Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible. Matthew S. Harmon. 2017. Crossway. 144 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Everyone loves a good story. Whether it is kids begging for Dad to read them a book at bedtime or friends gathering to watch a movie, people enjoy hearing (and telling) stories. Think for a minute about the last time you caught up with an old friend you had not seen in a while. No doubt that conversation included a story or two. But stories are for more than entertainment or providing information. They shape our understanding of who we are, why we exist, what kind of person we should be, and what kind of world we live in. Whether we realize it or not, we automatically connect everything we experience to what we believe to be the true story of the world. Our view of the world is inherently story shaped.

Believers may have the best of intentions when it comes to wanting to read, understand, and apply the Bible, but, most struggle in one way in actually doing it. Harmon's book is designed to equip believers with the tools they need to read, understand, and apply the Bible.  He gives us two sets of four questions. There are four questions for understanding the Bible; there are four more questions for understanding how to APPLY the Bible. These questions can be asked of any Bible passage.

The book has three parts, "Laying the Foundation," "Reading the Bible," and "Reading Our Lives."

In the introduction, he shares his reasons for writing the book. He points out that believers not only need to learn how to read the Bible correctly, but how to read their own lives. We need to be asking the right questions of the Bible.

In chapter one, he argues that the way we see the world, the way we see ourselves is story-shaped. The story shaping our lives should be the grand story of the Bible--Genesis through Revelation. Our natural inclinations is to either make up our own stories, our own truths OR to be shaped by false stories promoted by our culture and society. What believers need is to know the big picture of the Bible. This chapter gives us a concise biblical overview using six c words: creation, crisis, covenants, Christ, church, consummation.

In chapter two, he argues that the Bible is God's Tool to change us--to transform us. We are born idol-worshippers or idol-makers. He writes, "we enter this world with a deeply ingrained tendency toward idolatry. We are like the shopping cart with the bent wheel that constantly pulls the cart in the same direction. The way idolatry shows up varies from person to person. But no one is immune to it. Unless someone intervenes at the deepest level of our hearts and souls, we will pursue idolatry in some form or fashion." The Bible is God's tool for changing us--breaking down/tearing down our idols, and remaking us into His Image.
"In the Bible. God has given us the Bible to tell us who he is, what he has done for us, and how we should live. He uses the Bible to change us so that our lives demonstrate that we bear his image. Psalm 1:2 says of the blessed person, His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. As a result of meditating on God’s Word, 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. 1:3) Psalm 19 is even clearer on the connection between hearing/reading/meditating on God’s Word and God transforming us through it. After describing how the heavens declare the glory of God (19:1–6), David turns to the power of God’s Word (19:7–11): The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward."
In chapter three, he shares HOW Jesus read the Bible and HOW Jesus taught others to read the Bible. He concludes, "If we approach every passage of Scripture with the expectation that it will somehow point us toward Christ, we will begin to see Scripture in a fresh way."

In chapter four, he makes an important distinction in how we read the Bible. He clarifies the Bible is written FOR US but not TO US. Like in the previous chapters, Harmon relies on the Bible to teach us how to read and interpret it. In this case, he examines Romans 15:4, 1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.

In chapter five, he introduces the four foundation questions that we need to ask as we read the Bible. I think he rightly points out that, "the quality of the questions you ask determines what you get out of the text and your ability to apply it to your life."

1) What do we learn about God?
2) What do we learn about people?
3) What do we learn about relating to God?
4) What do we learn about relating to others?

Those are the big, broad questions. Harmon goes into greater detail, breaking down these big questions into smaller, more manageable questions or aspects. I wanted to keep it big picture, however, for the review.

Chapter six is titled, "The Gospel Pattern of Life." It is FANTASTIC. He argues that the WHOLE of our Christian lives should be a pattern of repentance and faith. Repentance isn't something you do once before you're a Christian. And faith isn't something you decided one day when you prayed a prayer or came forward to the altar. He defines what faith and repentance are; but he goes a step further. He defines what a Christian is.

He writes, "So to sum up, repentance is a gift from God that enables us to turn our whole lives away from sin to such a degree that it changes how we think, believe, feel, and act. If repentance is turning away from sin, faith is turning toward God. It is the commitment of our whole being to God. The Bible uses words like believe, trust, commit, and delight to describe it."

And, "By definition a Christian is someone who has turned from sin and put his or her faith in Jesus Christ to be made right with God. Repentance and faith are the entry point into the Christian life."

Chapter seven focuses on "the fallen condition." Understanding sin, the concept of sin--the nature of sin--is fundamental to understanding the Word of God. Genesis to Revelation deals with the fallen condition of man. And to properly read and understand ourselves, we need to recognize our own fallen condition. The fallen condition was mentioned briefly in chapter five under "what do we learn about people," but here it is FULLY discussed.

  • What sinful tendencies, habits, thoughts, patterns of behavior, feelings, desires, or beliefs are explicitly stated in the text or reasonably implied by the text? 
  • What evidence of the effects of the fall is explicitly stated in the text or reasonably implied by it and needs the redemptive work of God?
  • What God-given human longings, though warped by sin, are explicitly stated in the text or reasonably implied by the text and need the redemptive work of God?  

Chapter eight focuses on "the gospel solution."

"Here is what I mean by “gospel solution”: The aspects of the gospel that are revealed in the text that provide the solution to the fallen condition. Let’s unpack this definition a little further. The gospel refers to what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. There are many different aspects of what Jesus has done for us. He has justified us (declared us not guilty of our sins). He has adopted us (made us part of his family). He has sanctified us (set us apart for his special purposes in the world). He has given us the Holy Spirit to live inside us. These are just a few of the different aspects of what God has done for us in the gospel through his Son, Jesus."

He points out that sometimes the gospel solution is a) within the passage you're studying b) within the larger context of the passage you're studying c) found somewhere else in the Bible.

Chapter nine is the chapter on how to apply the Bible. Though this only gets one chapter, it isn't of lesser importance. I really appreciated his perspective. I'd always thought of application as something you DO. Three out of four of his questions focus on applying the text internally. So again, we have FOUR questions to bring to any text of Scripture.

1) The first question we should ask ourselves when applying the Bible is What does God what me to think or understand? We are responsible to fight against every pattern of thinking that opposes or contradicts what God has said in his Word. We must take every thought captive, evaluating it against what the Bible says is true.
2) What does God want me to believe? Asking what God wants us to believe gives us an opportunity to identify the false beliefs that motivate our sinful actions. That puts us in position to confess those false beliefs and move forward in believing what God says is true.
3)  What does God want me to desire? When we think about what God wants us to desire, we should also consider our emotions. Asking what God wants us to desire can reveal sinful desires, inclinations, and feelings that the Holy Spirit needs to change. If we do not desire what God says we should desire, then we should confess this and pursue repentance. As God shows us who or what we should desire, we can pray for his Spirit to change us so that our desires, inclinations, and feelings line up with what Scripture says.
4) What does God want me to do? Asking what God wants us to do helps us recognize actions we should be taking but are not. It also exposes sinful actions we should stop doing. Some actions that God brings to mind are occasional, but others may be far more habitual. Pursuing repentance for repeated and habitual sin often requires help and encouragement from other believers.

Chapter ten focuses on the balance between God's role and our role in spiritual growth.

There are additional helps at the back of the book. My favorite was "AT A GLANCE: ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS" which presents in outline form the eight questions we should be asking.

I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. I thought it was practical, concise, and above all BIBLICAL.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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