The Two Hills
Regular readers of The Proclaimer will know that this summer I am moving from one ‘hill’ to another: I’m leaving the Cornhill Training Course to join the faculty of Oak Hill Theological College. One’s named after a road it used to be on but now isn’t which is miles from the nearest cornfield and isn’t really a hill anyway, and the other sits atop what looks at best like a small rise in the ground. All very confusing.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to teach at Cornhill, albeit for quite a short time. Each year the Lord sends a wonderfully stimulating and enthusiastic posse of new students to Cornhill. To see so many of them grow in love and gifts is a deep delight. A number of readers of this blog will be pastors who have sent students our way, and it is gratifying that good local churches continue to think that Cornhill is useful.
I’ve received a few comments on my move (not many, but a few) which have reflected a sense that one or other the ‘Hills’ is thought to be the real deal, where the real training happens, while the other is a bit lightweight / a bit unfocused / a bit blinkered / not turning out people with the right convictions solidly in place [delete as appropriate]. Now I have no doubt that both institutions have their weaknesses (both have employed me, for a start). But I find it impossible to think that I am moving from somewhere lesser to somewhere greater, or the other way round. I think instead that I am moving from training institution that has proved itself incredibly useful in the Lord’s hands and has the opportunity to continue doing so in the future, to another of which the same is true.
As we are all aware, there is a growing diversity of training routes for Christian ministry on offer, from colleges to courses, from residential and full time to local and part-/spare-time. There is of course always the danger of dilution as things diversify and as training is developed by a variety of people, each with their own strengths and blind spots. We’re all slightly uncomfortable when we see others doing things that we (whether rightly or foolishly) think we could do better. But it’s surely better to run those risks and attempt to address the issues as we go, in order to get as many pastors, elders, leaders and others trained as possible.
Seen in the right perspective, all colleges and courses are not merely businesses trying to strengthen their customer base (although of course they need stay solvent and be professionally and competently managed). They are ultimately servants of the real work of the Lord going on in local churches. And it seems for now to be the case that a varied set of training possibilities, varied both in terms of structure and small emphases of content and focus, serves churches well, as we seek to grow the gospel in as many places as we can.
Fighting Sin and Growing in Godliness, according to Galatians
There’s a very particular take in Galatians on fighting sin and growing in godliness which is worth noting, firstly in our own lives and secondly in our preaching and pastoring. It emerges towards the end of the letter. Paul sets out the contrasting ‘acts of the flesh’ (5.19-21a) and ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (5.22-23a). But he does not (we must note!) directly command or exhort the Galatians to fight against sin or to work directly at growth in godly characteristics. He does both of those things elsewhere – respectively in, for example, Col 3.5-10 and 2 Pet 1.5-8 – but not here in Galatians. Mortification of sin is biblical teaching, but not Galatian, I think.
What is Paul doing in Galatians with regard to godliness, then? ‘So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (5.16). Here is a command – live by the Spirit – and a statement of a consequence that will follow if we obey that command – it will then turn out that we are in fact not gratifying the desires of the flesh.
So the crucial godliness question in Galatians is, what does it means to ‘live by the Spirit’?
Two answers stand out:
i) In the immediate context, Paul has commanded them to ‘serve one another humbly in love’, because this fulfils the entire law (5.13b-14). The subsequent command to ‘live by the Spirit’ (v.16) looks rather like a restatement of this. Thus to live by the Spirit is to live a life of humble, loving service towards others.
ii) In the wider Galatian context, living by the Spirit means not relying on law-keeping for security in right-standing with God: ‘Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?’ (3.3).
Put this together, and it looks like this:
We must keep striving to find our entire security in our right-standing with the Lord not in any law-like list of achievements, but only in the works that the Spirit brings about in us. We must strive, too, to make humble, loving service of others the distinguishing feature of our attitudes and actions. (And note that these two have a natural link: if I get my sense of secure right-standing with the Lord through any list of laws I have kept, I will inevitably compare myself favourably with others in order to make my list of well-kept laws seem impressive enough – and that is the very antithesis of a loving, humble, servant heart.)
As we are focused on these two strivings – for the right foundation of our justification, for the right fundamental attitude to others – we will discover (back now to 5.16) that we are not gratifying (fuelling, feeding, stroking, pleasing) the desires of the flesh.
There is more than one way prescribed in Scripture for fighting particular sins, and we need all of them. One is to assault them directly. Another, as set out in Galatians, is to focus Christ and the Spirit, not law, as the basis for our secure standing with God, and to co-operate with the Spirit’s work in developing in us a life of humble, loving service.
‘Faith Comes from Hearing’
My spare-time reading in the last couple of weeks has, I admit, been a bit niche: a book about Bob Dylan, which argues that he has always expressed strongly monotheistic convictions and thus that his apparent period of overt evangelical belief (c.1979-81) was not just a blip in his career. (You may, or very well may not, be interested to know that the book is Stephen H. Webb, Dylan Redeemed. Despite much derision from my nearest and dearest, my fascination with Bobology won’t die.)
The author, a Christian, veers off regularly into musings of his own, and one of them (I joke not) immediately made me think of preaching. On the last page he asks, ‘why is hearing so important to us? And why do voices have the power to command our assent?’ His answer: ‘In listening to any voice … we are prompted to hear the silence out of which speech comes, and if we are truly blessed, we can hear an echo of the first voice – God’s Word – that, by speaking the world into being, gave us silence so that we might hear.’
OK, there is perhaps a little iffy theology and philosopho-babble floating around here, but the basic point is fascinating and (to me) persuasive. There is something about simply listening to the voice of another that has the effect of stilling us, silencing us, so that we may simply hear. That is a vital truth to be reminded of – especially so for we Westerners who are constantly told that voicing our own opinions is our most inalienable right, and who have been schooled by our culture to have the greatest difficulty in simply shutting up and listening to another command our assent. (And the rugged individualism of evangelicalism is at least as worldly as it is godly in this regard.)
That’s the link to preaching. Even my all-too-skimpy reading of older writing on preaching reveals that Paul’s statement in Romans 10.17 that ‘faith comes from hearing’ has loomed pretty large. Dever and Gilbert, in the first chapter of their simply titled work Preach, make much of this – as, in his own more understated way, does John Stott in I Believe in Preaching (published in America as Between Two Worlds). The point being stressed for us in such thinking is not that the Word of God has a unique power in the pulpit that it does not have in the family devotion or the coffee-shop one-to-one. It is that to hear the Word preached is to be in the position of someone invited not first of all to discover for yourself or to ask an impressive question, but to respond with faith to a message which you simply receive and to which you yourself make no actual contribution. In such a context the form of communication matches the content of the gospel of salvation achieved for us in a way that a Bible study (for all its marvellous benefits) does not quite carry off.
I suspect that sharp questions need to be asked of a Christian who always insists that they prefer participating in Bible studies to listening to sermons. There might be some unobjectionable reasons for this preference, but I have come to feel that too often the real reason is unspoken and reveals a spiritual malaise: the person prefers to encounter the Word in a context in which they contribute more than just grateful faith – i.e. one in which they can retain a feeling of control. That may well reveal the presence of a self-serving heart that secretly desires to be justified by works, whatever it may notionally assent to about grace, rather than a heart that is content always to receive with empty hands.
Delighting in the good
A small snap-shot for you of the happy life we try to live in PT Towers: on a warm afternoon recently during a break for Magnums (Classic or Almond), the conversation turned to favourite films. A wide variety of tastes was presented with some vigour, which is of course all to the good. It turned that I share with a certain Mr A.R. of this blog a love of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo (lately turned into a TV series). A certain Miss C. Sandom of this parish fails to share that love, as is entirely her right. I digress, though.
What I love most about the film Fargo is that it makes the good-hearted characters who live ostensibly dull lives seem far more interesting than the evil ones (and one is really nasty). Whenever I watch the film I feel that in some way my self-centredness is shown up as petty and boring and that any goodness in me feels like the really exciting thing about me.
I felt very much the same reading Dickens’ Bleak House, which I have just finished. The vicious and self-obsessed characters are of course painted by Dickens in vivid and often comic ways, but they are in the end essentially dull and monotonous in their unpleasantness. By contrast the morally good characters regularly find surprising new ways to show kindness and self-sacrifice to others.
Now here’s my point: most popular culture that I consume – which for me is primarily feature films and music – works precisely the other way round. It portrays selfishness and evil as essentially more interesting and sophisticated than goodness and self-sacrifice, which are usually more dull. Reading the closing chapters of Bleak House had, I felt, a positive effect on my soul, making me genuinely delight in good and find selfishness abhorrent. It is rather chilling to suppose that the majority of my cultural diet persistently has the opposite effect without me noticing very much.
This is surely one small reason why the NT Gospels present not a series of theological statements about Jesus but snap-shots of him in narrative action. Before us on those pages is the most excitingly good man who ever lived, showing up the evil of human self-righteousness in all its monotonous and destructive bleakness. May and I we be genuinely more excited by that goodness than by anything else. We may become very sophisticated readers and preachers of the Gospels; may we never lose a sense in our hearts and on our lips of discovering the most thrillingly unanticipated fact: the entire goodness of God came as a man and lived out his life, even as far as death, among us.
Professional speakers beware
I have come rather late to an appreciation of Charles Dickens. Better late than never, I suppose. At the moment I am particularly enjoying his sometimes biting social comments in Bleak House. One of the central characters is a Baronet by the name of Sir Leicester Dedlock, who through most of the story holds a very lofty view of his importance in society. Towards the end of the novel [*spoiler alert*] a great catastrophe occurs in the Dedlock family and the shock of it causes Sir Leicester to suffer a stroke. Dickens compares his present stricken state with how he used to be:
‘His voice was rich and mellow; and he had so long been thoroughly persuaded of the weight and import to mankind of any word he said, that his words really had come to sound as if there were something in them. But now he can only whisper; and what he whispers sounds like what it is – mere jumble and jargon.’
Here is my confession: as soon as I read those words, images of certain people I know jumped immediately into my mind. I guess that’s because one of my private self-serving judgments on them is that they too have an exaggerated sense of the significance of their own words.
Of course one of the godly response to such thoughts about others is deliberately to turn the searching eye of such a judgment back on oneself. I speak for a living. I preach. I teach. I lead sermon practice classes. I have students regularly coming to ask my opinion on a variety of topics, on some of which I am reasonably qualified to give an opinion that might carry some weight.
Part of the time when I speak, of course, my words do have enormous ‘weight and import to mankind’. That occurs when – and only when – I am preaching, teaching and pastoring from Scripture and have done my text-work faithfully. At such times I must indeed speak as if there were ‘something in’ my words, because in God’s goodness there really is!
I can think of plenty of other times, though, when what’s coming out of my mouth is just my not-very-humble opinion on this or that issue of church politics, general wisdom, or family life. How terribly easy it is then to borrow from the way I’ve learned to speak when there really is something true from the Lord in my words, and to try to build an aura of unquestionable authority around these other words, when the reality is that it’s really only my opinion and is likely to be just as foolish and self-serving as anyone else’s.
It is right for a preacher to learn to speak in a manner that befits someone really uttering the word of God, when in fact that is what he is doing. But what a watch we must put on ourselves, so that we do not speak that way when our words may well be as empty as those of any risible Dickens character.
Dysfunctional families, turn to page…
Teaching the Jacob narrative recently at Cornhill, I found myself describing the account of the birth of Jacob’s children in Genesis 29.31-30.24 as a state of affairs worthy of an appearance on the Jeremy Kyle Show (which of course, I must hasten to add, I don’t make a habit of watching. Is it still on?!). Here is a man fathering lots of children by four different women, two of whom are feuding sisters who end up bartering for his reproductive services with mandrake plants (30.14-16), which according to the commentaries were an ancient aphrodisiac (and not one of those dangerous magical plants from Harry Potter). It’s all rather distasteful, and is probably the low-point for Jacob in his role in the emerging covenant family. It portrays a family that is, to use a modern coinage, rather dysfunctional.
Why is it included in Scripture? (a good question to train ourselves to ask). We might think that this was surely one event which Israel would have liked to airbrush out of its history. I also take it as a small argument in favour of the historicity of this part of Genesis: a nation that indulges in myth-making to account for its own origins is surely going to invent a rather more gilded family life than this for the man after whom it is named.
I asked students what the purpose might have been for Israel, if we take it that this was written for the nation as it stood on the verge of entering the promised land. Two good answers came back:
– an encouragement: God gave birth to the nation in the midst of human mess, so whatever mess they would get themselves into once in the land would not thwart his purpose
– to bring them down a peg or two in their own eyes: God was about to give them other people’s land, taking it from them in judgement. But let Israel not imagine that this was because they were any better than those other nations: just read this story about the kinds of people you’re descended from.
This is of course not the only ‘Jeremy Kyle’ moment in the history of the patriarch’s family: battles between Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers; the foolish favouritism of Isaac and Rebekah. It’s a pretty consistent theme through Genesis. I suspect the reason I don’t personally resonate with it much is because the family in which I happen to have been blessed to grow up did not have these kinds of dysfunctionality on display for all to see. But I did notice in pastoral ministry how often people who lived very obviously in midst of dysfunctionality all the time loved these stories: here are people whose lives are as messy as mine! And God’s people are named after one of them!! I discovered that for some people that was a great relief because they really thought that the open secret of the church is that only people whose families appear to be squeaky clean can really be in the top rank of keen Christians.
Now of course, as we track this Genesis family theme carefully through to the NT we’re probably going to want to make sure that we go through Christ first of to the church, the household of God. But it must also be right to speak from these chapters about us and our messed up families, both in warning and encouragement. I suspect that for many, whatever their social status, that will come as a great relief.
When less is more
Something happened to me recently as I was about to preach – something that winds most preachers up. The service had been packed a bit more than usual of good and right things, and so in order for the service to finish in good time I needed to shave a few minutes off of my sermon. (We try to finish in good time so that the kids’ group leaders can plan accordingly.) This doesn’t happen often with us, but inevitably in any church it’s going to happen from time to time.
At that moment a preacher can easily strike up a good line of chuntering in his head, as he sees the minutes tick by. All the wonderful fruits of my study that won’t now get an airing! All those carefully-crafted explanations and powerful applications that won’t see the light of day! You might start to feel as put out Christopher Lee allegedly did when his role as Saruman was entirely cut out of the cinema release of part three of The Lord of the Rings (although he did make it into the extended DVD version – but I digress).
So on the hoof I cut out one of my two closing applications. Was it good for my humility to have to do that? Of course it was. It’s very easy for our right convictions about the vital centrality of the preached word to morph into a preciousness about myself as a preacher with this sermon I’ve prepared. It’s good of the Lord occasionally to pull us up short on that one.
And was the sermon obviously worse as a result? I doubt it. Perhaps sometimes in God’s goodness one punchy application actually has a deeper impact – and maybe even a wider impact – than ticking through a longer list. This is not an argument for ten-minute sermons or a justification for services eating into the sermon-time every week, but nevertheless with preaching, as with many other things in life, occasionally less is more.
Preaching Noah, part 3: systematic theology
In the previous two posts I’ve outlined some exegesis of Genesis 6.9-7.24, and set it in a very little biblical theology. My aim in this little series of posts on Noah is to show that apparently fine decisions in the interplay of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology will make for big differences in sermons on this text. Now to systematic theology for an example.
Back in Genesis we were told that Noah is righteous and blameless (6.9; 7.1). Genesis makes clear that it’s a righteousness set against the background of an evil world, summed up in the phrase ‘righteous in this generation’ (7.1).
An obvious bit of theology that immediately pops into the mind of every evangelical preacher who rightly does not want to downplay sin is that, in the words of Romans 3.10, ‘there is no one righteous, not even one’. A further bit of commonplace theology may then occur: saved people do perform righteous acts, but the point is that they can only ever do so by virtue of God’s grace coming to the sinner first.
If I allow these (true!) theological thoughts to control where my sermon will go, I am likely to commend Noah as an example of a sinner justified by grace and sanctified to trust in the Lord because of that. In other words, I will fit Genesis 6.8 into my ‘justification grid’ and 6.9 into my ‘sanctification grid’. I think it is also likely that a sermon that is shaped in this way by these bits of theology is likely to have little to say about the salvation of Noah’s family and of the animals – whereas the Genesis text has a lot to say about both of these things.
It’s already clear that I don’t want my sermon on Noah to go in these directions. Too much that the text majors on would be lost – Noah’s unqualified righteousness; his righteousness as the reason for him being saved; the salvation of others simply because they are his family or are with him. And the sermon would major on too much that is at most only implicit in Genesis: justification by faith; prevenient grace; Noah as a type of Christian the believer. I will note salvation by grace in my text, but I’ll see it in the grace extended to Noah’s family, by virtue of their belonging to the one righteous man. In the way Genesis is written Noah is primarily Christ and we are primarily Noah’s family.
Therefore, I think that the text itself leads me to set it in perhaps less frequented contexts, and these point the way to the points and applications that I will make:
– in biblical theology: people’s fate is often determined by the righteousness or otherwise of their head; this theme runs strongly through Israel’s history.
– in systematic theology: Christ was saved through the judgment of the cross because of his obedient righteousness (Phil 2.8-9), and in this he is of course unique. Our sole and sure way to be saved from coming judgment is to become members of his family.
Preaching Noah, part 2: biblical theology
We’ve done some exegesis on Genesis 6.9-7.24 (see previous post). Now let’s move to how the rest of Scripture will help us. I’ll stick to two texts where Noah comes up explicitly:
(1) In Ezekiel 14.14 (and similarly in v.20) God says that if a country sins and he plans to send famine to kill its people, ‘even if these three men – Noah, Daniel and Job – were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.’
I’m noting through these Noah posts how rather fine decisions make big differences in preaching this text. We come to one here:
(i) Does this Ezekiel reference tell me that Noah’s family could not have been saved just because they were related to a righteous man? If I think so, then I will probably assume that Noah’s family were righteous like him, and saved for that reason. I will consequently preach that the only way to be saved is to be righteous by trusting in the Lord’s word, just as Noah and his family were.
(ii) However I might decide that this Ezekiel verse assumes that the reader thinks that someone can be saved from God’s judgment because of another’s righteousness, and shocks them by saying that in this case they can’t be. If I go for this, I am more likely to preach that salvation is found by being a family member of the one man who is truly and uniquely righteous.
The first of these two options fits more naturally with much contemporary evangelical preaching. However I’m going to go with the second, because I think it fits best with the impact that Ezekiel 14 seems to be making, and also with what is explicitly said in Genesis 6-7 (only Noah is righteous).
(2) A second relevant verse: ‘By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with [or: comes by] faith’ (Heb. 11.7). Another issue faces us here:
(i) Is this verse telling us that the primary purpose of Gen 6-7 was to set out Noah as an example of faith in God’s word when God warned him of coming judgment? If I go for this option, I’m going to preach Noah as an example to be followed of trust in God’s warnings about judgment.
(ii) Or is Heb. 11.7 telling us that Noah can be seen in Gen 6-7 to be exercise faith, even though that may not be a main point of that narrative?
If I go for this option, my sermon on Genesis 6-7 may legitimately make a point of Noah as a man of faith, but it need not, if I think my text itself majors on other things.
I go for (ii). I note that Heb. 11.7, while stressing Noah’s exemplary faith, also speaks of his unique role: his obedience to God saved his family and condemned the world; mine doesn’t, but Christ’s did. These unique aspects of Noah were what stood out in my exegesis, so I’ll choose to keep those at the forefront, and not let the Hebrews focus on faith shift me somewhere else.
Preaching Noah, part 1: exegesis
I’ve come recently, not for the first time in the last year, to Noah and the flood. It so happens that I’ve just been teaching those chapters at Cornhill and am preaching soon on Genesis 6.9-7.24 in my own church.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the way a preacher ends up applying this text will be markedly affected by seemingly fine decisions he makes with regard to the interplay of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology. I know that’s true of every sermon on any text. But I reckon that with Noah apparently small decisions, or assumptions not thought through, can lead to very significant different lines of application. Let me set out what I mean.
For today, exegesis. Two key features stand out in the text:
(1) Noah was saved because he was righteous and blameless. Genesis 6.8 ends the previous section with a cliffhanger: ‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.’ How this came about is immediately explained: Noah was righteous and blameless, and (or perhaps: in that) he obeyed God’s commandments about the ark (6.9, 22; 7.1, 5, 16). 7.1 makes most explicit that Noah is saved because he is righteous.
(2) The key to any other creature being saved is to be with Noah (6.18, 19, 20, 21; 7.1, 9, 15). If we ask of the narrative, ‘why are Noah’s family saved?’, the answer seems to be: because they are Noah’s family. Similarly, the animals that are saved are saved because they are said to come to Noah to be with Noah. The final line of 7.23 sums up the text’s most explicit repetitions: ‘Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.’ It’s Noah who’s saved – oh, and those who happen to be his, and to be with him.
As a preacher I’ve now got some issues to face…
Part of my gut feels that I should be preaching that Noah was a sinner saved by grace through his faith in God’s word, but I honestly struggle to find that said explicitly of him here.
To put the same thing the other way round: a very large part of my gut feels that I don’t want to preach salvation by works – so what am I to do with all this stress on Noah’s righteousness and obedience?
At the very least what I mustn’t do is shape sermon points and applications which will lead me to airbrush out those features which are undeniably explicit in the text.
Next step: to move (in the next post) to biblical theology, to see how that will help.