The Bible’s Not an Instruction Manual

by Jared C. Wilson April 18, 2022

“Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”

Ever heard the Bible explained that way? It’s a handy mnemonic device that certainly has some truth to it. But does it get at the heart of what the Bible really is? The way so many of us treat the Scriptures—as God’s “how to” book—doesn’t seem quite right when we carefully look at what its own pages say. And I fear that the way we use the Bible in this way actually accomplishes the opposite of what we intended.

If the Bible is not essentially an instruction manual for practical application, then, what is it? If it’s not mainly about what we need to do, what is it about? If it’s not about us, who is it about?

The Bible Is about Jesus

About Jesus? Well, duh,” you’re thinking right now. That goes without saying. And I agree. It has been going without saying. But we need to keep saying it. We don’t “go” without saying this. The Bible is about Jesus. Front to back, page to page, Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, the written Word of God is primarily and essentially about the saving revelation of the divine Word of God.

Jesus himself said so. In Luke 24, we see two of Jesus’s disciples walking on the road to Emmaus and discussing the report they’d gotten of Christ’s resurrection. Suddenly Jesus himself sidles up next to them. He asks them what they’re talking about. They don’t recognize him at first, so they explain that they are discussing the matter of Jesus, expressing their confusion about his having been given up to be crucified when all along they thought he was the one sent to redeem Israel. And they also weren’t sure what to make of this astounding claim about his resurrection. Then Jesus does something very interesting: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

In 2 Corinthians 1:20, Paul tells us that all the biblical promises “find their Yes in him.” The book of Hebrews is a great sustained example of this truth, showing us how all that led up to Christ was preaching Christ from the shadows, as it were, even reminding us that the mighty acts of the great heroes of the Old Testament were not about themselves but about acting “by faith” in the promise of the Christ to come.

Indeed, everything the Bible teaches, whether theological or practical, and everywhere it teaches, whether historical or poetical or applicational or prophetic, is meant to draw us closer to Christ, seeing him with more clarity and loving him with more of our affections. The Bible is about Jesus.

The Primary Message of the Bible Is That the Work Is Already Done

One night on the way home from small group, I listened to the guy on the local Christian radio station give a ten-minute presentation of what he had learned in church the previous day. It all boiled down to an appeal to make Jesus, in his words, our “role model.” It was all very nice and inspirational.

There is indeed no better role model than Jesus. You won’t find me arguing against that. But the problem with this fellow’s recollection of his pastor’s sermon was that it showed no indication of actual gospel content. It could have been delivered by the Dalai Lama. The buddhist actor Richard Gere thinks Jesus is an awesome role model. So do many atheists. The majority of the thinking world acknowledges that Jesus is a good role model, and in fact, most of them wish Christians would act more like Jesus (or at least, more like their perception of Jesus).

This ought to hint at the inherent deficiency in the “Jesus as role model” message: “Be like Jesus,” by itself, is not good news. The gospel is not good advice, it is good news. The emphasis in our churches must be on God’s finished work through Christ. To be clear: We should be exhorting our congregations to live in more Christlike ways. But if the emphasis of our preaching is on being more like Jesus and not on the good news of grace despite our not being able to be like Jesus, we end up actually achieving the opposite of our intent. We inadvertently become legalists, actually, because we are more concerned with works and behavior than with Christ’s work on our hearts. The primary message of the Bible, as it heralds us to Jesus Christ, is that the work is already done.

The Bible’s News Is Much Better Than Its Instructions

The Bible is incredibly practical. We don’t have to make it that way. It’s already that way. There are lots of practical things in it, and we do need to teach them. But we must never teach the practical points as the main points. The practical stuff is always connected to the proclamational stuff. The “dos” can never be detached from the “done” of the finished work of Christ in the gospel, or else we run the risk of preaching the law.

In 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 Paul is recalling the giving of the tablets of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. As Moses would go up and commune with God, the glory of the Most High was so intense that it would continue to radiate off his face when he came down. The radiant glory was so intense that Moses covered his face with a veil to shield the children of israel from the intensity. But as stark and intense and awe-inspiring as that glory was, Paul says, it is eclipsed by the ministry of the Spirit, the ministry of righteousness, the ministry of the gospel of Jesus.

This helps us to see that the essential message of the Bible is the gospel, and that therefore the gospel needs to be central to all we say and do as a church, whether in the worship service or out. This means many of us need to wrestle with the reality that the gospel is not just for unbelievers. It is for the Christian too.

Perhaps we need to see how versatile and resilient the gospel is, how much deeper and more powerful than the dos and don’ts this message is. Maybe we need to see that the gospel does more than the law could ever do. It goes further than the law could ever go. If the instructions come with glory, Paul says, “will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory” (v. 8).

The good news of the gospel is so much better than the instructions! It is better because the news actually saves us. The gospel is the ministry of righteousness because it announces not just the blank slate of sins wiped out but the full credit of Christ’s perfect obedience credited to us!

The Power of Salvation

As we look out at the world and into our churches, we think we know what will fix everything. We’ll just tell them to get their act together. Thus all the instructions.

But what will really save the lost world? Let me tell you: none of our complaints against it.

What will transform the hearts of the people in your church? No amount of your nagging.

What will motivate people to real life change that begins with real heart change? Not all the helpful tips in the universe.

According to the Bible, only the gospel is the power for salvation (Rom. 1:16). We must stop treating the gospel as though it were power enough for a conversion experience but falls short of empowering all the practical matters of faith that come after.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.