PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS BEFORE WE GET INTO THE MEAT OF OUR STUDY
Zane Hodges once wrote:
“It may seem strange to say it, but the grace movement must face the danger of not being open to God’s Word.
Most grace people probably feel that openness to God’s Word is a hallmark of the grace movement. After all, we are prepared to let the Scriptures speak even if they clearly contradict long-held traditional interpretations. The doctrine of rewards is one such area where the grace movement seems prepared to let the Scriptures speak.
I agree that this has been a strong point of the grace movement up until now. I hope it will continue to be. But there are some warning flags.”
“…the grace movement must bring all of its convictions to the bar of Scripture. And we must be prepared to revise these convictions however God’s Word requires. No movement can remain vital which no longer examines itself in the light of Scripture.
When such examination of our convictions ceases, tradition and dead orthodoxy are not far down the road.”
An Indispensable Method Used to Systematize the Doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sins:
Throughout my years of Bible College and Seminary, I was introduced to many helpful, methodical approaches to studying the Bible. One approach that I have found useful in my own study is the observation, extrapolation, and application method. You start out with a text of Scripture and write down as many observations concerning it as you can, without making any inferences or interpretations of the text. One is to simply make declarative statements concerning the data in the text itself. Next, based on the wealth of information contained in those observations, one would make inferences and extrapolations, but only as far as the text could legitimately allow. This second step is basic interpretation. In class, we were not allowed to make any inference that couldn’t be supported from the text at hand. We did this in order to stay “in bounds” with the text. If there was not enough information within the text itself for a particular pronouncement, we were not allowed to make it.
This type of precaution will be very important in our study of the Forgiveness of Sins, because for years we have been handed down interpretations of these passages and have rarely questioned them. And when they are questioned, we usually run to our traditional understandings rather than making careful observations about them.
Certainly, as all students of the Bible know, all the information concerning a doctrine present in a particular text may not be present in the text being considered. So in order to grow in understanding of the issues, the other texts would need to be studied in the same way, with the observations and extrapolations. The information gleaned from all the relevant texts could be used to make greater extrapolations and interpretations, and thus the issue could be considered using all the relevant biblical data and legitimate conclusions could be made – and at the same time the rules of the study prevent improper use of the text, the inclusion of secondary assumptions not found in the text, and erroneous interpretation (and by extension improper application). This method is a beneficial tool when doing systematic theology.
The Dangers of Imprecise Observation and Interpretation:
This type of exercise is very helpful when studying any biblical doctrine. I used this very same process to come to the conclusions that I did concerning God’s forgiveness of sins in the New Testament. I have found, as in my study of forgiveness of sins, that I and others have been guilty of making inferences that can't legitimately be supported by reasoned observation and extrapolation and then asserting them as biblical fact. Furthermore, I note that I and others have fallen into the error of "implicit faith," by which we have, without the application of focused study or critical thinking, regarded and taught as truth a wide range of tenets springing from various theological traditions, and not from our own personal study.
We must be on guard about this! Too often I find that we go too far in our theological pronouncements, going beyond what may be legitimately extrapolated from the scriptural data. WE MUST COMMIT OURSELVES ANEW TO STAY “IN BOUNDS” WITH CARE AND PRECISION, GOING BACK TO THE RELEVANT TEXTS, DETERMINING TO RECEIVE NOTHING MORE FROM THE TEXT THAN WHAT CAN LEGITIMATELY BE ASCERTAINED FROM IT. This point, in my estimation, cannot be overemphasized! The imprecise handling of the biblical texts can have a snowballing effect, as illegitimate inferences can be used to make more, which then in turn can be used to make greater ones and so on.
Reader, is it possible that you have not been careful enough with the handling of Scripture? To admit so, as I do, can be humbling, indeed. Some authors, I have read, have been very obstinate to confess their shortcomings, because they have been “published” and their pride and reputation are on the line. One of the many things that I have admired about Zane Hodges is that he continued to test his beliefs against a proper consideration of the Scriptures. Zane’s prayerful and methodical approach to the study of Scripture produced clarity, modifications, and even changes in his beliefs, and he was not afraid to announce them. Fidelity to the Scriptures is far more important than any other consideration. I hope that you will judge this true as well, no matter where you eventually will be in relation to this current study of God’s forgiveness of sins in the New Testament.