How to Apply the Bible in Daily Life
Conrad Mbewe | Zambia
The Christian life is not just about getting to heaven in the future. It is also, in the present, about growing more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. A crucial means of this growth is regularly reading the Bible with a view to living out what it says—that is, applying it.
How can such a book, written so long ago, be applicable and relevant to us today? The Bible becomes relevant as the Holy Spirit, who dwells in all Christians, uses the words of Scripture to sanctify us (John 17:17)—just as an artisan uses various tools to build a beautiful house. Down through human history, moreover, God remains the same—as do God’s call to holiness, the reality of sin, and the need for redemption. While our outward circumstances vary greatly, the Bible deals with issues that never change. It is a book that remains ever relevant to our lives today.
How God’s Word Comes to Us
The Word of God will come to us in many ways. It may come to us through the ministry of a pastor or teacher, or as we engage in Bible study with other Christians. The primary way, however, in which the Word of God comes to us is simply by reading it for ourselves. As we prayerfully and meditatively read the Bible, the Holy Spirit uses what we are reading to provoke our conscience, calm our fears, and stir our minds to ways we can walk more faithfully with God.
David wrote in the first psalm, “Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Ps. 1:1–3). This is a picture of fruitful application of the Bible to one’s life. What we will be spiritually twenty or thirty years from now depends largely on whether we maintain a habit of prayerfully meditating on the Word of God as part of our daily walk with him.
The Basics of Personal Meditation
Whether through reading the Bible personally, hearing it preached, or studying it corporately, believers are called to apply its teaching to all dimensions of life. This comes largely through careful and prayerful meditation on what we have heard or read. As we reverently consider what God is saying in a particular text, we ask the Lord to illumine our minds, bend our wills, and strengthen holy desire, all to the end of the sincere practice of godliness.
To help us in our application of a particular passage of Scripture, we can ask the following questions:
Is there any truth about the Triune God for me to know? Remember that the Bible is primarily a book in which God reveals who he is through his saving acts on behalf of his people. So, we should discern what characteristics (or attributes) of God are evident in the passage.
Is there any example for me to follow? Most of the Bible is narrative, so there will be men and women whose lives of faith we should seek to emulate (or not emulate!) as we go about our own lives. Observing these examples, we can seek, by the grace of God and the leading of the Spirit, to “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Is there any command for me to obey? Often in our Bible reading we will find very clear commands—for example, “love one another” (John 13:34); “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). We should think about how to apply such instructions in our present relationships in the home, church, and society.
Is there any doctrinal adjustment for me to make? We should always be open to doctrinal correction. Right thinking is closely connected to fruitful living. As we read our Bible, we should carefully review our beliefs so that, with time, they may become more biblical.
Is there any sin for me to forsake? We all have sinful baggage that God wants us to abandon. This often manifests itself in community, as we relate to people at home, at church, at work, and so on. We must let God’s Word diagnose sin in our lives, and forsake it.
Is there any promise for me to claim? Ultimately, in the Bible, God comes to us in our situations of life and invites us to trust him. What adversity are we presently going through? In our Bible reading, is there any promise from God that addresses that situation?
How does this passage relate to Jesus? The Lord Jesus himself said that the whole Old Testament was ultimately about him (Luke 24:25–27, 44; John 5:39; 2 Cor. 1:20). How does the text I am reading contribute to God’s saving message in Christ? We will return to this below.
The Importance of Fellow Believers
While we are individually saved, we are also saved into a living fellowship of the saints, the body of Christ. This corporate dimension of the Christian life is crucial for rightly applying the Bible. The church provides a context not only for living out our new life in Christ, practicing the “one another’s” of the New Testament, but also for studying the Bible communally for mutual sharpening (Prov. 27:17).
We should share what we are learning in the Bible with other Christians in the context of the local church. This enhances our fellowship with them and is a safeguard for our own mind and soul. When our conclusions are wrong, our fellow Christians will help us to see this. An African proverb says, “He who has a mouth can never get lost.” In other words, although some things in the Bible may be hard to understand, we can ask mature Christians or church leaders to help us understand and apply the Bible correctly.
The Centrality of Christ
In our meditation on and application of Scripture, we must never lose sight of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection. The Old Testament points us to the coming Savior, while the New Testament tells us about the Savior who came. Any truths about God are truths about our Savior (see John 14:9). Many of these truths are anticipated in the Old Testament. See how they bring out aspects of Christ’s person and work.
One way we can be mindful of Christ is by remembering the example he has left us. As we read a text exhorting us to love one another, we can consider Christ’s great love for us and for others. A second and even deeper way we can be mindful of Christ is to remember his atoning death on our behalf. As we seek to apply the Bible, we must never forget that our frequent failures to apply the Bible faithfully are covered by his work as our substitute. It is only by his shed blood on the cross and his resurrection that we are able to forsake sin and obey his commands. Through meditating on his work on our behalf, our hearts are transformed in love. We must not come away from reading the Bible with a legalistic list of dos and don’ts but rather with a renewed appreciation of our great and glorious Savior.
Two Words of Warning
Finally, two errors should be consciously avoided as we read the Bible and seek to apply it.
First, avoid the danger of overly simplistic application. Many Christians go to the Bible every day to “get a word from the Lord” in the same way that some people in Africa go to witch doctors to be told (for example) who killed a loved one. We should be careful not to use the Bible in that way. For example, we should not read the passage where Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and follow him (Mark 10:21) and conclude that God wants us to sell all our possessions. Rather, learn the general principles from the specific situation in the narrative. In this account, we are to see the idolatry that controlled the young man’s heart and ask whether there are any such idols in our hearts. This then prompts us to flee to Christ, asking for forgiveness and for grace to root out such idols so that all we are and have may be surrendered to God and his kingdom.
We must recognize that because God has revealed himself to us through specific people in a specific culture, much of the application made in the text is closely bound up with that culture. For example, Paul frequently tells his readers to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (e.g., Rom. 16:16), yet few cultures in the twenty-first century would feel comfortable carrying out this command. Is such discomfort disobedience? No; Paul is encouraging his readers to express warm affection toward one another—in his culture, this would often be expressed with a “holy kiss,” but not so in many of our cultures today. In applying such a text today, we should extract the substance of the command while leaving behind the form. We too should greet one another with warm affection—perhaps through a firm handshake, or a hug, or a bow.
Second, avoid the danger of unconfessed sin. One thing that will suffocate our desire to apply the Bible in daily life is unconfessed sin. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit, who then withdraws his felt presence from us (Eph. 4:26–31). As it has been said, either the Bible will keep us from sin, or sin will keep us from the Bible. If we are harboring bitterness toward someone or stealing from our employers or defiling our conscience by secret immoral living, intimate communion with God will be greatly inhibited. Such harbored sin will, moreover, weaken our efforts at applying the Bible.
If we discover unconfessed sin in our life, we are free, as God’s children, to confess that sin to God. We can ask him to wash our sin away by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will gladly do so. We must then plead with him for grace to enable us to kill that stubborn sin before it ruins us (Rom. 8:13). We must ask him to restore the satisfying sweetness of his presence once again (Ps. 51:8–12), for spiritual numbness hinders heart-searching application of Scripture.
“The word of God is living and active,” declared the writer to the Hebrews (Heb. 4:12). So it was then; so it is now. Through the Bible God speaks, and therefore through the Bible every generation is confronted with the very word of God. While God was pleased to entrust his saving message to the prophets and the apostles, who communicated this message in specific, time-bound ways, the Bible remains as alive as ever to the needs of the human condition. As we reverently seek to apply its teaching, under the leading of God’s Spirit and to the praise of God’s grace, we will enjoy a life of rich fellowship with our creator and redeemer.