This is the third post in a series on “Building a Better Devotional.” In this series, I talk about the Christian’s devotional life, and give tips on how to build a better devotional. Other posts in this series can be found here. For more articles related to devotionals and hermeneutics, click the side bar menu under “Devotionals & Hermeneutics.“
When it comes to doing devotionals, there are a variety of ways we can approach Scripture. There may be wrong ways to read the Bible, but there is no one right way of doing so. The different methods used can be likened to the different methods pastors use to preach. As each pastor has his own style of communicating Scripture, so there are different ways to spend our time in the Word.
Over the course of my Christian discipleship, I’ve tried numerous devotional methods. Some have worked better than others, and some have been particularly helpful for certain genres of Scripture. One thing I have found though, is that choosing a proper devotional method largely depends on one’s personality and thought process. If the purpose of a devotional is essentially to further our devotion to Christ, then as long as we are being responsible and accurate in our interpretation of Scripture, we have freedom to choose the method that best works for us in accomplishing this purpose.
So I’d like to offer five methods of approaching Scripture, that I’ve used at one time or another, with pros and cons for each. Hopefully this will help anyone discerning how they can best read Scripture for themselves. I’ve named each after a popular preacher, as they represent the unique methods of preaching these men commonly employ.
The “Joel Osteen” Devotional
I know what you’re thinking, “Joel Osteen?!”; but that’s precisely the point. Joel Osteen often takes verses out of context, makes them serve his purposes, and turns everything into “positive encouragement.”
The unfortunate reality is that many people opt for a similar approach in their devotionals. They read the Bible with this main question in mind: “What does this mean to me?” As a result, they take verses out of context, make them primarily about themselves, and turn them into positive encouragement to get them through the day. This largely dictated my devotional life in my early years as a Christian.
Pros: It should go without saying that this is not a desired approach to devotionals. If you find this characterizes your devotional life, I’d encourage you to consider one of the approaches below.
Cons: Rarely takes the time to implement proper hermeneutics. Personal application is more important than accurate interpretation. Makes the reader the final authority. Results in accidental heretics.
The “Tim Keller” Devotional
This is probably the most common approach in studying Scripture. Tim Keller is known for preaching complete passages, walking through them in an expository manner, and masterfully illustrating and applying each point.
This devotional method seeks to essentially do the same: study a passage in its entirety, understand the main point(s), and discern how to apply them to our lives. This dictated my devotional life for many of my latter high school and early college years.
Pros: Verses are easily seen in context. Application occurs regularly and thoughtfully. The focus is on the main points, and not getting lost in the details. This is a helpful method for going through longer Epistles and the Gospels.
Cons: Can tend to take the assumed or common interpretation of a passage. Sometimes does not get specific or broad enough; the temptation is to ignore details that could be crucial, or to forget the big picture of a book.
The “John Piper” Devotional
John Piper is known for taking small sections of Scripture and squeezing out every truth imaginable from a single verse or phrase. He will preach a few verses at a time, giving you eight reasons why passage “X” reveals the supremacy of Christ in suffering. Just look at his series on Romans (225 sermons over 8.5 years on 433 verses of Scripture).
This devotional method approaches Scripture in the same, verse-by-verse, intense, in-depth manner. This is the current method I’m using, and have used on and off since my latter years in college.
Pros: Passages are not taken at surface level. One comes away from a devotional feeling he/she really knows Scripture. Sometimes amazing discoveries occur that would not have been made otherwise. This method is ideal for studying shorter Epistles, or Epistles with great theological depth and complexity (i.e., Romans).
Cons: Can get lost in the details and miss the big picture. Takes a long time to finish a book. Sometimes rabbit trails are followed that lead no where. Words or phrases can be isolated from their context, leading to potentially heretical conclusions.
The “Mark Dever” Devotional
On the other end of the devotional spectrum is the “Mark Dever” approach. Mark Dever is known for preaching massive chunks of Scripture at a time. He rarely preaches on less than a chapter of a book, focusing on the big idea and major themes. For example, his series on Genesis lasted a mere 9 sermons.
This devotional method takes on large sections of Scripture to discover the main point and the primary intended application. I used this method for a brief period in seminary while reading through some of the Major/Minor Prophets.
Pros: Best for following the original author’s train of thought. Clearly unveils the big idea of a section or book. Provides a big picture context for any future, in depth study of a book. Gets the reader through books swiftly. This method is most useful for Old Testament Narratives, Law, and the Prophets.
Cons: Takes a lot of time to read sections in their entirety. Can feel daunting. Crucial details or important passages are easily overlooked. Provides a big idea without much knowledge of individual stories/passages.
The “Don Carson” Devotional
If you’ve ever heard the Don preach, you know that he never does so without drawing off other portions of Scripture. Carson’s specialty is taking a passage, identifying the key themes, and showing how those themes have background in the Old Testament (for NT passages), or follow a trajectory into the New Testament (for OT passages).
This devotional method may start in a passage, but takes a prominent theme or theology, and traces it throughout the rest of Scripture. This is also commonly known as Biblical Theology. This was the first devotional method I used in college, and some of the topics I studied then have stuck with me until today.
Pros: Shows how all of Scripture is tied together. Good for answering questions in regards to theology. Leads the reader to look at Scripture holistically. This method is good for studying topics and theologies.
Cons: Proof-texting and ripping verses out of context are the main danger. Bad theologies can be developed as a result. Can make theology more important than Scripture and communing with Jesus.
Just as each pastor chooses his preferred preaching method, I believe every Christian is at liberty to choose his or her preferred devotional method. Your desired method may change as often as mine has, or you may stick with one that works for you indefinitely. Regardless, the goal is not necessarily knowing Scripture, but knowing God. The greatest thing we can do is to devote ourselves to Scripture to further our devotion to Christ. And choosing a proper devotional method is simply a servant in that endeavor.