Results tagged “Preaching” from Reformation21 Blog

Preaching and the Mission of the Trinity

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Every divine work reflects God's Triunity. This means that if we want to understand what God is doing in our lives we must begin with who God is. The Father always acts through his Son and by his Spirit. We come to the Father, by the Spirit, through the Son (Eph. 2:18). Preaching in relation to other biblical topics is like the relationship of countries to continents and continents to the world. Preaching must fit into the broader picture of the plan and work of the triune God.

John 4:21-24 gives us insight into the theological world in which preaching is found by describing the goal of evangelism. There we find Jesus telling the woman at the well, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-24). Since the Father is seeking people to worship him in Spirit and in Truth, preaching should aim to produce people who worship the Father by the Spirit through the Son. Relating preaching to the work of the Trinity is important because it ties together what preaching is, its necessity, its manner, and its aims in light of the doctrine of God, which is the center of the theological universe of Scripture.

First, the Father is seeking worshipers (v. 23). Worship is the primary purpose of life and worship is the primary context of this passage. Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with one another (v. 9) because they disagreed sharply over how to worship God. Jesus promised to give the woman of Samaria living water that would satisfy her thirsty soul, giving her eternal life (v. 10-14). When she wanted this water, Jesus confronted her with the fact that she had had five husbands (v. 15-18). By this, the woman knew that Jesus was a prophet (v. 19). As such, he was suited to teach her how to worship the Father. As they stood at the foot of the place of Samaritan worship, which embodied the Jewish/Samaritan division, she went to the heart of the matter by asking Jesus where the proper place of worship was (v. 20). She was not changing the subject. Jesus responded that her question would become irrelevant because all people would soon worship the Father in every place rather than on one mountain (v. 21). The second thing that he said was that Jewish worship was right and Samaritan worship was wrong (v. 22). Worship belonged to the Jews because salvation belonged to the Jews. To them were committed "the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2). In God's light we see light (Ps. 36:9), but worship that is not informed by Scripture lies under the darkness of ignorance. The Father is seeking worshipers. Salvation is the means to this end. Preaching must match the Father's missionary aim.

Second, the Father is seeking worshipers in Spirit. Because "God is Spirit" (v. 24), he is not confined to temples (1 Kings 8:21; 2 Chron. 2:6; 6:18). Since he gives life and breath to all things, he cannot be served with the works of men's hands (Acts 17:25). God's spiritual essence extends beyond Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Old Testament movement in toward Jerusalem has become a movement out from Jerusalem, bringing the gospel to the rest of the world. The God who is Spirit seeks worshipers through the person and work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 4:23-24). We must worship the Father in the Spirit, both because we must be born of water and Spirit if we would see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:5), and because the Spirit takes what belongs to Christ and reveals it to us (Jn. 14:15). As the Son does what he sees the Father do, and the Father reveals all that he has to the Son, so the Father gives sinners life through the Son and has committed all judgment to the Son (Jn. 5:19-23). The Holy Spirit regenerates us so that we can believe in Christ and worship the Father with sincere hearts and unhypocritical faith. Preaching in the Spirit's power aims to produce worshipers in Spirit.

Third, the Father is seeking worshipers in Truth (Jn. 4:23-24). This means that we must worship the Father in and through Christ. The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). No one has seen God at any time, but Christ, who is the only begotten Son dwelling in the bosom of the Father, reveals the Father to us (Jn. 1:18). Christ teaches the truth that sets people free from slavery to sin (Jn. 8:32). Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6). Christ would send the Spirit to lead his followers into all truth (Jn. 16:13). He would do so by glorifying Christ (v. 14). Christ's continues to do these things in the church today through his Word and Spirit (Is. 59:20-21). Preaching should always reflect that fact that the Father seeks worshipers through his Son.

The missions of the divine persons remind us that preaching must be God-centered. All evangelism should be doxological and all doxology should be evangelistic. Like the Psalmist, our souls should boast in the Lord and we should call others to magnify the Lord with us (Ps. 34:2-3). Preaching must respect the processions and missions of the divine persons. The gospel is trinitarian because what God does reflects who God is (Eph. 1:3-14). Preaching must reflect the missionary goal of the Father. Do we seek worshipers through preaching sermons and do we seek to worship when hearing them? Preaching must promote dependence on the Spirit to produce sincere worshipers. Do we acknowledge the necessity of the Spirit's inward work in us in preaching and hearing sermons? Preaching must aim to bring people to worship the Father through Christ, who reveals himself in Scripture. Do we preach Christ from Scripture and worship God in light of Scripture? Do we come to sermons expecting to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth? Such questions should shape how we hear sermons and how ministers preach them. The purposes of worship and of preaching are to honor the Father and then our edification. Sermons are for God more than they are for us, and the Triune God works through sermons to put God in his proper place and us in ours.

*You can find the first four posts in this series on preaching here

Aiming to Preach with Aims

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We need to hear Christ in order to believe in him for salvation (Rom. 10:14). Ordinarily we hear his voice through his ordained ambassadors as they preach the gospel in demonstration of the Spirit's power (Rom. 10:15; 2 Cor. 5:19-6:2; 1 Cor. 2:5). Yet we can believe these things and still make fatal mistakes in regard to preaching. People sometimes respond in strange ways to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the preached Word. Some reason that if the Spirit alone changes people's hearts, then it does not matter how well ministers reason with sinners or, in some cases, whether anyone preaches the gospel to them at all. This is like saying that since God can keep us alive without food, he will keep us alive whether or not we eat. Dead souls result from the first way of thinking and dead bodies from the second. What God can do in his providence is a poor guide for what we should do in light of his Word.

In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul shows that preaching requires hard labor in order to achieve its ends when he writes, "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily" (Col. 1:28-29).

The high aims of preaching demand the heavy labors of preachers. This passage asserts that ministers must preach Christ wisely for the salvation of all hearers. We learn from these truths how and why the lofty aims of preaching flow from its content and determine its manner. This reinforces previous posts on these themes and expands them in relation to the aims of preaching.

Ministers must preach Christ (v. 29a" "him we preach"). Why did Paul consistently treat Christ as the sum and substance of his preaching? Other passages surveyed in this series of posts showed that Christ is the primary object of preaching because, through preaching, Christ brings sinners to the Father by the Spirit's power. Colossians 1 adds that Christ is the primary substance of preaching (v. 29) because Christ builds his church through ministers who suffer for his sake (v. 24-25), because he is the substance of the divine mystery that God has now revealed (v. 26-27), and because union with Christ is the "hope of glory" for believers (v. 27; Phil. 3:20-21). Ministers embody Christ's ministry on behalf of the church. Christ is the reason for their sufferings, the content of their message, and the ground of their hopes. Why, then, must Christ be the sum and substance of their preaching? He must be so because ministers live in communion with Christ as they aim to bring others into communion with him, because they should be consumed with the divine mystery regarding him above all else, and because he must remain the center of their hope. Christ is the bridge between preaching the glory of the Triune God and all other subjects in relation to God. Preaching "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) without relating all things in it to Christ's person and work is like trying to view a beautiful landscape without the light of the sun. It is "him we preach?" Is it him we want to hear about?

Ministers must preach Christ wisely (v. 29b" "in all wisdom"). What does it mean to preach Christ? Negatively, preaching Christ is not merely describing Christ. What would we think of a man who described a woman clearly, accurately, and dispassionately only to learn later that the woman was his wife? Preaching is not like giving a physical description of a suspect to a detective. It is more like singing for joy over one whom our souls love (Song 3:1, 4). It is like the friend of the bridegroom waiting eagerly to introduce the bridegroom to his bride (Jn. 3:29). Positively, preaching Christ must be done "in all wisdom." Preaching Christ should be specific and direct ("warning every man"). The purposes of preaching reflect the purposes of Scripture (1 Tim. 3:15-17). Wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ includes reproof and correction as well as doctrine and instruction in righteousness. "Warning" entails application. "Warning every man" demands specific application. Preaching should be instructive as well ("teaching every man"). As Westminster Larger Catechism 159 states, "They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God." Preaching must aim to convict individual hearers by applying the teachings of Scripture to them directly. Preachers must know the people to whom they preach. Refuting irrelevant errors that people do not face is like shooting without taking aim. Preachers should visit the people to whom they preach regularly in order to know them personally and the challenges they face. Application should not be so specific that we betray trusts and embarrass people publicly in sermons, but we should be specific enough that we can warn and teach "every man." In doing so, preachers preach "wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of their hearers" (WLC 159).

Preachers must preach Christ for the salvation of all hearers (v. 29c). "Every man" appears three times in this passage. We cannot be content to leave anyone behind in preaching. We cannot adopt a "take it or leave it" mentality to the means of grace, in which we preach dull sermons and blame the Holy Spirit for the unbelief of our hearers. Preaching should be zealous and passionate. Preachers must preach "zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation" (WLC 159) Reformed preaching should neither be boring nor harsh. The pulpit is not a platform for beat up pastors to lash back at difficult people. We must keep the final goal of salvation in view. God aims to present every man perfect in Christ, not merely to justify them.

Paul concludes that preaching is dependent labor ("laboring according to his working, which works in me mightily"). By now, readers should detect a pattern in biblical texts that describe preaching. Christ is the primary object of preaching. He reaches sinners by his Word and Spirit, using ministers as his instruments. He is the subject, object, and end of preaching. This pattern raises several questions for preachers:

Do you preach to the glory of God in Christ? Doing so keeps your preaching on track. Do you preach Christ experimentally? Does Christ live in your affections in order to bring life to others through your sermons? This makes your preaching lively. Do you preach Christ pointedly? Preaching without specific and pointed application violates the biblical definition of preaching just as much as failing to preach Christ does. Pointed preaching is part of what makes Spirit-filled preaching effective. Those who repeat Christ's story without pressing Christ on individual consciences and those who press people with duties without preaching Christ fail equally in aims of preaching. Do you labor hard in preaching with the Spirit's help? 

This is what makes preaching powerful. It is not enough to read Bible commentaries, though many of preachers need to read more of them than they do. Commentaries help us understand the text, but they do not help us meet the goals of preaching. Though the Spirit is sovereign in his work, lacking zeal, vigor, or diligence in preaching is a better indicator of laziness than of faith. Preaching must be lively, convicting, instructive, specific, and laborious. Only such preaching can aim to present every man perfect in Christ.

How Then Should We Preach?

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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.

The Necessity of Preaching

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Salvation is an expansive term. It essentially means "safety." Salvation includes the application of Christ's work from the new birth, through faith and repentance, to Justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Christians share in Christ's benefits because they are united to him through faith and they enjoy communion in all his benefits. We have been saved (Eph. 2:8), we are being saved (2 Cor. 2:15), and we shall be saved (Rom. 5:9). God uses means such as the Word, the sacraments, and prayer to save sinners (WSC 88). We receive Christ by faith as we use his appointed means to foster and to exercise our faith.

Is reading the Bible in private enough to save us? Not ultimately. Like the Bereans, we must receive the preached Word "with all readiness" and we must search the Scriptures daily "to find out whether these things [are] so" (Acts 17:11). Preaching is necessary for salvation because it is the ordinary means through which we hear Christ and are saved by him. This passage explains why preaching is necessary, who should do it, what it proclaims, its opposition, and its purpose. These truths show us why we need preaching as a means of promoting our salvation through union and communion with Christ.

The necessity of preaching of so clearly highlighted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10, where he wrote:

"How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:14-17).

Preaching is necessary because people need to hear Christ in order to believe in him for salvation. Romans 9-11 answers the question why so many Jews did not receive Christ as their Messiah. In chapter 9, Paul answered that not all Jews came to faith because God did not elect all of them to salvation. Chapter 11 concludes that God preserved an elect remnant of ethnic Jews now, such as Paul, and that God would save many more of them in the future. Chapter 10 explains that unbelieving Jews were accountable for their unbelief. Paul explained that God would save both Jews and Gentiles through preaching. He pressed the necessity of preaching in light of the fact that people need to call upon Christ through faith. Circumcised Jews needed to be circumcised in heart (Jer. 9:25-26; Rom. 2:28-29). Uncircumcised Gentiles "were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Only Christ's blood could bring both Jews and Gentiles near to God (v. 13-18). Paul added that it was not enough to hear about Christ. People need to hear Christ's voice. The Greek text of Romans 10:14 says literally, "How shall they believe him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear [him] without a preacher?" As Christ spoke in Paul (2 Cor. 13:3), and as Christ pleads with sinners through his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), so people hear Christ through preachers in order to believe Christ himself. This does not mean that Christ does not call people through Bible reading and that he does not use the sacraments and prayer as means of salvation. Yet preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice (Eph. 4:20). How God can save sinners and how he ordinarily chooses to do so are different questions. When we listen to sermons, we should expect to hear Christ in the sermon as he calls us to himself by his Word and Spirit.

Preaching comes through Christ's sent messengers. This implies that preachers are necessary for preaching and that God must equip and send them to preach on Christ's behalf. This point builds upon the previous post, which defined preaching as a public authoritative proclamation of the gospel through Christ's ordained ambassadors. To identify preaching we must identify the preacher properly. We saw that Christ gifts preachers through the Spirit. Christ sends preachers to do their work by calling them to office through the church. He calls men to office through the election of the congregation and the laying on of hands by a group of elders (presbytery, in Greek. Acts 1:23, 6:3-6, 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14). This former act is election and latter is ordination. The church recognizes the gifts of those whom Christ is sending to preach; it does not convey gifts to them. This reinforces the idea that we must define preaching largely in terms of office. We should seek to hear and receive Christ through the preaching of those preachers whom he has sent.

Preaching is necessary because it brings to us glad tidings from God. Paul cited Isaiah 52:7 to show the blessedness of those who bring "the gospel of peace." "Gospel" means "good news" and proclaiming this good news is inherent to preaching. This means that preaching has a positive aim. It is the "sweet savor of Christ" to God" (2 Cor. 2:15) and God intends preaching to be the "savor of life unto life" to those who believe (v. 16). Preaching should have a positive tone because Christ's person and work are its objects. In preaching, we hear the voice of the Christ who saves.

The positive aim of preaching often meets opposition. Paul cited Isaiah 53:1 to show that preaching does not always bring life. The preached Word becomes a "savor of death" to those who reject Christ (2 Cor. 2:16). It was so to unbelieving Israel in Isaiah's day, it was so to unbelieving Jews in Paul's day, and it remains so to all people who refuse Christ's voice through preaching today. Preaching condemns incidentally. Its aim is to save rather than to condemn. Preaching announces God's love in sending his Son to save those who believe (Jn. 3:16). He did not send him to condemn the world, but to save it (v. 17). Preaching condemns only those who do not believe in the only begotten Son of God (v. 18). People bring their own darkness to bear on the gospel, the nature of which is light (v. 19). Those who love darkness hate light and shun its radiance (v. 20). Yet those who love the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:21) love the light that he is and brings. The darkness in people's hearts leads them to flee the light, but the darkness of the world cannot overcome the light (Jn. 1:5). God will achieve the end of calling people out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9) and he will use preaching as a means of doing so.

Preaching is necessary as the primary means that Christ uses to bring people to salvation because it is his primary means of promoting saving faith. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). Some manuscripts read, "the word of Christ," instead of, "the word of God." In either case, Paul teaches us that preaching is the primary means of converting sinners and of building up the saints to salvation because we hear Christ through preaching. Christ must, therefore, be the primary object of preaching. Though preaching is defined largely in terms of office, Christ's work in sending preachers defines preaching in terms of its content as well. Christ commissions preachers, they speak on Christ's behalf, and Christ speaks through them, in order to unfold the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). Failing to preach Christ in a sermon denies the definition and nature of preaching. Christian sermons must be distinctively Christian. Do we listen to sermons expecting to hear and receive Christ through them?

Good teaching begins with definitions. Effective schoolteachers tell their students what they are doing and why in order help students learn well. This often means defining terms specific to each subject. Math students need to learn what a hypotenuse is and students of physics need to understand what mass, acceleration, and velocity mean. The Bible also has its own vocabulary, which includes "preaching." Yet many Christians sit under sermons, and some even preach them, without a working definition of what preaching is in light of Scripture.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2, the Apostle Paul gave an implicit definition of preaching when he wrote, 

"Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: 'In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.' Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

The passage cited above implies that preaching is a public authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ, who plead with people to be reconciled to God on Christ's behalf, on the grounds of Christ's person and work. Understanding what preaching is helps us understand its purposes and what we should expect when listening to sermons. This is important because Christ designed preaching to be an ordinary part of evangelism and discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20).

This text teaches us what preaching is. Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel. Paul's preaching was public proclamation. He implored people and he pled with them. His self-description as an "ambassador" meant that his preaching carried authority. Whether referring to the twelve apostles (Matt. 10:5-15) or to the seventy-whom Christ sent (Lk. 10:1-12), Christ words apply: "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (Matt. 10:40)." Preachers implore sinners and plead with them on Christ's behalf. This is how they "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). Preaching is "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) through which Christ's pleads with and implores us through his messengers. When we receive the message of Christ's ambassadors then we receive Christ. When we reject their message then we reject the Christ whom they preach. This is true with respect to all faithful gospel preaching. Preaching comes with the authority of Christ through his ambassadors and we must submit to Christ through it.

We also learn here who preachers are. Preachers are ordained ambassadors of Christ. In 2 Corinthians, Paul defended his ministry at length against false apostles (2 Cor. 2:17, 11:5). In doing so, he not only defined the nature and purposes of his apostolic ministry, but he established the pattern of gospel ministry more broadly. Being an ambassador implies gifting, calling, and ordination. I will address the last link in this chain more fully in my next post in relation to Romans 10:14-17. Preaching is defined primarily in relation to office. Christ gifts church officers for their office and he gives officers as gifts to his church. Ephesians 4:11 teaches that the ascended Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as gifts to his church. Some of these teaching offices were extraordinary and temporary while others are ordinary and permanent. Yet all of them instruct the church for its purity and unity, its maturity and growth in Christ, and its protection from false teaching (Eph. 4:12-16). Believers in general evangelized (euangelidzomai) as they were scattered abroad while Philip preached (keruso) Christ (Acts 8:4-5). All teaching offices come from Christ and revolve around proclaiming his person and work. Christ preached the kingdom of God (Mark 1:39). Christ cleansed a leper, warning him to tell no one (Mark 1:40-44). Yet the man preached (keruso) without being gifted, called, and ordained (v. 45). All Christians must evangelize, yet not all are permitted to preach. All Christians are Christ's servants, but not all Christians are Christ's ambassadors.

We learn next why Christ appointed preaching and preachers. Preachers plead with people on Christ's behalf to be reconciled to God. Preaching flows from the fear of the Lord in preparing people for the final judgment (2 Cor. 5:9-11). The love of Christ compels sound preaching (v. 12-15). Preaching aims to provide a true view of God's savings aims through his person and work (v. 16-19). Preaching is God's act of calling sinners to be reconciled to him through Christ (v. 20, 6:1-2). As we must define preaching in relation to office, so the Christ, who is the source of church offices, dominates the content of preaching.

Lastly, preaching is founded on Christ's person and work. Preaching is possible because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Preaching proclaims Christ's person and work for the salvation of all (v. 21). God reconciles sinners to himself in Christ because Christ is fully God, enabling him to match God's infinite majesty and the infinite weight of sin. He is fully man, enabling him to obey, suffer, die, and rise in his human nature for us. God becoming man alone could enable God to purchase the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Christ became sin for sinners, removing God's wrath and curse from them, so that sinners might become the righteousness of God in him, being justified freely through him (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:24). Christ gifts and calls preachers to be his ambassadors by virtue of his ascension (Eph. 4:8). He makes preaching possible through making himself the ground of the message preached. We must receive Christ by faith through preaching as he presents himself to us through his ambassadors.

This passage helps us understand what preaching is both negatively and positively. Negatively, not all gospel proclamation is preaching. Neither does all preaching have the right object. Preaching must impart the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) in a way that that demonstrates that all of the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Positively, preaching is the public, authoritative, proclamation of the gospel through ordained ambassadors of Christ. Preachers plead with people to be reconciled to God on the grounds of Christ's person and work. Preaching is Christ's ordinary means of seeking and saving the lost. This means that there is continuity in how preaching addresses believers as well as the unconverted. Paul implored Christians at Corinth "not to receive the grace of God in vain." Christ is set forth in preaching to believers and to unbelievers alike because the accepted day of salvation is a perpetual "now." All subsequent posts in this series will expand and explain the ideas presented here. We must understand what preaching is in order to understand how and why we should listen to sermons. Do we receive Christ through his ordained ambassadors as we press onward and upward towards the culmination of our salvation in Christ? (Phil. 3:14).

*This is the first in a series of posts on "Preaching Christology or Preaching Christ." 

Dr. Ryan McGraw is Professor of Systematic theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Heavenly Directory: Trinitarian Piety, Public Worship, and a Reassessment of John Owen's Theology (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014); The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), Christ's Glory, Your Good: Salvation Planned, Promised, Accomplished, and Applied (RHB 2013), and, By Good and Necessary Consequence (RHB 2012).


Borrowed Conviction

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It has happened a few times before. It happened again recently. Someone without a good church gets in touch, referred by a mutual friend. Or someone drops an email asking for advice. Or there is a conversation at a conference with someone who has come looking for help, counsel, refuge. Somewhere along the way, I ask about their convictions. I ask about their home church, if they have one. It helps me. It helps them. If I am to walk carefully, act wisely, tread on no toes, be of any assistance, it is useful to know what they actually believe and where they belong. And so I ask.

The answer, too often, involves a list of names. Top dogs. Big cheeses. In many instances, men who have earned their spurs. I understand that sometimes a name or names attach to systems or principles. I would understand if someone identified themselves in terms of an Augustinian soteriology, or a Calvinistic view of God, or a Puritan approach to holiness. I accept that it sometimes helps us and others to situate ourselves by locating ourselves in relation to others whose doctrinal or practical position is fairly firmly fixed, at least in some regard: "I love Spurgeon, or Owen, or Bunyan, or M'Cheyne."

I appreciate that we sometimes use shorthand. "I am a Calvinist." "I believe in the doctrines of grace." "I hold to the Reformation solas." "I am a Westminster/Savoy/1689 man." That helps. Even then, to be honest, I would usually say, "That's great. Let's talk about what that actually means." But it is not what I often hear.

What I hear is a list of names. "I like Beeke, Washer, MacArthur." Or, "I would love to sit under the preaching of Piper, Keller, Carson." Or, "I really appreciate Dever, Sproul, Grudem." Or, "I listen to guys like DeYoung, Mohler, Chandler."

And this from someone who is often saying that they are looking for a church home, somewhere to put down roots. What's the problem? The problem is that these men do not believe the same things. To be sure, most of them would share some or many fundamental convictions. They would all set out to preach the Gospel. But their understanding of the intricacies of the gospel, their hermeneutics and exegesis, their sense of how soteriology feeds into and shapes ecclesiology, their view of ordinances and sacraments, their notions of duty and discipleship, their expectations in terms of authority and structure, their priorities and pursuits--all of those things--will have often significant variation.

And so I find myself explaining to the person in question that they now have a problem. The convictions that would bring you into membership in some of the congregations to which those men belong, or in which they find their home, would necessarily exclude you from membership in the congregation in which another serves. You could ask them questions, and in some cases you would get contradictory answers. Some of those contradictory answers would be of lesser importance, but most would have a significant impact in terms of principles and practices in regular church life. You are in danger of living on borrowed conviction, and therefore remaining a spiritual and ecclesiastical roamer.

The men they mention are, to them, not so much reference points in an organized system, or recognizable markers along a clearly-discerned path, so much as they are random notes heard without arrangement. However clear and convinced the particular figureheads might be themselves, to the person who is hearing them they might be no more than a voice on the wind. That person might think of those men as pastors and disciplers (and in their own context they might be), but they are - to this roving and unrooted listener - merely floating heads, disembodied preachers, often nothing more than voices from the internet or passing personalities at a conference.

A list of gurus is not the same as a developed set of theological convictions. Neither is it the same as having a spiritual home with true shepherds caring for your soul. And yet to find a church and to find pastors is no easy task, for the person in question typically does not know what they are looking for. There may be an expectation of profile and gift in the man under whose ministry they will sit, the man who effortlessly hits a home run in every sermon and whose sermonic hit counter regularly goes stratospheric. They are looking for a big personality or a 'proper ministry'--you know, one with a logo, and a strapline, and a reputation, and a staff. Often, the notion of finding a faithful man faithfully feeding faithful members, investing in each one so as to bring each to their potential as a servant of the Lord, is alien. Not only do they have no experience of it, they have no expectation of it. And so I urge the person in question to find a church and pastors. Generally, I explain, the two go together! Find a community of believers among whom you can live and serve with a clear and biblically instructed conscience. Read the Scriptures and pray and study and pray and ask and listen and pray until you know what that means. If you are coming to me, I can tell you and show you what I believe and why I believe it. I will try to persuade you, because these things are important. If you want to check out these things with someone else, that is your call. But don't come to the conclusion that these things are not important, or you will end up living in a spiritual landscape without definition, in a house without the roof and walls that provide order and security. You will need to think about your soteriology, your ecclesiology, your eschatology, your missiology - you will need to figure out a few 'ologies' in order to know where you can put down roots. You will need to be ready and willing to listen and to learn. You need to find a man or men of God whom you can trust and love and receive and, in some ready measure, follow, not from an adoring distance, but up close and personal. You need to find a place to call your spiritual home. You need a faithful company of saints who have covenanted together to love the Lord and one another, among whom you can stand and with whom you can serve. You need to get convinced and get committed.

If you are already in such a situation, thank God for what may seem like mundane realities. They are no small blessings. Keep learning, but be careful not to keep shifting. Settle the basics of comprehensive Christian believing and living and then get on with the substance of that convinced life. Listen more - much more - to the undershepherds God has given you that to the ones he has given someone else (and steer clear of the men who claim to be shepherds but have given up on or been legitimately rejected by sheep).

If you need to be in such a situation, determine not to live on borrowed conviction. Do not be one of those who, in these respects, are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2Tim 3.7). Learn and embrace the fundamentals of Christian faith and living before God, among the saints, and under authority, and you will find--under God--that this is the place and this is the sphere to know and enjoy developing spiritual health and advancing biblical holiness and increasing Christian happiness.

Preparing Sermons with John Owen

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After a cracking day at the Evangelical Library in London on "Reading John Owen" (opening, it has to be said, with Nigel Graham giving what may be one of the finest popular introductions to the life of Owen that it has been my privilege to hear - lively, careful, engaging, insightful), I want to do more reading and re-reading of John Owen. I was reminded, by my own efforts and those of others, why I do and may and must enjoy the privilege of reading such profound theology.

One of the works that piqued my fancy afresh was Owen on The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (volume 7 of the collected works, beginning on pg. 262). This was in Robert Strivens' section of the works, and what prompted me to turn there again was the warning that preachers, accustomed to handling and speaking God's Word, can develop a facade of spirituality which masks a spiritual dryness. Conscious that one can do much apparent working for God without much genuine walking with God, I thought it would be good to dip again into this work.

Re-reading can be as fascinating as reading. I am sometimes struck by what struck me the first time, or what failed to strike. The passage of time and the expansion of experience makes one wish, perhaps, that one could be as freshly excited as one was before, and one must learn to be more deeply excited than one was. Or, perhaps, some things have simply become more relevant because of the reader's different circumstances while reading. On this occasion, I was struck by something in the preface to the work.

Owen, as you may know, had been unwell before preaching and preparing this material. He was so sick that not only was he unable to serve others, but he feared he might be taken by death and never able to serve again. Under such circumstances, he began to meditate on the grace and duty of spiritual-mindedness from Romans 8.6, where the apostle says that "to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." Later, Owen took the fruit of his sickbed meditations and turned them into sermons. "And this I did," he says,

partly out of a sense of the advantage I had received myself by being conversant in them, and partly from an apprehension that the duties directed and pressed unto in the whole discourse wore seasonable, from all sorts of present circumstances, to be declared and urged on the minds and consciences of professors: for, leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that those are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. (7:263)

I am, I confess, sometimes amused by the homiletical handbooks that pass for pastoral theology in our day. Some of the guidance given for the preparation of sermons seems entirely out of touch with the life of local churches. I am amused when I hear the big cheeses of the evangelical world assure congregations that they prepare their sermons, or perhaps know what they will be preaching on on any given Sunday, a year or so in advance. As the pastor of a small congregation, preaching and teaching several times a week, that seems to me to be ludicrous, even dangerous. I do not think I could do that even if I were in circumstances that seemed to allow it.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that pastors preach on a whim or without a plan. I am not against systematic, sequential expository preaching. But I do wonder how much even Owen's aside might teach us here. This work of his springs from what I would call a topical expository series. But how did Owen come to it? And why did he choose to preach it?

He has those two answers: first, because it did much good to his own soul when he had considered it for himself; and, second, because he perceived that the same truths which had helped him would, with the blessing of God, prove a timely and profitable study for other believers under his care.

However, he goes on to confess that those two principles are the "things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry." That, in itself, is fascinating. Here is the great theologian and the profound scholar, sitting down as a pastor of God's people, and asking, first and foremost, what has blessed me, and will it bless others also?

If you are a preacher and teacher, however far you are willing and able to plan ahead, do such considerations have a place in your own preparation? Are you so soaking in God's truth that you can assess what has been of particular blessing to your own soul? Are you so attuned to and concerned for the saints that you can discern what would prove particularly timely and profitable for them? Are you visiting the congregation regularly and getting to know their lives and their needs so as to be able to make such a judgment? Are you prayerfully thinking of the particular congregation before whom you will stand, converted and unconverted, more and less mature, more or less wounded and wearied, more or less hale and hearty? Are you willing to put in the effort to invest in such ministry? Are you willing to get off the treadmill of your regular or scheduled course of exposition, perhaps to plough fields that would otherwise have remained unbroken, to invest in hours of composition that you had not scheduled into your work patterns? Are you improving your own studies and sufferings to this end?

Such an approach might require that you prepare far in advance a particular course of systematic and sequential exposition, compelled by the fact that this book or section of Scripture will serve those to whom you preach. It might keep you from changing to other, apparently easier or more palatable potions of the Bible, held fast by a sense of responsibility. It might demand that you drop such a long course of sermons and preach for a few weeks on a particular portion of God's Word. It might compel you to preach a single sermon on a single text. It might prompt you to develop what you thought was a one-off into a shorter or longer series. Again, it is no excuse for a pastor-preacher simply riding his hobby-horses to death. You will note that Owen does not manipulate his hearers by the claim that the Spirit imposed the duty upon him, though I do not think anyone can fail to see the hand of God at work in the matter. This is a man who is sensitive to the truth, sensitive to the operations of the Spirit of God, sensitive to the circumstances and needs of the saints, sensitive to the spirit of the age, sensitive to the demands of a particular place and people, and deeply concerned to be a means of blessing to those to whom he speaks.

This, I would suggest, is pastoral preaching of the highest order - ministry of God's truth that flows from the heart of a true shepherd of souls, a man who has drunk deeply of the sweet waters of the gospel, and is persuaded from the depths of his being that others need to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to obtain the blessing designed for those who trust in him.

The Need for a Ministerial Break Down

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"We keep our preaching basic because we have so many new believers. If we give them too much doctrine, they won't be able to understand it." I can't remember how many times I've heard church planters and pastors say such things. Sadly, as their ministries begin to grow numerically, mature believers in the congregation are left to languish in spiritual malnourishment and discouragement. On the other hand, there are those churches (though significantly fewer in number) in which ministers seem to wear their academic interests on their sleeve in the pulpit. They burden the congregation with highly nuanced theological subjects or phraseology in the name of faithfulness. Whether it is compromising ministers diluting God's word to the spiritual malnourishment of the congregation or ivory tower pastors caring little about bringing along new believers, one of the great needs of our day is for preachers to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God's word.

We find this important principle at work in the ministry of John Calvin. On the whole, Calvin tended to reserve his more academic prowess for the institutes and his commentaries--rather than for his sermons. In his essay, "Calvin's Sermons on Ephesians: Expounding and Applying Scripture," Randall C. Zachman helpfully observes,

"[Calvin's] sermons differed from the commentaries both in terms of their audience and their objective. The commentaries have, as their audience, the future pastors...with the goal of revealing the mind of the author with lucid brevity. The sermons have, as their audience, ordinary Christians within a specific congregation with the goal of expounding the intention or meaning of the author, and of applying that meaning to their use, so that they might retain that meaning in their minds and hearts, and put it into practice in their lives."

Calvin sought to adjust himself in different ways to his readers and hearers--distinguishing between what he wrote for the academy and what he proclaimed from the pulpit. A brief comparison of his commentary on Genesis and his sermons on Genesis serve to demonstrate this difference of approach. To be sure, it is a task of no small difficulty.

In our day, when ministers water down God's word they almost always do so from behind a missiological smokescreen. Insisting that a robustly theological ministry is a detriment to reaching the unchurched, they introduce a number of serious problems. First, they--perhaps inadvertantly--give the impression that the ability to impart spiritual understanding lies within the power of the messenger rather than in the working of the Spirit and word of God. In essence, they suggest that the outcome of their teaching is commensurate with the supposed intellectual ability of the hearers. This not only denies the sovereign working of the Spirit of God through the word of God--it levels an intellectual insult at the people to whom they minister. Second, such reasoning carries with it the faulty presupposition that everyone grows at the same slow spiritual pace. Such ministers forget that most of the weighty Apostolic letters were written to new Gentile converts who lacked much, if any, familiarity with the Old Testament. Yet, the Apostle Paul wrote some of the deepest and most profound truths to new converts in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, etc. These letters included appeals to oftentimes less familiar verses of the Old Testament as well as to some of the most difficult and nuanced theological argumentation in all of the Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Those ministers who fail to break down God's word for His people usually do so from behind an ecclesiastical smokescreen. They treat each member of the congregation as if he or she should be at the same spiritual place in understanding by virtue of the fact that they are members of the church. This is often driven by unrealistic and undistinguished spiritual and intellectual expectations of every believer. They too have faulty presuppositions that everyone will grow at the same spiritual pace---failing to factor in the spiritual infancy of new believers.

Those who water down the truth will often appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:2--where the Apostle Paul wrote, "I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able;" and, ministers who fail to break down the truth will almost always point to Hebrews 5:12-14, where the writer rebukes the congregants for their spiritual immaturity when he says, "For though, by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." So, how can we reconcile these two truths of Scripture that seem to lay in stark contrast with one another?

Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthians 3:2 are exceedingly helpful. First, Calvin explained that the minister must learn to "accommodate...to the capacity of those he has undertake to instruct." He wrote:

"Christ is at once milk to babes, and strong meat to those that are of full age, (Hebrews 5:13, 14,) the same truth of the gospel is administered to both, but so as to suit their capacity. Hence it is the part of a wise teacher to accommodate himself to the capacity of those whom he has undertaken to instruct, so that in dealing with the weak and ignorant, he begins with first principles, and does not go higher than they are able to follow, (Mark 4:33,).

He then went on to warn ministers against watering down the truth in preaching:

"[We must] refute the specious pretext of some, who...present Christ at such a distance, and covered over, besides, with so many disguises, that they constantly keep their followers in destructive ignorance...their presenting Christ not simply in half, but torn to fragments...How unlike they are to Paul is sufficiently manifest; for milk is nourishment and not poison, and nourishment that is suitable and useful for bringing up children until they are farther advanced."

How important it is for ministers of the Gospel to, at one and the same time, avoid that theological dilution by which we fail to bring up children "until they are farther advanced" while rejecting that ecclesiastical elitism that refuses to "accommodate to the capacity" of those we are instructing. Rather, it must be the goal and aim of our ministries to be faithful to the call to break down God's word "until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ" (Eph. 4:13-15).

What Andy Stanley Has Forgotten

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What Andy Stanley has forgotten is that conversion to Christianity involves a supernatural rebirth that requires the Word of God. Forgetting this essential truth has been the tendency of the seeker-sensitive church-growth movement. This vital truth is forgotten wherever sociology is given a higher priority in the church than theology--whether the church is Reformed or broadly evangelical. It is forgotten by pastoral search committees whenever they seek a charismatic personality in place of faithfulness to the ministry of the Word. And it is forgotten by churches that give the sacraments a higher place of priority than Bible preaching in the worship service. In reality, all of us forget that salvation takes place only by the grace of God through the Word of God when we neglect prayer as an essential component to our evangelism.

In case we have forgotten, let the Scriptures remind us of the necessity and centrality of the Word of God in every ministry of the church:

How are we to lead sinners to faith? Paul answers: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:10).

By what means are unbelievers converted? Peter states: "You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23).

How are churches revived? God commanded Ezekiel: "Say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. . . . and you shall live" (Eze. 37:4-5).

How do Christians grow in godliness? Jesus prayed to the Father: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (Jn. 17:17).

How do Christians learn how to make wise and godly decisions? Paul answered: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2).

We may only pray that Andy Stanley's influence does not lead success-driven pastors away from the Word of God. For by following his lead, we may gather a massive following without saving a single soul. Stanley has argued that preaching the Bible is an impediment to the conversion of unchurched people today. He points out that most people in our post-Christian culture do not accept the authority of the Bible, so we should stop appealing to them on the basis of the Bible. What he forgets is that the Bible conveys not only information but power. The Word of God is "living and active" (Heb. 4:12), so that by the working of the Holy Spirit people are supernaturally changed by the Word in order to believe the Word. We may gather crowds to our movement without the Bible. But when it comes to gathering sinners into the salvation of Christ and his Church, we should follow Jesus' instruction over that of pragmatists like Stanley. According to Jesus, entry into his salvation requires not sociology or any other earthly methodology. Instead, Jesus declared: "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 16:17). It is through God's Word - the Bible - that God reveals his salvation to sinners today. "You must be born again," Jesus insisted (Jn. 3:7), through the power of the Spirit and by the Word of God.

The Missing Message

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While preparing talks for a forthcoming Reformation Conference, I happened across Heiko Oberman's outstanding 1961 Theology Today lecture, "Preaching and the Word in the Reformation," in which he set down what he believed to have been the three most important aspects of the preaching among the Reformers: (1) the sermon as apocalyptic event; (2) the sermon as corporate act of worship; and (3) the relation of the written and the spoken Word of God. It is the first of these to which I wish to give further consideration. 

After dispelling the myth that preaching had disappeared prior to the Reformation, Oberman suggested that one of the things that was unique about the preaching of the Reformers was that it was an apocalyptic event, in which "the sermon...absorbed the medieval sacrament of penance." What the Roman Catholic Church had taken out of the preaching of the Gospel and put into the hands of the priests, the Reformers took out of the hands of the priests and put it back into the preaching of the Word and Gospel. The Reformers believed that in the true preaching of the Gospel the eternal realties of Heaven and Hell come breaking into time and space, by which the hearers are confronted by God. As sinners are confronted with their sin and the holiness of God, they are brought before the Divine tribunal in order to show them the need they have for redemption and forgiveness.  

Moving on from the confrontation of the word, Oberman insisted that "the function of the sermon is to provide proper doctrinal information especially as regards the first and second advent of Jesus Christ." The preaching of Christ is central to the preaching of the Reformation because, as the Reformers understood, "the sermon does not inspire good inclinations, but moves the doors of Heaven and Hell." Oberman summed up this aspect of Reformation preaching when he acquiesced with the essence of pietistic preaching: "Where the Word is preached and man encounters Christ, he is forced to answer 'Yes' or 'No.'" Since all of these things are so, we must understand that true preaching is, "God's last word, to which no syllable will be added." Oberman brought his thoughts on the apocalyptic nature of preaching to a close by explaining how the true preaching of the word brings assurance to believers. He wrote:

For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutisthe certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: "When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair...[But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail." It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit.

Here, two things stand out to me as being of prime importance. First, only the preaching of the Reformation can hold forth the assurance of salvation. The greatest of all differences between the preaching of Rome and the preaching of the Reformation lies in this: "the Reformation could preach the...certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law." If that aspect of preaching is missing from our churches then we will never hold out to despairing sinners the peace for which their souls so desperately long. 

Second, Oberman made the sobering observation that "this message...has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit." While recognizing that he was referring to the mainline Protestant churches of his day (which were, incidentally, at their heyday in the 1960's), we must also recognize that the same can be said of so many churches in our own day. Rome continues to be void of this all-important aspect of preaching. Liberal Protestant churches maintain the strongest possible distaste for it. Most concerning of all, however, is the realization that the better part of self-professed evangelical churches have abandoned the preaching of the Reformation. From the pulpit, churches that claim affinity with the Reformation are proving themselves to be virtually antithetical to the Reformers. In so many churches in our day, the psychological and social are trumpeted instead of Heaven and Hell, the court of public opinion rather than the Divine tribunal and a sophisticated call to self-atonement through humanitarianism rather than forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus. We should be appalled at the paltry nature of what flies under the name of preaching today. We should long for preaching that brings men and women before the eternal tribunal, that sets out Jesus Christ in His saving fulness and that calls sinners to respond to Him in faith and repentance. It is then, and only then, that we will know the same "reconciling and liberating power" that was heard and felt in the days of the Reformers. 
Søren Kierkegaard is surely one of the most influential and misunderstood influences on modern Western thought and especially contemporary theology. This is a bit surprising for someone who wrote in Danish and styled himself neither a philosopher nor a theologian but a "religious poet." That is a curious but fitting description. He was not particularly dogmatic and seldom systematic in his expositions the way many of his German and Danish contemporaries were, but he was a piercing observer and enormously witty and creative writer whose intricately complex corpus constitutes something like an elaborate apology for spiritual earnestness in late-European Christendom.

About half of his massive body of work is written under various pseudonyms representing different and often conflicting perspectives; the other half largely consists of signed "discourses" intended to spiritually awaken and edify readers. Although he completed the requisite theological exams to be ordained in the Lutheran church and sometimes preached in Copenhagen's pulpits, he was never ordained and preferred to call his many published sermons "discourses" because he was "without authority."

The authority he denied having, however, was not just the official authority to preach that comes with being ordained but also a species of moral authority. He elaborates, among many other places, in the introduction to his little book, For Self-Examination (1851). To preach, he explains, "is essentially . . . neither to describe faith in books nor as a speaker" but "to have faith and to 'witness' to the faith" that "should be recognizable in [the preacher's] life" (FSE, 18-19). To preach one must be a witness and to be a witness is to be a martyr. But a martyr, he continues, playing with the word, is far more than just being an eyewitness to some event or having a certain life-experience to tell about; a martyr is a person whose life is so decisively shaped by the reality to which he testifies that the person has died to every other way of being in and moving through the world (FSE, 25).

Being a martyr in this sense, he insists, is necessary for anyone who would be an authoritative witness to the Incarnate. It is also why a preacher of Christ must have an earnest, life-defining faith in the one who is the resurrection and the life and our hope of glory--a point that has not always been as obvious to people as one would think it should be. We who dare to handle and preach God's word before others must, therefore, "live in the Christian thoughts and ideas" we study and profess, not as a place we sometimes visit or as an abstract region of mere thoughts and ideas, but as the concrete form of our "daily life," as he puts it (FSE, 10). If we do this--if, in John's words, we walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7) and, in James's words, we are daily doers of the word and not forgetful hearers of it (James 1:25)--then we will have "eloquence enough and precisely that [kind of authority] which is needed when [we] speak" (FSE, 10).

What to make of those who preached Christ out of envy and rivalry (Phil 1:15-18) or Kierkegaard's denial of having this kind of authority is another story for another time (and the latter perhaps another place). That we are called to have and in some sense must have this kind of authority is surely right and God's people benefit in ways they know and appreciate and in ways that go far beyond what they may know and appreciate when we do. What we might call existential authority and eloquence is a critical component of the holistic apology for the faith that the preacher walking in the light of the gospel and living for the hope of glory in Jesus Christ presents to the people every time he stands to preach.

More Goodness Showed To Us Than to Christ

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Christians affirm that God is good, but just how good is God? We can speak of him being "infinitely good" but that still doesn't help the person in the pew much. People need specifics.

Is it possible that God could show more goodness to his people than to his beloved Son? 

Think of the truth that the Father poured out wrath upon his Son - his Son in whom he has always been well-pleased (Matt. 3:17; 17:5), even from eternity. How do we understand this mystery? 

In one sense we can say that God was never more happy with his Son than when he was most angry with him. What does that mean? As John Owen says,

"[The Father] was always well pleased with the holiness of [Christ's] person, the excellency and perfections of his righteousness, and the sweetness of his obedience, but he was displeased with the sins that were charged on him: and therefore it pleased him to bruise him and put him to grief with whom he was always well pleased."

This understanding of our redemption leads us to say something rather provocative: that the goodness shown to us, God's people, is "a greater goodness to us, than was for a time manifested to Christ himself" (Charnock). 

God's wrath upon his Son was so intense that it could have sunk millions of worlds of sinful men and angels (Owen). Christ was forsaken by the Father for a time in order that the Father would never forsake us (Heb. 13:5). 

We received a promise that even Christ himself did not receive: Heb. 13:5 - the promise that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Of all the promises made to Christ from the Father, Christ could not have been told that the Father would leave him or forsake him.

The holy one of God was declared at Calvary to be unholy so that unholy creatures like us might be declared to be as holy as the holy one of God. God valued the redemption of the elect so much that He sentenced His own Son to humiliation on earth so that all who belong to Christ may be exalted in heaven. 

So in speaking about the goodness of God, we must speak vividly, sometimes provocatively, about the way in which his goodness is shown to us:

"God was desirous to hear him groaning, and see him bleeding, that we might not groan under his frowns, and bleed under his wrath; he spared not him, that he might spare us; refused not to strike him, that he might be well pleased with us; drenched his sword in the blood of his Son, that it might not for ever be wet with ours, but that his goodness might for ever triumph in our salvation; he was willing to have his Son made man, and die, rather than man should perish, who had delighted to ruin himself; he seemed to degrade him for a time from what he was" (Charnock).

To affirm that for a time God showed more goodness to us than to his Son is to say that Christ's shrieks, cries, and spiritual agonies were not pretended but real.  

We are living in an age, I believe, where preaching has fallen on hard times. There are many reasons for this, but one reason I believe is obvious: pastors have a limited range of vocabulary and do not paint pictures for God's people to be moved by God's goodness, love, patience, wrath, etc. 

God is gracious: fine! But how is God gracious? That's the job of the preacher: to make God's people understand, love, and believe God's grace to them. 

Rapid hand movements are taking the place of vivid, memorable words. Our words, not dramatic hand-waving, should keep the attention of God's people. Sacred rhetoric has been replaced by the karate kid.  

The highest gift possible for the Father to bestow upon his people was the gift of his Son - his Son whom he showed less goodness to for a while than vile, God-hating sinners like you and me. Thus when we speak of God's goodness, we can say that his goodness is such that he showed more love to us than for a time he showed to the one in whom he had no reason to show wrath except that it was better for us that he did.  

On Long Sermons and Family Feuds

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As is generally known, the Reformation entailed a recovery of preaching as a central feature of worship, a recovery which was rooted in the recognition that Scripture names proclamation of God's law and gospel as the means of creating and sustaining faith in those divinely ordered to eternal life. The recovery of preaching was reflected in the central role that pulpits came to occupy in sixteenth-century Protestant churches, and in Protestant confessions of the period. So, for instance, the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the most widely embraced doctrinal standards among early modern Reformed churches, acknowledges that "the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God." And thus: "when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven."

Generally overlooked, however, is that this early modern renewed emphasis on preaching introduced a problem which the medieval church, with its lack of sermons and adherence to established liturgies for church services, did not face: how long should the preacher preach?

Scholars agree that sermons in Puritan England and Presbyterian(ish) Scotland regularly passed the benchmark of an hour, a fact causing at least one writer to quip that Reformed pastors were apparently trying to make up for a millenium-long dearth of preaching prior to the Reformation. Determining an appropriate length for sermons was (thankfully?) an issue which, at least in Scotland, Kirk sessions and presbyteries were keen not to leave to any minister's sole discretion. As noted by Margo Todd in her wildly entertaining book The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland, such sessions and presbyteries eventually began to impose monetary fines upon their ministers for exceeding some determined, appropriate time limit for preaching. So, for instance, Edinburgh's presbytery ruled in 1587 that preachers exceeding an hour in their sermons be fined 18 pence. Elgin's Kirk session went even further by threatening long-winded preachers with a fine of six shillings and eight pence -- slightly more than the equivalent of day's wage for your average laborer in Scotland's capital at that time.

Of course, insistence upon time limits for sermons in early modernity raises an obvious question: how could sermon-length be realistically monitored in the absence of wrist-watches or mechanical clocks internal to church buildings? The solution to this problem came in the form of hour-glasses (or "sand-glasses") affixed to pulpits. Quite a few early modern pulpits-with-hour-glasses have survived to the present-day, both in England and in Scotland. Visitors to St. Salvator's chapel in St. Andrews can view the rather fantastic sixteenth-century pulpit (complete with functioning hour-glass) that once occupied Holy Trinity church in the center of town.

One of the most intriguing facts about pulpit hour-glasses is that they were visible to the congregation as well as the minister, thus preventing any attempt on the minister's part to fudge on whether or not his hour was up. Of course, more clever ministers could find ways to cheat the system. The same Scottish session that imposed rather steep fines upon their ministers for excessively long preaching had to reprimand one David Philp in 1622 for apparently "forgetting" to turn the hour-glass when he mounted the pulpit (see Todd, p. 48-49, n. 95). The folk in Elgin apparently liked their Sunday lunch on time. (The folk in nearby Gardenstown, where my wife grew up, still do, at least in my experience).

A rather unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of lengthy sermons (coupled with compulsory attendance at church) presented itself on the Isle of Skye in 1578. On a misty Sunday morning, members of the clan MacDonald ran their ships ashore in Ardmore Bay and walked up to the nearby church, where members of the clan MacLeod, long-time enemies of the MacDonalds, were worshiping. The lengthy sermon being received inside provided the MacDonalds ample time to bar the doors from the outside and set fire to the building. Only one individual survived the flames and managed to raise the alarm. The MacDonalds paid for their crime (which, to be fair, was itself retaliation for earlier injuries received) -- not to mention their lack of foresight -- when they returned to the bay and found their boats stranded on the beach by a receding tide and a mob of angry MacLeods approaching.

There's nothing like the church's past to put present-day ecclesiastical problems in perspective.

Living in Athens

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A couple of times a month, as God enables us, the church which I serve attempts to proclaim the gospel in the centre of our town, preaching in the open air, handing out tract-invitations, and engaging in conversation with those who have a few moments to spare. Today was one of those occasions, and it gave a fairly representative glimpse into the spiritual battleground on which we are fighting.

On our arrival, we found the Jehovah's Witnesses established just along from our usual patch. They have been unusually active in our area recently, and have begun to employ some new techniques and hardware - well-designed portable leaflet stands which are put up in prominent or busy places (just outside bus, train and tube stations seem to be favourites, though obviously not limited to them) with a couple of well-spoken Witnesses manning their stations.

As we began to set up and hand out our invitations some distance away, a passing gentleman pointed out to me that we had a little competition. Trying to seize the opportunity, I plunged into what became a conversation with a French philosopher of sorts (literally French, philosophical by inclination), a thoroughgoing humanist for whom all was relative and death alone was absolute. We ranged hither and yon, with the usual shoal of red herrings as I tried to address his objections and bring him back always to the scriptural realities of sin and salvation. He parted with my contact details, and expressed a willingness to consider getting in touch so that I could speak with him further. I hope, too, that he will accept the invitation to come to our church services and to see what kind of people are true Christians, and so learn the character of the God we serve.

His claim that we had competition (to which I will return) was further and sadly enhanced by the arrival of another local group, wild-eyed Arminians with a thoroughly worldly programme and a range of heresies to proclaim and a great deal of health and wealth to promise. They saw us, sounded us out, got their gear out about twenty yards away and planted themselves all around us. Their basic approach is to set up something like a street party, invite people to another party, and then try to sweep people further into their clutches on a wave of emotions. There is a lot of Bible speak, but not a great deal of biblical truth. The noise of their contribution bordered on the overwhelming.

Interestingly, they were drowned out by about forty devotees of Hare Krishna who were making their way into and around the centre of the town with drums, bells and cymbals. We heard them coming a way off. Given that our Arminian friends had bordered on the aggressive in their locating of themselves, a troupe of orangey chanters trampling pretty much through and over them might have caused a snigger in less high-minded chaps than ourselves. One quick-witted of our number managed to get in amongst them and hand out a few tracts, but the poor fellow was almost drowned in the tangerine tide.

It did not appear, on the surface of things, to be our most successful endeavour. It certainly underlined to us the nature of the battle. As we prayed, we asked the Lord to save those who are trapped in these godless and heretical environments, and to bring all these systems of error to nothing. As one of our number pointed out, there was something Athenian in the situation: our spirits were provoked as we saw our town given over to idols (Acts 17:16) and so we tried to reason with them, preaching to them Jesus and the resurrection by means of tracts and conversations (less so by open proclamation on this occasion, given the nature of the environment). It is interesting that all the artwork I have found of Paul in Athens gives the impression of a rapt audience seemingly enamoured of a potent speaker who has his hearers in the palm of his hand. I wonder how near or far those images are from the reality? We are not Paul, we know that, but maybe it was not quite as neat and pleasant there as some of our imaginations make out.

So, are we in competition? Are we, as my Gallic interlocutor suggested, just one of a range of equally valid voices all clamouring for attention? As I pointed out to him, we are not.

First of all, we do not compete in terms of method. We are not going to attempt to out-suave, out-dance, out-shout, and out-beat those who come with their empty messages and vain offers. We are not playing that game and we do not need to. Just because the world suggests that we are one among many in the marketplace of ideas does not mean we have to prostitute our message with the same froth and filth as everyone else. We are not competing in terms of our method.

Second, as I made clear, we are not merely offering another alternative to a range of spiritual or intellectual placebos. In that sense, we are not competing in terms of our message. Every other offer he was hearing - indeed, his own notions and his own system in which he so ardently believed - called out to mankind to look to themselves, to work harder, do better and climb higher. Ultimately, and in many cases sooner rather than later, every other one of those systems and claims will crash and burn. Ours is the one distinctive message: a call to look out and up, to look to Christ who has accomplished all, finished the work, having climbed down to save his wretched and rebellious creatures by suffering and dying in their place, exhausting God's curse against sin and providing his own righteousness in order that we might stand before him with peace and joy. We call men away from everything else to the one true and living God, and to his Son, who loved us and gave his life for us, and rose from the dead in triumph on our behalf. We see and feel and loathe and mourn the clamour of falsehood and idolatry that swirls around us, but it is not a competition between parallel vanities. It is a battle between the truth of God and the range of damnable errors and heresies and emptinesses that masquerade as hopes for the hopeless and helps for the helpless.

May God grant that within and without the walls of our church buildings, he would give us grace to give earnest, winsome and unflinching testimonies to the truth as it is in Jesus, demonstrating in our lives the truths that we confess with our lips! May God's message and God's method prevail, and may the light overcome the darkness!

Preaching pure and simple

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I had a delightful day yesterday at the Grace Baptist Church in Edlesborough, hearing Stuart Olyott run about 60 men of varying ages and backgrounds through what it meant to preach the Word of God. Two morning sessions encouraged us to "Listen to yourself" - to make an objective analysis of our strengths and weaknesses in preaching against twelve benchmarks, as a means of assessing and improving our God-given gifts.

Two afternoon sessions followed, exhorting us to "Knock the socks off them!" For those not schooled in British idiom, this was a series of counsels intended to help us preach with penetrating power.

Thorough preparation, earnest prayer and cultivated plainness were urged upon all present in what was a feast of fellowship and a real blessing to those who preach. I confess that the day left me feeling utterly unable to preach, and yet unable not to preach. I regret having to leave at the end of the day, preventing me from hearing Stuart preach at an open session in the evening. According to reports, it was an equally delightful time, preaching to a crowded chapel full of eager listeners. All in all, it was a day which modelled what it cultivated.

Those interested in learning more can do so by purchasing Stuart's excellent book, Preaching: Pure and Simple (Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk). Young pups learning their craft and old dogs still crafting would all profit.

Trouble and rest

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I have a deep appreciation for the earliest Princeton men. Archibald Alexander, for example, mixes deep scriptural insight and wisdom, developed by assiduous study, with a rich and experimental piety, a happy blend too rare today. I have also been enjoying very much James Garretson's recent study of Archibald Alexander's esteemed colleague, Samuel Miller. It is entitled An Able and Faithful Ministry (Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk/Westminster), and manages to combine history and biography with instruction both incidental and intentional.

This is part of Miller's charge to Gardiner Spring on the occasion of his induction at Brick Street Presbyterian Church in New York City. The counsel still holds good:
In preaching the gospel, and in all your ministrations, whether public or private, set the Lord Jesus Christ himself before you, and next to him, his inspired apostles, as your models. Be not afraid to tell men, with all plainness, of their total depravity by nature, and of that state of condemnation and wrath under which they lie while strangers to the grace of Christ. Be not afraid to sound in their ears the thunders of Sinai, as well as the still small voice of Calvary. Be not backward to proclaim the humbling and self-denying, but most glorious, doctrines of free and sovereign grace, however unpalatable they may be to some, or whatever your fidelity may cost you. Warn men boldly of every danger. Strive to bring them off from every false foundation. Give them no rest till they are brought humbled and trembling to the foot of the Cross: and then, and not till then, pour into their bleeding wounds the oil of consolation, the balm of heavenly grace.

Gospel ripples

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In our efforts to make Christ known where God has put us, we have regular meetings to preach the gospel in a village outside our town. It is a hard place, not surprisingly given that it is full of hard hearts, many of which are cushioned by a false assurance derived from long-term empty religiosity. But I digress.

Last night, I took my son to hear the gospel being preached. We were two of the three in the congregation, the other being another man from the church which I serve. The brother leading the meeting spoke to us simply and earnestly of Christ as the resurrection and the life. No doubt he longed to be preaching to more, including many of those to whom we have gone in our efforts to declare the good news throughout this village. At present, I believe that there was at least one unsaved person in the room, and it was good and right that he preached to him, and I was grateful for it.

On our way home, my son and I stopped for the treat of giving my car a quick wash. It may not sound like much of a treat, but two males with a filthy car and a couple of pressure hoses makes for some fun. At the garage where we stopped was a man with a flat tyre and a wrecked wheel, a driver with a private hire firm, waiting for a recovery vehicle. Clearly bored rigid, our chatter drew him over and into our conversation. We spoke, I bought him a coffee, we spoke some more, and I had the opportunity briefly to explain to this man that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, leaving with him a copy of Mark's Gospel and a little more information. I simply passed on what I had learned that night, having been freshly prepared to do so.

My friend at the village meeting looked into the faces of those present and might have felt discouraged. He preached to us nonetheless. He did our souls good. And, he left our hearts warm and our heads full. He primed us to go and preach the same gospel to others.

Here are reasons why the saints need to go on hearing the gospel. It brings back to our hearts and minds the truths of our salvation, stirring us up to love and prompting us to serve. It emphasizes spiritual realities, the enduring facts of man's sin and God's grace, of heaven and hell and the sacrificial Lamb who stands between them. It reminds us of life and of death. It reinforces and freshly adorns our convictions. It prepares us to make Christ known.

Tomorrow, let those of us who preach remember to preach the gospel. We must always preach evangelically; we must also - regularly, often - preach evangelistically. The gospel note must be sounded every time. Not every sermon needs to be a Calvary sermon, but it must be a distinctively, richly, earnestly and practically Christian sermon. However, you may prepare to preach to the lost, and look out and see rows of faces - or perhaps only a few seats of faces - of faithful believers. There may be no-one there who you are confident needs the gospel as an unsaved person (though that should not be presumed). But preach it nonetheless, to stir up love and prompt service, to emphasize spiritual reality, to remind of life and death, to reinforce and adorn conviction, and to prime the heart and head.

And let those of us who believe and who hear the gospel again not wonder why we are back with the same truths. Let us not look up and down the rows and wonder why we are hearing this all over again. Whether or not you think that there is anyone present who 'needs' to hear the good news, you can sit and soak in it. Let it stir up love and prompt to serve, emphasize spiritual reality, remind you of life and death, and reinforce and adorn your convictions, and prime your head and heart. Let it do good to you, and then let it do good to others. Go home, and tell others what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he has had compassion on you. Go out, and tell others the good news of Jesus Christ that you have just heard. Go, and let the gospel ripples spread.

Subjects suitable to an immortal being

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A reminder from Spurgeon to deal in our ministry with subjects suitable to an immortal being, taken from a sermon on The Word of the Cross (#1611):
If I were able to explain to a general audience how to make unlimited profit upon the Stock Exchange, or in some other market, all the world would listen with profound attention; and if I put my point clearly I should be pronounced a really clever preacher, a man well worth hearing; but when the sermon is only about the word of God, and eternity, and the soul, and the blood of Jesus - most people turn on their heel; they are not sure that they have souls, and they refuse to argue upon the supposition of a future existence, which is an old wife's fable to them. As for eternity their philosophy has no room for it, and they do not concern themselves about it. One said in argument the other day, "I believe I shall die like a dog." I could give him no better reply on the spur of the moment than to say, "If I had known that you were a dog I would have brought you a bone." As I had the notion that he would live for ever I came to talk to him upon subjects suitable to an immortal being, but as I found out that he was going to die like a dog, what could I do for him but provide such cheer as the creature could enjoy? These men call the gospel foolishness because they look after the main chance, and care more for the body than for the soul. One of their wise men said, "Why do you preach so much about the world to come, why not preach about the world which now is? Teach these people how to ventilate their sewers, that is a much more needful matter than their believing on Jesus." Well, sanitary matters are important, and if any of you feel that you have nothing to live for but ventilating sewers I wish you would live at a great rate, and get it done as quickly as you can. Meanwhile, as we are convinced of the need of other things besides drainage, and as many of us expect soon to take our happy flight to a place where there are no sewers to ventilate, we shall look into those things which concern our future life, seeing they also fit us for the life which now is.

Up from Down Under

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I have arrived home from a delightful visit to the beautiful land of Australia. My first few days were in Sydney, where I preached at the Truth of the Gospel conference on the topic of "The Brokenhearted Evangelist." On the Lord's day, I was able to preach at the two sponsoring churches, Southern Districts Reformed Baptist Church and St Johns Park Baptist Church, with a couple of hours in between those meetings talking through some of the practical aspects of evangelism with some delightfully eager friends. Friends in Sydney seeking a spiritual home would be well advised to seek out these brothers.

While in Sydney, I was able to visit the Reformers Bookshop, stocked with good things and associated with Stanmore Baptist Church, and also met up with the purveyors of many good bookish things, Christian Books Australia.

From Sydney, I moved north to Queensland, where there was another brief opportunity to speak with the friends from Berean Bible Church and Samford Baptist Church about witnessing to the lost in their part of the world. Again, those in the region who are hungry for good spiritual food would do well to get in touch. It was then a privilege to gather at a family conference on "A Face Like a Flint: The Holy Determination of our Lord Jesus and His People," where I again received the kind of warm welcome that underlines the reality of the family imagery used of God's saints, as representatives from a number of local churches gathered for fellowship.

A long journey home sees me back in the groove here in sunny Crawley, getting on with the same business here as I see faithful men embrace in so many places. It is always a pleasant and profitable reminder to see the work of the kingdom going on in various locations, with the same realities of opportunity, obligation and obstacle.
Dear Church*,

In his book, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Graeme Goldsworthy remarked, "The act of proclaiming, or preaching, was not the giving of opinions or of reinterpreting old religious traditions in new and creative ways. It was proclaiming the word of God. Whatever the form of the proclamation, the content was the gospel of Jesus..." (32). Curiously, the Second Helvetic Confession uses different language to, perhaps, convey the same point. "The preaching of the word of God is the word of God. Wherefore when this word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very word of God is proclaimed..."

Do you believe this? I wonder if you do. Hopefully a glimpse from the pulpit will provide insight into my curiosity. 

Some of you sleep throughout the sermon. I would love to conclude that you have a medical condition causing this, but my initial investigation reveals contrary information. The truth is you are busy, busy with childrens' activities, employment, leisurely enterprises that keep you awake late on Saturdays, and a host of other events. It is no wonder you are falling asleep in church. She gets what remains of your energy and attentiveness, which are nearly absent. Perhaps reflection upon and implementation of this section of the Directory of Public Worship will help.

"In order to sanctify the day, it is necessary for [people] to prepare for its approach. They should attend to their ordinary affairs beforehand, so that they may not be hindered from setting the Sabbath apart to God. It is advisable for each individual and family to prepare for communion with God in his public ordinances. Therefore, they ought to do this by reading the Scriptures, by holy meditation, and by prayer, especially for God's blessing on the ministry of the Word and sacraments" (DPW 1.A.3.a-b).

Others of you enjoy lively Facebook and Twitter conversations during the sermon. I am surprised your conscience is not bothering you. I am, perhaps, equally surprised that no one in the pew is stopping you. Maybe they do not notice it, but I do. Sure, you may argue that you are simply reading your Bible on your iPhone. At times that may be true, but your Twitter and Facebook posts correspond to the exact time of my sermon, which gives me reason to believe you are doing more than reading along in your Bible. Can Twitter and Facebook wait? God is speaking. Are you listening?

I might ask the same question but from a different perspective to another group. I know there are many avid note takers in the congregation. I am thankful for your attentiveness, and perhaps taking notes helps you maintain focus, but I hope you know the ministry of the word is much more than information. It is not a classroom exercise. God actually ministers to you through the preaching of the word. That is, he is continually refashioning your heart into the image of the Son. Do you realize that, or have you concluded that sermons are simply another way to obtain knowledge and tell others what you know about the Bible?

These are some of the things I notice from the pulpit. However, if this is all I saw, I might remain in a state of discouragement. 

Many of you sit on the edge of your seat anticipating the progression of the sermon from point-to-point. I can tell, by your facial expression and body language, you are eager to hear the gospel. In fact, based on the conversations I have had with you, you live from Sunday to Sunday. You have embraced, as much as you are able, the words of scripture as mentioned in Hebrews 12:18-24. You recognize the magnitude of what is occurring each Lord's Day. Thank you. You provide encouragement as I minister God's word.
 
Parent(s), I know it can be difficult to have younger children in worship on the Lord's Day. They wiggle, talk, and fidget, but you keep them with you. I know it can be a struggle. Thank you for wrestling through the difficulties of having young children in service. They belong with us. Please do not feel obligated to leave worship at every little noise they make. They are children; we expect it. If people turn their heads to look at you in a dissatisfactory manner, ignore them. It is their issue, not yours. God speaks to them just as much as he does to adults. As you continue to push through these difficulties, rest assured it will not always be this way. As they get older you will have to worry about them less and less in the service.

Do you see what I see? Since most people do not get a glimpse from the pulpit, I wanted to share a few things that I notice.

*This is not directed at any particular church. Rather, it is a collection of observations ministers have shared with me over time.

Defending Eutychus

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A recent book enjoys the witty title, Saving Eutychus. The book itself is intended to encourage and assist preachers to preach engaging sermons in the hopes of preventing their congregations tumbling out of windows to their death, or something along those lines.

Please understand that I am all for preachers setting out to capture and hold the attention of their hearers, although I am slightly concerned that a number of recent books on this topic tend to focus on the homiletically mechanistic and rather bypass the spiritually dynamic aspects. Neither am I suggesting that its authors are ignorant of the slight unfairnesses inherent in the title to Paul and perhaps to Eutychus himself (maybe the cleverness of the title was just too enticing to pass by?).

However, I wonder if I might offer an interpretation of the passage that might rehabilitate both preacher and hearer?

The episode in question is recorded by Luke in the midst of a blizzard of evangelistic and edifying activity carried out by Paul and a fairly large crew of companions. They arrive in Troas were Paul has an opportunity to instruct the saints. Reading some popular interpretations, one might imagine that Paul begins to preach at a fairly typical hour - perhaps six or seven o'clock, let's say - finds himself a little carried away and gets his second wind at about 11pm. Still going strong at midnight, it's all a bit much for Eutychus, who - overcome with a mixture of boredom and weariness - finally loses the battle against sleep and rolls out of his window seat to his doom, almost literally preached to death. But not to worry! The apostle simply heals the chap, and - undeterred - cracks on unrelentingly with his sermon until daybreak. Insensitive Paul! Inattentive Eutychus! The obvious lessons? Preachers should not go on too long and should make sure they maintain the attention of their hearers, and/or hearers should care enough about the truth not to fall asleep while it is being preached.

But is that what is actually happening? I would suggest not.
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, "Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him." Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted. (Acts 20.7-12)
You will notice, first of all, when they meet: it is on the first day of the week. This is that day on which the risen Christ made a repeated point of meeting with his disciples to speak truth to them for their blessing. Although the language of breaking bread does not require us to understand that this is a worship service in which the Lord's supper will be celebrated, it is not an unreasonable supposition.

However, on this occasion, these saints have the privilege of Paul himself being briefly present with them, and he takes the opportunity to explain the truth. Now, it is clear that Paul preaches for some time, but it is also worth noting that we are not informed when he began preaching. That is important, because it might help us appreciate what is going on.

Could it be, then, that what we have here is a congregation of believers from various backgrounds gathering as opportunity provides? Several sources inform us that Eutychus was a fairly common name for slaves. If this were the case here, then we might suggest that Eutychus - together with several others of the same or different circumstances - has made his way to worship once his day's work is done, late at night or very early in the morning being the only times when such meetings could occur for the whole church. It may even be feasible to suggest that Eutychus has already met with the saints at dawn. Pliny the Younger, governor and arch-whinger of Bithynia-Pontus not many decades after these events, described Christians as being
in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to (do) any wicked deeds, never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of good food - but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Book Ten, Letter 96)
Without demanding this interpretation, I hope that a slightly more favourable portrait of Eutychus and Paul begins to emerge. On the one hand, this is not Paul preaching a long and dull sermon without regard for the capacity of the hearers. On the other, this is not dopey Eutychus who simply cannot sustain his interest, or who is too young and weak to keep up the pace.

More likely is that we have here a group of committed and earnest believers who are seizing their opportunity to hear the Word of God from that fruitful servant of the Lord, Paul, before he moves on. They meet when they have their chance, perhaps at the end of the working day (which might have been later for the slaves, not to mention others in an environment where health and safety legislation tended toward the minimal). They come weary but eager, lighting the lamps in the room to enable them to make the most of the brief hours available. Yes, they are tired (preacher and hearers alike). Yes, it is warm. But this is a rich opportunity, and they are eager to make the most of it.

Far from criticising Paul for preaching too long or commiserating with Eutychus for being subjected to such an ordeal, we ought to be commending these men for their appetite for fellowship with God and his people. Yes, young Eutychus does eventually succumb to the atmosphere, and fall from the window. But notice that - once restored - it is not as if everyone decides to call it a night. They keep going until dawn breaks, and there is no indication that Paul locked the doors and put Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus and Trophimus on the exits to prevent people leaving.

Leaving aside the practical issues of engaging preachers and engaged listeners, I wonder how eager we are to meet with God and his people on the appointed day to hear the truth explained, proclaimed and applied? How determined are we to make the most of our opportunities for worship? Are we ready to swap shifts or make up hours in order to meet with the saints? If necessary, either because of persecution or some other necessity, would you be willing to meet before dawn and after dusk in order to worship the Lord your God in company with his people?

Eutychus sets us a good example. To be sure, rolling over in our beds is a lot safer than rolling over in an open window, but - taking into account all the issues - I think Eutychus was with the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Perhaps such questions are already a live issue for believers in Islamic countries, for example, or in those nations where there is no notion of Christendom (please note that I am not commending the notion, just recognising its existence). These are challenges which converted children in godless homes must take into account, or those with unconverted spouses, for example.

So, let your sermons be engaging, and let your eyes be open, by all means, but - most of all - let your hearts be eager to be where God is making himself known through the preached word.

Ministering to the middle classes

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A little while ago, a friend wrote an article entitled "My Ministry is Harder Than Yours (and Other Lies We Tell)." The author, Mez McConnell, is a pastor in Edinburgh and one of the architects of 20schemes, a ministry seeking to establish gospel churches in some of the poorest communities in Scotland. Mez has a hard line to walk - straight as a die himself, he has to deal with the fact that his conversion story appeals to the seekers of the spectacular and that many people in more outwardly comfortable circumstances perversely think that there is a certain glamour to really hard ministry and, frankly, that helps to win some attention and some funds to the cause. After all, paying other people to go where you don't and do what you won't really eases the conscience.

One of the ways that Mez deals with this tension is to mock the middle classes. He is happy to do this in general and more specifically and personally. Recently, he lampooned (I can hear him sharpening the knives just because I used that word) the outlook and attitude of those who applaud him for having such a hard life. His response?
When I listen to men battling away around Europe (and the states) in well off areas, it makes me break out in a cold sweat.

How the heck do you evangelize in an area where everybody has a decent paid job, a nice place to live and possibly a car (or two) on the drive?

How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers?

How do you witness in an area where the average house price is over £250k? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism?

How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don't cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV?

Now that's hard.

That's more than hard. That, my friends, is brutal.
He went on to sing the praises of the straightforward, straight-speaking Schemer, the noble savage of the Edinburgh wilds, a square-jawed all-round good egg (come on, Mez, rise to the bait), open of heart and hearth.

Now that Mez has publicly admitted that I am harder than he is, I thought I might offer a friendly rejoinder - better, a supplement - to Mez's piece, confident that we probably see eye to eye on these things and the principles that underpin them.

I am writing not from the soft streets of Niddrie but from the rocky spiritual wastelands of middle England, from the London commuter belt, from . . . Sussex! Admittedly, I live in a 'new town' called Crawley, which has a reputation - perhaps unfairly - for being the local sinkhole (the descendants of London's dregs rehoused after the Second World War), so perhaps I get a little more credibility from those who count filth and crime as badges of honour. Indeed, Crawley is so little esteemed that one of the neighbourhoods to the east of the town, a richer part of this area, has removed the name from its signs so that it does not get dragged down to our level. That said, even though it is notoriously difficult to classify the middle classes (even the BBC says so), I don't think that there is much doubt that I try to reach many middle class people with the gospel. Many of my labours outside the church building are either in the town square, or door to door in a neighbourhood which calls itself - perhaps inappropriately - a village. Our church planting endeavours are currently centred on an undeniable village outside of Crawley that is the very picture of middle England. All this to demonstrate that I am, largely, in the environment that Mez describes as so unpromising a field for gospel labour.

And it is.

Mez's questions are good ones. He puts his finger on some of the real problems that exist. There is a carnal self-sufficiency that cushions many against the truth of the gospel. There is an educated arrogance that disdains the facts of scriptural revelation. You can encounter either a high parochialism that considers you to be and wants to keep you as a rank outsider (village life) or a sort of soulless suburbanity - the nurseries and daycare centres fill up first thing in the morning and then the place seems to lie empty until the school run (town life). Some streets seem designed to militate against community - houses with drives and garages but no paths that run from one property to the next. It is not just the homes that are detached and semi-detached, but the people themselves. Many of those to whom I speak are horrified at any suggestion that they are sinners. They love to look down their noses at the vulgar, and equate sin with a certain class of person, and certainly not their own. They are desperate to keep up appearances. They avoid admitting any need or weakness. Most speak to you through half-closed doors. Many have tasted religion, and found it empty or even bitter. They will put you off with polite fictions: they don't have time right now, or something similar. You say, politely, that you will try to come back another time. "That would be lovely," they say. Then you turn up again, and that's when they start getting offended - after all, you weren't mean to go back, it was all just a social game, surely? People fill their schedules with all the clutter of a comfortable life, so that they have a ready excuse not to chat, and a raft of excuses as to why they cannot give any time or effort to hearing more of the gospel. If you do get an opening, they might have a free window (delightful phrase!) in about three months time. Many homes are fenced, guarded and alarmed, and so are the hearts.

Truth be told, working in this environment only stokes the fires of my antipathy to the idea of a state church because so many of its teachings and practices at ground level militate against real and robust religion: witness the gentleman who informed me that he had been born as a Christian into a Christian home, baptised as a Christian, attended and served in a Christian church all his life, and certainly did not need someone like me telling him that he needed to be saved. I asked him how he faced the fact that the Bible tells him that he must be born again. "The Bible," he spat, "says no such thing," as he slammed the door in my face. I am not suggesting that this is true of all Anglicanism, but it is representative of the kind of Anglicanism and other ingrained religiosities, including Dissenting ones, that I face day after day. Mez says that people in the schemes are hostile to the church as an institution, a posh person's club: I have to contend with that and with the people who walk away because a simple nonconformist service is simply not churchy enough - they want more smells and bells.

But I would like to take you, for just a few moments, beneath the veneer, for that is all it is. And this is where I take issue with one of Mez's questions: "How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don't cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV?" You don't, because that's not the real world of middle England (or middle America, or anywhere else). (For the record, I know Mez knows this, and I know he's having a cheerful little dig at this point, but it is precisely this that I want to address.)

Stroll with me, briefly, down some of the streets I know. I would like to introduce you, anonymously, to some of the people I meet.

You see, behind those manicured lawns and mock-Tudor frontages, behind those nice townhouse exteriors, behind those saccharine portraits of domestic bliss, are hearts full of sin. The people I go to are not nice, law-abiding citizens. Some of the tensions and feuds between neighbours are scarcely believable, fought out with icy silences and letters to local authorities rather than with bottles and bats, though the tensions often break out in angry, vicious speech that would make a docker blush. There are women and men and children with bruised bodies and battered spirits, the victims of family members. There is the abuse that leaves bodies more or less intact, and souls crushed and lives trampled. These men do cheat on their wives, they cheat on them with their PAs and their secretaries and their colleagues, and with Mrs Smith across the street.

They will cheat and steal with the best of them, but these are crimes to be winked at. They substantially disregard the law when it cuts across their comfort or their schedule. There is a double standard that reigns in many, in which others are to be considered despicable, while they excuse precisely the same spirit in themselves. They will lie through their teeth, often very politely. There is widespread drunkenness. Some of the most outwardly and ostentatiously religious are loathed by neighbours for their cruelty and callousness. As far as the people around them are concerned, that is the Christian religion, it is synonymous with hypocrisy, and they have learned the hard way to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Worldly religion feels like the bane of the evangelist's life - it gives people every excuse they look for to spurn the truth. There are in-crowds who defend their social territory like Rottweilers. There is every world religion imaginable, in purer or more bastardized form, all manner of false gods and foolish notions. You might also be surprised at the prevalence of witchcraft and Wicca and occult practices - and not mere game-playing - in middle England.

But there is more. You learn to identify the homes where that beautiful sports vehicle on the drive is clearly a status symbol, purchased and maintained at the expense of any real home life in the expensive but crumbling property behind it. Perhaps sadder still is the decaying house and the rusting car, often indicative of the man or woman who has over-reached, and has no time to do anything but earn the wage that keeps them clinging to that rotting rung of the social ladder.

There is the man on the pleasant suburban street who opens the door, pale, sweaty and shaking, underdressed, looking like he has the mother of all hangovers or is craving his next fix, or both. There is the man who politely tells you that he has been involved in spiritualism for years, is a fully fledged medium, and he is happy to talk for a while, but you should be warned that it might not always be him who is speaking. There is the frightening number of people who are dabbling, more or less, in all manner of paganism and utter godlessness, creating "my own religion" out of a horrible and damnable hodgepodge of alternative spiritualities, a sort of pick'n'mix approach to the soul. There are those who have an aggressive disbelief - they do not want to know. There is the flagrant homosexual, who wants to flaunt his or her lifestyle choice as deliberately as possible. There are men who have a string of women coming and going, and women with the equivalent. Some of those nice homes are actually, literally, brothels. I can walk you down a street where there live, behind what seems like a delightful facade, a dying churchwarden who has no time for anything from outside his religious traditions, an angry and aggressive atheist who hates humankind and especially Christian humankind, a man who exists in utter disorder and thoroughgoing squalor, surviving - barely - on the benefits that run out sometime in the middle of every week, and a pleasant older couple, the wife disabled, the husband who dresses as a woman for their mutual entertainment most evenings. I can take you to the parks where the kids - from those nice, middle-class homes - mope about with a joint during the day, largely abandoned by parents; many of those same kids roam the streets at night, offering themselves body and soul to one another, seeking some kind of companionship where the family has utterly failed. There are porn addicts and sexual abusers and drug peddlers; there are desperate, highly-strung, cut-crystal families trying to keep it all together and to keep up with the Joneses. There are dear old ladies with a blue rinse who spit venom at you because you dare to call them sinners. There are pillars of society who warn you that they will call the police, or even threaten physical violence, unless you remove yourself before you are removed. There are the people who know it all, and who - in truth - know nothing of eternal value.

As Mez says, it is hard:
Hard is trying to build authentic community among a scattered congregation. Hard is trying to foster meaningful relationships in a diarised culture. Hard is trying to engage in spiritual conversations with disinterested individuals. Hard is not having the freedom to pop into your friends house uninvited because it might not be polite.
So, how do you evangelize? Exactly the same way as you do anywhere else: you go to the people around you, you speak to the people in front of you, you seek to communicate to them in an intelligent and intelligible way the reality of man's ruin through sin and redemption through Christ, relying on the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of the blind to the truth as it is in Jesus.

I think that Mez would agree with me that, truth be told, you cannot glamorise the gospel ministry in any place. The fact is this: up and down every country, behind every door and under every rock, in every social class, behind the make-up of the whore and the society princess, under the street uniform of the thug and the suit uniform of the banker, lurks precisely the same lifeless and sin-spewing heart. Every man and woman, boy and girl, is by nature dead in trespasses and sins. Every one of them lies beyond every power to deliver them apart from God working by his Spirit through the gospel of Christ preached to every creature. All of them need the good news. All of them have their own spiritual cladding, have concocted their own sinful and proud defences, have armoured themselves one way or another against the truth about God and about themselves. Perhaps I might borrow some words from an impeccable source to describe the universal state of things:
As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes." Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Rom 3.10-19)
Those are the facts. All the world is guilty before God; all the world needs the gospel. All are in darkness, and all need the light. That is the reality, wherever you are labouring. Every preacher engaging with the lost could tell you the same. As Mez sez,
please, let's not compare our ministries on who has it toughest.

I promise not to if you don't. Let's just get behind one another in concerted prayer and support. Let's get rid of this spiritual one up-manship and face the facts that it's all a privilege anyway.
However, Mez has already conceded the high ground. It is clear who are the real tough guys. What we do, we warriors of the up-class urbs and the beatific burbs, is "more than hard . . . [it] is brutal." We don't even have the glamour of being applauded because people (apart from Mez) think it's hard. So, if you want a really hard ministry, come and visit us here in Crawley. There is always more work; there are not so many workers.

Your spiritual appetite

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This day was the best that I have seen since I came to England. . . . After Dr. Twisse had begun with a brief prayer, Mr. Marshall prayed largely two hours, most divinely, confessing the sins of the members of the Assembly, in a wonderful, passionate, and prudent way. Afterwards, Mr. Arrowsmith preached an hour, then a psalm; thereafter, Mr. Vines prayed near two hours, and Mr. Palmer preached an hour, and Mr. Seaman prayed nearly two hours, then a psalm. After this, Mr. Henderson brought about a sweet discussion of the heated disputes confessed in the assembly, and other seen faults to be remedied. . . . Dr. Twisse closed with a short prayer and blessing.
So wrote Robert Baillie, one of the Scots commissioners at the Westminster Assembly, about one of the best days he had in England. Now, I can imagine all the caveats and contentions and complaints that might be thrown up if it were to be suggested that this is a good model for us to embrace or an implicit rebuke for us to face - different time, different men, different environment, specific situation, unusual demands, and so on and so forth.

It is not, therefore, my intention to set this up as some kind of gold standard for Christianity, but rather to ask a genuine question: is there anything in your spiritual appetite or mine that finds this prospect remotely appealing? Do we only think of caveats, contentions and complaints, or is there any awareness, perhaps any regret, that our appetites and capacities for preaching and prayer are not greater than they are?

Even if we suggest that such an appetite is an unusual high point, does it not at least suggest that our time and place might be more of an unusual low point? Would the prospect of a day given over to "wonderful, passionate, and prudent" prayers, interspersed with sermons and psalms, remotely whet our appetites?

When even a well-stocked Lord's day seems an unconscionable burden to many, I suggest that Baillie's appetite offers something of a corrective for our easily-satisfied, all-too-easily sated and therefore often-malnourished age. Can we say with Job, "I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my necessary food" (Jb 23.12)?

Guessing and gauging the street preacher

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A couple of interesting questions have come in following the recent piece on street preaching, and it might be helpful to offer some answers in this same environment.

First, no, I did not have any particular individual or group in mind when I wrote the piece. I began thinking it through a couple of weeks ago, and wrote it without studying or watching some of the more recent reports and pieces of footage, although I think some of them do bear out some of the comments and suggestions made. Also, bear in mind that a brother can be strong in some areas and not so robust in others, and often - for example - the gift that makes one man excellent in one-on-one discussions might not particularly equip him for preaching, or the same spirit that makes one man particularly clear in his gospel proclamations might make him a little cut-and-dried when interacting with the authorities. As I hope was plain, I have seen a number of men do things I think are sometimes unwise, and seek to steer clear of such mistakes myself. If the hat fits, wear it, but it was not designed for any one individual or group in particular.

Second, and more interestingly and valuably, someone asked about the relationship of the street preacher to the local church, and the matter of qualifications and calling. "Who," asks this thoughtful correspondent, "is qualified to open air preach?" It is a good question, and an important one.

Let me begin by stating that this is not the same issue as whether a man is qualified for the office of a pastor or elder. That is a different question, though it may at times be related. The Confession of Faith to which I subscribe, the 1677/89 Baptist Confession of Faith, states the following in its chapter on the church:
Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches to be instant in preaching the Word, by way of office; yet the work of preaching the Word, is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the church, may and ought to perform it. (26.11)
The texts offered as proofs are Acts 11.19-21 and 1 Peter 4.10-11, primarily proving the point that the preaching of the truth is not necessarily restricted to the elders of the church, but ought to be discharged by those gifted for and called to the work. Here the confession bears close resemblance to the Westminster Larger Catechism, which asks in Question 158, "By whom is the Word of God to be preached?" and answers, "The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office."

This makes plain that the questions of divine gift and equipment go alongside the issues of ecclesiastical approval and calling in the matter of preaching, but that a man might be gifted for occasional or regular preaching in a variety of circumstances without needing to meet all the qualifications set out in Scripture for the elders of the church, and may and should discharge that gift and responsibility in a responsible and appropriate fashion. In other words, street preaching, like all other preaching, should be exercised under authority and oversight and after proper evaluation of gift and grace.

Street preaching is too often the preserve of the proverbial loose cannon. It may be that the man in question is simply zealous but uninstructed, or perhaps he is a man who cannot or will not be governed, but who is not willing that his voice should not be heard (if the church will not give him a platform, he will go out and make one for himself). He sets himself up autonomously - "Me Ministries International" or "Fire on the Streets" or "The Bellowing Prophets of Doom" would be typical of this approach - and cracks on with the job, apart from or even despising any kind of church authority. But street preachers are not some kind of disavowed secret service, working beyond the fringes of the law by rules of their own making. We need to ensure that this work is exercised under government with appropriate oversight - specifically, that under all normal circumstances it is carried out by and under the auspices of a local church.

Such identification and appointment is not the same as ordination or induction, if you practice such things. It is a recognition that Christ has appointed a particular agency for the spread of the gospel in the world, and that agency is his church. Any man seeking to exercise a gift for the public proclamation of the gospel should begin by submitting himself to the care and discipline of a faithful church. That is the proper environment in which his gifts and calling can and should be assessed. If he cannot or will not do this, then he ought not to be involved in preaching anywhere, for a man cannot exercise authority until he proves that he can submit to it. Now, it is possible that in some circumstances a gifted man, called of God, might be prevented by an unfaithful church or a skewed authority from the proper exercise of his legitimate gift. I am not addressing that situation, because difficult exceptions and hard cases make poor laws. Is it possible that God should raise up a man to preach whose gift and calling is not recognised or will not be recognised? Yes. But we are speaking first of a normal, healthy situation. Note that even the apostle Paul did not go out on his journeys apart from or against the church: under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he was set apart by the church , sent out from the church, and went back to the church to report on the work that he had done.

So, the church - first and foremost - should be responsible for assessing and employing the gifts and graces of a man. At the very least, I would suggest that this requires the intelligent, engaged, consistent oversight of the elders, even if it does not demand the full and formal assent of the church. Any man who stands to preach on anything like a regular basis should give credible evidence of consistent godliness in his life. Other faithful saints - ideally recognised elders of the church - should be aware of both the matter and the manner of his ministry, and able to guide and advise as appropriate. Not least, street preachers need to be sending those stirred or converted toward the local church to be further counselled and instructed and cared for. The church should therefore identify the gifted man, pray for him, send him out, support him appropriately, hear his reports, and anticipate a blessing by his labour.

In practice, I recognise that this might involve tensions. In our experience, I sometimes work with men who are part of a more responsible parachurch organisation. The man who heads up the work is part of a local church in which his gifts have been recognised, and - fortunately - he himself has a robust view of the church. There are men from the church I serve who are involved with me in the work. Not all of them would wish to stand up and preach, but neither would we simply permit one of our men to decide autonomously that he wishes to preach, anymore than we would let him roll up into the pulpit on a whim or - under normal circumstances - than we would want one of our brothers to preach in another congregation without the involvement of both churches and their elders. We would want to encourage, assist and instruct such a man, but not simply abandon him or set him loose in the hope that he will not do too much damage. And if someone else rocked up on the street and asked to be involved, some of our first questions would be about his relationship to a faithful gospel church, because this is one of the ways in which we would determine his credibility as a gospel witness.

This brings us to the proper evaluation of gift and grace. Again, too often street preaching is seen as something apart from or even carried out despite the local church, a work that can be taken up by anyone with a bit of grit and gumption, as if zeal is the only necessary qualification for the work. Perhaps the church can give the impression that a chap might not be quite up to the pulpit in the gathered church, but that he can be safely shunted off to the street to work off his energies. I hope that - in the same way as no-one would think, "We would not want this man to be our pastor, so let's send him off to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named" - no-one will imagine that we put the less gifted or plain awkward men on the street as the place where they can cause least trouble. Identifying genuinely gifted men is the work of the whole church. If I might borrow and redirect the cogent words of the Baptist theologian, John Leadley Dagg, "Every man who believes alone, that he is called of God to the ministry, has reason to apprehend that he is under delusion. If he finds that those who give proof that they honor God and love the souls of men, do not discover his ministerial qualifications, he has reason to suspect that they do not exist" (Manual of Church Order [Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990], 248).

The church must therefore discharge this responsibility wisely and well. In doing so, we need to remember that there are degrees of grace and varieties of gift, and in this matter I would submit to the claims of clear revelation and sanctified common-sense. The street preacher must clearly be a soundly-converted man, one who knows and feels the gospel which he proclaims, wherever he does so. There are some particular aspects of the man's spirit worth considering. Unholy aggression, pride, hot-temperedness, machismo and bravado do not serve the man here any better than they do anywhere else. The church should not suspend its assessment of basic Christian graces under the impression that they matter less on the street than any other place.

With regard to practical qualifications, not everyone who is competent to stand in the pulpit and preach for 30, 45 or 60 minutes to a gathered congregation will be equally competent to preach on the street, and not everyone who is competent to preach on the street is necessarily equipped to preach from the pulpit. Of course, we would hope that there would be genuine and significant overlap. Nevertheless, it is possible that a man with a quickfire mind, catching at the attention of the people who hurry past in the street could not sustain the lively yet more systematic structure required to keep attention and make progress in the pulpit. Similarly, the man able to develop an engaging and reasoned discourse from the pulpit might be entirely flummoxed by the give-and-take of the street environment. Some men can do both, some either, some neither. Some of this can be learned, but some will be natural, and the church should take account of this. Again, zeal and desire are important, but are not the only consideration: a man might be full of zeal to play his rugby in the front row, but if he barely reaches five feet in height and weighs in at ten stone (140 pounds, American friends) then he simply has not been equipped for the task, and zeal must give way to prudence.

We must take account of the fact that the environment and dynamics are not the same as in the gathered church, and - while that does provide some room for manoeuvre - I would not go so far as to suggest that this suspends all normal principles for the proclamation of God's Word. I say this because I have heard it suggested that, for example, because it is not the gathered church, it would be appropriate for a woman to preach or 'speak' (i.e. preach but call it something else) on the street. I would not subscribe to this because of what I believe are the spiritual dynamics involved in the authoritative proclamation and application of the Scriptures. I recognise that in Acts 1.12-14 and 2.1-4, for example, all - including the women present - were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak." This is in accordance with the prophecy of Joel that  "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Jl 2.28) - they would all declare the saving truth, "speaking . . . the wonderful works of God" (Acts 2.11). However, quite apart from the different setting, I do not think that this act of witness necessarily involved authoritative public teaching. When the time came for that, it was Peter who stood up to make the case. So, while I am always delighted to have the sisters labouring with us in this sphere, I would not anticipate that they would be leading the teaching and preaching, though they would, I hope, be personally engaged with various people passing by, speaking with and to others the wonderful works of God.

Returning to the capacity to preach, testing the gift is always a good idea. While this might be done in measure in the Sunday School class, the pulpit, the small group, or some other similar environment, preaching on the street is sufficiently distinct in some of its dynamics that it may be that a man should be given his opportunity there as well to see whether or not he has some potential. In all this, remember that - as in any other assessment - the man in question does not need to be the finished article, nor (again) are you necessarily assessing him for the pastorate. But perhaps this is a sphere, alongside other appropriate environments, in which a gift can be nurtured and prompted, a way of developing a man's spiritual and practical capacities in ways that would not otherwise happen. It may be that, in due course, you might find yourself with a cohort of gifted, courageous, principled men, all of whom are likely to be better for the experience, and some of whom might in due course serve as pastors or function as evangelists, to the praise and glory of God and to the prosperity and good of his church.

In short, then, without confusing the capacity to preach with the call to shepherd the flock, a church with the opportunity or demand for this kind of witness - whether because there are gifts becoming manifest among the saints, or because the church and her elders see an opportunity, or some other good reason - should consider, assess and employ appropriately gifted men in the work, providing them with the kind of prayerful support that will make the most, under God, of their particular opportunities and capacities. The church should not relinquish this task to some other group or individual, nor abandon her zealous and gifted men to their best but isolated efforts. In this, as in all else, the church is responsible for the identification, nurture and employment of the gifts that Christ has given to her.

Thoughts on street preaching

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In recent weeks there has been a spate of arrests of Christian brothers in the UK involved in street preaching and other open-air witness. As someone who preaches in this way fairly regularly, this is obviously a matter of interest and concern, and that on a number of fronts. For the record, I do this because I think that it is a legitimate and potentially profitable way - one of many - of going outside the walls of our building to reach men and women, boys and girls, who have no appetite at present to come inside to hear the Word of God being proclaimed. I think we need to make a distinction between what we do in trying to gather a crowd to hear that gospel and what happened in, say, the Scriptures, when Christ had a crowd gathered with an appetite to hear him, or in the days of men like Whitefield when they were - initially - forced outside, and then had ready-made congregations. I also think we need to accept that, unlike somewhere such as the Areopagus, public discourse is no longer, in the culture of most in the modern West, an accepted mode of discussing and pursuing truth.

Street preaching is not necessarily the place to learn the art of preaching in its entirety, but it is a fine place to hone it, for it demands a liveliness and a vigour that you can get away with lacking in a pulpit where - generally speaking - most people are under sufficient cultural constraint to wait until the end of the sermon before they leave, however dry and dull you are. On the street (which must be distinguished from merely preaching to an attentive congregation outdoors) you have a moving congregation, and you must win and keep their attention, for the sake of their souls. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on street preaching. I do not pretend to be an expert, but an observer and practitioner, wishing to improve myself as well as help others.

Rights and liberties. Be aware of them, but don't make a song and dance about them, and don't go out determined to make an issue of and defend them. A hyper-defensive mindset is a good way to start a fight. In the UK there are helpful documents, drawn up by well-instructed Christians after careful research, that set out for your benefit, and - if need be - for the benefit of others, what you are entitled to do. Knowing this, and being able to respond intelligently if challenged, can be helpful.

Appearance. Clothing should be discreet and appropriate to the occasion. I am far from saying that an open-air preacher should always be in a suit and tie (indeed, given the appetite of certain cults for that kind of 'uniform,' it might be positively unhelpful). However, the open-air preacher should be, in essence, neat and neutral, neither shabby nor power-dressed, deliberately avoiding either extravagant or unintended statements by virtue of his dress. I say this because I think of one brother, a fairly energetic and loud preacher, who I have seen on more than one occasion preaching wearing a hoodie drawn up about his head, with the drawstrings pulled quite tight, and his hands thrust deep into his pockets, dragging the whole garment further down over his face. In most of the environments in which I saw him preach, that outfit gave him the appearance of little more than bellowing thuggishness in the eyes of most passers-by, and probably didn't endear him to anyone else wearing a hoodie either. Other men look, quite frankly, as if they have been dragged through a hedge backward. Appearing to belong in the ranks of the local odd-bods is not necessarily the greatest start to winning the ear of the man in the street. And if you stand up dressed like an Edwardian dandy or some other fop then you deserve everything that gets thrown at you, and I hope that you will soon stand down and let some sensible bloke get on with the business.

Voice. One of the great qualifications for street preaching is to be able to be heard, but that should not be confused with mere volume. After all, if you are bawling from the off, you have nowhere to go when you need to emphasise something. The great things to aim at are projection and penetration, with clarity and distinctness of speech at a premium. Extreme and sustained volume will make the most earnest pleading sound to some ears like little more than a harangue. Personally, I would avoid amplification: it tends to deaden the nuance of the voice, is difficult to judge, can be objectionable in itself, and is - in some instances - easily challenged as to its legality or appropriateness. Indeed, I know of one brother whose preaching is barely above the conversational level, and yet people come over to him in order to hear what he is saying. Bear in mind, too, the need for wisdom in adaptation. If you are preaching to a milling or streaming crowd, then a little more volume and projection is appropriate. But what if someone comes over to engage in more deliberate conversation, or you gather a little knot of more interested hearers? That will do its own attracting, and to continue preaching or speaking at the same level is to seem aggressive at the very least. Speak so as to be heard by those around you and a little beyond, and don't keep bawling at someone standing three feet away from you - it is unlikely to seem gracious to them or to others observing.

Verbal tics and physical mannerisms. These will be mercilessly lampooned on the street. Here the sanctimonious will be rapidly punctured and the posturing will be mocked. This is an arena in which, if not your sins, at least your foibles and idiosyncrasies will find you out. Here you will be given opportunity, whether you wish it or not, to be made aware of your tics and mannerisms, and be stirred to urgency in getting them under control. Be especially aware of rote ideas and stock or involuntary phrases. I know countless men who start well, get going, run out of steam, and immediately revert to the Ray Comfort, "Have you ever told a lie?" school of engagement. I am not here commenting on the helpfulness or otherwise of that approach, but it certainly militates against freshness and engagement when it becomes the default mode, either as the invariable starting point or whenever you have an empty head and a dry mouth. I also know some brothers who, when heckled, seem to be in the habit of verbally geeing themselves up. Perhaps they believe that they are acknowledging the contribution, but yelling something like, "Come on then!" whenever someone responds to you rather suggests - in my world, at least - that you are itching for a fight rather than willing to engage in a discussion, and escalates any trouble fairly rapidly.

Location.
Go where there are people, but do not make yourself unnecessarily obnoxious by assaulting a captive audience. For example, if you set up right next to an open-air café or coffee shop, you trap people who have no option but to hear: your fishing for souls becomes the equivalent of dropping dynamite into a barrel of the soggy beasties. Make sure that you are not on private property without permission, and be aware of various byelaws. For example, the place where I often preach is a thoroughfare where we have every right to be. If I move a few yards on I enter an equally public space where the local authority have a measure of additional jurisdiction to which I would be subject. Some like to use a board to provide a focal point (having some kind of statement that you have watched it for ten minutes in breezy conditions and it did not fall down might help if you get accosted by a health-and-safety Nazi); others simply stand and speak. Being visible is obviously helpful, but the habit of invariably standing on a small box to shout in an empty street is a bit pointless. There are times and places where a little elevation is a great advantage, but if you are of normal height, you will be fairly visible to most people most of the time. Getting on the box can make you seem intimidating, desperate, or simply silly. If you wish to, stand near a wall or some other construction, so that - if a crowd should gather - you have something to get on if you need it (bear in mind that being able to get on it nimbly and keep on it easily are of the essence here). Incidentally, keep an eye on your stuff, even to the extent of keeping your eyes open while praying: those with an animus against you or a ripe sense of mischief will gladly disappear with your gear while you are pleading for their souls.

Helpers. It is a good idea to have others with you, and not just to keep a permanent video record of your shenanigans. The preacher is, if you will, casting the net, but it does no harm to have a few brothers and sisters nearby with a hook and line, as it were, following after the ones and twos who pause for a moment. Those with you can pray, take turns preaching, hand out leaflets, head off trouble, and all other kinds of good things. Scatter them about and/or gather a few when you begin preaching: if you take a congregation of sorts with you then you always have someone to preach to, and often people will be happier to stop, even briefly, if they feel that they can be one largely hidden among others.

Style. You are not now in the pulpit with a group of people more or less willingly gathered to hear the Word of God preached. Quoting chapter and verse is likely to slow you down, and will not convince anybody (whatever you do, don't invite passers-by to turn with you to the second chapter of Hosea, or some other part of Scripture that many Christians struggle to find). Your approach must be condensed and concentrated, a model of well-governed intensity. Sometimes you will have barely a minute, often less, in which to get your points across, to grab the ear and grip the heart. Every segment of your sermon, more or less, needs to be a gospel grenade. Forget your rolling periods, weighty pauses, and great swelling paragraphs - they will not cut it on the street. Your notions of homiletics, in which, perhaps, a series of points builds to a great crescendo and telling conclusion, is worthless in an environment in which - until you have a group of people actually listening to you - much sense of development and structure is unhelpful. Your whole sermon must be a mass of gospel fishhooks baited with vivid words and pungent truths. Pointed and engaging illustrations and a bit of genuine wit will get you far. Get plenty of Bible into your words. Your gestures should not be remarkable for the forced, the theatrical, the manic or the grotesque - you are set out for display as a whole person, and there is nothing to hide behind, so you need to exercise control over all your limbs and use them naturally and effectively.

Attitude. Some brothers seem persuaded that aggression is a sine qua non for street preaching, but that is far from the truth. There are some who appear to labour under the conviction that they are called to make a scene rather than move a soul. Their whole manner is one that speaks of belligerence, forgetting that Christ's sons of thunder were, on at least one occasion, soundly rebuked for their destructive spirit. These are the men who seem to imagine that if they have only managed to get into some kind of argument, only succeeded in stirring up some kind of antagonism, they must be doing their job well. They seem intent on venting a measure of unholy spleen, determined harshly to probe the sensitivities of all who pass by at their most tender spot, and then applauding themselves because they are convinced that the resulting negative reaction is expressive of a heart set against God. Consider that the reason for such a reaction might just be that you are an offensive troll whose mission to stamp on as many toes as possible in the name of God has been overwhelmingly successful. Just because truth came from the mouth of Balaam's donkey does not make your behaving like an obstreperous ass somehow virtuous. You are there to do these men and women and children good: lifeboats and coastguards would not improve their success rates if manned by rough and angry personnel with harsh voices and complaining spirits.

So bear in mind that arrest is not the ultimate badge of honour for the open-air preacher, some unassailable confirmation of spiritual faithfulness, the ministerial equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Sadly, some preachers seem to think that there is some scale of awards in which the more they are abused or restricted, the more effective and faithful they have been:

"Somebody yelled at me the other day."

"Oh, that's nothing, I got spat at a few weeks ago."

"Really, well, they threw something at me just last month."

"All terrible, no doubt, but I got asked by the local authorities to move on."

"Gentlemen, I . . . [pause for effect] . . . I have been . . . arrested!" [Gasps of awe and a smattering of applause for the esteemed brother.]

I have seen and heard some and of some who, as soon as they are challenged by someone, invite them to call the police if they have a problem. Now, if that isn't unhelpful, kindly fax me an explanation of what is! Or, the police turn up to have a word, and the immediate response is to get up on one's high horse (tricky if you are already standing on a small box, but I have seen some brothers attempt it with panache), strike the martyr pose (again, if you are already on a box on your high horse, this becomes quite a high risk approach), and state that you are exercising your rights as a citizen and as a Christian, and the only way to muzzle you is to arrest you. Brother, you are probably not (yet) Bunyan before the magistrate. I know that some police officers, appointed to keep the peace and enforce the law, have mistaken themselves for moral guardians in accordance with the spirit of the age. Nevertheless, a friend of mine with the Metropolitan Police assures me that most of the police are likely to apply some sort of 'attitude test' - a bolshy street preacher invites his own trouble. A soft answer turns away wrath (Prv 15.1), and we would do well to learn that a calm explanation, a readiness to find another location, or perhaps - in some circumstances - even a willingness to come back another day, avoids unnecessary trouble. Stirring up trouble and inviting arrest is not being persecuted for righteousness' sake, but bravado. "Ah, but I was forbidden to preach Christ!" Really, was that before or after you made a stroppy nuisance of yourself? Often, they are not even forbidding us to preach, and - although I freely acknowledge that we should not bow to illegitimate pressures - a gracious response can defuse the situation, win the appreciation of the coppers in question, and spare us to fight another day. We are in danger of provoking conflicts that do not need to happen. When the time comes, by all means stand up for your right to make Christ known, but do not precipitate the confrontation before the hour arrives. Being arrested does not prove in itself that you are faithful or effective, it can draw precisely the wrong kind of attention, and it jeopardises not only your continued work but the work of others like you. The same Bible that tells you that all men will speak well of you only if you are in the train of the false prophets (Lk 6.26) tells you also to live at peace with all men, if you can (Rom 12.18), and to pray for those who exercise authority in the hope "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (1Tim 2.1-2). We are sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves. "Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Mt 10.16).

Substance. Brothers, when we preach, let us preach the gospel! You and I must not be mere noisemakers or Bible bawlers. Most of the faithful and earnest men who go about this work are not likely to smooth the edges of their messages, telling everybody who goes by that they are doing well and God will be pleased with their efforts. But some do swing to the opposite extreme. So remember that you are not the first chapter of a minor prophet on a bad morning, delivering God's message of judgement to his disobedient nation. You are an ambassador of Christ, pleading with men to be reconciled to God, a true minister of the new covenant. You must be a thoroughly evangelical evangelist - yes, that ought to be a tautology, but too often the evangelist leaves the evangel in the bottom of his bag. You are setting out to convince the lost of their lostness and to see them safe to Christ. You must, to be sure, set out the convicting context of the gospel, showing that - before God, and measured by his holy law - none is righteous, no, not one; you must set forth the glorious substance of the gospel, that God has revealed his own righteousness apart from the law, which is by faith in Jesus Christ; you must set forth the demanding invitations of the gospel, calling on sinners to repent and believe in order that they might obtain life eternal. You are not there to expose the flaws of the government, although if there are governors and officials in your audience, you might address them. You are not there to deride the culture, although you might identify the participation of your hearers in its sins. You are not there - and I hear this kind of thing too often - as God's official representative to light the touchpaper on all the flashpoints of our society. I am not saying that, to choose the most obvious and most harped-upon issue, that we should ignore homosexuality, but if you want someone to start yelling about hate crimes and start a real fight with you, this is one of the best places to start. So why start there? Why deliberately bait the vast majority with something that is going to stop them hearing the real content of your message? The prevalence of homosexuality in our society is more of a symptom of a disease than its cause. To make it the primary point of contact is like a doctor working himself up over a temperature rather than diagnosing and prescribing antibiotics for an infection. Strike at the heart! Do not fudge the truth, but do not pick fights. If men must be offended, at least let them be offended by the gospel you proclaim, and not by other matter that you have managed to be offensive about, or the offensive manner in which you go about proclaiming the truth or anything else. Let it be the truth as it is in Jesus which cuts men to the heart, whether it leads to them gnashing their teeth at you or crying out in desperation, "What shall we do?" There is plenty of straight talking about sin and wickedness that, if the Spirit carries it home to men's hearts, is going to stir up trouble: why pick the things that will stop men's ears before they actually hear what they need to, and face their particular sins? Street preaching is not a sustained harangue or an attempt to berate all who pass by. It is going out as Christ's proxies to further the seeking and the saving of those who are lost. If I am going to be heckled or spat at or arrested or beaten or whatever it may be, I want it to be for the right thing done in the right way, and not just because I managed to get someone's goat.

Having said all that, I shall probably be arrested next time I go out, but I hope and pray not. Ideally, I shall go on learning to preach Christ to those who either have never heard of him or who have no accurate idea of who he is and what he has done. I shall seek to proclaim Christ as crucified within and without the walls of the church building by all legitimate means that I can discern and employ, in accordance with my gifts and calling. I shall attempt to do so winsomely, accurately and courageously, to the honour and glory of God. If I must suffer for doing so, I hope that the Lord will give me grace to bear it well and respond to it righteously. And I hope that these thoughts will help those who are or think that they might be street preachers to do the same things to the same ends, always with much prayer and in dependence on the Holy Spirit, and so see many souls brought to Christ.

Press on for the "Well done!"

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Another snippet from Fuller, this time from an ordination sermon from Matthew 25.21, concerning the work and encouragements of the Christian minister. As he does often in such writings, Fuller fixes his eye on the last day and the great prize:
Place yourself in idea, my brother, before your Lord and Master, at the last day, and anticipate the joy of receiving his approbation. This is heaven. We should not study to please men so much as to please God. If we please him, we shall please all who love him, and, as to others, they are not on any account worthy of being pleased at the expense of displeasing God. It is doubtless gratifying to receive the "Well done" of a creature; but this in some cases may arise from ignorance, in others from private friendship; and in some cases men may say, "Well done," when, in the sight of Him who judges the heart, and recognizes the springs of action, our work may be ill done. And even if we have done comparatively well, we must not rest satisfied with the approbation of our friends. Many have sat down contented with the plaudits of their hearers, spoiled and ruined. It is the "Well done" at the last day which we should seek, and with which only we should be satisfied. There have been young ministers, of very promising talents, who have been absolutely nursed to death with human applause, and the hopes they inspired blighted and blasted by the flattery of the weak and inconsiderate. The sound of "Well done" has been reiterated in their ears so often, that at last (poor little minds!) they have thought, Surely it was well done; they have inhaled the delicious draught, they have sat down to enjoy it, they have relaxed their efforts, and, after their little hour of popular applause, they have retired behind the scenes, and become of little or no account in the Christian world ; and, what is worse, their spirituality has declined, and they have sunk down into a state of desertion, dispiritedness, and inactivity, as regards this world, and of uncertainty, if not of fearful forebodings, as to another .... My brother, you may sit down when God says, "Well done!" for then your trust will be discharged; but it is at your peril that you rest satisfied with any thing short of this. Keep that reward in view, and you will not, I trust, be unfaithful in the service of your Lord. (Complete Works, 1:499-500)

Hall of fame

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On the plane to Glasgow yesterday I enjoyed finishing off Robert Hall Sr.'s Help to Zion's Travellers, edited by Nathan Finn (Borderstone Press, from Amazons US and UK). It is a volume developed from a sermon preached by Hall in 1779. In that sermon, Hall - as a man himself wrestling through the issues associated with a full-orbed embrace of thoroughly evangelical Calvinism - set out to identify, describe and remove the various stumbling blocks that Christians like himself might encounter on their way to the heavenly Jerusalem.

It is truly pastoral preaching. Hall's starting point is Isaiah 57.14, from which he develops his theme before addressing difficulties that arise from doctrine, difficulties arising from personal experience, and difficulties that arise from practice (often the erroneous practice of professing Christians). These are not expository sermons, in the sense that they are not simply unpacking the truth of a particular portion of Scripture, but they never stray from the substance of Scripture and never lose sight of the intention of Scripture. Though from time to time Hall shows himself a work in progress, and though some of the language of his distinctions has been superseded by different phrasing, it is rich spiritual food for the hungry or hurting soul. Even today, there are many who might profit from Hall's persistent and thorough handling of various objections and concerns. If we do not struggle with all these ourselves, those of us who preach would do well to ask ourselves whether or not we have the same pastoral sensitivity and insight, genuinely helping sinners into the way and along the way to the city above.

In one typically delightful section, dealing with the doctrine of election, Hall casts a portion of a chapter into the form of a Q&A:
Q. What hath he done?
A. "Who hath blessed us."
Q. With what hath he blessed us?
A. "With all spiritual blessings."
Q. Where are those blessings deposited?
A. "In Christ."
Q. Where may seeking souls expect to find and enjoy them?
A. "In heavenly places" (or things).
Q. According to what does he proceed in the bestowment of such special privileges: is it owing to our choice of him?
A. No; but "according as he hath chosen us in him."
Q. When?
A. "Before the foundation of the world."
Q. But did he choose us because we were holy, or because he foresaw we should be so?
A. No; but "that we should be holy."
Q. Did he then intend that all such should be made completely holy?
A. Yes, and "without blame before him in love."
Q. And is everything aforesaid completely secured?
A. Yes, "having predestinated us."
Q. Predestinated to what?
A. "Unto the adoption of children."
Q. By, and to whom?
A. "By Jesus Christ himself."
Q. What is the source of such favours, or from whence do they flow?
A. "The good pleasure of his will."
Q. In what does the whole terminate, or to what does it lead?
A. "To the praise of the glory of his grace."
I am not saying that everyone can or should preach like Hall, but perusing a volume like this challenges us as to whether or not we are doing more than imparting knowledge to men: are we equipping and guiding them, feeding and helping them, genuinely shepherding them by means of the Word preached so that they might travel safely and healthily along the pilgrim path?

A preacher's nightmare

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Like many dreams, the details began to fade very rapidly, only a few of them sticking, but the vivid impression remains.

In this dream, I had (I presume) been invited to preach. I knew the building, more or less. It housed a congregation that I was a part of at some previous point of my life, and yet it was something more, or less, or both, than I remembered. If I recall correctly, there had been some kind of event during the afternoon, and I was due to preach in this building in the evening. For some reason I walked there, and for some reason I needed to use my hands for walking, climbing awkwardly up a slope to get to the place. Arriving, I needed to change to preach, so I went to the gent's to get suited and booted. There were a number of people I recognized, but it was not where I would have expected to see them. Worst, there was a lady who was very insistent that she be allowed to use the bathroom for something, leaving all the brothers slightly discombobulated, to say the least.

As a result of this kerfuffle, it took me a long time to get ready. Incompetences multiplied, and the time to begin the service sailed by. I could hear the congregation singing to fill the time, and then the beginning of some extravagant children's contribution to the service (I told you it was a nightmare). Eventually they came looking for me, and it still took me another five minutes to get near the pulpit.

They were kind and welcoming, but frazzled. I got out my Bible and looked for my notes. They were there, but for some reason, in addition to the usual single sheet, I had a collection of other stuff, including a large picture one of my sons had drawn. I put it all on a lectern, looking up to discover that they were trying to move or perhaps even dismantle the main pulpit so that I could put the lectern in the centre, which I did, pulling out some cabling as I went. Somebody was asked to pray, and did, and I waited for the signal to begin, only realising that I had had it when someone in the congregation told me to get on with it. Beginning to preach, I discovered that I was still wearing some additional items of clothing; no wonder the tie felt lumpy. Getting them off (yes, apparently I had two additional upper garments entwined about my person) caused further havoc in the pulpit.

My text was from John's Gospel. In the dream I knew it (I remember preaching the sermon), but it has gone. I can tell you that I could not find my text nor coherently read it. Trying to preach, I kept getting the note sheet lost in the other junk on the lectern. Eventually I tried to put the bulk of the other material down, turning back only to discover that I had put my notes down as well. Could I find them again? I have a vague sense that after five minutes scrabbling through the papers, I discovered them in my Bible all along. Incidentally, that lectern which I had commandeered was unstable, and between its rocking in the uneven place I had put it and my antics, it kept shifting. On more than one occasion it almost went over the edge of the platform, which I now recall was unusually precipitous.

I had no rapport with anyone in the congregation. There were others with me in the pulpit, and I could sense them whispering, wondering if there was some way to put me out of my misery (not literally, but it might have been). I even remember going through that weird detached level of thought that preachers have in the pulpit, the one several levels up that enables you to keep preaching while noticing that Mrs Jones has just left the room for third time, that the noise from the nursery is increasing, and still allows space for you to wonder about where this sentence is going, what you are about to say . . . and then that extra layer that begins to assess the preaching as it is happening. Well, it was that layer and - shame to say - what I was wondering was whether or not I should just claim to be ill, and then another layer in which I began to wonder if I was ill, and didn't realise it. And all the while the sermon was heading south at an unusual rate of knots.

I could not think for the sermon, speak a coherent sentence, follow a logical train of thought, communicate a single clear notion, or press home a remotely helpful application.

Now, some might say that elements of this preacher's nightmare are not too far removed from the truth of my experience, whether I realise it or not. Indeed, it is quite possible that many congregations amuse themselves through my sermons by imagining ways of putting me, and - incidentally - themselves, out of our collective misery. Perhaps I should also make clear that I do not tend to dream about preaching, and that I do not take this as a portent of any sort. However, it has left an impression, and some painful reminders, but not the one that springs to mind about getting an insight into the life of Levy.

First, I am reminded that I am always somewhere along the spectrum of inadequacy. Though I may not usually be quite this far along, it is always true that, in some way, more or less, I fall short of a full and accurate proclamation of the grace and glory of God in Christ in my preaching. And, though the Lord can use our most stumbling efforts, it is still a painful thing to be a preacher.

Second, this is what I could be at any given moment. I do not claim to be a great pulpit orator, but I think I can genuinely say that I am not usually quite as bad as my dream painted me. Yet I could be, easily. If ever I am anything more than this, it is because of the goodness of God. Whatever natural gifts I have are bestowed by him. Whatever competence I may enjoy in the exercise of those gifts is granted by him. Whatever profitable clarity of thought and word I manifest is because of the Spirit's help. Whatever coherence of pulpit presence and action I demonstrate is his kindness. Left to myself, I am nothing, a human wrecking ball smashing up the divine revelation. I depend entirely upon God. Our sufficiency is of him.

Thirdly, and at face value more prosaically, I am reminded to be prepared. There is a difference between the spiritual expectation of divine help in a moment of genuine need and a carnal anticipation that you can wing it and the Holy Spirit will act as your safety net. Timeliness, orderliness, preparation of self and substance in dependence on God - none of this is to be ignored or overlooked as the preacher readies himself for his labours.

The most gifted of Christ's servants may stumble. (I recall reading of Spurgeon preaching in Scotland to a vast crowd, and confessing - as he meandered painfully and haltingly along the way - that the chariot wheels had fallen off, an experience that sent him to his God, and - interestingly - to the notes of previous sermons, as he decided to ride a well-broken horse for a day or two.) The stumbling dents our pride and teaches us what we cannot learn apart from adversity and failure. I only wish I could learn it all from dreams.

Plainness in preaching

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The Word of God must be preached plainly and simply, not in allusions and doubtful terms, not in innuendoes and learned phrases; not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but in words which the Holy Ghost teacheth; not with the refinements of the schools, but so that the women, and children, and simple people may understand. Baxter said that if ministers had sinned in Latin, he would have written his Reformed Pastor in Latin ; but as they had sinned in plain English, he must write in plain English also. Some of Romaine's people thought his style of preaching too plain and common, and requested him to display a little more learning in the pulpit. Accordingly, the next opportunity, he first read his text in Hebrew, saying, "I suppose scarcely any one in this congregation understands that." He then read it in Greek, and added, "There may be one or two that understand me now. I will next read it in Latin." He did so, and said, "Possibly a few more may comprehend me, but the number is still very limited." Last of all he repeated the text in English, and said, "There, now, you all understand it; which do you think is best? I hope always so to preach that the most ignorant person in the congregation may understand me." Orton says : "I believe many ministers over-polish their sermons. . . . The words of God are those that must reach the heart and do the work." J. Brown, of Haddington, remarks : "So far as I have observed God's dealings with my soul, the flights of preachers have entertained me ; but it was Scripture expressions that did penetrate my soul, and that in a manner peculiar to themselves." Thomas Watson says of the Baptist: "John did not preach so much to please as to profit. He chose rather to show men's sins than his own eloquence. That is the best looking-glass, not which is most gilded, but which shows the truest face." Luther: "To preach simply is high art. Christ does it himself. He speaks of husbandry, of sowing seed, and uses simple peasant's similes. Albrecht Dürer, the famous painter, used to say he 'had no pleasure in pictures that were painted with many colors, but in those that were painted with choice simplicity.' So is it with me as to sermons." The old English bishop was right when he said, "Brethren, it will take all our learning to make things plain." It is not true that "a clear idea is a little idea." Whately says: "Bacon is a striking instance of a genius who could think so profoundly, and at the same time so clearly, that an ordinary man understands readily most of his wisest sayings ; and perhaps thinks them so self-evident as hardly to need mention. But, on reconsideration, you perceive more and more how many important applications one of his maxims will have, and how often it has been overlooked ; and on returning to it again and again, fresh views of its importance will open on you. One of his sayings will be like one of the heavenly bodies that is visible to the naked eye, but in which you see more and more the better the telescope you apply to it. The 'dark sayings' of some other famous writers, on the other hand, may be compared to a fog-bank at sea, which the mariner, at first glance, takes for a chain of majestic mountains, but which, when he turns his glass upon it, proves nothing more than a shapeless heap of unwholesome vapors. When such maxims accordingly are translated into ordinary language, they too often lose the appearance not only of wisdom but of sense. And the attempt to put them into any shape in which they can be intelligently applied to practice is like trying to make a comfortable dress out of some very old piece of brocade, that looks rich and sound in the chest, but when you bring it to the light, and shake out its folds in the air, the colors fly, and the fabric falls to tatters in a moment."

The great object of preaching is the manifestation of the truth so as rightly to impress it on every heart.

From "The Manner of Preaching" in William Plumer, Hints and Helps in Pastoral Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2003), 163-165.

The preacher's vocal hygiene

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No, not advice about brushing your teeth regularly, flossing wisely, or avoiding Stilton and garlic soup before that pastoral visit - that would be oral hygiene. This is - to give it its technical name - vocal hygiene: keeping the voice healthy. My mind is upon it because of my present schedule and circumstances. At the moment, a regular weekend sees me preaching and teaching four or five times: on Saturday, I would hope to be out preaching and speaking in the open air (although it may be more low-key door-to-door work). Then, on the Lord's day, there is an adult Sunday School that I am currently taking, either or both the morning and the evening meetings, and then, on Sunday afternoons, an evangelistic meeting in a village outside the town where I serve. All of this places a certain demand on the voice. In addition, with weekly church meetings and outside engagements, extra burdens are laid on the preacher's vocal apparatus.

Now, that would require a certain level of care under normal circumstances, but just yesterday I spent a not-altogether-comfortable three minutes with a tube up my nose and down into my throat while a very helpful doctor had a quick dekko at the Walker vocal chords. Without going into details, the last couple of years have seen me occasionally afflicted with a couple of things that have, at times, made the voice suffer, and I needed to be checked out.

The voice is the preacher's primary tool, and we need to keep it in good condition. Reminded of and freshly and uncomfortably impressed with some of the elements of vocal hygiene, and being very willing to help other preachers keep their voices healthy, and equally to spare anyone the experience of a doctor inserting what looks and feels like a car aerial into your nasal cavities, or worse, herewith some counsels (garnered over many years) on vocal hygiene tailored to the preacher, arranged topically, some or all of which may be helpful to some. A lot of it is sanctified common-sense, and I should imagine that most preachers do most of it almost naturally.

Food and drink

  • Drink plenty of fluids (not including tea, coffee, alcohol or fizzy drinks, all of which, in various ways and to various degrees, can damage or constrain the vocal chords; also bear in mind that milk can increase catarrh; chocolate mixes the effects of caffeine and dairy - bonus!). Aim to drink 3-4 pints of water (a little more than 2 litres) daily, more if you do a lot of vocal or other exercise. If you can, sip rather than gulp.
  • If you take water into the pulpit, keep it at room temperature. Ice-cold water may be refreshing in other ways, but the cold water will constrict your throat and tighten your vocal chords.
  • Eat regular meals, and try to eat a balanced diet. Avoid eating late at night. Irregular and/or unhealthy eating encourages indigestion, which may affect the voice, not least through acid reflux damaging the throat.
  • Avoid eating (especially much) or gulping drinks shortly before preaching (some recommend a gap of two or three hours after meals). Once preaching begins to exercise the diaphragm and stomach muscles, you might be awkwardly revisiting what you recently ingested.
  • Avoid irritants such as spicy foods and alcohol.

Physical
  • Bear in mind that preaching can be and often is intense physical exercise as well as spiritual and emotional and mental. Expect it to have a draining effect on your whole humanity.
  • Sleep well and sufficiently if you can, as being tired will affect your voice in the same way that it would affect any muscular performance.
  • If possible, obtain some instruction from a teacher on using your voice. There are books available for singers and actors which can assist with matters like breathing and projection.
  • Try to avoid habits of coughing or clearing your throat.
  • Practice breathing from the abdomen and speaking from the diaphragm rather than from the throat, which not only restricts your range but also places additional strain on your voice.
  • Develop an awareness of your natural pitch, tone and volume, and the full, appropriate range of them.
  • Remember that the key to being heard is not volume but projection. Do not confuse the two. You can project a near-whisper so as to be clearly heard and you can swallow a shout so that it goes nowhere.
  • Speak clearly and with crisp diction. This will go a long way to helping you to be heard and understood, especially by those with hearing problems.
  • Cardio-vascular and muscular exercise can and should improve your lung capacity, breath regulation and conduction, and general physical conditioning for the act of preaching.
  • Relax and prepare your throat by doing proper abdominal breathing (essentially, where your stomach is moving and your chest is not) and by warming up your voice. Try speaking and singing on the way to preach: start softly, work up and down and round in volume, pitch and tone - singing scales are fine. You might do the same on the way home.
  • The nervous tensions and strong emotions working through the preacher's frame have a significant effect on the whole body, and can cause strain in your neck, throat, jaw or chest. Be aware of clenched teeth, constrained lungs, constricted throat, high shoulders and so on as indicators.
  • Do not clench your teeth or hold your jaw tense. Keep your jaw, face and neck appropriately relaxed as you speak.
  • As much as possible, breathe naturally when preaching. Allow your lungs to fill properly and empty normally. Do not hold your breath, or squeeze or push out your voice.
  • Many preachers, especially when nervous or excited, speak too quickly over sustained periods. Speak more slowly, pausing at natural boundaries in your speech, allowing the breath to be replaced.
  • Pause between sentences, especially if you find yourself becoming breathless, and wait for your breathing to provide for good voice production.
  • Speak in shorter sentences, especially if you find yourself squeezing out the last few words of longer thoughts without sufficient breath.
  • Avoid harsh or sudden sounds, especially toward the beginning of a sermon.
  • Take care with singing before preaching - remember that you could strain your voice before you even get to the sermon.
  • Allow your sermon material to dictate your vocal peaks and troughs. Let your voice help accurately to communicate the content of your sermon. This should give you the full range and scope of voice - volume, pitch and tone - that you need. Allow your voice to colour your sermon.
  • Beware of falling into the pattern of sustained peaks - high vocal plateaus - that put a strain on your voice and the congregation's ears.
  • Use the full natural range of your voice. Do not speak in a monotone at any point on the scale or register, and do not allow your voice to drop so unnaturally low that it becomes gravelly. It does not sound as impressive as you think and is probably doing damage.
  • If necessary, allow your register to change as pitch rises and drops.
  • Speak at a normal, comfortable pitch and do not force your voice beyond it. Start with a normal, more conversational tone projected for the environment, and allow it to develop as the substance of the Word and the help of the Spirit provide.
  • Some sermons, themes, or occasions will demand greater vocal investment and strain than others. Do not be ashamed to raise your voice and use its full capacity as appropriate, but avoid the reality or appearance of shoutiness (especially if you are of a more emotional cast). You do not want the reputation of a bawler or yeller.
  • If possible, rest your voice between periods of greater exertion, but do not get out of good habits and regular practice. You will often find your voice 'rusty' when you get back to its normal pattern of use in preaching.

Medical
  • Only use medicated lozenges if you have a genuinely 'sore throat.' These numb the throat, allowing you to keep going at the risk of doing more damage (think of an athlete getting a cortisone injection to compete despite an injury only to find out that the injury has worsened on account of competition, not least because the body's warning signals were not getting through). Menthol has a drying effect.
  • If you need to keep your mouth moist, suck ordinary pastilles or chew gum.
  • If you have an acute infection, increase your fluid intake; take steam inhalations twice a day (with nothing added to it); don't be a martyr if you can avoid it - rest your voice or use it as gently as possible (but do not whisper); do not gargle with aspirin.
  • Avoid using your voice extensively when you have a cold or when it feels strained.
  • Learn to recognise the symptoms of vocal strain or fatigue (hoarseness, dry throat, pain, tension, heartburn, and poor vocal projection). If you need to, go to your doctor.

Environmental

  • Avoid environmental pollution like tobacco and other smoke, excessive dust, or chemical fumes.
  • Keep your home humidified appropriately. Bowls of water near or damp towels on radiators might help. You may also wish to humidify the room where you regularly preach, especially if it is a drier or dustier atmosphere that affects your throat. In some environments, there is absolutely nothing you can do about this.
  • Learn to project clearly and competently into more intimate environments so that you do not need to rely on amplification. For larger environments, consider an appropriate level of amplification (and, for your sake and the sake of those hearing you, remember the difference between a voice amplification system and a public address system).
  • If you have the chance, test the acoustics of any new preaching environment, amplified and unamplified. Get a sense of what it will demand of your voice. If you are preaching in a new place (especially if bigger than usual), and trusted friends are available, ask one to station himself near the back and use a discreet signal if your voice drops so that you cannot be heard. Some might wish to have a similar friend at the front to ensure that you don't bawl. You can overdo things as much as undercook them.
  • Do not rely on artificial amplification to do all your vocal work for you. You are speaking as a man to men, and they need to hear the truth through your humanity, and your voice with its range and scope is your primary tool. Use it well.
  • Make sure that your speaking point - whether pulpit or something or somewhere else - is situated for good communication. Make it easy for yourself to be heard and for people to hear you.
  • Bear in mind that sustained preaching at an awkward angle (e.g. with the head turned or the face down - if you tend to read your notes, or if your pulpit is unusually high) can put a strain on your voice. If possible, encourage regular congregations to sit together and where you can speak to them all clearly and directly.
  • Be aware that you will almost automatically raise your voice if there is background noise: regular congregations can help preachers by maintaining a minimum of 'noise pollution.'

Spiritual
  • Be comfortable with the voice and physical apparatus that God has given you. Be satisfied with your (trained and developed) capacity, and do not seek to be anyone else.
  • Pray that the Lord would enable you to use your voice humbly for his glory, especially if you are blessed with a rich and pleasant voice.
  • Never perform in the pulpit, however gifted you are with your voice. You are a preacher, not an actor. Avoid all theatrics of the voice. Let it be natural and pure earnestness that congregations hear, not tricks and rills.
  • If you need to train your voice, do it so that it come naturally when you are preaching. You do not want to have to be thinking of all these things in the act of preaching.
  • Remember that the Lord can rob you of your voice temporarily or permanently, not least to teach you the lesson of your own dispensability.
  • Remember that the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets (1Cor 14.32), and that the Spirit works self-control (Gal 5.23). Whether singing or preaching, you can and should govern yourself and your voice under the superintendence of the Spirit of Christ.
  • Consider both that the Lord can lay you aside when he wishes or sustain you when he pleases. Accordingly, be neither wedded to vocal martyrdom nor a slave to vocal cowardice.
  • A redeemed man full of the Holy Spirit and with his heart well-stocked with good things ought naturally to speak in accordance with his topic.
  • "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom 12.1). Lay your voice on the altar, and leave it there.

Further resources:
Charles Haddon Spurgeon "On the Voice" in Lectures to my Students.
Mike Mellor. Look After Your Voice: Taking Care of the Preacher's Greatest Asset (DayOne).

The unavoidable fact of our utter inadequacy

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Preachers are meant to be conduits for the pure word of God. Sometimes the pipe gets dirty and what comes out is impure. Sometimes the pipe gets clogged and the truth gets impeded. Some preachers have poorer settings: trickle, fine spray, jet. I suppose gush can be healthy, if sometimes a little overwhelming. Conrad Mbewe has a delightful setting labelled 'flow.' As one brother commented, he gets a lot said without using too many words.

mountains Brasov.jpgIt was my privilege to spend a week in Romania preaching with Pastor Mbewe at a series of conferences organised by a pastor called Sorin Prodan of Providence Church, Brasov, with an organisation called HeartCry. My previous experience of Romania has been limited to occasional contact with my good friend Pastor Mircea of the Logos Baptist Church in Arad, but I enjoyed fellowship with a variety of saints in a variety of settings, from the beauty of the plains among the mountains near the town of Brasov to the faded splendour of Resita with its once-mighty factories, preaching in a town called Bocsa as well as at the First Baptist Church in Resita itself. It was a delight to see the zeal of many of these brothers for those who are lost, and their ready engagement in healthy discussions about faith and life as those seeking to be bound to the Word of God.

It should be a blessing to travel and labour with a well-seasoned man of God, and Pastor Mbewe certainly did not disappoint. For one thing, it is fascinating and instructive to watch the way that he is approached and treated, and how he responds. However, the best thing is to be able to hear the Word of God handled by a gifted man. I heard him preach several sermons through 1 Timothy 3.16 on the great mystery of godliness, and then one sermon on Psalm 51.13 on the necessity of brokenness in a true minister of the gospel.

It was the Psalm 51.13 sermon that really got me. It was an exercise in 'flow.' With measured periods and with steady cadence, Pastor Mbewe took me apart, driving home some of what had begun to settle from 1 Timothy 3. In the 1 Timothy material, I was reminded of that testimony that we can preach Christ better, but we cannot preach a better Christ. Handling Psalm 51, Pastor Mbewe explained and applied the need for a preacher to be taught in the school of repentance if he is to be a true minister of gospel grace. This came just after I had struggled to communicate much of value in the preceding session, and a few hours before I was due to preach at an evangelistic service in the evening.

But that is where Christ draws us on. The preacher's problem is not that he does not wish to preach Christ. He feels a weight of holy obligation to proclaim the Lord. What he wrestles with is his own unfitness for the task - his own unpreparedness of soul and his inability to communicate what he longs to communicate of the grandeur, greatness, grace and glory of the person of the Lord Jesus in all his saving excellence. And yet the hour approaches when he must preach, and he is found wrestling with God for a deeper and truer sense of these things in his own soul, that he may speak as a dying man to dying men, pleading with God for the sake of those hearing to give him grace and strength to make Christ known. As he preaches, he is conscious that his colours are too dull, his brush strokes lack finesse, his portrait is accurate in degree but fails to capture the full beauty and majesty of the King of kings. When he finishes, he rejoices over what he is called to do even as he mourns over how poorly he does it. Perhaps for a while he is persuaded that anyone else would be more suitable for the task than him. And yet Christ draws him on. He cannot but speak the things which he has seen and heard (Acts 4.20). And so soon he will stand up and try again, asking that if he must fail again it might at least be because he aims high and true, revelling in and weeping over the grand task and the great privilege of making Christ known, conscious that God has ordained that his own weakness is the platform on which Christ's saving strength is displayed, that his own evident need of the Saviour is one of the most powerful persuasives to others of the willingness and ability of the Lord Jesus to deliver sinners.
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2Cor 2.14-17)
And so he casts himself afresh on the Lord, confessing again that the treasure is in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us (2Cor 4.7), feeling the awful weight and privilege of his calling, and trusting in God to accomplish what he himself cannot: "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God" (2Cor 3.5).

Preaching Christ

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A last snippet, for now, from Thomas Foxcroft's The Gospel Ministry once more, fairly early on in his sermon, exhorting himself and other ministers to preach Jesus in every sense:
Ministers then must study to feed their flocks with a continual feast on the glorious fullness there is in Christ; they must gather fruits from the branch of righteousness, from the tree of life for those who hunger, not feeding them with the meat which perishes, but with that which endures to everlasting life. They must open this fountain of living waters, the great mystery of godliness, into which all the doctrines of the gospel that are branched forth into so great a variety do, as so many rivulets or streams making glad the city of God, flow and concenter.

They must endeavor to set forth Christ in the dignity of His Person, as the brightness of His Father's glory, God manifest in the flesh; in the reality, necessity, nature, and exercise of His threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King, in both His state of humiliation and exaltation; in the glorious benefits of His redemption, the justification of them who believe, the adoption of sons, sanctification, and an inheritance that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for the saints; in the wonderful methods and means in and by which we are called into the fellowship of the Son our Lord, and made partakers of the redemption by Christ; in the nature, and significance, the excellency and worth, of all the ordinances and institutions of Christ, with the obligations on all to attend upon them.

Whatever subject ministers are upon, it must somehow point to Christ. All sin must be witnessed against and preached down as opposed to the holy nature, the wise and gracious designs, and the just government of Christ. So all duty must be persuaded to and preached up with due regard unto Christ; to His authority commanding and to His Spirit of grace assisting, as well as to the merit of His blood commending - and this to dash the vain presumption that decoys so many into ruin, who will securely hang the weight of their hopes upon the horns of the altar without paying expected homage to the scepter of Christ. All the arrows of sharp rebuke are to be steeped in the blood of Christ; and this to prevent those desponding fears and frights of guilt which sometimes awfully work to a fatal issue. Dark and ignorant sinners are to be directed to Christ as the Sun of righteousness; convinced sinners are to be led to Christ as the Great Atonement and the only City of Refuge. Christ is to be lifted up on high for the wounded in spirit to look to, as the bitten Israelites looked to the brazen serpent of old. The sick, the lame, and the diseased are to be carried to Christ as the great Physician, the Lord our Healer; the disconsolate and timorous are to be guided to Christ as the Consolation of Israel, and in us the hope of glory. Every comfort administered is to be sweetened with pure water from this Well of salvation, which only can quench the fiery darts of the evil one. The promises of the gospel are to be applied as being in Christ "yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us" (2 Cor. 1:20). So the threatenings of the law are to light and flash in the eyes of sinners as the terrors of the Lord and sparks of the holy resentment of an incensed Savior, which hover now over the children of disobedience and will one day unite and fall heavy upon them. The love of Christ for us is to be held forth as the great constraining motive to religion, and the life of Christ as the bright, engaging pattern of it. Progress and increase in holiness are to be represented under the notion of abiding in Christ and growing up into Him who is the Head, even Christ. Perfection in grace is the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, and eternal life is a being forever with the Lord where He is, beholding His glory and dwelling in our Master's joy.

Thus, in imitation of the apostolic way of preaching, there must be a beautiful texture of references to Christ, a golden thread twisted into every discourse to leaven and perfume it so as to make it express a savor of the knowledge of Christ. Thus every mite cast into the treasure of the temple must bear this inscription upon it which was once the humble language of a pious martyr in the flames, "None but Christ, none but Christ," so that everyone, beholding in the Word preached as in a glass the glory of the Lord, may be changed into the same image, from glory to glory.

Review: "The Gospel Ministry"

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The Gospel Ministry
Thomas Foxcroft
Soli Deo Gloria (RHB), 87pp, hbk
ISBN 978-1-56769-061-3


This unusual but highly profitable little volume is a preacher's own ordination sermon. It was preached in 1717 by Thomas Foxcroft as he set out to demonstrate to the congregation which he was to serve the minister that he ought to be, to impress upon himself and others the standard which he ought to be pursuing and which the church ought to be demanding.

Taking Colossians 1.28 as his starting point - though ranging far and wide through the Scriptures - Foxcroft sets out four key doctrines: that Christ is the one grand subject which the ministers of the gospel should mainly insist upon in their preaching; that the ministers of the gospel need to be very wise and prudent in all their administrations; that laborious diligence, fervour, and indefatigable application should be the character of every gospel minister; and that, in all their ministerial labours, pastors should make the conversion and edification of men in Christ their governing view and sovereign aim.

Even taking into account that this portrait of a pastor takes a few minutes to delineate and a lifetime to cultivate, happy indeed the congregation whose young preacher set out this model at the beginning of his ministry as his goal, in dependence on God's Spirit!

The book is full of that earnest, earthy pastoral theology that is so much bypassed in our day. It is written by a man who intends to know, love and serve Christ's people with a Christlike spirit and through a Christ-soaked ministry. There are high points of insight and fervour throughout the work (look out for a couple of nuggets in coming days), and a thoroughly evangelical tone permeates the whole. The author determines to put Christ at the centre of his work by putting him at the centre of his life. Christ is not only the topic of the minister, but the source of all his power. The congregation is enjoined to earnest prayer for those who seek so to serve them.

Pastors will find this a short, sharp shock, and yet also eminently sweet: a powerful, brief reminder of what we are about, of whom we serve and how we serve. The teaching is mainly positive, and so the rebukes are incidental, and yet they hit home as we see how far short we fall of the standard of diligent godliness and sincere and outworked care that the Scriptures establish. At the same time, there is encouragement, both with regard to the first things of pastoral ministry and its development over time, with instruction along the way.

Congregations will also find here an outline of the kind of ministry that they should pursue and expect. The standard is not impossibly high, but the goal is distinct and the flavour clear. Not only will this book be helpful in that respect, but it is also a call to intelligent prayer for the gospel ministers who already serve the churches, and for more men of this stamp to be raised up and thrust out by the Lord of the harvest.

Of excellence and failure

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Last Sunday I failed again. I often fail on the Lord's day, but this Sunday evening was one of those particularly noticeable occasions. There were a number of factors at play, as there always are, but there was at least one that meant I was never going to succeed. In fact, I had set myself up to fail.

I had the privilege of preaching at another local church, and the morning seemed, by God's grace, to go well, although - to be honest - I failed. In the evening I was preaching on Psalm 36.7: "How precious is your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of your wings."

I only had two basic points: a precious quality and a proper response, with some applications along the way. In the first part, my intention was to bring out something of the excellence of the covenant faithfulness of our redeeming God, as the psalmist brings his lovingkindness from the heavens of verse five into the experience of men in verse seven. But how do you communicate God's steadfast love? How do you begin to begin to explain its preciousness?

We considered it as divinely excellent, and I failed. I spoke of it as greatly extensive, and fell short. We thought of it as transcendently sweet, and my words thudded to the ground. We looked at it as unquestionably sufficient, and it was beyond my communication. We marvelled at the fact that it is unshakeably consistent, but I could not get that across. We noted that it is profoundly valuable, but how little of that was explained. We recognised that it was entirely undeserved, but I barely scratched the surface. Along the way, we sought to illustrate this from the life and death of the Lord Christ, and I missed the mark.

In a sense, that was the point. As William Plumer points out, "I had rather hear the exclamation, How excellent! than the cry, I know it all!" You see, we were always going to be defeated. I was always going to fail. I had no other possibility. I cannot say "I know it all!" but I can at least cry, "How excellent!"

The truths that preachers handle are, in a real sense, beyond us. We pray for the Spirit's help as we prepare and preach. We long for enlarged hearts with which to feel our themes, for acute minds with which to explore these realities, for tongues of angels with which to speak of our discoveries and desires, and - with the best we have in this world - we are like men who leap and drop; our words like arrows that fall short of the target, though truly aimed; our thoughts the thoughts of those who stumble in murk; our feelings the feelings of those who are barely awake.

And we keep trying and failing. It is a miserable, glorious, constant failure. We speak of God's holiness, and fail; we preach peace in Christ, and fail; we explore the divine wisdom and power in salvation, and fail; we consider the beauty of election and the wonder of perseverance, and fail; we dive repeatedly into the unsearchable riches of Christ, and come up having barely begun to plumb the depths or search out the vast reaches of his glorious being and doing.

And we try again and again and again, for we have no other theme. I walked out of the pulpit on Sunday evening having aimed very high and fallen very low. The more I preached the further I seemed from my goal. The more I strove, the more my efforts collapsed. Here I was, with this incomparably excellent thing - the lovingkindness of God - and I could not display it as it deserved; this quality incalculably precious, and I could not communicate the least part of its value.

But I could try. If we aim lower, we can hit the target. If we are content with something else, we can succeed. But, in this, it is better to aim true and fall necessarily short, and - by God's grace - sometimes to get a little closer than at other times. And so this Sunday I expect to fail again, and I am preparing accordingly. I will continue setting myself up to fail, and pray that I might miss by less than last time, because the preacher's calling is to declare the precious lovingkindness of God in all its splendour and majesty, not so that anyone can say, "I know it all!" but so that some will say, "How excellent!"

Concerning plainness in preaching

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Although some of the phrasing is a little dusty, and the period needs to be borne in mind, there is some sound advice here about the pursuit of plainness in preaching from William Plumer:
The Word of God must be preached plainly and simply, not in allusions and doubtful terms, not in innuendoes and learned phrases; not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but in words which the Holy Ghost teacheth; not with the refinements of the schools, but so that the women, and children, and simple people may understand. Baxter said that if ministers had sinned in Latin, he would have written his Reformed Pastor in Latin ; but as they had sinned in plain English, he must write in plain English also. Some of Romaine's people thought his style of preaching too plain and common, and requested him to display a little more learning in the pulpit. Accordingly, the next opportunity, he first read his text in Hebrew, saying, "I suppose scarcely any one in this congregation understands that." He then read it in Greek, and added, "There may be one or two that understand me now. I will next read it in Latin." He did so, and said, "Possibly a few more may comprehend me, but the number is still very limited." Last of all he repeated the text in English, and said, "There, now, you all understand it; which do you think is best? I hope always so to preach that the most ignorant person in the congregation may understand me." Orton says : "I believe many ministers over-polish their sermons. . . . The words of God are those that must reach the heart and do the work." J. Brown, of Haddington, remarks : "So far as I have observed God's dealings with my soul, the flights of preachers have entertained me ; but it was Scripture expressions that did penetrate my soul, and that in a manner peculiar to themselves." Thomas Watson says of the Baptist: "John did not preach so much to please as to profit. He chose rather to show men's sins than his own eloquence. That is the best looking-glass, not which is most gilded, but which shows the truest face." Luther: "To preach simply is high art. Christ does it himself. He speaks of husbandry, of sowing seed, and uses simple peasant's similes. Albrecht Dürer, the famous painter, used to say he 'had no pleasure in pictures that were painted with many colors, but in those that were painted with choice simplicity.' So is it with me as to sermons." The old English bishop was right when he said, "Brethren, it will take all our learning to make things plain." It is not true that "a clear idea is a little idea." Whately says: "Bacon is a striking instance of a genius who could think so profoundly, and at the same time so clearly, that an ordinary man understands readily most of his wisest sayings ; and perhaps thinks them so self-evident as hardly to need mention. But, on reconsideration, you perceive more and more how many important applications one of his maxims will have, and how often it has been overlooked ; and on returning to it again and again, fresh views of its importance will open on you. One of his sayings will be like one of the heavenly bodies that is visible to the naked eye, but in which you see more and more the better the telescope you apply to it. The 'dark sayings' of some other famous writers, on the other hand, may be compared to a fog-bank at sea, which the mariner, at first glance, takes for a chain of majestic mountains, but which, when he turns his glass upon it, proves nothing more than a shapeless heap of unwholesome vapors. When such maxims accordingly are translated into ordinary language, they too often lose the appearance not only of wisdom but of sense. And the attempt to put them into any shape in which they can be intelligently applied to practice is like trying to make a comfortable dress out of some very old piece of brocade, that looks rich and sound in the chest, but when you bring it to the light, and shake out its folds in the air, the colors fly, and the fabric falls to tatters in a moment."

The great object of preaching is the manifestation of the truth so as rightly to impress it on every heart.

From "The Manner of Preaching" in William Plumer, Hints and Helps in Pastoral Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2003), 163-165

The free offer of the gospel

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Not long ago, I received a very generous offer. One of the current glitterati of the evangelical scene was going to be preaching, and I was invited to go along and hear him speak . . . in person . . . for free.

I must confess that, living as I do in the UK, I was not able to take up this very kind proposal, but I was certainly perturbed by it. I recognise that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel, and that there is a responsibility for those who make such plans to take account of the fact that the labourer is worthy of his hire. I also recognise that many men and the organisations with which they are associated make a phenomenal amount of high-grade material available free of charge. I appreciate that many of these men do minister regularly in a congregation which they faithfully serve. I know that many of these prominent men have a desire to equip others to serve, and I am grateful for that investment. I would like to think that this was, in some measure, an aberration, and not the idea of the gentleman in question.

But has it really come to the point where a chance for us underprivileged to hear the Great Ones speak in the flesh without having to pay for it is worth advertising as some kind of bonus? Is there a tacit admission that usually you will need to fork out for this kind of privilege? Does this 'incarnational' ministry (you know, the one where they actually walk among us) now come with a price as standard? Are we so in thrall to men that the opportunity to see and hear one of our demagogues without having made our deposit first counts as an event?

The cult of celebrity and the elevation of the conference over the church seems to be taking ever deeper roots. While appreciating the dynamic of a gifted man with a reputation for insight and competence drawing others to hear him - "Come, see a man who told me all things that I ever did" (Jn 4.29) springs to mind - there is a danger in our case that the attraction becomes the vessel rather than the treasure. Indeed, the more the pot cracks, the greater the visibility and the more evident the splendour of that which resides within. The better encouragement ought to be to come and hear Christ preached rather than to come and hear this man who, by the way, preaches Christ. We are trying to play God's game by the world's rules. Besides, outside of our narrow little world with its shoddy little celebrities, these names mean nothing. It may be different in other places, but where I live advertising a meeting at which some evangelical guru is going to be speaking simply fails to float the boat of the man on the street. Inside we may be sweaty with applause and greasy with adoration, but outside they could not care less. We get a gang of fan-boys within and a careless crowd going about their business without. And even if we could somehow stir up interest in the man, do we not thereby begin to fall into the error of the Corinthians, in thrall to their superapostles?

In real life it requires the earnest labours of the unknown evangelists to press home the need of salvation in dependence on the Spirit to awaken an appetite to come and hear, not first and foremost a man, but a message of life and light and hope for those lost in darkness. Our call ought to be not so much, "Come and hear So-and-so preach Christ," but rather, "Come and hear Christ preached." That is the route to greater spiritual health. You might tell me, for example, that a man like Spurgeon could be lampooned as one of the great draws of the age, his name a surefire way to gather a crowd. Yes, but on those occasions when Spurgeon urged all the regular members of his congregation to stay away in order to give others an opportunity to hear the gospel, the Metropolitan Tabernacle filled up even more quickly than usual, and many were turned away for lack of space. I acknowledge that you cannot entirely separate the man from his message, but I suggest that this indicates not just the nature of the reputation but where the true power lay. Let it be known that the Great Ones of our day are preaching Christ to any who wish to hear, and how quickly will the building fill? We have a long way to go.

If we are going to put our top men on this gospel thing, could churches not more often give opportunities for them to exercise their gifts on the front line without us and others needing to pay to hear Christ proclaimed in person by the best - or, at least, most famous - we have? After all, don't we believe in the free offer of the gospel?

A Puritan preacher remembered

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Dr William Bates preached the funeral sermon of Thomas Manton. When we read how he described his departed friend, we understand why it is reported that Bates would weep whenever he spoke of Manton for some years after his friend's death. At the same time, the description below provides us with a powerful depiction of a true preacher and true preaching.
His name is worthy of precious and eternal memory. God had furnished him with a rare union of those parts which are requisite to form an eminent minister of his word. A clear judgment, a rich fancy, a strong memory, and happy elocution met in him; and were excellently improved by his diligent study. In preaching the word he was of conspicuous eminence; and none could detract from him, but from ignorance or envy. He was endowed with an extraordinary knowledge of the scripture; and in his preaching, gave such perspicuous accounts of the order and dependence of divine truths, and with that felicity applied the scripture to confirm them, that every subject, by his management, was cultivated and improved. His discourses were so clear and convincing, that none, without offering violence to conscience, could resist their evidence; and from hence they were effectual, not only to inspire a sudden flame, and raise a short commotion in the affections, but to make a lasting change in the life. His doctrine was uncorrupt and pure; the truth according to godliness. He was far from the guilty, vile intention to prostitute the sacred ordinances for acquiring any private secular advantage; neither did he entertain his hearers with impertinent subtleties, empty notions, intricate disputes, dry and barren, without productive virtue; but as one who always had in his eye the great end of his ministry, the glory of God, and the salvation of men. His sermons were directed to open their eyes, that they might see their wretched condition as sinners, to hasten their flight from the wrath to come, and make them humbly, and thankfully, and entirely receive Christ as their Prince and all-sufficient Saviour; and to build up the converted in their holy faith, and more excellent love, which is the "fulfilling of the law:" in short, to make true Christians eminent in knowledge and universal obedience.

And as the matter of his sermons was designed for the good of souls, so his way of expression was proper for that end. His style was not exquisitely studied, not consisting of harmonious periods, but far distant from vulgar meanness. His expression was natural and free, clear and eloquent, quick and powerful; without any spice of folly; and always suitable to the simplicity and majesty of divine truth. His sermons afforded substantial food with delight, so that a fastidious mind could not disrelish them. He abhorred a vain ostentation of wit in handling sacred truths, so venerable and grave, and of eternal consequence. His fervour and earnestness in preaching was such as might soften and make pliant the most stubborn and obstinate spirit. I am not speaking of one whose talent was only voice, who laboured in the pulpit as if the end of preaching were the exercise of the body, and not for the profit of souls. But this man of God was inflamed with holy zeal, and from thence such expressions broke forth as were capable of procuring attention and consent in his hearers. He spake as one who had a living faith within him of divine truth. From this union of zeal with his knowledge, he was excellently qualified to convince and convert souls. His unparalleled assiduity in preaching declared him very sensible of those dear and strong obligations which lie upon ministers to be very diligent in that blessed work. This faithful minister abounded in the work of the Lord; and, which is truly admirable, though so frequent in preaching, yet was always superior to others, and equal to himself, He was no fomentor of faction, but studious of the public tranquillity; he knew what a blessing peace is, and wisely foresaw the pernicious consequences which attend divisions.

Consider him as a Christian, his life was answerable to his doctrine. This servant of God was like a fruitful tree, which produces in the branches what it contains in the root. His inward grace was made visible in a conversation becoming the gospel. His resolute contempt of the world secured him from being wrought upon by those motives which tempt low spirits from their duty. He would not rashly throw himself into troubles, nor, spreta conscientia [disdaining conscience], avoid them. His generous constancy of mind in resisting the current of popular humour, declared his loyalty to his divine Master. His charity was eminent in procuring supplies for others, when in mean circumstances himself. But he had great experience of God's fatherly provision, to which his filial confidence was correspondent. I shall finish my character of him by observing his humility. He was deeply affected with the sense of his frailty and unworthiness. He considered the infinite purity of God, and the perfection of his law, the rule of duty; and by that humbling light discovered his manifold defects. He expressed his thoughts to me a little before his death. "If the holy prophets were under strong impressions of fear upon extraordinary discoveries of the divine presence, how shall we poor creatures appear before the holy and dreadful Majesty? It is infinitely terrible to appear before God, the Judge of all, without the protection of the blood of sprinkling, which speaketh better things than that of Abel." This alone relieved him, and supported his hopes. Though his labours were abundant, yet he knew that the work of God, passing through our hands is so blemished, that without appealing to pardoning mercy and grace, we cannot stand in judgment. This was the subject of his last public sermon, upon 2 Tim. i.18, which was published from his notes, with the second edition of his funeral sermon.
May God grant to his church more such men and ministers today!

A closing plea

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How would you close a sermon? How would you bring to an end a sermon in which you were pleading for sinners to receive God's great pardon for sin? Here is an example from Spurgeon, preaching from Psalm 25.11 ("Pardon my iniquity, O Lord, for it is great"), in a sermon entitled "Great Pardon for Great Sin" (#2988, MTP 52):
I have tried, and I am trying, to preach a wide gospel. I do not like to have a net with such big meshes that the fish get through. I think I may catch you all if the Lord wills. If the vilest are not shut out, then you are not shut out, friends. And if you believe in Christ with all your heart, you shall be saved! But oh, what if you should say, "I care not for forgiveness. I do not want pardon, I will not seek it! I will not have it - I love my sins - I love myself"? O sinner, then, by that deathbed of yours where you shall see your dreadful sins in another light, by that resurrection of yours where you shall see eternity to be no trifle, by that doom of yours, by the last dread thunders, by the awful sentence, "Depart, you cursed," of the Judge, I beseech you, do me but this one favour! Acknowledge that you had an invitation tonight and that it was affectionately pressed upon you. I have told you, in God's name, that your sin is not a trifle with God - that it is not a matter to be laughed at or to be whistled over. I have told you that the greatness of your sin need not shut you out. What is needed is that the Spirit of God should teach you these things in your heart. But do remember, if your ears refuse these truths of God, and if you reject them, we are a sweet savour unto Christ as well in them that perish as in them that are saved! But woe unto you - woe unto you, who, with the Gospel ringing in your ears, go down to Hell! "Verily, verily, I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for you!" May God save you, for Jesus' sake! Amen!
Whatever the relationship that sustains our pleading, can we not learn from this?

The beauty of concealed scholarship

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Wilhelmus à Brakel offers some good advice to the gospel minister:
He ought to use all his scholarship to formulate the matters to be presented, in order that he might express them in the clearest and most powerful manner. While using his scholarship, however, he must conceal his scholarship in the pulpit. To labor to be reputed as being scholarly, and to bring much Latin into the pulpit for this purpose, is only a seeking of self. Every word of Latin is nothing but a pound of flesh (that is, carnality) and is frequently held in contempt by scholarly divines, whose objective it is to make themselves pleasing to the consciences of men by the revelation of the truth. I am not now referring to the practice of extracting the full meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words.
The balance of this statement is praiseworthy: à Brakel is clearly not against scholarship, and specifically excludes from censure the practice of extracting the full meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words of a text. When explaining a passage, the preacher must possess as much as he is able of the meaning of the text, but he must also be able clearly to communicate that meaning to the congregation before him without parading his understanding. Of course, the congregation needs to have confidence in him that he is handling the Word of God well and honestly, but this can be done without a carnival of public scholarship. When true learning is properly consecrated it is also largely concealed.

I recall that in mathematics lessons at school, the mantra used to be often repeated, "Show your working." What is appropriate in the maths class is not in the pulpit. The pulpit is not for the display of intellect, but the fruits of it; not for the show of working, but for the product of the work. As a rule, we do not need to and should not bring our tenses and our stems and our prefixes and suffixes into the pulpit. As a rule, we do not need to and should not call holiness pietas, or remind people that opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt. It may sound impressive, it may get us a reputation for learning, but the question must be: did the hearer understand? Was the hearer impressed by you, or by the plain truth you preached? In all honesty, you can be as pompous in English as you can in Latin, Greek or Hebrew. There are plenty of 'pastor-scholars' out there who might leave their people impressed at how much learning they have, how much reading they have done, how much erudition they have, and what magnificent words they know, without actually profiting their souls by the clear communication of truth. Such a man may be a scholar, but it remains to be demonstrated that he has the heart of a pastor. Such an attitude reminds you of the possibly apocryphal story of Richard Baxter, of whom it is alleged that he used to preach a sermon once a year in which he displayed the full force of his learning, flying determinedly above the heads of his people in order to remind them of how little they knew. One might wish with some men that the reverse was true, and that once in a while they would deign to step off the clouds and - just for a few minutes - join the rest of us mortals tramping through the clay.

Recent discussions about the place and purpose of seminary need to take into account that much of what passes for gold in the seminary environment turns into tripe in the pulpit, where all the brilliance and erudition that the seminary demands in order to attain its honours needs to be sublimated to the task of preaching the plain truth plainly. That learning cannot and must not be abandoned, but its display needs to be sacrificed on the altar of usefulness. One of the dangers of the seminary is that gifted men may leave it well able to deliver a very competent lecture to their fellow-graduates, but with very little clue as to how to deliver a straightforward sermon to Christ's hungry flock. The display of learning must be unlearned without unlearning the learning itself. While the particular environment and situation certainly play a part - if you are preaching to a congregation of seminary graduates, you might allow a little more of the learning to bubble to the surface, and there may be occasions on which little more technical information must be supplied for the sake of clarity - the great goal must be the expression of the truth in what à Brakel calls "the clearest and most powerful manner."

I recall the story of an eminent scholar in Northern Ireland, the adornment of his denomination in terms of scholarly attainment. This gentleman had in his rural congregation a manual labourer who had left school without any academic qualifications (it may even have been that he had little or no formal schooling at all). The pastor-scholar found out that the labourer was also a preacher, going out when opportunity provided to speak the truth to men and women like himself in the farms and villages round about. Intrigued, the pastor-scholar asked the labourer-preacher where he found the time to prepare and the material to employ. The labourer-preacher blushed and replied to this effect: "Well, sir, I just take the sermon you preached before and dress it up a bit."

Might I suggest that few greater compliments might have been paid to the pastor-scholar than this? It is no pleasure to the proud heart in the pulpit, but the congregation which never realises how brilliant its minister is may have more for which to be thankful than the congregation which boasts in the displayed brilliance of its minister.

Let ministers be scholars indeed, and "use all [our] scholarship to formulate the matters to be presented," but let us abandon any desire for a mere reputation for scholarship: the minster "must conceal his scholarship in the pulpit." The food - though it might need to be gathered from the topmost branches of the trees - must be set at the level of the guests: Christ's people are sheep, not giraffes, and the sheep must be fed as sheep, even if it means that the minister can no longer publicly display his ability to climb or demonstrate how high up he can get.

A Story That Ends Badly

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The popular description of the biblical gospel as "the story of Jesus" and the attendant call to "make God's story part of your story" now appears to have its own tailor-made Bible translation. The newly released The Voice encourages readers to "step into the story of Scripture" by adapting biblical narratives into screenplay or narrative formats. Just watch the account of Jesus' walking on water in Matthew 14 come alive as you read: "Another Disciple: 'A ghost? What will we do?'" (I can already feel myself being absorbed into the dramatic flow of holy Writ as Judas exits stage left).

This story-oriented edition of Scripture also updates traditional plot-disrupting phrases such as "Jesus Christ" and "the Word."  For example, the new opening line of John's Gospel reads, "Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God" (cue the floor smoke!). Despite reassurances from the publisher that The Voice remains "painstakingly true to the original manuscripts," one can't help but wonder just whose manuscript they had in mind, and just who is stepping into whose story, since the whole thing appears to be a page one re-write.

On a more serious note, the "my story"/"God's story" way of speaking, even in Reformed circles, is, like so many modern trends, both old and new. In its contemporary form, it appears to have affinities with revived versions of the monastic practice of lectio divina (helpfully evaluated by Carl Trueman here) while also owing a debt to the postmodern theological approach espoused by Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck (i.e., so-called postliberalism). In general, the postliberal school argues that the real meaning of Scripture, the meaning that ought to drive our view of "reality", does not lie in its revelation of history per se, but within its own narrative world, fallible and historically inaccurate though it may be. It is the linguistic world of Scripture that matters, they say, not whether it reflects "objective" reality. For all of their crisscrossing emphases and objectives (mystical communion vs. counter-cultural mission vs. "narratival" appeal), all of these approaches to the Bible, in one way or another, call us to forgo the traditions from which we allegedly derive our personal identities, and the project ourselves into the narrative of Scripture itself.

With apologies to the dramaturges out there, I can't help but think that this is an unhelpful way of speaking. To me, the language of story and self-projection obscures what must be made crystal clear--namely, that everyone already stands within the history of redemption simply by virtue of being God's creatures and image. Scripture tells us that, whether or not we realize it, we are those "on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11) and so are even more responsible to repent and find forgiveness in Christ alone (Acts 17:31). Whether or not we believe it, the Word of God is still able to pierce to our hidden thoughts by the secret power of the Spirit (Heb 4:12) and disclose our deepest sins on the Day when we face the Judge now raised from the dead (2 Cor 5:10).

If this is all true, then it seems that the "story" of redemption is less something to be adopted as one's own "story" and more something I must acknowledge and believe, not only because it accurately reports true history, but because it discloses the divinely revealed meaning of history, the sovereignly created purpose of history, at all times and in all places. To describe repentance and faith as "God's story becoming my story," therefore, tends to present the gospel as a self-contained tradition that lies above and beyond me, but one which I may make my own if I like what I see. Such an approach frames the gospel more as an appealing context for one's personal "story" and less as that which exposes the irrationality of our denial of Christ as Lord of history and His prescribed plans for us in it.

The gospel is a story of sorts, of course, but I fear that appeals to the predilections of postmodernity, rather than Scripture itself, are leading some to refashion the gospel as a "narrative" into which we may insert our lives. The gospel of Christ crucified and raised is not just a compelling narrative, not just a story of meaning for one's life and world. It is the centerpiece of human existence and the consummate revelation of the God who defines all meaning whatsoever.

So, I submit we should keep telling the "old, old story." But let's be sure our congregations know that the Bible points beyond itself, beyond its own "story" (if we must), to the events of redemption in time and space, and to the consummation that will climax the facts of history and expose all rival fairy tales. Proclaiming the gospel this way may mean the difference between a people who see all things according to Scripture and those who see Scripture as a useful story that, for them, will turn out to be a tragedy.  

Playing to the gallery (or, Anselm's chance)

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Anselm Mulliner is a character in one of P. G. Wodehouse's short stories, entitled "Anselm Gets His Chance," available in the collection Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (US), for those interested. Anselm is curate of the parish of Rising Mattock in Hampshire, a man who "when he was not dreaming fondly of Myrtle Jellaby . . . [was] chafing at his vicar's high-handed selfishness in always hogging the evening sermon from late in April till well on in September" (107).

Without going into the details, Anselm's superior, a certain Rev. Sidney Gooch, finds himself unable to preach due to the possession of a magnificent black eye, obtained in a scuffle with a burglar purloining a book of stamps. Anselm must preach at evensong, and the chance must be seized:
In Anselm's deportment and behaviour on the following morning there was nothing to indicate that his soul was a maelstrom of seething emotions. Most curates who find themselves unexpectedly allowed to preach on Sunday evening in the summer time are like dogs let off the chain. They leap. They bound. They sing snatches of the more rollicking psalms. They rush about saying 'Good morning, good morning,' to everybody and patting children on the head. Not so Anselm. He knew that only by conserving his nervous energies would he be able to give of his best when the great moment came.
To those of the congregation who were still awake in the latter stages of the service his sermon at Matins seemed dull and colourless. And so it was. He had no intention of frittering away eloquence on a morning sermon. He deliberately held himself back, concentrating every fibre of his being on the address which he was to deliver in the evening.

He had had it in him for months. Every curate throughout the English countryside keeps tucked away among his effects a special sermon designed to prevent him being caught short, if suddenly called upon to preach at evensong. And all through the afternoon he remained closeted in his room, working upon it. He pruned. He polished. He searched the Thesaurus for the telling adjective. By the time the church bells began to ring out over the fields and spinneys of Rising Mattock in the quiet gloaming, his masterpiece was perfected to the last comma.

Feeling more like a volcano than a curate, Anselm Mulliner pinned together the sheets of manuscript and set forth.

The conditions could not have been happier. By the end of the pre-sermon hymn the twilight was far advanced, and through the door of the little church there poured the scent of trees and flowers. All was still, save for the distant tinkling of sheep bells and the drowsy calling of rooks among the elms. With quiet confidence Anselm mounted the pulpit steps. He had been sucking throat pastilles all day and saying 'Mi-mi' to himself in an undertone throughout the service, and he knew he would be in good voice.

For an instant he paused and gazed about him. He was rejoiced to see that he was playing to absolute capacity. Every pew was full. There, in the squire's high-backed stall, was Sir Leopold Jellaby, O.B.E., with Myrtle at his side. There, among the choir, looking indescribably foul in a surplice, sat Joe Beamish. There, in their respective places, were the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker and all the others who made up the personnel of the congregation. With a little sigh of rapture, Anselm cleared his throat and gave out the simple text of Brotherly Love.

I have been privileged (said Mr Mulliner) to read the script of this sermon of Anselm's, and it must, I can see, have been extremely powerful. Even in manuscript form, without the added attraction of the young man's beautifully modulated tenor voice, one can clearly see its magic.

Beginning with a thoughtful excursus on Brotherly Love among the Hivites and the Hittites, it came down through the Early Britons, the Middle Ages and the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth to these modern times of ours, and it was here that Anselm Mulliner really let himself go. It was at this point, if one may employ the phrase, that he - in the best and most reverent spirit of the words - reached for the accelerator and stepped on it.

Earnestly, in accents throbbing with emotion, he spoke of our duty to one another; of the task that lies clear before all of us to make this a better and sweeter world for our fellows; of the joy that awaits those who give no thought to self but strain every nerve to do the square thing by one and all. And with each golden phrase he held his audience in an ever-tightening grip. Tradesmen who had been nodding somnolently woke up and sat with parted lips. Women dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs. Choir-boys who had been sucking acid drops swallowed them remorsefully and stopped shuffling their feet.
Even at a morning service, such a sermon would have been a smash hit. Delivered in the gloaming, with all its adventitious aids to success, it was a riot.

It was not immediately after the conclusion of the proceedings that Anselm was able to tear himself away from the crowd of admirers that surged around him in the vestry. There were churchwardens who wanted to shake his hand, other churchwardens who insisted on smacking him on the back. One even asked for his autograph. But eventually he laughingly shook himself free and made his way back to the vicarage. And scarcely had he passed through the garden gate when something shot out at him from the scented darkness, and he found Myrtle Jellaby in his arms.

'Anselm!' she cried. 'My wonder-man! However did you do it? I never heard such a sermon in my life!'

'It got across, I think?' said Anselm modestly.

'It was terrific. Golly! When you admonish a congregation, it stays admonished. How you think of all these things beats me.'

'Oh, they come to one.' (117-120)
Compare Paul:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. (Gal 1.6-10)

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. . . . Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. (1Cor 2.1-5, 12-13)
So, do you keep a little stash of 'archangel sermons' to preach at that church or that conference, should you ever be invited - the real doozies that you can slide out if ever they are required? Do you chafe that you never really get your chance to pour the sauce, or that someone else always hogs the evensong limelight? Do you ever slave over the style of your words and their delivery with a view to securing an effect upon men by means of the words and their delivery alone? Perhaps you will preach away this weekend. You might preach to five, or to five hundred. Would you prepare, deliver and expect differently in each place? To be sure, you might rise to the occasion differently, the personal and spiritual dynamics in each environment will be different, but will your spirit be different? Will you preach on brotherly love, with a stunning excursus on said virtue among the Hivites and the Hittites, to the applause of men, or will you preach a crucified Christ in your crucified style to the glory of God? Will you play to the gallery or remember the great cloud of witnesses? Will you perform for men or serve the Lord?

Somerville on sermons

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Alexander Somerville (1813-1889) was a close friend of Robert Murray M'Cheyne. They went to school and university together. As divinity students, they met for the study of the Bible using both the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the Hebrew original. More often still they met to pray and share their Christian experience.

Somerville began his ministry in Anderston, Glasgow, in a similar church extension charge to M'Cheyne. Later in life his evangelistic zeal was renewed and fired by the ministry in Scotland of Moody and Sankey.

At the age of sixty-one he responded to what he was persuaded was God's call to be what may be described as an itinerant missionary travelling in India, Australasia, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Greece and Western Asia. He was Moderator of the Free Church General Assembly in 1886.

During his ministry he sought to train and encourage men to preach. The following is the helpful guidance he provided for them, which he called

RULES FOR SERMON WRITING

1. Pray without ceasing for clear views of your subject, for help in composition, in committing to memory, and in delivery.

2. Pray without ceasing for the people you are to address.

3. Remember you are to speak to souls who must either be impressed or hardened by the sermon you deliver.

4.Write for Christ and of Christ.

5. Remember that the Holy Spirit not merely can alone show to the heart the things that are Christ's, but that He must be recognised as doing so by us. Keep the Spirit's peculiar office and work continually in view.

6. Remember that what you write must have eternal consequences.

7. Write as one who must give an account to Christ for so doing.

8. Write for a people who must give an account to Christ for the manner in which they hear.

9. Never write for the sake of magnifying yourself.

10. Remember the flock of Christ must not be fed with ingenuities, but with the bread of life.

11. Write from the heart with simplicity, plainness (so that a little child may comprehend), and godly sincerity.

12. Pray for other congregations ... for your own companions in the work of preaching.

13. Never write without this before you - and read at least three times in the composition of each discourse.

Fire in the dry sticks

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It is usually after I have thought through or more formally prepared the introduction to a sermon that I again sit back and remember to pray. I do not mean that I should not or do not pray until that point (at least in theory), but it is often then that I am forced to consider my desperate need of God's help.

Will anyone still be listening? I hope I will have the ears and hearts of the people to whom I speak at this point, but will my words - designed to catch their attention and arrest their often-troubled and easily-distracted minds - have any effect, or will those troubles and distractions already have won the battle?

I am about to plunge into the substance of the sermon, the careful explanation and pointed application of God's holy truth, but will it have any effect? Even if people are still listening, will these words penetrate into the depths of the soul? There are men and women and children in front of me who are walking in darkness, and who need to see the light of the gospel of Christ. There are those who are downcast who need to be lifted up, those who are weary who need to be strengthened, those who are careless who need to be warned, those who are proud who need to be humbled, those who are presumptuous who need to be checked, those who are ignorant who need to be instructed, those who are hungry who need to be fed, those who are lazy who need to be stirred, those who are wandering who need to be drawn back. So many needs, such feeble words. Will these words, this sermon, have any lasting impact on the people who will be in front of me on the Lord's day, morning and evening?

So there I am, on the cusp of the thing, teetering between those words which are intended to open the door to people's arrested understanding and those words which are intended to carry truth through the door. Are they still hearing? Will they from this point hear - really hear?

And therefore I sit back and remember to pray, because neither what I have prepared nor what I am about to prepare will accomplish anything without the present, powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. Apart from his operations upon my heart and the hearts of those who will gather, there is a sense in which all will be wasted. It is the abiding Word of God that I will teach; the Spirit does not make it the Word of God in the act of its being preached and received. But if that Word is to reach its intended target it must be carried in on the wings of the divine Paraclete. If it is to accomplish its intended ends, then it must be applied - driven home and made effective - not just naturally by the labouring carer for souls but supernaturally by the all-powerful Spirit of God.

We cannot afford to go through the motions when we preach. We must reach the point at which we look at the words on the page or the screen, or review the things that are stirring in our minds and hearts, consider whatever notes that we have made to enable us to communicate the truth as it is in Jesus, and acknowledge that they will be as dry as a stick without heavenly influence. And that should drive us to our knees before God crying out to make his words effective in the hearts and lives of men, to do that thing which beggars human expectation and to make his word to prosper in the thing for which he sent it (Is 55.11), to bring the holy hammer of truth down with divine might on the stones of human hearts (Jer 23.29), and to glorify his name in salvation in its most complete sense.

And so we should gather up those dry sticks of our intended discourse, and pile them before God, and ask for fire from heaven.

"It is of great importance in preaching the Gospel, to discriminate between the different characters to whom we deliver our message, and to separate the precious from the vile. If this be neglected, the wicked will hold fast their delusions, and the righteous continue in bondage to their fears: but if we be faithful in the discharge of this part of our duty, those among whom we minister, will be led to a knowledge of their own proper character and condition. Our blessed Lord, at the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount, shews us how we should apply our subjects to the hearts and consciences of our hearers." (Charles Simeon, on Matthew 7:24-27)

I just finished writing my Sunday sermon on 1 Samuel 18. A few weeks ago, I began working through the life of David, beginning in 1 Samuel 16 and extending to the end of 2 Samuel. As I have it laid out, I'm going to try and do this in around 30 sermons, which is really fast. But the only way to pull this off at this pace is to remember the difference between a lecture and a sermon.

When I'm doing a lecture--say for a Wednesday night Bible study--I feel a greater responsibility to account for the various details of the text. That's because a major goal in a lecture is information--in exposing the text, I'm trying to give people as much information as possible about the text so that they will understand it. While I would naturally do application as we go along, application is not the real focus of a lecture.

But when I'm preaching a sermon--especially for our Sunday morning services--I feel a profound responsibility to explain and apply the text in such a way as to stir people's affections and move them toward Christ. Whereas my major goal in lecturing is information, my major goal in preaching is transformation. And because this is the case, I don't feel the burden to give people as much information as possible; rather, I feel the burden to give people the information necessary about the text so that they will see the connections to their own lives and be moved to seek God in Christ as a result. Application is the major focus of the sermon.

If it is a truism that seminaries don't teach preaching well, as Carl Trueman suggested a few days ago, perhaps it is because we don't keep in mind this difference. Our students have far more time in lectures on biblical texts and those lectures shape their thinking about the pastoral task--"I need to give as much information about the text as possible." 

Along with this, in some seminaries, we teach preaching in ways that reinforce this--so that the sermon becomes centered on information-transfer instead of spiritual formation and transformation. Keeping this difference in mind between a lecture and sermon can't help but challenge and improve our preaching. And perhaps the way to keep this in mind is to ask this question: "How does this sermon, as currently written/prepared, move my people's affections in such ways that they will love Christ more as a result of hearing this?"

Speaking of Preaching...

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Last Sunday each of our slated morning and evening preachers had originally chosen the same text for his sermon--the song of Simeon in Luke 2. I know because I was the evening preacher. Now hearing two (hopefully) biblical sermons on the same text in a single day certainly won't harm a congregation. It might even memorably demonstrate the richness of Scripture. But it certainly runs the risk of being unnecessarily redundant. After all, a tasty breakfast need not be reheated for dinner when another meal could be prepared.

So I was thankful that our morning preacher--Dr. Carl Trueman, in fact--heard about the textual coincidence, spent half the week preparing a sermon on Mary's Magnificat instead, and kindly left Simeon's song to the mercy of yours truly. What struck me was that Dr. Trueman did not merely transpose his Simeon sermon onto Mary's song (as I might have done). He explained and unfolded the Magnificat in its own context, pointing to specific verses in order to extol the glory of the incarnation.

Which leads me ask, how many pastors preach essentially the same sermon no matter which text lies open before them? Of course, the central themes of God's character, sin, the person and work of Christ, and redemption ought to reappear week to week. But each of these realities is richly variegated and should lead the preacher, text by text, to an endless number of focused treatments and applications. By contrast, doesn't the sufficiency of Scripture take a hit when, by the end of the sermon, the average listener (a) can't remember which text was read at the beginning but (b) knows he has heard this sermon before?

Consider well the charge given by John Murray to the recent champion of Christ-centered preaching, Dr. Edmund Clowney, when the latter was installed as Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary on October 22, 1963. May it be a charge to all those who seek to honor Christ from the pulpit this Sunday:


"Your work is concerned with homiletics, the exposition and effective presentation of the Word of God. I charge you to continue to press home, as you have done in the past, the necessity of discovering, unfolding, and applying the particularities of each text or portion of God's Word. Few things are more distressing to the discerning, and more impoverishing to the church, than for a preacher to say much that is scriptural, indeed altogether scriptural, and yet miss the specific message of the text with which he deals. It is by the richness and multiformity of God's revealed counsel that the church will grow up into the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, and the witness of the church will be to all the spheres of life and to all the obligations of men"  (John Murray, "Charge to Edmund P. Clowney," Collected Writings, 1:108-9; emphasis added).

Learning to Preach from Hebrews

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Can we learn something of how to preach from the Epistle to the Hebrews?  We have heard that the first three rules for understanding a passage are "context, context, and context."  Strange, then, isn't it, that the author of Hebrews introduces almost all of his thirty-plus explicit quotations from the Old Testament (OT) without mentioning who wrote the OT text or where it came from in the Jewish canon.  For example, he introduces a portion of Psalm 8 by writing "It has been testified somewhere..." (Heb 2:6).  Before quoting from Genesis 2 he says, "For he has somewhere spoken..." (Heb 4:4).  Psalm 110 is receives a mere "...as he says also in another place..." (Heb 5:6).  Has the author's memory failed?  Does he not care about the text's context?   Imagine your pastor getting up to preach and telling the congregation, "Good morning.  Please open your Bibles to...well...that place somewhere towards the middle where somebody said something."  Is this what the Hebrews author is doing?  I think not.  I think he was keenly aware of the contexts of the passages he quoted.  But why not cite the particulars and provide the context of his OT references?

 

I think the author (who was eminently aware of the context of each OT passage) intentionally veiled who OT writers were because he wanted to make it clear that every OT expression ultimately emanates from the lips of God.  These are the words that "[God] says" (Heb 1:8), "[Christ] said" (Heb 1:5), and "the Holy Spirit says" (Heb 3:7).  The author is almost indifferent to the human writer or the location of the quote in the OT since, for him, it is more than enough that these texts are the very oracles of God.  I also find it fascinating that the Holy Spirit withholds even the identity of the author of Hebrews from modern readers.  It seems also to be more than enough for the Holy Spirit that this book is the Word of God. 

 

So what are some lessons for preaching that we can draw either directly or indirectly from Hebrews?  First, for all their humanity, which is thorough and undeniable, not to mention astoundingly varied in expression, the Scriptures are finally determined as trustworthy and powerful because they are of divine origin (2 Tim 3:16).  Therefore, second, the preacher should preach the wisdom of God in the power of the Spirit, not his own ideas.  Third, sermon delivery should be secondary to content (1 Cor 2:3-5).  The preacher knows when he is trying to show off.  Chances are the congregation does, too.  Finally, the minister must preach within his own personality, directing his tone, emotions, and attention on the particular text before him.  This will reduce attention towards the preacher and lift the eyes of the congregants to the One who draws every stream of written revelation into Himself. 

 

This Sunday, and every Sunday, may our preachers focus less on how well they are holding their congregants' attention and more on recognizing, embracing and conveying the unwaveringly true words of "him who is speaking" (Heb 12:25).

What sits on your Bible?

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"It all comes down to authority, doesn't it?" Stretching out his hand across the coffee shop table and resting it atop the Bible in front of him, a recent college graduate confessed to pastor Todd Pruitt that he had lost the faith he once professed as a freshman. With heartbreak over those words, Todd, the pastor of Church of the Saviour in Wayne, PA, and host of the event, opened last night's beginning of Westminster's "Full Confidence" weekend conference on Scripture.

 

Dr. David Garner then powerfully exhorted the church to God-honoring vigilance for the authority and reliability of Scripture's own self-witness and rocked the room with admonitions against failing to do so.  "Passivity turns error into evil." "Rest reaps rot." Pastors are duty-bound, he said, to proclaim the authority, sufficiency, and clarity of God's word rather that "doggedly hold forth with milquetoast and muffins". The "serpentine question" of Genesis 3 is alive in our day and many have already been "snake-bitten" by the "slithering lie" that the Bible lacks relevance. He closed with an almost prophetic announcement that God and His Word would openly triumph on the last day.


Dr. Carl Trueman came through with the second connecting punch of the night, unfolding with his trademark clarity and humor the Early Church Fathers' seed-bed convictions concerning Scripture. Graciously donning (and doing battle with) a "Brittany Spears" earpiece microphone, he drove home the early church's views on the inscripturation, inspiration, and authority of Scripture. He added a few gems of his own as well, but seasoned readers of Ref21 may sympathize as to why I omit them from my first post. 


"It all comes down to authority, doesn't it?" By the Authority who came down for us, and by His Spirit, we can and should repose our full confidence in our Bibles as, indeed, bearing ultimate authority. 

'The ratio of grind to glamour is three to one'.

 

This was an off-the-cuff remark made recently on a UK television documentary on the topic of oratory. Taking January's Presidential inauguration in Washington as its cue, the programme traced the history of rhetoric, and noted its belated return to the political arena; as one of JFK's speechwriters put it, 'after eight years of a president who could barely manage the English language, the world is responding now to a president who is an intellectual'. Heady stuff.

 

The relation of oratory to politics is one thing, but it is the relationship between classical oratory and Gospel preaching which continues to fascinate me. That is probably because one of the first books I read on the subject of preaching was Dabney's 'Sacred Rhetoric' (now published as 'Evangelical Eloquence'), which draws on the principles of classic rhetorical practice, and claims it for the pulpit.

 

Notwithstanding Paul's indispensable caveat that the gospel is 'not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power', the gospel comes with words nonetheless. Faith does come by hearing words. And words, at any level, as one commentator on the documentary put it, have the power to make people 'conceive, believe and achieve'. Words, to quote from a clip from President Bartlett on 'The West Wing' (surely the best President you guys never had), 'when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music; they have rhythm and pitch and timber and volume; these are the properties of music; and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can't'. All of which reduces to Demosthenes' famous dictum that what matters in oratory is 'delivery, delivery, delivery'.

 

Which brings me back to the opening quotation. In preparation for public speaking, according to one commentator, the ratio of grind to glamour is three to one. The glamour of five minutes of productive words can only be achieved by the grind of (at least) fifteen minutes of reading, researching  and hard thinking. Preaching, of course, is not soundbite; it is not polished rhetoric; its effect does not rest on the irresistible logic of the preacher's argumentation, but on the irresistible grace of the preacher's God.

 

But preaching, like oratory, is public speaking, and demands our highest attention, and our conscientious preparation. Shall we offer to the Lord that which has cost us nothing?

Resources on Exposition

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Colin Adam has assembled a massive list of online resources (written and video) on exposition.  Great stuff to work through here.

Good Summer Listening

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The folks at SovGrace have just announced the C.J. Mahaney sermon archive. You can listen to audio or watch video in their entirety or excerpts. Should be excellent stuff!

Also, folks might want to check out the Carl F. H. Henry Center's Scripture and Ministry lectures archive. (HT: Unashamed Workman). Here's the description of the interview, sermon and lecture resources available:

The Henry Center sponsors the Scripture & Ministry lectures, which feature distinguished Christian speakers addressing issues of crucial importance for relating Scripture and ministry. This series brings together Trinity Evangelical Divinity School faculty members, pastors and community members for a time of learning and fellowship. The relationship between theologians and practitioners calls for earnest efforts to bridge the gap that all too often divides them and to encourage mutually enriching collaboration in the gospel
Good stuff to benefit the soul.

A Good Word before Vacation

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Summer vacation (as well as a teaching trip to Regent College in Vancouver) begins next week.  As I anticipate laying down many of the burdens of pastoral care, at least for a little while, here is a salutary reminder of my calling, from Bishop Daniel A. Payne's "The Christian Ministry: Its Moral and Intellectual Character" (1859):

"To set aside figures and speak plainly, the ministers of Christ should ever have their souls filled with the love of their Master, so that like Him they may endure hunger and thirst, poverty and toils, reproaches and insults, persecution and death. In a word, they must have that love and that degree of it that nevere shrinks from the cross, giving to their souls the endurance of the ox, the meekness of the lamb, the courage of the lion, the innocence of the dove, the swiftness of the eagle, and the omnipotence of Him whose victory was greatest when He suffered most!"

The Renewal We Need

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Writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, David Wells explains what our church and our culture need:

"The renewal of which we stand in need, I believe, is of both the understanding of truth and of our knowledge of the God of that truth. It is not one or the other but it is the one and the other. This written Word, this Word of dignity, accosts us because it is true in and of itself and because, as true, it is the vehicle through which we are summoned to stand before the God of that truth. It is by this Word that he, in fact, intrudes upon us, invades our private space, demands that our choices conform with his, and commands that we stand out as those who belong to another age and time, one which is eternal. It is this hearing, in fact, which will reintroduce the very unconventionality which is so conspicuous by its absence in our culturally conventional kind of believing today." 

Ends and means

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I appreciated Ligon's reference to Derek's sermon on Ezra, and the need for us to match our personal performance with our pulpit ministry ('Study. Live. Preach', below).

 

That thought was on my own mind recently as I've been reading through John Allen's biography of Demond Tutu - Rabble-Rouser for Peace. On one occasion Tutu was preaching at a funeral in the East Rand township, following uprising and violence there. Tutu spoke to a crowd of thirty thousand, and lost the support of some when he said

 

'We have a cause that is just. We have a cause that is going to prevail. For goodness' sake, let us not spoil it by the kind of methods we use. And if we do this again, I must tell you that I am going to find it difficult to be able to speak up for liberation. I will find it difficult - it is already difficult in this country to talk the truth, but if we use methods such as the one that we saw in Duduza, then, my friends, I am going to collect my family and leave a country that I love very deeply, a country that I love passionately' (p226).

 

To which the biographer adds: 'Some in the crowd booed'. But Tutu was right: the rightness of the cause does not excuse every method used to secure it. For those of us who are in the ministry, there is a very pertinent point here: the justness of our cause, and the power of our Gospel, demands that our methodology accord with it. And our own personal behaviour, as well as the behaviour of our people, is part of that methodology.

 

Isn't that what Paul urges Titus - that we should model integrity, and that we should teach people to 'adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Titus 2:10). Godly lives are the icing on the cake of all our theology.

 

 

Study. Live. Preach.

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Ezra 7:10 "For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel." (ESV)

I was struck as I listened last night to yet another of Derek Thomas' scintillating expositions of the book of Ezra, that Ezra shows the Gospel minister an important aspect of our calling. We are to study the Word of God, live out the Word of God and teach the Word of God. I love the catchy way the NASB says this: "For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel." Surely this is the right order. First to study, then to practice and then to preach the truth - else we could find ourselves commending to others a grand reality which we ourselves do not know. This is why Paul will charge Timothy to "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 4:16). Or as C.J. Mahaney puts it: "watch your life and watch your doctrine." And because Paul was serious about practicing what he preached, he could tell the Philippians to practice the things they had "heard and seen in" him (Philippians 4:9).

I have never known a teacher who has defected from the truth who was living out the truth in humble accountability in the church. I have never known a faithful Gospel minister who was not, in some measure, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, living out the truth he commended to others. The practice of the truth is essential to the preservation of the truth in the preacher of the truth. 

You don't know, what you don't live. Practicing the truth is a prerequisite for preaching the truth, and all our power in the latter is caught up in the former.

Today, in my morning worship, the section of scripture was Romans 9-11 and smack dab in the middle of it, of course, were these words from Romans 10:14. There were a number of thoughts that struck me:

1) While we rightly must think through all sorts of issues regarding contextualization in order to speak God's Word into this moment in time; and while we must couple together appropriate deed ministry with word ministry to incarnate the love of Jesus; at the end of the day, the Gospel comes to people supremely, uniquely, ultimately through the preaching of God's Word. That was the mission that Jesus had (Mark 1:38); that is the mission that he has given to his followers (Luke 24:45-46). We are witnesses to the reality of the Gospel and we must preach that word of witness.

2) These words again confirmed for me the importance of theological education. God's means for bringing his good news to the world is through the ministry of the Word; his way of doing this is by sending preachers; and the way to equip those preachers is through theological education. That doesn't necessarily mean that we must have degree-granting seminaries to do theological education; but that does mean that we have structures to provide essential biblical, theological, historical, and pastoral knowledge that can be used and shared with others.

3) And these words come again to me and challenge my sense of calling. My heart has always been for the church and for the ministry of the Word. Am I doing the right thing as a Seminary administrator? Should I be involved in the regular, weekly ministry of the Word in the context of a local congregation? Isn't the preaching of God's Word that supreme, ultimate, unique means of God's grace to his people? Why can't weekly preaching of God's Word serve as theological education for God's people to transform the world?

Law and Gospel

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It seems increasingly to me that one of the challenges facing theologians and preachers in the Reformed tradition is to explicate the statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith that 'neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it' (19.7). Much contemporary evangelicalism so absolutises the principle 'not under law but under grace' that we have forgotten that the God who gave the law is none other than the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. One of the marks of grace in both Old and New Testaments is a love for God's law. The church needs that; and we need wisdom to highlight this without going down the road of legalism. I love the versification of Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) who says in one of his 'gospel sonnets':

 

Thus gospel-grace and law-commands

Both bind and loose each other's hands;

They can't agree on any terms,

Yet hug each other in their arms.

 

We need to divide the truth rightly in order to show the validity of this insight. Without law we cannot define sin or righteousness, and without the imputation of these objective realities there can be no atonement. Without an objective atonement, in which the sanctions of the law are met, there can be no Gospel.

Workshop on Biblical Exposition 2008

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It has been so long since I have made a post that I am (almost) embarrassed to return.  But I wanted to make sure that people knew about the upcoming Workshop on Biblical Exposition at Tenth Presbyterian Church on February 6 to 8.

The workshop is sponsored by the Charles Simeon Trust, which promotes the exposition of Scripture through 1) talks on preaching; 2) model sermons; and 3) sessions in which pastors work together through specific texts of Scripture with a view to preaching. 

I have been involved as a participant and instructor for a decade now, and find these workshops to be the best available tool for improving my preaching.  There are workshops across the country this spring; for details and online registration, visit the Simeon Trust website.