A preacher was studying with his neighbor about salvation, and when the issue of baptism arose the neighbor quickly stated, ““I need to be baptized, sure, but I’m already saved, like the thief on the cross.” To illustrate the difference between the Old Law and the New, the preacher took his neighbor to Hebrews 10:9 which says, “He takes away the first that he may establish the second.” He then said, “Really, the thief lived and died under the old law, and didn’t need to be baptized for the remission of sins.”
To which the neighbor replied, “Wow. You learn something new everyday.”
Did this distinction become truth in that moment when the neighbor saw it and understood it? No. It’s been truth for centuries. When someone finally draws an inference or a conclusion from scripture, it does not mean that it was not always there. If it is necessary, if it is the conclusion God intended and wants us to draw, it was always there—waiting for anyone with a good and honest heart to find it.
“Necessary Inference” is a phrase that causes many to recoil, but what is the definition of “inference?” The simplest definition might be, “The logical process by which new facts are derived from known facts.”
I would suggest that if we do not use “inference” to understand the Bible, then absolutely nothing in the Bible applies to me. There is no book written to “Reagan McClenny,” and I was not among the disciples to whom Jesus spoke in the first century. There is no divinely inspired epistle to “the church at insert your location here,” and no divinely inspired prophets reside physically in our pulpits. From this perspective, anything I understand from the Bible can ultimately be crudely described as indirectly applying to me, or even “second-hand.”
Please, consider: I have to draw conclusions based on what was written to someone else—even direct commands must be followed based on what is implied by scripture, inferred by me. I have to infer that when Peter says in Acts 2:39, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off…” that I am “afar off.” and so when he says in verse 38, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” he was not just talking to a group of Jews in the first century, but that command applies to me too.
Thus, we not only can use inference in understanding the bible, we have no choice—if we are going to make personal application.
We should not be drawn into the false dichotomy everyone must be able to read the Bible through one time and understand absolutely everything. Peter said of the writings of Paul in 2 Peter 3:16-18 that some were “hard to understand,” and “untaught and unstable people twist them to their own destruction,” but the brethren should “grow in grace and in knowledge.” We can misunderstand and we need to continue to grow, but just because I do not currently understand something does not mean that I cannot or will not ever understand it, or that it is left unaddressed in the Bible. When I understand what a passage is saying for the first time, truth is not created/manufactured; it is merely discovered. If it is indeed truth, I may have just “inferred” it today, but God implied it when it was written!
Necessary Inference, or “forced conclusion,” is nothing more than when a good-hearted, honest, and careful study of God’s Word leaves you with an unavoidable conclusion. This is not the common use of an “educated guess,” but when careful reasoning leads to a firm resolution. Though not explicitly said, there is a way it has to be—and no other logical, common-sense conclusions can be drawn. Any truly necessary inference is necessary because God implied it!
Though the inspired books of the New Testament repeatedly refer to a new law (James 2:12; Hebrews 7:12; Galatians 6:2) and Christ as the lawgiver (James 4:12), the New Testament is not a “law book” in the sense of compiled lists of rules and regulations, but instead contains books of history, correspondence, and prophesy written to a first-century audience.
Why did God reveal Himself to us this way? Why didn’t he just have a list of things to do and not to do? Furthermore, why was Jesus so seemingly cryptic in the things He said? His apostles had many of the same questions.
Notice Matthew 13:10-19. Jesus said that he used parables to divide the hard of heart and the soft of heart. He was not trying to hide the Truth in doing this, but communicate the Truth in the most effective way for his purposes. The goal of a parable was to use something familiar to illustrate a greater point. These stories were intended to move the hearer from the known to the unknown. In short, Jesus implied certain things for the hearers to infer. He used parables to increase the understanding of his audience and allow them the opportunity to see, when direct language would have been rejected.
The fact is, many—if not the majority—of Christ’s audience thought they already knew everything, when in fact they had a distorted view about the true nature of the Kingdom. They thought they saw and heard, but spiritually they were blind and deaf. If one was going to appreciate and understand the parables they had to listen carefully, but even more have a heart that wanted to hear. If they had such a heart, the parables would reveal it.
On many occasions Jesus did say things plainly and directly and no one understood Him. So, Jesus used implication and inference throughout his teaching—not just in the parables. On these occasions He condemned His audience if they did not understand Him or the scriptures (Matthew 16:6-12; Matthew 19:3-6; Matthew 22:29-34, etc.)!
Likewise, the NT as a whole amazingly works in the same way. In his divine wisdom and foresight God covers every situation in scripture. Principles that govern every situation in all times past and future are found in the Bible. These principles govern not just actions, but also motives, intent, attitude, and perspective. Furthermore, these principles do more than govern—they motivate, stimulate growth, give comfort, provide peace and joy, uplift or humble as needed and so much more. Hebrews 4:12-13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” A list of rules and regulations, “plainly spoken” could not accomplish what God’s Word accomplishes. There are some things that God does just say plainly, but other things He saw best to reveal through His implication that we might infer them when our hearts are right. We need to have faith that His Word will not return void, but will accomplish what He intends.