The last straw for us was the sermon series immediately following Easter – “What Jesus’ resurrection gives to you”. My wife and I left the church before the end of the 6 week series. I think we made it through “Victory”, “Freedom”, “Power” and “Joy” before we could no longer stomach the concept that Jesus suffered and died to make us more happy and comfortable. To me it felt as dirty as when I finished going through the Titanic exhibit, only to be forcibly routed through the gift shop profiteering off the deaths of hundreds of passengers.
Megachurch consultants had recently been hired to rejuvenate that aging church. Much had changed – discipleship and local missions were disbanded, worship music became a concert, the kid’s ministry was converted to Romper Room, and teaching focused on what God does FOR “me” and not what God requires OF “me”. Throughout the post-Easter sermon series the pastor fed us a steady diet of Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 but failed to provide context to those verses – not mentioning the adjacent verses that qualified those promises.
That church, like most today, worries that it won’t survive in this day and age if it fails to attract and retain members. Therefore, pastors are more careful about the words they use and the scripture passages they read.
As the measuring stick for “success” has become more size-based than impact-based, the filter through which churches process every decision has shifted from “how do we make them disciples” to “how do we get them to commit to Jesus and our church.” We count professions and baptisms but as we discussed last week, the buck shouldn’t stop there. Jesus wants us to make sold-out, transformed disciples – however, pastors and staff have in effect already moved on the next unsaved person once a new believer comes to Christ.
Yes, we are saved by grace through faith but I doubt the sincerity of a profession of faith if that person’s life doesn’t change significantly. Given the magnitude of the gift Jesus gave us and how much He suffered on our behalf, shouldn’t we be transformed by His grace? Wouldn’t we want to serve others eagerly and share our good news widely. How can so many go back to business as usual, cussing a little less but keeping their newfound salvation to themselves outside their circle of Christian friends.
We’re left to wonder whether nominal or carnal Christians are really Christians at all. Are they truly saved? Yet churches in America implicitly approve of converts living as they did before by making discipleship, repentance and sanctification optional out of fear of asking too much of people that they want to come back next Sunday. As a consequence, recent studies have found that Americans don’t believe their Christian neighbors live or act any differently than their non-Christian neighbors.
It’s a disservice to churchgoers everywhere and to the Lord to regularly quote attractive-sounding verses while withholding the less alluring context of those passages of scripture…
10 Popular Verses & Their Overlooked Counterparts
1. Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Romans 8:29 – “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
Context – Jesus defines “those who love Him” in John 14, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching”. Obedience and discipleship are joined at the hip. The latter part of verse 28 and verse 29 are typically avoided because they reference calling and predestination, a touchy, uncomfortable subject for most churchgoers – we’d prefer to have control than leave it in God’s hand. “Conformed to the image of His Son” is also challenging because Jesus was first and foremost obedient to the Father.
2. Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Context – These two verses seem at odds, but though salvation is a free gift, we should respond by exhibiting the same mercy and grace we have received in how we treat others.
3. Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
Hebrews 11:2-40 – Examples of how the great heroes of faith did more than believe, but acted in dramatic fashion on that belief.
Context – Faith is not just belief; it is belief that inspires action. As James says in 2:18, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
4. Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Matthew 5 and 6 – We prefer the 2nd half of 33, getting “all these things”, and rarely analyze what “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” really means, which is explained in detail by the long sermon Jesus gave “on the mount” in chapters 5 and 6.
Context – Verse 6:33 is rarely connected back to the sermon it concludes, meticulously defining how Christ’s followers are expected to behave.
5. Romans 12:3-8 – Pastors routinely cite these verses about using our spiritual gifts (parts of the Body) to serve the (institution of) church.
Romans 12:1-2 – “In view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Context – Pastors don’t often relate vs. 3-8 to the verses that precede them, more willing to tell us what we should do for the (collective) church than how we should undergo (individual) transformation. Likewise, they put in place more support structures around the former (internal ministries) than the latter (discipleship).
6. 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 – “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.”
1 Corinthians 9:15-27 – Whereas 13-14 refers to pastors and church staff, Paul goes on to describe the responsibilities, training, dedication, and endurance necessary to live out the ministry calling every Christian shares as the embodiment of church (the “called out ones”; “those belonging to the Lord”).
Context – Few churchgoers want to hear how hard they would have to work to win the Great Commission “race” or “boxing match” Paul refers to in those verses.
7. Philippians 2:1-2 – “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”
Philippians 2:12 – “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”.
Context – In verses 3-11, Paul goes on to define the love of Jesus referenced in verses 1-2 – in humble obedience to the Father and putting the interests of others above your own. The challenges of obedience and selflessness are so counter to our natures that in the verse that follows (v. 12) Paul describes the ongoing process of sanctification (and discipleship) as one that involves “fear and trembling”.
8. Galations 5:22-23 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…”
Galations 5:24 – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Context – Without the transformation in Christ’s image that accompanies being “crucified” such that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”, we can’t bear the fruit of the Spirit. Churchgoers also don’t want to hear the list of terrible sins and dire consequences outlined in the immediately preceding verses (vs. 19-21), knowing they may be guilty of a few.
9. Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (NASB)
Philippians 4:12 – “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Context – Pastors and churchgoers prefer the NASB translation because it stands alone, delinking from the prior verse about being content in every situation. The NIV phrases v. 13 as “I can do all this”, referring directly to Paul enduring hardships as a result of living out his faith no matter what the cost.
10. Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:12-13 – “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Context – The book of Jeremiah leading up to chapter 29 is about Israel’s disobedience and God’s punishment. In fact, chapter 29 is written to the exiles in Babylon, who were there because of disobedience (see chapter 25 and 27). The promises in chapter 29 are for restoration following judgment understanding that discipline will bring obedience (vs. 12-13).
It’s Your Turn
What other verses have you heard churches take out of context, offering cheap grace and a better life without any need for repentance or discipleship?