Understanding the Difference between Scripture and Tradition

As Missionary Baptists, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God (1 Timothy 3:16). We believe that it is completely true, without error, and that it is the sole source of authority concerning Christian doctrine. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the scriptures, we cannot interpret the Bible correctly without the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). We also understand that we should base our doctrine on nothing but the scriptures. Our Lord and Savior often made the distinction between the written word of God and tradition.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about tradition. Jesus accused the Pharisees and scribes of his day of rejecting the commandments of God, so that they could keep their traditions (Mark 7:9). This was quite an accusation! In fact, Jesus condemned the Jews many times concerning this problem. Jesus told the Jewish leaders of his day that they were blind guides who strained at gnats and swallowed camels (Matthew 23:24). A thorough reading of the gospels will show that Jesus constantly condemned the Jews for trusting in the traditions of their fathers more than believing the commandments of God as revealed in Scripture.

How did this happen? How did the Jews manage to pervert Godís holy religion into such a cold, legalistic, over-traditional system? In order to understand how it happened, we have to look back to the time of Moses. As we know, the book of Exodus describes how that God gave the Law to Moses. The Law was Godís commandments to his people. This included everything from the Ten Commandments to the ceremonies of the tabernacle. Unfortunately, the Jews consistently disobeyed Godís Law. Even while Moses was receiving the Law from God on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel were worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32). From this time until the Babylonian Captivity, Godís chosen people struggled with idolatry, child sacrifice, not observing the Sabbath, not observing Godís laws concerning the temple, etc. In other words, the Israelite people struggled with being too much like the world. They imitated the heathen and their ways. All the historical books of the Old Testament as well as the books of the prophets show this problem again and again.

God finally grew weary of Israelís worldliness and ungodliness, and he punished them by putting them into captivity (2 Kings 25). The children of Israel spent seventy years in a foreign land (Jeremiah 29:10). During this time, the children of Israel were punished for their sins. This created a new generation of men like Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai. This new generation led the children of Israel in the path of righteousness. When the children of Israel returned to the Promised Land, this new generation had a new zeal to follow God and his Law. They had such a desire to follow Godís Law, that Ezra read the entire Law to the children of Israel and gave the meaning of it (Nehemiah 8). I have noticed that many tend to get upset with me if I preach more than one hour. Nonetheless, Ezra read and explained the entire Law of Moses Ė and the people listened attentively. They did not want to have to endure the suffering of another foreign captivity.

The Old Testament was finished being written around the year 400 BC, and there was a space of about 400 years before the birth of Christ. During this time period, the Jews exaggerated and perverted the meaning of the Law. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it teach that the Law can save mankind. Unfortunately, the Jews grew to believe that they could be saved by the works of the Law Ė instead of being saved by faith in God and his Messiah. They wanted to be sure that they would be righteous in the eyes of God, so they began to make up rules and traditions to help protect them from disobeying Godís law. In essence, they added to the Law so that they could better obey the Law. They did this so they could avoid being taken captive again. The problem with this style of thinking is that the rules they created began to contradict what the Law taught! Instead of focusing on the basic principles of the Law (loving God and loving your neighbor), they had a legalistic attitude. When Jesus came to this world, he obeyed God and Godís commandments. He did not follow the man-made traditions of the Jews.

This leads us to the example I gave from Mark 7:1-9:

ďThen came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.

And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.

For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.

And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.Ē

This is a classic example of the confrontation between the Jewish authorities and Jesus. Nowhere in the Law does it state that one had to wash his hands before he ate. I tend to think it is a good idea, but the Bible certainly commands no one to wash before eating. Nevertheless, the Jews publicly condemned Jesus for not following the tradition of their elders. Jesus told them that they laid aside the commandment of God, and held to the tradition of men. Quite frankly, Jesus stood for the truth of Godís word. He did not, however, humor the traditions of men when these traditions impeded in any way against the will of God. Our attitude should be the same as our Saviorís. We should stand for the truth of Godís word. We should never waver on the doctrines of the Bible. Still, we need Godís wisdom in order to understand the difference between tradition and scripture. These Jewish hypocrites condemned Jesus for doing something that God himself had not condemned! This was due to the fact that they considered their traditions to be at the same level of Godís word. Imagine the scene of this interaction. Jesus was no doubt in public when these men confronted him. Imagine that you are one of the people in the crowd. God has been drawing you to trust in Christ and be saved, but one of the Jewish authorities comes to Jesus and condemns him for not following Jewish tradition. If you are a lost man who understands very little about the written word of God, this condemnation may cause you to doubt Christ. I sometimes wonder how many people went to eternal Hell because of the doubt that the Jewish authorities created in their minds.

Unlike Christ, none of us are perfect. Still, we should be very careful when we accuse our brothers and sisters of wrongdoing. If the Bible teaches us that homosexuality is a sin (and it does), than we need to judge people as sinners if they are homosexual. If the Bible teaches that we should only baptize born again children of God (and it does), then we should judge infant baptism as a sin. But if the Bible does not condemn something Ė we should remain silent! If you are condemning your brother or sister without one verse of scripture to back it up, then you are condemning him on the basis of tradition or personal preference. We need to be very careful and deliberate when we accuse one another. I have personally seen lost people reject the gospel, because their confidence in a pastor, deacon, or church member was destroyed by attacks from other church members! Usually these attacks were based on traditions Ė not the Bible.

We usually talk about Roman Catholics as being too traditional. They venerate (or worship) Mary, confess their sins to priestsÖ Letís be honest, there are a ton of Roman Catholic doctrines that are not Biblical. How did the Catholic Church manage to obtain all these false doctrines? Though tradition. Most modern Catholic apologists will tell you that they believe the Bible is true. The problem is that they believe that about 1,700 years of tradition are just as true. This causes a multitude of contradictions and perverts the true gospel.

Modern day Jews are much the same way. They interpret the Old Testament through the eyes of the Talmud. Instead of believing in Jesus Christ, who was prophesied in the Old Testament, they reject him. They reject him in part because they adhere to hundreds of years of man-made traditions that were written down in the Talmud and other places. They read the Old Testament through the lens of the tradition and spend eternity in Hell as a result.

I pray that we do not become like the legalistic Jews of Jesusí day and reject the commandments of God so we can adhere to the traditions of men. Just because grandpa or grandma did such-and-such this way or that way does not make it right! I have no desire to take away from anything grandma or grandpa did, but they were not God. We will not stand before grandma and grandpa on the Day of Judgment. We will stand before almighty God. I do believe that most of the time, our churches have split over issues that are traditional Ė not scriptural.

It is so important that we understand the difference between tradition and scripture. Our influence in bringing lost souls to the Lord could be undercut if we worry about unimportant traditions (straining at gnats) instead of worrying about lost people being saved. If we spent as much time bringing the gospel to lost people as we do worrying about traditions, we might see more lost people saved.

Although Elder Vanderpool has not endorsed this article, I would like to endorse one of his sermons from the Old Union Ministers School. This is available at Reviving Truth. The mp3 is available at this link. It is from 1986, and it's name is Scriptural or Traditional.