How Dallas Willard Helped Me Create a Climate Within Our Church for Scripture Memory
Written by Pastor Jim Law
With Dallas Willard’s death two weeks ago, I was reminded with gratitude of his classic text, The Spirit of the Disciplines. There was one sentence in that book that arrested me when I read it a number of years ago, and it has led to a strong commitment to promote Scripture memory in my pastoral ministry. In his chapter outlining spiritual disciplines, Willard wrote about the believer’s intake of Scripture:
“I would never undertake to pastor a church or guide a program of Christian education that did not involve a continuous program of memorization of the choicest passages of Scripture for people of all ages.”
When I read that statement I was taken by the gravity of it. Willard was saying that he would never try to pastor a church or lead a Christian ministry without a serious, continuous emphasis of Scripture memory for everyone involved. In one sense, this statement is basic to the Christian life, and yet it is incredibly refreshing as it takes us back to a discipline promoted many times over on the pages of Scripture.
Joshua 1 provides such an example as Joshua, upon receiving orders to lead Israel into the promised land, is told by the Lord to be strong and courageous. In the midst of that admonition, the Lord gives to him a command with a promised blessing of success. The text reads, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
This is an amazing statement. Of all the counsel Joshua could have received at a time like this, the Lord called him to careful obedience to the word of God and with that would come the promise of success as God defines it.
We could also point to other texts like Psalm 1, or Psalm 19:7-14. We could examine the 176 verses of Psalm 119 and notice the 22 sections of eight verses each and how each of these sections in the Hebrew is an acrostic corresponding to the Hebrew alphabet. We would come to see that the Psalm was written this way to aid in memory.
We could also point to the illustrations of Scripture memory in the New Testament. Jesus, when tempted by the devil in Matthew 4, quoted Scripture specifically to the temptations of the evil one. Stephen in his sermon to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 made reference to text after text in his indictment of Israel’s religious leaders.
We could note some of the verbs used to describe the role of Scripture in the believer’s life: “treasured” (Psalm 119:11) ; “nourished” (I Timothy 4:6) ; “received” (I Thessalonians 2:13); “meditates” (Psalm 1:1-3).
Scripture memory should be the staple in every local Church, but unfortunately it has been set aside for “more effective” strategies. To memorize Scripture is viewed by many as odd, but I believe a biblical survey reveals that it is odd and out-of-order for a believer to neglect this important spiritual discipline.
Dallas Willard’s statement has challenged me to press the urgency of this neglected and perhaps forgotten spiritual discipline in the course of my pastoral duties. I have identified three specific ways that I have sought to be faithful over the last twenty-five years.
1. I have faithfully taught on the biblical mandate to memorize Scripture. For many years, I have begun the year with a sermon entitled “Every Year the Year of the Bible.” This message is a straightforward call to God’s people to treasure and savor the word of God, not only through Bible reading, but through deeper disciplines such as study and memorization.
I have come to see that there is great benefit for the believer in Jesus Christ to commit to memorizing massive chunks of Scripture. Why? Well, Scripture understood in the right context carries with it many incredible benefits:
*Promised spiritual resources and power to live for Christ
(Psalm 119:11; Ephesians 6:17)
*Scripture memory nurtures faith.
(Romans 10:17; Hebrews 11)
*Scripture memory prepares us to witness for Christ and counsel those in need.
(I Peter 3:15; Proverbs 25:11)
*Scripture memory is a means to know God’s guidance and help in times of need.
These are just a few of the blessings that come from treasuring the word of God in our lives.
In my preaching I frequently emphasize that every believer can memorize Scripture. It is not complicated. However, it is a discipline that must be cultivated which means it requires a plan leading to a second emphasis.
2. I give yearly fighter verses* to the church body every January for the purpose of memorizing together a passage of Scripture. The emphasis lasts through December and many years I preach the Advent messages from the passage we have memorized. The passage is anywhere from 11-20 verses, we print it on card stock and make it available throughout the year to the church.
In recent years, we have memorized together John 15:1-17; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Matthew 5:1-16; and this year we are memorizing 2 Peter 1:1-11. Families are encouraged to bring the Fighter Verses into family worship. All are encouraged to have the verses in a strategic place to be used to redeem time. I have found 2-3 minutes a day allows me to memorize a lot of Scripture in the span of a year. There is something incredibly thrilling to me to listen to my children quote the passage at the end of the year. I sense God’s pleasure in this emphasis and believe it is a part of embracing a thoroughly biblical ministry.
3. I would mention one other way to emphasize Scripture memory in the Church and that would be through an intentional focus in youth and children’s ministry. Bible Drill ministry has been a tremendous help and blessing to our Church every spring as youth and children are given a comprehensive challenge to memorize some thirty verses. AWANA is a weekly ministries which has Scripture memory built into the curriculum.
I am profoundly grateful for Dallas Willard’s sentence written over twenty-five years ago. It has been a great help to me in my efforts to feed God’s people.
*(John Piper and Bethlehem Baptist Church’s terminology which we liked because of its linkage to Ephesians 6:10-20 and have embraced as our own)