My Love-Hate Relationship with Bible Study Tools

What if I were to ask you to solve 30 long-division problems? One thing, though: there’s no calculator. Sure, you probably remember how to do it by hand, but since you haven’t since childhood, you’re rusty. As a result, the whole idea seems a little threatening and needlessly difficult, doesn’t it?

Thanks to the blessings of the modern age, nobody does long division by hand anymore. We’ve become dependent on the tool. Why go to all that intellectual effort when you can punch a few buttons and have an answer at your fingertips in a matter of milliseconds?

I love that we have access to calculators. I don’t even mind that using them has permanently atrophied my math skills. But I refuse to let modern Bible study tools—as great as they are—do the same thing to my Bible study skills. I never want to become so dependent on these tools that I forgo the deep joy that comes from sitting down with a Bible, plus a pen and some paper, and simply digging in. I never want to pretend that reading the fruit of someone else’s Bible study efforts is the same as plumbing the depths of God’s Word myself. And no matter how biblically wise or learned I may become, I never want to train anyone to rely on me more than they rely on Scripture.

What’s more, I’m convinced that if the New Testament authors were alive today they would back me up: modern Bible study tools are a great blessing—but if you rarely or never study the Bible without them, you’re not only doing it backward, you’re seriously missing out.

Three Fruits of Personal Bible Study

In his final letter, Paul urges Timothy to keep his nose in the sacred text (2 Tim. 3:12-17). He gives three motivations.

1. You’ll become wise for salvation.

The sacred writings “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).

The “you” in this passage is Timothy, Paul’s main man. He’s not a pagan but a preacher. He’s young but not new to the faith. Therefore, Paul is not trying to convert him but to console him, to help him continue in what he’s already learned and firmly believed (2 Tim. 3:14). Becoming “wise for salvation” isn’t merely what happens when you first come to Christ; it’s the heartbeat of your ongoing knowledge of God. When you’re wise for salvation, you’ll find power to repent, believe, and execute Christ’s mission daily.

You will face challenges to the gospel that your parents and teachers couldn’t predict. The people you lead will have questions whose answers can’t be found on the church book table. Are you able to go to the Bible itself to face these unfolding challenges?

2. You’ll be competent and equipped for every good work.

All Scripture—God-breathed and profitable—will make you “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Moral instruction is excellent. Seminary courses are fantastic. Study guides are helpful. But what will ultimately make you morally competent, skilled in righteousness?

Only the words of God, once spoken and still speaking.

You will face ethical issues your mentors didn’t anticipate. The people you lead will face moral quandaries unknown to previous generations. Which Puritan ever tackled same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or internet pornography? Can you study the Bible for yourself, deriving new conclusions from old truth?

3. You’ll be able to recognize and resist deception.

God promised, through Paul’s pen, that evil people and imposters would only increase (2 Tim. 3:13). Such deceivers will always persecute the godly (2 Tim. 3:12).

Worldview training and theological volumes do tremendous work, but they will go only so far. What will enable you to resist each new deception you face? What will help you lead others to see deception and not get caught in it?

Only the unshakable, unbreakable Word of God.

You will face deceptions your heroes never encountered, because the evil one’s duplicities can appear out of nowhere and spread like a wicked version of the ice-bucket challenge. Don’t train people to rely on you to tell them all they should believe; how will they—or you—know if you’re the one being deceived on any point? What will be the final measuring rod?

Wise for salvation, equipped for every good work, able to resist deception: For these reasons, we learn and teach others how to study the Bible.

How to Study the Bible

A simple and sensible method will help anyone handle the word of truth rightly. It’s an old method that never loses its punch, because we use it unconsciously every time we communicate with another person.

  • Observe – what does it say?
  • Interpret – what does it mean?
  • Apply – how should I change?

If you see me in public, you might observe me approach, smile, and stick out my right hand. You would interpret that I mean you no harm and want to greet you. You would apply the interaction by reaching out your own hand, taking my hand with yours, and saying “hello.” All communication takes place in this way; the OIA method merely adapts the process to help us study the Bible.

The OIA method has many benefits. It teaches us to hear the text and respond to it. It trains us in critical thinking and clear communication. It is intellectually flexible enough to interest postdocs, preschoolers, and everyone in between. It can be learned in five minutes and perfected over a lifetime.

Have you trained your children, your students, or your congregation to treat you as their arbiter of truth? Or does your leadership persist even in your absence because you have taught them to trust, not in any person, but ultimately in the infallible Word of God? Leadership endures when it challenges others to read and study the Scripture themselves so they might compare everything they hear to God’s all-wise counsel. I want to be that kind of leader. I can’t be unless I love studying Scripture for myself even more than I love using my Bible study tools. 

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