Man Is Not the Centre

Spurgeon writes in Lectures to My Students:

Just as the earth is not the centre of the universe, so man is not the grandest of all beings. God has been pleased highly to exalt man; but we must remember how the psalmist speaks of him: "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him; and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" In another place, David says, "Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away." Man cannot be the centre of the theological universe, he is altogether too insignificant a being to occupy such a position, and the scheme of redemption must exist for some other end than that of merely making man happy, or even of making him holy. The salvation of man must surely be first of all for the glory of God; and you have discovered the right form of Christian doctrine when you have found the system that has God in the centre, ruling and controlling according to the good pleasure of his will. Do not dwarf man so as to make it appear that God has no care for him; for if you do that, you slander God. Give to man the position that God has assigned to him; by doing so, you will have a system of theology in which all the truths of revelation and experience will move in glorious order and harmony around the great central orb, the Divine Sovereign Ruler of the universe, God over all, blessed for ever.

Why are they leaving?

This blog post suggests that people are leaving the church because many sermons are polished, but are theoretical and lack the gospel:

Why are people leaving good, established, traditional churches with great facilities, full of quality individuals and extensive children’s programs to attend churches that meet in old schools? Because their pastors have fallen into this trap of theoretical preaching. Therefore, the message is no longer relevant. The pastors are not communicating the life-changing message of the gospel. They are delivering well-polished lectures with biblical points. People know the difference and they vote with their feet.

Garrison Keillor on preaching

I've heard a lot of sermons in the past 10 years or so that make me want to get up and walk out. They're secular, psychological, self-help sermons. Friendly, but of no use. They didn't make you straighten up. They didn't give you anything hard. ... At some point and in some way, a sermon has to direct people toward the death of Christ and the campaign that God has waged over the centuries to get our attention. (Garrison Keillor, Leadership, Vol. 6, no. 3)

Preaching to Postmoderns

J.D. Greear on preaching Scripture focused on Christ rather than on us:

The Bible was not primarily intended to explain to us what we should do for God, but to point us to what God was doing for us in Christ.

Take the popular Old Testament story of David and Goliath. The teaching usually goes like this: "Like David, we have giants in our lives. Through the power of God, we can knock them down like David did!" The main point of the David narrative, however, was not simply the ability of one man to defeat in this life every giant that comes against him, but that David a young Jew, hated by his brothers, who went out and defeated a giant who had completely immobilized Israel, and through his victory all of Israel was saved, even though they didn't lift a finger to help him! Then all Israel shared in his victory. In this way, David was pointing us to Jesus. Because Jesus, the "greater David," has conquered the "giant" of our separation from God, we don't have to worry as much about other so-called giants, like cancer or vocational failure. Through Jesus' work, no longer does death really defeat us or personal failure devestate our sense of personal worth!

...Postmoderns have lost the centrality of God in the universe and replaced it with the centrality of themselves. It is the preaching of the Gospel which reverses that. It is only when we teach people to trade their self-centered story for the story of God that we can truly be "preaching the Word." Preaching the Gospel means to teach people to put Jesus back in the center of the universe where He belongs and to trust what He has done and can do on our behalf.What we should be exposing from the Bible is the Gospel!

Excellent post.

Which gospel?

David Powlison contrasts the therapeutic gospel with the once-for-all gospel in this very helpful essay, and asks:

Which gospel will you live? Which gospel will you preach? Which needs will you awaken and address in others? Which Christ will be your people’s Christ? Will it be the christette who massages felt need? Or the Christ who turns the world upside down and makes all things new?

The entire article is well worth reading.

Running after God's blessings without running after him

From D.A. Carson's A Call to Spiritual Reformation:

So much of our religion is packaged to address our felt needs - and these are almost uniformly anchored in our pursuit of our own happiness and fulfillment. God simply becomes the Great Being who, potentially at least, meets our needs and fulfills our aspirations. We think rather little of what he is like, what he expects of us, what he seeks in us. We are not captured by his holiness and love; his thoughts and words capture too little of our imagination, too little of our discourse, too few of our priorities.

In the biblical view of things, a deeper knowledge of God brings with it massive improvement in the other areas mentioned: purity, integrity, evangelistic effectiveness, better study of Scripture, improved private and corporate worship, and much more. But if we seek these things without passionately desiring a deeper knowledge of God, we are selfishly running after God's blessings without running after him. We are even worse than the man who wants his wife's services - someone to come home to, someone to cook and clean, someone to sleep with - without ever making the effort to really know and love his wife and discover what she wants and needs; we are worse than such a man, I say, because God is more than any wife, more than the best of wives: he is perfect in his love, he has made us for himself, and we are answerable to him.

The Bible is not about you

From Bekah's Weblog:

Too often when we study scripture, we start with the wrong question: "What does this say to/about me?" If we start our study asking, "What does this tell me about God?" then we really get down to the deep riches of the Word. After all, if we are called to conform to the image of Christ, shouldn't we be learning more about him and less about us?

Therapeutic Gospel

David Powlison writes about the therapeutic gospel, which is probably one of the most common forms of anthropocentric (human-centered) preaching:

When this way of looking at things is ported into Christianity, then the gospel of Jesus becomes the better way to meet your needs. Perhaps your sin is that you look to your girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse to meet your need for love, when Jesus is the one who lives to meet that need. In this way of looking at things, God's chief purpose is often portrayed as merely giving us what we deeply desire, gratifying our deepest instinctive longings.

This way of describing how God interacts with our desires is a "therapeutic gospel." It offers to heal the woundedness we feel because our needs weren't met. It offers to fill those empty places inside with Jesus.

I think that the therapeutic gospel gets it wrong. It gets God wrong. It gets people wrong. It gets suffering wrong. It gets the gospel wrong.

more (via)

We gather for more than a practical talk

A great quote from a book review by Katie Galli in the April 2008 issue of Christianity Today:

Yes, we're Americans. We multitask all day long. Efficiency is one of our top cultural values. I, too, am pragmatic. I'd like to use Sunday morning to worship God, to get a few pointers on how to improve my relationship with Jesus, and to reconnect with community. But every Sunday, the first words I hear are, "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." And I'm reminded that we gather weekly not to hear a practical talk on how to better live out our faith or to provide a venue to tell our friends about Jesus. We gather to corporately worship God, to celebrate the redeeming work of Christ on the cross, and to remember that our lives are not about us.

The message of Easter

I used to subscribe to the tape ministry - remember the days before digital downloads? - of a large church. I remember getting the Easter Sunday message one particular year. The main idea of the sermon was something like, "You're good, but you could be better." The preacher used the illustration of Tiger Woods' golf swing. It was good, but Tiger went back and and learned a new swing to be even better. We can do the same with our lives when we come to Christ, he said.

I remember being shocked. The message of Easter isn't that we're good but Christ came to make us a little bit better. Earl Creps has said that Jesus didn't come to make bad people good, or good people better. He came to make dead people live. I agree. Dead people need the message of Easter, and nothing else will do.

At Easter we get to proclaim the timeless story of God in Christ taking the place of sinners so that we who were dead could live. There are so many riches within this story, so many angles, so much depth, that we don't have to drift from the meaning of Easter to be relevant.

Let's stick with the message of Easter. It's far better than any other message we could offer, and it's one that people desperately need to hear.

Even Proverbs is God-centered

Proverbs is a book that's concerned with everyday life. It covers parts of life that we don't normally label spiritual. It may be tempting to approach Proverbs from a human-centered perspective, concluding that while most of the Bible is about God, this book is mainly about us.

It doesn't take long to realize that even in Proverbs, the core of the message is centered on God. Proverbs 1:7 encapsulates the theme of the book: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." Edward M. Curtis and John J. Brugaletta comment:

For the Israelite the search for wisdom had to begin with a deep commitment to God and a genuine submission to God's authority and truth. The theme of the book of Proverbs is that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom/knowledge. The fear of the Lord is the essence of piety in the Old Testament, and it begins with a recognition of who God is - the all-powerful, sovereign Creator of the universe - and a contrasting recognition of who we are - creatures made by God. As a result of this awareness, those who fear the Lord live under the full acknowledgement that God's authority is over them. (Discovering the Way of Wisdom)

Derek Kidner writes, "Wisdom as taught here is God-centered, and even when it is most down-to-earth it consists of the shrewd and sound handling of one's affairs in God's world, in submission to His will."

Even the most practical of books in the Bible has as its core who God is, and who we are in relationship to him. It's also proof that you can be God-centered and practical at the same time.

Allegorical preaching

Previously covered human-centered approaches to preaching: therapeutic preaching and moralism

A third human-centered approach is allegorical preaching. Surprisingly, allegorical preaching is widespread. For example, preachers use the story of Jesus calming the storm to talk about how Jesus calms the storms of life. They use the story of David and Goliath as an example of how we can slay the giants in our lives, like fear, cancer, or joblessness. The miracle of the wine at the wedding in Cana is used as a springboard to talk about God's provision when we are at the end of our resources. Elements of the stories - storms, giants, and wine - are taken out of the historical context and made to stand for something else in the listener's life.

The preacher must bring the text into the present. Allegorizing sections passages is a quick way to do this, but it fails to wrestle with the authorial intent and often leads to inaccurate messages. For example, the preacher who says that Jesus calms the storms of life not only misses the purpose and meaning of that text, but promises something that the Bible does not warrant. This is both unbiblical and unhelpful.

All three of these approaches come from a desire to be relevant in our preaching. Relevance is essential, but human-centered messages fall far short of what preaching is supposed to be. We need an approach to preaching that is both God-centered and relevant.

Tomorrow: presuppositions of God-centered preaching

Therapeutic Preaching

continued from yesterday

I have observed three approaches to preaching that lead to human-centered sermons.

The first approach is therapeutic preaching. This preaching focuses on people's felt needs such as how to build relationships, handle stress, manage money, raise children, and resolve conflicts. In a therapeutic culture, the pressure to preach this way is intense.

Therapeutic preaching, however, comes at a cost. It is often not based on a vision of God and the gospel. It can lead to a self-help approach and narcissism. At its worst, it can resemble a Christian version of pop-psychology, or what one person calls "chicken soup for the Christian life." This type of preaching brings to mind "the image of Jesus calling Lazarus from the grave", write Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk. "Most preaching is about how to cope with a life wrapped in grave clothing that is never removed."

Haddon Robinson, author of Biblical Preaching, recounts hearing a sermon on how to overcome procrastination. He knew they were in trouble, he says, when the first point was to buy a DayTimer. "The Bible is a book about God," Robinson writes. "It is not a religious book of advice about the 'answers' we need about a happy marriage, sex, work, or losing weight. Although the Scriptures reflect on many of those issues, they are above all about who God is and what God thinks and wills. I understand reality only if I have an appreciation for who he is and what he desires for his creation and from his creation."

tomorrow: a second human-centered approach


continued from yesterday

A second human-centered approach is moralistic preaching. This type of emphasizes life application and take-home action steps. Many popular preachers argue that sermons need to be practical and offer clear application points.

While application is essential, preaching that over-emphasizes application can lead to numerous problems. Application points, by themselves, can lead to application fatigue, in which the listener is overwhelmed with more tasks to put on a list that is already full. Our listeners need a vision of God and his gospel that changes every part of their lives, not just more tasks to be completed. To-do lists don't change souls.

In Scripture, obedience is always a response to the gospel. Application that is not rooted in gospel leads to pride if the listener succeeds, and defeatism if the listener does not. The law does not give us power to obey its commands; we need good news (the gospel), not just good advice. The Bible does contain commands, but these are always applications of the gospel.

Moralism can creep into how-to sermons (e.g. "Four Steps to Better Parenting"), but it can also creep into expositions of a text. For example, preaching the imperatives of Ephesians 4-6 will be moralistic unless we link the imperatives to the gospel described in Ephesians 1-3. God's gift and his commands (theology and ethics) are always linked.

Moralism can also creep into biographical preaching if we offer characters as examples to emulate. We are sometimes called to emulate their faith (Hebrews 11), but are rarely told to use them as moral examples. Tim Keller describes what happens when we use them this way. "An example - even a great example - can only crush you," he says. "It's crushing because it's an inaccessible standard." Because of our fallen natures, we cannot simply do what Jesus, or any other great character, did. Even when we encounter great characters, they are examples of faith and of God's grace.

In any case, most of the characters in the Bible have mixed records at best, and point to God as the real hero of the text. Keller says:

You're assuming that the message of the Bible is "God blesses and saves those who live morally exemplary lives." That's not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it.

Our preaching must root obedience in what God has accomplished in Christ. It is the motive and source of all obedience. Preaching application without gospel is moralistic and fails to transform lives.

tomorrow: a final human-centered approach to preaching

God-Centered Preaching - Introduction

An article I wrote for the Evangelical Baptist magazine just came out. This week I'll be posting the article in sections. Here's part one.David Neff, an editor of Christianity Today, tells of visiting a church one summer on his vacation. The first week, the preacher spoke on the story of God's call to Moses at the burning bush. In this passage, God reveals how he will fulfill his promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through Moses. He also reveals his ineffable name. It is a "pivotal point in the Bible," Neff writes, "a hinge on which the door of sacred history swings."The preacher rose to speak on this passage. Moses was afraid to walk through the door set before him, said the preacher, but he walked through it anyway. We must do the same. "End of message," Neff writes. "No God. No divine plan revealed. No theophany. Just stages in the life cycle."The next week, Neff returned to hear a different preacher. The sermon text was the story of Jesus calming the storm, thereby revealing that he is Lord over creation. The preacher chose to speak about the fear of travel. "The sermon many have soothed some fears," Neff writes, "but theologically it crashed and burned. I didn't come back the next Sunday."Neff argues that these two sermons are not isolated examples of bad preaching. Evangelicals, he writes, often strip miracles of their biblical significance, reduce parables to lessons for effective living, and hand out moralisms and three-step how-to's.Two decades ago, Preaching and Pulpit Digest studied 200 sermons preached by evangelicals. The study analyzed how many of the sermons were grounded in the character, nature, and will of God. Only 19.5% met this test. Reflecting on this study, theologian David Wells writes:
The overwhelming proportion of sermons - more than 80 percent - were anthropocentric. It seems that God has become a rather awkward appendage to the practice of evangelical faith, at least as measured by the pulpit. Indeed, from these sermons it seems that God and the supernatural order are related only with difficulty to the life of faith. He appears not to be at its center. The center, in fact, is typically the self. God and His world are made to spin around this surrogate center, for our world increasingly is understood within a therapeutic model of reality. (No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age)
I do not know how many sermons today are grounded in God's character, nature, and will, but my guess is that things have not improved.Few preachers set out to preach sermons that trivialize Scripture, reduce a passage to a set of how-to lessons, and push God to the side. Yet it appears that this happens frequently, and with disastrous results.Our churches desperately need preaching that is both God-centered and relevant, and one of our greatest needs is to learn how to do this. If we fail to preach this way, we dishonor God, twist Scripture, and rob our listeners of the biblical message. If we learn to preach God-centered, relevant sermons, our preaching will glorify God, be accurate, and genuinely help our listeners and churches.Before we explore how to do preach like this, we must first recognize some of the ways that we have strayed from a God-centered approach and wandered into human-centered preaching.Part 2 tomorrow

Preaching about God

From The Blue Fish Project:

Man-centered preaching will either become self-esteemism that tells us what we want to hear, or it'll be sin-focussed which will unwittingly end up convincing us that our sin isn't quite so bad as it actually is. By contrast God-centered preaching that cries 'Behold your God' and feeds on the grace of Christ will be reviled by sin but delighted with the gospel of Jesus. It'll drive changed living out of clear conviction about who God is and our new life in him.