Whose Medicine are You Taking? The Dangers of Taking Scripture Out of Context

Two men go to see the doctor. The first is suffering from advanced cancer and needs a life-saving intervention. The second is completely healthy and is going for a routine check-up. The doctor is a perfect physician and prescribes the appropriate medication in each case.

However, the pharmacist bungles the prescriptions and gives each man the other’s medicine. The man with cancer is given multivitamins and told to exercise daily while the healthy man is given an extensive course of chemotherapy. Unsurprisingly, the sick man dies from taking the wrong pills while the healthy man suffers unnecessarily.

In this parable the perfect physician represents Jesus. Jesus understands every single person and always prescribes the perfect medicine.

For the self-righteous sinner that medicine might be a judicious application of the law. The Bible tells us that the law is good if used properly (1 Tim 1:8). Its purpose is to break our pride, silence our self-righteousness and reveal our need for a Divine Savior. Ultimately the law is meant to lead us to Jesus (Gal 3:24) that we may receive the gift of his righteousness (Rms 5:17).

But the law is of no use to the saint who has already been set free from the cancer of sin. The observance of regulations, which has an appearance of wisdom, will enslave the free and do nothing to promote godly living (Gal 5:1, Col 2:23). The best medicine for saints is a healthy dose of God’s grace supplemented with the daily exercise of faith in the One who is able to keep us from falling (Jud 1:24).

The parable explained (in case you haven’t already figured it out)

In the parable the confused pharmacist represents the preacher who mistakenly dispenses grace to sinners and law to saints. The result is that both will be made worse off. The sinner will wrongly believe that all is well even as death and hell reach out for him. The saint will wrongly believe that eternity hinges on his ability to deliver a righteous performance for Jesus. Instead of walking in the freedom that Christ brings, he will come under guilt and condemnation as he strives, and fails, to live at Christ’s level. He will be miserable and his hair will fall out from stress.

The Bible can be considered a repository of life-saving medicine. The entire Bible is useful for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But confused preachers sometimes prescribe the wrong medicine. With the best of intentions they may do more harm than good.

Let me give you an example from the three chapters of 2nd Peter.

In chapter 1 Peter discusses the forgiveness, grace and power that comes from God.

In chapter 2 Peter warns the church about the false prophets and false teachers who are “among you” (v.1). What do these guys look like? How do we recognize them? Peter says they are those who follow the way of Balaam (v.15), are “slaves of depravity” (v.19), and who know about Jesus but “never stop sinning” (v.14). In short they are sinners who know about the things of God (like Balaam did), who are acquainted with the “way of righteousness,” but they’ve turned their backs on it (v.21) and so remain under condemnation (v.3). Peter clearly distinguishes these “unrighteous” men from the “godly men that God rescues from trials” (v.9).

In chapter 3 Peter turns his attention back to the saints four times referring to them as his “dear friends.” If chapter 2 is full of fury at the ungodly infiltrating positions of leadership within the church, chapter 3 contains fatherly exhortations for the saints.

So where’s the danger?

Problems arise when the medicine-dispensers (preachers, teachers, bloggers) confuse the “dear friends” of chapter 3 with the “slaves of depravity” of chapter 2. Harsh, condemning words meant for wicked men are spoken over those whom Christ calls righteous. Instead of being warned about the dangers of listening to false teachers and prophets, saints are treated as if they were somehow false themselves.

Inevitably the misguided pharmacist concludes with an appeal for greater human effort thus insulting the grace of God and denying the finished work of the cross. Instead of finishing with praise and thanksgiving for Jesus who has qualified them, Christians are likely to leave  feeling worse than when they came in.

Like Peter, Jude similarly draws a line between “godless men” and his “dear friends” who are loved and kept by Jesus. It’s important to note that both types of people are found inside the church. Jude says of these godless men who deny Jesus Christ as Lord that they have “slipped in among you” (v.4).

Again, in the hands of a confused preacher, Jude’s warning to the saints can be twisted into a doctrine of human effort. The punch-line might contain Jude’s words but not his meaning: “Contend for the faith, keep yourself in the love of God, lest you end up like them.”

But Jude’s message is “woe to them” (v.11), not “woe to you.” Jude’s medicine of rebuke is specifically for the godless who remain under condemnation, not the saint who is made righteous by Jesus.

The punch-line of Jude’s letter is one of the clearest assurances a Christian can have that they are justified, sanctified and kept by Jesus:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (v:24-25)

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Related posts:
- How to read your Bible without getting confused
- James – The misunderstood apostle
- Standing secure on God’s promises

Comments

  1. Steve Hackman says:

    Paul,

    Love the contrast between the “Dear Friends” and the “slaves of depravity” I need to delve into this more as I believe this is a distinction that needs to be made more

  2. Hi Paul,

    Great stuff. However I think you may need to be a little more careful with your words. St Paul goes to great lengths in Romans to demonstrate the righteousness that is our by faith. He never indicates that we are made righteous. If he did I have a problem. I am not righteous in all my thoughts words and deeds. So what does that do to the doctrine? What Paul actually says is that we are counted righteous. This is not insignificant. The Reformers went to the stake over this very difference. If God makes us righteous, righteousness dwells in us and so we can say to God, you must accept me because I am righteous. This position also allows me to add to my righteousness.

    What Paul actually says is that we are counted righteous. Righteousness is put to our account because of the work of Christ.I know me. I am not righteous. Sin and its tendrils embed my whole person, or as the reformers said, I am totally depraved. That is, all parts of my being are infected by sin, but I may do good things. Christ’s death does not remove my sinful nature, but allows God’s Spirit to implant a new nature. Until I die, the battle is internal. Continually feeding the new nature and putting to death the old man. Sin is still present (forgiven and at varying levels able to be fought and put aside.) God helps me in these battles. But my salvation is always secure because the righteousness of Christ has been put to my account.

    The Roman Catholics believe that the righteousness of Christ is imparted to us, but the New Testament teaches me that it is imputed. Vastly different positions, and of incredible significance. Have a good think about it. Most of what you say is spot on. Keep up the good work.

    Regards, Warren

    • Dear Warren,
      Thanks for your comment. Righteousness was imputed to believers who lived before Christ but is imparted to those who are now in Christ.

          Gen 15:6 “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

      Righteousness had to be given on credit because Jesus hadn’t yet paid for Abram’s sin. Note that Paul used a similar expression in Romans:

          “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rms 4:23-24)

      But the idea that righteousness is merely credited to those of us living in the New Covenant, only appears in Romans 4 where Paul is discussing a separate issue (does righteousness come from believing God or from doing works? Rms 4:5-6).

      Paul did not seem to distinguish between righteousness that is credited (imputed) versus righteousness that is given (imparted). Indeed, he deliberately seems to blur the lines for he says “when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift” (Rms 4:4). Most of the time, Paul referred to righteousness as a gift (Rms 1:17, 3:22, 5:17). There are only two things you can do with a gift – you can receive it or reject it.

      You say that you are “counted righteous” but “I am not righteous.” With respect, your righteousness is irrelevant. It is Christ’s righteousness that matters and He is perfectly righteous. Whether you act, feel or think your righteous is beside the point. What matters is whether you are in Christ.

          “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Co 1:30)

      God loved us so much that He gave His Son. When you received Jesus you received His righteousness, holiness and redemption. You can be no more or no less righteous than you were in the hour your first put your faith in Christ.

      • Paul, perhaps I’m not reading you carefully enough, but it seems that you are contradicting yourself, and the very verses of Scripture you’ve cited above in Ro. 4.23-24. As you’ve written above the verse reads:

        “Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who braised Jesus our Lord from the dead…”

        The ones for who’s sake it was written that Abraham’s faith was counted / reckoned [ελογισθη] as righteousness are the same ones to whom it will be [μελλει] counted / reckoned [λογιζεσθαι] on the exact same grounds. The Apostle isn’t drawing any distinction at all between Old and New Covenant believers. That being said, the idea that Ro. 4:4 teaches imparted righteousness is demonstrably incorrect. The language of Ro. 4, particularly the use of the verb λογιζομαι, is all accounting language; when Paul says that someones wages aren’t credited as a gift, he’s making a point that’s perfectly clear. Your wages are what you earn, not what are given to you apart from your work. And it is worth noting that what isn’t credited / reckoned to us is our own sin, unlike the righteousness which is credited to us by faith.

        That being said, you’re dead right that Warren’s personal righteousness is beside the point; if anyone is in Christ, then they are counted righteous on the grounds of Christ’s perfect active and passive obedience to the Law on the behalf of all of those who have received and rested in Him for their salvation.

      • Hi Hutch,
        Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could’ve been. My point is that Paul was using accounting language in Romans 4 because he was discussing Abraham – what’s good for Abraham is also good for us. But because of Christ we get something Abraham could not have received: imparted righteousness. The idea of righteousness as a gift comes from Paul’s teaching’s elsewhere (eg: Rms 1:17, 3:22, 5:17, 1 Co 1:30). Imparted righteousness is easy to demonstrate. If you have received Christ you have received Christ’s righteousness. Christ is inseparable from His righteousness. You are either in Adam or in Christ. If you are in Christ, you are righteous. You are no more positionally righteous in Christ than you were positionally sinful in Adam. In Adam you were actually sinful, a made sinner. When you come to Christ you are made righteous and are now actually righteous.

  3. Warren, the problem with your theology is that it encourages a sin conscious perspective. Digging internally is not the answer. It is an outward focus on Christ that enables one to overcome. The Catholic perspective you mention requires pentance; it is likewise for the Reformers. Goodness knows I like a lot of what they said, but before quoting their perspective I’d get back to a biblical perspective.

    In Martin Luther’a theology, hating Jews and the consequences they suffered at the hands of Christians was acceptable theologically…some historical commentators have mentioned that Hitler (also German) was able to use this piece
    of theology to justify The Final Solution.
    I don’t believe that Reformers were infallible, and that includes your reference.

  4. Sharon Macdonald says:

    Excellent article! really liberating..

  5. Howdy, Paul.

    Thanks for your reply above; it certainly cleared up for me where your at! I think my difficulty centered around your use of “imparted”. In most theological circles the phrase “imparted righteousness” is used as practically the equivalent of “infused righteousness”. Clearly that’s not what you mean when you refer to imparted righteousness.

    It’s always good to have terms clearly defined – it clears up all sorts of potentially disagreements that aren’t really disagreements at all!

  6. Very good article, thank you for sharing it with us. It took Luke 10:38-42 to really get me on the right path towards really growing in Him. That time will never be taken from us.
    You were very thorough, thought I’d add a couple more, forgive me if I missed someone already posting them. :)
    For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Cor 6:21
    For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Rom 5:19

  7. Zach Hamptons says:

    Just love your posts. Do u have any endtime post. Cant wait for global economic melt down to end and Jesus to come

    • Zach, I have very mixed feelings about that. If Jesus were to return tonight, many of my unsaved friends would be found unready. I’m not holding on for the end; I’m living each day as a witness of the grace of God and Christ in me. I am not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

  8. Zach Hamptons says:

    Warren and Paul whats the diffrence btw impartation and imputation. I cant make out the apple of discord. Was anything wrong with Luthers dogma and the Hielderburg catechim. Help this African teenager.

  9. Paul, Grace & Peace. I enjoy your posts very much and I agree with most of this but the one thing I would say is that the statement
    “For the hardened sinner that medicine might be a judicious application of the law.”

    On the contrary, this is who Jesus offered the most grace to (sinners), while giving the pharisees and the self righteous law. because they presumed strength in themselves. ie. the rich young ruler saying he had kept all these from his youth. These are the ones that need to come to an end of themselves and realize they need a savior.

    But we don’t have to agree on everything ;)

    Grace to you.

    • Hi John, I think we agree 100%. By “hardened sinner” I meant hard-hearted and self-righteous. I was thinking exactly of the pharisees and the smug, not the tax-collectors and prostitutes Jesus befriended. I had hoped that was implied by the sentence that followed but evidently not. I have changed the word in the post to make this more clear.

      I would never give law to “regular” sinners. What most people need is grace.

  10. Paul I like your posts. I agree with a lot of what you say. And I hope to be convinced of everything else that you have written about on this website.

    I do wish to see more verses along side your statements. You do show verses a lot, but I guess there are time where you make statements that I wish you would have left a verse or two to back it up. Perhaps even more detailed hermeneutics along with the theology. I think this would edify readers who really want to get to the bottom of questions.
    Thank you so much for stretching me with all your posts.
    I think you should do youtube videos!
    =D

    • Hi Oscar, believe me, I always want to write more. But the general consensus I get from readers is “keep things short.” I give the longer version 3 ways: (1) by posting in series (such as my ongoing series on Eternal Security), (2) by occasionally providing detailed study notes, and (3) by writing books (only one so far but the second is well on the way).

  11. Dear, Thanks so much for posting, helps to remove the pollution from body of Christ.

  12. Great post and comments. Nee discussed these matters at some length in The Normal Christian Life.

    Keep up the good!

    Blessings!

  13. i have to challenge teachings that don’t promote grace,they leave more confused then I was,kind of like a old song from the 60s,[ iM lost in the O ZONE AGAIN.]

  14. Bill Bailey says:

    Really love the discussions as much as the article! As iron sharpens iron, so does one man to another… keep it up!! It helps me better define and solid my beliefs!

    In Christ, the Hope of Glory! :-)

    Bill

  15. I grew up in a very “religious” and legalistic church. As much as I hated it there is some impulse at times deep down that wants to return to at least some of that shallow rule following and ritual. My older kids who were exposed to it actually get a little frustrated once in a while when we refuse to simplify some concepts down to a rule they can just follow. Self-righteous law keeping seems to be our default mode.

  16. Jeremiah (Kenya) says:

    Hi paul. Thanks for that clear contrast. I have a concern that some law preachers will use the condemning ministry of the law in the name of reaching the godless “slaves of depravity” to make them beleive in God in that case condemning the Sons of God who are saved and kept by the Grace. I have already experienced the same in the church I attend and I am afraid its affecting the faith of many making them stagnate spiritually though most of them are still under the law.

  17. In my opinion, God and Jesus are wrong for allowing the man with cancer to have it in the first place. And for what? To prove something to that SOB Satan? Is he really worth that?

  18. I wish I had never been born. That way I wouldn’t have to die and face judgement of a cruel and unjust God.

  19. Hey just wondering, how do you interpret 2 Peter 2:20-22? If the false prophets in the preceding verses were never saved, how did they escape the corruption of the world through just an awareness of Jesus? Don’t I have to be born again or saved to escape the corruption of the world?

    • Hi Scott, that’s a good question. Since I get asked this comes up a bit, I’m going to break my own word limit and try and give you a decent answer:

      Just as you can know about marriage without being married, so too you can “know the way of righteousness” (v.21) without walking it. These false men in 2 Peter 2 had heard the gospel – they knew the way of righteousness or the “right way” (v.15), which is Jesus. They had risen above the distractions and pollutions of the world long enough to get a clear view of God’s grace (v.20). But they remained unchanged by what they saw. To use Peter’s words, they remained dogs (v.22) still living in the dog-eat-dog world of ungrace. They are “brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed” (v.12).

      Short version, Peter is not describing believers but unrighteous men (v.9) who deny Jesus (v.1), follow Balaam (v.15), remain slaves to depravity (v.19) and who never stop sinning (v.14). These men have heard the gospel (v.20) and rejected it (v.21), which is why Peter says they would’ve been better off if they hadn’t heard. If they hadn’t heard, they might yet respond positively. But because they have heard and hardened their hearts towards it, they are well and truly lost. It’s the same message of Hebrews 6:4-6.

      It’s also the same message of Jude 4: “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” Jude is speaking of godless men who deny Jesus. Like Peter, he says these men follow Balaam. He also says they do not have the Spirit (v.19) settling beyond doubt that these men are no saved.

      Neither Jude nor Peter are threatening the saints. Neither mentions the possibility of losing salvation. Rather, both offer great assurances that those who Jesus saves, Jesus keeps (see Jude 24 and 1 Peter 5:10)

      I talk about 2 Peter 2 at length in chapter 6 of The Gospel in Twenty Questions.

      • Does that mean I can escape the corruption of the world without accepting Jesus as my Saviour?

      • Was it possible for Judas to know about the way of righteousness and reject it?

      • Was it possible for Judas to be saved before Jesus rose from the dead?

      • I’m sorry, that came off a little wrong. Paul, I think your writing is awesome and has definitely helped me sort through aspects of my thinking and teaching that are works based. My questions are more to help me work through this in my heart than be oppositional.

  20. Mark marshall says:

    I am new to your site Paul, but have read most of your posts, articles etc. Thank you. I have been a Christian for over 30 years but always believed that only my past sins (up to when i became a Christian) were forgiven, and that every time i sinned i had to confess my sin to God, to say sorry and do my best not to do it again. Thus I have never really been completely certain that should i die i would go to heaven. It is very hard to confess all our sins all the time. Even today in the charismatic church i attend, i have heard it preached that the holy spirit convicts us when we sin and it is possible that should we ignore this we may die as back sliders. It is so hard to undo so many years of wrong believing.

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