This is the time of year when the meetings for the study of the Holy Scriptures resume within the Protestant Reformed Churches. These are regular, organized, mid-week gatherings of the saints for the systematic, thorough study of the Bible. Although there are also other purposes of these meetings, e.g., praise and fellowship, the main purpose is learning the Word of God.
The profit, obviously, is enormous. The apostle indicates how a believer can profit from such study when he writes in II Timothy 3:15-17 that “the holy scriptures . . . are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” and that “all scripture . . . is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
Careful study of the Bible is a divine command, not only to ministers but also to all. “Search the scriptures,” Christ says in John 5:39, where “searching” is more than a quick, superficial, hit-and-miss reading of a passage. In an age when many church members have neither time for nor interest in gathering for the study of the Bible, it is important to note the LORD’S attitude toward such meetings as this is shown in Malachi 3:16: “Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.” Some classes for Bible study have a book in which they keep the attendance. So does the LORD God.
Within the Protestant Reformed Churches are many classes and meetings for Bible study. There are men’s societies and ladies’ societies. There are adult Bible classes. There are the Mr. and Mrs. societies. There are the meetings of young adults. There are the young people’s societies.
No one can complain of a lack of opportunity. The only question is whether we will take advantage of the opportunities.
After the member decides to attend a class, his work continues. For if he is to benefit from the class, he must be prepared. Preparation includes the following. If the class will be studying a book of the Bible, verse by verse or section by section, he should, in preparation for the first meeting read the entire book, so that he is familiar with its content. In addition, he should read a brief, reliable description of the setting, nature, and outline of the book in a work such as Survey of the Bible by William Hendriksen (Baker, 1978) or An Introduction to the Old Testament byEdward J. Young (Eerdmans, 1973) or Introduction to the New Testament by Everett F. Harrison (Eerdmans, 1971). Then he should read carefully the passage or passages that will be taught, studied, and discussed at the particular meeting, seeking prayerfully to understand the Word of God in that passage or those passages. It is helpful to write down one’s thoughts or questions on the passage. It is necessary to look up and study other passages in Scripture that are related to the passage and that shed light on it.
Only then should the student of the Bible indulge himself in the pleasure and profit of reading one or two sound commentaries on the passage. This poses a problem for some members. What is a good commentary on the passage or book? Usually the pastor or leader will recommend commentaries before the class begins. With the exception of the commentaries by John Calvin, a set of good commentaries on the entire Bible is lacking to the English-speaking, Reformed student of Scripture. There is no equivalent in English to the Korte Verklaring (Brief Explanation) series of commentaries with which the Dutch Reformed have been blessed. There is a need for a set of succinct commentaries by sound, able Reformed preachers, written not for scholars but for the congregation, written not to engage with the latest critical attacks on the text but to edify the people of God. And why should this not be done? One of the best available sets today, although as yet incomplete, is The New International Commentary series, published by Eerdmans.
Just as there is a right way for the member to attend the class, so also there is a right way for the class to be conducted. First, the class must work with the Bible itself. It may do this by working through a book or a passage of Scripture. It may do this by studying the Scriptural basis of some creed or of a certain doctrine or of some aspect of .the Christian life. But the object of the study in the class is the Bible. Second, the Bible that is used must be a clear, faithful translation of the Word of God as it has come down to us in the authentic Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. This is the King James Version. Third, there must be a competent, sound teacher who, depending on how the class is carried on, can teach rightly, guide and wrap up discussion, settle debated points, and answer questions. Aimless discussion and the mere airing of all kinds of contradictory opinions are not conducive to learning. Erroneous teaching conflicts with the chief purpose of the saints, as it is the will of God, with these meetings, namely, that the members of the church grow in the knowledge of the truth.
Fourth, the minister or other leader of the Bible study must himself prepare. Regardless whether he explains the material or guides the discussion, he must know the meaning of the passage, and he must see to it that this meaning is understood by the group. Lack of preparation (and interest) on the part of a leader can destroy the meeting.
Fifth, it must be the desire and determination of all who participate to see the meaning of every particular passage in the light of God’s covenant of grace with His people in Jesus Christ. Merely to learn some facts of Bible history or of doctrine and merely to recognize six characteristics of prayer or ten requirements of a husband is not yet to learn the truth. All truth is “in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21).
Sixth, the goal of all study of the Bible must be practical, and this must be evident at the meeting. The Word of God in the passage establishes our beliefs, shapes our experience, and governs our behavior. Spoken or unspoken, the question, “How does this apply to us?” ought to run through every study of the Word of God.
It is vitally important that believing Bible study be done in relation to the church – the instituted church. This is true even of personal Bible study, whether on the part of the theologian or of the layman. All study of the Bible by members of the Protestant Reformed Churches ought to take place in light of and in harmony with the preaching of the gospel in these churches. The pure preaching of the gospel is the power of all profitable study of Scripture, as the Heidelberg Catechism points out when, in Question 65, it teaches that the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel. One who gives himself to a Bible study that advocates salvation by the free will of the sinner, contrary to the preaching of salvation by the sovereign grace of God, will not learn the truth as it is in Jesus in that class. The class will not profit him, but damage him.
All Bible study by a Reformed Christian must be done within the framework of the ecumenical and Reformed creeds, so that these creeds function both as a guide to understanding and as a standard to judge the teaching in the class. One who seeks to learn the truths of Christianity from a teacher, though nominally “evangelical,” who holds that Jesus is a human person, or one who tries to grow spiritually from a class whose teacher and materials are fundamentalistic, dispensational, charismatic, and Arminian will certainly be disappointed in his purpose – he will not learn and grow; is obviously undercutting his own confession – professing the Reformed faith, he seeks instruction from its foes; and may very well be led astray – there is power in false teaching to deceive.
Our pastors and consistories must admonish their members against this danger in our day. Christ and His apostles repeatedly and emphatically warned that the danger in these last days would be false teachers. “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many” (Matt. 24:11). “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (II Tim. 3:13). These false teachers threaten on the radio, over television, and through neighborhood Bible study classes, as well as behind the pulpit. Rather than to give themselves to them as eager pupils, it is the calling of every Reformed Christian to “receive him not into your house, nether bid him God speed” (II John 10).
It is safe, and truly profitable, to study the Bible only in the company of like-minded believers and under the guidance of a competent, confessionally Reformed teacher or leader.
Such classes, societies, and meetings are found in abundance in the sphere of our churches.
Will you use them?