September 19, 2023

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Barry Cooper
The Sufficiency of Scripture

Is the Bible all we need to live life well? Today, Barry Cooper explains that Scripture tells us everything we must believe in order to be saved and what we must do in order to please God.


Is Scripture all we need to live life well?

In an earlier episode of Simply Put, we talked about the inspiration of Scripture, which is something the Apostle Paul describes in Second Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God”, he says.

But then he goes further. Scripture he says, is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

The “completeness” Paul describes here, the fact that Scripture is able to completely equip a believer for every good work, is what theologians call “the sufficiency of Scripture”.

Paul is saying that the Bible is sufficient, in itself, to tell us everything we must believe in order to be saved and what we must do in order to please God..

Now of course, we need to do a little work in terms of understanding what Scripture says, and then applying that truth to our lives, but the sufficiency of Scripture tells us that we need no other kind of “special revelation” in order to live the Christian life well.

As we’ve already seen, the Bible doesn’t speak exhaustively on every subject. You will look in vain for verses that tell you how to prepare an omelette, treat a blister, or produce a podcast.

That’s obviously not what Paul means when he says that Scripture equips us for every good work. What he means is that Scripture gives us sufficient guidance so that we can live lives that are pleasing to the Lord in every way. So even if there are no specific instructions relating to omelettes, Scripture does contain what we need to know in order to make that omelette to the glory of God.

The sufficiency of Scripture also means that Scripture itself is sufficient to interpret Scripture. 

This was a very big deal during the Reformation. The Reformers talked about “Sola Scriptura”, a Latin phrase meaning “Scripture alone”. Their point was that, in contrast to the Church’s teaching, we do not need an infallible church in order to understand what Scripture says about salvation and what we must do to honor and please the Lord. People don’t require the Pope or the Church or Church tradition to tell them, definitively and infallibly, what Scripture means. Or to put it another way, only Scripture can interpret itself infallibly and only the teaching of Scripture can bind the conscience. In other words, only the teaching of Scripture can compel faith and obedience among God’s people.

Again, this isn’t to rule out the wisdom of consulting other believers, commentaries, or the way a particular verse has been interpreted historically - these can all be very helpful as we read the Bible. What’s more, the Bible is the church’s book, so the church has a role in declaring to God’s people the teaching of Scripture and in disciplining God’s people according to Scripture. But the church and all other sources, as helpful as they may be, are not infallible interpreters of Scripture. We can  say that only about Scripture itself.

When Jesus criticizes the Sadducees because they didn’t believe there would be a resurrection, his rebuke is telling: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” He asks them, “Have you not read…?”

As far as Jesus is concerned, then, reading the Scripture and knowing it well is what will guard you and I against these kinds of errors. In fact, Jesus goes further and specifically calls out the danger of allowing non-biblical religious traditions to become as authoritative as the Bible. He warns the Pharisees in Mark chapter 7 that they have left the commandments of God because of their adherence to the traditions of men.

I think this is something to which we’re extremely vulnerable. It can be easier and more comforting to let other people do the thinking for us, to believe that because Pastor x taught something, it must therefore be true. But the sufficiency of Scripture points us back to the Bible, to examine what Scripture says about these things, and to allow Scripture to be the judge of human teaching, rather than the other way round.

Similarly, I wonder if many of us seek God’s will for our lives in a way that forgets the sufficiency of Scripture. For example, many of us long for God to reveal to us exactly where we should live, who we should marry, or what career to pursue. Because that kind of explicit guidance doesn’t appear in Scripture, we may expect God to reveal it to us by some other supernatural means - by inward “nudges”, perhaps, or audible voices. But that is not how the Lord has told us to seek His will. God has given us in Scripture the principles we must follow when we are making decisions, and we are free to choose any option that does not violate those principles.

So, the sufficiency of Scripture reminds us that God has already told us what we need to know in order to be “complete, equipped for every good work.”