Going Overboard

The word of the LORD came to me again, saying, ‘What do you mean when you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘you shall no longer use this proverb in Israel’” (Ezekiel 18:1-3).

Over Generalization

          We all assume the sun will rise tomorrow even though we know there will come a day when it will no longer exist (II Peter 3:10). We make these generalizations because it allows for simpler plans and thoughts. If we tried covering every possibility, no matter how remote in every plan, we would get so bogged down the plans would never be executed. Humans need to generalize, but there is a danger of forgetting that generalizations are not precise. We might say that “Birds can fly,” but this doesn’t mean that penguins, ostriches, and the extinct dodos are not birds. This is why James warned about the making of future plans. “Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-16). We need to make future plans, but we must always keep in mind that the future is not within our control. When we begin to think that our generalizations are fixed, then we fall into the trap of pride.

          There are many ways we tend to rely too heavily on generalizations. If something happens once, we quite naturally assume that it will happen again. Mrs. Smith took brand-X and improved; therefore, everyone who takes brand-X will see benefits. The problem is that we do not know if the taking of brand-X was a direct contributor to Mrs. Smith’s improvement or simply an incidental fact. A lot of snake-oil is sold because of this. Belief in modern-day miracles is also perpetuated by unreasonable generalizations from very little information.

          Even when you use a sample, you cannot be certain about the whole. Have you not noticed that polls usually will express their margin of error? Using a sample to conclude an absolute about the whole is an error in over generalization. Sampling is expressed in degrees of confidence, not absolutes. In a debate that I watched, one man stated “Baptism is not mentioned as a condition of salvation in John, the justification sections of Romans or Galatians, therefore baptism is not essential for salvation.” There are several flaws in this argument, but notice that used a limited selection of the New Testament to make a conclusion about the entire New Testament. His argument purposely ignores the clear statement in I Peter 3:21, but notice that he couldn’t take all of Romans because Romans 6 contradicts his position. He didn’t want all of Galatians because Galatians 3:26 contradicts his position. The funny thing is, even with his narrow selection, he still missed his target. In John 3:5 Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And only a few verses later we find that Jesus was making disciples via baptism (John 3:22, 26; 4:1). Now perhaps this man thought that you could be a disciple of Jesus without being saved, but I am not so persuaded.

          Sometimes over generalizations appear in very subtle forms. Take the argument: “All dogs are animals. No cats are dogs. Therefore, no cats are animals.” The flaw in the argument is that we were not shown that only dogs are animals. Dogs were overgeneralized to apply to all animals. The same flaw is seen in the argument: “All dogs are animals. Some pets are dogs. Therefore, some pets are not animals.” The only way this statement could be true is if all animals were dogs.

          Over generalizations can also occur when we make a text say too much. For example, what if I used II Timothy 4:2 which says “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” Hmm, preaching is to consist of convincing, rebuking, and exhortation; therefore, preaching should be 2/3 negative (convince and rebuke) and 1/3 positive (exhort). Paul’s list was not meant to be used to determine proportions of time. Yet, I have seen people take the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 and argue that only 25% of the people you teach are going to remain faithful Christians.

          We have mentioned straw men arguments in a previous lesson. Straw men arguments are built by assigning an extreme all-or-nothing position to your opponent’s arguments or beliefs and then arguing against the extreme position instead of the opponent’s actual statements. After giving evidence that the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, were no longer in effect, I was given this counter argument, “He says the Ten Commandments are no longer in effect, so he is saying that you can lying, steal, and cheat on your spouse.” Generally, straw men arguments are built on partial quotes or mis-representative quotes taken out of context which are then over-generalized in application to a particular problem. The removal of one covenant so that another might take its place does not necessarily mean that what constitutes sin has changed. For example, lying was wrong under the old covenant because God said in the Ten Commandments “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:20). Lying is also wrong under the new covenant because Paul tells us, “Therefore, putting away lying, "Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor," for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).

          We can also overreach a conclusion by arguing that a conclusion must be false because the premise is false. All you have really done is prove that you cannot use this premise to reach the conclusion. For example, “If we hang the criminal, he will die. Therefore, if we don’t hang the criminal, he will not die.” The problem is that arguer is ignoring the fact that a criminal can die by means other than hanging. This particular mistake is often used when arguing Mark 16:16 where Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” We know that both belief and baptism is needed for salvation. The second half of Jesus’ statement proves that faith is a necessary condition for salvation. Some groups, such as the Baptists, have long argued that because Jesus did not mention not being baptized that baptism is, therefore, unnecessary to salvation. Christians have countered saying that the “and” in the statement proves that it is necessary. The reality is that Mark 16:16 by itself is insufficient to prove whether or not baptism is necessary. A lack of baptism negates the premise which means the conclusion can be true or false – a person could be saved or not saved. The only way to determine whether baptism is necessary is look at other statements, such as Acts 22:16 and I Peter 3:21, which show that baptism is a necessary condition for salvation.


          We live in a complex world, so we simplify complex thoughts to be better able to deal with them. However, when a person simplifies an idea, he runs the risk of reducing the idea down to the point of causing a misrepresentation. The nature of God is incredibly complex, yet some latch onto the idea that God is love (I John 4:16) and conclude that there could not possibly be a hell because a loving God would not send anyone to eternal punishment.

          The problem is that a few passages are used as if they represent everything discussed on a particular topic. Many denominations declare that salvation is by faith only and cite John 3:16 as evidence. They will further declare that it cannot be of works and cite Ephesians 2:8-9. But the fact is that they are guilty of oversimplification. Salvation is mentioned in many more verses than these. The works mentioned in Ephesians 2:8-9 would not include baptism because Paul said, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Just prior, Paul stated, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6). Notice that we were dead, but were made alive and raised up with Jesus. How was that accomplished? Paul tells us plainly in Romans 6:3-7 that this was done in baptism. It is also clearly seen in Colossians 2:12-13, “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” The same ideas, death, being made alive, and being raised are presented, but are connected with baptism which is called a work of God – the very thing Paul said we were created for in Ephesians 2:10).

          In the same way, a person can error by making judgments based on surface appearances instead of consider the whole. Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath day, which caused many Jews to be upset. But Jesus points out that they were looking at the issue only superficially. “Moses therefore gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:22-24). The Jews had oversimplified God’s law and it was seen when one law was pitted against another. God doesn’t issue conflicting laws (I Corinthians 14:33).

          People also are guilty of superficial judgments when they determine how they will treat a person by his appearance. “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, "You sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "You stand there," or, "Sit here at my footstool," have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” (James 2:1-7).

          Another way that errors are made by oversimplification is by taking one definition of a word and applying it to all usages, even though the word may have multiple definitions. People have taken the Hebrew and Greek words for “wine” and stated that they always refer to alcoholic drinks. It is true that in some usages it these words are clearly referring to liquor of some sort, but it is not difficult to show that in many context the liquid in question cannot be alcoholic. For instance, in some passages it mentions the wine within the grapes or squeezing the wine from the grapes. Therefore, the words translated as wine have a broader range of meaning than it might first appear. It would be a mistake to assume every mention of “wine” is a reference to an alcoholic beverage.

          We can also oversimplify by creating fake precision. A fake precision is created when we differentiate things that are essentially the same by harping on insignificant differences. As an example, in Matthew 5:22 Jesus warns against calling someone “raca” or a “fool.” I have read detailed debates concerning the difference in meaning between these words. Yet, the reality is that in the original language, “raca” is the word for fool in Aramaic and “moros,” which is translated “fool,” is the Greek word for fool. It is absurd to argue the difference between a Aramaic fool and a Greek fool. In doing so causes a person to miss Jesus’ point that it doesn’t matter what language you use to insult someone, it remains wrong.

          Similarly false doctrine is sometimes promoted by dividing synonyms to create the allusion of separate topics. For example, I have debated some who insist that salvation, justification, forgiveness, and sanctification are separate, independent topics. Therefore, if you point out James 2:24 to show that you cannot be saved by faith alone, they will point out that the verse says “justified” and not “saved” – as if that made some sort of difference.


1)          What error is made when a person oversimplifies the idea that God controls the world?

2)          What error is made when a person oversimplifies the idea that God is all knowing?