Anatomy of a sermon: Day 1
Today (Monday for the purposes of this blog, but normally for me Day 1 is Tuesday), I just want to let the text sink in. I print it out onto a piece of paper in two or three versions, Greek too if it’s NT (sorry, no Hebrew or Aramaic for this muppet). I then read it through again and again. My aim on Day 1 is to let the text speak without doing any detailed exegetical work. So, no commentaries. I try to discipline myself (not always successfully) to avoid thinking of headings and splits and bookends and all that stuff.
I might listen to it being read (using an Audio Bible) or even, if the passage is relatively short, try to memorise it. I might break the morning with a walk or some other activity and perhaps even take my sheet with me.
I am not so narrow that I don’t make notes. If things come to me or surprise me or excite me, I might note them on my sheet. But I try to keep these top level – I don’t get into the place of a particular preposition at this stage.
By the end of Day 1 I try to write down a big idea. I might be able to do that at this stage, I might not. But I want the passage to be in my bloodstream so that when Day 2 and the more detailed work begins, I have a context to work within. My temptation is always to get into the detail too quickly. For example I’m always tempted to start analysing sentence 1 before even reading the passage enough. So Day 1 is a disciplined introduction to the passage.
I try to pray it for me on this Day. I’m not at this stage working out illustrations, applications and so on. I’m simply trying to let the word of Christ dwell in me richly. I guess to most of us bookish people, this sounds a bit touchy feely. But it’s important, I believe, to preach a passage well, to get the sense of it well, tone, pace – all that sort of thing.
Anatomy of a sermon
Next week on the blog I’m going to walk through my sermon preparation process. I’m doing this simply because I often get asked how I go about it. There’s going to be nothing prescriptive in it – there are four of us on staff here who preach regularly, and as far as I know, we all follow different patterns. None is more correct than another. Nevertheless, it sometimes helps us to listen to how other people go about things.
In part, this helps us understand how best we can individually approach sermon preparation. For each of this needs to be different because we have different levels and skills and find some things easier than others. You may be better at original languages than me (I always think about them – but find it very hard). You have struggle with applications or illustrations more than I, and so on.
But there are two constants – one is the text in front of us. It does not change and it requires the preachers hard work to preach it faithfully. The other is a dependent spirit that is reflected in the preacher’s praying. I will not say a huge amount about this next week, but want to say up front that each of my five days is spent at least in part in prayer. Whether physically or metaphorically, each preacher must lay his sermon before the Lord as Hezekiah lay the letter before him (Is 37:14).
Republication and all that
You may have been following the republication debate in the US. Or not. Essentially this is a question of whether the Mosaic Covenant is a republication of the covenant of works with Adam or something entirely different. This is more than an academic exercise for preachers as it gets to the heart of the question of how we preach law books (not just “the Law” in its totality). I’ve been greatly helped by Michael Brown’s little book Christ and the Condition. It is an assessment of Samuel Petto (1624-1711) and his views on the subject. Garry Williams first put me onto Samuel Petto but I confess to finding him a bit impenetrable. This book is a great help, not least because it surveys many of the Reformers and Puritans with a paragraph on each and their views: a really useful overview.
What becomes clear is that even amongst the Westminster Divines, for example, there were a variety of views within Reformed thinking – interesting given that some of those views are now dismissed rather abruptly with pejorative names. Samuel Bolton does a good job of summarising the five views on the law of Moses:
- A covenant of works, yet not opposed to the covenant of grace
- A covenant of grace, more legally dispensed
- A mixed covenant, mixed of nature and of grace
- A subservient covenant given to Israel
- No covenant in itself but a republication of the covenant of works with Adam
I was away last week at a hugely encouraging Cornhill+ conference. I love these residential stays with 10 or so guys: really good conversations, prayers and so on. We did a session of book reviews and I thought it would be good to list the books that guys were reading:
Expositional preaching, David Helm
True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
Whiter than snow, Paul Tripp
The good God, Mike Reeves
The greatest fight in the world, CH Spurgeon
What is the mission of the church, Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
The creative gift, Hans Rookmaaker
Serving without sinking, John Hindley
Streets paved with gold, Irene Howat
The Holy War, John Bunyan
One or two observations:
- These are all good books, and contain useful truths. I’ve read most (though have never tackled Rookmaaker, but would like to). I would commend any of higher happily
- They are all, for the most part, relatively simple books. There’s a place for those in ministry reading such books, but I’m a firm believer that we should read such books alongside those that stretch us. What are you reading that’s stretching you. Some of that stretching needs to be reading outside our comfort zone, even things we might disagree with. I find the discipline of reading something I don’t know if I will agree with more useful than the latest book from a conservative stable.
Go on! Let’s ignore history. Not.
When I’m studying a passage, I try to work things through on my own first of all. I don’t read a commentary before I’ve done any study. But I do read them. I am not certain enough of my own understanding and spirituality not to listen to other voices. I do so critically and thoughtfully. But to ignore the past is to ignore the giants God has given me.
The argument that something has been understood historically carries some weight with me. Some weight, I say. Just because something has been held, doesn’t mean it is right. The Reformation would never have happened otherwise. Such an approach is Catholicism which gives the Magisterium great authority. But even Calvin did not ignore the Scholastics – they are some help, he said.
I’m nervous of Evangelicals who don’t want to engage with the past. Let’s just see what the Bible says, is the mantra. Well, yes. I see that. I believe that – but to try to understand what the Bible says ignoring the interpretative past that God has given us seems to me to be the height of arrogance and a complete ignoring of God’s providential care of the church.
So, after studying the passage, I do open my commentaries – old and new. I want to know what they say precisely because I want to know what the text says.
Convictions about ministry
We’ve just finished our small Cornhill+ conference for Cornhillers who are in ministry and want to do some extra training, but for whom college is not appropriate or practicable. We had a great time in Ezekiel 1-2, 2 Cor 4-5 and 1 Thess. It was also good to have Trevor Archer with us, and we had a ‘fireside chat’ session where he shared some convictions about ministry that he said he wished he had learnt earlier in life. Here they are. Not rocket science. Nor Bible exposition, per se. But foundational and challenging nonetheless.
- Need for personal holiness. Character comes before gifting. 1 Tim 4.16.
- Personal relationships of care and accountability, including those within the church. Isolationalism is the seedbed of failure and scandal. Even Christ did not work alone. The NT is replete with ‘one anothers’.
- Personal attitude of servanthood, Mark 9.35. Leadership is not about me.
- Expectation and experience of weakness, 2 Cor 4.12. This is in the inescapable equation of Christian ministry.
- Resolve to invest in people. If we are to be faithful under-shepherds, following the Great Shepherd, we have to love the flock. But this also means investing in the next generation, 2 Tim 2.
- A personal responsibility to lead. Leaders are called to lead. That is the biblical pattern.
- A personal commitment to the teaching of the word of God. This is the lifeblood of ministry. It is not the only thing, but it is the main thing and the agenda setting thing.
Food for thought.
Not everyone is a preacher and that’s fine
This week has been the first week back for our Cornhill students. I love working with them – even though it’s not the main part of my job. I have the job of tutoring some, teaching a little, and leading a small preaching group. In the group, I regularly think that there are those whose ministry I would happily and healthily sit under. Thank God for raising up such preachers.
There are others who will serve the church well. But they’re not preachers. Sometimes, it’s only when you get going and try it out that you discover this. It’s part of the process we have. Some churches are so eager to raise up workers (perhaps this is their first) that they sometimes can’t see this. They haven’t had a worker off to college in 50 years: this guy must be the one! Not always.
We need to be able to say in our churches that God gives different gifts and that’s fine. What is more – our theology of equality says that serving God in some unseen way is no less valuable that serving God from the front. In other words, not everyone is a preacher and that’s just fine.
When the passage overwhelms
Last week I preached Luke 4.1-13 (the temptations of Jesus). I found it an overwhelming passage. There is immense truth in it: deep, deep things which search the very nature of salvation determined for all eternity. Here is the second Adam (hence the genealogy) rejecting the way of the first Adam, tempted in the same way, but standing firm. Here is the Son of God where every temptation threatens his very sonship loudly acclaimed by the first three chapters of Luke (and also hinted at in the genealogy). Here is our High Priest being tempted as we are, in every way, yet without sin.
I had 25 minutes.
What do you do with such a rich passage where words seem barely able to convey the depth and enormity of what is going on? What do you with such a rich passage where you have been moved to tears in your preparation and you worry that you will be totally unable to convey that intensity in an evening sermon at the end of a long weekend.
Here’s what you do: you do what you always do. You prepare faithfully. You pray diligently. And you trust that the Spirit who made the text live for you will make the text live for your hearers. You don’t try to artificially stimulate a reaction. Nor do you worry that your words will be insufficient. As with every other sermon, you realise that you can’t say everything about everything, and that is OK. You don’t – in other words – prepare the purple passage in any different way than the other passages. For, you see, they are all purple. They all proclaim Christ in a deep, significant way. Perhaps you see it here more than you did in Isaiah 55. But it is the Scripture, nonetheless.
1 John (talk 1, part 4)
A rival Christ
Let me define antichrist a little further. When you see the word ‘antichrist’ written down, you immediately think of someone who is an opponent of Christ and of course that is undoubtedly true. Some who leave evangelicalism do sadly become opponents, even bitter opponents of the gospel they once embraced. But antichrist has, as well, (I think this is very important – I twigged it rather late in the day) the idea of a rival Christ. We use that of the antipopes in the medieval times. I think I’m right in the saying that in the course of church history, there have been 25 antipopes, that is, rival popes, set up in Avignon or somewhere else like that who claim to be the true pope over against the one at Rome. So when the word ‘anti’ is used it means not only an opponent but a rival. So the term does not mean simply opposing; it includes the idea of counterfeiting. Plumber again: “The antichrist is therefore a usurper who under false pretences assumes a position that does not belong to him and who opposes the rightful owner.” For example, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 where Paul talks about deceitful workers whom Satan sends into the church who appear to be genuine but are actually fraudulent. So it does mean opponents and adversaries and enemies and they can do us much harm; but our opponents may frighten us but they won’t deceive us. It looks certainly as though increasingly our government is becoming hostile to Christian claims and that was certainly true in the first century. That may alarm us as we see some of the stupid things being done by ministers at the moment in the imagination that they can curtail the witness of Christians, but I don’t think they are counterfeiting Christians. The counterfeit claims superior powers, advanced knowledge, and deeper spiritual experiences and I don’t think any of these government ministers would claim that.
Now obviously, these kind of claims – “If we claim to be without sin…” – what a claim! “If we claim to know him”, “to be in him” – these tremendous claims, which apparently some of the antichrists were making, shake the assurance of the ordinary Christian. Chapter 1:6, 8, 10 and chapter 2:4, 6 and 9. On 1:6 “If we claim to have fellowship with him…”, Michael Eaton (whose little commentary in the Focus series is excellent and I recommend it but here I think he makes a small mistake) says, if it had been the antichrists who had made these claims it would run: “if they claim”. Now there may be some truth in that. They may have had effects in the churches, so John writes “if we claim”. But that doesn’t follow grammatically at all, does it? If I’m giving a talk to some young people and I say, ‘If we claim that there is no hell we contradict the teaching of Christ’, that’s a normal way of talking, isn’t it. I don’t mean that I’m claiming that – I’m just saying, ‘If we claim that, then we’re making a mistake’. And there obviously are people who do claim that, so when John says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him”, he’s actually talking theoretically in a sense but his finger is pointing at the antichrists.
How much influence they are having no one can tell. This shaking of assurance happens, of course, within the boundaries of the real Christian church. If a Pentecostal friend of yours who is as sound as a bell on the person of Christ and the atonement, tells you that unless you speak in tongues you’re not experiencing the Spirit of God, that will shake your assurance, will it not? I can remember a dear friend of mine from college days who told me that we’ve all been missing the best and explained to me the new charismatic experience. When people do that, it does shake your faith. You think, ‘Have I missed out? Am I properly founded? Have I really known the Spirit?’ So these superior claims can shake Christian confidence, but in that case with the Pentecostal it’s well within the boundaries of orthodoxy. So it was with the Full Gospel Business Men International who at one period began to come to our Tuesday lunchtime services. They espouse that Jesus bore our sicknesses as well as our sins on the cross and, therefore, if we put our faith in Christ crucified, we shall be perfectly healed. And they stood at the back after the service and drank coffee and chatted with young Christians and said something like this: ‘What Dick has been telling you is wonderful – but there’s more to it’. Now, that shakes your confidence in the preacher and in what you’ve heard. In the end, sadly, I had to ask them to go because they were causing a great deal of difficulty with many young believers, recently converted.
21st century parallels
Now, can we identify these false brethren with the heretics of the first century? This is a very important question for those of you who have a great sheaf of commentaries at home and know something about the problems of the first century. Moving around in the first century church were the Docetists, the Syrinthians and the proto-Gnostics, as Carson calls them. It was in the second century that Gnosticism was fully developed, but there must have been some seeds of it in the preceding century. And this kind of quasi-Gnosticism is, of course, always with us. It’s the brother who comes to you and says he’s had some great experience and he knows. No argument will ever reach him; he knows, he’s superior, God has shown him. That is the characteristic mark of Gnosticism which has been with the church for 2000 years.
It does seem that the heretics of 1 John are not precisely the same as the docetists, the Syrinthians or the proto-Gnostics. In other words, the cap does not fit well enough. This is the conclusion of Howard Marshall, whose commentary in the New International Series is a very sound and good one, and it’s the conclusion of Colin Kruse. So if I may quote from a very learned theologian called Schnackenberg, a Roman Catholic commentator who gives us some very fine work on these letters, he says, “The heresy which occasioned 1 and 2 John cannot be paralleled with any other manifestation of heresy known from that era. Yet [this is important] it has affinities with more than one such movement.” Now I think that’s very balanced. Yes, it does have affinities, as we shall see when we look at some of the problems in chapter 5. All those heretics played down the historic person of Christ and his atoning sacrifice. And that person of Christ is absolutely central of course to 1 John.
The person of Christ
Many of you will be experts in the various creeds, like the Creed of Constantinople, which we know as the Nicene Creed. I remember taking up a prayer book and simply adding up the lines. As you know, the Nicene Creed tells us about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. About the Father we have three lines: I believe in God the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and so on. About the Holy Spirit we have nine lines – of course it will be different according to difference printings. There are nine lines about the Holy Spirit and the church and the resurrection and so on. About the person of Christ in the middle: 16 lines. Isn’t that striking? 3 lines; 16 lines; 9 lines. Now what the Nicene Creed tells you is that for the first three centuries that was the battleground. That every phrase you’ve got there – light of light, very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, who for us men and for our salvation – every one of those was a battleground. Every one of those has been fought for. Every one of those has been defined until finally it is precisely what the leaders wanted to say is the teaching of the Bible. Now I didn’t need much persuading on this business because I for a long time have had the conviction that God, providentially, doesn’t allow us to make a tight connection between the heresies we read of in the New Testament and the heretics of our day. What he gives us is sufficient evidence to gain the principles of heresy, which we shall apply in a number of different ways.
The point is obvious, isn’t it. Supposing actually this heresy was docetism, denying the real humanity of Christ. Well then, that’s the end of the matter – is anyone here a Docetist? Of course not. I’m sure there aren’t any Docetists in your local church, so we don’t need 1 John. Throw it into the wastepaper basket; the warning is redundant, we don’t need it. But we can see that some of Docetus and Syrinthius’ principles turn up here in modified form, causing trouble in John’s churches in all sorts of different ways. In fact, one of the difficulties I’ve found in 1 John is that the errors of the secessionists, (I’m now going to call them secessionists following Kruse – I think that’s a good name for the antichrists, the secessionists: people who have gone out) seem to be mutually contradictory. On the one hand they believe this and then they believe something that seems to be contradictory, and yet you find it applies so much to things today. So you don’t see Docetism today. So you see, God has prevented us from labelling these people in a way that would stop 1 John being useful to us and therefore we are not able to apply it to things today, which we can so easily do.
1 John (talk 1, part 3)
Exposing the false and encouraging the true
Now what it shows is that in this letter (and this is very important for the preacher) that John both exposes the false and encourages the true. He does the two together all the time. I would suggest to you that that is an ideal for anybody who is speaking in Christian service. All good Christian teaching must encourage the faithful but must also expose the false. I want to suggest to you that that is the perfect pattern for the Christian preacher and it is fascinating how John does this. For example, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1:6) There is a plain exposure of those who make that bogus claim. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”(1:7) There is a great encouragement. Then we have another exposure: “If we claim….” And then verse 9, an encouragement: “If we confess…” He does this alternating: first an exposure, then an encouragement. Don’t listen to that, do listen to this. There is a hard evangelical preaching that exposes unceasingly but doesn’t do much positive encouragement. On the other extreme there is a soft evangelicalism that encourages wonderfully clearly and warmly but seldom if ever exposes error. John does both all the time.
So one very interesting characteristic of John in this letter is the use of the negative. You’ll find exactly the same in John’s Gospel. It is something I think we need very badly today on the fringes of evangelicalism where often the negative is avoided. John says, quoting Christ: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) Then comes the negative: “No-one comes to the Father except through me.” You see, the negative interprets the positive. You can’t have the positive without the negative. Otherwise you’re not being a faithful preacher. And so he does that exactly in 1 John 1:5, 6 and 8. He shows the negative and then the positive, the negative and then the positive, and you’ll find that he does that all the way through his letter. We lie and do not practise the truth – those two are different, aren’t they? They balance each other. It means we’re telling a lie about ourselves and we’re not in accordance with the truth of the gospel. They’re the same thing, but there’s a balance there; they are two sides of a coin.
John’s principle is first century truth
Now let me make a comment here having given you these five signs of the antichrist, without which we would get into a dreadful muddle. The concept, of course, that they have left the orthodox churches must not be institutionalised. We live in a time of churches grouped together in formal denominations and so on, and there’s a very great danger of institutionalising first century truth in a way that’s quite improper. For example, the Exclusive Brother is taught that if anybody leaves their assembly they are going out into the world and are no better than pagans. This has led to infinite suffering because people have left the Exclusive Brethren Assembly and therefore have had to leave all their relatives who remain behind. I remember going to see one of the chief mandarins of the Exclusive Brethren in 1960 when there was the break-up in Reigate and some of the men were coming to St Helen’s, Bishopsgate. They were an enormous help because they were used to hard work and they knew their bibles. I remember a senior member of the Exclusive Brethren, saying to me, “Mr Lucas, when you receive the Holy Spirit you will agree with us.” The implication is very plain. ‘We are the true church and nobody outside these boundaries will ever understand the things of God.’ Now, that is wicked really, isn’t it? Technically and historically, of course, Rome has taken the same position, though they wouldn’t say so largely today. Nevertheless historically they have said, ‘Move outside these boundaries and you are outside the true church.’
Leaving gospel churches
But what John is saying is in principle. He’s not talking about denominations; presumably they didn’t exist. He is saying in principle, ‘If you leave gospel churches and gospel beliefs and gospel people, that is a very serious sign that something is wrong.’ I want to make that clearer. If a person who professes to be a real Christian leaves a gospel church and gospel beliefs and gospel people, that should be to them and their friends a very serious sign. It’s not a matter of leaving a particular denomination – a Baptist or a Methodist church; it’s a matter of leave behind a bible church. A real Christian church.
Remaining in the Son
That’s why you get so many comments in 1 John about ‘remaining’. It’s a key word. He loves this word and he plays with it in all sorts of different ways. For example, in 2:24-27, “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us – even eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” Well, he doesn’t mean that they don’t need pastors and teachers in their church. The secessionists were saying, ‘You need us to teach you this new way’. And John is saying, ‘You don’t need these new teachers – the teachers you have always had have led you into the truth’. “But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him. And now, dear children, continue in him…” (2:27-28)
It’s the same all the way through. It’s a key word and of course, it is in close connection with what the New Testament is saying all the way through. One of my favourite verses in Colossians is 2:6 “So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” What Paul says there, John also says in his letter. So, remaining in the truth and letting the truth remain in us is the same idea as remaining in these true communities in which people first heard the gospel and were regenerated by the grace of God.
Again, we’ve got to be careful. I’m going to make little warnings as I go along so you won’t misunderstand me. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you will know many who have at one time professed the faith of the gospel but have, as they would put it, moved on, grown up beyond these elementary beginnings. I think of the Cambridge University Christian Union Mission of 1949 with Dr Barnhouse. What a wonderful mission it was, with many people in the university being really converted. I think of one of the men I knew who was converted. I think he did move on from the truths that brought him face to face with Christ at that mission, but I would be very surprised to hear that he had denied the Son. He’s still within the boundaries of the orthodox church so I don’t want to push him outside those boundaries. So it is possible, isn’t it, to grow beyond those early truths that led you to Christ and still be a Christian. On the other hand, it’s a dangerous signal and may mean that you’re moving out further and further, and will then cross the boundaries. We shall have to have discernment here. We shall have to be clear what is secondary and what is primary, and we shall discover that the antichrist cross primary boundaries, not secondary boundaries.