21 Days in the Word - Tool 6 - Interpreting and Applying Scriptures in the Age of Grace
One of the challenges to applying Scripture to our lives is being able to do it with the right balance of grace and truth. Jesus challenged and opposed the way the Pharisees taught people to interpret and apply Scripture. They were legalists. They believed that righteousness came from turning God’s commandments into lists of specific rules and then teaching people to prove they were righteous by keeping the rules to the letter of the law. They turned the Ten Commandments into hundreds of specific rules including exactly how many steps you could take on the Sabbath without breaking it. Paul would later say, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This approach to the Scripture violated the heart of God.
Jesus taught a different way. He would say things like “the Sabbath was made for man, not man made for the Sabbath.” When the rules of the law said to stone to death the woman caught in adultery, he applied it by pointing to the spirit of the law, which on the one hand shows that all are guilty of breaking sexual purity in their heart. And he applied it by bringing to the woman forgiveness and repentance that set her free from both the guilt and the bondage of that sin. Jesus made it clear that with the coming of the new covenant God wanted us to apply His commands from the inside out, not the outside in.
Jesus actually reduced the commandments to one. He said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) He doesn’t destroy the law; He teaches how the law is fulfilled. For example, Jesus doesn’t teach the opposite of legalism, which would be license--do what you want there are no rules. He actually raises the standard, since loving like Jesus puts the bar higher than what the law required; for example, being willing to love your enemies.
How then do you take all of the things that are taught and discussed in the Bible and interpret and apply them through the grid of grace?
Here are some principles I use:
1. See love as the ultimate objective in how you apply what you are reading in Scriptures. See the focus of every principle, story, and exhortation in the Bible aimed at relationships not rules.
Relationship with God and People
I Timothy 1:5 says, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
There are many applications to this. In one place where there was a debate about whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul will say the most important principle in applying this is that in whatever way you live out what your conscience tells you to do just make sure you don’t use your liberty in a way that would stumble another believer.
As we deal in society with hard issues of truth regarding such things as abortion and same sex marriage. I have felt it so important in our public discourse that we not back down from the truth but at the same time we make sure our love for people we disagree with always matches the message of truth we are speaking. Like Jesus the way we love the sinner is equally important to the way we condemn the sin. For example we should be the first to reach out in love to help a person with a crisis pregnancy situation. We should be the first to defend a child who is being bullied because they identify themselves as gay, even if we don’t agree with their choices.
2. We should focus on teaching people to be led by the Spirit more than focusing on teaching people to keep a set of policies or guidelines.
We should focus first on beliefs and then on behavior. Galatians 5:16 affirms that “If we walk in the Spirit we won’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” In the process of sanctification, quitting our old habits to live God’s way, we know that it is the renewal of our minds and the power of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible to change. The change of heart that produces the change of character and lifestyle comes as people renew their minds, know who they are in Christ, and learn to yield to the Holy Spirit.
This is why our first response when someone gets saved is not to examine all of the places where they are living in unscriptural patterns of life and give them a set of rules of how they have to change so they can be a true Christian. Legalism has the opposite effect it will lead them either to despair or becoming a hypocrite. As we focus people on who Jesus has made them on the inside and how His Spirit is speaking to them and empowering them change comes automatically.
3. Be clear on what the non-negotiables of Scripture are and what are “disputable matters.”
That Jesus is God and the only way to salvation is a non-negotiable, for example.
But, Romans 14 speaks about matters like eating meat that is offered to idols is a matter that should be decided by one’s conscience and is not legislated. In our day, drinking alcohol or going to an “R” rated movie might be considered a disputable matter. It is to be decided by two principles. The first as was mentioned is love. The second is the principle of acting in faith and good conscience. In Romans 14:23 it says of this controversy, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
My interpretation is that we are to pray about any gray areas of life where the Scripture is not explicit. We should expect to be led by the Holy Spirit by faith. In faith we are to conclude that this is what the Lord is leading us to do in regard to that and it is our responsibility to go with that decision and not violate our conscience.
4. In areas where the Bible is dealing with specific situations in people’s lives in that day, we should discern what guidance is prescriptive and what guidance is descriptive.
There are some places in the Bible where Paul is addressing issues in a cultural context. For example, Paul addresses issues like women wearing head coverings in church and his instruction for women to keep silent in church and not be allowed to teach. There are issues about how to keep the Sabbath, and whether slaves should seek freedom from their masters. There is a cultural context to these. What a head covering would mean in that culture is something different than what a head covering would mean in our culture. Though Paul addresses women not teaching in one place we see approval of women prophesying and Priscilla instructing Apollos in another place. I believe those are examples where we look carefully at the principles that are involved, like showing honor, not being in defiance or bring unnecessary controversy in a cultural setting. But in my opinion, these are not examples of prescriptions for how things are to be handled in every culture and situation.
As we bring our lives into the light of God’s word and are grounded in the knowledge of what Jesus did on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to give us a new covenant, a new heart, and the person of the Holy Spirit to fill and guide us. We will be able to see how we are able to take the issues of our lifestyle and walk in freedom and love.