How Many Long-Time Christians Can’t Study the Bible?

Gospel CoalitionLast week, the Gospel Coalition posted this terrific article by Jen Wilkin. She writes of the frequent confession she hears that maddens but no longer surprises her:

I’ve been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.

She goes on to reflect:

We continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like. But because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor’s personality or their group leader’s opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they’ve been in church for years.

Yes! And then:

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love Jesus Calling more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

Wilkin writes of women’s Bible studies, but her points are equally valid for either gender. I wish I could quote the entire article for you, but the best I can do is to send you over to TGC’s site.

Check it out!

Those Who Look for Trouble Always Find it

In Proverbs 7, Solomon unmasks immorality’s deception to help us stand against it. The problem, however, is that you and I usually don’t want to stand against it.

Now we’ll give plenty of lip service to “accountability” and “boundaries.” We love to wallow in guilt and misery. We whine about the springtime and about how it resurfaces hordes of scantily clad North American tribeswomen.

But when the sun goes down, and we think we’re alone, and we believe we’ll get away with it—we once again pass right down the street near her corner, taking the way to her house. We know exactly where Immorality keeps her residence, and we frequent her establishment and browse her seductive wares.

Looking for Trouble

6 For at the window of my house
I have looked out through my lattice,
7 and I have seen among the simple,
I have perceived among the youths,
a young man lacking sense,
8 passing along the street near her corner,
taking the road to her house
9 in the twilight, in the evening,
at the time of night and darkness. (Prov 7:6-9, ESV)

The Victim

Observe who is the “victim” here. He is the “simple,” one of “the youths” (Prov 7:7). He is the one who loves being simple (Prov 1:22). He could become wise, but he doesn’t yet want to. He refuses to receive prudence, knowledge, and discretion (Prov 1:4). He won’t turn at reproof (Prov 1:23-27).

This young man knows the right thing to do, but he won’t do it. All hope is not lost; there’s still time for him to change his mind and turn. He doesn’t need more information or education. He needs to fear the Lord (Prov 1:7).

Notice, though, how else he is described: “a young man lacking sense” (Prov 7:7). Though I believe, generally, that you don’t need to know Hebrew in order to study the Bible, there are times when wordplay doesn’t translate well. This is one of those cases.

The Hebrew word for “sense” is the same Hebrew word used in verse 3 for “heart.” Solomon says: My son, you must bind the commandments on your heart (v.3); but here is a young man lacking “sense/heart” (v.7). Dear reader, you must get this, lest you die: if you don’t write God’s words on your heart, you will lack anything of substance in your heart, and you will continue seeking trouble for yourself.

What does this mean?

Those who take the time to learn and study God’s words, memorizing them and delighting in them—these are the ones who find something more desirable than immorality. Because in loving God’s words, they love God himself. By drowning themselves in God’s words, they find saturation in God’s favor. With wisdom close at hand and intimate (Prov 7:4), they won’t feel the need for another (counterfeit) companion.

The Victim’s Tactics

Now, observe the victim’s tactics. He passes along the street near her corner. He takes the road to her house. He does it under cover of darkness. If you didn’t catch it, Solomon repeats this last point 4 times: twilight, evening, time of night, darkness (Prov 7:9).

Dennis Wong (2009), Creative Commons

Dennis Wong (2009), Creative Commons

The victim is actually the perpetrator. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows what road he’s on. He knows who lives on that corner. He could take a million different routes, but he chooses this one at this time because it will get him where he wants to go.

Here is the point: You are not a victim to your desires. You are not a slave to your sexual sin.

You and I are willing, intentional, conscious, premeditated, first-degree, voluntary, calculated, and deliberate partners with immorality. And what can we do about that?

Some people say, “I had better try harder. I’m not being good enough.” But this approach leads only to more death.

Others say, “I’ll never change.” The gospel-loving, spiritually sanctified version of this sentiment uses comforting terms like “besetting sin” and “deeply-rooted patterns.” But this approach often flies in the face of God’s call to repentance and drastic life change.

There is another way. I’ll write more of it next week.

What Kind of Bible Study Should You Lead?

Not all Bible studies are created equal. Some are more effective than others with particular groups of people. So how do you decide what sort of study to lead?

Georgia National Guard (Creative Commons), 2013

Georgia National Guard (2013), Creative Commons

One common approach is to define your Bible study group based on what sort of people you expect to attend. The strength of this approach lies in the process of putting yourself in other people’s shoes and designing your Bible study in a way that best serves the group. Expert marksmen will choose the best model to fit the people God has given them.

So you might think in categories like this:

  1. Investigative (or Evangelistic) Bible Studies introduce unbelievers to the claims of Jesus in the Gospels. We might even call these groups “Bible discussions” to make them sound more approachable to unchurched people.
  2. Growth Bible Studies help professing believers to deepen their walks with Christ.
  3. Training Bible Studies teach people how to study the Bible for themselves and thus equip mature believers to use careful OIA skills in their personal Bible study.
  4. Leadership Bible Studies encourage church or small group leaders with biblical principles for shepherding others with the word.
  5. Devotional Bible Studies help committee members or retreat participants to ground their meetings in truth from God’s word.

Thinking in such categories help us to lay down our lives for others and tailor our approach to their needs. We think proactively about who will attend, and we work to create a positive user experience for group members.

However, there are also a few dangers to this approach.

  • We might tend to think of some Bible studies as “OIA studies” and other studies as “not OIA studies.” But no matter who attends our studies—believer or unbeliever, mature or immature—we should always do thoughtful OIA study. OIA is the best method we can use whenever we approach the Scriptures.
  • We might be led to believe that some Bible study groups need to focus on the gospel, while others need to focus on the Christian life or discipline or growth. But we should see the gospel of Jesus Christ in every passage of Scripture, regardless of who attends the study.
  • We might expect some Bible studies to focus on application and other studies to focus on education. But God wrote the Scripture to produce change in all who read it. No Bible studies should be mere intellectual exercises.

As you figure out what sort of Bible study to lead, another set of categories may help you avoid these dangers. Next week I’ll offer another proposal.

Question: What other kinds of Bible studies could we add to our list?

Three Kinds of Shame

Sin is muddy. When it splashes, we rightly want to clean it up. But sometimes our zeal to clean causes us to oversimplify sin’s muddiness by seeking trite answers for complex situations. Wise counselors and teachers recognize shame’s complexity, and they seek to understand the mud before laboring to clean it.

A few days ago, The Gospel Coalition posted an article I wrote about Three Kinds of Shame. I examine Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in John 9 to show the process of dealing with great shame. These three categories help us to sort through such shame:

  1. My sin against God
  2. Others’ sin against me
  3. The work of God in me

These reflections came out of a talk I gave in October at the DiscipleMakers Fall Conference.

At the end of the clip is a link to the complete talk recording.

Or, if you prefer the bite-sized article version, check it out here!

Prepare Yourself to Resist Sexual Immorality

According to Proverbs 7:1-5, your battle with sexual immorality begins by writing God’s words of wisdom on your heart. You can’t wait until your hormones kick in before deciding how to honor God with your body.

This week I’d like to take that main point and run it through the Application Matrix to generate a variety of potential applications.

Inward Application

The battle approaches. Time to lock and load.

Head

Do you believe this battle is worth fighting? Do you believe it’s possible to fight and win, or have you given up, thinking that immorality will simply characterize the rest of your days? What passages of Scripture most motivate you in this realm? Do you believe God’s Spirit working through the word is powerful enough to defeat the sin in your heart? Or do you expect to keep doing the same thing and get a different result?

Heart

Generation Bass, Creative Commons

Generation Bass, Creative Commons

What rules your heart? What have you written there? Can you quote the Hunger Games movies more readily than Scripture? Do you want things to be any different? I don’t just mean the guilt. I mean the holiness of life and denial of self that will produce true and lasting joy in knowing God.

Hands

Take time this week to memorize Proverbs 7:1-5. Write these words on the tablet of your heart. Cut a bit of time on social media to work on the memorization. Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call understanding your intimate friend. Jesus is your best friend and counselor; get to know him better this week.

Outward Application

One of the best ways to get your focus off yourself is to consider others. As you build your influence for Christ and help others to write the word on their hearts, you can’t help but draw closer to the Lord yourself.

Head

Whom has God put in your life, whom you can serve and lead in godly wisdom? What Scripture passages would be good to help them write on their hearts?

Heart

How can you help others to value what the Lord values? How can you avoid merely giving people a list of rules and behaviors, and instead help them identify the desires of their hearts that lead them to commit immorality (pleasure, escape, control)?

Hands

Perhaps you can spend time this week practicing memory verses with those you lead. You can ask what they’re learning from the word. You can ask what will be their plan when they face temptation (how they can choose intimacy with Christ their wisdom over the false intimacy of pornography or immoral relationships).

Conclusion

God wants to change specific people in specific ways and so conform them to the image of Christ. Reading, writing, and speaking about immorality won’t guarantee change. Only repentance and obedience show our faith to be true. Will you work out your salvation this week, even as God works his perfect will in you?

The Best and Worst Part of T4G

T4GI’m on my way home from Together for the Gospel (T4G), a biennial conference for pastors and church leaders. This was my first time attending, and I find myself refreshed and re-energized for the next season of ministry.

T4G is big. It’s held in a big arena (KFC Yum! Center, home of the University of Louisville basketball team). It draws a big crowd (over 7,000 this year). It sends every attendee home with a big stack of books (I have 44). There’s a big screen, big singing, and big lines for the restrooms.

The biggest thing about it, however, is the lineup of speakers. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these men:

  • Mark Dever
  • Thabiti Anyabwile
  • Al Mohler
  • Kevin DeYoung
  • David Platt
  • Matt Chandler
  • Ligon Duncan
  • John MacArthur
  • John Piper

These men have big ministries and big personalities. I imagine most attendees are drawn to T4G for the opportunity to sit under such colossal preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Therein lies what I found to be both the best and worst thing about T4G: our time in the word of God.

Some of the speakers delivered the word with such clarity and power that I’ll feel the effects for years to come.

  • David Platt spoke of Moses’ intercession for the people of God in Exodus 32 and 33.  Moses knows the perfections, purposes, and promises of God are unchanging, but the plans of God are unfolding. Therefore, he pleads for God’s mercy on sinners. He pleads for God’s presence and power among his people. He pleads for God’s glory in the earth. Now, every time I read Exodus 32-33, these points will stick with me.
  • Ligon Duncan spoke of Numbers 5:1-4 and God’s purpose for expelling from the camp people with skin diseases, discharges, and contact with dead bodies. But Luke shows Jesus touching lepers, bleeders, and the dead. He does what the Old Testament code could not do: He makes them clean. How does he make the unclean clean? By going outside the camp himself to suffer their reproach (Heb 13:10-13). Thanks to Dr. Duncan, I’ll never read Leviticus and Numbers the same way again.
  • John MacArthur spoke of the mass defection of Jesus’ disciples in John 6, and he drew out piercing implications for our ministries in our churches. He showed me how to read and understand this long and difficult chapter.
  • John Piper explained why Romans 9 comes after Romans 8, and how the incredible promises of Romans 8 would mean nothing without the truths of Romans 9. So many Jews in Paul’s day didn’t believe Christ. Did this mean God was being unfaithful to his promises to them? And if so, how could we ever be certain of his promises to us (no condemnation, no separation from his love)? Piper gave me a broad context in which to read Romans 8-11, and that context will help me to study these chapters in greater detail on my own.

These were the highlights for me.

What was the common thread? These best parts of T4G all came when speakers gave me confidence that I could do what they were doing. They showed me how to see what they were seeing in the Scripture. I learned how to read and study and apply and teach these texts. I won’t need to listen to the recordings of these talks over and over to be filled with the truth. These men launched me into deeper study of God’s word, increased hope in Christ, and more fervent desire for the salvation of unbelievers.

What was the worst part of T4G?

It came at those times when I found myself sitting there thinking:

  • “I could never do what this guy is doing.”
  • “This speaker is way smarter than anyone else in the room, especially me.”
  • “Wow, praise God for raising him up to have such influence for Christ, but no-one else listening to him will ever be able to replicate his teaching when they leave this conference.”

Now there is much sin in my heart, and sometimes my inability to get moving simply results from my own dullness.

But I wonder, too, if there’s a downside to the “bigness” of such a lineup. While some teachers are more skilled at “showing their work”—thus inspiring their hearers to continue what they have begun—others do a better job of wowing and impressing. And what can I say? I usually love to be wowed and impressed.

T4G had its fair share of wowing and impressing. But the wowing and impressing will be forgotten as soon as I get home and have to help with the backlog of dishes and yard work and play time with my kids. I’ll also have to get right to work on a pile of projects at work.

The moments of real training, however, will bear fruit long into the future.

Announcing My First Book!

How’s your time in the Word?

Pre-order now from Cruciform Press. Coming soon to Amazon.

I’ve blogged long enough that most of my ideas now lie buried deep within this site’s bowels. I’ve done my best to make the most important posts accessible in the main menu, but there’s only so much I can do without exhausting new visitors. And some of those ideas deserve to stay buried. After all, didn’t the Sage of Israel once say something about the making of many blogs (Eccl 12:12)? It’s in the Hebrew, I assure you.

Well, I’ve done my best to assemble all the really important stuff in one place for you. And the nice people at Cruciform Press offered to blow off the dust, spiff it up, and publish this baby. I must say it’s made my life much more interesting of late.

Be honored, dear reader, for you are privy to this special, humorous announcement—bowels and all [1]—with Scripture liberally removed from its context. I need to keep you on your toes (which look great in sandals this time of year, by the way—Song 7:1), and my About page practically promises I’ll do it from time to time. Those whom I love, I discipline (Heb 12:7-8). The rest of the world must hold themselves content with the respectable—not to be confused with boring—Public Service Announcement.

You may like to know that my friend and former pastor Tedd Tripp wrote the book’s Foreword. And Wheaton College English Professor Leland Ryken has praised the book for “the accuracy of the proposed methodology for interacting with the Bible, and the practical approach to the subject.” Jerry Bridges, author of The Pursuit of Holiness [2], wrote, “I look forward to using it to improve my own Bible study.”

If you’ve benefitted from this wonderful OIA approach to the Bible (observe, interpret, apply), this book could be your opportunity to help train others. And if you get to read the book, I’d be tickled to hear what you think; so please feel free to drop me a line.

Pre-order now from Cruciform Press. Coming soon to Amazon.
——————–
[1] Though for the record, my wife and exactly 50% of my children simply do not appreciate my sense of humor. I wonder what is the proportion among the blog’s readership…?

[2] This is one of those affiliate links that help you to support this site at no extra cost to yourself.

You Can’t Resist Immorality with an Empty Weapon

Ken (2008), Creative Commons

Ken (2008), Creative Commons

In Proverbs 7, Solomon unmasks immorality’s deception to help us stand against it. But we won’t be ready to skirmish unless we first lock and load. You can’t win a battle with an empty weapon.

1 My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
5 to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words. (Prov 7:1-5, ESV)

Observe Key Words

First observe three key words: “keep,” “my,” and “words.”

Keep

The word “keep” is repeated 4 times.

The first 3 repetitions are all parallel. Keep my words. Keep my commandments. Keep my teaching. “Treasure up my commandments” is sandwiched in the middle and fits the idea well. We should get the idea that keeping the commandments is not the same thing as obeying the commandments (what we usually mean by “keeping a command”). It has more to do with treasuring, storing, valuing, or guarding.

The one who keeps the commandments is the one who hungrily savours every word and fends off any threat of dilution, forgetfulness, or spin.

Notice now the twist in verse 5. This compulsive hoarding of wisdom (and keeping it close) will keep you from the forbidden woman (that is, from immorality). When you keep (protect) wisdom, wisdom keeps (protects) you. Thus the opposite should come as no surprise: The one caught by immorality is the one who has failed to guard wisdom (the one who lack sense – Prov 7:7).

My

Observe next how Solomon likewise plays with the word “my,” a pronoun of possession. There’s a reason possession is nine-tenths of the law.

My son” – you, the audience, are a possession of the one speaking to you.

My words,” “my commandments,” “my commandments,” “my teaching” – the words of wisdom are a precious possession, but freely available to you.

“Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister’” – keeping the words of wisdom will teach you a thing or two about possession. You’ll learn intimacy from the one who was intimate with you.

Words

“Words” bracket this stanza. The one who keeps Solomon’s words (Prov 7:1) is kept from immorality’s smooth words (Prov 7:5).

For this reason, I write. For this reason, we speak truth to one another. This battle will always be one of words. Which words will rule your heart? Whose promises will you treasure deep within?

Observe Structure

Now that we’ve noticed how the key words are used, we can fit the pieces together. This stanza is structured as a chiasm, a pretty common literary device in ancient literature where the second half is a mirror image of the first half. The point is often to draw attention to the center.

A Keep my words – Prov 7:1

B Life-giving commandments become the apple of your eye - Prov 7:2

C Make sure these words fill your heart and are bound on your fingers - Prov 7:3

B’ Intimate insight/wisdom becomes your sister – Prov 7:4

A’ Be kept from immorality’s smooth words – Prov 7:5

The Main Idea

Like an arrow, the passage’s structure points right to verse 3. Something must be written on the tablet of your heart. The words found there will seep out of your fingers into your everyday choices. Solomon already covered this ground in his formula for change in Prov 4:20-27: Wisdom must come in the ears, through the heart, and out the fingertips.

Now he gets specific and applies his formula to the realm of sexual temptation.

If you’re tired of capitulating and want to get in the ring with your sexual sin, your training begins now. You must hear the words of wisdom. You need to get them inside, and you need to keep them there. Guard the commands, memorize the Word, serve the Lord. Your fight doesn’t begin when you’re looking at seedy websites. Your resistance begins long before.

The battle is coming, and your cartridge is empty. You need to fill it with rounds of ammo. Check the safety. Clean the barrel. Let’s lock and load.

But know this, soldier. You’ll still lose this battle if your hope lies in your ability to pack your own ammo. If that’s all you get from this post, you’re doomed.

What you need is a companion. An intimate friend. A sibling (Prov 7:4).

Your hope is in that wisdom which came down from heaven to be your friend. That man of wisdom who called you “Mine” long before you considered him yours. The Word (John 1:1) whose Father can keep you from stumbling and present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 1:24-25).

When he unzips you and steps inside, immorality won’t ever stand a chance. It’s no longer a fair fight.

Is Your Bible Study Group-Centered or Christ-Centered?

The main goal of group Bible studies is to help people know God through his Son Jesus Christ. And the chief advantage of the group format is interaction.

Sometimes that chief advantage can steal the limelight, and the main goal unintentionally becomes the understudy. Or for the non-theatrical types: that chief advantage can steal the ball, and the main goal gets benched.

In other words, we can get so excited by the positive interaction between group members that we subtly slide our focus from knowing God to knowing each other. And since knowing each other is a great thing, we might not notice the shift.

Marco Belluci (2005), Creative Commons

Marco Belluci (2005), Creative Commons

Here are some questions to help you evaluate where your group’s gaze lies.

  1. Do group members spend more time sharing about their problems or testifying to God’s grace in their lives?
  2. Does your Bible study always land on the same applications, or is there a sense of forward movement and change?
  3. Do people depend on the leader to do all the thinking, or do they actively engage in the study?
  4. Is there general agreement and affirmation on most things, or do people feel free to challenge and disagree with one another?
  5. If the leader had to stop leading the group, would the group have another leader trained and ready to take over?
  6. How long has it been since new people joined the group?
  7. Would someone new have a hard time fitting in?
  8. If any unbelievers unexpectedly showed up, is there a chance they might meet God among you (1 Cor 14:24-25)?
  9. Does your group see Jesus in every passage?
  10. If your group discussed a book other than the Bible, would the discussion be any different?

What other diagnostic questions might help you to evaluate your group’s focus?

Memorize Chapters or Books Instead of Verses

There’s no magic to memorizing long passages of Scripture. It takes hard work, but anyone can do it.

So writes Jemar Tisby in his excellent post entitled “How to Memorize Entire Books of the Bible.” Tisby believes God’s Word is powerful. Tisby claims God’s Word evokes a response. Tisby claims that God spoke his Word in books and not just in verses.

I’m inclined to agree with him on all points. Memory verses, without a clear accounting for context, are just as likely to lead us away from the truth as toward it.

And there’s no magic to memorizing long portions of Scripture. But I can attest to its value.

In the summer of 1997, on break from college, I gave myself to the task of memorizing Proverbs 1-9. A teacher at a Bible camp had inspired me with the incredible value of these chapters, so I determined to commit them to memory. Ever since, I’ve recited them about once per week.

Over these 17 years, my love for wisdom has grown more than I expected. Passages like Prov 5:7-23 and Prov 7:1-5 pop out when I face temptation. Prov 1:22 comes to mind when I’m making a dumb choice. Prov 3:1-12 always reminds me that honoring the Lord is worth it. Prov 2:6-11 comes to mind when I’m discouraged and feel like reminding the Lord (well, myself, really) of how he’s promised to work.

I’m not more noble or more committed or more righteous for having accomplished this feat of memory. Actually, I think the frequent repetition of these ideas makes me feel more dependent on the Lord than I would otherwise be.

And I’d have it no other way.

Check it out!