Don’t apply the Bible to your life

For evangelical Christians, the Bible is authoritative. We use tradition and the church to wisely guide our appropriation of the Scriptures, but the authority of the written word of God is supreme. The doctrine of sola scriptura is based upon biblical principles and precedent. For this reason, evangelicals rightly pay close attention to the Bible.

One of the more common ways in which Christians approach the Bible is to “apply it to their lives.” It’s difficult to visit an evangelical church these days where one wouldn’t hear such a phrase in some form or fashion. Take, for example, a recent Google experiment I completed. A search for the terms “apply it to your life” revealed that 30 of the first 100 search results were related in some way to Christianity and the Bible.

What we evangelicals generally mean when we say that we want to “apply the Bible to our lives” is that we should take the principles found in Scripture, and put them into practice. Simple and orthodox enough, right?

Well, maybe not. The words we use to describe the practice of a Christian life convey much more than we intend to say. When we “apply the Bible to our lives,” we explicitly make our lives — as they are now — the standard. Our lives become like a house that needs a fresh coat of paint applied to its aging walls. Wherever there’s a dull, damaged, or decaying spot, we apply the paint that is the Scriptures.

Such an analogy might make for a good church newsletter story, but it’s a dangerously false way for a Christian to live. What my Google search experiment also found was that 34 of the 100 results used the “apply it to your life” expression in the context of a new age, psychotherapy, or self-help scheme (the top result was for Oprah’s favorite new book, The Secret). Unlike the new age view, the Bible tells us that our lives are not merely in need of a few touch-ups — they need a complete overhaul. We don’t need to apply the Scriptures to the peeling exterior, we need them flowing through our veins. As Jesus once warned:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28]

Christians should not apply the Bible to our lives so much as we should apply our lives to the Bible. We are not the center of the universe, but followers of that Word whom to us was revealed. We should stop using the Bible as the touch-up paint of our lives, and paint ourselves to the truth of the Scriptures.

5 thoughts on “Don’t apply the Bible to your life”

  1. I think you’ve touched on an important distinction. If the Bible is to be “applied to our lives”, what does that imply about what sort of book the Bible is to begin with? It’s not a self-help book with ideas for improvement, so much as it is the story of the people of God and a witness to his great acts. How do you “apply” these stories to your life? Often by allegorizing them beyond all recognition (I really think I have a “Goliath” in my life).

    Far better to see even our lives in the context of the story that the Bible is telling. We need to first ask “what is God up to?” and only then can we ask “how do I fit in?”

  2. Apply could mean using it as paint, and I’ve noticed the timeless-truth proof-texters seem to be doing just that. But alternatively one can apply lessons learned to design and shape, not just paint, one’s own life, just as an architect uses his knowledge to construct, not paint, a building. For the Christian, this requires the approach described by Wonders — seeing what God was up to in a historic situation and then determining from that account (and what presumably the additional information Christ may have subsequently provided to us) how we now would make God happy.

    It should be stressed, however, that the bigger issue is neither applying the bible to my life or applying my life to the bible. Rather, it’s the issue of building my life on the foundation of Christ. Building on the created God’s word is not an acceptable substitute, as Paul wrote, for building on the Creator, God’s Word.

    The bible provides the account of God’s character as it has been revealed in its contact with people, so it’s useful to see how we can, as Wonders says, fit in with God’s expectations. But giving one’s life to a book is not an equivalent of giving one’s life to the (still!) living Word.

  3. Of course the importance of the Bible to a Christian is nearly impossible to under emphasize. It is scripture that we go to, first and foremost, to know who God is and who we are. We read Scripture to immerse ourselves in the story of the people of God – for it is this story above all that gives meaning to our own. Through Scripture we have a witness to the mighty acts of God – his wondrous creation, his calling of a people, and his salvation of the world in Jesus death and resurrection. Outlined in Scripture are the commands of God that teach us what is good, and what the Lord requires of us. In the pages of Scripture, we meet great forebearers of the faith who inspire us by their example, warn us with their faults, and point us to the God whose grace allows the former and proves faithful even in the latter. The words of Scripture itself, not least in the psalms, are a vocabulary for worship, prayer, and praise: a language to speak to God and his people. Likewise, as we read and meditate on Scripture, the Holy Spirit speaks to us as well – opening our eyes to what God is saying today.

    If we pray the second Advent collect in the BCP, we affirm that God himself caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. We ask the Author himself for the grace to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, in order to embrace the hope of everlasting life that God has given in Jesus. Scripture is not given for it’s own sake, and as much as we rightly revere the oracles of God, I believe that its highest purpose is to bring us to Jesus. Though he is present through the power of the Holy Spirit wherever two or three are gathered in his name (and especially in the breaking of the bread), it is in the inspired Sciptures (particularly the gospels) that we encounter him most clearly. It is in order to know him – the image of the invisible God – that we should pour into scripture.

  4. The point of your post is right on, but I’m not so sure about a couple blanket assertions made. The phrase “Applying your life to the Bible” has some bad connotations for me – a number of people have used that phrase with me by using their own life and experiences to determine what the Bible says.

    Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what phrase you use, “Apply the Bible to your life” or “Apply your life to the Bible.” Both phrases can be abused, either by applying the Bible as a coat of paint to a life while not actually changing the life, or by using ones own views to determine what the Bible means.

  5. To be sure, in the typical evangelical language, the word “application” is something we should altogether run from. This is because they pit it against “doctrine”. It is typical for people to talk about needing application rather than doctrine, as if doctrine had no impact on our lives, and really means nothing to us, while application is of great importance, and describes for us and teaches us how to live our day to day lives. Run, don’t walk from this kind of thinking.

    If we follow the way of thinking most popularly asserted today by Michael Horton, that preaching should be both law and gospel, but kept distinct, then we will not worry about this false dichotomy. Because under this simple scheme – which has a distinguished pedigree, at least since the Reformation – what these evangelicals are actually saying is that they want law, not gospel. They want to know more about what they have to do to live moral lives, rather than who Jesus is and what he did for them. But the Bible teaches us that since faith without works is dead, it is a growth in faith that leads to good works, and faith comes from hearing the preached gospel, as Paul says in Rom 10. So if we want to increase in good works, the Bible teaches us that it is the gospel that we need to hear, not the law, because it is the gospel that is the power of God for our salvation.

    The evangelical who wants to learn how to better communicate with his wife, while it is good to hear about how he should go about it, needs to hear what Christ has done for him, before he can even WANT to truly love his wife. As John said in 1 John 3, we love because he laid down his life for us. Indeed, it is through Christ’s example that we even learn what love is, and without faith, his example has far less meaning, so much so that what Jesus did becomes meaningless. It only has meaning if we recognize who he is, namely God, and why he did what he did, namely to purchase our salvation. It is only when we understand that God himself became a man and laid down his life for sinners that we can learn to love our neighbor. And that’s a matter of doctrine.

    A wise old preacher used to say that “right doctrine leads to right living”, and he constantly echoed that refrain to anyone who would listen. And he had a great point, a biblical point. It is actually doctrine that we need, not the practical application as envisioned by evangelicals.

    However, the reformed use the word “application” in a completely different way, a way in which we must embrace it. The meaning they ascribe to it is well illustrated in comparing the Apostle’s Creed with the Nicene Creed.

    The Apostle’s Creed tells us that Jesus died and was buried, descended into hell, but then rose from the dead. It does not tell us why or what it means. The Nicene Creed, however, has the key phrase “for us and for our salvation”, which accomplishes both. It tells us why he did what he did, and what it means to US. Jesus didn’t merely die and rise from the dead, he did it FOR US, for our salvation! In this way, the message of what Jesus did has personal significance for the listener, and this personal significance is the application of the message of Jesus. It is not merely the kerygma of the Apostle’s Creed, but the applied kerygma of the Nicene Creed.

    This is not only a good thing, but absolutely essential. You can grow up hearing and believing the truths of the Apostle’s Creed and be a Pelagian. But the Nicene Creed really rules out Pelagianism, even semi-Pelagianism, because it teaches us that Jesus’ death and resurrection secures our salvation. “Jesus died and rose again” is a story about Jesus, and is the kerygma, and is at the heart of the gospel. But it is not the full story of the gospel. We need the additional application that there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.

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