The benefits of learning how to study Scripture for yourself are considerable, but there are risks as well that the Bible warns against. (Which no doubt is prompting some of you to say, “See! I knew study was bad for me!”) We’ll ignore that, but here are three dangers to watch out for.
Danger #1: Beware Of How Study Can Fill You With Pride
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:1 — “We know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.”
Paul is talking in chapter 8 about clean and unclean food. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, you could now eat whatever you wanted. But some believers were going way over the top with their newfound knowledge, to the point of looking down on believers who hadn’t heard this teaching, or who were still struggling with the change. Paul had to tell them to knock it off.
That’s the thing about knowledge. Knowledge puffs us up, causing our heads to swell with how smart we think we are. Because of course, we want to be in the know. We want to be in the room where it happened. That’s the appeal of gossip. “I know something you don’t know!”
So how do we deal with the danger of pride? All we have to do is look to Jesus to figure it out. John writes that Jesus came “full of grace and truth “ (John 1:14, 17). We know he was full of truth. As God Incarnate, Jesus perfectly knew Nathanael’s private longings for God (John 1:47–50); he knew the fickle nature of human hearts (John 2:23–25); he knew the hidden shame of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:16–19).
Jesus’ knowledge of us is complete, enough to unmask us and crush us. Yet he came not just full of truth, but full of grace and truth. He treated people with dignity, patience, and forgiveness. He knew that Peter would deny him one day, but loved him and called him anyway. Jesus looks at each one of us with perfect knowledge of everything that’s been done to us, and everything that we’ve done to others. Yet he loves us anyway, died for us anyway, and now says, “Come, follow me. And give to others the same grace I’ve given you.”
Peter never forgot the grace that Jesus showed him. His last formal words to the church, written at the end of his second letter are these: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18).
Danger #2: Don’t Forget What Knowledge Is Meant To Produce In You
God has forever appointed knowledge to serve in a support role, whose primary function is to lead us to Christ. The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were sought out for their great knowledge. They knew the Scriptures inside and out, backwards and forwards (some could even tell you the exact middle letter of a given book.) Such remarkable knowledge! Yet when Jesus came, they missed him, and he rebuked them for it.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:38–41).
We’re not to grow in knowledge for its own sake. In all our recent emphasis on learning the habit of a quiet time, do not forget this point. The purpose of the quiet time is not to connect you to a book, but to connect you to Christ. Growing in knowledge is meant to produce in you a relationship with your Savior, and out of that relationship your Lord will then teach you how to live and love like him. This is the servant’s role of knowledge.
Yet what is it we typically do with knowledge? We elevate it above everything else, and forget what it’s meant to produce. Just like the Pharisees. We do this when we evaluate a person’s spiritual maturity based on their knowledge. “Oh you know stuff? You must be mature.” We do this when we disciple people, by sitting them in classes, and piling books on their desk, then call that disciple-making. We pump them full of knowledge, and forget to help them grow also in Christlikeness and fruitfulness (Col.1:9–10).
That we provide knowledge is commendable. Knowledge is the root system of the tree of salvation, and a plant without a root system will die. Yet no one says when they’re looking a beautiful, fruit-filled plant, “What a beautiful root system.”
If my knowledge doesn’t bring me into a relationship with Christ, so that he can save me from a life of sin (Christlikeness), and save me for a life of fruitfulness, where over time I will increase his beauty, goodness, and love on the earth, what am I left with? Nothing.
“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor.13:2).
Danger #3:. Beware Of The Kind Of Study That Leads You To Forget Christ Altogether
Like the forbidden fruit to Eve’s eyes, knowledge can seem so beautiful to gaze upon and oh so delicious to taste. But strange irony, in the gazing and tasting, we can forget all about God who gives us the knowledge in the first place.
Numerous studies seem to show that the more education a person has, the less faith they will have. This was happening in the first century, and Paul warned about it. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor.1:22–24)
It’s not that Christianity is intellectually weak or indefensible. Precisely the opposite. Paul’s point is that a sinful human cannot reason his way to God without the aid of God’s Spirit or call. Furthermore, we’re not to unplug from our brains to follow Christ, but unplug from our sin. Too prideful to humble themselves to this fact, many will make knowledge their idol, and forever concoct highfalutin reasons why Christ isn’t for them.
The idolatrous power of knowledge can show itself in subtle ways right in the church. You see it in those who read other spiritual books, but never the Bible. Who listen to their favorite podcast but not the Holy Spirit in prayer. Who love deep-diving into theology, but if you ask them, “Hey what’s God been speaking to you in your quiet times?” will look at you like you’re speaking another language. Who in the Life Groups, wants to be the one that comes up with the clever insight that no one else sees.
Paul warns Timothy of people in his church who have grown obsessed with genealogies, and in their obsessive speculations have forgotten that they’re to be growing in love, purity, and faith (1 Timothy 1:3–7). We run the same risk today when we take any pet theology of ours (most of us have them), then construct elaborate foolproof (we think) defense systems around it, the end result of which is not to save Christianity, but to put God in a box and break fellowship with his people.
Forgetting to distinguish between hills to die on and hills to disagree on, we use our knowledge as a wedge to divide us, then forget about Christ entirely.
Paul isn’t telling Timothy to forget about learning how to think theologically, but instead to be discerning when to exercise that skill. There are hills to die on. Right then in the first century, early seeds of a dangerous heresy called Gnosticism were taking root and starting to spread, against which Paul will raise an alarm (Colossians 2:8–10).
We see modern forms of gnostic thinking today as people of all sorts try to kidnap Jesus for their own cause, then create spiritual hostage videos where the gospel is refashioned to support any number of crazy things. Using Christ, they forget him entirely.
So Study Or Not Study? That Is The Question
While we should keep these dangers in the back of our minds, don’t let them scare you off from study. Study honors God who created us in his image, and one of the aspects of bearing the image of God is our capacity to reason. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Remember all the scholars found in the Bible. Can you imagine the Old Testament without the writings of Moses, the man trained in Egypt? Or Ezra, whom Scripture says, “ set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statues and rules in Israel.” — Ezra 7:10
Can you imagine the New Testament without the writings of Paul? Or a Bible missing what the scholar and physician Luke left us, with his gospel, and then his chronicle of the early church in the book of Acts.
Biblical Christianity has produced some of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, minds, and scientists in all of history. From the very beginning this was so. Greek and Roman paganism had no chance against the Christian worldview once the first few generations of Christians started picking up their pens.
And it’s still true in our time. Don’t apologize for Jesus Christ and the gospel movement he launched. Defend him with all the strength you can. Like Ezra, set your heart to study, then do it, then teach it.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest — “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes — all available through Amazon.