What Makes an Excellent Student?

© A. Daniel Barker Jr. 2005


Before we begin the school term, I would like to ask a question. Why are you here? Based on the applications that we have received most of you said that you wanted to learn more about the Bible.

Having taught for several years however, I have found that not every student has the right motivation for studying. For example, Student A comes to class not to learn, but rather to show off what he knows. This student will gain nothing. Student B studies to receive a carrot – the diploma. In the end, all this student receives is a piece of paper with very little knowledge gained. Student C lacks motivation. He comes to class late, leaves early, and does minimal work. In turn, he reaps what he sows. Student D is one who comes to learn. He is like a sponge. He soaks up everything. He studies outside of class by reviewing his notes. Upon graduation there is noticeable spiritual growth. The question is which student are you?

It is my prayer that each of you may excel in your educational experience. Here is my desire for you:

  • That you may be fully equipped to help build up the body of Christ.
  • That you may grow and be more Christ- like and mature in your faith.
  • That you may bear fruit for God’s kingdom.
  • That you may learn how to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • That you may be a whole-hearted lover and worshipper of God.
  • The purpose of this paper is to set the ground work that will help you meet the objectives above. In light of these objectives, I want to pose the following question: What makes an excellent student?

    There are six characteristics of an excellent student:

    I. A student that excels has a desire to grow

    Perry Down wrote that “the purpose of educational ministry is to lead believers to spiritual maturity.”[1] Why is it important for believers to mature? Immature believers are subject to be carried away “by the error of unprincipled men”. (2 Peter 3:17) But in contrast to immaturity we are commanded to “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (2 Peter 3:18).[2] We are commanded to continually grow in grace and knowledge of Jesus. Thus, growth is not an option it is a command. As students we are to spiritually progress and not be stagnate. An excellent student is one who seeks to grow in grace and knowledge of Christ.

    II. An Excellent student values Christian Education

    In America the puritans were strong advocates for education. No other colonizers established higher education as soon as they arrived as the Puritans.[3] According to Leland Ryken, “Only six years after their arrival in Massachusetts Bay, the General Court voted four hundred pounds ‘toward a school or college.’”[4] The newly established Harvard College was kept alive in her early years by farmers who contributed wheat to support teachers and students. In a document entitled New England’s First Fruits (1643) we find the following:

    After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.[5]

    Thus the Puritans had a high view of education.

    What is disheartening today is many of us do not value education. This problem is a worldview issue.[6] Estes wrote “the worldview of an individual or society shapes the values that the person or group holds. Those values, in turn, determine how actions, attitudes, motivations and decisions are evaluated.”[7] We can tell how much we value something by how much time and money we are willing to spend.[8]

    For example, some people who do not value education think it is a waist of time to pursue higher education. In contrast, others are willing to spend years and money taking classes in order to meet their goal of getting a PH-D because to them education is important.

    The writer of Proverbs declares that the person, who finds wisdom and gains understanding, has profit that is better than silver, fine gold and more precious than jewels. (Prov. 3:14-15) Note the similar charge in the same book:

    Proverbs 4:5 (NAB) – Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding! Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth. 6 “Do not forsake her, and she will guard you; Love her, and she will watch over you. 7 “The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; And with all your acquiring, get understanding. 8 “Prize her, and she will exalt you; She will honor you if you embrace her. 9 “She will place on your head a garland of grace; She will present you with a crown of beauty.”

    The question is how much do we prize education? Do we treasure it like our precious diamonds and gold? I have seen insecure ministers make fun of those who pursue Christian education. I have asked myself why? One reason is that these leaders do not understand the high value that the Bible places on Christian Education. If they did, they would encourage people to learn no matter the cost.

    We need to ask ourselves do we value education. Are we willing to spend our money on good Christian literature that will help us to grow? Are we willing to take the time to learn at night while we work during the day? If we are going to excel as students, we need to treasure and prize the knowledge that God is willing to give more than silver and gold.

    Some of you might be thinking, didn’t the Lord say “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise”? (1 Cor. 1:19). Or what about “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise”1 Cor. 1:27). Doesn’t this seem like God is anti-education? On the contrary, Paul is making a distinction between human wisdom and Christ who is wisdom. Paul is arguing that the so called folly of God with its message of the cross is God’s way of destroying human wisdom (cf. v. 18 and 19). God is not against us gaining wisdom from Christ and his Word. Thus, an excellent student values Christian education.

    III. An Excellent Student is teachable

    In proverbs we read that a believer who is wise is willing to receive instruction: “Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning”. (Prov. 9:9) In contrast, a fool in Scripture is described as “despising wisdom and instruction”. (Prov. 1:7) The vice that will keep us from learning is pride. The prideful person thinks they know it all and they are wise in their own eyes. But this person is foolish and not a real student in God’s divine school because they are not humble and teachable.

    As I look back over the years I can see where God has placed some Spiritual giants in my path. Sadly, because of my pride I didn’t think I needed any help from them. Now I am left with questions. If only I had sought their help where would I be today? I pray that pride may not get in the way of us learning from each other. If we are going to excel as students we must be willing to receive instruction from others.

    IV. An Excellent student is an active reader

    What is active reading? It is a discipline that a student develops where they are trained to ask questions of the text.[9]

    • What is the background?
    • What is the context?
    • Who is speaking?
    • Who is the story about?
    • What do we know about the characters in the story?
    • What are they doing?
    • What does such and such mean?
    • How does this fit in with what was said earlier?

    Martin Lloyd Jones put it this way “We must never take anything for granted; we must always be alert and alive, and always ready to ask questions how easily one can miss the great blessings … by simply sliding over the terms as if they did not matter!”[10] Adler and VanDorn said our success in receiving the message is determined by the extent to which we receive everything the writer intended to communicate.[11]

    If we are going to be excellent students of God’s word we must be active and not passive in our reading. This means again that as we read we must ask the hard questions. This leads me to my next characteristic.

    V. An Excellent student is not only an active reader, he also a disciplined thinker

    Much of our preaching and teaching today is shallow. Why? We state the obvious. We do not spend time reflecting on what we have studied. God commands us to use our minds. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all of your mind.” (Matt. 22:37) Paul exhorted Timothy to “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.” (2 Tim. 2:7 NRSV)[12] The writer of Hebrews invites the reader to reflect. He says “consider Jesus.” (Hebrews 3:1, 12:3)[13]

    I believe the task of Christian education is two fold:

    1. To help the student to get the most out of their Bible reading so that they will grasp the meaning of any given text.
    2. To train students to use their minds to reflect on what they have learned from the Bible so that they will better understand God and live according to his ways.

      This is hard work.

    In regards to the latter task, I have found that the greatest challenge for the church today is that we can quote the Scripture to each other but we have difficulty applying the Scriptures in our daily life. Why? We have not spent time meditating on God’s Word. We haven’t spent time reflecting on how we can state what we have learned in to life principles. We also have not spent time further reflecting on the implications of the principles. i.e., how they apply.

    I believe the problem is that our culture has trained us not to think. Dr. Vanhoozer said that we have grown up in a culture that has watched a lot of TV and read very little. Therefore, we have “grown up being a-mused – not thinking instead of musing over written works.”[14] He also said “many students read the way they watch TV – when the show is over they turn the set off.”[15]

    We need to be reflective readers and listeners like the Berean Christians. They had two characteristics:

    • They were noble minded (Open). They received the word eagerly.
    • They were critical thinkers. They examined the scriptures daily to see whether what they were told was true.

    NASB Acts 17:10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.

    What is the secret to being a critical thinker? My favorite theologian Jonathan Edwards was a brilliant thinker. His father taught him how to think with a pen. His father said that all work (thinking and reflection) should be done with pen in hand.[16] In other words, we learn by writing and rewriting over and over again until we reach clarification.

    Note what Piper says about shepherding and thinking: “A pastor will not be able to feed his flock rich and challenging insights into God’s word unless he becomes a disciplined thinker. But almost none of us do this by nature. We must train ourselves to do it. And one of the best ways to train ourselves to think about what we read is to read with pen in hand and to write down a train of thought that comes to mind. Without this, we simply cannot sustain a sequence of questions and answers long enough to come to penetrating conclusions. This was the simple method that caused Edward’s native genius to produce immense and lasting results.”[17]

    My prayer is that CBI students may be thinkers that assess and attack the problems that we face today with a Biblical framework.

    VI. Finally, a student of excellence recognizes that the Father gives us revelation from Scripture

    Thus far, we have stressed how we need to labor in being an active reader and be a disciplined thinker. But we also see from Scripture that God the Father gives us revelation.

    Perhaps you remember when Jesus asked his disciples about his perceived public identity. It was the Apostle Peter who said correctly “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Where did Peter get this revelation? Jesus commented that “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is heaven.” (Matt. 16:17) So we receive revelation from the Father.

    But how do we receive this revelation? First, we receive revelation from the Father when we humble ourselves. Humility is important in receiving revelation. Jesus prayed to His Father “I praise thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes …” (Luke 10:21). We must be like little children to receive revelation from the father.

    Second, we receive revelation having prayed to Father to grant it to us. As we read Holy Scripture we need to pray that God will reveal to us more and more about Jesus. Paul prays that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.” (Eph. 1:17) So an excellent student must pray that the Father may reveal to him the secrets of Christ.

    We also see that God the Father reveals and teaches via the Holy Spirit.

    NAB 1 Corinthians 2:10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. 14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

    NAB 1 John 2:27 As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.

    So, we can conclude that the Holy Spirit is our teacher.

    How does the Holy Spirit teach us?

    • In prayer, we need to invite the Holy Spirit to manifest his presence as we study and meditate.
    • Prior to reading and studying we need to ask the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our heart that we may see the wonders of the Law (Psalm 119:105).
    • We need to learn how to read the passage by the Spirit. We need to learn how to wait quietly before and after we read the text.
    • When we meditate, we need to practice what Bonhoeffer said “we shall have to stop with one sentence or even one word, because we have been gripped and arrested and cannot evade it any longer.”[18] We need to be like Mary who after hearing the Shepherds’ message, she reflected upon it in her heart.
    • Often times what gets in the way is that we do not allow God’s word to speak to us. Bonhoeffer says “we do not ask what this text has to say to other people. For the preacher this means that he will not ask how he is going to preach or teach on this text, but what it is saying quite directly to him.”[19]

    In conclusion, why is it important for a student to value Christian education to grow? What is the significance of being more proficient in reading the Bible, or to be a disciplined thinker? I believe it is this, our ability to grow and better understand the Bible will lead us into deeper, more profound worship and a transformed life. J.I Packer put it this way, “theology is for doxology and devotion – that is, the praise of God and practice of godliness.”[20] This is what the world needs more than anything today. May God bless you as you continue to study.

    [1] Perry G. Downs, Teaching for Spiritual Growth, Zondervan, p. 17.

    [2] Ephesians 4:11-14 makes a similar point. God has given gifted Leaders to equip the saints so that the saints will minister to each other with the primary purpose of building up the body of Christ. What does it look like to be built up? Our ultimate goal is maturity in faith and knowledge of Christ (v. 13). The opposite of maturity is a child that is tossed here and there and carried about by every wind of doctrine (v. 14). Thus like Peter wrote in his epistle, a mature person will not be carried away. We need to grow up into Christ likeness.

    [3] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, p. 157.

    [4] Ibid.

    [5] Ibid, p. 157-158.

    [6] Worldview is a set of assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false which we hold consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently about the world. Like what is a human being? A machine, Ape, or a person made in the image of God. The answer to this question and others shapes our worldview. I refer you to James Sire, Discipleship of the Mind, p. 29-30.

    [7] Daniel J. Estes, Hear, My Son Teaching and Learning in Proverbs 1-9, Eerdmans, p. 41.

    [8] Ibid.

    [9] In Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, she says the “great writers start out by giving the reader, immediately, the ontology of the protagonist; or to put it in the form of a literary rule, a writer should immediately tell the readers for things: 1. Who is the story about. 2. What he is doing. 3. Where he is doing it. 4. When he is doing it”., p. 62. If this is true then the only way that we can fully understand a narrative is to read actively by asking questions of the text.

    [10] Martin Lloyd Jones, Sermon – In the beloved taken from the internet.

    [11] How to read a book, p. 7.

    [12] I learned this from one of John Piper’s sermons.

    [13] Ibid.

    [14] This quote is taken from my class notes from Trinity, God, Man and Christ.

    [15] Ibid.

    [16] Ian H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards A New Biography, Banner of Truth, p. 14. The words in parenthesis are my own words. Edwards resolved: When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.” If there was a problem he would pose a question. In attempting to answer the question another question is raised. So you seek to answer the second question. You continue with this course until all possible questions are answered in a reasonable manner. This process gives us depth and insight. Ibid.

    [17] John Piper, The Pastor as Theologian: Reflections on the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards, from the internet.

    [18] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 83.

    [19] Ibid, p. 82.

    [20] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, p. xii.