Study While You Pray and Pray While You Study

As an ex-Pietist one of the most vicious laws under which I was placed early on in my Christian life was the “quiet time.” I was taught to carry a “verse pack” and to keep a “quiet time” journal. The younger Christians were to use the “9:59 Plan” and the more mature were to use the “29:59 Plan.”

Recently, as I gathered with the student prayer group (I’m not against prayer!) and again today in class, as I tried to explain the rise of monasticism and its appeal, I recounted my early Christian experience with pietism and the law of the quiet time. To have a quiet time, not attendance to the means of grace, was the mark of piety.

Before you complain that I hate prayer or piety, I’m quite in favor of spending time in private prayer. It’s not only salutary it’s necessary. We confess that prayer is so necessary for Christians that “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.” (HC 116). Why, however, are private prayers given priority over public worship? The answer is Pietism. The Pietist knows that the private is more holy and more sanctifying than the public. I don’t think, however, that Reformed Christians know that, do they?

I mentioned the law of the quiet time to illustrate that the monastic cell (which was apparently occupied by no less than John Paul II who mortified his flesh with a belt or a whip or some such) did not die with the medieval church. The pietist wants to take us back to the monastic cell, to ascetic spirituality, to world flight, and, I think, to a sub-biblical spirit/matter dualism. I contrast, I noted, the Protestants understood the contrast to be between the Spirit and our sinful nature. They realized that God had ordained ordinary water, bread, and wine to be set apart for holy use and to operate through those things, through the foolishness of gospel preaching, to achieve his purposes in his people. Contrary to the reigning medieval (and among many contemporary evangelicals) assumption, the human problem is sin not lack of being or lack of divinity. Concupiscence comes after the fall, not because of creation. The human problem is sin, which is a violation of God’s law. In other words, our fundamental problem is forensic (which has spiritual and moral consequences). This why the fundamental solution is legal and not moral (although it has moral and spiritual consequences): justification.

In Reformed spirituality the private devotional life of the Christian flows from the public Word, the public means of grace, i.e., the preaching of the Holy Gospel and the administration of the Holy sacraments (HC 65). The private devotional life is not a law, it is a grace. It is not a metaphorical whip with which to prod Christians to godliness, it is the natural outgrowth of union with Christ. It’s important but it’s secondary to the public preaching of the Word. Proportionally, don’t we have a lot more to say about public piety than about private piety? Why have the pietists gained so much credibility in our circles and why are those of us who advocate the “due use of ordinary means” the bad guys?

On the influence of pietism in Reformed circles, I cannot number how often I’ve read or heard exhortations to sem students and to pastors and others to set aside distinct periods of time to read the Bible “devotionally.” For pastors and divinity students who spend much of their time in the study of the word, such a “law” has important implications. How much time must he spend devoting? Who judges my performance of this law? Further, the implication is sometimes left and sometimes the explicit exhortation is given that one should not study during devotions. This dichotomy between study and prayer seems not only unnatural but unworkable. What happens if I learn something while I’m devoting? Have I sinned? Do I have to start over? Does it count as “devotions?” What happens if I sing while I study or because of my study? Is it not study any longer? Why should I accept the premise that doxology and the intellect are mutually exclusive? Why is it more holy to read three chapters of Scripture than to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest three verses?

I understand that for pastors and divinity students the line between vocation and devotion can become blurry. That’s as it should be. I understand that, practically, It makes the Sabbath more complicated. A plumber ordinarily, barring a work of necessity or mercy, doesn’t plumb on the Sabbath but a minister or divinity student prays and studies God’s Word on the Sabbath, which acts are part of his vocation. Yes, there are ways of reading Scripture without parsing Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic vocabulary) or doing extensive word studies or text criticism. Fine. Students should probably not be reading Hegel or Nietzsche or Kant or any number of things on the Sabbath. I understand.

Nevertheless, we need to challenge the apparently reigning pietist paradigm that to pray is not to study and to study is not to pray. It’s not true. Ecstasy is not piety and piety is not ecstasy. We need to challenge the assumption that the extraordinary is more pious and spiritual than the ordinary. In that assumption I think we may lose our Christology. Despite what you might have seen, Jesus’ face didn’t glow. He was the God-Man but he wasn’t spectacular. That’s why we crucified him.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Having been through Word of Life Fellowship’s Bible Institute where they implemented exactly the same “Quiet Time” program as yours, I certainly sympathize and feel your comments are right on! Though I do have to say that the time at Word of Life (2 yrs, 2003-2005) was still very profitable to me since I was indeed reading a LOT of God’s Word and He still used that means to bless my knowledge and understanding, in spite of the defective system in place. I think I needed that program, for that time in my life. However, now through more reflection and theological maturity since then, I’ve come to pretty much the same conclusions as you concerning the “Quiet Time” mentality. Thanks for the insights!

  2. P.S. I still have the Word of Life verse packs in my backpack. I thought for a second about taking them out in class today when you mentioned them….. ;-p

  3. Excellent! This is very freeing, and so helpful in the day to day study and prep and learning from the Word. If what I’m teaching or preaching on doesn’t move me devotionally, how can I preach it with conviction?

  4. Great post, I have actually done a lot of work with Dr. Henderson who rereleased the 29/59 plan, but your points on a “quiet time” are greatly encouraging. For the last couple years, I have been trying to figure out how to do an affective quiet time with no avail. So instead, I will take a commentary and from studying the passage, I will have my devotions.
    Thanks for this great truth!

  5. I don’t understand what the following sentence means:

    “We confess that God will not prayer is so necessary for Christians that “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.” (HC 116).”

    Is it “… God will not hear prayer …” or something else?

  6. Dr. Clark,

    You said, “Why, however, are private prayers given priority over public worship? The answer is pietism. The pietist knows that the private is more holy and more sanctifying than the public.”

    What about family worship? Does it fall in the same level as private worship? In his epistle to the readers of the Westminster, Thomas Manton said, “A family is the seminary of Church and State.” Thomas Becon’s intro to his catechism refer to parents who care less about catechizing as “beastly parents.” Does it seem they think “family worship” is also a law judging from their strong metaphors?


    John Pesebre
    Quezon City, Philippines

    PS. I already bought RRC yesterday — couldn’t resist the “concupiscence” to buy. You referred to Lasch’s writing as “savage critique”: Did you want your introduction also to be remembered as a “savage critique” of American evangelicalism?

  7. It seems to me that both Scripture and Reformed Directories require Pubic, Family, AND Private worship.

    I agree that to place Private above Family and Public is unscriptural, but this piece seems to lean against private worship. I doubt that that is the intent, but that certainly seems to be the result.

    Such would be less than Reformed.

    Pietists are not always wrong.

    Memorizing Scripture, and private worship should be encouraged. It’s the Reformed thing to do. Because it is Biblical.

  8. Roy,

    If you’ll re-read the piece I encourage private devotions as strongly as I could. I think the only way you could say that I discouraged them is if there’s only one way to talk about them that any way that doesn’t meet that standard must be classified as “discouragement.”

    Nothing I said here could be fairly described as saying anything other than that we need “both…and” but there always has to be some priority — with which you agree!

    There is no “leaning” here just an ordering and a complaint against pietist legalism.

  9. Having been around many Evangelicals, I knew many who were doggedly committed to their “quiet times” but would never make it to church on Sundays or were occasional visitors of churches. A lot of their faith was personally defined and but also unstable. Emotions seemed to define their spiritual state since so much of it was introspective as opposed to extrospective, which would have focused on the external reality of Christ’s work for them, as proclaimed in the preached Word and Sacraments. But I think some of this over-introspection can in fact be derived from pride. I think it is easier to pat ourselves on the back and reassure ourselves with the prayers we’ve made and passages of Scripture we’ve read that we’re good Christians. This is opposed to what happens in the formal worship service when we are being broken by the proclamation of the law, being raised with the gospel and being pardoned with absolution, and being fed and strengthened with His body and and blood, all of which are God’s acts alone and simply ours for the receiving. This is very humbling for anyone who wants to believe that salvation is to some extent dependent on the sinner. Pietism glorifies Man but worship (via regulative principle) glorfies God.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    I am interested in your idea of “public piety.” Specifically how this can effect/develop one personal’s ethic. Does your book RRC cover that?


  11. Dr. Clark,
    I think you(?) wrote something about that you and other professors at WSCal encourage the students to pray while they’re in their studies. I think the article said something like that students felt drained or distant from God while they were in school. Is this possibly indicative of a pietistic influence that you are speaking of in this article?
    Brian Carpenter’s new name for you is fun. My question is: Will the chalcographer be able to adequately render the shine? You wear it well, sir.

    • Yes, those who think that studies create distance from God are guilty of the post hoc, propter hoc (after which, because of which) fallacy.

      It’s also the case that they’ve bought into pietistic assumptions about what constitutes piety and they’re using those premises to judge their experience. The WCF suggests that we all go through periods where we have a greater and then lesser experience of the presence of God.

  12. For nearly 40 years I have practiced a daily quiet time as my schedule has allowed me. I learned of the practice from Inter Varsity and it was never presented as a legalistic discipline. It has always been for me a way of reading and studying the Word of God and praying for others. It has never replaced corporate worship, but has always been a complement to it.

  13. I’m very much with Mr Lindberg. The quiet time has been a time of great sustenance, whereby this idea of dividing a studious and a devotional way of reading Scripture is simply alien to me although I’m occasionally preaching layman, no more. But there’s another aspect of quiet times that perhaps links in here. I know someone who read their Bible so for law that they didn’t get the Gospel. I remember them saying after I preached a sermon on grace that they finally got it. Their explanation of grace was simply not what I preached. Should perhaps our concern about the quiet time flow not from the legalism of the practice and not more from the way people get law from the text, and how quiet times, when done badly, actually detract from what people will get out of the public means? Or do the legalism of the practice in some cases (which I, like Dr Clark, deny is inherent in private devotions), the privatisation of piety, and my worry about people reading for law link somehow?

  14. Dr. Clark,

    Here was the quote by Warfield in “The Religious Life of Theological Students,” which you reminded me of the other day in prayer group when you mentioned this:
    “Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. ‘What!’ is the appropriate response, ‘than ten hours over your books, on your knees?’ Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed, and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology…Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them. They bring you daily and hourly into the very presence of God; his ways, his dealing with men, the infinite majesty of his Being form their very subject-matter” (pp. 2, 6).

    There’s lots of other great stuff in this small booklet – very helpful for the theological student and any believer. Thanks to WSC for giving it to us new students for free, and to you for your reminders in this post,


    • The problem comes about when we study for example the writings of Karl Barth (or insert the name of any other heretic). That is surely purely intellectual, for their teachings are not spiritual food but trash.

      • Daniel,

        I agree that we ought to be 1) cautious about the sort of spiritual food we eat on the Sabbath (and I wouldn’t think that Barth to be good food) but we should also be cautious 2) about setting up laws for other believers.

        I have been influenced by the example of John Murray who read good devotional literature or sometimes just his Greek New Testament on the Sabbath.

        • Scott:

          I agree that we shouldn’t be setting such laws for other believers. My comment however was directed towards the quote by Warfield quoted by Brandon. I agree that it is wrong to dichotomize between studies and devotion/ piety. However, with the presence of unbiblical “theology”, if in our studies we would need to read for example Barth or Brunner or Bultmann, then isn’t such reading purely intellectual? Wouldn’t it be the case that for such readings, “ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours” over them?

  15. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for this post.

    Where the Law is not preached in all its terror and the gospel is not likewise revealed in all its glory, the penitent does not find solace in God’s mercy and the self righteous do not see their need to fling themselves on God’s mercy. In this scenario, another means of joy is saught… pietistic monasticism. In pietistic monasticism, the self righteous can feel more confident in the flesh for their experiences while lording this over the penitent. It’s a downward spiral of doom that only the Law and Gospel rightly preached can destroy and bring comfort to those who have faith.

    Not that this doesn’t produce experiences of joy and gratitude… far from it. It produces joy and gratitude rooted in faith in Christ that does not produce pride (since the joy is rooted in Christ having saved us from all our sin and misery and from Hell that we deserve).

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