Reading Scripture Covenantally, Confessionally, and Devotionally

What is the Bible About?

The Apostle Luke recounts that after Christ’s resurrection, as He was walking along the road to Emmaus, He was talking with two disciples who did not recognize Him and who were trying to make sense of why He had been crucified and reports that He arose from the dead.  Christ chides them for being slow to believe, showing them how all of (the Old Testament) Scripture points to Himself, His suffering and His entrance into glory (Luke 24:25-27).  Shortly thereafter, in talking with the eleven remaining disciples, He reminds the disciples that “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning” Himself (Luke 24:44).  This threefold division covered the three major sections of the Old Testament, and so Christ was basically saying that all of Scripture points to Him.  Scripture is thus Christ-centered.  Since the Work of Christ cannot be separated from the Person of Christ, all of Scripture is therefore Gospel-centered, because Christ’s work was to secure our salvation.  Since Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is both fully God and fully man, the Bible more generally reveals to us who God is and what our relationship is to Him.  The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms summarize this by saying that the Scriptures “principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 3, WLC 5).  This may sound clinical at first glance, but it is not.  By seeing throughout Scripture how awesome, great and beautiful God is, and at the same time knowing how unrighteous and self-centered we are, this cannot but require a response from us in terms of showing faith, repentance, love and obedience to our Lord.

What Should Be Our Attitude in Approaching Scripture?

The Bible is not merely a devotional guide, a sourcebook for inspirational thoughts, or a how-to manual for living.  Such approaches to the Bible are individualistic and, indeed, even utilitarian.  The first thing we need to understand in approaching Scripture is that the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself.  So, while there are 66 books in the Bible written by 40 authors over the course of 1,500 years, God superintended all of this and is really the ultimate author of Scripture.  This establishes the unity of the Bible and the integration of the Old and New Testaments.  Practically speaking, this means that all Scripture is useful for the Christian, not just the New Testament or the words of Christ Jesus.  Several implications flow from this. 

  • First, the fact that this is God’s revelation means that we need to receive it humbly and reverentially.  Because it is from God, it is utterly reliable.  There may be things that we do not and will not understand about God’s Word, but that lack is on us, not God.  We cannot and should not stand in judgment over God’s Word.
  • Second, the fact that God is reaching out to His people means we can trust that He will make those things in His Word about Himself and our salvation understandable to us using ordinary means.  If God made the heavens and the earth, then it is not logical to assume that He cannot clearly communicate to us.
  • As part of this, when we come to Scripture, we need to pray submissively for the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, to illuminate our hearts and minds and correct and guide our understanding.  Since all Scripture points to Christ, the Spirit works through the Word to draw us to Christ, and not at variance with or disconnected from it.

The second thing we need to understand in approaching Scripture is that the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to His people.  This is important to remember because oftentimes Christians try to reduce Scripture to just what it means for them personally.  Certainly, there is a personal aspect to Scripture and we need to come to it with an attitude of being open to being shaped by the Bible.  The Apostle Paul says that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  At the same time, we need to be sensitive to how God is speaking to His people collectively.  God’s Word speaks to the church as the Body of Christ as well as to us individually.  God is not only working in our lives individually, but through His people as a body.

How Should We Understand How Scripture Fits Together?

Because all of Scripture is the Word of God, sections that are less clear should be interpreted in comparison with sections that are clearer.  Scripture interprets Scripture.  Beyond this general principle, certain observations and presuppositions should be kept in mind.  First, there is a progressive unfolding of Scripture.  God did not reveal everything all at once.  While God Himself is unchanging, there is development in how He reveals Himself to and works with His people through time.  The New Testament complements, completes, and builds upon the Old Testament, rather than contradicts, corrects or replaces it.  As one goes through historical arc of the Bible, one can see how God reveals more and more about Himself, commensurate with the growth of His people, culminating with the coming of Christ.  Second, Christ Jesus is the pinnacle of divine revelation, so we should not expect there to be subsequent revelations from God.  What we have in Scripture is God’s final revelation to us.  The writer to the Hebrews says, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). 

This progressive and culminating unfolding of revelation is structured through the covenants contained in Scripture.  The divines writing the Westminster Standards understood there to be two fundamental covenants in Scripture, a Covenant of Works in Adam and a Covenant of Grace in Christ.  This parallel between the First Adam and the Second Adam (that is, Jesus Christ) can be seen best in Rom. 5.  The notes in this lectionary will flesh out in greater detail these covenantal relationships, but because the term “covenant” is used so often in Scripture a brief outline of the different covenants will be helpful to keep in mind.

I.   Covenant of Works in Adam (Gen. 1-3)
II. Covenant of Grace in Christ (the rest of the Bible)

A.  Old Covenant (Old Testament)

1. Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 15, 17, 22)
2. Noahic Covenant (Gen. 6-9)
3. Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 20-24, Deuteronomy)

(a) Priestly Covenant with Phineas (Num. 25:11-13)
(b) Kingly Covenant with David (2 Sam. 7)
(c) Promise of a Prophet Greater Than Moses (Deut. 18:15-22)

B.  New Covenant (Jer. 31, New Testament)

The two overarching covenants have as their end goal man’s full and intimate fellowship with God in righteousness.  Adam could have had this God if he had perfect and personal obedience to God in the testing surrounding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (hence the term, the “Covenant of Works”).  With his sin, that way to coming into the presence of God in intimate fellowship has been foreclosed.  Men cannot get to God by means of their own righteousness.  After Adam’s fall, the rest of the narrative of Scripture is focused on God’s redemption of a people for Himself by grace, centered on the Person and Work of Christ Jesus (hence, the “Covenant of Grace”).  Thus, the pivot point between the two covenants is not between the Old and the New Testaments, but between Adam and everything else that followed.  The Old and New Testaments are different administrations of the Covenant of Grace, the Old Covenant (i.e., the Old Testament) preceding Christ and the New Covenant (i.e., the New Testament) was inaugurated with the First Coming of the Lord (as recorded in the Gospels) and will find its culmination with the Second Coming of the Lord at the end of time in the Final Judgment.  This distinction is important to understand because it shows that the Old and New Testaments are not antithetical to each other.

Reading Scripture Confessionally

Many evangelical Christians are wary of creeds and confessions, mistakenly thinking that those who do hold to them put them over and above Scripture itself.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, however, makes it clear that “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures” (WCF 1.10).  Creeds and confessions, such as the Westminster Standards, are summaries of Scripture’s teaching on different key topics.  Over the centuries, pastors, teachers, and theologians have reflected on Scripture and compared Scripture with Scripture on specific key topics, coming to particular conclusions.  Because God is the ultimate author of all Scripture, what Scripture says in different places on issues like who God is, who man is, and different facets of the Christian faith, can be usefully brought together to get a fuller picture of the Bible’s teaching on those matters.  Scripture does not contradict Scripture so careful reflection needs to be made in how those disparate verses and passages are harmonized.  The agreed upon conclusions have been codified over time into the creeds and confessions.  This systematic or doctrinal approach is important in helping us understand the biblical narrative rightly, and at the same time, the overarching biblical narrative can help us rightly understand the doctrines of the faith.  So, in reading through Scripture we will benefit greatly by simultaneously reading through the confessional standards.

Reading Scripture Devotionally

A lot of devotional guides have a Bible verse or two, followed by some meditative insight for the day.  If that is what you are looking for, then that’s fine, but that’s not the approach of this lectionary.  The focus here is more minimalist, but it is not intended to be merely intellectual.  Scripture is indeed the Word of God and it, in combination with prayer and the Spirit, will produce a deeper devotion to our Lord over time than simply a Bible quote and some pithy insights from me.  So, for whatever its worth, here are a few suggestions for your consideration regarding how to use this lectionary devotionally.

  • Pray for the illumination of the Spirit as you begin reading the Word. God’s Word is not always easy to understand, so we need wisdom from the Lord through His Spirit.
  • Along with this, pray that you will be teachable and receptive to listening to the Lord. This is especially important in that we often come to our devotional time distracted or harried.  We need help in focusing.
  • Use the Psalms for adoration. The Psalter covers a wide range of emotions, including some very earnest cries and pleadings.  It is not superficial as we tend to be in our prayers left to our own devices.
  • In reflecting on the readings, think about what the passage says about Him, His character, and His relationship with His people. Pray this back to the Lord as a confession of praise and truth.
  • Use the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) as categories for structuring your own prayer to the Lord. Also, use the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17) as a guide in confessing sin.

Cultivating devotion to our Lord takes work and these suggestions are not intended to be a magic shortcut.  Rightly and consistently applied, however, they will help deepen our relationship with the Lord.

To God Alone Be the Glory!