Rediscovering the Gospel

490 years ago today, a monk with a mallet posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. One of the 95 Theses said this: "62. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God." In essence, that monk rediscovered and applied the gospel within his context.

It's just as important for us to rediscover and apply the gospel today, first to ourselves and then in our ministries. Tim Keller puts it this way:

We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17)....

All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel...

The main problem, then, in the Christian life I that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says (on Gal. 2:14), “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel—seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.

So Happy Reformation Day! I pray that our ministries will be characterized by the rediscovery and application of the gospel.

Some Reformation Day resources:

Lloyd-Jones: Specialize in preaching Jesus

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains how preaching Christ helps us avoid some dangers in his book The Preacher and Preaching.

He suggests that we preach the Old Testament believers not as moral exemplars, but as examples of those who lived by faith:

Preaching Christ from all the Scriptures joins faith to grace. The Old Testament believers trusted as they waited for that salvation to come. They are examples to us as believers - not apart from the objective facts of God's redemption, but as those who lived by faith.

The obedience of love flows from that faith relation. Like faith, love is kindled not by introspection, but by looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. We love because He first loved us; it is the love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts.

Preaching Christ also helps us avoid moralism and other fads:

The Scriptures are full of moral instruction and ethical exhortation, but the ground and motivation of all is found in the mercy of Jesus Christ. We are to preach all the riches of Scripture, but unless the center holds all the bits and pieces of our pulpit counseling, of our thundering at social sins, of our positive or negative thinking - all fly off into the Sunday morning air.

Paul was resolved to know nothing at Corinth but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Let others develop the pulpit fads of the passing seasons. Specialize in preaching Jesus!

Good hard theological reading

In his excellent book The Art of Pastoring, David Hansen offers an interesting insight into the benefit of theological reading:
Good hard theological reading makes my sermon preparation go faster. I've noticed this for years: two hours spent reading an author like Barth, Forsyth, Edwards or Bonhoeffer on Wednesday saves me hours of sermon preparation on Friday and will produce a deeper, more searching thesis. Such writers teach me to think Christocentrically. Thinking Christocentrically helps me sort through the side issues and leads me straight to the heart of every biblical text and the subject of all sermons: Jesus Christ.The more searching my understanding of Christ, the better my sermon preparation. Given my antipathy to time management schemes, it's a little hard to admit, but reading difficult theology is one of the best timesavers I know.

The basis of God-centered preaching

There are many reasons why preachers don't preach God-centered messages. One of the reasons, though, has to do with the fear that preaching about God will be irrelevant to people's lives today. In other words, we fear that preaching about God will lead to sermons that lack relevance.I can understand this concern: preaching has to connect with the people sitting in the congregation before us. It isn't wrong for preachers to be concerned about relevance at all.The challenge for preachers, though, is to truly believe that there is nothing more relevant to people today than God. Nothing is more relevant to God.I was reminded of this yesterday when I received The John Piper Sermon Manuscript Library. The back of the case says:
Since 1980 John Piper has labored in the ministry of preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church under the conviction that "People are starved for the greatness of God." More than success, or riches, or esteem, or sex, or family, or sport, the glory of God satisfies the yearnings of our souls and sustains us in all our joys and pains...The glory of God is vital for our lives and for the life of the church.
Ultimately, preaching is a reflection of our theology of God. If one believes that God is all-sufficient, and that all things exist in relationship to him and for his glory, then preaching will center itself on God. If one has a lesser view of God, then that preacher will speak on lesser things.Two beliefs form the basis for God-centered living and preaching:
  • the belief that God is the only true God, and
  • the belief that “we understand ourselves, our experience, and even the world itself from the perspective of our acknowledgment of the God who chooses to be known by his creatures” (Stanley Grenz).
If we really believe these things, we will work towards living - and preaching - in a God-centered way.

Are You in God's Story?

This article by Michael S. Horton highlights the difference between an anthropocentric view of life and a theocentric one:
Ironically, those who seek their best life now, centering on themselves and their story rather than on God and his story, not even their life here and now makes any sense. Their own script—even when it allows God a supporting role—becomes dull. No wonder so many people walk out of the theater in the middle...When we try to fit God into our "life movie," the plot is all wrong - and not just wrong, but trivial. When we are pulled out of our own drama and cast as characters in his unfolding plot, we become part of the greatest story ever told. 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. In the process, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us,
We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God's action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there. Our salvation is 'from outside ourselves' (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ...What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures.
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John Stott's prayer

A prayer from John Stott's book Your Mind Matters:
I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, authority, and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.

Discouragement

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 Old Testament narratives in a story-driven culture

I heard Steve Mathewson teach yesterday on preaching Old Testament narrative in a story-driven culture. Steve covered how to exegete a narrative and how to preach it. He then delivered a sermon on Judges 3 - a passage I just preached on last week - and deconstructed it, explaining why he made the choices he did.I missed part of the day due to sick kids at home, but what I heard helped renew my commitment to the preaching task. Steve is an example of someone who is engaged in real pastoral life with all its pressures, and who models faithful exposition within that context.MP3s of the day are available from Heritage Theological Seminary at a cost of $15. CDs will be $25. They're well worth getting. Contact info is online.Steve's book, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, is also well worth reading.071005.jpg

Preaching Old Testament Narrative

On Thursday, I'm traveling to Heritage Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario to hear Steve Mathewson speak on "Preaching Old Testament Stories to a Story-Driven Culture." Mathewson is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell and author of The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative.

In a post at Preaching Today, he gives a hint of what he's going to talk about this Thursday. Preachers often use the Old Testament narrative in one of two ways. They preach moralistic sermons, using the characters as good or bad examples. Or, they focus on how the stories prefigure or portray Jesus Christ.

Mathewson suggests a better way:

Preachers who delve into Old Testament stories must look for the ‘vision of God’ – that is, the attribute(s) of God which dominates the story. Then they must look at how the story advances or connects with the storyline of the Bible. The death and resurrection of Jesus is, of course, foundational to this storyline. Preachers must also view the theology of the story through the lens of Jesus’ teaching and apostolic teaching.

Looks like he will continue to explore this, both at this week's seminar and on his blog. I'm looking forward to it.

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.