Prooftexting: Reading the Context – A Case in Point

Last week, I talked about the prevalence of prooftexting. In light of the recent cause célèbre surrounding a certain, yet-to-be-released book, Mark Galli at Christianity Today points out in a recent article how some Bible verses seem to teach universal salvation:

“And how do we understand the many verses that seem to teach universal salvation? Like ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them’ (2 Cor. 5:19). Like ‘as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people’ (Rom. 5:18). Like Jesus’ statement, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (John 12:32).”

Here Galli points out three verses that are some of the more common, standard prooftexts for universalism.** I point out Galli’s quote and the verses he cites, not to jump into the middle of a volatile topic, but to demonstrate the importance of reading and interpreting Bible verses in their context. Let’s look at each of the above verses in context and ask ourselves, “Is this passage teaching that God will save/reconcile people without a response of faith/belief?” I’ll deal with them only very briefly in reverse order:

1. John 12:32

These words of Jesus happen in the final week of his life on earth. This quote is part of a larger discussion that begins no later than John 12:20 and extends to the end of the chapter (John 12:50). He is in Jerusalem for Passover (John 12:1; 13:1). Jesus’ soul is troubled by his imminent death (John 12:27). With these words in John 12:32, Jesus was hinting at the nature of his death (cf. v. 33). The crowd then asks questions about the Son of Man. Jesus responds:

“So Jesus said to them, ‘The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light'” (John 12:35–36 ESV emphasis mine).

Light is a major theme in John’s gospel, and elsewhere Jesus is referred to as the “light of the world” (cf. John 8:12; 9:5 and context). After Jesus leaves that scene, John provides a sad summary statement:

“When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him” (John 12:36–37 ESV emphasis mine).

John then cites Isaiah’s prophecy about the people’s disbelief. The chapter ends with these words from Jesus:

“And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me'” (John 12:44–50 ESV emphasis mine).

Jesus’ drawing “all people” to himself is apparently not the same as their salvation since many, despite his appeals throughout the rest of chapter 12 for people to believe, do not believe in him and even reject him.

2. Romans 5:18

The emphasis seems to be on “all” (Grk. pas). However, in the very next verse (v.19) this appears to be tempered with the twice-repeated word “many” (Grk. polus):

“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18–19 ESV).

It is argued that “all means all” in verse 18. However, the “many” in verse 19 expressly means “not all.” This also must be understood in the larger context. The theme of the letter is set out in the first chapter:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16 ESV).

Paul then makes the case that the whole world is guilty of sin and in desperate need of redemption (chapters 1–3). God’s wrath is revealed against ungodly and unrighteous people (Rom 1:18; cf. 2:8), who are storing it up for themselves “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5 ESV). Ultimately everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, are indicted and no one can be made right by performing “works of the law” (3:20). However, his argument climaxes at the end of chapter 3:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 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 [or “sacrifice of atonement” TNIV] 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” (Rom 3:21–26 ESV emphasis mine).

Not to mention that immediately following this we have an extended example of faith in the person of Abraham in the following chapter (Romans 4). Abraham’s “faith” is contrasted with “works” (i.e. works of the law). Faith is our response and is the only thing that we do that would not be considered a “work”. Faith appears to be pretty important in Romans.

This continues into chapter 5, where Paul makes the wonderful announcement:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 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” (Rom 5:1–2 ESV).

Faith in Christ brings peace with God, access into the grace he offers, saves us from God’s wrath (Rom 5:9), and much more. Paul twice repeats a quotation from Isaiah: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom 10:11 ESV; cf. 9:33; citing Isa 28:16). A wonderful promise indeed! The point again is that unilateral saving of people and crediting them as righteous without a response of “faith” is clearly not what Paul intends here.

3. 2 Corinthians 5:19

One does not need to look very far in the context to understand that a personal response is required in order for reconciliation to be completed:

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:18–21 ESV emphasis mine).

Here the exhortation is clear (the Greek verb is an imperative): “be reconciled to God!” It is a command. The overall message seems to suggest that God has offered an olive branch of peace. And yet a response to this message is required. In Christ, God has made an offer of reconciliation to sinners. He did this through the substitution of Christ (v. 21). The “might become” in verse 21 is also in the subjunctive mood. What does that mean? Like we learned in an earlier post, it is a possibility. In Christ, it is now possible to be made “righteous” by our being reconciled with God.  The language is strong and almost begging for people (even to those already in the church!) to be reconciled to God. While some of the typical Pauline terminology of “faith/belief” is absent, the context affirms that faith is indeed part of the larger discussion (cf. 2 Cor 3:16; 4:13; 5:7).

While there is much that can be said about this passage, it is clear that a unilateral saving of people without an appropriate and prescribed response is highly unlikely.

The context of these passages unambiguously stresses the importance of faith/belief. Human response to the work of God is suggested in the contexts of all of these verses. The point in all of this is clear: context matters and drawing interpretive conclusions based on just a verse or sentence outside of its context should be avoided.

[**nota bene: To be clear, I do not intend in any way by quoting Galli that he is a universalist or that he questions the traditional teachings of heaven, hell, or the nature of salvation. He obviously signs annually CT’s statement of faith affirming the traditional perspective. I merely quote him because these are legitimate questions people ask about whether the Bible teaches that people will ultimately be saved with or without faith. Scripture such as these are great examples of verses that are often read or cited out of context.]

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