- Peter Adam on Habakkuk
- Paul Mallard on the uses of suffering in Christian ministry and on staying fresh
- David Robertson on apologetics
- Vaughan Roberts opened and closed the conferences with expositions from Acts
Video from the conferences will be online in the next couple of weeks.
By the way, did you know that if you click underlined items in the right hand column on our resources page, they link to appropriate material? E.g. click on a speaker’s name for all our talks from that speaker, or on a bible book for all our talks on that book?
Better study equals better application
One practical reason why preachers are tempted to short-circuit working hard on their Bible-text is because they feel the pressure to have compelling applications. And the truth is that it can sometimes feel as if the further we bury ourselves in the text, the further we are getting away from the real lives of the people we’ll be standing in front of come Sunday.
Here’s one simple example from a passage that came up in our Cornhill practice classes this week, which demonstrates that we must hold our nerve and believe that the opposite is the case: namely, the further we bury ourselves in the next, the closer we are getting to the profound and precise message that the Lord has in it for our people.
The passage is Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unmerciful servant. It’s provoked by Peter asking Jesus how often he must forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. “Up to seven times?”, asks Peter.
Already there in the opening verse of the passage we are given two limitations to our application: this is primarily about sins committed against us…
– by fellow-believers, not the world in general;
– by fellow-believers within the life of the church family, rather than within our own family relationships.
There’s more. The immediate context is the well-known passage on church discipline (18:15-20), which speaks of the two possible outcomes for a sinning Christian: repentance and restoration, or coming to be regarded as an unbeliever. Peter’s question in v.21 can only have in view the repentant believer, since he asks about multiple acts of forgiveness. Here then is a third limitation to our application: the sinning Christian is assumed to be repentant.
I think I detect even a fourth limitation, too: since Peter assumes repeated forgiveness, primarily in view are sins that are committed pretty regularly, rather than enormous, infrequent sins.
If I notice all of this, I won’t start my sermon by talking about a Christian who said she forgave her unconverted father who sexually abused her as a child (not a Christian; possibly not repentant). I won’t start talking about a converted man who stays with his church-going wife through her continual affairs (possibly not a Christian; not repentant). If I start like this, I’ll probably do pastoral damage.
Instead, I’ll start talking about the kinds of sins committed regularly among church family members: gossipping, back-biting, lack of hospitality, etc. I may think that this passage speaks to forgiveness in other areas too. But if I think that, I’ll be guided by the text to work my way there through a series of careful pastoral steps.
As I said, in this case when I finally emerge from the hours spent buried in the text, although there’s still much to do, I know exactly in which direction my applications need to run.
Why talk of trajectories is necessary but dangerous
I often hear theological positions described in terms of trajectory. That can be a very helpful and necessary analysis. It’s insightful and useful to see where a certain path takes us if we’re not careful. It’s especially useful when applied to our own theologies (something we rarely do, by the way: I wonder why!?). I was not always a Calvinist; even when I understood what that meant and realised it was not a description of my position, it was some time before I embraced it willingly and happily. But it means – guess what – I’m on a trajectory too. And if I don’t want to end up a hyper-Calvinist, I’d better watch out.
And here’s the danger. Thinking in terms of trajectories may be helpful generally, but it can often be harmful personally. Just because it is possible that a general trajectory may take you in a certain direction (Unitarianism, acceptance of same-sex relationships, hyper-Calvinish) doesn’t mean it will. Not every 19th Century convert to Calvinism gave up on evangelism, and not every 19th Century General Baptist became a Unitarian. Not by a long shot.
And the trajectory argument can be personally very damaging if used in an attacking way. If you send me an email and tell me that it’s most likely I’ll end up with the anti-evangelism nutters, I will rightly take offence. However, neither is it an argument we want to entirely lose – I do need to keep hearing that general warning.
So I want to make a case for keeping talk of trajectories, but using it very, very carefully, and not ascribing to people views they simply don’t have.
A tale of two books
I’ve just finished reading two fiction books I saw reviewed positively in the weekend papers. The first is The Good Girl by Fiona Neill, a rather sordid tale about a headteacher who discovers her teenage daughter has made a sex tape and it is going around her school. Hardly proper reading for a Christian, you might think and, at one level, I’m inclined to agree. However, though the tale is sordid, the book is not explicit and it is well written. That is still not to say that it is suitable reading material for Christians, except that I think we have absolutely no idea how the world thinks about sex and how, especially, teenagers, are sexualised. I find reading books like this the least objectionable way to discover some of those truths – and, at one level, discover them we must if we are to connect with a broken world which desperately needs to hear the healing and redeeming news of Jesus.
Here’s what I learnt.
First, I think most of us have absolutely no idea the extent to which the school and teenage environment is saturated with sex. Part of the plot line is about a teenager who is addicted to porn, and if the press at the weekend is right, this is hardly rare. That addiction is hugely damaging in so many ways and we are naïve if we think these issues are not in the church. We must also hold out a gospel which both brings forgiveness of sin and healing to broken lives.
Second, people sometimes do bad things for good reasons. This is a plot spoiler – but it becomes clear as the book progresses that the sex tape is not all it seems to be (or you assume it to be). In Christians terms, it is still a wrong thing, but in ways that are too complex to explain, it was done with good motives. Incredible for us to grasp. We can be very black and white about sin. But the Bible is not (read Numbers 15). Even for God’s people there are intentional and unintentional sins. They are still sins note – I am not going soft on sin. But as we reach out to a world, we must realise that some people get themselves into a mess with God and with each other through good motives. It makes understanding those who walk through our doors even more important.
Third, there is a growing therapy culture which is all about blame shifting. In the book, the family in question is pretty messed up. No one is squeaky clean. And the insights and asides we get about therapists are all about passing the buck. If someone other than the sinner can be blamed then that is always a good result. This also qualifies my previous point. Something bad done for a good reason is just about OK in the book. Not so with God. And ultimately, sin is only dealt with when we’re prepared to point the finger at ourselves.
Fourthly, the internet is a game changer. When I was at school, porn was something a couple of bad boys sneaked into the hall balcony at lunchtime in the form of a magazine. Now, it’s completely privatised, more graphic, more extreme. Things that get onto the internet stay for life. In the book the teenage girl recognises this and says everytime she meets someone new, for the rest of her life, she will always be wondering, “have they seen the video.” Yet, sin is unchanged by all of this. The God who forgives sin in the 1950s is the same God who forgives today. Sin has deeper and uglier consequences perhaps (though it has always been deep and ugly), but the gospel is unchanged and absolutely able to deal with all sin.
It’s a book of course, so only fiction. But the author seems to know her stuff and I have no reason to doubt the picture, even if it is an extreme. The most depressing thing about this book is that it is absolutely and utterly Christless. There are no Christians in it, no church, no Bible, nothing. And that is why it ultimately left me feeling depressed, even though it was a made up story. Our world without the gospel is desperate and it’s why what you do and what I do really, really counts.
The second book was quite different. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain is translated from the French and is gentle, lovely and undemanding. It’s predictable and touching – just what I needed after Good Girl. It’s still explicitly Christ-less, but it’s redemptive and simple. In modern terms it’s completely un-taxing and really un-thought-provoking. Common grace at its best. And sometimes it’s really good to read books like that. I loved it.
David Gooding resources
Vaughan was preaching on Acts at last week’s ministers conferences and in a very brief aside said: “Anything you can get hold of by David Gooding is always worthwhile.” I agree. Go and check out tenofthose’s Gooding selection. Highly useful and high quality content. I would classify these as pastor level rather than, say, Bible study leader level. But that caveat aside, I’m with Vaughan on this. Some very under-rated resources that are worth searching out.
** Update: there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hands, but there is also nothing like getting something for free. So check out these free resources from David Gooding and John Lennox here.
Where do you get your news from?
If a preacher is to have some grasp of the world (and he must, mustn’t he, to be effective) there is an interesting question: where do you get your news from? This was a question that was asked of David Robertson from St Peter’s Dundee at our recent Senior Ministers Conference. His reply was illuminating: he said that newspapers report less news and more comment so he doesn’t go there. News feeds on the web, even news sites like BBC use complex algorithms to show you the stories they think you want to read (or like similar stories based on previous history). So, you don’t get a balanced view there. Therefore, says David, he reads The Economist for news. Interesting thought.
I personally think David is a bit too bleak about print news, but I take the point – there is a lot less news than there used to be and a lot more comment and styling tips (which some preachers do need to read!). But I don’t think the broadsheets have quite sunk to the depths he thinks. Nevertheless, the warning about the internet algorithms is very timely. Increasingly we will find tailored content (and some sites do this a lot – Facebook, Amazon and so on). Best, therefore, to think about the internet as a useful repository rather than an objective source. I’m sure you do this already, but it’s good to be thinking straight because the convenience of the internet can often make us blind to its limitations.
Cornhill fest, kind of
I looked around on Sunday morning at church and was encouraged to see the influence of the Cornhill training course here in our medium size part of non-conformity. There’s me, of course. But a few others. Our Youth and Community Pastor is also an alumnus. Then our Assistant Pastor is just finishing up Cornhill, plus we’ve another young man who has just applied. Then we have a teacher who helps out with one of youth groups, also ex-Cornhill. Our guest preacher was not a Cornhiller, but his co-pastor (whom he left behind preaching) is. Two other visitors completed the job lot: one whose father is an overseas pastor trained through a Cornhill bursary and another ex-Cornhiller who is a inner city pastor in Speke. Quite a crowd.
And none of them in chinos. That’s the thing about Cornhill. Sure, there’s a caricature which sees everyone who trains with us as churning out sermons that are all the same, but actually we work very hard to teach principles and apply them to people’s preaching rather than turning out clones. In fact, if you’d heard the preaching at our gaff on Sunday you would know that it is the case.
And it’s why I still believe that the Cornhill training course is an excellent preparation for ministry, whatever your background. We won’t squeeze your personality out. That goes right against our theology of preaching. But we will help you try to preach the Bible faithfully, engagingly, appropriately, in an applied, relevant way whilst still keeping you, you.
It’s just around now that people start seriously thinking about September and it’s not too late to apply. Nor is it too late for your church to think about whom to send. We’ll maybe see you this autumn….?
News about Christopher Ash
As many of you will know, Christopher Ash will be stepping down this summer as Director of the PT Cornhill Training Course and as a member of the PT staff after 11 years. We are delighted that, alongside having more time for writing, Christopher will continue for the time being to do some teaching on the course. His wife Carolyn will also continue her work on the course and her leadership of our wives’ conferences. Please join us in praying for them both as they relocate to Cambridge and for the PT Trustees as they seek to find a new Director to lead the work that has been so ably established by David Jackman and then Christopher over the last 25 years. The focus will remain the same: seeking to serve local churches in the UK and beyond by training a new generation of preachers and teachers of his word.
The hard road
When I left the world of business to become a minister, most people I knew thought I had taken an easy route. I’m still sure some of those close to me think that I work one day a week, dreaming up a few blessed thoughts in the shower on Sunday morning. You know, of course, that it is nothing of the kind. Ministry is hard. There are sins we didn’t even know we struggled with which come to the fore; there is almost constant attack from the evil one; and there is the knowledge that enemies of the gospel are waiting and watching for you to slip up. And that is without the people! Just read 2 Timothy!
In our small groups, we’ve been reading whole Bible books together. Last time around we read 2 Timothy and, to be honest, I was not really sure how it was going to go. For most ordinary church members the whole book (apart from a few purple passages) seems a little remote. Yet, right at the end of the reading, one of our elderly members said to the group: ‘it’s hard work being a minister, isn’t it?’ Yes! That is what 2 Timothy shows!
No one ever promised anything else. Here is Spurgeon on the struggle of ministry:
“All the way to heaven, we shall only get there by the skin of our teeth. We shall not go to heaven sailing along with sails swelling to the breeze, like sea birds with their fair white wings, but we shall proceed full often with sails rent to ribbons, with masts creaking, and the ship’s pumps at work day by both night and day. We shall reach the city at the shutting of the gate, but not an hour before.”
That is the reality of ministry which you may be only too painfully aware of.
But the glorious corollorary is this: ministering to Christ’s people is the most privileged, precious, wonderful, amazing, varied, delightful task I know or have ever known.
Hard, yes. Gritty, yes. Glorious. Yes, yes, yes. ‘If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness.’
The depth of faith
It’s been great to hear from Habakkuk this week with Peter Adam. At the moment, we’re deep into 2.4: ‘the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” – a translation, incidentally, that Mr Adam likes as faith can be the expression of a moment, whereas faithfulness is the continuation of faith.
Translations, aside, he’s been challenging us to think about what it means to live by faithfulness. Often, he says, we reduce this down to salvation. We might even reduce it down to a particular moment: ‘yes, I trusted Christ on 28 July 1981’ (which is when I did, by the way).
However, the righteous man or woman lives by faithfulness – the daily life of faith. How odd we often have faith in the God of salvation but not, for example, the God of creation or the God who sustains the world or the God who is head of his church. The true life of faith does not just trust God for our own journey to heaven but for all that he promises.
There is depth to faith which we often ignore. Pastorally we are so concerned that people get to heaven that we neglect to nurture faith in them in every area of life. And what is true pastorally is certainly true personally. The man of God, Mr Preacher, must cultivate in himself, with the Spirit’s help, a life of faith that impacts on every area of life and produces fruit in keeping with repentance.
Are you living by your faithfulness?