Summarising a book of more than 780, 000 words is a colossal challenge. Especially when it is a book infinitely more important than any other. Perhaps it is impossible to do that meaningfully in two words. But to summarise the main teachings of the Bible is entirely different from condensing its entire contents. It is not a high level overview to provide general knowledge but a set of keys to unlock its personal application. Just two words can take us a long way into a practical and devotional engagement with the Scriptures.
One of the questions in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms most passed over is “What do the scriptures principally teach?” The answer seems as simple and straightforward as the question. “The scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man”. Yet this simple statement undergirds the whole teaching and structure of the Catechisms, because it undergirds thee whole teaching of Scripture. The first part of the Catechisms deal with what we are to believe and the second part with what we are to do, or obedience to God’s revealed will.
Two words: faith and obedience. As we shall see, Hugh Binning preferred to speak of faith and love (as long as the latter was understood to include obedience). He drew this from the proof text used by the Catechisms: “Hold fast the form of sound words…in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus“ (2 Timothy 1:13). Once we have grasped this it can transform our practical engagement with Scripture. These are the glasses through which we must read the Word as we ask the questions: What does God want me to believe and what does God require me to do?
Scriptures certainly teaches that it contains “great things” of principal importance (Hosea 8:12). It is clear that faith in what God has revealed is one such thing (John 3:33). Another is obedience (Micah 6:8; John 17:17; 1 John 2:3-5). It also reveals a close relationship between faith and obedience; they depend on each other (Titus 1:1; 3:8; 1 Timothy 6:3). Faith must work by love (Galatians 5:6). The truth is truly believed when it is acted on and obeyed (John 3:21; 7:17; Romans 16:25-26). Truly depending on God’s Word will always be expressed in action. The Catechisms put faith first because it is most important and no obedience is pleasing or acceptable to God without it (Hebrews 11:6; Proverbs 2:1 and 5). Loving obedience is the evidence and outcome of faith. The following is an updated extract from Hugh Binning’s exposition of the Shorter Catechism.
All divine truths may be reduced to these two headings: faith and love; what we ought to believe and what we ought to do. This is everything the Scriptures teach and this is everything we have to learn. What do we have to know except what God has revealed of Himself to us? What do we have to do except what He commands us? In a word, what do we have to learn in this world except to believe in Christ, love Him and so live unto Him? This is the duty of man, the dignity of man and the way to eternal life.
Here is the business then: to have our souls reconciled to Him so as to take away the enmity within us; and as He is satisfied with His Son, to so satisfy ourselves with Him and be as well-pleased in his redemption and purchase as the Father is. Then you believe in Him indeed. Now if this were accomplished, what more do we have to do but to love Him and to live unto Him?
Have you found in Scripture and believed with the heart what man once was and what he now is; how God once appeared to man and how He now manifests himself in the gospel? You now have no more to do except to search in the same Scriptures what you ought to be from now on. You who are restored in Christ must ask: “What manner of persons ought we to be?” The Scriptures will also give you that “form of sound words” which may not only teach you to believe in Him, but to love Him and obey His commands.
The law that before condemned you is now put in your hands by Christ to guide and conduct you in the way. It teaches you how to live from now on to His glory (Titus 2:12). Here is the rule of your conduct summed up: piety towards God, equity towards men and sobriety towards ourselves. This is self-denial, world-denial and lust-denial; to give up the world and our own lusts and have no more to do with them from now on. We must give them up in our affections not for a time, not in part but entirely and forever. We must give ourselves up to Him, to live unto Him and to live in Him.
Faith and Love Together
We do not have to distinguish faith and love too carefully. It is certain that love is in and from faith. It is in the very bosom of it, because faith is a soul-embracing of Christ. Faith is choosing Him for its portion and then having considered this goodly portion (what He is and has done for us) the soul loves Him still more and is impatient to be so distant from Him. We find them conjoined in Scripture and they are one in the heart. As they are joined in the word, so our heart should be a “living epistle”. Faith and love are two words but one thing under different conceptions. They are the outgoings of the soul to Christ for life – the breathings of the soul after Him, for more of Him, when it has once tasted how good He is.
Faith is not speculation or a wandering idea of truth. It is not the truth not captivated in the mind but dwelling in the heart and getting possession of the whole man. A man and his will are one, but this is not so with a man and his mind. He may perceive the truth about many things that he does not love. But whatever a man loves, he becomes (in a way) united with.
When divine truth gains entry to the heart of a person and becomes one with their will and affections, it quickly commands the practice of the whole man. He that received “the truth in love” is found to walk in the truth. Many captivate truth in their understanding; they hold or detain it in unrighteousness but because it has no freedom to descend into the heart and possess that garrison, it cannot command the whole person.
Yet it is better to be truth’s captive than to captivate truth. It is better “to have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine” (Romans 6:17). This blessed captivity to truth is indeed freedom, for truth makes free (John 8:32). Give it freedom to command you and it will indeed deliver you from all strange lords. You will obey it from the heart when it is indeed in the heart.
When the truths of God (whether promises, threatenings, or commands) are impressed on the heart, you will find them expressed in conduct. Faith is not empty assent to the truth but receiving it “in love”. When the truth is received in love, it begins to work by love (Galatians 5:6). Obedience proceeding from love to God flows from faith in God, and that shows the true and living nature of that faith.
Love is Obedience
Love is the sum of the law and its fulfillment. The truth is the most effective, sweet and pleasant principle of obedience. The love of Christ constrains us to live to Him and not to ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). If Christ has gained someone’s love, the whole train of the soul’s faculties and operations will follow.
If someone loves Christ, they will certainly be careful to please Him. No matter how much they may obey, there is no pleasure unless it is done out of love. “If ye love me, keep my commandments”. Love devotes and consecrates all that is in a man to the pleasure of the one he loves. It constrains us to live to Him, not ourselves. Its joy and delight is in Him, and therefore all is given up to Him.
Just as it is certain that if you love much you will do much, so it is certain that little proceeding from a principle of love is accepted in place of much. Thus, our poor maimed and limping obedience is called “the fulfilling of the law”. He is well-pleased with it, because love is not pleased with it. Love thinks nothing too much, everything too little. His love therefore thinks anything from us to be much, since love would give more. He accepts that which is given; the lover’s mite cast into the treasury is more than ten times as much as outward obedience from another person.
I know of no more effectual way to increase love to Jesus Christ than to believe His love. Christ Jesus is “the author and finisher” both of faith and love; and “we love him, because he first loved us”. What Christ is, and what He has done for sinners will above all other things prevail most to engage the soul to Him.
We shall conclude with that exhortation: “Hold fast the form of sound words”. You have this doctrine of faith and love given to you which may be able to save your souls. Then, I beseech you, hold them fast, salvation is in them. They are “sound words” and wholesome words; words of life, spirit and life as well as words of truth. You cannot hold it fast unless you have it within you; and it is within you indeed when it is in your heart. The form of it must be engraved on the very soul in love.
These sound words must be engraved on the heart or else you will never hold them. They may be easily snatched out of the mouth and hand by temptation, unless they are enclosed and laid up in the secret of the heart, as Mary did. The truth must hold you fast, or you cannot hold it fast; it must captivate you, and bind you with the golden chains of affection (which is the only true freedom) or you will certainly let it go. You must not only have the truth received by love into your heart, but you must also “hold fast the form of sound words”.