It is a marvel how personally the Bible applies. The words pointedly address the concerns of long-ago people in faraway places, facing specific problems, many of which no longer exist. They had no difficulty seeing the application. Much of what they read was personal application to actual situations they were facing. But nothing in the Bible was written directly to you or specifically about what you face. We are reading someone else’s mail. Yet the Bible repeatedly affirms that these words are also written for us: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4; cf. Deut. 29:29; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim . 3:15 –17). Application today discovers ways in which the Spirit reapplies Scripture in a timely fashion.
Furthermore, the Bible is primarily about God, not you. The essential subject matter is the triune Redeemer Lord, culminating in Jesus Christ. When Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), he showed how everything written—creation, promises, commands, history, sacrificial system, psalms, proverbs— reveals him. We are reading someone else’s biography. Yet that very story demonstrates how he includes us within his story. Jesus is the Word of God applied, all-wisdom embodied. As his disciples, we learn to similarly apply the Bible, growing up into his image. Application today experiences how the Spirit “rescripts” our lives by teaching us who God is and what he is doing.
“Personal application” proves wise when you reckon with these marvels. The Bible was written to others—but speaks to you. The Bible is about God—but draws you in. Your challenge is always to reapply Scripture afresh, because God’s purpose is always to rescript your life. How can you expand your wisdom in personal application? The following four ways are suggested.
1. Consolidate What You Have Already Learned
Assuming that you have listened well to some parts of the Bible, consider these personal questions. What chunk of Scripture has made the most difference in your life? What verse or passage have you turned to most frequently? What makes these exact words frequently and immediately relevant? Your answer will likely embody four foundational truths about how to read the Bible for wise application.
First, this passage becomes your own because you listen. You remember what God says. He is saying this to you. You need these words. This promise, revelation, or command must be true. You must act on this call to faith and love. When you forget, you drift, stray, and flounder. When you remember and put it to work, bright truth rearranges your life. The foundation of application is always attentive listening to what God says.
Second, the passage and your life become fused. It is not simply a passage in the Bible. A specific word from God connects to some pointed struggle inside you and around you. These inner and outer troubles express your experience of the dual evil that plagues every human heart: sin and confusion from within; trouble and beguilement from without (1 Kings 8:37–39; Eccles. 9:3). But something God says invades your darkness with his light. He meets your actual need with his actual mercies. Your life and God’s words meet. Application depends on honesty about where you need help. Your kind of trouble is everywhere in the Bible.
Third, your appropriation of this passage reveals how God himself does the applying. He meets you before you meet him. The passage arrested you. God arranged your struggle with sin and suffering so that you would need this exact help. Without God’s initiative (“I will write it on their hearts,” Jer. 31:33) you would never make the connection. The Spirit chose to rewrite your inner script, pouring God’s love into your heart, inviting you to live in a new reality. He awakens your sense of need, gives you ears to hear, and freely gives necessary wisdom. Application is a gift, because wisdom is a gift.
Fourth, the application of beloved passages is usually quite straightforward. God states something in general terms. You insert your relevant particulars. For example:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Ps. 23:4). What troubles are you facing? Who is with you?
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned— every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). What is your particular way of straying? How does the Lamb of God connect with your situation?
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). With what are you obsessed? What promises anchor your plea for help (Phil. 4:5, 7–9)?
Such words speak to common human experiences. A passage becomes personal when your details participate in what is said. The gap across centuries and between cultures seems almost to disappear. Your God is a very present help in trouble—this trouble. Application occurs in specifics.
2. Look for the Directly Applicable Passages
How do you widen your scope of application? Keep your eye out for straightforward passages. Typically they generalize or summarize in some manner, inviting personal appropriation. Consider the core promises of God, the joys and sorrows of many psalms, the moral divide in many proverbs, the call of many commands, the summary comment that interprets a story. As examples of the first, Exodus 34:6–7; Numbers 6:24–26; and Deuteronomy 31:6 state foundational promises that are repeatedly and variously applied throughout the rest of Scripture. Pay attention to how subsequent scriptures specifically reapply these statements, and to how the entire Bible illustrates them. Make such promises part of your repertoire of well pondered truth. They are important for a reason. Get a feel for how these words come to a point in Jesus Christ and can rescript every life, including yours.
Consider how generalization occurs. In narratives, details make the story come to life. But psalms and proverbs adopt the opposite strategy. They intentionally flatten out
specific references, so anyone can identify. David was troubled when he wrote Psalm 25—his emotions are clearly felt. But he left his own story at the door: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. . . . Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins” (Ps. 25:11, 18). He gives no details. We are given a template flexible enough to embrace any one of us. As you reapply, your sins and sufferings make Psalm 25 come to life as it leads you to mercy.
In matters of obedience, the Bible often proclaims a general truth without mentioning any of the multitude of possible applications. When Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13), he leaves you to puzzle out the forms of money-worship particular to your personality and your culture. In such cases, the Bible speaks in large categories, addressing many different experiences, circumstances, and actions. Sorting out what it specifically means is far from being mechanical and automatic, but the application process follows a rather direct line.
If you have a favorite Bible passage, it is likely one of these parts of Scripture whose application is relatively direct. But our experience of immediate relevance can skew our expectations for how the rest of God’s revelation applies to our lives.
3. Recognize the Sorts of Passages where Personal Application Is Less Direct
Here is the core dilemma. Most of the Bible does not speak directly and personally to you. How do you “apply” the stories in Genesis? What about genealogies and census data? Leviticus? The life stories of Esther, Job, Samson, or Paul? The distribution of land and villages in Joshua? The history of Israel’s decline detailed through 1 and 2 Kings? The prophetic woes scorching Moab, Philistia, Egypt, and Babylon, fulfilled so long ago? The ruminations of Ecclesiastes? The Gospel stories showing Jesus in action? The New Testament’s frequent preoccupation with Jew-Gentile relations? The apocalyptic images in the Revelation?
The Bible’s stories, histories, and prophecies—even many of the commands, teachings, promises, and prayers—take thoughtful work in order to reapply with current relevance. If you receive them directly—as if they speak directly to you, about you, with your issues in view—you will misunderstand and misapply Scripture. For example, the angel’s command to Joseph, “take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt” (Matt. 2:13), is not a command to anyone today to buy a ticket to Egypt! Those who attempt to take the entire Bible as if it directly applies today end up distorting the Bible. It becomes an omni-relevant magic book teeming with private messages and meanings. God does not intend that his words function that way.
These passages do apply. But most of the Bible applies differently from the passages tilted toward immediate relevance. What you read applies by extension and analogy, not directly. Less sizzle, but quietly significant. In one sense, such passages apply exactly because they are not about you. Understood rightly, such passages give a changed perspective. They locate you on a bigger stage. They teach you to notice God and other people in their own right. They call you to understand yourself within a story—many stories—bigger than your personal his- tory and immediate concerns. They locate you within a community far wider than your immediate network of relationships. And they remind you that you are always in God’s presence, under his eye, and part of his program.
4. Tackle the Application of Less-direct Passages
Application is a lifelong process, seeking to expand and deepen wisdom. At the simplest level, simply read through the Bible in its larger chunks. The cumulative acquisition of wisdom is hard to quantify. A sense of what truth means and how truth works is overheard as well as heard. But also wrestle to work out the implications of specific passages.
Consider two examples. The first presents an extreme challenge to personal application: a genealogy or census. These are directly irrelevant to your life. Your name is not on the list. The reasons for the list disappeared long ago. You gain nothing by knowing that “Koz fathered Anub, Zobebah, and the clans of Aharhel” (1 Chron. 4:8). But when you learn to listen rightly, such lists intend many good things—and each list has a somewhat different purpose. Among the things taught are these:
- The Lord writes down names in his book of life.
- Families and communities matter to him.
- God is faithful to his promises through long history.
- He enlists his people as troops in the redemptive reconquest of a world gone bad.
- All the promises of God find their “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
You “apply” a list of ancient names and numbers by extension, not directly. Your love for God grows surer and more intelligent when you ponder the kind of thing this is, rather than getting lost in the blizzard of names or numbers.
The second example presents a mid-level challenge. Psalms are often among the most directly relevant parts of Scripture. But what do you do when Psalm 21:1 says, “O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices”? The psalm is not talking about you, and it is not you talking—not directly. A train of connected truths apply this psalm to you, leading you out of yourself.
First, David lived and wrote these words, but Jesus Christ most fully lived—is now living, and will finally fulfill—this entire psalm. He is the greatest human king singing this song of deliverance; and he is also the divine Lord whose power delivers. We know from the perspective of NT fulfillment that this psalm is overtly by and about Jesus, not about any particular individual.
Second, you participate in the triumph of your King. You are caught up in all that the psalm describes, because you are in this Christ. So pay attention to his experience, because he includes you.
Third, your participation arises not as a solo individual but in company with countless brothers and sisters. You most directly apply this psalm by joining with fellow believers in a chorus of heartfelt gladness: “O Lord, we will sing and praise your power” (Ps. 21:13). The king’s opening joy in God’s power has become his people’s closing joy.
Finally, figuratively, you are also kingly in Christ. In this sense, Jesus’ experience of deliverance (the entire psalm) does apply to your life. Having walked through the psalm as an expression of the exultant triumph of Christ Jesus himself, you may now make it your experience too. You could even adapt Psalm 21 into the first person, insert- ing “I/me/my” in place of “the king” and “he/him/his.” It would be blasphemous to do that at first. It is fully proper and your exceeding joy to do this in the end. This is a song in which all heaven will join. As you grasp that your brothers and sisters share this same goal, you will love them and serve their joy more consistently.
God reveals himself and his purposes throughout Scripture. Wise application always starts there.
You started by identifying one passage that speaks persistently, directly, and relevantly into your life. You have seen how both the direct and the indirect passages intend to change you. Learning to wisely apply the harder, less relevant passages has a surprising benefit. Your whole Bible “applies personally.” This Lord is your God; this history is your history; these people are your people; this Savior has brought you in to participate in who he is and what he does. Venture out into the remotest regions of Scripture, seeking to know and love your God better.
Hopefully, you better understand why your most reliable passage so changed your life. Ponder those familiar words once more. You will notice that they also lift you out of self-preoccupation, out of the double evil of sin and misery. God brought his gracious care to you through that passage, and rearranged your life. You love him who first loved you, so you love his other children. And that is how the whole Bible, and each of its parts, applies personally.
*Article above by David Powlison. Source of original article is the ESV Study Bible.
iMonk interviews David Powlison on “Reading the Bible For Personal Application.”
Michael Spencer, who blogs at Internet Monk, has interviewed Dr. David Powlison about his contribution to the ESV Study Bible. Dr. Powlison contributed the article “Reading the Bible for Personal Application,” which is included in this pdf. I have posted Spencer’s introduction to Powlison and interview below:
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. was a counselor and faculty member at CCEF and is the editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. He held a Ph.D. in History and Science of Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary (He recently passed away in May, 2019)
Dr. Powlison counseled for over thirty years. He wrote many books and articles on biblical counseling and the relationship between faith and psychology. Dr. Powlison was an adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and has taught across the world.
I want to thank Dr. Powlison for answering a few questions about his outstanding essay in the ESV Study Bible, “Reading the Bible for Personal Application.”
(1) You say “But nothing in the Bible was written directly to you or specifically about what you face…..Yet the Bible repeatedly affirms that these words are written for us…” Explain this important foundational irony about proper Biblical interpretation and application.
One marvelous characteristic of Scripture is that for the first recipients, these words were “immediately applicable personal and corporate application”. Scripture IS application to life, not an abstract treatise on topics. Sometimes actual names, circumstances, and locations appear in the body of what was written – even local weather, or what someone was wearing. At the same time, Scripture applies to us. Paul can reference the Exodus-Numbers stories about grumbling, and then leap over 1000 miles, more than a millennium, and vast cultural differences to tell believers in first-century Corinth that these words “were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). You and I are even further away in time, place, and culture, but we find that principle continues to bear fruit. Both the Exodus-Numbers stories and the 1 Corinthians exhortations speak to our temptations to grumble and complain.
There is a difference between “mere exposition” and sound interpretation of this Word. Scripture intends to “discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), and is “able to make you wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). Application is a necessary part of true understanding. You always reckon with two things: the distance between your situation and the original, and the fusion of those “two horizons.”
In fact, wise application often reckons with multiple intervening horizons. For example, Exodus-Numbers on grumbling applies to you. But wisdom in rightly applying is influenced by numerous intermediate horizons, by numerous places where previous interpreters made their own timely application: e.g., Deuteronomy… Psalms 95 and 105… Jesus in 1 Corinthians 10… Hebrews 3-4… Augustine… the reformers… and the person who first taught you the Bible. This paragraph capture the feel for how Protestants have highly valued “tradition” and the wisdom of our forebears in faith, while not making church history traditions normative.
2. How would you explain the relationship between Jesus as the Word and the Word of God as scripture?
You ask a vast question, and I’ll give only the seed of an answer. The Word written is about the Word incarnate. The Word incarnate lives the Word written. He walks out the promises: of course, the overtly messianic prophecies, but also the forgiveness by blood in the sacrifices, the promise of blessing in Numbers 6:24-26, the hope that the Lord will come himself to save his people in the Psalms, the dwelling of the Lord in his tabernacle, etc., etc. He walks out the commands: e.g., Jesus loves God and neighbor; Jesus lives the wisdom of the Proverbs and so gains life and blessing. We can rightly say, no Scripture, no Jesus, and no Jesus, no Scripture. It is a serious misstep to separate Jesus (and the Spirit) from the Word, as if he were some sort of lively wildcard factor, while the written words are stodgy, stultifying and a-relational. It is an equally serious misstep to separate the Word from Jesus (and the Spirit), as if the written words are all that remains after he vacated the scene. Wildfire spiritualities and tied-up-with-a-bow religiosities both lose the living connection.
(3) All of us know what it is like to encounter someone who develops some unique or unusual personal application of scripture because of mystical insight into the meaning of a verse. What are the safeguards for insuring good personal application?
I know a man who moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, because he flipped open his Bible to the words, “He sent them to Bethlehem” (Luke 2:6). His Bible served as a magic book, a sanctified set of Tarot cards for divining God’s will in the minutiae of life. The safeguards against such things? Always read a text in context. One truth that will take you far in avoiding nutty uses of the Bible is to learn the difference between God’s will of command (to be known from Scripture, and obeyed) and his will of control (applying to all of life, only known in retrospect, and simply to be trusted, neither figured out nor obeyed).
But there’s no magic answer to protect us from magical, over-personalized uses of Scripture. Hang out with wise friends and teachers. There’s no substitute for being in a community that pursues wisdom. He who walks with the wise becomes wise. That community will be in part literary – there are many wise, balanced, penetrating Christian books, and many foolish semi-Christian books. Seek wisdom from God – he gives it to us when we lack. Again I’ll say, always read texts in context. And remember that God is interested in raising grownups – kings and queens – not puppets. Grownups have to make hard decisions in difficult, ambiguous circumstances; they have to make judgment calls; they don’t read tea leaves.
(4) How can Protestants balance the role of unified doctrine in the church and the role of the Holy Spirit as revealer of truth to the individual?
This question is equally penetrating when inverted: How can we balance the role of the Holy Spirit as revealer of truth in the church and the role of unified doctrine to the individual? Either way we ask it, we must hold in fruitful balance Truth-and-Spirit and individual-and-community. Tilt too far either way, and you lose something essential.
The Holy Spirit does not reveal “truths” that are not the teachings of Scripture, the revelation he inspired. And the teachings of Scripture include illumination on the person, role, and character of the Spirit.
I like your term “unified doctrine.” I assume you mean by it the attempt to grasp the relationship between truths, rather than simply collecting a grab bag of truths. My New Testament teacher, Dick Gaffin, used to say that “the greater part of wisdom consists in understanding the relationships between complementary truths.” The teaching of the Bible coheres, because God is coherent. He is always consistent with himself, in all that he does and says. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done and said different things in different times, places and circumstances. Nehemiah broke up marriages between Jews and Gentiles; 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter encouraged those in mixed marriages to love well in hopes of sustaining marital union.
The coherence in teaching comes in understanding different historical contexts and the ways in which the relative prominence of complementary truths will vary in applications from situation to situation. The coherence of biblical teaching is not always additive (e.g., Truth A + Truth B = a bigger pile of truths). It is usually dynamic (Truth A vis-à-vis Truth B = a wiser way of understanding the ways of God with his creatures).
(5) How does the Bible speak to universal human experiences in a way that we can say scripture is speaking specifically to our own situation?
I’ll give several examples from countless ones that could be given. For example, James speaks about your response to “various trials.” That’s a wildcard, inviting you to fill in your own particulars. Throughout the letter he then gives several examples of trials to key your thinking: wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, physical illness, interpersonal conflict and destructive speech. Those are such universal experiences that you may well find your “trial” described generically in his examples. But if you face a different trial, James will still apply.
Here’s another example. The psalms intentionally flatten out the individual particulars of the author, but retain the experience of seeking and finding God’s grace. Because we usually don’t know the exact sufferings or sins in view, we are actually encouraged to import our own particulars, and to walk out our response to both God and our need along the pathway the psalmist walked.
(6) You warn about the tendency to make the Bible an “…omni-relevant magic book teeming with private messages and meanings.” What is lost in this all-too-common approach?
We lose many good things – including common sense! But more significantly, we lose our sense that the Bible is about God more than it is about me, and that one of God’s primary purposes in me is to free me from my all-consuming self-absorption. It is part of our redemption to read about God as God, and to read about long-ago brothers and sisters and enemies for who they actually were. You are enriched by being weaned off of yourself.
(7) Can a verse taken completely out of context still yield a Spirit-revealed application?
Just read the sermons of Charles Spurgeon! His applications were often wise and biblical because he had such a refined sense for the unified teaching of Scripture and Spirit. But he rarely communicates what any passage means in context, and I think that is a liability as a role model. Readers and preachers less grounded than Spurgeon will have fewer checks on the temptation to make odd applications.
I’d probably pose your question in a slightly different way, saying “yield a wise application” rather than “yield a Spirit-revealed application.” The Spirit is the source of all wisdom, for believers and unbelievers alike. If a secular psychotherapist says to an angry, entitled, manipulative husband, “You are angry, entitled, and manipulative, and you need to learn how to love your wife and not be so self-centered,” I’d rather say that those words are wise, cohere with Scripture, and express a common grace goodness of the Spirit, instead of saying they were Spirit-revealed. That counselor is missing the saving grace of Christ that is Spirit-revealed in the Word, and that ought to find expression in counseling.
(8) What would be your answer to someone who said that passages like the Old Testament histories or specific prophetic oracles have no application to the lives of believers today?
You don’t understand how the Old Testament works, though you do grasp a partial truth. You rightly see, for example, that Obadiah is fulfilled. Edom bit the dust. Case closed. But Obadiah was timely in the 580s B.C. exactly because he brought wide and deep truths to bear in his historical moment. God, whose words and actions Obadiah proclaims, speaks and acts in continuity to all that precedes this prophet and all that follows. The great reversals of God’s redemptions and judgments find expression throughout Scripture. Obadiah, like the rest of the Old Testament, points to and reveals Christ in the character, promises, and real-time workings of the Lord. The New Testament explicitly says that the Old makes us wise unto salvation, is given for our encouragement, reveals Jesus.
Obadiah is never going to be as significant as Romans or Luke for our doctrine, life, and ministry… but it’s no waste of time to read it once a year and to ponder what the Lord here reveals of himself and his ways. In fact, the seeds of Romans and Luke can be seen in Obadiah (e.g., mercy, judgment on evil, deliverance from enemies, the great reversal, the kingdom of God…). In the course of a long preaching ministry, you will benefit your hearers if you preach a time or two from Obadiah. It will help them to understand such connections, and will help their Bible come to life. Seeing such things actually brightens our understanding of Romans and Luke, and sharpens our love for God.
(9) Thank you, Dr. Powlison, for your time. We all appreciate your answers to these questions. In closing, would you share the importance of scriptural application in teaching and preaching scripture?
The application of Scripture is what teaching, preaching, worship, missions, mercy ministry, counseling and all other ministry are about. That application is both spoken and lived. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that every third word is “Jesus,” or that ministry involves assembling a pastiche of Bible quotations. I like the example shown in Paul’s sermons and speeches throughout Acts. In Acts 13, Paul weaves together one Scripture after another. But in Acts 14, he talks about weather and crops. Then in Acts 17 he quotes several contemporary Greek poets and philosophers. But all three talks are biblical, and all three proclaim Christ, and all three have life-changing implications, precisely because all three apply Scripture to these particular hearers in language and examples they can understand.
*iMonk interviews David Powlison on “Reading the Bible For Personal Application” above was posted on the Gospel Coalition Website: thegospelcoalition.org on August 18, 2008 by Justin Taylor and posted by James Grant.
About The Author: David Powlison (1949–2019) served as the executive director of the CCEF, senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, and as a Council member of The Gospel Coalition (2010-2019). David wrote extensively on biblical counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology and his books include Seeing with New Eyes, Speaking Truth in Love, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, and Good and Angry. He earned degrees at the University of Pennsylvania (PhD) and at Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv). David and his wife, Nan, have three children.