3 Practical Tips to Keep in Mind When You Quote Scripture

3-tips-quoteWrenching a Bible verse out of context isn’t the only bad Bible-quoting habit out there. There is a more subtle set of unfortunate customs we use in evangelical churches when we quote the Bible.

Here’s an example: a relative of mine was reading to me her salvation testimony as she prepared to deliver it to her church. It’s a stirring story, full of God’s grace. At the beginning she said,

Ephesians chapter 2, verses 4 through 5, states, ‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.’

It is the height of rudeness to complain about someone’s Bible quotation practices after they read their beautiful conversion testimony.

It’s a good thing my relatives love me.

And it was a practice session anyway. And I’d been thinking about this issue at the time. Okay?

I said to her, “You know, there’s no law saying you have to give the reference, use the word ‘states,’ or even quote these verses in their entirety—verse divisions are a comparatively recent invention. And when you start a quotation with ‘But,’ it’s confusing unless people happen to know that passage.”

She was actually relieved. She told me she thought she “had” to do these things. Others feel the same way, apparently, because the unwritten rules of American evangelical Bible quotation are observed with only minor variation everywhere I go.

This issue is not a pet peeve for me, however; I don’t get upset, and I don’t look down on people in whose Bible-quoting habits I see minor flaws. I only offer “correction” when it is asked for. But all of evangelicalism is asking for it, in my opinion.

Here are three principles you should keep in mind the next time you quote Scripture publicly:

1. Mention the context instead of giving the reference.

Why mention chapter and verse numbers at all if you don’t expect people to look them up? It’s like a person you just met saying, “I’m from Connecticut, where are you from?,” and you replying, “I’m from 16114 Edgewood Drive, Montclair, Virginia 22026.” This is, at best, too much information. At worst, it’s confusing: language is built on the implicit promise of “relevance,” the idea that anything you say to someone else is intelligible and useful given the knowledge you share and the situation you’re in. Someone who hears you give your home address, zip code and all, will struggle to figure out what possible purpose you might have for doing so.

Unless you do in fact want people turning to a given passage, the time you spend saying “Romans chapter 1 verses 16 through 18” could be better spent making a brief reference to the context of the statements you’re about to quote. It could be as simple as saying, “Paul says in his letter to the Romans. . .” It could also go into slightly more detail: “Right after exulting in his calling as an apostle, Paul exults in the power of the message he was given by saying. . .” Much more than knowing a Bible statement’s precise “home address,” people need to know the general terrain in which it resides. This is more helpful for understanding—which is your goal, right?

2. Remember that quotations by their nature always omit something.

Quotations always leave something out, no matter who or what you’re quoting. Two little apostrophes joined together to form quotation marks (“) are a kind of ellipsis. A pair of them, encircling a sentence or two, says, “Whether there was stuff that came before and after this quotation or not, what’s inside these marks is all that’s relevant to my communicative purposes at the moment.”

Imagine if we followed the same convention when quoting movie lines. Picture tough-as-nails Clint Eastwood as he rasps,

Go ahead. Make my day. Call D’Ambrosia in the DA’s office.

Picture Tom Hanks aboard Apollo 13 as he radios back to earth,

Houston, we have a problem. We have a main bus B undervolt.

They kind of lose their punch. . .

You don’t have to say the whole line when you quote something.

3. Quote the words that make the best sense standing alone.

I suggest you quote that portion of a given Bible passage which makes the best sense by itself, standing alone. It can be more than a verse or less than one. It can even cross a chapter boundary. It’s okay. Chapter and verse divisions are recent, wholly man-made, and not always helpful.

In fact, by the power vested in me by the Christian Information Superhighway Administration (CISA), I hereby grant all evangelicals everywhere the privilege of starting their Bible quotations one word later if that enables their quotations to communicate the truth without confusion.

  • “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
  • “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
  • “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”
  • “God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Every one of these sentences makes sense without the opening connecting word (“For…,” “But. . .”). Make truthful and effective communication your goal, not pedantic precision. You’re not “taking words out of Scripture” a la Revelation 22:19; remember: all quotations leave something out—namely the rest of the Bible.

Good Habits

If I were to edit my relative’s written salvation testimony, I’d suggest she put good Bible quotation habits into effect, weave Paul’s words into her own naturally, and say something like the following:

I’ve always loved the words Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus. Right after reminding them of the depths of sin from which they’d been saved, he says that ‘God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.’ Paul says—and I know it’s true from the Bible and my personal experience of divine mercy—that it’s ‘by grace [we] have been saved.’

If you violate every principle in this post the next time you quote the Bible publicly, it is truly not a big deal. We can still be friends. I have written 1,111 words about a molehill. I also have no authority to police your language, and I care a great deal more about the substance of what you say in a testimony, devotional, or sermon than I do about the little accidental features like the mechanics of how you cite Scripture.

Just please don’t go quoting from “Revelations” . . .

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mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. This is an interesting perspective. I have heard a well-known theologian state that if you come to him in regard to something in the Bible, you had better reference the chapter and verse. Since then, I’ve always had the mindset that including the chapter and verse gives the quote more authority; it’s like proof that it is in fact the Word of God and you’re not just saying, “somewhere in the Bible, it says…”

    • Interesting—I don’t know who this theologian is (though I’ve heard this salutary statement before, too), but I feel fairly certain that he does not mean you need to know the precise reference: he means you need to quote the Bible. In other words, you seem to hear this theologian saying, “What’s really important is not whether you have a house but whether you have an address.” And I hear him saying, “If you want to have guests over, you’d better have a house to put them in.” “Chapter and verse” for him is metonymy for “Bible quotation.”

      However, I’m not at all opposed to learning the chapter content of the Bible. I’m for it—I’ve done it (at least for the NT and key portions of the OT)! Just this week I was teaching Sunday School from an ESV Reader’s Bible, and I found I could still reference passages for my students via chapter and verse, even though the verse numbers were not in front of me. It is good to know where in the Bible something is said, but if I have to choose between knowing the context and knowing the verse reference, I choose the former. And when I quote the Bible, I don’t feel bound to quote entire verses. As long as I’m not taking a statement out of context, I can quote only a portion of a given verse—or paragraph or chapter or book.

      When you orient your hearers to the portion of Scripture you’re in by describing the context a little, you are offering the same proof that what you’re about to quote is in fact the Word of God, and you’re doing it in a more helpful way—because you’re communicating more of the meaning of the passage.

      Am I making sense?

  2. I agree with you, Mark … mostly. I would add just one caveat to your first principle, especially if you are preaching or teaching. It is important to give the reference if you want the hearers to later look up the verse you’re quoting and read it in context for themselves. (e.g., the Bereans in Acts 17:11).

    Aside from that, these tips are very helpful. Thanks!

    • Good comment. I agree: if you want people to turn to the passage, then give the reference.

      I try to be careful how often I turn to different passages, because I don’t want to wear people out and I don’t want to prooftext. I want to have time to show that what I’m saying the passage says is really what it says. And I do think it’s healthy for people to bring a Bible to church—and for pastors to make them feel like they need to continue doing so. It sends an implicit message that the pastor’s authority is lying in the people’s laps, and that they are responsible to listen like Bereans. Nonetheless, of course I can’t insist on this point because churches full of people with their own Bibles is a comparatively recent invention.

  3. Richard J. Ward says:

    Cool post. I’ve noticed that New Testament writers didn’t see the need to quote Old Testament passages verbatim either.

  4. I believe you should list the biblical references at the bottom of your blog post so they can be checked out by the reader to know whether or not your quotes are in context with Scripture. Why? Satan left out the phrase “to guard you in all your ways” when he quoted Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus in Luke 4:10 and Matthew 4:6.

    Today we have many false teachers/preachers who are misleading young people, in particular, but other ages as well. We are living in an age where there is much biblical illiteracy. When the Bible teaches us to test everything and hold on to the good, ( 1 Thessalonians 5:21) how are we to do that unless we are familiar with what the Bible teaches

    We gain discernment by being familiar with God’s Word and can test what we hear from other teachers/preachers, online or off. How do we test? With checking all teaching that sounds off in their context with surrounding Scripture. We can also go deeper in context as well. God’s Word is beautiful. It is a treasure chest of jewels that enrich our lives, delight our hearts and bring encouragement, peace and comfort and joy in our God, and deeper love for Christ Jesus, and for the Holy Spirit. Why would anyone want to deprive others of that experience?

    By listing the Scripture references after your blog is just inviting those who read it to dig into that treasure chest of jewels and learn wisdom and discernment. At the same time, they learn more about God and His ways, His truth, and His will. Why rob them of that opportunity? Give them that choice, at least, by including a list of references from your topic below your blog post.

  5. Thanks Mark you gave me something to think about. I thank God for you… (Rom 1:8 – 1 Cor 1:4 – Php 1:3) LOL

  6. Gerald Fields says:

    I beg to differ with you Mark. Of course, whatever you are presenting you should always consider your audience. In this case, being in church it is proper to cite the Book and Verse. Furthermore, in today’s day & age with so many Bible versions it is also polite to let listeners know what you are reading from NIV, KJV, NLT, etc.… Whether they have time to turn to the given passage (or not) at least one can write down Eph 2.4-5. …Quote from anywhere in the Holy Bible and help wean folk from milk to meat: “…precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:” (ref: Is 28:10 KJV)
    This is important because your relative’s testimony may have truly touched a listener and they will be able to go home and meditate further on the Word. Also looking at scripture 1-up and 1-down to get a fuller context in many cases. Sadly, if you don’t give them a scriptural reference perhaps they will not know where to look for further edification.
    This issue is a pet peeve for me: If you don’t give the information and I don’t know it then I’ll ask later; what was the scripture and the Bible version you used? Lastly, with all due respect the Word of God ain’t the movies. Even the devil misquoted scripture when addressing our Lord. I too want mine straight up & uncut. And if they have not rightly divided the Word, I let them know (using scripture of course). Blessings!

    • You don’t have to beg; I’ll let you differ. =)

      Yours and one other comment make me think we may be aiming at the same target from two different sides. I’m prepared to believe that there are places where preachers are so unfaithful to their contexts that their listeners need to keep them honest by looking up all the passages they mention. And, indeed, I have heard preachers who give references (often but not always rapid-fire) without any attention to explaining the surrounding context.

      But the main circumstance I’m aiming it is faithful preachers (and others) who are earnest about getting the truth across to people—to people who have good reason to trust them. I’m suggesting to such people a way to increase biblical understanding, not to get away with poor hermeneutics.

  7. The beauty of this is the fact that we now can Google any string of passage and it will be at the top of your search. Whether you are the deliverer or recipient of the message, it is very easy to look up in our day and age!

  8. Thank you. Thank you!! I have done this for years on my blog. I usually just put the book and chapter. My thinking was that I wanted the reader to read the whole context. I don’t see that too often but it makes so much sense. Blessings to you. His Word is powerful and alive.

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