What Kind of Dictionary is THAT? (part 1)

Until recently, whenever I have read Romans 14 and reached verse 23, I have tended to stop and think, “That verse doesn’t sound like it fits here.” In particular, I am talking about the phrase “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (KJV).

The problem, I’ve decided, is the ever-present problem of assumptions. When I read the word “faith” in the New Testament, I often either think of “saving faith” or “the faith” (as in the orthodox Christian belief system). But there is a problem with that, and it's a common problem I would think. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. That is, we very narrowly assume certain words always mean certain things. We sometimes narrow the meaning of words unnecessarily. We come to the Bible with a twenty-first-century theological mental dictionary (that’s a mouthful, I know). Truth is, when first-century Greek speakers heard the New Testament, they did not bring a theological dictionary along, but a secular one—the one they used everyday in the markets and workplaces.

I’ll come back to Romans 14:23 in part 2. For now, let’s look at a few other examples of this.

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When Greek-speaking people heard the word “baptizo,” they didn’t think immediately of “a religious water ceremony.” They thought of “an envelopment or immersion.” You could “baptizo” your hands into a washbasin. You could be “baptizo-ed” (swallowed up) by death—which is one way they really did use the word. You could be “baptizo-ed” into a culture. You could “baptizo” a spoon into a dish of Jell-O. It was a regular word—one that they could, in turn, use in a theological context if they wanted. So, when they heard the word, it didn’t always refer to the same event, only the same type of event. The context and the intention of the speaker indicated what they understood the word to mean in each occurrence. So, when they heard that John “baptizo-ed” people in the Jordan River, they knew basically what that meant (even if they didn't yet understand the religious significance) before anyone gave them a Strong’s Concordance, a Life Application Study Bible, or a Sunday School lesson on flannelgraph.

The same goes for many other terms. “To save” is an example.

  • And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' (Acts 11:13-14 ESV)
  • By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7)

Does the writer of Hebrews mean to tell us that Noah was able to barter with God for the eternal salvation of his family by consenting to accomplish this construction project for Him? No. But it sure sounds like it if you assume “to save” always means “to save spiritually.”

“To justify” is another example. Just as we use the term today, Greek speakers sometimes meant “to make righteous” and other times meant “to show to be righteous.” That really is a big difference, and the context is the clue.

Read the following three passages very carefully:

  • What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.... Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 4:1-5, 5:1-2)
  • Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:21-25)
  • We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

Remember that Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time I finish my song?”

What’s the problem with these three verses? If you read those chapters in assumption-mode, one of them seems to contradict the others. Certainly this is not true. So, what is the problem? There isn't one. Two different writers are trying to make two different points, using similar terminology but meaning different things by them. Just because I use a term in one way doesn’t mean that my friend who believes just as I do necessarily uses the term in the exact sense. Read Romans 4. Paul leaves no room for justification by works at all. Read Galatians 2. Paul again leaves no room for it. Read James 2. Read it like you’ve never heard the term “to justify” used in any theological sense.

What do you suppose I would mean if I were to say, “Quit justifying yourself!” In a normal conversation you would never assume I’m telling you to quit trying to make yourself innocent! You would assume I’m telling you to quit trying to prove that you are already innocent. When you are justified in a court of law, the judge weighs the evidence and declares that you were innocent the entire time.

Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, commenting on James 2:24 concurs: “Present passive indicative of dikaioō, here not ‘is made righteous,’ but ‘is shown to be righteous.’ James is discussing the proof of faith, not the initial act of being set right with God.”

This is why Paul can say “a person is not justified by works” and James can say “a person is justified by works” and they both be right. These two phrases sound contradictory when we cut them out of their books and paste them next to each other, but they’re not meant to be treated that way. It's like quoting "he said, 'I love pintos'" and "he told them, 'I can't stand pintos,'" when not only is one quoted from a book on the life of George Washington (the president) and the other from a book on the life of George Washington Carver (the botanist), but "pintos" is referring to a breed of horse in the first quote and a kind of bean in the second. Paul and James are not even talking about the same thing. They didn’t hold a conference to discuss which words they would use for what purposes . They aren’t coauthoring a book or even writing to the same group of believers. Paul and James are trying to make two very different points with everyday words. Their vocabularies overlap, but their usages do not. Paul is trying to explain how a person is made righteous in the first place (by grace through faith). James is trying to explain how a person is shown to be righteous in daily life (by obedience out of faith).

But more than that, remember that the word “faith” is also used in different ways in the New Testament? When Paul says “a person is... justified by faith in Christ” and James says “a person is justified... not by faith alone,” they are not using the term “faith” synonymously either. Paul is talking about “saving faith”—genuine, complete, and humble trust in Christ. James is talking about mere “belief”—intellectual assent. The Believer’s Bible Commentary remarks, “Faith apart from works is head belief, and therefore dead belief” (italics mine).

We can get ourselves in trouble when we approach the Bible like it’s not written by—get this—forty different authors... in sixty-six different books... with their own purposes... and messages... in multiple genres... and various literary styles... over the span of more than 1,500 years. And we can get ourselves in trouble when we approach the Bible assuming certain too-rigid terminologies. There is no substitute for the application of logical Bible study methods.

Part 2 will finish up this article by explaining Romans 14:23 and questioning a popular interpretation. What was John Piper thinking? All this and more after the commercial break.

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