It Is Impossible to Read the Bible

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Reading the Bible should always be a supernatural act.

By “supernatural act,” I don’t mean that humans are supernatural. We are not God, and we are not angels or demons. What I mean is that the act of reading, in order to be done as God intended, must be done in dependence on God’s supernatural help.

The Bible gives two decisive reasons: Satan and sin. That is, we have a blinding enemy outside and a blinding disease inside. Together these two forces make it impossible for human beings to read the Bible, as God intended, without supernatural help.

It seems to me that thousands of people approach the Bible with little sense of their own helplessness in reading the way God wants them to. This proverb applies as much to Bible reading as to anything else: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6). At every turn of the page, rely on God. That is a supernatural transaction.

If more people approached the Bible with a deep sense of helplessness, and hope-filled reliance on God’s merciful assistance, there would be a far more seeing and savoring and transformation than there is.

Blinding Enemy Outside

Satan is real. His main identity is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). His way of lying is more by deception that bold-face falsehoods. He “is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9).

Jesus described how Satan takes away the word: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19). How does that happen? It might be by sheer forgetfulness. Or Satan may draw a person from Bible reading to an entertaining video, with the result that any thought of Christ’s worth and beauty is quickly lost in the ash of fire and skin.

Or Satan may simply blind the mind to the worth and beauty of Christ, which the Scriptures reveal. This is what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4:3–4:

Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

“The god of this world” is Satan. He is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30), and John says that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). It is this enormous blinding power that puts us in need of a supernatural deliverer. The thought that we could overcome this satanic force on our own is naïve.

No Divine Power, No Open Eyes

When the risen Christ sent Paul “to open the eyes [of the Gentiles], so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18), he did not mean that Paul could do this in human strength. Paul made that clear: “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3–4). That is what it takes to overcome the blinding effects of Satan.

Let it not be missed that the specific focus of Satan’s blinding work is the gospel. That is, his focus is on our reading — or hearing — the heart of the message of the Christian Scriptures. Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Satan would be happy for people to believe ten thousand true facts, as long as they are blind to “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Let them make A’s on a hundred Bible-fact quizzes as long as they can’t see the glory of Christ in the gospel—that is, as long as they can’t read (or listen) with the ability to see what is really there.

Satan Loves Some Bible Reading

So, Jesus (Matthew 13:19), Paul (2 Corinthians 4:3–4), and John (1 John 5:19) warn that Satan is a great enemy of Bible reading that sees what is really there. Bible reading that only collects facts, or relieves a guilty conscience, or gathers doctrinal arguments, or titillates esthetic literary tastes, or feeds historical curiosities — this kind of Bible reading Satan is perfectly happy to leave alone. He has already won the battle.

But reading that hopes to see the supreme worth and beauty of God — reading that aims to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ, reading that seeks to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) — this reading Satan will oppose with all his might. And his might is supernatural. Therefore, any reading that hopes to overcome his blinding power will be a supernatural reading.

Complicit in Deception

When we speak of the power of Satan over the human heart, we are not saying that all spiritual blindness is the sole work of Satan. We are not implying that Satan can take innocent people and make them slaves of deceit. There are no innocent people. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are complicit in all our deception.

There is a terrible interweaving of satanic influence and human sinfulness in all our blindness to divine glory. No one will ever be able to scapegoat at the judgment, claiming, “Satan made me do it.” Our own sinfulness is another source of our spiritual blindness that puts us in need of supernatural help, if we hope to see the glory of God in Scripture.

Mind of the Flesh

Paul tells us in Romans 8:7–8: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

These are very strong words: “It does not submit to God’s law [God’s instruction, God’s word]; indeed it cannot.” This is our rebellion prior to, and underneath, all satanic blinding. Before Satan adds his blinding effects, we are already in rebellion against God. And, Paul says, this rebellion makes it impossible (“cannot”) for us to submit to the word of God.

This inability is not the inability of a person who prefers God but is not allowed to cherish him. No. This is the inability of a person who does not prefer God and therefore cannot cherish him. It is not an inability that keeps you from doing what you want. It is an inability to want what you don’t want. You can’t see as beautiful what you see as ugly. You can’t embrace the glory of God as most valuable when you feel yourself to be more valuable.

Ignorance Is Not Our Deepest Problem

One of the implications of this pervasive human condition is that ignorance is not our deepest problem. There is a hardness of rebellion against God that is deeper than ignorance. That is why every natural attempt at enlightenment is resisted. This hardness of rebellion cannot submit to God’s revelation.

Paul issues an urgent call to all Christians at Ephesus to decisively turn away from this condition, which, he says, is typical of their Gentile roots:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. (Ephesians 4:17–18)

Notice the relationship between “ignorance” and “hardness of heart” as Paul describes it: “ignorance due to their hardness of heart.” Hardness is more basic. Hardness is the cause. This is our deepest problem. Not ignorance.

This is the condition of all mankind, apart from the saving work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9–10). And it makes reading the Bible impossible — if our aim is to read the way God wants us to read. We cannot prefer the light when we love the dark. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). Our problem is not that there is insufficient light shining from the Scriptures. Our problem is that we love the darkness.

God’s Word Radiates His Wisdom

The Scriptures are radiant with divine wisdom. This wisdom shines with the glory of God — and shows us the glory to come, which is the way Paul describes his own inspired teaching:

We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. . . . We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:6–7, 12–13)

The problem is that apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, we are not “spiritual,” but “natural.” Reading the inspired Scriptures must be a supernatural act if we are to “accept the things of the Spirit of God,” and if we are to “understand what is spiritually discerned.” Without God’s supernatural aid, we are merely natural and cannot see the glory of God in the Bible for what it really is — supremely beautiful and all-satisfying.