Reformation at 500: Scripture Alone

What happens when we read Scripture? What do we expect to happen when we read Scripture? In Nehemiah, our Old Testament lesson for this morning, Ezra reads from the scroll of the law of Moses. We don’t know what, exactly, he read, either what part or how much. Maybe he read from Exodus, or maybe he read all of Deuteronomy. What is clear is that this kind of reading hadn’t happened in a while, maybe in a generation or more. Imagine, decades without hearing Scripture read, interpreted, or proclaimed. Not just for one or two individuals, but for the whole people of Israel.

And what’s even clearer is that the people of Israel, and Ezra with them, expect something to happen. They didn’t just gather for storytime. Jerusalem, the holy city, was being rebuilt. Exiles, Israelites forced out of their country by foreign invaders, were returning. And they turned to Scripture expecting—what? Renewal, perhaps. Understanding for why things were the way they were. Hope for a better future.

What happens when we read Scripture? The answer to that question depends a lot on what we expect to happen when we read the Bible. Some people read the Bible for history. They want to know what happened and when and why, and who did it. Others read the Bible as if it were a great code: they expect to find just the right combination of ideas and numbers so that they can break the code and reveal its secret meaning. Still others turn to the Bible as a kind of ancient personal advice column, looking for quick hits on how to get through life’s ups and downs.

In the church we read Scripture in order to be transformed. We are not historians or code-breakers or advice-seekers. When we search the Scriptures together, we expect to be transformed: not by our own interesting ideas or interpretations but by God, who has given us Scripture for our own good. We expect to be transformed, from people who weren’t disciples into people who are, from people who are struggling disciples into people who are confident disciples, and from people who are confident disciples into saints of the Living God. Transformation is what we expect to happen when we read Scripture, because God who gave us Scripture is in the transformation business. In 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells his protege, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” That’s what Scripture is for: teaching, correction, training in righteousness so that we can be “equipped for every good work,” so that we can be holy as God is holy.

If we read Scripture without expecting transformation, without expecting this kind of transformation, we may still “get something” out of the Bible. Historians really do find nuggets about Ancient Near East culture in the pages of the Old Testament. Code-breakers have sworn up and down for ages that they have cracked the hidden core of meaning. And advice-seekers have sung the Bible’s praises after discovering useful tips for everyday living. But none of that has anything to do with transformation. None of that has anything to do with “salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Only when we read the Bible open to and expecting transformation do we really read Scripture for the purpose God has given it. All other ways of reading may be interesting, but they have nothing to do with our transformation, or with our salvation.

Now just because we read Scripture expecting transformation doesn’t mean that we will automatically be transformed just by flipping through the pages of the Bible and reading random verses here or there. When Ezra and his fellow teachers read the book of Moses to the people of Israel, they must also interpret it; Nehemiah says, “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The Israelites needed help to understand the reading. And so do we.

The assumption that we can just read the Bible for ourselves and get the meaning we need or want from it is challenged by Scripture itself, which tells us repeatedly that in order to understand Scripture you must be part of a people who read and interpret Scripture together for the sake of being transformed by God. In order to understand Scripture you must be part of a people who read and interpret Scripture together for the sake of being transformed by God. The people of Israel needed their teachers, Ezra and the rest. Timothy, Paul’s younger colleague, is encouraged to read the Scriptures, which he has been taught from childhood. You and I must also learn how to read the Bible: from each other, from Christians around the world, from saints who have come before us, from children who ask us impertinent and difficult questions.

Over the ages, one of the things that disciples and saints have learned is that if we want to be transformed when we read Scripture, we need the work of the Holy Spirit. If “all Scripture is inspired by God,” then we need the help of the One who inspired these sacred writings. And we open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit through prayer. In one of his sermons, John Wesley emphasized three essential means of grace: prayer, searching the Scriptures, and receiving Holy Communion. Prayer comes first. If we want to be people transformed by Scripture, then we need to be people who pray for the Holy Spirit to transform us when we read the Bible together.

Some 2500 years ago Ezra led a renewal of the people of Israel when he opened the book of Moses and read and interpreted the Scriptures. 2000 years ago Jesus began another renewal when he opened the Isaiah scroll and preached its fulfillment at a synagogue in Nazareth. A thousand years ago monks in France poured fire into the life of the church when they opened up the book of Psalms and read it, cover to cover, every week. And 500 years ago Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation when he opened the book of Romans and discovered God’s grace for himself. In the history of the people of God, reading Scripture for transformation has always been at the center of renewal, discipleship, and reformation.

As United Methodists, we are heirs of Luther’s Protestant Reformation. We confess that Scripture alone contains all that is necessary for our salvation. John Wesley famously described himself as a man of one book. But how we read that book must fit the reason God gives it to us. It is not a book of history, or a secret code, or an ancient advice column. It is the Book of Salvation, the Book of Transformation, the Book of the Work of the Holy Spirit.

In Luther’s day few people could read the Bible. It was in Latin, which was read only by educated elites. Translating it into German or French or English was generally discouraged or forbidden. And even if it were translated most people were illiterate and could not have read it for themselves. Today, church leaders worry about the opposite problem: there are hundreds of translations of the Bible available, but biblical illiteracy is on the rise. Fewer Christians seem interested in reading the Bible than ever before. Luther would be horrified.

But more reading alone isn’t the answer. The answer is more reading in the right way, for the right reasons. More reading together, more reading with people who are different from us, more reading for transformation.

What happens when we read Scripture? What do we expect to happen? If you expect nothing to happen, don’t be too surprised if that’s exactly what you get. But if you pray for teaching and correction and training in righteousness, if you pray for renewal and reformation, then you may expect the Spirit to show up again, as powerful as ever. Then you may expect true transformation.

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