“Against those forms of Judaism that saw the law-covenant not only as lex [law] but as a hermeneutical device for interpreting the Old Testament, Paul insists that the Bible’s story line takes precedence and provides the proper hermeneutical key.”

D. A. Carson, “Reflections on Salvation and Justification in the New Testament,” JETS 40 (1997): 585.

There are two ways to read the Bible.  We can read it as law or as promise.

If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do.  Even the promises will be conditioned by law.  But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do.  Even the law will be conditioned by promise.

In Galatians 3 Paul explains which hermeneutic is the correct one.  “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.  For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18).

So, if we want to know whether we should read the Bible through the lens of law or grace, demand or provision, threat or promise — if we want to know how to read the Bible in an apostolic rather than a rabbinic way — we can follow the plot-line of the Bible itself and see which comes first.  And in fact, promise comes first, in God’s word to Abram in Genesis 12.  Then the law is “added” — significant word, in Galatians 3:19 — the law is added as a sidebar later, in Exodus 20.  The hermeneutical category “promise” establishes the larger, wraparound framework for everything else added in along the way.

The deepest message of the Bible is the promises of God to undeserving law-breakers through his grace in Christ.  This is not an arbitrary overlay forced onto the biblical text.  The Bible presents itself to us this way.  The laws and commands and examples and warnings are all there, fulfilled in Christ and revered by us.  But they do not provide the hermeneutic with which we make sense of the whole.  We can and should understand them as qualified by God’s gracious promise, for all who will bank their hopes on him.

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20 thoughts on “How to read the Bible, and how not to”

  1. John Dunn says:

    Excellent observation!! All of Israel’s redemptive patterns (Passover, Exodus, Sinai events) served as the paradigm of eschatological promise for the coming Messiah’s redemptive acts. Even the Law’s “Thou shalt not” must be read through the lens of Christ, so that we may take it to mean “one day your righteousness will be made complete in Jesus and you will be made so completely new in Him that you SHALL NOT ever sin again”.

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  2. David Grubbs says:

    What a paradigm shift! And what a life-giving departure from the OT-narrative-as-moral-illustration approach that I remember from my childhood. Thank you for this.

  3. F. T. says:

    Thank you thank you brother for this- and your blog- and thank You, thank You eternally, sweet Jesus!!

  4. Jesse says:

    Did anybody else notice the blatant historical anachronism in that painting? It’s the wrong Hebrew script!

  5. K says:

    1) What is the rabbinic way of reading the Tanakh again? I don’t think it’s simply “do this, do that”. There’s a LOT more interpretation in there.

    2) Galatians… while Paul does bring up “doing” in general (“cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”), but I’m not sure if his main point is necessarily “you shouldn’t view the OT through a moral, obeying commandments-lens”. Rather, his point seems to be, “You shouldn’t view God’s covenant through a narrow Torah-lens.” The primary issue being that Gentiles are not to be practicing Jews, keeping all the customs of the Torah. For the Torah is not the basis of the original covenant. The promise by faith is. So it’s less an issue of works-righteousness and more a covenant issue. What defines the covenant? What do we follow as members of this covenant? Instruction does not disappear. Rather, now we follow a new instructor: the Messiah. He replaces Moses.

    1. NPPisSSDD says:

      Christ is our Instructor, yes; but, because He completely and perfectly fulfilled the law of Moses, He is infinitely more than that for us. Remember, we, as fallen human beings, are utterly and completely incapable of following His instructions and His example, and we are incapable of keeping His covenant. (That was actually the whole point of the commandments, ceremonies, etc., to show us this fact and to show us God’s perfect holiness.) So it’s not that now we follow a new set of rules and a new instructor for a new covenant, but that Christ fulfilled the law perfectly and that through faith in Him we are now actually CAPABLE of following the law and we more and more grow to want to keep it and and even to delight in keeping it.

      Please forgive me if I am mis-interpreting what you are saying, but it deeply concerns me that in what you’ve said, it seems all you’ve done is replace Jewish works-righteousness in attempting to keep the old covenant with Jewish AND Gentile works-righteousness in attempting to keep the new covenant. Either way, whether through the narrow Torah-lens or a wider-angle Jewish and Gentile lens, it’s still all the same damnable works-righteousness, no matter how inclusive or exclusive the ethnic makeup of the covenant community. This was Paul’s point.

      As members of the new covenant, we follow the rules, not to get into the covenant–because we’re already in–but out of love for the Messiah whose sacrifice granted us entrance into the new covenant…something Moses and the entire old priesthood could never accomplish. This IS the definition of the new covenant, a covenant of grace, not works. And yes, this is a covenant issue, but since the new covenant is defined by being utterly opposed to works-righteousness, your statement of “[this issue] being less an issue of works-righteousness and more a covenant issue” doesn’t make any sense to me.

      The practical outworking of this is that you’re right, instruction does not disappear. However, we now follow that instruction not to attain or earn our way into heaven/God’s good graces/the new covenant, but out of love for the one who has already earned and attained it for us and further, now gives us the ability to follow and delight in the instruction. This is what God has done in Christ–what He promised to do in the Old Testament, and since He’s done all of what He promised, we can be sure He’ll do all that He promised to do for us in the future. That’s a true, real, correct, and God-honoring motivation to follow our Instructor.

      1. Justin says:

        NPPisSSDD, I agree with K here. I think these commands are within the covenant dynamic. I appreciate your concern for “works-righteousness,” but the Lord graciously gives His Law to the Old Covenant Jews (how can He do otherwise?). How can Psalm 119 speak so joyfully about the Law? If the Jews were unable to keep the Law, how can the Lord promise curses for them in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26? Deuteronomy 30 tells them pretty clearly that they could do it. And, the Law does not require perfection; the Lord provides ordinances for sin and repentance.
        If law/commands are to be viewed as “works righteousness,” how can Jesus promise eternal life to the expert in the law in Luke 10:25-28? Or Paul in Romans 2:5-16 (especially v. 13)? John 3:36 or Hebrews 5:8-9? Nehemiah 9:29? I would suggest that not all “law-keeping” is “works righteousness.” There is a law-keeping that is faithful, loving obedience to the Lord (Matt 22:34-40, Gal 5:6, James 2:20-26). And, we can do it both in the OT and NT; it is necessary.

  6. shaun says:

    very few in our world share this view…yet how important, and how purely true it is! Our flesh wants to wield, poke holes in, and exploit law, but oh how desperately we need the promise of God!

  7. Andrea says:

    The new Covenant is so misunderstood. Jesus made a new covenant in His blood. The Old is the New consealed. Shadow not coming to the full truth of Messiah God.

    New Covenant is Messiah revealed. His blood and His law. A law of love for one another. A law that is all the fullness of the Old. We are under the blood of Messiah and His grace. Jew and Gentile.

    Jew and gentile can be one in Messiah because Yeshua made a way. Jewish people can follow the law if they are coming out of that life. PAUL and we know Peter kept kosher. But we see in Acts that that the Gentiles did not need to.

    Paul was a rabbi and came to Messiah from that point of view. He was always explaining to the gentile church that did not know what they were talking about. Many false teacher were trying to tell the people of Messiah to follow the law…He was always telling them to live as Messiah free form the law. (Galatians 5:1-6)

    Messiah came to give us a better Covenant and law. If we follow Messiah we follow His covenant and law. If we follow Mose we follow is Covenant and law.

  8. Good stuff! In sum, we read ALL of Scripture from one of two mountains…Sinai or Zion. Sometimes we’re inconsistent, having a foot on both! The Flesh loves Sinai…though it can’t really live there, it can pretend in its own power, in delusion attempting to mimic the Spirit of Zion.

    All is promise! God is Our salvation in Christ by the Spirit.

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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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