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Presented at Toccoa Falls College on 11/11/1998.
Also presented at Trinity Fellowship on 01/03/1999
and at University Presbyterian Church at UCLA on 7/11/99.
"Go ye into all the world and make disciples of every creature, . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. . . ."
Our subject for today is the role of study in the spiritual life. For those of you who are students, I am not talking about your course work. At this stage in your life, that is simply your job. You should therefore approach it in the light of biblical teaching about any work that we are called to perform. To the studies you undertake for your classes apply verses like Eccl. 9:10--"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might"; 1 Cor. 10:31--"Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God"; and Col. 3:23--"Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as unto the Lord rather than men."
Rather, the question I am addressing today is this: What will--what should--be the place of study in your life when you are no longer being coerced into it by a professor? What ought the place of study to be in your life, not because you are a student, but simply because you are a Christian? Before I can answer that question I had better explain what this "studying" is that I am talking about. I would define it as follows:
Study, as I will be using the word today, is the deliberate, serious, and sustained application of the mind, in dependence on the Holy Spirit and in submission to Scripture, to any given topic or problem, for the purpose of attaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
This definition is full of loaded terms. Let me see if I can unload some of them for you. It is "deliberate": something you chose to do and plan to do, not something that just happens haphazardly. It is "serious": it requires mental effort and exertion, and though for some of us it is inherently enjoyable, it is done for a serious purpose. It is "sustained": one devotes time to it and does it on a regular basis. It involves the application of the "mind": that part of you that learns, analyzes, thinks, reasons, deliberates, and ponders. It is done "in dependence on the Holy Spirit": it involves an overt decision not to trust in our own wisdom, to pray and ask for His illumination. It is done "in submission to Scripture," which is the grid through which everything is filtered and the plumb line by which everything is evaluated.
It is the application of the mind to "any given topic": we are not talking about Bible study as such, but about the study of anything and everything in relation to the Bible. Bible study per se would be a part of our topic, but not the whole. And in our study of all these things we are seeking "knowledge, understanding, and wisdom." "Knowledge" is the possession of facts, of information. "Understanding" is seeing how those facts relate to each other, grasping their meaning in the big picture of the totality of God's universe. And "Wisdom" is knowing how to use that knowledge and understanding in creative and constructive ways for the glory of God and the advancement of Christ's kingdom. We have not achieved our purpose until we get there.
That, then, is what I mean by "study" in this talk: it is the deliberate, serious, and sustained application of the mind, in dependence on the Holy Spirit and in submission to Scripture, to any given topic or problem, for the purpose of attaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
Now, if that is what "study" is, then perhaps my thesis will not seem as outrageous as it might sound to many people. It is this: No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life. Study as I have defined it here is not just something for intelligent people; it is not jut something for intellectuals. It is a necessary component of our identity as servants of Christ. "God," said Sir Thomas More, "made the plants for simplicity and the animals for innocence. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind" (Robert Bolt, "The Man for All Seasons"). No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life.
So anti-intellectual has the Church become that even as we have defined it, many will have difficulty seeing study as a requirement for all believers, not just when they are in school, but throughout their lives. But at least three considerations make this conclusion inescapable:
Scripture has at least three ways of commanding us, in effect, to be lifelong learners. The first is that it gives us, as believers in Christ, the identity of DISCIPLES. A disciple is by definition a learner, one who learns by imitating his Master. You cannot sign up to follow Jesus without signing up to be his disciple, i.e., his student. The Great Commission (Mat. 28:19) is to make disciples; therefore, to respond to the Great Commission is to become one. Therefore, to try to take Christ as your Savior without taking him as your Teacher is as inconsistent and illogical as trying to have him as your Savior without having him as your Lord. The logic is inescapable. No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life.
In the second place, many passages of Scripture enjoin a careful and thoughtful engagement with the text of Scripture. Now, study as we have defined it means more than this, but it does not mean less; it means at least this much. According to Psalm one the person is blessed who delights in the Law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night. 2 Tim. 2:15 commands us to study to show ourselves approved as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth. "Study" in the KJV is not a very accurate translation in contemporary English. The word means "be diligent" in "handling accurately" the Word of Truth. But, ironically, one cannot be diligent in this particular task without "study" in the more technical sense. So the KJV manages to get the right idea after all. No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life.
Finally, our Lord himself goes out of his way to add study to The Great Commandment (Mat. 22:37). The Old Testament verse he is quoting does not have it, but our Lord quite particularly adds it on his own authority: we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our strength, and all our MIND. No one can ignore this commandment and claim to be obedient to our Lord. No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life.
Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 3:16 that all Scripture is inspired by God, and that this makes it profitable. "Scripture" is the Greek word GRAPHE. It means the writings--ink on parchment or papyrus. That is what was "inspired," or breathed out of the mouth of God. God inspired those writings: those words in other words, and no others, in that order in those grammatical constructions written in that language at that time in history. This means that when we read the Bible God says what the words say in the light of their grammar, context, and historical background. These words were written in foreign languages, Greek and Hebrew, two to three and a half thousand years ago, in a very different time with a very different culture from our own. It is simply irresponsible to think that a casual reading of such a book can give us an accurate understanding of it. We need the help of those who know Greek and archaeology, of commentaries, concordances, and of sound methodologies. Not that these things in themselves will give us true spiritual understanding either. But they are tools the Holy Spirit uses. No one who is too lazy to use them need think he will learn anything from the Lord. And how can we study anything else if we are not willing to be serious students even of Scripture? No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life.
The Great Commission requires us to make disciples of all nations. It requires us first to be disciples, that is learners, and then to help others become disciples, that is learners. How can we teach others to learn from the Master unless we are doing so ourselves? It is simply not possible. But Scripture uses other pictures of our identity and role as well, and they carry the same implication. We are also called Ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). An ambassador represents his government to that of another country. As ambassadors of Christ we have the authority to speak for him in offering the treaty (or New Covenant) of the Gospel to others and persuading them in his name to accept it. Now, what would you think of a person who was appointed as an ambassador to a foreign land, and who presumed to undertake his assignment without studying its language, its culture, its customs, its history? He would not make a very effective representative unless he knew these things as well as the terms he was authorized to offer these people, would he? Well, if we are ambassadors of Christ, then that is precisely our position between Christ and the world we were sent to reach. A third picture Scripture gives us is that we are the Stewards of Creation (Gen. 1). Our Father made the world, designed it, and is redeeming it. This knocks down all the walls; it makes the whole universe our back yard and our field of operation. History, art, literature, science, politics, medicine--whatever the field, whatever the endeavor, Christ has a claim on it and has something to say about it--through us as his representatives. No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life.
The conclusion is inescapable. Every disciple of Jesus, because he is a disciple of Jesus, is called to be a life-long learner. Let me then suggest some practical steps as we pursue this calling, as we try to make study and the life of the mind an ongoing part of life after the framework of school is removed.
It's not going to happen otherwise. Life will crowd it out. But if you spend just thirty minutes or an hour a day reading something you don't have to read for work, something that can deepen your understanding of the biblical worldview and of the world we were sent to reach with it and in which we are called to apply it, the long term cumulative effects will be significant.
Not that you will ever finish it--that's not the point. Mine grows faster than I can read the things on it. But if you proceed according to a plan rather than haphazardly, you will get more done, and more significant things done, in the long run. It should include the great classics of the Faith--Augustine's Confessions, Calvin's Institutes, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Milton's Paradise Lost, the works of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. It should include some important works of science, history, social and cultural analysis. I should include some important statements of the philosophy of the Enemy. And it should be read critically.
The better the questions you ask, the better the answers you will get. Important and essential ones include the following: How does fit in with what God teaches us in Scripture? How does it relate to my identity as a person created in the image of God, as a disciple of Christ, an Ambassador of Christ, as Steward of Creation? How does it relate to my particular calling as an individual? How does it glorify the God of all truth? And what does He want me to do about it?
Every disciple of Jesus, because he is a disciple of Jesus, is called to be a life-long learner. "God has room for people with very little sense," said C. S. Lewis, "But he expects them to use all the sense they have." Matthew Arnold said that the purpose of study was "to see the object as in itself it really is," and on the basis of that vision "to discern and propagate the best that has been thought and said in the world." Unfortunately, without faith in Christ, he gave us no basis on which such lofty goals could be pursued. But the Christian has a greater motive for pursuing them and a greater hope for attaining them. John Milton said that "The end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, and to be like him." And since He is Lord of all and His Word is relevant to all, the Christian who is thus learned will be "fit to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both public and private, of peace and war.'
What is the place of study in the Christian life? No one can be a serious and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ without giving a significant place to study in his life. Every disciple of Jesus, because he is a disciple of Jesus, is called to be a life-long learner. Why? Because this by God's grace may enable us better to obey the Great Commission: to be and make disciples. And by God's Grace it may enable us to obey better a part of the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our minds. The God of all truth deserves no less.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams