Category Archives: Audience Analysis

Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 5

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!


Continuing the list of areas for special attention, so far we have had beware of self-improvement, beware of making promises out of proverbs, and preach thought units.  Last in the list:

4. Consider what it means to preach a reflective genre… reflectively. We have already seen that wisdom literature requires reflection. How might this impact our sermons in this genre? We need to give serious thought as to how we can encourage reflection in our listeners, even if it is only for the time we are standing up there preaching. Two thoughts on this; firstly avoid information overload. This is true for preaching any genre, but nowhere is it more important that in preaching wisdom.  Don’t bombard people with dozens of different thoughts or ideas; it doesn’t encourage reflection, it encourages confusion, headaches and people to stop listening altogether.

Conversely then, create space. Create space to work out illustration and application – “You cannot serve both God and money” isn’t a proverb, but it is a good example of a relatively short journey from original context to contemporary application. But wisdom like Proverbs 15:5 “A fool spurns a parent’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” will take some time to unpack. How does it apply for people who don’t have God-honouring parents? What about people whose parents have died or who no longer under their parents’ authority in the way they once were? Does this proverb no longer apply to them? If so, how? And what are the subtle ways we all try to squirm out of correction – wherever it comes from? Be creative, take time to explore this piece of wisdom from as many angles as you can. Finally, create space to think, respond, pray. Why not give people time to do this at some point in your sermon (and not necessarily just at the end)?

5. Identify the central issue of a book. This is crucial. In a book like Job, it is easy to forget that the central tension of the book is presented very clearly in chapter 1, Satan says to God that Job loves God not for who He is, but for what He gives Job. The accusation is that Job loves God’s stuff more than he loves God. And the tension of the rest of the book is, in many ways, an exploration of that accusation – will Job’s faith stand up to the accusation, or not? It’s important to work out everything which follows in light of this. In Ecclesiastes you have to go to the end of the book to find the central issue – (12:13–14) Keep this conclusion as your focal point as you drive those windy roads of Ecclesiastes!

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Conclusion

97LutherSo for the past couple of weeks I have been blogging through Luther’s lesser known 97 Theses.  Let’s finish them up and wrap up the series.

(93)-94. This holds true also of the saying that the love of God may continue alongside an intense love of the creature.

Luther refers to “a kind of subtle evil” in arguments that try to balance what he sees as mutually exclusive.  In this case, he wants to push away from some kind of balancing of love for God and love for non-God.

95. To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.

Loving God is seen as the opposite of sin, which is self-love and hatred of God.  When we reduce sin to misdemeanors and “sins” then we can easily lose sight of this.  At the heart of the human problem is the human heart and the problem is profound!  A lot of Christian preaching leaves listeners very content with their elevated view of themselves, and the teaching easily turns into top tips to be a better you.  We must not let humans be the residual focus of our preaching.

(96-97). Luther ends with two theses that urge the reader to conform their desires, using the language of will, in every respect, to God.  It is clear for him that Christianity cannot be about dutiful obedience running parallel to rebellious heart inclinations.  If we are His, then our will really should desire what God does.

I hope these posts have been helpful.  At the very least, may this nudge us to take a look at Luther’s 97 Theses and wrestle with what he was proposing for debate.  Perhaps his poking at foundational questions will make a difference to us in our understanding of Christianity, of humanity and of ministry.

It isn’t enough to educate and encourage conformity of external behavior.  That option may be tempting, but it isn’t what the Gospel is all about.  Too much of Christianity is shaped as much by unquestioned assumptions as it is by Scripture itself.  The devil would love to keep us thinking highly of ourselves and little of God.  Sadly, as preachers we can so easily fall into serving that hellish agenda.

May our hearts be drawn to Christ, and may our preaching offer the radical balm of the gospel to a profoundly sinful humanity.  People desperately need what they will never find in themselves or their own behavioural resolutions, but only in Christ himself.


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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 9

97LutherLuther’s 97 theses, for preachers. Give some thought to this one:

76. Every deed of the law without the grace of God appears good outwardly, but inwardly it is sin. This in opposition to the scholastics.

Was Jesus ever satisfied with external conformity? Or did Jesus go after the inner issues in the religious folks he spoke with? Strangely we can be tempted to settle for mere outward godliness in our churches. Why? Maybe because it is easier to pastor superficially? Thank God the Good Shepherd doesn’t pastor us this way.

77. The will is always averse to, and the hands inclined toward, the law of the Lord without the grace of God.

Amazingly, we are always going to be drawn by the lie of autonomy, of independence, even in respect to godliness. Instead of just speaking of others, let me ask us as preachers, do we ever lean toward good behavior in our own strength so that we can function with God at arms length?

78. The will which is inclined toward the law without the grace of God is so inclined by reason of its own advantage.

So are some people just more spiritually sensitive and “naturally” good? Not according to Luther. Unless God is at work, every one will be completely self-serving, however it may manifest itself.

79. Condemned are all those who do the works of the law.
80. Blessed are all those who do the works of the grace of God.

There are two types of people in the world, and in the church. It isn’t younger brothers and older brothers, at least not in the sense of the way we think of them. On the one side there are sons sat at the table in the embrace of their father. On the other there are older and younger brothers living in rebellion, hidden or overt, who want only the benefits of their father.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 8

97LutherContinuing my preacher’s journey through Luther’s lesser known 97 theses:

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

The gravitational pull of a post Genesis 3 world will always pull us toward a morality that is bereft of the presence of God. This is the tendency we have: to try to be like God, apart from God. Let’s never settle for obedient compliance over genuine relationship with God by His Spirit.

69. As a matter of fact, it is more accurate to say that the law is destroyed by nature without the grace of God.
70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will.
71. Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.

I want to leave these theses rather than summarizing them. As a human being I am naturally in total opposition to God being God. Telling me to behave by his rules will only incite rebellion, or . . .

72. What the law wants, the will never wants, unless it pretends to want it out of fear or love.

Unless the person is fearfully self-protective, or loving self in some way. Thus the written code will gain a variety of responses, from younger brother rebellion to older brother self-righteousness, but nothing on this continuum is actually a good result. Seems hopeless?

73. The law, as taskmaster of the will, will not be overcome except by the “child, who has been born to us” [Isa. 9:6].

Our only hope is Christ himself. Apart from him we are deeply in trouble with a terrible foe. So as a preacher? I must, must, must preach Christ – the only hope. But if I reduce Christ and start to preach law in some way, the result will not be greater godliness.

74. The law makes sin abound because it irritates and repels the will [Rom. 7:13].
75. The grace of God, however, makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law.

Only the grace of God can create a new taste, a new inner relish…hang on, I am drifting into Jonathan Edwards now. God can do what the law never could, stirring the heart with a new appetite for good.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 7

97LutherWe are moving into the sixties, at least in respect to Luther’s 97:

54-59   – Luther pursued the issue of the grace of God, not as a character quality, but as a spiritual presence.  Either we are self-determined individuals, or we function by the presence or absence of grace.  It is too easy, and natural, for us to preach the Bible in such a way as to make demands of listeners that pressure them to perform.  In preaching moralistically we deny the very core of the gospel itself.

(60-)62. And that therefore he who is outside the grace of God sins incessantly, even when he does not kill, commit adultery, or become angry.

Luther takes aim again at the desire to combine law and grace.  That is our human default so we need to think before dismissing him here.  Outside the grace of God we sin incessantly?  What about my upstanding neighbour?  While there are some non-Christians that have better morals than some who identify themselves with Christ, this is not the point.  Apart from me you can do nothing.  We have to watch our tendency to equate external morality with spirituality.

63. But it follows that he sins because he does not spiritually fulfill the law.

So someone may do the right thing, but not from the heart, not spiritually.  Preachers will always be tempted to preach toward the shortcut of behavioural compliance.  It is not a shortcut to anywhere good.

64. Spiritually that person does not kill, does not do evil, does not become enraged when he neither becomes angry nor lusts.

Luther is one of those people in church history who views the affections as the source of action.  If you chase others who thought the same, you end up with quite a hall of fame!

(65)-66 It is the righteousness of the hypocrite actually and outwardly not to kill, do evil, etc.

Choosing to not “do” a sin can be an expression of corrupt affections.  This is a warning to us preachers who might be tempted to settle for a compliant congregation who do not do wrong.  It is possible to fill a church with people who do the right thing, but do so from a hypocritical heart.  Is that the legacy we want?

67. It is by the grace of God that one does not lust or become enraged.

Hence we must preach Christ and him crucified, not moral codes and humans pressurized.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 6

97LutherWe are now into the second half of this series of posts on Luther’s 97 Theses.  You will probably need to read the earlier posts to make sense of the series, but more than that, I’d suggest you read the theses themselves.

41(-42). Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This in opposition to the scholastics.

These snippets should make you want to read more of Luther.  I wonder how much we tend to blend common sense or philosophy with biblical revelation?

43. It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. This in opposition to common opinion.

44. Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.

For some, this kind of provocation might make us go back and ponder our blending of natural reason with biblical revelation in respect to our preaching.  For others, it might make us want to take stock of our entire theological education and library!  Luther is certainly provocative.  In those days everyone studied Aristotle as a staple in their theological training.  These days most don’t take classes in Aristotle’s work, but has his influence shaped anything which we do study in formal theological training?

45-49 – Luther goes after an essentially idolatrous lauding of the human mind.  There is something strangely magnetic about taking pride in human intellect.  As preachers lets be careful not to treat intellectual pride as somehow more acceptable than other sins.

50. Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the scholastics.

This kind of statement prompts me to ponder just how profound the Fall of Genesis 3 was for humanity.  Our best and brightest analyst of human life, from Luther’s perspective, was at the opposite extreme from light.  How easily does our perspective automatically assume it has light when it is really still in darkness.  As preachers, we need to pray for real clarity lest we promote darkness unawares.

51-53 – Luther knew his history and knew that some influences in the history of the church have been downright dangerous.  Some preachers live under the impression that anything old and known must be good and helpful.  Let’s pray for discernment.

Part 7, coming up . . .


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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 5

97LutherLast time we surveyed 18 of the 97 theses, but now we need to slow down a bit . . . Luther deserves more than summary and survey here:

37. Nature, moreover, inwardly and necessarily glories and takes pride in every work which is apparently and outwardly good.

Until we see this, we will always be on the brink of moralizing in our preaching.  Surely it is better for people to live good lives rather than bad lives?  It is good for those around, but for the individual?  Their flesh will dictate a self-glorification through pride in anything good . . . thus rendering that good, bad.

So what?  We need to stop preaching as if people are close to God’s glorious standard, but one blotch makes for less than perfection, one miss makes for less than 100% . . . in reality nobody is at 99/100.  Even the best of us, apart from Christ, are absolutely bad.  0/100.  Every apparently good work is corrupted by misplaced glory.

38. There is no moral virtue without either pride or sorrow, that is, without sin.

0/100.  Something about our hearts is key here.  It is easier to preach for external performance, but we would do well to ponder where he was leading with this statement.  Pride?  Self-love.  Sorrow?  Self-love.  Self-love?  Sin.

39. We are not masters of our actions, from beginning to end, but servants. This in opposition to the philosophers.

Speaking of the heart, who is in control?  The supposedly self-moved responsible individual is in Luther’s sights.  He highlights his opponents as being the philosophers, but here he is going after common sense, or could we say, serpent-sense?

The weight of this statement is immense.  Every human lives the lie that we are free, independent and self-moved.  Apparently I am the master of my destiny, but Luther thinks not.  At the heart of the human problem is the human heart.  If we preach simply to apply imperatives to performance, then we may not only be falling short of preaching texts in context, we may actually be preaching biblical truth in a serpent-like way.  Serious stuff.

40. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds. This in opposition to the philosophers.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics teaches the common sense logic that we become good by practice.  Common sense cannot be assumed correct in a fallen world!  The Bible teaches the opposite.  God makes us righteous and then the fruit flows from that transformation.  It has always been hard to change a tree by adjusting the fruit.  Preachers often try.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 4

97LutherWorking my way through the 97 Theses of Luther, let’s grab eighteen more:

19-22. . . . No act is done according to nature that is not an act of concupiscence against God.  Every act of concupiscence against God is evil and a fornication of the spirit.

What about people who do good things?  Luther undermines it all.  Every act is self-loving act against God.  If we ponder this, it should really make us think twice before preaching for behavioural change without true heart change.

23-25 – Luther critiques the notion that hope overcomes self-love.  Instead of seeing value in our own merit, he points to suffering as the seedbed of hope since suffering destroys a sense of merit and worthiness.  As preachers we have to ponder the perennial problem of the fleshly tendency to err toward earning something spiritually.

26-28 – We don’t make the first move toward God, He makes the first move toward us.  And if we suggest that our move toward God is something we can do by nature, followed by His gracious response, then we are back to the Pelagian error again.  Sometimes we preachers preach as if it is down to our persuasive efforts that people will be stirred to move toward God.

29-30 – God’s election is the first move toward a grace-based relationship between God and man.  We don’t prepare ourselves by becoming more holy.  In fact, perhaps our rebellion against grace is the preparation from our side (since we bring nothing to the table).  So as preachers, let’s not subtly fall into the idea that influencing our listeners toward holy living is somehow a step toward their salvation.

31-36 – From our side we can’t do anything to remove obstacles to grace, and actually, there is nothing about us that would want to even if we could.  Luther had a clear sense of our totally lost state, but many of us fall into the common idea of our times (indeed, all times), that humans have a basically good will.

I hope pondering Luther’s 97 is provoking your thinking as it is mine.  Whether he is right or not, let’s be sure to chase into the Bible and see what it has to say on these issues!

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 3

97LutherIf you want to see Luther’s lesser known list of theses, click here.  Let’s keep pondering their value for us as preachers:

Theses 13-15 – Luther goes on to underline the propensity to evil found in natural condition humanity.  He even questions whether genuine love is possible, certainly with respect to God.  So the will is free only in the sense that it will conform to erroneous and incorrect teaching.  Within that realm, the will appears free because the dictator within lives in that darkness.  How often do preachers pile on the pressure when the listeners are incapable of responding with better morality – they may shift their actions, but will continue to be in that earthly realm that is totally other than God’s goodness.

16. One ought rather to conclude: since erring man is able to love the creature it is impossible for him to love God.

While we may not be familiar with the juxtaposition Luther gives here, it shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us.  Think of Jesus’ words, that it is not possible to serve two masters, you will either love one and hate the other, or serve the one and despise the other.  Perhaps we need to ponder the mutual exclusivity of affection when we preach to people (since our tendency is to be “both/and” in our thinking).

17. Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.

I hope you didn’t leave before this one!  This is vitally important.  Humans do not want God to be God, but we consistently vote for another candidate – ourselves.  The influence of the Lie in Genesis 3 is so pervasive we can easily miss it, like the water the goldfish is swimming in.  So as preachers, are we trying to encourage morality and goodness without addressing the real issue?  I can convince people to help older folk across the road, but superficial morality in no way addresses the core “me for president of the universe” political inclination of the human heart (and we all know presidential candidates like to be seen to do good!)

18. To love God above all things by nature is a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were. This is contrary to common teaching.

So the great commandment is impossible for a fallen humanity.  People will not love God, so what do we do?  Do we command it?  Or do we prayerfully present the self-revelation of God’s heart in His Word, pointing to the Word incarnate, and invite people to look to Him?  More on this to come . . .


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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 2

97LutherContinuing my pondering of Luther’s less famous 97 Theses and what difference they might make to our preaching:

5. It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive. This is said in opposition to common opinion.

Everyone assumes they are self-moved and free to choose in any situation.  Luther argues that this is not the case.  The will is not free, but captive.  So as a preacher, I need to ponder deeply what the state of the human will actually is.  If it is free then that will result in one approach to ministry.  If it is not free, then that will result in another approach.  As humans, we make choices all the time.  We can call that liberty of choice.  But those choices are not made by a free will, but by a will held captive.

6. It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept. This is said in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

Luther reinforces the point by denying that human wills will obey clear and compelling application by their own nature.  So when we preach, are we indulging in an exercise to convince people to move themselves to what is right?  Luther says no.

Theses 7-9 – The will may be neutral in itself, but it is captive to a non-neutral dictator.  God’s grace is needed so that the will can do anything other than always choose evil.  When we preach, we aren’t speaking to neutral folk, but to a captive set of wills.  Lest you assume some sort of heavenly puppeteering here, let me tip you off that Luther is not saying the will is captive to God’s direct control.

Theses 10-12 – Just because we proclaim that something is good does not mean that people will strive in that direction.  It would be good to ask Luther what he thinks of moralistic preaching, for instance.  Is our role as preachers to call everyone to live in a godly way?  Seems slightly misdirected if no natural will is able or free to strive toward what we declare to be good.


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