Formulating an Answer
After a rather long discussion, I think we are finally ready to answer the question “when does the word of God cease to be the word of God?”
1) When the passage is stripped of the intent that God created it for. In other words, when someone preaches a text and it is used for a purpose other than what God designated for it. I hate when people quote me out of context because yes, those are my words, but in another sense, no those aren’t my words. I never would have used those words that way.
This is entirely different than when we reapply the words to our modern context. Our applications need to be faithful to the original intent. Passages on redemption should speak to redemption today. Passages on sin need to speak to sin today. Passages on cultural issues prevalent back then need to find close approximations to cultural issues today.
2) When the passages original historical setting is ignored. This is similar to the above problem yet with a slight twist. When a passage is ripped out of its historical context, what we are really doing is taking a step closer to reader-response criticism as pastors. We do not stand above the author or beside the author but below the author and its situation. We are in constant dialogue with him. We say, “I see the situation that you wrote that in. It is similar to ours in ______________.” We do not say, “I see the situation you wrote that in. Now I am going to take your text and apply it to this unrelated issue instead.” That violates the intent of the author and I believe, violates a basic principle of communication that is divinely built into our system of communication.
3) When words are taken out of context and filled with foreign meanings, the text ceases to be the word of God. In other words, when pastors say that dunamis is where we get dynamite from (a true statement) and then say Paul meant that the gospel has explosive power (which is impossible since dynamite was not invented yet), it ceases to be a God given word. Why? Because the word never meant that and the pastor is reading his own material into the text. If the text does not say that, it is not the word of God.
4) When the pastor states something false, it is not the word of God. Regardless of how harmless it might seem to use a word fallacy like the one listed above, it is nevertheless untrue. And as a word that is untrue, it is not the word of God. While the intent of the pastor might be sincere and it is not necessarily a sin to make a mistake (I have made plenty so I hope it isn’t!) like that, it is still not the word of God. We cannot expect sloppy preaching or false statements to be honored by God, regardless of our sincerity.
5) When the pastor preaches thoughts unrelated to the text and therefore violates the basic principles of interpretation, or misleads the congregation (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to believe that his statements are connected to the text, we are no longer dealing with a preacher who is preaching the word of God. To say that God is neither Calvinist nor Arminian because of Joshua 5:13-15 is not a spirit inspired statement because it isn’t related to the word of God in Joshua 5:13-15. We have become so removed from the spirit and intent of the text at this point, I would encourage that pastor to just stop and say, “The remainder of the time we will use to discuss my thoughts on Calvinism and Arminianism.”
6) When we apply scripture that is not for us to us, the text ceases to be the word of God. The interesting thing about words is that they are FOR specific people. When those words are applied to another person outside of its original audience, they may carry significance for me, but they are not words FOR me. For instance, someone might write me a love song. Those words are for me. Someone else years later might hear that same song and apply those words to themselves and find special meaning in it. That is great…but those words still were not meant for them.
This point might land me in some trouble, but I mean this sincerely: if the text was not written for us, to apply it to ourselves might carry comfort and joy and significance for us personally, but it is not because God is behind it. A biblical example: Jeremiah 1:5 carries great theological truth. God knows us and formed us all. However, I cannot say with certainty I was consecrated from the womb and I know I was not appointed a prophet to the nations. Those words were written about Jeremiah—not me. So I can apply some great truths from this text but I cannot apply this text verbatim to me. To do so violates the nature of the text and, as a result, the text ceases to be God’s word to us today.
Another example: applying passages that were meant for Israel to us today. It is just bad hermeneutics to do that. I realize that many people’s life verse is Jeremiah 29:11. Again, great truths can be gleaned about the nature of God. But the text was not written for us. These promises cannot be claimed by us. To claim that these promises do apply to us is false (so see point #4 above).
Some might say, well is not all scripture not written for us? Are not all passages context specific? Well yes and no. Romans 15:4 reminds that “whatever was written in former days was written four instruction, that through endurance through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” A few points can be gleaned from this: all scripture can be used for our instruction, for endurance and for encouragement. But this does not mean we can directly apply every text to ourselves.
Also, some scripture was written for our continued benefit and need today. So in a very real sense, while we are not the original audience and so we cannot say it was written to us, God allows many passages today to be for us anyway. The New Testament promises of God are for us.
So a basic rule of thumb is this: if the text was not written for us, we can glean great spiritual truths from those texts and not violate the intent of the text and so still be preaching the word of God. However, when we apply directly to ourselves texts that were not written for us, we violate the word of God and it ceases to be the word of God.
7) When a sermon violates the trajectory of the story of redemption. In essence, when we retroject New Testament principles into the Old Testament without first establishing the context of the Old Testament, we violate the intention of the author. I did this a number of years ago as I was preaching the book of Ecclesiastes for the first time. I attempted to always include Christ into every single line of thought. Now I believe Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, but I think Ecclesiastes needs to be heard on its own terms before we jump immediately to Christ.
We can also see this when we preach pure ethics out of texts that have little to do with ethics. So for instance, John MacArthur gives the example of his failure in preaching a sermon on not presuming upon God from 2 Samuel 7, which is clearly about the future Davidic King. He violated the basic trajectory of the redemptive history. In other words, he missed the overarching point.
So in short, when does the word of God cease to be the word of God? It ceases to be the word of God when the words written down are used in such a way as to violate the intent of the author (God) and so are stripped of any real resemblance of what he would have wanted to say.