Many people adore the Bible, and depend on it, for its role as a promise book. They feel they can claim promises in the Bible and be encouraged that certain things will happen for them just as the Bible says. This is very inspiring.
However, this perspective assumes that the Bible is God’s word to us, when in reality the books of the Bible are written by dozens of people, many of whom felt close to God but wrote from the limitations of their era, culture, and level of understanding. While there are many passages in the Bible that can inspire us, the Bible is not equipped to provide us promises to claim.
Now this is not to say that there are no commitments in the Bible, but I would limit them to certain words of Jesus written in the Gospels from the memories of his earliest followers. Even then, we must take care not to assume more than what is said, and certainly we should not infuse a passage with our own presuppositions of its intent or our personal wishes.
Some ‘promises’ from the Bible can be very comforting, but they can also be terribly devastating.
When Bible Promises Don’t Work
A situation in our church when I was a child illustrates the devastation of claiming Bible ‘promises’. Proverbs 22 says:
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (KJV)
An elderly lady had a wayward son whom she had brought up to be a Christian. In almost every service she asked prayers for his return to the faith. People encouraged her with this passage suggesting that perhaps God meant he would return to the faith before he died (which is not what ‘will not depart’ means). So far as I recall, it never happened for her.
Since then, I have witnessed many other cases—complete with the same assurance of God’s promise in Proverbs 22. Sometimes wayward children do return, but often they don’t—which leads to a terribly devastating aspect of this promise. If God DOES promise that, on the condition of our properly training our children, they will not depart, then what does it mean if they do depart?
It’s the parent’s fault! They must have failed in raising the child. This is how the elderly lady and how many other parents felt. The result of this ‘promise’ was that the parent is guilty for the child’s going to hell! This is no comforting promise at all—this ‘promise’ produces a huge baggage of guilt.
Now let’s consider the ‘promise’ itself. If it fails is it a lie? Or does the guilt really fall on the parent? NO!–This is a PROVERB! It presents a generally valid point of wisdom, but it is certainly not a promise.
Another devastating promise is found in James 5:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.
I have seen this performed many times. Some claim healing, but many obviously are not healed. One of these was a godly man who could not walk on his own. People constantly offered to pray for him, and he allowed them, but he was never healed. The buzz was that it was his fault—his lack of faith prevented his ‘promised’ healing.
I knew the man; he had great faith. But the main thing he received from the prayers was a reputation of weak faith—unacceptable.
The Popular Rage Over Bible Promises
Believers spend a lot of time seeking and applying Bible ‘promises’. When I was a District Manager for Family Christian Stores, promise books were very popular. At one point we had an end-cap of a series of perhaps 15 face-out titles—with more titles in the regular stacks. There were Bible promises for women, men, students, and a host of other specific groups.
Search Amazon for ‘Bible Promises’ and it returns 17,737 results. There are also massive numbers of internet articles on Bible promises, and one source counts 3573 promises in the Bible; that’s 54 promises per book.
But the Bible does not function as a promise book. The Old Testament reflects the various writers’ thoughts on the history of Israel and the nation’s interaction with God as they understood it.
The New Testament, in my opinion, is the more valuable. It tells us of the life and teaching of Jesus followed by the impact of his life and teaching as worked out in the lives of his followers after his departure. The New Testament is the wonderful message of the good news of Jesus; it is not a volume of promises.
We do not approach the Bible properly by chopping it up into promises.
Jesus’ Great Invitation
While the Gospels are not books of promises, they do tell us the story of Jesus. And Jesus does make statements in the Gospels that are very comforting to me and others. My favorite is in Matthew 11:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
I would not even call this a promise; it is simply an invitation. But what an invitation it is!
Other articles in this series: What the Bible is Not
What the Bible Is–And Is Not
The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts
The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism
The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible
The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man
The Bible is not a Magic Talisman: Biblical Power, Incantations, and Bibliomancy
The Bible is not Open to Narcigesis: Thinking the Bible is Written to You
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