Ten Do’s and Don’ts When Reading the Bible

Tis the season for figuring out which Bible reading plan to use¹.

But have you considered how to read the Bible?

Puritan Richard Baxter, in his encyclopedic Christian Directory, gives ten “Directions for Profitable Reading the Holy Scriptures.” I’ve modernized Baxter’s 17th century prose for the modern ear while attempting to be faithful to his overall intent. I’ve also retitled Baxter’s “directions” as Ten Do’s and Don’ts When Reading the Bible:

  1. Read It Reverently — When you come to the Bible, don’t have an evil, unbelieving heart. Instead, open the Bible with holy reverence, since it is God’s special book. Don’t read it as a common book, with a common and irreverent heart. Rather, read it with both the fear and love of God, who is the Bible’s author.
  2. Read It Obediently — Remember that the Bible is God’s very laws which you must both live and be judged by. Therefore, read it resolved to obey whatever it commands, even though your own sinful self, all of humanity, and the devil himself contradict it.
  3. Read It Lovingly — Remember that the Bible is the Lord’s will and testament, his own special covenant containing his full and gracious promises. Therefore, read it with love and great delight! Value it a thousand times more than the best letter or e-mail you’ve ever received! Value it more than the most expensive thing you own! If the law was sweeter than honey for David, better to him than countless riches, and was his delight and meditation throughout the day, how much more precious and sweeter should the Gospel be to us!
  4. Read It Humbly — Remember that the Bible contains unseen things and the greatest mysteries. Therefore, don’t come to it like an arrogant judge! Instead, come to the Bible humbly, as a learner or disciple. And if anything in the Bible seems difficult or improbable, suspect your limited, finite understanding, and not God’s sacred Word.
  5. Read It Wisely — Remember that the Bible is a universal law and doctrine written for all different types of people, from the smartest intellect to those more mentally challenged. Therefore, the Bible speaks in both plain and simple language as well as lofty and difficult language. Sometimes it will seem rude and offensive. Sometimes it will seem rather plain and boring. Sometimes it will read like an unsolvable mystery. Either way, adore God’s wisdom that he would bring the Bible to us as his creatures in such diverse language.
  6. Don’t Read It Carnally  Don’t read the Bible with a carnal, worldly mind.
  7. Let Scripture Interpret Scripture — Compare one part of Scripture with another part. Expound the darkest, most confusing portions of the Bible with the plainest parts. When in doubt, interpret Scripture with Scripture.
  8. Read It Prayerfully — Your understanding of the Bible isn’t as strong as you think! Humble yourself, asking God for light. Before and after you read the Bible, pray that the Holy Spirit (the Bible’s author), would expound it to you, keeping you from unbelief and error, leading you into its truths.
  9. Read It With Guides  Read the Bible with the best guides and expositors. They will keep you from error.
  10. Read It Engagingly — When you read the Bible and get tripped up over any difficulty, write it down. Perhaps bring it to your pastor or to a trusted brother or sister in Christ who has a solid grasp of the Bible. If some things in the Bible still remain dark and difficult, remember your imperfections and limitations. And don’t stay stuck! Instead, wait on God for more light to better understand the Bible. With a thankful heart, make use of all the rest of Scripture that you do plainly understand.

—Richard Baxter, The Christian Directory, Part II “Christian Economics,” chapter XX “Directions for Profitable Reading the Holy Scriptures.”

¹For years I’ve used D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God, which is based on M’Cheyne’s Bible Reading Plan. I have the regular fits and starts, but keep trudging along.