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Posts Tagged ‘Preaching’

Does God help those who help themselves? According to Benjamin Franklin (and many Americans) the answer is, Yes.

It’s fascinating sometimes to see how much of our modern world and modern thought has been shaped by the brilliant minds of the past. In fact, the impact philosophers have on popular culture can probably not be easily overstated.

Now, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was probably one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. As one of my professors likes to put it, almost everything in modern history is a ‘footnote’ to Kant.

And in order to explain Christianity to a modern world of science and observable facts, Kant felt he had to separate “ecclesiastical faith” (e.g. creeds, miracles, Jesus’ Resurrection, etc.)  from what he called “pure moral religion” (e.g., being good). Kant believed the latter was the answer to all our riddles. If he was sure of anything, it was the “moral law within.”

[S]urely we cannot hope to partake … in salvation, except by qualifying for it through our zeal in the compliance with every human duty, and this must be the effect of our own work and not, once again, a foreign influence to which we remain passive [imputation of Christ’s righteousness]. For since the command to do our duty is unconditional, it is also necessary that the human being make the command… the bassis of his faith, i.e., that he begin with the improvement of his life as the supreme condition under which alone a saving faith can occur…. We must strive with all our might after the holy intention of leading a life well-pleasing to God, in order to be able to believe that God’s love for humankind…. will somehow make up, in consideration of that honest intention, for humankind’s deficiency in action, provided that humankind strives to conform to his will with all its might. – Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Religion, 148, 150.

Great minds think alike — even if they’re wrong. Is it any wonder so many people today believe “God helps those who help themselves?” Although the law is written on the heart of all men, we only hear the gospel as a word from ‘outside’ of us, perennially strange, and odd-sounding. If only Franklin and Kant would have listened to good gospel preaching.

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Painting Christ?

Calvin talks about how preachers ought to ‘paint’ Christ in their sermons so that hearers don’t feel like they need any images.

Let those who would discharge aright the ministry of the gospel learn, not merely to speak and declaim, but to penetrate into the consciences of men, to make them see Christ crucified, and feel the shedding of his blood. When the Church has painters such as these, she no longer needs the dead images of wood and stone, she no longer requires pictures; both of which, unquestionably, were first admitted to Christian temples when the pastors had become dumb and been converted into mere idols, or when they uttered a few words from the pulpit in such a cold and careless manner, that the power and efficacy of the ministry were utterly extinguished.

Good old Calvin…

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Before commissioning the church with the task of evangelism (making disciples, baptizing, and teaching), Christ first gave these interesting (and assuring) words:  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mat. 28.18b).  John Calvin comments quite helpfully:

Before relating that the office of teaching was committed to the disciples, Matthew says that Christ began by speaking of his power; and not without reason. For no ordinary authority would here have been enough, but sovereign and truly divine government ought to be possessed by him who commands them to promise eternal life in his [name] to reduce the whole world under his sway, and to publish a doctrine which subdues all pride, and lays prostrate the whole of the human race. And by this preface Christ not only encouraged the Apostles to full confidence in the discharge of their office, but confirmed the faith of his gospel in all ages. Never, certainly, would the Apostles have had sufficient confidence to undertake so arduous an office, if they had not known that their Protector sitteth in heaven, and that the highest authority is given to him; for without such a support it would have been impossible for them to make any progress. But when they learn that he to whom they owe their services is the Governor of heaven and earth, this alone was abundantly sufficient for preparing them to rise superior to all opposition. As regards the hearers, if the contemptible appearance of those who preach the gospel weakens or retards their faith, let them learn to raise their eyes to the Master himself, by whose power the majesty of the Gospel ought to be estimated, and then they will not venture to despise him when speaking by his ministers. – Calvin’s Commentaries: Harmony of the Evangelists.

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Today, even in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I believe there is considerable confusion and misunderstanding about what preaching is.  Often, this comes in the form of preachers giving sermons which sound very much like Sunday-school lessons or bible-study lectures. One might here a lot of truth (even about Christ and his grace) but won’t hear Christ himself. Indeed, it alarms me to conisider how often words about Christ might be present, while the very Word of Christ is absent — that very word to which (alone) are attached the very precious promises of God.  What do I mean?  Let me try to explain.

Does teaching = preaching? Or is there a qualitative distinction? If someone gives a lecture about the nature of the atonement, does this qualify as preaching? And yet if we agree that preaching includes teaching, is preaching really something altogether different? These are good questions, and important ones to be asking for sure.

Here I’ve quoted at length from Michael Horton’s book, A Better Way, on the topic of the preached word.

A sermon is not only an exposition of God’s Word but is itself God’s Word. It is the Son of man preaching life into the valley of dead bones, wielding the two-edged sword that kills and makes alive. It is the Holy Spirit alone who is the effectual cause of the Word’s work, but it is administered through preaching….

Sometimes we see the sermon merely as an opportunity to make the Word effective. For some, it is an opportunity for mere reflection–data processing, to put it indelicately. For others, it is a chance to make a decision. Still others see it as a stimulation to emotional experience. But whether we make our intellect, our will, or our heart sovereign, we are exchanging the glory of God for that of the creature. As Scripture presents it, the Word itself–wielded by the heavenly agent (the Holy Spirit) and the earthly ambassador (the preacher)–does what it threatens in the law and promises in the gospel. The Word itself does this work, not because it provides an occasion for us to do something but simply by its being used by God according to his own sovereign will. It is not just the content of the Word but the preaching of the Word that is central in worship and is, strictly speaking, a means of grace.

This is a gigantic distinction. This means that when a minister ascends the pulpit to preach, his task is not merely to offer certain truth claims to his hearers, or to exhort them to believe more strongly. But rather more specifically (and simply) it is to proclaim and announce a specific message of good news even to those who might have heard it more times than they can remember. Here in lies the real challenge of the preacher. His job as under-shephard and feeder of God’s flock, is not to feed them with whatever whimsical concoction his hermeneutical and homiletical wizardry can cook up. Rather, it is to faithfully serve up that menu which Christ (as the over-shephard) has prepared for him already — namely the message that Christ has accomplished all of our redemption for us who believe.

And as he proclaims this very (specific) message, God the Holy Spirit works according to his good pleasure to strengthen, establish, and confirm his saints in the faith. In this way, Christians’ hearts are washed, their doubts quelled, their faiths built up, and their souls nourished — all by the very word of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of a mortal preacher.

Furthermore, this means that when we come to worship God on Sunday and hear the word proclaimed through the preacher, it is not merely the voice of a mortal man we hear, but the very Word of God being announced to us.  It’s not as if the preacher can say whatever he wants. And likewise, it’s not as if we can listen to him as if he were just another guy.  No, God (in Christ) has commissioned his minsters for the special service of speaking Christ’s very words for him so that we could actually still here Christ’s voice today — even two-thousand years after his ascension.

That’s why preaching is so important. Horton concludes:

To be sure, many other methods in our hi-tech era would appear to be more effective forms of getting us to do something. Drama can entertain and inspire, emotional choruses sung in ascending chords with growing instrumental intensity can alter consciousness and moods, while audiovisual sophistication can persuade people that the Christian message (whatever that may be ) is relevant in our age. A booming anthem with a pipe organ and well-trained choir may stir us. But if the primary goal is not to get us to do something that will effect our salvation but for God to plant his Word in our heart, our criteria for effectiveness and success will be rather different. It is important for us to realize that it is not only the message of the Word but the method of preaching that God has promised to use for salvation and growth. It must, therefore, be central in worship. – Michael Horton, A Better Way: Redescovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. p. 156

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What really is true preaching?

Is it basically teaching on doctrine? Or is it moral exhortation? What’s the difference?

Michael Horton digs into this question in his excellent book, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship:

Doctrinal lectures and inspirational how-to motivational talks dominate both traditional and contemporary approaches, but both tend to undermine the even-character of the service. It is one thing to talk about the doctrines of sin and grace and another to actually be faced with God in judgment and justification. It is one thing to hear exhortations to victory and quite another to actually experience the power of being drawn into the plotline of God’s victory over our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil). Doctrine and exhortation will be involved in all good preaching of Scripture, but preaching can never be reduced to either…

Preaching is not merely the minister’s talk about God but God’s talk–and not just any talk. It’s the kind of talk that produces a new people. It is the encounter through which God himself takes the judge’s bench, arraigns us as sinners by the standard of perfect justice, and then finds a way, in Jesus Christ, to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly. All of this happens to us before our very ears. It is worked upon us and in us by the Holy Spirit as the Word is preached (and is confirmed visibly for us by the sacraments).

– Dr. Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, (2002), p. 38.

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The principal design of preaching the Gospel is, that men may be reconciled to God, and this is accomplished by the unconditional pardon of sins; as Paul also informs us, when he calls the Gospel, on this account, the ministry of reconciliation, (.) Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favor by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace. This is the source of the other blessings which God bestows, such as, that God enlightens and regenerates us by his Spirit, that he forms us anew to his image, that he arms us with unshaken firmness against the world and Satan. Thus the whole doctrine of godliness, and the spiritual building of the Church, rests on this foundation, that God, having acquitted us from all sins, adopts us to be his children by free grace.

But it may be asked, since he appoints them to be only the witnesses or heralds of this blessing, and not the authors of it, why does he extol their power in such lofty terms? I reply, he did so in order to confirm their faith. Nothing is of more importance to us, than to be able to believe firmly, that our sins do not come into remembrance before God. Zacharias, in his song, calls it the knowledge of salvation, and, since God employs the testimony of men to prove it, consciences will never yield to it, unless they perceive God himself speaking in their person. Paul accordingly says,

We exhort you to be reconciled to God, as if Christ besought you by us

We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles. It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven. And the Church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust.

Nor ought we to esteem less highly this invaluable treasure, because it is exhibited in earthen vessels; but we have ground of thanksgiving to God, who hath conferred on men so high an honor, as to make them the ambassadors and deputies of God, and of his Son, in declaring the forgiveness of sins. There are fanatics who despise this embassy; but let us know, that, by doing so, they trample under foot the blood of Christ.

– John Calvin Commentary on John 20.23

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In Second Corinthians, Paul writes: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (5:18)

What is the ‘ministry of reconciliation’? Here Calvin comments on this very thought:

Here we have an illustrious designation of the gospel, as being an embassy for reconciling men to God. It is also a singular dignity of ministers — that they are sent to us by God with this commission, so as to be messengers, and in a manner sureties.  “And as it were pledges of his good will toward us.” This, however, is not said so much for the purpose of commending ministers, as with a view to the consolation of the pious, that as often as they hear the gospel, they may know that God treats with them, and, as it were, stipulates with them as to a return to his grace. Than this blessing what could be more desirable? Let us therefore bear in mind, that this is the main design of the gospel — that whereas we are by nature children of wrath,(,) we may, by the breaking up of the quarrel between God and us, be received by him into favor. Ministers are furnished with this commission, that they may bring us intelligence of so great a benefit, nay more, may assure us of God’s fatherly love towards us. Any other person, it is true, might also be a witness to us of the grace of God, but Paul teaches, that this office is specially intrusted to ministers. When, therefore, a duly ordained minister proclaims in the gospel, that God has been made propitious to us, he is to be listened to just as an ambassador of God, and sustaining, as they speak, a public character, and furnished with rightful authority for assuring us of this.

Paul continues (v.19-20): “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Calvin sees here a ministry of word (and sacrament, secondarily). But both word and sacrament are intrinsically tied to the gospel. It’s beautiful.

Calvin writes:

Hence the ministers of the Gospel restore us to the favor of God in a right and orderly manner, when they bear testimony to us by means of the Gospel as to the favor of God having been procured for us. Let this testimony be removed, and nothing remains but mere imposture. Beware, then, of placing even the smallest drop of your confidence on any thing apart from the Gospel.

I do not, indeed, deny, that the grace of Christ is applied to us in the sacraments, and that our reconciliation with God is then confirmed in our consciences; but, as the testimony of the Gospel is engraven upon the sacraments, they are not to be judged of separately by themselves, but must be taken in connection with the Gospel, of which they are appendages. In fine, the ministers of the Church are ambassadors, for testifying and proclaiming the benefit ofreconciliation, only on this condition — that they speak from the Gospel, as from an authentic register.

Be reconciled. It is to be observed, that Paul is here addressing himself to believers. He declares, that he brings to them every day this embassy. Christ therefore, did not suffer, merely that he might once expiate our sins, nor was the gospel appointed merely with a view to the pardon of those sins which we committed previously to baptism, but that, as we daily sin, so we might, also, by a daily remission, be received by God into his favor. For this is a continued embassy (“a perpetual embassy and commission”), which must be assiduously sounded forth in the Church, till the end of the world; and the gospel cannot be preached, unless remission of sins is promised.
– Commentaries on 1 & 2 Corinthians

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