TEXTS IN TENSION
(Note: An additional point was added to this essay after it was posted to four church websites early on Monday, February 10. The complete article as received by subscribers to my “News & Views” and as will be posted to my Facebook page follows).
In reading the Scriptures it is important to know that different texts often emphasize different truths about the same subject. Rather than being contradictions, they are inspiration’s way of teaching important lessons that complement the whole of God’s instructions to mankind. I refer to these as texts in tension. While the texts may seem to set forth opposing ideas, none of the texts is exclusive of the other, but all of them set forth essential truth about the subject under discussion when studied in their context. A study of some of these texts in tension should prove beneficial.
The prophet Isaiah, 750 years before the birth of Christ, prophesied that He would be called “Prince of Peace,” and that “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7a). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul said of Christ, “For He Himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14-18). Yet in Matthew 10:34 Christ declared, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” He goes on to say that He would be the source of division, even within families (vv. 35-39). In spite of obvious differences in what these texts say in isolation of each other, they nevertheless are in complete harmony with each other. When people yield to the demands of Christ and become His faithful disciples they come to be at peace with God and at peace with all others who have come to be at peace with God. In this sense, Christ is the “Prince of Peace” and the source of our being at peace with God. But, when people refuse to obey and follow Christ then there is division between those who obey and follow and those who do not. Many families are divided today because some in those families choose to be faithful Christians, while others in those same families do not choose to be faithful Christians. There is a natural hostility between the church (the people of God) and the world (the people of Satan) (see I John 5:19).
In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), but in John 7:24 He said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” It is passing strange that many people are familiar with the first passage and will often cite it, but show no knowledge whatever of the second text. The apostle Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for its failure to judge concerning matters demanding church discipline, and instructed them to make a decided judgment to “put away from yourselves that wicked person” (I Corinthians 5:1-13). He gave similar instructions elsewhere (see Romans 6:17-18; II Thessalonians 3:6). While hypocritical, censorious judgment is condemned, not all judgment of all kind is forbidden by the Lord. As Jesus pointed out in the same context of His prohibition, “Judge not that you be not judged,” we all must practice thoughtful and careful fruit inspection (Matthew 7:15-20). And that involves exercising righteous judgment.
Jealousy is a sinful work of the flesh, and those who are guilty of it will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). Jealousy has been the wicked mindset behind many heinous deeds. At the same time, in the giving of the ten commandments God declared, “You shall have no other gods before Me…For I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5). No one would charge God with sin, but by His very nature He is the one and only true God and will not permit the worship of other gods (Acts 17:22-29; Ephesians 4:6; et al). There is such a thing as “godly jealousy.” With reference to the false apostles by whom some of the Corinthians were being influenced Paul said, “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Corinthians 11:2). Paul was jealous of the Corinthians paying attention to the false teachers who had infiltrated the Corinthian church. A faithful husband is jealous of his wife, and will not permit another man to bestow his affections on her. Jealousy must therefore be understood in the context in which it is used.
Paul said to Timothy, “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient…in humility correcting those who are in opposition… (II Timothy 2:24-26). Earlier, however, he had instructed Timothy with reference to sinning elders to rebuke them “in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (I Timothy 5:20). And concerning certain false teachers and insubordinate troublemakers in the church Paul told Titus, “Therefore rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:10-13). These texts do not contradict each other, but under the circumstances described for each they all have a place in the work of a wise and faithful minister of God.
In Luke 17:20 Jesus affirmed that “the kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For, indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” But, in Mark 9:1 Jesus stated, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God come with power.” There is a sense in which the kingdom (God’s reign) is invisible in that it is spiritual in nature and is “within” or “among” those who are citizens of it. On the other hand, the kingdom (church, see Matthew 16:18-19; Acts 2:47; Colossians 1:13) is visible in that it is a distinct body of people that came into existence with power on the first day of Pentecost following Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Mark 9:1; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-4, 47). The texts are not mutually exclusive of each other in their teaching.
The Bible teaches that sinners are saved by the grace of God (Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9). Other texts tell us that sinners are saved by faith (Romans 5:1; Hebrews 11:6). God’s grace does not nullify the necessity of man’s faith. Neither is exclusive of the other. Rather, we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
Scripture likewise tells us that we are not saved by works of human merit (Ephesians 2:8-9). At the same time Scripture affirms that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). God requires works of obedience of all who would become His spiritual children and receive everlasting life (Matthew 7:21; Acts 10:34-35; Revelation 22:14). Baptism is not a work of human merit, but an act of submissive obedience to God, essential to salvation from sin (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; Galatians 3:26-27). The apostle Peter declared, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Christ” (I Peter 3:21, KJV). Neither grace, faith, nor obedience (including being baptized for the remission of sins) is contradictory of each other. Neither do they nullify or make void one another.
In order to arrive at the truth on any Bible subject we must take all that the Bible says on that subject from Genesis to Revelation. We must not isolate a particular text from the rest of scripture and the larger context of scripture. A text taken out of context is a pretext and leads to all kinds of false and foolish views. This, to a large extent, explains the confusion and division in the religious world today. However, “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (I Corinthians 14:33). And when people choose to take God at His word—all of His word—and do what He says without question or quibble, they will be at peace with God and with each other.
Hugh Fulford, February 11, 2020