“All scripture is God-breathed and useful for…”

by K.W. Leslie, 28 January 2024

2 Timothy 3.16.

In pretty much every sermon and lesson I’ve heard about why we have a bible, and what the bible is for, preachers and teachers quote this verse. Which I’m gonna quote in the New International Version, because of the unique and very popular way they translate it.

2 Timothy 3.16-17 NIV
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The NIV describes the scriptures as God-breathed, and people really like describing it that way. It’s a very literal, perhaps too literal, translation of the word θεόπνευστος/theónefstos, “divinely inspired”—or as the KJV puts it, “by inspiration of God.” But the reason Christians like quoting this part, is to remind us the Holy Spirit inspired the books of the bible, so they’re not just any books. God’s behind them.

And sometimes these folks take this idea too far, and claim God’s in them, and they’re worthy of the same reverence God is. That’s idolatry, so let’s not go there. Don’t go replacing the Holy Spirit with the Holy Bible, like too many cessationists do. The Spirit doesn’t imbue the bible with divine powers, so all we now need to do is recite its verses like magic incantations and it’ll do stuff. That’s not its purpose. Reject those teachers who tell you otherwise.

But as for what its purpose actually is—well that’s the other reason people quote 1 Timothy 3.16. It’s so they can list these four things:

  • TEACHING (Greek διδασκαλίαν/didaskalían, “instruction”; KJV “doctrine”). Informing Christians what we should know about God, and how to follow Jesus.
  • REBUKING (ἐλεγμόν/elegmón; in the Textus Receptus ἔλεγχον/élenhon; both mean “disprove, reprimand, convince otherwise”). Challenging Christians who get God wrong, go too far, or sin.
  • CORRECTING (ἐπανόρθωσιν/epanórthosin, “correcting.”) Correcting Christians who lose focus, get off track, or forget what’s important. “Rebuking” deals with Christians who are seriously wrong; “correcting” with Christians who are just a bit off course.
  • TRAINING IN RIGHTEOUSNESS (παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ/pedeían tin en dikeosýni, “training about the right [way]”). Not just classroom instruction, but hands-on demonstration about how to fairly and morally treat others and behave.

They won’t always interpret these words the same way I have. I’ve been to churches where the main focus is correction. You don’t know the proper bible doctrines?—well, here they are; learn ’em and be orthodox like us. And when people object to our doctrines, learn some Christian apologetics so you can argue with them and win. As for behavior… well, don’t worry about actively following Jesus, for somehow that’s legalism; just don’t sin, for somehow that’s not.

But okay, those four things sound like really good reasons to study a bible. Thing is, they’re missing the most important one. Because they’re not reading the bible in context. You knew I was gonna get to context eventually, right?

The main thing the bible is useful for.

See, the reason so many people miss the main reason, is because Christians are so fixated on one-verse answers to our questions. What’s the bible for? Well, here’s this one verse that spells it all out—2 Timothy 3.16. And they’ll try as best they can to avoid verse 17, even though it’s part of the very same sentence in the original Greek text—and in the NIV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, and other popular translations. They only wanna quote (and memorize) one verse. Not two; not four; certainly not seven. One.

Some of this is because of laziness; why memorize four verses when one will do? And some of this is because we know how other people work: The same way we do, which again is, why memorize two verses when one will do?

But the answer to “What’s the bible for?” is found in the paragraph, not the one verse. And it’s not found in the verse which describes the bible as God-breathed. It’s in verse 15.

2 Timothy 3.14-17 NIV
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

What are the scriptures able to do? To make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Or to put it like the NET does, “to give you wisdom for salvation.” They teach us how to be saved from sin and death. To trust Jesus.

If you don’t think that’s the most important thing to learn from a bible, man have you gone wrong.

And yet I know preachers who know that’s the most important thing; they preach on salvation all the time! Yet when they talk about what the bible’s good for, they keep coming back to verse 16, and talk about how the bible’s God-breathed, and useful for teaching and arguing and fighting heretics and learning to behave ourselves in a way that popular Christian culture approves of. Not so much Jesus, because he won’t be back till the second coming, but that’s okay because they are, and they know Jesus. Supposedly.

But read those four verses again. Paul told Timothy in verse 15 what the holy scriptures are for. Then told him they’re inspired, and what other useful things we can use ’em for. But the main purpose is becoming wise for salvation. You need to know God wants to save you, and sent us Jesus to tell us that, and had Jesus sacrifice himself to achieve us that, and had Jesus’s apostles write a bunch of bible to tell us what we oughta do now that we’re saved. You need to know Jesus is trustworthy and true, because trusting him is a prerequisite for following him; we’re gonna suck at it otherwise! You need to know he achieved salvation for us, so there’s no point in trying to achieve it ourselves with good behavior, good deeds, and good vibes. We do good because we’re following Jesus, not because we’re earning heaven.

And once we’ve learned that: If we ever wander off the path, or get tangled up in irrelevancies, or fruitless culture wars, the scriptures are also handy to remind us to stop that and follow Jesus. Assuming we read our bibles, instead of cherry-picking them so we can justify all our bad behavior, as heretics do.

You notice I’m certainly not saying the purposes of the bible in verse 16 are irrelevant. They’re not. But they’re secondary to the main purpose, which is becoming wise for salvation.

Once you get that you’re saved, then there’s teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. All of which needs to be done with the Holy Spirit’s fruit, lest the focus of these four things turn into what popular Christian culture has made ’em, i.e. legalistic allegiance to doctrines, arguments with those who don’t believe, and “righteousness” which is more about being right than fair. If following the bible turns us into Christian jerks, it means we’re ignoring the Spirit who inspired it, and following our flesh instead of Jesus. It may not be bibliolatry, but it’s just as bad.