Can an Indwelt Believer Be Wrong About the Scriptures?

A fairly popular idea among believers today goes something like this:

  1. You can’t really know the truth unless you’re getting it from the Bible.
  2. Oh, and you can’t just read the Bible to get that truth; you have to have the Holy Spirit indwelling you in order to understand it correctly.

In support of this particular view, many will quote this passage (emphasis added):

1 Corinthians 1:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I’ll address the errors made in interpreting this passage somewhere else, but for now, I’ll just present one logical challenge to this interpretation:  If the “we” who have the mind of Christ is all of us believers today, then why don’t all believers agree on things?  And more specifically, why don’t they all interpret the Bible the same?  Something is clearly wrong here, if this passage is really telling us that it’s the Holy Spirit that’s behind a believer’s understanding of things.  Possible reasons for this could conceivably be things like:

  1. That’s not what this passage is really saying.
  2. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not still given today.  (Yes, believers even disagree about this point.)
  3. If two Christians disagree, that means that at least one of them does not really have the indwelling.  (Good luck figuring out which one!)
  4. Or, “Oh, you have to understand, Jack, that while we all have the Spirit, we mature at different rates, so that’s why we don’t all understand the same.”

The last idea, which seems to be quite popular if my many conversations with believers are any indication of the overall statistics, is logically quite troubling, by the way.  It pretends on one hand to state that the scriptures can’t be understood, except by the Holy Spirit, and on the other, “Thank God we have the Holy Spirit, so that we can be right in understanding the scriptures!”  Well, if this is how it is, how can the believer account for his own level of maturity as he tells us what this passage means?  In other words, what business does he have considering that he has got this passage nailed—that he has yet been made mature enough to get this one (or any other) right?

Indeed, I see a troubling amount of overconfidence in believers regarding their knowledge and understanding of scripture.  Believe it or not, this happens even in people who will freely tell you that they used to be wrong about something or other in the Bible, and that they now see it straight.  Having recognized their ability to make errors (in the past), they tend to discount that it could be happening right now on some matter.  And this idea that the Holy Spirit “has their back” when it comes to understanding the Bible just makes things worse.  They tend to develop a complacency about their understanding that makes them even less likely to rethink anything about their beliefs.  And if they’re not careful, they will develop a real attitude of incorrigibility.

The goal of this article, therefore, is to show scriptures that show that indwelt believers in the First Century sometimes got things wrong in the scriptures.  If they could get things wrong then, then why can’t a believer today, indwelt or not, get things wrong?

2 Corinthians 1:13 For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand— 14 just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you.

Note these things:

  1. Paul says they could understand.
  2. He says their previous understanding was only partial.
  3. He hopes they will fully get it this time—after having read this letter.
  4. He does not say that it’s a sure thing that they’ll get it, now that he’s written it into the scriptures.

And now let’s consider Peter’s words on the subject of Paul’s letters.

2 Peter 3:15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.

Let’s note these things about Peter’s words here:

  1. He calls Paul’s writing “scriptures”, and notes that “ignorant and unstable” people get them wrong.
  2. He suggests that hard work is necessary in order to understand some of what Paul writes.
  3. He warns them to “take care” lest they fall into the same sorts of errors.
  4. The implication here that their understanding of the scriptures is not a sure thing is fairly obvious.
  5. Even in this very serious passage, it doesn’t seem to cross Peter’s mind that he should be careful to warn his audience, “Now, you all be sure to rely on the Holy Spirit for your understanding of the scriptures!”  And why not?  Wouldn’t this have been the perfect place to say such a thing if that’s the way it worked?  I think so.

And now we go back to Paul:

 1 Corinthians 5:9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.

Here we may infer that some of the Corinthians had misunderstood Paul’s previous letter to them, for here he is making a careful distinction about a point he had made in it, as if it were not clear to all of them the first time.

Hebrews 2:1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.

Regarding their knowledge of times past, the Hebrews author warns them to pay more attention to it so as to grasp its full importance for their situation.  If the Holy Spirit were behind their grasping of the scriptures, why would such a warning be necessary to write?  It was clearly up to them, and not up to some guaranteed and automated process of the Holy Spirit.

Understanding the Roles

Indeed, some believers’ ideas about the supreme role of the Holy Spirit in understanding scripture is so inflated that one wonders why they should even need the scriptures at all!  If that’s how it works, why not just have the Holy Spirit directly download all of the words of the Bible directly into the believer’s mind, along with some surefire scheme for interpreting scripture correctly?

Now, part of this misunderstanding is quite understandable, given how people tend to miss the important distinctions between being an apostle and not being an apostle.  That is, they take promises given directly to the apostles (by Jesus) as promises for all believers.  For example:

John 15:12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

You can learn more about this important topic here, but for now, let me point out that this is promise was only made to his apostles, and they never stated (as far as the Bible records) that it was to apply to anyone other than them.  And that brings me back to the first scripture in this post, whereby many today mistakenly believe that they are in the “we” who were said to “have the mind of Christ”.  Notice the promises in verses 14 and 15 again:

John 15:14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Even though Paul was added later as an apostle, and was not in the crowd on the night that Jesus spoke these words above, I believe that these promises are exactly what he is referring to when he says “We have the mind of Christ.”  He might as well be saying, “We apostles have the mind of Christ,” for that is what he means.  (Learn more about this here.) Indeed, if the Corinthians had also had the mind of Christ, what need would there have been to write them and to command them to get their minds together, as his letter does?

In my judgment, many believers mistake some of the work of their own minds (that God gave them to use for such purposes) as work of the Holy Spirit.  For instance, when a relevant scripture pops into their minds during a discussion, they will often say things about it later, such as “God put it on my heart” or “The Holy Spirit reminded me”.  But I see no reason to draw this conclusion.  Logically speaking, it is a non sequitur.  And it may be prompted by a coherence bias, by which the immature believer tries to interpret everything that happens such that it fits neatly with his own personal view that God is somehow intervening in every little thing in his life.  But even if God is intervening in some ways, it’s easy for us to see that that doesn’t mean he’s intervening in every thing–in every thought, belief, and decision.

Why, then, should a natural view of such things be dismissed out of hand?  Indeed, an atheist in the grocery store, when walking down the bread aisle, can easily remember that he was supposed to pick up a loaf of bread–and he sees no need for an hypothesis that it must be the Holy Spirit who has reminded him of that fact.  Even though God made the atheist’s brain, too, it is the natural working of that brain that brings it to mind, and not some supernatural intervention.  Why, then, should the Christian believe that when the same thing happens to him, it must be the work of the Spirit?  And why should it be considered any more likely that any such remembrance on the topic of the Bible should be any more likely the intervention of God than such remembrance on any other secular topic?

Again, many are undiscerning when they read this promise, again to the apostles:

John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

We must resist the temptation to play loosey-goosey with this passage, applying it beyond its native place in reality.  This promise was made only to the apostles, and in no place is it recorded in scripture that they ever taught that it applies to all believers.  So, while it’s great to remember a scripture in timely fashion, there’s just no evidence of any promise to non-apostle believers that such remembrance will be caused by the indwelling Spirit.

And that brings me to this:  There is no guarantee that I’ve ever found in scripture that says that the indwelling Holy Spirit will not let a believer misunderstand a passage of scripture.  Not one.  If I’m wrong, please contact me immediately to show me such a passage.  I don’t mean to suggest that it could not be true unless it were in the scriptures, but rather to ask why it should be believed so confidently and unquestioningly if it is not in the scriptures?

Could a Christian be wrong about some passage of scripture?  You bet.  In fact, no matter what church you go to (if you go to one), it is absolutely certain that you and your neighbors in the pews will not all agree on what every passage of scripture means.  How can this be if you are all guaranteed (through the indwelling) a perfect understanding?

Many will try to correct me here, stating that a perfect understanding is not guaranteed, and that the Christian’s understanding matures over time through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.  Uh, OK. Should we take this to mean, then, that Paul’s earlier epistles should be taken with a grain of salt, as he may not have fully understood the things about which he was writing?  Of course not!  Jesus had authorized him for that role, and he was well-qualified for it.

For the believer today, however, this idea that no perfect understanding is guaranteed means that however you interpret a passage right now, you can’t be sure that you are yet mature enough to understand it completely.  Why, then, dear believer, are you so confident that you have understood it completely?  Why are you so confident as to immediately dismiss someone else’s corrections as to your understanding of it?  Does the Holy Spirit also give you some indication when he has perfected your understanding of a passage?  Does the Holy Spirit keep some sort of verse-by-verse checklist in your heart, showing which passages he has helped you to fully understand so far, and which are not yet fully understood?

Of course there isn’t.  So, if the Holy Spirit’s job were really to make you understand the whole Bible, why wouldn’t he want to do that immediately for you, so as to keep you from sin and error as much as possible?  Why put it off?  Can any reasonable answer be found in scripture?

Indeed, even the evangelist, Timothy, was counseled thus by the apostle, Paul:

2 Timothy 2:2 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Surely, Timothy had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  If that were a guarantee of infallibility in understanding the scriptures, then why this admonition to be careful to get it right?  Could Timothy’s carefulness somehow exceed the carefulness of the Spirit in such a task?  Or was it that it was not thought to be the work of the Spirit, but of Timothy instead?  Why tell him “do your best” rather than “Let the Spirit do its best”?

And again, for those who insist that the Spirit does help in understanding, but that it is a “gradual process”, I’d like them to answer this:  What good would it have done to Timothy’s audiences for him to go about preaching things that he would only fully understand sometime later?  Would God do that to people?  Indeed, the Bible itself was written by prophets who were not yet perfect beings.  Shall we assume, then, that we should hesitate to believe it because the writers weren’t yet perfect, and might have made a mistake in their imperfect understanding?  Or do we rather understand that their prophecy was a gift, done by the power of the infallible Holy Spirit?

Yes, the latter is the more reasonable view.  But there is no guarantee of infallibility in the reading and understanding of scripture.  No, when we swim in that pool, we do so at our own risk.  The quality of our study’s outcome is directly related to the amount and quality of work that we put into it.  And this seems to have been true then as well as now—except for the apostles, who had a special level of giftedness in this area.

I submit that the Holy Spirit never had a policy of making non-apostle believers understand–even though many believe exactly that.  I often criticize the way they see it, for what they describe is a situation in which the Holy Spirit directly gives them knowledge of various things (including scripture).  Upon hearing their description, I call it a “download”, since it is so remarkably similar to the transferring of files in the world of computers.  Almost without exception, however, my “download” language is rejected as being somehow inappropriate to the subject matter–though no one has yet demonstrated why it is inappropriate or inaccurate.  Either you’re getting your understanding from the Holy Spirit or from the interpretive work being done in your own mind.  So, if it’s not coming from you, that severely narrows down the list of possibilities to only the Holy Spirit.  And if he is planting right ideas about scripture into your mind, then that’s a download.  But again, if he were doing that, and doing it for all believers, then would we not all agree as to the meaning of all the scriptures?

It is, therefore, rather a foolish proposition—one that no one having thought it through fully would ever assert.  But that’s just the problem; people haven’t thought it through fully.  And to make matters worse, many are so deeply immersed in the habit of what they call “relying on the Spirit” that they do not do their own active thinking on such topics, but rather, assume that whatever they already think about them must be the work of the Spirit, rather than of their own fallible minds.

On a side note, a search for “relying on the spirit” (in quotation marks) brings up over 3 million returns at Google, and “relying on the Holy Spirit” has over 2 million returns, so it’s a very popular concept.  Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to find out how popular is the more specific idea of relying on the Spirit for one’s understanding of scripture, because that can be said in so many various ways, making a search very difficult.  I note again and again in my conversations, however, that many Christians will ultimately default to a position in which they reject any logical challenges to their interpretation of a given passage, and appeal to their own understanding of it as evidence that they must be right.  (I call this the Belief-As-Evidence Fallacy.) This comes from the belief that the Holy Spirit has given them that understanding.  And this is very dangerous thinking, indeed.  It leads to biases such as these:

  1. If I were wrong about this, I would know it.
  2. The Holy Spirit would not let me be wrong about this.
  3. The Holy Spirit would not let my preacher/teacher/scholar/expert be wrong about this.
  4. The Holy Spirit would not let my congregation or denomination by wrong about this.
  5. The Holy Spirit would not let millions of Christians be wrong about this.

All these biases and more can be in play, even though there is not one single passage of scripture that promises any such thing as these.

Why All the Errors?

If the common idea of the indwelling Holy Spirit helping the believer to correctly interpret and understand the Bible is true, then why are so many Christians in error?  Why are the errors detailed on this website (and many others) in play?  Any why is there so much disunity among the churches today?

The most likely answer, in my opinion, is that there is no promise that the Holy Spirit is going to help a believer to get the Bible right–and much less, to do it for him or her.  Those who live as if there were such a promise are in error, and while they believe they are “relying on the Spirit”, what they’re actually getting out of the process is the results of their own cognitive work, whether it’s good or bad, lazy or diligent, well-informed or not, irrational or rational, honest or dishonest, irresponsible or responsible.

If I’m right about this, then the onus for getting the believer’s mind correctly around the scriptures is on the believer.  And that is a huge shift from the way that many currently seem to be thinking on this question.  What’s at issue, then, is whether the believer, now faced with these facts, will adjust his beliefs accordingly, or will continue as before, ignoring what he knows.