Archive for the ‘Christ-centered preaching’ category

2nd Great Commandment overload

December 8, 2007

As one component of my daily disciplines, I read and listen to sermons. The incredible bounty of the internet allows me access to Keller, Piper, Dever, Begg, and others. In an effort to resist the “cult of celebrity” (so-and-so may say it well, but it ain’t really said until Driscoll says it!) I’ve been filling my iPod with sermons from men who are earnest but not known nearly so well. I’ve been at it for a few weeks now, and I’m beginning to feel quite ill.

These men are not goofballs, they’re not fiddling around and they’re not pandering to their audience. They are earnestly desiring to be Biblical and textual. But I’m overdosing on the 2nd “greatest commandment” (1. love God, 2. love your neighbor).

Every text becomes exhortative (what’s the adjective I’m looking for, here?) — bloated with imperatives. It’s all about living out the Kingdom, everywhere. Three from this week’s listening:

Angels visit the shepherds and sing the birth of Jesus? God wants us in kingdom ministry to the poor, those “outside”.

Jesus claim to be prophecy’s fulfillment? We need to claim his kingdom, giving ourselves to the poor.

Moses sent with the message, “Let my people go”? So we cry freedom for the oppressed.

There’s much that’s wrong, here, and some that’s right. We could discuss the need of a Christ-centered hermeneutic, the nature of the kingdom, the neglect of true religion. But in this post I would like to raise just one simple protest: why do so many feel that love for God will be powerless?

The texts used as examples point to Jesus the Christ, Saviour and Redeemer. Much could be made of him in preaching those texts. We preach to people, ourselves included, who still do not recognize the fullness of his glory. Like his fellow Nazarenes, our perception of him is far too small. We erect idols in his place, and pour out our worship to them, thinking they will save us, fill us, satisfy us. We sin because we have bent our desires away from him; and bent desires, twisted affections, leave us bent and twisted and broken. We need Christ unveiled before our eyes, our hearts, in all his beauty and power and wonder. We need our hearts called up, yearning towards him like a sunflower toward the sun; aligning and straightening our affections — will this not have potent effect in our lives?

I think preachers feel they need to hammer out the imperatives because they have forgotten the power of new affection — of love for God. It’s not that they no longer love God. But the radiance of Jesus’s beauty has become occluded by the details of programs and the baubles that bob in the wake of consumerism, and the text has been obscured by hundreds of motivational messages. The congregation begins to wander, no longer stunned and skewered by the piercing brilliance from the cross — and the springboard for love for our neighbor is weakened. So the preacher tries harder, and hammers it more…and it grows weaker still. Because our love is response and fruit of the love of God.

I know there is preaching that fails to make application. I know there is preaching that never gets to the “So what” questions. I know there is preaching that emphasizes individual salvation and forensic righteousness and never touches on kingdom living today. I know “love your neighbor” must be preached as true religion.

I just wonder if we have forgotten what power will motivate this love? I wonder if we’re afraid the cross and the empty tomb are really not the power of God at the heart of everything we are?

Are pastors ever really in danger of overdosing their congregations on the loveliness of God in Christ? I truly wonder…

The desert’s edge

December 5, 2007

OK, I *think* the long drought is over, and we might be coming out of a long desert period.  I may even be able to get back to my abbreviated blogging! We’ll see.

There’s a big stack of material on my desk that is “stuff I might blog about”. Above all, the focus that I tried to maintain is still before us: Christ-centered, gospel-centered, the great indicatives of our faith first. I’m as excited as ever about it all.

One of the most encouraging things I’ve ever received in personal correspondence came into my Inbox yesterday. It said, “By being transparent and Bible-centered, you’ve said, ‘I can be an absolute mess and I have the life to prove it. I am cherished and I have Jesus to thank for it.'” There was a time when I wouldn’t have been encouraged by those words, but today? Today they’ve made me whoop with delight and praise God with heartfelt joy. Because that’s the gospel, and that’s hope, and it’s glorious. And too many times being me-centric has meant my desires warred with that clear presentation — I wanted the message to be something like “I used to be a mess, but Jesus helped me, and now I’m really the best guy around, and just the kind of guy you need.” But there’s only one Saviour, and the Bible and history only have one ultimate Hero, and God will not share his glory — nor should he, nor would it be love if he did.

I don’t know who coined the following phrase — candidates in my mind include Miller, Bridges, Keller, and Lovelace, and I’m sure someone can let me know — but it’s a great summary of the gospel: I’m more sinful than I ever knew, and more loved than I can possibly imagine.

When we get that, when it sinks in real deep, we are transformed by it. Praise God!

Facebook Church

August 21, 2007

I’m starting to feel old. I’m old enough to remember when the Muppets had a hit TV show. My favorite sketches had to do with the two old grouches that sat in gallery and criticized and complained about the quality of everything the younger Muppets were doing. Those old codgers have probably gone on to puppet purgatory, but no fear, I’m coming along to step into the old curmudgeon’s role. How did this happen to me?

I feel old when I hear about things like Facebook Church. I’m no Luddite. I’m on Facebook, where I have more than two friends (take that, Josh Harris!*). I’ve got this blog. I’ve set a couple of churches up with community forums and groups. I was one of the earliest adopters of email (told you I was old!). I see advantages and opportunities in Internet use. I’ve got credentials in IT and in ministry. And like Ricky Mokel, I think about stuff.

But I can’t get my head around Facebook Church.

I think I understand that Facebook offers ways to make contact and foster communication within an exponentially growing group of people — I haven’t found it particularly useful that way, but others say they have. OK, I’ll grant that’s a good thing to take advantage of.

But the developers of Facebook church are thinking large:

“It is an application that will leverage our new Internet Campus technology to allow people to “attend” and be a part of a church community in Facebook. We are extremely excited about the opportunity to connect with people inside this explosively viral environment.”

They are serious about calling it “church”.

But I’ve not seen any genuine community on Facebook, to say nothing of the unique community that is church. How will the members of this church learn to bear with each other, growing in patience, handling each others’ hearts, if all the relationships are virtual? How will they sing to each other the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs that rise from Holy Spirit filled hearts? Will “smileys” and avatars replace hugs and holy kisses?

One lifechurch.tv member raises this set of questions:

Does engaging people “right where they are” carry the risk of _leaving_ people right where they are? Do we face the risk that members of the Facebook Campus will think of the Almighty–like much of facebook–as just something to entertain them while they procrastinate on a term paper? Are we just making it easier for people to be lukewarm Christians?

Those are good questions; I would think they’d be worthy of great discussion. Here’s one answer he was given:

From my perspective you raise a great question. However, I think it is the same question pastors ask themselves every week when they look out at their congregation and ask; are we just here entertaining our people while they procastinate on life?

Might I offer this suggestion? To any pastor wondering if, perhaps, you are just entertaining people while they procrastinate on life, fiddling while Rome burns… stop. Don’t go to Facebook. Turn around. Go back to the gospel. Plunge in; explore what it is, and how it speaks to us, to all of us, in all of our cultures. Soak this in until every spiritual pore is saturated. Stay, and soak. Don’t go back into the pulpit until your heart is about to burst with wonder at the glory of God; until your mouth is overflowing with Jesus, Jesus and the gospel, the cross, and the resurrection and hope and love and unspeakable joy; until your desire is no longer to please men (or your fear to displease them) but to share the awe and majesty and ecstasy of God and his mighty works in Creation and Redemption; until your heartbreak is that men and women are wasting their lives, sucking desperately at broken cisterns of small, useless, temporary pleasures while the towering waterfalls of God’s grace and mercy and pleasure and delight roar within his church.

Don’t fiddle with Facebook, at least not right now. There may be a place for that, and no doubt good things can be done there. I’m sure we’ll all learn more about that. But rather than trace out the ever-growing contours of Facebook, help your people trace out the infinite — and satisfying — contours of the gospel.

Him we proclaim

August 20, 2007

My review of Total Church has been sidelined by a calamity: I’ve lost the book. I can’t begin to tell you how embarrassing and disastrous this is. I’ve never done such a thing before — to lose a book! I can’t believe this. I would have thought I’d sooner lose a finger. And to lose a book I was enjoying so much. If it was some mediocre drivel, I wouldn’t care…but it was outstanding! This is utterly humiliating and shaming.

Not to mention the extra mortification of having to re-order it from Europe, as it’s still not sold here.

Arrrggghh!

I think I might have left it at a coffee shop where I met with one of the pastors here. I hope somebody is getting a good read out of it.

Ahh, it’s amazing that such self-frustration can live with the egocentrism that is I (actually, understanding idolatry, it isn’t that amazing after all; my self-idolatry just keeps letting me down… as all idolatries do).

Anyway, to hold us, two things this morning:

1. Head over to The Gospel Driven church and read Jared’s 5 Reasons for Sermon-Centric worship. Many of these thoughts seemed to me to harmonize with thoughts I was reading in the first section of Total Church. Once again, Gospel Driven is a good resource!

2. A great quote from Whitefield:

When a poor soul is somewhat awakened by the terrors of the Lord, then the poor creature, being born under the covenant of works, flies directly to a covenant of works again. And as Adam and Eve hid themselves… and sewed fig leaves… so the poor sinner, when awakened, flies to his duties and to his performances, to hide himself from God, and goes to patch up a righteousness of his how. Says he, I will be might good now — I will reform — I will do all I can; and then certainly Jesus Christ will have mercy on me.

–“Select Sermons of George Whitefield” (London: Banner of Truth, 1958), pp. 81-83, as quoted by Dennis Johnson in “Him We Proclaim” footnote p.57.

Update: Pressing in to the cross

August 17, 2007

One of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject is Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Today, over at Gospel Driven Blog, John Fonville continues a series on “How does God enable believers to keep His moral law?” He includes several quotes from Marshall; it’s a great post. As usual, you should read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:

“…if you rush out and try to keep the law, without having Christ’s righteousness and Christ’s Spirit in you, you will have both the wind and tide against you! Your guilty conscience, and your dead corrupt nature, will frustrate and defeat all your attempts to love and serve God. The only thing you will do in this case is stir up your sinful lusts. You will not stir yourself up to true obedience. At best, you will attain the hypocritical performance of a slave,” (p. 112).

Pressing in to the cross

August 16, 2007

We’ve been looking at the “3rd type” of legalism, which is a counterfeit gospel. Another way to see the difference between moralism and the gospel call to obedience is this: the gospel calls us to an obedience we cannot complete in ourselves, and so drives us ever deeper into Christ.

I’d written the paragraph above and several of those below when, yesterday, I came on this article at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. In this very well-written piece Tony reminds us that eschewing legalism should not bring us to think little of obedience, or consider it a minor requirement. I especially like the way he ends the article (you should read the whole thing):

…His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.

Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.

We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience. [emphasis original]

In Mark 12, a Pharisee (law-teachers were Pharisees) asked Jesus: “Which of the 613 laws in the Old Testament is the most important? 613 commandments are waaaaay too many — that’s crushing! Give us the main thing, give us some sort of keepable, doable, minimum requirement for heaven. Help us!”

Jesus answers: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In other words, Jesus says, “I’ll help you out. We’ll reduce the laws to just two. Everything for God, absolutely, 100% completely, no mistake, no missing, no diminishing, ALL. Nothing less will do. Nothing less.

“And from there, love others like you love yourself.

“There are two for you…and all the laws hang on them. Every single one of those 613 require full-hearted commitment to God, and God alone, and must be obeyed in complete love.”

That’s it. That’s all God requires. Simple. Everything in everything, and far more than you’ve ever begun to realize.

Simple, and impossible. We sinners can never get there.

The moralist is crushed. He knows enough to see that he can’t do it. This exceeds all sacrifice and burnt offering! There’s no way I can have any of my faults or failures covered!

Rather than have the 613 reduced down to a manageable amount, Jesus reveals the terrifying truth (v. 34) that law-keeping is far more crushing than this trembling Pharisee had ever realized.

The law-teacher basically says so. “This is more than any worship can bring. This is more than all our entire moral system.”  And through the crowd, no one dares ask any more questions.  His responses are too terrible.

And Jesus responds: “You are not far from the kingdom.”

This legalist is broken, he’s crushed, he sees the futility of his entire system…and he’s arrived at a good place! Because the gospel of Jesus Christ crushes our legalistic framework, and then as we begin to see our brokenness and sinfulness and neediness, points us to our Savior. He comes for the lost, he comes for the sinners, not the righteous. And this trembling Pharisee is beginning to see his abject, sinful, lostness. Ahh…not far from the kingdom! You see your need; now, see your Savior!

The gospel doesn’t make obedience less, it makes it more. It shows us a level, a weight, that only the cross can bear. And it calls us to come in to the cross, come deeply in to a Savior who has kept all the law for us, and borne all the punishment of our failure. Come in joy and thanksgiving and worship, and come in faith-dependence upon him. We’re still called to no less than to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength…but we rejoice that he has loved on our behalf, and brought us into the relationship of love where this can now be begun!

The law is to be lived in love; love is found in the cross, in the Savior, in the gospel. Here is where obedience was affirmed, and here is where it begins.

The gospel does not end the need of our obedience. It begins for us, in us, the law living in love. In relation to God, in Christ, it is the life of joyful, full-hearted response.

Part of it is Joy

August 16, 2007

I’ve been “going on” for a few posts now about legalism, and there’s more to come. I realize it’s easier to point out wrong thinking than it is to describe right thinking. A friend once described it as trying to describe a cow for an infant, as you drive the countryside. You can point at anything and say, “That is not a cow.” Horse, sheep, dog, donkey…”that is not a cow.” But the lesson won’t really be grasped until you can point at a cow and say, “That is a cow.”

Wow, I start early with the deep, profound thinking, don’t I?

Yesterday’s post, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, was hard for me to write, and is the kind of thing I think and pray about often. I described behaviors that could be achieved by legalistic, moralistic thinking. But aren’t those very behaviors still very much to be desired? Don’t I want her to act exactly that way?

I don’t really care.

O, don’t get me wrong. I’m a real Dad, and she’s on a pretty tight leash. I enforce consequences for her behavior. Just ask her. And since she’s a pretty wonderful kid, I’m also pretty often taking pride in her behavior.

Remember, I’m a recovering legalist.

It’s not the behavior, the actions, which should be the prime focus of our attention. Our behaviors can change while our underlying and motivating idolatries remain untouched. For example, if I lie, it might be because I live for approval, and am afraid the truth will make me less likable. But if I am convinced that being a liar will make me less likable still, I will give up lying forever — and the Temple of Fearing Men becomes even more central in my life’s worship. Our efforts at defeating sin succeed only in making us more accomplished sinners.

Have you ever noticed that? Anger-management classes help us keep our anger — and the lusts and idolatries that produce it — intact, but in “acceptable” ways. Take murderous anger on one hand, and marry it to the lust of man-pleasing on the other hand, and the offspring is a better sinner. Better at sinning.

So what does the gospel produce? If moralism and gospel can each produce behavior that looks the same, how can we tell the difference, even for ourselves?

Part of the answer, we’ve already given — what produced the behavior? Is it a response to Jesus Christ and the work he has done for us? Or is it a response to the pressures of law or fear or guilt or lust?

A while back, I wrote about the illustration (original (I believe) to Lloyd-Jones and used by Tim Keller at the Gospel Coalition conference in May; Justin Taylor took good notes on the whole thing) of a king battling an invading army outside his city. If he wins, he sends back news and people (and soldiers) respond with joy. Jesus sends news; every other religion sends advisors. Then Keller said this, and it’s key: in the short term, the activity looks the same (troops heading to the battlefield), but the reality is much different — celebration and joy, or fear and desperation.

When you look at your own behavior, you can ask: is this motivated by joy, carried forward in celebration of the hope bought in Jesus Christ? What “pressure” do you seek to apply in your battle with a particular sin? Do you seek victory in discipline, accountability, determination; do you go about it in loathing and guilt and fear? Or do you see and rejoice in the victory that has already been achieved in Jesus Christ, and exulting in that and taking confidence and assurance from it, say “No” to ungodliness and worldy lusts, with your heart’s motive displaced unto a new affection and a blessed hope?

One thing I noticed some time ago, in a time of wrestling with my own sin and practical denial of the gospel: it was a time when my own family said I appeared to have lost all joy. I responded then that I had been robbed of joy, and I blamed others. But the reality is that my heart had turned aside from the gospel, and though I struggled and cried and vowed and prayed, I was unsuccessful in breaking the grip of idolatry, and I was captivated by fear, and utterly joyless.

When the gospel broke in, joy returned. And captivity was broken. And the desired behavior followed — in thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Such has ever been the case. It’s because our Jesus is great and gracious and triumphant and merciful and sweet — o so sweet! — to the taste, and powerful in his work and in the Spirit to change us, grow us, sanctify us.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)