Striving to understand the specific purpose for which a Bible author wrote what they did is essential to right interpretation. That might seem obvious, but history demonstrates that it is rarely applied. What is far more common is to take a topic recognized in a specific book or verse of the Bible, and remove it from its’ context and filter it backwards through a preferred theology.
Take the concept of Justification for example. The Apostle Paul wrote about justification within his letter to the Roman Christians, and it has become the defining theology of Protestantism.
Much can be gleaned from what is preserved in that important letter of Scripture regarding how believers ought to understand justification, but it would be a grave mistake to form a theology based exclusively on what is presented there. The reason? Paul did NOT write to the Romans to teach on the subject of justification!
Careful exegesis or interpretation of passages and subjects within Scripture must restrain themselves within the context within which they are presented, or risk dire distortions of the truth. The evidence within the letter to those Rome-dwelling believers reveals a purpose for which he wrote what he did, but when a scholar or minister or zealous believer takes that subject out from those boundaries and tries to reapply them, without recognizing the limitations from the change of context, will inevitably repackage biblical concepts into unbiblical meanings.
It is critical and necessary for believers to apply the truths of Scripture to their own lives and understandings, but that cannot be rightly and wisely done while ignoring the differences of context. Rather, it is imperative that interpretation begin by seeking what God means, by restraining our views within his revealed “Why”, rather than putting history at the center, or putting our culture in front, or by elevating how it might speak to our issues. Opinions, cultures, applications, desires, needs, and knowledge, all contribute demands on our interpretations, but a wise student will seek first to hear what God intends, before injecting their thoughts, and keep their ideas restrained within those revealed boundaries.
To understand how this error has undermined the truth within the Church for the past half a century, one must retrace the steps of theology back to their foundation. Within Protestant theology, that foundation was set by Martin Luther as he struggled against the blatant and distorted practices spewing out of the Catholic church of which he had been a leader. Indulgences and other religious excuses for taking advantage of people had reached a boiling point, and Luther wrote that his own understandings on why these practices were wrong, developed from his own personal study within the book of Romans.
In particular, the pivot point shifted on his interpretation from one specific verse and his view of the meaning of what it contained:
“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Rom 3:28)
Luther seized on the concept of justification and concluded that a believer is declared permanently justified with God through faith and will be assured salvation without any contribution of any human effort. In a phrase, he called this “faith alone”, and in so doing, rendered human choice and free will irrelevant and even non-existent. In fact, he was so convinced that this was the meaning of this text, that when he translated the Latin version of Scripture into his native language of German, history records that he printed this phrase directly into his translation; not as a footnote or other type of suggested interpretation, but directly into the text itself, as if it was God-breathed Scripture.
The glaring problem here, is that Scripture doesn’t say that in that passage.
Luther didn’t just provide a paraphrase; he changed the meaning to fit his developing theology. He made the Bible say what he wanted it to say, so he could point to the authority of God’s words as his own personal justification for defying the authority of the church that had ordained him as a priest. In his zeal to confront errors in his church, he appears to have lost sight of the original context and purpose for which Paul wrote what he did.
Again, Paul was not writing specifically to teach about how to understand the subject of justification. The actual purpose for which he was bringing up the subject of justification, is addressed throughout the letter, but can be clearly recognized in the very next verse:
“Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too”. (Rom 3:29)
Christians living in Rome were struggling with mis-teachings surrounding the widespread lie that God belonged to the Jews. This distorted belief was that anyone who wanted to claim belief in the One True God, must become a Jew. They needed to do what Jews were commanded to do under the Mosaic Law; that claiming to be a Christian was not sufficient; that Jews were better. Paul disagreed—as, of course, did God.
It was for this purpose that Paul used the concept of justification to make a specific point—that contextual meaning was simply to make the case that God declares a person justified, or right-with-him, by faith and not by what they do. It is critically important to understand that Paul was not teaching on justification specifically, but on a limited aspect of justification regarding what actually makes a person joined to God. His intent is to focus just on that detail of the specific cause of right standing, not to present the meaning of justification.
His entire letter focuses on teaching that faith in Jesus, who died on the Cross as a God-planned atonement for resolving the wrath of God against the condemnation for human sin, is what causes that blessed connection, and not keeping the Jewish Law, not measuring oneself to the 10 Commandments, and not by racial or physical connection to the Patriarchs. Faith in Jesus makes that connection.
Once that point–that faith is the reason for identity with God–was stated, Paul continues thereafter to expand on that point. He does NOT continue to expand on the meaning of understanding justification. Notice that immediately after this pivotal passage, Paul expands this point by referring to Abraham and what he “discovered in this matter”. This “matter”, in context, was about what causes a person to be declared blessed in becoming identified as belonging to God, NOT about understanding the extent of what the word justification means.
As a result of this purpose, Paul shows that Abraham was declared blessed because he took God at his promised word. In fact, he hones in on the detail of the timing to show that this blessing was declared upon him as righteousness before he was circumcised. His point is to show the timing and thus the reason for being declared righteous; it was NOT to instruct on the extent of what justification means.
If he had intended to instruct on the fullness of what justification means, he would have (as he did numerous other times on other subjects in other letters) raised the question about what would have happened if Abraham decided not to obey by getting circumcised.
For Luther, whose theology developed into what is now called “hard-determinism”, Abraham simply couldn’t ever fail, even if he disobeyed. Allegedly God forces believers into his kingdom. If Paul had the same belief as Luther—that Abraham was guaranteed to get circumcised, or that it didn’t matter if he refused to obey—then he wouldn’t have written the conditional “if” in chapter 8. But that is not what happened.
Look at the repeated, conditional warning that Paul wrote to the Christian believers in Rome:
“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:12-13)
Paul believed that believers, like Abraham, have an obligation to follow through in obedience, and that it remains conditionally possible for these Christian brothers to choose to “live according to the flesh” of their natural desires. However, as he made clear in chapter 3 and 4, that condition of obedience is not what makes us justified. Faith is the reason and the point in our relationship with God upon which righteousness is declared on a believer. However, that is not the end of the story. Paul teaches, even here specifically in this letter of Romans, that believers have an obligation to thereafter continue to live out their faith obediently to what he says is “Christ’s law”.
Luther missed this truth, because he changed God’s words to bolster his own theology. That unwise choice has distorted the foundation for Protestant theology ever since.
God does not leave the truth about justification open-ended or vague. Paul may not have been writing specifically in Romans to teach on the full extent of how to rightly understand the meaning of justification, but the Holy Spirit has specifically addressed this subject within the larger context of Scripture. In fact, he returns to this very issue of Abraham and his follow-though in circumcision and how necessary this was before God.
To the difficult question of can a believer, who is declared to be justified by faith, ever lose that blessed standing with God of having been divinely pronounced as righteous, let’s look to God’s own revelation both to his Prophets and through his Apostles:
“If I tell a righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done.” (Eze 33:13)
“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (Jms 2:20-24)
God’s theology of justification reveals that a believer is declared righteous by faith and not by what they do. His theology also teaches that justification will not be completed into salvation without sanctification, which requires a combination of Spirit transformation along with human obedience. By God’s own word, if such a person has been declared righteous, but he doesn’t follow through in sanctification, then he will not be granted glorification when Christ returns to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
Paul wasn’t teaching specifically on understanding justification in Romans, but (to those who rightly-divide-the-word-of-truth) the Holy Spirit HAS taught on how to rightly define justification! Forming a theology of justification primarily from Romans is unwise, because the teaching on that subject was not the reason why it was partially addressed in that letter.
Luther apparently didn’t understand that the Holy Spirit is the primary author of Scripture, or it should have been considered very foolish to call the word of God written by James just some “epistle of straw” at the lowest level of Scripture. But that is how Luther viewed the Bible—that one part was better than another.
Curious isn’t it? Many Christians being addressed in the letter of Romans thought they were better connected to God as Jews. In a similar way, Luther thought his theology developed out of that letter to those Romans was better connected to God than what James wrote. Do you recognize the similarity of error?
As I write this, I am humbled by my own heritage as a Protestant Christian. In many ways, the entire facade of Protestant theology has been erected upon the foundation of Luther’s “faith alone” meaning. Although I strongly disagree with the ultimate package of this teaching, and all those subsequent doctrines built upon this viewpoint, I am not ashamed of having come to Jesus through Protestantism. Rather, I am immensely grateful for those who have gone before me, like Luther, who struggled to take a stand against dishonoring God, especially by fellow Christians. And yet, how easy it is for all of us to strain against the sliver in others, but miss the mote in our own eye.
If you are a Christian of Protestant pedigree, are you sensitive to recognizing truth? Can you acknowledge the truth about justification as presented by God, or will you insist on perpetuating human tradition? Do you care more about promoting the name of Jesus as he defines himself, or will you defend your own history?
If you are willing, commit yourself to take up the revealed Cross of Jesus and promote his truth within the limits of what he has revealed about why he worded what he wrote.