By / May 21

Today’s question is how do pastors handle politics from the pulpit without communicating too much trust in Washington?

Well, I think the first step is standing up and making sure that your people recognize that the things that they are talking about or hearing about at the time are important, and they are. These are really significant issues, but they are not ultimately important. And so it is kind of—election time is a good time to teach people Matthew 6:33 to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness—literally his justice—and all these things will be added to you, which Jesus says that doesn’t mean that food and clothing and these things aren’t important—it means that the kingdom of God is ultimate. And so just taking the time to say that, and then taking the time to signal to your people that you are not—

What typically happens is really, really overtly political churches, they tend to become churches that aren’t taken seriously either politically or theologically because if your people start to get the feeling that what you are really doing is just taking your political issue and you are kind of using the preaching of the word in order to get to that political issue, then they are going to become cynical, and they are going to say this is just somebody who is trying to sell me a product. And so you have to be the sort of person who with the very way that you carry yourself you are speaking as one with authority and not as one of the political consultants. And that means standing up and speaking to political issues when those political issues are clearly revealed in scripture but spending time praying for people who are—I Timothy chapter 2—for kings and for all who are in authority and praying for them in a way that is not an announcement prayer.

I was in a church one time where people used to get up, and the prayers were really about whatever the programming was in the church. So the guy would get up and say, “Lord, as you know, we have our men’s breakfast this Saturday. And Lord, you know it’s at eight o’clock. And Lord, you know that registration is up until Wednesday at five o’clock, and we need everybody to turn in their registration ahead of time. We are going to have a great time.” And eventually people realized this guy isn’t praying, he’s announcing the men’s prayer breakfast, and he is using prayer to do that.

So you are not standing up and using your time of prayer in order to praise the people that you like and to bash the people that you don’t. But you are standing up and you are praying over time for all of your elected officials: for justice, for wisdom, for discernment. That tends to create a mood within the congregation that people eventually start to emulate.

And so the problem is political issues seem to be much more relevant to me in my life because it is what everybody is talking about around me all the time, especially as election time gets near, and so it’s easy to see it as becoming ultimate. You are coming in and saying no, it’s important, and here’s why it’s important because you have been called to live as citizens, and you are going to be held accountable as citizens. But this isn’t ultimate. It’s less about a particular strategy than it is about the mood you carry as pastor all the time.

By / Apr 29

One of the things that I hope to see us change is there are some people for instance who will address abortion when it is Sanctity of Human Life Day. They will address some of these issues, but they will address them only topically and all together. Now, I think of Christian citizenship on the Fourth of July: that’s fine and appropriate to have those special emphases days. And I think it’s good to step back and say okay, today we are going to talk about racial reconciliation because it is Racial Reconciliation Sunday, or something like that. But that can’t be all that we do. We have to be, as we are preaching through the text, we have to apply the text which means that we are coming through and we are saying where are my people not seeing this? How does this apply to—

So for instance one of the things that I am convicted about is that when it comes to the issue of abortion the devil is working in one of two ways: deception and accusation. So what he wants to do is to say to that young woman or to her parents—and it doesn’t matter whether or not that person says I am pro-life. It doesn’t matter what the ideas are that that person has—when you see the two lines on the pregnancy test, then what happens and what the devil wants to say is what he said in Genesis chapter 3, “You will not surely die.” This is going to solve this problem, and you are going to be able to get over it.

I read an article that just grieved me to the core of my being because it was by an abortion clinic worker who said people assume that the people who come in here are secularists and liberal progressives; they are not. She said most of the people who come into our abortion clinic are Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. And what they say is this: the Roman Catholics say I know—and they are not people who are saying oh, this isn’t a child; this is just a blob of tissue. These are people who say I know what I am doing is wrong, but I am going to go to confession; or I know what I am doing is wrong, but I have prayed to receive Christ and “once saved, always saved.” Now, that is the sort of deception that says, “Let us sin all the more that grace may abound.”

And then the devil wants to work at the level of accusation. So nobody is more pro-choice than the devil on the way into the abortion clinic, and no one is more pro-life than the devil on the way out of the abortion clinic because now he is turning and saying I know who you are. I know what you’ve done, and you stand accused before God.

When I look at the demographics and I realize in every single congregation you are going to have women in that congregation who have aborted. You are going to have men in that congregation who have empowered abortion. And then you have men and women in that congregation who are going to be placed at that moment of decision. You have got to speak to all three of those groups at the same time and speak to the one and say there is accountability before God. The devil is lying to you and deceiving you. So you speak to those who think they are too good for the gospel. And then you speak to those who think they are too bad for the gospel—who think when they say sinners they are talking about people who lose their temper in traffic; they are not talking about people who have aborted a child—to say no, if you are in Christ you have been crucified, you have been raised from the dead. So you speak to that explicitly and you get that out.

And the same thing is when you think about the ubiquity of pornography. I think we have had some really abstract preaching that talks in general terms that doesn’t really address the fact that we have people in our congregation right now who are just erasing their histories on their computer and assuming that that is erasing the history in their hearts. You have got to address that directly.

And if you are calling people to repentance—if you are talking to Zacchaeus you have to talk about stealing money. And if you are talking to the rich young ruler you have to talk about covetousness. So if you are not addressing ethical issues it’s not only that you are not discipling people; it’s also that you are not actually preaching the gospel. Because you have to get at—repent of what! Throw yourself on Christ for what reason? So you have to address those things. So I think that has to be in the ongoing ministry of the word. So you are preaching through any given text, and you are saying what is happening in this text, and how would the people that I am talking to find themselves in this same situation? I think that’s necessary.

By / Feb 17

I fear that evangelicals have won the battle for the Bible in the academy, but we have lost our awe of the Bible preached in our pulpits. Our greatest preaching weakness is not lack of sound exegetical methodology or broad theological understanding, but it is our failure to understand what is happening in the preaching moment. Many stroll to the pulpit to talk to their congregation about God. They don't really believe that in Christian preaching they are speaking for God.

When I teach Christian preaching and simply assert the testimony of the biblical narrative regarding what occurs when the Scripture is faithfully proclaimed, I am often met with looks of incredulity. Most of my students possess an unswerving commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, but they often shrink from the audacious claim of Scripture that the faithful preacher is the voice of Christ to a congregation. They are far more comfortable thinking about preaching as providing hearers with abstract information about God. I would agree that such a thought appears safer, but I would disagree that it constitutes what the Bible calls preaching.

In an “Introduction to Christian Preaching” class I taught, I referred to the famous quote D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones made in Preaching and Preachers on the primacy of preaching, when he asserted, “I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.” I naïvely thought the comment would be met with rousing affirmation in a confessionally conservative evangelical seminary. However, one student with a questioning look on his face slowly raised his hand and asked, “You don't really believe that, do you?” I replied, “Yes, I really do.” I still do believe it today. In fact, I believe preaching is an act of spiritual war at the apex of the cosmic battle.

In Romans 10, the apostle Paul asserts the necessity of worldwide proclamation of the gospel. He argues that God is at work in the world saving sinners, Jew and Gentile, by grace and not legalism. In Romans 10:13, Paul provides the promise: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He follows this promise with a series of rhetorical questions. First, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:14a, NASB). Second, “How will they believe in him whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14b). Third, “And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14c). Fourth, “How will they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15a). The logic is clear: Preachers are sent, they preach, people hear Christ as they hear the preacher's sermon, they believe, and they call on him in faith. Romans 10:17 offers a summarizing conclusion of this stunning claim about what happens in preaching, ” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.”

In The Pillar New Testament Commentary: Romans, Leon Morris explains that in Romans 10:14, “The point is that Christ is present in the preachers; to hear them is to hear him (Luke 10:16), and the people ought to believe when they hear him.” In faithful preaching of the word of God, the listener is not simply hearing about Christ, they are hearing the word of Christ. Christ himself speaks through his feeble but faithful preachers. Salvation comes when his voice is heard, and the listener responds, not to the preacher, but to Christ in faith. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul commends the church in Thessalonica saying, “…because when you received the message about God that you heard from us, you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the message of God, which also works effectively in you believers.” To the Corinthian church enamored with trained rhetorical eloquence, Paul states, though he came to them, “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling,” his proclamation among them was “a powerful demonstration by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:3-4).

Jesus was the preacher par excellence, and his message, the message of his kingdom, was urgent. Luke records the Galilean crowds pleading with Jesus to stay and continue his ministry of healing and exorcism, to which he responds, “I must proclaim the good news about the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because I was sent for this purpose,” (Luke 4:43). Jesus elucidates that preaching is the preeminent necessity because it was the ministry to which he was ordained; and, further, his message was the presence of the kingdom in his own person. The word of the kingdom (i.e. the preaching of the gospel) was even more important than the miraculous signs of the kingdom. Jesus performed miracles but they were subordinate to his preaching ministry. I fear some present day evangelical preachers do not believe Jesus in this essential matter and would trade their pulpit for the ability to heal the sick without a moment of hesitation?

After his resurrection Jesus continues his work in the world by calling and gifting men to preach the word. Jesus’ apostles possess the apostolic sign gifts but they minister in the same way Jesus did, recognizing the primacy of preaching. After healing a man lame from birth Peter asked, “Why are you amazed at this? Or why do you stare at us, as though we had made him walk by our own power or godliness?” (Acts 3:12). Peter immediately transitions to preaching, explaining that God had already spoken to them “by the mouth of his holy prophets,” (Acts 3:21) and is now speaking to them about Christ and his kingdom. The religious leaders are filled with rage, not about the healing, but about the bold preaching and “ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” (Acts 4:18). The disciples respond by praying for more boldness in preaching, and by continuing to preach in the name of Christ with boldness (4:29, 31). The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the final word, ushered in a new dawn of global gospel preaching (Matt. 28:16-20, Mark 13:10, Rom. 10:18, Heb. 1:1-3).

Evangelicals spend a great deal of time talking about the mechanics and delivery of sermons but such talks are of little value among preachers who have lost a sense of the glory of what happens in the preaching moment. In fact, I believe many, if not most, of the problems in contemporary evangelical preaching would be rectified by rightly understanding what is at stake in Christian preaching. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “True preaching, after all, is God acting. It is not just a man uttering words; it is God using him.” Do you believe that? I find many evangelicals are committed to biblical inerrancy and have sound theology, but possess a casual attitude toward preaching. The difference between understanding the preaching task as identifying with the people and talking about God and as standing under the authority of God and preaching his word as his voice to the congregation is profound.

One way in which a minimized view of preaching is evident is in contemporary willingness to accept or even prefer video preaching or dramatic reenactments to flesh-and-blood sermonic proclamation. A few years ago, when Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ movie was released, I was stunned to hear an evangelical leader I deeply respect pronounce, “This is the greatest evangelistic tool in the history of the church.” The attitude seems to be that big budget films are a more powerful medium than preaching for conveying the gospel message. But, as Edmund Clowney argued in Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, “It is deeply flawed in its conclusion at this very point: the presence of Jesus. An actor pleads with the viewer to come to him and to trust in him. The effort to give reality beyond the preached word fails as fiction. The actor is not Jesus.”

It is also increasingly common in some churches to provide the sermon in corporate worship via video rather than a live preacher. The thought is that some men are exceptionally gifted preachers and the people will benefit more from hearing them even if it is by means of video. What is striking, as Carl Trueman has noted, is that none of the churches providing video preaching also provide music via video. Some musicians, choirs and praise teams are more gifted than others, right? The communal uniqueness of song in our worship gatherings is ordinarily acknowledged but we have relegated preaching to a simple function of conveying information. Actors and disembodied sermons are inadequate imitations of the genuine face-to-face gospel utterance described as preaching in the Scripture. The face-to-faceness of preaching is the reason D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones disliked tape-recorded sermons, referring to them as a “peculiar and special abomination” because, in his thinking, they sever the living transaction between preacher and congregation.

Every person lives based on an eschatology. We all fit today's decisions into a story that is headed somewhere. Biblical preaching confronts rival eschatologies. Simply passing on information about God abstracted from the biblical storyline that centers on Jesus is inadequate and dangerous, because listeners simply incorporate the information into their existing eschatology. All the truths of the Bible fit together in Jesus. Faithful expository preachers call people to abandon the rival eschatology they are ordering their lives on, and trust the gospel story through faith in Christ and his kingdom. Preachers do not echo the story of any culture but rather proclaim the word that comes from outside of us—the word of God. To the degree the preacher is faithful, however weak and unimpressive, his preaching of Christ and him crucified is God speaking to his people. As Gregory Edward Reynolds explains in The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures, “The face-to-face presence of the preacher is a reminder of what is coming (Rev. 22:4). It is a down payment on eschatological glory.”

It seems to me that many evangelical preachers are focused on countless lesser things to the neglect of the primary purpose for which they were called. We are right to engage the culture, pursue righteousness through the political structures, and contend for morality in a culture of decadence. But nothing is a greater priority, or will have more influence on the church and the world than faithful proclamation.

Preaching is dangerous—an indispensable act of spiritual war. Martin Luther explained the cosmic combat in the way: “Indeed, to preach the word of God is nothing less than to bring upon oneself all the furies of hell and of Satan, and therefore also of . . . every power of the world. It is the most dangerous kind of life to throw oneself in the way of Satan’s many teeth” (“On the Councils and the Church,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings). I fear Luther’s words sound melodramatic to many contemporary evangelicals. It is a hollow victory to win the battle for the Bible in the academy only to domesticate it in our pulpits.