November 25, 2020

Recommendation and Review: The NLT Study Bible

Before passing along a brief review of the New Living Translation Study Bible, I want to talk a bit about study Bibles in general in my own experience.

I have used a lot of Bibles in my life, and I’ve owned several “study” Bibles, but I have only used two extensively and for particular reasons.

The first study Bible I used extensively was a KJV Thompson Chain Reference Bible I received for high school graduation. This Bible was really my first “Bible school.” As a young Christian and “preacher boy” (I was preaching regularly at age 16) I had no theological library and no access to one. A “Baptist Book Store” in our community (this was the early 1970’s) had a few Bible dictionaries and one volume commentaries. I was basically without more than a handful of books for the first few years of my Christian life.

The Thompson Chain Reference Bible became a library for me, and I spent many, many hours running “chains” of verses in the extensive topical index and doing research in the supplemental materials. Along with a Halley’s Bible Handbook and JFB Commentary, this was my Biblical library for a long time.

I still have a classroom set of NIV Thompsons in my classroom for my student’s use. The Thompson is kind of like a hardware store that is so jam packed with various items that there’s hardly any way to know what’s around the corner, but it is still a useful Bible for students to use in exploring various subjects in scripture. The index has over 6,000 topics, and it’s still fun to run those numbered chain references and see what’s around the corner.

The other study Bible I used extensively was the original NIV Study Bible, which I acquired somewhere around 1986 (?) while I was serving as a youth minister at a large Baptist church. This study Bible’s main feature was notes at the bottom of the page explaining the text. This was a point in my life where I was beginning to teach several classes each week, and the advantages of these notes was obvious. I liked the NIV translation as well. I still have this Bible on my desk, even though the cover has long since disintegrated. My appreciation of the value of those helpful notes hasn’t diminished, even though I no longer use the NIV.

I’ve had my hands on lots of other study Bibles that have been useful, especially The Disciple’s Study Bible and the New Reformation Study Bible. I’m not sure I believe you can put study Bibles in a horse race and come out with a clear winner. Study Bibles are tools for particular workmen, and each one should present the reviewer/user with a clear impression of who would find this particular Bible useful and why.

I was surprised when I first heard that the NLT would be publishing a study Bible. I have used the NLT for two years now as the Bible I preach from when my audience is primarily high school students. Denise and I also read from it as one of two Bibles we use in our devotions. Noel Heikinnen and Michael Card convinced me that the NLT’s second edition was an accurate translation rather than primarily a paraphrase. Subsequent reading of the NLT every day in devotions with my wife has convinced me that the NLT, despite its use of dynamic equivalency, is an accurate and trustworthy translation, often far surpassing the ESV and NASB in balancing readability and accuracy in my setting.

Still, when I want to study the text of scripture, I use the ESV or NASB and will certainly continue to do so. But I want to recommend the NLT Study Bible enthusiastically, because it is a useful, highly featured study Bible appropriate for the young adult who uses the NLT as his/her primary translation.

And that is the most commendable thing about the NLTSB: It provides its many tools for the NLT user, and that is a great and useful contribution. But the tools themselves are impressive. You can go to the NLTSB website and download a complete tour of the Bible’s features, so there is no need for me to repeat them. I do want, however, to mention particular appreciation for several of them.

The quality of the scholarly team that has produced the translation and the features is superb. I was quite pleased to see how many world class scholars lent their gifts and knowledge to this effort. Just as impressive is the broad and diverse denominational background of the team, ensuring there is no particular bias. The user of this Bible can trust the translation and the resources developed by these scholars. (A list of the scholars is available at both NLT web sites.)

The notes on the text are excellent. I was immediately impressed that these notes were full of useful information, not overcrowded with trivia. The notes are, as claimed, highly tuned to the “so what?” test. And, most impressive of anything else in the NLTSB, the literary quality and readability of the notes is A++.

These notes are conspicuously unbiased toward a particular theology, something I have always liked about the NIV Study Bible. They also help the reader know where translation issues come into play, which is essential with this kind of Bible.

The thematic, character, background and geography “inserts” are plentiful and extremely well done. These inserts vary from full pages to a few paragraphs, but they are self-contained studies that the student and teacher will find useful.

In the resources in the back of the NLTSB, there are two extremely useful tools. First, the subject index is much like the Thompson topical index, but far more elegant, better organized and useful. While it doesn’t cover 6,000 topics, every relevant topic in basic study of the Bible is covered in a comprehensive way.

Secondly, the dictionary/concordance combination is also well-done, combining short summary entries on major subjects with plentiful concordance references. Together, these two resources are impressive.

Two hundred word studies are keyed into the text using Strong’s numbers and a Word Study supplement in the back of the Bible. This is a limited amount of words, but any Strong’s applications in the NLT will benefit the student.

It shouldn’t be missed that a student wanting to study the subject of, let’s say, the church, has the word study feature, a thematic summary, a topical study and a dictionary/concordance study, all in addition to excellent notes that purposefully do not lean towards any particular denominational stance.

This is an excellent set of tools for the NlT user. If the NLT is not your translation, there may not be much here to persuade you to change translations, and other study Bibles may contain more resources and content. But for the NLT user who wants a set of study tools to translate into personal growth, teaching, preaching and more knowledge of the Bible, the NLT Study Bible is the obvious choice.

UPDATE: Here’s the NLT Study Bible promo video:

A copy of the NLT Study Bible was provided for the reviewer.


  1. When I was taking my undergrad-level bible survey courses at Wayland Baptist University several years ago, we used the NIVSB. As you said, despite my reservations about the NIV as a translation, the commentary is very good. Later, I discovered that Zondervan puts out a KJVSB and NASBSB with the same commentary. To that end, my students use the NASBSB. They typically have enough background in the bible that I prefer for them to have the mor literal NASB over the more dynamic-equivalent NIV.

    Also, do you have any links to what Heikinnen and Card have said about the NLT? I’m interested in their takes on the subject. Honestly, I just assumed that the NLT was as much a paraphrase as the original TLB.

  2. Here’s a recent post on the development of the NLT translation. Very relevant to your question.

    Noel H is a personal friend and used it when he preached for me a couple of years ago. Michael Card was an NLT sponsor for a long time and talked about it a great deal and used it in his ministry. No web content from those two that I know of, but go to the NLT web site for information.

    It is a totally different project than the LB.

  3. Obed beat me to it. The Zondervan NASBSB is my Bible of choice, too. The great center-column references of the NIVSB with the NASB translation.

  4. I took a look at the NLTSB’s preview of Genesis. It’s impressive stuff. I tend to recommend the NLT for newbie Christians; it’s great that I can now recommend a study bible for them too.

  5. Any serious student of the Bible should have both a good, literal translation (ESV, NASB, etc.) and a very readable translation that still retains respectable integrity, such as the NLT. I have used the NLT for several years now and can think of few cases where I felt the translation was off the mark. I am amused at how many time I have heard our pastor (he uses the NASB) who during a sermon would say something to the effect…”Now the NASB translates such and such word as _____, but the word should more accurately be translated _____.” That more accurate translation would usually reflect what was used in the NLT. A good thing.

  6. I’ve been using the NLT exclusively for a few years now. After growing up with the NKJV it’s a breath of fresh air.

    It’s incredible how many times I’ve read something in the NLT and thought “No – surely it doesn’t really say that!” and gone to check the NKJV or KJV only to find that yes, it really does, and I just missed it all these years.

    I’ve found the NLT to be extremely easy to read without skipping over things, and very reliable. It’s definitely not a paraphrase and nothing like the LB at all. I’d recommend it to anybody – scholars and new followers alike, and everybody in between.

    If people want to check out the text, it’s available on