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Why Johnny Can’t Preach – A Review

Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2009.

INTRODUCTION

In Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon argues that preaching today is generally bad. His thesis is that “many ordained people simply can’t preach” (16). His conclusion is that modern forms of media have shaped the messengers themselves. Minds that have not been shaped by reading struggle to understand a text and minds that have not been shaped by writing struggle to proclaim a message. Gordon’s solution is that those who aspire to preach should prepare beforehand and cultivate life habits that make good preachers. Gordon says, “What I care about is the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church on the average Sunday” (14). His goal in writing is the health of the church.

Gordon is a former professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently a professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has a special interest in media ecology which brings a unique perspective to Why Johnny Can’t Preach. He also wrote the book while being treated for stage three cancer which brings a refreshing frankness and urgency to his prose.

SUMMARY

The unity and content of preaching are essential to the message. Moribund churches “have been malpreached to death” (33). Gordon argues for a series of imperatives that shape good preaching and relies upon Robert Lewis Dabney to lay out seven “cardinal requisites.” These include fidelity to the text, order, and an evangelical tone. None of the requisites would be associated with persuasive rhetoric. Rather, they are all points that draw the message closer to the text and encourage a clear communication of the main point of the passage. Many of those rhetorical flourishes that are commonly associated with preaching are tropes that distract from its main purpose. Gordon, therefore, spends time defining what makes good preaching.

Gordon argues that many secular speakers can present their message better than preachers (21-22). He believes that congregationsendure bad preaching because there is no better alternative presented. He then points to Dabney’s seven cardinal requisites as an example of the “minimal requirements” of good homiletics. (23-28). Many of these are taught in more recent homiletical texts like Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered Preaching.

Gordon presents Dabney’s requisites in a summary form that provides an overview of clear gospel preaching. The first is textual fidelity. Does the significant point arise out of the text? The second is unity. Is there a single point to the sermon? The third is evangelical tone. This includes both tone as well as a focus on Christ and the gospel. The fourth is instructiveness. Does the sermon engage the mind? The fifth is movement. Do the points of the sermon build upon one another? The sixth is point. Does the sermon point toward an effect in the hearer? The seventh is order. Is the sermon well ordered? These elements work together to engage the hearer and communicate the message clearly.

Brevity is another key issue. Many people feel that preaching is too long. “Bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief” (30). It is easy to fill a sermon with too much information. Gordon argues that good preaching does not seem long. The point is to be clear and avoid information that does not add to the movement, order, and unity of the message (24-27).

Gordon provides suggestions for how preachers can improve. First, preachers should look for feedback. Gordon recommends an annual review (33-4, 97-9). This can also be done through fraternal relationships with other pastors (105). If someone endeavors to improve in their craft, then feedback and review are critical.

Second, preachers should learn to read a text (99-102). Gordon is challenging preachers to do more than learn to read in general. He wants them to read well. This developed sensibility comes from investing time in reading books that challenge the mind. He calls these texts. Texts cannot just be scanned for information. They must be considered carefully in light of their literary setting and read again and again to fully understand them. This is a process that shapes the mind of the reader over time.

Gordon wants the reader to develop an appreciation for literary craftsmanship (49). Thus, he encourages the reading of particular authors that develop that appreciation. Healsoencourages the study of English at the undergraduate level in order to develop this sensibility and uses James Montgomery Boyce as an example (101). It takes reading three to five books to gain an introduction to a subject (54). This is no small investment. The time investment spent reading is reflected in the person. Gordon gives an example of being able to deduce the education of the person he is speaking with at an airport in a matter of minutes (36-40). The intake of media shapes the man.

Third, preachers should learn to write in order to be able to communicate well (103-5). Writing requires an author to construct sound sentences that must be thought out beforehand. This is contrasted with the medium of conversation as seen through the example of the telephone (65-7). Composition requires thought as to the order and tone of the writing. These are aspects of good preaching. Preaching also has the added element of interaction with the congregation. The preacher must be sensitive to the “visible response of the congregation” (64). The speaker must be able to read the reaction of the congregation and adjust the sermon appropriately. It is a live event and not a reading of an essay.

A fourth point elaborates the second. Gordon encourages the reading of poetry and literature so that preachers gain “the sensibility of the significant” (51, 106). Reading poetry requires time and attention. It is denser than prose and must be unpacked to see the significance that it contains. Preachers should not just read great books, but also read great poetry. “The sensibilities necessary to preach well were best shaped by reading verse” (100). This practice shapes the mind to consider the significant and to see the literary art in biblical passages.

Preparing to preach is more than preparing sermons. The preacher is preparing himself for the task. Gordon wants the reader to understand that to communicate well, you must be “the kind of human who has the sensibilities prerequisite to preaching” (107). This is not so much a skill to be learned as a conditioning of oneself for the task. It is a lifelong endeavor that is undertaken deliberately and runs against our contemporary culture.

CRITICAL EVALUATION

Gordon’s target audience are those who may not have developed the habits of reading and writing. This is targeted at a younger generation who have notinculcated a lifestyle of literary pursuits. His style is direct and clear and that may have been intentional given his audience. The result is a book that is easy and enjoyable to read. I am among his target audience, having grown up exposed to visual media more than books. He makes a compelling case that motivates the reader to pursue reading and writing for the sake of gospel ministry. Gordon is correct that this book is needed in the church today and I am grateful for his desire to write on this topic even as he faced the high potential of his own death.

Sometimes the frankness and critical nature of Gordon’s argumentation can be shocking. His language is not hyper-critical though. He consistently comes across with a genuine concern for the church and for those who preach, but his tone is striking enough to wake a complacent pastor from slumber. At times his assessment comes across overly critical, especially for someone who has enjoyed the benefit of good preaching, but the strength of his argument is necessary to get our attention. Many believers do not have the luxury of sitting under good preaching and Gordon’s words are necessary. They cut deep, but they are not vindictive. His critique is meant to provide growth for the good of Christ’s church.

Gordon’s exhortation to read poetry and other literature is compelling. Pleasure reading is something that is often put off for more urgent tasks. The contemporary reader who reads by scanning for information issynonymous with the internet age (47, 49). The implication is that those who read that way end up mirroring themselves rather than the text. It cuts to the heart. This accusation is often levied against liberals, but can be equally true of anyone. We should let the text speak for itself. Seminary coursework has revolutionized my appreciation for literature, but analytical reading is something that is engrained by the culture as a whole. Gordon’s suggestion that pastors take in literature and read the Bible with a literary eye is acutely needed.

The discussion on sermon length is enlightening (28-31). Some preachers measure the weight of their sermons by their length and complexity. Gordon measures sermons by their clarity and impact. He rightly asserts that a short sermon is preferable to an unfocused long sermon. Getting the message across clearly is the key aim of preaching. A long sermon that is well donewill not feel long at all. Preachers should aim for clarity and textual fidelity rather than length and rhetorical flourish. The stylistic elements of preaching that areoften considered normative do not always add to the clear communication of the meaning of the text and can actually add confusion. In the end what may be thought of as good is actually bad. Sermons must be well organized and move toward a fixed point. The goal is to communicate truth and illicit response. This is not always done by taking additional time.

CONCLUSION

Gordon argues for good preaching rather than seeking the style and mechanics that are commonly considered the hallmarks of great preaching. He wants to encourage a faithfulness to the text and clarity that is necessary to faithfully proclaim the gospel. Why Johnny Can’t Preach is a needed book that deserves to be read. It’s brevity and clarity make it a joy to read and provide an example of writing that communicates well, which is one of the characteristics for which Gordon is calling. In a generation where the disciplines of reading and writing have been largely forgotten, the message of this book is imperative. The media have shaped the messengers. Preachers must consider how they invest their time in order to be shaped themselves into effective communicators of the gospel. May a new generation of preachers rise up who are faithful to the text and preach well for the sake of Christ’s church.

Charles Finney Does Not Live Here

I recently came across a thoughtful tweet (no, it’s not necessarily an oxymoron):

Did you stop and get to know those people in the churches? Did you ask them about their burdens? Is it possible there were things much bigger that you were overlooking because of a superficial need for an emotional buzz during worship? 1@machenwarrior, October 30, 2018

This is a really important consideration for our friends from the broader evangelical world as they come into contact with confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) worship. There is a high likelihood that those emerging from the broad evangelical traditions are addicted to a regular, even programmed release of dopamine and/or norepinephrine. It is not your fault. You are part of a tradition that dates to the mid-19th century. That tradition (represented and perfected by Charles Finney) discovered ways of manipulating people in public worship in order to move them from point A (the pew) to point B (the anxious bench).

Today many ostensibly evangelical congregations—recent surveys show that it is not at all clear any longer how evangelical, i.e., gospel-centered, they really are—have updated Finney’s methods but they do essentially the same thing: manipulate your emotions with chord progressions. This is a very deliberate strategy worked out in the days before the Sunday morning service. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is regular practice and, in the places where it is done, it is not considered sneaky or immoral.

Such services intentionally take the worshipper on an emotional roller coaster. The effect of this approach to worship is like the effect of certain drugs. Those who have spent 10 or 20 years getting a shot of dopamine or norepinephrine every Sunday morning and leaving worship feeling great, on a high, are ill prepared for what they may find in a confessional Presbyterian and/or Reformed (hereafter P&R) congregation.

The P&R congregation is not wedded to Finney. It is not programmed to stimulate a release of brain chemicals. It is not programmed to manipulate emotions nor to send worshippers out on an emotional high. It is organized on an entirely different principle. One’s first visit to such a worship service may be a shock to the system. Not only is there no praise band—those are not standard in every service—there may be no familiar praise choruses. The message may give little “practical advice” on how to have a happy life or a successful marriage or how to raise your kids well etc. It really depends upon the passage being preached that Lord’s Day. At its best the sermon in a P&R congregation should be utterly faithful to the passage before the congregation. The message should be a carefully considered exposition of Scripture.

The congregation may recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. The minister may read the law and make a confession of sin on behalf of the congregation. He might pronounce forgiveness upon those who believe and even judgment on those who do not. It might get a little uncomfortable. There are likely to be pastoral prayers that are longer than those with which you are familiar. The reading of Scripture may be an entire chapter of Scripture and the sermon is likely to be at least 30 minutes. It may go into some detail as to the setting of the passage. Some of the songs may be Psalms—it is quite possible that you have never sung a Psalm before. The service may alternate between the minister and the congregation—he reads and/or preaches God’s Word and the congregation responds in song.

In short, it may be unlike any service that you have ever attended. It is not Roman, Lutheran, or even Anglican. It is not rooted in Finney. At its best, it is rooted in Scripture as confessed by the P&R churches across Europe and the British Isles for hundreds of years. Indeed, at their best, Reformed services are quite like those of the earliest post-Apostolic Christians about whose worship services we know a fair bit.

So, as you visit one of these you will need to actively exercise some empathy. Do not judge the service by those with which you are familiar. At their best, the P&R churches are not trying to imitate the evangelical services with which you may be familiar. They are trying to be faithful to Scripture as they understand and confess it. They are trying to worship God in the way that he has revealed that he will be worshiped.

Give it time. It really does take time to get used to not getting a shot of dopamine every Sunday. It is a cultural shift. In a way, it is like time traveling. Hang in there. After a time you will come to appreciate it. It is a little like the difference between a glazed doughnut and a roast. The first gives you a shot, a buzz, and then you want more, or you crash. The latter is substantial and stays with you even if it is not nearly as exciting.

References   [ + ]

1. @machenwarrior, October 30, 2018

Comfort, Not Coaching

On the night our Lord was betrayed, he fortified his disciples for the afflictions they would experience between his first and second coming. Indeed, in this life they would have trouble. But Jesus exhorted his disciples to be encouraged for he had overcome the world (John 16:33).

Like the disciples we, too, experience in this life “many dangers, toils, and snares.” And Jesus’ message to us is the same: take heart; I have overcome the world.

As pastors, we shepherd Christ’s Church through the troubles of this world. I recently hugged a father concerned for the mental health of his child. One spouse struggles to forgive the unrepentant spouse. Patients pump poison into their veins hoping chemicals can kill cancerous cells faster than the healthy ones. A hopeful mother cries herself to sleep longing for the joy of raising children. Trouble indeed.

Pastors have the unique privilege and obligation to bend the comfort of heaven into the hearts of their congregations. Yet, there seems to be a disparity between ought and is. In far too many cases, it seems, comfort becomes mere coaching.

Coaches work towards the win. A coach helps an athlete or competitor unlock his or her inner potential. That athlete or competitor will be put through drills or clinics to program instinctual responses to changes in the game. Pastoral ministry looks like coaching when a pastor encourages steps or work rather than pointing to the work already accomplished by Christ.

The pastors and professors gathered to write the Heidelberg Catechism knew something of trouble. The early reformers in the sixteenth century were immersed in debates between Lutherans and Calvinists on the nature of communion. More unsettling for them, the Reformation was still in its infancy, and violence threatened Protestants across Europe. Many of these Protestants made their way to the Palatinate.1Many histories still refer back to Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. This is indeed a helpful source. See, Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 1 (1877), accessed October 12, 2018, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iv.ii.html. For a helpful, modern account of the history behind the Heidleburg, see C. Strohm, “On the Historical Origins of Heidelberg Catechism,” Acta Theologica 2014 Suppl 20:16-34, accessed October 12, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/actat.v20i1.2S. Thus, the synod saw fit to introduce their catechism with the comfort of God. Here is the first question and answer:

Question & Answer 1

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The difference between comfort and coaching is a pastor’s choice to apply the gospel of God, work done on behalf of sinners, rather than prescriptions designed to unlock potential. Afflicted people are looking for true comfort. The Heidelberg Catechism is a helpful tool for pastors to articulate gospel comfort.

COMFORT COMES FROM A SECURE UNION WITH CHRIST

False comfort comes from self-realization. Pastors may fall into the false understanding that comfort comes through finding oneself. I’d venture to say that most pastors would not see themselves as believing this, and yet, they have functionally organized their “gospel” around the fulfillment of the possibilities of character.

At the beginning of 2018, there was a pattern among some evangelicals to claim a “word” for themselves. This word would be something like “chosen,” “loved,” or “forgiven.” Pastors would lead this exercise for the people at the beginning of the year. These, to be sure, are all words which describe the one whom Christ has purchased with his blood. That said, the operative function of this exercise was to believe in one’s self until one realized the wholeness he or she imagined would come from claiming such a word.

The truth is that no amount of self-realization will fix the fact that the fall fundamentally breaks the self. There was never a whole; so, aiming to return to it is futile. Instead, pastors bear the full responsibility to tell that truth that we, as the Heidelberg reminds us, were obtained at an infinitely high price, and our comfort in life comes from the security of being wholly owned by a faithful Savior.

COMFORT COMES FROM JUSTIFICATION

False comfort comes from self-forgiveness. I have heard many sermons wherein pastors encourage their hearers to put the past in its place. Again, while we are to forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead (Philippians 3:13), no exercise of self-forgiveness can erase the debt of sin which weighs on our hearts.

Praise God that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ accomplishes two significant comforts for the troubled heart. First, the debt owed for sin is fully paid. Second, enslavement to temptation is abolished.

Pastors bear the responsibility to preach the gospel of justification by faith alone to their congregations. This means that they have to preach the law and sin. These things do indeed kill. As a result, some pastors have moved away from preaching “discouraging” sermons to avoid bruising congregants. The mercy of God is this: a bruised reed he will not crush (cf., Matthew 12:20). Yet, unless the law kills the sinner, there can be no healing of grace—no comfort for guilt.

COMFORT COMES FROM PRESERVATION

False comfort comes from self-help. Most pastors find it quite easy to mock self-help sections within their local bookstore. Praise God that a return to expository preaching has put away, in vast swaths of evangelicalism, “be like” and “how to” sermons. Pastors, however, who chide these do not realize that they can be guilty of functional self-help themselves.

An example that comes to mind is the frenzy of activity affecting our congregations. In a recent counseling situation, I discovered a congregant was seeking help from two professional counselors, three weekly bible studies, and half-a-dozen “accountability partners.” This was done on the well-intended advice of other Christians.

I asked him what he was doing to reorder the affections of his heart. Brother pastor, you’ll understand the motivation of the question. Sin results from disordered affections. Affections for the things of the earth results in sin; affections for the things of God results in holiness. As the Catechism reminds us, the Christian is preserved in the faith so entirely by God the Spirit that not even a hair can fall from our heads apart from a divine act of God.

Pastors bear the responsibility to show their congregations the comfort of gospel preservation. Our Lord himself said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

COMFORT COMES FROM OBEDIENCE

False comfort comes from self-fulfillment. The temptation to be deluded by self-fulfillment is intoxicating. The very first temptation was one of self-fulfillment. Adam and Eve’s sin lays in the fact that they felt something was lacking. They assumed their fulfillment would be met if they took the fruit to become like God. Instead, their quest for self-fulfillment fractured the fabric of their soul as they fell from communion with God.

Paradoxically, the way we find the fullness of life is to abandon the quest for self-fulfillment. Abandoning self for Christ, the Christian is granted the Holy Spirit who assures us of eternal life. Moreover, the Holy Spirit enables us to live obedient lives which honor God.

Pastors bear the responsibility to teach our people that comfort in life does not come from self-fulfillment. Yielding to Satan’s lies will never bring comfort. Our congregations crave the assurance which can only come from the Spirit.

The theology of comfort offered in the Heidelberg Catechism is a profound help in pastoral ministry. It reminds us that pastors don’t coach for the win. Rather, we play from the win:  we bend all of heaven’s comfort onto our congregations—pointing our people to the one to whom they belong.

References   [ + ]

1. Many histories still refer back to Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. This is indeed a helpful source. See, Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 1 (1877), accessed October 12, 2018, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iv.ii.html. For a helpful, modern account of the history behind the Heidleburg, see C. Strohm, “On the Historical Origins of Heidelberg Catechism,” Acta Theologica 2014 Suppl 20:16-34, accessed October 12, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/actat.v20i1.2S.

Millennial Perfectionism and the Social Media Covenant of Works

If you are a Millennial, relax. This is not another critique. I do spend a fair bit of time with Millennials, however, and I have observed some interesting trends. One of these observations was reinforced recently in an article by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, “How Perfectionism Became a Hidden Epidemic Among Young People.” They define perfectionism thus:

Broadly speaking, perfectionism is an irrational desire for flawlessness, combined with harsh self-criticism. But on a deeper level, what sets a perfectionist apart from someone who is simply diligent or hard-working is a single-minded need to correct their own imperfections.

They explain, “perfectionists need to be told that they have achieved the best possible outcomes…”. As a teacher I have noticed this. To be sure, this tendency is not unique to Millennials. However, according to the authors it does occur more frequently among Millennials. “[L]evels of perfectionism have risen significantly among young people since 1989.”

Their explanation of the cause strikes me as strained—they blame it on the “neoliberalism” of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney. That said, their observation about the existence and growth of perfectionism rings true. I lived through the Regan era. The Nixon-Ford-Carter economies were inflationary and the first year or so of the Reagan era was very difficult. An abundance of jobs and an explosive growth in wealth, however, was not as stressful as high unemployment, low wages, high inflation, and high interest rates.

The generation(s) about which the authors are concerned have grown up in a very prosperous post-Reagan economy that even the Great Recession and the following stagnant economy was not able to entirely thwart. There is an alternative explanation for the sorts of pressures experienced by Millennials and others in our day: computers and the Internet.

Computers themselves create an artificial reality. They create the illusion of perfection. Term papers that were once typed and marred with “White Out” and imperfect footnotes now may be made to look like published works. Software inserts perfect Chicago Manual of Style footnotes. Term papers have the mirage of perfection. Before computers I think expectations about what could be achieved in a term paper were lower. The very business of reducing everything to zeroes and ones, which is fundamentally what computers do, changes things. It changes our perception of how we live and how we remember (we now refer to our memories as “hard drives”).

The Internet plays an even bigger role in the rise of perfectionism. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the Internet with all its challenges and opportunities. The Internet has changed the way we communicate with each other and the primary driver in this communication revolution is social media.

To understand the role social media plays in perfectionism we need to understand that there are two fundamental realities in the world: law and gospel. The law demands perfect obedience. The law says, “do this and live” and “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Left to itself social media is what the Reformed call a “covenant of works,” which promises eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience to the law. The law is revealed in nature (see, Romans 2:14–15). Social media teach us the greatness of our sin and misery. It teaches us that everyone else is happy, good, successful, and prosperous and that we, by contrast, are average or worse. It teaches us that we are politically incorrect. It teaches us that we are guilty of systemic sins for which individual repentance is inconsequential and insufficient. Social media is nothing but a massive covenant of works. How many people lost their jobs this week because they tweeted something they should not have done? (I think I saw at least two such news stories.)

By contrast, the gospel announces a free salvation to sinners who have transgressed the law, who have recognized their sin and misery, and who have put their trust in Jesus the Savior. The gospel is not found in nature. It is only found in Scripture. The gospel announces that God the Son has become incarnate in order to redeem sinners; that Jesus has obeyed in the place of sinners and become their substitute; that he suffered, died, was raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father reigning over all things until he returns to judge the damned and redeem the saved.

That good news does get announced on social media, but it is certainly not the dominate message young people are hearing. Mostly what they see is some version of “do this and live.” This drives perfectionism. Our young people are laboring under the law and, like Martin Luther in the early 16th century, they are flagellating themselves trying to please the angry god of social media righteousness. This is why virtual virtue signaling and digital self-righteousness is almost irresistible. Every time someone identifies with the “right” side they have satisfied the social media covenant of works—for now.

Of course, one of the great things about computers is that a person can fix mistakes easily. We no longer need “White Out.” We have backspace. We can delete Facebook posts, Instagrams, and tweets. If one works it, one can even clean up the past in the WayBack Machine. It’s called “scrubbing” one’s “social media footprint.” We can create the illusion of righteousness and fool at least some of the people some of the time. This is the late-modern equivalent of congruent merit: the god of social media will accept your best efforts. Now, as then, congruent merit is a lie from the pit of hell.

God, the real God, the God who is, in whose image we are made, however, is not fooled and he is not pleased with our cobbled-together righteousness. Jesus came for real (not virtual) sinners. He is true and true God. He is flesh and blood and he suffered in his true humanity. He grieved for our sins. He suffered and died for them. His actual, condign, real righteousness is credited to all who believe. And our real, actual sins are credited to him and punished in his suffering and death. This is the great exchange that the Internet could never accomplish.

Those who know themselves to be real sinners should not be attracted to virtual virtue or to social media mobs or to political correctness. Jesus was perfect and the rest of us are sinners who shall never attain to perfection in this life. Real sinners live by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). We need not revel in our sins nor excuse them, but we should not flatter ourselves by thinking that we have achieved perfection or that we can. We cannot. We will not. We shall not. Jesus did not come for the healthy but for the sick—the sick unto death. Those rescued from death by Jesus should hardly be surprised by their sins and failures. Social media are an illusion. If the wrong people hit the wrong keys at the wrong time, the whole thing could disappear in a moment. The law of God, however, is real. Grace is real. Justification is real. Progressive sanctification (dying to sin and living to Christ) is real. And glorification will be the believer’s reality forever.

Personality Driven Ministry

Carl Trueman has a helpful essay in the current issue of Modern Reformation magazine. In “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Trueman takes stock of what we can learn about a movement within evangelicalism now over a decade old. Trueman introduces the Reformed resurgence in contrast to another significant trend within American Christianity at the time:

It is now over a decade since Collin Hansen coined the term “young, restless, and Reformed” (YRR) to characterize a rising generation of Christians who had rediscovered the vitality of the central doctrines of the Reformation: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, and so on. What Hansen (then a journalist with Christianity Today) had noticed was that while much of the trendy Christian media attention focused on the emerging/emergent church, there was another vibrant strand of evangelical Christianity gaining momentum in the United States and beyond. While the emergent gurus, such as Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, were moving in a more non- and perhaps anti-doctrinal direction, other church leaders—John Piper, Tim Keller and so forth—were doing the opposite. They were offering their churches solid, historic, doctrinal teaching, and (perhaps counterintuitively given the dominant relativist ethos of the times) they were gaining large audiences and having influence well beyond the walls of their own churches. 1Carl Trueman, “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Modern Reformation 27, no. 5 (September/October 2018): 14-21.

Trueman explains how there is “no single point of origin for the Reformed resurgence.” 2Ibid., 15. Rather, it consisted of a “disparate coalition” within Christianity made up of ministries and individuals from within traditional Reformed circles and from without. As one might expect, Trueman sees several major problems with the Reformed resurgence and is skeptical about its future. That said, he is not totally pessimistic when he acknowledges, “Ten years on, only the most cynical of commentators would argue that the YRR has done no good. . . . The YRR is still here and, for all of the past problems and present strains, it could yet have a decent future.” 3Ibid., 21.

PERSONALITY DRIVEN MINISTRY

One of the problems Trueman highlights within the Reformed resurgence has been its dependence on, and cultivation of, a celebrity culture. The problem is one of authority. Personality driven ministry creates the “potential of quasi-ecclesiastical power and influence being exerted on the church lacking biblical warrant and structures of accountability.” 4Ibid., 17. This is true and one of the great dangers of movements within evangelicalism that thrive on larger-than-life personalities. Rather than serve the church, these movements begin to supplant the church as the locus of authority is shifted away from the biblically warranted local church and put onto the parachurch. As Trueman observes, where authority resides has everything to do with whether or not a movement is the handmaiden of the church or its master. 5Ibid., 21.

Personality driven ministry, of course, is not a new problem. For example, this was a problem in the church in first century Corinth. Paul was deeply concerned about the cult of personality that was growing up and creating divisions in the church:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Paul’s point is that the Corinthians should be followers of Christ not of mere men like Apollos, Cephas, or himself. People in the church were lining up behind their favorite personality. You can imagine what some of the rhetoric might have sounded like. One person may have said, “You should hear Apollos preach. He can really bring it!” Another might have responded, “Oh yeah, what about Cephas?! Have you heard his illustration about fishing?” Christ was becoming merely one “personality” among many. Divisions were breaking out and the Lord was being dishonored. Paul makes this point clear when he asks rhetorically, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” A celebrity culture within the church is so insidious because it breeds idolatry.

If this weren’t enough, there’s another danger with the cult of personality within evangelicalism. The problem is one of redefining the nature of the pastorate.

PASTORS NOT PERSONALITIES

As a seminary professor I’m increasingly concerned that my students are taking their cues for pastoral ministry from the models of the conference circuit rather than the Bible. This is not to say that faithful shepherds are not some of the speakers at the major evangelical conferences. But when even the most faithful pastor is standing on a stage in an arena built for an NBA team or the next major concert tour, there is a cognitive dissonance created in the current or future pastor. The medium does impact the message. And the (unintentional) message being sent is that pastors are rock stars, too.

The problem is, we’re not. And Jesus never intended us to be.

The Bible calls us pastors and teachers, shepherds, elders, overseers, servants, and stewards. 6See, for example, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1. The apostle Paul not only didn’t think of himself as a celebrity, but declared, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13). The apostle thought this way to ensure that others were more important than himself and so that Christ would be all. Personality driven ministry cannot think this way. The very structures built into the “machine” of movement Christianity mitigate against a biblical understanding of the pastorate. Subtly, shepherds become superstars; pastors become personalities. And when this model is taken back to the local church the membership becomes a means to the end of the pastor’s ministry “platform.” The personality driven minister doesn’t see his life as existing for people’s “progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). Rather, the church exists for his progress and joy in professional ministry. And only because of its popularity in evangelicalism do we not see the parallels with our celebrity culture to the faithless shepherds of Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34.

The apostle Peter gives us a clear picture of the nature of the pastorate in 1 Peter 5:1-4:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

The values Peter upholds for pastoral ministry are not those consistent with the cult of personality. We shepherd rather than use. We long for people’s good rather than begrudgingly work. We gratefully receive rather than shamefully grasp. We serve rather than dominate. In all we do we try to emulate the chief Shepherd Jesus Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

MORTIFYING CELEBIRTY CULTURE

We need a vision of the pastorate that can withstand the allure of celebrity. And this we have in Acts 20:24 where the apostle Paul reminds the Ephesian elders what makes a pastor’s life valuable: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

Paul, of course, was not simply rehearsing this conviction because he enjoyed talking about himself. He was commending a particular vision of ministry to the leaders in the church at Ephesus. Paul was saying, in effect, “Have this mind among yourselves as you consider the work of overseeing God’s church.” The apostle does not ground his worth or value in popularity or worldly recognition. There is only one thing that makes a pastor’s life valuable and it doesn’t have to do with any earthly attainments. The pastor’s value is determined by faithfulness in testifying to the gospel of the grace of God. To put it negatively, if we as pastors are not faithful in gospel ministry, our lives are worthless.

How can Paul’s vision become our vision? How can we begin to count the worth of our life according to faithfulness and not fame? There are at least three theological realities that a pastor must settle in his own heart and mind if he would resist the allure of celebrity and minister with an Acts 20:24 vision.

First, a pastor must believe that he has died. In Galatians 2:20 the apostle Paul exults in what has happened to him in salvation. Since that fateful day on the Damascus road Paul, in a very real sense, considered himself dead. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The old Paul, the man who persecuted the church in rebellion against God, was “crucified with Christ.” Because of the grace of God in his life, Paul could truly say “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The fact that Jesus loved him and gave himself for him changed everything for Paul. It was no longer about Paul’s agenda, but God’s; not Paul’s personal goals, but God’s glory; not Paul’s advance, but the gospel’s.

And this is how it must be with us. As pastors we know we have died. Therefore, the life we now live in the flesh is lived with one all-consuming aim: testifying to the gospel of the grace of God. When we died with Christ so did our identity apart from Christ. Our life is now “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Our lives exist as a living sacrifice for God. All our rights and desires and longings are consumed with Christ—his glory and purposes. So we sing with Isaac Watts,

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood. 7Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, 1707.

The second conviction a pastor must have if he would resist the siren song of celebrity and have an Acts 20:24 vision for ministry is this: you are not your own. Consider 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

The pastor is one who believes not only that he has died, but that he was purchased by the precious blood of Christ. In other words, the pastor knows that God owns him, he’s been ransomed. This reality has profoundly practical implications not least of which is the understanding that God gets to do with us whatever he determines. We belong to God and, therefore, sing from the heart,

Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You 8Jordan Kauflin, All I Have is Christ (Sovereign Grace Praise), 2008.

As a purchased people we are resolved to “glorify God in [our] body.” We don’t live to make ourselves look great, but God. As “those who live” we “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Our days exist “no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2). This kind of thinking is diametrically opposed to personality driven ministry.

The third conviction a pastor must have is that the applause of God is infinitely better than the applause of man. Consider the breathtaking reality of Romans 2:29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” How can it be that God will praise us? Add to this Zephaniah 3:17, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” How can it be that God will exult over us with loud singing? It’s possible because God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). In Christ we have the everlasting favor of God, all omnipotence for us forever. Pastors are free from craving the fleeting applause of man knowing that we have a far greater ovation from the Lord. Indeed, in Christ we have God rejoicing over us with gladness. Why would pastors long for fifteen minutes of fame when we have the eternal applause of God? To adapt a song from the great Reformer, “Let conferences and book deals go, this mortal life also; my name may not thrill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.”

CONCLUSION

We have a beautiful picture of the mortification of celebrity in the life of John the Baptist. John’s disciples were loyal to their leader and appear jealous for John when the crowds begin to leave him and go to Jesus. Seeing this, they come to John and protest, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26). Perhaps they were “of John” and didn’t appreciate the fact that he was entering the twilight of his ministry. They were getting territorial and sought to protect John’s ministry platform. But John does not share their concern. In fact, he continues to teach them a better way:

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:27-30).

John makes it clear that he is not the Christ, but a friend of the bridegroom who is rejoicing at his appearing. John was more than content to fade into the background as Christ took centerstage.

Faithful pastors will likewise make it clear that they are not the Christ, but a friend of the bridegroom who is determined to do what a friend of the bridegroom does: make the groom look great. Are you a friend of the bridegroom? If so, you will reject the cult of celebrity and live for the increase of Christ.

References   [ + ]

1. Carl Trueman, “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Modern Reformation 27, no. 5 (September/October 2018): 14-21.
2. Ibid., 15.
3, 5. Ibid., 21.
4. Ibid., 17.
6. See, for example, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1.
7. Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, 1707.
8. Jordan Kauflin, All I Have is Christ (Sovereign Grace Praise), 2008.

The Evangelist’s Message

Author Don Whitney is excited about evangelism: “Only the sheer rapture of being lost in the worship of God is as exhilarating and intoxicating as telling someone about Jesus Christ.” 1Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life (Navpress, 2014), 119. Do you feel the same way? I’m concerned his attitude is all-too-rare in the church today. We equate sharing the gospel to flossing our teeth—very important but easily neglected.

I want to encourage you to share the gospel more. For some, it may feel like a chore. But the more we understand what the gospel is, the more we will share it freely. There are many good reasons to evangelize. We may share out of obedience, a love for neighbor, and even out of a hope of future reward.

But the gospel itself is a reason to share. The better you know and treasure the gospel, the more you will share the gospel. There is something about the evangelist’s message that propels the evangelist to be a messenger.

To unpack this, I have four questions: First, what is the gospel? Second, why is the gospel compelling? Third, how do you treasure the gospel? Fourth, what does your heart have to do with your mouth?

WHAT IS THE GOSPEL?

In 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, Paul summarizes the gospel message, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The gospel is the biblical message of a crucified and risen Savior.

To call Jesus a “Savior” is to say we need to be saved. But saved from what? The answer is in verse 3, “Christ died for our sins.” Our biggest problem is our sin—our rebellion against God. God made us. We are accountable to him. The punishment we deserve for our rebellion is physical death and eternal punishment.

This is why the gospel is a message of a crucified Savior: “Christ died for or our sins.” On the cross, Christ stood in the place of every Christian, bearing the wrath of God they deserve. He paid their debt.

But that’s not all. The gospel is the biblical message of a crucified and risen Savior. Jesus is alive! He is not dead. He is coming back again. When we contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), we aren’t merely contending for a bloody cross. We’re contending for an empty tomb: “he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:4).

And all this happened according to God’s plan. This is why Paul tells us twice the gospel was “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Throughout history God was at work preparing humanity for the coming of Christ. From Isaac whom God saved by the blood of a ram in Genesis 22 to Job who knew he would be raised from the dead in Job 19, all of the Old Testament points to Christ’s death and resurrection. The gospel is the biblical message of a crucified and risen Savior.

Many find this message of forgiveness from sins through the blood of Christ too incredible to believe. But many are believing, people all over the world. Reflecting on a Pew Forum study in 2011, author Tim Keller made this important observation about the spread of the gospel:

One of the unique things about Christianity is that it is the only truly worldwide religion. Over 90 percent of Muslims live in a band from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Northern Africa. Over 95 percent of all Hindus are in India and immediate environs. Some 88 percent of Buddhists are in East Asia. However, about 25 percent of Christians live in Europe, 25 percent in Central and South America, 22 percent in Africa, 15 percent (and growing fast) in Asia, and 12 percent in North America . . . [Christianity] is truly a world religion. 2Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Penguin, 2018), 148.

People all over the world are putting their faith in this gospel. Clearly, the gospel is a compelling message.

WHY IS THE GOSPEL COMPELLING?

What is it about the gospel that has proved irresistible for countless people throughout the world? There are so many answers to this question, and every Christian has his or her own story to tell. But here are three, simple answers.

The gospel is a work of God

In Mark 2, Jesus is in a home, “preaching the word” (Mark 2:2). A small group intrudes, lugging their paralyzed friend. Jesus does the unthinkable; he looks at the paralyzed man and says, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5). The religious leaders are livid. They scream, “He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus pronounced forgiveness when everyone knew forgiveness is a gift only God can give. With one declaration, Jesus declared himself to be God in-the-flesh.

Deep down, we all know we have a problem too big and complex for us to fix. The stain of sin is so dark only God can remove it. If we would be forgiven for what we’ve done wrong—fully and forever forgiven—only God can do it. The gospel is compelling because at the heart of it, God is the one who forgives.

The gospel is a display of mercy

The religious leaders hated Jesus for claiming to forgive sins. But they also hated him for hanging out with sinners.

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:15–17).

The scribes considered tax collectors and sinners to be lowlifes beyond God’s reach. Jesus pursued them. He ate with them. Jesus didn’t look down on them. He called them his friends. Jesus saw everyone as a sinner in need of mercy. More than that, he targeted the deplorables and presented them the gospel.

The gospel turns the values of the world upside down. Robin Leach created the show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. He took us into homes we could never afford and showed us lives we could never have. Leach became rich and famous trading on our idolatry of fame and wealth.

Jesus was different; he spent his time with the lowly, proving the incredible mercy of God.

God has always been in the mercy business. Ever since he clothed Adam and Eve. Ever since he freed a nation of slaves from Pharaoh. Ever since he brought exiles home. God is merciful. This is another reason the gospel is so compelling.

The gospel changes lives

In the parable of the sower a man scatters seed. Some falls along the path, but where there is no soil the birds eat it up. Some seed lands on rocky ground, but where there is little soil the sun burns it up. Still more seed falls among the thorns, and there the tiny plants are choked out. However, the seed that falls on good soil works wonders. Jesus said it “produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8).

When the gospel takes root in a believer’s heart, his life changes; he bears spiritual fruit. The rate of growth may vary from person to person, but every Christian changes for the better. His life is increasingly marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 4:22–23). If you are a true believer, you can marvel at the fact that your changed life proves the gospel is compelling.

And it’s not just that your life will change if you are a Christian—it must change! “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35).

We can’t follow Christ and stay the same any more than Tom Brady can spend his afternoons on the couch and still play professional football. Jesus knows the idols of our heart—control, power, materialism, pride—and he demands we put them to death. In that sense, following Christ is costly.

What kind of gospel would it be if it didn’t demand change? And what kind of Savior would Christ be if he didn’t provide the change he demanded? It was Augustine who said, “Lord, command what you will and will what you command.”

God himself came to us that we might avoid his wrath and live forever. Christ will return as judge of the living and the dead. All who die without bowing the knee to Christ in this life will face everlasting torment in the next. This is nothing to dismiss casually. This is serious business. If the gospel is true, your eternal future is at stake. The future of your neighbors is at stake. This is not to be taken lightly.

We should marvel to think God is at work, sparing sinners from this devastating end. He forgives through the blood of Christ. God shows no favoritism, accepting all who come to him, and he offers unsearchable riches to the poorest of the poor. He is a God who changes us—no Christian is left the same. What’s at stake is nothing less than eternal life in the loving company of the Triune God. The gospel is compelling.

DO YOU TREASURE THE GOSPEL?

This gospel is not merely to be believed; it’s to be treasured. This is how Jesus talks about the gospel. Jesus often taught in parables, and one of his favorite topics is the kingdom of heaven. To truly believe the gospel is to have eternal life, life in God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:44–46).

In these two parables, Jesus makes one simple point: you treasure the gospel when you’d give up everything to have the gospel.

For Jim Eliot, treasuring the gospel meant mission work in Ecuador. The natives killed him, but not before he wrote these words, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” These are words inspired by Matthew 13:44–46. Eliot left friends and family and safety behind, but he gained an everlasting kingdom. Eliot proved with his life the gospel shone brighter to him than anything else.

You may not be called to that kind of sacrifice. But does the gospel shine bright in your life regardless of what you lose? Does Jesus matter most to you when:

  • you lose a friend;
  • your plans fall through;
  • your child won’t believe;
  • your spouse disappoints you; and
  • life takes a turn for the worse?

The gospel should remain a shining beacon when the darkness of the world tries to eclipse it. Let me say the same thing in a similar way: you truly treasure the gospel when you see yourself as nothing in light of the gospel. A proper view of the gospel causes you to see yourself as a burning match next to the sun or a drop of water next to the ocean or as a pebble beside Mount Everest.

The apostle Paul saw himself this way. He says to the Ephesian elders, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Paul was not precious to himself, and so he devoted himself to making the gospel known. He treasured the gospel most of all.

This is how the gospel should affect us. If we treasure the gospel, we’ll give up anything and everything for the gospel. If we treasure the gospel, we’ll see ourselves as nothing in light of the gospel.

This is a heart issue. What you value, what you treasure, what’s important to you—it’s a matter of your heart. Until you actually treasure the gospel in your heart, you’ll never have a will to share the gospel. Not naturally. Not regularly. Not with a sense of urgency. Until you treasure the gospel it will never be the overflow of your heart. You may share out of duty, but you won’t share out of joy. Evangelism will always be like flossing your teeth—and who wants that?

WHAT DOES THE HEART HAVE TO DO WITH THE TONGUE?

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). What’s in your heart will be on your lips. Generations earlier, Solomon made a similar point, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). We must watch and keep and guard our hearts. Unless you do this most basic work, life giving, evangelistic, gospel-centered words will never flow from your lips.

To go back to Don Whitney, until our heart finds the gospel “exhilarating and intoxicating” we won’t find telling others about Jesus exhilarating and intoxicating. When it comes to evangelism, it’s your heart that matters most. Pastor Charles Bridges described the heart as a citadel, a fortress:

If the citadel be taken, the whole town must surrender. If the heart be seized, the whole man—the affections, desires, motives, pursuits—all will be yielded up . . .. [The heart is] the fountain of actions . . .. As is the fountain, so must be the streams. As is the heart, so must be the mouth. 3Charles Bridges, Proverbs (Banner of Truth, 1968), 53–54. First published in 1846.

Christian, for the sake of the Great Commission, keep your heart. Guard your heart. How can you do this? There are many ways, all of them good. But consider putting the following three points into action:

  • First, remind yourself of the gospel. The gospel is the biblical message of a crucified and risen Savior. Consider reading Greg Gilbert’s excellent book, What Is the Gospel? Pick up John Stott’s, The Cross of Christ. Carve out time to understand the gospel better so you will share it more.
  • Second, explain why you find the gospel compelling. Everyone is different. There may be something about the gospel that is especially sweet to you. Perhaps it’s God’s mercy. Perhaps it’s the fact that you have a new identity in Christ. The best teachers are excited about their subject matter. The best evangelists know why they are excited about the gospel. Identify what, exactly, it is about the gospel that you find compelling.
  • Third, pray you’d treasure the gospel more. You need God’s Spirit to help you cling tightly to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You need God’s help to love him and his work more and more. Pray nothing would matter more to you than the biblical message of a crucified and risen Savior.

References   [ + ]

1. Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life (Navpress, 2014), 119.
2. Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Penguin, 2018), 148.
3. Charles Bridges, Proverbs (Banner of Truth, 1968), 53–54. First published in 1846.

Our Groaning Joy

Our quest for joy begins at the end of the creation narrative with God looking at all he had created and pronouncing it “very good.” Tragically, this good creation would be radically tarnished with sin given the rebellion of our first parents—a rebellion that replaced God’s blessing with his curse. But even in this darkest of moments, hope rings out. The Apostle Paul assures us that there’s coming a day when God will make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found”:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved (Romans 8:20-24).

The people of God are living “in this hope”—the time between the advents of Christ when our joy is mingled with the countless “groanings” associated with a fallen world.

So how can we help ensure that our joy is not overwhelmed with groaning?

JOY AND ITS ENEMIES  

Joy has enemies. Ephesians 2:1-3 outlines what we’re up against:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Apart from Christ we willingly followed the sinful pattern of this world, did the devil’s bidding, and lived to serve our lusts. And now, as redeemed sinners, we war against these joy killers.

THE FIGHT FOR JOY

If our joy in the Lord is to increase then the enemies of our joy must be constantly subdued.

First, consider how the world attacks our joy. The world would have us embrace vapid joys. That is, substitutes for Christ that will never satisfy. This idolatry is what David Wells laments when he describes the ‘world’ as “the collective expression of every society’s refusal to bow before God, to receive his truth, to obey his commandments, or to believe his Christ. Further, the ‘world’ is what fallen humanity uses as a substitute for God and his truth.” 1David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 36.

To protect our joy in Christ we shun conformity to the world while being “transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Romans 12:2). This work of the Spirit in our lives is promoted through our diligent use of God’s Word. As we saturate our minds with God’s truth “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

Second, consider how the devil attacks our joy by assaulting our faith. We see an alarming picture of this in Luke 22:31-32 where Jesus warns Peter of Satan’s desire: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Satan wants to destroy faith. And if our faith in Jesus falters so will our joy. For who rejoices in a Christ one doesn’t trust?

While we rest in the confidence of Jesus’ intercessory work on our behalf, we combat the devil by feeding our faith the promises of God. This is the line of attack Martin Luther described in his great battle hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Indeed, “One little word shall fell him.”

Finally, consider how indwelling sin attacks our joy. When we walk according to the flesh we are not walking according to the Spirit. And part of the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22). Therefore, the Christian must mortify the flesh (Romans 8:12-14; Colossians 3:5-10). To adapt a phrase from John Owen, be killing sin or sin will kill your joy.

WOE TO THE JOYLESS PASTOR

A joyless pastor is not good for the church he serves. Indeed, a pastor becomes a burden to people when he lacks joy. This is made clear in Hebrews 13:17 in the context of the congregations’ responsibility to submit to the leadership: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

When a pastor leads with joy this is advantageous to the church. Burdens are lifted rather than transferred to the people. Joy acts as a protection against a pastor’s temptation to be domineering in his leadership. Joyful pastors shepherd “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3).

What we have to remember as pastors is that our fight for joy is also a fight for the faithful care of the church. Our joy, in other words, is not just about us. By cultivating joy in Christ, we are actually caring for the church God has entrusted to us (Acts 20:28).

UNTIL OUR JOY IS FULL

Christian joy is experienced in a world groaning under the weight of sin. But our joy groans “in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). So, until that great day we continue to root our joy in the One who calls us to himself that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be full” (cf. John 15:11).

References   [ + ]

1. David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 36.

Ministry is Not Mastery

There are myriad temptations in ministry. One persistent temptation is to stop ministering and start mastering. There are many reasons mastering is tempting. All congregations are non-profit organizations. Most are under-funded and understaffed or staffed with volunteers. Often the pastor is the only paid employee. Congregations are not usually very efficient organizations.

Pastors face pressures to be “successful” and efficient. It comes from members, elders, and deacons who implicitly or explicitly add the pressure that many ministers already feel to have a growing church. It comes externally from so-called “church growth experts.” Like those home rehabilitation shows on cable television, the church-growth experts tell “success” stories about pastors who turned (flipped) their average little congregation into a fast-growing “dynamic” congregation. Typically, these narratives include a portion detailing how the pastor put his foot down and exercised strong leadership in chasing off discontent members and even elders. The message is clear: real leaders tell their people to get with the program or get out of Dodge.

Then there is the internal desire to reach the lost. Faithful pastors think about the lost in their neighborhoods, towns, and regions. They long to see the congregation fulfill its mission to bring the gospel to the community and to see many in come to faith and to worship the Savior. The mission is great but typically the resources are limited.

Episcopacy is efficient. Though there are some newer tech businesses that are said to be organized on a more democratic model, most successful organizations have an episcopal structure. There is someone at the top who is in charge and authority flows from the top. There may be a board of directors, but the day-to-day decisions are made by one person. He or she sets the tone, provides the leadership, and has the final say.

In contrast, Presbyterian and Reformed congregations are inefficient by design. The P&R churches confess that, by nature, humans are deeply corrupt in all their faculties. Even believers, who are in a state of grace (favor), who have been regenerated by the Spirit, are still beset with sin. So, by design, P&R churches have built-in impediments to doing things quickly. Few things are as inefficient as committees and P&R churches are run by committees, layers of them. A Presbytery is, in essence, a committee. Before that there are “sessions,” which is local committee of elders and ministers (or ruling and teaching elders). The Reformed also have committees. We call them a consistory (elders and ministers) and council (ministers, elders, and deacons), classis (Presbytery), and synod (elders and ministers).

The tension between the structure of P&R churches and the pressure to “succeed” can tempt pastors to trade in ministry for mastery. By definition ministry is service, it is to put the needs of others before one’s own needs and desires. We may fairly suspect that apostolic churches were not entirely different from ours today, that their ministers and members faced similar temptations, that they too had struggles for control of the churches, that they had competing agendas. In that light we may consider Paul’s words to the Philippians:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3–11).

One suspects that this passage has something to do with the difficulties that Euodia and Synteche were having (Philippians 4:2). Whatever the case, it is certain that ministers must think of themselves as servants and not as masters. If this is true, and it is, then we should very much doubt the “church growth experts” who counsel pastors to think of themselves as CEOs. In business, the CEO is the equivalent of the bishop in the episcopal system or perhaps an archbishop. Both are at the top of the organizational chart. The CEO issues directions and they are done or people get fired. This way of thinking is incompatible with Christian ministry. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). He answers to no committee, but he took on a true human nature. He poured himself out like a drink offering.

For these reasons we should also reject the notion that ministers are “ranchers” and not farmers. At least this language is agrarian but it is still a false model. Some pastors say, “I am a rancher, not a farmer.” By this they mean to attribute to their office a kind of CEO like authority. They sit in the big ranch house on the hill and they give orders to the foreman and the ranch hands about how the ranch is to be run. They do not themselves milk the cows or herd the steers. Certainly the rancher (the owner) does not muck out the stables! Again, Philippians 2 tells us that this is exactly wrong. Our Lord Jesus did, as it were, muck out the stables. He clothed himself with a towel and he washed his disciples’ feet. Even though he is God the Son incarnate, even though he spoke creation into existence, even though he thundered from Sinai, he never took the posture of a CEO or a rancher. To continue the analogy: he took the posture of the lowest stable boy.

Those of us who are pastors (shepherds) serve the Chief Shepherd but we also serve the ruling elders. Notice that we do not speak in P&R churches of “ruling pastors.” We are deacons of the Word and sacrament. We serve the congregation. Ruling is not in our job description. This is an important reality of which we pastors must be reminded because there are seemingly endless reasons that tempt us to take off the servant’s towel and put on the CEO’s suit or the rancher’s hat.

Pastors sin. One of our sins is to try to become what we are not, masters, CEOs, or ranchers. We are ranch hands. We work in the mail room not the board room. The great good news for sinful pastors is that Chief Shepherd laid down his life for us and our sins. He redeemed us from the curse of the law and bore the penalty due to our sins. By his Spirit he has also set us free from the power of sin and we now free to take the posture appropriate to our office, that of a servant. This posture is ultimately an act of faith. We must trust that the Chief Shepherd knows best, that he loves his church more than we do. He knows more than we do. He will accomplish his purposes in his time. What a relief! We are not the Spirit. We are not the Savior. We are the saved who serve, not ministers who master.

In Praise of Heavy Providences

Today I’m struck anew with how contrary to the world is the Christian life. I’m thinking specifically about how the world will almost without fail define the best way forward in life as the way of ease. That is, the path of least resistance is, by definition, the right path to choose.

Not so in God’s economy.

The Bible is full of reminders about how, in the call of God, things will be difficult rather than easy; complex rather than simple; strenuous rather than leisurely. Indeed, it’s not for no reason that the Bible often calls us to endure and persevere — conditions irrelevant for times of ease. (After all, no one “endures” a day at the beach.)

We get a powerful picture into why God orchestrates things this way when we remember Moses’ words of merciful warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 8:11-19:

Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.

Beware times of ease, Moses warns, for it is uniquely then when we are tempted to forget God (notice how Moses says nothing of the Israelites forgetting God in the “great and terrifying wilderness”). And the result of forgetting God is to “surely perish” (v. 19). Indeed, the stakes could not be higher.

So it is that God brings into our lives “heavy providences” as a means of nurturing in us “God remembrance.” I call these circumstances “providences” because it’s God who brings them. I call them “heavy” because, well, that’s what they are — circumstances that are not easy and call for a deep dependence on God for his strength to endure. It is fitting that God would operate this way. God will have his people glory (i.e., depend) only in him knowing that this most exalts his holy character and results in our eternal good.

CALLING ALL PILGRIMS 

One such heavy providence came into my life approximately five years ago when my four school-age children and I said goodbye to their mother and my wife of 16 years as her nearly five-year battle with breast cancer came to an end. Just after 7:00 p.m. on February 2, 2014 Julia Pohlman received the goal of her faith, the salvation of her soul.

Not only in the final moments of Julia’s earthly life, but throughout her cancer fight, we were reminded of how fleeting is our life on earth. Through surgeries, CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, blood draws, and near weekly chemotherapy treatments, we learned more deeply that this world is not our home. And when I stood at the graveside of my beloved pleading with the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort to help our grieving family, never has heaven felt so real.

Cancer, perhaps unlike anything else, has a way of focusing your attention on eternal realities. And this, of course, is good. We need to be mercifully weaned from this world so that we can see something of the glory of the next.

AT EASE IN AMERICA

I share this story because I believe the American church desperately needs this perspective on life — the perspective captured in the profoundly simple hymn that sings, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” But by and large the evangelical church in America sings, “This world is my home and I’m putting down roots!” The words of the prophet Amos are a solemn warning to us today: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion . . . . Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Amos 6:1, 4-6)

What the church needs and, therefore, what the world needs, is Christians who identify as pilgrims, feel like sojourners, and exist as exiles. When people look at us do they see a people gloriously uneasy in this world because we’re longing for another?

THE PURSUIT OF GOD

Of course, we long for the city of God because we long for God. He is our great pursuit. Knowing this helps this sojourner rejoice in heavy providences for God is using them to nurture in me a worshipful remembrance of him — the One in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Cf., Psalm 16:11).

The Pastor and the Weight of Glory

If you were asked to isolate the “fundamental problem” in the evangelical world today, what would you say? I believe David Wells had it right when he outlined what ails contemporary American evangelicalism:

The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common. 1David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.

Why is this? We could suggest several things that have contributed to evangelicalism’s embrace of a weightless god:

  • The existence (although fading) of cultural Christianity. By this I mean adherence to a faith that puts no demands upon professing Christians beyond mere church attendance.
  • The prevalence of the gospel of sentimentality — what Todd Brenneman demonstrates in his recent book, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism. 2Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2013). Brenneman argues that evangelicalism is being shaped by popular pastors with media empires that churn out books and videos and trinkets depicting God as infatuated with humans and desperate for our love. This, Brenneman concludes, is simply narcissism in the name of religion.
  • The rise of “celebrity pastors” — ministers who build ministries around their charisma using the church for the advance not of the gospel, but of their own influence and fame.
  • Well meaning churches that have adopted the lie that doctrine divides and, therefore, have avoided teaching the weightier matters of the Bible.

These are just some of the reasons God rests too inconsequentially upon the church in our day.

God, of course, is not pleased to be weightless, inconsequential, marginalized, or assumed. As God makes clear through the Psalmist, “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Therefore, pastors today must use all their vital energies to help ensure that God rests very consequentially upon the church so that he is glorified as lives are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. This is the audacious goal of pastoral ministry.

Thankfully, by God’s grace pastors are not starting from scratch. Every minister of the gospel is building on someone else’s work (Cf., 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Pastors have the profound opportunity to build on the faithful labor of others so that God rests still more consequentially upon the church. Indeed, God has already been at work. We are not the first to sow the seed of the gospel.

That said, what are the hallmarks of a faithful shepherd? What does a pastor need to emphasize in his effort to bring the weight of God’s glory to the church? While more could be said, there are several things that are non-negotiable. 3For example, some people may object that I make no mention of evangelism and missions in this article. But this would be to miss the connection between the weight of glory and ministry to the ends of the earth. In other words, when God rests very consequentially upon the church we won’t be able to close ourselves off from the world. The weight of glory will move us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ at home and abroad.

A GODWARD VISION

A Godward vision for the church recognizes the nature of our calling as Christians. Consider the apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian’s call: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). We are sojourners, pilgrims, and exiles in this world on our way to the Celestial City. Indeed, our calling is a heavenly calling; this world is not our home. We are being prepared for glory which is why we are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).

A pastor must feel this in the deepest recesses of his being so that his leadership has the aroma of heaven. The pastor’s aim must be to lead the church not to himself, but to Christ and the glory yet to be revealed.

EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING

Expository preaching must be at the heart of a pastor’s work. What D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said about preaching in 1969 is just as true for our day:

But, ultimately, my reason for being very ready to give these lectures is that to me the work of preaching is the highest and greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called. If you want something in addition to that I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also. 4Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan, 1972), 9.

By expository peaching I mean what the apostle Paul meant when he declared to the church in Corinth, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). To exposit the Bible is to declare God’s word — the only word that can give life to the spiritually dead and keep God’s people steadfast in the faith. The pastor is acutely aware that only the Word of God by the Spirit of God can nourish people’s faith. Not our clever words, but only the Scriptures are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, the pastor will make it his aim to give the church the Bible every Sunday.

SOUND DOCTRINE 

A pastor longs for people to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, discipleship is at the heart of the Christian life. We are to be and make disciples, followers of Christ who are growing in spiritual maturity to the glory of God. And one of the primary ways we do this is by teaching sound doctrine. Note the connection Jesus makes between discipleship and teaching as he gives his “great commission”: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19).

We make disciples by teaching people all that Jesus commanded us. That is, the Bible. We see this same emphasis by the apostle Paul as he gives instruction to Titus: “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Why? Because sound [read: biblical] doctrine makes for strong Christians — disciples who are no longer children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine . . . but those who are growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Cf., Ephesians 4:4-16).

COMPASSIONATE CARE

I am struck by the fact that Jesus did not just minister to the crowds; he was not merely a “conference speaker.” Jesus, over a three-year period ministered to (among countless others) twelve unschooled, ordinary men; a woman at a well; a blind man by the side of the road; a tax-collector perched up in a tree; a desperately ill woman who had been bleeding internally for twelve years; a grieving father whose daughter had just died; a man dead for four days and his mourning sisters; two disciples on a road to Emmaus; and a once doubting Thomas. After all, it is Jesus who teaches us to not be satisfied if 99 out of 100 sheep are fine when one is lost. Jesus brought tailor-made grace to individual people and I believe he intends for his under-shepherds to do likewise.

A pastor labors to minister the grace of God to people as precisely as possible. This is not the work of a production line worker, but of a surgeon. A shepherd seeks to know the unique hearts of those entrusted to his care.

Sinclair Ferguson’s exhortation for the preacher to love his people is essential:

This [love for our people] is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5); “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). 5Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be (Banner of Truth, 2017), 764.

THE WEIGHT OF GLORY

All of this effort has as its goal that God rest very consequentially upon his church. And when this miracle happens, God’s truth will be near, his grace will be amazing, his judgment will be revered, his gospel will demand everything, and his Christ will be wonderful.

References   [ + ]

1. David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.
2. Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2013).
3. For example, some people may object that I make no mention of evangelism and missions in this article. But this would be to miss the connection between the weight of glory and ministry to the ends of the earth. In other words, when God rests very consequentially upon the church we won’t be able to close ourselves off from the world. The weight of glory will move us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ at home and abroad.
4. Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan, 1972), 9.
5. Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be (Banner of Truth, 2017), 764.