Psalm 119:130 says “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”
One of the ways God unfolds his Word to us is through personal Bible study. One method that I have found particularly helpful is inductive Bible study, which the ministry of InterVarsity introduced to me in college.
Inductive Versus Deductive Study
To study the Bible inductively means to use information in the passage to reach a conclusion about what the passage is saying. This might sound obvious, and we probably assume this is what we’re doing when we read the Bible. But, whether aware of it or not, we all come to passages of Scripture with conclusions already made.
By nature, we are prone to deduction: making a conclusion about a piece of something based on general knowledge of the whole.
For example, if you have concluded that a certain brand of clothing is high-quality and fashionable, then you may assume each item of that brand is high-quality and fashionable, without looking closely at each item yourself.
When we study a Bible passage inductively, we try very hard to make our conclusions about what the text is saying from evidence within the text, rather than from information or opinions outside of the text.
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. (Hebrews 2:1).
It’s a mistake to read the Bible casually, guessing at its meaning and relying on our own experiences to determine what God is saying to us. This inductive method is helpful because it forces us to pay closer attention to what God’s Word says for itself. Here are 10 steps that may help you begin an inductive Bible study:
10 Steps of Inductive Bible Study:
1.Prayerfully choose a book to study.
As students of God’s Word, we aim to humbly receive the whole counsel of God. So, ask the Lord to guide you to a book that will broaden your grasp of Scripture, as well as deepen your love for and knowledge of the Lord (Ephesians 1:17-19).
Choose prayerfully, but remember that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
2. Understand the background of the book.
Research the general background of the book. Who wrote it? Where and when was it written? Who was the original audience? In what genre is it written?
You’re looking for perspective: to place the book in its correct place in time and history. A study Bible can be helpful, but resist the temptation to read every note at this point. The study Bible likely contains themes and conclusions that you want to discover for yourself in the text.
3. Make a manuscript of the book, and read it twice.
Create a manuscript by printing out the book double-spaced with section headings and paragraph formatting removed. You can use a website like Biblegateway.com to locate a digital copy of the book. Read the book from beginning to end. Try to approach it as if you had never read it before. Then read it again from beginning to end, looking for the aim of the letter and overarching themes.
4. Select a portion of the text to study within the context of the whole.
Narrow down a section for closer study. Depending on the time allowed, it might be half a page, or several. Choose a section to work with that contains a cohesive thought.
5. Mark what you see in the text.
Take a set of colored pencils. Look for key words or ideas to mark: repeated words, similar ideas, and words that connect units of thought (like “now”, “therefore”, “so that”, “but”, etc). Connection words between sections of thought indicate how the author is building on what has already been said, whether continuing their argument, making a conclusion, or introducing a new thought.
6. Ask questions of the text.
Try to think of questions that naturally arise from what has been said. Ask questions like: What does this say? What does this word mean? How does this section relate to the rest of the book?
Write down as many questions as you can.
7. Answer questions from the text first, then look to resources.
Often many of our questions can be answered in the text and its surrounding context. When you get stuck, read the passage in another trusted translation, and look up definitions in an English dictionary or a Bible dictionary like Vines . Use cross-references too.
For example, when I’m studying James—which is believed to be the earliest book in the New Testament canon—I try to find answers to my questions in the Old Testament first, since that’s the resource James’ recipients had.
8. Humbly discuss your conclusions with other believers.
While personal Bible study is tremendously important, it is important that we do it while connected to the larger body of believers.
Strange ideas tend to take hold when we operate in silos. Humble discussion within your local church body, or comparison of your ideas with the study notes written in your Bible by other Christ-followers, are some of the Holy Spirit’s means of keeping our doctrine sound.
9. Determine your appropriate response.
A life-changing encounter with the Living God is the ultimate goal of any Bible study (James 1:22-25). Invariably, there is a promise to believe in, a command to obey, or a warning to heed when we read God’s Word.
10. Prayerfully ask God to change you.
Avoid the tragic pitfall of concluding your time in God’s word determined to obey, but without any real power to do so. While we are no longer slaves to sin because of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on our behalf (Romans 6:17), we remain wholly dependent on His Spirit to change us. Prayerful fellowship with our Lord and Savior—relying on Him by asking daily for grace to obey—is the only means of lasting fruit-bearing. Hear his promise for those in Christ:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Praise the Lord that we’re not left to understand Scripture by our methods alone; but instead, the Lord faithfully promises to opens our eyes to his wondrous truth.
As stated, this is a way to begin inductive study, but it’s far from an exhaustive list of the tools available for this type of study. Here are some resources with more information on inductive Bible study:
- The Bible Study Handbook by Lindsey Olesberg
- Women of the Word by Jen Wilken
- Living by the Book by Book by Howard and William Hendricks