Now that we’ve talked about the Word as a means of grace, our inclination to legalism, and some ways to prepare our hearts to read the Scriptures, let’s consider the practice of reading the Bible itself.
1. You don’t need a special place and time. There are certainly advantages to having a designated place and time for Scripture reading and prayer. That discipline is generally good. My problem, however, is that if I don’t get to my special place at exactly the right time, I feel as if it would be unprofitable to read the Bible anytime anywhere. (Yes, here again is the arrogant perfectionist within!) I must ask myself which is the better alternative: to skip reading the Bible altogether because I missed my time or place, or to spend some time somewhere in the Word? As helpful as it is to have a set time and place, the reality is you will have days, perhaps many days, when getting to that place at that time will be impossible. Keep your time-and-place discipline if you desire, but learn to be flexible. Because of the Spirit, God is present whenever and wherever you are.
2. When you see legalism in your heart, repent. When I recognize self-righteous or self-justfying thoughts, my tendency is to work harder to push them out, as if they were coming from without. Far more profitable would it be for me to recognize them as arising from within, expressing the waywardness of my own heart, and take them directly to the cross. Don’t let the possibility of legalism paralyze you; let your sin drive you to your Savior.
3. While you read, see yourself in the sinners of the passage. This is a great strategy to fight self-righteousness. We tend to read the Bible identifying with the heroes. We read the story of David and Goliath and see ourselves as Davids in the world, needing just a bit more faith to be able to face our giants. We read the account of Jacob’s sons and see ourselves as Josephs, being mistreated by those around us and awaiting the day when everything is set right. Reading the Bible this way feeds self-righteousness in our hearts, even if we admit that we’re not very much like David or Joseph right now. At root may lie a belief that if I work hard enough, I can be.
2 Timothy 3.16-17 says that the Scriptures are given to make us complete. That statement implies that we are incomplete without them. Thus we should read the Bible expecting it to point out the waywardness of our own hearts apart from grace, not feeding our own conceited self-evaluation. So when we read the Proverbs, for instance, we should assume that we are the simple, the fool, the scoffer, not the wise. When I read, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov 18.2), my conclusion ought not be, “Wow, this sure describes so-and-so!” I should read it like this: “I am a fool who takes no pleasure in understanding. All I want to do is express my own opinion.” A few moments meditating on this will lead to repentance, whereas the former conclusion simply reinforces my own self-righteousness.
4. While you read, look for Jesus. We learn from 2 Corinthians 3.18 that we are transformed into the image of Christ as we “behold the glory of the Lord.” This is what unbelievers do not see as they read the Scriptures; the glory of Christ is veiled to them (2Cor 3.14-16; 4.3-6). Our Bible reading ought to be characterized by an intense searching for how the text reveals him.
I know that there have been some terrible abuses of this teaching (see Origen). And I know that Scripture does more than reveal the glory of Christ. But it certainly doesn’t reveal any less! Students learn in the first week of systematic theology that the Bible is God’s self-revelation, that at its most fundamental level the Bible reveals God. In all of our study of the Scriptures, let us not miss him.
Seeing the glory of Christ is understandably easier for us when we are reading the New Testament. Whether in historical literature like the Gospels or in didactic material like the Epistles, the authors repeatedly and explicitly unpack the glory of our Savior. But Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 3 speaks of seeing his glory in the Old Testament. Thus we should be on the lookout there as well.
Books have been written on seeing Christ in the Old Testament, so I’ll simply offer an illustration. Take the proverb I referenced in the previous point: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” This text ought to lead us to repentance over our own foolish hearts. But it does more. It directs us to the One who always took pleasure in understanding, who himself “increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2.52). And this One wasn’t consumed with expressing his own opinion; he didn’t “speak on his own authority” (Jn 7.18). Instead he revealed God in his every work and word. He was indeed the very word of God (Jn 1.1, 14). Jesus, though, is more than my Example of how to be wise and not foolish; he is my Substitute–his obedience for my disobedience (Rom 5.19). So as I see his glory reflected in this proverb, repentance now turns to faith in the Savior, who lived for me and whose righteousness is mine.
There is no better way to address self-righteousness than to see the glory of Christ. His perfection confronts our short-comings, his mercy inspires wonder and hope, his substitution gives us a standing before God. Whatever else you do when you read the Word, look for Jesus.