Category Archives: Preacher’s study
“We are frequently told, indeed, that the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things. They may come to seem common to him, because they are customary. As the average man breathes the air and basks in the sunshine without ever a thought that it is God in his goodness who makes his sun to rise on him, though he is evil, and sends rain to him, though he is unjust; so you may come to handle even the furniture of the sanctuary with never a thought above the gross early materials of which it is made.
The words which tell you of God’s terrible majesty or of his glorious goodness may come to be mere words to you – Hebrew and Greek words, with etymologies, and inflections, and connections in sentences. The reasonings which establish to you the mysteries of his saving activities may come to be to you mere logical paradigms, with premises and conclusions, fitly framed, no doubt, and triumphantly cogent, but with no further significance to you than their formal logical conclusiveness.
God’s stately stepping in his redemptive processes may become to you a mere series of facts of history, curiously interplaying to the production of social and religious conditions, and pointing mayhap to an issue which we may shrewdly conjecture: but much like other facts occurring in time and space, which may come to your notice. It is your great danger.
But it is your great danger, only because it is your great privilege. Think of what your privilege is when your greatest danger is that the great things of religion may become common to you!
Other men, oppressed by the hard conditions of life, sunk in the daily struggle for bread perhaps, distracted at any rate by the dreadful drag of the world upon them and the awful rush of the world’s work, find it hard to get time and opportunity so much as to pause and consider whether there be such things as God, and religion, and salvation from the sin that compasses them about and holds them captive. The very atmosphere of your life is these things; you breathe them in at every pore; they surround you, encompass you, press in upon you from every side. It is all in danger of becoming common to you! God forgive you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God! … Are you, by this constant contact with divine things, growing in holiness, becoming every day more and more men of God? If not, you are hardening!”
- B.B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students (P&R). Address delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary on Oct. 4, 1911.
On Fridays I’m often reminded how many readers of TSS are preaching pastors. Thank you for your ministry diligence and I thank you for your readership. This post is for you.
In the sermon “All of Grace” on Ephesians 2:8 (#3479), Charles Spurgeon recounted an early preaching experience with his grandfather and reminds preachers to “tell them that again,” a reminder to ephasize the fundamental truths of Scripture (like the Cross) over and over again!
“I am led to remember this by the fact that a somewhat singular circumstance, recorded in my memory, connects this text [Eph. 2:8] with myself and my grandfather. It is now long years ago. I was announced to preach in a certain country town in the Eastern Counties. It does not often happen to me to be behind time, for I feel that punctuality is one of those little virtues which may prevent great sins. But we have no control over railway delays, and breakdowns; and so it happened that I reached the appointed place considerably behind the time.
Like sensible people, they had begun their worship, and had proceeded as far as the sermon. As I neared the chapel, I perceived that someone was in the pulpit preaching, and who should the preacher be but my dear and venerable grandfather! He saw me as I came in at the front door and made my way up the aisle, and at once he said, ‘Here comes my grandson! He may preach the gospel better than I can, but he cannot preach a better gospel; can you, Charles?’
As I made my way through the throng, I answered, ‘You can preach better than I can. Pray go on.’ But he would not agree to that. I must take the sermon, and so I did, going on with the subject there and then, just where he left off. ‘There,’ said he, ‘I was preaching on ‘For by grace are ye saved.’ I have been setting forth the source and fountainhead of salvation; and I am now showing them the channel of it, through faith. Now you take it up, and go on.’
I am so much at home with these glorious truths that I could not feel any difficulty in taking from my grandfather the thread of his discourse, and joining my thread to it, so as to continue without a break. Our agreement in the things of God made it easy for us to be joint-preachers of the same discourse. I went on with ‘through faith,’ and then I proceeded to the next point, ‘and that not of yourselves.’
Upon this I was explaining the weakness and inability of human nature, and the certainty that salvation could not be of ourselves, when I had my coat-tail pulled, and my well-beloved grandsire took his turn again. ‘When I spoke of our depraved human nature,’ the good old man said, ‘I know most about that, dear friends’; and so he took up the parable, and for the next five minutes set forth a solemn and humbling description of our lost estate, the depravity of our nature, and the spiritual death under which we were found.
When he had said his say in a very gracious manner, his grandson was allowed to go on again, to the dear old man’s great delight; for now and then he would say, in a gentle tone, ‘Good! Good!’ Once he said, ‘Tell them that again, Charles.’ and, of course, I did tell them that again. It was a happy exercise to me to take my share in bearing witness to truths of such vital importance, which are so deeply impressed upon my heart.
While announcing this text I seem to hear that dear voice, which has been so long lost to earth, saying to me, “TELL THEM THAT AGAIN.” I am not contradicting the testimony of forefathers who are now with God. If my grandfather could return to earth, he would find me where he left me, steadfast in the faith, and true to that form of doctrine which was once delivered to the saints.”
Today’s post is for communicators who know the clarity a John Owen quote brings to a complex biblical topic or the punch a C.H. Spurgeon quote adds to application points. My goal today is to encourage evangelists, authors, bloggers, preachers in their work of reaching lost souls and edifying redeemed souls.
I will address various related questions: Are electronic books and printed books friends or enemies? How can I find the best electronic books? How do I search those works effectively? How do I find quotes on my topic? How do I best handle the quote in hand?
I regularly express my appreciation for paper books AND electronic books when it comes to sermon preparation. A useful library balances both. Electronic books provide a technological enhancement to printed books. Sometimes I want to search the Works of John Owen in a jiff (electronic), and sometimes I want to chain off several weeks to ice pick my way through an entire volume (printed). The electronic text enhances the printed copies by making them easier to navigate, but reading the full text of Communion with God on a computer screen would surely lead to a hyper-extended retina.
Lessons from the life of John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom was nicknamed “Golden Mouth” and stands as one of the most famous Greek preachers in church history. I return to his life frequently to be reminded of some golden lessons.
1. Earnest education in the grammatical-historical interpretation of Scripture. Plaguing the exegesis of the early church preachers (the Patristics) is an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. The move away from allegorical to the grammatical-historical was attempted by several but matured primarily under the scholarship of Diodore of Tarsus and it was this man who passed this method of interpretation to Chrysostom in Antioch. Contrary to most schools, the Atiochene school was “built on a method of interpretation rather than a theological tendency” (Old, Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 2:169).
Training in the grammatical-historical method shows itself clearly in the fruits of Chrysostom’s preaching, reflecting a high view of the authority of Scripture. “The preaching of the Word of God is authoritative and efficacious because it is God’s Word, not the preacher’s. Here is the foundation of the passion and the power of great preaching. It is for this reason that the great preachers have preached and their congregations have heard them” (Old, 2:185). Only a conviction of Scripture’s authority forces the preacher to interpret carefully. Chrysostom held a high view of Scripture.
2. Secular liberal arts education. Amazingly, Chrysostom was both educated by one of the great Christian exegetes of his era and one of the great secular orators. His widowed (but wealthy) mother sent John to study under Libanius, a pagan professor famed for his rhetorician in Constantinople and Nicomedia. It seems to be an odd decision for a Christian mother but the fruit of this secular learning – a strong imagination, skills in clear communication and a powerful literary talent – are all evident throughout John’s later work (see our excerpt on spiritual warfare from last week). Hughes Oliphant Old writes, “Metaphors and similes seem to come to this preacher all quite naturally and without the least sort of effort” (Old, 2:193).
This blending of the secular/pagan and Christian educations was beneficial. Getting good exegetical and theological training is obvious. But those seeking to preach are encouraged to also seek a secular degree in liberal arts, too. “One of the reasons John Chrysostom achieve such distinction as a preacher was because he mastered both classical oratory as it was so brilliantly taught by Libanius and the principles of biblical interpretation as taught with no less luster by Diodore” (Old, 2:172). The diversity of training provides the preacher excellent skills in critical thinking, communicating in general and specifically in speaking the Gospel to fellow classmates who represent the diverse colors of culture (homosexual worldview, humanism, naturalism, atheism, agnosticism, theological liberalism, feminism, etc.).
3. Preaching against the sins of culture. In our day, when church-going Christians are in the minority, we are told the church should resemble the world in order to get non-Christians in the door. Chrysostom knew better. Christianity in his time was also the minority, lived among a majority of pagans in Antioch. Crowds of pagans would gather to hear good oratory and so Chrysostom’s sermons were well-attended by non-Christians. This did not stop him from taking the cultural sins and idols head-on. And he encouraged his people to live differently than the culture around them, to evangelize their neighbors by their actions before evangelizing with words. Chrysostom encourages us to evangelize our culture by being radically different.
4. Fighting worldliness. Chrysostom wrote on the topic of fasting: “Fasting is, as much as lies in us, an imitation of the angles, a contemning of things present, a school of prayer, a nourishment of the soul, a bridle of the mouth, an abatement of concupiscence: it mollifies rage, it appeases anger, it calms the tempests of nature, it excites reason, it clears the mind, it disburthens the flesh, it chases away night-pollutions, it frees from head-ache. By fasting, a man gets composed behaviour, free utterance of his tongue, right apprehensions of his mind.” Chrysostom understood the benefits of fasting and taught his people to prefer godly sorrow over worldly joy. John challenged his congregation to fast as an offensive against the idol-saturated Antioch. His asceticism and preaching against extravagance infuriated emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia. Despite the mocking of the day, great and earnest preachers perceive the sinfulness of worldliness and warn souls.
5. Preaching plainly. I don’t suggest that John was a plain preacher. He was trained under one of the greatest Pagan orators in Libanius and his sermons bear the watermark of oratorical greatness. Whether a true offer or not, it is said Libanius eyed his prized student Chrysostom as his replacement. Obviously, Chrysostom could have preached with the greatest eloquence of his age. However, he chose rather to open Scripture in a simple manner, accessible to all of his hearers. “His plainness of speech gave great offense to the beautiful and imperious Eudoxia, the worldly consort of Arcadius. This hatred of the empress and the envy and anger of many of the clergy were the causes of Chrysostom’s deposition and banishment” (Dargan, A History of Preaching, 1:90).
Chrysostom preached to sinners in the “real world.” He touched understood the lives of his hearers, he was experientially sensitive and these qualities made a great impact. “The Shakespeare of preachers has not appeared,” John Broadus wrote in 1907. “But why should he not some day appear? One who can touch every chord of human feeling, treat every interest of human life, draw illustration from every object and relation of the known universe, and use all to gain acceptance and obedience for the gospel of salvation. No preacher has ever come nearer this than Chrysostom, perhaps none, on the whole, so near” (Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching, p. 78).
6. Late start. Chrysostom, who died at 60, took to the pulpit in Antioch at the age of 39. He had been educated in the Liberal Arts, worked in law and served as a deacon for several years. He had many years of Christian service behind him and a great knowledge of the world when he rose to the primary preacher in Antioch. But he was also a considerably old man when he got his start. This teaches preachers a bit about patience. You may know God has called you to preach His Word but now you are in school or working a secular job or otherwise wondering what God has in store. Chrysostom reminds us that God’s timing may come later than we want but He is sovereignly preparing us for ministry no matter where we are. We are called to commune with God and experience life in the “real world” in preparation for our future tasks. John Broadus writes, “In our impatient age and country, when so many think time spent in preparation is time lost, it is well to remember that the two most celebrated preachers of the early Christian centuries began to preach, Chrysostrom at thirty-nine, and Augustine at thirty-six” (Broadus, p. 76). Nearly 40 years of preparation for 18 years of fruitful ministry (12 years in Antioch and 6 in Constantinople). However in these 18 years, Chrysostom preached daily and only Spurgeon has left more sermons in print. Be patient in the preparation.
7. Sensitive to the cultural events. One of the most powerful experiences of Chrysostom’s ministry in Antioch occurred in 386. The people believing emperor Theodosius was overtaxing them rioted and destroyed imperial statues in the Antioch. Such an act brought swift and harsh response from the emperor including many arrests and killings. Even before the reprisal took place, the people knew they had sinned and were in deep trouble.
Amidst the upheaval in Antioch as the city awaited certain reprisal from the emperor, Chrysostom asked his city who they feared more. Do they fear the wrath of the emperor more than the wrath of God?
Chrysostom immediately began preaching sermons we now know as the “Sermons on the Statues” and initiated a 40 day fast for the city. Of his sermon content we are told, “At one time his object here is to console a people struggling with present distress; at another, to strengthen minds that were sinking under the extremity of danger; and above all, by repeated admonition, to persuade the people of Antioch, on occasion of the threatened calamities, to correct the vices and to wipe away the crimes that had thus provoked God’s wrath; which endeavor on the part of Chrysostom certainly ended in results agreeable to his desire, as he sometimes acknowledges” (Preface to the Benedictine edition).
In one sermon Chrysostom said,
“How then is it any thing but absurd, to submit to the greatest hardships, when an Emperor enjoins it; but when God commands nothing grievous nor difficult, but what is very tolerable and easy, to despise or to deride it, and to advance custom as an excuse? Let us not, I entreat, so far despise our own safety, but let us fear God as we fear man. I know that ye shudder at hearing this, but what deserves to be shuddered at is that ye do not pay even so much respect to God; and that whilst ye diligently observe the Emperor’s decrees, ye trample under foot those which are divine, and which have come down from heaven; and consider diligence concerning these a secondary object. For what apology will there be left for us, and what pardon, if after so much admonition we persist in the same practices.”
Chrysostom, like Jesus, used the climate of the day to point souls towards the holiness and wrath of God and to encourage repentance (Luke 13:1-5)? When preachers today use 9/11, tsunamis and hurricanes to point souls towards God they walk in the pattern set by Christ and followed by Chrysostom. So preachers, take advantage of the times. Be acquainted with the conditions of your culture and put them to use spiritually in calling sinners to repentance.
8. Preaching as a prophet calling God’s people to repentance. Chrysostom did not hesitate to call professing Christians to repentance. In this sense he was prophetic. “One can hardly avoid the observation that if he was everything a Greek orator was supposed to be, he was also everything a Hebrew prophet was supposed to be. With all the passion of Elijah he confronted God’s people with their sins; with all the eloquence of Isaiah he called his congregation to repentance” (Old, 2:195). This certainly flows from an understanding of the age he preached and the specific temptations of his people. The great preachers seek to pull their congregation out of their sins to humble them and lead them to the Cross. A failure to lead a church out of a particular sin leads to serious corporate troubles (see Rev. 2:1-3:22).
9. Errors. Chrysostom leaves a great legacy to follow but not without errors. While watching the busy city of Antioch, John “sharpened that penetrating knowledge of human nature,” but would later move to a monastery, a decision that would certainly hamper his (and his followers) sensitivity to the surrounding culture (Broadus, p. 73). While not allegorizing, he is known for twisting passages to suit his own needs. His emphasis on celibacy, transubstantiation, monasticism are all quite unfortunate though compared to his contemporaries Chrysostom held a cautious and discerning Mariology.
But most unfortunate, Chrysostom said far more about ethics and works than about Christ and redemption in the Cross. Too frequently readers of his sermons will find only momentary glimpses of the Cross. Were it not for his concluding benediction, Jesus Christ would be altogether absent from many of his sermons.
It does no good making a list of errors if we don’t humbly recognize we have our own. Church history repeats one general theme: Even the greatest preacher will not escape the errors of his day. We take lessons from Chrysostom’s life tempered with the sober reality that the Patristic era of church history contains many grievous errors. It will prove beneficial to pray and ask God this question: What errors of my age – those errors commonly held by my friends and associates – what of these errors have I unknowingly fallen? The errors which seem so obvious centuries later go unseen at the time.
The beauty of history is that we take the good and leave the bad. From the fruit of Chrysostom’s life we can return to our ministries with a basket filled with rich lessons.
[For more information on the preaching of John Chrysostom see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2, The Patristic Age (Eerdmans: 1998) pp. 167-222.]
By John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787)
I’ve been working on a review of The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (more commonly known as A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, published in 1782 and reprinted by Christian Focus in 2002). Taking the past month to become acquainted with this remarkable man has been a great blessing to my own soul. Brown was the son of a basket weaver, whose poor Christian parents were both dead by the time he was 11-years old. He became an orphan shepherd. Although every circumstance in Brown’s life pointed towards a rough future of poverty and ignorance, he would teach himself NT Greek! Under the sovereign direction of God, being self-taught from the well of Scripture, this man would become one of the most prominent theological professors, writers, preachers and theologians in Scottish history, producing a long-revered Bible dictionary and a massive study Bible (The Self-Interpreter’s Bible). Most striking in his life, letters and books is Brown’s vast and encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture. The following is an excerpt from an address given to students of theology published in the preface of his systematic theology. I would encourage pastors to print this out and return to it frequently. Blessings! Tony
“See that your minds be deeply impressed with the nature, extent, and importance of your ministerial work, — that therein it is required of you, as ambassadors for Christ, as stewards of the mysteries and manifold grace of God, — to be faithful; — to serve the Lord with your spirit, and with much humility in the gospel of his Son: — to testify repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, not keeping back or shunning to declare every part of the counsel of God, or any profitable instruction, reproof, or encouragement; and not moved with any reproach, persecution, hunger, or nakedness, — to be ready not only to be bound, but to die for the name of the Lord Jesus, in order to finish your course with joy. Bearing with the infirmities of the weak, and striving together in prayer, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, and your message provided by God, and made acceptable to your hearers, you must labor with much fear and trembling, determined to know, to glory in, and to make known, nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified, — preaching the gospel, not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, as men-pleasers, but with great plainness of speech, in demonstration of the Spirit and with power, – speaking the things which are freely given you by God, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but in words which the Holy Ghost teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual, — as having the mind of Christ, always triumphing in Him, — and making manifest the savor of the knowledge of him in every place, that you may be a sweet savor of Christ in them who are saved, and in them who perish; — as of sincerity, as of God, in the sight of God, speaking in Christ, and through the mercy of God, not fainting, but renouncing the hidden things of dishonesty; — not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, or corrupting the truth, but manifesting the truth to every man’s conscience, as in the sight of God; — not preaching yourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and yourselves servants to the church for his sake, always bearing about his dying, that his life may be manifested in you; — and knowing the terror of the Lord, and deeply impressed with the account which you and your hearers must give to him of your whole conduct in the day of judgment, — awed by his infinite authority, constrained and inflamed by his love, you must persuade men, beseeching them to be reconciled unto God, and making yourselves manifest to God and to their conscience, — and, as their edification requires, changing your voice, and turning yourselves every way, and becoming all things to all men, in order to gain them to Christ, — jealous over them with a godly jealousy, in order to espouse them to him as chaste virgins, — travailing in birth, till he be formed in their hearts. You must take heed to your ministry which you have received in the Lord, what you may fulfill it; — stir up the gifts which were given you, — give yourselves wholly to reading, exhortation, and doctrine; — and perseveringly take heed to yourselves and to the doctrine which you preach, that you may save yourselves and them that hear you; — watching for their souls, as they who do, and must give an account for them to God, — rightly dividing the word of truth, and giving every man his portion in due season, faithfully warning every man with tears night and day, teaching every man, particularly young ones, and laboring to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus, — and warring, not after the flesh, nor with carnal weapons, but with such as are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds and casting down imaginations, and subduing every thought and affection to the obedience of Christ. Having him for the end of your conversation, and holding fast the form of sound words in faith in, and love to him, — not entangling yourselves with the affairs of this life, nor ashamed of the Lord, or of his cause or prisoners, but ready to endure hardships as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and to endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they may obtain salvation with eternal glory; — ye must go forth without the camp, bearing his reproach, and, exposed as spectacles of suffering to angels and men, must not faint under your tribulations, but feed the flock of God which he has purchased with his own blood, and over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, — preaching the word in season and out of season, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with all long-suffering and doctrine, — taking the oversight of your people, not by restraint, but willingly, not for filthy lucre of worldly gain, or larger stipends, but of a ready mind, — neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but as examples to the flock, — exercising yourselves to have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards man, — having a good conscience, willing in all things to live honestly, — exercised to godliness, — kindly affectioned, disinterested, holy, just, and unblamable, — prudent examples of the believers in conversations [daily life], in charity, in faith and purity, — fleeing youthful lusts, and following after righteousness, peace, faith, charity, — not striving, but being gentle to all men, — in meekness, instructing them who oppose themselves, avoiding foolish and unlearned questions, and old wives’ fables, — fleeing from perverse disputings and worldly mindedness, as most dangerous snares; and following after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness; — fighting the good fight of faith, and laying hold on eternal life, — keeping your trust of gospel truth and ministerial office, and, without partiality or precipitancy, committing the same to faithful men, who may be able to teach others; — and, in fine, faithfully laboring, in the Lord, to try, and confute, and censure false teachers, restore such as have been overtaken in a fault in the spirit of meekness, — and having compassion on them, to pull them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh, and never conniving at, or partaking with an in their sins. Who is sufficient for these things? May your sufficiency be of God; and as your days are, so may your strength be. (Ezek. 2:7, 3:9, 17-21, 33:7-9; Isa. 58:1; Jer. 1:17-18, 15:19-20; Mic. 3:8; Mal. 2:6-7; Matt. 10:16-39, 19:28-29, 20:25-28, 23:3-12, 24:42-51, 28:18-20; Acts 18:24-28, 20:18-35, 24:16, 26:16-23; 1 Cor. 2:1-5,9,12-13, ch. 1-5, 9, 12-14; 2 Cor. ch. 2-6, 10-13; Rom. 1:9,16, 9:1-2, 10:1, ch. 12 and 15; Gal. 1:8-16, 4:19; Eph. 3:7-9, 4:11-15, 6:19-20; Col. 4:7,17, 1:23-29, 2:1-2; 1 Thes. ch. 2, 3, 5:12; 1 Tim. ch. 3-4; 2 Tim. ch. 1-3; Heb. 13:7,17-18; 1 Pet. 4:10-11, 5:1-4; Jude 22, 23; Rev. ch. 2, 3, 11:3-7, 14:6-11).”
- John Brown of Haddington, “Address to Students of Divinity,” in The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (Christian Focus: 1782/2002), pp. viii-xi.
Thursday morning (4/12/07)
Breakout seminar #1
Rick Gamache: “Watch Your Devotional Life”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – Over the past few months I have come to see my pastor Rick Gamache as the most gifted leader and preacher I have had the privilege of seeing up close. And although I see him all the time, I wasn’t about to miss his breakout session in the Pastors College classroom. No regrets.
As he and associate pastor Mark Alderton preach through Acts on Sunday morning at Sovereign Grace Fellowship (Minneapolis, MN), they have especially pointed out the correlations between the Apostolic church and the contemporary Sovereign Grace church. Recently a sermon on Acts 6 outlined the role of deacons and thus the role of pastors. Acts 6:1-7 also became the primary text for Gamache’s breakout seminar, Watch your Devotional Life: The Pastor’s Communion with God. The text reads,
1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Pastors are mainly devoted to preaching and prayer. So the exhortation is for pastors to watch their preaching and prayer. This particular session was an exhortation for pastors to guard their prayer life.
Only three out of 10 pastors pray for 15 minutes each day. But here in Acts “the twelve” call out seven Spirit-filled deacons to care for the widows. This would free the Apostles to “devote” themselves to their leadership/pastoral task. The term “devote” (προσκαρτερησομεν) here is a strong word in the text. Even at the expense of other ministry opportunities, they were to “devote” themselves to a narrowed focus.
This priority is especially astonishing given the importance needy widows occupy in the New Testament. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). By finding deacons to care for the widows highlights the significance of prayer in the pastoral life. The feeding of the widows was a threat to the Apostles — not because it was intrinsically a bad ministry — but because it hindered their primary duty. This reveals that the early leaders of the church did not have short prayer times in mind since it demanded a clearing of the schedule. They spent a lot of time at preaching and public/private prayer. This made it necessary to say “no” to other ministry opportunities. For example, being devoted to my wife does not mean I spend all my time with her. But it does mean she is a chief priority and because of this I must say ‘no’ to many good things. The same is true of prayer in the pastoral life.
Not only does Scripture call us to be “devoted” to prayer (Acts 1:14, 2:42), but Paul commands us to prayer (Rom. 12:12, Col. 4:2). A life devoted to prayer is the call of all Christians, and especially pastors. We need to watch it! Good ministry opportunities crowd in and demand time, but we must not let ministry become its own worst enemy. C.H. Spurgeon once said in a sermon,
“Sometimes we think we are too busy to pray. That is a great mistake, for praying is a saving of time. You remember Luther’s remark, ‘I have so much to do today that I shall never get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.’ … If we have no time we must make time, for if God has given us time for secondary duties, He must have given us time for primary ones, and to draw near to Him is a primary duty, and we must let nothing set in on one side. You other engagements will run smoothly if you do not forget your engagement with God” (Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. 18).
It would not be a Sovereign Grace conference unless every session was connected to the Cross. Gamache reminded us that our access to God in prayer comes through the work of Christ alone (Heb. 10:19-22). We must confess our inability to draw near to God based upon our own merits. The holiness of God does not consume us because of the Cross!
Neglecting the invitation is spiritual foolishness. We are called to ask, seek and knock (Luke 11:9-13). God promises to act when we pray. There is a cause-and-effect relationship to prayer. God says, “I will let your prayers effect My universe.” Amazing! Spurgeon writes: “We do not bow the knee merely because it is a duty, and a commendable spiritual exercise, but because we believe that, into the ear of the eternal God, we speak our wants, and that His ear is linked with a heart of feeling for us, and a hand working on our behalf. To us, true prayer is true power” (An All-Around Ministry, p. 13).
Psalm 50 shows the relationship of a breathtaking God and our drawing near to Him. In the first 14 verses we see a glimpse of the power and majesty of God. In verse 15 we are summoned: “and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” When we pray, we get the help and God gets the glory.
Pursuing the ministry without prayer is pride. Pastors are called to labor to “save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). The harvest is ready but the workers are few (Luke 10:1-8). Without God working in me, I will watch sinners run headlong to hell and my heart will be unmoved. God must be at work in our ministry and affections. Pastors are called to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24) and work for “your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25). These callings make the pastor feel really needy! We are incapable of eternal fruit without the work of God. Thus, “Prayer is a means of crushing my self-sufficiency.”
“My life as a pastor is a life of war.” Seasons of blessing can lull us into a peacetime mentality. We can easily forget our dependence. “We will not drift into prayer but we will drift into prayerlessness.”
Gamache concluded with some practical advice for watching our prayer lives.
1. Structured and unstructured prayers. Sometimes we should just spill our hearts out to our Daddy. And there are times prayers will be shaped by prayer folders. Structure your prayer around Scripture as you are reading. There is a connection between prayer and the abiding Word in our hearts. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Also, there is a connection between knowing His will in Scripture and praying according to that will: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). Also, the Word and prayer are interconnected because the Word produces faith (Rom. 10:17) and that faith is essential to prayer (Matt. 21:22).
2. Expressing deep needs and high joy in prayer. We praise God in prayer as He meets us in our darkest despair and when He meets us in our delights!
3. Long and short prayers. Quick outbursts of prayer throughout the day and longer prayers that “linger.” Spurgeon says, “pray until you pray.” Linger in prayer until you enter into the spirit of prayer. Pray for prayer.
4. Spontaneous and scheduled prayers. Learn to pray throughout the day and also plan your prayers.
In all, it was an excellent breakout session and I was blessed to be there. Prayer is no strength of mine and I’m better encouraged and equipped to pursue prayer more faithfully. I’m motivated to excel, not out of guilt or condemnation of failure, but because prayer is our access to the fountain of God’s blessing!
But what most comes to mind when I recall this session is that prayer is the means of “crushing my self-sufficiency.” And prayer seems to be an excellent gauge of my understanding of the immensity of the pastoral task and my own utter dependency upon God.
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:
We cannot talk of Owen this week without hearing from him. A while back I found this excellent encouragement for preachers going into Sunday. Go deeper and deeper into Scripture. Go deeper than your sources. I’m certain he would say, ‘go deeper than John Owen’ …
“The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation [in Roman Catholic interpretation]. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest so to do. No man of ingenuity who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretense; for it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely; in the latter they really differ, and that frequently. Those who seem most earnestly to press this dogma upon us are those of the church of Rome; and yet it is hard to find one learned man among them who hath undertaken to expound or write commentaries on the Scripture, but on all occasions he gives us the different senses, expositions, and interpretations of the fathers, of the same places and texts, and that where any difficulty occurs in a manner perpetually. But the pretense of the authoritative determination of the fathers in points of religion hath been so disproved, and the vanity of it so fully discovered, as that it is altogether needless farther to insist upon it. … Of those who designedly wrote comments and expositions on any part of the Scripture, Origen was the first, whose fooleries and mistakes, occasioned by the prepossession of his mind with platonical philosophy, confidence of his own great abilities (which, indeed, were singular and admirable), with the curiosity of a speculative mind, discouraged not others from endeavoring with more sobriety and better success to write entire expositions on some parts of the Scripture: such among the Greeks were Chrysostom, Theodoret, Aretine, Oecumenius, Theophylact; and among the Latins, Jerome, Ambrose, Austin, and others. These have been followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages. Especially since the Reformation hath the work been carried on with general success, and to the great advantage of the church; yet hath it not proceeded so far but that the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavor the contribution of farther light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof.”
- John Owen (1678), Works 4:227-228
Part 11: Concluding Thoughts, part 2
Finally, the conclusion of the Puritan Study comes today. I wish I could continue on in this study but I must move on. Thank you for all the very kind emails and helpful suggestions throughout this series. Seeing others come to a deeper appreciation of the Puritan literature has been an incredible encouragement to me.
Here is a collection of final thoughts …
I think it’s worth noting again that in this series of blog posts I have emphasized the most important Puritan resources for expositional research. Other Puritans are useful on a number of issues.
I like Baxter, Burgess, Watson and other Puritans. But these and other Puritans simply have not helped me when I’m under pressure to preach and write expositionally on a certain text. Spurgeon, Bunyan, Owen, Boston, Manton and the men I have promoted, however, have proven faithful in these situations.
If you are more interested in systematic theology, or apologetics, or church history, you will find other Puritans to be of great help. Here, we were concerned with the most effective Puritans for expositional sermon preparation and ranked these authors in order of availability and usefulness.
I was hoping to use this series to begin introducing you to the Dutch ‘Puritans’ (they are not really called ‘Puritans,’ but ‘the Dutch Second Reformation Divines’). These authors ministered during the same period of time as the English Puritans we know well, but their works were originally published in Dutch. Thanks to the recent work of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society, these works are now being made available in updated English. After some time reading these Dutch works, it’s clear these authors were as mature and experiential as their English counterparts.
Among others, the Dutch ‘Puritans’ include Wilhelmus à Brakel, Willem Teellinck and Herman Witsius (whose works have been in English for a few years now). Teellinck’s book on living a holy life (The Path of True Godliness) is very valuable and will be the subject of an upcoming book review.
These Dutch authors are very powerful and, although many of them will not be indexed and easily accessed, an introduction to their works was warranted at the end of this Puritan study. More information this winter …
Tough and Tender
John Piper once said, “one of my great desires is to see Christian pastors be as strong and durable as redwood trees, and as tender and fragrant as a field of clover.” This ideal finds its origin in the words and works of Jesus Himself. He knew when to be tough and when to be tender. He was strong and resolute but loving, kind, and compassionate, too. Many Puritans remind me of men who were uncompromising and stable in their convictions. They were a forest of redwood trees. But these preachers often displayed a compassionate tenderness like a fragrant field of clovers, too. An excellent pattern for preachers today.
The Presence of God
Many things draw me to the Puritans, but one of the most important is their pursuit of God. They see the Psalms as a blueprint for the Christian life – striving and praying for the presence of God to draw near (see Pss. 16, 42, 73). You can spot authors who read much of the Puritans because they, too, have a healthy and well-developed desire to pursue the presence of God (see A.W. Tozer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, etc.).
I did not realize what was happening, but for several years as I have used the Puritan literature, I thought I was just borrowing a few quotes and thoughts along the way. Now it is obvious that over those years I was being changed.
What I love most about the Puritans is how they have been used in changing me. I treat the Word with more sobriety and seriousness now. My application of the text is much more mature. I am more articulate in pointing my hearer’s affections towards the things God sees as precious (like His Son, His holiness, His justice, love and grace).
Specifically, three areas of my life have been changed due to my Puritan Study …
(i) In catching the Puritan hermeneutic. The Puritans interpret every passage in light of the big picture of God’s glory in the Cross of Christ. Everything comes back to this. As expositors we are apt to get wrapped up in our four verses and lazily forget this big picture. The Puritans, especially in their application, make it clear that every text must be brought back to this big picture. Sadly, very few expositors today do this consistently (Piper and a few others, however, excel here). I pray that we would all catch this Puritan hermeneutic. Spurgeon reminded preachers that every sermon must find a way back to the Cross. This was the Apostle Paul’s point exactly (Gal. 6:14, 1 Cor. 1:22-25; 2:2; Phil. 3:8).
(ii) In catching the Puritan experiential style. When publishers want a good definition of ‘experiential preaching’ they turn to Puritan scholars. In the book, Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching (Soli Deo Gloria, 1573581445), Dr. Joel Beeke writes: “Experiential or experimental preaching addresses the vital matter of how a Christian experiences the truth of Christian doctrine in his life … Experimental preaching seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and what is the goal of the Christian life … Experimental preaching is discriminatory preaching. It clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, opening the kingdom of heaven to one and shutting it against the other” (pp. 95-96). The Puritans understood that a sermon lacking powerful application is an incomplete sermon. The Puritans are unparalleled here.
(iii) In catching the Puritan earnestness. The Christian life is a struggle of balance. The same is true in the pulpit. It is easy to focus on strengthening marriages, helping others raise children, and overall improvements in godliness while lacking earnestness. We can get the idea that the purpose of the pulpit is only for long-term sanctified changes. We need the Puritan earnestness to remind those who have never experienced the grace of God in their own hearts (the ‘almost Christian’ sitting in the pew), that they teeter on the brink of God’s judgment. There may not be a tomorrow. Each of us will be in heaven or hell very shortly. Nothing guarantees the sinner one more day to repent. Now is the time. Today is the day of salvation. Plead with sinners. The Puritans balanced these two sides of preaching and teach us to use the same sermon to both strengthen Christian marriages (long term) and to plead with sinners earnestly (now).
In the end, the ultimate benefit of a (well-used) Puritan library is how it changes you. Because of the Puritans, I view the bible differently, more seriously. They have taught me deep thoughts so I am not easily distracted with the empty and hollow ‘Christian’ thoughts today. They have taught me to treasure Christ. They have pointed out the sin in my heart. They have encouraged me in the task of preaching. And they have been faithful friends pointing me back to the scriptures when I begin to wander around. ‘Be serious because God’s thoughts are weighty,’ is the Puritan message I hear every time I use their works.
So keep at it. Work hard. Study diligently. Learn new terms. Don’t be intimidated by 200-word sentences. Grasp the concepts. Learn from the Puritan big-picture. And one day you will realize that God’s Spirit has taken the Puritan Study from your shelves and into your heart and changed you forever. All for His eternal glory.
Soli Deo Gloria!