I love Bible study. I love Bible Study in solitude, one-on-one, small groups, and lecture groups. I love it for myself. I love it for others. As a pastor, I did whatever I could to get people in my churches to dig into the Bible and led by example. I love teaching people the Bible and teaching them to study it. My favorite classes in seminary were biblical exegesis classes. My preaching is deeply rooted in Bible study.
But is it discipleship? Does it make disciples?
Discipleship – to use Dallas Willard’s definition – is learning from Jesus how to live like Jesus. The Apostle Paul captured it when he directed the Corinthians to imitate Christ. A goal of discipleship, as mind blowing as it may seem, is to become more Christ-like. Wow!
How on earth do we do this? Really, how on earth. Maybe in heaven, but on earth?
Well, Jesus actually seemed to think that the best place for discipleship was here. He took ordinary people and made them his disciples. Then he gave them the responsibility to do the same for others when he told them to “Make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20). Essentially, he told them to “find others (like I found you) and do for them what I’ve done for you.” And he promised to be with them wherever they went and he gave them the Holy Spirit to help.
So, when we study the Bible and get others to do the same, is it discipleship? Are we making disciples when we study the Bible? Are we helping people to learn from Jesus how to live like Jesus by studying scripture?
Maybe. Maybe not. Let me share with you why I say that.
In my own life, I have noticed seasons of Bible study that were, shall we say, unfruitful. I read the Bible most every morning. Sometimes that time of reading has no noticeable effect. My Bible study did not make me more loving, gentle, kind, faithful, joyful, peaceful, etc. And as a pastor, I also noticed this in others. It’s not hard to understand if you think about it. Study pretty much always leads to knowledge, but it can end there. The Bible itself speaks to this: “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (I Corinthians 8:1)
So what’s the difference? How do we turn the knowledge into love. I’ve come to learn that it’s pretty simple.
Mere Bible study is learning to hear what God says. Discipleship is learning to hear what God says and putting something into practice in response.
James pointed this out. “Do not be hearers of the word only and so deceive yourselves, but be doers also.” (James 1:22). Moreover, Jesus pointed this out at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when he said whoever hears these words of mind and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matt 7:24). But the one who hears what is said and doesn’t put it into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. In the introduction to the same teaching in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord.’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) Why indeed?
The key to becoming wise, to living in a way that honors Jesus, to not deceiving ourselves about our faith is, the key to discipleship, I believe, studying the Bible in a way that leads to action.
We have a discipleship tool for this called the Learning Circle. It’s a great tool, but is kind of subtle, applies to more than just Bible study, and takes a while to learn. But a simpler step is this, something you could take away from this blob post is this:
Turn your Bible Study into discipleship by asking three questions:
- What did God say to me in His Word today?
- What does it mean about me, about God, or about our relationship?
- What am I going to do about it?
When you do something about it – when you hear the word and put it into practice – that leads to discipleship, which leads to spiritual growth and maturity in Christ. That is the kind of Bible study that helps us to become more like Jesus.
If I could add one thing to my 33 years of Bible study it would be this: Bible study must lead to prayerful action where God has put me. He speaks to us through His word for a reason. What has He said? What does it mean? What will we do about it?
Quick illustration. Last night at discipleship huddle, several members of the group shared how they are becoming more engaged in praying with others where they work whenever a need arises. Let me be clear: they aren’t finding other Christians and scheduling secret prayer meetings. When they feel prompted to pray for someone in the course of their jobs who needs prayer, they are pausing to listen, love the person, and pray for them. Listen-Love-Pray is a pattern of prayer we focused our Bible Study on over the summer. What they learned, they are putting into practice. And my heart leaps when I hear such things – for it is through such simple responses to God’s Word that the Kingdom of God is advancing here on the First Coast!
And that is good news!
Blessings on the journey!