EMA: What I’m excited about…
This year’s EMA really excites me. That is, in part, because the subject matter is something that I think I need to learn more about and grasp. After all, God has called me to be a preacher and – for a time and in his goodness – someone who helps train others to preach. Therefore, it is essential that I understand and believe and hold onto the relationship between preaching and the revelation of God’s glory in the church. I’m convinced this is a much misunderstood (or not even considered at all) subject. Put bluntly, I don’t think preachers can afford not to grasp this and how it affects our preaching, our prayerfulness, our leadership – in fact, every area of church life. So, I’m particularly looking forward to Sinclair Ferguson’s two sessions on this important topic. But I’m also eagerly anticipating Vaughan’s pen portrait of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and, in particular, how he understood the ministry of the Spirit in relation to preaching. Vaughan’s pen portraits are a highlight of past years for me: Simeon, Whitefield, Schaeffer. He has the kind of mind which is able to sift large amounts of material and carefully bring out what we need to know but have missed, what we’ve spent too much time overemphasising, and what practical lessons we need to implement. I thought his Whitefield was a masterclass in this. Some may think that tackling MLJ is a poisoned chalice. But I think we will find that this one off session is particularly good. There’s still plenty of space and time to book, so why not free up the three days now (8-10 July) and I’ll look forward to seeing you and us growing together.
The importance of how we preach
It is easy to forget that it is not only important to say the right thing when we preach, but also to say it in the right way. By that I mean not so much choosing our words carefully and structuring our sermon well (although those things are important), but rather speaking and behaving in the pulpit in a Christ-like way.
Sinclair Ferguson recently reflected on the sobering fact that, on some level, over time, the members of his congregation would come to identify him with the person of Jesus. That is, because he stood before them week-after-week and year-after-year as a speaker of the word of Jesus and as an under-shepherd of Jesus, their impression of what Jesus is like would inevitably be shaped to some degree by their impression of him, their pastor.
For those in pastoral ministry, that is a sobering thought indeed. And I’m quite sure that Dr Ferguson is right.
There are lots of implications for our preaching that we could draw from that observation, but let me just highlight one for the moment: we need to make sure that in our preaching ministry – and particularly in our demeanour in the pulpit – we reflect the love of Jesus. It is a particular disease, I think, of younger Reformed pastors (and I write as a younger preacher myself) to be so concerned about drumming the truth into the people under our care and so concerned to spur them on in godliness and fruitfulness that we lose sight of the love and patience that the Lord Jesus shows to us, his slow-to-learn and slow-to-grow people. We see that extraordinary patience and grace time and time again in Jesus’ interactions with the disciples throughout the gospels. And we so need to learn the art of pastoring from him, the great Shepherd of the sheep.
As I reflect on one or two preaching ministries that I know and that have been particularly well received and fruitful over time, I am struck by the way in which the preachers in question have made it clear to their people that they love them – that they are for them and not against them.
If you are a preacher, do you reckon that your congregation sense that you are for them and not against them? And what kind of impression of Jesus are they forming as they sit under your preaching ministry?
We're busy this week getting ready for three conferences, including the EMA. And so it's time to start telling you about some of the things coming up at the EMA. Take music for example: we're singing a mix of well known and new songs (with the bulk coming from the first category), old and new. All chosen for their gospel rich content. Over the next few days I will trail some of the new ones. Why not have a look and then when you come to sing them they will be at least a little familar. Here's the first – it's the Sovereign Grace version of Augustus Toplady's Now why this fear and unbelief? It's a superb hymn and eminently singable. We've sung it on a few conferences and it's also easily to learn. Give it a go. Or, better still, give it a go with us at this year's EMA. See you then. By the way, you don't need to play it or sing it in quite this way to make it meaningful! I'm sure you know that….
Continuing on from yesterday you might like to know we're also singing this new version of My hope is built on nothing less. The video gives you an idea in a broad sense. But you do need to know we're not octaving it (singing one part low and then another part really high) as they do here. I dislike that. A lot. I think it's one of the most manipulative things you can do in music. So we're going for a middle-of-the-road key! We've also added back in one or two more verses from Edward Mote's original. Still, if you know this version here you'll be able to raise the roof with us at the EMA as we sing about our certainty in Christ. Never mind the cheesy video. Learn the tune.
Why the long speeches?
I'm really appreciating Christopher's new book on Job in Crossway's Preaching the Word series. It's available in the UK at the EMA and afterwards. Here's some really helpful thinking about the repeated interventions of the comforters:
Why do we have to go on listening to these dreadful speeches? After all, God is going to tell us at the end of the book that they are wrong (Job 42.7). So what is the point of listening to them?…This is a natural question. One general answer is presumably to warn us not to be like them when our natural pharisaism causes grace to be leeched out of our conversation and we lapse into the religious certainties of grace-free philosophy or religion.
But the question is intensified after we have heard Bildad's spine tingling description of Hell in chapter 18 and when we are about to hear Zophar's equally terrifying description of judgement in chapter 20. What specifically is the benefit to us of having to listen to these detailed and deeply evocative descriptions of hell?
To answer this question, we need to acknowledge that the fault with these sermons is not only in their content but in their misapplication. They describe life under the judgement of God..before drawing the conclusion that Job is under the judgement of God. Their deduction is false. But their descriptions of hell are entirely accurate.
These sermons, like some of the laments in the Psalms, help us feel and experience through poetry just how dreadful it will ultimately be to fall under the wrath of God.
Christopher then suggests three explicit ways that helps us:
- they stand as a warning against the reality of hell. We must repent.
- they help us grasp the depth of the darkness and suffering that Jesus endured for us
- they help describe in some measure our experience in this age as we drink from the same cup from which Christ drank
Seen this way, there is every reason to go on listening to these "dreadful" speeches.
Three weeks to go…
…it's three weeks until the Evangelical Ministry Assembly. We'd love to see you from 8-10 July at the Barbican Centre in London. Don't forget we've some free accommodation still available with local families if you're struggling to find somewhere to stay. Do pass this invitation on to friends in ministry. We've planned the conference to serve those who are themselves serving in local churches and hope you can join us to be encouraged yourself and be an encouragement to others. I may be slightly biased, but I know what we're singing, what we're stocking in the Bookstall and – most importantly – what's being proclaimed from the front, so I want to say, with no hint of self-aggrandisement, make sure you come. Book here. If you're using twitter, use #EMA2014.
Careful who you call a heretic
Sometimes we have to call out false teachers. It’s the Bible way. We ought to do that soberly, carefully and wisely. There’s no place for a heresy hunter in the pulpit. That’s not just a personal opinion. Read Paul’s letters. See the balance and focus. He does name names. Sometimes. Not often, though. We need to be very careful in extending ourselves beyond his limits. And our naming should always be linked to shepherding the flock. We don’t call out false teachers because they are in the news particularly, or because we’ve read their latest book. We must think about our flock, what is good for them, what protects them.
I say this because I think there is a tendency within our circles to be rather liberal with the word heretic. I’m perhaps a bit sensitive to this at the moment because it’s a label that’s been thrown my way by Ted Williams book on New Calvinism. Or, to be more precise, he doesn’t use the precise word but says that we “change the terms of the gospel.” Serious stuff. I’m happy to let it pass; I don’t think it’s worth commenting on, other than to say it made me search my own heart to make sure I’m not too free with this serious word.
All this was reinforced for me this week when I was reading a Facebook post about someone who wanted some more info on covenant theology. Fair enough. But there was a short post from someone which said (I can’t remember exact words) “As long as you don’t want to know about New Covenant Theology. Heresy.” Here’s the danger of social media where words are cheap and fast. But heresy? Really? Moo – a heretic? Carson, likewise? For both, as far as I can make out, follow a form of NCT, at least.
I spent a happy week a few years ago leading a preaching conference in Cameroon. There were 100 mostly pentecostal pastors who all, almost without exception, believed in a form of prosperity teaching. I was immediately cautious. But on examination I discovered that this is not the maliciously derived prosperity teaching of some so-called churches but a genuine misunderstanding of the nature of the relationships between covenants and how revelation works. They were reading Malachi 3.10 and simply preaching it like it was. Now, you can’t call that heresy, I don’t believe. It’s wrong and they need help and direction, but these guys are not wolves in sheep’s clothing. Interesting then, that even a phenomena like prosperity teaching is not uniform, nor should we treat its exponents uniformly.
All of which is to say, careful who you call a heretic.
Face to face
“And all the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio will fail to wipe it out – a living man in communication with a living audience”
I was moved by those words from the American writer John Steinbeck, in his little book Travels with Charley. Steinbeck gives a touching description of meeting a lone travelling actor in, I think, Wisconsin. This man is not a particularly good actor, but he perseveres doing his shows before modest local audiences in small town America. Steinbeck comments how this very human meeting of “a living man…with a living audience” will always have about it a quality that cannot be rivalled by “the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio”.
I like that. Does this not transfer to preaching? I think it does. Preaching is the week by week living interaction of a living loving praying pastor with a living needy congregation? He may or may not be impressive and successful in the world’s terms. But he is a loving human being face to face with living human beings. Let us learn to value this unimpressive activity very highly and never to think that telecommunication or recordings can ever replace it; set side by side with face to face preaching, these other things are indeed “sterile” for all their technological wonder.
When I first started preaching I was given a series of videos by the Australian evangelist John Chapman (now in glory) on how to prepare a sermon. Anyone who has heard Chappo will know that he was a great communicator of the gospel and that a central strength of his preaching was his tremendous clarity and simplicity. To the casual observer, this clarity and simplicity appeared simply as a natural gift of Chappo’s. He certainly was gifted, but he had also thought carefully about the nature of effective preaching. This is where his 20% comes in.
In the course of his instruction on the video, Chappo took a fairly randomly selected passage from Romans (some verses from chapter 3, I think) and asked the group of trainees in the video a series of questions….
(I’m working from memory here, but I think this is about right)
‘If I were giving a lecture on these verses at a theological college, what percentage of the content would I cover?’ Chappo’s answer: ‘90%, or more.’
‘If I were leading a home group Bible study on these verses, what percentage of the content would I aim to cover?’ Answer: ‘Maybe 70%, or so.’
‘If I were preaching on these verses, what percentage of the content would I cover?’ Chappo’s answer: ‘20%.’
This final figure might prompt some sharp intakes of breath among trainee preachers, but I think Chappo was on to something. His point is not that a preacher should randomly select his favourite 1/5th of the content of a passage – perhaps his favourite verse – and share a “blessed thought” on that portion or verse; but rather, I think, that a preacher should identify what is central and at the very core of the passage and draw that out with simplicity, clarity and power. Trying to go down every alleyway and explore every nook and cranny of a passage (especially a longer passage) leads to dull, commentary-like sermons. But getting to the heart of the passage and communicating that effectively to the hearts and minds of our hearers – that’s the stuff of good preaching.
Themes to get straight on in Galatians, part 2: the cross
After my previous post on the significance of the Spirit in Galatians, here’s a second in a similar vein, this time on the cross. Here are the all the references: 1.4; 2.20, 21; 3.2, 13; 5.11, 24; 6.12, 14.
Let’s just see for now some of the key things the cross is said to achieve:
· a right standing with God: ‘if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’ (2.21).
· the blessing of the Spirit coming to all nations (3.13-14; and note the link between Christ crucified and the Spirit given, also in 3.1-5).
· our being crucified with Christ, so that we may live a new life of ‘Christ in us’, by faith (2.20).
· the end of the reign of sin’s passions and desires over us, since we are united to Christ in this way (5.24).
· the living out and preaching of a gospel that does not demand law-observance but instead is concerned only with new life in union with Christ, received by faith, and lived out in step with the Spirit (5.11; 6.12, 14).
There’s obviously much more that could be said. But even these sketchy thoughts should help my preaching of the cross from Galatians try to attain some of the glorious richness of the content of the letter itself.