Why Christians Must Be Readers
Author: Maurice Roberts
February 5th, 2019
Reprinted from: The Banner of Truth
‘The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.’
— 2 Timothy 4:13
Paul is in prison and in a short time is to lose his life at the instigation of the Roman Emperor Nero. But in prison he invites Timothy to bring with him books and parchments. It is a most interesting scene. Here is a great man, full of the Spirit of God, with a life of fruitfulness almost unparalleled in the history of mankind. Soon he will leave this world and go to be with Christ. But in his prison cell he longs for something which Timothy can bring — books and parchments.
We cannot know for sure what these books and parchments were. They might, of course, have been the Scriptures of the Old Testament. We bear in mind that the New Testament Scriptures were only beginning to exist at this time as a collection of books. They certainly were not yet put together in the form of a completed New Testament. So in all likelihood these books and parchments included the Old Testament Scriptures. But Paul was a prolific reader and an indefatigable student. It is probable that amongst these books and parchments were other books, perhaps commentaries on Scripture or even secular books written by Greek writers of the pagan world. You will know that on two or three occasions Paul reveals his familiarity with pagan Greek literature. He evidently did not despise the best of the Greek literature.
At this point we might ask a question of our text. If it was the Bible of the Old Testament that Paul was asking to be brought, my question would be, ‘Why did he need it?’. He had a consummately good memory. He had studied the Scriptures from his childhood, and he must have been almost able to quote the Old Testament from memory. Some people have achieved something similar. Why then would he need the Scriptures, if he had them stored away in his own mind?
On the other hand, if it was not the Bible of the Old Testament he was asking for, but other books, one might ask, ‘Why would he want them?’ He was, after all, so close to death and to glory. Soon he would see his Saviour’s face and receive his immortal honours from Christ. You would hardly think that such a man would be interested to read anything but divine, spiritual and inspired literature. But whatever it was he wanted, and whatever it was he needed, he asked for these books to come. So we are faced with the question: Why?
Let me suggest three reasons.
First, I would suggest that if a man is once a reader, he is always a reader. And a prison cell to a reader becomes a home from home when there are books. A small shelf of familiar books is like a small cluster of familiar friends. How the apostle in prison at Rome would have rejoiced to see these old ‘companions’ beside him!
And then, as a second reason, it does not matter how advanced a Christian is in knowledge, grace, wisdom and experience; in this life he has not yet come to perfection. The apostle was forever pressing on to that perfection which was his desired goal.
Even as the shadow of eternity fell upon him, he was anxious that his dying days should be also learning days and days of progression. Evidently there were still things he had to learn, and he was humble enough to indicate his readiness to learn from books.
Let me offer to you a third reason. I would suggest that the apostle includes these words for Timothy’s sake, as though to say to Timothy, ‘You must be a reader, Timothy. You are taking up the work that I am laying down.’
Technically, Timothy was what we call an evangelist. An evangelist in the New Testament sense is what we would call an apostolic helper. He did not have plenary divine inspiration as the apostles did. Whenever the apostles opened their mouth officially to preach, what they said was infallible, conveying the very Word of God. But Timothy did not have that gift. His work was the consolidation of the churches of Christ, and it was essential that amongst other responsibilities that Timothy would take upon himself was reading the best books.
So I do not think it is straining the passage to say to you that the doctrine from these words is surely this: A Christian man or woman must be a reader, all his or her life. We are to be readers to our dying day.
No book is remotely comparable to the Bible. So it is most important that in talking about books we say something first about the way to read the Bible to greatest profit. When we read the Word of God, I believe we should try to memorise it and try to learn it off by heart. We cannot know the Bible too well.
We know nothing compared to some of our forefathers in the faith. You would have heard of the Waldensians. They were the evangelicals of the Middle Ages. They lived in northern Italy in remote and inaccessible valleys and hillsides. They maintained the Word of God in its integrity and purity for centuries. Their ministers more or less had to learn the New Testament by heart before they entered the ministry, and often they knew the Psalms also. We know our Bible so little compared with them. We feel so humbled to compare ourselves with them. The Waldensians are an inspiration to us to learn our Bible. It is not enough just to read it. We are to imbibe it until, like John Bunyan, our very blood is ‘bibline’ and the mind of Christ fills our whole conception of everything. Judge of everything by this book. That is the way in which we are to use the Bible.
Then, let me say, read the Bible so as to consolidate your theology. What is missing in many Bible readers today in the world is that they have not understood the theology of the Bible, and that is an incalculable loss. What is the theology of the Bible? It is the distillation of all its teachings. Put the Bible in the crucible, heat it up, distill it to its essence, and what you have is what the world has learned to call ‘Calvinism’.
The system of theology of the Bible is the system of grace which is enshrined for us in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and in similar statements of religious doctrine and belief. We must see that and have that consolidated more and more in our minds.
You will forgive me for being a little parochial in saying that there is one very good thing in the Highlands of Scotland that we could export to Christians all around the world. After the evening services and prayer meetings on a week-night and on the Lord’s Day they frequently gather together in one or other of the homes of the congregation to talk about the Word of God. One of the men, let us say, will ask the questions, and another of the men will volunteer answers; and then other people will be drawn in to speak from their own experience about things relating to the text of Scripture that is being discussed.
God did not make us to be mindless. We begin with the mind. True religion begins with the mind, and that is what is so wonderful about Calvin, the Puritans, and those who followed on in the same linear succession. They begin with the mind. They address the mind. They give factual, propositional instruction to the intellect of man.
Then the Puritans addressed the heart. The mind is the first thing, but not the only thing. What we believe must affect our emotions, and that is what they believed in: the religion of the heart. Their books deal with such subjects as keeping the heart, and watching the heart, and resisting the devil and temptation. This is the practice of the Christian life. They dealt with every aspect of the believer’s life: prayer; meditation; how to listen to sermons; how to sanctify the Sabbath day; our conduct in divine worship; family worship; the instruction of children; the Christian’s daily walk and conversation; knowing your adversary the devil and his wiles.
In Scotland the Puritans were known as ‘Covenanters’ for reasons I will not go into just now, though you will probably know them. If you want to know more about the Scottish Covenanters, then do read some of the books which the Banner of Truth has brought out. The best of these is Men of the Covenant, by Alexander Smellie.1 Then there is another book which has recently come out called The Scots Worthies, by John Howie of Lochgoin. They were wonderful men and women and children.
Many of the best books written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have come from Princeton Theological Seminary. I would like to commend to you two fine books written by Professor David Calhoun on Princeton.2 If you haven’t read them, then you have a treat in store. The first volume talks about Princeton in its heyday, and the other, sadly, is about Princeton in decline, when liberalism began to invade the faculty and the students.
But those writers who come from the old Princeton tradition deserve to be highly loved and respected: Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge. This pure religion came back to Britain through the influence of Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. At an early period of his ministry Dr Lloyd-Jones was in a bookshop when he saw two volumes of a writer he did not know called Jonathan Edwards. The sheer power and spiritual vitality of the writer was astonishing to him and had a formative influence upon his whole subsequent ministry.
I should say that between the two world wars the Puritan books were worth next to nothing in England. You could go to a secondhand book dealer and ask for these books, and if there were any there to be had you could get them for maybe a shilling a volume. Nobody wanted them. They were simply being thrown out. Indeed, during the wartime they were being pulped by the government. You would receive a shilling or something for every ton of books that you turned in to some government agency, and they just pulped them for the war effort.
So thousands of the best theological books vanished in that way. But in 1957 a small start was made to reprint some of these great old books. You may know some of the early books that were published by the Banner of Truth Trust. When some of us who were young Christians in that period (as I was) started to read these books, it was like beholding a lost continent! It was like standing on the edge of a new world!
The Banner continued its work, and it grew and grew and grew. When they first began to publish Puritans and to reprint Spurgeon, some Christian publishers said with a smile, ‘It’s a waste of time, because nobody is going to buy these old books!’ But they did, until it literally came to the stage that the demand for some of the books they published outstripped the supply! They could not get them out fast enough!
Some of these books are the very best books the world has ever seen. Scarcely any language in the world has had such books as the English language. Today if you go to countries which are influenced by the gospel, the first thing these other countries have to do is to read our language. In Korea today and other countries Christians are learning our language because they want access to the Puritans!
I was very touched recently while in Korea to meet a number of young people who said to me, ‘We have started a Puritan club.’
I said, ‘What’s that?’
‘We get together and one of us reads from one of the Puritans to all the rest,’ (translated into Korean, of course).
I thought, What an extraordinary thing! Young people gathering to read the Puritans. But you see, my point is this: You and I don’t need to learn the English language. We have it; we were born with it. It is our mother tongue. Shame on you and me if, having the language and having the books and having the means of getting them, we do not fill ourselves with this divine knowledge. Through reading the Word of God and the best books, the smell of heaven should be felt by others to be in our hearts and homes.
This article was first published in the March 2000 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
- Men of the Covenant is now out of print and only obtainable second-hand or from libraries. The Scots Worthies, by John Howie (ISBN 978 0 85151 686 6, 672 pp., cloth-bound, £17.95/$35.99) is available from the Trust. Fair Sunshine, by Jock Purves (ISBN 978 0 85151 136 8, 208pp., paperback, £3.95/$8.99) is also well worth reading.
- David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, 1812–68 (ISBN 978 0 85151 670 X, 528 pp., cloth-bound, £17.95/$35.99) and Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony, 1868–1929 (ISBN 978 0 85151 695 5, 592 pp., cloth-bound, £15.95/$32.99)