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A Pastor’s Private Life

Loehe describes a pastor as leading a private and a public life.  Yet as important as his public life is, it begins first in private.  How should a pastor study?  What does it mean to reflect on God’s Word?  Does piety make you a Pietist?  Join us for our continuing discussion of Loehe’s book “The Pastor.”

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold

Episode: 53

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Lent Midweek Sermon Series: 1 Peter 1

There is a time to rejoice in God’s abundant earthly blessings.  There is a time to rest, a time to laugh, and a time to feast.  But there is also a season for reflection, for honest self-assessment, for recommitment to the more demanding aspects of our Christian walk.  Lent is just such a season.  The First Epistle of Peter reminds us that we are sojourners, and that we ought to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war” against our souls (1 Peter 2:11).  In light of Christ’s suffering, we should “live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:2).  This Epistle, at five chapters in length, could be preached as a midweek Lent sermon series. 

At the outset, Peter calls Christians “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), not fully at home on this earth.  Everything under the sun is vanity (Ecc. 1:3).  All the glory of man is doomed to pass away (1 Peter 1:24).  The heathen go about in futility (1 Peter 1:18), sinful passions, and ignorance (1 Peter 1:14).  But we have been born again (1 Peter 1:3), ransomed (1 Peter 1:18), promised an inheritance (1 Peter 1:4), and are being guarded until the Last Day (1 Peter 1:5).  Peter builds on many of these teachings throughout the letter.   

Although we are not at home in this world, how we live here and now does matter for the Christian.  Jesus’ death, our faith, and our hope for things to come all inform the way we should think and live here and now.  It is not as though faith were merely a spiritual or otherworldly matter.  Although we wait for the full joys of heaven (1 Peter 1:4), though we long for the day when we will see Jesus (1 Peter 1:8), the Lord has called us for specific purposes in this life. 

The LORD ransomed Israel from Egypt at great cost.  The toll was tremendous destruction and loss of life for Egypt.  In memory of this, all the firstborn of Israel had to be redeemed (Ex. 34:19-20).  The Lord purchased Israel neither for libertinism nor for anarchy; he did not ransom them just so they could be free for freedom’s sake.  Rather, the LORD liberated them in order to worship him (Ex. 8:1), dwell with him (Ex. 15:13), be his (Ex. 19:4), to obey him (Ex. 24:7), and ultimately to raise up a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15-18) and Abraham’s Seed, through whom the whole earth would be blessed.  conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile

Christians too are redeemed for specific purposes.  We are called to endure “various trials” (1 Peter 1:6).  These refine our faith, just as a furnace purges away impurity from gold.  Yet our faith is more precious than gold, which is doomed to perish along with this world (1 Peter 1:7; 24).  The heat may be unpleasant, but the result is beautiful.  Even in the midst of suffering, we should rejoice.  The trials are for our benefit and God’s glory.  We are not yet fully free from this world; we do not yet see Jesus face to face.  Thus the need for faith (Heb. 11:1).   

Christians are also called to holiness.  Rather than obeying passions, foolishness, and worldly mindsets, we are to be ready for action and sober minded in this life, and hopeful of future encounter with Jesus, rather earthbound in our thoughts (1 Peter 1:13).   Sinful passions tear apart Christian fellowship, and so we are called to lay these aside and instead love one another “earnestly, with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).     

Although everything under the sun perishes, rots, fails, disappoints, dies, and is forgotten, the word of God endures forever.  And since that same word which endures has kindled faith in our hearts, we Christians will also endure into eternity.  While we continue on our earthly pilgrimage, we are to hope in God, endure difficulty, live in love with others here on earth, resist the Devil, and praise God in all we do. 

The preacher can urge his hearers that whether they eat or drink, fast or abstain this Lent that they at least reflect upon their spiritual life. We are surrounded by the world’s comforts. It is easy to think we are at home here on earth. But since Christ has risen from the dead, our faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:21) and our true home is in heaven.

A Christian Meditation for the New Year

Another year has come and gone.  Each of us is one year closer to eternity:  “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).  Do not mourn that you are closer to death, but instead thank God that you are now that much closer to eternal life.

A generation comes and goes, but the earth remains.  Though all streams flow into the sea, the sea is not full.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  Though we toil on this earth, we can take nothing with us into the next life.  Though we may indulge in the comforts and pleasures of this life, we will never be satisfied (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18).  The wise man and the fool, the rich and the poor, the king and the servant all will die (Ecclesiastes 2:1-17). 

As one year passes and another begins, let us remember that we are dust (Genesis 3:19).  Let us remember that at any moment we could be called away from this life.  Who of us knows if he will make it to the end of this year?  Be not like the rich fool who basked in his earthly blessings only to lose his life that very night (Luke 12:13-21).  God forbid that any of us should be found without the oil of faith when we awake from death at our Lord’s return (Matthew 25:1-13).  

Where your treasure is, there your heart is also (Matthew 6:21).  What are the greatest objects of your heart’s desire?  God and his word?  Free salvation through Jesus’ death?  

What is worth more than God?  What on this earth is worth more than hearing His word?  What is a better use of your time than coming to church regularly?  Everything in this world fades, rots, fails, falls apart, does not satisfy you, does not save you, does not last forever.  

Therefore, dear Christian, examine your heart.  Examine your time commitments.  Examine your loves.  This world is passing away.  Do not pass away along with it.  Do not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).  

Redeem the time, which passes so quickly.  Redeem it by using it to hear God’s word.  Fill your flasks with oil while there is still time (Matthew 25:8-10).  Come to church.  Come regularly.  Meditate on God’s word throughout the week and throughout your life. 

The word of God preserves you for eternal life.  Faith comes from hearing the word.  Faith in Christ’s death saves you from the eternity in Hell you deserve for sinning against God.

Christ has risen from the dead.  He has loosened the chains of the grave.  He has broken through, and risen above, the cycles of meaninglessness and death in Ecclesiastes.  He has opened eternity to all who believe in His life, death, and resurrection.  Into the toil, sadness, and vanity of this earthly life Jesus breathes joy and hope.  Joy because of reconciliation with God.  Joy because of His presence.  Joy due to humble, fearful, grateful faith.  And hope because of God’s promise that he will raise all who believe in Jesus to everlasting life.

The Practice of Prayer


Just as breathing is necessary for life, prayer is essential to a living and active faith. How do the logistics of prayer— time, posture, and words—aid or detract from a prayer life? What is presumed when we pray? How can a pastor especially pray for his congregation? Join us as we discuss piety and its cultivation in the habit of prayer.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 31

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Biblical Piety, Part 6: Alms

Part 5 of this series.

Having described fasting, Biblical piety moves from “secret” to “private.” The terms are fluid, of course. The easiest way to keep them apart is how many people are involved: is it done alone or is it done with or for a small number of other people? But whereas practices like prayer and fasting belong the most to what is done in secret, alms belong almost exclusively to private Biblical piety.

Alms may be defined as doing what is in accordance with the will of God for the benefit of others. It is not refraining from an evil action, but doing good in obedience to the Lord. Alms are not only the external act. It is possible to “do good” while disobeying the Law. In such a case, whatever is done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Such an act may follow the letter of the Law, but not the Spirit.

The primary motivation for doing alms is holiness, or conformity to the will of God. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Loving your neighbor as yourself flows out of a love for God and not the other way around. Alms do not make us righteous in the sight of God, but alms are also not concerned only with the neighbor. The righteous man walks the way of the righteous because of his conformity to the will of God. In giving alms, God is glorified (Matthew 5:16). They are not an afterthought or an unconscious process.

Alms are a part of Biblical piety for a number of reasons. First, faith brings forth fruit without exception. As James says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Again, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that” (James 2:15-16)? Such alms are not the foundation of righteousness, which is the mistake of legalism, but the expression of it, and one in whom there are no fruits of faith does not have faith. The prophets condemn Israel over and over again for this very lack of fruit, even though they laid claim to the promises of God (Amos 5:21-24, for example).

Second, the righteous desire to do what is pleasing to God. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). “More to be desired are [the Lord’s commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11). It must be noted that God converts the whole man, including his will, so that he actually wants to keep the Law and love his neighbor as himself. This is done in great weakness while still in the flesh, of course, but to revel in sin or to refuse to give alms out of a fear of “works-righteousness” is a sign of being in the flesh.

Alms take many forms. Outwardly, they are primarily concerned with the physical needs of the body. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). However, they are not exclusively so, but may also be related to money and similar things. The condemnation of usury, for example, shows the intent behind alms clearly. A poor brother is not an opportunity for gain. “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you” (Leviticus 25:36). A moneylender gives with the intent of making something out of the deal; giving alms (in this case, lending money) may in fact “hurt,” but it aims at building up the neighbor instead of the self. As Paul says, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

However, outward alms are meaningless without inward fruits. Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for lacking the fruits of the Spirit: “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). The external portion of alms ultimately comes to an end, but the eternal treasures which accompany the earthly things never perish. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

One final note about alms-giving. There is a real temptation to give alms to those who are distant and imagine that the whole of the law has been fulfilled. The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man doubtlessly gave alms in accordance with the Law (Luke 10:29-37). Giving alms to another country is easy and can easily puff up. Giving alms to the poor man on the street corner is much harder. But the Lord calls us to take care of those closest to us first. “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6)! “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

Biblical Piety, Part 5: Fasting

Part 4.2 of this series.

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  With these words, Jesus rebuked Satan who had come to tempt Him in the midst of His fasting.  Few words could describe more clearly the purpose of this neglected part of Biblical piety.  Fasting is, therefore, an expression of dependence upon God and a striving after those things which will never pass away.  “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Corinthians 6:13).  “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

That fasting is a neglected practice is a real problem, because Jesus commands it in no less uncertain terms than prayer:  “And when you fast” (Matthew 6:16), not “if you fast.”  Jesus condemns the misuse of fasting, turning it into a public spectacle as a means of attracting approval rather than focusing on the things of God.  Fasting therefore most often belongs to the category of secret piety:  “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18).

Fasting, like any other part of Biblical piety, is easily abused.  King Darius fasted out of anxiety (Daniel 6:18).  Fasting can be merely external, bowing the head and spreading sackcloth and ashes (Isaiah 58:5).  Men may boast of their fasting as if it meant something before God (Luke 18:11-12).  But “in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure” if that is the case (Isaiah 58:3).  The acceptable fast of the Lord builds up and does not puff up.  It advances holiness and piety and does not seek its own glory.

Fasting and prayer go together, because fasting is not an end in itself.  Fasting for the sake of fasting makes it merely external.  But the reasons for fasting in the Bible are many.  Very frequently, fasting is a sign of repentance, an intense form of sorrow over sin (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27-29; Ezra 9:5; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Jeremiah 36:6-9; Daniel 9:3; Joel 2:12-16; Jonah 3:5).  Men may fast also as a part of mourning over death (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 1 Chronicles 10:12) or at distressing news (Nehemiah 1:4; Esther 4:3-16; Daniel 10:2-3).  Fasting may also be a part of intercession, imploring God’s mercy (2 Samuel 12:16-23).  In such cases, the motivation for fasting is humility before God, especially since we are deserving of His wrath.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

But fasting may also be undertaken for “positive” reasons.  Ezra fasts and prays as a part of asking for God’s protection on the journey to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21-23).  It therefore emphasizes that coming and going, as with all things, are in the Lord’s hands.  Anna fasts as a part of worship (Luke 2:37).  Fasting is therefore not an extraordinary practice.  Finally, fasting precedes important decisions within the Church (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).  God’s will should be sought in all things, and fasting emphasizes this need for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It should also be noted that fasting is not always a part of secret piety, since the kings sometimes called upon all people to fast together (2 Chronicles 20:3).  While fasting is most often individual, the whole body of Christ may fast together as a part of public prayer.

Biblically speaking, fasting is a total restraint from eating and drinking.  Abstaining from things other than food is not, strictly speaking, fasting.  Paul, for example, commends a temporary abstention from sex within the bounds of marriage for the purpose of prayer, but this is not fasting (1 Corinthians 7:5).  This sort of abstaining may be necessary as a form of self-control, but fasting in the Bible does not seem to be divided into degrees.  “Partial fasts,” or refraining only from a certain type of food or drink, seems to be more akin to abstaining.  Too often, “giving up” something, especially in the liturgical season of Lent, is done because it is “bad for me anyway.”  While sweets may indeed be an idol, Biblical fasting is not a matter of health (Psalm 109:24-25).  Christ did not stop eating only donuts while wandering forty days in the wilderness.

As for when one should fast, this is a matter of Christian liberty.  There is a benefit to regularly scheduling a fast, such as on a particular day, provided it does not become an occasion for stumbling.  Allowing fasting to happen “whenever,” like prayer, will probably mean never doing it at all.  One must make allowances for those who are unable to fast for a variety of reasons (such as health problems or the young), but inconvenience is not a reason to avoid doing it.  The length of fasting is also a matter of liberty, though extremely short duration are more prone to abuse.  Fasts of supernatural lengths are obviously not a goal, but they should be as long as needed for whatever reason they are undertaken.

But above all, fasting and prayer go together.  When you fast, pray to your Father who sees in secret.  Fasting does not intensify prayer, as if God will really listen to the one who prays and fasts.  That is Gentile thinking.  Rather, fasting reminds us of the one thing needed, so that we may be able to say with our Lord Jesus Christ:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

Biblical Piety, Part 4.2: The Practice of Prayer

Part 4.1 of this series.

Prayer takes many different forms. For simplicity’s sake, I will begin with secret prayer.

Secret, simply put, means praying alone. Jesus speaks about it directly: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6). Would you have your reward of men or of God? Prayer done for the purpose of being seen is not prayer at all.

Secret prayer takes place in a couple of ways. One may either pray at set times on a regular schedule or throughout the day. Both have their place in Biblical piety. Both should be done, and neither should be neglected. If we want to “pray without ceasing,” then we should not fear to pray at every possible moment. However, only praying at random runs the great risk of never praying at all. We will always find excuses to put off the things of God because of sin. Choosing a set schedule should be a matter of personal devotion. No law may be made about times. What matters is keeping the schedule. Time can always be found if you look for it. It is simply a matter of priorities.

Prayer throughout the day obviously occurs wherever one might be at the time, but there is a great benefit in choosing a physical location for prayer at set times. Setting apart a particular place can aid in devotion, because it prepares the mind and the soul for the task at hand. One may choose to decorate such a space with devotional reminders, especially Biblical verses, for the same purpose. A kneeler or a kneeling pad can also be appropriate in such a space if desired. Caution is needed, however, so that one is not distracted by such décor. There is much to be said for simplicity.

The posture of prayer is also not confined. The key with such posture is to aid focus and devotion. Kneeling with hands folded is a posture often associated with prayer, and therefore may be useful. Sitting or standing does not negate prayer, however, nor does praying with unfolded hands. It is also immaterial whether one’s hands are intertwined or palms together. None of them is a mark of orthodoxy or of faith, and one must beware of making any of them a means of being seen by men.

Do not feel a need to rush through prayer. If one is rushing, it is probably being treated as a chore, which calls for a prayer for repentance. Taking one’s time in prayer can be as simple as allowing for silence before, during, and after prayer. We should be mindful and attentive during prayer and not wandering off in our thoughts, our words, or our actions.

Prayer should be formed by and flow out of the Word. Therefore, it is highly appropriate, especially during set times, to incorporate some portion of Scripture. The Psalms are especially suitable for this purpose, since they are Biblical prayers. If you follow a schedule of reading smaller sections of Scripture regularly, they can be easily incorporated into set prayer times.

Devtional aids, such as prayer books, can be beneficial. Written prayers are not necessarily less sincere, since as will be shown below, being led in prayer is also a kind of prayer. Written prayers do run a great risk of being done mindlessly, however, and should be used thoughtfully. Extemporaneous prayers, also sometimes called ex corde prayers, meaning “from the heart,” are also good, especially since praying at all times often calls for prayers made up on the spot. They can be just as mindless, though, especially if they lapse into repetitiveness. Some things, however, are not beneficial. Beads, for example, encourage mindlessness in prayer, since they are meant to be used as a way of “keeping count” while the mind “meditates” on something else.

As for the content of prayer, there is nothing which is “too little” for God. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). It may be that we ask for the wrong things, asking for a serpent instead of a fish. As James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). We so often put so many parameters and qualifications on how we desire it to be answered that it may seem like He never answers us the way we want. However, God does answer prayer, and He desires that we bring everything to Him, because in prayer we recognize our need for God in all things. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:4-6).

If you find yourself at a loss for what to pray, make that a part of your prayers. The Holy Spirit Himself prays with us and guides His Church also in her prayers. Directly invoke the Holy Spirit as an initial prayer, perhaps saying something like “Come, Almighty God, the Holy Spirit, and teach me to pray.” He will not fail to answer such a prayer, just as Jesus taught His disciples to pray when they asked Him (Luke 11:1).

One may also lead or be led in prayer. Such should also be done reverently, following the same ideas which guide secret prayer. One must strive harder to avoid a Gentile desire of approval when not praying alone, of course, but we are Christ’s body, the Church. Husbands and fathers are called to lead such prayer in the family, since as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3-4: “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.” But in the case of public prayer, the pastor leads the prayer of the Church as a whole. Following another in prayer is not demeaning, but it should not be used as an occasion for mindlessness.

Biblical Piety, Part 4.1: Prayer

Part 3.2 of this series.

Biblical piety prays without ceasing.

Prayer is not dependent upon anything within the Christian to be heard. It is not a movement of the will, an emotional state of closeness or majesty, or a question of intensity. Too many imagine prayer to be something entirely of their own making, as if the Christian sits down and speaks to God unprompted. But “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). We would not pray if God Himself did not move our hearts to pray. It is by the Holy Spirit that we cry “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

Prayer is therefore a response to what God has first done. Apart from faith, there can be no prayer, and apart from God, there can be no faith. Yet though we could not pray apart from God, prayer is directed toward God. As Paul says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Prayer is therefore the Christian’s work. It has God’s clear command, for Jesus tells us “when you pray,” not “if you pray” in Matthew 6:5. But it also has God’s clear promise, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).

But prayer at bottom is not a matter of words. The Gentiles think they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). Hannah, however, prayed without uttering a word (1 Samuel 1:13). Abraham’s servant prayed in his heart for guidance to Rebekah (Genesis 24:45). As noted above, the Holy Spirit Himself utters wordless groans on our behalf. We should not regard prayer as finding the right words.

Rather, prayer is at bottom a recognition of the power of God. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). A prayer of thanksgiving glorifies God for His mighty deeds. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works” (Psalm 105:1-2)! A prayer for forgiveness recognizes that the Lord is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (Luke 18:13)! A prayer which makes requests of God confesses that all things come from His hand. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11)! A prayer of intercession recalls the promises and the mercies of God, even in the face of His wrath.

Therefore, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17; see also Luke 18:1). Prayer is not limited to particular circumstances, because we are completely dependent upon God for all things at all times. As Paul says, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Timothy 2:8). Limiting prayer only to specific times or specific forms runs the great risk of treating it as a chore. This does not mean that specific times or specific prayers are evil. Such things are highly helpful for a living piety. It is when we regard prayer as a list of words that need to be rattled off before bed or at a prayer service that we act like Gentiles. We are approaching the Creator of all things, who delights to hear our prayers. Who would not want to come, knowing that God Himself promises to hear us?

We will discuss practical questions, including difficulties in prayer, in the next installment. But let us not forget that God calls us to this holy work through His Holy Spirit. If nothing else, remember that our Father delights to hear the prayers of His children, and knowing that it pleases Him is in itself reason enough. “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2), knowing that God will not fail to hear.

Biblical Piety, Part 3.2: Practice of Hearing the Word

Part 3.1 of this series.

It is not enough to remain in theory. Piety must exhibit itself in concrete and often specific examples. My aim is not to lay out a specific plan, as if one could mechanically engage in a predetermined course and end up with a certificate of piety. Rather, I descend to particular examples in order to encourage. Generalities rarely touch the heart.

Paul says to Timothy: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). Gaining a familiarity with the Scriptures happens in several ways, one of the most important of which is in the public service. Hearing the Scriptures read and explained is an important aspect. Christ saves His Body, the Church, not a group of individuals who all happen to be Christian. Regularly receiving the Word as a part of what may be called public piety also helps us avoid the temptation of making ourselves the sum and measure of interpreting Scripture. We should never be too proud or fear to learn from those wiser than ourselves. If we feel that we can “gain more” elsewhere, we ought to seriously question our motives. Even Paul in Romans 1:12 could find a “mutual encouragement” among the believers at Rome, and he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit directly! Going to church is part of learning the Scriptures.

Though we may avoid the danger of pride, it is also possible to make too much of the public reading of Scripture. I do not mean that it is useless. It is always profitable. I mean that some may be tempted to go the other way and make hearing the Scriptures publically their only time that they spend in the Word. I do not need to read the Bible, the argument goes, because I hear it on Sunday. I have to attend to other things in the week. This is equally dangerous for two reasons: (1) man does not live upon bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. To cut yourself off is to lay down your spiritual sword for most of the week, perhaps the time it is needed the most! (2) The public reading of Scripture is by necessity limited in scope. Whether a lectionary is used or a continuous reading of a single book (lectio continua), only so much of the Bible can be covered even in the course of a year. A real familiarity with the Word occurs when one engages in all three modes of piety: public (especially in the Church), private (involving a few people, especially the family), and secret (alone).

Begin every reading of Scripture with prayer. Pray to the Holy Spirit to guide your reading and to teach you what He wants to teach. Make time to spend time in the Word. A thoughtless glancing over will hardly leave an impression. The Scriptures do not work magically, as if the act of reading were enough in itself. The living Holy Spirit is speaking. Let us be attentive!

Do not be afraid to take notes here and there, especially about things which you do not understand. Take such questions to the teachers of the Church. If you have time, consulting teachers of the past can also be helpful, but avoid the temptation to leave it lingering or imagine that you can form an answer all on your own. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Study Bibles can also be helpful for this, but the temptation there is to either treat the footnotes as inspired or to spend more time in them than in the Word itself. Nor are all study Bibles created equal. Choose such Bibles with care.

As for translations, it has been well said that the best translation is the one you actually read. Every translation has its strengths and its weaknesses. All translation is interpretation in one degree or another. For that reason, it is best to avoid ones which are largely paraphrase. What those translations gain in clarity, they often lose in being more and more conformed to the translator. Some translations have proven themselves with time, such as the King James Version. Others aim at word-for-word translations and can become clunky and wooden at times. Perhaps the best answer is to choose one with advice and use it consistently. You could also vary which one you use from time to time. But above all, pick one and run with it.

Set a specific time to be in the Scriptures. Letting it happen “whenever” is an easy way to not do it at all. Satan will always bring up things that “must be done” to make you push it off. Set a schedule for reading as well. I think that there are three major ways to approach reading the Scriptures.

The first is what I call “whole book reading.” When you have the opportunity, sit down and read an entire book of the Bible. Every book of the Bible can be read within the timeframe of an average movie. Even if your reading speed is slow, the books range in length from the Psalms to Obadiah. The great advantages of this method are: (1) the Bible is composed of books, not groups of passages. Reading the whole book treats it as a unified message, exactly as it was originally written or read aloud. (2) I know of no better way to gain a basic familiarity with the Bible. Some questions which pop up in one passage are often answered clearly in a later passage or in other books. There are, of course, a couple of disadvantages: (1) Time is a factor. It is a method which does call for a larger block of time, and this is not always possible. I do not mean this as a way of encouraging carnal security. We often find no problem finding time for a two hour movie, but more than 5 minutes of reading seems tortuous. That is a problem with priorities, not the method. However, work schedules and demands of the home often present obstacles for two or three hours blocks of uninterrupted time. It is not at all impossible, just more difficult. (2) Reading the whole Bible in this way can breed the proud notion that “I have read the Bible, so I’m done.” Avoid the temptation to pride once the Bible has been read from cover to cover! (3) A general familiarity can also make it more difficult to find specifics. Do not let the “big picture” be a substitute for specifics, but let them compliment one another.

The second is “chapter reading.” This is probably the most common and for good reasons. (1) It is both broad enough to see a portion of the forest and specific enough to see the individual trees. (2) It can also take less time overall, though this should not be the primary factor. It does run the risk of making the Bible seem disjointed, though this can be overcome.

The third is “intensive reading.” While it is most suited for studying the original languages, it is more or less taking a handful of verses at a time and carefully working through them bit by bit. The Bible is, after all, inspired even in its word choices. It runs the greatest risk of losing the general context, but it is instructive in considering every aspect of the Scriptures.

Choose a method and stick with it. You can vary which one you use, though chapter reading is probably the best for most people. As for scheduling, many people try to read from Genesis to Revelation. There is nothing wrong with any particular schedule, but the Pentateuch can be hard to work through for someone who has not developed a consistent habit. My recommendation for a Christian just beginning to work through the Scriptures is to start with the New Testament and then the Old Testament. One could also read passages from both Testaments every day. The exact schedules may be left to individual preference, though one should be consistent in whatever you choose to do.

Make reading the Bible a part of family prayer. Whether reading as a family or alone, examine yourself to see what you have learned. Pray after reading the Word, perhaps wording a prayer based on what you have read. But above all, I cannot encourage you enough to read it and read it consistently. Three to five chapters a day is enough to finish the whole Bible in a year. Electronic gadgets can provide you with reminders to do it, even giving you the exact schedule. If you find it unnecessary or too difficult even for so small a schedule as that, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2).

Biblical Piety, Part 3.1: Scripture

Part 2 of this series.

Biblical piety lives in the Word.

As noted in the previous section, piety begins and ends in knowledge. However, knowledge is not an empty concept, as if one could know something without content. Knowledge deals in particulars, even if knowledge is never complete.

The fountain and source of the knowledge of God is what He has said about Himself. Absolutely nothing else can say the same. We do not know God fully through His self-revelation in His creation. It is not because this revelation is imperfect; indeed, Paul says that it is perfect (Romans 1:19). Rather, sinful suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Creation declares clearly and perfectly that the Lord is the Creator, but men do not honor Him as their Creator. This self-revelation therefore leaves them without an excuse in the day of judgment. It is not imperfect, though it is incomplete, because it does not speak of Christ. The two ideas are not synonymous.

We do not know God through any kind of private revelation. We are called to test the spirits “to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). A prophet whose word does not prove to be true is not from God, no matter how impressive it seems (Deuteronomy 18:22). Should a revelation pass the test, it is only repeating what has already been said in the Scriptures. If it does not pass, it is not from God. If it refuses to be tested, it shows itself by its fruits (Luke 6:46). These things have not been done in a corner (Acts 26:26). “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached” (1 Corinthians 14:36)?

We also do not know God through any writing other than the Holy Scriptures. This is true of any writing which claims to say something about God. There is no other Gospel than the one delivered through the prophets and the apostles (Galatians 1:6-9). There is salvation in no one other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). Such writings must be tested against the Scriptures, and anything which must be tested is no authority.

Something worth noting, however, is that even those writings which are rooted in the Bible are not a means by which we know God. I need to clarify that so that I am not misunderstood. All human writings, no matter how venerable or orthodox, are not the Bible. They all without exception speak about the Bible. If they accomplish their task well, they will lead back to the Bible. If they fail in this respect, they will wander off into myths or draw attention to themselves. Such works about the Bible are like a sign by the road, which help us to go the way that others have gone before. It would be a strange piety indeed that spent more time looking at the sign than travelling along the road. Metaphors are imperfect, but men should listen to human authorities when they agree with the Word of God. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Therefore, we know God through what He says about Himself in His holy Word. “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

The Scriptures also form the basis for all of the other forms of piety. Preaching, for example, is a proclamation of the Word. The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper flow out of the Word which attaches the promises to them. Prayer, worship, and the other forms are grounded in the Word itself. Apart from the Word, there is no foundation for Biblical piety. “If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).

The Bible, of course, clearly identifies Jesus Christ as the Word (John 1:1-5). It is entirely possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus who is the whole point (John 5:39; 2 Corinthians 3:12-16). But one must not draw a sharp distinction between the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus as the Word of God for that reason. Such a division, however well-intentioned, tends to disparage the Bible. But how will we know about God in any other way? The Bible is the very Word of the living God to His people, the way through which we know Him. To use an metaphor, it would be strange to receive a letter from the king, only to protest that the letter is not the king himself. Would an earthly king be impressed with such an argument? But the Bible is more than a letter from a king. It is the very voice of God the Holy Spirit.

In the next article, we will focus on practical suggestions regarding the Scriptures. This will be the pattern for the other forms of piety as well.