Applying the Precious Promises of Scripture

I offer the following somewhat speculatively, as a work in progress and would welcome engagement with it. I long to understand more about how God speaks through his Word to us, and to build my faith in his promises and my life on his Word. But something recently has caused me to wonder if I am approaching this the wrong way.

For probably 20 years now I have been reading through the Bible each year, and gaining great benefit from it. I don’t know about you, but as I go through my Quiet Time, the way it often goes for me is that I try and find verse that really speaks personally, and, if I honest, emotionally to my situation.

That might be a promise from scripture (I love Isaiah for that!), or perhaps something which reveals a truth from God’s Word in a new way.  But I try to find something to apply personally using an excellent model that our church is very committed to:

Scripture
Observation
Application
Prayer

I was reading Isaiah 61 this morning and trying to see what God was saying and something new struck me. Was I moving to Application too quickly? I was looking for something that would speak to my heart that morning. Something that would get me through the day. What I wasn’t doing was seeking to understand what the passage was really saying, what it was saying about who God is, what he does, and (particularly in the context of Isaiah 61), who Jesus is and his work on earth for me. I was trying to get the passage to engage directly with my emotions and feelings, and bypass my mind.

This verse perhaps illustrates the issue:

to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 ESV)

That day (and most days if I am honest) I wanted to hear God to say me, “I’m going to do that for you, Andrew. I’m going to give you the oil of gladness today. I’m going to give you a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit today.”

So my Bible study becomes an exercise in hoping, believing and trusting perhaps that God has given me a specific promise from His Word for that day an holding onto that.

Nothing wrong with that, you might say.

But Jonathan Edwards in his work “The Religious Affections” has some very illuminating thoughts about how we should approach Bible Study, which I discovered the other day. He is talking about how our emotions and feelings (what he calls “affections”) are moved to understand the things of God:

The child of God is graciously affected because he sees and understands something more of divine things that he did before, more of God or Christ, and of the glorious things exhibited in the gospel…Knowledge is the key that first opens and hard heart, and enlarges the affections…[1]

It seems from what Edwards is saying that we must spend time in observation, in understanding, and that in turn will move our hearts. But what really struck me was this next passage which is worth quoting more fully

It appears also that the affection which is occasioned by the coming of a text of Scripture must be in vain, when the affection is founded on something that is supposed to be taught by it, which is really not contained in it, nor in any other Scripture; because such supposed instruction is not real instruction, but a mistake and misapprehension of mind. As for instance, when persons suppose that they are expressly taught by some Scripture coming to their minds, that they in particular are beloved of God, or that their sins are forgiven, that God is their Father and the like. This is a mistake or misapprehension; for the Scripture no where reveals the individual persons who are beloved, expressly; but only by consequence, by revealing the qualifications of persons that are beloved of God: and therefore this matter is not to be learned from Scripture any other way than by consequence, and from these qualifications; for things are not to be learned from the Scripture any other way than they are taught in the Scripture.

Perhaps at first this seems harsh, or even wrong. Surely God can speak to me directly from Scripture and tell me that I am loved, that God is my Father?  For all my life, I have leaned on promises that I believed God had given me directly, from even a small child.

But think again. Jonathan Edwards is giving us perhaps instead a much firmer place to stand that trusting that a special impression that Scripture has made on us means that God has promised this directly to me. He is saying, don’t rely on feeling that God has spoken to you directly. Look instead on what the whole of Scripture says and you will see if you can apply those promises to your life and situation or not.

Let’s look at that practically by applying this to a few of my favourite promises from Scripture. Does this validate them, strengthen them, or undermine them?

An easy one to start with

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

(Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV)

The writer of the Proverbs is stating a general truth here. If we truly put our trust in God and not in our own understanding, working things out by ourselves. If we seek to glorify Him in all we do, then this general principle applies: He will direct our paths. We don’t need to wonder if God has spoken this directly to us. It’s clear that the “qualifications of persons” whose paths will be directed by God are those who trust and acknowledge Him in all they do.

What about another favourite of mine:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

(Isaiah 43:1-3 ESV)

This is trickier and demands a little more thinking I think. First of all, who do these wonderful promises apply to? They apply in this context to Israel in exile who God has called by name and created and formed and chosen. Do they then apply to me? Paul in Romans 9 says that indeed the “the adoption…the promises” belong to Israel. But he adds that

not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6-8 ESV)

So the general promises like this one, that were to Israel in the Old Testament can be mine if I am a child of promise. And of course we know that we are children of promise if we have trust Jesus to save us, if we have called on the name of the Lord.

So I don’t need to worry that this promise might not be for me. It IS for me, if I am trusting only in Christ.

There’s not room to expound this any more here, but I wonder if this gives me a stronger basis for my Bible Study going forward. I’ll try it and let you know.

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