This article is an installment of Holy Joys Questions. Submit your questions to email@example.com.
Question: Is it alright for Christians to claim promises that aren’t specifically written to them? For example, Philippians 4:19 is often used by believers today as assurance that God will provide for our basic needs. Is that a misuse of that text since Paul was referring to a specific situation pertaining to the Philippians’ generosity to him? How do we know which promises we can claim?
Let’s begin with a definition of a “promise” in Scripture. A promise is a statement that God will be or do something for someone. Some promises are conditional, and some are unconditional. Some are corporate; some are individual.
So, the answer to your first question is “it depends.” It depends on a lot of things. Here are steps to use in determining whether you can claim a promise in Scripture.
From the context, identify the original recipient of the promise
If the recipient is a single named individual, and the promise is not given to his descendants, then it may not be claimed today. For example, the promise to Hannah that she would have children is not a promise to all barren wives that they will have children. If the recipients are an individual and his descendants, one of whom is Jesus, then it can be claimed.
This is Paul’s line of argument in Galatians 3. He says the promises given to Abraham and his seed (singular) apply to us, because Christ was the seed of Abraham and we are Christ’s seed (Gal. 3:16-29). If the recipient is a group, we must be members of that group to claim the promise.
For example, Jesus promised the apostles in John 14:26 that the Spirit would teach them all things and bring all that He had said to their remembrance. This promise does not apply to us because we are not apostles.
Determine if the promise has been fulfilled using a good cross-reference Bible
If it has been fulfilled the promise may not be claimed. For example, God promised David that his son would build a house for God (2 Sam. 7:13). That promise was fulfilled through Solomon (1 Kings 8:19-20). This is not a promise to claim about my son building a house.
Isaiah 53:4 “Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses” was fulfilled in Jesus’ healing ministry recorded in Matt. 8:16-17.
Determine whether the promise is conditional or unconditional
We must meet the conditions of a promise before we can claim the promise. God’s promise to Noah and all humanity to never destroy the earth again with a flood is unconditional (Gen. 9:9-11). God’s promise to establish Solomon as king over Israel just as He established David’s throne was conditioned upon Solomon’s obedience (1 Kings 9:4-5).
When Solomon failed to meet those conditions, God removed him from being king over Israel and limited him to ruling only Judah and Benjamin (1 Kings 11:11). If a promise is given to a person identified by a characteristic (e.g., righteous, wise, godly), then it is a conditional promise and anyone who shares that character can claim the promise.
Distinguish promises made to the nation of Israel from promises made to spiritual Israel
God’s promise to cause Israel’s national enemies to flee before them seven ways (Deut. 28:7) is not a promise to make the national enemies of any or all Christians to flee before them in battle. It was a promise to national Israel.
On the other hand, God’s promise to dwell in the midst of his people (Lev. 26:12; Ezek. 37:27) is a promise for all His people and it is being fulfilled now by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (2 Cor. 6:16-18).
Distinguish the Spirit’s impressions from Scripture’s promises
Occasionally, I have heard people testify, “While reading my Bible, God gave me a promise that He would do what I was asking him.” In many cases, the verse God gave them has nothing to do with the issue they were praying about, wasn’t given to spiritual Israel or to all believers generally. Such situations are what I’m referring to as “the Spirit’s impressions.” I find no examples of this in Scripture. Nonetheless, there is
Nonetheless, there is widespread testimony to the Holy Spirit using Scripture to impress upon the hearts of his children personal assurance concerning His will. I conclude then that this is something God does.
The same cautions that apply to saying “God told me …,” apply to saying, “God gave me a promise [from a non-promise text.]” We should always qualify claims that God told us something with a statement like, “To the best of my ability to discern God’s voice, I believe God told me …” Deuteronomy 18:20-22 indicates that falsely claiming to speak for God disqualifies a person from the respect of God’s people and, under the Mosaic Covenant, deserved death.
Claiming that God has spoken is serious! We should be careful to qualify our claims so that if we are wrong, it’s clear the fault is ours and not God’s.
In addition, we must keep clearly in mind the difference between God using the language of Scripture and God using the meaning of Scripture. While God may choose to use the language of Scripture in our lives apart from its contextual meaning, that does not determine or change the contextual meaning. Scripture’s meaning never changes.
The normal pattern we see in Scripture is the Holy Spirit applying the contextual meaning of Scripture to believer’s lives to make us like Jesus (Eph. 5:26-27). We should expect this to be the normal pattern of God working in our lives as well.
Distinguish descriptive texts from promises
A “descriptive text” is a passage of Scripture that describes what God has done in the past. What God has done in the past, He may do again. However, a description of His past actions is no promise that He will again act in that way. Further, a non-promise passage is not changed into a promise passage because God uses its language to assure our hearts of something.
My observation is that God rarely does the same thing twice. There was only one burning bush, one Red Sea crossing, one altar consumed by fire from Heaven, one Pentecostal tongues of fire on disciples’ heads, and so on.
When claiming a promise given in or through Scripture, kind in mind that knowing the “what” of God’s will is not the same as know the “how” or the “when.” For example, Jesus promised that he would never leave us or forsake us. That’s the “when” (never) and the “what” (leave or forsake) of his promise. Precisely how we will experience or sense His presence he did not tell us.
Regarding Philippians 4:19, “My God shall supply all your need,” Paul’s confidence is rooted in Jesus’ promise that our Father knows our needs and will supply the needs (food and clothing) of those who seek first His kingdom—as the Philippians had been doing (Matt. 6:24-33). In other words, this promise is conditional, not unconditional. The Philippians had given evidence of their seeking first God’s kingdom; therefore, Paul could assure them that God would supply their need.
In conclusion, remember that promises are not a means of strong-arming God into doing what He would be reticent to do otherwise. Promises are God’s signal that He wants to do something. Our asking for God to keep His word is an act of in His faithfulness. In fact, our asking may be the trigger God is waiting for to spring into action (Jam. 4:2).
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.