A Principle-Driven Preaching — Part #3
The Nature Of Bible Principles
The Bible contains both precepts and principles. Bible precepts are explicit declarations or stated laws, designed to clearly define godly behavior, and which span all generations and cultures. A clear example of biblical precepts are the Ten Commandments. The biblical precepts, “Thou shalt not lie,” or “Thou shalt not steal” are applicable across all generations, and in any cultural setting. It does not matter where an individual lived in Old Testament days or even lives today. Whether a person walked with Jesus or lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama today, lying and stealing have always been, and always will be, a violation of God’s certain, and unchanging precepts.
Precepts, or laws, are the fuel of absolute statements and the most strongly held convictions in just about any field of endeavor. For instance, in the field of science, gravity is a settled precept or law. The law of gravity dictates that a falling object, in our natural world, increases its speed, or accelerates, by 33 feet a second, every second that it continues to fall. In any culture, in any century of history, in every location on the earth, falling objects will obey that law or precept. Therefore, scientists can and do speak with absolute certainty and conviction when it comes to falling objects.
The laws of gravity and acceleration are so absolute that it is possible to make a sure and certain scientific predictions and predictably engage in various forms of exploration. Imagine if these laws kept changing over the passing of a day, or in different locations across the globe, and/or varied from century to century.
Now, it is essential to establish the fact that even when such laws are contravened or transgressed, that law is still operating. That law has not changed and is still seeking to effect its will. For instance, even though there are laws that permit an airplane to fly (Bernoulli’s law or Newton Third Law of Motion), the law of gravity has not been nullified when an airplane contravenes the law of gravity — “takes off.” It just means that other laws — laws of aerodynamics — which also can be consistently relied upon and which also consistently operate — countermand the law of gravity, which is still in full operation throughout takeoff and flight.
Let me say it this way to clarify the point. When a pilot takes off, as he gains speed moving down the runway, the pilot does not flip a switch which turns off the law of gravity. The law of gravity states that the object is still being pulled downward, but other now known laws are being used by the designers of the airplane which permit it to lift off of the ground and stay airborne. Both the laws of aerodynamics and of gravity are exerting their desired will on that airplane — fully.
Principles are different than laws. However, the difference is not that principles do not carry certainty. Principles also carry certainty, else we could not rely on them. They would not be called principles, but variables — varying at any time and in different situations, over the ages. In the natural world, a principle may be unproven in and of themselves but are judged to be useful because they operate with consistency. Sometimes principles are so universally tested that they are called, or indeed become a law.
Occam’s Razor is a principle — “all things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.” There may be exceptions, but the exceptions PROVE the rule. It is only because “other things are not equal” all the time that there are exceptions. Other factors play into the situation which results in a different outcome. It is not that principles have such uncertainty or variability that they cannot be relied upon. No, many principles are relied upon every day and give certainty to outcomes and living. Occam’s Razor provides scientist valuable direction every day as they seek to understand what they observe.
The “law of supply and demand” is really a principle. There are other factors which change its operation. Nevertheless, to make economic decisions, one would be foolish to operate or prognosticate while ignoring that principle. However, there are other variables that may change the certainty of that principle in any one particular situation. The result of these other variables is a small number of “exceptions.”
Just as various certain laws interact with each other (the law of gravity, and the laws of aerodynamics), so various principles also interact with each other. That does not negate the operation and usefulness of the principle, just the absolute certainty. It is not that gravity is “generally true” merely because other laws operate which allow one to operate against that law — to countermand it. And it should not be said that “the law of supply and demand” is “generally true” merely because other factors may also operate and transgress that law. In fact, that is why the principle of supply and demand is called a law and why economic activity leans on that economic truth.
Failing to grasp the nature of principles is what has caused Bible teachers to speak about “Proverbs” as “generally true.” If “Proverbs” offers the reader statements which are “generally true,” then is it “generally true” that if you trust in the Lord with all your heart, he will direct our lives? Proverbs 3:5-6 is in the book of Proverbs.
Which proverb is sure and certain, and which ones are generally true? What is the standard by which one proverb is certain and another lacks any such certainty? Why not correctly take the position that there are various and varied principles operating. That various principles and/or laws are exerting their will simultaneously. That some principles may look like they are not certain, but indeed are. It is only because one principle does not cover the complexity of any one situation. That a certain and sure principle or law finds itself modified or mollified, twisted or changed by other principles and/or laws which are also operating at the same time. For instance “A Rich Fool” may well not experience the same consequences of “A Poor Fool” because one’s riches can form a “high wall” of protection (Proverbs 10:15) from foolish decisions.
The mistake is made in that Bible teachers and preachers fail to handle the book of Proverbs like all other Scripture. For instance, the Scriptures state that the Lord is not willing that any should perish, but the facts is that there are people who will perish because there is more than one verse in the Bible which addresses “lostness.” Such is true when it comes to prayer, to God’s judgment of sin, His blessing on well-doing, and the list goes on and on!
The truths, stated as principles and/or laws, found in the book of Proverbs, are certain and sure. However, any single proverb or principle does not operate in a vacuum. There are different kinds of transgressors. There are intelligent transgressors and there are dumb transgressors. There are even persistent transgress and quickly warned transgressors. There are even naive/simple transgressors. There are rich transgressors and poor transgressors. Because a multitude of varied principles are operating — there are lazy rich men — wise poor men — and the list goes on.
In the natural, it is a sure principle that inattentiveness results in accidents. However, if you introduce the factor of highly technical and designed safety guards and automobile features, that principle is impacted, but it is not invalidated or rendered untrue. In fact, the guards and features are built into a product because that principle operates over and over. People do become inattentive, and when people do not pay proper attention, people get ” “hurt.
In fact, even yet other principles may well be operating that prevent the principle for fully implementing its will and causing possible injury, loss, damage, pain, trouble. For example — the inattention occurred when the blade of the circular or table saw was slowing down and carried less momentum — or — The existence of another tree stopped or changed the direction of the tree which was falling and which would have injured or killed someone because they were not alert — or — There was a tempered double-glass surface spaced over and above the highly heated surface, preventing one’s hand being burned.”
Then — ALWAYS ADD “Grace” as another operating principle that the Lord has built into His world. The law of “God’s Grace” interacts with all precepts and principles. Sometimes, even absolute laws do not operate because of God’s GRACE — i.e. the woman taken in adultery was not stoned!
Don’t deny the certainty of a law or a principle because that law or principle did not operate, or operate fully — just remember that God is GRACIOUS. Isn’t that what is usually said when we hear about people falling from “a killer height” without serious injury. God is gracious no matter what sure word of promise is found in the Scriptures. The way of the transgressor is hard, but God is gracious and not every transgressor feels the hardness that others might feel. In fact, even in God’s sure judgment, He is gracious.
Principles differ from precepts in three respects . . . .
First, principles are much broader than precepts and therefore find great applicability. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” clearly applies to and forbids a very limited area of human sexual behavior, adultery. In contrast, the principle, “Be ye kind, one to another,” is a principle that is much broader and finds application in many areas of life and living. Adultery, lying, stealing are all ways to be unkind and inconsiderate, but there are still many more ways to be kind/unkind.
Principles are different from precepts, but not because they are any less true. Principles are different in that principles have much broader applicability. “Thou shalt not steal” involves a much more narrow range of behavior than the principle – “Do not cause your brother to stumble.” That principle has broad application. There are many ways to cause a brother to stumble! And causing your brother to stumble in the 21st century is different than it was in the early 20th century.
The fact that Bible principles find greater applicability in many areas of life is precisely what increases the usability or application of a principle. Therefore, principles limit the demand for establishing a host of specific laws or rules of behavior for every situation that people, and especially sinfully creative people, can devise or imagine.
Had God had given us only precepts or laws — laws which would have had to address ALL and EVERY situation of life, from generation to generation, and culture to culture — the revelation of God’s laws would be contained in an immense book. Truthfully, it could only be contained in multiple large volumes of bound books, labeled by dates, subtitled by location, and sub-divided again by cultural setting. The physical size of the Bible, containing all the laws relating to every situation, would be so great that it would become unmanageable. God’s Word would contain precepts that fits some cultures and did not fit other, fit one era but not another, fit one generation but not another generation.
Most parents, who have raised children, plainly understand the importance of establishing principles which govern their children’s behavior. The establishing of principles liberates the parents from regulating every possible situation in which their child finds him or herself. For instance, could you imagine attempting to regulate all the similar — and yes, the wide medley of comments which our children might make while we are dinner guests in the home of a friend? Before leaving home the instructions might sound like this:
“Children, when we sit down to eat, do not say,
I don’t like the peas, or
I do not like cauliflower, or
I don’t like carrots, or
The rolls are hard, or
I like cheese sauce, but not on broccoli.”
etc., etc., etc.”
Such an approach results in rules and regulations that will endlessly expand to cover every possible situation we can imagine. It will require constantly new and multiplying situations and circumstances that we had not thought of to date.
It is better for parents to state and enforce a principle such as, “It is not right to make any comments that cause another to feel bad when they are trying to be kind to us.” Yes, it is much better to raise our children by establishing broad principles which find extensive application to many situations in life. Rather than delineating laws about every form of unacceptable behavior, apply the principle, “Be ye kind, one to another.”
As parents we know, as did God Himself, that it is necessary to build into the minds and hearts of our children principles that have broad application. Have you heard someone say, “Show that to me in the Bible.” Many times an individual is asking to see a chapter and verse that states that what he or she is doing is specifically wrong. They want to see a precept or a definitive law! There are many things that are wrong of which there is no chapter and verse. Some things are wrong because they violate a principle, not because one can point to a precept. The Bible does not state precepts which cover every possible human expression of sin. It provides principles which when applied cover a multitude of possible actions and attitudes.
In fact, Jesus taught that very same truth when He said that all the law and the prophets are summed up in the two commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor. Those two principles cover the entire 10 Commandments and can be applied to any and every situation in life, during the days of the Old Testament, during the days of Jesus, and in any and every culture today!
The broad application of principles is not without some troubles. When it comes to principles, there is much discussion and differences of opinion as to HOW that principle is applied, AND how it ought to be applied in our culture and age — i.e. I mislead him, but that is not lying!
Second, the application of a Bible principles will be different from culture to culture. That is not the case with Bible precepts. Even though a society may be marked by different and unique ways to steal, Taking something that does not belong to you is stealing! Taking what is not yours is stealing, and it is still wrong in any culture in any age.
In contrast, the application of a biblical principle such as “Abstain from all appearance of evil,: or “Be ye kind, one to an” “other” will be different in America than it is in the Near East because there are different perceptions of what looks like evil in those two cultures.
Likewise, there are different ways to express kindness and unkindness in a Western culture as opposed to an Eastern culture. Kindness and consideration in an Eastern culture are different than what it is in a Latin culture. In some cultures, the giving of flowers is proper when one visits the home of another and is perceived as an act of kindness. In other cultures, kindness may be better communicated in a different way, such as calling before you arrive. Yet in some cultures, calling before you show up is not considered uncaring at all. Cultures do have different ways of verbally and non-verbally following certain principles.
The third difference is that the application of Bible principles changes from generation to generation. In our generation, there are deeds which may cause a brother to stumble which were not even possible a hundred years ago. Just as “the eating of meat” (cf. I Corinthians 8) was an issue in Paul’s day, likewise, there are acts which we can engage in today that will not be an issue years from now. Even though the principle of not causing our brother to stumble does not change from generation to generation, the application of that principle continues to change. In contrast to precepts, principles are applied in continually changing ways from age to age.
Before closing out this discussion on the difference between principles and precepts, let me say that principles are just as authoritative as precepts. Principles carry the full authority of God’s Word, as do precepts. God feels just as strong about being kind to one another, or loving God and our neighbor as ourselves, or not causing our brother to stumble, as He does about us erecting a graven image of God, or by stealing. Principles are no less authoritative merely because they find broader application. If we are being unkind or inconsiderate to a person — in whatever way that is defined by our culture or our generation — that action and attitude is as wrong as violating any definitive law stated or written by God Himself. If it is indeed unkind or inconsiderate in American culture, in our generation-age, then to carelessly show up late for a wedding, regardless of its acceptability in another culture, is a violation of that principle and we have committed a sin in God’s eyes.
The violation of biblical principles is as sinful as the transgressing of God’s precepts and laws.
(cont’d — Part #4)