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!

6 Ways Pastors Can Lead the Church with the Bible

There is a lot of pressure on Pastors to be leaders. A whole industry of self-help resources and leadership books have risen the past few decades. Pastors are expected (as they should) to be leaders. Despite the wonderful practical wisdom that many of the most popular leadership books teach, a Pastor must always lead the church uniquely from the corporate business types. A Pastor is a shepherd who must lead his people with the rod of God's word.  Paul makes it quite clear what should be the focal point of our leadership in his great charge to Timothy as he writes,

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:1–2, ESV)

The Scriptures are essential in all aspect of a pastor's ministry, especially in his leadership. How do we preach the word in every aspect of our ministry and not just the pulpit? Shepherding with the Scriptures in hand takes discipline and practice. As a young pastor this is something in which I try to be intentional. I still have great room to grow, but here are some practical ways pastors can lead their people with word of God.

1. Practice Expositional Preaching

True preaching is grounded in the Scriptures. The temptation for many pastors is to shift to a topical model of preaching that focuses more on the congregants felt needs than the Word of God. The best way a Pastor can begin to center his flock on the Scriptures is to lead by example through the weekly sermon. Preach through books of the Bible and refer to the Scripture often in the sermon. Don't just take a verse and launch off on your personal soap box. Do as God has commanded and "preach the word".

A steady diet of scripturally rich expositional preaching will begin to transform church culture over many years. Don't underestimate the cumulative effect of a faithful expositional preaching ministry.

2. Carry a Physical Bible

This may seem a little silly, but it is something I think is important. In a day and age where digital bibles are so readily available it is easy to rely only on a smartphone for the Bible. I love technology. I even use my iPad for all my sermon notes while preaching. Yet I always carry around my physical Bible.

Although the accessibility of digital bibles is wonderful, lugging around a physical Bible communicates something about its value and significance. Carrying a physical Bible around with you communicates to your people the source of your authority in ministry. Our authority as pastors is not in our charisma, knowledge, experience, or skill, but in the infallible word of God. Carrying a physical Bible communicates that to my people in a way a digital version does not.

3. Use the Bible in Pastoral Care

Monday afternoons is the time I go out and visit shut-ins and those who need pastoral care and  I always be sure to take my Bible with me. To go minister to members without a Bible is like a plumber who forgets his wrench or a football player who forgets his helmet. So too should pastors always bring their staff when they go to the flock. Bring the Bible with you.

Towards the end of my visit with the person I always try to finish my time with a church member by opening up the Bible and reading a passage of Scripture. Then we will close our time in prayer. I do this because the Scriptures are relevant in every situation and I want to teach my people to look to the Scriptures in moments of crisis and need. God's word provides reassurance, reminding us of the wonderful promises of God. Whether in counseling, visitation, outreach, or funerals be quick to take your people to the Bible. Lead them with the Scriptures.

4. Open Every Meeting with Bible

Every meeting I lead at our church I open with a short devotion from Scripture. I want to model for our people Scripture's relevance and importance in all situations from finance meetings to deacons meetings. Starting with Scripture also puts things into perspective and reminds everyone that it is on the word of God we must build God's church and we make decisions.

5. Go to the Scripture in Conflict

This one must be handled carefully, but it is vitally important. As in most churches there will be fights and disagreements. When those times come, the pastor must lead with the Scriptures. In those high and intense meetings, know your Bible well enough to counsel from the Scriptures.

You must handle this carefully because you don't want to necessarily beat your people with the Bible to justify your opinions. Yet, going to the Bible when there is a disagreement reminds everyone (including the pastor) that our opinions are secondary to the truth of God's word.

6. Ground Change in the Scripture

As a pastor and leader you must lead your people through change. Whenever a ministry needs to be cut, revised, or started always ground your methodology in your theology. Do your best to explain the "why" and the biblical reason for the change. Show your people important texts that show the urgency or reason for why this change is necessary. Although there may still be resistance, if your people are lovers of the word of God they will be encouraged and obedient.

Shepherding with the Scriptures

Pastors are to be men of the word. The Scriptures must impact how we think about every aspect of our ministries. Bring the Scripture into every aspect of your ministry. Get creative and always be pointing them to the Scriptures. It is in the word of God that tells us about the word who became flesh. Point them to the Bible and you will be pointing them to Christ who is the chief shepherd whom you will be accountable for in your leadership.

How Have you led with the Scriptures? Any tips or practices that I missed? Share your wisdom with us in the comments!

6 Lessons I've Learned from Seminary

It is hard to believe that I graduate from Seminary today from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with my Masters of Divinity. It has been a long journey of 3 1/2 years with late night reading and paper writing. Having a family, serving as a full time pastor, and studying full time was not easy. Yet, God was faithful to get me through each day and to make it to this milestone. I’ve learned a lot over the past three years and I want to share with you some of those lessons I’ve learned.

1. The Discipline of Rigorous Study

I’ve always considered myself fairly studious, but Seminary intensified that. A pastor will spend a great deal of time a week in the study of Scripture to prepare sermons and lessons. Seminary helped me cultivate that discipline and deepen my intellectual abilities. With the myriad of diverse responsibilities I've been forced to get organized and efficient with my time, especially my time in study. The discipline developed these past three years to study God’s word even under the pressure of a deadline will be lastingly been helpful.

2. The Joy of Life Long Learning

As I have observed, it is so easy to stop learning after your formal academic education. There are college students who never pick up another book again after they are handed their diploma. One of the things I desire to do is to continue learning for the rest of my life. I want to continue to challenge myself to read challenging books and participate in intellectual endeavors. The exciting thing now is that those endeavors will be of my choosing. Seminary helped me see the joy of learning and studying.

3. The Value of Family

Completing seminary is not something I could have done on my own. Kaitlyn has been by my side the whole way encouraging me and getting me through. There have been many difficult nights where after a long day I have to lock myself away to study or read rather than spend time with my family. During these 3 1/2 years I learned to value my family even more and I love the time I get to spend with them.

4. Theology is for the Church

I learned a ton in seminary. Yet, I’ve learned more about how to care and love God’s people by pastoring in the local church throughout seminary. Although education is vital for pastors to learn how to rightly divide the word of truth, there are certain things that a class room will be unable to teach you. Learning how to communicate with people, counsel them, and pray for them are all learned best when serving a local church. I’m thankful for my church, Forest Hills Baptist Church, for letting me continue to learn how to shepherd as I have served and loved them. It was wonderful to be able to take the intellectual stratospheric jewels in seminary and bring them to messy every day life as I’ve taught them to my church. Theology is for the church and it has been wonderful to do theology within the context of the local church during my seminary education.

5. The Tools I Will Need

I’m convinced that higher education’s purpose is not just to fill you with knowledge, but to give you the tools to succeed. Seminary has done that for me. When I begin a new sermon series or have a deep theological question, I know the resources to take off my shelf. I know which theologians and writers are more beneficial than others. I have learned how to think through for myself and reason when I find myself in a theological quagmire.

6. Love My Savior More Deeply

Many fear that if you go off to seminary, somehow you’ll become all head and no heart. Some think well trained theologians are unable to love Jesus or that formal education can ruin a pastor. I just simply have not found this to be true in the slightest. Over the course of my seminary education I have grown much more deeply in love with Jesus. His wonderful grace and love have grown in sweetness and beauty over the past 3 1/2 years. As my knowledge of Christ has increased so to has my love for him. This above all has been the greatest thing I’ve learned, to richly love my savior and serve him with all my heart.

I’m not sure if my Masters of Divinity is my last stop in the world of academia. Yet, I do know that I am so thankful to have attended such wonderful seminary and to have the privilege and responsibility of a solid theological education.

A Minister's Evils

I have a tradition on Sunday mornings.  As I arrive at the church and go into my study to pray, I begin by picking up The Valley of Vision and reading a prayer.  The book is a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions.  It has been a wonderful tradition that helps to set my heart on Christ and to prepare to proclaim the Gospel. This is a prayer I read a few weeks ago titled A Minister's Evils that continued to stick with me.BLESSED SPIRIT OF GOD, Four evils attend my ministry — The devil treads me down by discouragement and shame arising from coldness in private meditation. Carelessness possesses me from natural dullness and dimness of spirit; because in the past I have met with success and been highly regarded, so that it does not matter if I have now failed. Infirmities and weakness are mine from want of spiritual light, life and power, so that souls have not been helped, and I have not felt thee to be near. Lack of success has followed even when I have done my best. But thou hast shown me that the glory of everything that is sanctified to do good is not seen in itself, but in the source of its sanctification. Thus my end in preaching is to know Christ, and impart his truth; my principle in preaching is Christ himself, whom I trust, for in him is fullness of spirit and strength; my comfort in preaching is to do all for him. Help me in my work to grow more humble, to pick something out of all providences to that end, to joy in thee and loathe myself, to keep my life, being, soul, and body only for thee, to carry my heart to thee in love and delight, to see all my grace in thee, coming from thee, to walk with thee in endearment. Then, whether I succeed or fail, nought matters but thee alone.

From the Valley of Vision Pg. 185

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.