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5 Ways to Read the Bible for Personal Application

The Bible is a book about God, not a book about us. And yet as Paul says, everything in the Bible was written for us:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Roman 15:4, NIV)

How can the Bible be about God and yet be written to teach us? As David Powlison explains,

The Bible was written to others—but speaks to you. The Bible is about God—but draws you in. Your challenge is always to reapply Scripture afresh, because God’s purpose is always to rescript your life.

When we reapply Scripture to our own lives, the Holy Spirit is rescripting our lives so that we may become more like Jesus.

What Spiritual Formation Is (And Is For)

Every day we are becoming either more like Jesus or less like him. The direction we move is largely up to us, for we don't drift into Christ-likeness. Becoming more like Jeuss takes effort and intention; it takes spirtual formation. 

Christ-like spiritual formation is the name for that process by which Christians in union with Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, become conformed both internally and externally to the character of Christ for the purpose of communion with God.

Learning how to personally apply the Bible to our own lives is therefore essential to our spiritual formation.

How then do we personally apply the Bible to our own lives? We generally apply the Bible through five ways:

1. Direct commands

The most obvious passages for personal application are those in which God gives direct commands. For example, Jesus’s command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43) is not an optional requirement. When we find such clear, direct commands in Scripture we know they are intended to directly “rescript” our lives.

2. General truths

Scripture frequently provides general truths that are 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. Direct analogy

There are many issues of controversy and concern in the modern age that are not directly mentioned in the Bible. In some circumstances, though, we can personally apply Biblical principles to situations that are similar to those mentioned in the Bible.

In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states 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.

(For an example of how to apply direct analogies, see this article.)

4. Indirect analogy

We apply Scripture through indirect analogy when 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, though, not to think the personal application that can 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 that God used to carry out his larger purposes. Whenever we apply the Bible indirectly, we need to keep in mind the key truth that the while the Bible is for us it is not about us, but about God.

5. Indirect extension

The vast majority of Scripture is composed of neither direct commands nor generally applicable truths. Take, for instance, the various lists of names and genealogies found in the Old Testament. How do we apply those passages to our own lives? As Powlison says,

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 comes from reading the Old Testament and understanding that 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 that he will likewise always be faithful to us.

Application Is for Spiritual Formation

Whether directly or indirectly, by analogy or by extension, the entire Bible is personally applicable to our lives. How it applies may not always seem obvious, of course. But if we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Father will not only open our eyes so that we may reapply his Word, he will use it to rescript our lives to make us more like his Son.

Editors’ note: This is an except from Joe Carter’s new work, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).