One Piece Does Not a Puzzle Make
I recently wrote about the dangers of twisting Scripture, and the response to that article has been significantly larger than most other articles I have written. It appears to have resonated with a large number of people, and there seems to be tremendous hunger to recognize and move beyond the misuse and misinterpretation of Scripture. I am very thankful for that.
One of the important keys to properly understanding the Bible’s teaching is to read passages in context. What do the surrounding verses say? What is the overall theme of the entire paragraph and the entire letter or book? What do other biblical authors say about the same topic? What about the comprehensive teaching of the Covenant within which the teaching occurs? What was the cultural setting in which it was written, and what do we know about the audience who first received it? All of this is contributes to obtaining a better understanding of the meaning of an individual verse or set of verses.
Can you imagine someone opening up a box containing a jigsaw puzzle, and simply picking up one or two pieces of the puzzle? Imagine them holding up that piece or two and feeling like they’ve made a great discovery! At the same time, they blatantly disregard the hundreds of other necessary pieces that are designed to give a complete picture. We might think that is an absurd illustration, but people do the same thing with Scripture frequently. It takes all of the pieces of a puzzle to make a complete picture, and it takes the whole counsel—the comprehensive teaching—of God to give us an accurate picture of God and his will for our lives. Some ministers in generations past have addressed this issue.
In 1975, Bob Buess wrote the following in his book, The Pendulum Swings. “A few years ago I was interested in a certain teaching, so I began to pursue the Word of God to find more on this subject. I believe the Bible from cover to cover, but I allowed myself to disregard certain Scriptures. I blanked out certain truths. My mind became completely indifferent to certain verses in the Word. I began to defend my new doctrine. It was, in a subtle way, becoming a god which I had to defend and protect.
I was not an unusual case. It’s easy for Christians to pursue a thought which the Holy Spirit aroused in them as they studied the Scriptures. In their excitement, they set out to explore the Word of God to see what could be found. When they find a few Scriptures to support this new-found idea, they soon can be running madly through the Bible trying to prove their theory.
Dogmatism begins to set in. Without fully realizing what they are doing, these people jump verses, throw out some, and ignore others to prove their point. People driven by this cause rush madly on in a pursuit of new arguments to promote their theory. As time passes they become harsh.
Gordon Lindsay writes of the unfortunate demise of John Alexander Dowie’s ministry, and mentions a “fixation” as one of the causes. He writes, “practically all false teaching involves a fixation in the mind of the victim who embraces it.” Lindsay states, “The Apostle Paul oft repeated the warning that believers should adhere to ‘sound doctrine.’ The alternative is to ride some ‘hobby horse’ or get off on some tangent that violates the spirit of evangelical truth―thus dividing the Body of Christ.” He continues, “How sad it is to see a man with abilities which, no doubt, could be greatly used by God, lose interest in the great evangelical truths, the salvation of lost souls, and become obsessed with a ‘hobby horse’ that immobilizes his talents for God, and reduced his value to God and humanity.”
The great Pentecostal pioneer, Donald Gee speaks similarly in a 1953 edition of “The Voice of Healing.” “So many of us are [firmly established] extremists. If we see any ray of truth we push it to such an extreme that our constant pressing of it becomes offensive, vain, and at last erroneous. If we discover any successful line of ministry we run after it to such an extent that it becomes nauseating and exhausted. We are forever missing genuine usefulness by our constant failure to keep well-balanced. In the end men lose confidence in us, our intemperance grieves the Holy Spirit, and we are cast upon the scrap-heap of rejected and unprofitable servants.”
In teaching the Bible, I have often stressed balance. It is important to understand that balance is not 50% faith and 50% unbelief; neither is balance 50% grace and 50% legalism. Rather, balance is the healthy and harmonious integration of everything God teaches in his Word. Balance does not just recognize one aspect of what God says about a topic while ignoring other truths, but considers everything God says about an issue. This is why it is important not just to look at the Bible as a repository of trite clichés or “proof texts.” We are not to approach the Bible like a fortune cookie that merely contains great, isolated one-liners.
It would be more accurate to think of the God’s truth as contained in the Bible to be like a large, beautiful diamond with many different facets. To truly appreciate a diamond, you need to look at it closely, turning it slowly, appreciating each facet that comprises the entire stone. Unfortunately, many Christians become enamored with one “facet” of God’s truth. They isolate that one doctrine and exclude other important insights that would complement and supplement that particular truth the way God intended.
How does this work in our studies today? We can apply these principles to any subject of study. For example, faith is a wonderful and important Bible truth; it is one facet of God’s overall Truth. While the attributes and functioning of faith can certainly be studied as an individual topic, it is also important to study how faith interacts with and relates to other spiritual truths. For example, when James wrote of the testing of the faith of believers, he did not deal with faith alone or in an isolated sense. Consider his remarks, as well as those of Paul:
JAMES 1:2-5 (NLT, emphasis added)
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.
ROMANS 15:13 (NKJV, emphasis added)
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When you study faith (and believing) in this slightly broader context, you see that there is more to a successful faith journey than just faith itself. Just the two passages above reveal that as we trust God and his word, it is also important to maintain our joy, exercise endurance, seek wisdom, walk in peace, and abound in hope. And we don’t do any of this by mere human effort, we do so, as Paul said in Romans 15:13, relying on “the power of the Holy Spirit.” The key thought here is that we must integrate passages of Scripture together, not isolate them from each other.
The same principles of study apply to the topic of grace. In recent years, several wild and erroneous ideas have been promoted about grace because certain teachings on this subject have grossly disregarded the contextual issues mentioned earlier in this letter. I remember hearing a person say, “I used to be a faith person, but now I am a grace person.” I think I know what they were attempting to convey, but where in the Bible are grace and faith pitted against each other? No where!
Grace and faith are complementary and they collaborate beautifully for our benefit. Paul declares, “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8, emphasis added). He also writes of Jesus saying, “through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2, emphasis added). To his young protégé, Paul writes, “And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:14, emphasis added).
Likewise, some people got the false idea that grace promotes a flippant, almost dismissive idea toward sin—that the believer’s behavior isn’t really that important and that any emphasis on right living is somehow antithetical to the message of grace. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Grace does not make holy living unnecessary; grace makes holy living possible! Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).
Other people became excited about grace and decided that serving God and working for God was unnecessary. Again, grace does not make serving God unnecessary; grace empowers us to serve God appropriately! Hebrews 12:28 states, “let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” A careful study of the New Testament that integrates grace instead of isolating it from the overall body of truth will cause us to understand that grace does not make repentance unnecessary; grace makes repentance possible. Grace does not make consecration unnecessary; grace makes consecration possible.
In the same manner, grace does not make obedience unnecessary; grace makes obedience possible. Speaking of Jesus, Paul writes, “Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name” (Rom 1:5, emphasis added). As believers, we have the privilege and joy of aspiring to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4) and by “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Let’s not be content to hold just one or two puzzle pieces in our hands; let’s be diligent, thorough students of Scripture and apply ourselves to getting the whole picture of what God wants us to see.