Life Theology

How Martin Luther Interpreted the Bible

History is full of giants of the faith who have immensely helped the church interpret the Bible properly. One giant in particular stands out: Martin Luther. Along with John Calvin, Luther is perhaps most loved for his radical Christ-centeredness when it comes to Bible interpretation. He’s prominent because God used him at such a vital crossroads in church history. As one of the driving forces of the Reformation, Luther helped Christians refocus biblical hermeneutics back to the text of Scripture and away from the authority of the church. Let’s briefly look at his hermeneutical method.

Luther’s method for interpretation, if named anything, may be termed “historical interpretation” because he rejected allegory.[1] More accurately, Luther’s method may be labeled Christological. He believed that the sole content of Scripture is Christ. Christ is the incarnate Word of God, therefore the Bible can only be God’s word if it deals with Christ.[2] Luther further held that “all Scripture is interpreted by its relationship to the gospel.”[3] In other words, every text must be seen in light of God’s redemptive work in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus every text relates to the gospel either by promising, foreshadowing, proclaiming, or reflecting upon the person and work of Christ. The modern interpreter is helped by Luther’s Christological hermeneutic because the gospel is timeless. Since Christ lived, died, and rose for believers past, present, and future, the gospel is immediately applicable to the modern reader. The gospel, therefore, is the applicational bridge from the ancient text to the modern reader.

Luther led the charge for what is called sola scriptura (Scripture alone), the “key foundational premise of the Reformation.”[4] Sola scriptura holds that only Scripture holds divine authority for the life and conduct of Christians. Scripture authenticates itself and the church, not the other way around as the papacy supposed. Because Scripture is the final authority for Christians, its message is not regionalized or relegated to a certain time period. Modern interpreters must acknowledge the Bible is authoritative for their life even in the twenty-first century.

As Augustine taught more than a millennium before, Scripture interprets itself which implies that Scripture is clear in itself.[5] Here Luther leads the modern interpreter to be confident that Scripture is living, active, and harmonious.

Finally, one valuable element of Luther’s method of interpretation is that he accounted for the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the interpreter. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to understand accurately what a passage teaches about Christ.[6] Because of this, just like Luther in the 1500s, readers today can be confident that God has provided through his Spirit the ability to objectively understand and subjectively experience the truths of Scripture.

[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 47.
[2] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 185.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Klein et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 47.
[5] Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 185.
[6] Klein et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 47.



Ask the average Christian how they were saved and most will include, at some point in their story, that “I asked Jesus into my heart.” I’ve said it before, too. I think it’s okay to say with the right theological framework; however it is a very loaded phrase.

I am currently reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, and he talks about how this notion of salvation obscures the true biblical gospel. He calls “Jesus-in-my-heart-ism” ‘evangelical Catholicism’. He explains:

Many evangelicals use the evangelistic appeal to ‘ask Jesus into your heart.’ The positive aspect of this is that the New Testament speaks of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:27); of Christ dwelling ‘in your hearts through faith’ (Eph. 3:17), and the like. It speaks of the Christian as having ‘received Christ the Lord’ (Col. 2:6). But it also makes clear that Christ dwells in or among his people by his Spirit, for the bodily risen Jesus is in heaven. Furthermore, there are no examples or principles of evangelism or conversion in the New Testament involving the asking of Jesus into one’s heart. In many cases this practice represents a loss of confidence in faith alone, for it needs to resort to a Catholic style of infused grace to assure us that something has happened.

Now, when people are genuinely converted by asking Jesus into their hearts, and I have no doubt that there are many, it can only be because they have understood the gospel sufficiently well for this prayer to be a decision to believe that this Jesus is the one who lived and died for their salvation. Why, then, have I called this section ‘evangelical Catholicism’? An aspect of Catholicism that Protestants have rejected is the reversal of the relationship of objective justification to is subjective outworking or sanctification. Another way of putting this is that the focus on the grace of God at work in the historic gospel even of Jesus Christ is muted compared to the emphasis on the grace of God as a kind of spiritual infusion into the life of the Christian. The gospel is see more as what God is doing in me now, rather than what God did for me then…When the legitimate subjective dimension of our salvation begins to eclipse the historically and spirituality prior objective dimension, we are in trouble.

– Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, p. 176.


Jesus Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the work of interpreting what a text says. A biblical text is a communication of God that has three main components: the communicator (speaker), what is communicated (message), and who it is communicated to (hearer).

In order to interpret Scripture properly, it must be interpreted through the gospel, namely, the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Graeme Goldsworthy writes why this is true in his book Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (p.69):

  • Jesus Christ, the God/Man, is the eternally communicating God, the creator of all speech and understanding.
  • He is God, the author of special revelation (i.e. the Bible).
  • As the incarnate Word of God, he is the ultimate divine message and sums up the meaning of all revelation both natural and special.
  • As a perfect human being, he is the compliant listener who receives the address of God to man with perfect interpretation, understanding, and acceptance.
  • Jesus’ relationship to the Father includes his making the only sinless human response to the word of God to man.

Ultimately, Jesus is the divine speaker, the message communicated, and the only one who was faithful to hear and be obedient.


Nothing New

It is wonderfully comforting to me that there is nothing new to learn or teach in Scripture.  You could read the Bible a thousand times and there will not be one word, phrase, or segment that you find that wasn’t there the first time you read it.  And everything you read has it’s own meaning, and no new meaning can be attributed to it.  It has always meant what it means and that’s how it will always be.

When teachers or pastors or whomever come out with a new interpretation or teaching, be skeptical.  If you notice, what I write on this blog is nothing new.  Everything I say is just a reiteration of ancient biblical truths that are precious and good, that have already been taught by men and women before me.   That’s what I want to be, however: a reminder of old truths so that God might open up the eyes of people’s hearts.

The reason we don’t understand Scripture is that we are blind.  And there are levels of blindness.  The non-believer is completely blind.  And for the believer, even we fail to understand some things in the Bible.  C.S. Lewis said, “There is always more to see than what you see.”

Jonathan Edwards reminds us of this fact that there is no new interpretation to any Scripture, and that in order for us to understand, our blinders need to be removed:

Spiritually to understand the Scripture is rightly to understand what is in the Scripture, and what was in it before it was understood: it is to understand rightly what used to be contained in the meaning of it, and not the making of a new meaning.  When the mind is enlightened spiritually and rightly to understand the Scripture, it is enabled to see that in the Scripture which was before not seen by reason of blindness…Spiritually to understand the Scripture is to have the eyes of the mind opened, to behold the wonderful spiritual excellency of the glorious things contained the true meaning of it, and that always were contained in it (Religious Affections, p. 109).


Time With the Lord, Part 2: Tips for Study

In the first post on spending time with the Lord, I addressed why studying the Bible is necessary and vital and what are the key elements (of holiness) that we need to have when we study.  This post will be practical tips for how we would study a particular passage of Scripture.

Before I go on, though, I want to say a word about how long we should actually spend time with the Lord.  No doubt people will say that putting a mandate on time in the word will be legalistic.  I agree.  However, quality is not the only important aspect of our time with God.  Quantity is equally important.  Here’s why: Imagine that you are married (and some of you are married).  You go to work all day, perhaps talk to your spouse once for five minutes, and then come home and chat for 15 minutes.  Then you eat dinner (sometimes together depending on the circumstances), but afterward go on to ignore your spouse and watch SportsCenter (or something else).  How do you think your spouse would feel if you gave them 15-minutes in a 24-hour day?   Would it be legalistic to say that your desire is to spend two quality hours with your spouse on a daily basis?  No!  It would be an overflow of the love you have for her in your heart.  Now, how much more do you think God desires you to spend quality, intentional time with him in his word?  If we truly love God, our heart will be passionate about making time (a lot of time!) to spend with him.  God has spoken.  It’s written in his word.  If we desire to know God, we will meet him there daily.

Now, with that said, what does it actually look like to sit down and study the Bible?  So often, I think, people do not know what to read in the Bible, nor do they know how to read it, because they simply haven’t had any training.  Here are three basic principles of study that will help in your pursuit of learning God’s word.

  • First, observe what is going on in the passage. This is simply asking who, what, when, and where. You can take it section by section (some Bibles break up the chapters into sections, you know that). Otherwise, if your Bible doesn’t, just find out where the writer’s idea ends and use that section. So, for example, let’s look at Colossians 1:1-12.  I looked for words in this section that describe God the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit. I looked for every time Paul mentioned “I” or “we” or “us”. I looked for connecting words like “for, and, therefore, since, so that, because of, but, yet” etc. You can look for words that are repetitive. In Colossians, I looked for words that describe God’s Word (the truth, the gospel, etc). Finally, look for any words that look important to you or words you don’t know that you want to find out what they mean. I would ask questions like, “What is an apostle” and then proceeded to look the word up.  I asked about Colossae the city.  What made it special?  Who lived there?  Where is it located?  Observing the passage will help you come to what I call a “Message Big Idea.”  It’s simply the overview of the passage.  This will help set up a good base for determining the “Theological Big Idea.”
  • Secondly, interpret the passage. Here is our “theological big idea.”  We could be very detailed in this step, but for simplicity’s sake, I want to discuss one particular interpretation method that has been very rewarding for me (especially in the Old Testament).  I will call it the redemptive focus.  Every passage in Scripture answers two questions (among many others): What is the fallen nature in man? And what is God’s redemptive plan?  From Genesis to Revelation we see this theme.  So when we read Ephesians 2, we know that our fallen nature is a dead spirit that is apart from the living God.  We also come to know that part from God’s grace and mercy we would remain dead in our spirit.  But because of God’s love for us and his preordained choice (from Ephesians 1), we are no longer children of wrath, but become adopted children.  Even in the Old Testament, when we read about sacrifices, laws, rituals, exiles, covenants, and on and on, we can see the beauty of the gospel.  The whole Bible communicates God’s gospel (“good news”) to his covenant people.  Some passages are harder than others to find the redemptive focus.  To do this, we need to study parallel and clarifying passages.  We must read commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) lexicons.  Remember , our most precious commentary and resource for the Bible is the Bible itself.  Use cross references and easier Scriptures to interpret harder Scriptures.  Find themes and connect your passage to other Scriptures.  God’s plan is to redeem a broken world, a broken people.  He has revealed that plan in Scripture.  Enjoy studying and learning it!
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, we need to apply the passage to our lives. We can call this putting the passage into practice.  This part is fairly open to how you want to do things. Give yourself challenges, questions to ask yourself, or maybe goals to meet. You can pick a verse or two to memorize or you could just meditate on that section for a few days.  Most importantly, we must pray over and through the passage and have a heart of confession.