Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preaching to the Saints (3)

In this extract from my talk on Preaching to the Saints, given at the PTS Preachers Conference on Saturday 16th October, we're looking at point II. What we should preach to the saints.

4. Preach the whole counsel of God

Under this heading (see hereI suggested that some truths call for special emphasis. Here they are:

1) Behold your God!

Preach God not as the conclusion reached after examining the evidence, but as the basic presupposition of your ministry. "In the beginning God" - Genesis 1:1. That is the starting point for Christian preaching, Isaiah 40:8. Preach God in his love, wisdom, justice, sovereignty, omnipotence etc. It was said of George Whitefield that he made God seem big.

If we are to preach as specifically Christian preachers then we must preach God the Trinity. This means more than simply marshalling the “proof texts” to give our people ammo to fire against "Jehovah's Witnesses". We need to expound what its means to have fellowship with the Triune God. Look at John Owen on Communion with God for help on how to do this. Read the Epistle to the Ephesians and see how Paul's thought is so deeply trinitarian. Draw on the creedal heritage of the church as you preach the Trinity, confessing that in the one being of God there are three persons and that the three persons share the same divine essence.

The external acts of the Trinity are undivided so everything that God does in the world is an act of the Triune God. The Father created all things by his Word through his Spirit. Redemption too is the work of the Trinity. But this does not simply mean that the Father planned salvation, which was accomplished by the Son and is applied by the Spirit. The Son and Spirit were also involved in planning salvation. When the Son became Man, he was sent into the world by the Father, being born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Spirit. At the cross the Son offered himself to God by the eternal Spirit. Penal substitutionary atonement does not involve "cosmic child abuse", because if the Father gave his Son to the suffering of the cross, then the Son also loved us and willingly gave himself for us. In the application of redemption, we are not only to think in terms of the work of the Spirit, but that the Father unites believers to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism, the Christian initiatory rite is Trinitarian, Matthew 28:19-20. Prayer is fellowship with the Triune God, Ephesians 2:13. Glory will involve seeing God the Father, being forever with Jesus the Lord in the resurrection power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Behold your God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

2) Union with Christ

Consideration of the ordo salutis or the order of salvation is one of the staples of Reformed systematic theology. Salvation is described as a "golden chain" with one link in the redemptive process leading inevitably to another. Thus it is held that regeneration logically precedes faith and it is on believing in Christ that the sinner lays hold in justifying grace and so on. This is all well and good, but the impression can be left that salvation is received in well ordered, yet discrete bits and pieces.

While Paul sketches out something like a traditional ordo salutis in Romans 8:30, the ordo in this sense is not the organising principle of his theology of salvation. The apostle is far more interested in the historia salutis, that is in salvation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ. The central feature of Paul's theology is that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Salvation is received not in discrete bits and pieces, but whole and entire on the believer's union with Christ crucified and risen. This is the organising principle of Paul's concept of salvation. Richard Gaffin writes, "The central soteriological reality is union with the exalted Christ by Spirit-created faith. That is the nub, the essence of the way or order of salvation for Paul."

On being united to Christ by faith the believer receives what Calvin called the double benefit of justification and sanctification. It is in him that we are declared righteous and set apart to God as holy. This is why Rome is wrong to suggest that justification by faith alone leads to antinomianism.

When it comes to election, Calvin made much of the fact that we were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” Ephesians 1:4. The Reformer counselled those who were doubtful of their election not to look within for signs of grace, but to look to Christ as the “mirror of our election”.

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life". (Institutes III:24:5)
What we say about living the Christian life in our preaching must always be in the context of the believer’s union with Christ. In grammatical terms this is all about understanding the relationship between the indicative and the imperative. The indicative is a statement of truth – it indicates or describes something, “The water in the swimming pool is clear and warm”. The imperative issues a command, “Jump in the water and have a swim.” As Gresham Machen said, “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative...[it] announces, first a gracious act of God.”

Look at how Paul works this out in Colossians 3:1, 3:3. The believer has died with Christ to the old life of sin and has been raised with him to a new life of holiness. That is the “triumphant indicative” describing the reality of our position in Christ. But we can’t leave it there. The indicative gives rise to the commanding imperative: because you are dead to sin and alive to God – “Therefore…”, Colossians 3:5.

Notice that we are not told that we must die with Christ and be raised with him. That is not something we can do. God does that for us as he unites us to Christ by the Spirit. But as those who are dead to sin and alive to God, believers must put sin to death and bring holiness to life.

Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection gives rise to the essential pattern of the Christian life, which is that of mortification (putting to death) and vivification (bringing to life). “You died” (Colossians 3:3) “therefore put to death” (Colossians 3:5). “You were raised” (Colossians 3:1) therefore bring holiness to life (Romans 6:11-13, 22). Alternatively, Paul speaks in terms of "putting off" sin and "putting on" holiness, Colossians 3:8, 3:12.

Setting the Christian life in this context means that we must always emphasise that the dynamic for holy living is the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Apart from him we can do nothing. It is only by abiding in him that the believer will bear fruit to the glory of God. The Christian life is a gospel-driven life, Romans 6:11ff.

3) Church life

One of the hallmarks of our culture is rampant individualism. However, in being united to Christ as individuals, we also become members of his body the church. It is in the church that the means of grace are administered to enable believers to grow. It is in the church that our gifts are identified and then used for the building up of the saints.

Calvin had some very harsh things to say about those who cut themselves off from church life,
when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there…the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity. For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion... Therefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God’s truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. (Institutes IV:I:10)
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship states,

When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having prepared theirn hearts thereunto) ought to all come, and join therein; not absenting themselves from public ordinances through negligence, or upon pretence of private meetings
Preach the importance of belonging to a local church and of serving the Lord in that context. A believer who does not belong to a congregation of the saints is an anomaly. Sheep belong in a flock. To disrupt the unity of the church is to fail to walk in a way that is worthy of the Lord, Ephesians 4:1-6. A concerned minister once told R. B. Jones, principal of Porth Bible School, about a somewhat fractious church in South Wales. The fellowship had suffered division after division and one man had left the church and was meeting on his own. R.B. quipped, "The Lord help him if he has a split!"

4) Resurrection hope

The ultimate hope for the believer is not to die and go to heaven. The overwhelming emphasis of New Testament eschatology is not on life after death, but on what happens after life after death, namely the resurrection of the dead, John 6, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4.

Preaching the resurrection hope will inspire believers to serve the Lord,  1 Corinthians 15:58, It will enable the saints to face suffering with joy, Romans 8:18-22, 2 Cor 4:13-18. Point the people of God to their final home in the new creation, 2 Peter 3.

Preach the whole counsel of God, but preach the truth in a biblically proportionate way, giving special attention to the stand-out truths of biblical revelation.

5. The applicatory emphasis of our preaching should be as varied as Scripture

2 Timothy 3:16-17. Don't think of yourself as having a “warning ministry” or as a “devotional preacher”. Ask what is the drift of the text on which you are preaching? What is God saying and doing in the passage? If it is "Remember Lot’s wife" then issue a warning. If it is "love one another", then press the command. If it is the example of Christ, e.g. John 13, then urge that the saints follow their Master. Let the application flow naturally from the the communicative action of the text, then your application will carry divine authority.

Practice discriminating applicatory preaching. Preach to old and young, rich and poor, new converts and seasoned saints. The cocksure need to be humbled and the doubters brought to assurance.

6. Preach the gospel to the saints

They need to hear the good news of what God has done in Christ to rescue people from sin. The gospel is the basis of all we do and say. And it is dangerous to take the gospel for granted. When we take on arguments of unbelievers on a Sunday, we are equipping our people to give a reason for their hope in work on a Monday morning.

7. Beware of hobby horses and strange fixations

Expository preaching will help to deliver you from always harping on about your favoured doctrines, but not necessarily. Don’t be a single-issue preacher. If your big thing is Bible translation, or whatever view you hold on the millennium, then be careful not to bring your obsessions into the pulpit every time you preach.

If in your sermon prep you are struck with a dazzling insight into the text that no one has ever seen before – Matthew Henry, William Hendrickson, Don Carson, etc, it might be because it isn’t there to see. Be a little cautious before you share your “insights” with an unsuspecting congregation.

Some knowledge of the history of Christian doctrine will help you to avoid preaching heresy unawares. I mean who wants to face the accusation having Nestorian tendencies? Oh, and if you have ever said that "Jesus became a human person", the you do have Nestorian tendencies, see here.

So, this is what we should be preaching to the people of God: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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