Difficult Verses Revisited

I’ve talked before about difficult verses. These are verses that “seem to contradict” a doctrine to which you hold.

Here’s an example from a radio show I heard, with a caller and the host interacting. The caller was asking how we could be eternally secure if 2 Peter 2:21 says that if we turn from “the holy commandment” it would be better for us never to have “known the way of righteousness.”

The host explained that John 10:28, which says that nothing can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand, is a clear verse, while 2 Peter 2:21 is a difficult verse.

I want to suggest that there are no difficult verses (with very few exceptions, which I will explain in a moment). The problem with 2 Peter 2:21 is not that it is difficult. Even a six-year-old could determine what it’s saying. The problem is that it seems, at least to that radio host, to contradict John 10:28.

Most of the time that I have heard “difficult verse” used, it is in the context of a dispute between evangelicals about doctrine. (Probably because that’s the circle I have the most interaction with.) Both sides usually have their difficult verses, which always means “that verse seems to clearly disagree with what I am saying.”

I would like to suggest that it takes at least two verses to have a difficult verse. If 2 Peter 2:20-21 wasn’t in the Bible, we would be free to interpret John 10:28 just the way that radio host did. It is in the Bible, however, and so now we have a dilemma.

Now, admittedly, I personally don’t think it’s any dilemma at all. The solution is obvious. Jesus didn’t say we couldn’t leave his hand, and dozens of verses say we can. It’s obstinate and stubborn to say that isn’t an obvious solution, and a much better one than that 2 Peter 2:21 means something other than what it plainly says.

Okay, with that off my chest, let me get back to the point. A much better verse to contrast with 2 Peter 2:21 would be James 5:24. It says that the believer in Jesus will never come into condemnation. Another good one is 1 John 2:19, which says that those who leave us were never of us. In other words, they may have seemed to be Christians, but they never were.

At least, that’s what 1 John 2:19 seems to say. And if you combine 1 John 2:19 or John 5:24 with 2 Peter 2:21, now you have difficult verses, plural. The problem is not this verse or that verse, it is coming to a conclusion that fits all the verses

Reconciling Difficult Verses

I have one solution for reconciling difficult verses: say what the apostles say, whether you understand it or not. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you are contradicting yourself.

What we have done is create taboo verses. In the right denomination, you can silence conversation by quoting the “wrong” verse. There’s an awkward lull until someone is brave enough to correct you and tell you that it’s inappropriate to cite that verse in that denomination. (Okay, they won’t say it that way. They may say, “We don’t believe that here,” though. Or they may say, “Well, we think it means something different,” even though you haven’t commented on what it means.)

It’s awkward, but it has to be done.

I’ve been reading through the writing of the early Christians for over 20 years now. I’ve read the first three volumes of The Ante-Nicene Fathers all the way through twice, and I have pulled quotes and referenced them thousands of times.

They didn’t have difficult verses; well, nowhere near as many as we do.


I’m from a background where we would say that the persons being discussed in 2 Peter 2:21 were Christians who lost their salvation. They have escaped the pollutions of this world by knowing Jesus, and they have known the way of righteousness. Any honest person who’s not being hard-headed has to admit that “escaping the pollutions of this world” only comes by knowing Jesus, and a person who has done so is “saved” … by grace, at that.

But I had to ask, “Does that mean that I can now teach that Christians can be saved and then not saved?”

Now, I don’t know “the” answer to that question, though I have an opinion I’ll give you some day when it’s not a distraction to this post. However, I do know that in answering that question I have to take into account 1 John 2:19 and John 5:24.

In 1 John 2:19 we are told that those who leave “us” were never of “us.” Let’s put ourselves in the first century. There was only one real church. Those who left “us” can mean either the apostles or the church or churches to which John was writing. Either way, he’s talking about people who left the apostolic faith, not people who moved from the Baptist schism to the Lutheran schism closer to their home.

That sounds much like Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus said there would be professing believers, possible even miracle-working believers, who would not only be rejected at the final judgment, but they would be told that Jesus never knew them!

Okay, so how does that jive with 2 Peter 2:21? Can you escape the corruptions of this world through the knowledge of Jesus Christ, then depart and not only be worse off than you were before, but never really have been “of us”?

Obviously. That may raise a lot of questions, but there’s really no other way to interpret those verses.

What about John 5:24? He who believes will never come into condemnation.

Well, we know that there are plenty of warnings about coming into condemnation after looking very much like a believer, 2 Peter 2:21 being one of them. I’ve added in Matthew 7:21-23 to our discussion to help because it does an excellent job of combining the meanings of 1 John 2:19 and 2 Peter 2:21.

I have to be able to do what Jesus and the apostles did. You do, too. You need to be able to assure believers that Jesus will confirm them to the end so that they will be blameless on the day of King Jesus (1 Cor. 1:8).

You also need to be able to warn them not to be deceived, because the unrighteous won’t inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:11). Paul told the Corinthians both things … in the same letter.

Saying What the Apostles Said

The more we actually say the things the apostles said, the more we will find ourselves believing what the apostles believed. I know most of the schisms can’t handle that, but they’re just corporations anyway.

If we who are “bible believers” will throw off our fetters and say what Jesus and the apostles said, even when we don’t understand why they seemed to speak on both sides of an issue, the corporations will just have to give in.

Or they can close, which is just as good. Either way, the goal is that the church would own the corporation/schism and use it for ministry rather than the corporation owning the church and oppressing the saints with false fellowship.

Exceptions: Actual Difficult Verses

The end of all this is the end of difficult verses, or at least ones that seem to contradict. The early Christians had almost none. I have almost none. It can be done.

Oh, I promised to mention exceptions. A verse that says that there were people who “baptized for the dead” (1 Cor. 15) is a difficult verse. No one knows who baptized for the dead. The early Christians mention the verse, but they don’t know who those people are, either.

The verse that says one of David’s mighty men killed a lion in a pit on a snowy day is a difficult verse because no one is sure it is translated right.

Those are difficult verses. “You see, then, that a person is justified by works, and not by faith only” is not a difficult verse. It is a verse we refuse to believe, say, or incorporate. We prefer Romans 3:28, which says the exact opposite (or seems to). James 2:24 is not difficult. The combination of Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 is difficult, and our current solutions are embarrassing at best. Martin Luther and Witness Lee’s solutions, that James doesn’t know what he’s talking about, are unacceptable.

I have a better one.

To be honest, I hate to admit this, but since it’s God’s will that matters and not mine, David Bercot does a better job explaining my explanation than I do. He has a tape called “two salvations,” which I assume he got from me because I wrote a tract by that name while working for him in 1992. He explains most things better than I do, so it’s no surprise he did this better. I can’t seem to find the tape on the internet, so let me recommend What the Early Christians Believed About Salvation, which I just bought and downloaded. (I don’t think I’ll change my mind on recommending it after I read it, as I can’t imagine him teaching anything different than he’s taught over the last 20 years. It’s only 46 pages, surely an easy read.)

And please, if you get the book and read it, please review it. My book
has about 1500 copies out, and I’ve only managed 11 reviews, despite numerous requests and promises.

Legal notice: I use Amazon affiliate links on this site to link to books. If you use them, it won’t cost you any more, but I will possibly make about 6% of purchase price, so about 25 cents on Bercot’s book. The accumulation of all these earnings provides me nearly $20 per year. So whether you like me or don’t like me, you won’t really be helping or hurting me by using those links.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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4 Responses to Difficult Verses Revisited

  1. Paul Pavao says:

    You can email me at paul@christian-history.org.

    I have met Roman Catholics who are Jesus-followers, though I didn’t meet any as a youth and member of that institution. It’s only been since then, and honestly, all the disciples I’ve met in the RCC were influenced by Protestants. Of course, it’s impossible that Mother Theresa and this new pope are the only godly people in the RCC, or that only Protestant-influenced RCs are godly. That’s just my experience.

    The flip side of that is that one place where RCC members are pretty honest is in admitting that most of their members are nominal and that many simply do the sacraments as they are required, but nothing else.

    I am going to put In The Beginning Was the Logos in .epub format in two months when my Kindle Select agreement runs out. I’m not allowed to release the book in electronic form elsewhere until then.

    I’ll make an announcement on the blog and on the christian-history.org web site when that happens.

  2. Long time follower, occasional commenter/emailer says:

    On the subject of books, I’m reading the Ancient Christian Texts series translation of Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on John (trans. David R. Maxwell, ed. Joel C. Elowsky). I know it’s a little later than you like (Cyril lived ca. 378-444) but so far almost everything I’ve read has sounded exactly like the sort of stuff you’ve written about. (And the English isn’t awkward nor unreasonably simplified, so it’s quite an enjoyable read—I wish bibles were translated so well.)

    Consequently I doubt there’s anything you’d learn from it, but if you’d like a copy I’d like to buy one for you. Or if you have an Amazon wishlist with some other similar item. Out of, you know, thanks.

    (I’ve written this anonymously, I hope you don’t mind; you deserve but I don’t think you’d ask; still, I don’t want any credit.)

    • paulfpavao says:

      I accept gifts.

      (Note for readers: That is not a plug for donations. I have a job with a decent income, I can afford to maintain my own blog, and my web sites make enough money to cover themselves and promotions with a little left over. If anyone ever wants to support “my” ministry, don’t give me money. Write really nice letters like this one, as I love encouragement. I have lots of friends who will kick me in the ego if you encourage me too much. Even better, review my book on Amazon!. But if you want to give, please give to Stonehouse Ministries International or Heaven’s Family. I can vouch for them and a couple others that giving to their ministry qualifies as lending to the Lord–Prov. 19:17.)

      Anyway, back to the subject. I accept gifts. I like to give them, and I like to get them. I would be all the more likely to read it if it was a gift. So if you want to get me that book, I’ll take it with gratefulness.

      Theology didn’t just disappear in the fourth century. There were some great, godly men, and a lot of apostolic tradition was still around. Allowing Constantine’s flock (Eusebius’ words, not mine) into the church ransacked it and made it impossible to enforce the previous ban on military service and dramatically “lowered the bar” for fellowship in the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5), but a lot of theology did not disappear.

      I can handle straightforward feedback. I can handle harsh feedback. I’ve had a lot of experience with that. Nonetheless, encouraging comments like this go a long way with me. I’m easily encouraged, and I like being encouraged. May God grant me to be quick to pass it on.

      • Long time follower, occasional commenter/emailer says:

        To feed back straightforwardly, you would need to give me an address to send the gift to, or an Amazon wishlist or some other way of getting the book to you.

        I’d love to write a review of your books … but … do they come in epub format?

        Incidentally, I watched your video response to MrRichardwinkel today (his response to your original one isn’t available any more), it was fantastic! (I have, however, met Romans who do or at least actively try to diligently follow the King.)

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