In the past year or so I’ve run across four examples where interpreters negate what the text actually says. I think you will find these examples instructive.
First, in the first parable of Luke 15, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lord speaks in the conclusion of “ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Most commentators suggest that the Lord was speaking ironically and that He meant precisely the opposite of what He said. Browning explains, “The self-righteous have not begun to see the need for repentance” (Luke, p. 130). Erdman says, “Jesus was here referring definitely…to the self-righteous Pharisees” (Luke, p. 163).
Yet a study of the words just and righteous (dikaiōv and dikaios can be translated both ways) in Luke shows that it refers to people who are born again and in fellowship with God. Compare Luke 1:6 (Zacharias and Elizabeth “were both righteous [dikaioi, plural of dikaios] before God”), 1:17 (dikaiōv, “the wisdom of the just); 2:25 (dikaios, Simeon); 14:14 (“the resurrection of the just [dikaiōv]”); 23:47 (dakaios, concerning Jesus: “Certainly this was a righteous Man!”), 23:50 (Joseph of Arimathea, “a good and just man [dikaios]”).
There are two exceptions in Luke, but in both cases the context makes that clear. Exception one: “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). Notice that neither Jesus nor Luke says that they were righteous, just that they trusted in themselves that they were. Exception two: “So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20).
Luke 15:7 is talking about ninety-nine people who are not only born again, but who are also in fellowship with God.
Second, in the Parable of the Four Soils the Lord said that the person represented by the seed sown on the second soil “believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13).
Most commentators suggest that the Lord actually means that they did not believe. They don’t call this irony. They just believe the Lord expects the listener and reader to figure it out.
John Piper says, “Verse 13, the second soil: they think they have the Word and true spiritual faith and joy, but they have no root to sustain them in time of trial. Their faith is a superficial enthusiasm that is real only for fair weather days. And so when the trial comes, what they think they have is taken away” (desiringgod.org).
C. Marvin Pate says, “Trials reveal whether or not a person has genuine faith” (Luke, p. 185).
John Martin similarly comments, “The fact that they believe for a while but fall away means that they only accept the facts of the Word mentally and then reject it when ‘the going gets tough.’ It does not mean they lose their salvation, for they had none to lose” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT edition, “Luke,” p. 225).
Luke 8:13 speaks of people who believe and are saved (compare Luke 8:12 and 13) and then who fall away. Since there is no time requirement on saving faith, this represents born-again people, regardless of what most commentators say.
Third, in Jas 2:17, 20, 26 we read, “faith without works is dead.” While James says he is talking about faith which lacks works, most commentators suggest that what James means is that faith without works is not faith.
Peter Davids says regarding Jas 2:17, “The so-called faith which fails to produce works…is simply not ‘saving faith’” (James, p. 122). Stulac agrees, “What James is rejecting is the notion that one can have faith by itself, without the accompanying actions” (James, p. 109). So, too, Adamson says, “This verse is just a vivid way of stating that without works faith is not faith at all…” (James, p. 124).
The natural way to understand that saying is that faith, if it is not joined with application, is dead (useless). Doug Moo says that forcefully in his commentary on James (pp. 103-104), yet at the very last sentence he says, “Faith that does not have works…is, like a body without a spirit (cf. 2:26), lifeless, and profits one nothing on the day of judgment.”
If I said, “A car without gas is dead,” no one would say I wasn’t really talking about a car. If I said, “A bike without air in the tires is dead,” no one would suggest I was talking about a non-bike. If I said, “A baseball team without good pitching is dead,” no one would deny I was talking about a baseball team.
Whatever faith without works is, it is faith, and it is without works. It is not non-faith. It is faith. James is talking about the importance of applying what we believe so that we might profit ourselves (Jas 2:14) and those around us (Jas 2:16).
Fourth, in a recent journal article in BibSac, J. Paul Tanner suggested that when the Lord spoke of “the sons of the kingdom” in Matt 8:12 and Matt 13:38 (where the sons of the kingdom are the wheat in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares), “The only way these passages can be harmonized is to conclude that in 8:12, Jesus was speaking figuratively with sarcasm…Jesus was pointing out that they were not ‘sons of the kingdom’ at all but only thought of themselves as such” (“The ‘Outer Darkness’ in Matthew’s Gospel: Shedding Light on an Ominous Warning.” Bibliotheca Sacra, October-December 2017, pp. 454-55).
The expressions “the sons of the kingdom” only occurs twice in the NT: Matt 8:12 and Matt 13:38. While possible that the Lord used the same expression to have opposite meaning in different contexts, there is nothing in Matt 8:12 that suggests that sarcasm is involved. It is the Lord who calls them “sons of the kingdom.” This is not what they profess to be.
The natural way of understanding this fits perfectly well here if we recognize that the darkness outside is not a reference to the lake of fire, but instead refers to missing out on the joys associated to ruling with Christ.
While there is irony and sarcasm in the Bible, the context indicates when it is present. When the natural reading makes sense, don’t seek to turn the meaning upside down.
People often complain that Free Grace theology uses poor hermeneutics. I think that the opposite is true.