5 Ways to Teach Kids to Apply Scripture

Editors’ note: 

This is the third in a three-part series on teaching children to study the Bible. See also part one, How to Teach Your Kids to Study the Bible and part two, 7 Principles for Teaching Kids to Interpret the Bible.

The apostle Paul says everything in the Bible was “written to teach us” (Rom. 15:4). Because the Bible was written in various times and contexts, we are left with the challenge of figuring out how God’s Word applies to us. Or as David Powlison said, “Your challenge is always to reapply Scripture afresh, because God’s purpose is always to rescript your life.”

How do we go about the process of applying the Scripture to our own lives? Here are five general ways that you should teach kids.

1. Direct Commands

The most obvious passages for personal application are those in which God gives direct commands. The Bible contains about a thousand commands, though many repeat or restate general requirements. For instance, some of the most frequently repeated commands in the Bible are “praise the Lord,” “do not be afraid,” “rejoice,” and “give thanks,” all of which, as Jon Bloom observes, are “commands, in essence, to be happy.”

2. General Truths

Scripture frequently provides general truths broadly applicable to a variety of situations and then leaves it to us to discern how they should be applied. In Matthew 22:21 Jesus says to give back to “Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Rather than giving us a list of what belongs to God and what is due the government, Jesus expects us to use godly wisdom to apply this general rule and work out the details for ourselves.

3. Indirect Analogy

Sometimes a passage teaches us by example rather than through a stated rule. This is the old-fashioned “Sunday school morality,” in which we look to the Old Testament narratives to learn how we should or should not act. For example, in the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, we learn to flee from sexual sin and adultery (Gen. 39:7-12).

We must be careful, of course, not to think the personal application derived from such stories is the primary purpose of the narrative. Although Joseph’s actions were a godly example, they resulted in his being thrown in prison—a situation God used to carry out his larger purposes. Whenever we apply the Bible indirectly, we need to keep in mind that the Bible is not about us, but about God.

When teaching your child to emulate a biblical hero using indirect analogy, do it indirectly. The child shouldn’t learn, “I need to be like David,” or “I need to be like Esther,” but rather, “When he slew Goliath, David was like Jesus,” or “When Esther showed courage, she was being like Jesus.” As Tim Keller says, Jesus is the true and better Adam, the true and better David, the true and better Esther, and so on. We look to them as examples because they point to the “true and better” example.

4. Indirect Extension

Most of Scripture is neither direct commands nor generally applicable truths. For instance, consider the lists of names and genealogies in the Old Testament. How do we apply those passages? Powlison offers this guidance:

In one sense, such passages apply exactly because they are not about you. Understood rightly, such passages give a changed perspective. They locate you on a bigger stage. They teach you to notice God and other people in their own right. They call you to understand yourself within a story—many stories—bigger than your personal history and immediate concerns. They locate you within a community far wider than your immediate network of relationships. And they remind you that you are always in God’s presence, under his eye, and part of his program.

The endurance and encouragement Paul refers to Romans 15:4 come from reading the Old Testament and understanding we are part of God’s story. We can see the promises God made to his people, see how he was always faithful, and be encouraged to endure, knowing he will likewise always be faithful to us.

5. Direct Analogy

Many contemporary controversies and concerns are not directly mentioned in the Bible. In some circumstances, we can personally apply biblical principles to situations similar to those mentioned in the Bible. One helpful way to appeal to Scripture on moral issues is to use analogical reasoning.

When we use analogies, we compare parallel cases, transferring information or meaning from one subject (the source) to another (the target). For example, when Jesus says he is the bread of life (John 6:35), he is noting a characteristic of the source (the life-sustaining nature of bread) and applying it to a target (Jesus himself is life-sustaining). In analogical reasoning, we reason from like to like, not identical to identical.

James Gustafson says this about the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

Although almost any part of the Bible can be used to reason analogically (such as narrative passages), the clearest path is to focus on scriptural commands, proverbs, and rules. These are easier to make a clear “like to like” comparison, allowing us to be reasonably certain we are applying biblical principles effectively.

Consider, for example, the proverbial claim in Hosea 4:11: “Old wine and new wine take away their understanding.” This passage is a reference to drunkenness, which is always condemned in the Bible (See: Prov. 23:20-21,29-35; Isa. 5:11; 28:7; Matt. 24:48-49; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18; 1 Pet. 5:8). With analogical reasoning we understand that other substances that have an intoxicating effect and “take away our understanding” might also be sinful.

For example, we might ask whether it is sinful to use narcotics, such as heroin, for social or recreational purposes (as opposed to medicinal use). Many Christians would consider the answer to be rather straightforward, but this extreme example highlights the reasoning process that allows us to apply biblical principles to our personal life through direct analogy.

Remember: The Bible Is About Jesus

Many generations of children were brought up to believe in what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management,” in which “the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects.” The Bible was taught in a manner that led children to believe its main purpose was to tell us how to behave properly rather than being primarily about Jesus.

While application is an essential part of Bible study, we must ensure that our children understand that teaching us how to behave is not the main purpose of Scripture. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus. And that’s why it’s worthy of lifelong study.