Have you ever encountered an argument that reached an incorrect conclusion, but you couldn’t identify the wrong turn? Often, understanding basic bible study methodology and/or simple logic will help identify the leap.
Examining the connection between ideas is a useful tool for Bible study and discernment. A false argument frequently starts from a premise with which both sides agree, then makes a sharp turn in the wrong direction. Populating the discussion with phrases from Scriptures makes the argument sound biblical, but does not make the argument actually taught in Scripture.
As practice in discernment, find the wrong turn in the following argument. I’ve labeled the paragraphs for easier reference.
Paragraph A: The Bible teaches that all people are created in [God’s] image and reflect His glory. This is the dignity of being human. But as sinners our minds are hardened against the truth, our hearts have learned to love and worship false things, and our behavior has turned away from righteousness. That is, we are sinful in our entire person: our minds, our hearts, and our behavior. We are therefore subject to God’s judgment.
Paragraph B: But in His grace, God pursues His people in love, goodness and mercy. He has provided the satisfaction for His judgment in the atonement through Jesus Christ, and we respond to His gift of salvation by faith. But God’s salvation is more than rescue from judgment. It is also the promise of renewal—the promise to renew human beings—in mind, heart, and behavior—into the image of Christ.
Paragraph C: The Bible teaches that this process of renewal is God’s work: initiated by His love, sustained by His grace, and ultimately perfected by His Spirit. And yet the Bible also teaches that God has invited His people into this work, to give ourselves in both faith and work to the lifelong process of being renewed—mind, heart, and behavior—into the image of Christ. This is the sanctifying aim of the Spirit: to know Christ, to worship the true God alone, and to walk in a manner worthy of our calling.
Let’s simplify each paragraph to one summary sentence without biblical jargon or poetry (another good study technique).
- Paragraph A: Though created in the image of God, all human beings are sinful and under God’s wrath.
- Paragraph B: In His grace, God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross in our place, redeem us from our slavery to sin and begin the process of making us holy.
- Paragraph C: The process of making us holy is a work of God, of us and of His Spirit in us.
Hiding in paragraph C is claim not taught in Scripture. Let’s summarize each sentence in paragraph C.
- Sentence C1: The Bible teaches that making us holy is a work of God and His Holy Spirit.
- Sentence C2: And yet the Bible teaches that making us holy involves both our faith and our works.
- Sentence C3: The Holy Spirit is at work to make us holy.
As this teacher continued to explain it, sentence C2 is not taught in Scripture. While the language is poetic, vague and therefore open to interpretation, his proposal argued for specific actions, disciplines and practices we should do to “help” make ourselves holy. It also hinted at dire warnings should we fail to practice these actions.
In my opinion, that’s the wrong turn — or at least, it is a claim that must be proved. From my study, the Bible does NOT teach that we become holy through any work of our own.
As the reformers summarized, we are saved by grace alone based on faith alone through Christ alone. The Bible teaches that the process of making us holy from start to finish is part of God’s gift to us. A gift by its very nature is something we have not earned or worked for. If we work for it, it is not a gift. If it is a gift, we do not earn it.
Many passages of Scripture teach that our becoming holy is part of God’s gift to us. For example, Ephesians 2; Romans 5-8; James 1-3; and practically the entire book of Galatians, but particularly chapter 3, where Paul argues it is foolish to believe that having been saved by grace you are now being made holy through self-effort.
Study technique: When using commentaries, read carefully. Examine the connections between ideas. Simplify the language into plain English without biblical jargon, and look for gaps or leaps that need to be proven.