The Bible and Blank Canvas

In my living room there sits a blank canvas. I bought it to paint on, and until I do it remains essentially an empty container, available for me to pour into it whatever images and meanings I please—subject to the constraints of my limited talent, of course.

The Bible is treated like a blank canvas. People tear words and phrases away from their contexts and pour all sorts of meanings into them to suit their own purposes. I hear people say, “The Bible can be used to say whatever you want.” The goal behind such statements is all too often to dismiss the Bible as a standard for truth.

But the Bible is not a blank canvas into which we pour our own meanings and produce something that reinforces our preconceived ideas.

The Bible can be used to say whatever you want? Wrong! The Bible can be mis-used to say whatever you want. I maintain that while any given passage may apply to numerous situations, it has one meaning—one.

One of the areas where a dubious interpretation of the Bible is particularly prevalent is in our politics. I know, because I have been guilty of this many, many times in the past. I recall just a few years ago being a strong proponent of what can only be called ethnic cleansing in the Middle East because of what I now understand to be a deeply flawed interpretation of verses in Genesis, Daniel, Romans, and Revelation. But I didn’t believe those things—and others—because the Bible lent itself to any interpretation I wanted to make; I believed those things because I was wrong in my understanding of what the Bible actually teaches.

Today, I hear the Bible thrown around by people on the right and the left to justify their positions in debate. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that the Bible has no place in politics. As one who believes that the Bible is God’s unique, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative revelation of Himself and His instructions for us, I believe that the Bible applies everywhere. Biblical standards taught in Sunday school are equally applicable on Wall Street and in the White House; and God’s timeless truth in the first century is still true in the twenty-first century. That might sound naïve, but at least it’s consistent.

But Bible verses are often stated in debate as though they are blank canvases onto which we can paint our own pictures. They are not. The Bible is misused to support everything from Marxism to imperialism, from abortion on demand to compulsory school prayer.

Recent debates over homosexuality have brought this to light.

On the one hand…

I believe the most widely misquoted and misinterpreted verse in the Bible may just be, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

When Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-a shared his views on same-sex “marriage” the country seemingly erupted, and I heard this verse thrown around (even by professing Christians) in support of the idea that Christians should have nothing at all to say about sin. All too often the “quote” given is something akin to,The Bible says not to judge, as though the words “judge not” exist in some sort of vacuum. No, in context Jesus is telling us not to judge one another hypocritically; He is not forbidding us from identifying and confronting sin.

The rest of that passage reads:

“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beamisin thine own eye?Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:2-5).

In other words, we should not address the sins of others while we ignore our own. Rather, we must get right with God and stay right with Him, and while in this state, point others in the right direction. We are further told as Christians, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11), clearly indicating God’s desire that we stand against the sinfulness of this world.

One person said, “Jesus is 100% love and 100% tolerance, period.” The implication there is that because “God is love” (I John 4:8,16) there is nothing else to Jesus’ nature. But we must be reminded that He was angry with those deceived and cheated.

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves,And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13).

And though He forgives sin, He does not approve of it.

“[…] And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee:go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, emphasis added).

And though He is love, He will one day come in judgment for those who have hardened their hearts and rejected His offered forgiveness.

“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom” (II Timothy 4:1, emphasis added).

It is wrong to imagine Jesus Christ as a best friend who is accepting of any attitude or lifestyle we choose.

On the other hand…

Scripture is twisted on the other side of the so-called Culture War as well.

One passage that I have misused myself—and numerous others have as well—is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Christ clearly commanded us to be salt and light in our world. That means that we are to live our faith in such a way that people see it, see how genuine it is, and glorify God as a result of what He has done in and through us. In essence, Christians are supposed to be Christians wherever they go. While that includes the ballot box and the halls of government, this has often been taken out of context and used to call the churches to lighten people against their will.

It is no longer enough that we are a light that cannot be hid; we have been led to assume that if we’re not forcing others to display good works, we’re not really doing our job. This passage has been misused to cause us to lose focus. Christian brother and sister, by all means, affirm godliness in all that you do. Do not endorse wickedness with your voting or your activities. But, do not be led to assume that this is your primary job! Your primary job is to live a Christlike life, glorify God, and tell others how they can find salvation in Jesus Christ—which is exactly what this passage teaches.

“Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thessalonians 1:11-12).

I even heard one speaker, encouraging the Christian audience to be active in political pursuits “for the kingdom,” quote Jesus as saying, “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13), as though that was the whole statement. In reality, Jesus was not calling on Christians to be an occupying force in world politics. The instruction previously mentioned was spoken by a nobleman in a parable Jesus told; the purpose of the parable was to illustrate that He (Christ) would be going away rather than immediately establishing an earthly kingdom, and that His people were to be faithful in His absence.

Where we’ve all been wrong

Just as we must interpret a verse in the context of the passage containing it, we must interpret a passage in the context of the book in which it is found, and, ultimately in light of Scripture as a whole. And the overall theme of the Bible is redemption.

The point of Christ’s coming, and of the Bible, and of the Gospel, and thus of our Christian faith, is not to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy with the sinful choices they make and the wicked lifestyles they delight in. It is not just to help everyone feel like God accepts them as they are and whatever they wish to bring to Him.

The point of Christ’s coming, and of the Bible, and of the Gospel, and thus of our Christian faith, is not to force everyone to straighten up, be good little boys and girls, and act like Christians on the outside, whether by force of law or cultural coercion. It is not to make people feel like they have to work a little harder to be accepted by God.

If that is not clear enough, it is not our job either to hold people’s hands and tell them that God is okay with their lifestyles or to use the government to make everybody behave morally.

The point of it all is this:

Sin in all its forms is deadly serious. We have all sinned, and our sin will both destroy us in this life and condemn us in the next. God’s holiness cannot tolerate it and His justice cannot ignore it. Sin must be punished, but because of His love and mercy He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to take the punishment that we deserved. He went to the cross, shed His blood, and died for us. Because of what Jesus Christ did, if we’ll admit our sin, ask for His forgiveness, and trust in Him as Savior, our sins will be forgiven and we are assured of eternal life in Heaven with Him.

If we pretend that God is only love and mercy, we erect an idol, a false god of our own design. If we pretend that He is only judgment and wrath, we are guilty of the same thing. The true God is a God of justice, judgment, holiness, love, and mercy.

If, instead of warning about its seriousness, we pretend that sin doesn’t matter and doesn’t need to be confronted or forgiven, it means we ignore the clear teaching of God’s Word and point people away from their need for a Savior. If, instead of dealing with sin and man’s lost condition, we focus on outward morality, it means we will point a great multitude of moral people to the fires of Hell because we were more concerned with reformed lives than redeemed souls.

God forbid that we misuse His Word to justify political and cultural positions unsupported by the text, when the plain, clear meaning points us to a truth more needful than tolerance or legislated morality. Sin is deadly; Hell is real; judgment is coming; but Jesus has brought salvation to all those who will admit their sin and trust in Him. The world’s debates should never steer us away from the Gospel.