Results tagged “Power” from Reformation21 Blog

How Then Should We Preach?


However well constructed and attractive, a car is useless without fuel. On the flip side, a motor may have fuel without being a vehicle. Likewise, preaching is a vehicle that requires fuel. God designed preaching to bring us to himself through faith in Christ. If preaching does not have the right content, then it becomes more of a motor than a vehicle, since it can no longer take us where we need to go. If preaching has the right content, yet the Holy Spirit is absent from it, then it functions like a vehicle without fuel. It is only when Spirit shapes the content and blesses the act of preaching that preaching become a vehicle to bring us to God, through Christ, by the Spirit. In 1 Cor. 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul teaches these things when he writes:

"And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."

Paul teaches us in this text that preachers must preach Christ in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. This truth both informs the content of preaching and shapes the manner in which ministers ought to preach. We learn several vital lessons here about what preaching is not, about what it is, and about the proper manner of preaching.

Preaching must not be based on worldly speech or worldly wisdom. Paul contrasted excellence of speech and wisdom with preaching Christ and him crucified. The gospel message results in a paradox. While its message is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18), it is the wisdom and the power of God to those who believe (v. 24). People cannot know God through worldly wisdom (v. 21) because when they profess to be wise apart from the true knowledge of the true God then they become fools (Rom. 1:22). This is why God chose the "foolishness" of preaching to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). Paul's point is not that Christ is foolish. Neither is he implying that preachers should not take care to preach well or that sermons should be plain and boring. We eat food because we need food to nourish our bodies, but we also thank the Lord when food tastes good. So we should not be satisfied with boring dispassionate sermons that, technically, keep our souls alive while leaving a bad taste in our mouths. If the food we serve is good food, then we should enjoy it and help others enjoy it too. Instead, Paul is saying that preaching avoids worldly content and worldly methods because its content is the wisdom of God in Christ and its methods aims to preach the wisdom of God clearly. Though the world regards this as foolishness it is divine wisdom for salvation. Poison cooked well is poison still, but a good chef knows how to bring out the best flavors in the best foods. Likewise, God's wisdom in Christ informs the content and the manner of preaching.

Preaching must have Christ as its primary object. As the last two posts illustrated, 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 and Romans 10:14-17 teach that Christ pleads with sinners through preaching and preaching aims to produce and foster faith in Christ. This is why in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul wrote that he intended to preach nothing other than Christ and him crucified. The aim of preaching is to preach the gospel and Christ is the substance of the gospel. God made Christ wisdom from God, and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption so that he who boasts should boast in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:30-31). "Christ crucified" is shorthand for Christ's work on our behalf. The Book of Acts frequently summarized the gospel in terms of Christ's resurrection as well (e.g., Acts 17:31). Christ's humiliation culminated in his death. His resurrection encapsulates his glorious exaltation. Preaching must proclaim "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), but it can do so only through the lens of Christ crucified and risen. Preaching Christ is both part of the definition of preaching and it determines the manner of preaching. Preaching is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ because preaching is the primary means through which the Father brings us to himself through his Word and Spirit.

Preaching must be in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:5). The Spirit's power in preaching is connected to the content of preaching. Preaching must proclaim God's Word rather than man's word. Preachers must proclaim the wisdom of God which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of man (1 Cor. 2:6-9). These are not the hidden things of the future, but the revealed things of the present (v. 10, 13). The Spirit reveals God through Christ through divine revelation. Yet preaching in the Spirit's power involves not only proclaiming the Spirit's revelation of God in Christ. Ministers need the Spirit to work to change hearers through conversion, growth, and perseverance. They need the Spirit to enflame their own hearts with love to the Christ whom they preach as well. Through receiving the Spirit of God, believers receive spiritual things, with spiritual discernment, for the spiritual knowledge of Christ (1 Cor. 2:12-16). Preaching in demonstration of the Spirit and of power is tied inextricably to preaching Christ and him crucified. The Spirit blesses preaching Christ in order to make the hearts of believers echo what he has revealed about Christ.

This passage leads to several important conclusions about preaching. We need the Holy Spirit in order to make preaching effective. We should pray for the Spirit's blessing on the preaching and the hearing of the gospel. Preachers must cull from their sermons everything that does not pertain to the Spirit's power in preaching. Rhetoric in preaching is a means of making preaching an effective vehicle of communicating the gospel clearly in order to bring us to God. It is not an end in itself. We must filter all sermons through the goal of preaching Christ and him crucified. Preachers must preach the whole counsel of God in relation to Christ. Preaching must be done in demonstration of the Spirit and of power and preaching Christ and him crucified is the means through which the Spirit exercises his power.

Creation Calls For Wonder

"The work of creation is, God's making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good." Thus the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the Christian doctrine of creation (WSC 9). What response should this doctrine elicit from us?

Too often, I think, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo elicits from us a posture of war. We immediately raise our defenses, or take the offensive, against perspectives that trace the origin of all things to something other than our Triune God. We arm ourselves with biblical references to, or summary statements of, or supposed scientific proofs reinforcing the truth that God made all things, and we stand ready to do battle with alternative (presumably naturalistic) accounts of how this world we inhabit came to be. Or perhaps we aim closer to home, preparing ourselves to do battle with any who question our understanding of creation "days." Regardless, an immediate posture of war when confronted with the doctrine of creation speaks, in my judgment, to fundamental boredom with the truth we are so eager to defend. We've taken the doctrine of creation ex nihilo for granted, it has become commonplace to us, if our first instinct when confronted with it is some apologetic strategy or another.

Of course, apologetics have their place. Naturalistic accounts of how this world we inhabit came to be can and should be discredited. Those who disagree with my understanding of creation days should be made to conform to my superior insight. But only after we have let ourselves be washed anew with wonder at the astonishing fact that once there was nothing but God, and then God spoke all things into existence. Creation calls, first and foremost, for a posture of wonder, not war. The right response to the reality that "God said" and thus "there was" (Gen. 1:3) is fundamentally, well, this.

We see this in Psalm 33: 8-9. Note the reaction of this world's inhabitants at God's work of creation demanded by the psalmist: 

"Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm" (emphasis mine).

One implication, I think, of a right sense of wonder at what God has done (namely, made everything) -- one "tell," if you wish, that this truth has properly gripped you -- is a humble and proper sense of the distinct likelihood of unlikelihoods in this world, the distinct probability of improbabilities. All bets for what might happen are off in a world spoken into existence by an eternally Triune God. Pretty much anything can be -- from seas parting to asses speaking to men rising from the dead. The doctrine of creation, in other words, primes us to appreciate the fundamentally enchanted (magical, if you will) character of the world we inhabit. Expectation of the unexpected is wonder's closest kin.

Jared C. Wilson evidenced his sense of this world's enchantment, an expectation for the unexpected rooted in the reality of creation ex nihilo, in what was easily my favorite blog post from 2016 (except, of course, for all the ones I wrote): 'His Eye is On the Sasquatch'. Check it out if you've not already read it. It's well worth your time.

And ponder, at some point today, God's work of creation. Let the reality of that work fill you with wonder. Let it inform your understanding of the world in which you live. "Live your life filled with joy and wonder." So suggested Michael Stipe in the lyrics to the song "Sweetness follows" on one of my favorite cassette tapes from high school, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. R.E.M.'s music gave me much pleasure in my teenage years, even perhaps the occasional chill running down my spine (in a good sense). Unfortunately, it (and most other things I devoted myself to in high school) never gave me the resources to actually live a life persistently filled with joy and wonder. Careful attention to the doctrine of creation, however, does just that.

Sex, Power, and Money: Be Careful Who Owns You

"If you want to know who rules over you, find out who you are not allowed to criticize" - Voltaire

If the three sisters of grace are faith, hope, and love, we may also say the three sisters of the flesh are sex, power, and money. 

Years ago, I was warned about these sisters of the flesh. 

We are all constituted differently in body and soul. And our natural constitutions fuel particular lusts, since the soul and body bear an organic relation to each another. Moreover, the social standing of a person also has implications for the types of sins he commits: those who are wealthy are prone to certain sins; those who are poor are prone to other sins. Those with great intellects are also prone to pride. Parents should be careful before they dub their child the next Einstein. 

Certain sins are more prevalent at different stages of life. A child possesses a heart that will be prone to certain sins only later in life. Moreover, the lusts of individuals are drawn out according to their various callings. Judas stole because he was a sinner, but also because as treasurer he was presented with an easy opportunity to steal. 

To answer the objection that certain sins are contrary to each other and so men are not given to all types of covetousness, Thomas Goodwin explains that people are inclined to different sins at different stages in their lives. So the prodigal youth may become covetous in his old age. It is also true that some people have an antipathy to certain sins, but this antipathy is not moral but physical, "either because their bodies will not bear it, or for some other incommodity they find in it" (Goodwin). A hypochondriac may not visit a prostitute for fear of disease, instead of fear of God.

The temptation for David to have Bathsheba was heightened by the fact that he could have Bathsheba. That temptation for lust was obviously different for David when he was old and dying. If we could have any woman we wanted, we would probably struggle a lot more with sexual temptation than we do. The good-looking quarterback at University usually has greater temptations with women than the assistant captain of the chess team. 

Perhaps we should thank God right now that we aren't particularly handsome or beautiful; we might thank God that we haven't enjoyed too many successes; we may find out one day that he kept us poor (or relatively average-looking) in order to save us and keep us from many sins.

We may not think money is a temptation until the door to money opens just a little bit. Soon, like a lion tasting blood for the first time, the door has swung wide open, our pockets begin to be filled by those who want to control us, and we are helpless to stop the rot that has taken place. All of this is to say, we don't know how much we love money until it actually becomes a real temptation. Be warned: those who give you money are likely also to control you in some way. And then you are quickly unable to criticize them in any way, shape, or form. You become increasingly blind, like the idols you serve (Ps. 115). I am glad that my employer is the local church and that no organization has control over me because they pay me a lot of money. 

We may not think we love power until we get a taste of power. Everything I've seen so far in Reformed circles has only convinced me that not only does money corrupt, but power corrupts even more. Indeed, the more money the more power. Those in power can quickly cultivate a culture of fear. As Voltaire said, "if you want to know who rules over you, find out who you are not allowed to criticize." I think some of us might find that a very uncomfortable examination. 

M'Cheyne once said well: "The seeds of all sins are in my heart, and perhaps all the more dangerously that I do not see them." Imagine having friends who will actually challenge you and tell you that you're being stupid! 

It's been a while since I've quoted Nacho Libre, but I think the honor in this clip goes to Esqueleto. 

Persons of interest

You may not be aware of a portentous US drama for mild paranoiacs called Person of Interest. The premise is fairly simple: after September 11, 2001, a mysterious and reclusive (you could be mysterious without being reclusive, I suppose, but the reclusive are typically more mysterious than average) billionaire computer genius called Harold Finch creates a mysterious computer system that surveils pretty much everything going on in the US with the aim of preventing further terrorist attacks. Discovering that the Machine also predicts more ordinary crimes, he recruits a mysterious, presumed-dead CIA field officer going by the name of John Reese to intervene in these crimes, receiving the social security number of those who are either a risk or at risk and then building up a picture from available data to enable them to prevent the crime in question. Finch's mysterious voice-over at the beginning of each episode in season one tells us:
You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up . . . we'll find you.
All very mysterious. Or not, now that we know that Machine exists, after a fashion. What is particularly interesting is that, at one point, Finch admits to creating Facebook as a means of gathering the data needed to fuel the Machine's calculations. The essential premise was that it is amazing how much information people will give if you ask, and it is much simpler than trying to extract or extort it by other means.

And that is what is vaguely laughable about the furore over the PRISM program conducted by the US government and probably dipped into by the UK government and who knows how many others: we gave them the information.

I am not suggesting that the companies involved are indeed just massive governmental facades for data-gathering (though just because you are paranoid does not mean that everyone is not out to get you), but it is not as if anyone forced us to offer the most mundane, specific or intimate details of our lives in a constantly updated stream of data. We were asked, and we gave, and gave probably far more and far more readily than the most insane dictator might have demanded. When people know that others are trying to get their information, they seek to hide it; when given an opportunity to share it, they do so thoughtlessly. I can imagine that a variety of representatives of dystopian totalitarian regimes past and present are now scratching their heads over their elaborate and expensive surveillance operations and saying to themselves, "You mean, all we needed to do was ask?"

So, we gave. But - on the assumption that it is not all a massive governmental conspiracy to obtain our information - the government took. We were not deliberately offering our data to them in order to be subjected to the surveillance program conducted with what were doubtless the best of intentions: after all, who would say that preventing terrorism is a bad thing? Ergo it is a good thing. Ergo we should do whatever it takes to prevent terrorism. Ergo PRISM is a good thing. Government employees and committees tend to work like that. And so sales of Orwell's 1984 skyrocket as we begin to realise that we may well be hurtling toward the age of Big Brother. We made our data readily available and nicely packaged, but the government took it unbidden, and in doing so crossed a line of sorts.

And there have been some trying to draw parallels between this process and the knowledge of God. But there are several critical differences, and we need to take great care with our analogies. First of all, we did not need to make our data available to God, and God did not need to take it. The God of heaven and earth simply has it. Possession of all knowledge, both actual and possible, past, present and future (as perceived from within the stream of time), is something that simply belongs to God as God. God is not Big Brother, or any approximation to him; he is God. Although sometimes language is used that accommodates God's knowledge to our understanding - "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good" (Prv 15.3) - God is not surveilling the world; he is God. God is not gathering information; God possesses it intrinsically. He is in all places, he knows all things:
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall fall on me," even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You. (Ps 139.7-12)
But furthermore, God is not Big Brother, because God is Father. The incarnate Son of God condescends to call us brothers (Heb 2.11-12) but that does not make him Big Brother. The Holy Spirit is not the Ghost in the Machine, taking up residence to spy from within. The Triune God already knows all things, and that knowledge is directed ultimately to the glory of his name and the good of his people: we are and always have been his perpetual persons of interest.

If we are the children of God, the knowledge and wisdom of God do not terrify us, not least because they are exercised by the God who is also loving, righteous, merciful and gracious. The fact that there is not a word on our tongues that the Lord does not know altogether (Ps 139.4) may act as a check upon our sin, but it does not take us into the realm of horror lest we should be overheard. It carries us into the realm of assurance because nothing lies outside of his understanding, and this is a God who cares for us.

The 1677/1689 Baptist Confession of Faith summarises the Scriptures sweetly by telling us that as the providence of God does in general reach to all creatures, so after a most special manner it takes care of his church, and disposes all things for the good of the church. God's innately-possessed knowledge is the knowledge of a heavenly Father who will accomplish all that is best and right for his children. It is the knowledge of the Good Shepherd who discerns all threats to and needs of his flock. It is the knowledge of the Comforter who understands altogether the being and doing of those to whom he ministers. It is the knowledge of the Lord of heaven who will defend his people against all his and their enemies and ultimately secure the downfall of those enemies.

We cannot rely on fallen men not to abuse their knowledge. To cobble together a couple of generally-acknowledged dicta, knowledge is power, and power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. But the incorruptible God simply knows, and his is the powerfully active and loving knowledge of a Father toward his children, and in that knowledge we may rest secure and happy.

"Come, merciful and mighty God"

C.M. (Brent)
Come, merciful and mighty God,
And break these hearts of stone:
Your word the heavenly instrument,
The power yours alone.

These stubborn wills conform to yours;
To feeble minds give light;
Put fire into these empty hearts;
Exert your gracious might.

Give life where death is ruling now:
Prove Jesus Satan's bane!
Break every chain, throw wide the door,
Let glorious freedom reign.

May Christ be Lord of every life,
And King of every heart;
Break sin's dominion; cleanse, renew,
And righteousness impart.

Come, merciful and mighty God,
We look to you alone;
Exert your power: give hearts of flesh
In place of hearts of stone.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.