February 22, 2006
As we bring this consideration of the importance and conduct of pastoral reading and study to a close, I want to ask you a question. Do you pray as you study? Do you pause to praise God for a glorious truth about himself that you learn along the way in your reading? Do you stop frequently to confess your sin and beg pardon as you are convicted by the truth of God’s word even as you read of some saint possessed of a virtue that you have not cultivated, or read a biblical warning against a sin that is a sin of your heart and life too? Do you seek forgiveness for those revealed sins even as you read? Do you intercede for others in relation to the truths you are learning. Prayer and reading and studying go together, belong together!
You may be reading secular history and realize that God’s providence used a common grace exercised in an unspiritual man to be a turning point in the story of nations – this might move you simultaneously to doxology to God in the manner of Romans 11:33, or to lament in prayer that you have not so cultivated that same character quality, though a child of God, or to thank God that in some measure by his grace you have seen some growth in that trait in your own life, or intercede for God to raise up Christians with such mettle.
Do you know what William Carey was reading when God placed a burden on his heart for taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth? The final volume of an account of the adventures of the great English explorer, Captain Cook. Reading of far-off places and strange peoples didn’t lead Carey into a fantasy dream-world of being an adventurer. Instead it led that son of a cobbler to think how those peoples needed Christ, how they needed the Gospel, and burdened him to take it to them. Dear friends, we ought to read with such a spiritual eye.
You might be reading a book by a leading theologian with much helpful in it, but with subtle and dangerous errors, traps laid for shepherds and sheep alike, and this might set you a-praying for your own soul ("Lord God, guard my heart from pride, keep my soul from error, grant me discernment, I hold something in my hand now that could set me off your path, protect me and others, O Savior, keep other shepherds from stumbling, protect your sheep from false teaching, grant repentance to this errant writer").
You might be reading a "soul-fatting" book, but all along thinking of its application to others, especially your flock and your culture, and suddenly you are arrested by the Holy Spirit as to its piercing truth for you. Turn that into prayer. "Lord God, here I am to learn my sin, here I am to learn of your grace and call to me, here I am to learn how you would have me live. O take the log out of my eye, dear Lord, before like a surgeon I attempt to extract slivers from the eyes of others." Or "My heavenly Father, this is a grace I need to know. It is not just something I need to tell my people. I myself need it desperately, because I need you desperately. Grant it in your rich mercy."
True Gospel study ought to be turned into prayer. When we study something that causes us to realize the greatness of God and his saving work, it ought to move us to adoration, thanksgiving and praise. We should not resist the impulse of prayer, in our study or any other time (as Lloyd-Jones said, the urge to pray is one impulse we ought never to resist!), but we should also already have a habit and mindset to read prayerfully. When we read something that convicts us, we ought to be impelled to confession of sin in prayer. When we read something that reminds us of the plight of others, we ought to be moved to intercession. When we read something soul-killing or potentially harmful to the spiritual well-being of ourselves or others, we ought to beg God to squelch the poison, to spare unwary sheep, to rebuke the false shepherd, to protect faithful pastors and to spare our own souls from the contagion of falsehood.
All our study ought to be turned into prayer, and made to serve the interests of sanctificationours and that of others. This just reminds us again of the importance of an experiential knowledge of God to our theological learning. Without a true, saving, covenantal knowledge of God, study is bound to go wrong on us. This alone urges upon us the importance of prayer and the Holy Spirit in our study. In prayer we show our utter dependence on God for the attainment of true knowledge. And only by the teacher, the Holy Spirit, do we get true knowledge and the true knowledge of God. Both of these realities must permeate our whole approach to study. This is one reason for the profound statement of Proverbs 1:7 "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge."
May God raise up a host of Gospel "mighty men" in our day, committed to the authority of Scripture, firmly persuaded of all its great doctrines, masterful in their grasp of gospel truth and on fire to proclaim it, characterized by warm-hearted godliness and steady holiness, prayerful and careful in pastoral duties, and diligent to keep studying to show themselves approved, that the Church would be built up, her walls enlarged, Christ exalted and God glorified.