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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Spurgeon’


I‘ve been preaching for over 20 years. I haven’t arrived. I still read books about preaching so I can, hopefully, become a better preacher. This year in particular I wanted to focus on my preaching. Earlier this year I read Tim Keller’s book on preaching. This more recent vacation I decided to read Zack Eswine’s Preaching to a Post-Everything World.

I really like his book, The Imperfect Pastor. From that book I picked up his idea of the “gospel waltz” and have used it in my preaching. Zack teaches homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary.  He also addressed our presbytery a few years ago, with material in The Imperfect Pastor. It was very helpful material. I had high hopes for this book.

I was not disappointed. An important part of what a book on preaching should do is help you look at your preaching and see what you can do differently so you can communicate more effectively. I didn’t want an echo chamber that merely encouraged what I was already doing.

He addresses preaching truth in a post-Christian context where the Bible isn’t the authority that it once was. There are competing worldviews that are often better known (and lived) by the people to whom we speak. We can know longer assume biblical knowledge and a biblical worldview. This adds to the challenge.

He begins by encouraging us to preach what is real. We want to help people connect what the Bible says to the reality they live in today. We identify that reality in the text.

“By the Context of Reality, I mean the mutual life environment that contemporary believers and unbelievers share in common with those to or about whom the biblical text was written that teaches us about the nature of reality.

By showing them this mutual context, they see that the text matters and can inform them about their similar struggles. The Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum, not is it read or preached in one.

At times we avoid aspects of reality. The Scriptures can uncover them. They can force us to talk about the things we’d rather not talk about.

He wants us to preach what is redemptive. We want to explore connection between creation, fall and redemption. He discusses Chapell’s Fallen Condition Focus and expands it:

“The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers or nonbelievers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him or for those who resist God to properly regard him and to be reconciled to him.

We experience a fallen condition, a finite condition, a fragile condition (fra-gee-lay), and a faltering condition. Eswine explores these so that we are better able to connect the text to people’s need for Christ in these areas. In this context, he warns of moralism.

He deviates from the repetition by telling us to preach the stories. We need to help them understand the story. He encourages us to pay attention to parrot words (repeated words and phrases), These give us a clue as to the big idea of a passage. Any divine comments or assessments can also give us a hint as to the big idea of the story.

One of the most helpful ideas for me was inductive preaching. It was like one of those light bulb moments- “why hadn’t I seen that before?” Often the point of a passage is unclear until the end of the passage. We tend to frontload the big idea instead of exploring the text in the sermon to discover the big idea. This way people are engaged, curious, and the sermon follows the track of the story. I’ve begun to utilize an inductive approach more often. Let’s see if my congregation stones me.

He does discuss a deductive approach, but I’ve been utilizing one for decades. So …. not as useful for me. But that is just me.

He advises us to remember where we’ve been. We need to keep our presuppositions and personal history in mind. I’m not preaching to myself (that’s preparation) but people who don’t necessarily share my presuppositions and history. We can address how others look at the topic or text so they know others dissent, and therefore why we hold to this. We also share some of our history that connects with the text so they can see how truth works in a life. He calls this redemptive vulnerability.

“Redemptive vulnerability invites preachers to a general transparency with everyone, a specific vulnerability with a few.”

He also address how to face the inevitable criticism that comes. As well as the inevitable misunderstanding since the truth will generally offend the irreligious and religious, the progressive and conservative at times.

He moves into the second part about biblical models to explore. We are to follow God’s lead. You are not your favorite preacher. We have to find our own voice. We can all fall into this trap, especially if we listen to one person too much. I’ve been there, hearing another pastor’s intonation and going to myself “hold on a minute.” God wants to speak to them thru me, not me channeling my best Sinclair Ferguson impersonation (for an example). He speaks of the main voices as prophet, priest and sage (there is a footnote explaining this last one).

The Bible uses different kinds of language, all of what the people understood. We can use different kinds of language, as long as they are what the people understand. We can be scientific, poetic doctrinal etc. We can also preach in different cultural contexts. He groups them as churched, unchurched, and once-church or in-between.

“… the prophet primarily addresses the relational faithfulness of what we might to as a churched audience. The priest’s teaching maintains doctrinal clarity and integrity in audiences that are churched or in-between. The wise likewise address any audience. But I suggest that their fear-of-the-Lord approach to reality forms a communication approach that is accessible to nonchurched hearers.”

I think this is why Tim Keller is generally successful in NYC, but a lot of churched people (particularly pastors in the Bible Belt) get frustrated. He’s not speaking to them directly. He’s speaking to people with little to no biblical background. Therefore he doesn’t meet their shibboleths.

The next three chapters address those prophetic, priestly and sage (wisdom) paradigms that Eswine mentioned earlier. He then mentions that we should step outside and explore creation so we can speak about it. For instance, both Edwards and Spurgeon loved being outdoors, taking in God’s glory in creation and used illustrations from nature frequently.

The third part is about engaging the cultures of a post-everything world. He begins with accents: the biblical text’s, yours and your audience’s accents. He interacts with war passages in our age of terror as well. He helps us learn to speak about hell, addressing idols and devilish spin. He ends with crying out for the Holy Spirit.

I found this a helpful book as an experienced preaching pastor. There were some new ideas explored, old ones (to me) expanded and I felt encouraged. This is a book well worth reading for pastors experienced and inexperienced.

 

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As a former Particular Baptist, as they used to be called, I had an appreciation for Charles Spurgeon. While in seminary I did a paper in one of my history classes examining his sermons during the revival of 1859 to see how the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) were prominent and therefore consistent with revival.

I’ve found Michael Reeves’ books, Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ, to be engaging and informative. The former helped (re)shape my grasp of missions (including a critique/weakness of Christopher Wright’s tome, in other words, where is the love?).

So, imagine my pleasure in seeing that Reeves wrote the new book Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ. I decided I would read it during my vacation ritual this summer.

Reeves had no easy task in trying to put this together. The vast majority of Spurgeon’s writing are the transcriptions of his sermons. Not quite something you can easily read and grasp a comprehensive understanding of how he understood the Christian life. He is an unenviable position as he writes this book.

One of the interesting things about this series is that often the volume is written by someone outside of the subject’s tradition. Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote the volume on Luther. Here Reeves, an Anglican, writes about the Calvinistic Baptist.

The sections cover the themes of Christ the Center, The New Birth and The New Life. As you might imagine, regeneration seems to be the central motif in Spurgeon’s view of the Christian life as understood by Reeves. We must become new people with new passions and all of that happens in Christ. Or thru Christ since the focus is not quite union with Christ. Explicitly, anyway.

He begins with a very brief biography of Spurgeon. He was a man of great passion, who felt greatly. He was known for a great sense of humor. While he used some humor in the pulpit, he was not a comedian as some pastors seem to think of themselves. Like Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon loved creation and allusions and illustration to trees, flowers, animals and more filled his sermons. Spurgeon also grew up reading the books in his grandfather’s library. Many of these were Puritan books, and he developed a great fondness for Bunyan, particularly Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christ the Center

He viewed the Bible as the Word of Christ about Christ. As a result, the Bible did not compete with Christ for our affections, but is the revelation of Christ for us to know Christ. To not love the Bible is to not love Christ. The Bible is living and active as a result. Jesus changes lives through the Bible.

In terms of translations, he held the KJV in high esteem, but not without criticism. There were times the translation frustrated him (as happens with me concerning other translations at times).

Spurgeon affirmed that not only did the OT point us toward Christ, but that OT saints are our brothers and sisters. We shared the same faith. We just know more of the faith. Christ is the center of our faith, and all doctrines find their proper orbit around Christ.

“A Christless gospel is no gospel and a Christless discourse is the cause of merriment to devils.”

He was fully Trinitarian. But we must remember that Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man. It was Christ who became human, obeyed, died and was raised for our salvation. We come to the Father thru the Son, so Spurgeon preached Christ.

As I mentioned before, he grew up reading Puritans. His theology was Puritan. Aside from the issue of baptism (and the ecclesiology that flowed from that)he was “Reformed”. He had a great appreciation for Calvin and understood Calvinism to be a shorthand for the gospel. He understood them as they were intended to be: Christ-centered.

Though he was a Baptist, he affirmed (and perhaps exceeded) the WCF concerning elect infants dying in infancy being saved by the work of Christ. In one place he extended this to all infants dying in infancy. I’m not sure we have biblical warrant for this extension, though I’d like it to be true.

Spurgeon was not dogmatic about Calvinism however (not a Gnostic Calvinist). He would affirm other preachers as long as they preached Christ. Reeves noted a sermon Spurgeon heard by a priest in Belgium. The priest preached Christ, much to Spurgeon’s delight.

Preaching was more than informing people about Christ. He saw his goal to draw people to Christ. While you have content, the target is the heart. This, in some strange way I’d love to talk to him about, was why he discourage sermon series. I was scratching my head. Sermon series can’t be used by God to transform lives?

The New Birth

Spurgeon was baptized as an infant. Like many new converts today, he read the Bible and believed he should be baptized after he believed. Spurgeon held on to his baptistic convictions despite the fact that many of the theologians he loved and respected practiced infant baptism. Reeves places this within the context of baptismal regeneration and a return to Roman Catholicism. Reformed paedobaptists don’t hold to baptismal regeneration. But it seems the fear of Roman Catholicism was strong in Spurgeon (I once was there too).

We see there the disconnect, or at least I do. He held that we are brothers and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the rest. The covenantal principle seen in the sign of circumcision is that children receive the sign and seal of “righteousness by faith” (Rom. 4). Abraham had the faith, and the sign called his children to the faith. But Spurgeon breaks faith, so to speak, on this principle. He viewed baptism as a sign of our faith, not God’s promise. At times he warned of the baptismal font being a rival of Christ’s for paedobaptists. The same could be said for many of the credobaptists I’ve heard. So there seems to be another inconsistency.

I mentioned about the covenantal principle of visible and invisible church in the OT (and NT). Rather, he holds to the impossible prospect of the “pure church”. Credobaptism doesn’t create a regenerate church, as the rolls of many baptist churches indicate. Baptism doesn’t mean one possesses the reality to which the sign points, whether one holds to paedobaptism or credobaptism. The promise of the new covenant is isolated from how the NT actually speaks about the church (wheat & tares, for instance).

The new birth is necessitated by human sinfulness. We are not merely weakened by sin, but dead in sin and trespasses. We are hostile to Christ and the law in the unregenerate state. People are not neutral. God must grant new life for people to believe. Regeneration is a grace we receive, not because we’ve met any conditions but in order that we may believe. The Spirit uses the Word to give us this new life. He enlightens our minds; He shines His light into our hearts.

Without the cross, there is no regeneration. There is no salvation apart from atonement, by Christ. His focus on Christ’s death meant that he advocated for weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The message that saves is Christ crucified. It is also about the mortification of our sin in the present. Jesus aims to mortify our sin and give life to graces.

The New Life

The new birth necessarily creates a new life. The Spirit doesn’t give us new life and walk away. We are increasingly drawn to Christ and away from the sin that so easily entangles.

Another aspect of our new life is prayer as an expression of our union with Christ. Our communion with Christ doesn’t pull us out of the world but calls us into the world just as Christ went into the world.

“… nobody mixed with sinners more than our Lord.”

Reeves then returns to sanctification. Spurgeon held to the blood of Christ as the “double cure”: free from sin’s guilt and power. Christ’s blood removes our guilt, but in Christ we also died to sin. Saved by grace thru faith, we also begin to walk in the good works prepared for us. This new life is a gift, but we live it. The Spirit isn’t living for us.

Spurgeon made much of joy. It reveals that we serve a great Savior. It is the strength for our service to Him. Complaining and despondency rob us of joy, strength and vitality. But Spurgeon knew this first hand, as Reeves points out later.

As we grow into Christ, we increasingly hate our sin. And increasingly see our sinfulness. We become more sensitive to sin and recognize our sinful motives and not simply actions.

“As the man loves God more, and becomes more like Christ, he takes greater delight in prayer.”

Reeves then returns to prayer with its own chapter. Spurgeon saw prayer as essential, not only to the Christian life, but to ministry. The Monday Prayer meeting was attended by over a thousand people each week. He saw it as the engine of the ministry. It is the battlefield between faith and unbelief. Spurgeon, who didn’t like planned out sermon series, also didn’t like planned out prayers either. He preferred spontaneity. I think this is a more a matter of preference and personality instead of principle.

Reeves then shifts to Bunyan’s influence. We are pilgrims. But we are not solitary pilgrims. We are a community of pilgrims. But we are engaged in warfare- an army of pilgrims. The warfare motif wasn’t reserved for sermons, but Reeves shows that it influenced his private prayer journals. His was an active faith. Spurgeon oversaw “the Pastor’s College, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, the Colportage Association, and a day school for children.” This was just the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t expect the government to solve his society’s problems. He expected the church engage them, and led the charge.

But life is not all flowers and sunshine. Afflictions come and spirits falter. Depression can come home to roost whether by circumstance or medical conditions. Spurgeon fought with depression. The incident in Surrey Gardens, a “joke” that panicked the crowd resulting in 7 dead and 28 severely injured, resulted in clinical depression. Spurgeon also suffered from “a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease, as well as gout, rheumatism, and neuritis.” At times he would be unable to preach for extended periods of time.

One reason we suffer is that Jesus suffered. The cross comes before the crown for us too, according to Paul. It is a sign of our adoption and union with Christ. We also learn to depend on Christ rather than ourselves. God also prepares us for greater ministry thru humility and empathy.

He wraps up with the hope of glory. This is not our best life now. Spurgeon likely was a premillenialist, but clearly not a dispensationalist. He was not into speculation. He was into focusing on Christ.

Summing Up

Perhaps it was my high expectations, but I finished the book thinking “That’s it?”. At no point was I stopping to ponder something more fully. This is the first volume in the series that disappointed me. This is not a volume I would be inclined to recommend to anyone (my favorite remains the volume on John Newton). This was more theoretical and geared toward the pastor, in my opinion. It also seemed to skim the surface.

As I mentioned above, the source material is so vast but due to his habit of not systematically preaching through the Scriptures. It is seemingly impossible to sort through and “systemize” the material. This is still unfortunate.

 

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In my typical vacation mode, I’m reading another in the series “on the Christian life.” This vacation I’m reading Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ by Michael Reeves. Reeves’ goal is to communicate about Spurgeon’s views, not offering correctives or counter-points. While I agree with much of what Spurgeon held regarding preaching, there were enough things I wanted to offer a counter-point to that this merited its own blog post.

Spurgeon began to preach as essentially a newly converted person. Prior to his conversion he’d read much from his grandfather’s library. This is where his love of the Puritans came from. Spurgeon did not preach like a Puritan.

For instance, I’m also reading Christian Love by Hugh Binning. After his treatise on the subject there are 3 from his sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. They are taken from his 40 sermons on that passage. Yes, 40! The better part of a year on 14 verses, by a man who would die at 26.  Spurgeon did not do such lengthy series.

“The special work of our ministry is to lay open Christ, to hold up the tapestry and unfold the mysteries of Christ.”

“It is the end (goal) of our calling to sue for a marriage between Christ and every soul. We are the friends of the bride to bring the church to him; and friend of the church, to bring Christ to them.”

In this regard, Spurgeon is spot on regarding the goal of preaching. We are to so reveal Christ as to present a Savior worth trusting, and encourage them to trust in Him for all things as revealed in the Scriptures.

In this way, preaching is not simply an information dump. Information is conveyed. We must explain the text, and explain Christ to them. But we are to preach for personal and congregational transformation.

“The object of all true preaching is the heart: we aim at divorcing the heart from sin, and wedding it to Christ. Our ministry has failed, and has not the divine seal set upon it, unless it makes men tremble, makes them sad, and then anon brings them to Christ, and causes them to rejoice.”

The rub is in some of the opinions he had about how that takes place.

Reeves notes a common criticism, that I have mentioned to others, that he wasn’t very exegetical. Reeves notes that prior to his sermon, in another part of the service he would give “a separate verse-by-verse exposition on the portion of Scripture from which his preaching text would be taken.” Or at least what he thought he would be preaching. At times he would admit to changing his text on the fly. This would disconnect the text from the exegesis. If it was a late, not last second change, then he wouldn’t have much time to do proper exegesis of the text. He’d inevitably have to do that on the fly. The prep work he’d done (and he did do plenty of that) would not be used, at least that week.

Spurgeon discouraged his students from preaching series. He didn’t plan out his sermons in advance. I often have my sermon texts lined up a few months out. He thought few preachers had the gifts to preach a series and engage the congregation’s attention for the duration. Spurgeon notes that even the gifted Joseph Caryl preached his congregation from 800 to 8 over the course of his series on Job. No mention is  given on how many sermons this included. I’m not advocating 5-6 years (or 16) in a series on a book of the Bible.

He believed that such sermon series didn’t address the immediate situation of the congregation.

When I plan a sermon series, I consider the “immediate” needs of the congregation and choose a book that addresses those things. Their immediate needs often include long-term needs that need more than a sermon by an extended period breaking up the ground, sowing and watering seed that it may bear the fruit we long to see. Some of those immediate needs may be met by a short book like Jonah, or a longer book like Romans.

I want to model Bible study as a collateral benefit of preaching. They begin, I hope, to see how thoughts flow through a book of the Bible. They aren’t seeing a text arise from the ether but in the overall theme of its authors, human and divine.

Surely the Holy Spirit is not bound by the time frame of a week to know what any congregation needs. As God who has eternally decreed whatsoever comes to pass, He can lead and guide me well in advance, not just on the spur of the moment. In my preaching, I frequently illustrate in ways I had not prepared, or go on an unplanned trail. So the Spirit is not stifled, but neither am I investing hours each week figuring out what text to preach. Rather I’m grappling with the text to discern what it means and how it applies to this group of people.

Christ can be just as preeminent in a series as in a weekly discerning of a text to preach. As he famously noted, just as all towns in England had a road leading to London, all text lead to Christ.

As pastors, we do well to remember that we “are not only laboring for Christ but in His stead.” As the Reformed Confessions indicate, the word preached is the Word of God. Christ is addressing His people thru us. He indicated (as another book I’m reading, Preaching to a Post-Everything World) we must love the people, the sinners, to whom we preach. We do not exercise a ministry of condemnation. We are not to provoke or exasperate them. But we are to plead with them so they turn from their sin to Christ in both conversion (justification) and consecration (sanctification).

He also indicates that we are to embody that which we preach. Here I think is an issue as well. We are to preach joy in Christ, joyfully. But this implies that in God’s providence we are not preaching to ourselves as well as to them. Often I can struggle because God brings me to the “school house” through the text.

For instance, I’m currently preaching through Philippians. While joy is a theme of Philippians, so are partnership in the Gospel particularly in the context of persecution and some level of congregational strife. They were to stand together, but apparently they weren’t.

In our congregation this has been a year filled with change. Change inevitably brings conflict. There has been some disagreement among us. I’m a sinner and struggling to not take it personally at times. I’m challenged to abound more and more in love toward people with whom there is disagreement. My preaching, therefore, is not bound to my emotions. I’m not being deceitful as I say these things, but am also in the struggle to define my life by God’s great Story rather than I own feelings, thoughts or story. I’m in process just like they are.

We do not preach as perfected men. We preach as men being perfected. God’s living and active sword cuts us too, in a surgical way, as we prepare and preach. I agree we should not be disingenuous, but neither are we to search for a text or subject we’ve mastered or that suits are emotions on a particular day. God is in control over the text, and our circumstances even leading up into that moment we walk into the pulpit (many a preacher gets a disheartening text, call or email while writing the sermon, Saturday evening or Sunday morning). We are called to bring the Word of God to bear even as we wrestle with our own sinfulness and need for the gospel.

So, I find these views of his to be driven by subjectivity. As we think of his life, as a man who struggled with depression, this seems particularly out of place or idealistic. It can crush a man instead of helping him trust that God uses even him, a jar of clay, to reveal the treasure of the gospel.

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I’m not wild about books about preaching. I often feel overwhelmed; how can I fit all that into a sermon? I already feel like I’m trying to do too much in my sermons.

But I know I can become better at my craft. This year during study leave, I decided to read some books on preaching. One of the books was Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. I want to do a better job of reaching those who aren’t “fully on-board” in addition to communicating the Reformed faith to those who already believe. I think Tim Keller is pretty good at that.

This book is not so much about the nuts and bolts of sermon preparation (there is an appendix that addresses much of that). It focuses on the bigger issues of preaching- how to communicate with people.

The introduction talking of the three levels of the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word is not the exclusive province of pastors. The ministry of the Word extends far beyond the sermon. Every Christian should have a ministry of the Word in that they should be able to communicate basic Bible knowledge and teaching to others. This is a very informal level of ministry. If the Word dwells richly in us, this is doable.

In between this informal ministry and formal ministry is those who have a gift of teaching but who are not ordained to preach. It is a formal setting, but doesn’t entail formal education or an office. Small group leaders, SS teachers, personal exhortation, counseling, and evangelism are examples of this second level of teaching. This book would be helpful for people in the 2nd and 3rd levels of ministry.

In the midst of this, Keller defends preaching from the attacks of those who want it done away with in our day. While God transforms churches through all three levels of the ministry of the Word, preaching is still an important part of that transformation. We see preaching as normative in the New Testament. It should be normative for us as well. He positively quotes Adam in saying the gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted.”

Good preaching is faithful to the text, and the people to whom God calls you to preach. Great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the preacher and the listener. Later he’d refer to Martyn Lloyd-Jones talking about “logic on fire”. I recently watched the documentary on him and can identify with those moments during preaching when you are caught up in the truth you are preaching. A shift takes place in you as you preaching becomes worshipful, for lack of a better term. You are lifting up Christ to them, and yourself.

“Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.”

Great preaching preaches Christ to the cultural heart. The preacher connects with the heart of the culture to challenge its conclusions and point to Christ for the fulfillment of its legitimate aspirations. Keller is an advocate of redemptive-historical preaching, connecting each text with the central message of the gospel for the justification and sanctification of those who listen.

He starts with preaching the Word. He explains the difference between expository and topical preaching. He advocates for focusing on expository preaching. He doesn’t think you should never do a topical sermon, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. He cautions against some forms of expository preaching which spend so much time in one text that book studies take 5+ years. The people will not hear the whole counsel of God this way.

“Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart.”

I am generally an expository preacher. I have one text and preach it. During Advent, Lent or Reformation Day I may do some topical or thematic sermons. My goal is to preach the text, and point them to Christ through that text. I’ve spent about 2 years in a book like Genesis or John, but I try to balance that out with shorter series like Esther, Jonah or a summer series in Psalms. In my 7, nearly 8, years at my current congregation I’ve preached on Genesis, James, Colossians, John, Esther, 1 Peter, and Jonah. In addition to the summer series on Psalms, there have been series on the sacrifices, Advent Songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, prophecies of the Messiah and others I can’t recall at the moment.

I pick series based on my perception of the congregation’s needs. Expository preaching will drive us to preach on difficult texts and subjects we’d prefer to avoid as well as keeping us from our hobbyhorses and pet issues.

In the second chapter he focuses on our need to preach the gospel every time. We need to connect our text with the context (paragraph, chapter, book, Testament, whole Bible). We don’t want to merely provide moralistic “biblical principles” or generally inspire them. We need to show them Jesus because He is the One they need generally and in the particulars of their lives. I’ve heard too many sermons that never get us to Jesus.

Keller talks about law and gospel. He relies much on William Perkins who doesn’t divide the Bible or texts into law and gospel. It is more helpful to see law and gospel as uses of texts rather than categories of texts. Therefore we use the text to reveal the law and therefore need for the gospel, and how Christ fulfills that need. In this context he points us to Ferguson’s work (from the Marrow Controversy) on legalism and antinomianism. Both have the same root in the lie of the serpent that God is not good but withholds good from us. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the chapter to read. This should filter into our preaching so that we bring the gospel to bear against both legalism and antinomianism. Both miss God’s loving grace, the loving grace we need to present to them each week. We can trace their idols down to these roots and show that Christ is the real answer.

Keller, without really saying it, indicates what gospel-centered preaching isn’t. He mentions two dangers to avoid. I have actually heard sermons that said “gospel” 50 times but never actually explain the gospel. Such a sermon is NOT gospel-centered preaching. Keller warns us to avoid preaching without preaching the gospel. You can mention Jesus frequently without mentioning His substutionary obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. You can mention Him without talking about imputed righteousness, union with Christ, His humiliation and exaltation etc. We can also preach Christ without actually preaching the text. Spurgeon did this sometimes. We need to know the main point of the author and spend time with it and going from their to Jesus. Spurgeon tells a story of a Welsh pastor telling a young pastor that every city in England had a road leading to London. Not every road led there, but one did. Every text has a road to Jesus (sometimes more than one), find it and go down that road with the people.

In the next chapter, he spends some time showing how to do this.

The section I really had interest in was about preaching Christ to the culture. This had much to do with proper contextualization so you are connecting too as well as challenging the culture. This is a hard balance. Antinomians accommodate the culture and legalists tend not to connect to the culture because they are overly critical. While culture is the produce of sinful humans, it is also the product of people made in God’s image and necessarily has some remaining connection points.

“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and confront.”

He notes a shift in Edwards’ preaching after he left Northampton. He took the Native Americans’ experience of suffering into consideration in his preaching. He used more narrative as well. He adapted his preaching style in order to connect with a different culture, a different audience.

“If you over-contextualize and compromise the actual content of the gospel, you will draw a crowd but no one will be changed. … You will mainly just be confirming people in their present course of life.”

He advocates for using respected cultural authorities to strengthen your thesis. Just as you may drop a few Calvin quotes for a Reformed audience, you may want to consider quotes from non-Christians or others who are generally respected by the non-believing members of your audience. Additionally you want to demonstrate you understand doubts and objections. Address the resistance instead of simply ignoring it and plowing through it. He brings up “defeater beliefs” people hold, that if true Christianity can’t be true. Acknowledge them and address them or people will just tune them out if they have those beliefs. He advocates affirming cultural narratives in order to challenge them. Often the aspirations are good but the means are not biblical. Affirm them as on the right track, but point them to Christ and His work as the real means to fulfilling those aspirations.

In the next chapter Keller addresses preaching to the modern and late modern mind. He talks about the impact of individualism, the web of secularity and the borrowed capital used by atheists. He tries to help pastors move from the cultural narratives into idols and true freedom and fulfillment in Christ.

Keller than addresses preaching to the heart. You preach the text (normative), addressing the culture (situational) and the heart (existential). We have to exegete all three and preach to all three. Each of us finds one of these easier and another harder. Tim is great at the culture in my opinion. The text must impact the heart of the pastor to help him impact the hearts of the congregation. He again draws on Edwards and his work on the affections. Truth produces holy affections. We are passionate and imaginative when we address the heart. We want to show them that Jesus is greater than the things they love. This is gospel motivation; more love to Thee.

One of the keys is getting out of the echo chamber. He doesn’t use that term, but we need to listen to a diversity of opinions. That can come from friendships, social media, sources of information and more. But don’t just listen to people you agree with. This will help you have broader understanding of the application of texts.

The book ends in discussion the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This includes the call to holiness. Giftedness will get you only so far. Holiness is essential to great long-term preaching. We are more convincing if we actually find Him to be great, not just assert He is great.

This is a very good book for covering the big picture of preaching which affect how we say it more than what we say. It is a challenging and encouraging book. I’d highly recommend this contribution to the science of preaching.

 

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It is easy to look over the fence, so to speak, and see how another church is better. When we are feeling smug and self-righteous we usually see how they are worse. But we can look and get discouraged.

I pastor one of 4 churches of my denomination in our city. We are the oldest, and the smallest. It is easy to look at them and go “why are we the small church?” We don’t simply want growth from people who move to town, we want to see conversion growth. Aside from our children we are not seeing much of that. Our gifted evangelist had been sick for years and died a year ago. Evangelism is a struggle for us.

It isn’t for a lack of trying, at least in some ways. In my series on John I emphasized His mission and therefore ours. I’ve done a SS class on evangelism in the past. We’ve done an outreach the last few years. But the bottom line seems to be we are generally introverted and busy people.

I want us to change, and pray for us to change. That is a good thing. I don’t want us to be disobedient to Christ.

But I also don’t want us to be filled with envy (look at those churches) or discouragement (from beating ourselves up).

Old SpurgeonEnter Spurgeon. I’m reading Morning and Evening this year. I didn’t bring it with me on vacation so I’m reading 2 days’ worth to catch up. Almost there! But I read July 18th today.

In the morning he covered Numbers 2 addressing the location of Dan in the camp. They took up the rear, but were not to be discouraged about their position in battle formation. He notes that they experienced all of the same spiritual blessings as the rest of the tribes.

They might have thought themselves useless as a result. Kinda like Grimes in Black Hawk Down whining about being the one who always makes the coffee and doesn’t go out on missions.

Spurgeon notes they had a useful place. As the “stragglers” they picked up lost property. He expands:

“Fiery spirits may dash forward over untrodden paths to learn fresh truth, and win more souls to Jesus; but some of a more conservative spirit may be well engaged in reminding the church of her ancient faith, and restoring her fainting sons.”

In other words, every church has a place in the kingdom but a different place. Some are gifted evangelistically and it shows, and some are not. But they can be a refuge for Christians who have been burned out or used up, hurt or …. introverts and doctrinally oriented folks.

Spurgeon notes that they are the rear guard, which is also a place of danger. Dan suffered attack from Amalek, for instance. All churches are vulnerable to spiritual attack, to false teaching and habitual sins.

Just because your congregation isn’t on the “cutting edge” or growing quickly doesn’t mean your church isn’t a disobedient or bad church. It may just be a different church.

In the evening he looks at Joel 2:8 and talks about balance. He mentions how the virtues should all be there- we don’t focus on one at the expense of others. But just as importantly the same is true for duties. We can not become preoccupied with one duty and neglect others. It is easy for a church that isn’t growing quickly to obsess about it and neglect their other duties.

“We must minister as the Spirit has given us ability, and not intrude upon our fellow servant’s domain.”

We tend to think of this within congregational life, which is true. We should enable all to serve according to their gifts, abilities and passions. None of us can do everything. But in the Body of Christ everything gets done.

The same is true on a larger scale, I suspect. No one church can do everything- though the bigger they are the more they can do. Smaller churches live with greater limits. This can be frustrating to members (and pastors) who see we aren’t doing something and think we should. It requires wisdom in accessing abilities, gifts and resources.

Some of us are Type-A Christians. We always want more. The answer is not to attend a Type-A church. Smaller churches do need a push, someone who calls them out of complacency. But there is a balance must be sought. We can’t help our congregations be the best they can be in light of who God has made them. And God has not given all churches the same gifts, abilities and resources. As part of a larger Body we recognize our place in the Body, the function we are to perform which means our church won’t be like other churches who have different functions to perform.

Don’t be embarrassed to be like Dan, in the rearguard. But rejoice in Christ who has made you a part of the Body and given you a role to fulfill in that Body. Seek to understand that role your congregation plays instead of trying to be a congregation you aren’t- by the providence of God.

 

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This weekend I read Zack Eswine’s short (140+ pages) book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. I wasn’t depressed, but I was preaching on Psalm 42-3 on Sunday. I had been meaning to read this book earlier, but other volumes always seemed to jump to the front of the queue. So, with a long weekend, the time was now.

I had already done much of my preparation and even written the sermon when I started the book. I added a few things as a result of the reading I’d done by Saturday night. I also changed my introduction.

“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” Charles Spurgeon

What I discovered is that many people have never heard a sermon on depression. That is depressing. Just about everyone struggles with depression at some point, but for some it is commonplace and debilitating. The Psalm in question is one of the places where we learn that godly people can be downcast. It is no sin, but a manifestation of living in a fallen world.

Eswine’s book is written, or seems to be, with the depressed in mind. The chapters are short since often their attention spans are short. This is no tome, but meant to encourage people and let them know they are not alone in suffering from this malady. He also points us to Jesus who knew such negative emotions as the Sin-Bearer.

“Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion.” Charles Spurgeon

There are three main sections of the book: Trying to Understand Depression, Learning to Help Those Who Suffer from Depression, and Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression.

Old SpurgeonThe first section helps some to name their experience. That may sound strange, but let me explain. For years I would get bad headaches and would want to sleep. These were different from what I was used to. One day someone told me they were migraines. I never would have imagined that I had migraines. Other people get those, not me. This is how many think of depression- that’s for other people. Eswine takes some of the mystery out of depression by reminding us how common it can be, and various ways depression is experienced (just as the Psalmist seems to do).

He brings us often to Spurgeon who struggled with depression all of his adult life. This is important for us to see that being depressed itself is not a sin and that real Christians can and do get depressed. There are also a variety of causes of depression: body chemistry, spiritual problems and circumstances. These interact with one another, and all are traced back to Adam’s sin in Eden. We are embodied spirits, so there is interaction between physical and spiritual realities. Not every depression is caused by spiritual problem, but every depression will have spiritual consequences. Because some have a genetic predisposition to depression means that they have a weakness, not that they are weak people. We all have weaknesses. But we don’t want to point a finger and condemn those who suffer as weak.

“Our misery has poisoned us with a tragic arrogance. Our pains have deluded our reasoning.”

In the second section he notes that diagnosis is not the same as a cure. There is no magic bullet for depression. It doesn’t take away the struggle, but helps us to understand some of the dynamics of depression. We can start to analyze ourselves and say “That’s the depression talking.” Depression obscures reality. It even lies to us (“It will never get better.”) and we struggle to sort out fact and fiction, like Peeta in The Mockingjay we have to ask “Real? Not real?”

He reminds us that not all who seek to help are helpful. Sincere people can do harm while they seek to help. We are also reminded of the Man of Sorrows who is able to help because He has experienced these cruel realities.

The third section is largely about coping with depression. He discusses feeding hope, one of the spiritual realities depression robs us of. Pouring out our soul, and filling it with truth is important. But it isn’t a cure-all. He mentions other ways we can care for ourselves in depression: rest, laughter, medication etc. Taking medication doesn’t make you weak or weird. You are not a 2nd class kind of Christian. It is the use of appropriate means, particularly when combined with other means like counseling. The medication helps you to function so you can talk, work and relate to others. I recommend keeping DVDs and books that make you laugh. They can serve as another life preserver when you feel like you are sinking down. These things are not substitutes for Jesus unless you use them to avoid Jesus.

“Our way of fighting is to hide behind Jesus who fights for us.”

There is also the dark reality of suicidal thoughts. Many in deep depression consider ending the deep, unending pain they feel. It doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians. It just means their suffering is incredibly profound. Eswine handles this wisely.

There are benefits that come from such sorrow. These are not reasons to choose depression, but the good God works out of our depression which we might not experience any other way. We are able to exhibit more empathy with those who suffer. We are also better able to understand our weakness and profound need for Christ in all things.

“Perhaps, nothing in life reminds us that we are not God, and that this earth is not heaven, like an indescribable distress that sometimes defies cause and had no immediate cure, or no cure at all.”

I would recommend Zack Eswine’s book to pastors and counselors. It is not technical but is written quite simply so the former can understand depression if they haven’t experienced, and helps the latter to communicate about it simply. It is also a good book for those who suffer. They will remember they are not alone, but always upheld by One who was acquainted with sorrows. He draws much from the words of Spurgeon, as well as William Cowper and others.  It is not an academic treatment, but a very heart-felt one.

P.S. If you leave a comment about how depression is demonic, I will delete it.

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In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned John Irving’s novels, and particularly The Cider House Rules. I have a love/hate relationship with John Irving.

I often appreciate his sense of humor (though this probably reflects poorly on me), his New England settings and the “God-haunted” quality of his work. God is seldom absent from Irving’s work, even if He is rejected, scorned or ignored by characters. You get the impression that Irving wrestles with his own religious upbringing.

Back when The Cider House Rules was made into a movie John Irving did an interview in which he said it was a defense of abortion on demand. At the time I remember thinking, “has he lost his mind?” I still do. But let’s ponder the plot for a few minutes.

The book begins in an orphanage located in Maine. Homer, played by Tobey Maguire, is an older orphan there. Among the staff is Dr. Larch, played by Michael Caine. He loves the kids, who are often in his care too long. There aren’t enough couples willing to adopt. There is a touching scene as a young couple arrives and all the kids are doing their best to appear adoptable. It is heartbreaking that they only choose one, and to see the disappointment sink the rest of the kids. Except like those like Homer who is older and slightly cynical. This is part of the reason why Irving has his views, I think.

Yet, he does not portray this orphanage as a place of abuse. There is love. Homer has been well-loved by the staff and loves the younger kids well. The Dr. has taken Homer under his wing and believes Homer can take his place one day.

Soon another young couple shows up. Not to adopt, but to abort. Dr. Larch raises extra funds for the orphanage by performing abortions. Homer is torn. He loves and hates the orphanage. Part of him wants to escape and find his own way in the world. This young couple perhaps senses this. He also seems to be attracted to her. He ends up leaving with them, having a conflicted relationship with her while he goes off to war. He also works in the apple orchard.

As a result he lives in the cider house with the migrant workers. Here we see the crux of the movie in two ways. First, the workers chaff at the list of rules on the post of the Cider House (hence the title). They were made, the workers argue, by people who don’t work or live in the Cider House. They feel like someone who doesn’t understand them, their circumstances, needs and desires is forcing these rules upon them. This is a metaphor for God’s law, and the common human response to it. “Who is God”, people think, “to tell us what to do? He doesn’t walk in our shoes! He doesn’t understand what it’s like and the pressures we face.”

Homer soon finds himself in another bind; another complicated relationship. There is sin in the camp, so to speak. He is friends with the workers, especially Mr. Rose and his daughter Rose (yeah, Rose Rose). He has thrown off God’s law (and social convention reflecting it) and had an incestuous relationship with his daughter who is now pregnant. What can Homer do?

Homer, using the skills learned from Dr. Larch, performs an abortion for Rose. In a sense, he gains clarity on how he wants to spend his life. He wants, so he thinks, to relieve misery. In particular the misery caused by sin. So he returns to the orphanage to learn more from Dr. Larch and take his place.

Soon though, Dr. Larch dies from an overdoes of the ether he uses to get to sleep. Though he, like the migrant workers, has rejected the rules, he still wrestles with guilt over the lives he has taken. So, while we see abortion as an attempt to relieve the misery of sin it actually creates more misery because it too is sin.

Is Irving right? Do we have a right to toss out the rules? Is life in an orphanage a fate worse than death/non-existence? Is abortion the best answer to rape & incest?

Let’s start with Jesus. To stick with Irving’s metaphor, Jesus entered the Cider House, lived in the Cider House. The accusation of an absentee deity doesn’t work with Jesus. He not only made the rules, but also lived under the rules He made.

Though He never broke the rules, Jesus suffered the penalty for law breaking for others. Though He never sinned, He tasted the misery produced by sin. He lived in poverty, and suffered injustice for others. This is the essence of the gospel, which refutes Irving’s cry in the mouths of the migrant workers.

We see this same God loves orphans, the abandoned. He loves them so much He calls His children to welcome and care for orphans. Christians have a long history of doing just that. When it was still an illegal religion, Christians were well-known for taking in the children abandoned by their parents. Many pastors, famous and unknown, have established orphanages to care for orphaned and abandoned children (Spurgeon and Mueller for example). Today many pastors in Africa still do. In the west orphanages are seen as passe. We have the foster care system and adoption. Christians are among those most likely to foster or adopt children. My wife and I are thankful for orphanages since 3 of our children were adopted out of orphanages.

Pregnancy as a result of rape or incest is a real problem. It seems as if we are punishing the woman. I understand a traumatized woman wanting to abort the child.

That doesn’t mean it is the right thing. Or the best thing. Remember, the gospel centers on Jesus who suffered for the benefit of others. The gospel calls us to suffer with, and sometimes for, others. A life transformed by Christ’s work will choose to suffer at times. A woman could carry the child to term and give him/her up for adoption. Or raise the child. I’ve known of people who did this. It seems impossible. It happens only by the grace of God.

Jesus doesn’t just pardon our sin after the fact. He can help us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness. Our moral code is not to be a lowest common denominator kind of thing. Jesus works in us to do the right thing, the best thing not just for us but for others.

Irving’s argument works in a world without God, or the world of an absentee God. But it doesn’t really work in a world where Jesus is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God and reigning king.

What was John Irving thinking?

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