9 Wrong Ways to Read the Bible (And One Better Way)
A Book of Good News
Many of us approach the Bible not as oxygenating, but as suffocating. We see the Bible lying there on the end table. We know we should open it. Sometimes we do. But it is usually with a sense of begrudged duty. Life is demanding enough, we think. Do I really need more demands? Do I have to hear even more instruction telling me how to live?
That’s an understandable feeling. But it is lamentably wrong. And it brings me to the central thing I want to say about the Bible as we think about how real sinners get traction for real change in their lives. The Bible is good news, not a pep talk. News. What is news? It is reporting on something that has happened. The Bible is like the front page of the newspaper, not the advice column. To be sure, the Bible also has plenty of instruction. But the exhortations and commands of Scripture flow out of the Bible’s central message, like ribs flowing out of a spine or sparks from a fire or rules of the house for the kids. Paul said that the Old Testament was written so that “through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). He said, “The sacred writings . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Bible is help, not oppression. It is given to buoy us along in life, not drag us down. Our own dark thoughts of God are what cause us to shrink back from opening and yielding to it.
When we yawn over the Bible, that’s like a severe asthmatic yawning over the free offer of a ventilator while gasping for air. Read the Bible asking not mainly whom to imitate and how to live but what it shows us about a God who loves to save and about sinners who need saving.
Dane C. Ortlund
Pastor and best-selling author Dane Ortlund offers words of encouragement to those seeking to grow deeper in their faith, making the case that sanctification is not accomplished by doing more or becoming better, but by going deeper into Christ himself.
Wrong Ways to Read the Bible
Perhaps it seems obvious that the Bible is good news. How else would we read it? Here are nine common but wrong ways to read the Bible:
- The warm fuzzies approach—reading the Bible for a glowing, subjective experience of God, ignited by the words of the text, whether we understand what they actually mean or not. Result: frothy reading.
- The grumpy approach—reading the Bible out of nothing but a vague sense that we’re supposed to, to get God off our backs for the day. Result: resentful reading.
- The gold mine approach—reading the Bible as a vast, cavernous, dark mine, in which one occasionally stumbles upon a nugget of inspiration. Result: confused reading.
- The hero approach—reading the Bible as a moral hall of fame that gives us one example after another of heroic spiritual giants to emulate. Result: despairing reading.
- The rules approach—reading the Bible on the lookout for com- mands to obey to subtly reinforce a sense of personal superiority. Result: Pharisaical reading.
- The Indiana Jones approach—reading the Bible as an ancient document about events in the Middle East a few thousand years ago that are irrelevant to my life today. Result: bored reading.
- The magic eight-ball approach—reading the Bible as a road map to tell me where to work, whom to marry, and what car to buy. Result: anxious reading.
- The Aesop’s Fables approach—reading the Bible as a loose collection of nice stories strung together independently, each with a nice moral at end. Result: disconnected reading.
- The doctrine approach—reading the Bible as a theological repository to plunder for ammunition for our next theology debate at Starbucks. Result: cold reading.
The Right Way
There is some truth to each of these approaches. But to make any of them the dominant lens through which we read Scripture is to turn the Bible into a book it was never intended to be. The right way to read the Bible is the gospel approach. This means we read every passage as somehow contributing to the single, overarching storyline of Scripture, which culminates in Jesus.
Just as you wouldn’t parachute into the middle of a novel, read a paragraph out of context, and expect to understand all that it means, you cannot expect to understand all that a passage of Scripture means without plotting it in the big arc of the Bible’s narrative. And the main story of the Bible is that God sent his Son, Jesus, to do what Adam and Israel and we ourselves have failed to do—honor God and obey him fully. Every word in the Bible contributes to that message. Jesus himself said so. In a theology debate with the religious elite of the day, Jesus told those who claimed to be faithful to Moses and thus opposed to Christ, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). Jesus told his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”—shorthand for the entire Old Testament—“must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
The Bible is good news. It must be read as gospel. And the result of this approach is transforming reading. We grow. As Luther said:
He who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it; then he finds life eternal without fail. On the other hand, if I do not so study and understand Moses and the prophets as to find that Christ came from heaven for the sake of my salvation, became man, suffered, died, was buried, rose, and ascended into heaven so that through him I enjoy reconciliation with God, forgiveness of all my sins, grace, righteousness, and life eternal, then my reading in Scripture is of no help whatsoever to my salvation.
I may, of course, become a learned man by reading and studying Scripture and preach what I have acquired; yet all this would do me no good whatever.1
The Defining Habit
So as you seek to grow in Christ by becoming a deeper human, accept and embrace the truth that you will go deeper with Christ no further than you go into Scripture. To read Scripture is to read of Christ. To read it is to hear his voice. And to hear his voice of comfort and counsel is to hear an invitation to become the human being God has destined you to be.
The Bible is good news, not a pep talk.
So build Bible reading into your life in the very same way you build breakfast into your life. After all, we humans are habit-forming creatures. Our morning coffee, our evening dessert, the way we care for our vehicles, our methods for decompressing such as jogging or movies or bird-watching — and all our habits reflect an acquired taste, over a long period of time, resulting in daily rituals without which we do not feel we have lived a normal day.
And I want to say: Make the Bible your central daily ritual. Make it your habit without which you have not lived a normal day. By no means allow this to become a law towering over and condemning you. God’s favor does not take a hit when you fail to read the Bible some days. But consider yourself undernourished if skipping that spiritual meal becomes normal. Fight to stay healthy. Stay hooked up to the IV of gospel and help and counsel and promise by reading the Bible each day. Draw life and strength from the Scriptures.
To switch back to our original metaphor: take your asthmatic soul in one hand and the oxygen tank of the Bible in your other hand, and bring the two together. Reading the Bible is inhaling.
- Martin Luther, Sermons I, in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 55 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955–1986), 51:4.
This article is adapted from Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners.
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