Be sure to check out this excerpt taken from John Piper’s new book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture.
Work, Because God Is at Work in You
Perhaps the most explicit passage in the Bible that tells us to “act the miracle”—including the miracle of reading the Bible supernaturally—is Philippians 2:12–13:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
To feel the amazing force of this passage, consider three observations.
1) The verb translated “work out your salvation” (Greek κατεργάζεσθε, katergazesthe) means “produce it,” or “bring it about,” or “effect it.” As doctrinally dangerous as this language may seem, it is biblical. “Bring about your salvation.” “Produce your salvation.” “Effect your salvation by continuous, sustained, strenuous, effort.” I say “dangerous” because Paul also teaches that salvation “is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9). But there is no contradiction here, because the works that can’t save are the works that try to produce a saving relationship with God. That is hopeless (Rom. 3:20). The works that “effect” our salvation are works that God himself brings about because there already is a saving relationship. That’s what Paul goes on to show.
2) The salvation that Paul tells us to “work out” is not only the great reality of total deliverance from condemnation and hell; it is also the more narrow, specific reality of daily deliverance from the soul-destroying works of the flesh (1 Pet. 2:11)—things like anger and self-pity and greed and lust. “Work out your salvation—your deliverance—from those deadly enemies.” In other words, we are to use our mind and our will to actively oppose these sins as we see them rising in our hearts. And this active opposition, Paul says, is really our acting. But what we see next is that we are acting a miracle, because God is performing this willing in us. “For it is God who works in you, to will.”
3) Besides telling us to work—that is, to make effort and actively bring about our deliverance from the looming sin—Paul also says we should do this “with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Why should there be “fear and trembling” as I attack my sin and “bring about salvation” from anger or self-pity? The reason given for our trembling is not a threat. It’s a gift.
Paul says to fight your sin with fear and trembling, because God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer, justifier, sustainer, Father, lover is so close to you that your working and willing are his working and willing. Tremble at this breathtaking thought! God Almighty is in you. God is the one in you willing. God is the one in you working. Your “continuous, sustained, strenuous” effort is not only being carried out in the presence of God, but is the very work of God himself. God is at work in you. And what he is working is your working. Therefore, we are not waiting for a miracle. We are acting a miracle.
Read the Bible, Act the Miracle
This is how we are supposed to read the Bible. We will and work because God is willing and working in us. We work with all our natural powers to see the meaning of the inspired writings, because God is at work in us to open our minds to see the glory that is really there. Here is the way the writer of Proverbs puts it (note all the human activity in italics and God’s provision in bold):
My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright. (Prov. 2:1–7)
Verses 1–4 exhort us to use all our powers to gain wisdom and insight— to see into the mind of God, receive God’s words, treasure up his commandments, listen to wisdom, call out for insight, raise our voice for it, seek it like silver, search for it like treasure. This is the writer’s way of saying, Bend every effort. Exert all your energy. Focus all your desires. Use all your powers. To what end? God’s wisdom!
Then comes the surprising ground for all this effort. “For the Lord gives wisdom.” He gives it. We seek it with all our might. God gives it. Our labor is essential. But God’s giving is decisive. If God does not “give,” we do not find. We “work out our deliverance” from blindness to God’s wisdom—reading carefully with all our might. For God is at work in us “to will and to work” the discovery of his light. He creates the miracle of giving spiritual sight. We act the miracle of seeing.
Seek Light with All Your Strength, for God Gives Sight
The apostle Paul showed us over and over in his writing that he expected his readers, or listeners, to use their full powers of mental focus and thinking in order to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. For example, at least ten times in the book of Acts, we see Paul’s strategy to “reason” with people in his effort to show people the truth and beauty of Christ (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:25). This was the oral version of the book of Romans. His assumption is that his listeners and readers would use their minds as fully in listening and reading as he did in speaking and writing.
So he told the Corinthians, “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20). Even more forcefully he said that he would rather speak five understandable words with his mind to instruct others than ten thousand unintelligible words with the miracle of tongues (1 Cor. 14:19). And Paul expected all of that “thinking” to reach its maximum fervor and focus in the act of reading his inspired letters. “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). In other words, engaging the mind in the mental task of reading is God’s appointed pathway into the glories of God. We do the thinking—the rigorous effort to read with understanding; God creates the miracle of supernatural light in processes of our thought.
Think Over Revelation, for God Gives Illumination
The apostle Paul makes the point most clearly and forcefully with these simple words: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). We think. God gives. Both-and. Not either-or. So many people swerve off the road to one side of this verse or the other. Some stress the first part: “Think over what I say.” They emphasize the indispensable role of reason and thinking and then minimize the supernatural role of God in making the mind able to see and embrace the glory of truth. Others stress the second half of the verse: “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” They emphasize the futility of reason.
But Paul will not be divided that way. For Paul it was not either- or, but both-and. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Notice the little word “for.” It means that the will of God to give us understanding is the ground of our thinking, not the substitute for it. Paul does not say, “God gives you understanding, so don’t waste your time thinking over what I say.” He does not encourage us to substitute prayer for thinking, but to saturate thinking with prayer. Nor does he say, “Think hard over what I say because it all depends on you, and God does not illumine the mind.” No. He emphatically makes God’s gift of illumination the ground of our deliberation. He makes God’s giving light the reason for our pursuing light. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.”
Reading in Another’s Power
The point of this chapter is that the supernatural reading of the Bible does not minimize the urgency or effort of using all our natural powers in that process. Or, to put it positively, the Bible itself encourages the fullest use of our body and our will and our reason in the supernatural act of reading the Scriptures. Reading the Bible, in reliance on God, is one particular act among thousands of acts that, in the Christian life, are supernatural in this way. Our life is to be lived “in the Spirit” and “by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Gal. 5:16, 18, 25; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 3:3; 2 Thess. 2:13). That is true, whether we are roasting a turkey, running for office, or reading the Bible.
God does not intend to replace us when we are united to Christ; he intends to renew us and empower us and guide us. He intends for us to be able to say, “I worked hard,” and also to say, “Nevertheless, it was not I but the grace of God with me” (see 1 Cor. 15:10). He means for us to say, “I exerted my will and my mind and my body with all my might,” and also to say, “Because God was willing and working in me” (see Phil. 2:12–13). He means for us to use our mind to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10) and also to joyfully confess that God is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb. 13:21).
We will have more to say about how the natural act of reading and the supernatural gift of light in reading intersect. But for now, the all-important point is: the God-appointed aim of reading the Bible will not happen without a supernatural intervention. And the normal way God intervenes is through the natural act of reading supernaturally. God forbid that believing in the God-given supernatural would make us despise the God-created natural.
The question, then, that presses on us now is, How do we read the Bible, if the great effects of seeing and savoring and being transformed through reading are decisively in the power of another, not ourselves?
Content taken from Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture by John Piper, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for 33 years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God, Don’t Waste Your Life, This Momentary Marriage, A Peculiar Glory, and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.