The Rest of the Story

Every now and then, I get frustrated with what I consider to be a lack of appreciation for what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” This probably dates back several years when I confronted a preacher about his fixation with “fire and brimstone.” He was the first person I had ever encountered who found some way to work “fire and brimstone” into almost every sermon. When I asked him why he spoke less of Heaven and grace, he rather condescendingly commented that I only heard what I wanted to hear, and that there is more said in the Bible about Hell and damnation than about Heaven. I was shocked to say the least, and for years, I only stewed about this. Finally, I asked myself, “Is what he said true? Is there more discussion of Hell and damnation in the Bible than Heaven and grace and salvation?”

Far be it from me to resort to concordance word counting. I mean, I’ve sat through my share of sermons where one of the key points is how many times a word appears in the New Testament. Usually, I find the exercise to be tedious at best, and irrelevant in many instances. However, since that is a key strategy of the mindset that I find myself defending against, I decided to do just that.

I used the English Standard Version available at Biblegateway.com, and entered the following search terms, with the following results from the New Testament. Of course, these represent raw hits, and not every observation is actually germane to the argument. However, I believe this to be the same strategy used by the concordance counters.

Heaven – 220           Hell – 17

Saved – 55               Lost – 18

Salvation – 45          Sulfur – 7

Grace – 118             Condemned –20

Baptize – 8               Condemnation – 14

Baptized – 44           Punish(ment) – 16

Baptism – 22           Torment – 14

Baptizing – 11

Faith – 296

Believe – 222

Reward – 26

Now, I tried to be fair. But just from this very non-scientific poll, it is apparent that Heaven is definitely mentioned more than Hell, salvation is mentioned more than condemnation, grace is mentioned far more than punishment. I looked at words relating to baptism, which I absolutely agree is essential to accepting grace, and found that the mention of grace still outstrips the discussion of baptism.

But I was the one who only heard what he wanted to hear.

It seems to me that we all do some of that. In the passage where Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim 4.3 that in the last days, people would draw closer to those teachers who tell them what they already want to hear. Usually, that is taken to mean that people want to hear things that make them feel good and right and justified in what they want to believe.

But that desire works two ways. Isn’t it possible that there may be those who only want a teacher to lambast the sinners and make us feel good because we aren’t sinners like those getting lambasted? Could it be that there are those who like to hear about Hell because they are certain that all those other people are going, but not us. We’ve seen it and smelled it from all the fire and brimstone that’s been lobbed at us over the years. And we are certain, dead certain that we are the only people who are Heaven-bound.

I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t believe in Hell. If Jesus taught that it’s a real place for people who fail to meet divine standards of conduct and living, then I believe him. But I also know that not everyone responds to fear in the way that these preachers intend for them to.

There are so many passages that are used out of context or perhaps excised from the balancing comments that follow them. For example, virtually everyone who has read the Bible to any extent or heard a sermon, especially from the more conservative wings of groups like the churches of Christ have heard the often quoted line from Romans chapter 3.23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So many times, that is the end of the use of the passage. Everybody’s a sinner.

But what about the rest of the story? The very next verse gives the antidote for the fallen human condition. In verses 24-26, the writer continues, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

In the sermons I have heard, nearly 100% of them have stopped with verse 23. Yes, if your purpose is to show how sinful humans are, it works. But don’t stop there. By stopping at verse 23, the problem of sin seems insurmountable, and we as sinners must be beyond hope. But the encouraging beauty of the offered grace in verse 24 more than balances the negative synopsis of the human condition in verse 23.

I’ve wondered, and I think I may be right, if the problem is that we are just afraid of grace. It is a foreign concept to human reasoning. No, I’m not talking about the hackneyed definition that is rehearsed on those infrequent occasions that the term is uncomfortably encountered in the course of a Bible class, that definition being “unmerited favor.” But grace is not something to be feared; it is something to be embraced, sought after, prized, adored, defended, experienced and extended. The extent of grace can never be understood by frail human reasoning. It is ironic that where grace is often needed most it is usually appreciated least, and where it is feared the least and appreciated the most, it abounds beyond measure. Grace magnifies grace, while fear magnifies fear.

I have encountered this fear of grace in Bible class settings where we were supposed to rehearse the catechism, reciting the steps of the 5 point “plan of salvation,” and I took exception, noting that there are at least seven things necessary to reach that point, the five canonical points plus faithful living (Revelation 2.10) and over-arching all of these human works, the divine mantle of grace (Ephesians 2.4-10). The sticking point was not with faithful living, however, but that hard concept of grace. But that indisputable foundational truth that we are saved by grace through faith is so important that Paul states it in Ephesians 2.5, and reiterates it emphatically in verse 8.

Another place where the rest of the story is often left out is found in 2 Timothy 2.23. “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” This makes for a very easy dodge when someone asks a tough question that we may not want to address. But the next verse goes on, “24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” I have sensed a resentfulness on occasion when a pet teaching has been challenged.

Yet another example of failing to see the forest for the trees is in 2 Peter 3. Here, Peter is challenging those who thought God to be slack in his promise of bringing all things to an end, expecting the judgment to have occurred much earlier, and since it had not happened by that point in time, deciding that it was not real. Peter reiterates that there would be an end, and like Jesus had already said, it would be when people weren’t expecting it. His description includes a melting and dissolution of the elements and the uncovering of the works of man. That’s as far as many if not most of the sermons go that include 2 Peter 3.

But Peter’s focus was not just an apocalyptic horror story of fire and destruction. In the following verses, he poses a very important question:

“11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”

Then, he reaffirms a foundational promise:

“13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Then, he provides an encouragement to persevere and not give up even when the teaching gets hard:

“14 Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

Finally, he gives a solution for dealing with these issues that would distract them from the real message:

“18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

Growing in grace is hard. Growing in the knowledge of Jesus is perhaps easier to accomplish, but we are often too busy looking for “hard things” to dwell on to avoid sitting down and visiting with the Gospels and actually learning more about Jesus himself. By failing to learn more and grow in our knowledge of Jesus, we not only become targets to let the “ignorant and unstable” lead us, we risk losing our own stability.

Sometimes, the issue is not with failing to read past a favorite proof-text. Sometimes the issue is with the translation itself. An example I always return to is in 2 Timothy 2.15. The King James Version (which many consider to be the inerrant translation of the Bible) phrases this as “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” My concern is with the word translated as “study.” Originally, this word probably meant, “make haste,” and then could more accurately embody the sense found in more modern translations like the ESV, where it is rendered as, “15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The New King James Version says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The NIV translates this as, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

All of these other translations bring out the idea of effort and diligence which encompasses the whole of a person’s being. The admonition to “study”, while absolutely commendable, limits the endeavor in the minds of many to just reading and reinforcing our command of our proof-texts. But to give “diligence” or to “be earnest” suggests a greater commitment than our modern use of the word “study.”

Sometimes I think that the greatest violence ever done to scripture was the dissection of the text into chapters and verses. The original authors wrote complete letters and histories and stories. Paul never said in his dictation of the epistles, “Next verse, Tertius.” That dissection facilitated the practice of contextual infidelity by making it easy to focus on a single comment or phrase, lifting disjunct thoughts and ideas and principles indiscriminately from their intended focus and meaning. Proof-texting is a result of that, and we are none the richer for it. The greater wealth and strength of scripture is in its integrity and flow. If we would ever learn to really look for the rest of the story, step back and really look for the forest composed of so many individual and important trees, the Bible should come alive in ways that will bring greater unity. Maintaining the integrity of the text should lead to fewer misconceptions related to improperly applied text and opinion.

Early in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, a frontier evangelist with the colorful name of “Raccoon” John Smith appealed for greater unity of purpose and minimizing opinion by sticking more closely to the scriptures. He said, “While there is but one faith, there may be ten thousand opinions; and, hence, if Christians are ever to be one, they must be one in faith, and not in opinion. When certain subjects arise, even in conversation or social discussion, about which there is a contrariety of opinion and sensitiveness of feeling, speak of them in the words of the Scripture, and no offense will be given and no pride of doctrine will be encouraged. We may even come, in the end, by thus speaking the same things, to think the same things.” I agree completely, but I also urge us all to read…the rest of the story.

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One Response to The Rest of the Story

  1. Pingback: Just some thoughts that hit me in a dream | Transient Reflections

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