My last article began a new series which may serve as a primer for Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. There is no replacement in the Christian life for learning and dwelling upon God’s Word. Each of the doctrines and theological applications of the Christian faith are either directly spelled out in Scripture or may be derived systematically from it. This means that all of the specifics pertaining to faith that orthodox Christians believe—including who God is and who we are in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ—come from the Bible, God’s inspired, inerrant Word (Whitney, 22). Whitney outlines several ways in which we are to receive God’s Word. The following is a sampling of the riches of his instruction on the subject.
“HEARING GOD’S WORD”
Whitney highlights three verses as he instructs on the importance of hearing God’s Word. The first was stated by Jesus himself in Luke 11:28: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The second is Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Although many come to faith in Christ by reading the Bible, Whitney notes that, . . . “most who, like [Johnathan] Edwards, were converted while reading Scripture are also like him in that they often heard the proclamation of God’s Word prior to conversion. Faith and the ability to apply faith in every area of life is given to us as we are equipped by the hearing of the Word. Thirdly, Whitney uses I Timothy 4:13 to emphasize the necessity of corporate worship and the importance of the public reading of Scripture. In a society where faith is largely privatized, we should recognize that as a rule, corporate worship is the only public arena in which we will hear the Word of God spoken. Therefore, “We are to discipline ourselves to go and hear the Word of God.” Whitney concludes this section with excellent suggestions regarding worshipers’ prayerful preparation for this event (23-26).
“READING GOD’S WORD”
Whitney asserts, “The most critical Discipline is the intake of God’s Word. No factor is more influential in making us more like the Son of God than the Spirit of God working through the Word of God.” Quoting British preacher John Blanchard, he stresses that we should read our Bibles daily. He encourages Christians to discipline themselves to make the time for this and to establish a “Bible-reading plan.” Although a variety of plans may be found on the internet, a one-year plan is to read “three chapters every day and five on Sundays.” If we doubt we have time for this, Whitney suggests that we replace the inordinate time that many spend watching TV time with Bible reading. Last, Whitney notes that meditation—“think[ing] deeply”—on the Word of God is the key to its transformative power (27-30).
“STUDYING GOD’S WORD”
Whitney explains that “[i]f reading the Bible can be compared to cruising the width of a clear, sparkling lake in a motorboat, studying the Bible is like slowly crossing that same lake in a glass-bottomed boat” (31). In order to truly understand the fullness of meaning of any written work, in-depth study must be done. Related to this, Whitney explains that “in-depth word studies, character studies, topical studies, and book studies” as well as “grammar, history, culture, and geography” are essential for their value in plumbing the depths of Scripture’s meaning (33). I would add that developing an understanding of the way that literature and poetry function is also essential, as the form itself carries part of the Bible’s message. For references regarding this aspect, please see the sources by Ken Myers and Scott Aniol at the end of this article.
“MEMORIZING GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS”
As Whitney explains, “Scripture memory is like reinforcing steel to sagging faith.” Although this may seem the least attractive of the spiritual disciplines to many, it is a mighty weapon that the Holy Spirit seeks to use in our arsenal for spiritual warfare (40). We need this weapon in our fight against our crafty enemy. Whitney states, “It’s one thing, for instance, to be watching or thinking about something when you know you shouldn’t, but there’s added power against the temptation when a specific verse can be brought to your mind, like Colossians 3:2: ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not things that are on earth.’” He emphasizes, “A pertinent scriptural truth, brought to your awareness by the Holy Spirit at just the right moment, can be the weapon that makes the difference in a spiritual battle” (39). As we understand Scripture to be God’s Word we understand that it is a “[m]eans of God’s [g]uidance” (41). Whitney gives several excellent suggestions regarding methods for memorization (43-45). My personal favorite is writing verses in repetition, verbatim. This locks words in my memory like no other method. However, finding the method that works best for you is key.
“MEDITATING ON GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS”
In a day when most modern-day Christians are averse to memorizing Scripture, the practice of meditating on God’s Word doesn’t fair much better. As Whitney states, while Christians pursue Eastern or other forms of meditation in our day, Scriptural meditation suffers. This is not all. While Eastern forms of meditation call for us to clear our minds, the Scriptures call us to fill them with the words of the Bible (46). For a proof text, see Psalm 1:1-3. Also, as Whitney scrutinizes,
Worldly meditation employs visualization techniques intended to “create your own realilty.” And while Christian history has always had a place for the sanctified use of our God-given imagination in meditation, imagination is our servant to help us meditate on things that are true (see Philippians 4:8). Furthermore, instead of “creating our own reality” through visualization, we [Christians] link meditation with prayer to God and responsible, Spirit-filled human action to affect changes (46).
“In addition to these distinctives,” Whitney instructs, “let’s define meditation as deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture, or upon life from a Scriptural perspective, for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer” (46-47). Taken together, passages like Psalm 1, Joshua 1:8, and Romans 8:28-30 promise us success in conformity to Christ and his purposes for our lives when we meditate in this manner (46-50). Whitney offers a myriad of methods to encourage God’s work through Biblical meditation in our lives (56-68).
“APPLYING GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS”
Regarding application, Whitney quotes the often cited passage James 1:22-25, “. . . [T]he one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (70). Therefore when studying the Bible, Whitney encourages us to search for applications in the text. He asserts that it is important to “. . . believe that what you are reading was meant for you—at least in some Christ-related way—as well as for the first recipients of the message.” Clarifying this statement he explains that we must understand the original application of a passage first, and then the appropriate application for today. This implies that we seek the theological principle(s) taught in each passage. For example he states, “If you take every word of God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-7 as spoken to yourself, you’ll soon be moving to Israel. But if you understand that particular call as unique to Abram, you can still discover the timeless truths within it and apply every word to yourself” (71-72).
Whitney asserts that it is meditation that yields appropriate application. Meditation requires us to consider various questions regarding the text. These questions relate to personal application with respect to our beliefs, prayers, attitudes (including thanksgiving), and decision making. Finding “specific” points of application is the key (74-75).
As Christians apply Whitney’s admonitions regarding the digestion of Scripture we can be assured that we will be different. Brief and shallow encounters with God’s Word simply are not enough if we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather, as Whitney teaches, hearing, reading, studying, memorizing, meditating upon, and applying the Bible under the leadership of the Holy Spirit are what we need to be more like Him. Whitney’s book provides wonderful resources regarding these disciplines to help us unleash the power of the Scripture—God’s Holy Word—in order that we would excel in godliness.
Scott Aniol. “Verbal, Plenary Inspiration and the Aesthetics of Scripture.” Religious Affections Ministries. Accessed November 9, 2016. Available from http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-aesthetics/verbal-plenary-inspiration-and-the-aesthetics-of-scripture/; Internet.
Ken Meyers. “Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or What Do We Mean by ‘Meaning?’” SCL Journal 8 (Winter 2015): 7-11. Following the above link, you will arrive at the “Books and Articles” page of godcenteredworship.com. Then, scroll down to the bottom for a link to the journal containing this article.
Donald S. Whitney. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.