A Spurgeon Preaching Thought: Bible

“Love your Bibles. Keep close to your Bibles.” 

Perhaps one of the greatest privileges of the preacher is also one of the greatest dangers: time with the Bible.  We have to go above and beyond a casual reading of Scripture in order to speak it out to others.  The risk is that it become a professional tool, rather than a life-giving gift from God himself.

One area where this can show is in that of our confidence in Scripture.  We need to be confident in the Bible, but where does that confidence come from?  It is easy to settle for an academic confidence, birthed out of knowing the facts that build a presentation on the authenticity and authority of the Bible.  But as John Piper has helpfully challenged us in recent years, our confidence should not be built on something that is external to Scripture itself.  Here’s Spurgeon on this matter:

We accept it as the very word of the living God, every jot and tittle of it, not so much because there are any external evidences which go to show its authenticity, — a great many of us do not know anything about those evidences, and probably never shall,– but because we discern an inward evidence in the words themselves. They have come to us with a power that no other words ever had in them, and we cannot be argued out of our conviction of their superlative excellence and divine authority. (Quoted p41 of Reeves.)

Rather than gradually learning a convincing argument for the Bible’s reliability, we need to be meeting Christ there so that our confidence is birthed by the Spirit himself at work in us.  What would Piper say, quoting Edwards, that we “ascend to the truth of the gospel in a single step, which is its divine glory…” there is more to chase there, but for now, let’s finish with a paragraph that we could well pray with Spurgeon:

O living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul. But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to his who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” (quoted on p48 in Reeves.)

[Be sure to get a copy of Mike Reeves’ excellent book on Spurgeon.]

Rigor and Response

hardwork2Last week I had the opportunity to interview John Piper.  At one point we were talking about the preacher’s emotional response to the text.  I appreciated John Piper’s perspective on this.

Gordon Fee, as well as others, have pointed out that we don’t want the people in our churches having devotional engagement with the Bible that is not exegetically on target.  And that our people don’t need preachers who are exegetical without being devotional as they study the Bible.  All true biblical interpretation should be devotional as well as exegetical.

But John Piper’s perspective was helpful to me.  Absolutely, the preacher should have their heart stirred in the study.  However, he said, there will be times when the exegetical rigor is not heart-stirring.  You may be wrestling with technicalities in the Greek construction of a sentence for a couple of hours.  You may be wading through technical commentaries weighing up interpretive options.  The exegetical rigor may not be heart-stirring during the process, but the fruit of it had better be heart-stirring!

Do we make sure we are not transitioning into message preparation until we are not only thinking clearly of the passage, but also feeling deeply moved by it?

Legalism’s 5 Misses

Legalism4Legalism will always contain a rich dose of truth, but it will miss something far richer and more helpful.  Here are a few of the great misses of legalism:

1. Legalism is a misunderstanding of the Gospel. God did not offer us pardon on condition of ongoing obedience to His law. God offered us life as the bride of Christ, the children of God, the friends of God, and as members of the body of Christ. We enter into the Sonship of Christ and so desire to obey as He does – not to fulfill an obligation, nor to merit the Father’s love, but rather as the natural response of a loving heart. In the Gospel we are offered that transformation of heart, that union by the Spirit, and that freedom to enjoy pleasing Him.  Legalism pushes God into the distance and throttles the life out of our obedience.

2. Legalism is a misreading of the Galatian heresy.  Paul was so strong in his critique of believers who were drawn away from Christ and toward the flesh-driven pursuit of maturity via law-keeping.  Two thousand years on and many of us still live under the spell that says we get saved by faith, but then will grow by self-stirred effort.  Galatians is not just a critique of this law-based approach to living for God, it is also a glorious presentation of the opposite – of life lived in response to Him who loved me and gave Himself for me, the promised One who gives the promised Spirit so that we can be sons rather than slaves.

3. Legalism is a misrepresentation of initiative.  The Bible puts God’s grace up front as the initiator, but my legalism turns that around.  Now God is seen to be reticently gracious. He is hesitatingly good.  He must be conditioned into being kind by my initiative through a self-stirred obedience. God becomes the responder to us mini-gods who twist His arm by our self-starting acts of obedience.

4. Legalism is a misdirected gaze issue. When my life reflects an inner passion to gaze at the Law, or myself, or others, then I am living the lie that God himself, as revealed in Christ through the Spirit is not worthy of my loving gaze.

5. Legalism is a weird and twisted version of marriage. If I were to apply legalistic descriptors to a marriage, we would find it very strange. In a marriage we make a great effort for the sake of the other, but we don’t dwell on that effort.  We do it gladly because we love the person. A marriage defined by my obsession with my own effort is weird. It is also weird in union with Christ.

John Piper wrote that “the essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience.”  With that, let’s bring this series to a close.

Praise God for Influential Preachers

I just read an article from Preaching magazine –25 Most Influential Pastors of the Past 25 Years. The title should be “preachers” rather than “pastors” in any strict sense of the term’s current usage. Anyway, it is worth reading.  I’m sure some would be quick to criticise how American the list is, but that is always a cheap and easy critique.  What struck me was how many of these preachers have blessed me in recent years (and I don’t spend much time listing to famous preachers).

I would encourage you to read the article and give thanks for these and other well-known preachers who have faithfully sought to serve God through their ministries.  It is easy to critique the famous, but actually it must be hard to be in their positions, perhaps facing some unique stresses that most of us don’t face.

Perhaps the list might suggest some names that you haven’t heard before, leading you to trawl the web for a sermon by E.K.Bailey, or W.A.Criswell, or Fred Craddock.  Or someone who doesn’t fit in your theological or ecclesiological comfort zone . . . anyone from Adrian Rogers, to Bill Hybels, to William Willimon, to Stephen Olford, to Warren Wiersbe, to Rick Warren, to Jack Hayford, to Tim Keller, etc.  Have you observed Andy Stanley preach?  Have you

Maybe this kind of list has a handful of preachers that you have really been blessed by over the years – stop and give thanks for them.  I’m delighted to see Haddon Robinson on there, I know many who would give thanks for the influence of John Piper in their lives, I have friends who have been so blessed by John Stott, and other friends who have faithfully tuned in to Chuck Swindoll, and of course, there are numerous people I know who would count Billy Graham as the preacher God used to reach them with the gospel.

As with all lists, we could add others who would be on our personal list. Famous, or not, we do well to pause and give thanks for preachers God has used in our lives over the years.  I fondly remember the hours I spent listening to George Verwer messages while going through university – how making a quick meal of pasta could stretch into the afternoon as God dealt with and encouraged me through George’s preaching.  Or the Calvary Chapel preacher whose tapes I would rewind incessantly as I took copious notes in my black chair with my feet on the bed.  Or the seminary prof who preached in class every morning at 8am . . . Bruce Fong it was a pleasure to study God’s Word with you, man O man, what a privilege!

Mini-Review: Brothers We Are Not Professionals, by John Piper

Subtitle: A Plea To Pastors For Radical Ministry

piperprofessionals1

Just a mini-review.  I’ve cited various chapters in recent posts.  But lest I simply work my way through the book, I have not covered every one.  I would encourage you to prayerfully read through the book.

I don’t know if you are in the “read anything and everything by John Piper” category, or at the other extreme, “I react against Piper because everyone seems to love him” category (or hopefully somewhere in between!)

This book has short chapters (although they seem to get longer as the book progresses).  It has short chapters that are a good introduction or summary of Piper’s Christian Hedonism.  They allow you to ponder the strengths and weaknesses of this theology that pervades all his work and preaching.  I’d encourage those enamored with it to graciously critique it.  I’d encourage those antagonistic toward it to carefully consider what the theological issues specifically are.  But while there are some very typical Piper-theology chapters, this book is not just a short-chapter version of Desiring God and other Piper books.

It has short chapters that directly challenge our de-radicalized view of ministry.  Some of these chapters will poke and convict in areas where we need poking and convicting.  This book is good fodder for personal prayer times.

It has short chapters that clearly call us to issues that some of us have become adept at avoiding.  For instance, the issue of racism.  The issue of abortion.  The issue of global missions.  The issue of loving our wives.  The issue of praying for seminaries.

I’m not a sold-out Piperite.  I have some theological differences.  I’m not a sold-out Piper-antagonist.  I’m thankful for his input in my life, even in this latest quick read through this book.  Wherever you stand on John Piper, if you haven’t read this book, perhaps it would be a good time to do so.  If you have read it, maybe it would be worth another dip.  It was for me.

Arrogance and Humility: Whose Definition?

In my quick review of Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals, I’m in chapter 22.  I presume I’m not the only one who resonates deeply with the issue raised in this chapter?  We live in a relativistic age where ‘arrogance’ is “the condemnation of choice in the political and religious arena for anyone who breaks the rules of relativism.”  (p160)  Any stand taken on biblical grounds will tend to lead to the charge of arrogance.

Piper cites G.K.Chesterton’s insightful description of that which is now fully fledged relativism.  The word ‘arrogance’ is used to hijack the term ‘conviction,’ and on the other side, ‘humility’ is used to hijack ‘uncertainty.’  In fact, the quote, from 1908, is so good, I will share it here:

“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place.  Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition.  Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.  A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to asset – himself.  The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason . . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (Orthodoxy, 1908, quoted in Piper, 162).

We stand in a precarious position.  Any biblical stand we take will be shouted down as arrogant (and not just by the world, but by many in the church).  Detractors will not engage meaningfully, but rather quench discussion under a mask of modesty.  At the same time we must constantly ask God to convict us of any pride on our part, for true pride is insidious and always ready to creep in.  So what do we do?  Do we allow ourselves to be silenced by tactics carefully contrived to checkmate us?  Do we allow ourselves to be held back by a fear of inappropriate motivations on our part?

Pride is a problem, so is inappropriate uncertainty.  We need to stand with conviction, not allowing misapplied labels of arrogance to quench our courage.  We need to address uncertainty, not thwarted by the misuse of the label humility.

We will take some knocks, some blows, perhaps even some suffering.  But if we do not graciously, yet firmly stand for truth, then who will?

Rethinking Reading

Another helpful thought from Piper and the men he quotes.  Many people hesitate to start reading a solid book because they don’t have the blocks of time they believe it requires.

Piper’s advice? Get into the habit of reading for 20 minutes a day.  By his calculations an averagely slow reader can get through 15 good Christian books a year that way, or a good handful of weighty classics!  In fact, Piper goes on to suggest three blocks of twenty minutes a day.  (Peter’s advice? Don’t try to read for 20 minutes at a busy desk, it doesn’t work.  If you are not a hyper-clean desk person, go sit across the room or elsewhere!)

Having said that, there is always the danger of superficial skimming that results in a “keeping up with Pastor Jones” approach to reading.

Piper’s advice? Don’t superficially skim, instead bore down deep.  “Your people will know if you are walking with the giants (as Warren Wiersbe says) or watching television.”  (Peter’s advice? Get out of the habit of trying to read every word in a book.  Figure out what you want from a book and then dig deep there, but feel no guilt about leaving sections, chapters, etc., unread.)

And then there is the related tendency to only read modern books.  While there is much of value today, there is also a widespread lack of spiritually reviving, heart stirring, soul warming quality as you might find in someone like Richard Sibbes.

Piper’s advice? Don’t content yourself with excessively light, shallow, a-theological books that don’t carry a sense of the greatness of God.  (Peter’s advice? Ok, nothing to add here.  I suppose we would all do well to rethink our reading strategies.)

Not Every Passage is Easy

I suppose many of us preachers have a desire to make every passage understandable.  This is good and right on many levels.  Yet some passages, and some details in passages, are tough.  I was leading a Bible study on Isaiah 49-50 the other night . . . there was a tough detail.  Should I force my understanding on people?  What if my understanding of it rests on a broader background than some of those present can draw on?  I’m intrigued by Piper’s point in chapter 14 of Brothers We Are Not Professionals – we should show people why God inspired hard texts.

It is amazing that so much of Christianity rests on the shoulders of a “book,” and some parts of that “book” (technically 66 of them I suppose) are hard to understand.  Why did God do this?  Piper offers four reasons.  1. To stir in us a sense of desperation (utter dependence on God’s enablement).  2. To move us to supplication (prayer to God for help).  3. To prompt real cogitation (thinking hard about Biblical texts – which is no alternative to praying for help!)  4. To stimulate genuine education (the training of young people and adults to pray earnestly, read well and think hard.)

As preachers we must wrestle with hard texts and not simply skirt around them in our preaching, nor avoid them in our scheduling.  On the one hand it is up to us to help make the message of the text clear.  At the same time, we may do our listeners a disservice if we don’t point out when a passage is tough, and look for ways to let that be a motivation for study, rather than a hindrance.

Sacred Substitutes

Just following up on Monday’s post on prayer . . . I appreciate the next chapter in Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals – Beware of Sacred Substitutes.  What is the greatest threat to genuine prayer and true meditation on the Word?  It is ministry activity.  “Ministry is its own worst enemy.”  (p59)

How true this is!  Turning to Acts 6:2-4, Piper exhorts the reader to guard against the many sacred substitutes, the real needs, the pressing concerns of ministry.  “Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers.” (p60)

Consider what must be sacrificed in order to take genuinely focused time in prayer this week.  Don’t leave prayer until your message is prepared.  Don’t leave prayer until the unplanned needs are addressed.  Don’t leave prayer until your next day off.  Don’t even leave prayer until it can be used to “redeem the time” in the car journey between appointments.

There are many sacred substitutes that come our way.  Even apart from the flesh, laziness, entertainment, and the enemy himself.  Just in the good and the right and the needy and the appropriate – there are many substitutes that will steal us away from the real priority.  “Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers.”

Refuse to Believe

I’m scanning through John Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals.  I resonate deeply with some of what he writes, then disagree with other elements – I suppose that makes for an engaging read.  Anyway, here’s an “I resonate” for us all to ponder in relation to preaching ministry:

“Prayer is the translation into a thousand different words of a single sentence: “Apart from me [Christ] you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

Oh, how we need to wake up to how much “nothing” we spend our time doing.  Apart from prayer, all our scurrying about, all our talking, all our study amounts to “nothing.”  For most of us the voice of self-reliance is ten times louder than the bell that tolls for the hours of prayer.  The voice cries out: “You must open the mail, you must make that call, you must write this sermon, you must prepare for the board meeting, you must go to the hospital.”  But the bell tolls softly: “Without Me you can do nothing.”

Both our flesh and our culture scream against spending an hour on our knees beside a desk piled with papers.” – Page 55

I don’t think I need to add much to this.  Amen, perhaps?  It is easy to respond to the conviction felt within by agreeing that we need to pray more.  It is easy to look ahead and imagine a change of circumstance in which we would pray more.  It is easy to spot a time later in the week when prayer may fit more easily than the current pressing situation.  Why not stop everything now and pray for an hour or two?  What’s more important?  What would the negative consequences be, really?  Ok, one more sentence to finish the post:

“Refuse to believe that the daily hours Luther and Wesley and Brainerd and Judson spent in prayer are idealistic dreams of another era.” – Page 57.