Editors’ note: This article is adapted from the Introduction to the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible (Crossway, 2019), and is published in partnership with Crossway.

We should be willing to learn principles of redemptive interpretation that the New Testament writers employed and exemplified.

From these principles we learn that the more common approach to understanding the redemptive nature of all biblical texts is to identify how God’s Word predicts, prepares for,reflects, or results from the person and/or work of Christ.

These four categories of gospel explanation aren’t meant to be exhaustive or kept rigidly separate, but they do help us explain how all of Scripture bears witness to who Christ is and/or what he must do.

1. Some passages—such as the prophecies and the messianic Psalms—clearly predict who Christ is and what he will do.

Isaiah wrote of the Messiah, that “his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:6–7). This is a clear prediction of Jesus’s person and work, and there are many more such predictions in the prophetic portions of Scripture.

2. Other passages prepare God’s people to understand the grace God must provide to redeem them.

When David shows mercy to King Saul’s lame grandson (a royal descendant who would be David’s blood-rival for Israel’s throne), we understand something about God’s way of forgiving enemies and showing mercy toward the helpless.

Not only do many Old Testament passages prepare God’s people to understand the grace of his provision, they also prepare the people to understand their need. When Paul writes in Galatians 3:24 that the law was our schoolmaster or guardian helping lead us to Christ, we understand that the high and holy standards of the law ultimately prepare us to seek God’s provision of mercy rather than to depend on the quality of our performance to make us acceptable to him. The sacrifice system further prepares us to understand that without the shedding of blood there is no atonement for our failures to keep the law (Heb. 9:22). And because Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness, we’re prepared to understand that our standing before God depends on trusting the provision of another (Rom. 4:23–24).

Grace doesn’t spring up like a surprise jack-in-the-box in the New Testament. God’s people were prepared for millennia to understand and receive the grace of Christ.

3. Because grace is the key to understanding God’s purposes, culminating in Christ, aspects of the gospel are reflected throughout Scripture.

When a text neither plainly predicts nor prepares for Christ’s person or work, the redemptive truths reflected can always be discerned by asking two questions that are fair to ask of any text:

  • What does this text reflect about the nature of God who provides redemption?
  • What does this text reflect about the nature of humanity that requires redemption?

These questions are the lenses through which we can look at any passage to see what’s being reflected about God’s nature and/or human nature. Inevitably these lenses enable us to see that God is holy and we are not, or that God is sovereign and we are vulnerable, or that God is merciful and we require his mercy. Such reading glasses always make us aware of our need of God’s grace to compensate for our sin and inability. Christ may not be specifically mentioned in the text, but the reflection of God’s nature and ours makes the necessity of his grace apparent.

Using these reading glasses throughout the Old and New Testament will enable us to see the gracious nature of God who provides redemption as he gives strength to the weak, rest to the weary, deliverance to the disobedient, faithfulness to the unfaithful, food to the hungry, and salvation to sinners. We also learn something about the human nature that requires redemption when heroes fail, patriarchs lie, kings fall, prophets cower, disciples doubt, and covenant people become idolaters. These lenses prevent us from setting up characters in the Bible only as moral heroes to emulate, rather than as flawed men and women who themselves needed God’s grace.

Every text, seen in its redemptive context, is reflecting an aspect of humanity’s fallen condition that requires the grace of God. Focusing on this fallen condition will cause readers to consider the divine solution that’s characteristic of the grace which culminates in the provision of the Savior.

4. We understand how God’s redemptive message appears in Scripture through texts that result from Christ’s work on our behalf.

We’re justified and sanctified as a result of Christ’s atoning work and spiritual indwelling. Our prayers are heard as a result of his priestly intercession for us. Our wills are transformed as a result of our union with him. We worship as a result of God’s gracious provision for every aspect of our salvation.

Ultimately, the reason to read Scripture with an eye to understanding how our actions and status are a result of grace is to keep straight the order of Scripture’s imperatives and indicatives. The imperatives (what we are to do) are always a consequence of the indicatives (who we are by God’s gracious provision); what we do is never a cause of who we are with respect to our eternal status in God’s kingdom and family. We obey as a result of being God’s beloved, not to cause God to love us. His grace toward us precedes, enables, and motivates our efforts toward holiness.

A key example of imperatives flowing from indicatives occurs when God gives the Ten Commandments to his people. He does not make their obedience a condition of his love. He first declares, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 5:6)—and then he gives the commandments. He rescued his people before they obeyed. Their obedience was expected as a consequence of receiving God’s deliverance, not as a condition for obtaining it. By understanding this consistent redemptive pattern in Scripture, we not only have a tool for understanding the Bible’s structure, we have a way of seeing gospel grace even in passages dominated by divine commands.

And why is this indicative/imperative pattern so important? Because grace isn’t only what underlies God’s imperatives, but also the ultimate power that enables us to live these standards, as we are transformed from the inside out.