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Archive for August, 2017


I’ve said it before, I’m glad Sinclair Ferguson retired.

I miss listening to his sermons, so I wish he hadn’t retired too. But his retirement has meant a steadier stream of great books. One of those books is From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4

This is not a new book such much as a revised and expanded version of Handle with Care! which was released in 1982. It was written to fulfill a commitment he’d made to provide a book on the Trinity. Unable to prepare that manuscript, they were willing to receive Handle with Care! Hopefully we will see that book on the Trinity some day.

In some ways, From the Mouth of God reminds me of Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word. They cover much of the same territory. Their styles are different due, in part, to differences in age and cultural background. Both are very good books and worth reading. Both are relatively short and accessible to lay people. I intend you use both in the teacher training, and officer training, that I am in the process creating and revising respectively.

As you might realize from the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections: trusting the Bible, reading the Bible and applying the Bible. The middle section is the longest. Unfortunately the section on application is the shortest. As one who can struggle with this aspect of sermon preparation, I would have liked this to be explored more thoroughly.

His opening chapter It Is Written covers the Bible as God’s self-revelation. He brings our depravity as expressed in a darkened understanding into the equation. Ferguson uses passages like Hebrews 1 to affirm that the Bible is historical, verbal, progressive and cumulative, and Christ-centered. He discusses the dual authorship of Scripture as an expression of the doctrine of concurrence. He also covers the doctrine of accommodation, that God speaks in such a way that we can understand. The second chapter, Getting It Together, focuses on questions of the canon. This includes the OT canon and Jesus’ view of that canon. He addresses inerrancy and infallibility, as well as finality. Inerrancy is often misunderstood. For instance, it includes the lies of men. It accurately reports those lies in some historical accounts. Faithfully communicating those falsehoods and errors does not mean the Bible itself errs.

He wraps up the first section with Is It God’s Word?, which evaluates the claims of Scripture to be God’s word. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also illumines the Scriptures for us. We see the depth of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit in knowing God.

Ferguson opens the section on reading the Bible with an example of how not to read it: allegory. Christians have struggled with how to read, and therefore understand, the Bible. The priest of my youth told us “Don’t read the Bible, you’ll get it wrong.” And many do. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t Do-It-Yourself. We have a responsibility, and need, to read the Bible for ourselves. We aren’t saved by implicit belief in what the priest or pastor knows & believes. We must explicitly believe saving truths, and we know them through the Scriptures.

Explaining Paul’s statements, Ferguson discusses rightly handling the Word of God, thinking in the hopes the God grants understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). He then turns to the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain some principles for interpretation. He contrasts this with the medieval church’s 5-fold interpretation.

In Keys, he notes the 5 keys to interpreting Scripture: context, Christ, the unfolding drama, and gospel grammar. These keys help us by helping us grasp the historical and literary context, the redemptive-historical context, its connection with Christ and reminding us that the indicatives (facts) of the gospel precede the imperatives (commands) so we live by grace. In Prose, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy focuses on the different literary genres in the Old Testament. He briefly provides the basics needed to understand each of these genres. He includes brief examples of how to interpret each. Similarly in Gospels, Epistles, and Visions Ferguson looks at the genres in the New Testament. In For Example, he interprets the book of Ruth. He repeats one of the keys he noted earlier: “in reading Old Testament narrative we must always have in mind the way in which the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in terms of God’s covenant promise working out through deep conflict to establish his kingdom in Christ.”

Ferguson moves to application with What’s the Use?. Here he returns to 2 Timothy 3 to help us understand the use of the Scriptures in making us wise for salvation. This chapter will find its way into my officer training.

In Seed Needs Soil he addresses the condition of hearts that hear the gospel. This is one of the few places I disagree with Ferguson. It is a minor disagreement. I believe the parable is told to explain the different reactions to the ministry of the Word for the disciples. I don’t think it is meant for us to be self-reflective as if we could prepare our hearts. Still, he does a good job explaining the nature of those hearts.

He concludes with Speaking Practically, which is about how to implement the material you have read. He discusses the role of discipline to develop a routine, and a method for reading the Bible. We have to actually read the Bible, consistently and repeatedly, to bear great fruit. Each of the first 5 years or so that I was a Christian (until I went to seminary) I read the Bible through once a year. I gained a good working knowledge of the Bible as a result. Unfortunately it was the NIV, and many key phrases in my head don’t match up with the ESV. Even after 20 years in ministry, while reading the Bible for my own devotion I continue to see new connections points (I just read Exodus 22:28, noting its connection to NT texts about honoring the king).

Though Ferguson is done, the book isn’t. He includes two brief appendices. The first is John Murray on The Guidance of the Holy Spirit, and John Newton’s letter on Divine Guidance.

This is a good book that leaves you wanting more. I recommend it for all those interested in teaching others, and people interested in why they should trust the Scriptures and how to read them.

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I recently had lunch with a young pastor. It isn’t easy being a young pastor, having been one a long time ago. I asked to share some observations with him. Perhaps these observations may be helpful to other young, or not so young, pastors.

Don’t Jump to Application Too Quickly. Some pastors are quick to jump to application. I understand, we want our preaching to be practical and transformational. It should be! But our application should flow from the text, and therefore rely on the exegesis we do. Our people need to see the clear connection between the text and the application.

We should also beware of eisegesis in terms of our application. It was a small sample size, I noted, but in nearly every lesson and sermon this man brought up the same event or experience (we can all have our hobby horses). In this case, all roads seemed to lead to suffering or evangelism. These texts weren’t about suffering. Nor was their connection with the gospel exclusively regarding justification or conversion. But we can allow our current struggles or interests, however important, to cloud over the text. We read things into the text that aren’t clearly there. We aren’t showing people how to rightfully divide the Word. Neither is every text a “come to Jesus” text, even if every text is essentially a Jesus text. Knowing how a text fits into the history of redemption helps us to bring the gospel to bear appropriately so our congregation grows in faith, hope and love.

Find Balance in Personal Stories. This man mentioned himself and his circumstances frequently, as I noted above. I encouraged him to read biographies to know and show how the gospel was at work in those people’s lives in order to enrich his preaching. I did tell him about another pastor I know who never refers to his life in his sermons. This is wrong because his people need to know that he needs the gospel, and how it is at work in him. The people need to see your heart in your preaching. But that is not the only heart, or the most common heart.

Finding that balance is tricky. You aren’t the hero of your sermons. You aren’t the main character of your sermons. But you are part of the larger story. It requires wisdom, and a broader range of learning to illustrate from something in addition to your life. Others have suffered, succeeded, struggled etc. Some of those examples are biblical. Some are historical. Draw on them.

When you do speak about yourself, continue to use wisdom. There are things I have decided I will not share about myself in public ministry. People just don’t need to know such things about me. Such information is not safe in everyone’s hands (or mouths). I may share those things in personal ministry if appropriate.

For instance, I listened to a sermon by a colleague once. In it he revealed that he was raped at a summer camp and subsequently struggled with pornography. He made a decision that sharing that was better than not sharing it. He came up with a different answer than I would have. Just as we don’t know EVERYTHING about anyone in the Bible, including Jesus, the congregation (and the world thanks to the internet) doesn’t need to know everything about you. Use discernment.

Continue to Clarify Your Theology. No one leaves seminary or Bible college knowing everything there is to know. There are areas of everyone’s doctrine that need more study for clarification. There have been seasons of ministry when I’ve invested time in particular doctrines.

This young man had made, from my perspective, conflicting comments on a particular doctrine. I didn’t want to force him to share my theological views. For the sake of his congregation, I want him to be sure of what he believes. I want them to be sure of what he believes.

It is not enough, as in some circles, to say “I believe what the Bible says.” At some point you have to state what you think the Bible says. That is doctrine. Paul exhorted Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely. Both. Not one or the other.

16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4

Not every doctrine is equally important. You should start with the big ones. You may have to revisit them periodically. The more mature your mind becomes, the deeper you will be able to think about a particular doctrine.

When I was a young pastor I spent time with a seasoned pastor who had a Ph.D. in theology. It was a good reminder that I still had plenty to learn in terms of the inter-connectedness of doctrine and depth of thinking. This takes time and investment of your mental life. A pastor can’t spend his life making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for people. They need to make some more involved meals too. For the congregation to mature spiritually, they need to hear about more than “Jesus loves this I know…”.

While some people use doctrine as a substitute for a real relationship with Christ, you can’t have a real relationship with Christ without doctrine, beliefs about who He is and what He has done. Hand that doctrine on to the next generation, after you have invested the time to understand them.

 

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