A COMMON MISTAKE
We refer to the Bible as the Word of God, even though we know that many words in the Bible were not spoken by God. For example, when the Bible ‘says’ there is no God, it is only quoting the words of a fool and not Words of God (Psa.14:1)! In the same way, it is easy to see that the Bible contains many historical quotations from even wicked and ungodly people which we do not take to be words from God Himself. So, what we are actually saying when we refer to the Word of God is that the Bible is God’s communication to us. Through the words of the Bible, He reveals Himself, His nature and character, His standards, His plans, His dealings with different people and situations, etc., so that we can get to know Him and find our place with Him in His plans. Among other things, He shows us our fallen condition and shows us His plan of salvation for us.
We also know that He gave us His Word in the Bible, not always directly, but by inspiring selected men to write them down (2Tim.3:16,17;2Pet.1:21). This inspiration was not in the form of dictation, but possibly, as much as we can guess, by inspiring the writers with ideas and allowing them to express them in their own words and style. This accounts for the variety of vocabulary, style and even grammar used by the different writers. This process would invariably imply that the infinitely perfect God had to consciously limit His expressions to what was possible to be achieved through imperfect people. We do not know enough to be able to say how exactly He used the limited knowledge and abilities that different people had and still managed to get through what all He wanted to say. Many times God had to use ideas, metaphors and images that would be more clearly understood only much later and not by the writers themselves. But still, He managed to convey to us sufficient information and teaching through the words of the Bible in such a unique, powerful and living way that the Bible really stands out as the Word of God. This is validated by the real experience of believers in ‘hearing’ God speak to them as they read the words of the Bible.
One thing we need to understand from this is that for us to get a clear idea of what exactly God is trying to tell us through the Bible about any subject, it would be almost always necessary to piece together information from different parts of the Bible. In other words, in most cases, it would be misleading if we just took some verse by itself and started to base our understanding on it alone. When we read any verse that tells us some truth, we also need to ask the question whether it is the whole truth.
Putting things in another way, we see that most verses in the Bible do not have a scientific or legal precision that would enable them to convey the entirety of truth in single verses. These were penned by ordinary people who used ordinary language to convey what God had placed in their hearts and minds. (Also, the division into chapters and verses was not there in the original manuscripts, but was added centuries later for ease of reference. So there is no special sanctity for any ‘verse’ by itself.)
As an example of precision, consider the scientific statement that water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. This contains the entire truth about the element composition of water. When we find such a statement in a scientific book, we can take it to mean what it says literally. Now consider the Biblical statement, “God is love.” This is true in itself. But it is not complete in itself, because God has many other attributes to His character that are found in other parts of the Bible. Therefore, when we want to know more about God, we keep reading the Bible from end to end and try to place different truths together to construct the bigger picture. When the Bible says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” it does not describe faith entirely, but only parts of it. We would be foolish to take this verse alone as a ‘definition’ of faith. At the same time, when we come across certain statements such as, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn.14:6), or “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1Tim.2:5), we understand that these are categorical, and allow no exceptions. In contrast, many other statements of Scripture need to be placed along with other statements in order to give a balanced picture of the truth.
A common mistake is to treat all verses in the Bible as if they were precise statements that can stand on their own. I would like to illustrate this through the use of an example on the doctrine of salvation and point out how some go wrong when they do not look at the bigger picture.
What Is Salvation?
We commonly hear the question, “Are you saved?” What people mean is whether someone has received forgiveness of sins and been born again (through faith in Jesus). But actually this question is not proper because salvation is not just about being born again. When a man responds to the Gospel message and places his trust in Jesus, God forgives his sins (justification—in a judicial sense, wiping out his record of guilt with the blood of Jesus and imputing to him the righteousness of Christ), purchases him back from the hands of the devil (redemption), causes him to be born again (regeneration) and accepts him as His child (adoption). Then begins the process of sanctification when little by little the person’s life is made holy—set apart increasingly for God in an actual, practical sense—and transformed into the nature of Christ. Finally in the day when Jesus comes again to take His people to be with Him forever, we will also be glorified (like Jesus – 1Jn.3:2, being given a flawless new body without any trace of sinfulness, pain, sickness, or death in it). So when one talks about salvation or we read about it in the Bible, it would be good to see which part of salvation it is referring to. Much confusion has resulted as a result of not being able to see verses in the local context as well as the overall context of the entire revelation in the Bible.
By Grace Through Faith
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph.2:8,9). This is a passage that lays down two sides of a fundamental truth about salvation as a whole. Salvation cannot be earned by whatever a man does, by keeping the law (Rom.3:20), or being good enough (Mk.10:18). It can only be received by faith as a free, unmerited gift from God. When the Spirit of God works in a man’s heart and convicts him of sin, he responds by repenting of his sins, and receives the forgiveness that Jesus has purchased for him. He continues to receive every step of sanctification too by faith in Jesus and as an undeserved gift from God. It is good to remember this when we come across other verses that deal with salvation.
Believe And Be Baptised
“Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk.16:16). Taking this verse as if it can stand alone by itself (in a precise scientific manner as illustrated earlier) many people have assumed that apart from believing in Jesus, it is also necessary to get baptised in order to be saved.
But what we find is that everywhere in the epistles where the apostles teach us about salvation, the outstanding feature is that salvation is by faith—believing (adhering to, trusting in and relying on: Amplified Bible)—in Jesus. If baptism was a fundamental requirement for salvation, certainly there would have been a lot more mention of it elsewhere. Baptism is only a public testimony of what God has already done in a person’s life through his faith in Jesus (Rom.6:3,4), which such persons go through in obedience to Jesus (Matt.28:19). In other words, it is for people who have already been justified, and not an act that is required in order to get justified.
If baptism was an essential requirement for salvation, then the repentant thief on the cross could not have gone to Paradise with Jesus on the same day! And Cornelius and family would not have received the gift of the Holy Spirit just by believing (Acts.11:17)! The qualifying statement in the same passage above mentions about condemnation only for those who do not believe. This is also supported by John 3:18. Surely baptism would have been mentioned if that was another pre-requisite for salvation.
But what did Jesus mean by making salvation linked to faith and baptism? We get the answer when we look at another passage in 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” How baptism saves is through an appeal to God for a good conscience. The one who gets baptised acknowledges the clean conscience God has given him by wiping away the guilt of sin and making him as white as snow. In making a public testimony through baptism of what God has done in his life, he also acknowledges his repentance from his past sins and his desire to live then onwards with a clear conscience (Acts 24:16). So how does baptism save? With regard to the person’s sanctification! The mistake people make is in thinking that baptism is necessary for justification.
Confess With Our Mouth
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom.10:8-10). This passage seems to say that it is necessary not only to ‘believe’ but also to ‘confess with the mouth’ in order to be saved.
When we recall again that justification is through faith alone, without any work (Rom.4:5), the concept that we need to also confess with our mouth seems strange. But think of what happens when one who believes in his heart confesses his faith through his mouth. He acknowledges and glorifies God. He testifies to what God has done in his life. He proclaims his identity with Christ and his desire to follow Him. What does all this do for him? Sanctification! That seems to be the part of salvation that is referred to here. In fact, Paul makes the distinction in the same verse between being justified through faith and being saved (sanctified) through the confession of the mouth.
Remember also that it is ‘believing in the heart’ that is called for, and not just a mental assent. That kind of faith implies turning away from past sins and gratefully receiving justification as a gift. A mere mental acceptance of facts about Jesus and confessing them with the mouth will not justify anyone.
Good Life And Salvation
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1Jn.4:7). “If you know that He is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practises righteousness has been born of Him” (1Jn.2:29). Is John saying that loving others and being righteous are ways for us to be born again?
In the first epistle of John, one of his aims is to make a clear distinction between the children of God and the devil (1Jn.3:10;5:2). If we read these verses in that context, we can see that he is making such a distinction through the life people display.
This is just one example to illustrate the point that we must learn to read verses in the Bible in the context of all other verses, and not as proof texts.