Why Memorize Whole Chapters and Books of the Bible?
by Andrew Davis on April 19, 2022
Recently I have begun a discipleship book with a man in our church. The book is a classic by R. Kent Hughes entitled Disciplines Of A Godly Man. He begins by making a strong case for the essential role of discipline in the Christian life. Foundational is the text 1 Timothy 4:7, “Train yourself for godliness.” Along with that text is Paul’s vision of the disciplined life of an athlete:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV
The Need for Discipline
Paul asserts in no uncertain terms the needfulness every Christian has for extreme discipline over his or her body, keeping it under constant control. So, Hughes in the opening chapter cites example after example of successful people who achieved what they achieved through rigorous discipline: athletes like Mike Singletary, Jack Nicklaus, Steph Curry, and Wayne Gretzky; writers like Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill; artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci; musicians like Jascha Heifitz and Jan Paderewsky. Not one of them could have accomplished anything of note in their chosen fields without extreme habits of discipline: saying no to the lazy and dissolute drives of the body, refusing to take the path of least resistance, willing to suffer pain and deprivation for a higher end.
Hughes makes the powerful point that all of these skilled craftsmen had some natural advantages in their physiological and mental makeup that set them apart from all others in their fields, yet they still supplemented their natural advantages (talents) with unremitting discipline. But not one of us has any such natural advantages when it comes to Christianity and the journey to godliness. Actually everything in our nature is adamantly set against even a single step of progress toward Christlikeness. Romans 3:9-18 makes this very plain:
What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes”.Romans 3:9-18, NIV
We are fighting our own innate wickedness every moment of the day, every step of the way. So if these stunningly successful artisans needed to supplement their abundant natural talent with severe patterns of discipline, how much more do we sinners need to subject our minds and bodies to careful discipline to overcome the powerful gravitational pull of our flesh toward wicked dissolution.
Thus, the fruitful Christian life must be a life of strict discipline. Now there are many patterns of discipline beneficial in the Christian life: mortification of sin, controlling our thoughts, vows and commitments to godly habits, and of course, patterns generally called “spiritual disciplines” such as Bible intake, prayer, fasting, etc. All of these are beneficial. But I want to make a case for extended memorization of scripture as a foundational discipline to full fruitfulness in the Christian life, especially for those called to teach the Bible.
Extended Memorization of Scripture
What is “extended memorization of scripture?” Well, to memorize any scripture at all is to commit the words of a text of the Bible to memory so that you can recite it without looking at the page. It is to have that scripture written in your mind and on your heart so that you can think of those words or speak them directly. Extended memorization of scripture involves longer passages—whole chapters and even whole books of the Bible, committed to memory. The only way this can happen is by discipline. The mechanics of memorization may differ slightly from person to person, but it always involves repetition over time. Repetition over time, again and again, saying the words until they are burned in your brain. It may feel like drudgery at times, and so it is. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). There is no discipline I have ever invested in that pays such rich dividends in the Christian life as this one! I plead with you to consider investing yourself in this pattern.
If you were to ask me what scriptures commend memorization, there are many I could cite. My favorite is John 15:7-8. Jesus said, “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” What does it mean to have Jesus’ words (his nouns, verbs, adjectives, sentences, paragraphs, etc.) remaining, dwelling, abiding, living inside us? I think memorization is clearly implied. Along with the rote discipline of memorization comes an inevitable meditation, and with that comes rich insights into the texts. Jesus cited all this as the basis for a knowledgeable and faith-filled prayer life, since nothing we do of any consequence can ever be done apart from God’s will and power… and it is scripture-saturated prayer that unleashes the power of God to achieve his purposes. All of this results in a life of eternal fruitfulness for the glory of God. The best possible life we can live!
Now none of this can happen apart from discipline. The same drive that leads Steph Curry to take one thousand shots a day on the basketball court in the offseason, the same passion that led DaVinci to sketch the human hand over a thousand times until he got every tendon and muscle and finger position perfect, the same drive that led Winston Churchill to go over his speeches again and again until the cadences and phrases were perfect, the same relentless commitment that led Ernest Hemingway to rewrite the end to his classic A Farewell to Arms seventeen times… this must burn within the heart of a Christian who wants to memorize the 678 verses of the Gospel of Mark, or the 432 verses of the Book of Romans. The dedication must be total. The man or woman yearning to see such greatness written in his mind and then his heart has to get up earlier from sleep, fill his spare minutes with review and repetition, commit to polishing rough spots that defy the first fifty times of repetition. This is a labor of love, not of pride. It is fueled by faith that scripture will produce a glorious fruit that will bless both life here on earth and eternal glory in heaven.
Are you willing to live such a disciplined life? The athletes and musicians and artists and writers do it for a crown that will not last; we do it for a crown that will last for all eternity. So, let me close by asking you a tantalizing question: if you could have any book of the Bible committed to memory one year from now, what would it be and why? Can you visualize the joy that would come from the kind of disciplined labor it would take to make it happen? I have been to that mountaintop many times, and the view is stunning!
FREE DOWNLOAD: An Approach To Extended Memorization Of Scripture
This post was originally made at Two Journeys, a blog site curating various resources by Dr. Andy Davis, Senior Pastor of FBC Durham, NC.