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.
Being led to the New Testament from Genesis
I’m teaching a course on Genesis at the moment at Cornhill. This morning we were asking what the right lines are to draw from Gen. 22.1-19 (the offering up of Isaac) to the New Testament.
(I like to speak of drawing lines ‘to the New Testament’, to indicate that we need to come forward both to God and Christ and to us. The NT itself draws applications from the OT both to God and Christ and to us, and therefore so should we.)
As regards coming to God and Christ from 22.1-19, the initial thing I wanted the students to see is that the passage is more interested in Abraham than in Isaac. That already suggests that it’s not central to this passage to make much of Isaac as ‘carrying wood on his back up a mountain to his sacrificial death’; that’s a true point, but a subsidiary one.
Once that is clear, Abraham emerges as a foreshadowing (type) of both the Father and of Christ. He is primarily a type of the Father because he is willing to give up even the son he loves deeply (Rom. 8.32 comes to mind). That pictures for us the provision of a sacrifice that the Father will ultimately give.
Abraham is also (a little less obviously, I think, but truly) a type of Christ, since the passage stresses his obedient trust in God in being willing to give up what is most precious to him. Of course his obedience, unlike Abraham’s, actually led to a real death, even his own.
As regards coming to us from 22.1-19, Heb. 11.17-19 gives us a solid basis for taking Abraham as a model of embracing God’s promises through times of testing.
There is such richness in the way God has caused this Scripture to be written so that it points forward to the New Testament. No single sermon can do justice to all of this, and the preacher will have to be ruthlessly selective. But the preacher who sees these things and ponders on them will never be short of solidly text-driven applications, however often he returns to such well-known passages.
Too much of a good thing
Most ministers are reasonably well educated or, at least, have the time to immerse themselves in some richly rewarding reading. But it’s easy for us to make the mistake of thinking that our people have the same access and time to make such reading rewarding. I recently had a conversation with a mature Christian (a believer for 50 years+) who told me that they had never read a Christian book. I was surprised, but perhaps I should not have been.
Casual recommendations in our sermons then, can sometimes do more harm than good. For one thing, that may be because we make Christianity seem a very cerebral and academic study. I worry about this a lot: increasingly in our time poor culture, our pastoral strategy seems to be “let me recommend a book on that.” Don’t get me wrong: I love books and want to promote them, and promote Christian reading. But the books are not our pastors.
The other concern is the kind of thing we are often recommending. I’ve been reminded about this because I’ve just been re-reading Calvin on prayer (Book 3). I love it. I remember first reading it and this one chapter making more difference to my prayer life (and still doing so) than anything I had read before or since. But reading it again, I realise that some of it (much?) is impenetrable. In fact, a long term wish project of mine that I pick up and put down every now and again is to produce a paraphrase of the chapter as a separate book.
But reading through one sentence this morning again and again I realise I have absolutely no idea what it means. Am I allowed to say that? After a while, a light will dawn (I hope!). But for me to stand at the front of church and say with enthusiasm “you must read Calvin on prayer” is profoundly unhelpful to the majority of our congregation. I am not serving them at all.
The Reformers and Puritans, huh? You can have too much of a good thing.
How do preaching and corporate prayer work together
Reformation Heritage Books have sent me this snappily titled little book (just 25 pages) on a very important subject. I wanted to like this book very much for it is a subject dear to my heart. But here’s the problem: the point is, sadly, not made.
The book is, essentially, a Ryan McGraw sermon on John 14.12-14. Ryan says some very useful things on preaching and some very useful things on prayer (together with some sharply pointed application for the corporate prayer meeting, all of which – as it happens – I agree with).
But his thesis turns on the fact that Jesus words in John 14 are describing corporate prayer. He begins this explanation by saying that “the book of Acts illustrates that it is not simply prayer in view [in John] but corporate prayer.” Really? Given how much we make of the tension between the normative and descriptive in Acts, that needs to be proved. And Ryan tries to do this next: “The plural form of the verbs in John (“ye ask”, “if ye shall ask”) indicates this as well….Jesus did not tell His apostles simply to pray as individuals, but together, asking as one body. This shows that He envisioned His people praying together with one heart and one compelling purpose.”
Too much. This seems to me, at least, an exercise in rather casual exegesis. True enough, the words are plural. And true that Jesus sometimes addresses a group of believers in the singular when he is talking about private matters (Matthew 6.6 a good example). True even that this verb matched with a plural is a John favourite. But it is also true that he address groups of believers in the plural, even when he is talking about private matters (see Matthew 5.11). In fact, in the very verse Ryan is expounding (v.12) Jesus uses the plural you to describe the greater things that will be done. These are ‘Spirit empowered preaching for the conversion of sinners.’ By definition, this is a singular work. It is not a corporate activity.
In other words, I don’t think the point is made. It certainly – for me – requires more explanation. Shame though, because I’m convinced the overall point is right; it just seems to require of this particular text more than it can bear.
Which is a sober thought for every preacher.
EMA 2015 – New Buddy rates
I first went to the EMA because someone invited me. Thanks Mr G. Most people do. I guess some people see the advertising or get an email, but the most powerful advert for any event is always a personal testimony. And inviting someone else is a great way to serve them and get to know them better. Perhaps there is another minister in the next village alone, beleaguered and in need of encouragement? Perhaps another leader in your own church? Perhaps a potential leader in the making who could take some time off work to taste and see? Perhaps someone on the periphery of our circles who you would like to draw in? Or save from moving away?
For all these kinds of guys, we’ve introduced a new rate at the EMA. We’re calling it the Buddy Rate and it’s for 2 people – as long as one is new. We’re going to trust you on this one, but if you book through the Buddy Rate you get two three day places for £195. Who could you serve this year?
Preaching and corporate prayer
I’ve just been sent a booklet to review from Reformation Heritage Books called How do preaching and corporate prayer work together? Not the snappiest of titles! And I’m posting this before I even read it! That’s because – before I get any answers from Ryan McGraw – I’ve been trying to think through the answer for myself.
How would you answer? There must be a link, mustn’t there? But how many of our prayer meetings reflect it? How many spontaneous prayers are there for the preaching of the word and the preachers? It’s not – I guess – top of the list of petitions.
Surely, given the nature of preaching, it should be? There may be manifold reasons why such prayer is uncommon, but may one be – at the very least – you don’t know the answer to the question yourself? Our people, we have to grudgingly admit, generally take their lead from the front.
Some new small group material
One of the key issues for me with small groups is finding the right material. As regular readers know, recently we’ve overcome this issue by simply reading the Bible together. Other times we’ve used our own home grown material. But I’ve recently had a detailed look at some new material that I’m very excited about. It’s a joint venture between The Good Book Company and The Gospel Coalition producing material for Adult Sunday School or small groups. It’s produced with the US market in mind, and some might possibly think that rules it out for use in the UK. Not a bit of it.
I really like this material. It is thoroughly biblical with – I think – the right amount of didactic teaching and then discussion (often with the applications being worked out in the discussion). I’ve taken a look at Gospel-shaped worship which has Jared Wilson as the main teacher (see a sample video here). The workbooks are well produced and the videos very accessible – or, in a kind of Christianity Explored way, you can do the talks yourself.
One of the things I like about the material is that it is truly innovative. For each session there is a didactic part, a Bible study and some follow up devotional material to use (or not) throughout the week. In other words, the leader can dip into the various elements in a way that is suitable for the group. I think there’s probably too much material in each session for a standard group – I would imagine using the bulk of the material over two weeks for each session.
I think it’s well worth a look and if you’re along at one of our conferences soon, look out for some great pricing that makes the curriculum accessible.
I love small groups. But.
One of the great privileges I have is leading a small group at church. I love it. Small groups are great for many things. They are great for Bible studies (although finding good material can be a struggle – see tomorrow’s post). They are good for evangelism. They are good for developing meaningful relationships where we can encourage one another with the gospel and speak the truth in love. They are superb places to pray in informed and honest ways for one another. They are good for singing. It’s a great opportunity to share a meal. Small groups are brilliant for pastoral and practical care. And more.
We can overreach. A small group is not a church. A small group Bible study is not preaching. A prayer time is not the church gathered to pray together. It is not an insular group that never serves others in the congregation.
In other words, it’s quite possible to overstate the purpose and role of the small group. They are, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon in the church. We should thank God for their development, but the relative newness of the idea should make us cautious about loading all our ecclesiological eggs into this basket.
Small groups are brilliant. But they are not church.
I confess to being a serial sufferer of post Sunday blues when I’ve been preaching. For those who have never experienced this phenomenon (really?) this is the “down” some preachers feel after a hard Sunday or a preach into which we’ve put everything. I used to think it was caused by outside factors – for example, not enough good comments on the door! Or, perhaps, some distractions during the sermon that made me think the message wasn’t clearly heard.
But over the years, I’ve begun to realise that it starts internally not externally. It’s not fundamentally about how the word was received but the heart of the one who delivered it. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, and I still suffer. But here’s the landscape of my heart.
I’ve tried to analyse what is going on and here are my conclusions. My Monday Blues are caused by:
– a lack of confidence in the Spirit of God to take the word of God and make Jesus real to people. Of course, I want to preach as well as I am able, to be faithful, to illustrate helpfully and apply appropriately. I labour with all my strength for those things. But the effectiveness of the word of God is not – ultimately – dependent upon those. Praise God. The trouble is that my labours are so energy sapping that I begin to persuade myself that the effectiveness of the sermon is precisely about those things.
– an over-confidence in my own ability to save the world. We have a little saying at PT Towers that we often use to encourage one another. It goes something like this: “you are not the Messiah.” Repeat after me. But the nature of pastoral work is that others often think we are, and we begin to convince ourselves that it is true. It is not.
These are two root untruths that I have to battle and which cause my own Monday Blues. Perhaps yours are different. And here is my antidote: I learnt it from a well known preacher. It is to pray as much after the sermon for the sermon as I do before. Many preachers struggle to pray before, to be honest. But we must learn and cultivate the discipline of praying after. It’s this discipline that has helped me fight the untruths and try (not always successfully) to banish those Monday Blues.