One objection we hear again and again is directly related to the topic of personal responsibility. People will dismiss arguments on personal responsibility to follow the scriptures by implying that scripture is set in a different cultural context and therefore we obviously cannot understand or take all of it to be literally applied. People then use their own set of scissors to remove often uncomfortable Biblical directives, “evangelism never worked for me” becomes “evangelism today is very different from in the Biblical days”. Another way this misunderstanding comes out is from a similar kind of reasoning: because scholars are needed to interpret scripture into English we also require scholars to really understand what scripture is saying. A true understanding of scripture requires a study of many commentaries and of Theology and an advanced degree to be called accurate at all. Therefore, the common Christian has every right to make of the Christian life what they please for the most part. This thinking gives the scissors to every believer and the excuse that if it is possible they could misunderstand, based on the argument there are scholars in that field so they themselves are not experts, then they are justified in believing that Scriptural imperative is not for them.
Personal Responsibility in the Bible
What we must ask here though, is if this thinking is Scriptural. A couple of angles are important here: One is what does God consider individual responsibility to be in the Old Testament. Even more importantly what did Jesus and the Apostles consider the people of their day’s personal responsibility was with the Word, primarily the Old Testament, in their day? If they held that people were responsible for understanding the Law and the Old Testament, which was written hundreds and thousands of years prior to them, in their day then what excuse do we really have for not personally being responsible for understanding and obeying Scripture?
Personal Responsibility in the Old Testament
‘Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians
“Now behold, today I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the LORD your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed.
“And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever.
2 Kings 22:11-13
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. 12 He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: 13 “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
16 Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
17 I set watchmen over you, saying,
‘Pay attention to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not pay attention.’
18 Therefore hear, O nations,
and know, O congregation, what will happen to them.
19 Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people,
the fruit of their devices,
because they have not paid attention to my words;
and as for my law, they have rejected it.
Notice in the verses above how personal responsibility is displayed. Solomon is expected to seek God and to know Him and this knowing is a guarantee. In fact, if Solomon did not get to know God he is told that is is his own issue. Or consider the 2 Kings verse. The King simply heard the old scriptures and was deeply convicted sparking a country wide revival. If this sort of thing had not happened the we can clearly see from God’s, not so distant from that moment, future judgment described in Jeremiah 6 that the people would have been held guilty by Him and severely punished. The law was old and from a much older culture yet, the people were meant to understand and were held guilty if they did not do so.
Personal Responsibility for Jesus and the Apostles
Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?
For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.
Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?
John 5:39-40, 45-47
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
2 Timothy 2:15-17
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
The passages above vary somewhat on what they are discussing but all give an impression of Jesus and Paul’s perspective on understanding and being accountable personally to the Word of God. A unique feature little mentioned about Jesus is his sharpness toward people for not understanding the truth. He expected scripture to be understood, he expected His words to be understood. With Paul we see this same sort of emphasis continued. He talks of knowledge of God as something we are all responsible for. He says the knowledge and application of the scriptures (primarily specifically referencing the then ancient Old Testament but the principle applies out to the NT) is the responsibility every individual that would be a worker for God. This applies out to every believer as we are all called to the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Biblically then at least we can say the modern idea that it takes teams of scholars to really understand scripture is flawed. Now, let me be clear I don’t mean that scholars aren’t needed at all. There are many things in the Church that scholars are even necessary for. For instance, we have good reliable, understandable translations today thanks to scholars. We have commentaries that can help us go deeper, and summaries of books in the Bible that can help us in deepening our understanding of scripture and God. This is true and well and good, however scripture is very clear that God makes himself known and we are responsible for knowing Him and His word to the extent possible. We are also expected to take action accordingly to what we in fact know from His word. Did every age have this privilege in the same way? No, but in every age God has not been without a witness and God is clear that people are responsible according to what they do in fact know, according to what is in fact available to them (Luke 12:47–48). If scripture is available it is expected to be understood and utilized. It was written for common people and God expects each disciple of Jesus to abide in that Word (John 8:31-32).
Let us then, diligently and in view of God’s grace seek to each know His Word and ultimately to know God and walk with Him. If we seek Him, He will be found by us.