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Study Habits of Great Men

Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (II Timothy 2:15)

Why did Paul pen these words? Had Timothy fallen into the trap of being so preoccupied with administering the needs in his church that he began neglecting time in the Word? Perhaps. Paul, however, from his firsthand knowledge of ministry struggles, offers Timothy wise counsel about studying. Even early church fathers acknowledged that in doing the good work of the ministry, pastors sometimes neglected one of their most important duties: giving wholehearted attendance to the Word.

Pastors have always been tempted to allow the tyranny of the urgent to distract them from tending to the indispensable. In classic volumes authored by preachers of all times, nearly every writer emphasizes the need for industry in study. Some prescribe specific methods, but most blend their voices with Paul's, calling their brethren to diligence in this vital duty.

When John Henry Jowett (1864-1923) listed "deadening familiarity with the sublime" as the greatest peril of the ministry (The Preacher, His Life and Work, p. 45), he assumed the preacher would at least be familiar with Bible truths. How would he describe the peril of a preacher who so neglected his study that he was genuinely unfamiliar with sublime things?

We should be thankful that many great preachers have done more than merely urge their pastoral brethren to be committed to scriptural imperatives about study—they have faithfully engaged in it themselves and serve as examples. Comparing ourselves to them may make our own lights appear relatively dim, but God's enabling grace in their studious examples should remind us that the God who requires our faithfulness to this obligation is able to sustain us in the pursuit of it.

Legislating specific study habits for every preacher would be unwise. However, apart from disciplined study, the fruit of the preacher's labor will prove unsatisfying to the people of God who come to the table eager to be fed. Here are some observations regarding the study habits and methods of men whose study God used to transform and enrich their preaching ministries.

1. Biblical, prayerful study methods varied, yet produced spiritual sensitivity. The specific forms of Bible study, the timing of it during the day, and the units of time devoted to study differed widely. Reading and studying were not divorced from prayer time, but were disciplines to be carried out in the spirit of prayer. Prayerful study helps preachers to not lose what William Quayle called "the sense of wonder" of divine things (William A. Quayle, The Pastor Preacher, p. 192).

2. Sustained study required self-denying discipline. In most cases, personal study disciplines were being refined continually; however, each man sensed the duty to strap on his ministerial "work boots" and apply himself to study. "Routine is a terrible master, but she is a servant whom we can hardly do without. Routine as a law is deadly. Routine as a resource in the temporary exhaustion of impulse and suggestion is often our salvation" (Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, p. 93, emphasis added).

3. Studying with a pen in hand increased the profitability of their studies. Often these men wrote simply to clarify and organize their own thinking. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) gave much of his time to conscientious, systematic Bible study, piecing together the grand themes of Scripture and harvesting them into well-organized notebooks filled with his ongoing studies. Edwards aimed to understand the Scripture accurately and to use it to discern how and what God was doing in his generation that might contribute to His grand work of redemption. As he read, prayed, and even rode horseback, he was ready to write. He kept a pen handy to record helpful insights and reflections that grew out of his meditations.

4. Some topics of Bible study took much longer than others. Bible themes often demanded long exposure before their significance and breadth were truly grasped. G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945) diligently read through books of the Bible dozens of times before beginning to teach them. As often as possible, he attempted to read through a book in a single setting so that he captured and retained a sense of the book's contextual thrust and its timeless message.

5. Bible study and devotional reading, though interrelated, were not considered synonymous. Preachers who took time to feed personally on their Bibles apart from the more professional forms of Bible study reflected a teachable, humble spirit sometimes absent in those who only studied the Bible professionally. "Forget sometimes, in the name of Jesus Christ, the pulpit, the mission-room, the Bible class; open the Bible as simply as if you were on Crusoe's island" (H. C. G. Moule, To My Younger Brethren, p. 41).

6. Bible study and pastoral ministry were not mutually exclusive. Many kept the faces and needs of their church people in view while hovering over the Scripture, thus motivating their study of the Scriptures.

7. Gleaning the fruit of others' study was personally enriching and often stimulated further Bible study. The most inspirational description I have heard from a modern preacher about the ministry came from James Stalker of Scotland (1848-1927) during an ordination sermon:

I like to think of the minister as only one of the congregation set apart by the rest for a particular purpose. They say to him: Look, brother, we are busy with our daily toils, and confused with cares, but we eagerly long for peace and light to illuminate our life, and we have heard there is a land where these are to be found, a land of repose and joy, full of thoughts that breathe and words that burn, but we cannot go thither ourselves.

We are too embroiled in daily cares. Come, we will elect you, and set you free from toil, and you shall go thither for us, and week by week trade with that land and bring us its treasures and its spoils (Alexander Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard, pp. 44-45).

Indeed, it is our glorious task to "week by week trade with that land and bring [our people] its treasures and its spoils." Paul established the biblical standard for us. God has enabled many who have preceded us to be faithful to that calling in the quiet of their studies. May the Lord enable our generation of preachers to be faithful in this vital aspect of our holy calling so that we will be well pleasing to the One Who put us into the ministry (II Corinthians 5:9).

Robert Vincent is an assistant pastor at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He also teaches Church History at Bob Jones University Seminary.

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