Friday, March 30, 2012

Preaching: A Beginners' Guide (3)

  1. From sermon to preaching
The sermon is not a work of literature. It is not designed to be read word for word, but to enable you to think through and develop your message. A written sermon will form the basis of preaching, but preaching is more than a sermon spoken out loud. The sermon will provide a basic framework, but the preacher must not be too bound to it. There should be an element of unpredictability in preaching. The preacher will need to learn to improvise within the basic structure and flow of the sermon as he interacts with the congregation.

If using notes, don’t bury your head in them from beginning to end. Maintain eye contact with the people in order to really communicate with them. If not using notes, don’t be tempted to skimp on preparation and leave everything to the spur of the moment. Think yourself clear. Pray yourself hot. Let yourself go!

  1. What to avoid
Don’t try and pack too much in. You don’t have to dump all the results of your preparation on the people. Be selective. Stick to the main point.

Don’t preach over the people’s heads. Remember that your job is to make the complicated simple, not the other way round. Explain big words and unfamiliar concepts.

Don’t preach for too long. Enough said. Hopefully.

  1. Preparing ourselves to preach
Our task is to enable the people of God to understand and feel the truth of Scripture in order to practice it. To that end the preacher must pray, think and feel his way into the text so that his preaching becomes a living performance of the message. This does not mean that the preacher "play acts" his sermon. But we must reflectively apply the sermon to ourselves before we preach to others, 1 Tim 4:16. Preaching should be a vivid enactment of the drama of redemption, where God's Christ-centred Word is proclaimed to his people in the power of the Spirit.

  1. The Holy Spirit and preaching
The Bible emphasises the importance of the work of the Spirit in relation to preaching. Paul testifies: ‘our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance ...’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5, also 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

Empowered by the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter preached and 3,000 people were converted, baptised and added to the church. Pentecost inaugurated a new era of the Spirit. As such it was an unrepeatable event. But there was still need of further fillings to empower gospel preaching (see Acts 4:8, 31).

The Holy Spirit gives preachers clarity of thought, boldness of speech and heaven-sent authority. The Jerusalem church prayed, ‘Now, Lord ... grant to your servants that with all boldness they may preach your word’ (Acts 4:29). Their prayers were answered — ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31).

The Spirit’s empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power. This is what makes preaching ‘theology on fire’. Both preachers and people must seek God for this and rest content with nothing less.

* From a talk given at a Preachers' Workshop, Zion Baptist Church, Trowbridge. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Preaching: A Beginners' Guide (2)

  1. From text to sermon
1)      Decide on your text

Pray for the Lord’s guidance. Reflect on the basic thrust of your sermon. Will it be evangelistic, aimed at presenting the gospel to the unconverted, or a message that is primarily for the people of God? What does the congregation they need to hear; encouragement, challenge, or warning?

When first setting out stick to passages that you know pretty well rather than try and tackle something from Ezekiel or Revelation. Learn to walk before you run.

2)      Discern the meaning of your text

Ask questions of your text:

1. What is its context in the passage?
2. What is the literary form of the text? Is it poetry, a song, historical prose, a parable, a Gospel or an Epistle?
3. What is the place of the text in the plot line of the Bible?
4. What doctrine is being taught by the text? What does it say about God, salvation, the Christian life or the last things? How does what is being taught in the text relate to the teaching of the Bible as a whole?
5. What is the practical application of your text?
6. As each sermon should have one main point, what is the leading theme of the passage?

3)      Develop a clear sermon structure

This will make your message memorable and easy to follow. The order of sermon points should be logical and progressive, giving the message a sense of momentum. Try and follow the natural divisions of your text. For example, Genesis 22 could be divided up as follows:

I.                   The Lord tests Abraham (22:1-6)
II.                The Lord provides for Abraham (22:7-14)
III.             The Lord promises blessing for Abraham (22:15-24)

Alliteration is nice when it happens naturally, but not absolutely necessary.

4)      Use helpful illustrations

Illustrations help people to understand what is being said. They should illuminate the truth rather than draw attention to themselves. Biblical narratives are virtually self-illustrating. Abraham is the key example of a man whose faith is on trial in Genesis 22. But including other instances of people whose faith has been tried and tested will help to get the point home.

5)      Preach Christ from all the Scriptures

This is especially important when preaching from the Old Testament. See Jesus’ own practice, Luke 24:44-49. Genesis 22 is about Isaac, the promised “seed” sacrificed and risen. (Genesis 3:15, 21:12, Galatians 3:16, Hebrews 11:17-19). Note the way Paul echoes Genesis 22:16 in Romans 8:32, which is about the Lord providing for his people, another theme in Genesis 22.  

6)      Discriminatingly apply your message

The purpose of preaching is to enable the people of God to play their roles in the drama of redemption. Application must be rooted in the gospel and determined by the text on which you are preaching. If the text is a promise, the application is, believe it. If a command, obey it. If a warning, heed it. Apply the message appropriately to different kinds of people. Urge unbelievers to repent and believe the gospel. Comfort and encourage the downcast. Challenge the spiritually lazy. Explain God’s ways to the perplexed. Apply the message all the way through, not just at the end. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Preaching: A Beginners' Guide (1)


  1. What is preaching?
It is perhaps easier to say what preaching is not than what it is. It is not the sharing of some golden thoughts on a biblical text. Preaching is not a Bible Study. It is not a lecture. Preaching is not stand up comedy. What is it then? Very simply, preaching is the proclamation of the word of God by men to other human beings. Preaching then, has four main components: The Man suitably gifted and called. The Message, the word of God. The Medium, spoken proclamation. The Motivation: to benefit other human beings, Colossians 1:28. But perhaps my definition is a little prosaic. According to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preaching is “theology on fire”.

  1. A preacher’s starter kit
1) Prayer

A man must not presume to speak for God unless he has first spoken to God, Acts 6:4.

2) A good Bible translation

Preaching involves the accurate explanation of Scripture. A paraphrase like the Good News Bible will not do. Use a proper, reliable translation such as; AV, NKJV, ESV, NIV. The ‘Bible Gateway’ website is fully searchable and gives access to a wide range of translations.

3) Bible Commentaries

C. H. Spurgeon on the use of commentaries,

It seems odd, that certain men, who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others…. It has been the fashion of late years to speak against the use of commentaries… A respectable acquaintance with the opinions of the giants of the past might have saved many an erratic thinker from wild interpretations and outrageous inferences.

Old masters such as John Calvin and Matthew Henry are available for free online. Volumes in the Welwyn Bible Commentary series (Evangelical Press) are usually worth consulting.

The ‘Logos Bible Software’ package comes complete with a range of commentaries and has a useful interlinear Bible translation feature. 

4) Biblical theology

Biblical theology is the study of progressive revelation, instilling an awareness of the basic plot line of the Bible from creation to new creation. It also attempts to trace the development major biblical themes, such as the coming of the promised “seed”, covenant, inheritance, the person and work of the Messiah, etc.  This discipline will help the preacher understand where his text stands in the redemptive-historical flow of biblical revelation.

5) Systematic Theology

Systematic theology aims at giving us a grasp of the whole counsel of God. Systematics sets out biblical revelation in a logical arrangement of topics from God to the Last Things. This enables the preacher to understand the interrelationship between the various doctrines of the Bible. It also provides a safeguard against interpreting a text in such a way that what is said is a contradiction of what is written elsewhere in Scripture. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 is like a mini-systematic theology. Familiarity with the confession will help ensure that your preaching is doctrinally orthodox.

6) Books on preaching

Preaching and Preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Hodder)
Preaching Simply Explained by Stuart Olyott (Evangelical Press).  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions, by John Piper

Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Mission,
John Piper, IVP, 2003, revised and expanded edition, 255pp. 

OK. Let's pretend that John Piper is just an ordinary Christian writer rather than the official guru of Christian Hedonism and the unofficial leader of the Young, Restless, Reformed set. I know I'm asking a lot, but please indulge me on this one. Let's pretend that John Piper the 'ordinary Christian writer' rather than 'Hedo-Man'  has written this book so we can try and assess it on its merits. Novel idea, eh?

Here I will attempt to offer as unbiased review as I can, given that no human being can ever fully divest themselves of their cultural/theological/personal predilections and prejudices. Oh, and just so you know, I am neither in the 'love John Piper to death' or 'stone John Piper to death' camps. I feel myself under no particular obligation to agree or disagree with his every word. 

Right then, enough of the preamble and down to the review. Piper's basic thesis, set out in the opening chapter is that "mission exists because worship doesn't." The ultimate goal of mission is to "bring the nations into the white-hot enjoyment of God's glory." God is passionate for his own glory revealed in the salvation of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. So far so Edwardsian (Jonathan Edwards that is), and biblical as Piper's myriad of Scripture citations show.

Fired by a passion for God's glory the church is called to fulfill her Great Commission to disciple the nations for Christ.  It is at this point that Piper trots out the mantra of Christian Hedonism, that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him."  But I wonder. Is God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him? Yes, we must seek satisfaction in God and when we do that he is glorified, Psalm 36:7-9, 37:4 etc. However, the greatest commandment is not that we find satisfaction in God, but that we love him, Deuteronomy 6:5. If we love God, we will be satisfied in him, but love is the key thing not satisfaction. Also, in Scripture the glorification of God is explicitly tied to fruitful Christian service, John 15:8, Colossians 1:9-11. The trouble with Christian Hedonism is that it puts too much emphasis on subjective satisfaction in God at the expense of the biblical categories of love and fruitful service.

Nevertheless it is certainly true that a joyful concern for his glory will move the people of God to love lost sinners, and pray, work and suffer for their salvation. As he works all of this out in detail in the main body of the book, Piper's reflections on mission are shot through with thoughtful biblical exegesis. A chapter on the meaning of "all nations" is especially insightful. Mission means reaching unreached people groups for Christ. Once a church has been planted among a people, the task of evangelising them continues, but mission is a pioneering work. Inspiring illustrations of heroic missionary endeavour are drawn from figures such as David Brainerd, John Paton and Jim Eliot.

On controversial matters in contemporary missiology, Piper is commendably clear that Christ must be the conscious focus of saving faith. He is equally clear that hell entails the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked.

The chapter on The Inner Spirituality and Outer Freedom of Worldwide Worship was the most problematic for me. I'm not sure that the the New Testament is as indifferent to outward forms of worship as Piper suggests. The basic elements that constitute the public worship of God are clearly revealed: prayer, the reading of Holy Scripture, the preaching of the Word, the singing of psalms and hymns, baptism and the Lord's Supper, and the pronouncement of the benediction. Granted, the precise ordering and arrangement of these elements is not set in stone, but that does not denote indifference to the form of worship. And while worship does involve the whole of life, there is something unique about the gathered worship of the church in the presence of the triune God.

Apart from a brief afterword, little is said concerning the role of the local church in sending and supporting missionaries. No attention is given to the often tricky relationship between the church and missionary societies. Do the societies exist to do mission in their own right, or is their function to facilitate the missionary activities of the churches? I believe that it's the latter, but Piper doesn't say and something badly needs to be said on this point.

While some matters could have been handled better and others given more attention, Piper has succeeded in setting before his readers a grand vision of the supremacy of God in missions. Mission exists because worship doesn't. For the sake of the glory of God and out of compassion for lost sinners may the church in our generation give herself wholeheartedly to the great work of  reaching all peoples with the good news of Jesus. This is just the book for renewing our passion for mission. Whether its is our calling to go and serve, or stay and pray, may our cry be one, "Let the peoples praise you, O God... Oh, let the nations be glad" (Psalm 67:3-4).

Alright, I know I got a bit carried away at the end there, but a fair review? 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Conference: Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution


The French Revolution was the scene of much intellectual and social upheaval. Its impact touched a wide range of subjects: the relationship of the church to the state, social relationships, science, literature, fashion, philosophy and theology. Although the French Revolution’s momentum was felt across Europe and North America, it met a particularly interesting response in the Netherlands, at that time the scene of a burgeoning neo-Calvinist movement. In that context, the likes of Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck responded to the French Revolution’s ideals and influence in a variety of intellectual and practical ways.
This conference (at the American Church in Paris, on 23–24 August 2012) will focus on the historical and theological aspects of this neo-Calvinist response to the French Revolution.
Thanks to James Eglinton for the heads up. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Garry Williams on The Bible as God’s Covenant Treaty


On Wednesday we had Garry Williams, Director of the John Owen Centre come along to our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. He led a seminar on The Bible as God’s Covenant Treaty. Basically it was an elegant, erudite and engaging plea for 'theological theology'.

Theology cannot exist on another than theological basis. And the theological basis for theology is the self-revelation of God in Holy Scripture. The Bible is best regarded not as a doctrinal textbook, or 'A Bumper Magic Book of Promises', but as the triune God's covenant treaty with the church.

Attention was drawn to the Bible's own witness to its covenantal character. The insights of Meredith Kline are helpful on this point, setting Old Testament Scripture against the background of ANE suzeran-vassal treaties. Deuteronomy is structured in the form of a classic treaty/covenant document: Preamble (1:1-5), Historical prologue (1:6-4:49). Stipulations (5-26), Curses and blessings (27-30), Succession arrangements (31-34). In one way or another, all the books of the Bible, with their differing genres fit into this covenant framework.

In making his case Garry interacted the writings of some of my favourite authors; Herman Bavinck, Timothy Ward, John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, etc. He offered a well thought through defence of biblical inerrancy.

Thinking of Scripture as a covenant treaty reminds us of the role of the Bible in the drama of redemption. The church is called not simply to study Scripture as an ancient text, but to respond in faith and obedience to the communicative action of the triune God who addresses us through his covenant Word.

It was a proper seminar, with opportunities to interrupt Garry and discuss what he said as he made his way through the paper. In all, it was a most helpful and stimulating day.

Contact Garry Williams through the JOC website if you might be interested in hosting a seminar at your fraternal.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cicero on the offence of the Cross

Wretched is the loss of one's
good name in the public courts,
wretched, too, a monetary fine
exacted from one's property,
and wretched is exile.

But, still, in each calamity
there is retained some trace of liberty.
Even if death is set before us,
we may die in freedom.

But the executioner,
the veiling of heads,
and the very word ‘cross,’
let them all be far removed
from not only the bodies
of Roman citizens
but even from their thoughts,
their eyes, and their ears.
(Cicero, 106-43BC, Pro Rabirio Postump 16)

Crucifixion was a reserved for the lowest of the low, rightless non-Roman citizens who had been sentenced to suffer a most excruciating death for their crimes. As a method of execution it was designed to humiliate and degrade as well as kill. On that basis it might be thought that the Christian church would want to hush up the fact that its founder, Jesus Christ was crucified. The opposite is the case. Jesus regarded his death by crucifixion as the moment of his exaltation when his divine glory would be most fully revealed, John 8:28, 12:32-33, 17:4. 

The apostles placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at the very heart of their preaching, 1 Corinthians 2:2. This was despite the fact that the idea of a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to the Jews and an offence to the Greeks, 1 Corinthians 1:23. No amount of rhetorical razzle dazzle could obscure the "offence of the cross" (Galatians 5:11). That is why Paul renounced rhetoric and preached a crucified Christ in a crucified style, 1 Corinthians 2:1-3. He knew that nothing but the power of the Spirit of God could make his preaching convincing and effective, 1 Corinthians 2:4-5. 

The reason why the apostles made Jesus' scandalous death so central to their message is that they believed that he did not die for his own sins as a failed Messiah, but for ours, as the world's true Saviour. "Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8),  "Christ died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3), "who have himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:6), "he himself is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2). 

The cross of Jesus is the great revelation of the glory of our triune God. There we see that the Father so loved the world that he have his only Son to suffer and die for us at Calvary. There we see the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us, bearing our sins in his body on the tree. There we see the eternal Spirit lovingly upholding the Son as he offered himself to God in our place. 

Cicero urged his fellow Roman citizens to avert their thoughts, eyes and ears from the cross.  But the cross of Jesus holds our thoughts captive. We live by looking to him who was lifted up for us. The message of the cross is a symphony of God's grace to our ears. That which was most shameful to Cicero was the proudest boast of the apostle Paul, Galatians 6:14.

That is why we sing...

 1    O what matchless condescension
            The eternal God displays;
        Claiming our supreme attention,
            To his boundless works and ways.
                    His own glory
            He reveals in gospel days.

    2    In the person of the Saviour,
            All his majesty is seen!
        Love and justice shine for ever;
            And, without a veil between,
                    Worms approach him,
            And rejoice in his dear name.

    3    Would we view his brightest glory,
            Here it shines in Jesus’ face;
        Sing and tell the pleasing story,
            O ye sinners saved by grace;
                    And with pleasure,
            Bid the guilty him embrace.

    4    In his highest work, redemption,
            See his glory in a blaze;
        Nor can angels ever mention
            Aught that more of God displays;
                    Grace and justice
            Here unite to endless days.

    5    True, ’tis sweet and solemn pleasure,
            God to view in Christ the Lord;
        Here he smiles and smiles for ever;
            May my soul his name record;
                    Praise and bless him,
            And his wonders spread abroad.
            (William Gadsby, 1773-1844) 

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Herman Bavinck on the Covenant of Redemption


The idea that the Father entered into a 'covenant of redemption' with the Son in eternity is a staple of Reformed covenant theology. As typically expressed, the Father appointed the Son Mediator and Surety of the covenant of grace and promised him a glorious reward on completion of his redemptive work. This construction is found in the work of early covenant theologian, Johannes Cocceius, seventeenth century Orthodox Reformed divines, old Princeton theologians, Charles and A. A. Hodge, and more recently, Louis Berkhof. 

However, Robert Letham complains that as traditionally explained the 'covenant of redemption' is open to a number of criticisms. It seems to entail the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, and as the pactum salutis (pact of salvation) is taken only to concern the Father and the Son, with little or no mention of the Holy Spirit, it is sub-trinitarian.  Indeed, in his The Work of Christ, (endnote 34, p. 254), Letham points out that in his Outlines of Theology, (p. 371-372), A. A. Hodge makes no reference at all to the Holy Spirit in his discussion of the covenant of redemption. Charles Hodge defends the notion of the Father entering into a pre-temporal pact with the Son by invoking the doctrine of the Trinity (Systematic Theology Volume 2, p. 359). But, once more, when it comes to the substance of the 'covenant of redemption', the doctrine is unfolded in terms of an arrangement between the Father and the Son. The Father is said to give the Holy Spirit to the Son to facilitate the work of redemption, but that is about as far as it goes. Louis Berkhof's treatment of the 'covenant of redemption' likewise pays scant attention to the role of the Holy Spirit, (Systematic Theology, p. 265-271). He defines the compact thus, the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given Him. (Italics original, p. 271). As Berkhof's definition makes no mention of the Holy Spirit, it clearly falls foul of the principle that both the internal and external acts of the Trinity are undivided. On this basis the 'covenant of redemption' in its traditionally stated form is highly problematic.

Now we come to Herman Bavinck. The Dutch dogmatician is critical of some aspects of the construction of the pactum salutis found in Orthodox Reformed divines such as Cocceious. But he nevertheless sees a clear biblical basis for the idea that in eternity the Father appointed the Son as Mediator (amongst other texts, he cites: Isaiah 42:1, John 6:38-40, 10:18, 1 Peter 1:20, Revelation 13:8). As he develops his teaching on the 'covenant of redemption', Bavinck is keen to set out the trinitarian character of the doctrine,
The pact of salvation makes known to us the relationships and life of the three persons in the Divine Being as a covenantal life, a life of consummate self-consciousness and freedom. Here, within the Divine Being, the covenant flourishes to the full.... The greatest freedom and the most perfect agreement coincide. The work of salvation is an undertaking of three persons in which all cooperate and each performs a special task... It is the triune God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who together conceive, determine, carry out and complete the entire work of salvation. (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3, p. 214-215).
The pact of salvation between the persons of the Trinity in eternity is the foundation of the saving acts of the triune God in the history of redemption. 
All the grace that is extended to the creation after the fall comes to it from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The Son appeared immediately after the fall, as Mediator, as the second and final Adam who occupies the place of the first, restores what the latter corrupted and accomplishes what he failed to do. And the Holy Spirit immediately acted as the Paraclete, the one applying the salvation acquired by Christ. (RD. 3, p. 217). 
And so it is that under both Old and New Testament dispensations that the Father saves his people by the redeeming work of the Son, applied to them by the Holy Spirit. "There is one faith, one Mediator, one way of salvation, and one covenant of grace." (RD. 3, p. 217).  

Bavinck's treatment of the 'covenant of redemption' is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. He takes into account the trinitarian dimensions of the doctrine, relating the eternal pactum salutis between Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the historical fulfilment of the work of redemption. John Murray is not altogether happy in speaking of pre-temporal 'covenant' between the persons of the Trinity, preferring the designation 'inter-trinitarian economy of salvation.' (Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2, p. 130). But, as his suggested rewording implies, he is in full agreement with Bavinck's trinitarian emphasis, 
The title ['inter-trinitarian economy of salvation'] is inclusive enough to comprise all aspects of the economy, eternal and temporal, pre-temporal design and fulfilment in time and in the ages to come... After all, our study of the plan of salvation will not produce abiding fruit unless the plan captivates our devotion to the triune God in the particularity of the grace which each person bestows in the economy of redemption, and in the particularity of the relationship constituted by the amazing grace of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The fellowship of the living God is the fellowship of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (CW. 2, p. 131). 
As set out by Bavinck and Murray (despite the latter's reservations concerning the use of covenant language when it comes to the pactum salutis), the 'covenant of redemption' demands a place in biblically faithful Reformed theology. In eternity and time salvation is of the Father, by the Son and through the Holy Spirit. 

Friday, March 02, 2012

FIEC News: Our Vision and Progress by John Stevens

John Stevens, the FIEC's head honcho has recently started blogging at Dissenting Opinion. See here for for a post on Our Vision and Progress. 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

What have the Welsh done for you?


Especially for St. David's day:

1) Shown the English how to play rugby.
2) Invented cheese on toast, 'Welsh rarebit'.
3) Dylan Thomas
4) R. S. Thomas
5) Doubting Thomas - must have been Welsh with a name like that.
6) Ivor the Engine - better than Thomas the Tank Engine any day. Could Thomas (not Welsh because Thomas was his first name) sing Cwm Rhondda (see here)? Er, no.
7) The Severn Bridge that ensures England is not cut off from civilisation.
8) The bloke from The Alarm's mullet.
9) Majestically mournful minor key hymn tunes, Aberystwyth, Trewen, Llan Bagan.
10) Powerful preachers, John Penry, Vavasor Powell, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland, William Williams, John Elias, Christmas Evans, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones....

Need I say more?