And yet another question preachers ask
In this very short series, I’ve left the hardest till last: does a gospel sermon always need to get to the cross?
It’s a commonly asked question, and one which is often used in a more pejorative way of preachers – especially by those unhappy with the current preacher and his evangelistic efforts. By way of answer, let me suggest that the question itself presupposes some fallacies:
It’s a strange view of expository preaching. We believe the Scriptures to be inspired, don’t we? That means the text we have in front of us has a kind of sufficiency for the moment. It is the entire Scripture that is sufficient, but we also believe the task of preaching is to present the passage as the Spirit has inspired it. If we start adding bits that we are think are missing, we are walking on a very narrow path with deep valleys either side. The preacher who feels in constant need to add in the cross to every passage has something of a deficient view of the doctrine of Scripture and of preaching.
It’s a strange view of the gospel. The gospel is good news, big news. At its heart is the atoning death of Jesus in our place – but this is not the entirety of the gospel. The danger with thinking that gospel preaching is cross preaching is that it is reductionist about the gospel itself. There are many ways of expressing the gospel, none of which deny the truths going on internally. If you believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, for example (Romans 10.9), you will be saved. How will you be saved? Through the death of Jesus in your place, of course, but the particular confession in this case is about the lordship and resurrection of Jesus, not his atoning death. The gospel is almost certainly bigger than we think.
It’s a strange view of the service of the word. Preaching does not happen in a vacuum. It’s good for us to remember that – especially many of us who are raised on a diet of internet listening. I shudder at the thought of people listening to last night’s sermon, for example, without hearing my preamble to the reading or the prayer I prayed at the beginning, or the way I drew attention to the words in a particular song. A lot happens in a service of the word which supports, emphasises, and sets up the ministry of the word. You can cover a lot of ground where the word is being proclaimed at one level – after all, if singing is a ministry of the word (Col. 3.16), then unbelievers are being ministered to from the get-go in a service.
But what about 1 Corinthians 2.2, I hear you cry. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ and him crucified.” Doesn’t that end the argument? We don’t know much about Paul’s ministry in Corinth from Acts, although there is a little hint there that is summary statement in 1 Cor 2 should be taken in its broadest sense – for he testified to the Jews that “Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18.5). It’s important to see Paul’s statement in context, Garland in the Baker Exegetical Commentary is helpful here:
“Paul’s reminiscence that he resolved to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (see additional note), does not promote anti-intellectualism but explains his modus operandi. … He intended to proclaim the gospel in ways that were consonant with its message of Jesus Christ crucified and in ways that caused hearers to concentrate on that message and not on the messenger. He deliberately chose to set aside any methods that would showcase his own knowledge and wisdom. Paul is not anti-intellectual, but he does oppose intellectual vanity. He did not come to them as a know-it-all or compose speeches fishing for admiration. On the contrary, he was content to be identified as a know-nothing who preached foolishness: Jesus Christ crucified. But announcing the gospel was his sole focus, and the cross moulded his entire message and his whole approach. It was not a new development arising from some previous failure (cf. Acts 17:22–31) but his standard procedure everywhere (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1–10; Gal. 3:1). Jesus Christ can only be preached as the crucified one, and no one can preach Christ crucified to win personal renown.”
Please don’t mishear me. I’m not soft on the cross or – God forbid – penal substitutionary atonement. I delight in preaching the cross. It is at the heart of God’s saving work. If anyone shows even the remotest interest in Christianity, I quickly get there. So gospel ministry always needs to get to the cross. But does a gospel sermon always need to get to the cross? I think you now know my answer.
Another question preachers ask
Possibly one of the most vexed questions preachers ask is whether every sermon must go to Christ?
Short answer – in my opinion – yes. The boy Spurgeon agrees. Here are some fruity quotes compiled by Tony Reinke. “The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and him crucified.’ A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
Or how about, “The Spirit of God bears no witness to Christless sermons. Leave Jesus out of your preaching, and the Holy Spirit will never come upon you. Why should he? Has he not come on purpose that he may testify of Christ? Did not Jesus say, ‘He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you’? Yes, the subject was Christ, and nothing but Christ, and such is the teaching which the Spirit of God will own. Be it ours never to wander from this central point: may we determine to know nothing among men but Christ and his cross.”
Or even, “Leave Christ out? O my brethren, better leave the pulpit out altogether. If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it, it ought to be his last, certainly the last that any Christian ought to go to hear him preach.”
But that needs some qualification. The devil is in the detail – an unfortunate expression if ever there was one. There is preaching Christ and there is preaching Christ. There is a kind of preaching Christ which is dull, predictable, repetitive and monochromatic. I say no to that kind of preaching. There is preaching Christ which is robbed of morality, especially OT preaching. I say no to that kind of preaching too. But there is preaching Christ which does justice to the text and sees in the Bible supremely the message of Jesus, Jesus who needs to be held out to sinners as the only Saviour and to believers as the true Son of God, the exact representation of his being, one who calls us to love, serve and follow him.
Now that is the kind of preaching Christ I like, and we must surely pursue.
Questions preachers ask
There are a number of recurring questions that we get asked about preaching, some of which we’ve answered before – for example, does a passage really only have one big idea. Here, over the next two or three days are some others that get repeatedly asked.
Today – must the structure of the passage be the structure of the sermon.
There’s a short answer to this and a long one. The short answer is yes. If you’re starting out, it’s the best way to go. For expository preaching is preaching where the theme, aim, tone and structure of the passage drive the theme, aim, tone and structure of the sermon.
So, it’s a pretty safe place to start to say yes to this commonly asked question.
However, there’s a longer answer. It’s this – expository preaching is preaching where the theme, aim, tone and structure of the passage DRIVE the theme, aim, tone and structure of the sermon, not where they MIRROR it. In other words, to work out what the sermon will look like, you need to have a firm handle on the theme (what the passage is about), the aim (what it is for), the tone (the genre, style and nature of the text) and the structure (how it is arranged). But these things don’t necessarily have to replicated in the sermon for it to be faithful.
Take two extreme examples: a faithful expository sermon on a psalm does not have to be delivered in poetic form. In fact, I would argue, it would be a poor sermon in most of our cultures. Nevertheless, it must take account of the poetic form of the text. There must be a colour and beauty about the sermon that reflects this genre.
Or take a chiasm. I’m not one for spotting chiasms everywhere, but they do exist. And let’s say you’ve spotted a “nontet inverted second order chiasm with roundel secondary inversions” (don’t worry, I’m making this up!), it doesn’t necessarily follow that your Greek-thought-educated congregation need the main point of the sermon to be in the middle.
So, must the structure of the passage be the structure of the sermon. Yes. And no.
Things never to say to a preacher pt. 94
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the pulpit last Sunday. Just before the service, my dear senior minister told me of a time when he heard of a preacher preaching just my passage and making a real hash of it by taking a certain approach. “At least you won’t be doing that!” That was the gist of the conversation: except that I was doing exactly that! I had a heart stopping moment, but we know each other well enough to laugh about it and realise, actually I wasn’t doing exactly that! Not exactly, anyway. And – it goes without saying – my sermon could have been better.
It reminded me of my time in training when I sat at the feet of someone much wiser than me. I’d meet with him for a day reading and praying towards the end of the week and the conversation would invariably turn to Sunday’s passage. “Of course, you’ll be mentioning this, or taking that line” he would say. Of course I would, once I had redone all my work at the last minute!
I do the same all the time, and have tried very hard to train myself not to give preachers – new preachers in particular – last minute tips. Confirmations help a little, but contradictions hinder a lot. That’s not a burden to lay on someone who is quite probably overwhelmed anyway. During preparation, encourage and direct as necessary. After the event, give them all the help and feedback they need. Pray for them always. But last minute tips are invariably a mistake.
Ministers of the gospel and the EU referendum
There is an old 19th Century English (and Welsh) law called Spiritual Injury. It was introduced to stem the growing influence of (particularly) high church and Catholic churchmen who were telling their congregations how to vote, annoying the government of the time. It has recently resurfaced as, in part, the legislation under which my local mayor Lutfur Rahman was deposed. It’s – as far as I can see, and I’m no lawyer – a tricky piece of legislation, slippery almost. In one particular case, for example, there was a distinction drawn between endorsing a candidate and threatening sanctions if parishoners did not vote the appropriate way. Moreover, it’s all, one could argue, a big nonsense anyway with the existence of Lords Spiritual.
Nevertheless, it is a law, and ministers of the gospel should have a care. In the past I have belonged to a political party, but I dropped it when I became a minister, and I would not advertise which one. Nor do I think it’s right to announce from the pulpit our voting intentions, especially when it comes to the EU referendum. Whether or not we break the letter of the law, there is a real danger in doing so that we breach the spirit.
And is that what preaching is really for? One of the things we misunderstand is that preaching the word of God vests us in an expected authority that we don’t appreciate. In fact, our authority comes from the word preached and there is a world of difference between Adrian the preacher saying “thus says God’s word” and Adrian the preacher saying, “I think that….” But it’s a subtle difference for many people, if one at all, and we must be conscious of the effect we have on others. This is particularly true of the pastor pronouncing on social media.
I think the minister of the gospel does have a duty – but on an issue like this where Christian conscience could go either way it is to lay before congregations the Christian issues at stake – obedience to governments, duty of care to others, compassion, wise leadership, freedom to preach and so on, and then let people make informed choices, but not to tell people what those choices should be. “Oh, I’m not doing that,” you might say, but the reality is – whether you like it or not – that is precisely what you are doing, and that, legalities aside, is a kind of injury.
Marriage and Ministry
Marriage can be tough. Ministry can be tough. Together, they can be an explosive combination. What should be a joyful partnership sometimes turns out to be the very thing on which both ministry and marriage founder. We cannot let it.
So that’s why we run a couple of small Marriage and Ministry conferences. Each conference is a 24 hour stopover hosted for up to 14 couples.
We’re running two of these in October; one is Leicestershire (at Hothorpe Hall), the other in Wiltshire (the Old Bell, Malmesbury). They will begin at 11am on Monday 24th and conclude with lunch at 12.45pm on Tuesday 25th.
There are still some spaces available on each conference. You can click here to book online at Leicestershire, and here to book online for Wiltshire.
The 20th Century’s greatest hymn writer? Not so sure.
Not so long ago, I was reading an article about hymnology which named Sydney Carter as the best hymnwriter of the 20th Century. Remember Lord of the Dance? When I needed a neighbour? And One more step along the world I go? I shiver as I recall those primary school days.
There are certainly some living writers who would challenge for that title. But I want to encourage you to search out the lyrics of someone who is no longer alive – not dear Sydney, but someone with a bit more depth. I’m talking about Margaret Clarkson, a Canadian writer who died in 2008. Look up her page. This is perhaps one of my favourites about the resurrection body – not too many hymns on that subject! It’s crying out for another tune, perhaps. But the words must not be lost.
In resurrection bodies like Jesus’ very own,
we’ll rise to meet our Saviour with joy around his throne;
we’ll marvel at the mercy that bids poor sinners come,
be welcomed at his table and share his heavenly home.
O joy of resurrection, all sin and sorrow past,
to see the face of Jesus, to be like him at last!
Made perfect in his image, complete in Christ the Son,
in resurrection glory we’ll share the life he won.
O resurrection body, set free from pain and death,
sin’s curse forever vanquished by Christ’s victorious breath!
Lord, teach us in our trials your hidden ways to trace,
to walk by faith, discerning your mysteries of grace!
O resurrection body, young, radiant, vibrant, free,
with powers unthought, undreamed of–how rich your joys will be!
Through endless years to marvel, design, create, explore,
in resurrection wonder to worship, serve, adore!
With holy joy, Lord Jesus, we sing the life you give,
the hope you hold before us, the strength by which we live!
Lead on in sovereign mercy through all earth’s troubled ways,
till resurrection bodies bring resurrection praise!
Who put that there?
Don’t you wish sometimes Scripture passages were not written as they are? There are often things I would have included if anyone had consulted me. And with my current preaching project – 1 Kings 18 – a large chunk I wish had been excluded. I’m fine with the story of Elijah and Ahab and the prophets of Baal. I think I’m just about getting a handle on that. But what is it with Obadiah? (1 Kings 18:2-15). Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to include that mysterious story?
Oh yes, it was the Holy Spirit. Hmm. I defer, of course.
My doctrine of Scripture is essential to me as a preacher. It must be; it needs to be. These words are inspired, preserved, kept, and interpreted by the Spirit of the living God. I’m very thankful for that because this truth is our only hope when it comes to listening to God’s voice. Without total and absolute inspiration in both inclusion (what is in) and exclusion (what is out) and even in tone, grammar, vocabulary and focus, where would the preacher be? Nowhere.
And that’s why my perplexing question needs to be knocked back. Obadiah? Who put that there? I did, says the God of all. And my job as a preacher is to communicate the truth that the Spirit of God has already made known.
And that, in this section at least, includes Obadiah.
Praying the Bible
I’m a bit like a scratched record when it comes to encouraging people to pray the Bible. Not a hissy mess – not that kind of scratched record; rather, I keep on saying the same thing over and over. And I’m not sorry. Prayer is a battle for me, as I guess it is for you. It’s also a battle ground for many people in our churches. We battle to find the time to pray, and then we battle to know what to pray for and how to pray for it.
Today’s post isn’t really going to help you with (1) but may be a help with (2) and (3). I find that some of the most enthusiastic pray-ers are also some of the maddest (can I say that?). In other words, enthusiasm is not always matched by content. Does this matter? I’m not going to knock enthusiasm, but I want to say that it does matter. Praying is – at one level at least – aligning ourselves with God’s will. And if we’re going to do that we need to know what to pray for and how to do it.
That’s where praying the Bible comes in. I have tried for many years to link my Bible devotions to my prayer time. The thing I learn in my quiet time I try to pray in for myself and for others who are on my list for the day. Strangely, this means that I’m not always praying for them the things I would naturally think of. But it helps me: it helps me pray in the truth for myself, because I’m thinking about how it might apply to others; it helps my preaching because I’m taking a single truth and thinking about broad application; it helps my pastoring, because I’m not overwhelmed with people’s felt needs.
All of which is to say that I’ve been using a really good new resource to help me. It’s Rachel Jones: 5 things to pray for your church. Frankly, any book that helps you pray the Bible is going to get a thumbs up from me: however, Rachel’s book is unique – it’s not just giving you Bible prayers, it is encouraging you to take Bible principles, name some people and pray the truths in. I’ve found it refreshing and useful and want others to use it too. There’s a quote on the back “brilliantly simple but hugely effective. Trevor Archer”. I’m guessing that is the book rather than Trevor – who is also brilliantly simply but hugely effective 😉
I agree wholeheartedly. Try it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Motives: “making a thorough search”
Part of putting sin to death is putting sinful motives to death. It’s hard, for we are not always good assessors of our own motives, nor do we want to put in the hard work of addressing this kind of sin. But we must. Otherwise we run the risk of being righteous for the wrong reasons, and we know what God’s word says about that (Matthew 6.1). It counts for nothing at all before God.
These sobering words have got me thinking about how precisely I tackle motives. Here’s what my friend and I are trying. This may seem a bit formulaic to you; but we’re hoping it might help us make progress. Each day, as part of our devotions, we’re taking just one thing from the previous day – one apparently righteous action or one word, and then we’re honestly and prayerfully trying to assess what good motives were at work and what sinful ones. Then we’re committed to confessing our sinful motives and asking God to deal with them.
So, maybe this is a little programmatic – and to be honest, it feels at the moment a little programmatic to me too. But we have to start somewhere and we know the place to start is in the heart. In his great work, The Mortification of sin, John Owen explains the danger of missing this great truth:
“This is a deceit that lies at the root of peace of many professors and wastes it. They deal with all their strength about mercy and pardon and seem to have great communion with God in their doing so; they lie before him, bewailing their sin and their folly, that anyone would think, yea they think themselves, that surely they and their sins are now parted; and so receive mercy that satisfies their hearts for a little season. But when a thorough search comes to be made, there has been some secret reserve for the folly or follies treated about – at least there has not been that thorough abhorrency of it which is necessary; and their whole peace is quickly discovered to be weak and rotten, scarce abiding any longer than the words of begging it are in their mouths.”