Results tagged “Spiritual Growth” from Reformation21 Blog

Why Keep Christ in Christmas?


Along with the carols, tinsel, gaudy inflatables, red kettle ringers, and frazzled faces of exhausted shoppers which appear around this time of year, another indication of Christmas arrives in the form of signs or bumper stickers reading: "Keep Christ in Christmas". Often, I see this slogan with a passing glance, and nod approvingly in my head, drawing comfort from another believer. 'Yes,' I think. 'One of the clan. Another who stands counter-culture, who pushes back against the tides of secularism. One day, together, we'll beat this "season's greetings" nonsense once and for all.'

But each year, I also ask: What does that phrase really mean? What does such a sign communicate? As Christians, it comes as a reflex to surge in support to any person or cause that contains the phrase: "Keep Christ in". After all, what's the alternative, except to "keep Christ out"? The Bible tells us that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, do it all to the glory of God, (I Cor 10:31) and at the very least that has to include Christmas. Each year, we encounter, with a stab of conscience, the difficulty we have maintaining a spiritual compass pointed toward Christ amidst the storms of commercialism, peppermint bark, and viewings of Elf. And so we raise our voices to ourselves as much as to anyone else to return to Christ as the reason for the season.

So far as that goes, such a cause is right and noble. But once again, we must ask the question: what does the phrase "Keep Christ in Christmas" actually mean? There are two primary meanings:

1) A battlecry of the culture war. This is the wrong use. Sadly, it is also the association most people, Christian and non Christian will make when they see that phrase, even if only subconsciously. As a battlecry, the call to "keep Christ in Christmas" flows out of a sense of tribalism alien to the gospel. It is the comfortable, insular desire for people around me to look and sound like me, regardless of what is going on at a heart level.

Certainly it does no harm to wish someone a Merry Christmas (unless you know they do not celebrate), but when that phrase becomes a sort of shibboleth to sort the good from the bad - who gets a warm smile versus an awkward stare, then it has become a tool by which you place yourself in the judgment seat of God. We must remember I Cor 4:20, where Paul warns the arrogant, self-secure among the church that "the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power." We, as Evangelicals, can easily succumb to a conquering, colonial-like mentality, where we delight in the proliferation of nativity scenes, advent calendars, and mall renditions of 'O holy night', as if these were little flags publicly marking the expanding territory of the kingdom of God.

We make snap judgments based on what we see on the outside. We have no idea of whether we are smiling approvingly on houses which, behind the synchronized light displays and shepherd figurines, conceal the ugly dysfunction of domestic abuse, greed, and envy. We, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time can run the risk of fixating so much on the forms of Christian tradition, that we forget the substance. In this case, Samuel's warning to Saul applies to us: 'Has the Lord as great a delight in stars of Bethlethem and posting Christmas eve photos as He does in obeying the voice of the Lord?" (paraphrase) Remember that the kingdom of God advances through the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, not because you brought manger-shaped cookies into your child's 1st grade class.

2) An admonition for personal re-focusing. This is the right use. If you've been a Christian for at least a few years, you know what this holiday is about. You know the sermons you're going to hear, and the texts they will come from. You know the songs that you'll sing, and the cards that you'll get, and the Scripture that will come on those cards. You know it'll be printed in those fonts, on those scenes. That's the trouble with religious traditions, and the reason why we need the same stirring plea each year: "Keep Christ in Christmas."

Used in this way of personal motivation, 'Keep Christ in Christmas" applies with perennial urgency to each Christian individually. We can appeal to ourselves to remember the most undeserved gift in this history of the universe. We can ask God to not let our hearts grow cold, frosted with yearly repetitions and checklists. We can ask ourselves whether tradition is eclipsing our charity, joy, and thanksgiving this time of year. We can offer the gift of Christmas to those who have never experienced it through our kind words, peace, and patience (see fruits of Holy Spirit). We needn't worry about whether Christ is still in Christmas- He never left. And we celebrate that most truly when we emulate and display His character.

A Soul-Refreshed Life


On a spring day in 1747, twenty-nine-year-old David Brainerd rode horseback into the yard of a Northampton parsonage. It was the home of eminent New England pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah. Edwards and Brainerd, prior to this day, were relative strangers to one another, having only met once before at the Yale Commencement of 1743.1 The summer of 1747 would prove to nurture a growing friendship between the two men. The culmination of this friendship would produce one of the greatest missionary biographies in the history of American evangelicalism.

While staying in the Northampton parsonage, Brainerd shared his journals and diary with Edwards. Finding rich, spiritual material in them, Edwards concluded that they needed to be shared with a wider audience. Reluctantly, Brainerd set out to organize his writings for publication. However, in 1747, the young missionary died from tuberculosis, a disease from which he had suffered for many years. The task of publishing the Brainerd diary then fell to Edwards. In 1749, he had An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd2 published. Little did he know at that time that this work was destined to become an evangelical classic. The Life, became widely popular, eventually even surpassing all his other polemical and theological works.

The Piety of David Brainerd

Edwards began the "Author's Preface" to The Life, in the following way: "There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world, which God hath made use of: the one is by doctrine and precept; the other is by instance and example."3 It was the example of the life of his friend that Edwards employed in his biographical account of David Brainerd, as he traced Brainerd's Christian piety along the following lines of thought: (1) Evangelical humiliation; (2) A change of nature; (3) Sensitivity toward sin; and finally, (4) Holiness of life. Along these four lines of thought, Edwards seeks to demonstrate, as he puts it, "Mr. Brainerd's religious impressions, views and affections in their nature were vastly different from enthusiasm."4 Edwards desired to set Brainerd's life and piety in juxtaposition to the fanaticism that had so quickly categorized the Great Awakening.

Evangelical humiliation

Brainerd had viewed true evangelical humility as the supreme path upon which a true Christian could obtain the knowledge of the glory and excellency of God. On May 9, 1746, he reflected upon the testimony of a man he had recently baptized. He labeled this individual as a "conjurer and murderer."5 He said this man seemed desirous to hear the preaching and teaching of Scripture and being in a state where he had resigned to wait upon God "his own way." Brainerd wrote, "After he had continued in this frame of mind more than a week, while I was discoursing publicly he seemed to have a lively, soul-refreshing view of the excellency of God, and the way of salvation by him, which melted him into tears."6 It was this superior view of Christ in juxtaposition to man's wickedness that brings about true holy affections to the soul and causes one to see the smallest degree of sin as truly abhorrent to the divine excellency of the infinite.

A change of nature

A stirring of real conversion began when Brainerd read the work by Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729), A Guide to Christ, Or the way of direction souls that are under the work of conversion.7 He attributes this single volume as the instrument "which, I trust, in the hand of God was the happy means of my conversion."8 His conversion left him with a willing acceptance of God's glory and sovereignty, the beauty of Christ and his salvation, and a deep inner desire to serve him in the fullest capacity. Edwards writes of Brainerd's conversion,

"The change that was wrought in him at his conversion was agreeable to Scripture representations of that change which is wrought in true conversion; a great change and an abiding change, rendering him a new man, a new creature: not only a change as to hope and comfort and an apprehension of his own good estate; and a transient change consisting in high flights of passing affections; but a change of nature, a change of the abiding habit and temper of his mind."9

From his conversion to the end of his life, Brainerd experienced the dichotomy of living with the constant fluctuation between overwhelming joy and spiritual darkness. Even in this fluctuation of light and darkness, his soul had received God's light. A change of nature causes the soul, "to be changed, and it becomes properly a luminous thing. Not only does the sun shine in the saints, but they also become little suns, partaking of the nature of the fountain of their light."10

Sensitivity toward sin

A propensity toward depression became a serious problem in the life of Brainerd. It is a spiritually healthy matter to have a sensitivity toward sin, but it is not spiritually healthy to allow that sensitivity to give way to despair. In The Life, Edwards is careful in dealing with this subject, providing only glimpses into Brainerd's bouts with melancholy. He often spoke of feeling gloom, darkness, despair, confusion of mind, and his inability to experience the sweetness of God or Christ. There are countless reasons why Brainerd would be prone to such despondency. Writing more than one hundred years after Brainerd's death, a family descendent explained, "It must, however, be confessed that in the whole Brainerd family for two hundred years there has been a tendency to a morbid depression, akin to hypochondria."11 Brainerd endured continual difficult struggles throughout his life and ministry that often give way to such depression. However, this propensity does not at all indicate a spiritual deficiency on his part. It should be remembered that such eminent Christians like Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther, and many others also often struggled with despondency. Brainerd made it through these valleys by means of ardent prayer and a tenderness of the presence of the Spirit in his life.

Holiness of life

October 20, 1740, David Brainerd wrote in his diary, "I again found the sweet assistance of the divine Spirit in secret duties both morning and evening and life and comfort in religion through the whole day." The themes of spiritual growth and holiness of life runs replete throughout Brainerd's diary and is the subject of the twelfth and most important sign of true genuine affection. Edwards writes, "gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice,"12 or holiness of life. Edwards described the Christian pilgrimage as one of practical outworking, in practice, of the life that has been given to us by God. In other words, if God resides in the heart and is vitally united to it, "he will show that he is a God, by the efficacy of his operation. For in the heart where Christ savingly is, there he lives, and exerts himself after the power of that endless life that he received at his resurrection."13 

1. Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 300.

2. The full title is An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, Minister of the Gospel, Missionary to the Indians, from the honourable Society in Scotland, for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and Pastor of a Church of Christian Indians in New Jersey, Who died at Northampton in New England, Octob. 9th 1747 in the 30th Year of his Age: Chiefly taken from his own Diary, and other private Writings, written for his own Use; and now published, by Jonathan Edwards, A.M. Minister of the Gospel at Northampton (Boston, 1749). In this paper, I shall refer to it as the Life of Brainerd or simply The Life.

3. Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. Norman Pettit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 7:89.

4. Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:93.

5. Ibid., 7:391.

6. Ibid., 7:391.

7. Ibid., 7:123.

8. Ibid., 7:123.

9. Ibid., 7:502.

10. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 2:343.

11. Thomas Brainerd, Life of John Brainerd, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007), 168. Thomas was a descendent of David and John Brainerd's uncle, James.

12. Edwards, Religious Affections, 2:383.

13. Edwards, Religious Affections, 2:392.

Dustin W. Benge is a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He is a Teaching Fellow for Reformanda Ministries and Editor of "Expositor Magazine." Dustin and his wife, Molli, live in Louisville, KY.

Shortly before college I read Mortimer Adler's little classic How to Read a Book. That may sound like an odd title. After all, how could somebody read the book unless they already knew how to read? And if they did know how to read, then why would they need to read it at all?

How to Read a Book turned out to be one of the most important books I have ever read. Adler quickly convinced me that I didn't know how to read a book after all--not really. I didn't know how to ask the right questions while I was reading, how to analyze the book's major arguments, or how to mark up my copy for later use.

I suspect that most people don't how to listen to a sermon, either. I say this not as a preacher, primarily, but as a listener. During the past thirty-five years I have heard more than three thousand sermons. Since I have worshiped in Bible-teaching churches all my life, most of those sermons did me some spiritual good. Yet I wonder how many of them helped me as much as they should have. Frankly, I fear that far too many sermons passed through my eardrums without registering in my brain or reaching my heart.

So what is the right way to listen to a sermon? With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.

The first thing is for the soul to be prepared. Most churchgoers assume that the sermon starts when the pastor opens his mouth on Sunday. However, listening to a sermon actually starts the week before. It starts when we pray for the minister, asking God to bless the time he spends studying the Bible as he prepares to preach. In addition to helping the preacher, our prayers help create in us a sense of expectancy for the ministry of God's Word. This is one of the reasons that when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for.

The soul needs special preparation the night before worship. By Saturday evening our thoughts should begin turning towards the Lord's Day. If possible, we should read through the Bible passage that is scheduled for preaching. We should also be sure to get enough sleep. Then in the morning our first prayers should be directed to public worship, and especially to the preaching of God's Word.

If the body is well rested and the soul is well prepared, then the mind will be alert. Good preaching appeals first to the mind. After all, it is by the renewing of our minds that God does his transforming work in our lives (see Rom. 12:2). So when we listen to a sermon, our minds need to be fully engaged. Being attentive requires self-discipline. Our minds tend to wander when we worship; sometimes we daydream. But listening to sermons is part of the worship that we offer to God. It is also a prime opportunity for us to hear his voice. We should not insult his majesty by looking at the people around us, thinking about the coming week, or entertaining any of the thousands of other thoughts that crowd our minds. God is speaking, and we should listen.

To that end, many Christians find it helpful to listen to sermons with a pencil in hand. Although note taking is not required, it is an excellent way to stay focused during a sermon. It is also a valuable aid to memory. The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds. Then there is the added advantage of having the notes for future reference. We get extra benefit from a sermon when we read over, pray through, and talk about our sermon notes with someone else afterwards.

The most convenient place to take notes is in or on our Bibles, which should always be open during a sermon. Churchgoers sometimes pretend that they know the Bible so well that they do not need to look at the passage being preached. But this is folly. Even if we have the passage memorized, there are always new things we can learn by seeing the biblical text on the page. It only stands to reason that we profit most from sermons when our Bibles are open, not closed. This is why it is so encouraging for an expository preacher to hear the rustling of pages as his congregation turns to a passage in unison.

There is another reason to keep our Bibles open: we need to make sure that what the minister says is in keeping with Scripture. The Bible says, concerning the Bereans whom Paul met on his second missionary journey, "that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11; NKJV). One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize the teaching of the apostle Paul. On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture.

Listening to a sermon--really listening--takes more than our minds. It also requires hearts that are receptive to the influence of God's Spirit. Something important happens when we hear a good sermon: God speaks to us. Through the inward ministry of his Holy Spirit, he uses his Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God's grace, and reassure us in the faith. But these are all affairs of the heart, not just matters of the mind, so listening to a sermon can never be merely an intellectual exercise. We need to receive biblical truth in our hearts, allowing what God says to influence what we love, what we desire, and what we praise.

The last thing to say about listening to sermons is that we should be itching to put what we learn into practice. Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life. It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform. There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word. We are called to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22; NKJV). And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us.

Do you know how to listen to a sermon? Listening--really listening--takes a prepared soul, an alert mind, an open Bible, and a receptive heart. But the best way to tell if we are listening is by the way that we live. Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard. As the apostle Paul wrote to some of the people who listened to his sermons, "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:2-3; NKJV).

*This post was first published at Reformation21 in June of 2006 under the title, "How to Listen to a Sermon."