Christian Living

Newton on How You Can Be Deceived While Reading the Bible

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 05/02/2018

It looks like the idea of receiving special instructions from God while reading the Bible is not a new one. Here’s what John Newton (author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”) had to say about this in a letter dated February 22, 1774:

There is a danger of leaning to impressions. Texts of Scripture brought powerfully to the heart are very desirable and pleasant - if their tendency is to humble us, to give us a more feeling sense of the preciousness of Christ, or of the doctrines of grace; if they make sin more hateful, enliven our regard to the means, or increase our confidence in the power and faithfulness of God. But if they are understood, as intimating our path of duty in particular circumstances, or confirming us in purposes we may have already formed, not otherwise clearly warranted by the general strain of the Word, or by the leadings of Providence, they are for the most part ensnaring, and always to be suspected. Nor does their coming into the mind at the time of prayer give them more authority in this respect. When the mind is intent upon any subject, the imagination is often watchful to catch at anything which may seem to countenance the favorite pursuit. It is too common to ask counsel of the Lord - when we have already secretly determined for ourselves! And in this disposition, we may easily be deceived by the sound of a text of Scripture, which, detached from the passage in which it stands, may seem remarkably to tally with our wishes! Many have been deceived this way; and sometimes, when the event has shown them they were mistaken, it has opened a door for great distress, and Satan has found occasion to make them doubt even of their most solid experiences.

The Holy Spirit will indeed communicate comfort, grace, the preciousness of Christ, the ugliness of sin, etc. as we read the Bible. He is active in our hearts and minds as we read, enabling us to see God’s glory and turning our knowledge of Him and His commands into wisdom to apply to our lives. But do not forget: The words of Scripture - not “detached from the passage in which they stand,” but their meaning in their context - are inspired, not any impressions of private, personalized instructions we have while reading them, and we need to be careful to distinguish between the two. As Newton pointed out, it’s too easy for our fallen hearts, which are just waiting for excuses to do what we already want to do, to deceive us. Learn how to interpret the text well, and then lean on that. Apply that.

For more on this, see Greg’s “Never Read a Bible Verse” and “Does God Whisper? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.”