As a child I remember a Christian leader advising his disciples not to read the Bible unless they felt like it. He himself was taking an extensive hiatus from personal Bible reading. He found it freeing. Even as a child, I knew his advice was unsound and unwise. God’s Word is the source of truth. It is one of the primary ways the Holy Spirit uses to teach us the truth about who God is and who we are. Grasping these twin truths transforms us, making us look more like Jesus. That is not to say that the process is automatic. Not just any reading of the Bible leads to transformation. There are wrong ways to study the Bible.
There are three ways we can wrongly study the Bible. First, with our brain on the shelf. Someone can diligently read the Bible every day, running their eyes over the words, but getting nothing from them. They are not studying or even trying to understand. Such “study” bears little to no fruit. However, intentional study does not equal proper reading of the Bible. Diligently digging into the Word without actively seeking the Holy Spirit’s help is the second way to wrongly study the Bible. The Holy Spirit is our divine interpreter (John 16:12-14). So, trying to understand the Bible without relying on Him is both dangerous and counterproductive. Even more helpless is the third incorrect way of studying the Bible: without possessing the Holy Spirit at all. Paul tells us that the unbeliever cannot grasp the things of the Spirit (i.e., truths of God’s Word), instead they think them foolish (1 Cor. 2:14). They can study day and night, but without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, they cannot understand more than the grammatical sense of the text. Does that mean we should advise unbelievers not to read the word? No. God promises that His Word will not go forth without accomplishing His purpose (Is. 55:10-11). Who knows but that His purpose is to convert the Bible-studying unbeliever through reading His Word? While we may not know that purpose of God’s Word for the unbeliever, as believers, we can also rest assured that God will use our diligent Spirit-driven study of, and meditation on the Bible to transform us. One way He does this is by teaching us how to understand God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains that the scriptures tell us what to believe concerning God (WSC A:3). The obvious implication is that to know what we are to believe concerning God we must study the scripture, asking what the Bible explicitly and implicitly tells us about God. As we study scripture, we find countless descriptions of God. He is patient, gracious, righteous, full of compassion, wrathful, just—to name a few (2 Pet. 3:9, Ps 116:5, 75:8, 1 Jn 1:9). The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes it well: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth” (WSC A:8). Such summaries are derived not only from explicit, but also implicit descriptions of God.
We learn about who God is by studying what He does and how He acts. Just as we learn about a person by spending time with them and watching how they behave in various situations, the same is true of scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, we find God acting in a certain way toward His people, His enemies, even creation. And in every instance, the way He acts aligns with His revealed character. The more we study the scriptures, the more we God reveals Himself to us. This knowledge transforms us.
When my husband and I got married, I quickly realized how much I didn’t really know him. Over the years, my knowledge grew, and with it my confidence and trust in him. It has transformed our relationship. We communicate more freely and comfortably, appreciate each other more fully, and are generally closer. How much truer is this in our relationship with God. The more we spend time with Him in His word, the more we find peace and comfort in what we discover (Phil. 4:8-9, Rom. 15:4). Sin has tainted our understanding of God such that we are sure to have a false or incomplete view of God—thinking He is like us. Studying God in the Bible replaces those false ideas with true ones about God, renewing our mind and thus strengthening our relationship (Eph. 4:20-24, Rom. 12:2). But knowledge of God is not the only way studying scripture renews our mind and strengthens our relationship with God.
Studying the Bible transforms us by giving us a truthful view of ourselves. Our own hearts partnered with confirmations from culture, teach us to think falsely about who we are and what duty God requires of us. When we study the Bible, God reveals the truth about both. Indeed, the Westminster Confession marks this as the second thing the scriptures principally teach: what duty God requires of man (WSC A:3). We learn explicit truths of both throughout scripture. Consider the following small sampling. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10a). “There is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:3b). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Throughout Scripture’s teaching on who we are, twin truths emerge. First, we are made in the image of God; second, we are helplessly wicked. The Holy Spirit makes our wickedness most apparent when we weigh our actions against the minimum duty God requires of us: following the ten commandments (Ex. 20:2-17). He does so by piercing our very soul to lay bare our heart (Heb. 4:12). The Bible confirms and illustrates these explicit teachings by implicit teachings as well.
Throughout scripture we find God treating people with dignity and respect as His image bearers. The midwives who rescued the Jewish babies in Egypt were commended and rewarded whereas those who disregard the dignity of men are punished (Ex. 1:15-22, Prov. 11:21). In His life, Jesus displayed the whole duty required for mankind (Matt. 5:17-19). On the cross, God reveals His great love for mankind and immense hatred of sin (1 Pet. 2:24). These are but a few examples of the implicit teaching of who we are and what we are to do. As we dig deeply into the study of scripture, the Holy Spirit will faithfully reveal these truths more fully to us; and they will transform us.
Understanding who we are and what duty God requires of us transforms us by both encouraging and convicting us. We are encouraged as we learn more clearly our inherent dignity and worth as people (and even greater dignity in Christ). Such knowledge frees us from self-loathing, insecurity, and fear. This in turn frees us to love others as fellow image bearers with grace and forgiveness, realizing our own sinfulness and how much God has loved us despite it. Grasping more fully our own sinfulness also frees us from pride and drives us more and more to cry out to God to work the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power in us. Thus, the Holy Spirit uses our study of the Word to teach us hope and sobriety and a deeper love for, and dependence on God.
Sometimes we may feel like the gentlemen at the beginning of this article, uninterested in Bible study. Perhaps we find it too difficult to understand or tedious. Maybe we understand it, but don’t like it. Or maybe we just don’t feel like we have the time to devote to Bible study. I hope realizing the rich wealth of truth accessible to us in the Bible motivates us to persevere in studying it. God promises, through the Holy Spirit’s work in us, to sanctify us in the truth (John 17:17). Reading and studying the Bible is one of the means God uses to sanctify (i.e. transform) us. How could we be otherwise than transformed when we are consistently exposing ourselves to the truth of who God is and who we are? How can we help but be more and more in awe of God and grateful for what He has done for us? May realizing this fill us with such overflowing peace, hope and gratitude, that we hunger and thirst for more time in the Word. May realizing the riches the Bible has to offer make us willing to set aside lesser pursuits to attain them.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.