I’ve spoken briefly about the textual and theological consistency of the Bible, but there is another helpful trick I learned when reading and interpreting. It’s pretty simple. When you come to a passage, ask yourself, “In what sense is the author using this ________________ (word, phrase, metaphor, illustration, etc.)?”
Let me give several examples.
1. I remember a time a few years back when I was studying 1 Cor. 9 in the seminary library. I came across Paul’s phrase, “…lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27). This worried me. Other NT uses of the word “disqualified” clearly referred to lost people.
Was Paul saying that he could lose his salvation?
I don’t think so. Throughout chapter 9, Paul explains that he has given up some of his rights as a minister of the gospel with an eye toward eternal rewards. So, in what sense is Paul using the word “disqualified?” I think he knows that he will forfeit at least some of his “imperishable” (v. 25) rewards if his godly character is marred and he is no longer able to fulfill his calling.
2. James and Paul give us another classic example. It’s easy to get tripped up when we hear Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is “not a result of works,” then turn over to James 2:24 and read, “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Is Paul speaking out against James’ teaching? Are they unintentionally contradicting one another? Or, is something else going on?
In what sense are they using their language?
When you read the context of Ephesians 2 and James 2, you see that each author has a specific purpose in mind. Paul is expounding God’s gracious acts in saving human beings, while James is addressing those who claim to have faith but have not been changed by it.
In other words, each author shows us a crucial facet of saving faith. Paul wants us to know that, if we’ve been saved, God did it. We didn’t work our way into it. But then James jumps in and adds, “And that gracious act of God saving you will change you! You’ll give generously to those in need because you’re now a different person!”
3. The word “salvation” itself carries a variety of meanings in the NT. It does not always mean eternal salvation from sin and death. Sometimes it simply refers to physical healing (e.g. Mark 5:28). Context will reveal the sense intended.
4. In Luke 9:59, a man wants to bury his father before becoming a disciple of Jesus, and the Master replies, “‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Conversely, Paul tells us in 1 Tim. 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” We’ve all heard explanations that harmonize these passages, but again I want to ask, “In what sense is Jesus telling one man to leave his father; and in what sense is Paul telling believers to care for their families?”
Jesus demands total allegiance from a half-hearted would-be follower, while Paul reminds those who are already believers to not shirk their responsibility to family. (Actually, Jesus says the same thing in Mark 7:11-13.) The Bible proclaims what each heart needs to hear.
Asking “In what sense does the author say _________________?” does not mean we can interpret a text to mean whatever we want it to mean. There are definite limits to the semantic and contextual ranges of words and phrases. When we ask “In what sense?” we need to acknowledge that context is king. A little work to understand the context of a passage can save us a whole lot confusion and frustration.