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“Blessed lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.” So reads the collect for the second Sunday in Advent in the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. It is a justly famous prayer, the language of which often still appears in evangelical prayers from across the denominational spectrum without our always recognizing its source.

The particular phrase that has come to ring in the memory of many is the request that God would enable us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures. It articulates a deeply biblical concern for the centrality of the Word—the instinctive desire for the Bible to “stick” in our minds and hearts and bear fruit in our lives, which is a mark of all authentic Christian spirituality. “Like newborn infants,” all Christians must “long for . . . pure spiritual milk,” that by it we may “grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). This Spirit-wrought instinct propels us into the private study of Holy Scripture. If texts that extol the Scriptures, such as Psalm 19:10–11, are to be taken seriously, a Christian life that does not make diligent, regular study of the Bible—alone and in small groups—is like a miner who foolishly neglects rich seams of ore where “much fine gold” can be found. It is to live a Christian life unsweetened by the Word and promise of God that is “sweeter . . . than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” It is to ignore the warning signs posted for His servants in Scripture all along the dangerous paths of life by our gracious Lord. And how can we ever hope to obtain that “great reward” that comes from keeping God’s Word when we do not know and love what it says? So to the degree that we are Bible people, in large measure to that same degree we will be holy people, faith-filled people, patient people, and happy people.

In preaching that is faithful to the text of the Bible, the risen Christ speaks to His people by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, there is an unnoticed tragedy in our collective memory of the prayer book’s call to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures. It is the omission from our consciousness of the first part of the petition: “Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” The prayer envisages the primary location of the ministry of the Word in the public reading and preaching of the Lord’s Day. We have latched onto one part of the petition, and, swept along by the spirit of the age, we have individualized it in a way that does not express the best wisdom of the Reformation tradition bequeathed to us. Historically, the Reformed have always believed that the public reading and preaching of the Word of God by pastors called and equipped for the work is the primary means by which sinners are converted and saints are matured. As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means” of salvation (Q&A 155). Paul makes this point with considerable force when he asks:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14–15)

The Greek of the second of this string of questions is more direct than most English translations admit. Paul really asks, “How are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” The point is at once clear and profound: in the faithful preaching of the Word by those God has sent, sinners not only hear of Christ; they hear Christ Himself calling to them in the voice of His gospel. In the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith, Heinrich Bullinger, the Swiss Reformer and contemporary of John Calvin, sums up Paul’s point eloquently and shows us why preaching—more than small-group or private Bible study—ought to be the focus of our expectations for Christian growth and blessing: “When this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful.” Or more simply, as some editions of the confession later summarized the point, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” In other words, in preaching that is faithful to the text of the Bible, the risen Christ speaks to His people by the power of the Holy Spirit.

There was an occasion toward the end of the sixteenth century, when King James VI of Scotland, noisily gossiping with his courtiers in church, repeatedly interrupted the preaching of Robert Bruce. “It is said to have been an expression of the wisest of kings,” responded Bruce, pausing his sermon and addressing the king directly, “ ‘When the lion roars, all the beasts of the field are quiet’: the Lion of the tribe of Judah is now roaring in the voice of His gospel and it becomes all the petty kings of the earth to be silent.” Study the Bible in small groups. Do not neglect it in private. But what silent wonder ought we all to feel as we attend to it in public with renewed expectation of hearing the roar of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Cultivating Gentleness

Walking in Wisdom

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From the December 2022 Issue
Dec 2022 Issue