The word of God meets the needs of sinful men like nothing else can. For a Christian, the word of God is inextricable from our identity in and union with Christ. The Bible gives us power, and it does so by imparting to us the same power that raised Jesus from the grave.
And the Bible is pure and true as well. Its truth restores the soul, comforts the afflicted, emboldens the weak, and corrects the sinner. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, we embrace the Bible’s “infallible truth and divine authority . . . from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts” (1.5). Through the power of the Spirit, the word of God brings a Christian into the humble posture of repentance. This is the main difference between a believing saint and an unbelieving sinner: the believing saint knows that repentance is the threshold to God, and he cultivates the humility to seek the grace of repentance daily, if not hourly.
When I first encountered the Bible over two decades ago — as an unbelieving professor of English and women’s studies, happily partnered in a lesbian relationship — I immediately perceived the Bible as a threat to my life. How right I was.
Proving the Bible Mean
I started reading the Bible not to prove it wrong, but to prove it harsh, mean, judgmental, misogynist, homophobic, and patriarchal. I was sure that this would be a slam dunk. My field of specialty was nineteenth-century British literature. I was what was called a “whole book” scholar. That means that my particular hermeneutical interest was in interpreting how the parts of a book make up its whole. I embarked on the Bible with this model, reading whole books at a time.
I didn’t have a sophisticated reason for reading the Bible this way. To me, it is common sense that the best way to clear your mind while reading anything of value is by spending hours in one sitting listening to the book that you hold in your hands. Books, to me, are potential friends, and I let them teach me. I let them have their say and I hold my tongue, at least for the first time that I read through a text.
I also was reading under the guidance of people wiser than I — Ken and Floy Smith, pastor and pastor’s wife at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. They were trying to befriend me with the gospel, and I was trying to learn everything I could from them to prove the Bible dangerous in the judgments that it makes about sin and sexuality. It was, as they say, a match made in heaven.
It did not occur to me until much later that the Bible is even more judgmental than I had initially anticipated, and that this is part of its very good news.
Scripture Destroyed and Redeemed Me
The Bible’s judgments depend on God’s word being “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Not squeamish about swords, I was ready to fall on the sword of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. But by God’s grace, that is not what happened. The sword of the Spirit both destroyed and redeemed me.
That is how it goes: No new life without death to the old man. No heaven without repentance of sin. No victory without an irreconcilable war with your favorite sin. No Christ without driving a fresh nail into your choice sin every day.
And so, I embarked on reading the Bible the same way that I would read any book: reading whole sections at a time, and spending uninterrupted hours doing so. That is how professors read books. It is still how I read books. I approach reading as an art and a science, only slightly modifying my reading strategy to respond to a text’s genre, context, author, and audience.
I didn’t learn to read the Bible as a child, but as a mother and grandmother, I now have had the privilege of teaching my children and grandson to read the Bible. But something always gives me pause here. What if they retain only the reading method learned in childhood? That would be devastating to their faith.
Six Marks of Meat-Reading
Some reading methods are milk, and others are meat. Because the culture in which we live positions the Bible and its teachings on a collision course with newly minted American sexual values — the alphabet soup of LGBTQ+, advanced by self-proclaimed “gay Christians” and secular gay-rights activists alike — Christians must learn how to read the Bible in a way that gives us meat, and a hefty portion to boot.
But how do we tell the difference? How do we read the Bible and gain the nutrition of its meat? How do we read the Bible and starve our faith to death by gleaning only milk? Here are six marks of meat-reading to pursue, with the accompanying symptoms of milk-reading to grow beyond.
1. Hungry Reading
Milk readers read short biblical phrases or sentences, using a Bible-lite translation. Meat readers, however, feast on the word — and a feast is a big meal. I suggest reading around six chapters a day, taking notes to help you see the twin movements in every biblical passage: God’s promises (what God will do) and your obedience (what you will do). A fantastic Bible reading plan for feasting on the word is the Bible Reading Challenge.
2. Humble Reading
Meat readers use a good study Bible, access Bible helps, seek counsel from their elders, supplement with tried and true confessions and creeds, and generally surround themselves with a trustworthy cloud of witnesses as they read the Bible. Milk readers, by comparison, lean on Christian blogs or “discernment ministries” to jump directly to political activism or personal slander of other Christians. Their tutor is not Bible doctrine, but Twitter doctrine.
Personally, my favorite study Bible is The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, which I read alongside Harmony of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
3. Covenantal Reading
The whole Bible is a unified biblical revelation, and therefore meat readers’ Bible reading is often accompanied by note-taking (and memorization) that helps them see how the details fit into the overarching big picture. Milk readers read compartmentally, failing to see the Bible as a unified biblical revelation. They might read only a verse a day, and in any order that Instagram providentially provides.
Over the course of the Bible, God is telling one great story, bringing a people to himself and then bringing all of his redeemed people into a new heaven and a new earth. Because of this, a book that remains open on my reading desk is A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.
4. Profitable Reading
Milk readers often look for the same things in Scripture each time they read (and usually something that finds fault with someone else). Bible reading shows them how bad everyone else is, and how righteous they are.
Meat readers, however, notice that Bible reading leads them to deep repentance and humility, not to pride and criticism of others. As a result of their reading, they are genuinely growing in humility, repentance, grace, endurance, and Christlikeness. The classic book that aids in correcting a prideful takeover of Scripture is A.W. Pink’s classic Profiting from the Word.
5. Congregational Reading
Milk readers read with little regard for their pastor or church, with little regard for personal holiness, and with little tolerance for repentance of sin.
Meat readers read as a member of a visible and biblically faithful church, one that takes public worship, intimate fellowship, sacrificial hospitality, and faithful church discipline seriously (and one that doesn’t take a vacation from these marks of a true church because of a pandemic). Faithful church membership matters for all of life, including Bible reading.
6. God-Centered Reading
Meat readers read the Bible as a God-centered book. Milk readers, on the other hand, read the Bible as a man-centered book, all about righting the wrongs of this world and avoiding personal suffering or personal sacrifice of any sort.
At our church’s Lord’s Day evening Bible study last week, our intern, Drew Poplin, was leading us through Exodus. One simple but startling truth stuck out for me: a woke world would conclude that the book of Exodus is about slavery; a faithful Bible-upholding church would conclude that the book of Exodus is about redemption. So, which is it, Christian? Is it man’s story (slavery) or God’s story (redemption)? Whose side are you on?
A helpful and accessible book to seeing and appreciating the God-centeredness of the Bible is Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus by Lydia Brownback.
Fruitfully Dangerous Book
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the word of God is not to be trifled with. To God’s elect, the Bible is a fruitfully dangerous book. You are to wield it as a surgeon’s knife to your well-worn thoughts and precious feelings, because truly, as you read it, it is reading you.
Bible reading is supposed to take time — quality, focused, pricey, undivided time. You will see your sin; you will grow in humility, repentance, courage, prayer, and love for the members of your church and for the lost. It will embolden you to live every day like the eternal soul that you are — giving you deep wells of reserve to bear up under fatigue and stress and every hardship. It will help you to grow in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. It will shape us to resemble our elder brother more and more, in word, in deed, and in the affections of our hearts.