Gospel Dimensions

TapeMeasuresWhen our view of the gospel is too small, then our preaching will always fall short.  Here are some gospel dimensions to pursue:

1. How good is your God?

2. How needy are your listeners?

3. How bad is our sin?

4. How transformative is God’s grace?

When our view of God is too small, our view of humanity is too elevated, our view of our sin is too shallow and our view of God’s grace as too weak, then our preaching of the Bible will always be inadequate.  Let me take the first one and suggest a couple of ways our view of God can fall short of the biblical teaching:

1. When we see God as a split personality held in internal dynamic tension.  You know how this one goes, God is loving, but he is also something else.  It is sort of an endorsement of love, but balanced with holiness, or power, or something.  Where does the Bible promote a 50:50 balance in God?  I would suggest that we need to read our Bibles more and start to see how God’s “balancing” attributes actually only make sense in the context of who He is.  God is not holy in an isolated separation.  God is set apart in the perfection of His intra-trinitarian perfect love.  This is not to say that God is somehow pro-sin, of course He isn’t.  Our minds go there because we have not grasped how relational reality actually is.  When justice and love become conflicted perspectives, then we will always hold back slightly on our belief in and presentation of the good news that God so loved that He gave . . .

2. When we see God as a powerful benefactor/butler who needs convincing to act.  This is another common perspective.  It is about taking a shallow awareness of God’s goodness and combining it with a self-centred perspective on reality.  Unless the sin issue is engaged and addressed, then God’s goodness can become corrupted by our preaching into a celestial vending machine for which we need the magic technique.  Put the money in the slot, request A7, then smack it on the side and give it a bump.  Voila – blessings.  This view of God is a corruption of His self-giving goodness . . . it was never intended so that we can be better served in our self-absorption!

3. When we see God as essentially selfish.  This is also a common perspective.  When our view of God’s glory is not framed in the relational wonder of the self-giving Trinity, then God can become inherently selfish.  An inherently selfish God may demand glory from us, but no matter how we dress it up and mix in the fanfare, this will always fall short of the radically different God who gives Himself to us in His Word.  We don’t want a sanctified version of all the other gods, we need to know God as He really is.

Losing our Youth by Dangerous Superficiality

123Last night I was chatting with my eldest about her maths homework.  As I looked at her workbook I recognized that eventually she will be doing things I can no longer do.  For a child there is a progression from basic numeracy, through addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, long division, etc.  I expect most parents can cope with these (except long division!)  But once the child is working through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, there is typically the crossing of a threshold in respect to what the parent can readily understand.

So what should the parent do at that point?  Hopefully you will start to see the relevance to this site here . . .

1. Become suspicious of the questions and insist that the child go back to basic numeracy.

2. Warn the child of the dangers of sophisticated mathematics and reassert that basic numeracy is all anyone ever needs.

Imagine the child decides they like the subject and wants to chase mathematics to degree level?  Uh oh.

Hang on, this makes no sense.  No parent that I know would function this way.  They would at least cheer the child on, and possibly put some effort in to understanding the subject again or for the first time.

So what do we do in church?  Let’s change the subject from mathematics to Christianity.  There is a progression.  Typically the progression is simple . . . (1) before age 11 tell lots of disconnected stories with a moral sting in the tail, (2) during teenage years speak about issues and hope the youth connect the issues to the disconnected stories, (3) watch them drift away in the sophisticated and heady world of university (if not before).

If a child is progressing to calculus in mathematics, won’t they also be asking very heavy questions in respect to life and faith and eternity?  Too often parents, youth leaders and even preachers, are scared by the good questions.  Too easily church people retreat into such nonsense as, “you shouldn’t ask questions like that, you will offend God!”  or “be careful with your questioning, it could lead you astray!”  And these unhelpful comments are sometimes topped off with thoughts like, “the Bible says it, that settles it, we don’t question it, blindly believe it!”  Throwing the same few proof texts at good questions will not achieve anything good.

Let’s prayerfully question the children’s and youth ministry in our churches.  Let’s prayerfully ponder the preaching in our churches.  Are we losing our younger folk by never engaging them properly?  Simplistic faith formulae may have worked for you, but they probably won’t for the next generation coming through.  If all they see is simplistic “blind faith” and never meet Christians willing to think, to study, to learn, to question, to ponder, to wrestle and to take God seriously, why shouldn’t they be drawn away when they meet a thinking, studying, learning, questioning, pondering, wrestling sophisticated atheist?

Why God Still Works Through Poor Preaching

Last time we noted how Paul preached Christ and Him crucified.  Paul understood that people are fully subject to their heart-level desires.  They will only ever “choose” what they want to choose, but cannot choose what it is they want.  The heart is the issue and the gospel preached must offer a love so compelling that people will be drawn out of the deathly prison of their self-love.

However, a lot of preaching looks like this:


The preacher feels the need to twist the arm and will of the listener into conformity to some set of Christian values.  After all, if only people and society were more responsible, then we’d be in a better place!  The emphasis on duty and morality and law all add up to a big dose of pressure.  If you’ve really tasted of the gospel, this has a very empty feel to it.  Yet many of us are so used to this kind of preaching that we assume this is proper Christian preaching.  Bible texts become launch points for moralistic tirades.

Somewhere in the mix, however, the preacher inserts a “Jesus bit” . . . typically with some reference to the cross.  In terms of the biblical portrayal of the triune God and His mission in sending His Son, it is sometimes paper thin and desperately under-developed.

So let’s say that a life is marked by this kind of preaching…what happened?  Actually, many lives will be marked by this kind of preaching.  They will be marked by confusion over the gospel, external conformity to legalistic pressure, and there will be significant inoculation against the transformative power of grace.  Yet there will be genuine fruit.  Why?  Because of the pressure and arm-twisting and guilt trips?  No.  Because “Christ and Him crucified” was preached.  God works despite us and our preaching (and we need to be thankful for that!)

But surely this should make us want to undilute our preaching?  Why mix the good stuff in with a poisonous and distracting set of added ingredients?  Why play into the hands of the fallen condition by promoting self-reliance and self-righteousness?  Wouldn’t it be better to preach Christ and Him crucified, spelling out the implications by way of invitation to those changed by the transformative grip of God’s grace?


The Gospel in Concrete

ConcreteWall1In the New Testament, the gospel is never given “in a vacuum.”  That is to say, we don’t find generic presentations of the gospel as a set of statements.  Instead we find the gospel being applied to concrete situations: real people, real churches, real issues.

God didn’t give us a standard version and then leave the application to us.  Instead we were given a set of case studies where we can observe the apostles engaging real life situations with the gospel.  We see the church being split by a form of gnosticism in 1John, a different form creeping in in Colossae, the young believers under pressure from the antagonists around them in Thessalonica, the self-confident yet worldly church at Corinth, the divided churches of Rome, the threat of false-Law-teachers in Galatia, the discouraged by pressure believers addressed in Hebrews, etc.

As we ponder the “case studies” given to us in the New Testament epistles, here are some thoughts:

1. The apostles don’t respond to down-to-earth issues with mere down-to-earth instruction.  You won’t find an epistle that just says, “here is how to act like Christians, pull yourselves together and just try hard, do the right thing and the feelings will follow…”  Instead we find the apostles responding to sometimes very human issues with an application of theological reality.  They certainly do get specific and practical, but always on the back of, or in association with, doctrinal instruction that needed to be grasped or reaffirmed.  To put this in terms of relevance to today, just pressuring people to act appropriately is never appropriate.  They need to be gripped by the reality of who God is and what He has done/is doing.  They need to see themselves and the gospel clearly.

2. The apostles never assume the believers all know the basics.  I could imagine some of us today writing a contemporary epistle along these lines: “Okay, so we all know who God is and what the gospel is, of course, so let’s get to the nitty gritty . . . ”  The apostles didn’t do that.  Even after spending months or years teaching in a church, they still chose to reinforce and re-communicate the truths of the faith.  Why?  Perhaps because they knew people didn’t easily grasp the wonderful realities of the gospel.

More thoughts tomorrow…

Treasure Shifts

TrippI am currently enjoying Paul David Tripp’s Dangerous Calling.  This is my book of the year, so far, and once I finish it I will be sure to review it on here.  There is so much good stuff in this book, but just as a taster, here is a list of five “treasure shifts” that can occur in the heart of a pastor/preacher (this is straight quotation from Tripp):

1. IDENTITY: Moving from identity in Christ to identity in Ministry.

In pastoral ministry, it is very tempting to look hirzontally for what you have already been given in Christ. . . . Rather than the hope and courage that come from resting in my identity in Christ, my ministry becomes captured and shaped by the treasure of a series of temporary horizontal affirmations of my value and worth.  This robs me of ministry boldness and makes me all too focused on how those in the circle of my ministry are responding to me.

2. MATURITY: Defining spiritual well-being not by the mirror of the Word, but by ministry.

Biblical literacy is not to be confused with Christian maturity.  Homiletic accuracy is not the same as godliness.  Theological dexterity is very different from practical holiness.  Successful leadership is not the same as a heart for Christ.  Growth in influence must not be confused with growth in grace.  It is tempting to allow a shift to take place in the way that I evaluate my maturity as a pastor.  Rather than living with a deep neediness for the continued operation of grace in my own heart, I begin, because of experience and success in ministry, to view myself as being more mature than I actually am.  Because of these feelings of arrival, I don’t sit under my own preaching; I don’t preach out of a winsome, tender, and humble heart; and I don’t seek out the ministry of the body of Christ.  This allows my preparation to be less devotional and my view of others to be more judgmental.

3. REPUTATION: Shifting from a ministry shaped by zeal for the reputation of Christ to a ministry shaped by hunger for the praise of people.

. . . My heart begins to be captured by the desire to be esteemed by others, the buzz of being needed, the allure of standing out in the crowd, the glory of being in charge, and the power of being right.  This makes it hard to admit I am wrong, to submit to the counsel of others, to surrender control, to not have to win the day and prove I am right.  It makes it hard to accept blame or to share credit, and it makes me less than excited about ministry as a body-of-Christ collaborative process.

I will finish the list tomorrow.

(NB. This list is found on pages 105-107)

Wide View Application 2

WideViewLast time I suggested that too narrow a view of a passage can lead to burdensome and non-gospel application.  In narratives we need to make sure we are seeing God’s role and the humans as living in response to Him (both in faith and rebellious self-trust).  In epistles we need to read the imperatives in light of the doctrinal gospel sections that inevitably have preceded the commands and applications.

Last night I was at a prayer meeting where we sang “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” . . . an old hymn with a few great verses:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in His justice which is more than liberty.

For the love of God is broader than the measures of man’s mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.

If our love were but more simple we should take Him at His word; and our lives would be illumined by the presence of our Lord.

So to avoid imposing a “strictness” God would not own, we must preach good news and not turn it into burdensome law.  Here are a few thoughts to keep stirring our thoughts:

1. In narratives like the gospels, observe the growth in faith among characters as the stories unfold.  The same is true in other narrative sections of the Bible.  We are not given much concerning most characters, but what we are given enables us to get a sense of their trajectory towards God in faith or away in rebellion.  Tracing that broader story can help to make sense of a particular pericope (individual story).

2. Be careful to identify the link between doctrine and application.  It is often more of a “this is what a life looks like that is gripped by that truth” rather than “so you must now do this!”  Is the application an implication?  Is it a natural outworking?  Is it an appropriate response?  These are all very different than a self-moved obligation.

3. Turning response into responsibility is to turn gospel into legalistic burden.  Many really struggle with this, but it is so important.  A captured heart that is stirred will flow out in far greater commitment, sacrifice, integrity, holiness, etc., than a person pressured to obey by the apparently self-moved determination of their own will.  If the heart is not stirred, then the motivation will still be about love, but a misplaced love that is a weaker motivator.  That is, if it isn’t love for Christ that stirs a person, then maybe they will obey commands out of love for self in respect to conformity to community expectations – a love-driven action, but not in response to the greatest love of all.

Three Possibilities Preaching Psalms

OpenScroll16PsalmsAs I am reading through the Bible I am currently in the Psalms – what a great book!  Sadly, for some, Psalms seems to be preached only as filler material in the summer holidays.  There is so much potential for preaching in the book of Psalms.  Let me offer three possibilities opened up by preaching from this book:

1. You can introduce new treasure to people.  People tend to be familiar with some Psalms.  Probably 23.  Perhaps 24, 1, 110, 121, 127, 51, 8, 73, 37, 27.  But what about Psalm 36?  Or 33?  There is a whole host of Psalms that tend to get ignored in the annual audition for three filler sermons.  And don’t just stick to the filler sermon approach.  Why not preach Psalm 34 at the start of a series on 1Peter?  It certainly was in the mind of the apostle as he wrote his epistle.  Why not preach Psalm 118 in connection with Easter?  It might add a new set of thoughts to the Easter considerations since Jesus would very likely have sung that with his disciples at the last supper.

2. You can connect with a different group of people.  It may be a stereotype, but some have suggested that engineers enjoy epistles.  They like the truth statements, logical flow, direct discourse.  So if that is the case, who might appreciate the Psalms?  Artists?  Sure, and there are more of them than we tend to realise in every congregation.  How about the suffering?  Certainly.  Psalms connects with different people at different times in the complexities of each personal biography.

3. You can offer a more vulnerable sermon.  When David wrestles with spiritual realities, why not be more open that we do too?  Personal sin struggles, doubting God’s goodness, tendency to trust in ourselves, feelings of extreme fatigue, etc.  We don’t preach to preach ourselves, but we ourselves do preach.  The Psalms opens up the possibility of greater vulnerability from the preacher, and hopefully stirs vulnerability in the congregation.  The Psalm writers didn’t treat God as delicate or fragile, they blasted their prayers at Him.  Perhaps we can stir greater prayer in churches that tend to pray religiously, and Psalms would be a worthwhile workshop for that kind of goal.

Impossible Application

PenPaperAs we preach the Bible we have to make sure we don’t simply offer historical and theological instruction.  Part of our responsibility is to present what difference the message should make in a life.  We need to give a sense of what this truth looks like dressed up in everyday clothes.  But therein lies a challenge.

How do we present practical application without promoting an outside-to-in simplistic copyism in the church?  Here are some thoughts:

1. The human fleshly tendency will be to perform in order to maintain autonomous distance from God.  I know that we tend to think of fleshliness as rebellion alone, but we need to see how the flesh can also play up to a religious role.  The essential impulse remains the same as it did in Genesis 3 – I can be like God.  This is why we need to be so careful in our preaching.  Simply pounding the pulpit and demanding greater morality does not avoid the problem of rebels becoming religious, but still keeping God at arms length.  The older son in Luke 15 matched his brother in viewing the father as employer and purveyor of benefits, and went beyond his brother in resisting the father’s extreme desire for relationship.

2. Practical preaching can give people lists of things to do, but not address the heart issue.  Notice that I wrote that it can, not that it must always do that.  I think preaching should be practical.  But if we think that adding practical suggestions to historical explanation amounts to good expository preaching, then we know neither our Bibles nor our listeners very well.  We need more than practical instruction.  We need heart transformation.  And that requires an awareness of the difference between response and responsibility.  Consistently presenting responsibility to people will not auto-generate any sort of responsiveness in people.

I will continue the list tomorrow…

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards, A Life

51QLzAKPcZL._AA160_Written by George Marsden, 2003, Yale.

Mammoth?  Maybe.  Magisterial?  Absolutely.  Marsden’s 505 pages plus notes on the life of Edwards is an absolute joy to read.  He neither falls into the culturally critical Edwards bashing of years gone by, nor into the presentations of Edwards as if he fit every theological mold of his tradition.  He certainly avoids the bizarre agenda of separating Edwards’ genius from his vibrant faith.

The Edwards offered in Marsden’s work is the Edwards of history, a man profoundly gripped by the glory of the triune love of God, a man who remained resolute in his disciplined life of study and ministry, yet who progressively grasped the captivating wonder of God’s gracious intratrinitarian love and grew beyond a self-determined resolution approach to spirituality.

I won’t give Edwards biography here.  However, for anyone who has only seen Edwards through the caricature of a single sermon title, Marsden is a must read.  Bridging the historical worlds of puritanism and enlightenment, Edwards is a massive figure in theological, philosophical and modern church history.  Marsden gets the Augustinian heritage of Edwards, shining light on the emphases sometimes perceived by some to be imbalanced, yet showing Edwards to be a brilliant mind coupled with, and guided by, a captured heart.

Since I suspect it is mostly preachers who visit this blog, let me suggest that we do well to spend time with the greats by means of good biography.  Marsden has also written A Short Life of Edwards, which is not an abridgement of this work, but another biography cast in an entirely new way, as it were.  I look forward to reading that now that my thoroughly marked up copy of A Life is no longer next to my reading chair.

Edwards is intriguing on many levels, and from many angles: Revival, Calvinism, Augustinian Trinitarianism, puritan theology, church polity, academic institutional history, philosophy, cross-cultural missions, religious affections, hermeneutics, and so on.  Take the time to get to know Edwards with this biography and you will find your own life and ministry stirred in many ways, all beneficial.

Not wanting to give away the ending, let me share the final paragraph anyway:

How can the creator of such an unimaginably vast universe be in intimate communication with creatures so infinitely inferior to himself? . . . Edwards’ solution–a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes–can be breathtaking.  God’s trinitarian essence is love.  God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures.  The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it.  They will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil.  They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections.  Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it.  Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations.  They will be drawn from their self-centered universes.  Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.

(To buy Marsden’s work in the UK, click here.)