The Fig-Arm Journey To Simplicity

Forest2Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with this great quote – “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I remember Haddon Robinson using this quote to distinguish two types of simplicity in preaching.  This side of complexity the simplicity isn’t worth much.  Often very young preachers offer this because it is all they have to give.  Listeners will resonate at a certain level, appreciating the simplicity combined with a young preacher getting launched into ministry.  But there will also be a lack of depth, of experience, of insight, of nuance, and of genuine impact.  This less-than-a-fig’s worth of simple preaching will hopefully yield to a pursuit of something more valuable.

The goal is arms’-worth simplicity.  This is the kind of simplicity that great preachers offer. They have a much greater and more personal understanding of the Bible, of life, of their listeners, and of themselves.  This kind of preacher knows how to plumb the depths of Scripture and serve up a simple message that is not paper thin and feather light, but life impacting and pregnant with deep truth, resonating with listeners as true. To hear a great preacher preach simply is heart warming, life changing and profoundly satisfying.

But there is a journey from less-than-fig simplicity to arms’-worth simplicity.  It is a journey through complexity.  Here are five quick thoughts on the journey:

1. It is a necessary journey.  It may be tempting to stay this side of complexity and try to fake depth by copying preachers that have made the journey.  This cannot be effectively faked.  Knowing comments, beard stroking, profound stares and implying you are a deep well simply won’t convince the more mature listeners.  Determine to prayerfully make the journey over the next years to that far side of complexity.

2. It is a multi-faceted journey. It is tempting to assume that the journey simply involves learning a lot.  It includes that, but also much more.  By all means go to seminary, read lots, learn loads, but know that merely filling your head with knowledge will not get you through the dark forest of complexity – it will probably plant you right in the middle!  There will also be life experience needed, and only God can orchestrate that.  There may well be suffering – sometimes “low level” and sometimes a horrendous “crucible experience.”  There will need to be painful feedback pursued and taken to heart.  This journey is not easy, neither is it quick:

3. It can be a slow journey.  Know that it can take years to successfully get through the forest.  Many preachers play around the edges of the forest, but never plunge in and come through to the other side.  They read a bit, study a bit (even getting a degree can be just studying a bit), and try to act like the three bushes they have hung out with constitute a forest!  It is hard to spot shallowness and ignorance in the mirror, but pray for a clear view of yourself, and pray for honest insight from others.

4. The preacher should determine to make this journey.  Only God knows the journey through the forest, but pray for Him to lead you and start taking steps.  And remember your goal is simplicity.  Know that your listeners won’t love the complexity as much as you do, so always look to grow in simplicity in your preaching, wherever you are in the journey.  Often you will fail, but always aim to communicate as clearly as you can.

5. The listeners will need to have patience with the preacher.  If you know someone on this journey, then please support them, cheer them on, encourage them.  Give them feedback that will help them grow.  Give them grace and space to make mistakes and to make progress.  Don’t chase them back to cheap simplicity, and don’t chase them out of your church because they are trying to grow.  You will be glad when they make it through, and they will make it through, in part, because of your help!

Repentance Uncompromised

I repentancehave just posted on the Cor Deo site on the subject of repentance.  It is such a critical subject, and it is so often compromised by the way we preach it and practice it.  I hope the post will be helpful to you.

One of the greatest terms in the Old Testament prophets is the word “turn” or “repent.” The prophets spoke to a nation of God’s people who had consistently turned away from God and to others. They turned to Assyria or Egypt for support via political alliance. They turned to their own military might for confidence. They turned to idols for alternative spiritual assistance. So the prophets urged them to turn back to God.

Repentance is at the heart of Christianity. It has to be. And yet it is so often compromised in the way we present it or practice it.

Why is repentance important?

The Bible tells the amazing story of God’s grace in rescuing a sinful and fallen humanity to bring about a marriage between His Son and the redeemed bride. Ever since the fall into sin and death in Genesis 3, the starting point for this marriage has not been two neutral parties awaiting an introduction. The bride-to-be is spiritually dead and existing in overt rebellion against God and His Son.

God has initiated in stunning fashion. He has demonstrated his love for us through the death of His Son. He has paid the penalty for the rebellion, broken the power of sin and made possible a reconciliation between God and man. And as we read the prophets, we are reminded that God continues to work to graciously win the hearts of humanity back to him through providentially guided circumstances – both those that appear positive and negative from our perspective. God not only initiates, but He also pursues in His attempt to woo the hearts of humanity to His Son.

The Bible presents the work of God in redeeming us, the persistence of God in pursuing us, and the character of God in all of this. The character of God is startling to rebels like us. For instance, the prophet Hosea can characterize God as the God of steadfast love and faithfulness who desires that His people really know Him personally and closely. Hosea expressed God’s frustration that these characteristics were not the defining feature of life in Israel (see Hosea 4:1).

In light of who God is and what God has done and continues to do, what is the appropriate response? It is repentance. It is trust.

How do we compromise repentance?

We compromise repentance when we lose sight of God’s initiative. We compromise repentance when we turn the spotlight onto ourselves. We compromise it when we make it a meritorious work that we do.

I imagine going back to the day when I proposed to my wife-to-be. What if I had pursued her, cared for her, shown affection toward her, won her heart and then nervously orchestrated the circumstances so that I could propose to her in the right place at the right time. After my introductory comments, I drop to one knee and propose marriage. I am ready to give myself to this woman forever, to become one with her. I propose and she says yes. Would it make sense for me to follow up with a “well done” to her for saying yes? Absolutely not! That would be bizarre.

But a corrupted repentance will be seen as the responsibility of the repentant. It will be understood as something we are to do that brings with it certain benefits. Hosea saw through a false repentance in Israel.

Israel said the right words and looked like they were doing the right things. In Hosea 6:1 we see that they viewed repentance as turning to God rather than merely turning to better behaviour (a common area of confusion in our day). Their repentance was followed by religious acts of devotion. Remember, repentance is a turn to a person, God, not a turn to better behaviour. However, turning to God will be followed by changes in behaviour. Repentance that involves no turning from sin cannot be true repentance. But it is possible to turn from sin and not be truly repentant. So it was with Israel.

They sacrificed and gave offerings, but there was no steadfast love or true knowledge of God (see Hosea 6:6). In fact, God declared, “they do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds and gash themselves for grain and wine” (Hosea 7:14). They turn, but their turn is not toward God (see verse 16). Their response was not what could be expected in light of who God was and what He had done.

What is true repentance?

In the last chapter of Hosea we get a clearer picture of true repentance. It begins with God – His steadfast love and faithfulness, His desire that we should truly know Him. It is His kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). And then what do we bring? Commitment? Determination? Resolution? Do we get ourselves sorted and then come to Him for the reward of His love? Absolutely not! Do we bring promises and declarations that twist God’s arm into kindness toward us? No.

We have nothing. All we can bring are the words overflowing from a heart that recognizes its need of God. We will not trust in Assyria, in horses, in idols. We will not trust in our righteousness, church attendance, ministry involvement, giving to charity, turning over a new leaf, determination to never do that thing again. We have nothing. We come with empty hands. We are orphans coming to a God who gives mercy to the totally undeserving. (See Hosea 14:1-3)

Whether we are encountering God for the first time, or whether we have walked with Him for many years, the truth is the same. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling. Repentance is not a work I am responsible to do. It is a response to God. It is a turn from every other plan and distraction and lover. It is a turn to Him, whereby in my absolute poverty I cast myself into His arms, trusting Him and only Him. Like an orphan coming home. Like a bride in His arms. Forsaking all others, Him. That is repentance. That needs to be at the core of our lives and our message.

 

New Covenant Ministry – Part 6

NEW2And the final post in this series.  Looking at the last paragraph of 2 Corinthians 5 –

17. Too many will boast about outward issues in ministry, but God evaluates the heart (2.Cor.5:11-12) God knows what is going on inside the minister of the Gospel.  Others will only ever evaluate based on externals since that is what they see.  Don’t evaluate your own ministry based on what “fans” say who only watch the outside stuff.  They may be impressed, but prayerfully ask God what is going on inside you and you will probably get a clearer glimpse in a few seconds than others see in many months.  We must not rely on handshakes, compliments and twitter comments to overshadow the reality of our own hearts.

18. The New Covenant minister is constrained and controlled by the love of Christ (2.Cor.5:13-15) While we may be considered out of our minds for not going the way all others go, it is not our thoughtful strategies that drive us, it is the love of Christ.  The New Covenant means that we are so gripped by the death of Christ that we live each moment in light of that love.  It is only in the death of Christ that we can know the cure to the self-obsession of the human heart.  So because he died, we don’t live for ourselves.

19. We must stop evaluating people according to worldly measures (2.Cor.5:16-17) We humans once evaluated Christ by worldly measures and he was found wanting.  But he lacked nothing.  How wrong we were.  Now anyone who is in Christ is a whole new person.  So we must stop judging each other the way the world does.  How impressive is he? How outwardly pretty is she? What are they wearing? How powerful is their ministry? How knowledgable are they?  How will I benefit if I connect with them?  STOP!  If anyone is in Christ then they are a new creation . . . and if we are spiritual, then we will find them to be fascinating and infinitely more valuable than what this world offers.

20. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors in a fallen world (2.Cor.5:18-21) God is appealing to a world of self-absorbed fleshists through us to be reconciled to him.  What can overcome the total corruption of human rebellion?  God made the perfect Christ to be sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.  This message is no legal fiction or contractual loophole, this is the glory of the New Covenant gospel – sins forgiven: fully, finally, freely, forever!; new hearts given; and the Spirit dwelling within us that we might be reconciled to full relationship with God in Christ!

Let me encourage you to chase the theme of the New Covenant throughout the Scriptures – there is more there than we tend to realise!

New Covenant Ministry – Part 5

NEW2Into 2 Corinthians 5 for the final stretch of this series of ministry related comments:

14. The Spirit guarantees our hope, not our circumstances. (2 Cor.5:1-5) God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee of what is to come.  This earthly tent is fading (this earthen vessel is being increasingly broken), but the stirring of the Spirit within whispers the dawning of eternal immortality as we anticipate the fuller life that is to come. So in ministry we don’t cling to false promises of easy life now, but we are willing to serve in the midst of groans because there is something far greater to come!

15. We are away from the Lord now, but we are living in anticipation of seeing him (2.Cor.5:6-10) The Spirit within us stirs courage in our ministry, and He stirs our motivation to please the Lord.  Why?  Because even though we are not with the Lord now, we long to be.  And we know we will be.  And when we see him, we know that he will evaluate us and so we long to please him in all we do until that day comes.  Strength comes not from our circumstances, but in the midst of whatever circumstances as we live to please our coming Lord.

16. The anticipation of evaluation, the fear of the Lord, motivates us to action (2.Cor.5:9-11) Is the fear of the Lord compatible with a New Covenant emphasis on intimacy with God by the Spirit? Absolutely. The fear of the Lord is dependent on God’s greatness, and his love is not in opposition to his great power, presence and strength.  So as we anticipate evaluation by the Lord, it stirs us to long to please him (a love response to loving greatness).  And as we take the Lord so seriously, we seek to influence others to take him seriously too – we persuade.

The final post is coming next time . . .

 

New Covenant Ministry – Part 4

NEW2Continuing the thoughts in 2 Corinthians 3-5, so why is ministry glorious, yet so tough?

11. We should not expect our lives to match the glory of the gospel in respect to our strength, but rather  to manifest the glory of the gospel in our weakness. (2 Cor.4:7-12)  Others may look down on us because we are not impressive.  We may long for superhero strength in ministry – every spiritual gift, perfect life, abundant tangible blessing, being liked by everyone, etc.  But the treasure that we have is held in jars of clay.  Unimpressive, weak, fragile, often cracked and inadequate.  Life is worked into others as death seems to reign in our experience.  These are key verses for us in ministry.  How often do we feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, physically weak, struggling to sleep, discouraged from every angle?  Yet we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed, or finished.  Just as Jesus was given over to death for the sake of others, so that is our privilege in ministry.

12. The challenges of life tempt us to be silent, but trusting we speak. (2 Cor.4:13-15) As we experience the trappings of death in our bodies, in our emotions, in our circumstances, in our ministry experience, so we are tempted to be silent, but instead, we speak.  Why?  Because we trust the God who raised Jesus from death to do the same with us.  We give ourselves as servants in proclaiming Christ, even at the cost of our lives, confident that God will raise both us, and those that He reached through our ministry.  What a day that will be!  So we may feel like we are being spent and extinguished, but God’s grace is extending to more and more people.  As more thank God for the gospel, so God is more glorified, and we are satisfied that He is worth it.

13. We are encouraged, not by externals, but by the lasting internal reality. (2 Cor.4:16-18) Sometimes we can grow discouraged internally because of all the struggles externally.  Many do burn out, and this is very different than be spent for Christ.  Let us pray that we can discern the wonder of what God is seeking to do in our inner selves day by day.  The expenditure and investment of life now is actually preparing an eternal weight of glory that will never bear any comparison to the cost to us in this life.  One day we will see the eternal fruit of our weak and simple ministry of grace in this life.  We will see the lasting treasure that is invisible now, but is more real than anything we see in this life.

Next time we will venture in to chapter 5.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 3

NEW2I am walking through 2 Corinthians 3-5.  The first two posts are here and here.

7. There will be many reasons to lose heart, but one main one. (2 Cor.4:1-6)  With the most exciting news, we will struggle with the apparent lack of response from many.   It will seem as if unbelievers have their thinking veiled so that they cannot see what is being offered – and that is exactly what is going on.  The god of this age is actively at work in the world, (and in the church), to keep people concerned with other things.  The lack of response will tempt us to force the issue . . .

8. New Covenant ministry will always face the temptation to trust something else.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  Just as listeners struggle to see the gospel of the glory of Christ, so we will be tempted to force the issue.  We will be tempted to twist arms, force compliance, apply cunning, add to the message, etc.  But instead:

9. Our confidence is in the God who brings light to darkness.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  The God who spoke light into existence across the cosmos is the same God who shines the light of knowing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into hearts.  He has awakened an appreciation, yes, a love for Christ in our hearts, so we will trust Him to do the same in others.  Our world is full of people blinded to the wonder of knowing Christ, the very image of the good God who they need to know.  In fact, our churches contain many people for whom the gospel remains a concept, but their emotions are driven more by life issues than life Himself.

10. So we proclaim Christ. (2 Cor.4:1-6) Anything else would be to proclaim our own wisdom (our clever plan to promote compliance), or ourselves.  As Paul will make clear moving on, our strength in ministry, or our lack of it, is not the focus – rather it is our weakness that makes it possible for the strength of God to be manifest.  So instead of promoting ourselves, we offer Christ.  We speak of Christ.  We present Christ.  And amazingly, by the mercy of God, the light will dawn in hearts and minds both in the pew and in the populace.  Jesus Christ is the image of God, he is the Lord, the supreme focus of all, and it is in his face – i.e. in relationship with him – that the riches of the gospel are to be found.

More ponderings on this coming tomorrow.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 2

NEW2Continuing on from the previous thoughts on 2nd Corinthians 3-5:

4. New Covenant ministry should generate boldness. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses had to hide what being with God did to him.  Not so with us.  What happened to Moses was temporary and fading, but what God is doing in us is permanent and increasing.  It is so easy to think in terms of this life and fall for the lie of fading glory even today, but what God does in the New Covenant does not fade.

5. We cannot make people see, that is God’s work in Christ.  (2 Cor.3:12-18)  Israel experienced a hardening and a veil that would keep them from seeing the glory, and it is only by the work of God, through Christ, that it can be taken away.  We too minister to people who may still be unable to see the wonder of Christ.  We are not to focus on the veil and wrestle with it, but to boldly offer Christ so that the veil might be taken away from their hearts.

6. Transformation comes from beholding the glory of the Lord. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses would enter the tent of meeting and encounter the Lord face to face, as a man meets with his friend.  Looking at that face changed him, but this would fade.  We too are transformed only by gazing on the face of Christ by faith, only now, under the New Covenant, the glory doesn’t fade.  Instead, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.  (And one day, when we see him clearly, we will be fully transformed!)  It is the object of our gaze that determines who we are.  It is true for your listeners, so preach Christ.  It is true for you, so gaze on Christ.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 1

NEW2I want to walk through 2nd Corinthians chapters 3-5 as Paul describes New Covenant ministry and share a few thoughts.  This won’t be a full exposition of the passage, but rather a set of thoughts provoked by looking at the text.

1. We are called to minister Christ, not to defend ourselves in ministry.  (2Cor.3:1-6)  Ministry tends to create situations where we will be critiqued.  Sometimes, believe it or not, we deserve the critique.  Sometimes we don’t.  Either way, our ministry is to preach Christ, not to proclaim ourselves or defend ourselves.  Are you in a situation where you are tempted to defend yourself?  We are not sufficient in ourselves, our sufficiency is entirely of God.

2. We are given New Covenant ministry by God, who gives His Spirit. (2.Cor.3:1-6)  It is so easy to feel insecure in ourselves and therefore to seek to prove ourselves sufficient in life.  We are not.  Our sufficiency comes only from God, who himself has given us this ministry.  More than a mere past calling, He gives of His Spirit – the “key ingredient” of New Covenant ministry and so infinitely better than the old ministry “of the letter.”  Ours is not a ministry primarily defined by instruction and external pressure, but proclamation and internal transformation of the heart.  One way is death, but the Spirit gives life.

3. We must stop celebrating a glory now faded.  (2.Cor.3:7-11)  There is no question that Moses’ ministry was glorious.  After all, he glowed!  But that ministry of death, of letters, of stones, has no glory in comparison to what has replaced it.  A candle is wonderful in the dark, but walk out into the sunlight and the new glory far exceeds the old.  So it is with the ministry of righteousness rather than condemnation, and the ministry of the Spirit rather than that which is now passed.

10 Listener Fatigues – part 2

yawningman2Continuing our list of potential preaching fatigue that we might be able to avoid for our listeners…

(Yesterday we thought about genre, key text and main point fatigue)

4. Preacher Fatigue.  After a while your listeners might just get tired of hearing you.  You may try to vary what you do, but you will always be you and that creates some limitations for your preaching.  Don’t be afraid to share your pulpit. Develop other preachers, invite other local pastors, give yourself a break and your listeners too.

5. Illustration Fatigue.  One way we can be predictable is in the use of illustrations.  Do you often reference certain sports, or your own family, or the Napoleonic Wars?  Beware of tiring listeners with something that doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.  Some preachers default to the same category of illustration.  Others default to a collection of specific illustrations.  I’m feeling drained just describing it!

6. Vulnerability Fatigue.  Some of us don’t share enough vulnerability in our preaching.  But some of us share too much and too often.  When listeners start to feel like they are the counsellors for your self-disclosure, they will grow tired of hearing about your constant struggles.  Do be vulnerable.  Don’t be constantly sharing your struggles.  Remember that the spotlight in your preaching is not on you.

7. Contagious Fatigue.  If you are preaching fatigued, then it will be infectious.  Sometimes you can’t avoid being up all night with a child or a church member in crisis.  Be careful that you don’t get into a rhythm of preaching fatigued.  If your preparations are draining you, maybe you need to revisit your preparation schedule.  Perhaps you don’t get enough sleep, or exercise, or your sugary snacks while you work on the sermon mean you preach in a weekly sugar low?  Be careful that you don’t simply preach tired.  Listeners will pick up on your lack of energy, or your extra edginess.

Tomorrow we’ll finish the list, but feel free to add any more at any time!

Christlike versus Like Christ

Like2If the goal of sanctification is for people to become more like Christ, what is the best way for our preaching to help people get there?  Perhaps the obvious way is not the most effective way . . .

The obvious way to nudge people toward Christlikeness is to preach about Christlikeness.  You take a passage and then what do you look for?  You might look to find any instructions, derive some applicational points, determine how Christ’s character is presented, identify some kind of divine demand, etc.  Essentially, the obvious way to promote Christlikeness is to present Christlikeness and encourage Christlikeness in your listeners.  Focus on character, focus on us.  Apply, exhort, encourage.

There is a better way.

Turn the words around.  Do your listeners like Christ?  Do you?  Christ did not come to the world merely to show us a new way to live.  He came to give us life in union with Him.  The life of the Trinity is given to us in Christ.  This means that Christlikeness will not flow primarily from Christlikeness explained and demanded.  Christlikeness will come  from liking Christ, from loving Him, from knowing and worshipping Him.

Preach so as to present Christ.  Offer the person of Christ rather than a programme for self-improvement.  Invite people to know Him and to love Him.  As the Spirit draws people to Christ, they will grow to like Him and to live like Him.  As the text you are preaching presents instruction, then offer that faithfully in the context of relationship with Christ.

Christlikeness isn’t the goal of preaching for sanctification, it is the fruit.  The goal must be to stir greater love for God that results in greater love for others, and love will be stirred not by demand, but by presentation of God’s love revealed in Christ.  Inasmuch as we like Christ, we will grow to live Christ-like lives.