Category Archives: Stage 5 – Message Purpose

Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 6

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!

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And to finish off the list . . .

6. Be aware of who is truly wise. Step back and think of wisdom literature as a whole genre for a moment, consider the dynamic that is going on. In it’s simplest form it is this – a wise person is offering his wisdom to someone who is less wise. Remember this is not the same as knowledge or information, it is personal not abstract, it is applied in the complex situations of life, and we all stand alongside Rehoboam while the offer is made – who will we listen to – wisdom or folly?

The wise person comes to us in the written word, as a person of authority, of greater wisdom, or greater experience of what it means to live in God’s world, and in God’s way. That wisdom runs right through Proverbs, it is what is being searched for in books like Ecclesiastes. Think of the massive climax towards the end of Job when God breaks into the discussion with His wisdom – it’s huge, isn’t it? In wisdom literature, the wise person offers their wisdom for us to benefit from, freely. Can you see where this is going? Wisdom finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26-31:-

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

That’s why I said earlier in the week that when we get into wisdom literature, it can seem as though those big themes of the Bible have been laid aside for a while. They haven’t been, but we might need to work a little harder to see them and we need to need to be very wary of preaching wisdom in a way which is purely focused on temporary benefit for us. Proverbs are too often preached as “super-tips” for a better life now only. Be wary of approaching Song of Solomon in a way which only celebrates human sexuality in this life. Watch out for an understanding of Job that gives answers to suffering in this life without lifting our eyes to eternity. Let’s not preach wisdom in a way which only celebrates His gifts without lifting the eyes of our listeners to the wonder of the giver.

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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!

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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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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 4

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!

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4. Areas for special attention

So let’s try and get down to nuts and bolts. What practical steps can we take to try and improve our preaching of wisdom literature?

1. Beware of self-improvement. It is all too easy to focus on the fact that Job ended up with more stuff at the end of the story than he had when it started, or to preach Proverbs 22:4 in such a way that we motivate our listeners with the prospect of material blessings now, rather than the glorious treasure that awaits us when Christ appears. It’s true, wisdom literature seems at times to focus on material blessings in this life, but I think there is more going on here – and more on that later.

2. Beware of making promises out of proverbs. Yesterday, I mentioned the example of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”), we need to teach this in a way which both understands and communicates that proverbs are generally true, they not promises. This proverb is saying that if 100 sets of parents train their children up in the gospel, more will become followers of Christ than won’t, but this is not a promise that 100% will. Wisdom literature often provides us with general truths, not promises to be claimed.

3. Preach thought units. In his excellent book “Preaching With Variety”, Jeffrey Arthurs points out that Proverbs are often grouped together, though the connection between them can be quite subtle and not always obvious. Look hard, reflect, pray to identify those units of thought. And don’t be afraid to use a good commentary. Arthurs also suggests taking a more thematic approach to Proverbs, where you can draw together a few proverbs on the same theme (laziness, alcohol, parenting, old-age and youth) from different parts of the book. Also, there’s nothing wrong with simply preaching a whole sermon on one proverb.

In other wisdom books, the units of thought are often much larger. I’ve heard of someone preaching through Job a verse a week, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

We will complete this list next time . . .

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 10

97LutherLuther was trying to provoke conversation, so these are only provocative thoughts. At the same time, let’s not just explain it away and end up without being challenged. Take the next few, for example:

(81)-82. Not only are the religious ceremonials not the good law and the precepts in which one does not live (in opposition to many teachers);
83. But even the Decalogue itself and all that can be taught and prescribed inwardly and outwardly is not good law either.

Before we get too upset, let’s add another to the mix:

84. The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Looks like Luther is back to his Augustine-influenced thinking, but is it biblical? Would the apostle Paul teach the constraining influence of the love of God in Christ, communicated by the Spirit, so that the Christian life is lived not by the effort of the flesh but by faith in Christ? Absolutely.

85. Anyone’s will would prefer, if it were possible, that there would be no law and to be entirely free.
86. Anyone’s will hates it that the law should be imposed upon it; if, however, the will desires imposition of the law it does so out of love of self.

The sinner’s desire is freedom from constraint, but what about those who seem to like law? Is this a sort of natural godliness? Luther underlines the gravitational pull of self-love on the heart, a love that can manifest in rebellion and in religiosity.

(87-89.) The law is good, and the will is hostile to it and therefore not good. In order for the law to be reconciled with the human will, there needs to be the mediating work of the grace of God to bring the two together. The law does not lead the will to grace, but grace brings the will and law together.

(90-91.) The human cannot love God unless God first gives his grace. That grace is not given to increase good deeds, but because without the grace of God there will never be any good deed, never any act of true love.

(92.) If a person can love naturally without the love of God, then the love of God is superfluous and unnecessary.

Next time we will be able to finish the 97 and wrap up the series of thought provoking theses.  As preachers these theses really poke at the very core of what it is to be human, and consequently, what we are engaging as we prepare and preach.

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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 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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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers

97LutherMartin Luther is famous for his 95 theses against Indulgences, which he nailed to the door in Wittenberg on the 31st of October 1517.  His less well-known 97 Theses were posted a few weeks earlier.  Later, when the eyes of the church world were on him, he looked back beyond the 95 Theses and went back to the issues raised in the 97 Theses to make his defense.

Every time I look at the 97, I am struck by how on target Luther was about some very foundational issues.  So I have pondered blogging through them for the sake of preachers today.  I won’t go at a rate of one per post, but rather will summarise where the content feels too distant and requires too much explanation (you can see the full list here), then state specific theses and converse with them from the perspective of preaching today.

The 97 Theses Against Scholastic Theology.  Luther pulls no punches in his critique of the prevailing theological training of his day.  Get foundational theological questions wrong and everything else will follow.  As a preacher I am struck by that reality today.  Good Bible interpretation, explanation and application built on flawed assumptions will make for potentially unhelpful or even harmful preaching.

Theses 1-3 – Luther launches by affirming the widely respected Augustine as over against Pelagius, the heretic, who denied the full impact of original sin and asserted that humans have the ability to be righteous by the exercise of their free will.  How humans operate is a critical issue for preachers and one we must ponder deeply.

4. It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil [Cf. Matt. 7:17–18].

As preachers we have to grasp the depth of the human sin problem before we can hope to offer any sort of solution.  Do we really get how pervasive sin is and how fruitless the human life is “by nature?”  I tend to think of the story of the Lost Sons to illustrate this . . . both sons were lost, but their sin manifested with different fruit.  One bore the red apple of riotous living.  The other bore the green apple of self-righteous living.  Both were 100% wrong in their response to a loving Father.  Too often we see sin on the standard sliding scales and therefore evaluate who is more of a sinner versus who is less of a sinner.

But if we preach only a shallow view of sin, we will be affirming a lot of “older brothers” who need to see the bad news of their situation too.

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Not Comforted by God’s Greatness?

grasshopper-300x204Here’s a post from January that was never linked to from here:

God is strong enough to handle whatever challenge you or I might be facing.  I think most of us readily believe that.  And yet His great strength sometimes is not the comfort we think it should be.  Why?

Click here to go to the post pondering Isaiah 40 and our need for comfort from God.

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