If we are to have joyful devotions, we must read the Bible with something primarily in mind: it was given to bring people into covenant with God. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isa. 45:22). “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Yes, God gave the Bible to inform us about things: himself and Christ and salvation and the church and the end times and many other things. But he has an overarching purpose for providing this information, namely to draw his sheep into his fold and then bless and nourish them once they enter it. Sometimes I like to say that the Bible is a covenant document, and this is what I mean when I say it. It was given primarily to bring God’s people into covenant with him.
There are plenty of places in Scripture that tell us that God gave the Bible with Christian people in mind. For example, the apostle Peter says to New Testament believers that the Old Testament prophets “were serving not themselves but you” when they penned the Bible under the Spirit’s inspiration (1 Pet. 1:12). In short, God wrote the Bible to believers in Christ. They are its intended audience. Therefore, God wants believers to read the Bible as it was intended to be read, as lovingly aimed at them. He wants believers to be warned by it, be convicted by it, but most especially he wants believers to fuel their joy by reading it. That must be true, because he tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), and always means always, including having joy in our devotions—especially then! God has given us the Bible to draw us into relationship with himself, a relationship of joy and delight. I wish all of God’s people could accept this and “serve the Lord with gladness” (Psa. 100:2).
God has given us a book that has many judgments and dooms in it, along with many other things that, on the face of it, hardly fuel joy. But believers are given promises that are the opposite of all those dark things! All events work together for the good of believers (Rom. 8:28). Being justified by faith, believers have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). No one can ever pluck believers out of their savior’s hand (John 10:28), and nothing can separate them from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:39). God has drawn them with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3) and has set his love on them from before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:4). These are great and precious promises! Appropriating them by faith and relying on them is the very essence of the Christian life.
How then should believers, who ought to be overjoyed at God’s love, relate to all the grim things in Scripture? Should we just ignore the grimness, since it seems so alien? No, this misses much of God’s goodness in the Bible—God assures us that it is all profitable for our edification (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Judgments and dooms are a dark backdrop to set off the gospel to advantage. Removing the backdrop removes luster from the promises. In fact, people shouldn’t take comfort in the promises until they square up with the judgment their sin deserves. They shouldn’t presume to have joy until they confess that they deserve doom—“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10). It may be that there are many people who want the comfort of the gospel but have never hated their sin, confessed it, and turned away from it to Christ. The only way to have joy is to gratefully rely on Christ’s suffering the curse we deserved on the cross (Gal. 3:13). The fearsome judgment of God should drive us to Christ who was judged in the place of sinners.
Should we then read all the judgments and let them unsettle us? Perhaps we should, if our assurance of salvation is presumptuous and not based upon Christ’s perfect work. People who are depending on themselves, their works, their relations, or decisions, ought to be unsettled when they read the Bible’s dooms. But we don’t want true believers to be unsettled. They have run to Christ in genuine conviction of sin and have come to rest in Christ’s “righteous life, bitter death, and glorious resurrection” (as John Cotton put it). We don’t want believers to read God’s judgments and begin fearing that they are, in the end, going to hell after all. Nothing dispels joy more than such a fear. God wants believers to know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13) and to live in the joy of that certainty (John 10:28-30). Should believers then retreat to the portions of the Bible that comfort them? This response can train people to resist whole swaths of God’s Word, as though those portions are distasteful, or as if God once was cruel but in the New Testament has now become loving.
Christians must not ignore the darker parts of Scripture, nor should they allow their assurance to be shaken by them, or begin to think hard thoughts of God because of them. What then are they to do? We’ll begin exploring this question further in the next letter, because there is a lot to say about it. For now, rejoice at the thought that Christ has taken the curse you deserve upon himself (Isa. 53:6). Believe that it is true, and put all your eggs in that one basket. That’s faith in the gospel. The wrath we deserved was quenched on the cross of Calvary. And also rejoice that God has lovingly aimed his Word directly at you to fuel your everlasting joy. These starting points are an absolute must if you want to have a right relationship with God through the Bible. Are you enjoying the relationship with God you were born to have?