Encouraging and Rebuking
Most preachers have a basic tendency, I think, to feel more comfortable either rebuking/exhorting or encouraging in their preaching. That will be to do with the complicated mixture of background, culture, personality, theology, hopes and fears that make up the person that each of us is. If you’re not sure which way you go on this, those who hear you regularly can most likely tell you. It’ll be the tone you often default to when you’re freewheeling or when your mouth is on autopilot or when you’re busking it a bit due to lack of preparation.
My hunch (and I might be wrong) is that significant elements in our evangelical culture lead a larger number of us to be more natural rebukers, or at least exhorters, than encouragers. Certainly, whatever our natural tendency is, we’ve got to be especially alert to when our preaching text is calling us to do what comes less naturally. The encouragers are likely to blunt the hard edge of biblical commands; the rebukers/exhorters are likely to turn God’s indicative statements into commands.
This came to my mind today when doing some work on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.1-23. A sermon was naturally forming in my mind (and you’ve heard and maybe preached it a thousand times on this parable) that urged Christians to focus on all the elements of soil-types 2 and 3 that still lurk in us. Fair enough: there is plenty there that pushes the preacher to urge believers to persevere. But Jesus ends with the very wonderful v.23 describing the fruitful soil – this one ‘hears the word and understands it’ and ‘produces a crop’.
In just about every church where this could be preached there are believers hearing the message who have proved not to be soil-type 2, because they’ve endured through trouble for more than a while; nor are they showing many signs of being soil-type 3, because their evident desire is to press on with Christ through all the cares of this world. This passage surely demands that the preacher describe such people (probably the majority, in any healthy church), and say: “You’re doing the right thing. Press on. The fruit is evident and is growing. God is graciously giving you the ‘abundance’ that Jesus promised (v.12).” So, for such people, if I’m only going to make one application to them in my sermon, it should surely be not, ‘You know you’re being choked by the cares of the world, don’t you – stop it!”, but, “You show every sign of being a good and faithful servant. What a joy and grace that is!”.
What is a ‘central’ truth?
All movements and cultures have stories that they tell in order to define who they are. One of those central stories for British conservative evangelicalism is the account of a meeting in Cambridge in 1919. You probably know it. A man called Norman Grubb asked, “Does the Student Christian Movement put the atoning blood of Christ central in its teaching?” After a little deliberation among SCM delegates the answer came, “Well, we acknowledge it, but not necessarily [as] central.”
This story has been recounted countless times in print and in teaching. It has served as a community-defining tale, especially among conservative evangelical Anglicans and those strongly influenced by the evangelical student movement. Its use may be waning, but it can still often be heard.
There is much in it to be very grateful for. In practice, one key slide away from biblical Christianity into liberalism has been an unwillingness to make much of the atoning blood of Christ, which usually leads in the next generation to outright rejections of anything resembling penal substitution. We must remain grateful to all those who have stood firm against such popular shifts.
However… from the perspective of nearly a century later, I think a good case can be made that we need to ask what sense has been made of the word ‘central’ in that story. More importantly, what is the right biblical sense in which the atoning blood of Christ ought to be ‘central’ to us?
In conversations with others, it seems to me that there is a growing number of evangelicals who think that we have too often taken ‘central’ in that regard to mean, “What I should talk about most strongly almost all the time when I talk about sin, Christ and salvation”, and that this can lead to biblical unbalance. Other wonderful and ‘central’ aspects of sin, Christ and salvation – the incarnation, Christ’s active obedience, the resurrection, union with Christ, adoption, definitive sanctification, among others – then only get air-time if they can be related in some subservient way to penal substitution. These truths are confessed, but not in any meaningful community-defining way.
Such evangelicals, and I am one of them, agree entirely with the brave people of 1919 against the SCM that penal substitution is indeed ‘central’. But they think that, in proper biblical perspective, it is ‘central’ not in the way that a building’s foundations are uniquely central to the edifice (take any other part of the building away and the whole thing can still stand, but take that one part away and the whole thing collapses). Instead it is ‘central’ more in the way that any individual part of a fishing net is central to the integrity of the whole (rip away any one of a number ‘central’ parts and the whole net is fatally compromised).
No proper evangelical wants to foster a generation of Christian preachers who start to sit loose in any way to the atoning blood of Jesus. But a vital and glorious Bible truth is not rightly valued if it is so asserted as to eclipse other central and related truths, and many think that such a thing has often happened in the last century in our circles.
Too much Bible?!
A provocative title for this post, I know, but it’s a thought I get from a comment that Garry Williams makes early on in his very fine book His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP, 2015). Garry notes that we will live in an age in which we are deluged with information, and then says:
‘For the Christian the deluge can include Bible information. We may have woeful gaps in our Bible knowledge, but at the same time Christians in church cultures focused on expository preaching receive a lot of Bible teaching. Conscientious Christians might hear two passages preached on a Sunday, another passage at a midweek meeting [or insert whatever your church does with the Bible midweek] and then might study seven more in their own daily readings. They may hear still more texts expounded if they listen online or download sermons and talks. That is a lot of Bible, and it can foster an unreflective approach to Scripture. No sooner have I listened to one passage expounded than my attention is called to another, and the plates soon fall to the ground because there are too many spinning at once.’ (pp.15-16)
Garry goes on to say that this is a potential downside of a very good thing: lots of Bible preaching/teaching and lots of access to it for Christians. But I think he has put his finger on something important which is not often noticed in our churches. My own experience of reading Garry’s book is a case in point. At the end of every chapter, each on a different aspect of the love of God, he wisely includes a short meditation with questions and a prayer. He urges the reader not to rush over these. I found it very hard not to do that. I wanted to jump on to the next chapter, to gain a new insight into God’s love from another part of Scripture, both for my own learning and (frankly) to have something impressive-sounding to drop into future conversations and teaching. (I hope, for my own selfish sake, that plenty of other readers would find the same difficulty.)
In this aspect of our lives we have probably been more deeply shaped and trained by the distracted and distracting culture of our day than we realise. If I’m going to help any other believers around me let any parts of God’s word sink deep into them rather than simply letting lots of God’s word just wet our skin, I’ve got to be fighting against this cultural habit in myself.
Quite a lot may be at stake here. It’s often when we do what Garry recommends that we come to experience in our inner being the truth that God is at work in and through his Word in the power of the Spirit. If we don’t encourage ourselves and others to give time and space for that to happen before consuming the next slice of Bible-learning, we may unwittingly be raising believers who have been taught to believe and repeat that God’s word is powerful but who below the surface aren’t quite convinced because they rarely allow themselves (or are allowed) space to experience it in their souls.
In other words
I was greatly helped this week by reading a section of Job; Job 33:19-28. It’s part of Elihu’s first speech to Job. Christopher Ash persuasively argues that Elihu should be read as speaking truth to Job, in contrast to the three other friends.
Elihu addresses himself to Job’s complaint that God is silent (v.13). He asks Job to consider someone who is ‘chastened on a bed of pain … they draw near to the pit’ (vs.19, 22).
He says this of such a person in vs.23-26:
Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, “Spare them from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for them – let their flesh be renewed like a child’s; let them be restored as in the days of their youth” –
…then that person can pray to God and find favour with him, they will see God’s face and shout for joy; he will restore them to full well-being [or perhaps: to righteousness].
This is a beautiful picture, ultimately, of the mediatory, ransoming work of Christ. From one perspective, it only expresses truths which are already substantially familiar to a Christian who knows Mark 10:45 well. But how kind of God to breathe it out and preserve it for us, because of the way in which those truths are expressed:
• it’s addressed to someone feeling on the very verge of death, wondering why God seems silent;
• the long conditional clause (‘yet if there is an angel… and [if] he is gracious… and [if] he says to God’) powerfully conveys a sense of deep longing for such a mediating messenger from God;
• how rare such a mediator seems to be (‘one out of a thousand’);
• the graphic language of being ‘spared’ from going ‘down to the pit’;
• the sudden calling to God that he has ‘found a ransom for them’;
• the new reality this opens up for the sufferer: they can now pray to God and be sure of finding his favour, and they may now see God and shout for joy.
In our own Bible-reading, as well as our preaching, these are aspects of the work of Christ and its fruits to dwell on and draw richly from. A devotional time on this section felt very different and led to some different prayers than one on Mark 10:45 might, and so too should a sermon on it.
Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds
…is the title of a book of family devotions based on the Heidelberg Catechism, written by Starr Meade and published by P&R. It contains a year’s worth of daily material, and for a while now has been used most evenings chez Ward. Each day has a paragraph to read, and a short Bible text look at. It’s led to at least one entertaining conversation in which Ward Junior was appalled that one of his youth leaders had not heard of the Heid Cat.
Now different kinds of evangelical will have their own view on the particularities of the various Reformation creeds and catechisms. Some love the way that these traditions anchor us and prevent various slides into unbiblical short-sightedness. Others are sniffy about them because they worry about exalting the theological traditions of men too highly.
Whatever one’s view on that, this book has been good for our souls. Could I make a case that it’s a bit unbalanced here and there, with a bit too much on this or rather too little on that? Sure I could. But our noses have been rubbed in topics that haven’t often come up in other family Bible-aids we’ve used – the Lord’s Supper, and the keys of the kingdom, to name two – and we’ve been provoked to talk about things in ways we haven’t before (‘so when Jesus is proclaimed to the youth group this week, the door to heaven is being opened to some and closed to others’. That gives an angle on the weekly kids’ meeting that opens your eyes a bit.)
Even the very first question gives an angle on Christian truth and its effect that is not one of the regular ‘go-to’ expressions in our corner of the church:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Simply reading is not simple
Simply reading what Scripture says is really difficult. Here’s what I mean:
I was recently looking with a group at just two verses – Titus 2.1-2: “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.”
Just two verses. No difficult words. No complex logic. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at least half of the people in the group took from it as their first point: “Elders must teach sound doctrine.” How true! But look again: how different from what Paul actually wrote to Titus here.
Here he doesn’t tell Titus to teach sound doctrine. He tells him to teach what ‘accords with’ sound doctrine.
What is that, we might ask, having just read v.1? Verses 2ff. tell us: it’s all these instructions that Titus is to teach to different groups in the churches. When we notice this, then a rather different central point to the sermon emerges: “Elders must teach the lifestyle that fits with sound doctrine.”
I certainly don’t mock any of the people in the group who fell into the bear-trap of not actually reading carefully the few simple words in Titus 2.1-2 that were in front of them. We all simply fail to simply read all the time. (Anyone who’s ever tried to proof-read a document that they’ve written and have missed obvious bloopers despite countless reading will know how hard it is. And there’s plenty of study been done that shows that, when we read, our eyes are both constantly scanning ahead and also taking in whole words or short phrases at a single glance.)
This means that the preacher needs to find ways of forcing himself to slow down his reading. There’s no one right way of doing this. For myself, I try always to write out by hand any passage I’m speaking on, word for word. If I’ve got two or three long chapters of OT narrative as a single unit, I might just allow myself to summarise paragraph by paragraph.
The main reason I do this is simply that it forcibly slows the speed of my reading down to the speed at which I can write.
(And I’m old enough to think that having pen in hand focuses my concentration. I’d like to find biblical warrant for this prejudice held by many like me whose childhood computer was a Sinclair Spectrum and who therefore are still slightly agog at contemporary technology, but I can’t.)
The more familiar a Bible passage is, the more necessary I find this process. That’s because the more familiar I am with it, the more I think I know in advance what it says. And in that case when I think I’m reading it I’m really not. I’m just looking at the text on the page while the tape of what I think it says is playing in my mind.
Every preacher needs to find their own way of doing this. But we need to give God the respect of slowing down our reading of his word.
On not preaching what we know is there, part 2
Another example of the strange phenomenon of a preacher in his preparation actually spotting something central in his text, but then losing sight of it and not preaching it because he lacks the necessary biblical/theological apparatus to make sense of it, to relate it rightly to Christ and to his people, and therefore to preach and apply it faithfully and powerfully…
I recently heard a seminary lecturer claim that the active obedience of Christ is the most sadly underused doctrine in pastoral ministry. Now we could probably think of other candidates for that unwanted accolade, but I do think that the speaker is on to something.
One place in which this comes out is in the difficulty that many evangelical preachers have with those OT figures who are said in one way or another to be blameless before God.
David is an obvious example.
Another is Noah, of whom it is said that he ‘found favour in the eyes of the Lord’ (Gen. 6.8), and that he ‘was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God’ (Gen. 6.9). For many of us, our most controlling theological grid says, “Avoid any hint of works-salvation at all costs”, which leads to the common reading of these verses that’s often summarised as ‘grace found Noah’. I have an exegetical problem with that: it inverts what v.8 in fact says. It does so, I think, because it’s assuming a view of salvation which plays up Christ’s passive obedience at the cost of his active obedience. In other words, an assumed theological grid has twisted the text a bit.
The text looks a little different, though, if I come to it knowing that I have been saved, in part but significantly, because there is ultimately one man whom the Father judged worthy of passing through judgment to emerge alive on the other side precisely because of his life of obedience to the Father. If this is in my mind, I can allow Gen 6.8-9 to point me to Christ without having (in my view) to bend it a little out of shape. (Of course, in the richness of God’s word, Christ’s passive obedience for us, quite apart from our works, is foreshadowed straight after the flood in Noah’s sacrifice, 8.20-21).
One other tricky “he keeps insisting he’s righteous” figure in the OT is Job. If I may plug a (former) colleague’s book: Christopher Ash’s recent commentary on Job in the Preaching the Word series handles the issue of Job’s righteousness quite superbly. Here he is on Job’s final self-defence in ch.31: ‘There will come a man whose perfect obedience will extend both to his single-hearted worship and love for his Father and to his perfectly sinless and utterly good treatment of all his fellow human beings…. [Christ] fulfils the innocence of Job in the perfection of his obedient life.’ We will see this, says Christopher, only if we read Job 31 ‘in the light of the doctrines of justification and of union with Christ from the rest of Scripture’ (p.320).
On not preaching what we know is there, part 1
As we Cornhill staff listen to students giving practice sermons and talks and then lead the subsequent discussion time, I’ve noticed an occasional phenomenon. It goes like this:
• Leader: “Explain the logic and flow of that passage to us as clearly as you can.”
• (Student does so, and does it quite well.)
• Leader: “Good. But that wasn’t the central message of your sermon. Why not?”
• Student: “Well, I just didn’t know how to preach that.”
One very honest student (whose permission I have for this) was recently preaching to us on the second half of Isaiah ch.1. I, along with some others in the group, felt that he’d missed the crucial logic at work in vs.21-26. In that section, Jerusalem moves from being indicted by God as a ‘prostitute’ inhabited by murderers (v.21) to being called ‘the city of righteousness, the faithful city’ (v.25). And Isaiah tells us how this dramatic shift is going to occur: God will turn his hand in judgement against his enemy Jerusalem (vs.24-25a – which is no surprise), and in doing so will not sweep Jerusalem away but in fact will remove all her impurities (v.25 – which is a big surprise: here is divine judgement that does not destroy but purifies).
So we asked the student: “If that’s the core of the passage – judgement from God on his people that purifies – why did you preach about forgiveness, which is a rather different topic? What went wrong in your prep that led you to miss the key thing?”
To which he replied, with refreshing openness: “I didn’t miss it. I did notice it. But I just didn’t have a category for it.”
I think that’s a perceptive comment. A preacher who knows he must study Scripture carefully will often spot the core message of a passage accurately. But that’s not enough for preaching. He needs to have the necessary biblical/theological grids and frameworks in place which allow him to make sense of what he’s seen in the text, to know how to relate it to Christ and to his people, and therefore how to preach and apply it with faithfulness and power.
If my core understanding of Christ’s saving work defaults constantly to justification and forgiveness as my only controlling categories, then although I may still notice when Scripture says something else about salvation (as Isaiah 1.21-26 does), I’m probably not going to know how to make sense of it, preach it or apply it. As Mr Spock used to say, I may see the data in front of me, but it just won’t compute, Captain.
Further on this to come…
‘Bible handling’ is a phrase often heard around these parts: preachers need to be good ‘Bible handlers’. Unfortunately for me (and this says more about me, I readily acknowledge, than it does about anything else) the phrase most easily brings to mind a bizarre image of a preacher as a lion-tamer, holding a stick out to fend off a big book that’s trying to bite him. If I dwell on this too long I also picture that vicious book with sharp teeth in Harry Potter that needed a firm strap round it to stop it attacking you.
However of course (as I need to remind myself, in order to erase those images from my mind) it is a biblical phrase. Do your best, says Paul to Timothy, to present yourself to God as someone ‘who correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2.15).
So what is correct ‘handling’ of the word of truth? The immediate context is our best guide. And in that context we have a number of elements packed tightly together:
• direct application of the truth: an instruction to Timothy to warn the people ‘against quarrelling about words’ (v.14);
• the teaching of sound truth about Christ and us: an instruction to Timothy to remind God’s people of these things (vs.11-14a);
• the preacher’s own godliness and soundness: instructions to Timothy to flee evil desires, pursue godliness and avoid ‘stupid arguments’ (vs.16-26).
Teaching sound truth; applying it pointedly where it’s needed; guarding one’s own soundness of teaching and life.
It looks, in context, as if I need to have a firm eye on all three if I am to qualify as one who ‘correctly handles the word of truth’.
What we’re talking about when we talk about preaching
On the second page of his new book on sermon application (Cutting to the Heart, IVP) Chris Green says something that you might think ought to shock us. He says that, in his experience of training young preachers, they found far more resources to help them with text-work than with sermon application. He concludes: ‘I noticed that it wasn’t just their pastoral inexperience that made them dry and unapplied – they actually had an assumption that being dry and unapplied was what they were supposed to be doing.’
It’s worth reading that quote again (the italics are his, by the way). Not many of these young preachers will have been explicitly taught ‘your job is to be dry and unapplied’. Although a few teachers have in fact sometimes been heard to say something like that about application, the argument hasn’t been hugely influential. Yet somewhere along the line a large number of the men whom Chris has trained have imbibed the notion. How did that happen?
There’ll be a number of answers to that, but Chris points us to one: they’ve been given far more training resources on exegesis than they have on application. And of course any diligent disciple will naturally assume that what his teachers and mentors talk about most is what they really value, and what they don’t talk about much doesn’t really matter. Perhaps a generation of preachers who are now old enough to be looked up to by younger men assumed that good application is vital, but didn’t talk about it much. And of course, as we know from other areas, what one generation assumes, the next often denies.
These older preachers may well be terrific appliers of Scripture in their own sermons, but if that’s not something they talk excitedly about at length when they talk about preaching, the younger men are not likely to notice it. (Someone said to me when I came to Cornhill: Don’t forget that the things the students will remember most about your teaching are the things they see you get excited about. Wise advice.)
So a question for all of those old enough to be training young preachers, including those who pastor smaller churches and have maybe just one young man they’re trying to bring on as a preacher… Those we train will draw equally strong conclusions from what we don’t talk about as from what we do. You don’t have to deny something outright to be heard to do it down.
Is it vital to bash your head against a text for as long as it takes to discern what it says, not what your framework says? Of course it is, a thousand times over. But if that’s what I talk about most of the time when I talk to younger preachers, if that’s the only thing about preaching I’m heard to get excited about, the preachers I turn out won’t be what they should be.