Occasionally, we encounter one of those “difficult questions” where the Scripture hasn’t given us as clear a statement as we might like. I’d like to give some general principles to keep in mind when we meet those difficult questions.
1. Be Careful With “Thus Saith the Lord”
5 Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
6 Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.
We must not say that God has said something when He hasn’t. To do so is to take His name in vain (use it lightly). When we claim for our words the authority of God’s words, we had better be very sure that our words accurately reflect His, or we exalt ourselves into the place of God Himself. If we say, “The Bible teaches…” we must be sure.
There is a small but very important difference between “The Bible says…” or “God says…” on the one hand, and on the other hand “This is my best understanding of the Bible…” or “I believe this is what God is saying….”
When dealing with difficult questions, where God has not spoken as clearly as we might wish, we must not provide our own “clarity” and attribute it to God, even if we think our understanding is correct.
2. Search the Whole Counsel of God
II Timothy 3:16
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Faithful service requires us to search all of God’s Word. “All Scripture” is God-inspired and profitable for doctrine. With most doctrinal questions, many passages throughout both the Old and New Testaments inform and refine our understanding of God’s truth. If God wants us to have an answer to our question, but it is not clearly and directly answered in any one Scripture passage, we would expect to find many passages which shed light on it.
All Scripture is true, so we seek for the explanation which fits all the Biblical record – individual statements in Scripture as well as broad theological truths, such as the nature of God’s character and His plan of redemption for lost sinners.
3. Use the Clear to Shed Light on the Difficult
II Peter 3:15-16
15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
Some Scriptures are hard to understand. This should not surprise us, nor discourage us.
II Timothy 3:15
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
Other Scriptures are easier, and can be understood even by young children.
We should use those Scriptures that are easier to understand as our starting point. If all Scripture is true, then no Scripture will contradict another. Thus, the true meaning of passages which are hard to understand will fit with the rest of Scripture. By starting with the clear / easier passages, we eliminate most wrong interpretations of those difficult passages right from the beginning.
4. Don’t Expect Everything to be Easy
II Timothy 2:15
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
This verse tells us we need to be studious / diligent workmen to rightly divide the Word. It may require diligent labour. We should not expect all of God’s truth to be laid out in simple, clear statements. It has to be “rightly divided” and that takes work. Scripture can be understood, but it may not all be easy.
The doctrine of Scriptural sufficiency is that Scripture has every answer we need, but it is not a promise that the Scriptures make everything easy. This verse tells us we may need to work to get that answer.
5. Proof-Texting is Dangerous (part one)
Proof-texting is the practice of using isolated statements from Scripture to prove a point. This can be appropriate, for every word of God is true. If an isolated statement really does say what it appears to say, then we accept what God has said, even if He only gave us one clear statement.
But sometimes a verse may appear to say something it really doesn’t say. We can get it wrong by looking at a single verse out of context. I recently wrote on a commonly used proof-text for the idea that we should be dancing in church:
Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.
In the context, Psalm 149:3 is not telling us to dance in church at all.
Where Scripture gives simple / clear statements, they protect us from drifting into proof-texting errors in other passages on the same subject (see #3 above). However, on difficult questions, the dangers of proof-texting are greater because we lack the same protection (if we had clear statements, it wouldn’t be a difficult question :)). We must be wary of conclusions relying on only one or two passages, especially if they are not crystal-clear and carefully studied in context.
6. Proof-Texting is Dangerous (part two)
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
Proof-texting is also dangerous if we are only willing to believe what is stated in clear proof-texts. God doesn’t want us to know a series of proof-texts, He wants us to know Him. He could have provided a systematic textbook full of propositional statements answering our questions, but He didn’t do that. God is not merely a system of knowledge.
Clear doctrinal statements / proof-texts are anchors in our knowledge of God, but the rest of Scripture is profitable, too. It helps us to know Him, and many things in Scripture inform us of who our God is, and how He works.
7. Evidence and Proof are not the Same Thing
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
The passage above gives proof (to anyone who believes Scripture) that we are saved by grace, through faith, not of works. It is ironclad. But some things in Scripture are not so easily proven, yet we have ample evidence to support our conclusions.
I Corinthians 14:22
Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.
This verse tells us the purpose of the gift of tongues is for a sign to unbelievers — but a sign of what? It doesn’t say. The Isaiah passage quoted in the prior verse gives one clue, or piece of evidence. I Corinthians 1:22 gives a clue about the recipients of the sign. When we see how the gift was used in Acts 2 and 10, and Peter’s reference to it in Acts 11, we get more evidence. We can’t point to conclusive proof as to the nature of this sign, but when you put all the evidence together, the picture becomes clear.
8. Recognise that the Difficulty May Have a Purpose
And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.
The lack of clear statements is itself evidence — understanding why God left it difficult may help answer our question. It helps us understand the parables in Luke 8 to note they were spoken to believers, not the lost. Difficulty doesn’t mean God didn’t want anyone to understand.
We don’t have to know the reason God made something difficult. But if we lack any explanation at all for why God may have chosen not to make it easy, perhaps we don’t understand the topic very well yet. We should not only try to answer the question, but understand why God made it difficult to answer, because knowing that will help us see the whole picture the way God wants us to see it.
9. The Need for Humility (part one)
The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.
Sometimes, we just need to be ready to say, “I don’t know.” God doesn’t have to answer all of our questions. Our pride makes us want to have all the answers to all questions, but God’s purposes are not ours.
Sometimes, a father doesn’t tell his children something because it is better for them not to know. Maybe they won’t understand. Maybe he is keeping a secret for a special surprise for them later. Our Heavenly Father does not answer all of our questions, either. The thunders of Revelation 10 weren’t written down, there are things God hasn’t told us. (Thus, no one has a perfect understanding of Biblical prophecy.)
10. The Need for Humility (part two)
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
Sometimes, we need to be ready to say, “I know, but I don’t understand.” We don’t have to understand everything about something God tells us to believe what He has said. Sometimes, the difficulty isn’t really in knowing what God says, but in understanding some aspect of it. When that happens, it would be nice to understand everything, but faith demands that we believe, even if we don’t understand.
These ten principles will not guarantee that we do not err, but they are helpful as we seek to understand what God has said on some of the difficult questions we may encounter as we study His Word.