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The Need for Biblical Interpretation

The need for biblical interpretation is ever-increasing in our postmodern age, especially considering the growing pluralism in the world. Since God is the ultimate authority in all matters, and we believe that the Bible is God’s very words, we look to the Bible for a solid foundation to all matters of life. Because of this, we want to know what the Bible means. In order to find this out, we need to reflect on how the meaning of the Bible is obtained.

Since we know that the books and letters of the Bible are a written form of communication, we know that three main components are involved, because these three components are part of any written communication. These are: the text/writing, the reader, and the author. First, it is important that we evaluate all three and see if they could be the determiners of meaning. We are asking, “Who or what determines the meaning of a biblical text?” The text cannot be the determiner of meaning because it is an inanimate object, and cannot produce meaning—it may convey meaning, but can never produce it. The reader cannot be the determiner of meaning, because if that is true, then there can be as many meanings as there are readers—and they cannot all be right. The author as the determiner of meaning is the only legitimate conclusion. The author meant one thing by what he wrote, and that intention was fixed at the time of writing—and cannot be changed. All literature is rightly interpreted this way.

Therefore, the main goal in interpreting the Bible is determining what the author meant by what he wrote. This goal that we want to reach cannot happen spontaneously, however. There are many barriers to discovering what the author meant by what he wrote. Historical barriers, cultural barriers, linguistic or language barriers, and philosophical barriers. Because of these barriers, the need for biblical interpretation is created.

First of all, we are centuries in time difference from the authors of the Old and New Testaments. There were things that were common to them back then, that may not be to us today. For instance, we cannot necessarily interpret Leviticus through a 21st century lens. Second, there are many cultural differences that cause a barrier between us and the time of the biblical writers. Namely, oaths and marriages were quite different in that day than in ours. It would not be sound, then, to think of Mary and Joseph’s “betrothal” (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-56) as simply an engagement in our time because engagement is culturally relevant to our world today. The culture then was much different than today, and this creates the need for biblical interpretation. Third, the very language of the Bible is not the language we speak. The original language of the Old Testament was Hebrew (with portions of Aramaic), and the New Testament in Greek. Hebrew and Greek are an entirely different language, with different letters, usages, rules, and phrases. Biblical interpretation is important because in order to determine what the author meant by what he wrote, we must look at the original languages as best as we can. Finally, the philosophy of the Bible is very different than that of our 21st century. We live in a postmodern world with pluralistic ideologies. This creates the need for biblical interpretation because the philosophy of the Bible is not pluralistic, and it is not hedonistic either, like our world is today. People today doubt the existence of a Triune God, while the people of Bible times just assumed His existence—their philosophy was different.

So then, discovering the author’s intended meaning will require biblical interpretation in light of all of these barriers that might hinder us from finding out the meaning that the author intended.

[Below is an addition, published on July 29, 2017]

So do we arrive at the true meaning of the Bible based on our own interpretation of the Bible? Can we arrive at a biblical interpretation on our own? Do we all have an equally valuable opinion about what Scripture means? Does everyone have a shot at biblical interpretation and can we use any rules of interpretation we want? It’s not exactly as simple as it may sound.

Consider the oft spoken phrase, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This is easily the most cliche statement uttered in Christian circles, usually when there is disagreement about the meaning of a text. And it is becoming quite wearisome to continually hear it spoken as a defense of one’s own interpretation of a text. Usually they add, “That’s your interpretation and this is mine.” I will go ahead and say at the outset that there are two fundamental reasons why this assumption is not only wrong, but even heretical in my estimation. First of all, it allows for everyone and anyone to have any opinion whatsoever about the meaning of Scripture. And secondly, it doesn’t allow the real meaning of the Bible to be preserved and taught.

Let’s deal with the first reason. It may sound narrow-minded to say that no one should be allowed to have as many opinions as they want about the meaning of Scripture, and yes – it is narrow-minded, but in a good way and I will explain this more later. The fallacy with this idea that everyone has a “say-so” concerning the meaning of Scripture is found in the implications and logical conclusions of that approach. What this approach to interpretation implies is that there is no real, concrete, or reliable interpretation of any biblical text whatsoever. If everyone has an equal say in what a text means, and if everyone’s assumption holds equal value (what this assertion implies), then there can be no real meaning. If A is equally valuable to B, C, and D, and they are all esteemed as possibly correct interpretations, then either everybody is right or everybody is wrong.

Now, let’s be honest – most of those interpretations are likely going to contradict one another. Most of the time varying interpretations contradict one another, otherwise there would be no disagreement leading to a round table discussion where everyone gives their opinions about meaning! And in the case when those interpretations do contradict, plain sense would tell you that not everybody around the table has an equal say about what a biblical text means. Either they are insane, or the authors of the Bible were insane. If Billy thinks the verse means that Scripture is without error, and Sally thinks the verse means that Scripture is full of error, then somebody is wrong because those two assertions contradict one another. Both of them might be wrong, but both of them cannot simultaneously be right.

The second reason this approach to interpretation is wrong also has to do with consistency – the author’s original meaning is no longer preserved. Consider that we do not believe it to be ethical or right to take a historical document and twist it anyway we want. When a document is written in history, the author’s meaning is sealed forever. Therefore, the only correct interpretation of any historical document must be in harmony and accordance with what the author really meant by what he wrote. We dare not do this with great works in history such as the writings of Eusebius, or Josephus, or the Constitution. One could possibly be jailed for reading something into those documents that was not intended by the original author.

So then, it is absolute insanity to suppose that it is wrong to do this with historical works, but it is right to do this with the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, supremely more valuable than any historical document – and like any historical document its meaning is sealed in history forever. The only way one can discover its meaning is by discovering the author’s original meaning – which we are very much able to do.

But note the insanity of interpreting a written text in any fashion desirable: If I text my wife that we need milk and eggs, she is not free to interpret that in any way she wants, and neither is anybody else. To take it a step further, let’s suppose I send her that text on Monday, and she doesn’t read it until Wednesday. Can she now interpret that anyway she wants, because it is an old message? I would believe her to be insane if she sat down with a group of her friends for two hours trying to figure out what I meant by that text. How strange would it be for each of her friends to offer a different interpretation of what I meant by that text. One might say, “Well here’s what I think – he probably wants you to buy rice milk and snake eggs.” Another remarks, “Your husband strikes me as the type that likes to get prepared, so he probably wants you to bring home a cow and a few chickens so that you never have to go to the market to buy milk and eggs ever again.” Another says, “Well, let’s think about it this way – what do you get when you mix milk and eggs? Usually scrambled eggs, right? He probably has a craving for some scrambled eggs from Cracker Barrel.”

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Clearly, I meant that my wife needs to pick up a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs from the supermarket. But with a philosophy of interpretation that allows for anyone to interpret what I wrote in any way they want, the original meaning is lost and no longer preserved. In fact, the value of my text becomes virtually worthless. The interpretations make my text obsolete. My text no longer has any value if it is subject to this many interpretations. Neither are we allowed to do this with the Bible!

It doesn’t matter what your interpretation is, and it doesn’t matter what my interpretation is. What matters is the right interpretation. We must answer the question: What did author of the text mean by what he wrote to the original audience?

Clearly, there are many other rules of interpretation to follow when seeking to discover the author’s original meaning. But all of those rules must flow from pursuing the answer to this one question. Therefore, any interpretation which does not agree with the author’s original meaning is false and should be rejected. And we discover the original meaning through careful study of the context, study of history, study of the original languages, and many other things. I understand that many of us do not have either the time nor the professional training required to use all of those means listed to discover the author’s original meaning. But there is one rule of interpretation upon which we must all agree. And this one rule of interpretation is fundamental to understanding any verse of Scripture, and it is certainly fundamental to discovering the author’s original meaning by what he wrote. In addition, while we may not know much of how to use those means of discovering the author’s meaning listed above, this one rule alone will suffice. In fact, all of those other means proceed from this one rule, therefore even using them is an extension of using this one rule (and to some degree is necessary to using this one rule in its fullness). This one rule concerns consistency, and it is this: We must interpret Scripture with Scripture. We must do so, brothers and sisters. This is to say, what we assert as an interpretation of any biblical text must agree with Scripture as a whole. If our interpretation is in disagreement with any other verse, idea, or teaching in Scripture then our interpretation is wrong and must be changed.

To the example earlier, if Sally asserts that the correct interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that Scripture contains error, then we must endeavor to discover if that interpretation agrees with the rest of Scripture. And anybody who knows their Bible even remotely understands that 2 Timothy 3:16, and Scripture as a whole refutes that interpretation. The Bible itself claims that it is a book that should be received as the divine revelation of God, for that is what it is. Therefore, it is without error and inerrant. So Sally’s interpretation is wrong.

Well, that’s just your interpretation.” Let us both stop saying this and encouraging others to do so. We are not free to interpret the Bible any way we want – we are only free to discover the author’s original meaning by what they wrote in the sacred text. Let us study the Scriptures daily to discover their true meaning, and may our interpretations be in unison with the overall teaching of Scripture.

You’ve Got Questions: Were the Ancient Manuscripts of the Bible Transmitted Accurately?

You’ve Got Questions: Were the Ancient Manuscripts of the Bible Transmitted Accurately?

When discussing the Bible with non-Christians, one might hear the objection: “Yes, the Bible reads that way now, but everyone knows that it has been changed.” Does this objection have any substance to it? How do we know that the Bible in our hands is a faithful transmission of the words that the inspired authors originally wrote?

The Old Testament originally was written in Hebrew, with a few Aramaic portions, between 1400 and 430 B.C. The New Testament was written in Greek between A.D. 45 and 90. The original copies of the ancient biblical texts are called autographs. All autographs of biblical books have been lost or destroyed, though we have thousands of ancient copies. The process of studying and comparing these copies to reconstruct the wording of the original is called textual criticism. This area of study flourished in the 16th Century with the introduction of the printing press, the revival of learning in Europe, and the Reformation. Since then, this science has continued to develop, reaching new heights with the discovery of many ancient manuscripts in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Most scholars agree that text criticism has served to confirm the reliable transmission of the Old and New Testament manuscripts. Furthermore, no text in question even affects Christian doctrine. Most unsolved textual issues have little or no doctrinal significance.

Our culture today is very accustomed to technology and advanced methods of communication, so sometimes we have suspicion towards more ancient methods of literature production. However, it should be noted that ancient Jewish rabbis and early Christian scribes usually exercised great precision in the copying of biblical texts. Jewish scribes followed detailed systems for counting letters in manuscripts and checking for accidental variations. Likewise, Christian scribes showed great caution, often having multiple correctors read through their copies to check for errors. Inevitably, all hand-copied manuscripts have some variations, but striking accuracy is seen in most ancient copies of our Old and New Testaments.

Old Testament

Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In 1947, the first part of a cache of ancient Jewish documents was discovered in caves near the Dead Sea. A young Arab goat herder investigated a cave after throwing a rock in and hearing a piece of pottery (a scroll jar) break. The documents discovered in these caves apparently belonged to a Jewish sect, the Essenes, who lived in a separatists community in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. In addition to the various sectarian documents and other extra-biblical literature found in the caves, scholars have found portions of all Old Testament books except Esther and Nehemiah. These manuscripts, which date from roughly 250 B.C. to A.D. 50, have come to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have had significant Old Testament manuscripts before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, like the Leningrad Codex (A.D. 1008) and the Aleppo Codex (A.D. 900), but the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are nearly identical to the later manuscripts of the Old Testament) pushed the Hebrew manuscript evidence back a millennium earlier. The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the Hebrew books of the Bible were meticulously and faithfully copied.

In addition to ancient Hebrew texts, we also have ancient copies of the Old Testament translated into several other languages: Greek, Latin, Syriac, etc. Ancient translations of the Old Testament sometimes help in the deciphering of a difficult Hebrew word or phrase. More importantly, these texts sometimes can serve as helpful witnesses to variant readings in the ancient Hebrew.

New Testament

Even within the Bible itself, we find evidence of New Testament documents being hand-copied and circulated (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Peter 3:15-16). As of right now, we have nearly six thousand ancient manuscripts or portions of manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest extant fragment of the New Testament, which is John 18:31-33, 37-38, comes from about A.D. 130. Here’s why is it important to note that we have this many ancient manuscripts: No other ancient text comes even close to having this amount of early textual evidence. F. F. Bruce brings out this truth and is worth quoting at length:

“Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS (manuscripts), but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Live (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty manuscripts of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two manuscripts, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant manuscripts of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C. ) is known to us from eight manuscript, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-438 B.C.). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use are over 1,300 years later than the originals.” (1)

About 95 percent of textual variants in the numerous manuscripts are accidental; the unintentional variations introduced by tired or incompetent scribes. There were errors of sight, errors of hearing, writing, and poor judgment. But the remaining 5 percent of textual variants resulted from intentional activity on the part of scribes. Such changes like revising grammar or spelling, harmonizing similar passages, or conflating the text. (2)

Of course, with so many ancient texts at our disposal, we can dismiss most of the variants listed above, and therefore there is no need to cite the majority of variants in modern English translations. The Bible has proved over the centuries to be reliable and trustworthy, and is indeed “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16b-17). Let us say with the psalmist David, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).


 

1. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 11.
2. Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 52-54.

You’ve Got Questions: What’s Wrong With Using Allegory to Interpret Scripture?

You’ve Got Questions: What is Wrong with Using Allegory in Interpreting Scripture?

Any time spent in the Word of God is time well-spent. Reading one verse of Scripture is worth having been born just to have the existence to read it. However, while it is always beneficial to read and study the Word of God, it must be recognized that there are faulty interpretative methods used in study of the Bible. One of these flawed interpretative methods used often times is the allegorical approach to interpretation.

Not long after the period of the New Testament, some early church fathers began to use allegorical methods of interpretation (Origen for example). Allegory as defined, is a genre of literature that assigns symbolic significance to textual details. A good example of the use of allegory is in John Bunyan’s famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress. Every character has a signification in relation to the Christian life. Now, when allegory is intended by the writer and understood by the reader(s), allegory can be a powerful literary tool. But, if it is not intended by the author and is used as an interpretive method by the reader, then a dangerous and faulty misrepresentation of the author’s meaning will surely be the result.

A significant reason why allegorical interpretation is flawed is defined in what we are trying to accomplish through interpretation in the first place. What goal are we striving to reach when we study the Bible? We are striving to discover the author’s intended meaning in a text. We are not studying the Bible to discover some secret meaning. If we are using an allegorical approach, then we aren’t trying to discover the author’s intended meaning—we are concluding on an interpretation that appeals to our senses. Just think if two or more people used the allegorical approach to studying the Bible—if that’s the case, then there can be as many interpretations as there are readers! We shouldn’t arrive at an interpretation of a text based on some mysterious skepticism, we should arrive at an interpretation of a text based on the author’s intended meaning.

You would not interpret the Constitution using allegory. The goal is to discover what the Constitutional writers meant by what they wrote. You would not interpret the daily newspaper using allegory. The goal is to find out what the reporters mean by what they write. You wouldn’t even consider using allegory to correctly understand any material you are reading (unless of course the literary genre is allegory). Why should you use allegory in interpreting the Bible? You shouldn’t use allegory unless it is implied by the author. The problem isn’t the literary tool of allegory—the problem is illegitimate importation of allegory.

In any act of communication, there are three elements: a writer or speaker, a text or spoken words, and a reader or listener. So when it comes to the Bible, who decides what the correct meaning is? Many say that the reader is the determiner of meaning, but if that is so, then there can be as many interpretations as there are readers—and they can’t all be right. Some say that the text is the determiner of meaning, but a text is an inanimate object. Texts cannot construct or create meaning, but they can convey meaning. Someone has to put these words on paper, they don’t just evolve onto papyrus or scrolls. The determiner of meaning is the author. The author intended something for a specific group of people at a specific time in history. Any act of communication can progress only on the assumption that someone (the author) is trying to convey meaning to us and we then respond to that meaning by the speaker or writer.

For further helps on interpreting the Bible, please consult: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Robert H. Stein and 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, Robert L. Plummer

 

You’ve Got Questions: What are the Different Views on the Inspiration of the Bible (and Which One is Correct)?

You’ve Got Questions: What are the Different Views on the Inspiration of the Bible (and Which One is Correct)?

Everyone who claims the name “Christian” must believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet, a wide variety of meanings are attached to the word “inspired.” There are four main views on the inspiration of the Bible:

1. Neo-Orthodox Theory. This view holds that God is utterly transcendent; that is, He is absolutely different from us and far beyond our comprehension (see What is the Incomprehensibility of God?). We can only know something about him if He reveals Himself to us, as He did in Jesus Christ. Neo-Orthodoxy asserts that the Bible is a witness to the Word of God or contains the Word of God. According to this view, as people of biblical times experienced God, they recorded their encounters the best they could. Sometimes their reports contained paradoxes or even errors, but their descriptions nonetheless help other understand God better. And as others experience God through these accounts, the accounts become God’s Word all over again.

Evaluation

Neo-Orthodoxy does have a high view of God. However, the Bible claims to be more than simply a witness to the Word of God. It testifies that it is God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible also claims that as God revealed Himself, people inspired by the Holy Spirit recorded His message (2 Peter 1:20-21). They could do so because God accommodated Himself to their limited understanding. Neo-Orthodoxy, thus fails to provide an adequate explanation for all the biblical evidence, and should be rejected entirely.

2. Dictation Theory. This view, as the term implies, suggests God simply dictated the Bible to human scribes. God chose certain individuals to record His Word and gave them the exact words He wanted. The writers wrote only what God dictated to them. This view is generally rejected by most, but has been suggested by segments of conservative Christianity.

Evaluation

Scripture does suggest that sometimes God may have communicated a precise, word-for-word message to human authors (Jer. 26:2; Rev. 2:1, 8). At other times, He allowed writers to express their own personalities as they wrote (Gal. 1:6; 3:1; Phil. 1:3, 4, 8). Still, the Holy Spirit ensured the finished work accurately communicated God’s intention. Thus, the dictation theory does not account for all the biblical evidence and is therefore inadequate as a theory of inspiration and should thus, be rejected entirely.

3. Limited Inspiration Theory. This view holds that God inspired the thoughts of the biblical writers, but not necessarily the words they chose. God guided the writers, but He gave them the freedom to express His thoughts in their own ways. Because the writers had this freedom, the historical details they wrote may contain errors. However, the Holy Spirit protected the doctrinal portions of Scripture from any error to safeguard God’s message of salvation.

Evaluation

The Bible is used for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16), but the historical records of the Bible are absolutely vital for the doctrinal parts of the Bible to be confirmed. An actual historical Adam is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21. Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:41 imply that the book of Jonah is not merely a parable; rather, a real historical prophet named Jonah who actually preached to the Ninevites. Now, most Bible students recognize that there are statements in Scripture that are hard to reconcile. But is the best solution to admit error? If God allowed for error in His Word in Genesis 1, why would I consider believing that John 3:16 is true also? This view is therefore inadequate as a theory of inspiration, and should be rejected.

4. Verbal Plenary Theory. Like the other views, verbal plenary inspiration asserts the Holy Spirit interacted with human writers to produce the Bible. Verbal refers to the words of Scripture. Verbal inspiration means God’s inspiration extends to the very words the writers chose, but it is not the same as the dictation theory. The writers could have chosen other words, and God often allowed them the freedom to express their own personalities as they wrote. But the Holy Spirit so guided the process that the words they chose accurately conveyed the meaning God intended. Plenary means “full” or “complete.” Plenary inspiration asserts that God’s inspiration extends to all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. God guided the writers no less when they recorded the historical details than when they discussed doctrinal matters.

Evaluation

The verbal plenary inspiration view seems to deal best with all the biblical evidence. It recognizes the human element in Scripture, and allows that different writers wrote in different ways. But it also affirms the Holy Spirit as the Bible’s ultimate Author. The Spirit of God prompted human authors to communicate God’s message of love and salvation to a world that desperately needed it.

Implications of Verbal Plenary Inspiration

If the Word of God is indeed, dually authored as the verbal plenary inspiration view asserts, several implications are true for the way we approach the Bible:

First, it means the Bible is trustworthy. We can trust it to provide reliable information. It provides many insights into the history of God’s people and also describes God’s plan for the world and for our lives. It reveals life’s highest meaning and purpose, and tells us how to become all God wants us to be.

Second, verbal plenary inspiration means the Bible is authoritative. Because it is God’s Word, it speaks with God’s authority. It calls us to read it, to understand its meaning, and to submit to it. And it remains God’s truth whether or not we choose to submit.

Recommended Resources: Encountering the Old Testament and 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible

You’ve Got Questions: Is Justification by Faith or by Works?

You’ve Got Questions: Does James’ Teaching About Faith and Works Contradict Paul’s Teaching About Faith and Works?

When climbing from lowlands to mountaintops, one must often pass through clouds. While ascending to the peak, sight soon becomes fogged. When you enter a layer of clouds, it helps to have a guide to help you avoid loose rocks that you can’t see as you try to get the best views of the mountaintop. I hope that this article will serve as a guide to clarification regarding the compatibility of the teachings of Paul and James about faith and works. If you’ve studied the Scriptures for long, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. We often receive questions along the lines of “Explain how these verses do not contradict!” or “Look, here is an error in the Bible!” If you are troubled in answering your skeptics or just desiring clarity from theses passages of Scripture, I pray that you are helped by the information presented here. I want you to get the best view of the mountaintop of truth that is evident in these passages.

The Obstacle in Our Journey

The obstacle that we have approached in our journey of Bible study is this: Does James’ teaching on faith and works contradict Paul’s teaching on faith and works? To answer this question it is important to understand that there are difficult passages of Scripture. There are verses that appear to contradict each other. We must remember that the Bible was written by approximately 40 different authors over a period of around 1500 years. Each writer wrote with a different style, from a different perspective, to a different audience, for a different purpose. We should expect some minor differences. However, a difference is not a contradiction. It is only an error if there is absolutely no conceivable way the verses or passages can be reconciled.

James writes in his letter “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24; out of context), while Paul writes to the Romans “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28; also out of context). Some see an apparent contradiction by saying that Paul is teaching salvation by faith alone and James is teaching salvation by faith plus works. This apparent problem is solved just by examining the contexts of the passages.

The Clouds Dissipate

To begin, let’s look at an earlier verse where this concept began: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21 ESV). On the surface, James may seem to contradict Paul. Paul denies that Abraham was “justified by works” (Rom. 4:2), arguing from Genesis 15:6 that Abraham’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). However, James’ assertion in this verse (that “Abraham [was]. . . justified by works”) is based not on Genesis 15:6 but on Genesis 22:9-10, where (many years later) Abraham began to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Thus, James apparently has a different sense of the word “justify” in view here, as evidenced by the different Scripture passages, and the different events in Abraham’s life, to which James and Paul refer. The primary way in which Paul uses the word “justify” emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–26), whereas the primary way that James uses the word “justify” here in James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (see Matt. 12:33–37).

With that biblical concept in mind, some clouds have hopefully dissipated as we now look at the verse in question. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). James again seems at first to contradict Paul’s teaching that one is justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28), but the two are compatible. For James, “faith alone” means a bogus kind of faith, a mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit in one’s life. Recall how the “demons believe—and shudder” (2:19). He is arguing that simple mental assent to the Christian faith does not save anyone. The faith that saves, as both Paul and James both affirm, embraces the truth of the gospel and acts accordingly. Therefore, the conclusion drawn is that James, in agreement with Paul, argues that true faith is never alone: it always produces works (Eph. 2:10).

I have heard it said well before that Paul is emphasizing the purpose of faith: to bring salvation. While James is emphasizing the results of faith: a changed life. Paul expects just as much of a changed life as James does: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). James and Paul do not disagree in their teaching regarding salvation. They approach the same subject from different perspectives. Paul simply emphasized that justification is by faith alone while James put emphasis on the fact that genuine faith in Christ produces good works.

Keep Digging and Digging

The Bible is a book that is not merely for reading. It is a book for studying so that it can be applied. Through careful study in the contexts of our passages above, the answer is discovered. If vigorous study of the Word is neglected, then it is like swallowing food without chewing and then spitting it back out again—no nutritional value is gained by it. The Bible is God’s Word. As such, it is as binding as the laws of nature. We can ignore it, but we do so to our own detriment, just as we would if we ignored the law of gravity. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough just how important the Bible is to our lives! Studying the Bible can be compared to mining for gold. If we make little effort and merely “sift through the pebbles in a stream,” we will only find a little gold dust. But the more we make an effort to really dig into it, the more reward we will gain for our effort. “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:16).