When Luther translated the Bible into a language that the common people could read, he broke the power of Rome. The Roman church did not want the common people to read the Bible; it wanted the people to depend on the Roman church’s interpretation of God’s Word; it wanted the people to depend on the clergy for salvation. But God caused Luther to translate the Bible into the common language of Germany and caused Gutenberg to develop the printing press. Thereby the people could read for themselves what God’s Word really did say. And they were keen to read it. Before long a copy of the Bible was in virtually every family.
Following the Great Reformation, the importance of reading God’s Word was the chief reason Christian schools were established. The main subjects taught were not maths or science, not geography or sport, not manual arts and crafts or cooking, but reading and Bible knowledge.
Today Bibles are easy to obtain. So are commentaries and other good books about the Bible and about God’s work in the history of the church. But how many people are still devoted to reading them. At a time when so much entertainment is available and so much digital media lures us away from the reading of good books we need to think about prioritising our time so that we receive the spiritual food we need, supplementing what we hear on Sunday with beneficial daily reading.
Rev Holtvlüwer recently wrote:[i]
“I and many ministers and elders in various churches have noticed that as a community we are reading less and less, especially those of us under forty-five. Elders ask around: Do you make time for personal devotions? Not as much as I should, is the common answer. That’s code for: hardly at all. How about reading faith-building articles or books? Blank looks. Visiting in homes often shows a sizeable collection of DVD’s and a big flat-screen TV but non-fiction books and magazines are hard to find.”
When asked about Bible-related reading, many people retort by saying: I’m just not a reader. They hear the preaching but don’t see value in thorough reading; for them it’s no big deal. But Rev Holtvlüwer says there are at least three reasons for reading material that builds up:
“First, it’s by reading God’s Word that we come to know God and our salvation! How can we hope to grow in our love for Jesus Christ if we don’t encounter him and his promises in Scripture? How can we know how to conduct ourselves in daily life if we don’t learn from the Lord’s commandments and example? By choosing not to read we shut off the tap of God’s life-giving Word (1 Pet 1:23; 2 Tim 3:15).”
Of course, people will say they read a passage of the Bible at meal times, and that’s good. But we need to spend time thinking about it, comparing Scripture with Scripture. What is it telling us about the LORD, about the Messiah, about our redemption and our life in covenant fellowship with Him? Says Rev Holtvlüwer:
“Compare for a moment: how much time you do you spend searching through your Bible versus scrolling through your phone? The Bible is not a quick-read. Wisdom is not gained in five-minute snippets. While it is valuable to read whole Bible books at a time (at a quicker pace) to get the big picture, we need to also slow down and take a magnifying glass (so to speak) to each smaller passage. The Holy Spirit presents us with sixty-six books of varying genres, from narrative (story) to prophecy, poetry, proverbs, letters, and even apocalypse. It takes work to make sense of them.
The Lord knows this and instructs us to make time and meditate on God’s Word: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh 1:8). There is nothing quick about meditation. It means taking the Word in slowly and thinking on it carefully. God wants us to chew it over in our minds. What was true for Joshua is true for all of us; Psalm 1:2 describes the righteous person as one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Day and night – it’s got to percolate in the back of our minds as we do our daily work and even as we lay on our beds at night. Read any stanza of Psalm 119 to have this confirmed.”
Preparing to lead
There’s a second good reason to read good, Scripturally-based material and that, says Rev Holtvlüwer, is so that we will be able to lead the next generation:
“No matter how you slice it, those of us in our 20s and 30s will be tomorrow’s leaders – yes, that’s especially you, young men. Many of you will serve as deacons and elders, so ask yourself: will I be ready to shepherd God’s flock? Deacons must “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9, NIV): do I know what these deep truths are? Elders must watch for doctrinal errors and ward off wolves: do I know what God teaches? Can I defend the truths of the Bible? You can’t start learning these things the moment you get put up for election. Figuring these things out takes years of soaking yourself in the Word and becoming acquainted with the errors and falsehoods of our time.
You will be charged with the care of souls – have you any idea how to advise or help a struggling believer? Do you know what to say to a young person drifting away from the faith? Or a twenty-something sister suffering from depression and anxiety? What does the Bible say to the grieving and hurting? To the childless and the widow? What Scripture would you bring to a same-sex attracted church member and how would you pray with him/her? What is a Church Order and how does a classis or synod work? What authority do they hold in comparison with the consistory?”
And then there’s the value of good reading for knowing how to be good parents:
“Many of you (sisters included!) will be parenting children and instructing young men and women in their walk with the Lord, so ask yourself: am I prepared for that? Teenagers come with a lot of questions – good ones, deeps ones, tricky ones, hard ones! Giving them simplistic answers will not help and may lead them to seek answers from worldly sources. Our children need guiding. We have to shepherd their hearts by teaching them to love the LORD and his commandments as he said through Moses, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when your rise” (Deut 6:5).
You can’t teach God’s commands and promises diligently if you don’t know them yourself intimately, and that takes thoughtful contemplation. Thinking and reflecting. Reading and pondering. Reading books on the Bible, doctrine, and the application of it to our lives are also very helpful for this as their insights help us deepen our understanding and obedience. Discussing it with family, friends, and Bible study groups goes even further. But the start of it is to read and engage. God takes our teaching task as parents very seriously – are you prepared to explain to God that you didn’t teach and prepare your kids very well because you ‘just aren’t a reader’?”
Reading good books and soundly reformed magazines teach us to think critically. We are bombarded with a constant barrage of information in many forms – graphic, audio, print – you name it. Testing the spirits requires a sound knowledge of God’s Word and the confessions. We need to identify, withstand and expose the attacks of Satan, who uses the world and false prophecy to entice us away from the truth.
As Rev Holtvlüwer says:
“Critical thinking is something we need badly as Christians, for we are called to discern between good and evil, right and wrong, wise and unwise. If we don’t read, this skill will not get honed. If we have a steady diet of movies, shows, and videos, we will be well-entertained but only poorly trained at understanding the world we live in and how God wants us to think about it and conduct ourselves within it. How can we guide our children well if we are not well aware both of God’s will and of the world’s ideas and practices? How can we shepherd God’s people and teach them to be discerning if we ourselves are dull in this talent?
So, reading is necessary and beneficial in many ways, but what if “I’m just not a reader”? We have to ask ourselves: is such a reason acceptable in God’s eyes? Are we born either readers or non-readers? Can we help it if we don’t feel like reading? Let’s be honest: yes we can. Unless we have a disability of some kind which prevents us from comprehending words on a page, the vast majority of us are able to read but many choose not to. This is a will thing, not a skill thing. It’s like other things that are good for us but require conscious effort: daily exercise, two-way conversation, thinking about and serving other people ahead of ourselves.
These also don’t come easily to many of us, but for most people isn’t it simply a cop-out to say: I’m not into exercise or I’m not much of a conversationalist or I just am not good at helping other people? Those are just excuses, aren’t they? It takes prayer for the Lord’s help and effort to make changes, but changes can be made. By God’s grace we can become better at all these things and in the same way we can become people who choose to read, study, and reflect on the deeper matters of life.”
So, having seen the need to read, let’s get stuck into it. There are lots of good books, some good magazines and some good websites. Let’s make good, discerning use of them. Best of all, as Luther and the people of the Reformation knew, is to read the Bible, the covenant Word of our gracious God and Saviour. It tells us about our God and His great deeds for His covenant people. Moreover, it makes us wise for it is the touchstone against which all other reading material is tested. Hosea once lamented: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). Let it not be said of us.
[i] Quotes are all from Rev Peter H Holtvlüwer, “I’m Not a Reader” in Clarion, V 66 N 12, June 16 2017.