I was flying across the country this week—a long flight—all the way to the east coast and the Lord always makes things serendipitous, always has a surprise or two; I was sitting next to a man who eventually took out a Bible and started reading it and as he was reading it, I said to him, "That’s a Bible you’ve got there." He said, "It is," and I said, "Do you understand what you’re reading?" I thought I’d just play Philip for a while. I said, "Do you understand what you’re reading?" and he said, "Well, some of it. I know one thing: that there are many ways to God." I said, "Keep reading. You’re not done yet." He said, "Well, it’s kind of hard to understand." I said, "Well, would you like to be able to understand the Bible?" and he said, "I really want to be able to understand the Bible — I really do." So, I took out my MacArthur Study Bible and I opened this thing and he said, "This has all the answers!" Anyway, I had the opportunity to expose him to the gospel and I’m going to send him one of those Bibles.Praise the Lord for arranging such meetings. Praise the Lord for using John MacArthur to share the gospel with this man. :) It really is great to see how God does that; we've seen it in the international work here in Brussels.
But my stomach squirmed at one point in this encouraging account: "This [MacArthur Study Bible] has all the answers!" Because [cue confession] I have this Thing against Study Bibles, precisely for the reason that that is the impression that they give: 'You can't understand the Bible by itself - but look we've explained it for you.' So the impression left from MacArthur's account was not so much, "Look how God arranged for his servant to meet someone who wanted to understand the Bible and he could help in telling him of the gospel", but "Look how God arranged for his servant to meet someone who wanted to understand the Bible so he could give him a MacArthur Study Bible so he could understand it, rather than one with just the Bible text."
Caveats: Yes I do believe that God graciously uses his people to proclaim his gospel to others, and that includes the words that his people have committed to writing in books, commentaries, etc. I'm sure that as he used MacArthur's spoken words setting forth the gospel to this chap, he also used his written words in the Study Bible. No I don't disagree with Peter that some of the Bible is hard to understand. It takes hard work, parts are harder to understand than others and commentaries can be a helpful resource. And for a final caveat, no I'm not being black & white on this: since we use translations which use various manuscripts, it makes sense that most Bibles are printed with some translation and manuscript related notes.
But I do have an issue with presenting man-made helps as if they were essential to understanding the Bible, which is the record of God's revelation inspired by his Holy Spirit. He inspired all that was necessary to understanding (with the eye-opening work of his Holy Spirit) his gospel savingly. We are not in the time of Philip, when his 'explanatory notes' were God's ordained means of the Ethiopian hearing what was necessary to salvation. We now have the NT to reveal Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.
Having Study Notes in a Bible gives the impression (at least to an unbeliever) that they are essential to understanding the Bible. To a believer, having study notes in a Bible encourages the temptation to look to the helps for understanding rather than prayerfully looking to the text for understanding - it encourages the idea that, "You probably won't be able to understand this bit from the text - here we've explained it for you." This in itself is harmful.
But what really gets me is that this technique (producing Bibles with integrated study notes) has been used time & time again to propagate false teaching and heresy - or, being most generous, to impose the writer's theological system on the Bible. The Papists use(d) it. The Local Church use it. The JWs use it in the form of their Watchtower notes. The Scofield Bible does it! All these groups have the idea, "You won't be able to understand this properly on its own - but here, we've explained it for you. :)" Otherwise put, "This has all the answers!" Even if notes are good, it is better to teach people how to read the Bible well (one might say simply how to read well) than to hand them 'all the answers'. I want to be able to open my Bible with someone and say, "Forget about using X's notes to see what the Bible says - here, read it yourself", as God gave me opportunity last year with someone who had been studying with JWs.
I consult commentaries when I need to - see the caveats above. Sproul & co's notes may be great, and I may consult similar at a late stage of Bible study or in general reading. I would avoid thinking that I have all the answers! But I won't use a 'study Bible' as my main Bible.