John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Preaching
In Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers he describes at one point what you might call the preacher’s glory-moment: ‘an awareness of a power not your own thrilling through the whole of your being … You are a man ‘possessed’, you are taken hold of, and taken up’ (p.326).
Stott, by contrast, speaks of the same kind of moment in I Believe in Preaching in a very different way: ‘The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can have’ is when ‘the preacher is forgotten and the people are face to face with the living God’. His illustrations are telling: the preacher is then like a best man at a wedding or an orchestra conductor at a concert, whose very role is to fade into the background (pp.326-28). Note the key difference here: whether, and to what extent, we should pay much theological attention to the preacher himself, as the man he is at that moment, as a vehicle for what God is doing in his sermon. Preachers need the humility to get out of the way, says Stott (p.328). I think Lloyd-Jones would respond with something like: ‘certainly, get your pride in your eloquence and your cleverness out of the way; but don’t self-effacingly get yourself out of the way: you can’t; you mustn’t. You as a person, not just as a talking-machine, are God’s means at that moment.’
This theology finds expression in the kind of phrases which Lloyd-Jones often used at key moments in his sermons: “I am here this morning to tell you…”. Stott, however, is so concerned that preachers not abuse their authority that he judges it wise not to say “I say to you”, but to stick mostly with the first person plural. In light of all this, I doubt that it is incidental that Stott’s book is called I Believe in Preaching, whereas Lloyd-Jones’ title is Preaching and Preachers. My hunch is that this particular difference between the two men’s views gets close to the heart of things.
Many observations could be made about this, but here is just one. The view you take on this point is massively determined by personality and culture. If you dislike public displays of emotion and come from a culture in which the person who seems to deflect attention coolly away from himself is usually judged to be the better man, then Stott will probably appeal to you. If, though, you are someone who thinks that displays of passion often convey greater truth and authenticity than deliberate coolness, especially when it comes to the things of God, then you’ll probably prefer Lloyd-Jones on this point.
It’s not that Scripture has nothing to say on this – it does. But before we ever get to that, we need to have some perspective on the extent to which our theology of something as personal to us as preaching is driven by our own sense of how we want others to see us.
PT at its worst
I recently heard an online interview in which a good man described the view that preaching is simply good Bible explanation as ‘PT at its worst’. I don’t mind that too much. I know the kind of thing he’s talking about. I’ve heard it a few times myself. PT’s heartbeat is to insist that if a man hasn’t worked to get his text right then he can have all the homiletical skills and emotional force in the world, and it still isn’t good preaching. If that’s taken too strongly in isolation from other aspects of the preaching gift, you will indeed get us at our worst.
However we here never want to push it further than it was intended to be pushed. One way this plays out for us is in what we try to give students at Cornhill, and how we try to assess them as they come to the end, giving advice to their sending churches. We’re not big on pulpit-craft, but we are constantly working on aspects of effective communication, alongside all the central text-work.
Now if someone in the end is not all that gifted at getting to the heart of the message of a Bible-text, we want to tell them so, even if they’re hilarious and inspiring story-tellers. It would in the end be unkind to them and to the church not to. We’re not telling them that they’re useless in God’s hands. If we communicate it well, we’re helping them see where they would be round pegs in round holes, in the Lord’s service.
But what about those students who are terrific at getting to the heart of a text, but who struggle to hold the attention of a body of listeners and fail to project much sense of an encounter with the Lord in and through the preached word? Well, it’s not always easy, but we try to ensure we tell them that we don’t yet see in them the gifts to be the lead preacher in a church. (We are, after all, the Proclamation Trust, not the Explanation Trust.) The Lord may one day grow that gift in them, but we don’t yet see it. If we didn’t communicate that to them, then we would see people leaving Cornhill who will bore congregations rigid but who think they’ve got our stamp of being good preachers. That would be PT at its worst.
Just saying, so you know what to expect if you think of sending someone to Cornhill.
And perhaps it helps us in assessing in our own church families who the next generation of preachers might be whom (we trust) the Lord will raise up.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 4
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that: (1) everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture; (2) these frameworks are wonderful tools and also highly dangerous gifts for the preacher; (3) the best way to wield these frameworks as good tools for expository preaching is to get yourself as well tooled up with rich theology as you can.
In this final post I want to say this: sometimes deliberately preaching a framework is a good thing, but it’s a bad staple diet to offer.
If your church happens to have a confessional commitment that shapes its belief and life in particular ways, it is surely reasonable occasionally to make that the focus of a particular sermon or short series – effectively saying, “Here’s the biblical basis for why we believe and live as we do in this church/denomination” (although a 39-part series, say, is probably too long!). The point of our framework warning is not to say that a preacher ought never do that, but to post a strong warning against lazily sliding into that while kidding yourself that you’ve put in the hard slog required to expound faithfully the passage that’s been set.
The same is true of doctrinal preaching. Cornhill students often ask how much of a church’s preaching ought to be explicitly doctrinal. I try not to give a ‘party line’ answer to that, because there shouldn’t be one. All I can give is my own practice when I was a pastor. I wanted 80% of our diet (i.e. our staple) to be consecutive exposition, with occasional and deliberate doctrinal asides. The remaining 20% was thematic, divided into pastoral and doctrinal. I reckoned that pattern had a fighting chance of keeping me sharp on letting Scripture speak for itself to the people, while ensuring that they were also slowly educated in the right kinds of framework that would help them make sense of biblical truth as a whole.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 3
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture, and that these frameworks are wonderful tools and also highly dangerous gifts for the preacher.
Now I want to go a step further and zoom in a little on the two key kinds of framework: biblical theology and systematic theology. My simple point for today is this: the preacher has got to be well schooled in both. As a preacher, I want to go discerningly to both Sydney and Philadelphia (and not just for my holidays).
A good biblical theology effectively gives the preacher a proper understanding of the full biblical context in which his preaching passage is set. What is here that builds on key themes that have been developing so far? What is here that will be further unfolded in what comes later? That context is crucial is helping us see what the divine author intended us to be struck by in this particular passage.
Moreover, a good biblical theology is made up of good biblical theologies. The narrative of Scripture is very rich. It can be recounted and summarised in more than one faithful way. British evangelical circles learnt an enormous amount about biblical theology, from a particular perspective and to our huge benefit, from Sydney in recent years. That appears to be being broadened in some places now by a discovery of how that can be enriched by a covenantal account of Scripture, and that is all to the good. The title of a recent monster-work – Kingdom Through Covenant – to my mind brings the two perspectives together well.
A good systematic theology gives the preacher a proper understanding of how the content of his preaching passage relates conceptually and logically to other related themes in Scripture. It will also sometimes give him eyes to see links that the passage itself makes that he might otherwise have missed. A personal example: Reformed soteriology has a particular focus on the whole of Christ’s heavenly and earthly career as involved in his work of salvation. Learning of this and becoming convinced that it’s right there in Scripture helped me to see the OT as pointing forward to Christ in rather more profound ways than I might otherwise have done.
As with biblical theology, good systematic theology is really good systematic theologies. We should never allow our framework to set into a stone-hard monolith which ends up explaining a great deal of biblical material away.
These frameworks are necessary tools for the task of being the best expository preachers we can be. It’s a mistake to think we have done the job well when all we’ve really done is polish our tools, just as it’s a mistake to think we can do a good job without the right tools.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 2
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Today I want to say that these frameworks are necessary and wonderful gifts to the preacher, and also highly dangerous for the preacher.
First, they are necessary and wonderful gifts for the preacher. A good framework allows what is really there in Scripture to be shown in its true biblical light. Most people who have read even a small amount of good theology, whether biblical or systematic, have had the experience of discovering a new theological topic which they then come to see for themselves really is there in Scripture. My two favourite examples from my own experience are the humanity of Christ and the union of the believer with Christ. Neither of these has loomed very large in the (otherwise excellent) expository preaching I’ve heard over the years. But through some theological reading I was persuaded that both actually loom pretty large in Scripture. Perhaps I sometimes get over-excited and am tempted to see them in Scripture in places they’re not really there. I must watch that. The point is, though: they are most certainly there a great deal, and it was through improving my framework that I came to see they are there. In doing so I was not imposing some alien framework on Scripture. I was listening in on the voices of previous generations of believers telling me what they saw in Scripture.
Second, frameworks are highly dangerous in the hands of a lazy preacher. The reason is simple: it’s much easier to preach what your framework says than to preach what any particular passage says. In other words, frameworks provide off-the-peg sermons for the lazy. This is the heart of our warning, “Don’t be a framework preacher”. Those who like systematic frameworks best will, if they’re lazy, usually produce sermons with headings that sound like systematic theology text-books. Those who like biblical-theological frameworks best will, if they’re lazy, produce sermons that constantly describe the patterns of salvation in the same ways.
Such preaching will often be orthodox in content. But it will often be predictable (here comes that doctrine again!) and it will often, over time, be superficial (why does he always describe that topic in exactly the same way?). It will usually fail to do the hard work of seeing the particular treasures that the Holy Spirit caused to be written in this particular text.
So my slightly wordy gloss on our framework warning is this: don’t be a lazy preacher who is content to preach those aspects of your framework that happen to come to mind when you read through the passage a few times.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 1
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. As with all pithy headlines, it’s important to set out clearly what we mean. I’ll try and do a bit of that in the next few posts here.
First, what do we mean by ‘framework’ in this phrase? We mean any kind of system through which Scripture is interpreted. There are two main kinds of such system. There are overarching theological systems (systematic theology), and there are models for understanding the shape of Scripture as a whole (biblical theology).
Now it’s impossible not to have both kinds of system operating in your mind every time you open the Bible. As is often pointed out, a preacher who says “I don’t have a system, I just preach the Bible” and seriously means it is fooling himself. Every time we open the Bible we interpret it through the lenses which our culture, historical location, personality, previous teaching, etc., have created for us. Anyone who can give an answer to the question “Now I’ve been converted why must I be godly?” has got some systematic theology at work, because they’ve got a view on how justification and sanctification relate. And anyone who can give a coherent answer to the question “What’s the Bible really about?” has got a biblical theology at work.
As is often said, there are two kinds of mistake we can make in this regard. The obvious and most serious mistake is consciously to have a framework which simply distorts Scripture.
Less serious, but still not good, is to deny that one has a framework that has any major effect on one’s interpretation of Scripture. What’s the danger of this? It makes it very hard to put the principle of sola Scriptura into practice. Every system must constantly be subject to correction by Scripture. And it’s very hard to have something in your head corrected by Scripture if you won’t acknowledge it’s there and then bring it out into the light of Scripture.
So point one for evangelical preachers who want to be expository: acknowledge that you’ve got interpretative systems running round everywhere in your mind. Fess up. Get them out there on display, either for confirmation or correction by God’s Word.
A good judge of character, part 2
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the second of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. This is a tough chapter, seemingly sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the story of Joseph. Let’s look at each of the two main characters.
The narrative is very clear about Judah. He has done wrong by withholding his son Shelah from Tamar (v.14). At the climax he acknowledges that he has not acted righteously in this (v.26).
What about Tamar, though? Judah says that she is more righteous than him (v.26). But wait a minute (as some Cornhill students said to me on this), surely we shouldn’t take the immoral Judah’s judgment on this. And other people says she’s immoral (v.24). Why shouldn’t we accept their judgment as the true one?
As always, the text alone must guide our judgments:
• It seems that in Hebrew narrative when a judgment is uttered at a key point in the narrative and then left hanging without further comment, it’s wise to presume that it’s likely to be the correct one, even if the person speaking isn’t entirely squeaky clean themselves. Therefore Judah in v.26 is getting it right. (For something similar, see Gen. 34:31.)
• The people’s judgment is v.24 is wrong because they don’t know how Tamar got pregnant; they’re making the wrong assumptions.
• The whole chapter is dominated by the theme of offspring being secured for Judah through his sons. We know from the covenant promises that that is a good thing. Judah doesn’t care about it, but Tamar does.
• The birth of her twin boys (vs.27-30) is presented as almost a re-run of Jacob and Esau. It was only by Tamar’s action that Judah was given such a blessing.
• Tamar’s name-check in Matthew 1:3 confirms this positive reading of her.
As one Cornhill student put it in the recent lecture on this, this wouldn’t the last time that God acted to fulfil his covenant promises and bless his people through actions which appeared to others to be scandalous (the cross), and which at the time risked accusations of sexual immorality (the virgin conception).
How we grapple with the details of the text, and the judgments that we make on these things, determine hugely the kind of applications that we will unfold to ourselves and our people. And the judgments that count are not those of our gut, but of God’s Word.
A good judge of character, part 1
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the first of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
It’s Joseph in Genesis 37. Is he presented to us (as one commentator says, and as it’s tempting for the preacher to present him) as a spiteful tell-tale (v.2), a spoiled brat (v.3) and a braggart (vs.5-11)? It’s easy to take it that way. If we do, then in preaching ch.37 we’ll probably portray Joseph as someone who partly gets what’s coming to him, although without excusing what his brothers do to him.
The principle I want to bring forward here is this: we need to look for and accept the judgments that the text itself gives us on people and their behaviour, rather than imposing our gut-reaction on the text. Most people reading ch.37 have a gut-reaction against Joseph – especially if they had a spoilt younger brother of their own! But where is the evidence in the text itself that God intends us to see Joseph’s actions here negatively? Let’s have a look:
• Verse 2. It’s possible that the Hebrew behind the ‘bad report’ he brings about his brothers indicates that he’d invented a lie about them; the commentators debate this.
• Verse 3. Jacob is certainly unwise in favouring Joseph over the other sons; but we’re not told clearly that Joseph himself was spoilt by that.
• Verses 5-11. Is it clear from the text that Joseph should not have told his brothers and father about his dreams? I don’t think so. In fact v.11 hints that it was good for them to know, and Jacob scores more highly than his other sons in taking seriously that this might be revelation from God.
Conclusion: the evidence isn’t entirely one way. But I reckon that it is not clearly leading us to see Joseph’s behaviour as basically reprehensible.
One further bit of evidence clinches this for me, this time from the context. As soon as we encounter Joseph in ch.39, he is a model of godly self-control and trust in the Lord. This is in striking contrast to the episode when his father was effectively kicked out of town by his own family. Jacob had to (literally) wrestle with God and be humbled in order to be knocked into spiritual shape. Joseph, by contrast, seems to arrive in Egypt as basically the finished article. (We might suppose that Joseph was bad in ch.37 and that the Lord sanctified him in the Midianite caravans, but that would be pure speculation.)
What does difference all this make for the preacher? A very big one. If my take is right, then as a whole Genesis ch.37 presents Joseph as an innocent sufferer sold into slavery by his own jealous brothers. Now that is a pattern that Christ gloriously fulfils for us.
Shepherding the flock into assurance, part 2
This is a bit of a generalisation, but I reckon that if we asked our church members to state the main benefit we gain from repentance and faith in Christ, then in many churches ‘forgiveness’ would be high up the list – maybe at the top. It may also be the case that if someone listened for six months to everything we said, both in the pulpit and privately, about what the gospel offers, then they’d also conclude that forgiveness is the main benefit. (That wouldn’t be true of every gospel minister, I know, but I think it would apply to many.)
What’s the problem? In a sense, nothing. Forgiveness is a glorious benefit of Christ’s work for us which has calmed many troubled souls. Praise God for it, and let us never forget it or undervalue it!
But a problem does arise over time if forgiveness is the gospel benefit we primarily mention on 90% of the occasions (or 80%, or 70%) that we speak of Christ. Why? Because it’s so easy to think that God could re-think his forgiveness if he looked hard at what I’m really like. Or that he might withdraw it if I go and do something truly heinous. Solid assurance is then harder to hold onto.
However if our talk of God forgiving us (which we mustn’t lose!) is mingled in with regular talk of God adopting us as his children, coming to dwell in us by his Spirit, uniting us to Christ, causing us to die with Christ and rise with him – ideas very commonly found in the NT – then we are laying down the full foundation of assurance that the NT gives. The definitive and assured nature of God’s action of salvation for us and in us is expressed especially powerfully in these things.
A church family is, I think, quietly but deeply influenced over time by the ways in which its pastor regularly describes what a Christian is. So let’s not be single-issue people on salvation. Forgiven, certainly. But so much more than that, too.
Shepherding the flock into assurance, part 1
Here is Calvin in fine form. He’s berating a group he calls ‘half-papists’. These people say that when we look at Christ we have an assured hope, but that we ought to ‘waver and hesitate’ when we look at our own unworthiness. His response demolished them at a stroke:
‘I turn this argument of theirs back against them: if you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation. But since Christ has been so imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you are made a member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God’s sight. Surely this is so: We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him. Rather we ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us.’ (Institutes, 3.2.24).
This demonstrates how crucially pastoral the sometimes mystical-sounding doctrine of the union believer with Christ is. (I’ve been thinking about this lately, since I’m one of the speakers later this month at an Affinity conference on the subject, and the topic came up in the Cornhill teaching-programme this week.) Calvin is concerned that a certain kind of teaching destroys assurance. To combat it, he appeals to union.
His line of thought is thoroughly biblical. For example, 1 John has assurance as one its key aims. Thus 5.13 says, ‘I write these things to you… so that you may know that you have eternal life’. The verses that follow are full of reminders of what ‘we know’ about Christ and therefore about ourselves. And the climax, in this glorious section on assurance? John speaks of union with Christ: ‘And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life’ (5.20b).
I’ll continue this pastoral thought in the next post.