"...the Scriptures ... are not of themselves clear and intelligible even in matters of the highest importance" - Faith of Our Fathers, Gibbons, p. 73.
Many other religious people likewise claim that the average person cannot understand the Bible, even in matters essential to salvation.
* They may have tried to study the Bible and found it difficult, so they gave up.
* Some point to the confusion and division among those who claim to follow the Bible, so they conclude no one really understands it. Others want to justify the existence of these contradictory groups, so they say no one can understand and it does not matter.
* Others believe truth is subjective; so whatever you believe, that it truth for you. There is no such thing as a single proper understanding of Scripture.
* Some have been told repeatedly by religious leaders that common people cannot understand the Bible. Only trained leaders can understand, so other folks must accept the word of the "official" interpreters.
We do not claim that understanding of the Bible comes easily, nor that we can personally answer every question everyone can ask. We do defend the Bible teaching that the honest seeker for truth can understand the written word sufficient to be saved.
Consider these points:
The Bible repeatedly claims to be God's word. See 1 Corinthians 14:37; 2:10-13; Ephesians 3:3-5; John 16:13; Matthew 10:19,20; Galatians 1:8-12; 2 Peter 1:20,21; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; Luke 10:16.
If the Bible is God's word, it must harmonize with God's nature. When we study the Bible and when we understand God's nature, then we necessarily must believe that we can understand the Bible. To claim that we cannot understand the Bible is either to deny that it is God's word or to impugn the character of God Himself.
The following aspects of God's character prove that we can understand the Bible.
1 Timothy 2:4 - God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. God does not want some to understand, but others are incapable. He wants all to know the truth.
2 Timothy 3:15-17 - The Scriptures were revealed by God to teach and instruct us in righteousness and provide us to all good works.
Romans 1:16 - The gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.
Titus 1:1-3 - God manifested (make known) His word in the message which was entrusted to Paul according to God's command.
So God wants everyone to know His will, and the inspired men revealed His will so people could know it.
[Romans 16:26; Col. 1:24-29]
1 Corinthians 2:12,13 - Inspired men received God's Spirit so they could know what God revealed and could speak them in words which the Holy Spirit taught them.
Matthew 10:19,20 - Inspired men did not have to worry about how or what to speak, because it would be given them what to speak. It was not them speaking but the Spirit of the Father speaking in them.
If God gave the message to inspired men so we can know God's will, then He must have intended to give an understandable message. If we cannot understand the message, then God has failed in His purpose.
But how can an all-wise, all-powerful God fail to do what He intends to do? To claim that the word cannot be understood is to deny that God is all-wise and all-powerful: He tried to give a revelation that men could understand, but He lacked the wisdom or power to do so.
If we believe that God is all-powerful and all-wise, then we must believe that He cannot fail and He did not fail. Therefore we can understand the message of the gospel sufficiently to be saved.
[See other passages on inspiration above.]
Justice is the quality by which God treats man fairly in accordance with whether they have or have not done His will. Love is that quality by which God actively shows good will toward men, seeking our well being. Grace is the quality by which God shows favor to men that they might have the hope of eternal life, though they do not deserve it.
We have seen that God has revealed His will through inspired men so people could know what He expects of them and know how to receive eternal life. If that message cannot be understood, then is God a just, gracious, loving God?
Consider the following passages. If understanding is impossible, then how can God require these things of man and still be just, loving, and gracious?
Ephesians 5:17 - Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Does a just, loving, gracious God require what is impossible?
2 Timothy 2:15 - To be approved of God and not ashamed, we must handle rightly the word of God (ASV). How can one handle rightly a message he cannot understand?
Hebrews 11:6; Romans 10:14,17 - No one can please God without faith, but faith comes by hearing God's word. Yet how can a message create faith in a heart that cannot understand the message? [John 20:30,31; 6:44,45; Luke 1:1-4]
Mark 7:14 - Jesus' teachings were intended for the common people (multitudes), and He expected and commanded them all to understand His teachings.
Luke 8:11; Matthew 13:19,23 - The seed of the gospel is the word of God. Those whom the Lord considers to be good and fruitful are those who understand the word. Those who do not understand are unacceptable.
So God requires and commands all people to understand, and we must understand to have His approval and to have faith. Yet how can God be just, loving, and gracious in these requirements, if in fact understanding is impossible?
[Colossians 1:9-11; Philippians 1:9-11; James 1:21-25]
John 12:48 - Jesus said, "The word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day." [Romans 2:16]
Acts 17:30,31 - These times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world by the Man whom He has ordained.
2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 - Jesus will come in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel ... These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.
All men will be judged according to Jesus' word. Those who do not obey the gospel will be destroyed, and ignorance will be no excuse. But God revealed His word to give us knowledge of what we must obey. If we cannot understand the message, we have no choice but to be ignorant and disobey.
How can God be just and condemn people for disobeying or being ignorant of a message that is impossible to understand? How can He say He really loves us and extends grace to save us, if we cannot understand the only means whereby we can be saved? To say we cannot understand God's word is to deny the justice, love, and grace of God.
Yet if we believe in God's justice, love, and grace, then we must conclude that we can understand the Scriptures.
[Mark 16:15,16; Acts 11:14; 1 John 2:3-6; 5:2,3]
God always speaks truth and always keeps His promises. But in the following passages He has stated or promised that we can understand His word.
2 Timothy 3:15-17 - The Scriptures are able to make us wise to salvation. They are profitable to teach and instruct us and to provide us to all good works. How could they make us wise and profit us in these things if we cannot understand them?
Isaiah 55:11 - God's word will not return to Him void, but it shall accomplish what He pleases and prosper in the thing for which He sent it. But He sent it to reveal His will to men, etc. If we cannot understand it, then it does not prosper nor did it accomplish what He sent it for.
1 Corinthians 14:33 - God is not the author of confusion but of peace. But if the Bible cannot be understood, then God would be the author of confusion.
These passages are clear statements or promises that God gave a message we could understand. If we cannot understand, then God did not speak the truth and did not keep His promises. To deny that the Bible can be understood is to deny that God is truthful and faithful to His word. But if we believe that God is true and faithful, then we must believe that we can understand the Bible.
[Eph. 3:3-5; Isaiah 35:8; John 8:31,32]
God gave the Old Testament to Israel using the same methods by which He gave the New Testament to us. Consider some lessons we can learn.
Psalms 119:98,99 - You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies ... I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation.
Psalms 119:104,105 - Your precepts give understanding. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalms 119:130 - The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.
Psalms 19:7-11 - God's law converts the soul, makes wise the simple, and enlightens the eyes. In keeping them there is great reward.
How could the law do any of these if people could not understand them?
Acts 17:2,3 - Paul's custom was to reason from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ. How could this prove anything if people could not understand the Scriptures?
Acts 17:11 - The Scriptures give the average man a way to know whether or not they are being told the truth. People are not expected to take preachers' word for what the Bible says. Rather, they should use the word to check out the preachers. How could the Bible accomplish this if people cannot understand it? [Matt. 15:14]
Matthew 22:29 - Jesus told the Sadducees, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God." He expected them to know the Scriptures. When they did not, they were mistaken, and He held them accountable for that.
For every argument anyone could offer why we today cannot understand the New Testament, the same argument would mean that people in the first century could not have understood the Old Testament. Yet they were capable of understanding it and were expected to do so. Likewise, we today can understand God's word whereby we can be saved.
Acts 17:11 - We must "search the Scriptures daily."
2 Timothy 2:15 - To handle the Bible properly we must exercise diligence. Then we can be approved by God. Otherwise, we need to be ashamed.
People can know the truth. The Bible can be understood. But we need diligent study.
Matthew 22:29 - The Sadducees were in error because they did not know the Scriptures. But Jesus did not blame the Scriptures. He blamed the people. They could and should have studied enough to know the truth.
Hebrews 5:14 - To be able to discern good from evil, we must have our senses exercised by reason of use. These Christians lacked understanding (v12), but it was their own fault.
Some people do not know the truth, not because it cannot be understood, but simply because they have never studied it or because they have not been diligent in study.
[2 Peter 3:15,16; 1 Peter 2:2; Psalm 1:1,2; Josh. 1:8.]
Some people do not understand truth because their minds have been blinded by false teaching. These false teachings may come from preachers, family, friends, or denominational creeds.
2 Corinthians 4:2-4 - The god of this age (Satan) blinds the minds of some folks so the light of the gospel does not shine on them. This sometimes happens because teachers handle the word of God deceitfully.
Matthew 15:9,14 - Following human doctrines makes worship vain. These doctrines are often taught by blind leaders. If we follow blindly, we will be lost like they are.
Note that we could and should check teachers out in God's word (Acts 17:11). That is why God is justified in condemning folks who are deceived by false teachers. It is simply not true that we need to take a preacher's word for truth.
Galatians 1:6-9 - The Galatians were turning away from Christ because of the influence of people who were perverting the gospel of Christ. But they were not excused on the grounds they could not understand. Instead they should have compared what they were being taught to the gospel they had received from inspired men.
[Matt. 7:15-21; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 2 John 9-11; Prov. 3:5,6; 1 Cor. 1:18-25; Col. 3:17; Rev. 22:18,19.]
Matthew 13:13-15 - People often close their eyes and ears to the truth. Why? They may be prejudiced - they may have believed a certain way for years, so they refuse to consider the evidence for other views. Or they may be too proud to admit they are wrong. As a result, they reject the truth when they hear it,
2 Thessalonians 2:10-12 - Some people do not love truth enough, because they have pleasure in unrighteousness. They will believe a lie and be condemned.
John 8:43-47 - These Jews did not understand Jesus' words, because they wanted to do the desires of the devil. Some folks just enjoy sin and are so entangled in it that they refuse to accept truth when they hear it.
2 Timothy 4:2-4 - Some people seek preachers and religious groups that say they are acceptable, even while they continue in their sinful practices. They turn aside from truth and follow fables instead.
These folks do not understand God's word, not because it cannot be understood, but because they simply do not like what it says!
If we are ever to accept the truth, we must "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matt. 5:6). We must honestly study what God's word says and then accept the truth with meekness and "readiness of mind" (James 1:19-21; Acts 17:11; Luke 14:26-33).
[Proverbs 18:13; 2 Kings 5:9-12; Acts 10:33; John 7:17; 2 Tim. 3:1-7; Acts 7:51; Luke 12:13-21; 1 Tim. 6:6-19; John 12:42,43; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4; Rom. 1:20-22,28; 1 Sam. 15:23; Heb. 10:26-31.]
If God is all-wise and all-powerful, then you can understand His will. If God is just, loving, and gracious, then you can understand His will. If He is truthful and faithful, then you can understand His will. His promises and the examples shown in Scripture reassure us that we can know how to be saved.
Never try to excuse yourself from doing what God's word requires on the grounds that you cannot know what He wants. If the Scriptures require you to know a thing to be saved, then you can know. But you must study diligently with an honest and open heart.
Do you know what God wants you to do to be saved?
Copyright 1996,2005, David E. Pratte
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Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
The Preservation of the Bible
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Divine Authority vs. Human Authority in Religion
Is One Interpretation as Good as Another?
The Inspiration of the Bible
How to Study the Bible
Emotions in Authority and Worship
Are Bible Examples Binding Authority?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.