When desiring to encourage, or even to mandate, increased Scripture study, pastors and evangelists everywhere have utilized Paul's admonition to the young minister. With typical proof-text fervency, we have used the text as an imperative to require Bible study in terminology that almost says "saved by the work of study" in order to gain God's approval.
While I have no doubt that God approves of Bible study and uses this process as the primary method of communicating His will to humanity, I'm convinced that this text has greater implications than merely stressing the requirement of scriptural study.
Without diminishing a commitment to encouraging both members and potential converts to study, or my conviction that God does, indeed, approve of studying His Word, the greater issue requires much more of me. The initial, easier reading compliments me for orthodoxy—rightly dividing the word of truth. The second, more challenging, reading requires me to journey into the depths of my own soul—to ask how the truth has impacted my life and to apply the searchlight of Scripture to my own personal life.
Does God approve? Removed from the easier imperative to measure time spent in study, this question inquires as to whether my study has impacted my behavior. Can I measure my actions, my motives, my accomplishments, and my attempts on the scale of God's approval? Can I honestly face the query "Does God approve?" regarding my own behavior?
One of the greatest applications of this principle is the theme of Charles Sheldon's In His Steps. In this classic, members of a congregation purpose, before embarking upon any action, to ask themselves the question "What would Jesus do?" Then as the story unfolds, the radical claims of the gospel affect their actions.
This is our need as ministers today. Personally, I need to daily ask, "What would Jesus do?" As I meet individuals I should first determine how Jesus would respond. His example should be my guide in treating individuals.
Personally, I've discovered that determining that which God approves is not the difficult task. The demanding responsibility is that asking if God approves means I must act in harmony with the conclusion. Too often I am tempted to want God's endorsement more than His approval. My temptation is to pray for the success of my ventures rather than to risk changing my plans based on the hard conclusion.
Am I ashamed? When the apostle spoke of an unashamed workman, he had experienced the reality of his assertion. As a maker of tents, the quality of Paul's workmanship determined his financial success.
Prospective purchasers would tug the seams and test the stitching of Paul's products. Not only the immediate sale, but his long-term reputation stood or fell on this inspection. Can my work withstand close inspection? Would I be ashamed for someone to know the shortcuts I take or the opportunities I skip?
Is it the truth? Is it the truth rightly handled? Rightly dividing the Word means more than correctly parsing the original language. The NIV admonishes the pastor to be one "who correctly handles the word of truth."
First, I have the responsibility to make certain my proclamation is accurate. My assertions must be based on God's Word and must reflect God's intent. Proof-texting my way to the conclusions I wish may appear to be based on the Word, but fail to reveal the intent of Scripture.
Courts of justice expect witnesses to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is not sufficient just to tell the truth partially. Teachers of the Word must tell the whole truth, and the implication of "nothing but the truth" means their testimony must not be compromised by half-truths or crucial evidence that has been withheld. No wonder the same apostle, Paul, warns that not all should seek to become religious instructors.
Beyond accuracy, I have a further responsibility to handle the truth carefully. A member once approached me with his concerns about the life of a fellow parishioner. He spoke the truth. There was no doubt about the accuracy of his assertions. But he failed the larger responsibility to speak the truth in love! In fact, the most unloving thing possible was to broadcast the truth of which he was certain.
Scriptural study, if anything, must impact my relationship with Jesus and His creation in real-life daily existence. Hermeneutics confined to academia are dangerous; liberated in service, they are beautiful, life-filled, and life-giving.
In life as well as hermeneutics, when tempted to seek the easier course of proof-text answers, it is helpful to remember that the challenge of the gospel is to seek heaven's more demanding, in-depth intent behind my initial reaction.