What Does it Mean to Preach “The Whole Counsel of God’s Word?”

Rev. Tony Cooke

Having established the church in Ephesus, Paul issued an emotionally-charged farewell to their elders and made this powerful statement.

Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27 NKJV).

Paul’s reference to being innocent of the blood of all men reminds us of God telling Ezekiel that if he warned people and they did not repent, he had freed himself from the responsibility of the outcome. However, if he did not warn them and they perished, God would hold Ezekiel responsible (see Ezekiel 3:18-19; 33:1-9). In other words, Paul’s statement reflects the seriousness and the responsibility of accepting the call to be one of God’s messengers.

I’m sure Paul always tried to be as comprehensive as possible, but he didn’t tell any other congregation that he had shared with them the entire counsel of God. He especially made it clear to the Corinthians that he had not taught them everything he wished he could have. He said, “I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready” (1 Corinthians 3:2 NLT).

We receive the strong impression that time and the maturity of one’s audience are both important factors in how much can be communicated. In writing the same church, Paul stated that there would still be additional things he would need to share later. Even though he addressed many issues in the sixteen chapters, he stated, “I’ll give you instructions about the other matters after I arrive” (1 Corinthians 11:34 NLT). 

On this timing issue, Jesus himself had told his disciples, “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13 NLT). Based on this and what Paul said, we understand that the dispensing of truth is often incremental in nature.

It seems reasonable that Paul was able to proclaim the whole counsel of God to the Ephesians because he had spent more time there (three years) than in any other location. Also, his ministry in that city seems to have been more concentrated there as “he held daily discussions at the lecture hall of Tyrannus” for an entire two years (Acts 20:19 NLT).

“The whole counsel” is rendered in other translations:

  • The whole will of God (NIV)
  • The whole purpose of God (NASB)
  • The whole purpose and plan and counsel of God (AMPC)
  • God’s whole truth (WEY)

So what does it mean to preach “the whole counsel of God?” The NLT renders Acts 20:27 as, “I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” Many preachers have taken this admonition to heart and faithfully searched the Scriptures to make sure that over time, they have taught the vital truths of the Bible comprehensively to their congregations. 

When the famed preacher, Lyman Beecher, ended his pastorate in 1817, he told his congregation that he wanted to “review briefly the labors of my ministry among you.” He told them that over the years, he had shared three type of messages:  (1) doctrinal, (2) experimental (we would probably use the term experiential today), and (3) practical. He then rehearsed many of the topics he had covered from the pulpit and said:

I have invited because the Scriptures invite, and exhorted because they exhort, and entreated because they entreat, and expostulated because they expostulate (this means to reason earnestly with a person for the purpose of dissuading them against certain things). I have addressed your consciences because the Bible does, and your hearts because God, in His Word, assails them. It has not been my object to amuse you, but to instruct; not to please you merely, but to do you good. I hope I may say that I have felt, in some measure, the weight of my responsibility and the greatness of your danger, and have made it my constant endeavor so to speak as to save myself and you.

This is a brief account of my public instructions and pastoral labors. But, alas, were I to recount this day my deficiencies—all that has been left undone which it was my duty to do, and all which I have desired to do and your best good demanded beyond what my strength would admit, it would occupy a larger space and more time than this brief account.

I greatly appreciate Beecher’s humility in recognizing that in spite of his best efforts, he knew that he had been less-than-perfect in carrying out his ministry. His statement reminded me of something I heard Brother Hagin say. He remarked that at the time he left each of the four congregations he pastored, he felt he had done a pretty good job. However, after a few years passed and he had learned and grown more spiritually, he said he felt he had done such a poor job that he would have been embarrassed to have gone back to the churches.

What was my take-away from that? If we are conscientious and diligent, we will always do the best we can with what we know at the moment, but we also need to have some mercy and grace upon ourselves as we grow! In hindsight, we can always judge ourselves more harshly than we should.

Perhaps to get a better idea of what it means to preach “the whole counsel of God,” we can look at how Paul admonished Timothy, his protégé, concerning his ministerial responsibilities.

2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

2 Timothy 4:2-4 (NLT)
2 Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.
3 For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear.
4 They will reject the truth and chase after myths.

Paul knew that Timothy might have had a tendency to draw back from some important issues. I suppose that all of us might feel a pull to just preach what people want to hear or to just say things that we think will make us popular or make people like us. Paul did not “cherry-pick” his favorite passages and simply preach from those, nor did he want Timothy to do that. His resolve was to teach everything necessary for the full salvation and the complete spiritual development of his hearers.

When Paul said, “I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God,” there seems to be an implication that he had to resist the temptation to hold some things back. Other translations render that:

  • I didn’t shrink (NLT)
  • I have not hesitated (NIV)
  • I never shrank or kept back or fell short (AMPC)
  • I didn’t avoid (GWT)
  • I did not hold back (NET)

When Paul talked about being innocent of the blood of all men in the context of preaching the whole counsel of God, it must be that he was talking about the most essential things — things that pertain to eternal life and eternal death. Will any of us ever cover every micro-detail of every biblical issue with our people? No, and it is not our job to make sure that everyone can win at Bible Trivia. It is our job to make sure that people have had the essential truths of the gospel presented to them, the things that make for eternal life.

In closing, here are a few statements worth considering about “the whole counsel of God.”

Charles Spurgeon wrote: “I think we are to understand that he had given to his people the entire gospel. He had not dwelt upon some one doctrine of it, to the exclusion of the rest; but it had been his honest endeavor to bring out every truth according to the analogy of faith. He had not magnified one doctrine into a mountain, and then diminished another into a molehill; but he had endeavored to present all blended together, like the colors in the rainbow, as one harmonious and glorious whole.”

D. A. Carson stated, “What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God’s revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively.”

In 1929, Donald Gee warned Pentecostal leaders about three dangers facing the movement. Ruthie Edgerly Oberg later summarized these points, one of which dealt with the necessity of teaching the full counsel of God.

The second temptation given to both Christ and the Pentecostal church is to be caught up in fanaticism. The devil tempted Christ to show the power of God through a wild display of throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, forcing God to do a miraculous work to prove himself. Gee reminded his listeners, “The devil quoted Scripture! And the temptation to fanaticism is most deadly when it has a superficial appearance of being scriptural.”

The cure for such fanaticism, in Gee’s estimation, is knowing the full counsel of the Word of God. He pointed to Jesus’ statement to Satan, “It is written again.” Gee advised, “Do not run off on two or three Scriptures, but be balanced on the whole Word of God. When the devil says, ‘There’s a fine text; you go and do something silly on that,’ you say, ‘It is written again,’” and bring the balance of other Scriptures to bear on the situation.

Gee illustrated this point with a story of a young man who was out of work. He was given the opportunity to drive a truck for a bakery. The young man said, “I must go and pray about it first.” He got his Bible, shut his eyes and opened the Bible, and came to the Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” He then interpreted this to be a divine revelation that “God does not want me to drive a bakery truck.” Gee said, “That was fanaticism based on one Scripture.” If he had remembered to say, “It is written again. If any man will not work neither shall he eat, all would have been well.” [1]

May all of us receive wisdom from God to share with his people all that he wants us to share. I realize that some of us will have different emphases, and that’s alright. But may we provide healthy, balanced, and life-giving spiritual meals as we teach the people of God.