I am a big fan of stating the obvious, and I believe that as humans, for whatever reason, we need the obvious stated to us often. So this post is a bit of an exercise in the obvious.
The meaning of a statement can rarely be ascertained without the context of the statement. Let’s start with a simple statement:
“The grass is green”
If you are standing in the middle of a desert that statement is a statement of a miracle of sorts. If you sprayed your driveway with round up three weeks ago and are looking at the grass in the cracks it is a statement of disappointment. Without context you cannot know whether the statement is positive or negative in tone.
Because this blog centers primarily on theology let’s move to a more appropriate example. Let’s try this statement.
“Jesus is the way”
Is that a true statement? There is no way to tell without context. If someone asks me, how do I get to the grocery store, and I answer “Jesus is the way” it would be ridiculous. If someone asks me how can I get to hell, that statement would be even more unhelpful. To have any idea of what is intended by the statement “Jesus is the way” some sort of context must be given.
Again this is an exercise in the obvious, but it seems to become less obvious when we are dealing with the scripture. We have been taught, and rightly so, that every word of scripture is inspired, God breathed, and inerrant. Of course we cannot understand scripture without it’s context, we all agree with that, but I do not think we are near as aware of the danger of placing a scripture in the wrong context.
If I am giving directions to a grocery store, and the final information I give is: “The grocery store will be on your right.” That statement would only be truthful if you were approaching the store from the directions I gave. To say the “the store is on the right” is an absolute truth within the context of the directions, but outside of the context it could be the polar opposite of the truth. Nobody who read the entire directions to the store would argue with the veracity of the claim that the store was on the right.
Now the problem arises when we affirm something as an absolute truth while placing it in a context that makes that very truth a lie. This is not postmodernism, in fact it is quite the opposite. I affirm it is an absolute truth that the store is on the North side of the road, but ‘left’ or ‘right’ are relative to context.
Again we affirm that the scriptures are absolute, when understood within their context, but by quoting a scripture you are not guaranteed to be quoting absolute truth. This is where it gets a little bit more sticky.
Let’s take a super important question: “What must I do to be saved?” We want to answer that question with scripture, so what scripture should we use to answer that? We must use a scripture that is answering the same question. A common Evangelical answer to that question would be to quote Romans 10:9.
9 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.
This seems like a fair statement, by doing this we answer the simple question, with a simple scripture that contains absolute truth. However, does Romans 10:9 intend to answer the question “What must I do to be saved” or is it answering a different question? The context of Romans 9 through Romans 11 involves the salvation of Jews and Gentiles and it is answering a question regarding who is saved and why, but Romans 10:9 is not laying out the way to be saved. An honest reading of the whole context of Romans 9-11 would make that clear. It is not appropriate to use a scripture to deliver an answer that was not intended to be delivered by that scripture. Now we can disagree with the meaning of Romans 10:9 and what it means in context, but let’s at least be careful to examine what Romans 10:9 is actually answering before we drop it into our conversation.
I do not hold to baptismal regeneration, I am not Lutheran or Catholic on this, but the bottom line is that Acts 2:38 answers the question… “What must I do?” If you read Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and you see that the hearers have come to a place of despair, you see that their question is exactly the question we are dealing with. “What must I do to be saved?”
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now we must do some leg work into what is meant by being ‘baptized in the name of Jesus Christ’, which might be something for another day, but at least by answering the question with Acts 2:38 you are answering the question in a way that is honest to the context.
So what about Romans 10:9, or even the entire “Romans Road” that so many people use to lead people to Christ? Is “Romans Road” evangelism biblical? Well it uses the bible, so in that sense it is biblical, but is it aware of the context? Look to the beginning of Romans:
Romans 1:8–13 (ESV)
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.
At the outset of Romans we see who this is written to. Believers! The audience is not the lost. That alone should temper our reading of Romans. Nothing in Romans is written as praxis on how to get saved. Yes it certainly speaks eternal truths regarding salvation, yes it answers why people are saved, and how people are saved, but it is answering those questions to people who already believe. In other words it is written to people heading west down the road who will indeed need to turn ‘right’ into the grocery store on the north. It is not written to those heading east.
We could go on and on with countless scriptures, Matthew 7:21-23 is another big one that abuses the context. (I’ve blogged about that before.)
I encourage you, before you quote scripture make sure that your usage of it is appropriate to the context it fits within.