Preaching in an Era of Spiritual Decline

From my youth, growing up in the church, preaching has always had a sort of glamour to me—the man of God ascends to the pulpit holding the congregation captive by the word of God. That image is riveting. However, the idealized picture of my youth has been tainted by much of what is considered to be preaching today.

  • The men of God seems to be in increasingly short supply. It seems each week brings new pastoral scandals of the increasingly salacious variety.
  • The pulpit to proclaim the word of God has been replaced in many churches by the barstool of self-help, as preachers usurp a verse of Scripture only to bounce off it like a diving board just to herald their own wisdom.
  • The congregation captive by the word of God is scarce, with far too many suffering from chronically itching ears.

Yet, this is not another blog post lamenting the state of preaching today. Instead, this post aims to find some comfort in the seemingly cyclical pattern of God’s people, going all the way back to Israel herself. Decline begins with a neglect of God’s word. Lacking discernment or wisdom, people accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. God sends messengers of warning and calls for repentance, only for those messengers to be ignored and abused.

Jeremiah lamented his calling, even wishing he had not been born. His God-given message of warning earned him both derision and shame from his own people. In that sense, the word of God brought affliction to the preacher. He was given a message of judgment that earned him the ire of Israel, which boiled over in cruel persecution. In Jeremiah 15, he remembers how the word of God brought him great joy as he ate them—they were the delight of his heart. However, that word brought him isolation, rejection, and pain.

Ezekiel’s calling also replicates the of barren ministry pattern of the prophetic office. The Lord insisted that Ezekiel open his mouth and eat the scroll, a scroll filled with “lamentations, mournings, and woe” (Ezk 2:9). With the word of God in his belly, the Lord gives him a repeated command to preach that word faithfully even though “the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you” (Ezk 3:7).

These scriptural observations reveal a good deal about the nature of the ministry of the word; it is often barren and desolate, particularly during eras of spiritual decline. True preaching often brings suffering to the preacher as the people reject the true Word of God for the tickling words of false teachers. Yet, true preachers are called to preach God’s true words, no matter how they may be received. Silence is not an option, nor is twisting God’s word. Pastor’s are not privy to solicit marketing gurus to fabricate a message that will win them public appeal.

However, one would think the church of Christ would be different. After all, the church was birthed by the word of God. Yet tragically, the purity of Christ’s church has been so neglected post-Constantinianism that there are just as many in the church who recoil at the true preaching of the word as there are those who receive it gladly. The pattern of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is replicated in every church where there are more tares than wheat, goats than sheep.

When it comes to the western church, it’s no secret that we are in an epoch of spiritual decline. The size of the church is shriveling and the church’s influence wanes as the chaff of cultural Christianity is burned up by the inferno of secularization. Who knows how long this season of spiritual decline will endure. However, it’s during these eras of history that the men of God refuse to pollute themselves and continue to preach the whole counsel of God with fervor and zeal. We cannot manipulate the message to muster the masses.

Now more than ever, preachers must herald the word of God with greater intensity than ever. We must proclaim the wretchedness of human sin and the condemnation every soul is under. We must proclaim the spectacular love of God in the sending of Christ into the world in order to both bear the punishment of divine wrath and provide divine righteousness for fallen humanity. We must proclaim the necessity of the new birth, the response of repentance, and the necessity of faith. We must call the saints to holiness, obedience, and mission until Christ returns for his church. We must herald the surpassing beauty of God and the all-sufficiency of his grace provided to us in Christ.

Preachers who expound the word of God and proclaim this gospel may endure affliction, but such is the demand of all those called by God to herald the Word. It is a labor, but one in which we are compelled by the Spirit. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Christ has bid every believer to come and die. Why would the preachers of Christ escape this calling?

So preachers, may we keep a close watch on our life and our teaching. Let us not grow weary in the preaching of the gospel. Let us do it with love and patience, but also with boldness and urgency. If we long to see God bring a revival in our day, he will do so through preaching. It is the means by which God will build his church. May the Lord find us faithful in this most weighty of assignments, as we entrust him with the fruitfulness of it.

“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, ESV)

A Testimonial: Don’t Neglect the Hard Books of the Bible in Your Preaching

Recently I preached through book of Job in just four weeks. If you are interested you can listen to those four sermons here. Job is the sort of book that is often neglected in our Bible, and due to its difficulty many preachers skip over it. When I first planned on preaching through Job, I had reservations. It’s a lengthy book with a difficult topic. Yet, convinced with its relevance to the lives of my church, I pressed on in my preparation. Job-Rotator

A few weeks into the series  a woman, who I respect dearly, express her initial timidity about my taking on this particular book in just four weeks, but shared with me the positive feedback she’s heard from many of our members through the Job series. I’ve been pleasantly caught off guard how this little book has impacted so many in our congregation, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Spirit of God works the the preaching of the word, even difficult books like Job.

Getting Past Glibness

Now I say all this not to laud my own preaching accomplishments. In fact, I believe the impact of the book of Job had little to do with the preacher at all—neither in the crafting of the sermon nor the delivery. No, I believe the impact of the book of Job on my congregation came from the neglect of teaching on suffering in the church today. People just don't hear message much on how to suffer well. In our consumeristic culture constantly trying to attract seekers, a topic like suffering wouldn't appear to draw much of a crowd.

If we let lost people dictate what is preached in the pulpit we end up with pragmatic, moralistic sermons devoid of the Bible and the Gospel. When we preach to people’s felt needs, our worship become superficial and glib. In order to convince people to be Christian, we plaster on our smiles and talk about how happy Jesus makes us. As a result, many Christians appear robotic and disconnected from the harsh realities in which we live. Sadly, that happiness promoted merely reflects the consumeristic culture, which is how the despicable prosperity gospel teaching infiltrates so many American churches. Lamenting Christians don’t make good billboards for our marketing efforts.

Expository preaching forces congregations to go through tough texts and encounter biblical themes that we might not ordinarily choose. Even still, expository preachers tend to neglect the Old Testament. A pervasive genre in the Old Testament is lament. From Job to Jeremiah to the Psalter, the Old Testament wrestles with depression and sorrow. I believe these sections of Scripture provide an significant comfort to Christians who have grown tired of pretending to be happy all the time.

Proclaim Hope to Sufferers

As an Christian could tell you, following Jesus is difficult. Suffering is a recurring facet of human existence in this fallen, sinful world. Pastors and teachers need to expose our people to these neglected gems, like Job, and teach them to suffer well. As I preached through the book of Job, I knew I was preaching to many who were suffering. Because I know my people, I know that there are suffers present: a man ever-weakening with ALS, women struggling with recurring bouts of depression, the widow who doesn’t know how to move on from her husband’s death, the mother who had to burry her own child, and the fathers laid off and struggling to find work.

If pastors are to be faithful in their task of shepherding they must proclaim the hope of the Gospel even in the difficult afflictions of the present age. We must help our congregation set their hope on Christ, in the midst of the depression and questions.

Worship in Tears of Joy and Sorrow

Thankfully, God has given us a wonderful resource to assist suffers: a savior who suffers with us and for us. Jesus identifies us in the frailty of our flesh and endures the cross of Christ to redeem us and to mend this broken world. Hope is here and is coming. the Bible in not a monolithic book, but is contoured with various writers and genres, styles and themes. This diversity allows us to voice the prayers and concerns of the Biblical writers to God, including those who may be going through the must anguished suffering like Job. We ought not to neglect tough books of the Bible, because they help provide balance to the full range of dynamics within the Christian life. We must learn how to follow Christ when the goodness of God’s providence shines brightly on us, but also when that providence darkens and turns bitter. When our hope is grounded securely in Christ, we can worship God both in tears of joy and of sorrow.

Christ Over All: Put to Death the Old Self

http://www.foresthillsbaptist.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/R_20150222-105326.mp3  

Each Monday I’ll be putting up my sermon notes and audio file for the sermon series from Forest Hills Baptist Church “Christ Over All: A Study from Colossians”. This is an edited copy of my sermon notes, not a transcript of the sermon. You can listen to the sermon audio above or directly for at the church’s website

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:5–11, ESV)

I came across a story recently that a PA woman kept exotic animals and one of the animals she had was a black bear. She went into to clean the cage while feeding it some food only to turn to attack her and kill her. On the one hand, it is a tragedy. But on the other hand, its a bear! What do you expect? Its a dangerous animal!

Though most of us don’t realize it, many of us act just like this woman. Though we don’t have pet bears, we do have pet sins. Sins in our life that we nurture, love, and we convince we have everything under control. As Christians, we must put to death our sins and our old self.

1. Who we used to be: The Old Self

Who did we used to be before Christ? It is important for us to remember that the Christianity is not just a new set of behaviors but it is God making us into a new person. It is a fundamental, bedrock shift of our nature. As we by faith enter into our union in Christ, there is a change of who we are. Paul is going to give us a command to put to death the old self, but it is helpful for us to see just who this old self was, who did we used to be?

One important caveat. If you are not a Christian the old self I’m about to describe is who you are right now at the present. The old self Paul describes for us is everyone who has not been saved by Jesus, those who are not Christians. So what does this passage teach us about the old self? 4 things:

a. The Old Self is Earthly

b. The Old Self Deserves God’s Wrath

c. The Old Self is Who We Used to Be if we are in Christ

d. The Old Self Must be Put to Death

2. Who we are in Christ: The New Self

God is creating for himself a new humanity, a redeemed humanity. He does this through Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the new man, the perfect man. By Grace, God is breaking our headship from Adam and moving us into the head of a new humanity, Jesus Christ.

So now, if we are in Christ and if we have both died and have been raise in him, we are being renewed into the image of the Creator (Jesus Christ).

As a Christian we should be progressing in holiness over time. As we have put our faith in Jesus, the Spirit should be conforming us more and more to Jesus’ image. This means we should have a trajectory, a trend of increasing personal holiness.

3. How to Put to Death the Old Self

John Owen in his great work on the subject “The Mortification of Sin” says that we must be busy “be killing sin or it will be killing you.” So how do we put to death the old self? Let me give us 8 ways.

1. You Must First Be a Christian

If you hope to kill your sin, you cannot do it if you have not been born again by the Spirit of God. If we want to have any hope of killing our sin and putting it to death, we must rely on the indwelling Spirit of God. We must be made into a new kind of person, by Jesus himself.

Any hope of killing sin within our own might will fail. The only way we can really kill sin in our life is as a Christian operating in the Spirit’s power.

2. Rely only the Spirit’s Power

  • The Indwelling Spirit
  • The Spirit Sanctifies
  • The Spirit Convicts
  • The Spirit applies the new humanity (Changes our affections)

3. Think about the Holiness of God

I’m convinced the reason so many of us think so little of our sin is that we think so little of the holiness of God and the blood bought holiness God purchased for us in the crushing of his son.

As we think about the transcendence and holiness of God our sin becomes painfully contrasted with perfection. In light of holiness of God our sin becomes increasingly repugnant to us. The more it becomes repugnant to us, the more we will grieve it and the more we will hate it.

4. Grieve Over Your Sin and Long to Be Rid of It

When we see God’s holiness like this, our new heart given to us by God should mourn over our sin. We should loath it and long to get rid of it. We get to the point where we just can’t stand it anymore. You are sick and tired of it and you get to the point where you are ready to do anything to rid it of your life.

I have a great fear there are many professed Christians who do not feel this way about their sin. Rather than grieve over it, they kind of like it. They enjoy it.

5. Have a Zealous Hatred for your sin and Act to Kill It

We tend to have pet sins in our life. Sins that we think are cute and we just kind of encourage in our lives.

  • I’m not prideful, I’m just confident and I like being confident in my abilities and letting others know it.
  • or I don’t have an anger issue, I’m just a passionate person and my emotions are right on the surface. Its just who I am.
  • or I just like to enjoy the female form - There’s nothing wrong with window shopping - looking and not touching.

Those little sins we tolerate and allow to fester grow into our destruction. Sin wants to enslave you and control you. Its not cute, its an enemy to be destroyed. Wage war against.

We must be universally devoted to eradicating sin from our life, all the while knowing we will never be able to do it completely in this life. Yet, we must be sincere in turning over every nook and turn over every rock to discover even the trace of sin in our lives.

When you have a zealous spirit-fueled hatred of your sins you are desperate enough to do whatever it takes.

  • You are willing to seek out accountability
  • You are willing to confess your sins to others
  • You are willing to cut things out of your life that cause temptation
  • You are willing to seek the Lord, study the Word, and devote yourself to prayer.
  • Like a dog backed into the corner, you are willing to do whatever it takes to come out with your life. You are vicious, violent, and ruthless in destroying your enemy sin.

Men? Do you want a war to fight? Do you want a battle to be one? Do you want an enemy to kill? Kill the old man inside yourself. Put him to death.

6. Focus on the Heart

One of the mistakes as we kill or sin is to focus on the behavior and not the heart. If we hope to kill our sin, we must get to the root of our behavior. This requires great self reflection, and a prayerful dependence on the Spirit to help root out your issues. Often a good Christian friend or counselor can help. Often the same behavior can result from various different heart issues and motives. If we really want to put our sin to death we must set our attention going to the heart of the issue.

7. Preach the Gospel to Yourself

As Christians we must become experts of applying the Gospel to our lives to address the sinful foots of our hearts. If we hope to kill sin in our lives we must learn to apply these Gospel truths to our own heart and also to the heart of others.

8. Have Faith in the Work of Christ

Killing sin is an act of faith. The only power for defeating sin comes from the victors sin-crushing death of Jesus Christ. We must continually trust in Christ and in his Spirit to make us holy.

Are you a Christian? You can’t hope to kill sin in your life if you are not a believer in Jesus Christ. It’s like going to a gunfight with a butter knife. You have no chance. You need the Holy Spirit to kill sin, and you only have the Spirit of God if you are a Christian.

What aspects of the old Man still reign in your heart?

What sin do you need to put to death?

What is the motives of your heart that leads to your sinful behavior?

4 Problems I See with Preaching Today

I grew up hearing preachers. I’ve heard so many sermons in my life that I’ve completely lost count of how many I've heard. Not only have I heard many preachers over my life, now I am one myself. Yet, I believe that the greatest need for the true is the recovery of true and biblical preaching. Much of what is being called preaching today is weak. Simply put preaching is a man standing before the people who proclaims and applies the truth of God’s word. Yet, much of what is being considered preaching looks more like a TED talk than anything we see in the book of Acts. Much of preaching is but as a guru on the stage espousing his own wisdom. This is not preaching, at least not in any biblical sense. Although I still have a long ways to go in my own personal growth as a preacher (My church would tell you that's an understatement), I have begun to identify four concerns I see with preaching today.

1. The Emphasis on the Preacher not the Message

The American obsession with celebrities has been imported into the church. Although, it is not a bad thing to have men of great reputation with great fame even in the church, the danger is when the focus is on the man and not the message. In many circles or churches the preacher becomes more of a cult leader as the people blindly follow unquestioningly whatever the preacher says. The emphasis in the preaching is on the man – his humor, his eloquence, his vocal dynamics, and his intelligence. Although all those things are important, we must be careful not to create idols out of the preacher.

Rather than combating this idolatrous celebrity culture that can develop, many foster this culture unknowingly in their preaching. When every illustration revolves around the preacher and when he is the hero of all his stories, the preacher may be reinforcing himself as the focus. The task of the preacher is not to draw attention to himself, but to stand before the people pointing always to God. The preacher should stand as an arrow pointing to heaven not an arrow pointing to his own ego. People should not be leaving the service impressed with the preacher, yet apathetic towards God. The goal of true preaching is for the man himself to fade into the background as he joyfully celebrates the truth of God’s word, pointing the people to the Jesus.

2. The Emphasis on Application without Exposition

Another concern I see is the separation of application and exposition. In today's age of short attention spans and 140 character tweets, people want preaching to be less like a 4-course dinner and more like a McDonald’s drive through. There is no patience for the careful exposition of God’s word. Knowing this. many preachers just simply apply while neglecting the teaching of the Bible.

Now most preachers use the Bible at some point in the sermon, but how is the preacher using it? Is he just using a verse to jump into whatever topic he wishes? Is the Bible just a diving board into the preachers own wisdom and opinions? Or, is the content of the preaching demonstrated from the Bible? Better yet, is the content of the preaching derived from the Bible? Is the preacher pointing to an authority outside of himself in the revealed word of God?

Sure people may ask for sermons that are immediately helpful apart from the Bible. They may want to hear your sermon called “5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Obey You”, but doing so on a consistent and regular basis is like giving your toddler candy for every meal. Sure, they will love you for it, but you’ll rot their teeth and spoil their stomach. As preaching strays away from the central focus of the teaching of the Bible, we will continue to propagate a generation of Christians who are biblically illiterate and spiritually anemic.

3. The Emphasis on Illustration without Purpose

Often in replace of Biblical exposition, illustration begins to take a a central focus in the sermon. The best preachers become the best story tellers. They are engaging, humorous, and easy to follow. Illustrations are incredibly important in preaching. Illustrations help people connect to the teaching of the Bible in a practical and experiential way. Yet, I’ve heard too many preachers use illustrations without purpose. I’ll hear a preacher tell a funny story about his children ridding a bike or something, and I stop, wondering what in the world did that story have to do with the text? Illustrations are great tools in a preachers tool chest. Some of the greatest preachers have been the greatest illustrators (i.e. Charles Spurgeon), but a sermon filled with illustrations with no teaching is simply all flash with no substance.

4. The Emphasis on Exposition while Ignoring Application

On the flip side some preachers concerned with the lack of bible teaching react so strongly to the wide-spread weak preaching of the day that they ignore applying the text at all. The pendulum swings to far the other direction. They get up and give an academic lecture, but never call people to repentance and obedience. Although preaching is centered on the Bible and the teaching of the Bible, preaching is not complete if we don’t help people see the relevance of God’s revealed world. We cannot simply teach them about the Grand Canyon without inviting them to go and experience the beauty of it themselves. In the same way, if we instruct people about God, but don't invite them to experience the glory of the Lord, its not preaching.

In addition, preaching should not be boring, dry, and dull. There is nothing more exciting than the redemptive love God displayed in Jesus Christ! The Gospel is anything but boring, to make it so is sinful.

A Recovery of Biblical Preaching

Preaching is an ordained means, given to us by God to help save the lost and build up the church. Perhaps the reason the church in America appears so frail is because pastors and preachers have been refusing to give people the whole counsel of God. The preacher stands before his people as the mouth piece of God. That is a huge weight and responsibility that should lead every preacher in holy terror every Sunday morning. It’s a weight I feel each week. More than ever, I believe we need a revival of true preaching. We need more pastors who shepherd their churches with the rod of God’s Word and who understand the glorious weight and responsibility of expositing and exulting over God’s glorious truth. If your not a preacher, pray for your pastor and for the weight and responsibility he carries each week, not only in caring for the flock of God but proclaiming the Word of God each week.

Do you agree with these concerns about preaching today? Are their concerns that I missed? Share your thoughts with us below in the comments.

3 Dangerous of Assuming the Gospel

Assumptions are dangerous. It is eternally so when it comes to the Gospel. Having grown up in a Bible belt culture I have heard far to many Christians, Sunday School teachers, and even pastors assume the Gospel when they are talking about the Christian faith to others. They assume that those who are listening to them understand the heart of Christianity – the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The danger of this is that the Christian speaking thinks they are communicating Christian teaching, yet they leave out the most central aspect – Jesus himself. Christian teaching without the Gospel is not Christian teaching. As pastors get up to the pulpit on a Sunday morning or at a funeral and fail to make the Gospel explicit they not only fail to preach the Gospel they preach an anti-Gospel. Although we think we may be preaching Christianity we actually are communicating a completely different religion when we fail to make Jesus explicit. Here are three false Gospels we mistakenly teach when we fail to make the Gospel explicit in all we say and do.

1. A False Gospel of Sentimentalism

This happens most often at funerals and times of loss. In my life I’ve hear a lot of bad preaching, and most of it at funerals. We can begin talking about heaven, golden streets, and God’s wonderful love. Although all of these things can be wonderful and true, it is only made true for us through faith in Jesus. We can talk about all the benefits of the Gospel without ever talking about the Gospel. When we do so, the message of Christianity gets boiled down to warm fuzzy feelings and Christianity simply becomes a therapeutic blanket to provide warmth from the cold realities of this life. When we fail to realize the Jesus is the only way to the Father and the only hope in death, we move from preaching the true Gospel to a false gospel of sentimentalism. When we fail to make explicit what Christ has accomplished through his death and resurrection we can mistakenly preach this false Gospel of sentimentalism.

2. A False Gospel of Moralism

A false gospel of moralism is when we preach holiness without preaching Christ. I’ve mentioned this false Gospel in a previous post, but it is so prevalent and dangerous it needs to be mentioned again. When we emphasize Jesus’ commands for righteousness without explicitly emphasizing Christ’s imputed righteousness to us, we get a false Gospel of moralism. Many out lookers who do not know Jesus simply hear from Christians “Be Good and try harder”. Preaching holiness without Christ is preaching legalism and a works based salvation. We must make it explicit that our standing before God has nothing to do with our behavior or performance but everything to do with God’s gracious gift of his son. If we don’t ground deeply any call to holy obedience in Christ’s finished work we will mistakenly preach this false Gospel of moralism.

3. A False Gospel of Universalism

This is similar to the false Gospel of sentimentalism, but with much deadlier twist. Often we can speak of heaven and the love of God without ever making explicit the need for repentance and faith in Jesus. Sometimes Christians sound just like universalists when they talk about salvation. We must make explicit to our hearers that the only way to receive this salvation gifted to us by God is by turning from our sins and trusting in Christ. If we preach salvation without calling sinners to repent and turn to Christ, we’ve shifted to this false Gospel of moralism. In addition, we must make sure we help our hearers know whats coming if they choose to reject Jesus. The realities of hell seem so very offensive, but people need to be made aware of the frightening consequences of rebellious sin.

Make the Gospel Explicit

In our speech, our conversations, and certainly our preaching we must make the Gospel explicit less we miscommunicate a false Gospel. We must make explicit Jesus’s perfect life and his vicarious death in our place. We must make explicit the consequences of our sins and the price God went too to pay them. We must make explicit the call for sinners to turn from their sins and trust in Jesus. And we must make explicit that all of the benefits of salvation and eternity are given only because we’ve been adopted by God and made heirs because of Jesus. Make the Gospel explicit. Do not assume even church people understand it. Make it crystal clear all the time and every time.

5 Tips for Preaching through Tough Passages

Recently I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount with the people of Forest Hills Baptist Church. So far it has been a wonderful series working through some of Jesus’ most well known teachings. However I knew when the Lord led me to this series that there would be some difficult passages to come up. The two I was least looking forward to was on lust and divorce. As a pastor some times you must teach on some difficult passages of Scripture.

The Bible doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, nevertheless they are all profitable and useful for the building up of the body. Much like the prophet Ezekiel, as a pastor we eat the sweet scroll of God’s word even though it is often a bitter word of judgement (Ez 3:3). All of God’s word is honey to our lips. Yet, the Scriptures function as a mirror. As we hold up the mirror of God’s word to our own hearts and to the hearts of our own people, sometimes we do not like what it shows us about ourselves. The word of God pierces our hearts and exposes our sin (Heb 4:12). It can be an uncomfortable endeavor but yet it is the task of the pastor to teach the whole counsel of God.

Although I am still a young preacher and have much to learn, having recently taught through both lust and divorce from the sermon on the mount, I offer these five helpful principles for preaching through tough passages of scripture.

1. Practice Expository Preaching

In order to preach difficult passages you must get to difficult passages. With the absence of expository preaching it is tempting for pastors to pick hobby horse passages or passages that will merely tickle the ears of the congregation. As a result, consciously or not, many pastors skip over difficult or controversial passages.

Walking through sections of scripture verse by verse is so helpful because it forces us to encounter and deal with difficult passages. My people know we are walking through the Sermon on the Mount and they would notice if we skipped Jesus’ teaching on divorce. No matter how difficult it may be or though I may not desire to preach it, the accountability of my people force me to deal with difficult texts.

Yet, expository preaching can be a safe guard. When you deal with difficult passages in a expository series, it keeps the difficult sermon from sounding like a personal attack from the pastor. No one in the congregation is saying “I wonder why he picked a passage on lust this Sunday? I wonder who was in the counseling room this week?” The church knows this passage is next, so it removes any perceived hostility people may read into the pastors sermon. Thus the sermon becomes less of the words of a perceived vindictive pastor and more the prophetic, authoritative voice of God.

2. Preach in Humility, as a Man Under the Authority of the Scripture.

When I was preaching the sermon on lust, I tried to set the tone for the sermon at the beginning. I knew I was going to be having to deal with some difficult truths and that it was vital for me to be filled with conviction over sexual sin. I knew that many would perceive as strong word as judgmental self-righteousness, which would be the furthest from the truth. So before I got into the meat of the sermon I said,

This morning I plan to proclaim to you harsh truths that you may perceive are announced in judgement and self-righteousness. Hear me carefully before we begin. I speak as a man who is not above this text but stands condemned underneath it. I am a man who is a condemned sinner redeemed and restored by Jesus Christ. As I read Jesus’ words here what shame and dread come upon me. For which of us can here can read these words and not be condemned?

These words helped remind me and my people, that as a pastor I am a sinner who is saved by grace. The only power that enables me to stand in that pulpit without cowering in holy fear is that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

3. Speak Clearly and with Conviction

Set God’s word loose on your people. Do not be timid or fearful on difficult truths you know your people might not want to hear. So often our fear of men causes us to be timid lambs in the pulpit when we must be roaring lions. When it comes to the sexual immorality of our culture or the no-fault divorces that happen every day, it is necessary to bring a strong word of judgement against sin. However as you do, highlight the Scripture as your authority and not your own opinions.

4. Share Briefly Multiple Interpretations

The teaching on divorce was exceptionally difficult for me, not just because it is a hot-button issue, but because the text is a hermeneutical gordian knot. Many Christians wrestle on what the Scriptures teach on divorce and many books have been written on the subject. The greatest struggle for me was:

  • How much should I share about the debate?
  • Do I want to only share my position and act like the others do not exist?

Those were the sort of questions that plagued me as I was preparing for that sermon.

If you are preaching on such a text it is wise to briefly mention the debate around this text and briefly highlight some of the other views. But spend the bulk of your time proving your position from the text. The pulpit is not the place for an academic lecture on the precise definition of porneia. In fact most of the congregation doesn’t even care, they just want to know what the Scripture says. They don’t want a seminary dissertation on the subject.

5. Give Grace and Preach the Gospel

My great fear in preaching a sermon on lust or divorce is that I sound like some self-righteous right wing bigot. Although there are sections of those sermons where I must come down hard on what God calls sin, I must always point people to the Gospel. Pastor, if you hold up the mirror of condemnation to your peoples hearts you better point them to calvary before you close in prayer. Sins like lust are so pervasive and are hidden deep within our hearts. When you bring those things up to the surface and expose them to the light, it can get uncomfortable and often guilt begins to take over. Yet, I do not want my people to leave my sermon feeling badly over their sin, but gloriously in awe of a God who would save them despite their sin.

I want to leave them with Jesus. I want to point them to the savior who fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law in their place. I want to point them to the suffering servant who was nailed to that tree for the forgiveness of our sins. I want to point them to the liberator who frees sexual captives and the God who never divorces his adulterous wife. He is the always faithful God who is ready to forgive and restore. When you preach these difficult sermons give your people what they need the most, Jesus.

If you would like to listen to these to sermons you can listen to my sermon on Lust and Divorce. (I'll put up the link to the sermon on divorce as soon as its uploaded)

Pastors, how have you dealt with difficult passages? How do you handle texts that you know will elicit controversy? Share your wisdom in the comments!

Ruth: The Romance of Redemption

We just finished studying the book of Ruth at Forest Hills Baptist Church. It has been a great study as we examined the love story between Ruth and Boaz. Throughout the whole book God is working continuously behind the sciences to accomplish his purposes. It was a great reminder of God's power, love, and compassion in gifting us with our redemption. All the sermon audio at Forest Hills can be found on our church website or you can subscribe to our podcast form the iTunes store.  However, here is an archive of the four sermons from Ruth: The Romance of Redemption.

Part 1: The Need for Redemption

Part 2: The Hope of Redemption

Part 3: The Search for Redemption

Part 4: The Gift of Redemption

 

A Pastor's Prayer

As I was in study and prayer this past Sunday morning, I came across this beautiful prayer in "The Valley of Vision". As a pastor and teacher of God's word, I connected with this prayer entitled "A Minister's Preaching".  If you are not a pastor, read this prayer to learn how to better pray for your pastor.

My Master God, I am desired to preach today, but go weak and needy to my task; Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth, that an honest testimony might be borne for thee; Give me assistance in preaching and prayer, with heart uplifted for grace and unction. Present to my view things pertaining to my subject, with fullness of matter and clarity of thought, proper expressions, fluency, fervency, a feeling sense of the things I preach, and grace to apply them to men’s consciences. Keep me conscious all the while of my defects, and let me not gloat in pride over my performance. Help me to offer a testimony for thyself, and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy. Give me freedom to open the sorrows of thy people, and set before them comforting considerations. Attend with power the truth preached. and awaken the attention of my slothful audience. May thy people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted, and help me to use the strongest arguments drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings, that men might be made holy. I myself need thy support, comfort, strength, holiness, that I might be a pure channel of thy grace, and be able to do something for thee; Give me then refreshment among thy people, and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way, or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer, or be harsh in treating of Christ’s death, its design and end, from lack of warmth and fervency. And keep me in tune with thee as I do this work.

Battling Spiritual Exhaustion

You cannot give what you don't have. That statement rings true when it comes to Christian teaching. Many Christians are involved in teaching ministry, perhaps as a Sunday School teacher or a small group leader. Pastor's are especially engaged in the teaching ministry as the preaching of the Word is one of their primary responsibilities. Although I love to teach, I've come to the realization that it is a labor of love. The constant demand of preparing lessons, messages, sermons, blog posts, and the like are draining. They are not only taxing on the mind but also taxing spiritually. As teachers, if we are not careful our reservoirs of spiritual vitality can begin to get low as we give and give to others through our teaching ministry.

The great danger of Christian teaching is spiritual fatigue and exhaustion. As teachers if we are not resting and pouring into our own spiritual lives we can quickly find ourselves hating the very thing God has asked us to do. As a pastor I've experience this sort of spiritual fatigue first hand. There have been weeks where I have had three or four messages to prepare for that week. So how do we deal with spiritual exhaustion?

1. Take a Sabbath

Sometimes in teaching you just need to take a break for a week. Sometimes we expect ourselves to out do God never rest. We must sometimes rest to recharge our batteries. Confession time, this is difficult for me. So often I sinfully equate resting with laziness. There is nothing wrong with resting our minds and our hearts from having to constantly produce teaching material. Take that day a week to just rest and relax your mind and refresh your spiritual batteries. Spend extra time in the Scriptures seeking after God. Go for a long walk and just talk with God. When I begin to since spiritual exhaustion creep in, I quickly take an hour or two and just commune with God in prayer. It is amazing how the living water can quench our dusty throats.

2. Always be Learning and Studying

As a pastor, there are not a lot of people in my church who are teaching and instructing me. When spiritual exhaustion sets in, it is easy to get lazy in our thinking and just rely on personal hobby horses to get us through the next teaching engagement. Here I have learned the wonderful value of reading and studying. A good book is like a good conversation with a great mentor. You get to learn from other's wisdom and experiences. You get a fresh perspective and it stretches you spiritually. Another way I've begun to always be learning is through audio podcasts. Through the miracle of technology I am able to listen to some of the best preachers and teachers of our day. As I do I am able to be fed by other great pastors and teachers and I become encouraged in my spiritual life.

3. Find Great Community

Spiritual exhaustion thrives in isolation. Pastors and teachers need to learn to build community with other pastors and teachers who can pray for and encourage one another. Community is vital to our spiritual growth and is necessary in our lives. So often many teachers live in isolation although they may be surrounded by people. Developing good friendships with other teachers even outside of your church can be helpful in preventing spiritual exhaustion.

4. Remind Yourself of the Gospel

As a teacher it is so easy for me to begin to find my worth and identity in the content I produce and not in Christ. When this happens I must remind myself of the Gospel.  God's acceptance of me has nothing to do with my performance but everything to do with Christ's performance. The moments I am most spiritually exhausted form the teaching ministry are the moments in which I begin to rely on my own strength and power as some twisted way to earn God's favor. In my spiritual exhaustion I must remind myself of my dependency on the righteousness of Grace and preach to myself the life giving good news.

Teaching is the greatest joy and the greatest privilege. It was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said, "The work of Preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called." He is absolutely right, but it is also an incredible labor. When spiritual exhaustion begins to set in we must be quick to respond with the remedy of Christ's restoring grace. As we rely on His strength and His power the Word who became flesh will give us the words to proclaim His majesty, glory, and beauty.

2 Tips on Preaching from the Old Testament

This past Sunday I just finished the preaching through the book of Haggai. When the Lord first laid this little book on my heart, I was uncomfortable preaching through it. For one, I didn't know much about this little book. In addition, figuring out how to preach this book would be a great challenge. Questions immediatly began to come up. How do you preach OT prophecy as Christian Scripture? How to I make this relevant and not just sound like a historian? How can I preach the Gospel from Haggai each week and still remain faithful to the text? These are the sort of questions I had to wrestle with and over the past month I've learned a few tips to add to my homoletical tool kit through this series. If you are a pastor or teacher I pray this tips might be as helpful to you as you preach through books in the Old Testament.

1. Understand the Original Audience

When it comes to teaching the Old Testament, you have to really do the hard work and research of understanding the historical setting. This means getting some good commentaries and studying the history of Israel. A big area of focus is understanding the time line. As I was studying Haggai, I learned how huge the timeline was for understanding the book. Haggai is very specific about the time of each of his four messages. Understanding the Jewish Calendar and understanding the emotions of the post-exilic community greatly aided in understanding Haggai's message. So if your going to take on preaching the Old Testament, make sure you do your homework.

2. Develop a Robust Biblical Theology

Having a Good biblical theology will greatly help connect the passage your studying to the rest of the Bible. Knowing that the Bible tells one story and one message is key. Seeing the parts of the Bible and being able to find their place in the whole meta-narrative of scripture is an indespensible skill for any bible reader, but especially for a preacher of the word.  Know the plot line of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.  There are a few huge themes that run throughout the whole Bible. These themes serve as easy "on ramps" to get to Christ, the Gospel, and the promises of God for 21st century people. Here are a few examples:

  • Covenant Promises
  • Temple
  • God's Soverignty
  • Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7)
  • Messiah

As we study the Old Testament, finding thematic on ramps greatly aids the preacher to seeing how all the Scriptures point to Christ.(Luke 24) I'll give you an example from Haggai. In Haggai the theme of temple is huge as Haggai challenges the people to rebuild the temple. As we get to Haggai 2:9 we find a startling prophecy and promise, "The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former". How to we handle such a startling promise as this? Through a robust Biblical theology we can see that the temple is fulfilled in Jesus Christ when God comes to tabernacle among us in the flesh (John 1). In the New Teatment the church is described as the temple of God. (Ephesians 2) However at the second coming we see the New Jerusalem is described as being one giant temple in which God's people will dwell in one giant Holy of Holies in the presence of God. You see jumping onto the thematic on ramp of temple puts you on the high way to Christ and even to the eschatological fulfilment of the temple in the New Jerusalem.

I struggled for the longest time in how to handle the Old Testament between faithfully studying it in its own context and also interpreting it as Christian Scripture. On the one hand I don't want to sound like a Jewish Rabbi but I do not want to dishonor the text. It is a tension I continue to wrestle with, but a good Biblical theology greatly aleviates the tension. Seeing the Scriptures as God's progressive revelation and as a unity empowers the pastor to teach from any portion of the Scriptures with confidence and Gospel intentionality. In some ways preaching from the Old Testament can be more difficult, but it is incredibly rewarding. Don't devoid your people of the blessings and treasures that can be found in the Old Testament. All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable, even obscure two-chapter minor prophet books.

Are there any tips you have for preaching from the Old Testament? Share them with us in the comments?