Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘illumination’


In addition to Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I decided to read a booklet by J.C. Ryle entitled Simplicity in Preaching. I will confess that at times I struggle with being clever. I suspect that at times my preaching could use a little more (or a lot more) simplicity.

Ryle obviously thought many of his peers could also stand to exhibit more simplicity in their preaching. This is why he wrote the pamphlet (what is the difference between a booklet and a pamphlet, if any?).

It was interesting reading this on the heels of Keller’s book on preaching. He exhibited some of what Keller said, and advocated some of the same things. There was overall harmony here. He quoted from a number of “respected” non-Christian voices in the area of oration (Quintilian, Cicero, an Arabian proverb, a painter named Turner), as well as some respected preachers.

Rather than a manifesto, as Keller wrote, Ryle confined himself “to one point”. “That point is simplicity in language and style.”

“Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. … Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.”

So, we see the same goals in preaching. We see a different emphasis on how to achieve that goal. We can do all Keller (or Stott or any other author) encourages us to do, but if we aren’t understood it doesn’t matter who awesome it looks on paper.

Simplicity is not to be confused with simplistic or childish preaching. The pastor shouldn’t be talking down to them. He should be speaking so they understand. Ryle is not speaking about using coarse or vulgar speech. Understandably, but as a gentleman is a lesson Mark Driscoll needed.

Ryle then goes ahead to note five points toward simplicity. The first is “Know your subject.” I simplified that for him. It the subject of the sermon isn’t clear to you, it will be even less clear or more obscure to the congregation.

“Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.”

There is much wisdom here. We grow into some texts. I did not preach through Colossians until my mid-late 40’s. There is a spiritual maturity necessary to preaching some portions of the letter well and wisely. While I’ve preached texts in Hebrews and Romans, there are still some I am only now feeling mature enough to preach wisely. It isn’t simply about understanding the commentaries but being able to evaluate them and communicate the truth.

He also warns against “fanciful subjects and accommodated texts”. By the latter he means a whole lotta eisegesis, or reading into a text so that you make it say something it never tries to say. Chose texts that are clear so your point is clear and simple.

Secondly, use simple words. Or, as Keller says, define more complex terms. I rarely use a theological term without defining it for the congregation. Ryle argues that short words are often the “most powerful and forcible words.”

In the midst of this point he gets caught up in a controversy about Saxon words rather than words of French or Latin origin. It seems to be a bit of a hot button issue of his day. His focus is not on the origin of the words, but words people understand.

Thirdly, use a simple style. You can’t preach like John Owen wrote. Keep sentences short rather than complex with a series of colons and semi-colons. He notes to “take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” This is because you aren’t writing a book and they aren’t reading a book. The congregants can’t rewind the sermon to hear that phrase until they get it, you keep moving merrily along.

“A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

In addition to simple style, use proverbs and epigrammatic sayings. They are brief but pointed. This means they communicate well and can be remembered easily.

Fourth, use a direct style. Use “I” and “you” while avoiding “we”. I often use “we” to communicate it applies to me as well as to them. But he has a point in that the composition of “we” is unclear. Whom does it signify? If you clarify that periodically, use “we” as I do. But if you don’t clarify they won’t know what you mean- that they are part of “we”. The directness is for clarity as well as forcefulness. “This applies to you”, not some vague Anybody. He notes that Whitefield was well-known for such directness. It was a large part of his effectiveness.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. They are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” He advocates reading the Puritans, among others, to see how they use illustrations. He lauds Moody’s use of them.

He notes that a preacher with an eye for them is a happy preacher. Such a man finds them in books, movies, music and real life. He sees how these seemingly ordinary things communicate spiritual truth. Unless you are a good story teller, keep them short. Make sure you aren’t obscuring the truth you want to communicate by a lengthy or poorly told illustration or anecdote.

After repeating his points in summary, he adds a word of application (he’s essentially following the Puritan sermonic pattern). Simplicity is attained with much hard work and trouble.

“You must not think that God will do work for you, though he is ready to do it by you.”

God illuminates the Scriptures as we work in them. He doesn’t bypass our study of the grammar, history, context etc. Likewise, as we put sermons together we are to work hard. Exercise your brains in preparation and putting them together.

Oddly, he notes not to spend time reading the Fathers. They are interesting and sometimes helpful, but he doesn’t want us to read for the sake of reading. Read wisely. Read people who not only provide good information but who model such simplicity (today we’d include listening to podcasts that model it for us).

He also notes that part of your “study” is talking with your people. Keller says something similar in terms of expanding your bubble and getting out of the echo chamber. He noted that his time in Hopewell was helpful because he was able to talk to his congregation about his sermons- what connected and what didn’t. Ryle is essentially saying the same thing. He uses an interesting illustration about a pastor asked about the Fathers noting he usually meets with the mothers when he visits because the fathers are at work.

“We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in church.”

The goal is to hit their hearts with the truth. Talking with them means you’ll learn to talk to them and the concerns of their hearts.

He concludes with an important reminder:

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.

He also reminds us that simplicity is not a replacement for prayer, particularly for the Spirit’s work. Simplicity, though important, is not a magic bullet that covers a multitude of pastoral sins.

“… let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Ryle provides preachers with a brief treatise that is helpful and often needful.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.

It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.

The first paragraph is familiar:

“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.

The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.

This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.

Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them.  This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.

As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.

Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)

But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”

We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).

Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.

“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”

The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”

“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”

 

Read Full Post »


I have not read a John Grisham novel in years.  But my wife is currently reading The Confession.  She had it lying around, open to chapter 11.  So I read the following:

In a normal week, Reverend Schroeder would spend most of Tuesday afternoon locked in his office with the phones on hold as he searched for his next sermon’s topic. He looked at current events, thought about the needs of his flock; prayed a lot, and, if nothing happened, would go to the files and look at old sermons. When the idea finally hit, he would write a quick outline and then begin the full  text. At that point, the pressure was off, and he could practice and rehearse until Sunday. Few things felt worse, though, than waking up on Wednesday morning with no idea what he would say on Sunday.

Sadly, this is probably the process for many pastors.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.  When I first felt the inward call to ministry, I thought this was what would happen.  I was uncertain if I’d be able to come up with something every week.  I’m glad I never really tried it this way.

We can sometimes fall into the mistaken notion that the Spirit can only lead us one week at a time.  I preach through books of the Bible, so my planning looks very different.  I will pray and consider the needs of the congregation when I choose a new book to study.  What God wants to tell them is important, but I’m handling it in bigger chunks.  I think I’m less prone to be drawn to my hobby horses, felt needs or current events.

I’m convinced that they need the whole counsel of God, and it should be done systematically.  We teach them how to study the Scriptures in context when we do this.  Many Christians don’t know how to systematically study the Scriptures in context because their pastor is jumping all over the Bible week to week under the guise of being led by the Spirit who gave us whole books not snippets.

So after I’ve identified the book to work through I’m praying about how to break it up into manageable texts.  In the historical books I’ll take whole stories or parts of longer stories.  If we are in an epistle, I try to find thought units even while recognizing the larger context.  I tend to work out the sermon schedule for months at a time. This helps the worship team to plan a meaningful service that connects with the sermon text and the likely main idea.

So, during the week I’m praying for the Spirit to illuminate the text and help me to apply it to the needs of the congregation.  My time is spent on exegesis, not trying to figure out what text to preach. I suspect the pastor will not feel as much pressure and be better prepared on Sunday.  The flock will be better fed and better prepared to feed themselves.

Consider it.

Read Full Post »


The Cessationist-Continuationist debate is not one I enter into often.  You can find far too many straw man arguments.  And personal attacks.  Cooler heads rarely prevail. It is not really a position you can “proof-text” and it polarizes people.

People often have a hard time distinguishing the ordinary from extraordinary.  This distinction is made in the Westminster Confession of Faith with regard to means God uses to bring someone to saving faith (XIV, 1).  For instance, should the ordinary means of hearing the gospel not be available, God may use extraordinary means to convert a person.  Those cases are rare, and are not to be expected by us.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


Today I was working on Romans 3:21-26.  It is a fascinating text with all kinds of “glorious grammar.”  If I remember correctly, we did translate this in seminary, but that was some time ago.  So I was in awe of what Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, put down there.  Lots of parallelism, and many of my questions about key genitives were answered in the text.  But there are some difficult phrases. There is alot on the line, so to speak, as this passage is central to many a theological controversy.

The specifics are not important at the moment.  What is I want to focus on is my response to these difficult questions about the meaning of the text while I weigh legitimate options.  I took a walk to pray about it.  And there I wrestled with both humility and confidence.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


I can’t remember where I saw it.  It was a blog post on questions to ask a prospective pastor.  Many of them were good, convicting questions.  One of them was regarding sermon preparation (a standard question on many forms I filled out).  In answering the question, he made some good points for churches to consider.  But something was nagging at me.

His suggestion was 16-20 hours maximum for sermon preparation.  He made the very good point that a pastor can’t spend 40 hours on a sermon and fulfill his other responsibilities.

What I say now is not to refute anything he said, real or imagined ( this won’t be a John MacArthur-Darrin Patrick thing especially since I’m no one important and I don’t even remember who he was though they were more important than me).  It is to supplement.

Part of it is born of experience, including this week.  Sermon preparation is not a formula.  Certain tasks are required (working with the original languages and translations to exegete the text, reading a few trusted commentaries to make sure you exegeted it well, exegeting your congregation and community, thinking about the application and sermon structure).  Those tasks take time.  But they do not a sermon make.

The work of the Spirit to illumine the text is essential.  You can do all the “academic” prep work you want, but until the Spirit shines the light on what pulls it all together and points it toward Jesus- all you’ve got is the beginnings of a paper for seminary or Bible college.

Different Decade, Same Experience

This week I’ve been pounding my head on the table, wall and any other hard object I can find.  I did my analysis in Hebrew, looked at parallel passages, read 4 commentaries and a book about this portion of Scripture.  Yet, I left the office Wednesday without a “Big Idea” and therefore no sermon structure.  I was at an impasse.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


Jonah miraculously survived 3 days in the belly of the fish/whale.  There he was humbled, submitting himself to God who then had the sea dwelling creature spit him up on the shore.

Then the Word of the Lord came to Jonah again.  He is again sent to Ninevah, the difference in wording being “the message that I give you.”  He is still to call out against it, warning the people to prompt repentance.

Some have argued that it could not have been a genuine revival.  How, they argue, could these coverted Ninevites then resume their conquering ways resulting in the defeat and exile of the Northern Kingdom?  Students of revivals will notice that often revivals last but a generation.  The effects are not permanent.  For instance, barely 100 years after the Welsh revivals, Christianity is nearly extinct there.  This shows how long their declension has lasted.

“People who experience mighty revivals may be all the more hardened against God in the generations that follow.  The presence of the Spirit of God is a far more delicate matter than we are prone to imagine.”  Sinclair Ferguson

This is illustrated in the life of Jonah, and repeatedly in the history of Israel and Judah.  So we mich take Paul’s warning against greiving the Spirit seriously.  We cannot be sure we will repent of any sin we are tempted to commit.  But such disobedience will produce spiritual declension at the least, if not be evidence that the person was spiritually dead to begin with.

God’s evangelistic sovereignty is revealed in this passage, as Ferguson notes.  God sent a messenger in Jonah.  He authorized the message Jonah would declare.  It is good to pray for revival, but we must also evangelize for revival.  The God-declared end has a God-ordained means.  He sent an evangelist AND He opened their hearts to the message.  This is the very reason He sent Jonah in the first place.

The message was simple, but the effect was profound.  Historically the Spirit works in 2 ways.  The first is in the messenger or preacher, and is called unction (anointing has also been used but this term has recently been hijacked by televangelists like Benny Hinn to mean something quite different).  The message is delivered with power and conviction.

“That word can only come with power to our hearers when it has come with power to our own hearts.”  John Owen

The Spirit also works in the hearers to illumine them.  Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians 3-4.  God sheds His light into our hearts that we might see the glory of Jesus.  Suddenly people see their need AND the sufficiency of Jesus’ work on behalf of sinners.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »