start with the biblical and then move to the rest.
PHIL: Because what’s in the Bible is more sure, right?
JOHN: Well, that’s what Peter said. We have a more sure word of prophecy. Certainly more sure even than a valid experience that he had in the transfiguration.
PHIL: Yeah. Another way of saying it – and I wonder if you’d say that one of the practical ramifications of the principle of sola scriptura is then that Scripture is the foundation and the starting point for all knowledge.
JOHN: That is exactly right. And to flesh it out in the most obvious sense, if a scientist comes to me and says, “I believe that evolution is proven. I believe we see these forms and we can track this, and I believe in evolution,” I’m going to say to him, “Wait a minute. The Bible says God created everything in six days. And I want to take that as a fact and I want to shine the light of Scripture on your evidence. And I want to see if you evidence truly supports what you say it supports or whether real science supports Scripture.” That is the only valid way to handle that kind of issue, or for that matter any other issue.
If a psychologist comes along and says, “People are basically good. They basically want to find the high ground. They basically want to do good. We can trust the goodness of man.” You have a hard time imposing that idea on Scripture. But that idea informs a corrupt culture of self-esteem, self-exaltation, self-fulfillment, self-promotion. And that, of course, has led to massive issues today: breakdown of the family, shattering of all relationships because everybody’s too good for everybody else. It leads to warped personalities. I think it leads to some of these shootings because people are driven to selfishness to an extreme degree, some sort of extreme people.
So you get all kinds of fallout. I’d rather say, “The Bible says man is sinful, that the best he can do is wretched. All his righteousness is filthy rags. So let’s start with that premise and then we’ll define society that way, shed that light on reality.” That’s what we mean when we talk about Scripture being the final word, the divine revelation of truth from which you start and you shed the light of Scripture on everything else.
PHIL: That’s a radically different idea of knowledge than most of the world operates with.
JOHN: Right. And that’s why I say this. I don’t believe that a person is truly educated unless that person has had a biblical education. I don’t care what your field is. I don’t care what category of work or profession or discipline you’re in. You can’t possibly interpret the world correctly either materially or immaterially, either inanimate or animate, either animal or man, you can’t possibly interpret the world correctly unless you have a biblical view.
So one could ask the question, then, if a person who doesn’t have an education in the Bible and believe that is really educated at all? Because his worldview is so totally skewed. Well, he may be able to read law books and solve a law case. He may be able to read medical books and help somebody get rid of cancer. He may be able to solve a structural problem and build a bridge that doesn’t collapse, but he can work in certain finite categories effectively, but does he understand the heart, the soul, the trends, the issues of life that confront the world? No. Not unless he’s biblically educated.
PHIL: It seems to me that one of the implications of that, then, is that faith is foundational to knowledge. You have to believe something before you can know anything.
JOHN: Yeah. You have to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and what is so disturbing to me, you know at The Master’s College, we affirm that the Bible is the Word of God. Every single faculty member, student, affirms that it is the Word of God. We believe it and we let it shed its light on everything.
On the other hand, you have hundreds, literally, of “Christian” institutions, Christian colleges, who are unwilling to say that the Bible is the absolute authority that must shed its light on every other discipline. The sad thing is when Christians bail on that and try to find some halfway compromise between the authority of the Word of God and the authority of the culture, they’ve abandoned the only hope.
PHIL: And we see that happening. Do you see that, then, as a reflection of the fact that the church is moving away or drifting away from those principles that made the reformation such an important -
JOHN: Oh, there’s no question about that. But then, why would we be surprised? Because the first and original temptation was for Satan to say to Eve, “Did God really say that?” And then to flip it and actually say, “You won’t die. God lied. You can’t believe His Word.” That was the original temptation. And that’s at the heart of every other temptation. God says this, but you can do this. You can get away with this. You can view the world this way. You can behave this way. You can go whatever way you want. Yeah.
I think there is a total rejection of the authority of the Bible in the culture and there’s a growing rejection of the authority of the Bible in the church because it’s inconvenient to accept all the truths in the Bible. It’s inconvenient for people’s morality. They want to live a different way. It’s inconvenient for people’s control and selfishness. And it’s inconvenient for people’s relationships with the outside world who look down on those who hold to biblical truth.
PHIL: Hmm. Yeah. It’s not politically correct, either.
JOHN: No. No.
PHIL: Yeah. You know, I occasionally -
JOHN: Just a footnote on that. The way it goes is this. You reject the Bible as true, then you do what it says in Isaiah 5, you substitute good for evil and evil for good. So you turn everything upside down. So homosexual marriage is good. Abortion is good. It’s freedom of choice. So it starts with rejecting biblical authority. That’s already happened in our country widespread. The next thing is you can create your own morality, and what you want to do becomes good and the restrictions become bad. Then, in order to make that work, you have to cry for tolerance. You have to cry for tolerance because there are going to be people holding onto the old ways.
So you cry for tolerance, tolerance, tolerance. But eventually that turns into intolerance. Intolerance for people who uphold the biblical. And then that turns to persecution of those people. That’s where we’re going. That’s exactly where we’re going. We’ve gone from rejecting the Bible, to flipping morality on its head, to then crying for tolerance for the people who have done the flip, and then it’s going to turn against us. It’s going to become intolerance that ends up in persecution.
PHIL: So the churches drift away from sola scriptura actually has a -
JOHN: Aids and abets.
PHIL: - it accelerates the decline of our culture.
JOHN: Accelerates it. Yeah.
PHIL: You know, I occasionally run into people who say – unbelievers, for example, who will say – I’ll believe that if I can see it, if you can show it to me. And even some Christians, especially with the evolution issue, have that same kind of attitude. I believe what I can see and test scientifically more than what Scripture tells me. You’re saying that’s backwards, that it’s more authoritative and more trustworthy, the Scripture is, than what we can see or experience with our own senses?
JOHN: Well, absolutely right because God knows what we can’t see. God knows what we can’t experience. I trust Scripture implicitly. I trust it absolutely, unwaveringly, unequivocally. And that doesn’t mean I’ve got my head in the sand. I’ve been living in this world for a long time. I’ve read all the attacks on Scripture. I’m aware of all the scientific onslaughts on Scripture, all the moral attacks on Scripture. This is the Word of God that’s been around for millenia and it’s taken all the blows, and it still rises above and vindicates its own veracity.
But having said that, if you hear the testimony of Scripture, this is what you hear. “The natural man understands not the things of God.” That’s 1 Corinthians 2:14. Why? Because he cannot understand them. And it even says they are foolishness to him because they are spiritually discerned and he, in fact, is spiritually dead. The difference is the natural man can’t understand these things because he’s the natural man. We have the mind of Christ.
That is what separates believers from non-believers. We have discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit, granted to us to believe the Word of God, faith to believe it, discernment to understand it, and conviction to hold onto it. The natural man does not. He is blind. He is dead. And according to that same section back in chapter 1, the preaching then of the Word of God and the gospel and the cross is foolishness to him.
Paul even goes so far as to say that God has designed, that the truth not be available by means of the wisdom of this world. So it is clearly a work of God, a sovereign, supernatural, regenerating work of God that gives life to the dead, and awakens the heart, and gives sight and understanding. And if that sovereign act does not happen from God, then man is confined in his darkness. That’s a work of God.
PHIL: Hmm. You mentioned at the outset that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura was a departure from what the medieval Roman Catholic church taught. I would say it was a return, even, to the apostolic church and what they practiced.
JOHN: Right. Right.
PHIL: But these days there are some Catholic apologists whoa are trying to argue against Protestantism and lure Protestants back to the Catholic church and all. One of their favorite arguments is that sola scriptura is a self-defeating proposition because the Bible itself doesn’t teach sola scriptura. And it seems to me that a lot of Christians are stymied by that argument, maybe because they themselves aren’t well taught on the subject. How would you answer it? How would you say, “No. The Bible does teach sola scriptura.” Where would you go to prove that?
JOHN: Well, I would go to two Scriptures that come to mind immediately. The first one would be in Jude, where Jude explicitly says that the faith - and “the faith” in New Testament usage is that body of divine revelation that we know constitutes Scripture – “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” And you could even say it “the once for all delivered to the saints faith.” This is similar language to what the apostle Paul uses when he talks about the deposit, the deposit of divine truth to be guarded, and he speaks of that. That would be one thing I would use.
The second passage that I would go to would be the dialog that Jesus has in John 14 to 16 with the apostles in which He declares to them that they will become the inspired writers of Scripture, that the Holy Spirit will reveal these things to them, bring things to their mind, and speak to them the things concerning Himself, and that they would write these things down. The authors of Scripture, then, are the apostles and those associated with the apostles, who then brought together the deposit, which was the once for all delivered to the saints faith. That body of truth that was written by apostolic authors under Holy Spirit inspiration.
And then I would add Revelation 22, which, this is at the end of everything. And this book was written 30 years after the other late books of the New Testament. So 30 years later, God brings an end to divine revelation through the apostle John and closes it all off with a warning that if you add anything to what is written in these books shall be added to you the plagues that are written in it.
So I think if you just look at those passages, you can see that this is a body of truth. And John is the last surviving apostle. And he passes away and the apostolic era is over, and with it the revelation is complete and the signs and wonders that attested to them end because they were the signs of an apostle to validate them as the writers of Scripture and the spokesmen for God.
PHIL: Right. And earlier, you also mentioned where Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and it’s able to equip us for every good work.” Would you say that that’s an explicit statement of the principle?
JOHN: It is because if there was more to come, then Scripture wouldn’t be enough to complete us, right?
JOHN: So if you say it’s enough to thoroughly furnish, as the Authorized put it, or to make the man of God complete, then it is enough. So that validates the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture speaks to the close of the canon, speaks to the composite finishing of Scripture.
PHIL: Yeah. A couple of other verses I maybe get you to comment on. First Corinthians 4, where Paul is writing to the Corinthians about saying, “I am of Paul. And I am of Apollos.” And he rebukes them for that. And he says, “Don’t go passing judgment before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. And then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” So he says, “It’s up to God to bestow praise on men.” And then he adds this, 1 Corinthians 4:6. “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written,” he says.
JOHN: Right. Very important passage of Scripture. Don’t go beyond what is written. Don’t go beyond Scripture. That’s a very direct requirement. That’s a mandate. Don’t go beyond Scripture. And of course, the Bible also continually warns against false teachers, knowing that they will be ubiquitous, that they will abound, that they will go on and go on, and there would need to be if there was continuing revelation in my mind, there would need to be some very clear way to distinguish a false teacher from a true teacher. And you could say, “Well, there has to be a way.” And there is a way. And the way is a fixed revelation. If revelation is continuing, if this isn’t all we have, then how do we use the existing revelation to disqualify the false teacher? Hmm.
So if you don’t have a standard fixed – I mean, if you’re going to say, “I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use inches to build a house. I’m not going to use inches and feet to build the house. I’ve got an expanding standard. I’m just going to kind of play it by ear,” you can’t build a house. You have to have a fixed standard. So I think that’s an obvious thing. If you have the fixed standard and revealed truth, then you measure everything in the future by that, and false teachers become manifest because they differ from this. IF we don’t have a fixed standard, then in a sense, we have no way objectively to invalidate or validate.
PHIL: I was thinking about this as I thought about this interview and we were going to talk about this subject. It occurred to me that in a way this principle, sola scriptura, has been a consistent theme throughout your ministry. It’s the heart of much of what you teach and it’s affected everything from our church’s doctrinal statement to the way we worship.
JOHN: Well, it’s in the fabric of my life. It affects, first of all, the way I live. I only have one goal in life, and that’s to live according to the Word of God, according to the Word of God revealed on the pages of Scripture and demonstrated in the person of Christ and those who are faithful to Him. I just want to live by the Bible. I just want to know what does the Bible mean by what it says? And how can I conform my life to that? That starts in my own life.
How do I conduct my own life, my personal life with my wife, and my kids, and my grandkids, and with you, my friends? And whatever I do, in preaching, or teaching, it starts in my own heart. Then it goes to my own family in raising our four kids, who all love the Lord and married people who loved the Lord and are raising their kids. Why? Well, we just set one basic standard. We’re going to raise our children according to the Word of God in the nurture and admonition of the Lord as revealed in Scripture, and it extends from there to other relationships. It extends from there to the church.
So what do I need to know about a church? I just need to know one thing? And you know, Phil, you know this, but this started the first day I walked in the door of Grace Community Church in February of 1969 and I sat down with a group of men, and they said, “Well, how are you going to do this church? How are you going to conduct church?” I said, “We’re just going to do what the Bible says. We’re going to - ” “Well, is the Bible explicit?” “Yeah. It gives us structure of servants in the church, and elders in the church, and pastors. And it confronts sin and do church discipline.”
And there was an instant panic at that point because no one had ever heard of a church that followed Matthew 18 discipline. But I said, “We have to do that.” I’d never been in a church that had done it. My grandfather didn’t do it. He was a pastor. My father never did it. He was a pastor. But I said, “This is in the Bible. What else can we do? We’re going to teach the Word of God. We’re going to disciple people. We’re going to confront sin. We’re going to love. We’re going to serve. We’re going to use our spiritual gifts.”
And that view of sola scriptura coupled with its sufficiency, which is inherent in that view, is the driving force of my entire life. I live for the truth of God. It’s the most important thing. So my life has been spent trying to understand it and articulate it and implement it.
PHIL: So in a way, the principle of sola scriptura establishes your ecclesiology. If you think about it, there’s really not any doctrine you couldn’t apply that same hermeneutic to, right?
JOHN: It establishes my ecclesiology and every other ology.
PHIL: Let’s take, for example, you mentioned heaven earlier and you’ve got a new book coming out on heaven.
PHIL: And one of the things you deal with in there is -
JOHN: Now we have to rescue heaven.
PHIL: Yeah. Because of this very thing, isn’t it?
PHIL: Because people have departed from sola scriptura.
PHIL: And much of the stuff that’s out there about heaven right now comes from people’s dreams, and visions, and imaginations.
JOHN: Yeah. I wrote the book, The Glory of Heaven, I don't know how many years ago. What was it, 15 years ago?
PHIL: At least. At least.
JOHN: On the glory of heaven. What was the book about? It was everything the Bible says about heaven. You know, from beginning to end, everything the Bible says about heaven. And that book’s kind of hung around and people have read that book. And maybe a few hundred thousand copies have sold through the years. And then a book appears in the Christian bookstores purportedly written by a four-year-old who took a trip to heaven and he came back and described to his father what heaven was like. And that book sells what?
PHIL: It was like 11 million last I checked.
JOHN: Eleven million copies of a fabrication, of a complete lie that’s not true.
PHIL: And it purports to tell us more about heaven than Scripture does.
JOHN: Than the Bible. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, the Holy Spirit is a blue -
PHIL: Okay. So my question -
JOHN: - fog and Jesus rides a rainbow-colored horse, and that only can survive in a realm where sola scriptura has been abandoned.
PHIL: Or even just lightly dismissed. I think a lot of people read that book and think it’s a novelty. It’s interesting. They don’t necessarily take it completely seriously, but they look at it as kind of a harmless speculation about heaven. You’re saying it’s not harmless to do that.
JOHN: Well, it isn’t harmless even if it starts out as speculation because it’s sort of a hearts and flowers Pollyanna soft sell kind of feel-good deal. It tends to play on the emotions and replace maybe the realities of heaven. You know, you can create an imaginary heaven. We live in a world full of fantasy. People live in fantasy, I think, maybe as much as they live in reality. They play fantasy games. They watch fantasy TV. They watch fantasy movies. They live in the world of fantasy, and I think they sometimes find that world much more accommodating because they can do anything they want with no repercussions.
PHIL: Even what we call “reality TV” is scripted fantasy, isn’t it?
JOHN: Yeah. It’s scripted fantasy. So you don’t ever want to put the church into a realm where they start thinking that fantasies are better than the reality, because that’s a slippery slope.
PHIL: You have another book coming out, Strange Fire, on the charismatic movement, and this is a major theme in that book. Talk about the ramifications of sola scriptura with regard to charismatic claims.
JOHN: Let me just say I’m so glad we’re having this conversation because people are going to say, “Why do you write all these troublesome books?” And the new book on heaven is going to pick on all of those false experiences and false trips to heaven, and it’s going to tell the truth about all that. And now you come out with a book on Strange Fire, which is essentially an expose of the corruption of the charismatic movement, which offers God strange fire.
Why am I doing this? Let me answer that in a simple way. Because I’m defending the single authority of Scripture. What’s wrong with deceptive dreams and visions about heaven? That’s not biblical. What’s wrong with the charismatic movement and all of its experiences? That’s not biblical. This is not a biblical movement. And in the book, Strange Fire, I make the point that – and this is very important for people to understand – there is nothing in the entire charismatic movement that helps us understand the Bible better. There is nothing that clarifies a passage that hasn’t been clear, and there is nothing that advances our understanding of sound doctrine.
The whole movement is a mutation. The whole movement is a degradation. And the degradation is the power of experience dragging people away from Scripture. That’s what the whole movement does. The purveyors of that movement, the Benny Hinns and the rest of the televangelists who do their antics and all of those things, generating all of those imaginary spiritual experiences, which are nothing more than playing with people’s minds and emotions, the power of those kinds of experiences are dragging people down the path of seeking more and more experience away from the Word of God. So it is in measure in defense of sola scriptura that these issues have to be addressed.
PHIL: Talk about some of the specific ways the charismatic movement breaches the principle of sola scriptura: prophecies and special revelations, and things like that.
JOHN: Well, for years they have claimed that the Lord speaks to them specifically, sometimes audibly with a voice, sometimes inaudibly but specifically, and that they have prophecies that come from God. They say that they have a language, a sort of heavenly angelic language - “tongues” it’s called – and that in tongues, the Holy Spirit literally gives them sort of a transcendent utterance and that there are people who have the gift of interpreting that.
That would be direct revelation that God reveals to them things that are issues with people. You have a headache problem. You’ve got cancer. These are direct revelations from God. Beyond that kind of thing, there are just masses of people who feel that they need to be listening for the voice of God somehow.
PHIL: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that because that’s not – while that is a huge problem in the charismatic movement, it’s not limited. It’s not unique to the charismatics.
JOHN: No. It’s been promulgated in other areas. Where your spiritual life is sort of in limbo until God speaks out of heaven. And this again, this drives people, this degrades people, this pulls people away from sola scriptura, of finding all they need, all that is sufficient for life and godliness provided by the Holy Spirit through the means of understanding, believing, and living out Scripture.
So this has driven me, as you know, for many, many years. Any deviation from Scripture, anything that rises out of people’s experiences mitigates itself against the sole authority of Scripture. And then it goes as badly as to say there are people who actually have revelations, write their revelations down, and hold them as authoritative in an equal sense to Scripture. In one of my books, I read about a particular inspired person, prophet, who literally collected masses of prophecies from God and would go back to refer to them to order that person’s life. And that would be an extreme illustration, but only an extreme illustration of the same kind of thing.
PHIL: There are websites full of that kind of – they call it “fresh revelation” and it seems pretty stale to me. But because usually it’s just recycled religious language that doesn’t seem to say anything specific.
JOHN: No. And you also understand how that can’t help but detract from Scripture. It can’t help. They’re looking for something beyond Scripture. Scripture is not enough. Scripture is not sufficient. They want more, something more. It used to be kind of a phrase you would hear them use. What God has said in His Word isn’t enough. And part of that is fed by the fact that people sitting in these charismatic environments are never really taught the Word of God. It’s a superficial approach.
If you turn on charismatic television and listen to these people, they don’t ever give an exposition of Scripture. They don’t ever get down into Scripture. So people don’t know the richness that’s there. They don’t know the range of truth. They don’t know the penetrating joys of understanding the revelation of Scripture. They have nothing but a superficial understanding of Scripture, once over lightly, not really exposited with any depth and power. And so they don’t know how to feast on the Word of God, and so their shallowness is a product of the inept way Scripture has been brought before them. And so in looking for something more, they look beyond the Scripture rather than into the Scripture.
PHIL: You know, another thing that occurred to me as I was thinking through where this discussion might go is that of all of the various defects and anomalies that you’ve written about in the contemporary church, virtually every one of them is traceable in some way or another back to the breach of this principle, sola scriptura. For example, the seeker-sensitive church -
PHIL: - I think is grounded in a lack of confidence in the power of Scripture.
JOHN: There’s no question about that. I remember in the early days when that movement was just getting started, I was meeting with a pastor of a very large church in an eastern city, and he said, “Man,” he said, “I’ve just gotten a revelation on how to run the church.” And he pulled out a book written by a businessman on techniques for successful business.
That was the first I’d ever seen anybody think like that. This was in the very beginning of this when people were talking like, “You know, the church is failing to reach the culture. The church is failing to reach the world. And we’re not cutting it. We’ve got to ramp up. We’ve got to be like IBM,” or whoever it is. In those days, it was IBM, you know, highly developed business model and all that. Yeah. And I remember saying to him, I was sitting on a rocking chair on his porch and I said to him, “Are you telling me that the New Testament is an inadequate manual for your church?” I was incredulous. I was already thinking that way.
I’ve said this through the years to so many men. “I can hear you preach and I can look at your church and how you do ministry, and I will tell you your view of Scripture. I’ll tell you what it is. I’ll tell you whether you believe in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. I’ll tell you whether you believe in the sufficiency of Scripture for everything. I’ll tell you that by what I see, your confession that you believe in the authority of Scripture, the single authority of Scripture, is only valid if that’s what I see in your life and in your ministry manifest.”
PHIL: Let me sort of wrap up with a question that I think has practical ramifications for a lot of our listeners, because we mentioned already the idea that people think they get personal private guidance from the Holy Spirit. If Scripture is sufficient and really it’s all the definitive revelation we’ve got, what do we do when we come to a decision we need to make and there is no specific direct guidance in Scripture? Is it okay to follow your intuition?
JOHN: First of all, let me say as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. Romans. We are led by the Spirit of God. My whole life has been led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit brought me into the family He brought me into. He led me to the relationships that He wanted me to have. He led me to the perfect life helpmeet in my wife, Patricia, and He knew far more of what my life would be than I ever did when I married her. He led me to the right church. He led me to people like you and many others.
I don’t question the Holy Spirit’s leading in my life. His providential leading in my life is monumental. There’s never a day that I’m not shocked by some providential occasion that I step into something that God has organized and ordained. Do I have a red light that goes on that says, “This is the Holy Spirit”? No. But in retrospect, as I look at all of this in hindsight, looking back saying, “Wow. God led in here and here and here and here.” So I firmly believe that the Spirit of God leads me. That’s different than having divine revelation as such.
PHIL: Yeah. He leads you by providence, not by prophecy.
JOHN: That’s exactly right. And He leads me, and I don’t see it when it’s happening. I only can look back in retrospect and see the coming together of things that He orchestrated. So I just want to affirm that. I also want to affirm that in those areas where I don’t really know what the step is, I think I have biblical grounds to do what my desire is given my desire to be right. And I, through the years, have always said, “Delight in the Lord - ” from the Psalms “ - and He’ll give you the desire of your heart” is not God will give you what you want like the prosperity gospel, but that if you delight in Him, He’ll place the desire there.
People say to me, “Why are you at Grace Community Church?” Because I wanted so much to come. “Well, where did that desire come from?” If my life was right, if my heart was right, if I was desiring the will of the Lord, how is He going to lead me? I didn’t slip on a banana and have my nose land on the San Fernando valley. I didn’t have some kind of traumatic event. How did I get to Grace Community Church in 1969, where all my life has unfolded? How did I get there? That was a pretty big decision then, but I didn’t know how big. It was a desire. It was a desire on the part of the people. It was a desire in my heart, Patricia’s heart, that God had planted. So I think that’s what you take before the Lord, and if I delight in Him and it’s a pure desire to do His will and nothing but His will, then I think He moves in that way.
In the New Testament, Paul is writing in 1 Timothy 3, and he says, “If a man desires the office of an elder or a pastor, he desires a noble work.” Well, there’s the hint. It starts in the heart and the desire of the heart. I don’t need revelation, extra-biblical revelation. I don’t need to hear voices from heaven. God moves my heart. And in that way the Spirit leads and directs and brings together the elements of it.
I think you would agree, Phil, too, knowing me all of the years you have, that I’m not an indecisive person. I’m probably pretty decisive about things. And I’ve learned that even when maybe I’m a little hasty in making that decision, God has a wonderful way of orchestrating a recovery that looks like it was the right decision.
JOHN: And I trust Him for that.
PHIL: You know, the first time I ever heard you preach was in 1978, and that’s what you were talking about.
JOHN: And you only came because you got a date with Darlene. That’s the only reason you showed up.
PHIL: That’s right. She brought me along. I’m grateful to her for so many things, but that’s not the least of them. And you were preaching on God’s will is not lost. That was the very point you were making. And it was really a life-changing message for me to hear because one of the takeaway points is that Scripture is binding on your conscience. Nothing else is. If you’re in obedience to Scripture, then the way you said it then was do what you want.
JOHN: Yeah. And that’s how I’ve lived my life and I believe this, and this seems to me to be deduced from what we know about God and His Word. God has a purpose for my life. He would want me to know that purpose. If it is His purpose for my life, He would desire to reveal it to me if I’m the right person. So that’s what I tell young people, who are saying, “I can’t find a wife. I can’t find the right girl.” And my response is, “Are you the right guy?” God has somebody for you, but that person that He has for you may not recognize you unless you’re the person you need to be. So instead of worrying about finding the right girl, worry about being the right guy and watch how God unfolds His will.
PHIL: That’s good. Well, I want to talk about the conference that’s coming up, Truth Matters. This is going to be to introduce the book, Strange Fire, so that’s the subtitle of the conference. Truth Matters: Strange Fire. You and R.C. Sproul, Steve Lawson, Conrad Mbewe from Africa are coming together for a strategic conference, for people who love biblical truth. And this will be one of the themes, sola scriptura.
JOHN: Yeah. And what we’re going to do is look at the unacceptable worship of the charismatic movement, at the mutation and degradation of Christianity. And it’s serious. It is really serious. This is on a parallel with theological liberalism, post reformation. Liberalism came in and destroyed the church. Charismaticism has come in and destroyed the church. Nobody seems to want to step up and talk about it.
You know, in Leviticus chapter 10, you remember Nadab and Abihu came to give an offering to God, and instead of God burning up the offering like He had in the prior chapter, He burned them up because of strange fire, unacceptable worship. You can’t just come to God and offer Him anything.
This is a movement that blasphemes the Holy Spirit. This is a movement that misrepresents the Holy Spirit. I characterize the charismatic movement this way. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The charismatic movement attributes the work of Satan to the Holy Spirit. That is equally serious.
And it hasn’t been addressed and the movement has been allowed to corrupt the church and largely silence even well-intentioned people who know better. So we’re going to pull these men together to address the true ministry of the Holy Spirit against the backdrop of this really disastrous movement that’s been literally devastating the church for decades now.
PHIL: And we’ve coordinated the conference with the timing of the book’s release.
JOHN: Yeah. The book is going to be a – I don’t want to use the word “blockbuster” in the sense of sales - but this book is a powerful book. Every single chapter deals with a critical issue, deals with it biblically and exposes the unbiblical nature of this movement. We need, at the bottom of it, to get the church out of this experiential degradation back into sola scriptura, back into the Word of God. And that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.
PHIL: October 16th through 18th, 2013, and also want to say to our listeners, if you are a charismatic, we welcome you to this.
JOHN: Oh, we’d love to have you there. I always say, I married one, got her straightened out and we’ve had a great life together.
PHIL: And I know from experience – I grew up in Tulsa, which is the heart of the charismatic movement – there are a lot of charismatics who are confused about what they’ve been taught, what they’ve seen practiced.
JOHN: Look, this isn’t to make people mad. This is to rescue people from confusion. This is to take them where they nee to be, to grow, and be blessed, and encouraged, and joyful, and live at peace and grasp the truth. This is snatching brands from the burning in some cases. This is helping people. I mean, the truth is helpful. The truth is what your heart longs for.
PHIL: Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Our last Truth Matters Conference was packed. It’s like the Shepherds’ Conference, only for laypeople, really.
PHIL: And it’s an exciting time. You come to Grace Church and see what things are like around here.
JOHN: Well, I think we’ll not only have the sort of normal great time together, but people will be a part of something that I may be so bold as to say could be historic. This has never been done. There are conferences on all kinds of things all over the place.
JOHN: There is not a conference on this.
PHIL: No. Like you say, this topic has kind of been untouchable.
JOHN: In the name of tolerance.
JOHN: So we have to be tolerance for a violation of sola scriptura? I don’t think so.
PHIL: Well, if you’re looking for information about the conference, you can go to our website. It’s tmstrangefire.org. Tmstrangefire – all one word - .org. We have early bird pricing. It ends soon, so register today.