Books

Grace Restores Nature in the Theology of Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck towers head and shoulders above most theologians, though he is only beginning to be more widely read in English. His chief accomplishment was the four-volume masterpiece, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, originally published in Dutch from 1895 to 1899. The English translation, Reformed Dogmatics, was completed in 2008 and is a treasure-trove of theological reflection.  

The melody running through all four movements of Bavinck’s theological symphony is the happy theme that “grace restores nature.” In Bavinck’s own words, “Grace serves, not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin. Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin . . . Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle.”[1]

Bavinck understood that God’s ultimate purpose is not to rescue human beings from the created world by releasing us from our bodies and relocating us to heaven, but rather to renew the fallen creation and reestablish God’s kingdom on earth, with human beings as his restored image-bearers. The goal, then, is not escape, but recreation, renewal, and redemption.

The greatest proof for this claim is Christ’s resurrection. Bavinck said, “The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is conclusive proof that Christianity does not adopt a hostile attitude towards anything human or natural, but intends only to deliver creation from all that is sinful, and to sanctify it completely.”[2] Following Bavinck, the story of salvation might be plotted with several “form” words: “The form (forma) given in creation, was deformed by sin in order to be entirely reformed again in the sphere of grace.”[3]

Such a perspective will protect us from both worldliness on one hand and otherworldliness on the other. “We continually err on the side of the right or on the side of the left,” said Bavinck. “On the one side looms the danger of worldliness, on the other side that of otherworldliness. Often the Christian life lurches on an unsteady path between the two. And yet we hold fast to the conviction that the Christian and the human are not in conflict with one another . . . The Christian is the true man, on every front and in every domain. Christianity is not opposed to nature, but to sin. Christ came, not to destroy the works of the Father, but only those of the devil.”[4]

When it comes to eschatology, Bavinck looked for the “renewal of the world . . . [not] a second, brand-new creation but a re-creation of the existing world. God’s honor consists precisely in the fact that he redeems and renews the same humanity, the same world, the same heaven, and the same earth that have been corrupted and polluted by sin. Just as anyone in Christ is a new creation in whom the old has passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17), so also this world passes away in its present form as well, in order out of its womb, at God’s word of power, to give birth and being to a new world.”[5] In fact, the final chapter of Bavinck’s four-volume project is entitled “The Renewal of Creation.”

Bavinck would have agreed with the hymn-writer Isaac Watts:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.[6]




End Notes


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 577.
[2] Herman Bavinck, De offerande des lofs: overdenkingen voor en na de toelating tot het heilige avondmaal (Gravenhage: J.C. De Mildt, 1907), 52. Quoted by Jan Veenhof, trans., Albert M. Wolters, Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006) 21. See also Dane C. Ortlund, ““Created Over a Second Time” or “Grace Restoring Nature”? Edwards and Bavinck on the Heart of Christian
Salvation” in The Bavinck Review 3 (2012): 9–29. Available online at: https://bavinckinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/TBR3a-Ortlund1.pdf Accessed March 18, 2016.
[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 574. 
[4] Quoted in Veenhof, “Nature and Grace in Bavinck.”
[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 717.
[6] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” 1719.

Why Read the Puritans?


The Puritans were the 16th century English Protestants and their successors in 16th-17th century New England, whose concern for church reform and spiritual renewal earned them the originally derogatory epithet, “puritan.” Unfortunately, when most people hear the word “puritan” they remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and associate the term with legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and witch-hunts. And, of course, the Puritans weren’t perfect.

Yet, despite their imperfections, there is much we can learn from them today. J. I. Packer once compared the Puritans to the gigantic Redwood trees of California, saying: "As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age . . . when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants in an anthill . . ."[1]

In my own sampling of Puritan writings, I have found much help for my heart and stimulation for my soul. Here are several reasons why I would suggest that pastors give renewed attention to the writings of the Puritans.

1. They lift our gaze to the greatness and gladness of God.

We are innately man-centered in our thinking about God. As someone once said, “God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.” In the divinely inspired words of the psalmist: “You thought I was one like yourself” (Ps. 50:21). But the Puritans lift our gaze upward to see God in his soul-satisfying transcendence. I’ll never forget the awe of God upon my soul after spending significant time reading in Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, or the depth of joy in God that I discovered in the writings of Thomas Brooks and Jonathan Edwards.

For example, Edwards wrote: "The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, to fully enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean."[2]

2. They open our eyes to the beauty and loveliness of Christ. 

The Puritans were as Christ-centered as they were God-centered. They loved Christ passionately and sought his glory tirelessly. Christ meant everything to them. Thomas Goodwin said, “If I were to go to heaven, and find that Christ was not there, I would leave immediately; for heaven without Christ would be hell to me.”[3]

The Puritans saw Christ on virtually every page of Scripture. Thomas Adams wrote: “Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.”[4] We might occasionally question the accuracy of Puritan exegesis, but surely we can find no fault with their passion for Christ-centeredness.

They especially gloried in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon on Isaiah 32:2, said: "Christ by His obedience, by that obedience which he undertook for our sakes, has honored God abundantly more than the sins of any of us have dishonored him, how many soever, how great soever. . . God hates our sins, but not more than he delights in Christ's obedience which he performed on our account. This is a sweet savour to him, a savour of rest. God is abundantly compensated, he desires no more; Christ's righteousness is of infinite worthiness and merit."[5]

3. They convict our consciences with the subtlety and sinfulness of sin. 

There are not a lot of titles in Christian bookstores today that include the word “sin.” But the Puritans were serious about sin and wrote about it often, as just a few of their titles reveals (Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Evil of Evils, Thomas Watson’s The Mischief of Sin.) Perhaps the books which have helped me most have been John Owen’s classic works on the mortification and temptation of sin. Someone once said that before reading Owen, one should prepare to come under the knife. To read Owen is to allow a doctor of the soul to do surgery on your heart. Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”[6] His counsel on how to kill sin and avoid temptation is the best I’ve read anywhere.

4. They ravish and relish the soul with the power and glory of grace. 

Sometimes Puritans get a bad rap for being legalistic. And perhaps the accusation would occasionally stick – there was, after all, imperfect theology in the 16th century, too! But the Puritans understood the transforming power and glory of grace in dimensions that are often foreign to our own experience. Many contemporary books on dealing with sin simply give us lists to live by – things to do and not do. Even a focus on the spiritual disciplines can sometimes be bereft of any real dependence on grace. Contrast that with Owen who said, “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ . . . Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin . . . by faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all thy lusts, this very lust wherewith thou art entangled, may be mortified.”[7] Owen does not fail to point the sin-fighting believer to Christ. On the contrary, he shows us that the only effective means of overcoming sin is by dependence on Christ and his cross.

5. They plumb the depths of the soul with profound biblical, practical and psychological insight. 

The Puritans were not just theologians; they were pastors. They were physicians of the soul and exceptionally good counselors. My wife, who has occasionally read Puritans at my recommendation, has commented that the Puritans understand people and how they think.

One of the most practical of all the Puritan’s writings is Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory. Tim Keller has called it “the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced.”[8] This 900 page tome of fine print is divided into four sections: I. Christian Ethics, II. Christian Economics, III. Christian Ecclesiastics, and IV. Christian Politics. In layman’s terms, these four sections deal with the Christian’s personal spiritual life, home life, church life, and life in world.

Here are some examples of the kind of practical matters Baxter addresses and the pastoral advice he gives. Under “Christian Ethics,” are found 20 directions “to weak Christians for their establishment and growth;” 5 directions for “redeeming as well as improving time” (including #4: “thieves or time wasters to be watched against,” of which Baxter lists 12); 10 “directions for the government of the passions”; 10 pages on “directions against gluttony,” in which Baxter defines gluttony, lists 10 causes of gluttony, 20 reasons why it is such a great sin, and gives 14 practical “directions” against it; 16 directions against lust; 13 directions against excess of sleep, and so on! In section two, on “Christian Economics” are given similar directions for husbands, wives, parents, and children, in their specific duties towards one another. I surveyed a list of 10 directions for helping husbands and wives “live in quietness and peace, and avoid all occasions of wrath and discord” with one another, and have never seen anything more practical in a contemporary book on marriage.

6. They sustain and strengthen the soul through suffering with the sovereignty of God. 

Because the Puritans were descendants of the English martyrs and were persecuted themselves (thousands of Puritan pastors were ejected from their pulpits in 1662), they were well acquainted with suffering. They knew the pain of affliction, yet they trusted the good providence of God in and over suffering. For the Puritans, suffering was purposeful.

Thomas Watson said, “God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively on us.”[9] John Flavel wrote, “Let a Christian . . . be but two or three years without an affliction, and he is almost good for nothing.”[10] In another volume, Flavel said, “Oh what owe I to the file, and to the hammer, and to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who has now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through his mill, and his oven, to be made bread for his own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and more than grace. It is glory in its infancy.”[11] Few books could be more helpful for pastors and believers than John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, Thomas Watson’s All Things for Good, Thomas Brooks’ A Mute Christian Under the Rod, or Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot.

7. They set our sights and focus our affections on eternal realities. 

The Puritans lived with heaven and hell in view, and the aroma of the world to come pervades their writings. Richard Baxter, in The Saints Everlasting Rest, shows that the reason so many Christians are lifeless and cold in their love for Christ is because they live with heaven out of sight and mind. Baxter wrote, "If thou wouldst have light and heat, why art thou not more in the sunshine? For want of this recourse to heaven, thy soul is as a lamp not lighted, and thy duties as a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal daily from this altar, and see if thy offering will not burn. Light thy lamp at this flame, and feed it daily with oil from hence, and see if it will not gloriously shine. Keep close to this reviving fire, and see if thy affections will not be warm."[12]

Most of us are familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ frightening descriptions of hell from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But his vision of the glory of heaven is as attractive as his description of hell is repulsive. In his Miscellanies, Edwards wrote this of the glorified saints in heaven: “their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, their holiness; for as they increase in the knowledge of God, and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency, and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him, and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness will they have in him.”[13] The Puritans remind us that heaven is not a life of disembodied bliss of harp-plucking in a cloud-filled, ethereal environment, but rather the experience of ever-expanding knowledge of God and ever-increasing joy in God.

Conclusion

The Puritans saw God, loved Christ, feared sin, were transformed by grace, were practical in counsel, endured suffering, and lived for eternity. When I read them, I almost always find the palate of my soul cleansed and my ability to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) enhanced. Dear brothers and sisters, read the Puritans! Your heart will be helped.

End Notes

[1] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 11-12.
[2] The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 reprint) 2:244
[3] Quoted in Don Kistler, Why Read the Puritans Today? (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999) 3.
[4] Quoted in Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006) xxi-xxii.
[5] Edwards, 2:930.
[6] John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995 reprint) Volume 6, page 9. For a contemporary synthesis of Owen’s thought, see “The Spirituality of John Owen” in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life John Owen on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 191-218 and Sinclair B. Ferguson, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995). More digestible is Kris Lundgaard’s The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).
[7] Owen, 6:33, 79.
[8] Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume 1: A Christian Directory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997 reprint) blurb on dust-jacket. 
[9] Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986 reprint) 28.
[10] John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963 reprint) 202.
[11] John Flavel, The Fountain of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint) 322-323.
[12] Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (Welwyn, UK: Evangelical Press 1978 reprint) 288.
[13] Miscellanies, #105 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13, ed. Thomas Shafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 275.

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (Book Review)

What does a Scottish theological controversy from three hundred years ago have to teach believers today? A lot. And Sinclair Ferguson (perhaps my favorite living theologian) shows its relevance to the church today in his new book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance - Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters

I am torn between giving this book three or four stars. Ferguson's handling of the Marrow controversy is interesting and informative and his exposé of the heart of legalism is biblical and incisive. There are some penetrating insights in this book concerning the gospel and how legalism and antinomianism are not so much opposite errors as they are "non-identical twins" that are born from the same womb, namely a distrust of the goodness of God. Ferguson explores the varied expressions of this distrust. 

Some of the most striking insights in this book concern: 

  • the danger of separating Christ from his benefits, 
  • the basis of the free offer of the gospel and the warrant of faith, 
  • the problem of preparationist teaching in some streams of Reformed theology,
  • and the relationship of Calvin's view of faith/assurance and the view of the Puritans. 
My qualms with the book are two: 

(1) I think the book could have benefited from better editing. It was interesting, but seemed uneven in its pacing. I really wanted to read and understand this book, and therefore stuck through the difficult bits. But I could imagine lots of readers giving up earlier. Overall, I didn't feel that this book was as well-written as Ferguson's other books (most of which I've read). 

(2) More importantly, I wasn't as satisfied with Ferguson's discussion of antinomianism as I was his discussion of legalism. In particular, I'm not sure he sufficiently emphasizes the discontinuity between the old covenant and new covenant and the extent to which a believer's relationship with the Mosaic law has changed. Ferguson seems to accept the traditional position of Reformed theology, which sees a fair bit of continuity between the old and new covenants. But more recent scholarship has challenged this perspective in several important ways. (I'm thinking, for example, of Brian Rosner's important work Paul and the Law in the NSBT series, published by IVP.) I would like to have seen more interaction with these varied perspectives on the law within Reformed theology. 

As it stands, Ferguson's book remains very helpful with much to which I can agree. But I'm not convinced that his treatment of the law in the life of the believer is sufficiently nuanced. 

Note: Readers who are interested in these theological issues, specifically legalism vs. antinomianism, might wish to consult my book Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life. Unlike Ferguson, I do not discuss the Marrow controversy. But my book does address the spiritual dynamics of sin and grace, the relationship between law and gospel, and the issues of justification, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance.  

Best of 2015: Books


Lists are a staple in the diet of any blogger. Lists of books, albums, and films make regular appearances, especially around New Years. I'm late to the game this year, with most people's lists already read and probably forgotten. 

And, honestly, I had to pause, after reading Mark Jones' challenge regarding the motivation and value in writing such lists for others to see. He heads his post with the words of Bertrand Russell, "There are only two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it," and then helpfully reminds us that the only book we must read is the Bible. I agree. 

Let it furthermore be said that there is no virtue in the reading of many books -- especially from someone like myself, an introvert who loves to read books the way some people love to eat chocolate. I have always been a reader. Before I became a Christian, I consumed books. And if I had never become a Christian, I would still be devouring books. In other words, reading is, for me at least, more the result of nature than grace. Grace, thankfully, has shaped many of my reading choices. And only God's grace can make spiritual reading truly beneficial to my life and the lives of others. But my penchant for reading is not in itself any indication of grace, virtue, or holiness. 

Nevertheless, I love books and I love book lists. And for my fellow bibliophiles, I happily share mine. These, of course, are just my personal favorites. They are not necessarily the best books out there, nor were they all published in 2015. 

Christian doctrine

I'm always on the lookout for books on Christian doctrine that are orthodox, clear, winsome, fresh, and written for the person in the pew, rather than the academy. Donald Macleod's books, A Faith to Live By: Understanding Christian Doctrine and Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement ably fill this theological bill, providing accessible instruction with that rare but beautiful combination of evangelical fervor and irenic tone. 

The Puritans

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love the Puritans, and especially John Owen. These "Redwoods" of Christian history (as J. I. Packer called them) tower over all extra biblical authors in their capacity to shepherd my soul and point me to the Savior. One of the best Puritan books I read last year was Walter Marshall's The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Another one (also using the word "gospel" as an adjective) was John Owen's Gospel Grounds and Evidences for the Faith of God's Elect, which is bound in Volume 5 of Owen's Works. I read this book multiple times, and even had the privilege of editing and modernizing it for republication as part of Reformation Heritage Book's series Puritan Treasures for Today. This new edition will be released in April, and is retitled Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith. I hope many of my readers will purchase it and benefit from it as much as I did. 

For those who prefer to read these older theologians with a guide, you should check out one of my favorite new series, Crossway's Theologians of the Christian Life. I read four books from this series last year - the entries on WarfieldCalvinNewton, and Owen. All of them are excellent, but of the four, my favorite was Michael Horton's Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever

For preachers 

Fellow-preachers shouldn't miss Tim Keller's new book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, which stands alongside the classic books on preaching by John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Bryan Chappell and others not as a replacement, but as a supplement. 

As a preacher and pastor, I also spend a lot of time in commentaries, usually working through commentaries of whatever book of the Bible I happen to be preaching on. Last year, that book was 1 Peter. I consulted many commentaries, but read two all the way through: Karen Jobes' 1 Peter in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament and Ed Clowney's The Message of 1 Peter in The Bible Speaks Today. I found these two commentaries wonderfully complimentary. Jobes provides scholarship that is sensitive to both the original cultural context of the letter and the very different social situation of our own day. Clowney, on the other hand, is almost poetic in his eloquent exposition of the biblical-theological dimensions of the text, while also remaining practical in his pastoral applications. 

On homosexuality 

A number of new books on homosexuality were published this year, including Kevin DeYoung's What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? and Ed Shaw's Same Sex Attraction and the Church. DeYoung persuasively holds the traditional evangelical position and is must-reading for any Christian seriously engaged in this issue. I haven't finished Shaw's book yet, but my friend Dave Dunham included it in his top five list, and it promises to be one of the most sensitive, nuanced, and practical books on the subject. I also read Wesley Hill's 2010 book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, a book that is both beautiful and moving. While it's not the only book one should read on this topic, it is one that could go a long way towards helping the church adopt a posture of understanding, love, and compassion towards people with same-sex orientation.

My two favorites 

I think my favorite two books of the year were Gerrit Scott Dawson's Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ's Continuing Incarnation and Scott Manetsch's Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. Dawson explores the ascension of Christ, an often neglected aspect of Christology, with biblical clarity, theological acumen, historical awareness, and pastoral practicality. Manetsch, on the other hand, mines both primary and secondary sources to sketch a fascinating account of Calvin and Beza's pastoral vision and leadership -- and faults, foibles, and failures - in sixteenth century Geneva. What struck me most about this historical study was the centrality of the public ministry of the word in the Reformation. Calvin and his company were incessantly preaching, teaching, and catechizing (albeit, sometimes to the chagrin of their people!). There are both things to emulate and things to avoid in their example, but oh for such hunger for, confidence in, and devotion to God's word in the hearts of church leaders today! 

My #1 recommendation

Though I especially loved the aforementioned books, my #1 recommendation (along with Aaron Armstrong) is probably Donald Whitney's new book Praying the Bible. I can't imagine that any believer could fail to benefit from reading and applying this simple little book. If your prayer life needs the equivalent of a blood-transfusion, take it and read. 

For fun

Finally, and just for fun: my favorite novel of the year was Marilynne Robinson's Home (I still haven't read Lila). And my favorite graphic novel was Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2 by Geoff Johns. 

And, for the three people who may be interested, here are my reading lists from past years: 

2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008

15 Ways to Feed on the Word in the New Year


Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), and the prophet Jeremiah wrote,

“Your words were found, and I ate them,
   and your words became to me a joy
   and the delight of my heart,
   for I am called by your name,
   O LORD, God of hosts.” (Jer. 15:16)

And yet, believers often struggle to regularly and intentionally read and study the Bible. Sometimes it helps to get fresh ideas for feeding on the Scriptures. Here are 15 ways to feed on the word in 2016.

1. Read through the Bible in a year.

Don’t write this off as overly difficult or too time-consuming! The Bible contains about 800,000 words, which the average person can read in just 54 hours – or about 8-10 minutes every day of the year. In contrast, some surveys indicate that the average person spends 5 hours every day watching TV, plus another 1-2 hours on social media. You have time. You just need a plan.

Check out this website to test your reading speed and get a customized Bible reading plan for 2016.

2. Journal through a book of the Bible. 

I first learned this from Jim Elliot, the famous 20th-century missionary and martyr. When I was a teenager, someone loaned me Elliot's journals. Most of his entries were short meditations on a chapter from the Bible, interspersed with the personal details of his life. I started following his example and filled more than a dozen journals over the next decade.

The method is simple: pick a book of the Bible and read a passage each day, whether a single verse, or one or more chapters. Then write your observations about the passage. It doesn’t have to been eloquent or scholarly or profound. It just needs to be something based on the text. Then, write out a brief prayer. You may be surprised at how much you grow.

3. Read through a book of the Bible with the help of a study bible or commentary.

Sometimes the Bible can be a difficult book. It is filled with unfamiliar names and places and often uses theological terms we don’t understand. This is where a good study bible or commentary can be helpful. The eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield reportedly read through the entire Bible four times with the help of Matthew Henry’s commentary, the last time on his knees.  “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees,” he wrote, “This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh light and power from above.”

Using a commentary has helped me, especially when reading difficult books in the Old Testament, like Leviticus. The new NIV Zondervan Study Bible is perhaps the best study bible on the market today, full of detailed notes, full-color photographs, and maps, and insightful essays and articles. Or, for an excellent one-volume commentary on the whole Bible, produced by a team of top-notch evangelical scholars, check out the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, published by IVP.

4. Read through one book of the Bible every day for a month.

I learned this method from John MacArthur. The idea is to take one book of the Bible, such as Ephesians or 1 John, and read it every single day for a month. When taking a longer book, such as the Gospel of John, MacArthur recommends breaking it down into smaller sections (e.g. John 1-7 every day for the first month, then John 8-14 the next month, and so on). By the end of the month you’ll have read the book thirty times and be more familiar with the themes of that particular book than you ever were before.

5. Read through a genre of Scripture in search of a particular theme.

With this method, you take one genre of Scripture (e.g., the Gospels, or the Minor Prophets, or the Letters of Paul) and read through in search of a particular theme. For example, I’ve read through all the New Testament letters to hunt down every reference to prayer. You could even take a couple of themes, such as the characteristics of God and the varied expressions of human emotion in the Psalms; the themes of kingdom and discipleship in the Gospels; the themes of wisdom and folly in Proverbs, or the themes of justice and mercy in the prophets.

6. Read the Bible before meals.

Many Christians pray before every meal. Have you ever thought about reading the Bible before (or after) each meal? This is a practice I observed at a Bible college I visited in Africa. At every single meal, three times a day, the faculty, staff, and visiting missionaries pause to read Scripture aloud at the table. My friend, Carrie Ward, learned to do this with her children, and read through the entire Bible aloud, by simply reading a chapter a day at the breakfast table. She chronicled her experience in a wonderful little book called Together: Growing Appetites for God.

7. Mark up your Bible!

Studies show that writing uses a different part of the brain than reading. One of the best ways to push Scripture deeper into your memory and heart is to mark up your Bible. Buy some colored pencils or highlighters and start circling, starring, bracketing, and drawing lines. By paying attention to repeated words, the literary structure of the narratives, and the logical flow of sermons and letters, you will see things you’ve never seen before. For pointers on how to do this, check out Jim Hamilton’s article, How I Mark My Bible.

8. Use a journaling Bible.

The eighteenth theologian Jonathan Edwards actually took a Bible apart and inserted blank pages between the pages of Scripture, and then sowed it back together again in order to give himself a place to record his notes.

We don’t have to go to such trouble ourselves: we can just purchase a journaling Bible that includes wide margins designated for the purpose of writing down your notes. Here are links for journaling Bibles in the NIV, ESV, and NASB.

9. Write out a full book of the Bible in a journal.

Instead of simply writing your thoughts about the Bible down in a journal, consider writing out the actual words of Scripture. The kings of Israel were required to write a full copy of the law in their own hand (Deut. 17:18). I have a friend who found this practice especially helpful to his spiritual life. You can even purchase journals that are designed for this specific purpose.

10. Memorize Scripture.

The psalmist said, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psa. 119:11). There are two ways to store up the word in your heart. You can either absorb Scripture through hours, days, and years of long familiarity through reading and re-reading, or you can memorize through intentional and focused effort. Both approaches are valid.

Committing entire books to memory has enriched many believers. I have one friend who has memorized all of Proverbs and Romans, and another who regularly works on Scripture memory while running on the treadmill. If you don’t know where to start, check out An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by pastor and author Andy Davis.

11. Read a daily devotional.

My favorite is D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God's Word. You can also read these daily readings in the format of a blog or subscribe to have them emailed straight to your inbox each morning. 

12. Read a children’s Bible Storybook.

Yes, even if you are an adult! Here are three to choose from; each one is well-written, with beautiful illustrations.  

The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Jago


The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm, illustrated by Gail Schoonmaker

13. Watch the Bible

For people who are more accustomed to image than text, watching the Bible may be a good entry point into feeding on the word. While this shouldn’t generally replace actual reading the Scriptures themselves, high quality video productions of Scripture can be a helpful supplement. For example, check out The Visual Bible - The Gospel of Matthew, which uses the text of the NIV.

I’m also quite impressed with The Bible Project, which is in process of producing animated videos introducing and explaining each book of the Bible, along with many biblical themes. Here, for example, is their video for Hebrews. 

14. Listen to the Bible on your smartphone.

I still remember when you had to pay a lot of money to get recordings of the Bible on cassette tape or CD. Now you can just download the YouVersion App and listen to the Bible at the press of a button. Consider listening to the Bible on your daily commute or during your morning run. It still counts!

15. Listen to expositional preaching on the Bible.

Finally, we all need not only the individual disciplines of reading and studying Scripture, but also the corporate practice of hearing the preached word. The Internet gives us access to some of the best preaching in the world, with sermons of pulpit stalwarts like John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones available for free. But there is no substitute for gathering with other believers in the local church to feed on the word in the context of gathered worship. 


NOTE: This post was originally written for Crosswalk