What to say when your church members ask about those hard Scriptures

“This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60)

Young pastors struggle with questions that arise from the congregation in the middle of their teachings. You’re holding forth on some rich teaching and someone blurts out, “But pastor, doesn’t Paul say such-and-so?”

Sure enough, Paul did say such and so, and said it in two or three places so strongly and clearly no one but the most resistant can deny. However, what he said does not fit with the point you were trying to make. Now, you have no choice but to deal with it.

Until that moment, you always liked the Apostle Paul and considered him one of your favorites.

You find yourself remembering–treasuring even–something the Apostle Peter said about Paul: “In all (Paul’s) letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (II Peter 3:16)

That’s a good verse to remember, young pastor. The time will come when you will need to refer an insistent questioner to it. After reading it–never quote it; the heckler  (smiley-face goes here) needs to see it in black and white in his own Bible–you will then say, “If Peter had difficulty getting a handle on some of Paul’s writings, it’s no stretch to think you and I might.”

I‘d like to do two things here: list five such scriptures you will be asked to render a verdict on, young pastor, and then make a few observations concerning the need to have an answer to every such question.

1) “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” (Malachi 1:2-3)

Someone asked me about this last night. That’s what has kept me thinking about this matter and what awakened me in the middle of the night (it’s now 3:47 am) calling me to the laptop.

Dr. Clyde Francisco was arguably the greatest Old Testament/Hebrew scholar our denomination produced. I heard him say in a conference that all the Lord is saying here is “I really liked Jacob, but I couldn’t stand Esau. Nothing more.”

And yet people build entire theologies around their interpretations of this verse.

Will that satisfy your questioner, young pastor? Probably not. There’s something inside us that wants every text, every verse of Scripture, to yield up profundities worthy of Solomon or the Lord on the mount.

My questioner last night followed up with, “But what will I say to a friend who asks me this and is suffering and feels that God hates him/her?” I said, “Tell them to struggle with it the same way they do a hundred other issues they have with God.”

Anyone who does not have issues with God is not paying attention. I say that with the deepest reverence.

2) “For in the case of those once enlightened…and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)

Now, this text is a problem primarily for those of us who believe “once saved, always saved,” a.k.a. “the security of the believer.” If you are of the opinion that one can walk in and out of salvation–have it today, lose it tomorrow, get it back Thursday–you might even like this passage (although it presents problems for you, too, of a different nature).

My short answer is “the writer of Hebrews–and no one knows who that was–is giving a hypothetical situation. He/she says ‘if one actually did come to know Christ and then were to lose that salvation, it’s impossible to get it back.'”

Don’t miss that. Verse 6 says, “…it is impossible to renew them again to repentance,since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.”

For you to be saved twice, Christ would have to go to the cross a second time.

Many a denomination teaches that it’s possible to lose your salvation, but I don’t know a one that says if you do lose it, you can’t get it back. Those teaching what’s called “apostasy” (falling away) generally have no trouble encouraging the fallen to get up and come back in the house.

And with that, we might as well go right into number three…

3) “…and no one shall snatch them out of my hand…. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:28-29)

So, young pastor, does the Bible teach the security of the believer or not?  You will be required to have an answer to this question, no matter which side you come down on.

The clear teaching, the most consistent teaching, of Scripture is that once a person is born into the family of God, he/she can never lose that salvation. They can lose the fellowship, but not the relationship.

My sons or daughters may disappoint me, rebel against me, even disown me. But they cannot ever stop being mine. And the reason that is significant is that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).  And, “the Spirit Himself bears witness that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16).

If we can have salvation and lose it, then get it back, God was using the wrong metaphor. He should have said believers are “friends,” since they come and go. But not children. Children are yours forever. And that brings up that little word, doesn’t it. “I give to them eternal life,” Jesus said. Eternal. Deal with it.

In my church for a revival, Pastor Adrian Rogers commented on John 10:28-29. “Someone will say, ‘Well, maybe no one can snatch us out of God’s hands, but the devil can.’ My friend, think about that. If Satan could get you out of the hand of God, he would. And if he doesn’t, then it’s because he doesn’t want to. And that makes your salvation based on the good will of the devil.”

Well put, as usual from this dear brother, now in Heaven.

4) “Whom He foreknew, these He also predestined….” (Romans 8:29)

“What about predestination, pastor?”

Good luck with this, preacher,  no matter which side you come down on.

We non-Calvinists have some explaining to do. But so do the Calvinists. Scripture seems to come down on both sides of this issue, at least according to our understanding.

We’ll have more to say on this in a moment, but let’s make the point that there are good reasons why faithful and godly believers disagree on these matters. Scripture “seems to say” both things on the surface. Only by digging deeper can we find a resolution of these texts that satisfies.

Am I saying there are contradictions in the Bible? On the surface, there appear to be. Properly understood, we think not.

5) “…in which He also went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison.” (I Peter 3:19)

“So, Pastor, is that saying that between our Lord’s death and resurrection, He made an appearance in hell–Hades, Sheol, somewhere!–to preach to all the Old Testament people so they would have the opportunity to be saved?”

My answer: “I don’t know.”

I do not know what that is saying. My pastor knows. He’s written extensively on the question, and I respect him mightily. But I personally do not know.

And I am perfectly willing to leave it there. I’m not pastoring and the issue doesn’t bother me and no one ever asks me about it.

Finally, a few observations on responding to our members regarding the “hard sayings” of the Word….

1) Pastor, liberate yourself from needing to have the definitive answer to every textual problem.

You are not John MacArthur. In fact, I’m not even sure John MacArthur is John MacArthur. (Having said that, I think I’ll just let it lay there.)

Granted, some in your congregation will feel you have punted when you say what I just did about a Bible question (“I don’t know.”). The truly child-like among your people will appreciate your honesty, but the immature will want to take you to the woodshed. In fact, they will even misquote I Peter 3:15 in which we are instructed to “always be ready to make a defense” (give an answer) “to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.”  Your response is a sweet, “Oh, I’m more than ready to tell why I believe in Jesus and know that I’m saved. Is that what you wanted to know?”

As they grow and mature, your people will encounter numerous questions concerning God and His Word that do not yield to easy answers, and they will liberate you the shepherd from the need to know all things. Until then, be patient and honest with them.

2) On the other hand, you should devote yourself to knowing God’s word and being familiar with the various issues concerning difficult passages.

Nothing we say here is meant to affirm your laziness, preacher.

When someone whom I do not know berated me on Facebook the other day because I did not agree with his interpretation on some obscure text–and even invited me to call him on the phone so he could teach me!–I pointed out that I have devoted my entire adult life to understanding God’s Word and learning how to teach it. This is no hobby of mine. Nor of yours, pastor.

That is not to say I understand it all. No one does. No one. (Even though some think they do. We’ll save that subject for another time.)

“Study to show yourself approved.” That line from II Timothy 2:15, simply means to “work hard at showing yourself approved,” and is not calling on us to “study,” the way kids in school understand the term. But for generations, it was taught to us in just that way.

In other words, preacher, hit the books! Study the Word.

These days with the internet, pastors and teachers have ten thousand resources at their fingertips for plumbing the depths of research and understanding on these matters. And, let us admit, therein lies the problem. No one can sift through 10,000 sources. So, we will wisely limit ourself to a dozen or so whose insights we can check out regularly, and have two or three mentors to contact personally when needed.

3) When teaching a passage, it’s best if you are the one to bring up the problem (without waiting to be asked) and deal with it.

This requires some preparation on your part. Just as everything else you do will require preparation, and thought and study and planning and prayer.

4) If caught off guard by a question, if you say, “I’ll look that up and get back to you,” make sure you do.

As a very young (and green) pastor, I told a questioning member I would look up something and get back to him.” A man called me off to the side and said,”Preacher, your predecessor would promise to do that and we would never hear from it again. If you say you’re going to get back to us on something, make sure you do it.”

Good advice, advice which I took.

5) Develop the skill of giving brief answers to complex questions. Your congregation will rise up and bless you.

Nothing discourages church members from asking their questions–even good questions that they really want answers to–like a pastor who gives an essay-type response to a true-false question.  Covering all aspects of an answer is something in our nature, and it results in 15-minute monologues from us.  Now, that’s not all bad, we may need to say. After all, if you want to discourage questions–if you dread a particular question and want to avoid it–then talk the subject to death.

No one will ask you anything after that. Which reminds me of a text: “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question” (Matthew 22:46).  In this case, they quit asking because they didn’t like the answers!

6) Finally, keep telling yourself and assuring your congregation that if God were to write a book, doesn’t it figure that it would be deep? That some parts would be hard to understand? And that it would not always yield its best riches to those who did not care to sit at the Lord’s feet for long but want all the answers to be short and simple?

I’m not sure why that seems hard for us to get, but it does.

In the meanwhile, pastor, keep on digging. This book is the richest, best, sweetest and mightiest of all the words ever penned on this planet.


6 thoughts on “What to say when your church members ask about those hard Scriptures

  1. Great word for us green, and maybe not-so-green, pastors! I know I don’t have all the answers, but I sure want to study to have all that I can on as much of the Bible as I can possibly have. I think that is why I foresee a forever cycle of learning in my future.

    Blessings brother,

  2. “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
    Or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning
    Or as it says in Ecclesiastes 3:11 “God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
    Young pastor, not knowing is not a failure. Evasion, willful ignorance, prideful arrogance all are. Only God knows everything, and you ain’t Him! But you can know more than you do now, so get after it.

  3. A good word for all who teach the Word. It encourages me to be reminded that we don’t have to feel we have failed the people when we “don’t know”.

  4. What about predestination? Also, I agree you can lose your relationship with God, as it relates to be his children, but I think you can lose your inheritance. Just a thought..

    • I see what you mean, Anthony. I promised to “have more to say on this later,” which I didn’t. Got distracted with all the other “stuff,” evidently. — Thanks! You get a star by your name. 🙂

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