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How can we tell when the Bible condones what it records?

Published: 13 January 2018 (GMT+10)

We often get questions about how to interpret the Bible. John R., US, writes:

Who is ‘right’ in the Bible? That is to say, when there is a speaker of dialogue in the Bible, how is one to know that the speaker is correct? Of course, when God refutes the speaker (ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures), that is obvious, as is the case when God is the speaker, or when context refutes the speaker (like that Amalekite who said that he killed Saul in 2 Samuel 1, but we know was lying because of what 1 Samuel earlier says), but how is one otherwise to know that a speaker is trustworthy?

Lita Cosner responds:

Great question! The Bible does record some things that it doesn’t endorse. People doing and saying ungodly things is a sort of negative example—i.e. “Don’t be like Cain/Esau/Absalom.” There are a couple rules of thumb that you can use to discern whether the Bible condones a certain statement it records.

  1. Who said it? To give extreme examples, if Jesus said it, the Bible endorses it. If Satan says it, the Bible doesn’t. But most things are a little less black and white than that. But as a rule of thumb, it matters whether a statement is in the mouth of a very righteous person, like Abraham or Moses, or in the mouth of someone like Rehoboam or the stereotypical fool of Proverbs.
  2. What’s the context? Sometimes even a righteous person will be recorded sinning or making an error. For instance, Peter denied Jesus. If the person later is rebuked or repents, of course the Bible didn’t condone that action or statement. Also, it is helpful to know what the rest of Scripture would say regarding a specific principle. Also, there are times when the Bible tells us that society was largely unrighteous, e.g. in the time of Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25), which implicitly condemns many of the actions taken in those times.
  3. When did it happen? It used to be a righteous act to take a bull to the Temple to be slaughtered on the Day of Atonement, because that is what God prescribed for Israel to cover over their sins until Jesus died and took them away (Hebrews 10:4–10). But Christians today are forbidden to offer animal sacrifices for sin, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice to deal with sin once and for all. Also, some commands God gave to the nation of Israel do not apply today, such as the prohibition on wearing mixed fabrics. Biblical history matters—the Bible is God’s progressive propositional revelation of His messianic program working out through history.
  4. How does the description of the action line up with what the Bible commands us to do prescriptively? There are examples of where Scripture tells about theft, for instance. But Scripture tells us not to steal. So we can’t look at Rachel stealing Laban’s idols and say, “theft is biblical”, because Scripture tells us specifically that theft is wrong. The general principle here is: we interpret descriptive passages by prescriptive passages.
  5. Finally, God has given us a brain and a conscience, and in most cases those should be sufficient to discern whether the Bible condones or condemns the actions it records. When those are not sufficient, He has also given us local churches, pastors (Ephesians 4:11), and you can ask your pastor for guidance with a passage if it is confusing to you.

I hope this is helpful.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $14.00
Soft Cover
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Jenny Y.
Generally, I agree, but what are we to make of Judges 14:19-20? Samson was in a furious temper because his wife had betrayed him to his wedding companions, and he needed thirty sets of clothes to give them. However, we read, 'Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of their belongings and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle.'
Samson's actions could hardly be considered righteous; the men of Ashkelon were not guilty of anything connected to the case yet, apparently, he was acting under 'the Spirit of the LORD'.
Lita Cosner
The men of Ashkelon were Philistines, whom God told Israel to utterly destroy as judgment for their idolatry and other forms of extreme wickedness. Samson's motivation was not godly, but God used him as an instrument of judgment throughout his life.
Alan M.
Concerning reader's comments regarding "mixed fabrics". I have always understood this to relate to the fact that pagan priests wore garments of mixed fabrics in religious rituals, and the ban was given to ensure that the children of Israel avoided becoming involved in such rituals.
Peter N.
It's always important to know the whole context and implications as well as who said what.
For example, in comparing the example and teaching of Muhammad with the example and teaching of Jesus to love your enemies and do good to them, I've had Muslims claiming I'm being selective because Jesus actually did say: " those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me” - but they ignore the fact that Jesus was telling a parable, and so they seek to mislead ignorant people.
Cory P.
I would also add that there seems to be a 3rd category the Bible contains; actions that are permitted but not condoned. An example of that would be polygamy, which was not explicitly condemned as sin, but was not the ideal design of monogamy.

An additional possible category, would be acts there were committed within a certain context under the authority of God, but are normally not condoned, such as the conquest of Canaan, which was specifically limited by God in both means and extent. This category though probably falls under the "when did it happen" section.

On a different note, it amazes me sometimes to see the extent people will go to ignore the context of a passage so that they can twist the words to their own understanding.
Robert H.
Good response! Something that should probably be added is the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who Jesus told His disciples, would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).
Fred G.
I have some concern about the book of Hebrews seemingly condoning a lie. I am speaking of Rehab's lie to protect the Hebrew spies in Jericho.
Lita Cosner
Technically, Hebrews 11 does not condone the lie, but commends her faith and her friendly welcome of the spies.
Clifford R.
Worthy article.
An entire book that is central to this question is the book of Job, most of the recorded content of his "miserable comforters" is wrong in context of who it is addressed to; content being correct. Interesting that Elihu deviates only marginally from the other 3 ("because he justified himself rather than God. Also against his three friends was his wrath kindled, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job") but that small margin majorly distinguishes right & wrong.
Consequently advice can be gleaned from right teaching the wrong way. "God gave you a brain, use it", needs appropriated; subtly and pleasently expressed by Hebrews, "even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised".
J. B.
I have heard vaguely about a concept that distinguishes between God's "permissive will" and His "perfect will", with the former seeming to allow (perhaps not condone) certain less-than-ideal behaviors in a broken and corrupted world. Would CMI be willing to clarify that concept as it pertains to this article? What passages of Scripture led people to draw that concept from the Bible?
Lita Cosner
When Jesus spoke about divorce, He said, "From the beginning it was not so". God's perfect will was for a man and woman to be married for life. But in a fallen world, God allowed divorce so worse abuses could be prevented.

So we have a clear case in Scripture where the Lord Himself stated that God's Law was made because of the sinfulness of human hearts, not because that was His perfect will. We can expect that this is the case in other places as well, but if you have questions about another specific application, that might be something your pastor could help you with, because that's one place where believers may disagree.
Laurence .
Dear Lita Cosner
Where in scripture does God cancel the direction not to wear mixed fabrics? Is it possible God knows more about our bodies than you an d I. It is possible that the static electricity generated by the mixed fabrics is detrimental to the electrical frequency of our nervous system. I have read this may have been the reason of this health law. I have no scientific report to back this up other than I am prepared to accept biblical statements than mans. None of the health laws of the Old Testament have any bearing on our salvation but we reap the health consequences of not keeping them.
Lita Cosner
Dear Laurence,

Where did God ever apply the Jewish law to Gentiles? And if you want to read what the Apostle Paul thought of applying the Law to Gentile believers in Jesus, read the book of Galatians.

We should expect that God would not make laws that would be detrimental to the health of His people, but any health benefits the Law has are secondary; their primary purpose was to keep the nation of Israel separate and distinct, because it was the people from whom the Messiah would come.
Richard L.
Great hermeneutical principles, Lita!

If I may add a couple of thoughts:

#1 Be aware of rare cases where the bible records a person saying both wise and foolish things--in the same speech event. Specifically, Job's counselors. Their speeches contain both profundity (in certain parts) and serious error (in other parts). These speeches are admixtures. As I was cautioned--re those speeches--at bible school, the bible inerrantly, perfectly accurately, records what those counselors say. That doesn't mean--as Lita points out--that everything that they say is accurate / truth.

#2 Be aware of wrong labels. Test for them (as part of 1 Thess. 5:21 testing). Specifically, the "law" and "unlawful" of the teachers of the Law in Jesus' day. They added their own speculation onto the actual Mosaic (old covenant) Law, considered it equal in authority, and tried to sell everyone else on that by inventing the idea of "oral Torah".

They attempted to operationalize, for example, the Sabbath law: the Sabbath Mile, don't eat grains walking through fields on that day, don't carry a bedroll on that day, etc. The Mosaic Covenant never insisted on these; it merely said not to do a regular days' work--so mercy (in the form of rest) could also extend to marginalized workers (Deut. 5:14).

In Gospel-recorded events re the latter 2 inventions, we read "unlawful". We must get beyond the label--investigate it by the whole counsel of God. If we don't, we end up with a harsh view of the OT.

Applying this hermeneutical caution to bible-science issues, we must test the label "unscientific" re its false use re intelligent-design theory, timeframe issues, biological-history issues, etc. Science-level truth that threatens atheism and shows biblical accuracy is slapped with this wrong label.

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