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Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Look, let's be honest. Christianity does not present a unified front. We are not all in warm, amicable agreement on all points of doctrine. Given. Some have suggested that we should be, and I think Paul disagreed (1 Cor 11:19). Others have suggested that what we believe isn't nearly as important as how we live, and I think Jesus disagreed (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28, 7:22-23). Still others have suggested that we're human (true) and prone to error (true) and, therefore, we simply can't know the truth (ah, there's the rub!) for sure, so we shouldn't worry about it. "Can't we all just get along?" Jesus, however, told us that we would know the truth, that the Spirit was sent to lead us into all truth, and so on. Indeed, the Bible says "we know ..." over and over because apparently we can know. So the question is, "How can we know what is true?" I'd like to suggest a few possible tools, some hints, some questions to ask yourself when you think you understand something.

Is it true to the text? This is the simplest, most obvious question. And, somehow, it is often overlooked. Most believe, for instance, that any man can come to Christ despite the clear statement, "No man can come to Me unless ...". Sure, the former sounds right, even feels right, but it isn't what the text says. Or an extremely common one today is on whether or not women should be in positions of leadership over men in the church. "Of course!" loud and numerous voices assure us. But it's not what the text says. On the other hand, most of us, if we're honest, chafe at that whole "Jesus is the only way" thing. I mean, seriously, that kind of exclusivity sounds ... arrogant. But Jesus Himself said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me." So while we might think it sounds arrogant, it is indeed true to the text, so it is true.

Is it true to the context? This is where there begins to be some question about the first point. Sometimes context is needed to properly define the text. Far too often text is taken out of context to say something that it doesn't say. A non-confrontational example is one I'm sure we've all seen. Jesus said, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me" (Rev 3:20). An open invitation for unbelievers! But ... the context speaks of something somewhat different. This quote is in a letter "to the angel of the church in Laodicea." It's not a call to unbelievers. It's a call to lukewarm believers. Context is important. Or how about this one? "God doesn't want us to have any fear because He said, 'Perfect love casts out fear'." Well, that is what the verse says; it just doesn't work in context. The context (1 John 4:15-21) is in regards to abiding in God. The context tells us that God is the source of love. The context tells us that when we abide perfectly in God, we love perfectly. Since all sin is a failure to love (God or your neighbor), then when we love perfectly, we have no fear of punishment. Thus, when we arrive at loving perfectly (that's the "perfect love" -- not God's love for us), we have no fear of punishment because we will have arrived at perfection. In other words, the context of this quote does not contradict the repeated commands and warnings to "fear God". The context is telling us about our perfect love. Context, context, context.

Is it biblically coherent? I've hinted above at this one. "The context of this quote does not contradict the repeated commands and warnings to 'fear God'." If the Bible is indeed God-breathed, then the Bible won't contradict itself. It will not tell you, "Jesus is the only way" and "Jesus is not the only way" (as a silly example). So when you read, "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) and then you read, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24), you should recognize that you cannot go with "Is it true to the text?" because something is not right here when it is taken at plain, face value. Now, context helps here. Paul's context in Ephesians was "How do you get saved?" and James's context in the latter epistle was "How do I know if it's living faith or dead faith?" That ought to be a clue. It also ought to be a clue that both Paul and James used Abraham as their example, but their "proof" was years apart. That is, "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness" happened a long time before "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?" So you get a clue from context that the two (Paul and James) are not talking about the same sort of "justification", that they're not both talking about how you get saved, and, therefore, are not contradicting each other. They are saying what Martin Luther said in brief: "We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone." And we end up with biblical coherence rather than contradiction while remaining true to text and context.

Another very helpful tool is Church doctrine over history. What has the Church said over time? If Jesus was right -- if the Spirit was given to lead His people into all truth -- then it must be that the truth has been maintained for the past 2000 years. It is my conviction that it has. So I get wary when someone comes up with a "new" truth. "Oh," they might say, "we've finally figured this out after all these years although no one before us ever did." There are lots of these areas. Dispensationalism didn't really hit the public market until the 1800's. It has only been in the last 50 years (or less) that some figured out that it is not a sin to engage in homosexual activities. "New insight!" We've recently determined that marriage is not simply between a man and a woman ... although it has always been thus. "We've just figured this out!" I'd be cautious. Now, Church tradition is not authoritative, but I prefer to be cautious about "new" things. It seems the ultimate in arrogance to say, "We've just figured this out after 2000 years when no one else before us could!" I'd recommend not going there.

I'm going to offer one last suggestion that you may not have considered. Does it increase Man and decrease God? Paul said, "Let God be true, but every man a liar" (Rom 3:4). God said, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer 17:9). The basic motivation for all of our sin is "I will be like the Most High." Thus, we are self-deceiving posers to the throne. As such, it is our natural (sin) tendency to want to bring God down and bring Man up. We want to lower the standard. We want to minimize the problem. We want to make us closer to god and God closer to us. So we want Him to be thoroughly understandable. If you get there, you're in the wrong place. The Infinite cannot be grasped by the finite. We want to say that Man isn't nearly that bad. David referred to himself as a worm (Psa 22:6), but we would beg to differ. We're noble, important, maybe even critical beings whom God would do well to serve. When your beliefs tend toward a diminished God and an improved position for Man, I would warn you that you might not be heading the right direction. "We're not that bad" may be true ... but I'd tend to wonder. "God is my buddy", "the Man Upstairs", "the Big Guy" -- these absolutely do not refer to the God of the Bible. Neither a diminished God nor an improved Man bode well for a biblical belief system.

These are just a few quick ideas. I think that they work pretty well. We are obviously human and we do obviously err. I'd doubt that any one of us actually has perfect doctrine or perfect understanding. On the other hand, I don't think that this should preclude us from knowing some things with sufficient certainty as to be able to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints". If we are commanded to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort", it is only reasonable that we have some grounds for relative certainty. On the other hand, if Scripture repeatedly tells us things we can know and we claim uncertainty out of "humility", that's pretty arrogant. (And why do you suppose it is that those who "humbly" cry out against "the arrogance of certainty" are certain they need to correct those who are certain?) (Sorry -- rhetorical question.)

Turns out that Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon about the concept of detecting heresy by how a doctrine decreases God or increases Man. I guess I'm not alone.

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