Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Biblical Context is Always Grace

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.   --Hebrews 4:12

As Baptists we are part of a larger evangelical community that values the word of God and preaches and teaches it, and that’s a good thing.  There are some Christian traditions where the Bible is barely part of the landscape.  The sermons are based around the topic du jour , there are few opportunities to study and learn Scripture, and it just doesn’t play that big a role in the life of the church or that of it’s members.  So the evangelical emphasis on the Bible is good and important.  Having said that, we need to be careful to avoid a few problems.

One is thinking that evangelicals are the only ones who hold Scripture in such high regard.  That’s a fallacy that just won’t stand scrutiny.  The entire Protestant movement 500 years ago brought Scripture to the forefront.  The reason that many churches have the pulpit in the center of the platform rather than the communion table is that our spiritual ancestors were making a statement, that the preaching of the word of God was central to the life of the church.  But we have even seen the Catholic church move toward making Scripture more accessible to the average believer rather than just the province of the Latin-reading clergy.  We are not the only ones who hold Scripture in high regard.

Another problem to avoid is thinking that evangelical theology (or Baptist theology) is 100% right, in no need of correction, revision, or updating, and that everyone else’s theology contains some mixture of error.  I hope we have more humility than that, otherwise we think we have no reason to listen to anyone else; they should be listening and learning from us.  Today we have the ability to be in conversation with Christians not only across denominational lines but across national, ethnic, and cultural lines.  They have valuable insights into Scripture that we have never considered.  We need to listen.  We have much to teach, but also much to learn.

But perhaps the greatest problem to avoid is the tendency that some have to use the word of God as a weapon against others.  Probably all of us have seen the Bible is used to divide people.  We right, you’re wrong, the Bible tells me so.  We’re better than you, we’re superior to you.  We can’t associate with you. 
Invoking Hebrews 4:12, the Bible is used as a sword, piercing and dividing.  But let’s look at that verse closely.  It actually says that the Bible is sharper than a sword, not that it is a sword, but that’s a minor point.  It’s a metaphor.

But sometimes a translation can be literally accurate but miss the essence of what is trying to be conveyed.  The writer of Hebrews says that the Bible is able to pierce the heart.  It gets to the root, the core motivation of a person’s action, so a better translation might be scalpel.  A scalpel cuts, not so it can harm, but so it can heal.  It’s not designed to be used as a blunt weapon, but as a precise instrument in the skilled hands of a healer.

But here’s the question: who is the surgeon, and whose heart is being judged?  Your own.  Not someone else’s.  It’s not your job to judge the heart of another.  Judge your own heart.  Deal with the log in your own eye, rather than the speck in the other guy’s eye.  The writer of Hebrews is saying that the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to cut through all the clutter—all the self-justification, self-deception, self-righteousness, and sometimes our own naiveté—to expose our true motivations to the light and judge whether they are helpful or harmful.  And if they are harmful, they need to be cut out.  That’s an act of grace.
People often pit grace and judgment over against each other, but they work hand in hand.  Judgment is about revealing the reality of a situation so that it can be corrected if needed, and that is an act of grace.  And that is how God uses Scripture in our lives.  

And that’s what he will do in other people’s lives.  That’s his job, not ours, and we have to trust that God is fully capable of doing his job.  We have to let God be God.

The very essence of the message of the Gospel is grace, and grace is the context in which the Bible is to be interpreted, taught, and used.

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