The Whole Counsel of God
When Paul bid farewell to the leaders of the church in Ephesus he testified: “I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
This is particularly pertinent since too often in churches today the preaching amounts to no more than a simple gospel message; or, worse (if there is a message), has become reduced to little more than a series of sound bites.
Meanwhile, the Lord’s people starve for want of “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness” that “all Scripture, given by inspiration of God” is “profitable” for; and which is needful if “the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Sometimes even otherwise good preaching can miss the point of the passage. This can occur through the best of motives.
We all agree that Christ and His redemptive work is central to the whole of Scripture; Jesus Himself taught as much in Luke 24:25-27
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (cf v 44)
Some extrapolate Jesus’ words to mean we are to see Christ in every text of the Bible; but this is not what Jesus said, and leads to a misunderstanding of some passages and missing the lessons being taught.
Ralph Davis makes the point well when he says: “The question is not: Should we preach Christ from Old Testament texts? (Answer: Yes); but: Must we preach Christ from every Old Testament text?”
He identifies what Luke 24 does tell us about Jesus and the Old Testament:
- “Jesus is concerned with the totality of the Old Testament’s witness
- “There is a wide scope of Old Testament materials in which this testimony to Christ can he found
- “The witness of the Old Testament scriptures carries a particular focus upon the Messiah himself”
He then identifies what Luke 24 is not saying: “I think Jesus is teaching that all parts of the Old Testament testify of the Messiah in his suffering and glory, but I do not think Jesus is saying that every Old Testament passage/text bears witness to him. Jesus referred to the things written about him in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms — he did not say that every passage spoke of him (v.44). Therefore, I do not feel compelled to make every Old Testament (narrative) passage point to Christ in some way because I do not think Christ himself requires it. Not every Old Testament exposition then must end up speaking directly of Christ, because (1) Jesus does not demand it, and, in addition, (2) such a regimen impoverishes Old Testament exposition.” (The Word Became Fresh pp 121-138).
How is Old Testament exposition “impoverished”? It is impoverished eg. when those, so intent on seeing Christ in every text, become afraid of teaching any passage of Scripture as being mainly about an example to follow or avoid. But the Bible does teach some passages are mainly meant as either good or bad examples (eg. 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11; as well as John 13:15, Philippians 3:17, Hebrews 4:11, James 5:10, 1 Peter 2:21, 2 Peter 2:6, Jude 7 etc.) and we “impoverish” our “exposition” when we miss that as the main point of the passage.
We do not for a moment want to obscure the centrality of Christ and His work in Old or New Testament; let us keep that focus clearly before us and our people.
But if we are to profit from the whole of Scripture we need to consider what any particular passage of Scripture is actually saying.
The Whole of the Holy Counsel of God
I have also observed the same problem (i.e. missing what the whole of Scripture is saying) – usually by the same preachers – when it comes to the Bible’s teaching about holiness.
I frequently hear something like: “We pursue holiness out of thankfulness to God. The only legitimate motivation for pursuing holiness is thankfulness for what God has already done for us in Christ. Any other motivation is faulty at best, and works-based legalism at worst.”
Even worse are those who teach that if we are thankful to God, we don’t even have to try and be holy; it will just happen. All striving is works-based, it is claimed; it is a denial of grace.
This is a return to the “let go and let God” teaching of the discredited “higher life” “holiness” teaching of a bygone generation. Why do we do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? That is the definition of folly.
Justin Dillehay nails it in his review of Andrew Naselli’s book, No Quick Fix:
To deny the role of active effort in sanctifying faith not only confuses sanctification with justification, it also runs headfirst into a legion of New Testament texts that describe sanctification in active terms…
There actually is a quick fix coming one day, and it’ll be really quick: “We shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). Until then, in the words of Packer, let us not “let go and let God,” but rather “trust God and get going.”
The other day, in my devotions, I was reading 1 Peter 1:13-16:
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”
I was struck by how many motivations to holiness are included in this passage:
- The “therefore” looks back to past grace and the finished work of Christ.
- The “hope” looks forward to future grace and what we one day shall be (cf 1 John 3:2-3)
- The explicit command to “be holy” looks to the need for such if we are to have communion with a holy God
Each of these is, in itself, a motivation to holiness.
Each is a motivation to be actively striving for holiness:
– gird up the loins of your mind,
– be sober,
– obedient children,
– not conforming yourselves to the former lusts.
No: “let go and let God” here.
Kevin DeYoung has written an excellent book on this subject that I encourage everyone to read: The Hole in Our Holiness.
In line with the 2nd and 3rd motivations that I noted in my own devotions in the passage above, he recounts his own experience:
In the pursuit of holiness we need to look at more than the past acts of redemption. We have to look forward and trust in “future grace”… In my experience, Matthew 5:8—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”—has been the most helpful verse in the Bible in battling the temptation to lust. The key is that Jesus fights pleasure with pleasure. Sexual impurity can be pleasing (in the moment), but Jesus promises a greater blessing for the pure of heart: they will see God.
Years ago, there was a house in our neighborhood I often went past on my way to work. I don’t know who lived there and never met anyone from the house. But frequently in the summer a young lady in an immodest bathing suit would wash the car in the driveway. Matthew 5:8 was the sword I used to slay my temptation to turn my head and take a look. I thought to myself, “I want to see God. I want to know God. I don’t want to feel distant from him the rest of the day. I know fellowship with God is better than a three-second glance.” I was pursuing holiness by faith in the promises of God.
Filling in the Hole in the Whole of the Holy Counsel of God
Let me wrap this up with forty motivations for holiness that Kevin DeYoung lists from the Bible (he lists the references in full in his book):
- Duty. Ecclesiastes 12:13
- God knows all and sees all. Ecclesiastes 12:14
- It’s right. Ephesians 6:1
- It’s for our good. Deuteronomy 12:28
- God’s example. Ephesians 4:32
- Christ’s example. Ephesians 5:2
- Assurance. 2 Peter 1:10
- Being effective as a Christian. 2 Peter 1:8
- Jesus’ return. 2 Peter 3:11–12
- The world is not our home. 1 Peter 2:11
- To win over our neighbours. 1 Peter 2:12
- To lift up a nation. Proverbs 14:34
- For the public good. Matthew 5:13a
- For the sake of our prayers. 1 Peter 3:7
- The futility of sin. Matthew 6:27
- The folly of sin. Matthew 7:26–27
- The promise of future grace. Matthew 6:33
- The promise of future judgment. Romans 12:19
- The fear of future judgment. Hebrews 10:26–27
- The surety of our inheritance. Hebrews 10:34
- The communion of the saints. Hebrews 12:1
- The good examples of others. Hebrews 13:7
- The bad examples of others. 1 Corinthians 10:6
- We were created for good works. Ephesians 2:10
- God is the master and we are his servants. Luke 17:10
- The fear of the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:11a
- The love of the Lord. 1 John 4:11
- To make God manifest. 1 John 4:12
- In gratitude for grace. Romans 12:1
- For the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 6:19–20
- The character of God. Leviticus 11:44a
- The work of God. Exodus 20:2–3
- To please God. Hebrews 13:16
- To avoid the devil’s snares. Ephesians 4:26–27
- For an eternal reward. 1 Timothy 6:18–19
- Because Christ has all authority. Matthew 28:18b–20a
- Love for Christ. John 14:15
- Fullness of joy. John 15:10–11
- To experience God’s favour. Proverbs 12:2
- Our union with Christ. Romans 6:5–6
Kevin DeYoung adds: “As exhausting as this list might be, it could easily be doubled or tripled.”
As a redeemed, though fallen, sinner daily struggling with holiness I’ll take all the help I can get to move me to pursue holiness! Our help for holiness comes from the Holy Helper sent from heaven to help us. To ignore the many helps He gives us in His Word is to reject His help.
I encourage you to get hold of The Hole in Our Holiness – and read it!