Two Approaches In Interpreting Scripture

One approach says, “Just do it!” The other one says, “It’s already been done.”

You’ve read the following Scriptures. How do you react to them as you read them again here?

* Be holy (Lev. 11:44).
* See that you do all I command you (Deut. 12:32).
* You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your hearts (Jer. 29:13).
* But if you return to me and obey my commands … (Neh. 1:9).
* Turn from evil and do good (Ps. 34:13)
* Turn to the Lord and do good (Ps. 37:3).
* This has been my practice: I obey your precepts (Ps. 119:56).
* I have sought your face with all my heart (Ps. 119:58).
* Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matt. 4:17)
* But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matt. 5:22).
* But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:28).
* But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt. 5:39).
* But I tell you: Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44).
* Be completely humble and gentle (Eph. 4:2).
* Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3)
* Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor (Eph. 4:25)
* Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths (Eph. 4:29)
* Be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1)
* Wives, submit to you husbands (Eph. 5:22).
* Husbands, love your wives (Eph. 5:25).
* Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).

I could go on, but you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t.

If you don’t, here it is: They’re commands. They may not be the Ten Commandments, and some may not come explicitly in the imperative mood or mode (though most do); nonetheless, they function as commands. “Do this! Don’t do that!”

A command, whether in the Old Testament or New Testament, is part of the law. Some call it ethical commands. Some call it moral law. Some call it Christian duty. Others call it Christian ethics. Whatever label you give it, those verses and thousands like them are still part of the law.

And did you notice how I shifted from the Old Testament to the New Testament without telling you? And then did you notice how I shifted to Christ’s teaching before his death, resurrection, and ascension and Pentecost (his words in Matthew) and to the Epistles after those events (Ephesians)? However, it is important to point out here that the consequence of not obeying the law in the Old Covenant is that the Old-Law curses fall on you, while in the New, they don’t fall. So there is a huge difference in the two covenants.

See my posts here for the huge differences:

The Sinai Covenant

God’s New Covenant

But the point is that the commands still hit our minds the same way, whether Old or New.

Right off the top, for some reason Eph. 4:2 strikes me: Be completely humble and gentle. “Be” is an imperative or a command. Completely? Really? Have I been completely virtuous in anything?

And how does the entire list hit your mind? How do you react to those verses? Are you gung-ho? “Come on! Let’s go for it!” If you’re a teacher or pastor, do you believe that if you repeat them to your class or congregation often enough, then those verses will “click,” and your audience will finally get it and—finally, finally!—obey those commands? Do you believe that if you read them often enough on your own, then they too will one day “click,” and then you can do those good works and live a lifestyle of holiness? If so, you are an Old School holiness teacher and Christian.

Or do you respond to those verses with humility? “I can’t do them! Help! I need you, Lord!”

Those are the two basic responses. Which one is yours?

Here are some insights from a Reformer, Martin Luther. Yes, he may come from the ancient past, but he still offers the best insight in how the human will, the grace of God, and the law of God all interact.

He writes in the Scholastic Disputations:

40. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds, but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.

55. The grace of God is never present in such a way that it is inactive, but it is a living, active, and operative spirit; nor can it happen that through the absolute power of God an act of friendship [an act of love and good deed] may be present without the presence of the grace of God.

56. It is not true that God can accept man without his justifying grace.

57. It is dangerous to say that the law commands that an act of obeying the commandment be done in the grace of God.

58. From this it would follow that “to have the grace of God” is actually a new demand going beyond the law.

59. It would also follow that fulfilling the law can take place without the grace of God.

60. Likewise it follows that the grace of God would be more hateful than the law itself.

61. It does not follow that the law should be complied with and fulfilled in the grace of God.

62. And that therefore he who is outside the grace of God sins incessantly, even when he does not kill, commit adultery, or become angry.

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God

74. The law makes sin abound because it irritates and repels the will.

75. The grace of God, however, makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law.

79. Condemned are those who do the works of the law.

80. Blessed are those who do the works of the grace of God [what are these works?].

84. The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit [as to no. 80, Luther may have this in mind or something like it—the law of faith and love].

89. Grace as a mediator is necessary to reconcile the law with the will.

So what are the two approaches to Scripture?

I’ve already alluded to it:

(1) An Old-School holiness teacher believes that he or she can exhort the people so loudly that they can be frightened to obey the law, whether the written Ten Commandments or Christian law—and it is a law—in the New Testament. You interpret the Bible in a straightforward, linear way. If a command says do it, then just do it! It would be a cruel joke for God to issue all those commands and not expect us to do them!

If you’re an Old School holiness teacher; if you’re concerned that the grace of God is used as an excuse to sin; if you’re using the grace of God as an excuse to sin; if you’re still concerned with how the law fits in the believer’s life, then please read:

The Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with humanity’s big failure

Do Christians Have to ‘Keep’ the Ten Commandments?

(2) The other approach to Scripture is that you separate the law and gospel wherever it is found in the Old or New Testaments. This may not agree with a strict historical-critical method of studying Scripture, a method so exalted among today’s intellectuals, but it certainly agrees with the Christian’s soul. Call it a pastoral approach to Scripture.

You understand that every command has the power to make your congregation or class feel despair. Even the gung-ho will eventually get worn down, after years of their burning in passionate love for God. Yet you hear it in popular, contemporary Christian music. “Oh, I burn with passion for God! My heart’s on fire!” However, with the second approach you understand that the fire will eventually burn out. The second approach to Scripture instead says that God is burning passionately for you. And his love will never burn out.

You look for Scripture that talks of God’s love for us, not our love for him. You don’t say, “For every promise there’s a condition that you must do.” It’s as if you’re saying the promises are yes and no (2 Cor. 1:19). Rather, you say that all the promises of God are yes and amen (2 Cor. 1:20).

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

I leave you with another of Luther’s insight (Heidelberg Disputations no. 26):

“The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done.
Grace says, ‘believe this,’ and everything is already done.”

And Paul’s inspired words in Romans 5:20:

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.
But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.

Always stand in the grace of God.


What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

Do Christians Have to ‘Keep’ the Ten Commandments?

Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with Humanity’s Big Failure

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant


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