Rightly Dividing the Word: How to Read Your Bible Without Getting Confused

Have you ever been confused by a Bible teaching that seemed contrary to something else in the Bible? Have you ever read a scripture that seemed to contradict another scripture?

Paul said that the entire Bible is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But he also said that we need to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). We divide the word whenever we emphasize one scripture over another. So how do we divide the word rightly?

In essence there are two questions we should ask when reading any scripture in the Bible: (i) What does this passage mean in light of the finished work of the cross? And (ii) who is the writer writing to or about?

The filter of the cross

To hear some people preach today you might conclude that the cross was of no significance. In truth, Jesus’ death on the cross is the single most important event in human history.

Before the cross the old law covenant reigned. But after the cross a new covenant based on grace made the old covenant obsolete (Heb 8:13). Under the old covenant you were blessed if you were good, but under the new covenant we are blessed because He is good. Consider these contrasts from scripture:

Before the cross we were blessed when we obeyed and cursed when we disobeyed (Deut 11:26-28). But after the cross we are blessed because we are forgiven (Rms 4:8) and we are redeemed from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13).

Before the cross we forgave in order to earn God’s forgiveness (Mt 6:14). But at the cross we were unconditionally forgiven and we now forgive because Christ has forgiven us (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13).

Before the cross loving your neighbor meant not coveting his wife or property (Deut 5:21). But after the cross we love and accept others because Christ loves and accepts us (1 Jn 4:19; Rms 15:7).

Before the cross God was distant and unapproachable (Ex 19:12). But because of the cross we have been brought near to God to receive mercy and find grace (Eph 2:13; Heb 4:16).

Before the cross God held us responsible for our sins and not even sacrifices could clear a guilty conscience (Lev 5:17; Heb 9:9). But because of the cross Jesus’ blood cleanses us from a guilty conscience (Heb 10:22) and He remembers our sins no more (Heb 8:12).

Before the cross God said “Thou shalt not” (Ex 20). But after the cross God says “I will” (Heb 8:8-12). Before the cross it’s “do, do, do”. After the cross it’s “done, done done”.

Before the cross righteousness was demanded of sinful man (Deut 6:25). But at the cross righteousness was freely given (Rms 5:17).

Before the cross Adam’s sin meant condemnation for all men (Rms 5:18). But there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rms 8:1).

When we read the Bible we should ask, is this scripture describing the old law covenant which condemns sinners or the new grace covenant which makes sinners righteous? If you are a Christian, you need not fear the condemnation of the law. Instead, rejoice that you are the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor 5:21).

Consider the audience

When reading the Bible it’s also important to note who the words were written for, otherwise you might end up taking someone else’s medicine. There are only two kinds of people – those who put their faith in Jesus and those who don’t. Consequently the Holy Spirit brings two different convictions (Jn 16:8-10):

(i) Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict the world of guilt for the sin of unbelief (Jn 16:9). Many things in the New Testament are written for unbelievers. Paul, Peter, John, Jude and James all had things to say to those who did not see their need for a Savior (e.g., 1 Jn 1:5-10). The apostles also wrote to warn the church about sinners masquerading as prophets and preachers (e.g., 2 Pet 2). Strong words of judgment and condemnation given to sinners do not apply to those whom Christ has qualified.

(ii) Jesus also said the Holy Spirit would convict Christians of righteousness (Jn 16:10). We do not need to be reminded of our shortcomings, but we often need to be reminded of our right standing before God (2 Cor 5:21). Much of the New Testament was written to assure Christians that we belong to God and that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Rms 8:38-39). Not even our sin can separate us because God’s grace is greater than our sin (Rms 5:15). When we fail the Holy Spirit does not condemn us – there is no condemnation to those in Christ. Rather He reminds us that we are righteous, that we are kept by Jesus (Ju 24), that we are the Father’s sons (Gal 4:6), and that our hope is firm and secure (Heb 6:19). When we make mistakes Jesus doesn’t condemn us, He defends us (1 Jn 2:1) and then He teaches us how to say no to ungodliness (Tit 2:12).

Rightly dividing the word means reading the Bible in the context of the finished work of the cross. It means we interpret scripture in light of what Jesus has done. The entire Bible reveals Jesus (Lk 24:27). Read the Bible to find Jesus.

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Comments

  1. Paul ~ This is so well put. I found myself reading with my hand on the top of my head, wanting to absorb every scripture and line you had written. You must continue writing about your convictions. I have been so blessed, and I know that others will be too! Tammy

  2. in context, jesus is the living word (john 1:1,14) and never (hebrews 13:8) would speak today like the dead did yesterday ( “Thou shalt not”). deny the living word with 1610 kjvese and the invitation is given to today’s media, which doesn’t recognize, but practices today’s living word.

  3. Well said. Clear, helpful and so important.

  4. SUSAN NGUNGI says:

    So enlightening!

  5. Patrick Hng says:

    I am printing it out as a brochure to give away. God is raising up grace preacher all over the world. Thank you Paul.

  6. Gwendolyn Lilly says:

    Hi–have been so blessed by this guys grace-based teachings–all messages for free on his website. Thought you might like to listen in also—http://www.dynamicministries.com/messages

  7. move back to the states.

  8. Deborah Kiblinger says:

    Thanks for the contrasts…the before/after views. Very helpful to see how the gospel gets convoluted and mixed with law-based thinking. Really love your insights Paul. They’ve helped me enormously.

  9. “Before the cross God said “Thou shalt not” (Ex 20). But after the cross God says ‘I will’”

    In the 1700s, God spoke in KJVese. Neither do we (nor even the world today), and God is much wiser than we. Always (Hebrews 13:”8) the living word (John 1:1,14), Worse than confusing, it is a lie to quote God as using words by those not living.

  10. All very true, Paul. However, some might interpret this to mean that there was no salvation before Jesus lived on the earth. That’s not true. Salvation has always been available throughout history. If people don’t understand this, then it’s possible that grace may be only in their heads and not in their hearts – which is not saving faith. So, how were the people of the Old Testament saved?…before the prophets, before David, and even before Abraham? They were saved by faith in Jesus, just like we are! How, you might ask? By fully trusting the Word, the Promise, that Jesus completely fulfilled by dying on the cross, the Promise that IS Jesus; that’s how. What Promise? The Promise contained in Jesus’ Name of LORD: “He is good; His love endures forever.” When they placed their faith in that Promise, in God’s unfailing love, in Grace, they were placing their faith in Jesus. That’s how we’re saved as well. Likewise, many, many (intellectual accent) believers today choose to live under the old covenant, law, and don’t even realize it even though they believe Jesus is Who He says He is (even the demons believe that). They have no choice but to live under the law if they’re not fully trusting in Grace to save them – if Grace hasn’t been born in their hearts.

    • Why did the writers mix the bible if there was the need to divide it as Paul said. Why didn’t they separate the New Testament from the Old Testament? Again as believers in Christ, is the Old Testament of any relevance to us?

      • Yes, the Old Testament is a treasure trove. At least Jesus thought so because “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luk 24:27). There are pictures of Jesus on every page. Read the Old Testament to see Jesus.

      • I got you Paul. I thank God for your life…

  11. Marlene Davis says:

    Hi Paul, thank you for your thoughts and the little bible study. I really wish that some folks would understand that the Law is the Law of sin and death because it couldn’t be kept without the power of God Himself in us energizing and enabling us to do it. If I am wrong, I know you will correct me, but I believe that LOVE IS THE FULFILLING OF THE LAW as the Scriptures says. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself fulfilled the Law on our behalf!!Praise God. Therefore when we are loving each other, that is in Christ, our enemies or even those we don’t know, then we are fulfilling the Law. I believe that in Ephesians it says we are to Walk in LOVE, Speak the truth in LOVE. Not to mention the great 1 Corinthians 13 chapter which gives a vivid description of love. Greatest love exhibited: The Almighty Father’s love for us John 3:16

    Do I dare say that because of the Cross and the Finished Work of Jesus Christ we are now empowered to operate according to God’s standards because we are now motivated by His love???????

  12. thekingskid1128 says:

    Very true and very good info! I am delighted to have found your blog and have been following for a couple of weeks now. I wanted to ask though… you stated that:

    “Before the cross the old law covenant reigned. But after the cross a new covenant based on grace made the old covenant obsolete (Heb 8:13). ”

    …however, I’ve always been taught that Jesus was a “fulfillment” of the Mosaic law and therefore did not actually “void” the law but fulfilled it (by the scarificing of the perfect lamb) in the sense of us, (God’s elect) no longer having to worry or stress about breaking the 10 commandments and measuring our salvation upon that. As a believer and a child of God, by following the teachings of Jesus Christ and God the Father… one would not desire to purposely or rebelliously break the commandments (the ten commandments or otherwise) of God’s law. We are still asked to keep the Lord’s commandments (as I have been taught and based on my scriptural reading) but they do not determine our salvation and we are not condemned to an eternity of damnation if we are to ever break one, or two or three of these laws. A sinner can continually act in a sinful nature without remorse but a truly saved person will have to deal with the conviction of the Holy Spirit for his sinful deeds. I say all this because when I first read the article, it gave me the impression that because I am “saved,” I can continue to sin, break the Lord’s commandments and pretty much do whatever I want because my sins have already been paid for. I have never understand that to be true and please, correct me if I am making my conclusion in error.

    • First, the Bible doesn’t say the law has been made obsolete, but the law-keeping covenant (see Heb 8:13, NIV). God no longer relates to us through that old covenant.

      Second, what relationship does the Christian have with the law? Absolutely none (see Gal 3:24 and this post). The law is holy, righteous, and good but it has no power to make you holy, righteous and good. We have the Holy Spirit. Think of it like this: If you wish to have a blessed marriage, are you better off spending time with your wife – loving her, listening to her, looking for ways to delight her – or religiously following a book of Marriage Rules? Now the rules might be perfectly fine, but they are not the real thing. The law is a shadow; Jesus is the Reality.

      Third, the Holy Spirit is not a fault-finder. He will always point you to Jesus and his perfection rather than yourself and your imperfections. He’s really good at that!

      • thekingskid1128 says:

        Great, thank you so mucj for the speedy reply! I’m still reading the links attached to your comment and am starting to understand your thoughts on this topic a lilttle better. I was raised in the church from age 9-17 and strayed for years. I am now 32 and have recently returned to my Father’s house with a new set of eyes, ears and understanding. I guess I am still a “babe in Christ” and am trying to learn and understand a lot of the reasoning when it comes to intepreting the scriptures.

      • Pastor Dave, Bidy of Christ fellowship Titusville Florida says:

        Actually the Bible says the LAW HAS BEEN ABOLISHED in light of a new and better way. You should know this friend.Colossians chapter 2 tells us the ordinances (law) is over with and we are not under that set of instructions. 2nd Cor chapter 3 clearly says even the law etched in stone…. abolished. I read your ideas on rightly dividing the word and my friend i am worried about your conclusions they miss and renounce too much scripture… I can explain this if you wish? The pope is popular and he has over a billion people fooled into thinking he is peter reincarnated…

      • Please respect E2R’s Comment Policy and keep comments short and relevant to the post. Long rambling attacks on the pope don’t get published. Thanks.

      • “Think of it like this: If you wish to have a blessed marriage, are you better off spending time with your wife – loving her, listening to her, looking for ways to delight her – or religiously following a book of Marriage Rules?” Paul, that is so beautiful and the way that I feel when I spent my precious morning time with Jesus.

  13. There are so many scriptues regarding forgiveness that ALL our sins were forgiven over 2000 yrs ago passed, present & future sin and then in the Gospel there are scriptures regarding an unforgiveable sin. That was confusing to me.

  14. I have always been puzzled with 1 John 5:16-17 and the meaning of the “sin unto death.” Can you explain exactly what John is referring to?

  15. Confusion is clearly explained in Isaiah 34:11 and if your still confused read Daniel 9:7. Christ was hung on a tree, the scripture tell us in Acts 13:29 he followed what was written in the law.

  16. Ekele anthony alaichen says:

    Thanks a million Paul the good Lord bless you richly iam indeed blessed and see you now as my life coach, mentor and spiritual leader.

  17. I really like how you put this! In other words we need to interpret the word of God through the cross( the tree of life) not through the law(the tree of knowledge of good and evil) !

  18. Paul, I like your teaching, but John 16:10 DOES NOT SAY the Holy Spirit will “convict Christians of righteousness. Let me quote it clearly: “in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you’ll see me no longer.” V.8 is the context ….if v. 9 refers to the world, then so does 10, and 11. V8 says clearly “WHEN HE COMES HE WILL CONVICT THE WORD OF GUILT IN REGARD TO SIN AND RIGHTEOUSNESS AND JUDGEMENT. NEVER ARE CHRISTIANS TALKED ABOUT IN THIS CONVICTION OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. AND V.10 DOES NOT SAYS He convict Christians of anything. You are adding your theology to this verse instead of letting the verse just say what is says.

    • So you’re saying that if it’s not the righteous who are being convicted of their righteousness, it must be the unrighteous? Because that makes no sense to me.

      What do you think the verse is saying?

  19. David Taylor says:

    Thank you for this…I graduated from Bible School with a very Schizophrenic view of God. Joseph Prince and some others that I first mocked finally helped me see grace. They helped me see what the cross really meant. The clear dividing line of Grace versus Law was blurred in school out of what I believe is the fear of men and their “Christian behavior” standards that could no longer be enforced through guilt and shame. I hated the book of Romans in Bible college and rarely looked at it except for evangelistic verses. Now I see clearly the fulfillment of the Law and our present Grace in Christ. Too much preaching emphasizes continual guilting and shaming of Righteous saints to conform to a dead law instead of living by the Spirit. There is a fear of losing uniformity if we allow believers to listen to the Holy Spirit of God instead of our church practices and customs. I’m so glad to now be free.

  20. Daleng Jephtha says:

    your ministry has being of tremendous blessings to me, I wish I will know more about you and your ministry because we are really lacking in this truth of the gospel in this part of the world.

  21. Brian Midmore says:

    You invite us to consider the audience and I assume because you consider the SOTM law that it must be for the Jews and not for Christians. Forgive me for going on about the Lords prayer but it seems to me to be significant. Here in the middle of Law we are invited to pray :Our Father, so those saying this prayer must be in covenant of grace No? Then (according to your understanding) in the middle of Grace we swing back into Law with Matt 6.12. Might we not conclude that Jesus mixing Grace and Law. I have just had the gas engineer replace the 3 way valve in my central heating but this scheme seems more complicated than that.

    • The genius of Jesus is he preached to many people and gave everyone exactly what they needed – those confident of their own righteousness heard law, and those in need of grace, got grace. Yes, Jesus preached grace and law and often at the same time without ever mixing the two, and he did it in the Sermon on the Mount. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

      If you are standing on your own righteousness, that’s pure law. Jesus is giving you a standard to live up to – perfection. It’s a law with no loop-holes. You cannot be mostly perfect. You have to be as your heavenly Father is perfect. The moment you slip up you will become imperfect and condemned as a failure. The sooner that happens the better because maybe then you will see your need for grace.

      But if you are standing on Christ’s righteousness, these words of Jesus are pure grace. They will cause you to sing and shout for joy because Christ is perfect and, in him, so are you. As a result of his perfectly perfect sacrifice, you have been made perfect forever (Hebrews 10:13).

      I have just finished writing a chapter on this for my forthcoming book.

      • Brian Midmore says:

        Earlier you said that Jesus preached the Law to the Jews and grace to those who believed. But now are you saying that Jesus words are not objectively Law or Grace but can become either according to the spiritual condition of the hearer? Or a bit of both? I would say the words of Jesus are objectively gospel (Matt 6.23), grace (Jn 1.17) and life (Jn 6.68) which if we misunderstand them and apply them to our lives unspiritually can become law and death. My problem with your approach is that if we label verses with the epithet ‘Law’ our response is ‘this doesn’t apply to anyone in the new covenant’ and therefore give up trying to understand (by the Holy Spirit 1 Jn 2.27) how it does apply. Matt 6. 14,15 is an example.

      • “Forgive or you will not be forgiven” is, on it’s own, not good news, grace or life. I am not suggesting we label verses one way or the other. I maintain we must filter everything through the lens of the cross.

  22. Shawn Stovall says:

    How do we filter Matthew 18:35 through the lens of the cross?

    • Most people think that the story of the ungrateful servant is a morality tale. But Jesus said it’s a description of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a picture of how heaven invades earth. Jesus makes it plain that forgiveness begins with the Lord. There are only two possible responses to God’s generosity. One response is to say, “Thank you Jesus! What amazing grace!” The other response is that of the servant in the story. It is to remain unrepentant and unchanged by the goodness of God. It is to shrug one’s shoulders and say, I’ve got to take care of things myself. It’s the fatal path of self-trust.

      If you think that forgiveness starts with you, that you must show it to get it, you will forgive others out of a sense of insecurity and religious obligation. If you succeed at forgiving, it will feed your pride giving you a false sense of entitlement. If you fail at forgiving, you will feel condemned. In either case, you will improve your standing before God not one bit. But if you apprehend what Jesus did for you when he paid for your sins, it will radically change you. It will transform you from a selfish sinner into an ambassador of God’s goodness. You will show mercy to others not because you have to, but because you want to, because God has been so good to you. More here.

      • Shawn Stovall says:

        Thank you Paul…I am rereading the New Testament though the lens of radical Grace and the Cross…specifically looking at the scripture in the light of the fact that my sin debt was paid in full and that God does not see the sin in my life today…therefore God being displeased with me is never a consequence of sin. However, my lens is not formed well enough to understand some scripture in that light…such as Mathew 24:48-51…can you help?

      • Hi Shawn, thanks for the feedback. I do have some thoughts on that parable. I’ll add that scripture to the (long) list of scriptures I plan to write posts about. But I do encourage you to take your question straight to the Holy Spirit. Ask him for wisdom and insight and he will give it to you.

  23. We should also notice that the servant stayed just that he did not receive the spirit of adoption .Sons serve their brothers out of love servants work for a wage.Servants whom work for a blessing are destined for torment in order that they may realize their adoption and act like and serve like kings.

  24. Mathew 24 :48-51 is about grace , it is a judgment of selfrighteousness , the word Goodman is used , Jesus tells us there is only one who is good, you are Gods house, the meat of the house is abounding grace Paul adresses this 1 for 3:2 and on Grace is the only foundation to build on. If you operate through grace you will not smite your fellow servant.God being displeased with you will be as a result on not accepting his grace. This is good news, but not for the self righteous hypocrites.

  25. The (written) letter (of the law) kills. The (living) spirit (of love) gives life. Period.

  26. Paul, thank you so much for this! I am a person who is described in educational psychology as “high anxious”, so I really need reminding of this even though I know it with head knowledge.

  27. This whole concept is screwing with my biblical paradigm! lol

    I’d even take it another step and say that we divide the scripture whenever we quote the scripture period. When we take a given situation or person and their circumstance and in an effort to make a point or to help or minister to them quote from the word of God, we are making a division. We are saying that for this given situation or doctrinal issue, the following verse is what is important.

    The question then becomes… how indeed do we divide rightly?

    I think that if our method of division leads one to Christ, the cross, faith, hope and love, then we are rightly dividing the word. If it leads me to focus on myself, my sin, my failures and shortcomings, and leads me to despair, shame or panic, then we have divided wrongly.

    Your metaphor of medicine becomes an effective one. Do we give blood pressure medicine to someone with asthma? Or chemo-therapy to someone with depression? In this sense, it then becomes a foolish endeavor to try to make all scripture line up with all other scripture. It is saying different things to different people based on their condition and is intended to lead them to a God engineered conclusion. You can’t give chemo-therapy to the guy who is depressed and expect it to make him well. It will actually make him worse.

    • That’s it, Nick. If the scripture we read causes us to give thanks to Jesus, we’re on a good track. If it causes us to focus on self, we’ve missed it.

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