Grounded in Scripture Series (Part Two)

How do I read and study the Bible?

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

Welcome to part two of the Grounded in Scripture series. In part one, I wrote about what the Bible is and how Jesus sits at the center of it. For the next few articles, I’ll write on the question: “How do I read and study the Bible?”

God’s Word Works

First, when we read and study the Bible, we must recognize and remember that God works through His Word — both spoken and written. In Genesis 1, we read that God created the universe out of nothing. His Word does what it says. He said, “Let there be” and there was.

God also efficaciously speaks through His written words in the Bible. When we read and study God’s Word, we must remember that God’s goal in speaking it and having it written down is to reveal Himself to us. He reveals who He is — that is, He is God with us and for us.

In Exodus, God led the Israelites out of Egypt, but they did not truly know Him. It had been 400 years since Israel moved to Egypt, and they had lost sight of the promises God made to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3). They did not know the history of God’s gracious heart toward them, and they struggled to love and trust Him. So God gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments, which He wrote with His own hand to reveal His good and gracious character to them. God also spoke to them through Moses, and Moses wrote down God’s words (Exodus 24) for the people to have.

John, in his gospel, quite intentionally refers to Jesus, the Son of God, as the Word that is God. This Word that is God became flesh and dwelt among that which He created (John 1:14). He did so to reveal the Father to us. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God [the Father]; only God [the Son], who is at the Father’s side, He has made [the Father] known” (John 1:17–18).

The Father is most fully known through His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus, who reveals God to us, is revealed to us today through Scripture as it is read and sung, preached and prayed, and used to administer the Sacraments.

God’s Two Words

When God speaks, particularly through Scripture, He does so in two basic ways: Law and Gospel. Any passage that commands or demands good works or threatens punishment for sin are passages of God’s Law. Passages that declare God’s forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ are passages of the Gospel.

God’s Word of Law does what it says. By revealing God’s character and the standard by which God calls us to live, it brings us the knowledge of our sin and kills our self-righteousness. It declares us guilty of a truth we’re all too ready to hide from: we cannot live up to the demands and commands of God.

In this way, the Law serves the purpose of the Gospel. It not only reveals our sin to us, but our need for a savior — namely, Jesus Christ. God’s Word of Gospel also does what it says. It declares us righteous. It tells us the One who fulfilled the Law perfectly on our behalf makes the great exchange as He takes on our sin, and we receive His righteousness (1 Corinthians 5:21). It creates faith in us by which we receive forgiveness, life, righteousness, and salvation. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), which is the Gospel.

Law and Gospel in the Old and New Testament

Passages of Law are not exclusive to the Old Testament, and neither are passages of Gospel exclusive to the New. The commands and demands of God exist in the New Testament, and the promises and forgiveness of God can be found in the Old. Law and Gospel can even be found in the same passage.

Examples of God’s Word of Law in OT and NT:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
And God spoke all these words saying… “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:1, 3).

Examples of God’s Word of Gospel in OT and NT:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15).
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Examples of both Law and Gospel in one passage:

Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me (Psalm 50:15).
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

The Importance of Distinguishing Law and Gospel

We must strive to distinguish between God’s Law and God’s Gospel when we read and study Scripture. Much is at stake — though it is no easy task. C.F.W. Walther wrote, “Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

When we confuse or mingle the two, the Gospel is obscured, and the Law reigns supreme. We turn Christ into a new lawgiver instead of the law-fulfiller that He is. We then trust in our own work over and against Christ’s work — His death and resurrection — for us. When this happens, hope is hidden and despair dominates.

When we rightly distinguish between God’s Law and God’s Gospel, our sinful natures and our sins are put in their place — they are put on Christ on the cross. Then, they are laid in the grave with Him never to rise again to be held against us while He walks out alive. When God’s Law and God’s Gospel remain distinct and clear, Christ’s righteousness — given to us through no merit of our own — stands clear as day before our eyes.

We read and study the Bible recognizing it is God’s recorded words, and by them, God reveals Himself through the words and actions of the Word. To this end, He speaks by way of Law and Gospel. Above all, He does this to point to the most vital truth: the Lord gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation on account of the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.