The Red Herring of Bible Application

Aringa Rossa

In Dan Brown’s (in)famous The Da Vinci Code, Bishop Aringarosa is the intentional distraction. Throughout the story, he is carefully presented as a suspicious character, but in the end, we discover he is Brown’s pawn to tempt his readers toward wrong conclusions. The bishop was tricked by the real villain. However, perhaps it came as little surprise to those who know Italian, and their literary devices: aringa rossa is Italian for “red herring.”

A red herring is something that distracts, whether intentionally or not, from the real purpose and goal. It can be a logical fallacy or a literary device. Either way, a red herring misleads the audience, or the argument, by presenting itself as plausible, yet does not prove to be what it seems.

I find the same can be said of the common Bible-reading advice that we make sure to take away specific points of application every day. It sounds plausible, but in the end it can be an important distraction.

What Is “Application”?

The common advice is appealing because we all want to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Who wants to feel the failure or share in the shame of being pegged like one “who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror . . . and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:23–24)? It would seem, at first glance, that Bible application is an essential spiritual discipline to consciously pursue every time we encounter God’s Word—but that depends on how we define “application.”

The key question we need to answer is what effect should regular Bible intake have on our hearts and lives—and how does it happen?

God’s Word Is for You

For starters, let’s be clear that aiming to apply God’s words to our lives is grounded in the good instinct that the Bible is for us. Optimism about life application makes good on these amazing claims that all the Scriptures are for Christians:

  • “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
  • “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . [T]hey were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).
  • “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

The whole Bible is for the whole church. We have good Scriptural warrant to come to God’s words expecting them to be understandable and applicable. We should make good on Puritan preacher Thomas Watson’s counsel,

Take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: “God means my sins;” when it presseth any duty, “God intends me in this.” Many put off Scripture from themselves, as if it only concerned those who lived in the time when it was written; but if you intend to profit by the word, bring it home to yourselves: a medicine will do no good, unless it be applied. (quoted by Donald S. Whitney in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life)

Yes, take every word as spoken to yourself, with this essential anchor in place: seek to understand first how God’s words fell on the original hearers, and how it relates to Jesus’s person and work, and then bring them home to yourself. Expect application to your life as God speaks to us today through the Spirit-illumined understanding of what the inspired human author said to his original readers in the biblical text.

Specific Applications for Every Day?

So then, is it right to think of “application” as an everyday means of God’s grace? Is this a spiritual discipline to be pursued with every Bible encounter? The answer is yes and no, depending on what we mean by application.

Good teachers have claimed that every encounter with God’s Word should include at least one specific application to our lives—some particular addition, however small, to our daily to-do list. There is a wise intention in this: pressing ourselves not just to be hearers of God’s Word, but doers. But such a simplistic approach to application overlooks the more complex nature of the Christian life—and how true and lasting change happens in a less straightforward way than we may be prone to think.

Good teachers have claimed that every encounter with God’s Word should include at least one specific application to our lives...

It’s important to acknowledge that the vast majority of our lives are lived spontaneously. More than 99% of our daily decisions about this and that happen without any immediate reflection. We just act. Our lives flow from the kind of person we are—the kind of person we have become—rather than some succession of timeouts for reflection.

And this is precisely the line along which the apostle prays for his converts. He asks not that God give us simple obedience to a clear to-do list of commands, but that he give us wisdom to discern his will as we encounter life’s many choices coming at us without pause. Paul prays:

  • that we would be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
  • that our love may “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent” (Philippians 1:9–10).
  • that we “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9–10).

Rather than dictating specific actions, he wants to see us formed into the kind of persons who are able to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).

God’s Word Is for Seeing

And so, as John Piper says, “A godly life is lived out of an astonished heart—a heart that is astonished at grace. We go to the Bible to be astonished, to be amazed at God and Christ and the cross and grace and the gospel.” The kind of application most important to pursue in encountering God’s Word is such astonishment. Press the Scriptures to your soul. Pray for the awakening of your affections. Bring the Bible home to your heart.

Habits of Grace

David Mathis

This book explores how Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship with other Christians—three foundational “habits of grace”—have the power to awaken our souls to God’s glory and stir our hearts for joyful service.

As we’re freshly captivated by the grandeur of our God and his gospel, we become what we behold: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And so we come away from our Bible intake with a more satisfied soul. Which imparts a flavor and demeanor to our lives and decision-making that affects everything.

Meditating on God’s words shapes our soul. Sometimes it yields immediate and specific points of applications—embrace them when they come. But be careful not to let the drive for specific actions alter the focus of our devotions from astonishment and seeking, as George Mueller did, “to have my soul happy in the Lord.” Coming to the Scriptures to see can make for a drastically different approach than primarily coming to do.

The Bible is gloriously for us, but it is not mainly about us. We come most deeply because of who we will see, not for what we must do. “Become a kind of person,” counsels Piper, “don’t amass a long list.”

The Blessing of Bringing It Home

This is the pathway to flourishing we catch a glimpse of in the old covenant in Joshua 1:8—meditation, then application, then blessing:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

When Bible reading first aims at astonishment (meditation and worship), it works first on our hearts and changes our person, which then prepares us for application, and application to God’s blessing: “your way [will be] prosperous, and then you will have good success.” So applying God’s words to our lives is not only an effect of his grace to us, but also a means of his ongoing grace.

Jesus says in John 13:17, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” So also James 1:25 promises that someone who is not a hearer only but “a doer who acts . . . will be blessed in his doing.”

When we bring God’s words home to our hearts, and then apply them to our lives through an amazed and changed heart, it is a great means of his grace to us. He loves to bless the true application of his Word—first to our inner life, and then later to our external lives.

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