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How to Meditate on God’s Word

March 31st, 2009
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Is there such a thing as Christian meditation? Of course there is. And it is not some kind of odd “import” from Eastern religions. Here is how Dr. John Kleinig describes it. Consider his words carefully, and then consider how you could make use of them in your life of prayer and meditation on God’s Word. I have been personally richly blessed by John’s insights, which follow:

Christian meditation differs from all other kinds of meditation because it concentrates on what Jesus says; it is meditation on His Word as it is given to us in the Scriptures. We meditate on His powerful Word. His Word has an impact on us as we pay attention to it, does its work in us as we listen to it, and reshapes us inwardly as we let it have its say. The words of Jesus actually produce our meditation. Yet that does not happen automatically but only as we put our trust in it.

As Christians, we have all experienced the power of God’s Word in us as a word of judgment and salvation. Its impact on our conscience is described most vividly in Hebrews 4:12–13: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.

As we meditate on God’s Word, we stand spiritually naked before God and in His sight. His Word puts us face-to-face with Him. That Word penetrates and exposes the secret reaches of our hearts; it lays us bare before God and holds us accountable to Him. But, best of all, it does all this so that it can give us life and do its work in us.

Luther’s Insight
Martin Luther explains the power of meditation on God’s Word most memorably in a sermon that he preached on Christmas Day in 1519. There he speaks about “sacramental” meditation on the Gospels and their stories about Jesus:

“All the words and stories of the gospels are sacraments of a kind, sacred signs by which God works in believers what the histories signify. Just as baptism is the sacrament by which God restores us; just as absolution is the sacrament by which God forgives sins, so the words of Christ are sacraments through which he works salvation. Hence the gospel is to be taken sacramentally, that is, the words of Christ need to be meditated on as symbols
through which that righteousness, power, and salvation is given which these words themselves portray. . . . We meditate properly on the gospel, when we do so sacramentally, for through faith the words produce what they portray. Christ was born; believe that he was born for you and you will be born again. Christ conquered death and sin; believe that he conquered them for you and you will conquer them.” (WA 9:439, 442; author’s translation)

When Luther speaks of the words of Christ as sacraments, he is not using the term in its narrow sense, but more broadly as a divine enactment, a sacred sign that conveys what it signifies. Neither God’s Word by itself nor faith in itself produces the kind of meditation that God desires. Rather, meditation is the exercise of faith in Christ and His performative Word, for faith receives what Christ gives to us through His Word. We receive, as we believe. . . .

Our Spiritual Director
Luther, in his teaching on meditation, highlights this role of the Holy Spirit as our teacher and guide. His basic assumption is that the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures still animates them and us through them. Thus he says:

“You should meditate . . . not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. . . . For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc., outwardly was not given in vain.” (AE 34:286)

So we receive the Holy Spirit from God the Father by meditating on the external Word, the Word that comes to us from outside, the Word that speaks to us from the Scriptures. This understanding of how God’s Spirit is given through God’s Word shapes the evangelical practice of meditation. Before we meditate on what is written for us in the Scriptures, we do well to pray to God the Father through His dear Son for the gift
of the Spirit to guide, enlighten, and empower us. Yet we do not just pray for the Holy Spirit to direct our meditation on His Word; we actually receive the Holy Spirit as we meditate on the Word. Thus we meditate on the Word so that the Spirit will tell us what God the Father has to say and to give to us through His Son.

The Preaching of the Holy Spirit
This gift of the Holy Spirit is most evident in what Luther calls the preaching of the Spirit. By this he refers to the occasional flood of inspiration and enlightenment, jubilation and empowerment that breaks in on us as we meditate on God’s Word. We can’t force inspiration but can only receive it when it happens. Enlightenment is given as we attend to the Scriptures and become engrossed in them as they speak personally to us. Luther gives this advice about the enlightenment that comes in meditation:

“If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us, we ought to . . . make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.” (AE 43:198)


John W. Kleinig, Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), 100–102, 110–11.

Also by John Kleinig:

Lutheran Spirituality: Prayer

Commentary on Leviticus: The Concordia Commentary Series

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  1. Mel Murray
    April 1st, 2009 at 01:38 | #1

    Thanks for this post, Paul. Really very timely as Holy Week is almost here, and we have been "pondering" on Jesus' Passion for a few weeks now! ! ( "….but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night." (Ps 1:2).(ESV)

    Also, I appreciate very much your usage of Logos RefTagger! Really neat! *smile*

  2. Mark Love
    April 1st, 2009 at 13:51 | #3

    Thanks for the post!!!

  3. April 1st, 2009 at 20:47 | #4

    :-) I have really been looking for something like this! EVERYTHING I've read recently sounds more like taking a phrase or a word and repeating it until it means absolutely nothing.

    In a lot of ways, this reminds me of what my Pastors say about "How to study the Bible" and "How to listen to a sermon": How does what I'm reading/hearing point to Christ Eternal/Incarnated/Baptized/Crucified/Died/Resurrected FOR ME?

  4. April 2nd, 2009 at 14:52 | #5

    How different indeed Luther's advice is to the modern purveyors of "contemplative prayer", which does not look to the outer Word, but instead seeks the inner word. But there is no "inner word". Even when we meditate upon the Word which we have "hidden in our heart", that is the outer word, the very words and phrases of Scripture, in which the Holy Spirit is still active and continues to work, though they are only in our memories.

    In contrast, the inner word of contemplative prayer and other forms of pseudo-mystical meditation are not the Word at all, but are our own disjointed thoughts, proceeding from our sinful flesh, or worse, the thoughts of the devil himself. In either case, they have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit.

    The Holy Spirit does not come to us from within. He comes to us from without. And it is good that He does, for then we can know for certain that it is Him speaking, and not some other voice.

    • April 2nd, 2009 at 15:01 | #6

      Martin, thanks for your remarks. You hit the nail on the head. As we receive Sacred Scripture we are able to respond, "Speak, Lord, your servant listens." We do not have to "think" out way into hearing the Lord. I appreciated your remarks.

  5. April 2nd, 2009 at 15:01 | #7

    Happy to hear you enjoyed this essay Lisa. God bless.

  6. Gregory DeVore
    April 3rd, 2009 at 06:21 | #8

    The chapter on meditation in this book is worth its weight in gold. I love that book! It might be a good idea to break that whole chapter out as a pamphlet on Christian meditation since it couild easily stand alone.

    • April 3rd, 2009 at 12:30 | #9

      Greg, thanks for this suggestion. I think it is a very good idea and I'll look into it further.

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