The Watershed Issue in Every Generation
Article by John Piper, Founder and Teacher, desiringGod.org
The watershed issue in every generation is the effective authority of Scripture and the realities it reveals.
Why don’t I just say, “The watershed issue in every generation is the authority of Scripture”? I admit the wording is a bit clumsy. Even the word watershed needs clarification. What I mean is this: In a mountain range, there is a crest from which all the rain, or all the melting snow, flows irreversibly toward one ocean or the other. As the water flows, it may have many twists and turns, but the ocean to which it is flowing was decided way upstream — at the watershed.
A watershed issue is like that. When the human mind and heart approach a watershed issue, the direction of the mind and heart on that issue sets in motion a way of thinking and feeling that may have many ambiguous twists and turns, but lead toward one ocean or the other.
“To see biblical reality as true and real, we need new eyes.”
Not every issue is a watershed issue. People may hold differing positions on some issues, and not find themselves streaming farther and farther away from each other toward different oceans. But a watershed issue is so pivotal, so formative, so pervasively influential that, even when the surrounding terrain looks similar, the rivers are flowing apart.
‘Authority of Scripture’
The next term that needs clarifying is “authority of Scripture.” Here at Desiring God we describe the authority of Scripture in our Affirmation of Faith:
God’s intentions, revealed in the Bible, are the supreme and final authority in testing all claims about what is true and what is right. In matters not addressed by the Bible, what is true and right is assessed by criteria consistent with the teachings of Scripture.
The foundation of that conviction is this:
The Bible, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is the infallible word of God, verbally inspired by God, and without error in the original manuscripts.
Simply put, the fact that Scripture is God’s word means that everything it teaches is true, and all it requires should be obeyed. It has final authority for what is real and what is right. We believe this is what the Bible claims for itself:
All Scripture is breathed out by God. (2 Timothy 3:16)
No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)
We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:13)
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35)
Every word of God proves true. (Proverbs 30:5)
Scripture cannot be broken. (John 10:35)
We believe that the evidence for the truth of these claims is clear enough for ordinary people to grasp — if God grants them to see what is really there. Our fullest explanation and argument for this position can be found in A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness.
Why don’t I just say, “The watershed issue in every generation is the authority of Scripture”? Why add the word effective? “The watershed issue in every generation is the effective authority of Scripture . . .”
“The watershed issue in every generation is the effective authority of Scripture and the realities it reveals.”
Because the authority of Scripture does not function as a watershed unless it becomes effective in creating a heart of glad agreement, and a mind of transformed perception. It is possible to say that the Bible has authority (and sign an affirmation of faith), and yet not see as real what the Bible says is real, and not feel as precious what the Bible says is beautiful. Until we regard as real what the Bible regards as real, and until we rejoice in what the Bible rejoices in, its authority may be affirmed, but it is not effective — and it is not a watershed.
For example, the Bible says of Christians, “You have died” (Colossians 3:3). And, “You have been raised” (Colossians 3:1). And, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Those are realities. But thousands of Christians have nothing in their minds that corresponds to those realities. If you asked them to point to realities in their lives that correspond to these things, they would not be able to. Therefore, these biblical teachings are not effectively authoritative in their minds.
The same thing can be seen in regard to what the Bible says is valuable or beautiful. Philippians 3:8 and Matthew 13:44 teach that Jesus is more valuable than everything we own or could possess in this world. But thousands of professing Christians value other things more than Christ. They rarely talk about Christ as pleasing. But movies and social media and sports and politics fill their animated thoughts and conversations.
This is because the revelation of the supreme beauty and value of Jesus is, for them, not effectively authoritative. The authority of Scripture is affirmed the way wrapping paper is affirmed: “I love this gift. It is beautiful” — meaning the wrapping paper is beautiful, though the contents are unknown, displeasing, or simply negligible.
Where there is no personal or cultural controversy with the Bible about what is real and what is good, this noneffective affirmation of biblical authority easily goes unnoticed. They say the Bible is authoritative. For a season, the outward forms of culture and personal ethics conform to outward biblical behaviors. So, everything goes along as if the Bible really had effective authority in their lives. But it doesn’t.
Then comes a cultural flashpoint — a controversy. Are practicing homosexuals sinning? If they keep on sinning without repentance, will they enter the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)? If the culture creates something called “marriage” for people of the same sex, is it marriage (Ephesians 5:31–32)? Is same-sex intercourse “natural”? Or is it “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26–27)? Is marriage between a man and woman the only beautiful marriage — the only marriage that displays Christ and the church?
“The fact that Scripture is God’s word means that it has final authority for what is real and what is right.”
Suddenly a cultural flashpoint (which may be very personal) reveals whether a person’s affirmation of biblical authority is effective or not. Has the authority of the Bible all along been effective in creating a heart of glad agreement, and a mind of transformed perception? Has our affirmation of authority been effective in producing transformation of what we see as real and right? Or has biblical authority been mere wrapping paper for teachings we don’t like?
‘Realities It Reveals’
In sum, then, “the watershed issue in every generation is the effective authority of Scripture.” But that is not all that I wrote in the first sentence of this article. I added a phrase. I said, “The watershed issue in every generation is the effective authority of Scripture and the realities it reveals.” We have now seen enough to make sense of this addition.
My point is to draw attention to the fact that authority by itself does not produce the effects we have been talking about. It is the realities that the authoritative teachings reveal which transform our perception of what is real and our enjoyment of what is beautiful. The Spirit of God causes the real to be seen as real, and the beautiful to be seen as beautiful. Authority may hold our attention. But it can’t change our hearts.
The teachings of Scripture and the realities they reveal do not become real and beautiful to us just because they are asserted by an authority. That is not the way our minds or our hearts work. You can make a child eat his vegetables because you have authority. But you can’t make him like them. That is not what authority can do. It can keep the child at the table. It can even command tastes. But it can’t create them.
Mere authority can assert reality. It can’t make you see it. So you may affirm biblical authority because that is what you are expected to do; and yet you may not have a transformed mind and heart that can see as real what the Bible presents as real, and gladly embrace what the Bible presents as beautiful.
That transformation of mind and heart happens not by yielding to authority alone, but by the divine gift of sight and savoring. To see biblical reality as true and real, we need new eyes. And to savor what the Bible reveals as beautiful and sweet, we need new tastes.
“It is possible to say that the Bible has authority, and yet not feel as precious what the Bible says is beautiful.”
For example, the Bible teaches that wives submitting to their husbands as the church does to Christ is beautiful (Ephesians 5:24), and husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church is beautiful (Ephesians 5:25). That is reality. But if your mind can’t see it, and your heart can’t love it, no amount of authority can make it real and beautiful to you. Authority doesn’t work like that.
You may affirm the authority. But it is not effective. It becomes effective when, by the Spirit, the realities themselves become for you what they really are. You see the real as real. And you feel the beautiful as beautiful. And, we should also add, you feel the horrible as horrible.
It is essential to affirm the authority of Scripture. But it is not sufficient. The Spirit of God, by revealing the truth and beauty of biblical realities, creates new sight and new taste. We see and we savor what the Bible presents as real and beautiful. The Spirit does this through the words of Scripture. When it does, the authority becomes effective — dividing generation after generation at the watershed of God’s word.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.