The Importance of Literary Context in understanding the Bible


In the previous article, we looked at the importance of understanding what had been going on that prompted the writing of the letter. This article stresses the need to interpret any passage in light of the overall message of the letter. When we take passages out of their literary context, we can make many passages say some strange things.

Take the epistle of James, for example. By carefully reading the entire book, we see that the point James is making is that works are the evidence of a genuine faith. If someone claims to be saved but has no works, he really wasn’t saved in the first place. He is saying that works are the fruit of salvation, not the root of salvation. This is confirmed in Ephesians 2:10. We are saved unto good works.

Without seeing this “big picture,” some verses seem to be saying just the opposite. Many people have been confused by James 2:24:

You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.

Taken in context, this verse is a response to the question he asks in verse 14:

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

His point is that good works must flow from our salvation. Otherwise, our claim of salvation is empty. Romans 3:28 clearly states that we are justified by faith apart from works (of the Law). This is reinforced by Ephesians 2:8-9, as well as Titus 3:5-6. Consider the thief on the cross. Jesus said that he would be with Him that very day in Paradise. What chance did he have to do any good works? None.


If our good works are necessary to be saved, then we would never know if we have done enough to be saved. John puts this issue to rest in 1 John 5:13 when he says,

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.

This verse clearly says that those who believe (have faith) can know for certain that they have eternal life. Jesus’ last words on the cross were “It is finished.” He didn’t say, “I’ve done my part, now you do yours.” He did everything that needed to be done to purchase our salvation. He alone was the perfect sacrifice which was required to be our substitute.

We can’t add a thing to what He did because we’ve got nothing of value to offer. Isaiah 64:6 says that the best we have to offer (our righteous deeds) are like filthy rags (especially when seen in light of God’s holiness). Remember that before we’re saved, we are sinners with lives characterized by sin. Everything we bring to the table is covered in sin. We dare not think God will accept any of it. What an insult it is to our Savior when we imply that what He did on the cross was not sufficient and that He needs our help.

My point is that understanding the literary context is essential if we are to understand the intended meaning of any passage.



‘Tis better to have loved a short than never to have loved a tall.