To many, a handbook on such a subject may seem needless, and an intrusion into what must ever be left to the individual alone as guided by the Spirit of God. Others, already diligent workers in this field, will find, perhaps, little to help; but it is hoped that large numbers of the Lord's people who have a longing to become better acquainted with the contents of His word may find useful suggestions in the following pages.
A few preliminary remarks may not be amiss.
First. No method of Bible study, however useful in itself and suggestive, can do away with the absolute necessity for repentance and new birth. The natural mind is "alienated from the life of God," and no amount of education, even in the word of truth itself, can change the character of that which is "enmity against God." The Sunday-school teacher must never forget this as he faces a class of bright, intelligent young people, week by week. If they have not been brought to repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, the great work has not even been begun which is to form the foundation of their whole life. Well would it be for all who are seeking to make plain the word of God, to remember this, and with all the enthusiasm that they bring to the opening up of this wonderful storehouse of divine riches, to agonize in prayer for the conversion of those who, in the providence of God, have been committed to them.
The same, of course, applies to all who come to the Scriptures without having a knowledge of God in the forgiveness of their sins. While we can never refuse such any help which we may be able to give them, let us ever remember that "one thing is needful." It is to be feared that this is overlooked in much of the activity in Bible study of the day, and without doubt the rise and growth of the higher criticism may largely be due to the handling of the Scriptures by unconverted men in a coldly intellectual manner. No doubt, much of the mixture in established churches is due to the indiscriminate participation, by converted and unconverted alike, in truths which can only really be spiritually learned.
Second. Similarly, no method of Bible study, even for the children of God, can be substituted for the inestimable blessedness and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the believer. "He will guide you into all truth" is a promise not only for the apostles, a pledge of infallible inspiration for whatever God had to give to His Church in the way of a written Word through them, but in a more general sense, the Spirit is an enlightener of the minds of the saints, leading them into that which is needed for their upbuilding on their most holy faith.
The most complete and logical methods of Bible study, pursued in the most diligent manner,with approved helps of every variety, are all worthless apart from the special and controlling guidance of Him who delights to take of the things of Christ and to show them unto us. How indispensably precious a privilege it is to have the Author of the perfect and infinite word of God present with us, not merely to point out its manifold beauties and perfections, and to give us the key to its arrangement, and lead us on step by step in a knowledge of the vast plan contained in it, but to have this divine Person dwelling in us! — our hearts through grace capable of appreciating what He makes known, and of assimilating the truths of those deep things which the Spirit searcheth, and of carrying them out in obedient lives. Here, as in all else, "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal," and "we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God."
We would pause here and lay down our pen if we thought that one word of what follows would divert the mind of the child of God from the glorious fact of the Spirit's presence and dwelling in him, competent to lead, direct, correct and control through an understanding of that Word which He himself has inspired.
Let us at the very outset of what may be said, remember this, — give Him room for the exercise of that activity of grace in which He so delights. The communion of the Holy Ghost is that fellowship with the Father and His Son which He produces, a fellowship one with another, too, which is founded upon the assimilation of the word of God; for it would be the greatest mistake to put the Spirit's enlightenment in opposition to the written Word. The Scriptures are indeed the instrument of the Holy Spirit. All the truth that He unfolds is revealed truth already recorded in the word of God. We may be sure that if ever any are tempted to think of receiving revelations from the Spirit apart from the Scriptures, they are in grave peril.
We find in the very types given of the Spirit and His work that His ministry is in and through the word of God — both vivifying and cleansing the heart. Thus, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" shows that the water of the Word (see Eph. 5:26) is the instrument used by the Spirit of God. "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever." Thus it is by the word of God ministered to the soul by the Spirit of God that man is born anew.
It is this fact which encourages us to go on instructing children and others in the word of God. It might be said that until a person is converted he cannot rightly understand Scripture, and therefore it were needless to trouble ourselves to impart it to them. But we never know when the Spirit of God may work, and indeed the very exercise on our part in imparting the knowledge of the word of God to others should encourage us to believe that the Spirit of truth is already at work in their hearts. The teaching of the Bible to unconverted children has been likened to laying the paper and wood all ready for kindling a fire. There is no fire in the paper or the wood, and yet they are necessary: so a knowledge of Scripture, in some measure at least, either by hearing the gospel or reading it, is necessary for the conversion of souls.
Third. In line with what has already been said, it is well to remember that all our study of the Bible must be in a reverent spirit in which all self-sufficiency and dependence upon carnal wisdom are refused, and we realize that if we are to know anything aright it must be from God alone. "The word of God and prayer" are put together as the sanctifying power in the enjoyment of all the natural gifts of God (1 Tim. 4:5). Thus the Scripture will always, if rightly apprehended, reveal our ignorance and shortcomings to us, leading us to a spirit of prayer; and in like manner our very ignorance of God's word will turn us to Him who is so ready to fulfil His word: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" (James 1:5).
This, however, must suffice here. Later on in our little book we may point out the place of prayer in connection with the study of the Bible.
We turn now to the immediate subject.