From the smallest insect to the greatest monster of the deep, from the weakest child to the mightiest of men, no creature can exist without God’s word, and without God’s word there is no life and salvation. God’s word does what it says, “for he spoke and it was done; he commanded and it stood fast” (Ps. 33:9). His word brings forth and sustains heaven and earth and all that dwells therein. God’s word makes moons and stars—as well as daughters and sons—out of nothing.
And the Lord our God has given us his word as a precious gift. But that doesn’t mean God’s word ultimately belongs to us. The word of God belongs to God. It does what God sends it to do.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10–11)
We’re fools to think we can manipulate God’s word or use it for our own selfish means—let alone make it do what we want apart from God’s purposes for it! Yet there’s a long history of humans trying to master God’s word rather than receive it in faith.
God’s Word Doesn’t Allow Us to Possess It or to Protect It
The Bible documents this constant struggle between God’s mastery over his word and human attempts to wrest it from him—from the deceiver Jacob to the sorcerer Simon Magus. No doubt you can supply examples from your own experience as well.
Martin Luther associated this temptation to master God’s word with the Ten Commandments’ famous warning against misusing God’s name: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:7 NIV). Luther calls the manipulation of God’s word “practicing magic.” That sounds rather dramatic, but Luther doesn’t have witchcraft and demons in mind (not primarily anyway!). Luther’s targeting something more subtle and sinister.
Practicing magic means using words, objects, or people only to get a result. Once they’ve gotten us what we want, the word, object, or person can be cast away like old packaging. You might first think of someone casting a spell on a lover or an enemy, or someone using a charm like a rabbit’s foot for good luck.
Luther narrows this meaning of practicing magic to using words, objects, or people apart from God’s own purposes for them. It means trying to take something out of God’s control and to place it under our own control. That’s when faithful, legitimate use becomes unbelieving, illegitimate manipulation, abuse, or neglect. All that matters is our desired result, not what word or object or person achieves it.
Sometimes this magical approach to controlling God’s word takes the form of treating it like a possession. Think of someone wearing a cross necklace as protection when committing a crime or someone using the Bible to cultivate personal power, influence, and wealth. While the use of the cross and Bible may happen to accompany success in those ventures, another charm might do the trick just as well.
Our possessiveness can be well intentioned. The Israelites really wanted to worship the God who led them out of Egypt—a good and fitting desire! But they expressed this good intention not with the tradition of God’s command but the tradition of human religion: they cast a golden calf and worshiped it as if they were worshiping the Lord (Exod. 32). They became idolaters, not because they attempted to worship the God who led them out of slavery, but because they didn’t submit to God’s word about how he desired to be worshiped.
Attempting to control the Bible as my possession can be more subtle than casting golden calves. Some people distort Jeremiah 29:11—“I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”—into a guarantee of a successful career and materialistic blessings. Politicians (on the right and the left) might use certain verses to acquire divine support for their agendas. Either way, God’s word is reduced to a charm to protect me or a tool to accomplish my desires.
Treating God’s word as an object for our possession, however, can motivate an equal but opposite reaction: controlling God’s word by treating it as if it needs our protection. If God’s word is so easily abused for self-serving agendas, how can it be safeguarded, and those agendas corrected? This well-intentioned anxiety leads to the misbelief that the Bible is my responsibility, or that I must guard it. For example, in response to personal misuses of Jeremiah 29:11, biblical scholars might use history and grammar to restrict the applicability or relevance of God’s word to an ancient audience (for which the scholars alone are the interpretive gatekeepers). Or in response to cultural and political trends, church authorities might align God’s word with narrow doctrinal interpretations which they alone can adjudicate. Either way, God’s word is reduced to a history to be explained or a code to be deciphered, which Bible readers can’t access for themselves.
God’s Word Possesses and Protects Us
God’s word isn’t a charm, a tool, a history, or a code. It isn’t something we can control and wield. God’s word wields us. It’s living and active: it protects, accomplishes, explains, and commands. It brings light. “Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path” (Ps. 119:105). “For with you is the well of life; in your light shall we see light” (Ps. 36:9). “You also shall light my lamp; the Lord my God shall turn my darkness into light” (Ps. 18:28).
The Bible is the light that illumines itself. And reading light by light, according to the ancient tradition of the church, is to read the Bible by the rule of faith. Many think of the rule of faith as an abstract, “I’ll know it when I see it” summary of the Bible; some think of it as God’s word potently distilled in the words of the creeds. And for Luther, the rule of faith comprises three texts: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. “Whatever all of Scripture holds,” Luther preached, “it is simply expressed in these three.”
Notice that these three texts are themselves biblical. The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer are directly biblical, of course—Exodus 20:1–17 and Matthew 6:9–13, respectively. And the Apostles’ Creed is no less so; it is a beautiful wreath of Bible verses. Or as Luther liked to put it, the creed is honey made from the many flowers of the Bible:
We did not create or invent [the Apostles’ Creed]—nor did the church fathers. Instead, just as a bee makes honey by gathering together many lovely, delightful, dear flowers, so this creed is gathered from the books of the dear Prophets and Apostles. That is, it is finely and succinctly distilled from the entirety of Holy Scripture for children and ordinary Christians.
The creed isn’t something the church added to the Bible to impose an official interpretation; the creed is the Bible’s own interpretation given to us in the Bible itself.
Together these texts proclaim the faith, hope, and love of the Bible. The Ten Commandments declare the love of the Bible: the Lord who made heaven and earth is your God and he commands that you honor him and your neighbor in thought, word, and deed. The Apostles’ Creed announces the faith of the Bible: the God who created heaven and earth died for you and rose again for you—for your forgiveness, salvation, and life. And the Lord’s Prayer gives words to the hope of the Bible: you can speak with the creator of heaven and earth the way a small child speaks with her dear father.
The Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, therefore, cast light on every passage of the Bible, no matter how dark it may seem to us. To call a Bible passage dark is like talking of the sunset. The sun doesn’t actually set; instead, the earth rotates. In the same way, the rays of the Bible are constant; it’s we who are dark and don’t understand. “If then the light in you is darkness,” Jesus says, “how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:23). Humans bring darkness. We need a light from outside, which is the word God has spoken. But God’s word doesn’t need light from outside; God’s word illumines by its own light. And in his light, we see light.
Receiving the Bible according to its own light transfigures our relationship to God’s word. The rule of faith cannot be squirreled away under my own control—whether my possession or my responsibility. The rule of faith welcomes all comers, unlike the readings that try to cordon off the Bible as something to possess and protect, placing a bushel over the lamp rather than placing it on a stand for all to see (Matt. 5:15–16). The rule of faith is a gift to all God’s children, and like any gift from God, we receive it but do not own it.
This gift of the rule of faith not only strengthens us as those who belong to God, but it protects us from all the ways we or others are tempted to misuse God’s word. Armed with the rule of faith, even untrained people and children can oppose any dark or abused reading of the Bible—no matter the master or authority over that reading.
You, through your commandment, have made me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than my teachers,
for your testimonies are my study.
I am wiser than the agéd,
because I keep your commandments. (Ps. 119:98–100)
God’s word proclaims the truth. And the truth does not submit to us—no matter how learned or powerful or experienced we might be! The truth belongs to God alone. God’s word, the word of truth, scatters my darkness as well as the darkened uses of the Bible. It transfigures the charmed, weaponized, historicized, and codified readings of the Bible, scattering darkness and falsehoods while brightening whatever is true in those readings.
Nothing can darken the light of the word of truth, for “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Even our darkness can’t darken God’s word. That would be like trying to stop the rays of the sun. Wherever God’s word is proclaimed and believed, the light of the word gives growth.
The church can make no secret about our relationship to God or his word. In a real sense, what you see is what you get: a heap of sinners in need of forgiveness and salvation. “I know my faults, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). And what you hear is what you need: “This is my comfort in my trouble, for your word has given me life” (Ps. 119:50). We cry out in distress, and God sends his word and heals us (Ps. 107:20). Will we trust the word he sends to accomplish its purpose?
When your word goes forth it gives light
and understanding to the simple. (Ps. 119:130)
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, kindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
All psalm verses are quoted from the New Coverdale translation; see the Book of Common Prayer 2019. Unless otherwise noted, all other Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.Back
Martin Luther, Sermon on May 18, 1528, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimarer Ausgabe); WA 30, 1:2.20–21.Back
Luther, Sermon on Trinity Sunday (1535), WA 41:275.29–34.Back
See further, “A Life Discipled by the Catechism: An Introduction,” in The Collected Christian Essentials: A Guide to the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2023), xi–xiv; Todd R. Hains, Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith: Reading God’s Word for God’s People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 164–65; Joseph Ratzinger, “Handing on the Faith and the Sources of Faith,” in Handing on the Faith in an Age of Disbelief, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006), 32–33.Back