Leadership and Scripture Memory


Fort Worth, TX

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:1–6).

What I’m going to do is try to encourage you to memorize scripture and to teach your students to memorize scripture. That's all I want to do. I want to motivate you to memorize scripture. Let me pray once more.

Reasons for Memorization

So here are those headings that, if we have time, I’ll try to say the word under each one. They all start with C: Conformity to Christ, Comfort for yourself and for other people, Conflict with sin, Communication of the gospel, and Communion with God. Those are five ways or reasons that I am committed at age 65, where it does not come easily, to continually memorizing scripture. I’m working on the Sermon on the Mount right now. I’ve gone through it once, but holding things in my head doesn’t work so easily anymore.

1. Conformity to Christ

How do you become like Jesus? The answer from 2 Corinthians 3:18 goes like this:

Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

That’s how it happens. You become what you behold. Steadfastly, morning, night, and all day long, you are beholding. If you stare at something long enough, you tend to conform to it. And if you stare at the glory of the Lord, the same happens. So the question is, where are you going to do that? And the answer is the Book. You see him in the Bible. You pick out some passages of scripture that seem to capture Christ and focus on them. Here’s another verse that points in this direction. First Samuel 3:21 says:

The Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

When I read that several years ago, it just struck me that it says, “the Lord appeared.” Maybe hearing that would cause you to think he must have seen something then. But then it says, “through the word of the Lord.” He didn’t see anything; he heard something. You see with your ears. Beholding the glory of the Lord happens with your ears. Through the word of God, God is revealed.

Seeing Beauty

So here’s one passage to consider in this way:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:1–13).

Now, why did I memorize that years ago? Because it seemed to me that it was one of the most beautiful pictures of Christ that I could find, and I need to see Jesus. I could take that whole chapter mainly as performance and doing, and I should do that in one sense, but what’s the way to obedience? How do you get to performing and doing? How do you get conformed to Christ? It’s mainly by seeing. When you look long enough you say to that chapter, “That’s really beautiful. I really would like to be like that. Where can I see that?” Well, you can see it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There he is.

So that’s point number one: Conformity to Christ comes by seeing him. And where do you see him? You see him in the word. And how do you have the word there all the time? Memorize some choice sections.

2. Comfort in Trial

I’ve been a pastor for 31 years in one church, and I remember like it was yesterday there was an awful moment in my first year when I got a call from a man named Roland Erickson, the statesman of our church whose wife had just experienced cardiac arrest. They were at North Memorial Hospital. He wasn’t sure whether she was going to make it, and he asked if I could come and I said yes. I was a new, 34-year-old pastor in my first year, so I jumped in the car and headed off. Halfway there I realized I didn’t bring my Bible. When I walked into the room the whole family was there. There must have been 15 people in the little waiting room. And Roland gave me a big hug, wept on my shoulder as she was in surgery, and he pushed me back and said, “Give us a word, John.”

I was 34 and I knew lots of Bible, but my mind went blank and I don’t remember what I did. I think I said, “Let’s pray,” and I just mumbled some kind of paraphrase of something. It was awful for me. They felt okay about it, but it was awful for me. So here’s what I did: When I was done praying and loving the best I could (she made it by the way), I went home and I got down on my knees on the little prayer bench I had built, and I said to the Lord, “That will never happen again, ever.” And it hasn’t in 31 years.

And here’s what I did to keep it from happening: I memorized one Psalm that would always be there, so here it is:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:1–7).

I memorized that in 1981 and I’ve never, ever not had it available. So if I come into a car wreck, or I come into a hospital room, or I come into a moment of crisis, it always is relevant. Now, I’ve got lots of other arrows in my quiver as well, but that one I just keep front and center because it is so precious. God is a refuge.

When Roland looked at me and he said, “Give us a word,” that’s all he meant. He was saying, “Tell me right now that God is a refuge. Just tell me, pastor. Tell me what I already know.” That’s what leaders do. They tell Bible people what they already know. It’s like how Peter says that he’s writing by way of reminder because he knows that he is going to die soon (2 Peter 1:13–14). When you’ve been a Christian a long time, you don’t need a lot of new information. You just need someone to tell you what you already know — to tell you with conviction, straight out of the words of God. It’ll have so much power.

Before I leave that point, I do want you to memorize Romans 8. If you haven’t memorized the Great 8, and most of you haven’t I’m sure, you have plenty of time. Just get going on Romans 8. It’s 39 verses, and you might think, “I’ll never memorize anything that long.” Well, take 10 years if you have to. Just do it. It doesn’t get any greater than the Great 8. Let me just pick it up and show you. In what situation or crisis would you not be able to say:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35–39).

There’s hardly any place where you won’t bless somebody with that. Romans 8 is just glorious, so do that.

3. Conflict with Sin

Romans 8:13 is really crucial here:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

That means sinful deeds. How does it work to put those deeds to death by the Spirit? That’s strange. Is it like the Spirit is something in my hand and I can stick sin with it? Well, yes. And you know the key to that don’t you? There’s one offensive weapon in the armor of Ephesians 6. It’s the sword of the Spirit. And what’s the sword? It’s the word of God — the sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). When Romans 8:13 says, “put to death the deeds of body by the Spirit,” it’s not that you get ahold of him, but he gets ahold of you. However, what you do get a hold of is his word. So you stick sin with the word.

Now here’s the way I do it. Most of you are probably thinking right now, “He’s talking about lust.” Well, I’m not, but it does work and we should fight sexual sin this way; we should stick it with the sword of the Spirit. Instead, I’m thinking of things like the sin of fear. For example, I’m standing up here without a manuscript and I always use a manuscript. I’ve never preached on Sunday morning in 31 years without a manuscript. When the page blew off last night I was thinking, “Oh man, where’s my first page?” Somebody had mercy on me and just made my page appear.

So here I am now. What’s my temptation to sin at this moment? My temptation to sin is fear. If I mess up quoting one of these verses, you’re going to say, “Oh, this is embarrassing.” I’m 65 and I still have these kinds of 15-year-old anxieties. Now, what should I do? What would you do? You’re all going to go into situations like that. I have this little thing called APTAT. It’s a an acronym and it goes like this:

A - Admit you can’t do anything.

Apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

P - Pray for the help you need

Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).

T - Trust a particular promise.

This is the key one. Sometimes we say things like, “The Bible says, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight and he will make your path straight,’” (Proverbs 3:5). If you walk into a situation feeling fearful and nervous, and you’re just kind of trying to trust but you can’t grab anything, it makes trust seem vague. What should you be trusting in? I find that trust goes hand in hand with a promise. I need a particular promise from God for this moment, and when I say it to myself, I believe it and hold onto it. You need to get a few of these in your head.

I remember my dad called me on the phone as I was getting on the plane to go to Germany in 1971 for three years, and I was full of anxieties. I was in Radio City Music Hall, in a phone booth, and he called me from somewhere else in the United States, and he said, “Johnny, listen: Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Son, God will do that for you. That’s Isaiah 41:10. Don’t let it go.”

And I never have let it go. For three years I was in graduate school, trying to learn German, trying to go to classes, and trying to do all this stuff. I must have said that verse to myself 500 times. It has been my portion in moments of fear and anxiety so many times. It’s our family goodbye verse. When we send a kid off to college we’ll say, “Listen, Barnabas: Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed because I’m your God. I’ll strengthen you. I’ll help you. I’ll uphold you with my righteous right hand. Go, son. Hold on.” Or for Talitha, if she heads off to a mission trip or something, I’ll say: “Fear not, Talitha.” You should just get a few of those verses in order to fight the sin of anxiety.

A - Act.

If I walk up here thinking, “Okay, I’m trusting a promise. Why don’t you do this for me?” He says, “No, you go do it.” I’m actually making the steps and choosing the words. It’s me, and yet it’s not me, but him, right? That’s what it’s supposed to be, but how does that happen? The text for that one is Philippians 2:12–13, which says:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

So you do have to act. You get up, you go, you prepare, and you speak. You really must act.

T - Thank.

In summary, they are as follows: APTAT — Admit you can do nothing, pray for help, trust a particular promise, act in the power that he supplies, and the last one is thank him (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

4. Communicating the Gospel

Both you and I fear canned gospel sharing. But as soon as I give you that warning to empathize with all of your distaste for canned gospel sharing, I want to back up and say: Get a can. Don’t use it like a can, but get a can and fill it up with the gospel. You should know the gospel in some simple ways. Don’t be so into books and big theological problems all the time that you can’t take a baby seeker with no understanding and say, “Could I just, over lunch at Pizza Hut, tell you what makes me tick and what’s precious to me? And then you tell me what makes you tick?”

For me it’s six laws, not just four. You can present them any way you like, but here they are. I’ll just tick them off quickly:

1. God created us for his glory.

Isaiah 43:6–7 says:

Bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.

So if I’m talking to this person across the Pizza Hut table I might say, “God created you for his glory. He created you to make much of him. He created you to make him look great because he is infinitely glorious.”

2. Therefore, you should live for his glory.

First Corinthians 10:31 says:

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

3. You and I don’t do that, and nobody has ever lived consistently to make God look great.

You can tell stories from your life and from his life about how crummy we are. We know we don’t make God central; we’ve all failed. The reason I start with thinking about glory is that when you get to Romans 3:23 it becomes a lot more relevant. The passage says:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

If you haven’t brought glory into the conversation before sharing that verse they may think, “What is this? Why did that show up as a part of what sin is?” That’s the reason I’m structuring my laws the way I am is so that I can show that sin is is falling short of the glory of God.

4. Therefore, we’re all damned.

You can pick from many verses on this. For example, Ephesians 2:3 says:

[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

5. Jesus came to save sinners.

All that we’ve shared so far has to do with bad news, but the good news makes absolutely no sense without knowing something like those four first. The gospel core I have in mind here is 1 Timothy 1:15, which says:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

At this point, you look right at the person and tell them, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners like me and you.” Now we’re at the gospel moment and you can pick out just one or two key, precious statements of what happened on the cross. You don’t want to go to the faith part yet — that’s number six. You’re still at number five.

Here, think about a verse that answers the question, “What did Jesus do?” That’s the gospel. What you have to do to receive those benefits is not the first part of the gospel; rather, it’s the response. The gospel is what Jesus did 2,000 years ago before you were ever born. Here’s one of my favorite texts to go to:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13–14).

I just love that. It speaks about the record of our debts. You can just stand there and look at this person and say, “Do you know how long the record of your debts is? If you rolled it up you couldn’t fit it in the door. It’s very long. What are you going to do with that on Judgment Day? God is going to unroll that whole thing and the long record of your debts will be before you. It says right here in Colossians 2:14 that he canceled it. And how did he cancel it? He canceled it by nailing it to the cross. And through whose hands? It’s not through yours, but the hands of Jesus.”

Then Colossians 2:15 goes on to say that he “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Our arch-enemy, the devil, who wants to destroy us, has been disarmed. The one thing with which he could damn us has been taken out of his hand, namely unforgiven sin. So get the gospel down.

6. Faith in Jesus.

Acts 16:31 says:

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…

Or you could quote Ephesians 2:8–9

By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So also get the faith piece down so that it’s very clear.

5. Communion with God

Scripture memory for the sake of communion with God is a great place to stop, so let me end by simply saying find a few passages of Scripture that can enable you, when you’re all alone, to just enjoy God. For me, that would be a passage like this:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness
    and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (Psalm 103:1–13).

So get Psalm 103 memorized, or something like it, so that it can be sweet to your taste.