Theology of the Word

Biblical Meditation As Experiential Reading

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies should be assigned to our current situation: we have more access to Scripture and its rich historical truths than ever before and yet we have in our churches an ever-increasing lethargy when it comes to the exploration of said truths. In other words, we have the Bible in our pockets with information at our fingertips and yet we lack a desire to experience the Word afresh. Maybe instead of calling it an irony we could call it a tragedy. The truth is, we have Study Bibles, Bible software, Bible studies, Bible apps, Bible commentaries, Bible dictionaries, Bible lexicons, and voluminous works after voluminous works of history’s finest theologians—and we’re not any smarter, any more holy, or any more passionate about God and his Word. What’s the problem?

Biblical Meditation

In our drive-through Christianity in America, we value our time and our dollars, which means we don’t have the time or the capital to slow down and digest Scripture. Either we’re not hungry because we’re not walking with Christ, or we are hungry but we prefer the dollar menu rather than the fine dining banquet. We lack time and we lack passion.

Consequently, Biblical meditation requires us to swim upstream from our culture. When the Apostle Paul challenged Timothy to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV), I can’t believe for one second that he meant it should be easy.

Biblical meditation is when the Spirit-filled reader ruminates on the word of God and is shaped by the Spirit to its message. When a person desires to meditate on the Word as we are told to do often in Scripture (e.g., Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2, 19:14, 119:97-99, 143:5; Eph. 4:17-18), she reads the words on the page, brings its truth to mind, ponders it in light of what it says about God and herself, and seeks to apply it to every aspect of her being. While many various eastern religions emphasize the “emptying” of one’s mind, Christian meditation emphasizes the filling of one’s mind so as to align with the Triune God.

Experiential Meditation

It is my contention that in order to have a healthy spiritual life built on sound, fervent, and frequent meditation on Scripture, we must do so experientially. This is by no means a new concept, for the Puritans built their ministries on this concept. What does it mean to mediate on the Bible experientially? Simply put, we are to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5).

Experiential Bible meditation is different from what’s practiced by many Christians today. Typically the Bible is read in a superficial way. The words are read in our minds or even aloud, and instead of getting out the exegetical shovel and doing the hard labor, we move on to the next thing. (Hence the appeal to short devotional readings—we don’t have time to spend processing and pondering a passage, so we need someone to help us get a little nugget and get it quickly).

In our 140-character world, it’s no wonder we can’t dig deep and do honest experiential Bible meditation. We’re trained to consume short amounts of information, oftentimes sharing an article on Facebook, for example, because of the headline instead of actually reading the entire article.

Inevitably, this type of consumption of content breeds spiritual lethargy. Therefore, we must slow down and return to experiential meditation—the process whereby we take a verse, or a set of verses and we spend time allowing our hearts, minds, souls, and hands to be shaped by the Spirit through the Word. It’s not enough to just read the Bible; the Bible must read us. Meditation is the key to experiential Bible reading. Instead of just reading words and passively processing them, true experiential meditation ought to stir the heart and motivate the hands. To read the Bible is to simply hold up a mirror. To read the Bible experientially is to gaze upon the mirror with inquisitive wonder.

Experiential Christian Living

So how does this work? What does it practically look like? To meditate biblically is to read the Bible through the power and promises of God in Christ. Bible reading ought to point us to Christ and the implications of his Kingdom in the world. Not only do we mediate on the Word for knowledge and understanding, we meditate on the Word for practice and piety. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. The Christian life consists of theology going in and doxology going out; doctrine in the heart and mind, worship with our lives. We dare not only hear the word; we must do the word, too (Jas. 1:22).

Biblical, experiential meditation means that we focus in on what the Holy Spirit inspired so we align our heads, hearts, and hands with what God intends to impress upon the soul. The head, heart, and hands paradigm coincides with repentance, faith, and mission.

  • Repentance (Head) – When reading Scripture, we should, like King David, weep. “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Ps. 6:6). The reason many people fail to exhibit righteous behavior and the fruit of the Spirit is because in our efforts to follow Jesus, we’ve forgotten about repentance. The Christian life is a life of ongoing repentance. If we wish to follow Jesus into the world, we must follow him with repentant hearts. The reason this must start in the head? “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). When our minds are renewed and refreshed, our hearts follow along. Instead of being deceived by our hearts (Jer. 17:9), we can be guided by the truth—the Word of God. Biblical, experiential meditation on Scripture aims to answer the question: “What sin have I let run amuck in my heart?” This type of meditation requires a true examination of self before God in his presence in front of his Word.
  • Faith (Heart) – The charge of experiential meditation focuses on the gospel of King Jesus which corresponds with the Apostle Paul’s words: “[A] love…from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Because the mind is prone to wander, the heart is not far behind. Instead of shrinking back into a lethargically obtuse spirituality, experiential meditation ought to push us to “draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). We read the Bible to know not just about God, but to know God. When the Spirit works in us, he works via the means of his inspired Word. The Bible ought to be stuffed deep in the soul so our hearts are set on fire with a passion for the glory of God. It does no good to read the words of Scripture at the surface—we must plunge ourselves by faith into the Word of God so the Spirit can change us. It takes time, energy, focus, and affection. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, so step one is to acknowledge our brokenness. We can then rely on the promises that he is near us, challenging us to grow with a heart full of child-like faith.
  • Mission (Hands) – It’s not experiential if it doesn’t lead us to act. The Spirit works in the life of Christians who make it their practice to meditate on Scripture producing heads full of repentance, hearts full of faith, and hands toiling for the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). Part of the reason the American church has been lazy in mission is because we’ve been lazy to pursue a heart of faith and repentance. It does no good to talk about disciple making if we can’t get the full-orbed Christian life straightened out. The mission of disciple making and maturing cannot flourish if the mind and heart is not full of the gospel. Biblical, experiential meditation fuels mission. When we are saturated in the Word of God because we’ve gazed into the mirror of God’s Word, love in action for our homes, church, neighborhoods, and cities is the result. We want experiential disciples who make disciples who make more disciples. We can’t do this without loving others and we can’t love others when we do not love the Lord.

Experiential meditation on the Word of God isn’t an end to itself; it begins as a life transformed from the inside out. It is the duty of God’s people to shape their minds through godly repentance, aligning their affections with hearts full of faith in a very big God, while cultivating a life of obedience to what God has tasked us with: discipling all nations.

Ultimately, experiential meditation does not make us more righteous. Reading the Bible doesn’t some how magically transform your standing before the Throne of God. The righteousness you need is in Christ and you have every last ounce of it. Experiential meditation helps us live in light of the righteous standing you have before God and leads us to a vibrant, difficult, real, sorrowful, joyful, and holistic walk with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You have been justified by his grace through faith, so now you can go in that same inebriating, experiential grace and live an abundant life for his glory.

Rev. Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI and author of Be Holy and The Fight for Joy. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.

Know God Intimately by Knowing the Word

Lisa Bevere, author and speaker, writes, “Rules will never set us free, just as fear and control will never keep us safe . . .The Law demands and dominates, but love leads and gives.” I’m captivated by her use of this revelation to teach women how rules alone will not keep them sexually pure. She argues that true sexual purity for God’s daughters is the product of a real and vibrant intimacy between them and their heavenly Father. She prescribes nothing short of a fairytale, sparing none of the fantastical ingredients of our most dearly beloved ones; princes and princesses, a castle and far off lands, danger and rescue. And as she weaves this story, she proves how laws can never legislate love, but that true obedience is fashioned out of deep and abiding intimacy. What has that got to do with Scripture memorization?

We have overlooked intimacy as an ingredient of this long underrated discipline in modern discipleship. These days, I wonder just where has the challenge to memorize Scripture gone? We live in a time where parishioners can quote more Jerry Seinfeld than they can Jesus Christ. And so, what is the solution? Is it to legislate more laws of Scripture memory from our pulpits or is it to pray that God would make us people of his Word? Is it such a big deal at all? Technically, there’s no verse that commands us to memorize Scripture, right?

But what if that’s not the point? What if Scripture memory is actually a passionate response to the love and grace of the God who extended both to us? What if Scripture memorization invites us to better know the one who loves us most?

Motivated by Passion

When I think about Scripture memorization, the usual passage comes to mind, “Thy word have I hid in my heart; that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11). Immediately, we draw upon the necessity of the verse, the why (i.e., “that I might not sin”), but we rarely reflect upon the nature of the man or the who that wrote it. This man was very real and raw; a man of war and of passion. Of David, it is written that he was a man after God’s own heart. Though he could beat a lion and a bear with his bare hands he could also unashamedly burst into tears of praise or anguish before his God and his people. He was indeed full of passion. This man wrote that verse. David teaches us that God is not only concerned with us doing what we are told, but also with the direction in which our hearts are led. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Rom. 8:14).

Though it was no law in his Torah, it was a value in his heart. David’s passion led him to realize as Dr. John Piper says, “You cannot hide what you have not memorized.” And the promise of its necessity, though not fulfilled in David’s life, is come to fruition in the life of his Greater Descendant—Jesus. See Jesus in the wilderness (as recorded in the Gospels) being tempted by the devil. How does he win this match with almost all natural odds stacked against him? By his memory. By what he has hidden in his heart that he might be an obedient Son, not believe the devils’ lie and sin against his Father. And we know that Jesus too was a man of even greater passion—one in total intimacy with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Passion is Built on What We Prize

Memorizing Scripture helps us to prize God’s voice above others because our passions are built on what we prize. As a culture heavily dieted on media and entertainment, I’ve noticed how even Christians boast more fluency of popular TV sitcoms than of the Bible. Do we identify with a cast on TV or a sports team roster more than with our ancestors in God’s story? If so, this evidences how we are prizing other voices over God’s in the Scriptures. Yet that‘s the voice we are commanded to meditate on both day and night. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield says, “When we cross reference our lives with Scripture, we insert ourselves into God’s story.” This process is significantly aided through committing God’s Word to memory. Instead of pouring our passions into scripts and filtering them through the psychology of modern television we can instead sift our hearts by the greatest story of all.

Scripture memorization brings a primacy of God’s point of view to our minds. It makes Christ more real and more beautiful to us as it keeps his reality close to our hearts and makes them inseparable. A long distance lover who receives a letter from their sweetheart feels immediately and undeniably connected from the moment their fingers touch the letter or their nostrils inhale the scent of its pages. Every aspect of the experience is savored because the beloved is prized.

This is important because merely quoting Scripture is not the same as prizing God’s voice. For the gospel to work in the heat of temptation, it requires an intimate affiliation with it. One that prizes it over and above the bait that is being dangled before us.

The End of Intimacy is Knowing

Picture a woman’s fingers gently tracing the face of her lover. What is she doing, but becoming intimately acquainted with every feature of the one she loves. She will know each contour, curve, and line of her beloved’s face. Her passion for him fascinates her. He will be no stranger to her in the dark. These acts of intimacy familiarize her with her lover. Committing God’s word to memory does this for us as well. Memorizing Scripture familiarizes us with the various contours, curves, and lines of Jesus’ character. His nature and ways are no stranger to me for I am my beloved’s and He is mine (Song of Songs 6:3). This familiarity, this knowing is the end of intimacy. In Genesis 4:1, it says, “And Adam knew Eve, his wife . . .”

The culmination of intimacy is knowing one another completely. Our intimacy with God through the memorization of his Word will lead to us knowing him. The end of Scripture memorization is not a boastful spirit (which is what the law produces), but Christ-the living Word. We will recognize Jesus.

Jesus sharply rebuked the Pharisees in his day saying, “Verily, you search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life—but these are they which testify of me!” The Pharisees missed the point of memorization, Christ. Their memorization should have led them to immediately recognize the Savior when he came—but they did not. For they never learned to prize the voice of God, so that they recognized him when he spoke. Their motivation was not passion, but performance. They were more in love with their present political arrangement of compromise than they were with the God in whom they should have put their hope. And so when God spoke to them by Christ, it was the voice of a stranger and they would not follow.

They did not know God. And because true intimacy always leads to knowing, their empty adherence to the laws resulted in what the law always ends in apart from faith-futility (i.e., attempting to be justified by keeping the Law instead of turning to Jesus in faith and thus results in futility—relying on anything outside of faith in Jesus to justify). They did not proceed from passion so they did not end in intimacy. As a child knows its mother’s voice because it has been whispered over them while in the womb, in the light of day with gentle caresses, and in the night soothing after terrifying dreams—so does Scripture memorization train us to recognize a God who has spoken and is still speaking to us through that same living and active Word. Let us remember that we know God and also know God intimately by remembering his Word.

Kileeo Rashad is based in Philadelphia, PA, where he serves his local church in many capacities; speaker, preacher, deacon, and hospitality director. He is currently working on a debut writing project which will address breaking silence on sexual brokenness within the church. Kileeo is also the founder of Restoring the Breaches, a ministry that aims to help churches and individuals facilitate gospel-centered conversations around sexuality. 

The Mountaintop Experience

What are the three most significant moments you’ve had in your journey of following Christ? Would you use the term “mountaintop experience” to describe any of them? I have a few moments where experientially I felt a certain nearness to God that alluded my existing vocabulary. One example of this would be the day that I stopped calling myself an atheist and began calling myself a Christian. My girlfriend at the time—now my wife—led me in a prayer in which I asked God for forgiveness of my sin and accepted Christ’s sacrifice in my place. Internally, a lot of emotions and feelings accompanied this moment but when I’ve tried to articulate these I’ve found my vocabulary limited. Probably the most accurate way I could describe this event in an experiential manner would be passing from death to life. While it took many years for my lexicon to catch up to my experience, all of the accompanying sensations of believing upon the Lord Jesus that day in 2005 loosely fit into the category of coming alive. This is the same language the biblical writers use to describe the initiatory act of becoming a disciple (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13).

The next month or so of my life I was “on fire” and nothing could rob me of the joy I had being a brand-new Christian. I was living every day on top of the mountain. Then I committed some sins and became a little discouraged—reality set in. I still lived in a world affected by the fall. Being a new Christian and not having a very good connection to a church or support system, Jesus took a backseat to my other (sinful) desires for the next three years until I’d put him so far out of my mind that I actually considered myself an agnostic. So, what happened?

To shorten an incredibly long and complicated story, almost all of my problems were a result of the fact that I wasn’t grounded in the Word of God.

I’m thankful for God’s grace that my days as an agnostic were limited. God quickly found me when I was a lost and wandering sheep and brought me into deeper communion with him. But that is not everyone’s story. Some have shared in these sorts of “mountaintop experiences” and then left the Christian faith for good. What are we to think?

The Highest Mountaintop

When it comes to mountaintop experiences, the peak of them all (pun intended) is found in Mark 9. There we read an account of the apostles Peter, James, and John accompanying Jesus up a high mountain. At the top they saw something amazing: Jesus with clothes so white they’d put Clorox out of business. Moses and Elijah—long since dead—joined the four of them on the mountain and had a conversation with Jesus. As if this wasn’t amazing enough, the Father spoke from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

What do you think went through the minds of the three apostles that day? Could they put words to the feelings they experienced? If it were me, I don’t think I’d want to come down from that mountain. I resonate with the quick fire comment of Peter, “It is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mk. 9:5) We should all long to campout in the glory of Christ the way Peter did in this moment.

Regardless of what your best “mountaintop experience” was, Peter’s trumps it. Which is why it’s so jarring that when he reflects back on this experience he writes:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. (2 Pt. 1:16-20)

Peter subordinates his personal experience on the mountaintop to the Word of God. He was an eyewitness to the earthly life of Christ and the Father’s divine favor for the Son. Yet, he says the prophetic Word of God is “more sure” than his experience as an eyewitness into the unfolding redemptive plan of God revealed in Christ. How amazing!

It’s common that in our pursuit of Christ we will have some experiences in which we commune with God in a way that transcends the limits of our human language. Where we, like the Psalmist, “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). They are good markers and indicators of our faith, but they make poor foundations for our faith.

The Foundation of Faith

The first three years of my Christian walk (stumble might be a more accurate depiction) were founded on a basic and experiential understanding of the gospel. The gospel was explained to me in biblically accurate, yet contextualized, language and I trusted in Christ. But I invested minimal time or energy into Bible reading and study. After three years of this half-hearted commitment to Christ the foundation was challenged, someone asked me, “What do you think about Jesus?” The truth was that I didn’t think much about him. It was near impossible for me to have a knowledgeable (2 Pet. 1:3) faith in Jesus as I knew very little about him. My faith was less in the person of Christ than it was in an experience I’d had some three years earlier. The more time that has passed since that experience the more I doubt and question my own understanding and interpretation of those events. My foundation was not the objective Word of God, but my subjective experience

Herein lies the catch twenty-two of the mountaintop experience. It makes a great supplement to a vibrant relationship with God where he speaks to us through the Bible and we speak to him through prayer. But when it becomes our sole purpose for living it can easily slip through our hands like sand. Our minds and hearts are too fickle to hold onto our experiential points of contact with God. Peter had learned this as an older and wiser disciple and takes pains to mention he is writing his second epistle to “remind” his readers of things they already know (2 Pet. 1:12, 13, 15; 3:1, 2). The aged eye-witness to the risen Christ encourages his readers by building their confidence in the Word of God. He knows first-hand every prophecy of Christ to be true, but rests his case not on his memories of mountaintop experiences but on the Word of God which he believes to be superior in surety.

Our subjective experiences of God are good, but his revelation of himself in his Word is better. Peter was with Christ when he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk. 13:31). Our minds are not as reliable as we think they are and as the hymn-writer said our hearts are “prone to wander.” But God’s Word is bond—a sure foundation.

Mountaintops can be perilous, there’s less oxygen, winds threaten to hurl us violently down the slope. But the sight at the top is the payoff people seek in exchange for the risk. This is good. It’s tempting to want to build our tent there and never come down, but it’s not practical. There’s scarcely any food up there and an avalanche could bury us. It’s better to build our tent on the solid rock (Lk. 6:48) and eat its food (Lk. 4:4; Jer. 15:16).

It is true that we can experience and commune with him in different ways and varying heights, but none are as trustworthy as time tested fellowship with God through the Bible. God’s Word provides us a feast that can’t be exhausted and a foundation that can’t be shaken and we would be foolish to elevate experience above that. When we’re tempted to setup our tent in the clouds remember that the “Word became flesh and dwelt [literally “tented”] among us” (Jn. 1:14). All of Scripture exists to reveal Christ to us—the Word that became flesh. It may not sound as exciting and appealing as some of the stories of modern miracles and sensationalism, but the saint who has spent eighty faithful years in seemingly mundane Bible reading has a better foundation than he who spent it chasing the next mountaintop experience.

Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, Maryland. Prior to that, he served at a church plant in Troy, New York for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Family Life Pastor.

Reading Scripture for Rest

As a writer, it’s not uncommon to be reading Scripture and automatically thinking of how I can use it in an article. Lately, I’ve noticed the severe danger in always being a teacher and abandoning the role of student. God has graciously appointed people to teach his Word and share the truth of his gospel. Teaching the Word is an honorable call, but detrimental to our spiritual relationship when it overwhelms our own personal devotion.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. – 2 Timothy 3:16

We are called to be salt and light, carrying and increasing the desire for Jesus everywhere we go. The teaching of God’s Word is a precious gift. We get to unpack and explain the depth of meaning and purpose behind words inspired by God. Scripture is undoubtedly used for teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness. My fear is that our teachers, preachers, and gospel writers will tirelessly use God’s Word as a tool and forget to use God’s Word for personal rest and refuge. In fact, people who proclaim and expound the Word often need most what they offer.

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. – Hebrews 4:9-11

The author of Hebrews sets up this passage by describing the historic rest of Israel entering the promised land and ties the neglect rest to disobedience. This is a powerful claim against self-sufficiency. Even more, it’s a prescription for abundant life. He uses strong words like “strive” to describe the significance of this pursuit. It’s not a suggestion for us to rest in God and his Word. It’s an urgent call to spend time with God and in his word, for no other reason but to know him. Preacher, do you have an intimate place to read and reflect on the word for your own soul? Writer, can you read without the need to retell?

Teaching ministries may be the most threatening form of idolatry.

Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. – Mark 6:31

Jesus speaks of rest multiple times. Yet, this passage in Mark is especially telling, as Jesus advises his apostles to escape the endless pursuit of people. He tells them to rest because so many people are pursuing them they can’t even rest to eat. Notice, the people in need don’t go away before the apostles rest. They leave, knowing there is more ministry to be had. You may ask why he would allow able men rest from ministry. Jesus led his closest disciples to recognize genuine humility and dependence. Teachers of the Word need rest to take care of themselves and, predominantly, to receive the same grace they’re called to provide.

Read Mark 6:31 again. My question to you is, how often do you let yourself rest when you know there is impending ministry? My guess is not often. We in our flesh see every opportunity as ours for the taking. What would it look like to trust God with our rest? If we reexamine the context of Mark 6, we see God’s reputable nature in giving more responsibility to the faithful. The apostles following Jesus do get away for rest, but shortly after, they’re found surrounded by crowds. This passage unfolds into the renown story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. The disciples see God’s glory displayed in an act of abundant provision for an innumerable crowd. Jesus’ honor and faithfulness is clear when we’re healthy enough to rest and watch him provide. It often takes more courage to be weak before a faithful God then it does to “pull it off” ourselves.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. – Psalm 91:1

Abide in Christ—because his shadow is where you want to be found. It’s the place of refuge, of rest, and of intimate dependence. He will sustain your ministry, because his glory goes beyond your invested work. Don’t resent ministry but courageously declare your dependence on God. He is faithful to fulfill his call on your life.

This year go to God’s Word to find your refuge, to fill you with joy, and to provide the rest you need. His Word is not just inspired for the teaching of your flock, it’s also for the rest and replenishing of your own delicate soul.

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! – Isaiah 26:3

Chelsea Vaughn (@chelsea725has served a ministry she helped start in the DFW Metroplex since she graduated from college. She received her undergraduate degree at Dallas Baptist University in Communication Theory. She does freelance writing, editing, and speaking for various organizations and non-profits. She hopes to spend her life using her gift for communication to reach culture and communities with the love of Jesus.

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Confessions of a Bible Thumper

cover_sound_wordsI became a Christian at the age of eight at Round Pond Presbyterian Church in Franklin, KY, where my uncle was the pastor. While witnessing communion during a Sunday service I began to understand the gospel in a new way: that I was a sinner and that Christ had rescued me. I was baptized two weeks later in Sulphur Fork Creek on the county line. In the years that followed, my life as a disciple was characterized by varying degrees of knowing and doing. In my youth I was passionate about what I knew of Scripture and what I was learning. I would gather my friends together in the school cafeteria to read and discuss the Bible. God used my seemingly insatiable desire to learn the Bible. Years later my walk of faith was characterized by action as I was seeking to do the things I was learning from Scripture. I was passionate about evangelism and overseas missions, tirelessly pursuing active ministry and calling others to follow. Throughout the years I pursued discipleship through various means: different books, methods, churches, para-church ministries, and mentoring relationships. These experiences were life-changing for me yet I was still seeking the best way to be both a disciple and a disciple maker, trying to balance the knowing and doing of the Bible. I discovered that discipleship was not only knowing and doing, but also being and becoming. This process of transformation involves Scripture and others in Christian community. My love for Scripture grew. This eventually led me to seminary at which time the vision for a new church in my hometown began to take shape.

My experiences have led me to the conviction that discipleship is a life-long pursuit and an ongoing process of transformation by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who worked in and through Scripture is also at work in and through God’s people. I am increasingly convinced that discipleship methods based on biblical ideas and principles alone, though good and helpful, can remain short-sighted of the gospel.

Why I Wrote This Book

Theology must be practiced. The doctrine of Scripture is of utmost importance for Christian discipleship. Scripture is God’s written record of the gospel story in which we find our own story. The Holy Spirit uses Scripture as a means of grace—the Spirit and Word go together.

Scripture must play a prominent role in discipleship as the Holy Spirit works through the Word to grow us into the image of Christ personally, as well as grow us in community—faithful to the Great Commission. Christian discipleship, therefore, must be saturated in Scripture.

A disciple’s greatest need is to be constantly reminded of the gospel, as well as his or her new identity, community, and mission. The Bible explicitly reminds us of all this. Therefore, no matter our stage of faith or role in discipleship, we ought to evaluate our view and use of Scripture personally and in our community of faith. My prayer is that we have biblical expectations in discipleship. My hope is not only that you fall more in love with God's Word, but that you fall even more in love with the God whose Word it is.

Defining Discipleship

Throughout high school and college I played in various bands. A friend and fellow musician discovered the band Phish and quickly labeled himself a “phish head.” He wore tie dyed clothing branded by the band, made a mixtape to give his friends, and toured with the band. Phish greatly influenced my friend’s musical style in songwriting and performance. Phish was an identity he owned while connecting with a community of other fans on mission to spread the music. This is a great portrait of discipleship.

A disciple is a student who becomes more like his teacher. As a follower, a disciple takes on the characteristics of the one he follows. The characteristics bring about transformation and prompt action. By nature a disciple reproduces his discipleship, calling others to study and follow the one he follows. Discipleship is an identity that shapes community and fuels a mission.

For Christians, our identity, community, and mission are defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is good news that evokes faith—ongoing relational trust in the person and work of Christ. The gospel, therefore, is good news that we learn. This good news shapes not only our beliefs, but also our motivations, actions, and relationships. We learn the gospel, relate in light of the gospel, and communicate the gospel on mission together.

Gospel learning takes place primarily through Scripture. Gospel relating is done in the context of community. Gospel communication, by proclamation and demonstration, is the nature of mission by which others learn the gospel and become disciples. Christian disciples, therefore, are both relational learners and relational teachers.

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus announces, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In the Great Commission, the disciples see their identity as disciples in the context of a community on mission with the good news to make disciples. Sent by Christ himself, the disciples represent the redemptive authority of Christ. Jesus does not provide an explicit methodology, but informs the mission to “make disciples” which includes “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” To this we must ask three questions: What has Christ commanded? How are we to teach? What are disciples to observe?

3 Essential Bible Questions

The gospel commission to make disciples involves information, application, and transformation. “Teaching” is the information of the gospel. Jesus states that all Scripture bears witness about him (John 5:39) and that Scripture written about him in the law of Moses, Psalms, and Prophets would be fulfilled in him (Luke 24:44). Since all Scripture is about Christ, this is what we are to teach. This is the information of the gospel.

Secondly, we see the application of the gospel in “to observe all that I have commanded you.” Teaching is not a one-time passing of information, but the ongoing action of kneading the gospel into the hearts and minds of disciples through observing what has been taught. When questioned by the religious elite of the day, Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In quoting Scripture from Deuteronomy 6, Jesus displays his authority over the Old Testament as well as the continuity of God’s redemptive plan in gospel discipleship. We will take a close look at this often rejected concept of authority in chapter 1.

Thirdly, we see transformation in Christian discipleship. Discipleship begins with Christ (“all that I have commanded you”), involves a teaching disciple (“teaching”) and a learning disciple (“to observe”). Yet teaching information alone is not sufficient in becoming a disciple. Likewise, merely adhering to what is taught or commanded does not truly encompass discipleship. True discipleship in light of the gospel gives disciples of Christ a new identity that results in new action. This transformation is a work of the Holy Spirit that includes both instant and ongoing action.

Short-Sighted Discipleship

During our first year of marriage, my wife and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. We rented a car and took our time enjoying the scenery of the Arizona desert. Following the signs to the canyon, we made our way into the national park, parked the car, and walked to the rim to enjoy a beautiful sunset. The purpose of the signs was to lead us to the canyon rim. Once on the rim, we no longer looked at the signs that led us there, but rather we focused on what the signs led us to: the painted pastels of the Grand Canyon.

In Christian discipleship, methods and traditions are like signs that point us to Christ. They can be helpful and beautiful. These signs are meant to be imprinted with Scripture. By Scripture we see who Christ is and what he’s done, and thus who we are and how we are to live. Scripture points us to the kind of disciples we are and are becoming, and what kind of disciples we are making. Often our discipleship methods become short-sighted, like signs that lead us to the very rim of the canyon only to be missing the clear text. In return, we focus on the sign itself, tragically missing the beauty of the canyon.

In 1 Timothy 6:3-4a, Paul offers instruction on discipleship, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” Paul highlights two features of Christian doctrine: “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “teaching that accords with godliness.” These two go together and cannot be separated. These “sound words” refer to the Lord’s message of the gospel. These words come from the Lord directly and through his apostles and teachers.

Paul warns against doctrine contrary to Christ and teaching that does not line up with godliness. In other words, Paul is providing warning against discipleship that loses sight of Christ and the gospel.

How do we know our doctrine lines up with “the sound words” and “teaching that accords with godliness?” Without the Apostles present with us, how do we determine what is Christ-focused and gospel-centered? The answer: Scripture.

Scripture is of both Divine and Human origin. The Holy Spirit uses Scripture as a means of grace for the identifying and shaping of disciples. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The Holy Spirit works in and through Scripture through inspiration. Likewise, the Holy Spirit identifies us as disciples (Ephesians 1:13), dwells in our community of disciples (1 Cor. 3:17, 6:19), and by illumination gives us understanding so that we may obey Jesus by making disciples (Titus 3:5, 2 Thess. 2:13, Acts 1:8). How we view the Holy Spirit and Scripture will influence how we grow as disciples and how we make disciples.

Here we stand, on the rim of the canyon, reflecting on the signposts that have led us here. Through each chapter we will look at one of the bedrock doctrines of Christianity, especially as they pertain to Scripture. We will then see how this doctrine applies to our everyday discipleship: how we practice theology. Finally, each chapter ends with reflection questions to push us all to apply and wrestle with Scripture.

Jeremy Carr (ThM, MDiv) is lead teaching pastor and co-founding elder of Redemption Church in Augusta, GA. He has been a member of the Acts 29 Network since 2007 and has written for the Resurgence. Jeremy is husband to Melody and father to Emaline, Jude, Sadie, and Nora. He is the Author of Sound Words: Listening to the Scriptures published by GCD Books. Twitter: @pastorjcarr.

Editor: Please enjoy an excerpt from Sound Words: Listening to the Scriptures by Jeremy Carr then pick up your copy for 61% off—$1.99 from Saturday Jan 16th 12AM PST - Saturday Jan 23rd 12AM PST.