Give Them a Grand Understanding of God

It's been far too long since I've posted at this blog. But that should change now since I've restructured some things. You may want to take a look around at the site to see some of the changes.

In any case, Trevin Wax's interview with David Platt is a good excuse to post again. Wax and Platt discuss God-centered preaching:

Trevin Wax: How does God-centered preaching lead to passion for evangelism?

David Platt: The gospel begins and ends with God. He is the holy, just, and gracious Creator of the universe who has sent His Son, God in the flesh, to bear His wrath against sin on the cross and to show His power over sin in the resurrection so that everyone who believes in Christ will be reconciled to God forever. And this is the gospel that we proclaim in evangelism.

So how do we best lead and shepherd God’s people to evangelize? By giving them a grand understanding of God. In preaching, we unfold the character of God: His holiness, His justice, His grace, and all of His other breath-taking attributes. As we magnify His Word, people behold His glory. And they believe, deep within their minds and their hearts, that God is great and greatly to be praised. In the process, this becomes the ultimate motivation for evangelism. The more the people I pastor see God’s worth, the more they want to make His worth known in the world.

So week after week after week, as I stand before them with God’s Word, I want to show them God’s worth. As they hear His Word and they see His worth, they will lay down their lives to make the good news of God’s grace and glory known to the people around them and people groups around the world. God-centered, gospel-saturated preaching is great fuel for Christ-honoring, world-embracing evangelism.


Great insight.

Preaching That Sticks

Ed Stetzer on Preaching that Sticks:

If you want your sermon to stick, you must pull back the curtain to reveal who God is, who we are and what He really wants. It is too easy for preachers to slip into becoming moral teachers—religious instructors who pass out rules for spiritual living without pulling back the curtain on God and ourselves; pulling back that curtain is what our people need the most!

Your hearers need a clear word about exactly who God is in His character, work and will...

We need to avoid preaching mere ought-to and how-to messages, and instead preach law and Gospel together. This displays God as He is, His law for our lives, our fallen nature and how God offers us grace in Christ. In pulling back the curtain, we then can focus on the need for our hearers to respond to all that God has revealed in His Word.

The Importance of Being Earnest

C.H. Spurgeon on the importance of earnestness in preaching:

Brethren, you and I must, as preachers, be always earnest in reference to our pulpit work. Here we must labor to attain the very highest degree of excellence. Often have I said to my brethren that the pulpit is the Thermopile of Christendom: there the fight will be lost or won. To us ministers the maintenance of our power in the pulpit should be our great concern, we must occupy that spiritual watch-tower with our hearts and minds awake and in full vigor. It will not avail us to be laborious pastors if we are not earnest preachers. We shall be forgiven a great many sins in the matter of pastoral visitation if the people's souls are really fed on the Sabbath-day; but fed they must be, and nothing else will make up for it. The failures of most ministers who drift down the stream may be traced to inefficiency in the pulpit.

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.

"My challenge is this..."


I was struck by this thought in Why Johnny Can't Preach. Gordon is responding to those who have dismissed preaching:

I believe the preaching in many churches is so poorly done that it is not, effectively, preaching...If the patients of a given hospital's surgeons continue to die, we could, I suppose, abandon the scalpel. We might also consider employing it more skillfully.

My this: Show me a church where the preaching is good, and the church is still moribund. I've never seen such a church. The moribund churches I've seen have been malpreached to death.


(continued from previous posts)

We desperately need preachers who preach God-centered sermons. This type of preaching will pull us "out of our own drama and cast as characters in his unfolding plot," where "we become part of the greatest story ever told," writes Michael Horton. "It is through God's word of judgment (law) and salvation (gospel) that we are transferred from our own 'life movie' and inserted into the grand narrative that revolves around Jesus Christ." I can't imagine a better way to preach or to live.

(I'll be posting a PDF of the entire article shortly.)

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 Christ at Christmas


(photo from Subversive Influence)

Last year I heard a Christmas sermon on CD based on Luke 1. The story highlighted the stress Mary and Joseph faced in their relationship as they reacted to Mary's surprise pregnancy. The sermon used Mary and Joseph as an example of how to handle stress in our marriages today.

What surprised me most about this sermon is that it came recommended as a good way to preach a Christmas sermon!

On one hand, it's pretty hard to preach Mary and Joseph's story without highlighting this as a significant issue. And, to be sure, marriage stress is a very relevant issue to people today. It's fair to bring this up and even comment on it as we preach this passage. But there are all kinds of dangers in making marriage stress the center of this story.

Luke 1 is not ultimately about marriage stress. We need to be on guard against inserting ourselves and our needs into the center of every passage. Luke 1 is ultimately about one of the most significant events ever - the announcement of the arrival of the Messiah. It's a pivotal moment in all of history. We risk trivializing the passage when we make it a how-to sermon on dealing with marriage stress.

As preachers, let's help our people find their place in the grand story of God's mission. Preach Christ and what his arrival means for the world today. It's a story that deals with marriage and all the other stresses we face - but it is much bigger than that. Preach Christ this Christmas. It's not all about us!


The final version of my thesis includes this paragraph:
Theocentric preaching does not begin with the inexhaustible demands of the human condition; it begins with the sufficiency of God. Rather than dwelling in the depth of human need, it lives within the realm of God's richness. The preacher is not pressured to only provide answers; instead, the preacher brings the congregation into the presence of God, who is on a mission to re-create the cosmos and to redeem all things. Discouragement is part of the assignment of preaching, but a theocentric approach reminds us that our sufficiency is not found in ourselves. God, not the preacher, is the only source of eternal satisfaction and joy.
This is not the paragraph I had originally written. I had originally argued that theocentric preaching can help prevent against discouragement. Haddon Robinson challenged me during my thesis defense. There is no way, he said, to avoid being discouraged as a preacher. I forget his exact words, but the phrase in the paragraph above comes pretty close: "Discouragement is part of the assignment of preaching."There probably aren't many preachers who don't get discouraged at least part of the time. The main character in the novel Gilead wrote, "So often I have known, right here in the pulpit, even as I read these words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them." In Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon wrote:
Be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but part of ordinary ministerial experiences. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward...Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not His saints. Live by the day - ay, but the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings...Trust in God alone, and lean not on the needs of human help...When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord...In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue.
Discouragement is part of the assignment of preaching, but it's also a reminder to us that our hope doesn't lie within ourselves or the people around us. As i wrote in my thesis, "Our sufficiency is not found in ourselves. God, not the preacher, is the only source of eternal satisfaction and joy."

Preaching Points from Gordon-Conwell

The Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell has launched a new weekly podcast for preachers:

The Preaching Points podcast is a weekly program that provides brief reflections on preaching that points you to preaching excellence. Each Monday, you will be able to download and listen to fresh insights on preaching from our faculty at the Center for Preaching, as well as professors and friends of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. By subscribing through iTunes, you can automatically receive the latest podcast.

This podcast is designed to provide regular inspiration and encouragement for preachers. We want to reinforce the basics of Biblical Preaching, along with stimulating your thinking with clear and powerful ideas on preaching. You can expect quality teaching, as you will hear from Dr. Haddon Robinson, Scott Gibson, and Jeff Arthurs each week.

You can find out more at their website.

Steve Mathewson on preaching God-centered sermons

Steve Mathewson, author of The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, is blogging on how to preach God-centered sermons at the Preaching Today blog.From part one: "The vision of God is the aspect of God’s character which serves as the focal point of the text...When I preach a text, I’m trying to demonstrate that human responses to problems, temptations, opportunities, or challenges emerge from a vision of God’s supremacy and majesty."From part two: "Identifying the 'depravity factor' will help us keep our sermons from being so "God-centered" they're impossible to relate to or to apply."

Good homiletics does not always lead to good preaching

in his excellent book Preaching for Revitalization, Michael F. Ross describes a shift in literature on preaching. Prior to the twentieth century, books did not indicate that preaching was in decline or a question in people's minds. "Rather their emphasis is on the spiritual aspects of preaching: the minister's life and heart, prayer, Spirit-led preparation, the hope of the gospel, and so forth."

In the 1930s and 1940s, books began to describe a decline in preaching.

Ross describes how the emphasis has shifted in response to this crisis in modern literature:

Overall, the current works focus most on communication theory and practice - style, SAIs (stories, analogies and illustrations), voice methods and time usage - while the earlier works dwell and content, theology, spiritual motivations and the character of the minister.

Ross argues that we need to look beyond communication skills if we want to see a revival of biblical preaching:

The crisis of the American pulpit is not one of communication theory, but rather one of content, conviction, and consistency of theology and life...This is not to say that communication theory and practice are not important, but rather to keep two concepts separate: homiletics and preaching. Good homiletics does not necessarily result in good preaching. Homiletics does not transform the soul; true preaching does!

Just Preach the Gospel

Selected quotes from an excellent article by Marianne Meye Thompson:

To preach the gospel is to proclaim the accounts of the Scriptures in light of the fact that their central character is God, and that the gospel is from God and about the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.

It is so easy to make the most powerful of Gospel stories center on human action and not on God, to think that somehow our actions, our decisions, are the heart and center of the gospel story. To make that move is to sell out the gospel.

To be guided by the gospel is to remember that the gospel is first and foremost about what God does, and not about what we do.

Preaching should help people locate themselves in the context of the biblical story of God's creation of the world, call of Israel, sending of Jesus Christ, and promised consummation, because it is there that we find our identity and purpose. Preaching helps people to identify their stories with and submit them to God's grand story as found in the Bible; to find their identity, meaning, and hope in the purposes of God. Preaching narrates our individual, particular lives into the grand narrative of God's purposes and work in the world. Often, however, our stories get the banner headlines, whereas God's story is delegated to small print on the fifth page. It ought to be the other way around: God's story deserves the banner headline; our little stories deserve far less space.

Presbyterian theologian John Leith once wrote a book subtitled What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say. This subtitle is an obvious pun: the church has as its gift something to say; but the church has that something as its responsibility or obligation as well. Advice columns can advise people about their problems; therapists can help us in our relationships; but the church can help people to situate their stories in the biblical narrative in a way that illumines their meaning. The church can and must speak the gospel. That is to say, the church articulates what it means that we live in a world created by God, tainted and marred in every way by sin, and straining for redemption.

Preaching helps people to understand this story, this "gospel of God," and to see their own stories as part of the larger story that begins with God's action and longs for the time when "God will be all in all."


Kevin Vanhoozer on recovering imagination

From an interview with Kevin Vanhoozer:

The problem in too many evangelical churches is that we know what we're supposed to believe, but we're not sure what practical difference it makes and so we're unable to bring it to bear on everyday life. To be sure, biblical and theological illiteracy remains a problem too. But that doesn't really explain why even in churches where the Bible is faithfully preached the congregation doesn't look that different from everyone else.

My own hunch is that we need to recover the imagination in order to set the cultural captives free. I believe that many people in today's society, and church, suffer from an impoverished imagination. By imagination I mean the cognitive power of seeing things together, as wholes; clearly a worldview is an affair of the imagination, at least in part. In any case, I believe that our imaginations are captive to secular stories/worldviews that do not nourish our souls. Eugene Peterson says something similar about the function of the 10 plagues of Egypt: they were intended to free the imagination of the Israelites from thinking that the power of Egypt was sovereign. The plagues systematically deconstruct Pharaoh's power. It takes imagination to see that what God is doing with a small tribe of slaves is greater than the might of Egypt or the grandeur that was Rome. Similarly, it takes imagination to see that North Americans are not in bondage to similar powers and principalities: consumerism and therapism, to name but two. I wonder whether in our haste to preserve doctrinal truth, we have not done our evangelical churches a disservice in surrendering our imaginations to stories (and advertisements) that serve the interest of some worldly empire (or multinational corporation) rather than the kingdom of God.

Pastors need to make it a priority to teach their congregations how read Scripture theologically, and this requires the imagination, the ability to make sense of thing by fitting the little bits into larger patterns - the big canonical picture. It takes imagination to see the Bible as a unified whole, and then it takes even more imagination to fit one's own time and place into this biblical drama of redemption.


The Preaching I Long For

From Bill Wilder:

If I could issue a plea to our pastors and priests and ministers of the Word in the world today, it would be this: Give me Christ, or else I die.

I mean that in the most specific sense - not just what Christ can do in me or to me or for me or through me (or the church or the world), but Jesus Christ himself, clearly portrayed as crucified and preached as having been raised from the dead. Not Jesus Christ as the assumption or foundation or the means for all that is preached, but as its very content and core...

This is what I need to hear. Because my attention is so easily drawn to lesser things - to my plans, my ambitions, my problems, my triumphs, my failures, my family, my friends, my church, my community. So, please, turn my eyes upon Jesus. Help me to look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely clear in the light of his glory and grace.


Preaching to the Heart by Tim Keller

I first heard of Tim Keller through D.A. Carson's book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. Carson offered Keller as an example of someone who is reaching the emerging generation without being part of the emerging movement.

I don't know when exactly I began to listen to Keller, but I'm certainly in a phase of learning from him. He has a grasp of theology, gospel, and culture that's rare, and is a good example of an effective scholarly practitioner.

Keller gave a series of lectures on preaching at Gordon-Conwell last year called Preaching to the Heart, and I've been listening to the CDs this week. Here are the names of the sessions:

(1) Preaching to the Heart without being Legalistic
(2) Preaching to the Heart without being Piestic
(3) Unintentional Preaching Models
(4) Reading, Preparation, Conversation, and Preaching
(5) Preaching to "Emerging" Culture
(6) Preaching to the Heart without being Individualistic

The PDf files for these talks are also included on a separate CD.

Any pastor who takes the time to chew on these lectures can't help but be changed. These are well worth ordering from the Ockenga Institute.

Substantive sermons

Ray Van Neste writes that, contrary to what many think, people do indeed want substantive sermons:
Preachers are often told that people really are not interested in substantive content in sermons. I know of pastors who have been severely criticized for dealing with texts that people did not find easily digestible, or useful enough in drawing crowds. Shallow, generic “life-thoughts” will appeal to some, but there is an increasing number of people who are crying out for substantive teaching as they yearn to know God and to have something weighty enough to serve as an anchor for their souls...Let us give them real substance, explained and applied of course, but not diluted and dumbed down.