Sundry Times, Diverse Manners, But Wholly unto Writing

Chapter one, Of the Holy Scriptures, of the Second London Confession in paragraph one contains the following sentence.

 Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that His will unto his Church; and afterward for the better preserving, and propagating of the Truth, and for the more sure Establishment and Comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the World, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

A Variety of Times

This makes a statement about special revelation, the particular moments (“sundry times”) and the various means (‘divers manners”) by which it came. In addition to the revelation that comes through creation and resides in conscience, special revelation is necessary for unveiling the redemptive purpose and strategy of God. Critical moments of revelation give to us the scheme of creation highlighting his image-bearers, the fall of those image-bearers, with the immediate first disclosure of God’s redemptive intent.

After narratives that show God’s continual governing and judging of the whole earth, we find his selection of a person through whom a redemptive nation would arise from which would come the Messiah. Within the arising, development, discipline, exile and return of this nation, all narrated in specific loci of revealed description and interpretation (e.g. “The nations shall know that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity, because they dealt so treacherously with me that I hid my face from them” Ezekiel 39:23), also there is revealed an increasingly detailed profile of the one whose work would bring salvation to his chosen people out of every tongue and tribe and people.

For around four-hundred years these moments of revelation ceased, but were renewed for about one century with the appearing of this anointed-one. This revelation described his person, his teaching, his actions, his character, his power, his knowledge, and his claims that demonstrated the legitimacy of the confession that this is the “Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16).

Perplexingly, his redemptive work involved a rejection by the people out of whose loins he had arisen in his humanity, and ended in an astounding concatenation of events—crucifixion, burial, resurrection, appearances, and ascension. Both gracious power and revelatory insight were needed to align properly the previous prophecies and explain with adequate thoroughness the meaning and applicatory power of those events. From the immediate witnesses of those events and persons whose lives meshed with them in radical proximity and simultaneity, God chose to give his culminating word of revelation.

A Variety of Ways

Through the centuries this revelation came in visions and dreams to prophets and others and by direct verbal dictation for speaking the word of God. In the Authorized Version the words “Thus saith the Lord” occur 413 times. Isaiah identified his prophecy, spoken and written, as “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, etc.” He also used such phrases as “Hear the word of the Lord”  (1:10), and “The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw,” “then said the Lord to Isaiah” (7:3). Jeremiah begins with the overarching assertion “The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon …  It came also in the days of Jehoiakim … unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month” (Jeremiah 1:1-3). Ezekiel has the phrase, “The word of the Lord came to me,” forty-nine times in thirty-eight chapters with the last eleven chapters scattering a variety of such affirmations as, :”Thus says the Lord, … prophesy and say … in visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel, … declare all that you see to the house of Israel.” Malachi, which begins with the words, “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” is the record of an extended conversation Malachi had with God

In the New Testament, revelation came by prophecy and tongues, and immediate preaching under the inspiration of the Spirit. The apostles, promised the revelatory operation of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:12-14), preached and spoke infused with the Spirit of revelation and inspiration (1 Corinthians 2:12, 13) in evangelistic situations and in the churches. God also gave prophets who spoke by divine revelation to the churches, so that in the absence of the apostles they still could have truths spoken to them that were propositions of new covenant truth (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; 14:29-33). Tongues also were revelatory gifts, but were to be exhibited publicly only when a gifted interpreter was present so that the utterance was revelatory for the edification of the church.

The prophetic gifts were under the immediate authority and discipline of the apostles, even their written word (1 Corinthians 14:37, 38). Even as false prophets arose in the Old Testament, so did false prophets and teachers arise in the New Testament. Both were to be rejected and not permitted to function within the covenant community (2 Peter 2:1). The message of the true prophet was to be considered seriously and heeded both in doctrinal instruction and instruction in righteousness (1 Corinthians 14:24, 25, 29). These extraordinary operations of the Spirit in revelation served a peculiar function in the apostolic age before their inspired interpretation of the “things of Christ” and their instructions to the churches were complete. Those ways ceased when the presence of the apostles ceased, and, now, we have the “same committed wholly unto writing.”

Continuing Help for Continuing Need

This divinely ordained perpetuity and stability of the corpus of revelation served, among other purposes, “for the more sure Establishment and Comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the World.” The article lists the three enemies of holiness. Peter warned that the passions of the flesh “wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Throughout Scripture beginning with Genesis 3, writ large in the book of Job, seen intensely in the temptations of Jesus, and set forth with clarity in Ephesians 2:1ff and 6:16 and 2 Corinthians 4, Satan’s opposition to God channeled through his attempts to destroy man is relentless. First John 2:16 describes the world as consisting of “the lust of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The word of God, however, in each instance, gives examples of the operation of each of these enemies while assuring believers that God’s faithfulness will give sustaining grace through the conflict with each, work each encounter for our sanctification, and bring us finally to eternally life. In battling the world we learn that the “world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). Those who find the assault of Satan pressing the life out learn from the word that though “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” the Son of God himself protects the believer and “the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18, 19). Also, when believers, yearning to please their Savior and delight in all his holy beauty find themselves pressed even in the best moments of spiritual awareness by the corrupting power of the flesh, the word describes the reality of this conflict, assures that they will persevere by walking in the Spirit. Though the flesh may most readily be enlisted by both the world and the devil in their united onslaught against the holy purposes of God in his people, they learn that the Spirit who gave life in the new birth also will continue with them to oppose and mortify that enemy resident within. (Romans 7:23; 8:5, 9, 13; Galatians 5:16-18, 24-25). The entire work of salvation in its existential application comes “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

The Final Revelation—Written

The apostles knew that their writings would be canonized even as the writings inspired under the old covenant were canonized. Their written messages to the churches and their leaders shared this same reality of revelation as the prophets so that what they wrote was to be regarded as the word of God (e.g. 2 Peter 2:1, 2). The truths revealed that were submitted to writing, “for the better preserving, and propagating of the Truth” were for all the ages until the second coming of Christ. Peter wrote for this specific purpose as he explained to his fellow exiles the reason for his second epistle: “And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter1:15). Though they arose in specific historical situations and were relevant to the immediate events, they contained truth and its proper application in such a form as transcended any time. The church through the ages was to study, learn, and commit to heart this revelation.

When Moses summarized in poetic fashion the particular graces that God had given Israel, the stupidity of soul and darkness of heart that would often overtake them, the Lord’s compassionate interventions of rescue, and the inviolable sovereignty of his purpose, he told them, “Take to heart to all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law.” He then added, “For this is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deuteronomy 32:44-47).

As Joshua assumed the leadership of Israel after Moses was gathered to his fathers, God told him, “This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” (Joshua 1:8). From the earliest texts of the Bible until its last, the writers, who also had been spokesman, knew that what they wrote came from God and the writing was for the purpose of extending the authority of the spoken message into the future for generations to follow. As John, the last apostle to take leave of this age of the dying, put the back lid on the Bible, he opened with the promise of a blessing to those that would read aloud, hear, and keep what was “written in it.” The book closed with a warning of severe plagues and exclusion from eternal life to everyone “who hears the words of the prophecy of this book . . ., adds to them, . . . [or] takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy” (Revelation 1:3; 22:18, 19).

In between these affirmations of the absolute authority and life-giving truth of what is written, the biblical writers were conscious that what they wrote partook of the character of revelation. Paul told the Ephesians, “how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this,” he continued, emphasizing the equality of the written account with the revelation itself, “you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:3, 4). Paul, hoping to visit Timothy to give instructions about how the churches were to be organized with officers and what particular qualifications should be expected, informed him “I am writing these things to you so that if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). The presence of his written word bore the same authority as his personal presence and spoken word.

When John wrote his gospel, he presented strong testimony of his awareness of the transcendent nature of his writing: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” He seals this sense of authority immediately before closing the account, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). We find the same confidence in his first letter when he continually uses the refrain of explaining the purpose of his “writing.” “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). In verse 12-14 he used the form, “I am writing to you,” six times to speak abut the forgiveness of sins, the knowledge of God, the defeat of Satan, and the power of the indwelling word. John makes the distinction between truth and error in these matters a belief of and unwavering conformity to the apostolic word. Having penned, “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you,” he goes on to affirm “Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). He sets forth his writing as the means by which a person may know that he has eternal life (1 John 5:13)

Necessary and Exclusive

Given the character and the purpose of Scripture we agree unreservedly with the conclusion, “which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary,” and embrace also, not only their necessity but their exclusivity, “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” Christ has come, thus Old Testament prophets speak only through what is written. Now in these, the last days, God has spoken through his Son. Christ has come and taught and died for sinners and has ascended to heaven. That work is complete and we expect to hear his voice and see his glory when he returns.

The apostles to whom he gave promises of revealed truth, and to whom he spoke from heaven on occasion (Acts 9:5, 6; 18:9-11; Revelation 1:10-20 etc), have finished their stewardship and left their revelatory ministry to us in writing. Would we contend that their witness is incomplete and we have more to contribute? Have we heard words of Christ or seen works of his that we may recall and interpret under the inspiration of the Spirit? Do we have an apostolic company around us to test our writings or examine our language and place present controls on any so-called utterances of prophetic truth? No; the revelation is complete and the special means by which it came has fully accomplished  that which was intended.

We rest on in the written word alone, energized and applied to our lives by the illuminating and sanctifying work of the Spirit. We agree with Spurgeon who said in preaching on Acts 18:9, 10, “He came to him in the visions of the night. We do not expect to see the Lord Jesus Christ in visions, now, for, ‘we have a more sure Word of prophecy to which we do well to take heed, as unto a light that shines in a dark place’—we have the Word of God, Inspired and Infallible! We have the whole of the Divinely written roll—we can read it when we will and from its pages God speaks with a clear and certain voice.”1

1 Charles Spurgeon, “Cheer for the Worker and Hope for London,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 26: (1880):Sermon # 1566, 2. Accessed through

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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