The great William Tyndale gave us most of our English Bible. He is credited with a quote about desiring to make the Bible such that the common plowboy could understand it. The quote (as many such) may be a bit off. Wikipedia reports it this way: “John Foxe describes an argument with a ‘learned’ but ‘blasphemous’ clergyman, who had asserted to Tyndale that, ‘We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.’ Tyndale responded: ‘I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!’”
Regardless of the accuracy of the quote and Tyndale’s intended meaning, there is a common perception among Christians that they should be safe in personal Bible study by means of their reliance on the Holy Spirit to guide their understanding. To some extent, this is true. The simplest Christian, reading his Bible with the eyes of faith, guided by the indwelling Spirit is often able to discern more truth than learned scholars who study the Bible without faith or the Holy Spirit.
In spite of this, the individual who relies only on his own faith in Christ, God, the Spirit and the Bible will inevitably fall into misunderstanding and error if he pursues truth thus entirely on his own. There are several reasons for this.
My spirit is redeemed but the image of God is not fully restored
I would guess that every believer in Christ has some idea of human depravity in his understanding of the nature of man. Without some insight into depravity, no one would be convinced of his need to be saved in the first place.
Salvation has an effect on human depravity – we are new creatures, we are born again, we have renewed minds, we are saints. But we are not yet what we will be:
2 Corinthians 3:18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
Colossians 3:9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; 10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
With our renewed mind, we are capable of understanding great truths on our own as we submit our mind and spirit to the plain meaning of Scripture and to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. One of my great delights is to hear from born again people who have come to profound spiritual milestones on their own as they simply study their Bibles and pray.
But we should not be over-confident. We do still carry about this flesh. We can be deceived by our own desires, by things we want to be true, by our own flesh. Reliance on the Holy Spirit would be absolutely sufficient if we were completely changed instead of “being changed” (2 Cor 3.18), if we were completely renewed, not “being renewed” (Col 3.9).
The first reason we need helps from other men is simply that we are not yet what we will be.
God reveals his will to men through many men
God’s work among men is uneven. He does not reveal all truth to every believer. It takes a while for some believers to “get” what God has revealed to another believer.
We have many examples of this in the New Testament. Peter alone was given the vision of the unclean foods and called by God to, “Rise, kill, and eat.” To him alone was given the insight when he reached the house of Cornelius to realize all that God was telling him. He was challenged on this point when he returned to Jerusalem where shocked Jewish believers heard that Peter had actually entered the house of a Gentile and eaten with him. (Acts 10-11)
Yet it was this same Peter who withdrew from the Gentiles in Antioch when certain Jewish believers from Jerusalem arrived. Paul withstood him to his face, because “he was to be blamed” (Gal 2).
No one man is given all the insight into the truth. We are molded and taught by God’s grace through other men.
The second reason we need helps from other men is that it is God’s will to build disciples through the ministry and influence of other men, not solely through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The church as a body is God’s gracious help for the individual alone
The church is God’s idea. Jesus founded it (Mt 16.18) and he is the one who builds it. The New Testament is a book of the church and for the church (not produced by the church). Salvation is individual, but the saved saint lives on in Christian communion in a body of redeemed saints, collectively worshiping and serving God together, admonishing one another, encouraging one another, provoking one another to love and good works (Heb 10.23-25). Paul goes so far as to describe the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15).
The great doctrines of the Christian faith were developed through the work of various men in the church, often after mighty conflicts. These doctrines were all there in the Bible to begin with, but it took concerted effort on the part of various men in various places to come to clear and concise understanding of the full teaching of the Bible on the various points of Christian doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was fought out in the early centuries of the Christian church – and the teaching has endured to this day among orthodox believers unchanged from the efforts of those men who went before.
The individual in his Bible study may work his way through the Scriptures and come to a conclusion on a particular point. He may grow passionate and wax eloquent at what he has discovered. How deflating it is when some brother says, “Ah… no, that’s not quite what the Bible means by that…” Often conflict can ensue.
A personal story: I was assigned to write a sermon for a class on the Corinthian epistles while in college. Dutifully following the method I was taught, I came up with a wonderful message, then I read the commentaries. How deflating! I discovered that I had entirely missed the point of the passage.
The individual who regularly checks his work with the work of others has the advantage of being able to rethink his own conclusions. By doing this, he will grow in his ability to interpret the Scriptures and will stand with the orthodox brethren in the truth. The work of the church collectively, even through the ages, can inform our opinions about the Bible and help us come to better conclusions than we would on our own. How wonderful it is to be living at this end of history when so much good work in the Scriptures has already been done for us and is so readily accessible to us!
The last reason we need helps from other men is that God has graciously granted them to us through the church, why wouldn’t we use them?
I want to encourage you to study your Bible for yourself. You have something to contribute to the rest of us. God may work through you to aid our understanding. But at the same time, remember that you are not alone, nor are you free from the possibility of error. God gives us the gift of his Spirit individually through the indwelling and collectively through the Spirit’s indwelling of others. We should avail ourselves of his gift of the Spirit wherever it displays itself among us – in my heart, in my church, and in my books, written by other Spirit-indwelt men.
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.