Category Archives: Preaching

Newton’s Comfort for Christian Bloggers, Writers, and Preachers

Taken from the diary of a friend of John Newton’s, recounting a personal conversation they enjoyed:

January 26, 1804 —

He [Newton] told me that after he was settled at Olney [his first pastorate], and had preached six sermons, he thought he had told them his whole stock, and was considerably depressed.

“But,” he said, “I was walking one afternoon by the side of the river Ouse; I asked myself, How long has this river run? Many hundred years before I was born, and will run many years after I am gone. Who supplies the fountains from whence this river comes? God. Is not the fund for my sermons equally inexhaustible? — the word of God. Yes, surely. I have never been afraid of running out since that time.”

I asked if he had consumed all the variety in the Bible now he was an old man and an old minister. He smiled, and said, “O no, Sir; O, no, Sir.”

Inside Spurgeon’s Head

What follows is a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of Charles Spurgeon’s brain while he preached, as he explained in Lectures to My Students [(Carter and Brothers, 1889), 2:27-28]:

The Spirit of God acts also as an anointing oil, and this relates to the entire delivery—not to the utterance merely from the mouth, but to the whole delivery of the discourse. He can make you feel your subject till it thrills you, and you become depressed by it so as to be crushed into the earth, or elevated by it so as to be borne upon its eagle wings; making you feel, besides your subject, your object, till you yearn for the conversion of men, and for the uplifting of Christians to something nobler than they have known as yet.

At the same time, another feeling is with you, namely, an intense desire that God may be glorified through the truth which you are delivering. You are conscious of a deep sympathy with the people to whom you are speaking, making you mourn over some of them because they know so little, and over others because they have known much but have rejected it.

You look into some faces, and your heart silently says, “The dew is dropping there;” and turning to others, you sorrowfully perceive that they are as Gilboa’s dewless mountain. All this will be going on during the discourse.

We cannot tell how many thoughts can traverse the mind at once. I once counted eight sets of thoughts which were going on in my brain simultaneously, or at least within the space of the same second. I was preaching the gospel with all my might, but could not help feeling for a lady who was evidently about to faint, and also looking out for our brother who opens the windows that he might give us more air. I was thinking of that illustration which I had omitted under the first head, casting the form of the second division, wondering if A felt my rebuke, and praying that B might get comfort from the consoling observation, and at the same time praising God for my own personal enjoyment of the truth I was proclaiming.

Some interpreters consider the cherubim with their four faces to be emblems of ministers, and assuredly I see no difficulty in the quadruple form, for the sacred Spirit can multiply our mental states, and make us many times the men we are by nature. How much he can make of us, and how grandly he can elevate us, I will not dare to surmise: certainly, he can do exceeding abundantly above what we ask or even think.

Yes, and especially so if you were a genius to begin with.

Understanding the Relationship Between Pulpit Ministry and Women’s Ministry

I find it interesting to talk to different folks about the relationship between the weekly pulpit ministry and the place of formal women-to-women teaching ministry. Even among complementarian churches, the range of opinion is really quite surprising. As I look around the church it appears to me that at the very least there are six categories of how the relationship between the two ministries is defined. I have numbered them here for no other reason than to make them easy to reference.

Here’s a list of the varying opinions that I see:

  1. The preaching of the word by called and equipped men is sufficient for women too, therefore while organic women-to-women relationships are important in the church, a more formal women-to-women teaching ministry in the church is not.
  2. The preaching of the word by called and equipped men is sufficient for women too, therefore the women-to-women ministry in the church is focused on application and domestic excellence, and theological training is of less importance.
  3. The preaching of the word by called and equipped men is sufficient for women too, yet out of the strong pulpit ministry emerges a necessary women-to-women teaching ministry, it echos the theology of the pulpit, and requires that women also be trained theologically for the teaching task.
  4. The preaching of the word by called and equipped men on Sundays is vital to women, but it is an entirely different context than women-to-women teaching ministry, therefore the two teaching ministries should not be connected or compared or contrasted but left alone as individual expressions of teaching gifts.
  5. The preaching of the word by called and equipped men IS NOT entirely sufficient for women, it is weakened by a lack of female perspective, therefore formal women-to-women teaching ministry is a necessary supplement to the preaching, and to do this well women must be trained theologically for these teaching roles.
  6. The preaching of the word by called and equipped men IS NOT entirely sufficient for women, therefore to reach women, women are needed to preach to the church at least on occasion.

What other categories have I missed? And where would you fit in your understanding of the categories? I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments to this post.

Obey Your Pastors and Submit to Them

Few passages are more commonly misread, or simply avoided, than Hebrew 13:17:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.

It shouldn’t surprise us that this passage often goes avoided. This is bound to happen in a culture where postmodernism rejects all claims of authority and where examples of abuses of authority are not hard to find in the news.

To make matters worse, a surface reading of this passage seems to sanction some form of authoritarianism, an unqualified obedience and submission to pastors in all matters. But that’s not the message of this passage, as we will see.

What follows are a few important thoughts on this passage, beginning with a closer look at the idea of “obeying.”

Here is how W. E. Vine defines the Greek word “obey” (πείθο):

In Hebrews 13:17, believers are commanded to obey their leaders. The word used is peithō which has the usual meaning of “convince” or “persuade.” The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peithō and pisteuō, “to trust,” are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter.

Peithō, “to persuade, to win over,” in the passive and middle voices, “to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey,” is so used with this meaning, in the middle voice, e.g., in Acts 5:36-37 (in v. 40, passive voice, “they agreed”); Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:3.

The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peithō and pisteuo, ‘to trust,’ are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter.

In other words, when “one allows oneself to be convinced by someone: one follows and obeys him” (EDNT).

Paul Benware applies this point well in an article ["Leadership Authority in the Church," Conservative Theological Journal 3.8 (1989), pp. 10-12]:

The emphasis here [Heb. 13:17] is on an obedience that comes from being persuaded that something is true. In this case, it would be the truth of the Word of God that is in view. Here they are being called upon to persuade the people that follow them with the truth of the Word of God… The elders are not to say “Do it because I say so”, but rather “Do what I show you from God’s Word.” …

Leadership authority in the church, then, is the power granted to men to lead the flock of God according to the Word of God, guiding, protecting and feeding them for their benefit and God’s glory. This kind of leadership authority will persuade believers from the scriptures resulting in obedience and submission to Christ the one and only head of the church.

John Loftness, the senior pastor of Solid Rock Church [Sovereign Grace Ministries], recently explained this point in a helpful sermon. Here’s a transcribed excerpt from his sermon ["Hebrews 13" (11/20/11)]:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17a).

This translation is puzzling. The major 20th century English translations all translate this “obey your leaders.” Same with the KJV. But the word “obey” (πείθο) is different from the word that speaks of obedience. In fact if you look back to 5:9, there’s a different word used for obey: “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey (ὑπακούω) him.” This is a different word.

[In 13:17] “obey” means to put confidence in, to trust, and by implication — because you trust someone or are confident in that person — you do what he says. It means to be persuaded. The same word is used in the next verse: “Pray for us, for we are sure (πείθο) that we have a clear conscience” (Heb. 13:18). The word translated “are sure” is the same as the one for “obey” [in 13:17]. So we should listen to our leaders, let them persuade us, let them speak God’s word to us, let them teach us so that we get such confidence in God’s word that we do what they say.

What kind of leaders should you listen to? Who are the kind of leaders you should submit to?

First, submit to those who are “keeping watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17b). When they’re asking you to submit they are asking you to submit to God. I have no authority in your life apart from the clear teaching of Scripture. I can’t say, “I’m the senior pastor of this church. Ben, the car’s kinda dirty, can you wash it right away?” No, that’s not how it works. You want to follow a teacher whose concern is for your soul, who wants you to see and follow Jesus, and not stray into strange teachings (see Heb. 13:9). So there is an authority that your teachers carry but it’s authority grounded and founded in God’s Word. That’s the kind of teacher — he’s looking out for your soul and trying to make specific application of Scripture so that you will follow Jesus.

Second, you want to obey teachers who are aware that one day they will have to answer to Jesus for what they taught you. That’s what it says: “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17c). I am deeply aware — and now that I’ve done this for decades — I’m aware of points where I’ve gotten it wrong, things I’ve missed. Why am I aware of that? Because one day I’m going to stand before Jesus Christ — just like you. But I’m not just going to have to answer for my own life, I will answer for my influence on you. I’m going to have to answer for how I taught you. If that was driven by selfishness and pride or laziness, unwilling to dig into the text to explain it accurately, I will stand before God and his judgment and I will give an account.

That’s the kind of leader you want to follow: someone whose first concern is your prosperity in God. And secondly, he’s aware that he will give an account for what he taught.

So this is not a call to do whatever your pastors tell you to do, it’s a call to submit to the teaching they bring you because it’s grounded in the Bible. A teacher’s function in the church is to bring you the Word of God so you can put your faith in Jesus and obey Him. And they should do this in a persuasive way, they should teach and lead so that you have confidence in the teaching. And then, submission becomes much easier, and it makes much more sense.

John Owen says much the same in his commentary on Hebrews 13:17:

1st. It is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed. A pretence hereof hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men: but there is nothing more contrary to the whole nature of gospel obedience, which is our “reasonable service;” and in particular, it is that which would frustrate all the rules and directions given unto believers in this epistle itself, as well as elsewhere, about all the duties that are required of them. For to what purpose are they used, if no more be required but that men give up themselves, by an implicit credulity, to obey the dictates of others?

2dly. It hath respect unto them in their office only. If those who suppose themselves in office do teach and enjoin things that belong not unto their office, there is no obedience due unto them by virtue of this command. So is it with the guides of the church of Rome, who, under a pretence of their office, give commands in secular things, no way belonging unto the ministry of the gospel.

3dly. It is their duty so to obey whilst they teach the things which the Lord Christ hath appointed them to teach; for unto them is their commission limited, Matt. 28:20: and to submit unto their rule whilst it is exercised in the name of Christ, according to his institution, and by the rule of the word, and not otherwise. When they depart from these, there is neither obedience nor submission due unto them.

Finally, Matthew Henry, in his old (and under-appreciated) commentary, offers this pointed one-sentence summary:

Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.

Ultimately pastoral ministry centers on Christ and His Message, not on the pastor and his role as messenger. And so to obey and submit to our pastors is a call to esteem and respect and obey the Word of God. This is why it can be said that “an elder with no Bible is an elder with no authority” (Mark Lauterbach).

Hebrews 13:17 is beautifully balanced and stabilizing for Christians who live in a culture suspicious of all authority. It encourages our biblical discernment. It encourages us to find a solid church where the Bible is taught clearly and persuasively. It moves our attention off autonomous human authority. It focuses our attention on the weightiness of Scripture. And it encourages humble submission of our lives to the faithful preaching and counsel we receive from our still-fallible pastors. It is a passage that helps us see the faithfully preached word for what it is — an authoritative message from God to be obeyed.

Preaching

John Newton (Works, 6:271):

When I feel my own poverty, my heart wandering, my head confused, graces languid, gifts apparently dormant; when I thus stand up with half a loaf, or less, before a multitude, and see the bread multiply in the breaking, and that, however it may be at the time with myself, as to my own feelings, the hungry, the thirsty, the mourners in Zion, are not wholly disappointed; when I find that some, in the depth of their outward afflictions, can rejoice in me, as the messenger by whom the Lord is pleased to send them a word in season, balm for their wounds, and cordials for their cases; then indeed I magnify mine office.

Scarves, Beards, Lozenges, and Pepper: Spurgeon on the Proper Care of the Preacher’s Throat

Joe Thorn’s recent tweet reminded of this bit of advice for preachers from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon:

When you have done preaching take care of your throat by never wrapping it up tightly. From personal experience I venture with some diffidence to give this piece of advice. If any of you possess delightfully warm woollen comforters, with which there may be associated the most tender remembrances of mother or sister, treasure them — treasure them in the bottom of your trunk, but do not expose them to any vulgar use by wrapping them round your necks. If any brother wants to die of influenza let him wear a warm scarf round his neck, and then one of these nights he will forget it, and catch such a cold as will last him the rest of his natural life.

You seldom see a sailor wrap his neck up. No, he always keeps it bare and exposed, and has a turn-down collar, and if he has a tie at all, it is but a small one loosely tied, so that the wind can blow all round his neck. In this philosophy I am a firm believer, having never deviated from it for these fourteen years, and having before that time been frequently troubled with colds, but very seldom since.

If you feel that you want something else, why, then grow your beards! A habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial. One of our brethren, now present, has for years found this of great service. He was compelled to leave England on account of the loss of his voice, but he has become as strong as Samson now that his locks are unshorn.

If your throats become affected consult a good physician, or if you cannot do this, give what attention you please to the following hint. Never purchase “Marsh-mallow Rock,” “Cough-no-more Lozenges,” “Pulmonic Wafers,” Horehound, Ipecacuanha, or any of the ten thousand emollient compounds. They may serve your turn for a time by removing present uneasiness, but they ruin the throat by their laxative qualities. If you wish to improve your throat take a good share of pepper — good Cayenne pepper, and other astringent substances, as much as your stomach can bear.

Source: Lectures to My Students, lecture 8: “On the Voice,” 1:133-34.

The Preacher and the Rat-Catcher

Charles Spurgeon was never afraid to call people “rats.” He once told his congregation that closet Christians, those who keep the faith to themselves to avoid opposition, are like rats in the wainscoting who feed safely on crumbs at night.

Spurgeon also called “professional” preachers rats. He wrote the following story in The Sword and Trowel (1884):

A certain country clergyman used to tell a good story of his going to a new parish, and asking a parishioner what his occupation was. “I am the village rat-catcher,” the man replied; “and what are you?” The clergyman answered that he was the village parson, whereupon the rat-catcher was good enough to observe that he supposed “we must all get a living somehow.”

If a man’s one object is to get a living, let him by all means take to rat-catching rather than to preaching. It is probably legitimate to kill vermin to earn your bread; but it would be a prostitution of the sacred ministry to pursue it with that design. It is to be feared that not a few look upon the work in that light; and in their cases it is to the loss of the church that they did not buy a ferret and a couple of dogs, and seek small game under the floors of barns and stables. They would then have cleared men’s houses of pests; but as it is, they are themselves the pests of the house of the Lord.

Preach with a single eye to the glory of God, or else hold your tongue.

The Miracle of Spurgeon

Helmut Thielicke, Encounter With Spurgeon (Fortress, 1963):

It is evidence of the substance and also of the excellence of form in Spurgeon’s sermons that — removed from the situation in which they were originally preached, and also from the magnetism of Spurgeon’s personality! — they lose very little in print. Not for a moment do they give the impression that we are reading merely historical testimonies to which we no longer have any immediate access and which come alive only in the act of reinterpretation. Even for us they are still a bubbling spring whose water needs no filtering or treatment. And I venture to ask: Of what other preacher of the nineteenth century could this be said? …

But this bush from old London still burns and shows no signs of being consumed. Here Christians dare to speak of miracle. (pp 3-4)

Later:

I am almost tempted to shout out to those who are serving the eternal Word as preachers, and to those who are preparing to do so, in what I hope will be productive hyperbole: Sell all that you have and buy Spurgeon (even if you have to grub through the second-hand bookstores). (p 45)

Thankfully that’s not necessary. Many of Spurgeon’s works can be read online for free. And his massive sermon manuscript archive is still in print thanks to the folks at Pilgrim Publications. We are blessed to have such easy access to his publishing legacy.

On Dispensing Religious Jargon

Here’s a wise caution for all preachers, teachers, and writers who frequently draw from the vocabulary of the faith — words like sin, grace, Christ, and a host of other sanctified terms that emerge over time within our particular circles — but who are tempted to use the terms without ever stopping to explain their meaning. Helmut Thielicke explains the danger, and then proposes one helpful practice, in his book The Trouble with the Church: A Call for Renewal (Harper & Row, 1965), pages 36–38:

Where is the average person today who, when he hears the word “sin,” really hears what the New Testament meant by that word? For whom today does this word still say that here man is being addressed at the point of his resistance and opposition to God, that this means man in his will to assert his autonomy, his insistence that everything centers in man, his incredible passion for security, his lostness in preoccupation with the moment and that which is tangible and immediately at hand? And yet all this must be heard when we hear the word “sin,” if for no other reason than to understand that it is possible for a sinner to be at the same time an example of moral perfection and that he need by no means be a criminal, an antisocial, or even a person who lacks seriousness. Were not the Pharisees ethically very respectable people? And yet for Jesus they were more drastic examples of sin than publicans and prostitutes.

And the word “Christ” itself? What would really be the result if we were to investigate the exchange value of that term in the psychological substructure of the average man today? What we would come out with would probably be some idea of a fabulously wise man or a perfect human being.

The point is that we need to say what we mean by these terms; we dare not throw them at people as supposedly valid coins whose value is immediately recognized. Otherwise we shall all too thoughtlessly reach out for them with the notion that they are perfectly familiar, whereas the truth is that the metal begins to glow and burn only when we have some idea of what these coins really signify. …

I once experimented with students, having them prepare sermons in which the conventional terms like “God,” “sin,” “grace,” etc. did not appear. The words had to be paraphrased. I think this is a good exercise, even though it has importance only as an interim practice. For we should not discontinue the use of these words in the pulpit; all we need is a withdrawal-cure because of the thoughtless use we make of them. We need to learn to overcome the temptation to string together the old words in different variations, because then souls remain underfed and are lost.

Wooing to Christ

Puritan Richard Sibbes on the end and aim of gospel preaching (Works, 2:232):

When the beauty of Christ is unfolded, it draws the wounded, hungry soul unto him. The preaching of the word doth that that shows the sweet love of God in Jesus Christ. This makes the ordinance of the ministry so sweet. The ordinance of the ministry is that that distributes the portion to every child of God. The ministers of God are stewards, as it were, to distribute comfort and reproof to whom it belongs. Now where there is a convenient distributing of the portion to every one, that makes the ordinance of God so beautiful, when the waters of life are derived from the spring of the Scripture to every particular man’s use.

The word, in the application of it, is a sweet thing. For good things, the nearer they are brought home, the more delightful they are. This ordinance of preaching, it lays open the ‘riches of Christ.’ There may be a great deal of riches wrapped up in a treasury, but this opens the treasury, as St Paul says, ‘ to lay open the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Eph 3:8). The ministry of the word is ordained to lay open the treasure to God’s people, that they may know what riches they have by Christ; and the end of the ministry is to win the people’s love to Christ.

Therefore they come between the bride and bridegroom to procure the marriage; therefore they lay open that that procures the contract here, and the consummation in heaven; so to woo for Christ, and ‘beseech them to be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor 5:20). This is the end of the ministry. This makes the church of God so beautiful, that it hath this ordinance in it [preaching], to bring God, and Christ, and his people together: to contract them together. There be rich mines in the Scripture, but they must be digged up. The ministry serves to dig up those mines.

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