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Posts Tagged ‘Preaching’


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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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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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.

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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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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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So far I’ve really enjoyed Crossway’s series “On the Christian Life” having read the volumes on Newton, Bavink and Edwards. I’ve been working my way through the series on vacation/study leave. That all changed when I read Luther.

Oh, I’m kidding. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman is a very good addition to the series. One of the things that Trueman appreciates about Luther was his humor, which is much better than my pathetic little joke there.

One of the strengths of this volume is that Trueman does not try to paint Luther as an “evangelical”. He notes our tendency to repaint our heroes in our own image. He resists this temptation and presents us with the Luther that we both love and don’t quite understand.

Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is very different from that found in “popular” evangelicalism and even in Reformed circles at times. Trueman isn’t here to criticize Luther, but is more to critique us in a round about way.

One of the struggles for a book like this is the sheer volume of material produced by Luther, as well as the development of his thought over time as a pioneer of sorts who came to a greater awareness of the implications, consequences and complications of this ideas over time. Yet, as Trueman notes, evangelicals tend to pull their quotes (sound bytes) from the early Luther.

Trueman begins with a brief biography of Luther so readers can get a lay of the land, so to speak. His life and theology were in near constant interaction. I noticed this tendency in studying some the major psychological theorists, and it is often true for theologians as well. Their theology is an attempt to work out their stuff with God. Unlike one author I read years ago, Luther’s goal was not sexual liberation but rather spiritual liberation.

Luther lived in a time when most people could not read. This greatly impacts his understanding of the Christian life. It is structured around daily worship services to hear the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. While better literacy rates are a good thing, they have facilitated the individualistic view of the Christian life that actually robs us of maturity. We are meant to live in community, and not just for a few hours on Sunday.

We can’t turn back the clock (this includes rejecting the industrial revolution, modern travel etc. that shapes our lives/lifestyles). But perhaps we can made some different decisions in our own cultural context.

Luther has a strong emphasis on the Word, and Trueman spends time unpacking this. It is tied up on Luther’s understanding of the Word as both God’s revelation and God’s creative power. God’s Word is meant to shape how we think about life and reality. Luther was also concerned about how we approached the Word, and therefore God. We tend to be theologians of glory rather than theologians of the cross. The theologian of the cross sees God and comes to God thru Christ and Him crucified. The incarnation and sacrifice of the Son points to our weakness, sinfulness, neediness and how God is gracious, tender and merciful This shapes a very different life than one focused on God’s power and glory which tends to either drive us to despair (since we are sinners) or puffs us up (due to our pride and self-righteousness). This carries over to Luther’s law and gospel distinction. This is a much misunderstood concept, as if the OT is law and the NT is gospel. As Clapton sang, “It’s in the way that you use it.” The same texts can be used to expose sin, and reveal grace. First comes law to destroy our self-righteousness, and then comes grace.

So we encounter the Word in preaching, singing, meditating, prayer and if possible reading. Luther encourages us to be people of the Word so God will work in us to accomplish His good purposes.

The Christian life is not easy but we struggle with self-righteousness as well as sin. We also deal with anfechtungen, which is difficult to translate into English but could be considered similar to the dark night of the soul. We experience despair and frustration at the trials of life material and immaterial. We are not to look in, but to look out at Christ in the midst of all of this. Faith is looking to the Christ revealed in the Scriptures in dealing with our guilt, self-righteousness, and afflictions. Luther was not an introspective mystic, but one who calls us out of our introspection to look to Christ who is the only One who can help us.

One of the most important chapters is “Luther and Christian Righteousness.” It is written to address some misunderstandings of Luther regarding sanctification. These misunderstandings are found in the books and sermons by Tullian Tchavidjian and Trueman makes a few allusions to Tullian in the chapter. While the Reformation was going swimmingly in its early days, Luther discovered it was not necessarily bearing the fruit it should as he began to visit other areas. He saw that many people calling themselves Christians were ignorant of basic doctrines and lived like pigs.

He made a distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness. The former is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in justification. It is our positional holiness. The latter is righteousness imparted to us by Christ in sanctification. It is our personal holiness. They are distinct but related. The same Christ who justifies us also sanctifies us. First He justifies and then He sanctifies. This order is key to Reformation or Protestant Theology. Luther discovered there was little to no personal holiness, and put forth the need to preach not just alien righteousness but also personal righteousness. This emphasis is seen in The Visitation Articles as well as his catechisms. While Melanchthon is credited with originating the idea of the “third use of the Law” (showing us how to live as Christians) it is actually present in Luther’s writings as well. The Law directs us as justified persons, but it is always grace that empowers us.

Additionally there was the Antinomian Crisis involving Agricola’s deviant theology. Luther notes we are a battlefield between the flesh and Spirit. Preaching only alien righteousness leads to immorality and false assurance of salvation.  So we find the need for pastors to also preach the law for instruction in righteousness.

The Christian life is played out in our vocations of citizen, work and home. Luther rightfully sees the Christian engaged in those spheres. He does not see a secular-sacred divide like the Roman Catholicism of his day (being a priest, nun or monk was seen as a more holy vocation than a cobbler), and some forms of fundamentalism today.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series, just over 200 pages. There is some theological background that has to go into explaining many of the concepts central to Luther and his theology. Trueman handles that well and in understandable form. In the discussion of sacraments, he doesn’t delve into Luther’s understanding of the Chalcedonian Definition/Formula with respect to how the human nature of Christ is present in a ubiquitous fashion. There also aren’t many Scripture references which is interesting since Scripture was so important to Luther.

It is a worthwhile addition to the series that seems to focus on Reformed pastors/theologians. The fact he isn’t an “evangelical” provides a good corrective to many of us. This book is well worth reading.

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When preaching we can’t always develop every theme in the text, or even the sermon, as much as we would like. Last Sunday I was preaching from John 8. Among the many things Jesus said, He said this:

21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin.

We have a bit of a conundrum here. Though they will seek Him they will still die in their sins (in the state of sin and under the penalty of sin). What is going on?

5f778-wizardtimI started by bringing them to Deuteronomy 4. Moses, the great prophet who anticipates the Great Prophet, is warning them what will happen if they don’t seek God with all their heart. If they have divided hearts, and seek the gods of the nations He will send them into exile into the nations. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were not chance and happenstance. Exile was one of the curses of the covenant that Moses warned them about.

But exile was not supposed to be the end of the story, even in Deuteronomy 4.

29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.

From that as yet unknown place of exile, similar to their experience in Egypt, they will return to the Lord. He is a merciful God and will seek them thru the exile. In our chastisement He holds out His hands to us, so to speak, asking if we’re ready to come home again.

They will find Him IF they seek Him with all their heart. They must be a repentant people, putting aside the gods of the nations. That whole-hearted devotion is further described as listening to His voice: obedience. The desire to obey is one of the signs of true repentance (though the actual obedience continues in fits and starts).

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. Jeremiah 29

Verse 11 is one of the most frequently quoted passages  and most frequently taken out of context. Jeremiah does not come up with this on his own. It is an application of the covenant to the circumstances of the people of Judah. The curse of the covenant mentioned in Deuteronomy 4 has already happened to Samaria (the northern kingdom) and is in the process of happening to Judah at the hands of Babylon.

He wants them to know that this is not the end, just as we saw earlier. He has plans for their restoration to Him, and the land. If we claim this promise, we must remember that it is spoken to those under God’s chastisement (yes, it still happens as we see in Hebrews 12). We have hope because Christ has born the penalty we deserve and given us His righteousness.

Jeremiah repeats this promise about seeking Him. Their divided hearts that brought them to this horrible place must be united in seeking Him. As a Jealous God, He wants all our love. He doesn’t want to share us with other gods. For them it was Baal, Molech, Chemosh and a host of others. For us it is money, sex, power, security, the State, our spouse (past, present or future), child and a host of others. Affliction can be the call to return to whole-hearted devotion. Then we will find Him. We must remember though, that He is the One who sought us, and gracious gave us that renewed devotion.

So, we can say that they reason they sought but didn’t find Jesus is that they didn’t seek Him with all their heart. In the coming tribulation (fulfilled in AD 70), the unbelieving Jews sought “Messiah” or deliverance from the advancing Roman legions from a variety of sources. They were like the kings of Isaiah’s days, trusting in horses, chariots and Egypt (political alliances). They were not trusting completely or solely upon the Lord. The unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day were the same. They didn’t look to Him alone.

Let’s fast-forward to after the cross. On this side do we still have these same issues as I’ve alluded to? Yes!

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4

Note that last word: double-minded. We see the fruit of this in the first few verses of James 4. Like rudderless boats they are driven along by their ever-shifting passions. They are at war with one another because they are not in submission to God. The Spirit is zealous for them, as James mentions, just as we saw in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. God is working in our affliction to draw us back to Him. This call to repentance by James includes the notion of whole-heartedness or purity of heart. When we cry out only for Him we are drawing near to Him and He will draw near to us.

James 4 is in harmony with the passages we looked at in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. We see the dependence of the New Covenant on the Old, and the continuity between them on display (if only we’ll look and listen).

Better, when we are afflicted we should remember that God is pursuing us, seeking to purify our hearts so they are more fully His. In that process we are to stop seeking all else and seek Him as what we really need. If we have Christ we will have all else we need.

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I’ve been thinking about my next writing project. Okay, I’ve been thinking about it for about four years. I’ve begun to do some research; over my study leave I read When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search.

Chris Brauns’ book is highly acclaimed, for good reason. It is an excellent book but I thought an insufficient book. Let me explain. The material he covers he does in generally excellent fashion. As someone who has searched for a call twice and has helped a number of churches find a new pastor, I thought he missed a number of issues important to the process of searching for a new pastor.

He does address key issues like unity (around the Word) in the search committee, the importance of prayer, the character of the pastor, evaluating preaching and interviewing. He keeps pointing us to the Word. His style is easy to read, and interesting. He uses some very good illustrations. In these areas it is a very helpful book. It should be read by those about to start searching for a pastor.

The bulk of the book seems to be evaluating the preaching of pastoral candidates. I’m not completely convinced of his “basic goal of preaching.” Much of what he says about preaching was learned from Haddon Robinson at Gordon-Conwell. I’m not saying that is bad (his was a good book). Brauns offers this as the basic goal: Truth nourishing God’s people. There are many good elements there. In preaching we speak Truth to people. We as shepherds are to nourish God’s people. We want to see them transformed by the truth.

But that strikes me as a tad reductionistic. Am I being nit-picky? Maybe. As I think of preaching using Frame’s triperspectivalism I think of worship and preaching as having three goals: exaltation of God, edification of God’s people, and evangelizing the lost. Early on he doesn’t sound very Christ/gospel-centered (I got redemptive historical preaching pounded into my head, and I need it pounded into my head). This is largely because of his focus on application (preaching a bullet). He rightly speaks of unction as well, though I’m not sure how you measure that in a recorded sermon. He didn’t really explain that but didn’t weigh it heavily in his evaluation form.

In the section on interviewing, which he compares to dating, he offers some excellent direction for committees. There were a few things that required unpacking. One was the area of leadership and a “right fit”. He didn’t bring us (earlier) through leadership style in trying to figure out who you are as a congregation. The type of leadership needed is an important part of that because there are many kinds of leaders.

This book helped me think more about the areas missing or glossed over in this book. I’m hoping that I can fill in that gap and supplement the many fine things that Brauns has said in this book.

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I’m reading a book on sermons by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on John 4 in preparation for my sermons on that chapter coming up. The book is only 750ish pages. I have plenty of work ahead of me. But some of the sermons are well worth it, like one entitled Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics preached in October, 1966. Think about that for a moment, 1966. Amazing to me how much of what he says fits our contemporary situation.

He begins with noting the essence of Christianity: “we have within us a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” The Christian life is a spiritual life under the power and direction of the Spirit. This great salvation “is to enable us to live in the world and to look forward to the glory that is to come.” This positive beginning shifts as the Dr. begins to lay the smack down. He gets quickly to exposing the sins of his time in England that mirror those of ours here in America.

“We face national prejudices, class prejudices, race prejudices, and so on. There is almost no end to them. What harm they have done in the life of the individual Christian, and what harm they have done in the life of the church throughout the centuries- the things we cling to so tenaciously simply because we have been born like that!”

He was addressing the Jewish-Samaritan prejudice. Later in the sermon he brings us to the problems of Apartheid and the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S. The people in England were denouncing the white South Africans and Americans. He admits, obviously, the sinfulness of racism, but takes this as evasiveness. The woman at the well used this prejudice to evade Jesus, and the Dr.’s contemporaries were using those prejudices in other nations to evade the truth about themselves.

“You see, in denouncing somebody else, you are shielding yourself. While you are denouncing these people or friends in America or somewhere else over this racial problem, you are full of self-righteous indignation. That is very clever, but you are just evading the problem of your own life, the running sore of your soul.”

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No, this is not about climate change.

This is about a different kind of climate change. This is about the current climate in churches regarding homosexuality. Peter Hubbard is not only concerned about how individual Christians interact with homosexuals, but how congregations interact with, talk about and treat homosexuals. As a result, there as a chapter in Love Into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual and the Church called Climate.

He begins by building a good analogy. In Revelation Jesus is revealed as the Lion who is a Lamb. He is a King as well as a Priest who sacrifices Himself. There is both strength and tenderness, righteousness and compassion. The Church is intended to reflect His glory and His character. Churches are tempted to focus on only one side of Christ and present a false face to the world, and homosexuals about who Christ is and what He thinks about them.

“When we talk as if homosexuals do not belong in the church, we misrepresent the gospel in at least three ways: “We are not sinners, you are,” “Sin comes in acceptable forms and unacceptable forms,” and “You will belong here only after you get your act together.” Each of these assumptions denies the power and process of the grace of Christ for real and lasting change.”

As an example of a “church” (and I use this term quite loosely) that is fixated on Christ as Lion, Hubbard gives Westboro Baptist Church. They stress the righteousness and justice of God, rightly calling sin sin. But they have no gospel (which is why I use the term church loosely). They think they have the ministry of condemnation, when we’ve actually been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5).

This kind of church, or Christian, focuses on the sinfulness side of things. There is an “us vs. them” mentality as though all homosexuals were militant activists seeking to destroy the Church. He recalls a time when a guest began to talk about homosexuals using stereotypes as though he’d get some laughs. He didn’t. This kind of church likes using the labels to ostracize people, keep them out because we don’t like “them.”

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Do you struggle with preoccupation with yourself? Do you find yourself caring too much about what others think about you? or what you think about you?

Perhaps this is the booklet for you. Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is adapted from a sermon of his on 1 Corinthians 3. As a result, this is a relatively short treatment of a particular question. As such it can’t say everything there is to say about the subjects with which it deals. Someone I know raised some questions about this booklet, and I hope to address them briefly toward the end. I will also make a short application for pastors (something Keller does elsewhere).

He introduces the passage with the stark difference between traditional and modern thought about people’s problems. Traditionally, pride (hubris) has been identified as one of our problems that creates other problems. Criminals think more of themselves than others, for instance, and this justifies their crimes. Something odd happened in the Western world in the not too distant past. The prevailing notion, still prevalent in education, is that people actually suffer from low self-esteem. If only they would have a better view of themselves they wouldn’t be criminals, poor etc. We now, statistically, have students who are progressively worse but feel better and better about themselves despite failure. Thankfully, this view regarding self-esteem is finally being challenged academically.

The passage Keller is handling is addressing the divisions that have been plaguing the church of Corinth. The factions have allied themselves to particular teacher. The factions are filled with pride and boastful of their relationship or adherence to their favorite teacher (Paul, Peter, Apollos etc.). I know, we would never do anything like that. This leads us into contemplating the ego.

The natural state of the ego, Keller argues, is that it is inflated. Paul does not use hubris, but a word he uses often in the letters to the Corinthians and in Colossians 2. It isn’t used elsewhere in Scripture. It does have that idea of over-inflated or bloated. This means that the human ego is empty (just filled with hot air), painful (stretched too far), busy (looking to fill that emptiness) and fragile (not this is not a special award). He draws on (surprise!) C.S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard and Madonna.

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Someone, somewhere, has proclaimed this Free Speech Pulpit Freedom Sunday (see what happens when you blog after getting up at 3 am- this was the least of my worries). People do that- declare a Sunday for their causes. It can be good to move us to focus prayer on particular issues like abortion, adoption, and the persecuted church.

Free Speech Sunday is a new one, at least to me. Sometimes I feel like I live in a cave. You’d think I wasn’t connected to the internet by an umbilical cord.

The purpose, as I understand it, of Free Speech Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to recognize what the IRS says a church can and cannot say. My understanding of the tax code (I am not an accountant, and getting one’s opinion on the tax code is about as helpful as asking a roomful of theologians a question) is that churches can address political issues, but not lobby for particular candidates. That this law is not fairly applied, from my opinion, is not the point. Actually, it is the point in terms of the intention of the day. Some use this fear of removing 501(c)3 status from conservative churches to silence them. But churches can talk politics, according to the law. We can say if a candidate’s position on abortion or marriage is immoral. We can say if the candidates break the 9th commandment (oh, boy do they do that early and often). We are on less solid ground when discussing the economic theory of the candidates (I have strong opinions on this matter, having a degree in economics, but that is not the same as comparing someone to a biblical standard on truth-telling in campaigning, or killing babies.

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In the first part I examined the fact that all pastors will have to talk about sex from the pulpit because the Bible talks about sex- often. But how often a pastor needs to talk about it will differ according to the needs of the congregation. John MacArthur probably doesn’t have to talk about sex often. I’m not sure I’d want him to talk to me about sex, that would be like talking about sex with my father-in-law. Just doesn’t seem right. Mark Driscoll, who pastors a church filled with young converts, will have greater need to address the subject.

How should a pastor speak about sex? That is the topic I want to pick up now. Just because you should talk about it doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind.

When I was taking classes for my counseling degree we had a course on sex. I know you won’t believe me, but sex comes up often in counseling situations. One day we spent time on an exercise. We split up into small groups of both men and women. We had to practice saying “penis” and “vagina”. It was incredibly funny for me because one of my classmates was really struggling to say them in mixed company. That was so far out of her comfort zone. But when you try to do this, it can be weird for anyone.

We were trained to use the proper terms for things, not slang. We called oral sex just that- not a Lewinski or any number of other terms.

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The other day I was talking to a church planter and the topic of study leave came up.  He wasn’t sure how I approached study leave.  Some guys prepare for upcoming sermon series by reading a commentary or two.  I usually don’t approach it that way.  I use study leave, primarily, to do the things I often don’t have time to do in the regular rhythm of pastoral life.

I try to read a book in an area of interest or weakness.  Recently, while preparing a sermon, I noticed my library was lacking books specifically on the Trinity.  So on this study leave I read Fred Sanders’ book on the Trinity, The Deep Things of God.  We all have areas as pastors we have not studied deeply.  There are some issues (the doctrines of grace, spiritual gifts, leadership or eschatology) that pastors spend lots of time reading and thinking.  But there are many we neglect, and are neglected by authors.  The Trinity is just one of those.  I’d also include Christology, the atonement and the Sacraments (though baptism is popular, but not as part of understanding sacraments).

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When I’m talking to people about a pastor’s work, I try to communicate the necessity and differences between public ministry (mostly Sunday morning) and personal ministry.  The first is more general, but the second more specific.

In his book, The Work of the Pastor, William Still addresses the former in his first chapter and the latter in his second chapter.  Perhaps I am not as stupid or crazy as I am prone to think I am.

It is the public ministry that sets the stage for the personal ministry.  It flows out of the ministry of Word (and sacrament, which he left out).  The average person, with normal spiritual sickness, merely needs a solid, balanced diet of the Word and some disciplined routine, says Still.  I wouldn’t disagree.  Often it is the neglect of the means of grace, or disciplines of grace, which produce so much spiritual lethargy, dullness and weakness in temptation.

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A few years ago Christian Education Ministries, the discipleship board of the ARP, sent out free copies of William Still’s The Work of the Pastor.  I’m not sure if this had anything to do with Dr. Sinclair Ferguson having recently joined the ARP as pastor of First Presbyterian in Columbia, SC.  Still was his mentor when Sinclair was a young convert.

I started to read the book, but got distracted (as is often the case) and have recently picked it back up again since I’ve been finishing a number of the books that have been backlogged.  Just clearing the queue.

The first chapter is titled Feeding the Sheep.  Here Still rattles the cages of those people who de-emphasis preaching.  This, he argues, is our most important (but not only) task.  But first he lays out the goal of pastoral ministry, of which our preaching and teaching is a primary means.

“… its ultimate aim is to lead God’s people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service.”

True preaching is not merely information transfer (though this must happen) but life transformation.  We must not stop with what the text says, but what it means and how it is to be applied to life.  And one of the very first applications may be to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.

“The pastor called to feed the sheep may find that his first calling is to evangelize the goats! … The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. … You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness.”

Still advocates preaching the full counsel of God, not just a few isolated gospel facts.  This does not mean you aren’t preaching the gospel (for justification and sanctification) each week.  It means you are to show how the whole of Scripture connects with the gospel.

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I am reading a very popular book right now.  I agree with some/much of what the author is saying.  I think he’s omitting some very important things (the review will be forthcoming).  My beef lies more with how he is saying it most of the time.

As I was reading one chapter today, he was lamenting about his blind spot- repeatedly.  Which led me to believe that he is writing out of guilt, not necessarily faith.  He writes like a guilty man to other guilty people.  What do I mean?

Part of what I mean is confused logic.  He sees the problem, but does not quite seem to grasp the root or the solution.  The solutions seem far more grounded in moralism (try harder) than the gospel (Jesus changing our affections).  To show the seriousness of the problem (a sin of omission), he compares it to an on-going sin of comission.

Part of what I mean is the guilt manipulation.  Again, he seems to miss the gospel solution and resorts to unbiblical arguments to motivate people toward obedience.

In a word, he’s making people guilty.  It feels very much like a guilty man trying to make others feel guilty as though this is how we change.  When we write, or preach, as guilty men we produce guilty people.  We lose sight of heart sins, specific hearts sins, and use a shotgun approach instead of a strategic strike with gospel truth.

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It doesn’t happen often.  But when it does, it is scary.  It is like I understand the parts but not the whole.  I intellectually grasp the bits and pieces, perhaps even how it fits into the larger context.  But I don’t grasp what to do with it.

If you are a pastor, you have probably experienced the same thing.  You can’t quite put words to it, but you’ve got your notes, outline or manuscript and you think it is utterly horrible.  You are afraid that if you preach THAT, you’ll soon be out of a job.

I recently had that experience, and people didn’t quite understand.  That’s the tough part, most people really can’t understand.  Sort of like how only infertile couples get how infertile couples feel every month.  It was only after it had happened, again, that I finally understood what it was.

In The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame talks about cognitive rest, a godly sense of satisfaction.  He relates this to the sanctification of the mind (something that Grahame Goldsworthy tackles as well).  The Spirit is at work to sanctify our minds such that our thinking is brought more in line with God’s.  This is similar to progressive sanctification in which our behavior & character are increasingly brought in line with God’s.  Ethical sanctification interacts with the sanctification of our minds: something like the hermenuetical spiral.

“How many seminarians, I often wonder, have the spiritual maturity to warrant the theological  decisions they are asked to make in preparation for licensure and ordination?

Theological maturity is often hindered by spiritual maturity.  He notes that many doctrinal disputes are due to this kind of spiritual-ethical immaturity.  Spiritual immaturity prevents clear perception on the part of one or both of the people engaged in the dispute.

When we lack cognitive rest, we are not yet satisfied with a doctrinal formulation.  Or a sermonic formulation.  I put it together like this: if I am not yet persuaded by my sermon I can’t expect others to be persuaded.  So, when I think a sermon is horrible, lousy or whatever term you want to use, it is not persuading you of something important yet.  It is no less true, but it doesn’t seem important, significant.  The theological and spiritual import of the text is not yet clear.  It is not until that clarity comes that the sermon becomes persuasive.  Then the pastor enters the cognitive rest necessary for him to think (however foolishly) that it is a good sermon.  He finds it persuasive, not merely accurate.

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Don't let the picture fool you

The Gospel Coalition asked some prominent leaders how they would change the seminary process.  Here is one of my professors’ response:

What’s the one thing I would change about seminary education? If I were king and could wave my magical scepter, I would radically change the basic agenda of seminary.
After 22 years of teaching in a seminary, I slowly began to realize something. We were not preparing the kinds of leaders that evangelical churches in North America need. Let’s face it; evangelicalism has seen better days. God is at work in many places and in many ways, but on the whole, the news is not good. Our numbers are dwindling; our theology is unraveling; our zeal for Christ is dissipating. Now more than ever, we need seminaries to give the church leaders who are empowered by the Spirit for radical, sacrificial devotion to Christ and his Kingdom. And they’d better do it quickly.
I was recently in China, talking with the president of a house church network of over one million people. He asked me for advice on preparing the next generation of pastors. I looked at him and said, “The only thing I know is what you should not do.” He smiled and asked, “What’s that?” My reply surprised him. “You should not do what we have done in the West. The results of that approach have become clear.”
The agenda of evangelical seminaries are set primarily by scholars. Professors decide how students will spend their time; they determine students’ priorities; they set the pace. And guess what. Scholars’ agenda seldom match the needs of the church.
Can you imagine what kind of soldiers our nation would have if basic training amounted to reading books, listening to lectures, writing papers and taking exams? We’d have dead soldiers. The first time a bullet wizzed past their heads on the battlefield, they’d panic. The first explosion they saw would send them running. So, what is basic training for the military? Recruits learn the information they need to know, but this is a relatively small part of their preparation. Most of basic training is devoted to supervised battle simulation. Recruits are put through harrowing emotional and physical stress. They crawl under live bullet fire. They practice hand to hand combat.
If I could wave a magic scepter and change seminary today, I’d turn it into a grueling physical and spiritual experience. I’d find ways to reach academic goals more quickly and effectively and then devote most of the curriculum to supervised battle simulation. I’d put students through endless hours of hands-on service to the sick and dying, physically dangerous evangelism, frequent preaching and teaching the Scriptures, and days on end of fasting and prayer. Seminary would either make them or break them.
Do you know what would happen? Very few young men would want to attend. Only those who had been called by God would subject themselves to this kind of seminary. Yet, they would be recruits for Kingdom service, not mere students. They would be ready for the battle of gospel ministry.
Dr. Richard Pratt President, Third Millennium Ministries

I would agree that we spent far too much time in classrooms, and not enough doing field work.  I remember reading Iain Murray’s biography on Jonathan Edwards.  At times he actually lived with a pastor who was his tutor in theology/languages.  He would also follow the pastor.  There was much learning “on the job” under the wing of a more experienced man.

In seminary I had an internship.  Since I was still in transition from Calvinistic baptist to Presbyterian I didn’t really fit anywhere.  I did my internship at the Rescue Mission where I worked.  I got to preach far more than most seminary students (apparently I needed the practice more than they did), often with no notice.  I did plenty of counseling.  I had to go make sure someone was dead and call the police.  I held the arms of a man who attempted suicide with a broken light bulb until the EMTs arrived.  I had to help people after seizures.

Thankfully I was also able to teach SS.  I was worshiping at a church that didn’t seem to want to use me.  One of the Associates would offer me opportunities, but the Sr. pastor largely shut me out.  I’m grateful for my time at the Rescue Mission.  I guess it didn’t prepare me to deal with widows, power brokers and the well-dressed.  But I dealt with many things my peers did not.

But churches didn’t see it that way.  They thought I had “no experience”.

I think we need to do plenty of reading- but Pratt is right.  We need to spend far more time sweating, serving, praying and evangelizing.  I think we could even do away with degrees.  The point is competency: in knowledge and ability.  Both can be gained without a formal education.  Perhaps we should shift back to the old days- an experienced pastor assigning work in theology and languages, and overseeing their development of skills “on the job”.

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As I begin preparation for my examination in theology, Bible, government and sacraments, I thought I would resume the process of putting my study notes on-line.   It’s been awhile since I put some material on the Westminster Confession of Faith up here.  So today I’m covering the chapters on Religious Worship & the Sabbath Day, and Lawful Oaths and Vows.  Some good things to consider (the same caveats apply- I’m not arguing with anyone: if I misrepresented a position let me know).

Chapter XXI: Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day

214. Explain the significance of the statement: “… the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture”.   Scripture provides us with the elements of worship, and also prohibits some other practices.  We are not to imagine that our understanding of acceptable worship is better than God’s.  There is freedom in how we carry out those elements of worship so they are culturally appropriate.

215. Given your understanding of this principle, what would you consider to be prohibited in worship (particularly those elements currently practiced in other churches)?  The use of crucifixes, patriotic music or services, pictures of “Jesus”, worshipping the elements of the Supper as if they were Christ himself, snake handling, women preaching.

216. What are the “elements” of worship?  Call to Worship, Prayer, Creeds (Confession of Faith), Confession of Sin, Songs of Worship, Scripture Reading & Preaching, Giving, Sacraments, Benediction

217. What is the function of preaching in worship? With what attitude should it be received?  It should exalt God, edify Christians and evangelize the lost by making known & applying the Scriptures expositionally with a focus on Christ’s work for us, in us and thru us.  It is to be heard in faith and love to be stored in our hearts and practiced in our lives.

218. Is the fourth commandment a perpetual part of the moral law? How do you sanctify the Lord’s Day?  Yes, in that we should rest & worship one day in seven.  I spend a day resting from my ordinary work, spending time with my family.  On the Lord’s Day we worship Him.

Chapter XXII: Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

219. What is a lawful oath? Why is an oath a part of religious worship? The person calls God as a witness to what he asserts or promises to do.  It is part of religious worship lest we use God’s name loosely or falsely.

220. What is a vow? What are some examples? When is it lawful to vow? A vow is like a promissory oath.  You may vow to give 25% of your income to the church for missions.  It must be made to God and done voluntarily.

221. Are there vows or oaths into which a Christian should not enter, either within or outside the church (for example, those related to secret societies, military service, or civic organizations)?  We are not to take vows which would lead us to sin by either omission or commission.

One of my exceptions is regarding the Lord’s Day/Sabbath.  I take a more Continental view (as opposed to the Puritan view) which was held by John Calvin.  It permits recreation since you are ceasing from your regular work to provide for your family.  In most things I tend to fall in line with Calvin.  I find him most consistent with Scripture.

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