Ordinary Means – Reading the Word

When I lived in the former Soviet Union, I was fortunate enough to visit several Russian Orthodox churches. Inside, there would be some ornate and elaborate display off to the side with icons, candles, and a beautiful gold-plated Bible. But if you asked any of the people in the church about the Bible, they were clueless. They had never really read it. It might never have even been opened. They believed the Bible was powerful. But they would never actually read it. That was something priests or religious scholars might do. But for the ordinary person, they might have a copy of it. It should be reverenced and honored, but it was not to be read.

We too believe the Bible is powerful. But we do not believe it is magical talisman. There is no power inherent in the book. Instead, the words of the Bible are powerful because those words are the means by which God reveals himself to us and the Holy Spirit works salvation in us. The Word on its own will never save, but with the Holy Spirit, will use that outward means to affect an inward regeneration. The Word is not, strictly speaking, essential, but it is the outward and ordinary means of grace in the Christian’s life.

As such we should read the Bible. This should be patently obvious, but it is far too common in the church today that this is assumed but not practiced. Many churches and many Christians live lives that are practically devoid of the Bible. Evangelical churches sit through sermons that give pointers on better living that never explain the Scriptures. It is not uncommon for whole worship services to be conducted in which only one or two verses are actually read. It is becoming more and more rare for Christian families to have a time of family worship. Individuals might read a brief devotional each morning but rarely seek to study their Bibles.

The answer to this is problem is simple. Just do it. The officers in the church should make sure that their worship services are saturated with Scripture. They must lead by reading God’s Word to the people. Fathers must take charge of the spiritual growth of their families by reading God’s Word to them. And every Christian should labor to read and understand the Scriptures. Christians are to be a literate people. When we think about educational philosophies and schooling choices, these should all be governed by one principle motive: What choices will make my child a better reader of Scripture?

The Larger Catechism #157 follows this idea up with this simple question, “How is the word of God to be read?” We are to read the Scriptures with a high and reverent esteem, with a firm persuasion that it is true, with a desire to know, believe, and obey God’s will, and with diligence, meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer. There is a lot to digest in that answer.

We are to read with high and reverent esteem of the Scriptures knowing that it is true. The Bible is different from any other book. It is the standard by which all other knowledge is to be judged. We come to it as the plumb line of truth. When questions arise, we must doubt our own understanding before we doubt the veracity of Scripture’s claims. We should humbly admit that our fallen and feeble minds are more suspect to error than God’s perfect word.

We are to read with a desire to know, believe, and obey God’s will for our lives. Shorter Catechism #3 is a wonderful summary of the whole catechism. “What do the Scriptures principally teach? The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” This should be our motive in studying the Scriptures. Who is God and what does God require of me? We can study the Bible as literature, history, or art, but if we miss this central message, then we are doomed. Johannes Vos asks this question, “What would we think of a guilty, convicted criminal who, when offered a free pardon, would pay no attention to this offer, but merely write an essay on the literary form and style of the message by which the offer was conveyed?”[1] We have not read the Bible rightly unless we have read it with a desire to know God and his will for our lives.

Lastly, we are to read with diligence, meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer. The Bible is a big book. It has difficult things in it. The apostle Peter even acknowledged this (2 Pet 3:16). It takes some effort and diligence to understand it. It also requires meditation. This is not some eastern metaphysical kind of exercise. It means to spend time contemplating and chewing it over in your mind and studying it deeply. But all of this knowledge must be applied to real life. Without application we become hypocrites. The Word must actually change our lives. And for application to take root, we must practice self-denial. We cannot only accept those teachings that we find agreeable, but we must submit our will to God’s Word. Finally, we are to read with prayer. The Spirit does the work of the Word in our lives. Without prayer our study will only lead to conceit and pride.

 

[1] Johannes Geerhardus Vos and W. Robert Godfrey, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002), 444.