Today we’re going to talk about an important approach for understanding the Bible that you might not be taking.
By now, you’ve probably heard me speak about my previous struggles with doubt many years ago. Things like, does God exist? Is the Bible true? How could all of this possibly fit together? Well, one of the main contributing factors to my struggle was the wealth of apparent contradictions in the Bible, and here are some examples:
Statements like, you’re justified by faith alone, or you’re justified by your works. These are both things that were presented to me as a part of Christianity.
Then you have, for instance, God elects, and predestines people, or it’s man’s free choice. Well those are very different it would seem.
Things like you can’t lose your salvation, but you probably could.
God is all powerful, and wills for everyone to be saved, but then many people aren’t. Is God incapable?
The fact that maybe Jesus died for everyone but only some people go to heaven. Well, how come he died for people that aren’t in heaven? That doesn’t make sense.
Then there’s Genesis 1 and 2, with seemly contradictory creation accounts.
Perhaps the Canaanites, who the Bible says were utterly destroyed, but then we see Jesus talking with some of them in the New Testament.
All of these things are different types of apparent contradictions, many of which we’ve actually talked about before. To my much less educated mind at the time, in high school and college, I didn’t understand how all these things went together, or if they did at all.
So, you might be wondering: what’s this biblical approach that I mentioned initially that you might not be taking? Here’s what it is. We need to systematize our understanding of scripture. That’s not a very catchy title. That’s why I didn’t lead with that. This is actually what the study of systematic theology is. Now, hear me out, if this is a new term or it sounds really boring. I’m going to try to make this practical for your daily life.
Here’s what systematic theology does. It simply tries to assemble everything the Bible has to say about a certain topic into a cohesive teaching about it. For instance, the Bible says a lot of things about God. It says a lot of things about man. It talks about salvation a whole lot, and it talks about the Trinity. At no point in the Bible does any biblical author sit down and say, “I’m going to write up everything you should know about man and his nature and his state before God.” At no point does a biblical author sit down and write out everything we need to know about God, or salvation, or the Trinity. These are 4 areas that are taught in scripture, that are extremely important to Christianity, and yet in order to understand them more fully we have to go to many different places in scripture and try to piece things together.
However, this isn’t like assembling a jig saw puzzle. We can’t go find a sentence over here and a sentence over there and a sentence over there and stick them together and say, “We have arrived at the wealth of everything scripture says about this topic.” Because sentences exist in a context of a paragraph. Paragraphs exist in the context of a book, which has an audience and an author, and a genre, and all of these different types of contextual details. We have to understand the context of, well, individual words, that are in sentences, that are in paragraphs, that are in books, etc., in order to understand the meaning of what’s being spoken about before we can assemble what’s being spoken about into a cohesive teaching.
Here’s an example where not taking this approach causes some problems. Paul says that we are justified by faith in Romans 3:28. He says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” But, James says we are justified by works. In James 2:4, this what he says. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Okay. Is someone justified by their faith apart from their works, or do they need their works so it’s not by faith alone? At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction, however we need to understand the context of each of these.
This actually is a very important example to look at. This issue is smack in the middle of the divide between Roman Catholicism and Christianity. An understanding of justification: how we are set right with God. Now, the first step towards understanding this apparent contradiction is to look at other passages. The first step to understanding scripture is to use the Bible to interpret the Bible. Let’s try and find a bunch of other passages that speak to this issue. We need to understand them in their context, which we’ll get to in a minute. Nonetheless, let’s find some other passages that speak about justification and faith and salvation.
Here’s one. Ephesians 2: 8-9, which says, “For by grace you were saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves. It is a gift of God. It is not from works, so that no one can boast.” That’s another tally mark for faith and not for works. And, indeed, if we were to survey the rest of the New Testament, we’d find the majority of verses saying that salvation is through faith, not works.
Does this mean James is wrong? Well not necessarily. We have to understand what he’s saying before he could be wrong in what he’s saying. When looking at a passage of scripture, you also need to consider its context like I pointed out earlier. In this case, we need to consider his audience. James was writing to people who thought that their faith was just something to sit around and think about. No action was required at all. These people were called Antinomians. That’s probably a new word to you. “Anti” means against. “Nomian”, the middle there, is from the Greek word “nomas” meaning law. These people were against the law. They basically thought that you didn’t need to follow any moral code. You didn’t need to do any good works. All you needed was faith. Now I would point out that this concept of faith that is divorced from action is not actually faith at all, but that’s a topic for another day.
Just based in the words of Jesus alone, we see that their belief is incorrect. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” That doesn’t sound like lawlessness to me. It also goes against Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes, which says we should help the poor, the hungry, the thirsty brothers in the church. Now, most would agree that the faith Jesus and Paul taught about was one of action, one of bearing fruit. Now that we understand a little more of the context in James, maybe it’s looking like James is right to correct these people and their misunderstanding.
Faith isn’t just something that exists in and of itself, and sits there divorced from action and doesn’t motivate us to do anything. However, did he err too far on the side of works? Well, let’s look at the next step in order to understand how to put this passage together. Remember, the first step was to use the Bible to interpret the Bible – let’s find other passages that speak to hear understanding that scripture is not going to contradict itself. The Bible is internally cohesive, and so apparent contradictions can be worked through.
The second step is to understand the context of the passage, and we looked at that.
Here’s the third step. The Oxford English dictionary contains 171,476 words, and the English language itself has more words than any other modern language. However, even with all of our unique words, we still often use the same word to refer to different ideas, and this is exactly what is happening with James and Paul. We need to consider how these different authors are using the word “justified.” Because contrary to what many of us were taught growing up and maybe believed all of our lives, words don’t actually have meanings. Words have usages.
For instance, if I say the word “milk,” you have no idea what I mean. Am I referring to the white tasty drink which is a noun? or did I mean to exploit or defraud someone which is a verb? or did I mean to bring forth the white tasty drink from a cow? You don’t know. Even if I used it in a sentence, you might not be able to tell. Let’s look at the context of the individual words and their usage in these respective verses.
When Paul speaks of justification, here’s what he means. He means “to declare free of blame or absolve of guilt”, and he is very consistent in this in how he writes in Romans. “There’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” – All of this type of extremely encouraging language for people who used to be dead in their sin, so we are declared free of blame. We are absolved of our guilt when Paul speaks of our justification.
James on the other hand isn’t writing about removing our guilt in the eyes of God. He’s speaking “of how we show or exhibit our right standing with God”. These are very different usages, but when we understand these verses in their context, we see that they’re complementary rather than contradictory.
Christians were justified in the guilt sense once and for all when they received salvation. There is no further justification left to do. We don’t need to go to mass and constantly get re-justified and reapply Christ’s sacrifice for the sins we’ve committed since the last time we went to mass or any other type of religious system that says we are in constant need of receiving justification. Paul expressly rules that out. We were justified once and for all at salvation by the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
However, Christians should be justifying themselves in the exhibiting sense by following Christ’s commands, and this is what James is getting at. You were justified in the salvation sins on the cross. Christ paid for all of your past, present and future sin. However, the way you live your life will exhibit the fact that that happened or it won’t, and that is your justification in the ongoing sense. It has nothing to do with forgiving sin. It has nothing to do with covering guilt. We can’t do that on our own. That’s what Christ did on the cross. However, we do justify ourselves in the way James is talking about in James 2.
This apparent contradiction separates religions today like Roman Catholicism and Christianity. The issue we talked about here is also very close to the divide between Christianity and Mormonism.
The same type of thing is happening when Paul says that wisdom isn’t good, and yet Proverbs says seek wisdom. Is this a contradiction? Well, no. We need to look and see what Paul is talking about. He’s talking about worldly wisdom. Things that are opposed to the cross. Worldly philosophies. Those type of things. In order to understand it, we need to understand words in their context.
We need to use scripture to interpret scripture, but more than that we need to always have the approach of trying to harmonize the Bible with itself. We will be doing a great service to ourselves and those we teach. I’m not picking on any one in particular here, but through my life growing up there wasn’t a lot of harmonization going on. Someone would point to this passage and say well, it means “this” and then someone else would say, well, this other passage means “that”. Well, these are contradictory ideas. They both can’t be true, and so I was left with a lot of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together it seemed to me, but this wasn’t a fault of Scripture. This was simply a lack of cohesion in how people, different people, taught and spoke, so we need to be careful about that.
Whenever we read something in Scripture, we need to always ask ourselves “what else do I know about this topic and how does this verse fit there?” We always want to interpret unclear passages in light of clear passages. We want to use the Bible to interpret itself, and we need understand what words are being used in what ways, not just how the dictionary defines them. When we do this and we consistently apply this, we will come to understand much, much better what God is actually communicating through Scripture.
I hope you’re now a little more equipped to get additional meaning and benefit out of your Bible study.
If this approach has been helpful, feel free to let me know. I’d love to hear from you and if you think other people would benefit from hearing this episode, feel free to share it on Facebook or Twitter, or maybe even better, leave a review on iTunes. Those are very helpful when it comes to rankings and as always, I will see you next week for Unapologetic.