Dealing with the financial crisis
How should churches respond to the current financial crisis in terms of what they do and how they pay for stuff? That's a deep and complex problem – but I have been very encouraged to read Philip Jensen's address to the Synod in Sydney which deals with precisely some of those issues albeit at a denominational level. Some of the administration etc left me befuddled because I'm neither an Anglican nor in Sydney. Nevertheless, there is some wonderful godly wisdom applied there. It's worth a read.
Wearing appropriate clothing….and other sermon applications
One of the joys of being a coeliac is a regular visit to the local NHS hospital for a bone density scan. Yesterday's appointment was heralded with a letter telling me, right at the end, to "wear appropriate clothing." I wasn't entirely sure what this meant! Swimming trunks? Full Arctic gear? Smart casual, in the PT style? It made me think a little about sermon application – something that preachers are notoriously bad at. It's quite possible to have sermon application that is right but is almost worthless.
"Wear appropriate clothing" is absolutely and thoroughly right. There's no question about it. But as an application, it's next to worthless because it really tells me nothing. So, here are a few thoughts about application (in no particular order):
- don't be afraid of command. The NT is full of command. Indeed, properly understood, grace frees us up to obey (see, for example, Ezekiel 36.27). Perhaps exhortation is a better word than command, but our preaching should contain imperatives.
- having said that, it's always easy to make people feel guilty about the things they are not doing and then exhort them to do more. I think this is lazy and not always helpful even if it is right. Show people the means as well as the command.
- don't be afraid of being general. The best application does not have to be narrowly targeted. The best application is biblical. Here's an example – this weekend I'm preaching on Psalm 145: there are some great exhortations that arise from the text (e.g. to pass on the praise of YHWH from generation to generation) but the primary application is a call to come and praise him. There's a great temptation to think that such a call sounds weak and general and not rooted enough in the daily grind of listeners. But that suggests God got Psalm 145 wrong. Great application can be general.
- however, don't be general if the passage leads you to being specific. We can always reduce application to "read your Bible more, pray more, witness more." Few passages ever say this, even if this is often the means by which we walk more closely with the Lord.
- use biblical language to describe what people must do. There's some strong and evocative language used by Bible authors – make use of it. "Put on" and "Put off" are two great examples.
Waterloo Lunchtime (not sunset)
We're a great fan of doing Bible things at lunchtimes (wherever you live and work) and London working life lends itself especially to that. Susanna, our office queen (aka administrator) has just returned from the London Bridge Network. Here's news of a new London talk starting up in the Waterloo area. For these talks to work they have to be pretty much on your work doorstep, and for those who work on the South Bank (RBS, Shell, arty types in the South Bank Centre) these are bang on your doorstep.
Run by our good friends at Duke Street Church in Richmond, this new lunchtime ministry called Southbank Talks, will start on Thursday 27th January at the Mulberry Bush Pub, 89 Upper Ground, SE1 9PP. The ministry will meet every Thursday lunchtime from 1pm till 1.40, starting with a buffet lunch followed by a 20 minute talk from the bible. Contact Andy Hambleton for more details. Check out other London lunchtime stuff here.
Vaughan Roberts on George Whitefield
One of the most stirring sessions at this year's EMA was Vaughan Roberts short bio of George Whitefield – focusing on the work of the Holy Spirit in his life and ministry. A must see.
How to welcome people in
Does your church have a flash-y website (geddit?). What words greet visitors as they surf to find out a bit more about your church? I was struck by the welcome that Dale Ralph Davis gives seekers to Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg. It's typcical DRD – ending with a warning to newcomers:
Now I must warn you. This church is full of sinners. Everyone who comes here is one. You'll need to remember that if you associate with us – or you may be unnecessarily disappointed.
I think he wins the award for honesty, if nothing else….
And another book….. or why pastors should read military history
During last week I also read another book worth a mention. It's not a Christian book at all. In fact (yawn!) it's a book about military history. When I became a pastor some 10 years ago, another pastor recommended (though I didn't need much persuasion) that one of the most fruitful reading areas for a minister of the gospel is military history. "Pastoring a church is most like being a battle general," he told me. And I found his words to be true. There are more similarities between being a general in battle and being a pastor than between being almost any other kind of leader and being a pastor. It's certainly more relevant than, say, a politician. Generals are given orders from above which they have to exercise judgement in carrying out. Sometimes those orders come with specific boundaries – sometimes they are more general, but in each case the commanding officer has to interpret and implement whilst enthusing those in his command.
In God's common grace, men are raised up to be superb leaders of others: and seeing how they exercise such leadership can be enormously rewarding ground. I emphasise that this is common grace, not special grace (where perhaps the most significant picture of leadership is that of a shepherd) – but we must not think there is no wisdom in it. I didn't need much persuading – I love history of all kinds – and particularly military history (something, apparently shared with that great OT commentator Dale Ralph Davis).
So, last week, during the evenings, I read a book I got from the library (remember those?). A soldier's story is the personal account of General Omar H Bradley, a US commanding general during WWII. Unlike many generals of the time (Montgomery and Patton, for example), "Brad" was a quiet (often described as humble) sort of guy who won people over through persuasion rather than direct command and practised what I can only describe as superb delegation. I found it interesting, stirring, stimulating and challenging too.
Yes, another ESV study Bible…but worth a look
I'm personally not a great fan of study Bible for their own sake. But they can serve a useful purpose if used well. Up to now, my favourites have been:
- The Archaeological Study Bible (NIV) – this comes top of my list for it is an unusual type of Study Bible – it's like having a background commentary alongside the text. The reference Bible I use most.
- The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (NIV) – this was a rework of the New Geneva Study Bible and with notes from such people as Vern Poythress, Greg Beale, John Frame, Jim Packer, Jim Boice, Ed Clowney, Graeme Goldsworthy etc it is still the NIV measure of excellence (though sadly often overlooked in favour of the less-good, but more popular Zondervan Study Bible) [UPDATE: though I'm happy to be corrected, it seems Zondervan may have withdrawn this Bible because it has effectively been replaced in the constituency by the ESV study Bible]
- The one everyone raves about, of course, the ESV Study Bible. I'm not sure I would ever preach from the ESV out of personal choice, but there's no doubt that this is an excellent study resource.
There's a new one on the block however. A few years ago John MacArthur published a NKJV study Bible with verse by verse notes in. They're actually pretty good (which should come as no surprise seeing as he is a good Bible teacher). He is thoroughly reformed and his notes contain some real gold (he is, however, premillennial – and if this is not your persuasion you need to read around some of that stuff).
Well, the real point is that he's now got together with Crossway and there's a new ESV edition of the study Bible – see the microsite for details. It will do a different thing from the ESV study Bible – but I've personally found John's notes to be very helpful and insightful at times.
Hitting the target
My last book of this year's reading week is The Archer and the Arrow by Philip Jensen and Paul Grimmond (Matthias Media 2010, ISBN 978-1-921441-806, available from The Good Book Company for £8). It's a hard task reviewing a book with so many endorsements (especially one from your boss!). William Taylor, Mark Dever, Al Stewart, Vaughan Roberts and Colin Marshall all give it a thumbs up.
And they are right to. This is an excellent little book filling in some gaps that seemed to be missing in The Trellis and the Vine (which sometimes felt a little weak on preaching..?). Essentially the book is an expansion on Philip's desire:
My aim is to preach the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love (various pages)
In the book, Philip unpacks each part of this statement and shows why he is both passionate about it and how to go about it. Up front, it's worth saying that "expound" gets a lot of attention and, thankfully, it's much more than the oft-quoted line from Philip "just explain" (which needed to be understood in its context). So, to expound:
is to start with an existing text or message and to explain it, elaborate upon it and argue for it. It's what the Levites did for the people in Nehemiah 8.8: 'They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and then they gave the sense, so that people understood the reading.' (p39)
Jensen uses an extended illustration of an archer, his arrow and his target to explain (expound?) his statement. It certainly taught me a few things about fletches I did not know, although at times the illustration just felt a little strained. But this is a minor quibble.
The very short (sadly) section on prayer is thoroughly good despite its brevity (p38). Given that this is an area where many preachers struggle, it would have been good to see a little more flesh on the bones (not sure how that translates into the arrow illustration). The summary paragraph is worth repeating:
We know that we need God to be at work in every aspect of preaching – both in the preacher and the hearers. We know equally that he responds to and uses our prayers in his powerful work. And yet we so easily and frequently neglect to pray. We can preach competently, earnestly, faithfully, intelligently, interestingly, missionally, passionately, humorously and even brilliantly. But we fail when we do not preach prayerfully. (p38)
Amen and amen! Glad that Philip said this. God save us from excellent expositors who never pray!
The bulk of the book is taken up with the question of what it means to expound the text. If you know any of Philip's material there won't be anything here that particularly surprises you, I don't think, but the ministry of reminder is no less useful for that. Philip shows how theology and exegesis (essentially the hard work of a sermon) contribute to its effectiveness, humanly speaking. I'm not going to repeat his six principles (starting on page 56) – I want you read the book, after all – but suffice to say they contain some very helpful pointers and boundaries for preachers, including a short but targeted section on the use of commentaries.
For me, chapter 4 is the most helpful. Entitled "On the importance of feathers" Jensen makes a case for preachers being both systematic and biblical theologians. This may surprise some who have a very one-sided view of what comes to us from down under, but is a very welcome argument for both disciplines:
As faithful preachers we must put aside the illusion that we are unpolluted sponges, ready to soak up God's word and squeeze it out, pure and fresh, for our adoring listeners. We must work hard at shaping our own systematic and biblical theology in the light of what God actually says. Good preachers must be good biblical and systematic theologians. (p66)
To put it another way, the 'simple Bible preacher' is in fact the faithfully self-conscious biblical and systematic theologian. (p84)
Almost as significant is the last chapter "The risks the preacher takes" which calls all preachers to a dangerous ministry. There is an especially useful section here on balance, or rather that preachers avoid balance, for:
…we can never say everything in a sermon…. (p112)
Preachers are compelled, therefore, to be unbalanced….we cannot confront people's lifelong presuppositions by merely mentioning them in passing. A penitent heart is one that has been battered by the truth. We are better off attacking one important point with vigour, humour and repetition than presenting a balanced and comprehensive message that causes no wounds (p113)
Who is this book for? Philip himself says it is for preachers – and that subset is certainly true. I don't think it's particularly for the man or woman in the pew. And it's most relevant for new preachers (indeed, some of the exhortations are directed at this group). Buy it and give it to those starting out in this ministry. Nevertheless, within the book – even though it may not contain anything new – experienced preachers will find warm encouragement and exhortation – and for this it is more than worth the time it will take to read.
Oh, and just in passing, a wonderful little exposition on Proverbs 17.8 (bribery a good thing?) – see page 74 for details!!
Watch Mark Dever interview Philip below.
More like this:
Words, words, words
My third book I've waded through this week is The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor and published by Crossway (2009). The ISBN is 978-1-4335-1049-6 and I see that Amazon have it for £8.99. It's essentially the edited contributions from the September 2008 Desiring God conference and I have to say I found it (with one or two minor exceptions) thoroughly uplifting and helpful. This is the one this week (so far) which has really grabbed me. Unusual, because conference books don't always work – this one, though even includes edited transcripts of the panel discussion at the end – and even these, somehow, work in a book!
Apart from the discussion, there are six chapters:
- Paul Tripp: War of words about our words and our hearts
- Sinclair Ferguson: James 3.1-12 – sound like the conference exposition
- John Piper: Is there Christian eloquence?
- Mark Driscoll: How sharp the edge – all about controversy (or should that be controversy, it is a US book after all 🙂 ? )
- Daniel Taylor: Story shaped faith
- Bob Kauflin: What happens when we sing?
If you've read some of Tripp's other stuff you won't be surprised by either some of his illustrations (it's the apple tree one again) nor his sometimes-slightly-annoying use of long personal illustrations, but these minor faults aside, there is a gold mine here – as with much of his material. Problems with our words, he says (and we all have them) are problems with our hearts and we must not convince ourselves they are anything less.
"All of us are tricked into thinking our words aren't really that important because they fill all those little mundane moments of our lives. Maybe that's exactly why they are profoundly important. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you only make three or four really important decisions all your life. Most of us won't be written up in history books. Several decades after you die, the people you leave behind will struggle to remember the events of your life. You live your life in the utterly mundane. And if God doesn't rule your mundane, he doesn't rule you, because that's where you live." (p24).
He then goes on to show (much like in Winter's book) how we convince ourselves that the problems lie outside of us rather than within; but there is grace to convict and change us. A good chapter – which helpfully leads into what seems to have been the conference sermon by Sinclair Ferguson.
His exposition of James 3.1-12 which he then expands into a study on words from the whole of James and which is then itself expanded into the context of the gospel is a great example of a conference preach. I don't think you would preach this way in a church setting necessarily – but for a pastor's conference it's ideal and I found real conviction here about my words. It includes 20 great resolutions (in the style of Jonathan Edwards). Later on in the discussion, Piper recalls how he found the sermon both uplifting structurally (!!) and in his heart to which I say a hearty 'Amen!' I think this one chapter is worth the price of the book even though you get the conference audio and video for free here. Here's a taste:
"The most important single aid to my ability to use my tongue for the glory of Jesus is allowing the Word of God to dwell in me so richly that I cannot speak with any other accent. When I do, the result is' teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing…and…in words or deed doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father' (Col 3.16-17)" (p64).
Piper was next with a rather curious chapter which turned into a feast! He ponders at the beginning the worry he has reading 1 Cor 1.17: 'Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.'
"I dread nullifying the cross, and therefore it is urgent that I know what this eloquence-cleverness-wisdom of words is – so I can avoid it" (p67)
Unsurprisingly, Piper deconstructs eloquence rather, well, eloquently. He establishes that there is a bad eloquence and also a Christian eloquence – which is desirable. It serves a useful purpose:
- keeping interest
- gaining sympathy
- awakening sensitivity
- speaking memorably
- increasing power
(Not surprisingly, there is a little section on the eloquence of Jonathan Edwards!). It's a good chapter and helpful reading for every preacher.
Mark Driscoll's chapter is, in essence, about what it means to feed the sheep and shoot the wolves – and how far one should go in doing the latter. I guess how you view this chapter will depend on what you think of Driscoll – but I found it a useful analysis. He roots it in the life of Luther (always a good model?) and shows how shepherds have this dual purpose in this ministry.
"[True] some Christians are always angry and won't stop fighting. But it is equally true that some Christians are rarely angry and won't start fighting. The former are always renounced while the latter legion gets away with perennial cowardice in the name of nicety…..Discernment is knowing what time it is. Courage is doing what the time requires. While not every church needs a Martin Luther [or a Mark Driscoll?], more than a handful of denominations could use a good shooter because the wolves have the sheep praying to the demon gods of other religions while encouraging the rams to have sex with the rams and the ewes to have sex with the ewes." (p93).
Unmistakenably Driscoll! But even if you don't agree with how far he pushes things, there is no doubt that he has a strong argument that, biblically, pastors are use words both positively and negatively. Page 100-104 contain seven prayers that every congregation should pray for their shepherd, and I want to print this out and give it to ours.
Chapter 5 is the weakest. It is based on the session of Daniel Taylor, professor of Literature at Bethel University in St Paul (one of the twin cities). Titled "Story shaped faith" it essentially shows the place of story in the lives of humans: life is lived through story; God reveals himself in story, not propositional truth. Even where propositional truth exists it is rooted in story, so:
"There are very few propositions in the Bible and in life generally that do not originate in and depend upon stories (p111) and Propositions are shorthand for stories…the proposition stands in for the stories, but the propositions also depend upon the stories for their ultimate significance." (p110).
I can see what Taylor is saying, up to a point. The whole Bible is rooted in God's story. Nevertheless, his analysis doesn't always do justice to the various genres of the Bible which, sometimes, are simple propositional truth: and, moreover – as Mrs R. wisely pointed out to me – these stories themselves are often used (for example in the psalms) to teach propositions – so perhaps it is a false analysis to say one is superior to the other. Interesting stuff, but not ultimately as rewarding as the rest of the book.
Bob Kauflin's chapter is superb (even if you don't agree with him on what worship is). Analysing music and words he rightly rejects music that supersedes the Word and music that undermines the Word and says we must aim for music that serves the Word. He robustly defends the place of singing in the lives of God's people and argues that God gave us this remarkable gift to serve the Word:
- singing can help us remember words
- singing can help us engage emotionally with words
- singing can be a powerful demonstration of unity
"For instance, singing, rather than reciting the words to Amazing Grace enables us to stretch out and think more carefully about what we're singing. Likewise, the chorus to It is well gives us plenty of time to consider and enjoy the peace that God alone can bring to our souls. The music helps us engage with the words. The…music matches what we are saying. It's a peaceful, calming setting and the music swells to this appropriate climax of trust; it is well with my soul." (p128)
The two final chapters are the aforementioned panel discussions which have occasional nuggets, including Piper on which battles we choose to fight (p140) and some good material from all the speakers on penal substitionary atonement.
Tremendous! I shall be hawking my copy around the office.
Why to do a covenant Bible Overview
This term I am teaching the first year Cornhill students a Bible Overview. There are many ways of doing Bible Overviews, and I have benefitted so much from Graeme Goldsworthy and Vaughan Roberts on the 'kingdom', and more recently Christopher Ash on 'scattering' and 'gathering'.
As I was reflecting on how I would do the Bible Overview this term, I felt that it would be helpful to do it through the covenants. I was going to blog why I went for a covenant Bible Overview, but it seems that Liam Goligher has already very helpfully hit the nail on the head. Have a look at what Liam says here: