I’m about to answer two questions I believe to be crucial to our understanding of Christianity:
- What is the Bible?
- How do we correctly grasp what we read in it?
These are the principles I use whenever I examine the Scriptures and am seeking God on any given matter, especially those topics I share in this blog.
Most of it is common sense.
Unfortunately, common sense is rather scarce when it comes to the Scriptures these days. It is both amazing and appalling to see some of the doctrinal positions held by many. Ridiculous and/or toxic social media comments made by “Christians” supporting their bogus religious opinions with misinterpreted Bible passages are legion. But I’m already digressing… Oops! Sorry!
Why Should This Topic Concern Us?
Tragically, some so-called Christians misuse the Bible to preach hate against various groups: racial minorities, interracial marriages, homosexuals, and Jews, to name a few. I won’t take time to explain my stance on those issues here because I’ve already dealt with those topics in the depth they deserve elsewhere here on Miscellaneous Ramblings, specifically:
Still others distort the Scriptures to support their subversive ideological agendas, such as atheists, Moslems, the Alphabet Mafia, and political/theological liberals.
Worse yet, we also have Christianity-based cults such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science (which is neither Christian nor scientific, I might add), Roman Catholicism, and 7th Day Adventism, among others. Such folks either misinterpret various verses and passages out of the Bible or rewrite their “Bibles” to serve their own warped doctrinal ends. Each of these groups also adds extra-biblical writings to their respective “canons of scripture,” all of them conflicting with the Word of God itself.
All this leaves us with a second set of questions:
- How can we be confident we are clearly perceiving God’s Truth?
- How can we be assured we are accurately proclaiming that Truth to the lost as well as those trapped in man’s religion?
- How can we avoid being deceived ourselves?
Their answers are found in the $10 theological term: hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the theological discipline devoted to how we interpret the Bible.
You are about to read the best set of hermeneutical guidelines I’ve ever found, written in plain and non-theological language.
What is the Bible?
Now let’s answer the first question: What exactly is the Bible?
Most folks — even many proclaiming themselves to be Christians — have more than a few misconceptions about it. Whole books have been written on this topic by authors far wiser than myself, so what follows is me hitting the high points, the 10,000 foot view, if you will.
Many mistakenly assume the Bible is a single book with many chapters. In reality, it is a library (biblios in the Greek) containing 66 individual books written by dozens of different authors over a timeframe spanning thousands of years. As you already know, those books are divided into 2 major sections: the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT).
Let’s take each one in turn:
Old Testament (OT)
This portion consists of 39 books. They:
- Recount God’s creation of the universe.
- Declare His character and will.
- Describe His dealings with various individuals and nations — as well as mankind in general — with special emphasis on His covenant relationship with His chosen people, the Jews, beginning with their progenitor, Abraham.
- Define God’s standards of morality (e.g., the 10 Commandments, among other passages)
- Are considered to be Holy Writ by both Judaism and Christianity (the Jewish and Christian OT are identical in content, but organized somewhat differently)
- Are primarily written in Hebrew (a couple of books were written in Aramaic)
- Were written by a variety of authors including historians, kings, priests, musicians, prophets, waiters, shepherds, government officials, and other occupations
- Quite specifically foretells the appearance of Jesus to redeem the world from our sins in 300 or so separate instances spanning multiple books written hundreds — even thousands! — of years before Jesus’ birth and apart from one another (the first such instance appears in Genesis 3)
The Christian OT is organized into the following sections:
- The Law aka Torah aka Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy)
- History (Joshua through Job)
- Poetry/Wisdom (Psalms through Song of Solomon)
- The Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel)
- The Minor Prophets (Daniel through Malachi)
NOTE: the term “major prophets” simply means those men’s books are much longer; it has nothing to do with their relative importance to the plans and purposes of God.
Anywhere in the NT where you see the terms “scripture”, “Word of God,” or “The Law,” or phrases to the effect of “it is written,” “as the prophet _______ foretold,” and the like, Jesus and/or the writers are always citing the OT.
Roman Catholic Bibles have 7 additional books in their Old Testament: Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch. Additional material has also been added to the books of Daniel and Esther by later Greek interpreters. Collectively, these writings are what Catholics call “the Deuterocanonicals, more commonly known as “The Apocrypha.”
Eastern Orthodox Bibles have added yet more apocryphal books such as 3 Maccabees, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh. The Ethiopian Orthodox incorporate still others like Enoch and Jubilees.
All these are ancient Jewish writings from well after the time of the OT which Jews have never accepted as Scripture but which some ancient Gentile Christians mistook as part of the Jewish Canon. While some of this material has historical/cultural value, none of the apocryphal books qualify as genuine, inspired Scripture, and therefore should not be in the Bible. This is why Protestants do not include them.
New Testament (NT)
- This section contains all things pertaining to Jesus Christ and His followers.
- All of the NT is written in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire.
- Its authors include fishermen, a doctor/historian, a tax collector, a Jewish religious leader, and 2 half-brothers of Jesus.
The NT is further organized into the following 4 subdivisions:
- The Gospels (Matthew through John) recounting the Christ Event (Jesus’ birth, life, words, deeds, death, burial, and resurrection)
- The Acts of the Apostles (a brief history of the growth and establishment of the nascent Church during the first century after Christ’s resurrection)
- The Epistles (letters written by several apostles to various local churches. This section spans Romans through Jude)
- The Revelation (a prophetic vision written by the Apostle John describing events surrounding Jesus’ second coming, and His subsequent millennial reign over the earth)
New Testament vs. Old Testament
They are both Scripture. They are in perfect harmony with one another. They are both authoritative and pertinent to the lives of all Christ-followers. The rule of thumb is this:
- The OT foretells and lays the foundation for the NT.
- The NT fulfills and explains the OT.
There are those who try to throw out the OT as a whole, deeming it irrelevant because the Christ Event supersedes the Law of Moses. This is a grave error; removing that testament from the equation of Christianity leaves us hopelessly adrift as Christ-followers with no foundation for us to stand upon doctrinally. In other words, the NT doesn’t make any sense apart from the OT.
Translations vs. Paraphrases
It’s crucial to know the difference. Here’s the distinction:
- a written or spoken rendering of the meaning of a word, speech, book, or other text, in another language.
- a rewording of something written or spoken by someone else to express the meaning using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity
- A translation expresses the thoughts and intents of an author word-by-word in another language as much as the respective languages allow.
- A paraphrase portrays those selfsame concepts in a more summary form.
One of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith is the “verbal inspiration of the Scriptures” as our sole authority over faith and practice. This means God said what He meant and meant what He said, word for word in the original languages.
The sticking point is this: there are grammatical, punctuational, and linguistic nuances unique to every language. The Bible’s original languages are no exception. Therefore, various translations/paraphrases into other languages — even those targeting the same language, such as English — can differ in how they either capture or blur those nuances.
In many instances, there is no equivalent term in the target language, so a particular Greek or Hebrew word might require more than a single word in that tongue to convey its intended meaning. In other situations, certain nuances get blurred when translators use one English word for two or more similar-but-different Greek words.
One classic instance of the latter is how the single English word “knowledge” is often used for both the Greek words gnosis (intellectual knowledge) and epignosis (experiential knowledge/wisdom), two entirely different concepts. The example which immediately comes to mind is 2 Peter 1:2-4 where the term “knowledge of God” is assumed by readers to be “knowledge about God” rather than Peter’s intended meaning: “knowing God personally.”
Translational issues are further compounded whenever you take into account the era of English employed, such as the King James Version (KJV) which is written using 17th-century idiom far more lingustically aligned with Shakespearean literature than our modern terminology and patterns of expression.
Let’s explore this a bit by comparing James 1:21 in 9 different versions:
Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.King James Version (KJV)
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.New King James Version (NKJV)
Therefore, ridding yourselves of all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
So get rid of all uncleanness and all that remains of wickedness, and with a humble spirit receive the word [of God] which is implanted [actually rooted in your heart], which is able to save your souls.
The Amplified Version (AMP)
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
New International Version (NIV)
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.English Standard Version (ESV)
So this is why we abandon everything morally impure and all forms of wicked conduct. Instead, with a sensitive spirit we absorb God’s Word, which has been implanted within our nature, for the Word of Life has power to continually deliver us.The Passion Translation (TPT)
So get rid of all that is wrong in your life, both inside and outside, and humbly be glad for the wonderful message we have received, for it is able to save our souls as it takes hold of our hearts.The Living Bible (TLB)
So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.The Message (MSG)
As you can see, all these versions convey the same basic meaning, but some are clearer to our modern ears than others. After all, the KJV’s “filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” is phrase we never encounter nowadays whereas The Message’s “spoiled virtue and cancerous evil” is straight forward and clearly conveyed.
The KJV confusion gets worse when we explore the modern-day semantics for the terms “naughtiness” and “filthiness.” Nowadays, “naughtiness” connotes the trivial misbehavior of a child. “Filthiness” is most often used to describe someone covered with physical grime from working/playing hard. We almost never combine them to describe moral depravity in an adult — unless we’re quoting the KJV, that is!
Yet another KJV-related problem is one of shifting word definitions within the English language itself. For one crucial example, whenever you hear the word “conversation” nowadays, what’s your first thought? Two or more people having a verbal discussion, right? But in the 17th century, “conversation” meant your behavior during interactions with other people.
Thus, we can be left scratching our heads with the King James, whereas more recent translations express a verse’s meaning far more completely and obviously to a modern reader.
NOTE: That’s why we rarely use KJV in any of our articles here at Miscellaneous Ramblings, defaulting to the NKJV as our standard translation.
The bottom line is this: among all the generally accepted translations out there, none of them contradict the others and all of them collectively are of value when we are trying to grasp what the Scripture is telling us.
And when I say “generally accepted,” I am deliberately excluding versions produced by various cults (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) who have altered the Scriptures to support their own heretical doctrines.
One of the amazing aspects of God’s Word is it has been successfully translated into mulitudinous languages so people of all nations, races, and tongues can read, understand, and respond to the Gospel of Christ and thereafter apply its teachings to their lives. Point-of-fact: the Bible is by far the most translated book in human history!
Contradictions & Errors
It is an article of faith among atheists and other skeptics that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.
That is patently untrue!
Years ago, someone posted a reward of a huge sum of money (I seem to remember it was a million dollars, but I’m not sure) for anyone who could clearly demonstrate one measly taken-in-context contradiction within God’s Word.
That reward came and went unclaimed!
As for errors, in every case where a perceived “error” has been posited, it has later proven to be erroneous itself through subsequent archeological or scientific discoveries. While certain scientific theories contradicting God’s Word have indeed arisen and are even generally assumed to be incontrovertible by many today, the truth is all such theories and opinions have ultimately been proven factually wrong. And no actual archeological discovery has ever contradicted the Bible.
What the Bible Says About Itself
All Scripture is God-breathed [given by divine inspiration] and is profitable for instruction, for conviction [of sin], for correction [of error and restoration to obedience], for training in righteousness [learning to live in conformity to God’s will, both publicly and privately—behaving honorably with personal integrity and moral courage]; so that the man of God may be complete and proficient, outfitted and thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16-17 AMP
For the word of God is living and active and full of power [making it operative, energizing, and effective]. It is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as the division of the soul and spirit [the completeness of a person], and of both joints and marrow [the deepest parts of our nature], exposing and judging the very thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12 AMP
But understand this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of or comes from one’s own [personal or special] interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.2 Peter 1:20-21 AMP
Sanctify them in the truth [set them apart for Your purposes, make them holy]; Your word is truth.John 17:17 AMP
The Holy Spirit is Our Teacher
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 things that I said to you.John 14:26 (emphasis mine)
These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.1 Corinthians 2:13
If we accept the premise that God the Holy Spirit inspired the contents of the Bible, then it also follows that the Author is the Person best qualified to help us grasp its teachings. This is one of the many roles the Holy Spirit fulfills in the life of all Christ-followers through the New Birth.
Because unredeemed man lacks this indwelling of God personally, he is incapable of grasping much of the Bible apart from whatever the Holy Spirit reveals to him as He woos him to the foot of the Cross and salvation.
This is why it is so spiritually toxic and doctrinally dangerous to interpret the Scriptures with a humanistic mindset. As a 2nd-century church father once proclaimed:
What has Athens (secular humanism) to do with Jerusalem (the things of God)?Tertullian of Carthage in Prescription Against Heresies (parentheses mine)
The Bible is a supernatural book. Therefore, many of its teachings cannot be truly grasped apart from supernatural assistance from its supernatural Author.
Now let’s discuss that process in detail.
Avoid Eisegesis at All Costs
Eisegesis sounds like some sort of dread disease, doesn’t it? When dealing with Scripture, that is 100% accurate! Sadly, there is an pandemic of it both inside and outside the Church!
Eisegesis is best understood when contrasted with exegesis:
- the process of drawing out a text’s meaning in accordance with the author’s context and discoverable meaning.
- the process of interpreting text in such a way as to introduce one’s own presuppositions, agendas or biases. It is commonly referred to as “reading into the text” or “front-loading.” It is often done to “prove” a pre-held point of concern, and to provide confirmation bias corresponding with the pre-held interpretation and any agendas supported by it.
- Exegesis tends to be objective
- Eisegesis is by definition highly subjective
We should always approach God’s Word with a teachable attitude Buddhist folks call shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind,” a concept I learned during my martial arts studies. Applied here, it means we never consider ourselves to be “experts” — regardless of our level of education, spiritual maturity, public renown, or personal accomplishments — but endeavor to read the Scriptures with fresh eyes every time we open the book.
The practical outworking of this mindset means our allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us as He sees fit, not according to what we already think we know. In other words, we are constantly adjusting our attitudes/viewpoints to His by imitating those Berean folks in Acts, who:
…received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Acts 17:10b
What Kind of Doctrine Are You Dealing With?
The number of sincere believers — even ministers — who struggle with this issue are like grains of sand on a beach. Recognizing what kind of doctrine you are dealing with is foundational to hermeneutics.
There are 3 levels of doctrine within Christianity:
- Essential doctrine
- Peripheral doctrine
Let explore each of those in turn.
These are the core beliefs of Christianity. They define the minimal standards of what a person must believe to be accurately labelled a Christian. In other words, if you deny or redefine one or more of Christianity’s essential doctrines, you are not saved, not born-from above, and not going to heaven, period, without exception.
A non-exhaustive list of examples includes:
- One True God
- The Trinity
- The Depravity of Man
- The Virgin Birth
- The simultaneous 100% divinity & 100% humanity of Christ (aka the “hypostatic union”)
- The substitutionary death of Jesus
- The physical resurrection of Christ from the dead
- The efficacy of Jesus’ blood alone to remove all our sins
- The New Birth
- Salvation is only by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
- We are saved to perform good works, not by those works.
- The inerrancy of the Bible (in the original languages)
- The Bible as the sole authority over faith & practice for all Christ-followers
- The return of Jesus to the Earth at the end of time
- The Last Judgement
The bottom line concerning essential doctrines is this: if a group of people doesn’t believe one or more essential doctrines, they are not our brothers/sisters in Christ; they are still lost in their sins no matter how pious they may appear or how many good/religious works they may perform.
Heresies & Cults
Heresies are essential doctrines which have been negated, redefined, or warped into something inconsistent with the rest of God’s Word. Logically, those embracing heresies are called “heretics.” Cults are bands of heretics who adhere to the same set of lies.
The New Testament clearly forbids us as believers from engaging with heretics as if they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed we are commanded to expel them from our local churches whenever and wherever found. Please note torturing them or burning them at the stake is never found in that list. But again, I digress…
Peripheral doctrines are those specifically commanded or taught in the Word of God, but they never determine whether you are going to heaven or not.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of peripheral New Testament doctrines:
- Water baptism
- Holy Communion
- The Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues
- Caring for the poor
- Financial giving
We can easily find passages in the Word teaching how Christ-followers are to pray, worship, be water baptized, celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection through communion, evangelize the lost, and care for the hurting. There are yet other passages detailing how we can and should be baptized with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues.
Are we going to hell if we don’t do them? Not a chance!
Granted we will not experience the blessings we would otherwise experience from our conformity with these doctrines, but our eternal destiny is absolutely secure.
Why is this?
Because our standing before God is based upon the blood of Jesus and His finished work of the cross and nothing else, period.
The bottom line concerning peripheral doctrines is this: believers of good conscience and strong faith can agree-to-disagree about any of them. They remain our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are not only encouraged, but commanded to maintain Christian fellowship with them.
I do have to say if you have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit (aka the charismatic experience), you’re going to have a difficult time accurately exegeting passages like chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians.
Traditions cover how various Christian groups implement peripheral doctrines as well as how they conduct their worship services. Examples of this are:
- Are receptacles (plates, velvet bags, paper paint buckets, etc.) passed among the seated congregation, or;
- Do members walk to the front of the auditorium/sanctuary and deposit their gifts in containers held by ushers, or;
- Do they drop their offering in a box somewhere in the church building, or;
- Do folks give electronically using a website or smartphone app?
- Is there a choir, worship team, and/or song leader?
- Is there instrumental accompaniment or is the singing a cappella?
- Is that accompaniement an organ, piano, or an ensemble/band?
- Are other instruments are there and of what type?
- Are the instruments acoustic or amplified?
- Is the musical style black-gospel, country-gospel, Christian contemporary, or traditional high church?
- Are there hymnals or are the lyrics projected on screens at the front of the auditorium?
- Do the congregants stand, sit, clap their hands, raise their hands, dance in the aisles, roll on the floor, shout, wave flags and/or handkerchiefs, shout “amen!”, “glory!”, “preach it!”, etc. or some combination thereof?
- Are the elements served to those who walk to the front? If so, do they kneel at a railing or stand?
- Or are the elements passed among those seated?
- Is the body of Christ represented by specialized wafers, matzo, oyster crackers, or real loaves of bread?
- Is the blood of Christ grape juice or real wine?
- Is the juice or wine drunk from a common chalice or little plastic glasses?
- Are the communion elements distributed separately or in pre-packaged units containing both a wafer and juice?
- Is communion served by pastoral staff, acolytes, deacons, ushers, or random members of the congregation?
- How frequently? Is it taken weekly, monthly, quarterly, or only on special occasions?
- Water Baptism
- Dunking or sprinkling?
- If immersion, is it in a purpose-built baptismal tank in the auditorium, in a swimming pool, in a nearby body lake, river, or ocean, or in a watering tank for livestock?
- Do water baptisms occur every service or at some longer interval?
The reason traditions rank at the bottom of the doctrinal stack is quite simple: nowhere in the Word does it say how these particular tasks are to be accomplished, if it mentions them at all.
Please note the only folks Jesus condemned during his earthly ministry were those who elevated their traditions to supersede God’s Word. Their traditions had put the masses into spiritual bondage and hindered them from connecting with God. Please further note this selfsame behavior within Roman Catholicism is what ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.
The bottom line on traditions is this: Christians of good conscience and strong faith should be able to disagree with one another concerning any of these without rancor, strife, or division.
No tradition contradicting any essential or peripheral doctrines should ever be taught or practiced.
Be Only As Specific As The Bible Is
This is also a minefield for many Christ-followers. Let’s dig into this and figure out how to navigate it without blowing ourselves up. Again, we have 3 categories:
Specific & Direct
This one is a complete no-brainer: be equally specific and direct!
- God is quite explicit concerning Jesus being the only Way to the Father (John 14:6; Acts 4:12)
- He is extremely specific throughout both testaments concerning His hatred of idolatry.
- Neither does He mince words about sexual misconduct, murder, theft, covetousness, falsehood, arrogance, and Christians marrying non-believers.
There is absolutely no combination of circumstances and/or personalities which can ever make disagreement with these acceptable in the eyes of God, period. Wherever God is direct, specific, and uncompromising, God expects us to be equally so.
Whenever we are wishy-washy about such issues, we are compromising God’s Word. Such compromise never safe because the door of satanic deception swings wide open to those involved.
Only verses which are clear and specific qualify as foundations for the establishment of essential and peripheral Christian doctrine.
Vague or Non-Specific
The Bible doesn’t contain everything there is to know about God. However, it does reveal everything God decided we need to know about Him, ourselves, and the world around us. He did this so we can be successful in our relationships with Him and our fellow man.
That being said, the Bible sometimes doesn’t state things with the level of directness we crave — we want everything to be stated with a clarity equal to “Thou shalt not steal.”
Why do we humans detest ambiguity or vagueness when dealing with God? I believe there are two reasons:
- Because we flawed humans have an inherent fear of getting on His bad side (there’s our arch-nemesis man’s religion rearing its ugly head again). We want to know precisely where we stand before God on any given issue because our corrupt flesh is spiritually lazy — unambiguous passages require little thought, faith, or effort on our part.
- Because we have this insane sin-nature-based compulsion to “figure God out” so we can be in control (knowledge = power), instead of our simply trusting in His love with child-like simplicity and submitting to Him as our Heavenly Daddy.Why do I say insane? Because we continue to do so despite failing in every attempt we make. As they say in recovery circles, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.”
We simply need to accept by faith God was vague for excellent reasons of His own — whether we can ascertain His eternal purposes for doing so or not — and steadfastly resist the temptation to remove that vagueness using our own intellect, cultural norms, personal prejudices, or denominational traditions. This is our only true “safe place” on such matters.
If the Spirit of God brings greater specificity to our understanding of a vague passage, we should treat it as given to us alone personally. If we do share it, we should qualify it with the opening phrase, “This is what I believe the Lord showed me about this” and end it with the phrase, “But what He showed me was for/about me. How you apply this passage to your own life is between you and God.”
Again we have a no brainer: keep your opinions to yourself!
If we absolutely have to express an opinion, at least qualify it as such, “This is my opinion and why I believe it, but you are under no obligation before God to agree with me.”
- Never, ever quote your opinions as doctrine.
- Never, ever judge another believer as “less than” -OR- a minister as unqualified because he or she has the temerity to disagree with your opinion(s).
Your opinions are not the voice of the Holy Spirit!
A clear indication of our violating that principle is whenever we start thinking God hates the same people we do. Selah!
Never Base Doctrine on Parables
This is another area where many get tripped up.
Jesus told parables and stories to illustrate certain principles concerning the Kingdom of God and our relationship to the Godhead. That being said, they should never to be used as the basis for Christian doctrine.
Why is this?
First, many of Jesus’ parables were told to confound his listeners, so they lack the specificity required for us to establish a doctrinal stance on whatever the topic was. Second, Jesus was operating as a prophet under the Law of Moses — the New Covenant in His blood was not established until His death, burial, and resurrection were accomplished.
Positional vs. Practical
Failure to understand the major distinction here leads many into religious bondage.
When reading the epistles, we often encounter passages describing something God has done:
- To or for us
- By His grace and mercy
- At the moment of salvation.
These are what can also be termed “unconditional promises.” This means they are sovereign, unilateral acts of grace performed by a member of the Godhead personally.
Such verses reveal our forensic (legal) position as Christ-followers. In other words, they describe our standing before God and what He accomplished for/in us when we first submitted to Jesus’ rule over our lives. As such, we cannot add or detract from them by our performance, good or bad.
Examples include 2 Corinthians 5:17,21, Colossians 1:12-13, almost all of the first 2 chapters of Ephesians, etc.
Practical or conditional promises are where:
- God commands us to do something, and then;
- Promises He will reward us with a blessing for our obedience.
I have never personally encountered an exception to the following: such promises concern the practical issues of living the Christian life on this earth. Walking in them is dependent entirely upon: 1) our faith in them, and; 2) our compliance with their conditions. To the extent we trust and obey, we will experience the blessing(s) God has promised.
Why the Distinction Between the Two is Important
Here’s what’s in play: fulfilling the conditions causes us to emulate one or more character attribute(s) of Jesus. After we have done that for an extended period of time, it eventually becomes a habit, then a character trait. As Emerson once wrote:
Sow a thought, reap a choice.
Sow a choice, reap an action.
Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In this manner, God grows our Christ-likeness in the specific area covered by that promise. (more on this topic here)
Never get these two types of promises confused!
Taking verses containing unconditional promises and treating them as if they were conditional puts us into a performance-based mindset removing grace from the equation of our dealings with God. The end result is we get caught up in performing dead religious works trying to earn His favor, rather than living a blessed life of service founded upon the unconditional love and grace of God.
Who Does What?
One of the temptations many Christ-followers succumb to is trying to reverse roles with the Almighty. No one is immune to this tendency, myself included. It’s deadly trap, so it is crucial we get this division of spiritual labor correctly set in our thinking.
3 Things We are Accountable for as Believers
If God commands us to do something, it is our responsibility to obey Him, period!
For example, when He tells us to:
- Humble ourselves — our job is to humble ourselves, not pray for Him to make us humble. Heed the voice of personal experience here: if you refuse to humble yourself and ask Him to do it for you, you won’t like what follows one teensy bit! He will answer those kinds of prayers by putting you through a grueling process which is extremely unpleasant and utterly humiliating! (1 Peter 5:6)
- Resist the devil — our mandate is to resist Satan (James 4:7), not pray for God to get the devil off our case.
- Trust Him — we are to deliberately choose to place our full faith and reliance on God (Proverbs 3:5-6), not ask Him for the gift of faith. We received that gift back when we were born from above, so the issue at hand is whether or not we are going to obey God and use it. If God tells us certain conditions exist for us to receive one of His promises, it’s our responsibility to:
- Stand on that promise in faith and;
- Fulfill His condition(s) — by His grace, rather than in our own strength.
We are responsible for deliberately choosing to believe God’s Word as the Truth, whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, despite:
- The circumstances we see in our lives or bodies
- What others have said or may say, including doctors. lawyers, and other professionals
- What we think, perceive, or feel emotionally
- What our family members and associates think or believe
- What the common wisdom or public opinion indicates
- What your religious traditions or societal/cultural norms may dictate
- What extra-biblical writers, theologians, reformers, or Bible commentators have said or written about the matter in times past
- What perceptual filters we may have caused by emotional/mental/physical/sexual trauma/abuse we have suffered at the hands of others
- Any other factor or influence contradicting God’s Word, period, end of story!
Things God Is In Charge Of
God reserved to Himself several matters over which He exercises sole authority. Accordingly, He steadfastly resists all efforts on our part to interfere with them. They include:
- Methods — How God answers our prayer is His business, not ours. We are to obey His commands, both from His Word and from the leading of the Holy Spirit, and resist all temptations to “help God out” with our own schemes, methods, and influences.
- Timing — When God answers our prayers is also his bailiwick. We wait upon Him as He develops our faith/patience and brings His influence to bear on our behalf. That influence is primarily aimed at the hearts and minds of those He chooses to use to bless us. As with methods, we must resist all temptation to try to make it happen faster through our works of the flesh.
- Honoring His Word — We can count on His Word to be true in all details, in all times, in all places, under all circumstances, regardless of whoever/whatever else is involved.Why?
Because God never changes (Malachi 3:6a). We can always count on God honoring His Word above His own name (Psalm 138:2). We can always trust that God watches over His Word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12). We can rest assured “all the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Let the Bible Interpret Itself
One of the hermeneutical mistakes many believers — even theologians — commit is looking to the past. They allow the teachings and opinions of long-dead theologians, reformers, and commentators to determine what a Bible passage means. While such writings are valuable as well as historically informative, I must emphasize here:
- Such men were fallible and opinionated, just as we all are.
- Their worldviews were influenced by their personal histories, emotional baggage, education, personal testimonies, and the cultures/times in which they lived, just as we all are.
Therefore, their opinions and interpretations of Scripture cannot help but be influenced by those factors.
Two logical fallacies arise from such a dependency upon theologians of the past: ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) coupled with ad antiquitatem (appeal to tradition). Neither is useful in hermeneutics.
In other words, “old” does not automatically equate to “correct.” Classic examples of this are Augustine and other early church fathers or Thomas Aquinas, all of whom attempted to syncretize Greek secular humanist philosophy with Christianity. Their writings have become the basis for several of the doctrinal errors present in both Calvinism and Roman Catholicism.
Dependency upon extra-biblical writings and commentaries also plays into our inherent fleshly hunger to seek human validation for our beliefs, rather than depending upon the Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth, then resting upon our own convictions He produces in us. Because of this, we have a natural tendency to read a commentary and say, “Well, that settles that!” rather than looking past it, inquiring further, and prayerfully seeking God for whatever it is He may be wanting to impart to us.
The bottom line is we should allow the Bible to speak for itself — wherever that may lead us — rather than depending upon commentators to tell us what we should believe.
Always Consider The Context
Never, never, EVER interpret a Bible verse or passage outside of its context!
“You can use the Bible to prove anything” is an article of faith in pop culture. When taking context into account, they are dead wrong! However, once you start taking verses out of their proper context, that statement becomes an irrefutable universal truism.
A classic example is the following 3 verses strung together with a complete disregard for their context:
Judas went out and hanged himself.
Go thou and do likewise.
What thou doest, do quickly!
We may find the total ridiculousness of this humorous — I know I do! But tragically, history is rife with examples of the misguided and nefarious committing eisegetical violence on the Scriptures in a similar manner. Indeed, such hermeneutical butchery undergirds their justification for all of the evils I raised in the introduction to this article as well as a host of others.
One pet peeve of mine is the treatment many ministers and Christians give to the Book of Job. This single book stands head-and-shoulders above all the others in the Bible as being the biggest goldmine of bogus sermons, books, songs, and theological horse-hockey ever foisted on the Body of Christ. I’ve already dealt with Job in greater depth elsewhere here, so I’ll leave it at that.
Guidelines for Establishing Correct Scriptural Context
- Who is talking:
- A godly man or woman?
- A rebellious sinner?
- Who is being addressed:
- A godly man or woman?
- A rebellious sinner?
- The Body of Christ?
- Who was the author:
- A prophet?
- A historian?
- An apostle?
- A king?
- What was the author’s role in what:
- Took place?
- Is being discussed?
- What were stated goals of the author, if any?
- What is the topical content of:
- The verses immediately surrounding the verse in question?
- The chapter where the verse/passage is found?
- The book containing that chapter?
- What testament is the book found in?
- If it’s in the Old Testament or Gospels, what may have changed after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of His Church?
- What was the era in which the book was written?
- How was God relating to His people during that time
- How was God relating the sinners of that era?
- Was it during:
- The Age of Innocence in Eden before Adam and Eve rebelled?
- The patriarchal age between The Rebellion and the appearance of Abraham?
- The period of the Abrahamic covenant prior to and including the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt?
- The era beginning with their exodus from Egypt and ending with the resurrection of Jesus, during which the Law of Moses was in force?
- Jesus’s earthly life and ministry?
- The Church Age beginning with the resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the church?
- Last, but not least, is your interpretation consistent with the spirit and letter of the Bible as a whole?
The Word Is AliveIn closing, I would like to share a song by the band Casting Crowns from their 2007 album “The Altar and the Door.” As most of you know, I’m a big-time fan of Christian rock music and these folks are one of my all-time favorites.
This piece is the closest thing to being a “perfect” Christian song I can recall in that not a word can be added or changed to make it better or deleted without gutting it — much like God’s Word itself! The song and its lyrics are below:
The Word Is Alive
Looking out from His throne,
The Father of light and of men
Chose to make Himself known
And show us the way back to Him
Speaking wisdom and truth
Into the hearts of peasants and kings
He began to unveil
The Word that would change the course of all things
With eyes wide open, all would see:
The Word is alive!
And it cuts like a sword through the darkness
With a message of life to the hopeless and afraid
Breathing life into all who believe!
The Word is alive!
And the world and its glories will fade,
But His truth, it will not pass away!
It remains yesterday and forever the same.
The Word is alive!
Simple strokes on a page
Eternity’s secrets revealed.
Carried on from age to age,
It speaks Truth to us even still
And as the rain falls from Heaven,
Feeds the earth before it returns
Lord, let Your Word fall on us
And bring forth the fruit You deserve!
With eyes wide open, let us see:
The Bible was inscribed over a period of 2000 years, in times of war and in days of peace by kings, physicians, tax collectors, farmers, fishermen, singers, and shepherds. The marvel is that a library so perfectly cohesive could have been produced by such a diverse crowd over a period of time which staggers the imagination!
The Word is alive! (the world and its glories will fade!)
His Word is alive! (His truth, it will not pass away!)
The Word is alive! (His Word is alive, His Word is alive!)
Jesus is it’s great Subject, our good its design, and the glory of God is its end!
Well, that about sums up this topic. I pray this will help you exegete wisely and well.
Thanks for reading!