Back to Basics

Happy New Year!  As we head into 2022, I imagine we are more aware than ever that we don’t know what these next months might bring.  We may face worldwide challenges and global concerns.  We may face changes closer to home that we did not anticipate.  We may thrive, or we may struggle.  How should we head into the unknown?  It is always a good idea to check our foundations and get back to basics.

In 1173, they laid the foundations for the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral, Italy.  This freestanding structure took quite a while to complete.  Within five years, the building was up to the second level, and it was already leaning.  The foundation was the problem. Construction was delayed for most of the next century, but by the 1270s, the builders were up to the higher levels and were trying to fix the noticeable tilt by building one side higher than the other.  The tower was finally completed in 1372.  It has survived four earthquakes, and scientists believe it may stand for another two centuries.  But the issue remains – the building is tilted, and the foundation is the problem.

The same is true for us in our Christian life.  We tend to make tweaks at higher levels of our spiritual life.  Perhaps a sophisticated theological nuance, or maybe a clever new personal discipline will fix the issue?  The reality is that whether we have been a Christian for decades or for only a short time, the foundation is the place to make adjustments.  Whether our struggle is overtly spiritual or seems to be disconnected from our personal spirituality – I am thinking about marital issues, relational struggles, emotional stress, etc. – whatever the problem, we always do well to take a look at our foundations.

So what are the foundations of our faith?  We need to evaluate how we answer four basic, foundational questions:

1. Who is God?  The God revealed in the Bible, the Trinity, is different to and better than any other god that humanity has ever imagined.  And yet, how easily our view of God shifts from the biblical revelation of the unique glory-giving, relational, Triune God to a more generic power-God or a more mystical experiential-God.  Too often, we fall into inadequate views of God that diminish the impact of knowing Him in our daily lives.

Thankfully, we can remember that if we want to know what God is like, we need only to look at Jesus.  Jesus came to reveal God to sinners and to rescue sinners for God.  Our struggles in life should push us back to the fundamental reality of spending time growing deeper in our relationship with Jesus.  Making tweaks at level 7 or 8 of our life will not help us anywhere near as much as time spent with Jesus as he reveals God’s heart to us.

2. What is a human?  The Bible reveals to us the wondrous complexity of humanity.  From the beginning, it points to our image-bearing relationality, creativity, and diverse abilities.  It goes on to emphasize our inherent value and worth.  It also underlines our fallenness, as we will see in the next question.  One of our significant problems is that the cultural “water” we swim in every day seeks to blind us to the relational dynamic hard-wired into our very core.

Our world bombards us with the message that our value and worth come from accumulating wealth, knowledge, achievements, capacity, or influence.  So we play the game by the world’s rules and wonder why we struggle and burn out.  Yet deep down we resonate with the idea that our greatest joys and our greatest struggles all happen in the context of our relationships.  Don’t pursue a sophisticated solution to life’s struggles when getting back to basics often helps so much: invest in your walk with the Lord, love your spouse, play with your children, laugh and pray with your friends.

3. What is our problem?  We live after Genesis 3.  The world as we know it is a fallen world.  There is no single moment of our day that is not pulled down by the gravity of fallenness.  And yet, so often, we live and think as if the Fall didn’t make that much difference.  We spot sin in others but believe ourselves to be untouched by so much of it.  Sometimes we become experts at acting like the older brother in Luke 15, condemning the sins of our younger brother while not recognizing how deeply infected we are, too.

How easily we blame circumstances for our struggles.  If only my spouse would change, or the government, or the media, or my church.  If only, if only . . . and yes, there certainly are problems in all of these people and institutions.  But are we dreaming of changes at a higher level of the tower while missing the most profound issue of all?  Sin is the problem, and I am not immune to it!  When we stop to remember how desperate our need is, it drives us back to the foot of the cross, broken and needy.  That is actually a great place to be.

4. What is the solution?  If the ultimate issue in this world is sin, and it is far worse than we have ever grasped, then that means the solution must be far better than we tend to think.  Our problem is not only our guilt and shame but also a hard, stony heart that rebels against God, and the total absence of the life of God through the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel, we have a complete solution!  By God’s grace and through the death of God’s Son on the cross, we have sins forgiven, a new heart bursting with love for Him, and the Spirit of God pouring out God’s love into our hearts.

May we never think ourselves too sophisticated to celebrate the good news of God’s love for us in Christ.  May we never lose the wonder of the cross.  And as we live the Christian life, may we continue to live it by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.  So make sure that you allow the Bible to be a relational nudge that leads you towards a deeper relationship with God.  Make sure that you allow church fellowship to be that relational nudge, too.

Whether we have been following Jesus for eight weeks or eighty years, it does us good to get back to the basics.  Instead of adjusting the building project at level 7 or 8, let’s get down to the foundations and make sure our view of God, ourselves, sin, and living in response to God’s grace is all as biblical as it can be.  We naturally drift away in all of these areas, so let’s be sure to invest in the foundations of our faith for greater spiritual health and ministry fruitfulness this year.

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Stepping Out Into a New World

The last year has felt like a whirlwind for us all.  There have been constant government guideline changes and the kinds of interruptions to everyday life that most of us have never seen before.  Now it feels like we are starting to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

The world has been shifting.  Due to the pandemic or due to societal changes, the world is not the same place as it was just a few years ago.  So my mind has gone to the second half of Acts.  Acts 13 and following chronicles when the followers of Jesus first stepped out to take the message of Jesus to a very different world.

Let’s take Acts 13-14 as a case study to consider.  Here we read Luke’s account of the first missionary journey.  The church at Antioch in Syria sent out Barnabas and Paul.  These two travelled to Cyprus, then up to what we would call Turkey.  We read of their ministry in places like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.

Perhaps we can note some basic principles that will be helpful to us as we step out into our new world with the message of Jesus today:

1. God is active in the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:1-4, we see how God is the initiator who launched the mission of Barnabas and Saul.  As we read further, we can recognize that God is involved in every aspect of their ministry.  That same God was not surprised by the challenges of 2020.  He is continuing to work out His purposes in 2021. 

2. The enemy opposes the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:8-11, we read about the active opposition of a false teacher called Elymas.  This “son of the Devil” was trying to turn others away from the faith.  Paul did not hold back in dealing with that opposition.  Remember that this was a foreign culture, but the apostles knew that people everywhere need to hear the truth about Jesus.  We will face opposition as we seek to speak of Jesus this year.  Let’s pray for the courage and boldness we need to carry that message effectively.

3. People respond to the message in different ways.  In Acts 13:42-52, we witness a typical response to Paul’s preaching.  Some of the hearers were stirred and wanted to know more.  But opposition arose from the local Jews who eventually drove the apostles out of town.  We might expect the opposition to come from overtly evil people. However, often it is the religious and self-righteous who prove to be most resistant to the good news of Jesus.   We should never be discouraged by a mixed reaction to the gospel.

4. Remember to begin at the very beginning.  In Acts 14:8-20, we watch Barnabas and Paul as they came to Lystra.  These were not Jews with a background understanding of the Old Testament.  These were pagans with no Bible background at all.  They soon gathered in a crowd with the local priest of Zeus, ready to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul (who they mistakenly thought were Zeus and Hermes in the flesh!).  Barnabas and Paul could have seized the opportunity.  After all, here was a crowd, including a strategic influencer, who all thought Paul and Barnabas were gods – they could have worked with that position of influence!

Paul could have launched into preaching about God’s greater sacrifice.  Or he could have demonstrated the similarities between Zeus and the true God.  With some careful editing, it is always possible to forge the connections between other deities and our God.  Lystrans believed Zeus was the sovereign of the universe, master of heaven and earth.  It sounds biblical.  Zeus was concerned with justice and order; God too.  Zeus showcased his power in extreme weather; there are Bible stories that come to mind. 

But Paul and Barnabas did not entertain this approach at all.  Why not?  Because truth matters.  And the truth of the matter was that the God they had come to represent was not like Zeus or any other god hanging around the area.  The true God was so much better!  So Paul launched into a brief message introducing the true God.  Paul spoke boldly, calling them to turn from vain things.  He also spoke invitingly, calling them to turn to God.  And he spoke clearly, setting out the character of the true God: the living and generous creator God, patient and kind. 

The God we represent is not the same as the other gods worshipped in our world.  People worship the gods of other religions, or celebrities, or ideologies.  We can always edit the details and form connections. Still, the foundational truth is that the true God is different, and He is better because He is so so good!  Let’s be sure to start at the beginning, with the God question: which God is God?  What is He like?

5. Be prepared to suffer because it is worth it.  In Acts 14:19-23, we see Paul stoned, dragged out of the city and presumed dead.  When the disciples gathered around him, though, he stood up.  Amazingly, he then went back into the city!  After travelling on to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas don’t continue down the road to their ultimate destination, their sending church in Syria.  Instead, they turn around and go back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – the three cities involved in trying to kill Paul! 

Why would they do something so inherently dangerous?  Because it is worth it.  It is worth it to help people know the true God instead of their false gods.  And it is worth it because those small groups of new believers matter to that God.  We may be offering encouragement and teaching to unimpressive little groups of young believers in Europe this year, but they matter to God!

There is plenty more we can learn from this section of Acts.  Let’s find encouragement in these missionary journey accounts, and then let us press on in our ministries empowered by God!

Preaching as Connecting

There are some obvious ways in which the idea of connecting might relate to preaching.  We could think about connecting the world of the Bible with the world of today’s listeners.  Or we could think about connecting God’s will with our lives – sort of a “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” idea.  We could even move things down to a more practical level and think about connecting preacher with listeners, or biblical truths with relevant applications.  But in this post I am not doing any of these.

In preaching we get to make connections that are theologically critical, but typically remain separated in the minds of most believers.  How about these three to get us started:

1. Connect the cross of Christ with the life of Christ.  Too easily we can think of Jesus’ life and ministry as being somehow distinct from the cross.  It is as if the cross was a necessary but difficult diversion from what he was previously doing in his healing and teaching ministry.  So, we can think of Jesus as a great example and leader in his ministry, but as a victim of malevolent human agency on the cross.  Actually, the character that is constantly showing in his encounters with hurting people is the character that is presented in stark relief in the hours of extreme hurt on the cross. 

The cross is not a distasteful interruption to his ministry of revealing God’s character to us – it is actually the moment of greatest clarity.  It is that humble Jesus, that selfless Jesus, that giving Jesus that is constantly doing his revelatory work.  That is true beside the Sea of Galilee, as it is true beside the road in his crucifixion.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the life of Christ from the death of Christ.

2. Connect the life of Christ then with the ministry of Christ now. In church world we have done a good job of helping people to know about Jesus’ three years of ministry two millennia ago, but a lousy job of helping people to know that that same Jesus is praying for them today.  I was really struck by Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly.  That book really builds the readers confidence that the Jesus who was so approachable, so humble, so kind, so gracious, so present with both sinners and sufferers in the stories we know so well from the Gospels is the same Jesus that we sinners and sufferers living our stories today can still approach. 

A lot of Christians have a massive disconnect between the Jesus they read about in the Gospels, and the saviour they are trusting with their lives today.  Jesus was so stirred by the battered fallen creatures of back then, but we assume he is impatient and frustrated with us today.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Jesus of today.

3. Connect Christ with God.  Hopefully this one is the most jarring of all.  Theologically I hope that Christians know that Christ is truly God, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are truly God.  Also it should not be a stretch to hope that Christians know Jesus is the one who reveals the Father to us.  And yet so many still seem to have a mental distinction between the demeanour and character of Jesus in the Gospels from what we know to be true of God the Father in heaven today.  Too many gospel presentations have inadvertently reinforced the error – the angry judge in heaven is only appeased by the pleas and sacrifice of our kind advocate Jesus. 

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, or when we gaze at the cross and see the Son suffering there, we are seeing the heart of the Father revealed to us.  I wonder how many Christian lives would be revolutionized if people actually dared to believe that the Father’s heart is as for them as Jesus’ heart was for the sinners and sufferers he encountered in the Gospels?  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Father he came to reveal to us.’

There are probably more theological truths that so easily become disconnected in our thinking.  As preachers, let’s help people to put back together what should never have been separated at all.

10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

Dane Ortlund – Life As It Was Meant To Be?

OrtlundDane Ortlund is Senior Vice President at Crossway.  He is the author of several books, most recently Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (August, 2014).  I really appreciated Dane’s A New Inner Relish and so am eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book.  In this Incarnation Series guest post, Dane prompts us to re-think Jesus’ miracles in light of the incarnation.  (Dane’s books are available via 10ofthose.com (UK) & christianbook.com (US) as well as all other good book retailers!)

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In his essay “Is Theology Poetry?” C. S. Lewis spoke of the incarnation as ‘the humiliation of myth into fact.’ He wrote that

what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid—no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.

The Word, the Logos, the central meaning of the universe, the integrative center to reality, the climax and culmination of all of human history, that which summoned solar systems into instant existence—at just the right time (Gal. 4:4)—became a baby. The night Christ was born in Bethlehem, Chesterton wrote, “the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”

He became a man. The one true man. All that you and I experience Jesus experienced, with the exception of sin. Therefore to question whether Jesus led a normal life as we do is to put the whole point backward. His was the only normal life the world has ever seen. We are the abnormal ones.

When Jesus performed miracles he was not doing violence to the natural order. He was restoring the natural order to the way it was meant to be. People were not supposed to be blind but to see. People were not made to be lame but to walk. Legs are supposed to work.

In this sense Jesus’ healing miracles were not supernatural. They were miracles, to be sure—but they were re-naturalizing miracles. This fallen world is sub-natural. Jesus is the one truly human being who ever lived. The incarnation does not give us a hypothetical picture of how we would be able to live if only we were divine. It gives us an actual picture of how we are meant to live, and one day will, when we are once again fully human.

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 31-35

Summer50bHere are another five suggestions to consider . . . September is almost here!

31. Add a Bible tip or two.  When you preach, don’t just explain the text and make its relevance clear, take the opportunity to equip your listeners to handle the Bible for themselves.  Don’t turn your message into a lecture, but reinforce the importance of understanding a text in context, the need to make sense of it “back then” before applying it to today, etc.

32. Express expectation and encouragement.  It is easy to turn application of the Bible into pressure and burden.  Mix in a bit of negativity and the hoped for life impact is quickly undermined.  Take the temperature of your application and conclusion – see if it can be increased.  Encourage and expect . . . perhaps it will help.

33. Learn the local lingo.  It is possible to speak a generic form of English and get by in England, America, Australia, South Africa, etc.  It is also possible to learn the local dialect and fit in so much better.  Maybe the same is true in the Bible.  Instead of just speaking Biblish, why not speak the Johannine dialect when preaching John, or Lukan when preaching Luke?

34. Simplify the message.  When we plan messages on paper we can easily make them more complicated than necessary.  Try making the structure and shape of the message as simple as possible.  This is not about dumbing it down, it is about helping listeners be able to follow, no matter how deep or weighty the content might be.

35. Map the message.  In fact, instead of outlining the message as you would an essay for college, try mapping it as you would a journey.  Where will we go first, and then, then after that?  I often end up with a sermon map on the whiteboard, rather than an outline.  Some people like to tie the landmarks to physical landmarks in the church space.  Somehow the sense of movement and progression becomes stronger with this approach.

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?

Preaching Myths #2 – Cool Preaching

myth2Here’s another idea that bounces around in various forms, but I think should be probed a bit:

“Cool preaching attracts people.”

This could be the thinking of church leaders who decide to go with a “cool preaching” option in order to seek growth.  Or it could be the critique of traditional church folks who are looking sideways at a different church which has a perceived “cool factor” and is growing faster than their church is.  When used as a critique, it tends to carry with it the implication that such a church must be dumbing down, softening, weakening, diluting or corrupting the gospel in some way.

Before critiquing the myth, I suppose both thoughts can be affirmed.  Some churches do make superficial style issues a driving factor in their growth strategies and in some cases it does seem to attract people (although any style may well put others off coming in the first place, even a contemporary style).

And indeed, some contemporary styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship.  But let’s be fair here, some traditional styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship too!  Sweeping generalizations about contemporary versus traditional are very naive.

So, does cool preaching attract people?  I would say that it might, but probably not.  The primary people who tend to be attracted to “cool Christianity” may well be Christians whose tradition store has become overstocked and they want to try something different.

Three thoughts:

1. Christ attracts people.  Re-read the gospels and notice how normal and broken people were so drawn to Jesus.

2. Christlike communities attract people.  If people are not drawn to Jesus today, it is probably because their exposure to his body is cluttered by other baggage and distraction.  A community being transformed by the love of God so that they love each other (like Christ) will spill outwards in love to the community (like Christ) and thereby be a magnet to broken people (like Christ).

3. Effective preaching engagingly communicates what matters.  Cool preaching without biblical substance is see through.  People may well see through “cool-empty” just as they may see through “traditional-empty” (although sadly there will be those who don’t see through one or the other).  So what then for our preaching?

 A. We must seek to get the substance right: the Bible offered engagingly, the gospel full and clear, and the presentation of God in Christ as clear as the incarnation requires.

B. We must seek to remove unnecessary obstacles: issues of delivery, packaging, presentation, and content need to be carefully evaluated to make sure that people are not choosing to walk away from the gospel because of something other than the gospel.

Being cool is not the goal in preaching, unless you are wanting to temporarily attract young disenchanted Christians.  Cool is really not the issue at all, but recognize that in your pursuit of best substance, obstacle-light preaching, you will probably be critiqued for being “cool” but shallow.  Make sure you’re not.

Preaching [Insert Word] Jesus

Jesus2Preaching Jesus.  This is the calling of the preacher.  It is an incredible calling.  We aren’t called to preach tips or suggestions, mere commands or philosophy, not even just ideas or concepts.  We get to preach a person.  When I met my wife-to-be, I was very capable of “preaching” her to any who cared to listen.  I didn’t struggle for motivation because I knew her, I liked her and I wanted to talk about her.  But over the years I’ve had to do some presentations I wasn’t thrilled about . . . ideas, subjects, topics.  These opportunities were very different.  The personal connection and consequent motivation is far different when we grasp that Christian preaching is primarily about preaching a person.

Preaching for Jesus.  And what a person we get to preach!  We get to represent the great object of the desire of all creation, the one who made it all and will bring it all to a close.  The one who brings eternal delight to the Father and who will reveal the delightful Father to all for all eternity.  This is not a political leader with tenuous temporary influence, or a new fad who will soon pass.  This is not preaching some hyped up celebrity, or some high achiever in one area or another . . . this is the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace.  And we get to preach about him, and for him.  That means he cares, he takes interest, he wants it to go well.

Preaching with Jesus.  It just gets better.  We often think of our ministry being for Jesus, but can forget the great biblical theme of working with God.  He commissioned us to go and make disciples, but he did so with the promise of his presence!  What a privilege to not only speak of Christ and for Christ, but also with Christ.  As we preach to proclaim the gospel, we are doing so with him who is at work fishing for humanity.  As we preach to edify the church, we are doing so with him who is at work building his church.  As we preach to bring glory to God, we are doing so with the eternal Son who is well practiced and ever pleased to bring praise to His and our great Father.  Ministry with.  Seems like we don’t think about that enough!

Gospel Dimensions 3

TapeMeasuresIn the last two days I have made some suggestions as to how a limited view of God and humanity will tend to undermine our preaching.  What about our view of sin?

1. When we see the problem as partial rather than total.  How often have we heard, or said, that if God’s pass mark is 50, then even a 49 is still falling short of the glory of God?  Therefore even the most “perfect” performer of self-righteousness can be caught out because they must have at least stolen a biscuit when they were small or a paperclip from work in recent years.  Perhaps we say imagine a perfect white sheet of paper, then put a dot of ink on it . . . no longer perfect.  Heaven is perfect, etc.  This is all true, but dangerously untrue at the same time.  Hypothetically a person could be a 49/50 performer, but in reality, nobody is.  To put it another way, we are all zero out of 50 because self-righteousness is not the goal.  Sin is not about independent performance according to a standard.  The standard reveals our independent performance and abject failure.  The independence is a huge part of the issue, so our paper is not mostly white, it is completely covered in blotched ink.  And that ink comes in two colours:

2. When we see the problem as naughtiness.  Naughtiness is like blue ink.  It is the colour of the younger son’s track record as he crawls back wearing swine deodorant from the far country.  But naughtiness is not the extent of sin.  It is one manifestation, but it is not the whole deal.  The Bible does not say we have all been naughty and fallen short of the performance levels of God.  Independent self-righteousness is red ink.  You may prefer red, but it still covers the white of the page when splashed liberally onto it.  Our righteousness is like filthy rags before a God who longs for hearts to not be far from Him.  Some human sheets are mostly blue.  Some are mostly red.  None have any white showing.  I am trying different ways to say the same thing: our sin is far worse than we realise!

3. When we see the problem as a hindrance rather than death.  Broken will?  Clouded uninformed mind?  Slightly marred record?  Sin goes deeper than all of this.  The heart of the human sin problem is the human heart.  That is where we are dead toward God, dead in our self-love, dead because life is found in relationship with God.  And we cannot fix our own hearts.  Fully dead in sin, and fully unable to do a thing about it.

If we present sin as petty naughtiness, then we will preach the good news that a petty God is willing to put up with our paperclip theft.  Hardly the gospel.  And if we preach a shallow or superficial portrait of sin, then we can very easily offer a gospel of heavenly benefits to people whose hearts remain far from Him.  Is this not an anti-gospel?