Friday, July 8, 2011

Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 1

In my just-published book, From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry, I have a chapter that focuses on encouraging the spiritual life of the seminarian who is preparing for pastoral ministry. A friend (a non-seminary person!) who was reading a draft of the manuscript encouraged me to consider that this material might be useful to more than just seminary students; therefore, I'll post portions of that chapter on the blog for a few weeks, edited for a more general audience.

Bible Study

You need to be reading your Bible. This always strikes me as an almost-silly thing to say— yet, I find it easy to neglect my own Bible reading, and I know many other pastors who also struggle to read the Bible regularly. I knew a lot of classmates in seminary who were very disciplined about their devotional life, but I also knew plenty of others who, like me, have struggled with the spiritual disciplines.

If you are already disciplined about reading your Bible, I commend you, and congratulate you on a gift from God that not every Christian receives. You will still find some suggestions applicable to you in this post, hopefully.

On the other hand, if you struggle with Bible reading then I want to offer encouragement for you, as well.

Things to Remember about Christian Devotional Reading

We don’t read our Bibles as a form of penance. Most protestants will zealously reject the Roman Catholic idea of penance in the form of atoning for sin by repetition of certain prayers a prescribed number of times, etc. However, many of us do the same thing in our own way: if we missed a devotional yesterday, we’ll try to do penance by reading twice as much today. If we haven’t read our Bibles for weeks, we’ll demand of ourselves that we read for a half-hour every day without missing one.

We’ll do this for other things, too: if we were mean to our wives, ignored someone’s pain, or wasted time when we should have been working— and we feel convicted about those things— we might turn to Bible reading as a way to make up for them. Whatever our sin is, we frequently turn to self-flagellation of some sort to attempt to make atonement for it. Bible reading can be done as a form of such flagellation.

We don’t need to atone for our sins, through Bible reading or anything else. Christ has already atoned for our sins! If you are in Christ, then you are free from the guilt of your sin, and free of any need for self-atonement. (Good thing, too, because self- atonement isn’t possible anyway!) God doesn’t love you any less because of your sin, and He doesn’t love you any less because you missed a devotional, or a dozen devotionals in a row. God’s love for you is constant because Christ has atoned for all of your failings.

Likewise, we don’t read our Bibles as a way to gain God’s love. Too often we approach God as if His grace and love for us is one-dimensional: He is gracious and loving toward us in our sin, but in all other ways we have to gain His favor. This leads to a life spent in attempts to earn God’s love and favor, to gain His blessing through meritorious acts.

This can be our motivation in our devotional time, also. We may think, “If I spend my time reading God’s Word, He’ll love me more! He’ll give me more blessings! He’ll be glad He bothered to save me!”

Just as God doesn’t love you any less because of your sin, neither does He love you any more because of your obedience, your service to Him, or your piety. God already loves you as much as anyone can be loved— and He demonstrated that love 2,000 years before you were born, when He sacrificed His own Son to pay the ransom for your soul. God’s love for you is never-ending, and it is already as great as it can possibly be. You do not need to earn God’s love, even through your devotional life, for it is already yours.

Life Expressing
We read our Bibles because we will grow spiritually from reading the Bible. We read them because God communicates with us through His Word, reminding and teaching us of our need and His provision. We read them because we need the truths that the Bible contains. We read our Bibles because of our identity.

We have an identity through our faith in Christ: we, who were strangers and aliens in a foreign land with no home-country, who were orphans without a family or inheritance, who were enemies with the living God— WE are now the opposite of all of these. We are citizens of a holy nation, and part of the celestial city. We are no longer enemies with God, but are reconciled to Him, so much so that He has adopted us as His own and called us children of God! We have an identity, and it is in that identity that we do all that we do— including reading our Bibles.

We read our Bibles because, as children of the living God, we need to hear the words our Father would say to us. They are life-giving, strengthening, faith-building words, and they teach us of ourselves and our identity. They instruct us in what it means to be who we have become in Christ, and in how we might properly live ac- cording to the name we have been given.

Our Bibles are worth reading, not because doing so makes God overlook or forgive our sin, and not because reading them earns His pleasure; either of those perspectives subtracts from God’s sovereignty and places the determination for our spiritual well- being on ourselves. Our Bibles are worth reading because the Word of God is good for our faith and for our spiritual health.

In part two, we'll consider some strategies for refreshing your Bible study practices.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

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