It should come without saying — though maybe we should say it more often — a pastor is always a student. Though I never plan on enrolling in another class or degree program, my weekly routine is filled with study. What B.B. Warfield said to theological students should remain true for pastors: “Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them. They bring you daily and hourly into the very presence of God; his ways, his dealing with men, the infinite majesty of his Being form their very subject-matter. Put the shoes from off your feet in this holy presence!”
I’m thankful for the study that the pastorate forces on me. I say “force” because while every Christian should study the Bible, as a minister of the Word there’s a double obligation. Paul exhorted Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). In keeping with that command, when I was ordained I promised before God to “bring [to my] congregation the fruits of earnest study of the Word.” As a pastor that’s my tremendous privilege!
In my weekly routine I’m often struck at the breadth of pastoral study. Very little of what I do as a pastor doesn't require some degree of it. For instance, a good portion of time is set aside every week to prepare two sermons. Currently I'm preaching through the life and ministry of Jesus from the synoptic gospels, and the letter of First Thessalonians. That means week-by-week I'm studying the miracles or parables or events of Jesus' life, and the Apostolic doctrines and exhortations that fill that letter. Literally, one moment I'm studying the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) and the next sexual purity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). Additionally, I teach Sunday school where I'm giving an overview of sometimes neglected Christian disciplines like fasting, public prayer, and Bible meditation – topics rarely, if ever, studied in seminary. On Sunday evenings I lead our high school group through various topics about contemporary issues or a study of the Ten Commandments.
Beyond my immediate responsibilities for Sunday there’s also certain pastoral and shepherding issues that demand careful study. Those topics are as diverse as the needs in the congregation and community. I also have writing commitments. Just this week I’ve spent time studying and writing on the topics of Christian love, oaths and vows, and heavenly wisdom. Add to this the denominational needs that require study of certain issues we are or might be facing, or being slotted to speak at youth retreats on assigned topics. At the risk of spreading myself too thin, I co-host two podcasts that require continuing in-depth study of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and a Christian perspective on practical topics. As if that’s not enough many of my studies leave me with niggling questions that often produce all kinds of rabbit trails that may never get beyond my own curiosities. I'll spare you the details of my theological concerns. Needless to say, my weekly study is a mishmash of all kinds of subjects!
Of course, there’s many challenges that come with pastoral study. But one of the greatest is (as Warfield pointed out) letting our studies occupy not only our minds but our hearts. A pastor doesn't study first and foremost for his congregation but for himself. If I remember, it was Andrew Bonar who said the strength of Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s ministry was that he spent all week feeding himself in the pasture of God’s Word, so all he needed to do was direct his congregation there. A pastor who is spiritually unaffected by his studies is a man who ought not to be in the ministry.
With that in mind I thought it could be enjoyable (and even fun) to write about some of the truths that have entered my heart through my recent studies —:
Self-Denial: In preaching on the life and ministry of Jesus, I recently preached his words: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). I gained a new appreciation for the demand of self-denial. Often, I've been tempted to think of self-denial as not doing something even if I really want to. But biblical self-denial is more than that. It's a response that's fueled by union with Jesus Christ that replaces self with him. So that self-denial is not "I want X but Jesus wants Y now I'm going to deny myself," but the complete yielding of one's self to Jesus. It's saying with Paul: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). As Isaac Ambrose wrote: "Self-denial is a total, thorough, utter abnegation of a man's own ends, counsels, affections, and whole prostration of himself, and of all that is his, under Christ Jesus."
Repentance: I was reading a little book by Richard Capel titled Tentations: Their Nature, Danger, and Cure (yes, it's a seventeenth-century book which is why it uses the obsolete form of "temptations"). He was writing about the way of repentance and said something that even days later I couldn't shake from my thoughts. He wrote: "Our repenting of our breach of promise, is as pleasing to God, and ought to be as comfortable to us, as our not sinning would have been." Admittedly, I almost hesitate to agree with that: my repentance is as pleasing to God as my not sinning would have been. Think about that for a moment. I actually think it's a powerful summary on the Bible's teaching of the extent of God's forgiveness which is an act both of his faithfulness and his justice (see 1 John 1:9).
Prayer: In preparing a short devotional for our monthly prayer meeting I found myself scanning the book of Micah. In the seventh chapter the prophet laments: "The godly has perished from the earth." He goes on in great detail about all the wickedness he sees around him. So great is that wickedness a pessimist might despair that there's any hope or answer to such evil. However, what struck me was his response to the ungodliness: "But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me." It was a needed reminder that in the midst of the godlessness of our own culture – which is often so discouraging and overwhelming – prayer is not useless. In fact, in a godless society our part is to pray with faith-fueled confidence in God.
Friendship: On one of our Sunday evenings I was trying to give our high school students a biblical picture of friendship. As I was doing so I stumbled on a Proverb that I have read before but have probably neglected. Wisdom tells us: "Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away" (Proverbs 27:10). I forget which commentator said it – I hurried through a number of them – but someone made the observation that friendship is a superior relationship than blood. The reason is because friendship isn't based on necessity but on choice. Whether or not that's true, the proverb is simple enough: there is tremendous value in a friend of close proximity. As I reflected on that I was made very glad for my friendships in my own church family.
Mercy and Justice: I've watched the cultural and ecclesiastical conversations about sexual abuse with some interest. As a husband, dad, and pastor I don't think it's something that I can ignore. I do think the general conversation is good even if some of the "movements" are bound to take missteps. I've really wanted to find helpful voices to listen to in this conversation who could bring clarity and biblical understanding. Recently I found two! Over our family vacation I read two books on the topic. The first was Jenn Greenberg's Not Forsaken and the second was Rachael Denhollander's What is a Girl Worth? (two books I highly recommend!). Both of these women have helped me to understand a little more about abuse and abusers, and have helped me think through the relationship between mercy and justice. I have a lot left to learn but I'm thankful for what they have said.
Wisdom: Unrelated to any preaching or teaching I've been studying the book of James – a letter I used to find puzzling and one that I now find even more so! As I work through some of the puzzle of it all, I've been extremely interested in the place of wisdom. Often, when I think of the great need the gospel addresses I think in the category of righteousness – that is, of course, the Apostle Paul's angle in Romans. Without contradicting that, James frames our need in terms of wisdom – like a covenantal prosecutor he brings together the prophetic witness with the sapiential. God has given us a standard by which we are to live and the way that leads to life is the way of wisdom ultimately displayed in Jesus Christ.
I'm thankful that my calling as a pastor puts me in an environment where the things of God are the air I breath. But I also know the subtle danger of letting study occupy only the mind and not the heart. Again and again I have found myself falling back on the words of Herman Witsius: "For no one teaches well unless he has first learned well; no one learns well unless he learns in order to teach. And both learning and teaching are in vain and unprofitable unless accompanied by practice."