The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible

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.

Bible with pen

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.

I will give you rest - Jesus

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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30 Responses to The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible

  1. Pingback: The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism | Jesus Without Baggage

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  4. katiesdream2004 says:

    This is such an important thing to say. The creation of Jesus and the bible as a sort of genie in a bottle that does our bidding when we rub the bottle the right way characterizes much of American Christianity. Many charismatics think “worship” rubs the bottle the right way and so they do a little song and dance and some name it and claim it gymnastics to get God to control their universe of personal ease and prosperity. Of course Jesus is ALL about fulfilling the American Dream for me and mine, right?
    There is no theology of suffering that encompasses the pain of brokenness when a child dies a violent death at the hands of a perpetrator or a spouse cheats or cancer strikes. Instead those that want a perfect world where God is their puppet quote bible verses to prove it was weak faith that brought pain. The promise not claimed is this “but you will have persecution and pain in this life” (my paraphrase)
    I read a blog the other day that said 7 signs you are out of the will of God. They included things like frustration and a lack of personal fulfillment and prosperity, it sickened me and was something I believed before life happened. I thought of the condemnation towards suffering people that article brought. Oh, things are going badly for you, you must have displeased God!… sigh It is enough to turn a person into an agnostic

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Katie, I like you image of “Jesus and the bible as a sort of genie in a bottle that does our bidding when we rub the bottle the right way.” I think you are right on target. The idea of claiming Bible promises is quite widespread, but it misunderstands the character of the Bible which is not a promise book.

      In my opinion, the health and prosperity movement has an angle that is more misguided than the typical believer in Bible promises.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sian says:

    I agree. I have often met christians who believed that unfortunate or tragic life events were a sign that you were out of the will of God. This is a tremendously damaging idea. I work in the field of Cancer and it is sad to see evangelical christians made miserable by soul searching over why they got Cancer and why they aren’t miraculously healed. Oddly, if their treatment works, they then tell everyone that they were miraculously healed. I used to think this did no harm but now I think that this perpetuates the myth of the prosperity gospel. By all means, give thanks to God that very effective Cancer treatments exist, but don’t pretend that there was any miracle involved. The miracle is that God has sent his Holy Spirit to be our comforter in these times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sian, I agree. I am a cancer survivor myself, and I have known those who would say my cancer was because I was somehow deficient in my faith or some such. However, most of my current evangelical friends were very supportive during my battle; they prayed for me (which I appreciated) and did not accuse me of anything.

      I was not expected to survive, and it was VERY rough, but I have been in remission now for 8 years. I know that the evangelicals I associated with way back many years ago would have done just as you said–claimed that my remission was a miracle from God. I am glad I unexpectedly survived, but I give the credit to great doctors.

      Like

  6. Tim P says:

    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 belong to a church where this is practised and I see no harm in asking for healing at all, even persistently asking. But clearly if it worked EVERY time as per these words we would have lots of VERY old people walking around amongst us. But if you believe the Bible to be unfailingly right all the time one of the ways to enforce this belief is to play the “blame game” about a lack of faith. Many never stop to question what these words really mean, who wrote them and to whom, what was the context etc…

    Afterall, Jesus didn’t last have the longest life himself, nor was it short on sufferings and death. Why should we expect any different? (Yet I’m still very thankful for my life so far of fairly good health!!)

    Thanks again Tim for another thought provoking blog. Can’t wait for what’s next !

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tim P, I think you raise a very good question about James 5: Who wrote it? For whom? And what was the context. I would very much like to know the answers to these questions in order to understand the statement–but I don’t. This is true of much of the NT; we are listening in on only part of a conversation.

      Your point is well taken that Jesus, himself, had a short life with a large element of suffering. No where did he promise us an easy life, rather he advised us to expect the opposite.

      Like

  7. mark says:

    Mainstream Christianity has become stuck in a “Name-it-Claim-it” “Pie in the Sky” syndrome game for a couple generations now if not more. What has been promoted in modern times is easy “believe-ism”. Often we here..”The Bible says it so I claim it in my life”
    The NT outside of the Gospels are indeed as Tim said, ensamples of the HOW early believers applied their “faith” to everyday life as they followed the false Shepard and not JESUS. According to church history and other outside sources..it wasn’t as rosey as people seem to think. The early movement nearly failed into obscurity as the numerous sects and splinter groups fought for dominance…Only thru Government intervention did a church emerge…yet it was the Pauline one and not the ecclesia Christ taught. The foundation of sand was thus lain.

    Paul believed the statement in Ephesians 2:8: “You have been saved by God’s love and kindness because you believed. It was not because of anything you did, but it was a gift from God.”

    Yeshua said repeatedly what was reported in John 3:3: “‘I tell you the truth. No person can see God’s kingdom if he is not born again.'” And in another form in Luke 17:20-21: “The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Humankind was to develop its own salvation by changing within. No one would give it to a person as a gift.

    Yeshua promised the transformation would require work: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7: 13-14) Spiritual development, Yeshua assured us, was going to be hard. He described the thought and behavior that should be characteristic of a spiritual person, but said it would take work to attain it. He never suggested that all a person had to do was swear allegiance to him and nothing else would be required.

    Jesus plainly taught the crowds that the Kingdom was within….not somewhere beyond the blue as the Writers or redactors erroneously put into Pauls mouth. Are people discouraged and let done? Are faiths being shipwrecked? Thus it ever will be when the foundation is built on sand.
    Do we have Christianity or do we have Paulianity today?,, maybe we as believers should concentrate on the doctrines and words of Christ …what an amazing concept that would be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mark says:

      Tim I have enjoyed all the articles in this series…they do address many issues the church would rather not.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Mark, I did not have the ‘health and prosperity’ movement in mind as I wrote this article, but several people have brought it up here and in other venues–and think it is very valid; this movement demonstrates the ‘promise’ issue in bold measure.

      I like what you say about the kingdom of God; this is a VERY important issue for me. I think perhaps the majority of believers do not understand the importance and commitment involved in being part of the kingdom of God because, among many, the emphasis is on being ‘saved’ and avoiding hell. The kingdom is sooo much more ( a series on the kingdom is down the road–don’t know when).

      I respect what you say about Paul; so many people DO follow Paul instead of Jesus, but I perhaps have a more positive perspective of Paul. I think Paul, maybe more than anyone else, grappled with the practical significance of Jesus, his teachings, and his work–and how to apply it to the lives of believer communities after Jesus departure. I think the problem is that people have misunderstood Paul and attributed to him revealed truths that he would be embarrassed and horrified to know about.

      I think we should have a Jesus movement and not a Pauline Christianity; I think Paul would agree.

      Like

      • mark says:

        I mostly agree with your statements on Paul…it’s why I said that about bible editors putting words in Paul’s mouth and redacting the script…editing for their benefit along the way
        Another way to look at this ( the “Promise problems” )..and we often mostly gloss over it…When Paul set out , his mission was one of urgency. Paul , like the Apostles in Jerusalem believed that Christ would return VERY quickly..His message was aimed at getting the most people he could into the kingdom before the eminent return of our LORD. His urgent mission was getting the numbers…even if he had to drag them “kicking and screaming” so to say. In this I will defend Paul…his misunderstanding the message could be understood due to having never met JESUS. However, the same can not be said for James Peter and John who walked daily with Jesus and heard Him.
        Paul’s success in adding numbers to the “group” seems to be the blueprint even for today. Forget spiritual growth and walking the walk….just confess and get dunked…viola…….SAVED.
        As time passed and CHRIST failed to return….(their expectation)…. the message changed from Kingdom living to life in Heaven after death. Promises, promises they never espected to have to make good on…..the sale was easy…still is today.

        After pouring thru many of the histories and written records of the Early Fathers and Church annuls it became quiet clear to me what had happened and why. Even still I do not lay the blame at their feet for what has become of the Church. The problem sits squarely at the feet of Preachers of the last generation or 3 and fantasy novel series like the “Left behind” and others,Snake oil salesmen preaching a false message for power and filthy lucre. And all the sheeple said….”baaaaah” Lies to tickle their ears.

        Again..great series Tim.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Mark, I think you are right about the message of Jesus being changed from Kingdom living to life in Heaven after death. Although I think eternal life after the resurrection is important, it does seem to have become for many THE message (along with the matching message of avoiding eternal hell).

          I think this robs believers’ lives of much of the substance of what Jesus intended.

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  8. Myra says:

    Tim thanks for this entry and the other’s in this series. I have found them both encouraging and enlightening. I appreciate your thoughts on these matters, it helps me to look at the Bible in a different light – not a negative one but a different one, perhaps I’d say a more positive light. You speak to many subjects that the church won’t speak to or is afraid to speak of. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Why thank you, Myra! I am glad you like the series, and I am glad it helps you see the Bible in a different, but not negative, light. There are a few more topics in the series to come.

      Like

  9. consultgtf says:

    True, The Bible is not a Promise Book, because it only tells you naked truth about God and His love.
    We humans are like Hamsa bird. We know what to take and reject the rest!

    Like

  10. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Hey guys, I ran across this today on Proverbs. It fits very well with this post.
    https://joantheexpatriatebaptist.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/proverbs-principles-not-promises/

    Like

  11. Pingback: The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man | Jesus Without Baggage

  12. tonycutty says:

    I do think that if the Spirit speaks a ‘promise verse’ – or indeed any BIble verse – straight to a bleiver’s heart as being specific for them, then it is only right and proper that we accept what He says and believe it for ourselves.

    The problem comes, as with applying any Bible verse, when it’s not the Spirit who has spoken. In other words, just grabbing verses almost at random when God has not spoken. This is often why a particular ‘promise’ does not work – because it is not for *you*, *right now*. But next week, it might indeed be for you; the key is to hear the voice of the Spirit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, I agree that we can receive inspiration from a passage in the Bible, just as we can from any other book, but I am not sure we can claim promises as though the Bible was written for us. Can you give an example?

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, whether or not we can trust words given by others is topical for me at present, as a friend, who has a reputation in his church as having a healing ministry, has been given a word concerning his near future. The word came from a pastor from Brazil, who him that he would be going on missions to Africa and South America. Since this pastor is aware of his reputation and he himself has some reputation in both regions, it is quite likely that he wants my friend to go there with him, and he also knows that his ‘word’ is very likely to be accepted by my friend, because it is what he wants to hear. Perhaps it is time to warn my friend of this possibility and give him a passage from Proverbs that he once gave to me: ‘Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.’ It will be up to him to decide which words, if any, have come from God and what he does with them. Words that can be trusted more are those that tell you something you would prefer not to hear, rather than those that tell you what you would like to hear. The former are more likely to be good for you, the latter are more likely to harm you.

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I agree with you that it is up to people to decide for themselves what they will do in response to such things. Remember that Paul received a prophecy from Agabus about going to Jerusalem–and Paul ignored it.

          I do not consider myself in the business of offering specific advice to people. Depending on our relationship, I might warn the person to be careful of these pronouncements; they cannot be accepted as God’s words just because some pastor or prophet thinks they are.

          I believe we must come to our own conclusions and not someone else’ ‘authoritative word’

          Like

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  16. Vince Tucker says:

    I find Mark’s comments affirming. I was raised in the church. I have been a widower for 5 years. It was quite literally the moment my wife died that I began on my journey of discovering God on a more intimate and personal level. Since I lost my wife, my faith is becoming less and less about getting people to say that “magical prayer of salvation” and more about making earth more like Heaven. I have discovered that when I love, serve, and worship God (which is mostly loving, serving, and affirming people), I experience Heaven while still on earth. A few weeks ago, had this HUGE epiphany. We call ourselves Christians. The root word is “Christ.” Yet, in our sermons and Bible studies, we spend just the tiniest speck of time in the Gospels studying the life and words of Jesus Christ himself. Indeed, we spend a huge amount of time studying Paul. Very strange indeed. My personal church, a Baptist church, spends a ridiculous amount of time talking about rules for living, sin, and the attacks from Satan. I don’t think the Bible is a rule book at all. I see it as God’s love story to mankind. Everything in this book either points to Jesus or reflects back on Jesus. If we are to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, and if we are to believe that GOD IS LOVE, then everything we read in the Bible should be seen through the filter of love as demonstrated through the life and teachings of Jesus. Anything else misses the point in my humble opinion – which isn’t always so humble. lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Vince, I am glad you found Mark’s comments affirming; I always enjoy Mark’s comments.

      I agree with you that many believers have over-emphasized the ‘magic prayer of salvation’. And I also have wondered why some teach so little from the gospels–by far the most important part of the entire Bible.

      I think you are right that Jesus’ foundational message was love, both in his teaching and in his actions. God loves us. In return, we can love God instead of fearing him, and we can love others in a genuine way. All else is secondary–distantly secondary.

      Like

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