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Posts Tagged ‘Preaching’


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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