“I don’t see the word Trinity in the Bible,” says the Jehovah’s Witness knocking on your door. “There are no Bible verses that say we shouldn’t speed,” argues the angry church member who’s been pulled over by the police for the tenth time. “I can’t see a clear example of a woman taking the Lord’s Supper in Scripture,” worries the newly converted single mom. And they’re right, aren’t they?

As evangelicals, we rightly want to be people of the Word. We treasure the Bible as the Spirit-breathed Word of God. We acknowledge it to be without error, sufficient for our every need as disciples. We recognize it as our supreme authority, coming, as it does, from our Lord and King. But is this authoritative Word limited to the words of the text alone? Our Reformed forefathers thought not. Take this paragraph from the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).

The key phrase for our purposes is, “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” Put simply, this means that not just the explicit text but also those truths that unavoidably arise from the text are also part of the meaning of God’s Word. So, consider our speeding driver. Is there a specific Scripture on speed limits? Clearly not. But if we consider our duty to obey those earthly authorities God sets over us (Rom. 13:1–7), we are justified in claiming that it is not just the police but God who wants us to obey speed limits. Is there an explicit example of a woman eating the Lord’s Supper? Perhaps not. But once we’ve carefully put together texts on the place of women in the church and the purpose of the supper, we should conclude not just that Christian women may take communion, but that they must unless they are under church discipline. All other things being equal, it would be wrong to refuse to admit to the supper on account of their gender someone who credibly professes faith in Christ or for our nervous newly converted mom to abstain.

But the particular concern I want to address in relation to “good and necessary consequence” is pastoral. Namely, we must learn to distinguish between “good” consequences and “necessary” ones. Failure to do so will lead either to a legalistic or a disobedient life. In short, unless a teaching we have derived from Scripture is both good and necessary, we may not use it to bind others.

Unless a teaching we have derived from Scripture is both good and necessary, we may not use it to bind others.

Occasionally, we might draw a conclusion that seems necessary to our limited human minds but isn’t, in fact, good. Let’s stick with our example above and Romans 13:1, which says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Looking at that one text alone, someone might argue that if the particular government they are subject to orders them to bow to an idol, they should do so. It seems, at first glance, to be a “necessary” consequence of the command to obey rulers. But even a superficial knowledge of the rest of the Bible shows that this wouldn’t be a good consequence; we have clear texts forbidding idolatry. So, while the “logic” of Romans 13:1 might lead our friend to think he is being obedient in bowing down to an idol, as people under God’s Word, we know that this is faulty reasoning. Not all seemingly “necessary” conclusions we draw from a particular passage are good—not least because our minds are limited and clouded by sin.

Subtler, but perhaps more common, is the danger of turning good consequences into necessary ones. Imagine you have been asked to give a short talk on 2 Timothy 3:16, which reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” You carefully set out a faithful view of the Bible, calling people to trust it as God’s Word. Then your mind turns to application: What is this text calling us to do? This is where a right understanding of good and necessary consequence becomes so important. Your thoughts go to your own habit of reading a portion of the Bible yourself each morning. Is this a good consequence of believing the Bible is God’s Word? Absolutely! But is it a necessary one? Surely not. Does this verse—or, frankly, any other section of Scripture—bind all Christians to read the Bible for themselves each day? No, for the fairly obvious reason that for most of the history of God’s church, this would have been impossible. People couldn’t read and didn’t own their own Bibles. So, we can rightly command people to “meditate” on the Word (Ps. 1:2), but we mustn’t legislate the means of receiving that Word beyond the command to gather in worship and hear the Word preached. A faithful believer might perhaps take the sermon preached last Sunday and meditate on that, rarely if ever reading the Bible for himself. This in itself would not be inherently disobedient. However zealous we are for people to delight in God’s Word, we must not make good practices into bindingly necessary ones or we will crush the flock with unnecessary guilt.

We could multiply examples. Hebrews 10:25 warns us not to neglect meeting together. Does this mean it is absolutely necessary to be a member of a home group? No. Home groups are a “good” consequence of that text, but not a good and necessary one. Therefore, they should not be made binding for church membership or we are setting a higher bar for membership of our churches than Christ does for His kingdom.

Of course, in preaching and teaching we can recommend “good” consequences, but must always be careful to avoid giving the impression that they are binding or the true marks of committed discipleship. We pray for the Spirit’s help neither to fall short of teaching the fullness of His revelation nor to go beyond it and crush people with unnecessary burdens.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 5, 2019.

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