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Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

That’s exactly the kind of title that makes you stop scrolling, isn’t it? What if I said this blog is about preaching? How does that make you feel? If you are honest you might be a bit disappointed. You might even feel cheated because that’s not what you always associate preaching with. You wanted to hear about the secret behind public speaking and moving crowds. How to become the Luther King of our generation. To move crowds and influence people. Well, I want to make a case that preaching can do that and much more when it’s faithfully done. You can then apply the same idea as a Christian influencer whether in blogging or Tiktok.

I want to begin by saying that no speaker sets out wanting to be boring. They may have struggled in preparation if they did any of it. They may have wrestled with the text and question of relevance in their study. But no one wants to imagine theirs will be a boring message with little impact on the audience. I doubt any of us sets out to fail in persuading people.

We want the Truth but we also want it to move our audience. But how do you move people while being faithful in your preaching?

We want to move people with the Truth. We want them cut to the heart and ask, how can we be saved? We want to spur people to be excited to live for God and his mission? We want to warn them of coming judgement in a way that they feel compelled. If we are honest we admire preachers who move crowds even when we might take issue with their methods. And no one comes to a Sunday morning ready for a boring sermon. We want the Truth but we also want it to move our audience. But how do you move people while being faithful in your preaching?

Ask Why it Matters
You cannot be a good speaker if you don’t believe in your message. Likewise, you won’t make a faithful and relevant preacher if you don’t believe in the text at hand. Before you can preach it to others you need to preach it to yourself. And here I don’t mean give yourself a theological or doctrinal lesson. I mean preach it to yourself brother! Sit and ask what it’s saying, how it’s saying it and why that’s relevant. Have your Eureka moment not by discovering the Greek wording of it but by seeing just how relevant and practical it is to our faith and everyday life. And trust me it’s relevant.

Great preaching rests on showing us why the text matters and the secret is going back in time.

You see the beauty of expository preaching is that you have your work already done for you. Every passage we teach is actually a repeat sermon. There was a first audience who heard and applied that sermon. They were moved by it back then. This means all we need is to go back and ask why it mattered to them so it matters to us. Great preaching rests on showing us why the text matters and the secret is going back in time. But be careful not to remain back there. Before you stand in front of us make sure to travel back and apply it in real life. Preach that sermon to yourself and your world and if you can at least move with it you’ll have a friend cheering you in the congregation.

Find your Passion Switch
It’s said some people can sell you anything because they do it so passionately. The problem with some expository preachers is they can rest on just having the faithful script with them. They know the truth, they want to preach the right thing but give little attention to the delivery and landing process. But I guess for most of us who are starting out we just don’t know how to go about it. I want to say if we are compelled by the truth we will be compelling in our delivery of it. If the message had an impact on us we need to do the same for our audience.

While we can apply methods like storytelling, humour, helpful illustration and the like it all depends on how passionate we are about the truth in front of us.

We need to find our passion switch. To want to communicate the passage in a way that moves people. But this is not just about the methods. It’s about us and the truth. Think about how you told the news of your wedding, your graduation, your first job… There was an enthusiasm that made people want to listen. While we can apply methods like storytelling, humour, helpful illustration and the like it all depends on how passionate we are about the truth in front of us. Some people can talk all day about their jobs because they are passionate about them. Others won’t stop bringing football into every conversation. Why can’t we do the same with our preaching? Make the people in front of you see you value and love what you are teaching. Passionate speaking is infectious. Find your passion switch before you come out to preach.

Think about the People
Faithful preaching cares about people because God cares about them. You cannot love preaching and not love people. That’s like loving a party without people. Unfortunately, sometimes we think so highly of preaching than we do the people in front of us. We call ourselves soldiers of the truth but miss the recipients of the message. If that explains you and I then we should stop preaching and ask God for a love for his people first. Don’t go to that Sunday service with your points and illustrations if you’ve not thought of the people.

Jesus was a faithful preacher, he knew his text but what moved him to preach is the people.

What moves people is when the preacher is both faithful to the text but also faithful to them. I always admire the instances where the Gospel accounts note that Jesus saw the masses and had compassion for them. Jesus was a faithful preacher, he knew his text but what moved him to preach is the people. Do you want to be a great speaker and influencer? Think about your audience first. Ask yourself where they are at in their journey of faith. What are they struggling with? Do they need encouragement or rebuke? Faithful preaching is neither tied to the text nor the people alone. It’s tied to both. It’s faithful to the text but it’s also faithful to the people.

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I grew up loving stories. I loved listening to my uncle tell funny ones of the sneaky hare and the scary ones of giants and ogres. I loved reading any story I could find in our school textbooks and would pause everything for a storybook. There’s just something in a good story that not only excites the mind but grabs the heart. Stories can teach your most complex ideas and moral lessons in a very simple and yet compelling way.

When I came to the Bible even before I could say I was a believer those Old Testament narratives always got my attention. In Sunday school they informed our training curriculum. I wonder who in this country has not been taught about Joseph, Samson, Father Abraham, Moses, David, Samuel… And I think here in the African church the Old Testament remains an important text for many pulpits today. Our preaching is in many ways storytelling and there’s a lot of merit in that when it’s done well and faithfully.

But the problem with the stories in the Bible is they don’t end up where other stories end. In our African storytelling, a good story has done its job when the moral lesson is arrived at. You can actually change a few details to make the story do the work for you. You can change character names and give it a more modern feel. In the end, people don’t stand and say that would never happen. They ask, what I’m getting out of it. There would also be more than one lesson from a good story and it’ll work for any group of people.

The Gospel interprets Bible stories

But Bible stories are to be understood a bit differently because they are not just mere stories to draw out moral lessons from. As Christians, we believe them to be historical and they are not just crafted for moral lessons. God is the one telling his redemption story to us through them and he has a specific lesson for us as reflected within the grand narrative of the Bible. But more importantly, we need to remember that we are living in a different time today to when the story happened and was first told. We are in the era of the new covenant of grace not the old covenant of the law.

Here I find the book of Hebrews is really helpful in understanding the transition between the Old to the New Covenant. This is probably the one book every preacher must read and understand though I know I say the same for a lot more others in the New Testament. This is where the preacher gets his theology right as we see right from Hebrews 1:

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. Hebrews 1 NIV

This is a great place to comment on how God speaks to us today. But another implication is that teaching the Old Testament to people in the New Covenant calls for us to ask, how does this passage point us to Jesus and his Gospel? That’s a good rule for teaching any passage in the Bible but even more important in the Old Testament. A better way to put it is, what is Jesus our New Covenant teacher, saying to us today in this passage about himself and what he came to do? This doesn’t mean we ignore what the Old Testament passage had in mind for the original audience but we cannot stop there as New Covenant believers. We must always come to that point when we ask, how does this point us to Jesus and the Gospel message?

Samuel points us to Jesus

For instance, if we read the story of the calling of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, we meet God speaking to a young boy while ignoring the old Eli who’s obviously failing in his job as a priest and parent. If we stop here we’ll get the lesson that God is about to replace the wicked priesthood of Eli and his sons. We’ll see Eli’s indifference to God and his voice. But if we stopped there in our preaching then we are likely to end up only with good moral lessons. Depending on our theology we can say almost anything at this point and there’s no way of saying some are more right than others if it’s all about our take from the story.

But if we read this story as New Covenant disciples we’ll see a lot more here. We’ll actually be amazed what Jesus is teaching us about himself and his Gospel this early in the Bible story. We’ll see that Samuel in many ways is like Jesus. We’ll remember the popular Luke 2:52 from Sunday school days. His encounter with the teachers of the law early in life will come to mind. But more than that we’ll see what Hebrews tells us, that Jesus is a better leader and high priest. He’s the one who is better than Eli and his sons who are wicked. But also better than Samuel because he won’t die. In Jesus, we have the perfect high priest who is sinless and eternal. The one who guarantees our eternal salvation and is always present to hear our prayers. There’s a good lesson for today’s leaders within the church to take away here. But even that is to be seen in the light of the Gospel and Jesus example, not from a good moral lesson perspective.

Now, I know this example makes it sound like it should be so easy and obvious, and yet that is not the case. I also know there’s a danger of reading narratives backward when we only want to see Jesus in the pages not wrestle with the details of the passage. I know the route to Jesus and the Gospel can sometimes feel too simplistic. I’m aware certain people can make sermons all about getting things theologically right and not living it out. That this can make the church sound like a theological school, not a discipleship training ground. I also know we’ll only preach specific passages better when we have the grand narrative clear in our minds. But I think this is a good place to start. We already know how to get the moral lessons out. What I am suggesting is we go an extra mile to pay attention to the story while also asking the big picture questions. To be biblical and Gospel-minded in our preaching we need to point people to Jesus and the Gospel.

Only the Gospel bears lasting fruit

The challenge when we leave people with moral lessons even good Biblical ones is that we leave it all in their hands. It’s upon them to change and become better disciples. But if we do that we are not only missing the grand narrative of scripture we actually set people up for failure. New Covenant believers know they can’t do it by their own might and grit. It doesn’t matter how committed and theologically right we are, we just can’t do it without our Father’s help. Only the Gospel of Jesus can bear the fruits we desire in our audience.

We need Jesus to bear the fruit he demands in us. We need the Father to kill the sin he hates in us. We need the Spirit to remind us of the small respectable sins we overlook. New Covenant preaching converts moral lessons to Gospel lessons. It calls for prayerful action, not just a determined response. It demands careful attention to the word but reminds its audience that they can’t actually do what it requires unless the Lord works it out from inside out. Faithful preaching goes beyond moral lessons, it points people to Jesus and his Gospel, to the only one who can truly change them from within.

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Our Missions manager, Stanley teaching during Induction Workshop

We learn preaching long before someone sits us down to say this is how we should preach. We pick up things from our favourite preachers and we seek to emulate that. We might change a few things borrowing from different people but we rarely come up with new ways. It’s not just in preaching actually life itself is a copy-paste exercise. We see something good and we want to do that.

But somewhere along the line, we might get an opportunity to sit and learn that there’s a right way to do this. We might not accept it immediately or even drop everything to follow this path but slowly we are won over. I think this is what happens when we start learning Expositional preaching that seeks to let the Bible speak for itself.

The problem, however, is trying to apply here does not come easily. You spend all your preparation trying to get the passage right only to realise it’s full of good truths but little application. You see if you grew up hearing and doing problem-solving, motivational preaching that wouldn’t be a problem. You already have an application in mind and all you need is the Bible to agree with it and you have a sermon. Here you’ve got to do the hard work of getting the passage right and then wrestle asking how does this apply from them to us.

This is probably the main reason we might give up on expositional preaching. It feels too hard and academic. We feel like the church is becoming a school and we know few Kenyans loved school. We might do it but drop the ball at the end by going for the quick and obvious applications. Tell them what complex doctrine they should learn from here. Remind them to pray, read their Bibles and go to church regularly. Fix their gender and sexuality views, questions of abortion or their commitment to mission, whatever we think are the big things in the public sphere. All these are possible but mostly lazy ways of doing Biblical application. And I’m speaking about this because I’ve done it before even without realising it.

But we can grow friends as we give more time to apply and learn from others. It won’t be fixed in a day but we can grow as we remember the word has spoken to real people in the past and is for real people in the present. Here are a few things I’ve picked up mostly from others but also when I’ve paid a bit more attention to the passage in front of me and the world around me.

Aim for the Heart, not just the Head
This one I learnt from my apprenticeship years but I always need to be reminded of it. That the Bible isn’t an academic book and that fixing the head without the heart won’t do it. It should be obvious but it’s not. You look at the life of Jesus disciples, they were learning directly from him so knowledge shouldn’t have been a problem though it didn’t always come easily. But how long did it take them to believe him? Actually, towards the end these guys will desert him, betray and deny him. Peter saying he was the Christ in Mark 8 didn’t prevent him from denying him in Mark 14. And I bet Judas had a lot of good theology but his heart was somewhere else.

When we come to applying the Bible it’ll help if we ask ourselves where change begins. And we don’t need to go to psychology for this. Look at how Paul writes his letters. There are great and beautiful truths to blow our minds away but he also beckons the heart to believe and the hands to act. Ephesians chapter 1-3 is followed by chapter 4-6. His job is not finished until he persuades the heart and by effect seek a real change from the heart that brings a change in conduct. He tells them not just what they should know but also what they should believe and do by effect.

Think Culture not General
So often we forget the power and the influence of the environment we live in. We forget that the Bible speaks both to the person and the world around him. If you fix the person and keep him in the same environment there’s no guarantee he won’t go back. A lot of things we do are shaped by where and who we live with. If you want to help someone struggling with pornography you need to ask what is making it so common these days. You can’t just say stop it you might need to say change your environment and your patterns of rest. Go out and hang out with friends. Put the gadgets off.

But this is not something we bring to the Bible, actually, it’s there if we pay a bit more attention. The Bible from day one tells us we are not alone in the universe. It warns us about the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to deal with all these enemies. It teaches us to kill sin in our lives, to turn away from the flow of the world around us and say no to the schemes of the enemy. Actually, the Bible often shows us all these enemies work together like we see in Ephesians 2:1-3. To grow in Biblical application we shouldn’t ignore one of these for the other.

Go for Progress, not a Quick Fix
The worst thing about living in our consumer world is we want to fix things like yesterday. We do one sermon and expect change by the latest tomorrow morning. It’s no wonder we can get very disappointed when we don’t see results and sometimes try to cook the results ourselves. But that’s naive because if we were honest there are things we learnt years ago that we still struggle with. How do you expect your audience to change overnight?

Actually, if we were to pay attention to our Bibles we’d realise God plays the long game. How many years is he telling Israel to have no other God but him? And how long does he have to wait until he finally sends them to exile and still he doesn’t give up? How long does Jesus tolerate his disciples who simply don’t seem to get who he is when all the evidence is pointing to him? And how long does he have to wait for them to accept his mission and follow in his footsteps? When you think application think progress however messy, not a quick fix.

By Prayer not Might
It might shock some of you but it seems this has taken me longer to learn. That no real change coming from the heart comes unless God acts. It should be obvious because Jesus says it, apart from me you can do nothing, John 15:5. We should see it if we paid attention to our own lives. We just need to remember how we came to faith in the first place. How long God was beckoning our attention before we said the prayer. And still how long he has to tolerate us as we hold on to our precious little idols. But no, we keep thinking a little more hard work and commitment will do it. We can even give principles of how to overcome a certain sin and grow a certain gift in a day. I think we are setting ourselves up for failure and depression.

Dear friends, I’m learning prayer isn’t just for the beginning and the end of the sermon. Prayer is what makes the sermon work. Prayer is your main application. You need to ask God in the closet and in your preaching to change you and those people. You need to point them to him if you truly want to see change. If God doesn’t work don’t even bother preaching unless you are doing it for fun. I’m learning to ask how can we prayerfully apply this? What prayer do we need to make on this? Lord, what are you telling me to pray on this? I think this is a gold mine and it’s no wonder Jesus would drop important ministry for this. He knew if he was going to accomplish anything it’s only if the Father did it. Apart from him, we can do nothing friends. We can’t even change ourselves leave alone anyone else.

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This is another review by Loyce Naula- medical apprentice in Marsabit.

Image result for dig deeper book

As the title states, the book is written aimed at  helping an average Christian to Dig out all the treasures in the Bible so that Bible readers can understand the scriptures truthfully and rightly apply it. Nigel and Andrew give a simplified way they term as different tools to help us unearth the Bible and understand things that seem hidden or seem obvious and we overlook. By digging deeper we understand their significance and learn to observe more hence bible reading simplified.

Beginning with helping us understand what the bible is and how we should approach it, the two help us find answers to these questions throughout the pages of the book; what was the author’s purpose when he wrote the bible text or book? How is it structured and how do the sections fit together?  In what context was the text written? Why are some words repeated? Any vocabulary used, what’s the meaning? What are the writing styles or genre used and why did the Author choose to use it?

The book also help us understand and take note of the allusions or quotations throughout scripture. Something I also found so helpful as well was noting the feel and tone of the text, which so important in understanding and applying the text. One of the final tools, the Bible timeline tool helps us understand the big picture of the Bible from genesis to revelation- it’s important in seeing the small different bible stories and events as one big story, how and where each text fits, and how it helps me to understand and apply the text.

I really liked the way the book was made simple to understand. The worked examples in every chapter of the book make it super practical not forgetting the Dig deeper bible texts summarizing every chapter thus challenging us readers to reflect more on the chapter and practice what we have learnt through a given text. We can use these tools in our personal bible studies and get all treasures in the Bible and live a truly transformed lives as Christians.

Because its written in ordinary language, whether scholars or average Christians, teachers and all ministers can really find knowledge in this book. Dig deeper is the guide to understanding our bible for all its worth for it provides the basic knowledge we need to understand scripture. I recommend it to every Christian to read and enjoy scripture.

Loyce Naula

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  • The Word sets the agenda-  rather than being relegated to the backseat, the Word of God is in the driving seat. The preacher opens up what is in the Word as opposed to opening up what is his own and using the Word of God as a back-up. Since June, we’ve been doing a series #WhoIsThisMan from Mark’s gospel and it’s been enriching to see the wonderful truths from the Word. You can never lack what to preach if you are doing expository preaching. Also, you can never speak your own things if you are doing expository preaching, you only open up and faithfully apply what the word is saying. Without the word setting and being the agenda, then politics and economics become the agenda.
  • It is really relevant- on the preacher’s mind is the need for relevance. Is what am preaching relevant? Does it really apply to my congregation? Our words may not be relevant but God’s Word is relevant every time everywhere. Sometimes, it’s easy to think that what is relevant to the congregation is fashion, music, politics, money et cetera but actually that’s not the truth. People want to hear how you address the fundamental questions of life & death, justice, living with neighbors, what works practically, how do I deal with my broken/breaking marriage, is there God and what is He doing, why is there suffering and how can I overcome it and many others. They don’t care to know where I went on holiday or where I do my shopping. Last Sunday at GracePoint Church we did Mark 13 and what Jesus says is as relevant today as it was then. Wars & rumours of war, political crises- that’s what Kenya is experiencing right now, persecution, family members rising up against another- you don’t need to go far to see this happening, false teachers on the lose- so rampant! This is the reality of the world we are living in and thus the urgency of Jesus’ call to be alert, be on guard, and to watch as we earnestly await his second coming.
  • You can’t run away from difficult passages- this is one thing I’ve come to appreciate about expository preaching. At iServe Africa, there was a time we did a series through the book of Revelation. It would have been easier to stop at end of chapter 4 with the letters to the 7 churches and avoid all the other stuff that is hard to understand and controversial but no, we soldiered on to the end of chapter 22 and oh how rich and edifying it is! Mark 13 is a controversial passage (even hard preaching it in a family service where children are seated in) but it was wonderful to hear the truth of that passage simply explained and applied in our service on Sunday.
  • Congregation builds trust in God’s Word- as preachers, one of the tasks we can accomplish is to see a congregation that trusts God’s Word. This can happen well when we faithfully open God’s Word and letting it do the work. Our work is not to be clever but clear, not to be fanciful but faithful, not to entertain but to exhort from the Word. Expository preaching achieves this. As we open up the Word faithfully, the congregation sees how you are arriving at your points, what it means and how that applies to them and the need then for them to live in light of the word. As they go out at the end of the service, what they have on their minds is “yes, this makes some sense” and slowly they build confidence in the Word.

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2-254

A pastor pointed out to me some time ago a rising trend in the pulpit of preaching that puts the hearer ‘on the couch’. The tone is cool, reflective, sophisticated, non-confrontational. The content is psychological and analytical, a diagnosis of the workings of your heart and mind.

I want to suggest some concerns with this approach but also an insight worth holding onto and a way to do it which might mitigate many of the dangers.

Some concerns

  • Individual rather than corporate. Preaching should normally be inclined towards a corporate address. The preacher is speaking to the whole church as a church. Like most of the NT epistles, there should be far more plural (“Sisi” na “Nyinyi”) than singular (“Mimi” na “Wewe”). It is so easy to slip into making all the applications to the individual rather than thinking how a particular Bible text should move us as a church. The ‘on the couch’ style of preaching tends to be directed to the individual.
  • Therapy culture rather than repentance call. The seated/recumbent posture just looks wrong. Preaching is supposed to be a heralding of salvation, beseeching sinners to come to Christ, a publishing of the command of God to all men to repent (Acts 17:30). There is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching loses entirely that tone of urgency, boldness and ‘speaking the very words of God’ and instead buys into a consumerist, me-centred, victim culture that wants God only so far as he affirms and soothes and helps me feel better about myself.
  • Knowing rather than doing. The theme of obedience is massive in the Bible (I don’t know how I never noticed it till recently!). Adam and Eve failed to obey. In Genesis 22 we are told nothing of Abraham’s psychology as he climbs Mt Moriah but what is emphasised is that he did it. Gospel ministry aims at bringing the nations to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). James tells us not to deceive ourselves that listening to the Word is a substitute for doing it (James 1:22). Of course we need to avoid moralistic ‘just do it’ exhortations but there is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching is descriptive without being prescriptive; giving us the intellectual stimulation and catharsis of knowing ourselves better without ever getting to the confrontational gospel imperatives.
  • Looking within rather than looking to Christ. The great news of the gospel is of salvation coming from outside, an alien righteousness, wisdom we would never have guessed, a God who stoops down, breaks in, rescues us. The call of the NT is “Behold the Lamb!” “Fix your eyes on Christ.” The danger with ‘on the couch’ preaching is that it can pander to an overly introspective, obsessive, narcissistic navel gazing. Even if it doesn’t do that it can start to make us think that just as the problem lies in us (idolatry, disordered loves) so the solution lies in us (rooting out idols, purifying worship) rather than looking to Jesus.

An insight worth holding onto

Having said all this, the practitioners of ‘on the couch’ preaching have got something very right and alerted us to something very important. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. We are passion-driven more than purpose-driven. Idolatry and the waywardness of the human heart is an enormous issue in the Bible. And it is helpful to think through how exactly sin and idolatry and sanctification work at the level of our heads and hearts. Rather than simply knowing what we must do and having a very vague idea that ‘God changes us’, perhaps it is rather important to see how exactly ‘the grace of God teaches us to say No to ungodliness.’ How do we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ? How does a good thing become a god-thing in our lives? How best can we counsel people going through the complexities of grief? How do we best motivate ourselves to obedience? How do our hearts work? We do we preach in a way that opens and engages hearts? The puritans, at their best, were masters of this kind of care of souls.

A way forward: let the Bible speak

How can we take that major insight of heart focus and heart analysis without slipping into the dangers mentioned above? I wonder whether, as it often the case, the best way forward is simply to preach the Word. Preach through the Bible. Preach what is in the passage you have this week. Preach with the tone of the passage. With the balance of the passage. With the cutting edge of the passage.

This sort of preaching will keep us from hobby horses, keep us from being dull, keep us from getting locked into a particular style or structure or mood or approach. We take our cue each time from the Bible passage itself. And, most importantly, preaching through the Bible, feeling the changing atmosphere, staying very close to the detail and flow of the texts will keep us from getting me-centred because we’ll be constantly pushed back up against the Lord of Glory himself.

By way of example here are some rough study notes on Isaiah 57:8-13.

Verse 8 – deserting me you have uncovered your bed… Forsaking the LORD leads to opening our hearts wide to any other lovers (idols) that will have us. We are beings desperate for love and yet we perversely, bizarrely, run from the love of our soul. you have looked on… We are visual beings and our hearts are captured by what we see.

Verse 10 – You wearied yourself by such going about… The pursuit of idols is a lengthy, stressful, strenuous, tiring pursuit. But you would not say, “It is hopeless.” Despite the high physical, emotional and financial costs of running after idols, we refuse to give up the chase. Idolators may be without true hope but they are not necessarily hopeless, depressed individuals. They may actually be very hopeful people, constantly expecting their idol to come through for them or to find a better world round the corner. You found renewal of your strength… We know that the LORD renews the strength of those who hope in him (Isa. 40:31), He revives the contrite (Isa. 57:15), but it is possible for idolators to find renewal of strength in their idolatry. Idolatry is hope-creating and energising. Look at the world without Christ and you see a huge amount of energy and industry.

Verse 11 – Whom have you so dreaded and feared do not fear me? One of the drivers of spiritual unfaithfulness is a fear of things and people greater than our fear of the LORD. Such fears are often vague and unconscious, we don’t face them directly, but we are challenged here to identify them.

Verse 12 – your righteousness and your deedswill not profit you… The answer does not come from within us. We cannot work our own salvation. Our religiosity is filthy rags. We tend to think like the ancient Egyptians that our good will outweigh our bad and save us but we are wrong.

Verse 13 – let your collection of idols save you… We gather not just one or two idols but a collection, putting our eggs in many baskets. But the strategy will not work, idols cannot save. As we mock the LORD (v4) he will mock us (v13a). But he who takes refuge in me… There is salvation outside of us. There is refuge in the very One we have forsaken and insulted. In Him we are safe on the day of judgment and are (astonishingly) turned from sons of the sorceress (v3) into heirs of the living God (v13b).

What we see in these verses is that there is quite a lot about the workings of the human heart but it is not a cool discourse – it is a passionate, confrontational declaration. It is a prophetic condemnation so there is quite a lot about ‘You’ (N.B. plural), describing the ways in which God’s people have forsaken him and analyzing the reasons for their betrayal. But it is not leading us to an introspective dead end. We are given the big gospel truth that there is no salvation in us and we need instead to run to hide ourselves in the LORD himself.

  • Have you heard good examples recently of preaching which brings out the heart analysis of the passage while turning us as a people to the Lord? How can we get better at this?

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Mastered

I was using some discipleship material recently when I came across this introduction:

“Very few Christians have a plan for mastering the Scriptures… We master all sorts of complicated skills and accomplish major personal learning and development programs when needed in our life and work but remain at elementary levels of development in the Word. In this session, we will explore the importance of every believer developing a goal of mastering the Scriptures…”

I appreciate what the author of these notes is driving at but it’s the word ‘mastering’ that I find disturbing. Is the Bible like chartered accounting – a complicated skill or a series of principles to learn and master? If the Word is a hammer and a fire, if it is the very word of God at work in us who believe, if it is living and active, then surely the cry of Martin Luther is more apt:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

Surely we need to be mastered by the Word. And specifically by the Christ of the Word. Simon Manchester, speaking somewhat critically of his own Australian conservative evangelical constituency, warned us last year:

“I wonder if you’ve noticed an unedifying tendency… to focus on the Bible at the expense of Jesus… I do urge you to beware this trend. It’s not that we want to separate the text from the author or the text from the subject but if our [preaching], sermon by sermon, is always ‘about the Bible’ we may have missed the purpose of the Bible. And… I think it is more flattering to self to ‘talk Bible’ because we present ourselves as masters of the Bible with the ignorant masses listening to us. But no preacher is ever going to get up and say they’re the master of Jesus. And not only will we teach more reverently if we handle the Bible to see Jesus, we will also, I think, have the blessing of the Holy Spirit whose desire is to see Jesus glorified and not the guru at the front who is showing himself to be so clever. (EMA 2016)

So let’s seek, in our reading and our preaching of the Word to tremble, to find Christ, to be captured and mastered by him, to proclaim him, to see him glorified.

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A lot has been written on the sanctification debate – how do we grow in holiness – and I haven’t got anything to add. My main conclusion is simply that it’s complicated… and yet our temptation is to try and find the silver bullet, the one thing that encapsulates everything that’s important to say about Christian growth and the fight against sin. Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on sanctification have tended to focus on one means or aspect of sanctification – perhaps future-focused faith or gratitude for the finished work of Christ for sinners – and those books are absolutely brilliant… until they start to suggest that this is the heart of the matter, the engine, the one thing you need to know.

DeYoung reminds us that there is not a singular motivation for holiness:

Jesus is the Great Physician… The gospel is always the remedy for the guilt of sin, but when it comes to overcoming the presence of sin, Jesus has many doses at his disposal. He knows that personalities and sins and situations vary… Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” …The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands. (The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 56-57 emphasis added)

DeYoung then goes on to list 40 different motivations which, as he says, are not even an exhaustive list. So sanctification is a multifaceted thing. Partly because our sinfulness is horribly complex, partly because the gospel of Christ is beautifully complex.

So how does sanctification work? How does the gospel of grace relate to a life of obedience?

  • It’s about being who we are. Identity.
  • It’s about seeing the vastness of our debt and the costliness of our forgiveness and so forgiving others infinitely smaller debts.
  • It’s about seeing in the Scriptures the beauty of Christ and being captured by that better vision.
  • It’s about understanding and experiencing union with Christ. Growing in a marriage relationship.
  • It’s about wanting to please the Bridegroom.
  • It’s about a fear of the Lord.
  • It’s about godly sorrow.
  • It’s about joy.
  • It’s about submitting to a Kingly Saviour Lord.
  • It’s about knowing the sinfulness sin.
  • It’s about tasting the goodness of the ways of God and the Law of Christ.
  • It’s about waiting for Christ’s return, longing for him, hoping in a better and lasting possession and the work that springs from that eternity-focused faith and hope.
  • It’s about living as a beloved child of God. Adoption.
  • It’s about desperate dependence on the Spirit who alone can change us.
  • It’s about doing all this together, as a community of God’s people, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, urging, praying, preaching, singing.

It’s about all these things and more. It’s complicated.

One suggestion

The more I think about this the more I wonder whether the answer isn’t simply to preach the Word – to go through the chapters of the Bible letting God tell us how to grow in Christlikeness. For example – why not simply preach through Ephesians 4-5? We would find there all sorts of different motivations and means and imperatives and gospel logic (including many of those listed above) that just come straight out of the text and flow and mesh together in a way better than any of us could put it. Or how about preaching a series through Leviticus or Ezekiel or Hebrews where we are taught deep rich truths about sanctification through imagery and language that is extraordinarily powerful. Why don’t we just let our holy (complex) God himself teach us how to become holy as he is holy?

 

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sin

One area where I fear I can reduce the complexity of Scripture into soundbites is in the definition of sin. Certainly there is some value in teaching children some memorable soundbites – e.g. that sin is a three letter word with ‘I’ in the middle. But I’ve been struck recently by how multifaceted the sin problem is in the Bible and how important it is to see something of that complexity.

To go back to basics, look at Genesis 3 and ask the question (as we did with the iServe Africa ministry apprentices a couple of weeks ago) what exactly is this sin; what is at the heart of what is going on here and why is it so bad? And you get a lot of different answers, which are all true:

  • It is disobedience. Transgression of a clear command.
  • It is rebellion against God’s kingly rule and authority.
  • It is unbelief in God’s word, goodness and judgment.
  • It is wrong belief – in the words of the devil and in a false view of God.
  • It is being deceived by the devil and coming under his power.
  • It is (culpable) foolishness.
  • It is turning from the Creator to the created for pleasure, wisdom, truth.
  • It is discontent.
  • It is coveting.
  • It is an ungrateful spit in God’s face, trampling on his grace as a cheap thing.
  • It is abdicating from the responsibility of being vice regent, steward and high priest, allowing a snake into the garden tabernacle.
  • It is grasping at self-rule, self-sufficiency and denial of creaturely dependence.

Go on a chapter into Genesis 4 and there we find sin pictured as a kind of wild animal, crouching at the door, ready to spring and overpower a person.

Similarly, look at a passage like Isaiah 1 and you find a complex description of the sinful state of the nation, using a range of different words and metaphors:

  • Rebellion – especially grateful rebellion against a parent
  • (Culpable) ignorance
  • Forsaking, spurning the LORD
  • Sickness and degradation
  • Hypocritical religiosity
  • Dirt, defilement
  • Evil deeds, bloodshed, injustice
  • Omission – especially of justice
  • Scarlet
  • Resistance against the LORD
  • Prostitution
  • Pollution
  • Loving and chasing after evil and idols

Why is it important that we take account of this complexity?

  1. It stops us getting stuck on a single dimension of sin and stops us getting into needless controversies. Throughout church history and in different schools and traditions up to the present time there has been a tendency to reduce the complexity down to one particular aspect of sin. So for example, some parts of the Reformed tradition tended to emphasise sin as transgression of the law (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q14 (I know that other streams of the tradition were far broader)). In conservative evangelical circles we have tended to focus on rebellion (2 Ways 2 Live, part 2). In recent years many have rediscovered the importance of the categories of worship and idolatry and what is going on with the affections of the heart and how these themes can connect well in a post-modern culture. There has also been a huge renewed interest in defining sin in heavily relational terms – spurning God’s love. Others have returned to Augustine’s idea of sin as man curved in on himself or evil as negation/absence or to Luther’s emphasis on our condition as helplessly under the power of the devil. The problem is that these emphases often get set off against each other. The Reformed tradition (rightly) fears that sin as legal transgression and disobedience is in danger of being lost in what is sometimes rather mushy and man-centred talk of relationship and worship. Others assert (rightly) that the Bible’s strong themes of sin as spiritual adultery are in danger of being frozen out by a rather sterile presentation of sin as law breaking. Perhaps a way forward is to see that (almost) all these definitions have a biblical basis. Sin is pride. Sin is unbelief. Sin is idolatry. Sin is pushing away the grace of God in Christ. Sin is rebellion. Sin is slavery. Sin is a disease. Sin is straightforward law breaking. It’s complex. But let’s try to keep that complexity together and not just get fixed on one narrow definition.
  2. It addresses the whole person and the whole range of the human condition. Looking at all these different aspects of sin helps us to see how the Bible describes the totalness of our depravity – that every part of me is fallen: my affections are disordered and loving the wrong things; my will is unsubmissive; my behaviour is rotten and evil; my thinking is foolish and darkened. Also, seeing (and preaching) the whole range of descriptions of sin makes it more likely that some will stick on the hearers. We are all rebels but some of us know we are rebels more than others. We are all chasing the wrong things but some know that more than others. We are all law breakers. We are all idolators. We are all proud. We are all dirty. We are all deceived. But because of our different personalities and cultures and life histories it may well be that one or two of those descriptions will hit home harder than others. Ultimately, however, we need to know that all of those things describe the natural man and as we build up that biblical picture of who we are outside of Christ we get a true, 3D picture of our true state.
  3. It means being more faithful to the Bible. This is a key one if we want to be expository preachers. Instead of just seeing something about sin in the Bible and pouring in our favourite bit of systematic theology on sin, we need to stop and hear what this particular passage is telling us about sin. It may well be saying a few things (like Isaiah 1). We want to let the Bible speak – let God speak – and tell us what we don’t know and what we have forgotten about the darkness and depravity of sin in all its horrible colours and textures and tendencies and tragedies.
  4. It allows us to see the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the atonement. Perhaps most importantly, seeing the complexity of sin allows me to see it for all its sinfulness. Each of these aspects of sin is immeasurably weighty – just ponder any one of them in relation to a holy God – but combined they are overwhelming and devastating. I am guilty. And foul. And a fool. I have offended my creator. And my king. And the fountain of life. But, wonderfully, this also makes me appreciate what Christ did on the cross all the more. As Jonathan Edwards and many others have noted, if we have small thoughts of our sin (we might say simple thoughts) we will have small thoughts of our saviour. He dealt with all of this multifaceted sin. He took the guilt and punishment. He cured the incurable. He washed us clean. He overcame the devil. He won back the prostitute and paid her dowry. He smashed our idols and pride and took us for himself. Which makes me think – maybe the atonement is complex too…

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It’s complicated…

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I vividly remember hearing the following warning 13 years ago:

If there is one mnemonic which irritates me more than any other it is the K.I.S.S. mnemonic – Keep It Simple Stupid. I want to say that I think that it is profoundly unhelpful. It has deeply penetrated many churches and their expectation of preaching. What it comes to mean is that everything has to be reduced to soundbite level: a few mantras that can be reassuringly reiterated and chanted in our songs and in our teaching. They tend to reduce the inexhaustible riches of Scripture… There is a cult of simplicity.

Now people will say at this point, “The simple gospel is all we want to hear. We don’t want any complicated stuff. We don’t want doctrine. We don’t want to be stretched in our thinking.” All the teaching has to be kept easy and reassuring so we come out with our egos massaged… And so many of us pastors are tempted to go in that direction to ‘buy customer loyalty’ and keep everyone happy…

Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not asking for complexity and confusion. That is a very easy thing to produce. Lack of preparation won’t produce simplicity of the right sort it will produce complexity and confusion. It’s very easy to be long, confusing and perplexing. Nor am I advocating what people are pleased to call barren intellectualism. You know the adjectives: abstract, cerebral, impersonal. No I’m not advocating that because the Bible is never like that.

But brothers we do have to tackle, graciously, prayerfully but persistently the refusal to mature that is endemic in the evangelical church and characterises so many congregations and parts of our congregations… I wonder if sometimes it begins in the approach to evangelism which focuses on the ‘basic minimum’ idea. How little do you need to believe to be saved?

…But the Bible writers and their inspired manuscripts are not simple in the sense of superficial. They are not grasped without effort… Of course we want to be understandable. We want to be clear and lucid… but there is a cult of simplicity that is actually fatal to the growth and development of the church. (David Jackman, speaking on ‘The Enduring Word’ at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, London, 2004)

Peter Mead talks similarly of the need for preachers to aim for a simplicity on the far side of complexity. So instead of staying with a quick superficial simplicity on the near side (which will be very thin soup to offer God’s people), we need to head into the forests of complexity and explore the depths of Scripture and wrestle with (or rather be wrestled by) that complexity, before hopefully emerging out the other side with something clear and presentable but much more rich and deep and satisfying (like a good Thai dish – fresh, healthy, colourful, arresting, integrated, complex).

No short cut. We need to face up to the complexity and enter the forest.

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