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Interpreting Providence

Whenever there is a dreadful, large-scale event (e.g., a terrorist attack or the outbreak of disease), someone is sure to announce that this is God’s judgment on the world for our sins. Without a doubt, by nature, after the fall, we all deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation for our sins both original and actual.

CORPORATE GUILT AND CORPORATE GOSPEL

According to God’s Word, all human beings were represented by the first man, Adam. We were in him both genetically and legally. He stood in our place. We were there. We were created in righteousness and true holiness (Heidelberg Catechism 6). Scripture says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:31). Adam was created with the ability to obey. He was not created fallen. He was not created with concupiscence (i.e., a corrupt desire).

It is implicit in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 that Adam represented all of humanity since the judgment pronounced in 3:14–15 is corporate:

Yahweh Elohim said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.”

It was not only Eve and the serpent who were cursed: “between your offspring and her offspring” makes Adam a public, that is, a representative person. We are as related to Adam as we are to our great grandparents. What Adam did affects us all. The judgment that he incurred, we incurred.

Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God covenanted with Adam to reward his obedience with eternal life and to curse his disobedience with death: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” That is why there were two trees in the garden, a tree of life and the tree of death. Mysteriously and tragically, Adam chose death. As a result, we see and feel the consequences everywhere.

In Deuteronomy 27:26, God repeated the demand for perfect obedience after the fall and he repeated the curse, too: “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” In Galatians 3:10 the Apostle Paul quoted this very verse in explaining the consequences of sin and the continuing demands of the law even after the fall. The law is holy, just, and good. It demands what it demands because God is what he is.

Scripture is equally clear, however, that the “gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The good news is that the gospel was also promised to more than Adam and Eve individually: “he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.” The covenant-making and covenant-keeping God, Yahweh Elohim, made a promise to the Evil One. He would be finally judged, and, in that judgment, he would be allowed to strike the heel of his conqueror—but the conqueror would strike or crush his head. Again, this work was not for one but for all those for whom the conqueror would come, whom the Father gave him, for whom he died. He would save them all in that one act of obedience (Romans 5:19). He acted on behalf of all his people. In Heidelberg Catechism 60, the Reformed Churches confess that for those who believe in Christ, it is “as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.”

For those who are in Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). Jesus himself said that, in his cross, the judgment against the Evil One was executed: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). Believers are not under judgment. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

There remains yet a final judgment, a condemnation for those who are outside of Christ. Our Lord said: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Those who are in Christ have “done good.” He is our good. Those who are outside of Christ face eternal condemnation. If you are reading this and you have not acknowledged your sin and misery under the law of God and turned to Christ, do it now!

OF TOWERS AND BLINDNESS

So, there is no question of our sinfulness. There is no question of the way of salvation. Further, there is no question that the effects and affects of sin still plague the world. As I write, cities in the USA are being shut down, businesses closed, and worship services postponed because of the virus that spread, apparently, from a “wet market” in Wuhan, China to the rest of the world. This virus is particularly deadly for those who have an underlying illness (e.g., a respiratory ailment) and seniors.

In response, some have predictably announced that this is a divine judgment. To be sure, there have been divine judgments in the world. The Lord flooded the earth (Genesis chapters 6–9) and he plagued Egypt until Pharaoh released the (temporarily) national people of God (Exodus chapters 6–14). There were episodes when the Lord afflicted the Canaanites who surrounded the Old Testament national people of God. There are a couple of episodes where the Lord struck down individuals, e.g., Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and Herod (Acts 12:23).

Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus himself cautioned us about inferring from calamities a direct causal link or even a correlation between a calamity and the sins of a group:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:1-3).

This is a fallen world. Thorns, thistle, pollen, and viruses are all around us. Just as there is common grace, whereby God restrains the evil consequences of the fall, so too there is common suffering. Faithful, godly believers get cancer. There are thoroughly rotten people who seem to get through this life without a scratch (Jeremiah 12:1). Their day of accounting is postponed.

Our Lord Jesus warns us against drawing a correlation or a causal link between the sins of a people and their afflictions. The Galileans were not worse sinners than anyone else. So it was with the man born blind in John 9:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-3).

The disciples made the same error. They thought they too could interpret providence, that they could draw a correlation and a causal link between particular sins and particular judgments.

God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Qoheleth, the convener of the covenant assembly, explained:

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14).

The Lord himself had warned us against the folly of trying to outguess him: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The Lord knows the end from the beginning. We do not.

INTERPRETING PROVIDENCE

Interpreting providence is a great but hazardous temptation. When an earthquake disrupted the trial of John Wycliffe in London, his enemies interpreted it as a judgment against him and he interpreted it as a judgment against his accusers. So it is when we try to draw specific messages from general revelation.

Jesus did teach us how to interpret providence. The key term here is general. In both cases, our Lord Jesus did tell us what sorts of inferences we should draw when we see affliction. In the case of the man born blind, the Lord said that he was blind so that he, Jesus, could heal him and demonstrate God’s power. This interpretation is special, not general since our Lord Jesus is not with us bodily healing and raising (and we may fairly doubt those who claim the power to do the same). In Luke 13, however, he did give a general application of the specific episode: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” This is a general application that applies to all of us everywhere.

What does Covid-19 tell us? It tells us that as often as we think that we have everything under control, we do not. It tells us that God is not absent from us. It reminds us of his power to disrupt the ordinary course of things with, as it were, the flick of a finger. It is not that God was absent and then intervened (occasionalism), but that God is always working in and through all things that occur (concursus).

This episode, like many others we can all recite, remind us that this is a fallen world. That we are frail. Look at the hordes emptying the shelves in panic. Look how quickly late modern life can be reduced to basics, food, shelter, and washing one’s hands. We delude ourselves with the dream that we are mighty and powerful when in fact we may be felled by a tiny little virus. You might be a vector (a carrier) right now and not even know it. Thousands have already died across the globe despite national health care (or because of it) and high-tech late, modern medicine. We mock the medieval world for being backward and plague-ridden until we discover that every touch screen in McDonald’s is covered in filth. This is the illusion of Enlightenment. We mock the medievals for witch trials but just let someone raise a question about the causal link between human activity and “Climate Change” and witch trials look positively rational by comparison.

There is a judgment coming but this is not it. This is only a mild warning of what is to come. God the Son became incarnate to save sinners. Remarkably, we crucified him for telling the truth, but he did not remain in the grave. He was raised. He still speaks to us in his Word. He is still warning us to repent and inviting all to come. As he said through his prophet Ezekiel:

And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, “Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:10-11)

The Lord spoke those words to his Old Testament national people, but they apply today. The Apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

These words were written in regard to all. We are in the same condition as Noah and “the world that then was.” The coming judgment is being announced and some are listening, and some are not. Those who listen will climb aboard the ark of Christ, the ark of salvation. Come to him now before it is too late.

The Coronavirus and the Judgment of God

I have a rare collection of prayers in my library of the English Reformers. It was collected and edited by Henry Bull in 1566. One of the prayers is titled, “Another Prayer Meet For the Present Time, That God Would Turn Away His Plagues Hanging over Us For Our Sins.” Here’s a portion of the prayer to help us consider how strong in faith the English Reformers were at moments like ours:

We confess and acknowledge, O Lord, that it is our sins which have moved you to wrath, and to show such fearful tokens of your displeasure towards us in these our days; first with fire from heaven, betokening your hot burning indignation and wrathful displeasure for sin which abounds at this day, and then with such horrible and monstrous shapes against nature, as was never seen here in our days, in no time before us, which do betoken to us none other thing, but your plagues to come upon us for our degenerate and monstrous life and conversation; and not last of all, by great mortality, plague and pestilence, you have terribly threatened us, fatherly warned us, and mercifully called us to repentance.

These prayers, from the most learned Reformed scholars and pastors of the 16th century, are worthy of emulation. What’s interesting to note is how the Reformers were willing to recognize the frowning providences of God as clear warnings of divine displeasure for sin. They recognized that the “shapes against nature” and the certain things of providence that they never witnessed before, conveyed a strong message. For them, the “plague and pestilence,” were threatening’s to the world, even fatherly warnings to God’s people, calling everyone to repentance.

Our pushback of reading providence too specifically (and rightly so) has left a void in how we speak of the judgment of God in times like ours. After all, who wants to sound like the angry evangelical calling out specific groups of people for being wicked sinners? Without question, Luke 13 provides a strong warning against a misreading of providence that attributes terrible events that happen to people as the result of their great sinfulness.

Further, Jesus would not let us read providence to say that the bad things that happen mean that God is specifically judging someone for their specific sin(s). We are not to draw links from particular judgments to particular sins. We speak generally of these things. For instance, we have no right to say that someone who gets the Coronavirus is being judged by God as a worse sinner than those who do not contract it, or for some specific sin. Jesus would have none of this. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Jesus asked. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). All people are equally worthy of the judgment of God and Jesus used these events to force people to consider their own standing before God. The verdict has long been given: all have sinned and are under the just judgment of God.

But in these cases, it would be equally wrong to ignore the providence of God. There is a very serious message everyone should consider in the dark moments of God’s providence. Jesus is telling us that these terrible events are warnings of the judgment to come. Therefore, we should repent today.

THE SHUTDOWN AS WARNING

I believe the church should pay close attention to our Coronavirus moment. As I write, people are facing the possibility of loss in many forms. Things have suddenly become very serious for a society that has lived according to the mindset of the rich fool who looked upon all his wealth and proclaimed, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Americans live believing that life will go on as it always has. We are like the people of 2 Peter 2 who deliberately forget the judgments of God that fell upon the world as we run swiftly into sin.

This is why we must consider the warning that comes with the unleashing of the Coronavirus. Like the prayer cited above, something is unfolding before us that we have never witnessed in our lifetime. Whether everyone agrees with the severity of the virus is not the issue. We all agree that society is shutdown, churches are banned from meeting, social gatherings of all kinds have ceased, and the economy is threatened with countless businesses closed and unemployment skyrocketing. Jesus told us that these things would happen. Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places at various times are the beginnings of sorrows or birth pains (Cf., Matthew 24). These are painful indicators of the impending and inevitable final judgment.

Consider, however, the similarities of our current crisis to the Apostle John’s description of what is to come upon Babylon in the final judgment:

“For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her . . . . all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!” The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, “Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste . . . . For in a single hour she has been laid waste. Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more; and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more, and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more” (Revelation 18:8-23).

Revelation 18 says that the final plague of judgment will bring an end to the economies of the world. The luxury and wealth Babylon enjoyed is taken in an hour, leading to death and the final judgment. This is the death no one can escape. The joyful celebrations of weddings and gatherings are over. Work stops forever and the economy takes its ultimate plunge. Worst of all, the light of the church and the gospel is seen and heard no more in Babylon.

This requires us to stop and think for a moment. Hasn’t the shutdown of everything given us a small foretaste of Rev 18? Consider the things that have happened over the last two weeks:

  • The economy is shutdown.
  • Social events, including weddings, are banned.
  • The church cannot gather.
  • Death is everywhere.

Though on a much smaller scale, what we are facing are the things that happen in the sudden final judgment. We are living proof that it doesn’t take much to bring life as we know it to a halt, in a moment. This is a worldwide phenomenon, accomplished by a little virus. Quoting the Reformers, we are facing something we have never seen here in our days.

COME TO JESUS, TODAY!

All this to say, an event like this should be a clear call for everyone to repent and escape the judgment to come. Sadly, the message of judgment is almost non-existent in the church today. But the church has a solemn responsibility to warn people of the wrath to come. The church shouldn’t be afraid of recognizing God’s providence in times like this and calling all people to repentance and faith in Christ. All people are called to turn from sin and come to Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation with God. As the Reformers recognized in the midst of a heavy providence, God is terribly threatening us, fatherly warning us, and mercifully calling us to repentance.

The greatest silver lining in this dark cloud, however, cannot be missed. We are still able to publish the best news ever, a lamp is still shining in Babylon, and a voice is still sounding forth the summons of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). But make no mistake: the day of salvation is not forever; the time is short.

Jesus is merciful, gracious, and longsuffering. Come, repent and believe, and enjoy the blessings of God’s salvation. Christ’s word, in the midst of this present chaos, is a sweet word of everlasting peace to all who believe, “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Revelation 18:4). In all the noise of our pandemic age, that’s the infinitely worthy voice we must hear.

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Abounding Grace Radio. Published here with permission.]

Your Only Comfort in Life and Death

The Heidelberg Catechism is justly regarded as one of the finest summaries of the Christian faith ever written. First published in 1563, the catechism is used by more than a million Christians globally. The first question of the catechism is among the most beloved among the Reformed confessions and catechisms:

  1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
    AThat I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

This question and answer was not written in a vacuum. Medieval life, which includes the 16th century, the period in which the Reformation began, was not an easy time in which to live. There had been some major technological breakthroughs (e.g., the printing press in 1450), and international exploration and travel were increasing; but life for most people, most of the time, was difficult and short.

It was dirty. This is the traditional picture of medieval life. Though I have seen this characterization disputed, the objection to the traditional picture of medieval life seems to be based on supposition rather than upon evidence (e.g., contemporaneous records). Consider the fact that the idea that a physician should wash his hands between patients is relatively new. Dr. Joseph Lister was considered a radical when, in 1867, he began washing his hands in between patients. As we navigate the spread and effects of Covid-19, we are all being reminded of how important it is to wash one’s hands. Such basic practices were more or less unknown in the medieval period. Health conditions were primitive and harsh. People (even nobility) bathed rarely. Most Europeans changed clothes only once or twice a year.

THE BLACK DEATH

When the authors and editors of the Heidelberg Catechism asked about the Christian’s comfort “in life and in death” it was not a mere theory. Death was a frequent visitor to Heidelberg and to every pre-Modern city. Tuberculosis was widespread. Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of the principals behind the catechism, died of it. The plague came to Heidelberg and took many lives. (More on that below.)

“The Black Plague” or “The Black Death” refers to a massive outbreak of the Bubonic Plague across the globe in the 1340s. It is uncertain exactly where the plague began (perhaps the Mongolian Plain between Russia and China), but it spread “along international trade routes,” as one author says. As it arrived in Europe it capitalized upon poor health conditions to kill about one-third of the population of Europe in the 1340s. By comparison, only World War II produced more human suffering in the same period of time.

Though the intensity lessened, outbreaks of the plague recurred through the 17th century into the Thirty Years’ War. It also occurred in parts of Asia and the Middle East. It was known at the time as the “Great Mortality.” Contemporary accounts described bodies stacked “like ‘lasagna.’” “After watching a pair of wild dogs paw at the newly dug graves of the plague dead, a part-time tax collector in Siena wrote, ‘This is the end of the world.’” Victims typically ran a high fever (101–105F), with headaches, vomiting, delirium, and coughing up blood. It is called the “bubonic plague” because of the “bubo” eruptions in the skin. It was called the “black death” because it caused bleeding under the epidermis that turned the skin black. 1John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death (Harper, 2006).

There is a vigorous debate in the secondary literature about the exact cause of the plague. Medievalists and medical researchers have questioned the older story, that the contagion was a form of the plague transmitted by rat fleas to humans, but the consensus seems to be that the traditional story is still the best explanation. In the 1990s, French researchers performed a DNA test on corpses from two “plague pits” in France. One was a medieval pit and the other was more recent. Both tested positive for the bubonic plague.

More recently, on the basis of computer models, scholars have questioned the older theory arguing that it was transmitted not by rats but by “human fleas and body lice.” I, for one, am a little skeptical of the model and think we should do what we have been doing to control the plague (e.g., controlling rats) until the picture is clearer.

MINISTERING TO VICTIMS

Late in 1544 or early in 1545 a conspiracy was discovered in Geneva. A number of people were convicted of creating a salve containing elements of the plague and smearing it on doorknobs in an attempt to murder Genevans. A number of people were put to death by the civil government. This was the second such episode since 1530.

In 1542 Calvin wrote to his old colleague, Pierre Viret (1511–71):

The [plague] also begins to rage here with greater violence, and few who are at all affected by it escape its ravages. One of our colleagues was to be set apart for attendance upon the sick. Because Peter offered himself, all readily acquiesced. If anything happens to him, I fear that I must take the risk upon myself, for as you observe, because we are debtors to one another, we must not be wanting to those who, more than any others, stand in need of our ministry. And yet it is not my opinion, that while we wish to provide for one portion we are at liberty to neglect the body of the Church itself. But so long as we are in this ministry, I do not see that any pretext will avail us, if, through fear of infection, we are found wanting in the discharge of our duty when there is most need of our assistance. In what concerns yourselves I have already told you what occurred to me. Now, since that colleague has been removed, you must seek for some one else to be put in his place. If no such person can be found, you must devise some plan, but with the common advice of the brethren. 2Letters of John Calvin, 1.357

Bruce Gordon writes that the plague “swept across” the Swiss Cantons in the period. It took notable lives, including Simon Grynaeus (1493–1541), to whom Calvin had dedicated his Romans commentary. Gordon notes that it was probably the passage of 10,000 French troops through Geneva that brought the plague to that city-state. Calvin and Sebastian Castellio, who would later become one of Calvin’s most vituperative critics, volunteered to tend to the plague victims, a job “rewarded with almost certain death but neither was accepted.” 3Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009), 124-25. The city decreed that all the ministers, except Calvin, who was deemed to be too valuable, were to serve in the plague hospital.

Scott Manetsch notes that some of the ministers “undertook this dangerous assignment with compassion and courage. For others, the fear of contracting the contagion reduced them to cowards.” 4Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford University Press, 2013), 285. When the plague returned in the Spring, the city was virtually shut down. Dogs and cats, thought to be carriers, were exterminated. Pierre Blanchet, once again appointed to serve the plague victims, finally contracted the disease himself and died. 5Manetsch, 285. The Company of Pastors took to drawing lots to replace him. Some refused to go. “Finally, a young minister named Mathieu de Garneston began making periodic visits to the plague hospital outside the city.” 6Manetsch, 286. Like Blanchet, he too contracted the disease and died. The city’s exemption of Calvin from service rankled some in the Company of Pastors. It was, as Manetsch observed, not their finest hour.

In 1566 Heidelberg itself was afflicted with the plague. Even though most fled, including the court, Olevianus, who was the chief pastor, and Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) stayed behind to minister to plague victims. 7R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 20.

PASTORAL NOTES

There is a great deal of uncertainty swirling about concerning the Covid-19. There is much that we and perhaps government officials do not know about what has really happened so far in China. Reports from Iran and Italy are equally distressing. As of this writing public behavior seems to waver between indifference and panic.

Christians, however, believe in providence and we also believe in wisdom. Our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to Christ, who purchased us. We are his inseparably. This is not a license to tempt providence. Scripture also counsels wisdom. It is wise to follow the instructions of the civil authorities, to wash our hands, and to avoid contact with others, etc. There is probably wisdom in putting group activities on pause until more is known. Most of us are not tasked with making these decisions and we trust the Lord to use those who have been given that responsibility to act wisely and in our best interests.

We are Christians. We are a purchased people. Covid-19 is not The Black Plague—which some survived. We know that this world is not random. The Savior who purchased us by his obedience and death will not abandon us. Should he will to take us out of this life, we will go to be with him who loves us. This is not to be cavalier but to try to put our fears into some perspective. The world tells us that this life is all there is. So, they panic. By contrast, we make preparations. We love our neighbors. We serve them as best we can, as citizens of a twofold kingdom, but with the confidence of knowing that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We belong to him.

References   [ + ]

1. John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death (Harper, 2006).
2. Letters of John Calvin, 1.357
3. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009), 124-25.
4. Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford University Press, 2013), 285.
5. Manetsch, 285.
6. Manetsch, 286.
7. R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 20.

Living in the Light of the Resurrection

[Editor’s note: This brief commentary is part of a new category of writing we’re calling “Sermon Notes.” The goal of these entries is to leverage the “big idea” of a particular sermon for the encouragement of pastors in their pulpit ministry.]

***

Some time ago I began a new sermon series in the book of Acts. In the introductory sermon, my goal was to ask and answer the question, “What is true of a life lived in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

While my observations were certainly not exhaustive, here are the six things I drew out of the book of Acts as distinguishing marks of the church this side of the empty tomb:

  1. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live as witnesses.
  3. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live to please God and not man.
  4. To live in the light of the resurrection is to take sin seriously.
  5. To live in the light of the resurrection is to suffer for the sake of Christ.
  6. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live in joy-filled, God-centered community.

The sermon moved intentionally to number six given the importance of community to the other five. We hear a lot about “community” today. But too often it seems like “community” can mean just about anything as long as we’re doing it together. Luke, however, has a specific understanding of community when it comes to the people of God. Consider Acts 2:42-47,

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

The people of God together devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; the people of God together devoted themselves to the fellowship; the people of God together broke bread and prayed. It was the glorious things of God that occupied the people of God in their community. It was not sufficient to simply be together.

Furthermore, I am struck by the manner with which all of this was happening: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (vv. 46-47).

Our fellowship should be marked by “glad and generous hearts” as we praise God from whom all blessings flow. Why? Because we were lost, but now are found; we were dead, but are alive again; we were children of wrath, but now are children of grace; we were without God and without hope in the world, but now are heirs of God! We’ve been redeemed from the pit of sorrow and shame; freed from the shackles of sin and Satan; forgiven of our sins past, present, and future; transferred from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of light; given a hope and a future where there is fullness of joy, pleasures forevermore!

With all of our differences, these are the priceless treasures we have in common in Christ. Therefore, we devote ourselves to the fellowship—an assembly of pilgrims, exiles, and sojourners joyfully moving along the King’s way. Indeed, God would not have us travel alone and begrudgingly to heaven, but in the glorious community of the redeemed.

Resolved to Advance God’s Glory in 2020

[This brief article is part of a new feature called “Book Notes.” Book Notes are not formal reviews, but opportunities for us to alert pastors to important books for ministry.]

***

In thinking about the new year and what resolutions I want to make, I see God’s grace in the close of one year and the dawn of another. This yearly cycle gives us the opportunity to take inventory of where we stand in relation to our Creator: are we seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Cf., Matthew 6:33)? The New Year is an ideal time for “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” — to recommit ourselves to “setting our minds on things above” (Philippians 3:13; Colossians 3:1-4).

To help me in this endeavor I’ve enlisted Steven Lawson and his fine book on Jonathan Edwards: The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards is probably best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But there is far more to appreciate about this 18th-century pastor. Benjamin Warfield, the eminent Princeton divine, referred to Edwards as a “figure of real greatness in the intellectual life of colonial America.” And Edwards scholar George Marsden considers him “the most acute American philosopher.” But perhaps the Englishman Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it best: “I am tempted, perhaps foolish, to compare the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest! He has always seemed to me the man most like the Apostle Paul.”

Lawson’s aim with his book is “to challenge a new generation of believers to pursue holiness in their daily lives” by focusing on Edwards’s 70 “Resolutions.” (Amazingly, Edwards wrote these resolutions in 1722 and 1723 when he was just 18 and 19 years old.)

Lawson chose to focus on Edwards’s “Resolutions” given how well they demonstrate the towering virtue of his life, namely, his piety. “In short, though Edwards was intellectually brilliant and theologically commanding, his true greatness lay in his indefatigable zeal for the glory of God.”

Consider Resolution #1:

Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and the most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.

Edwards was resolved, regardless of the difficulty, to live for the glory of God, his own pleasure (in God) and the good of mankind generally. Profound and convicting.

Now, notice what this Puritan — this relic of centuries ago — says in Resolution #2:

Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the forementioned things.

We don’t usually associate Jonathan Edwards with “innovation” or “cutting edge thinking.” And yet, here he is resolved to continually dream up ways to advance the glory of God.

I want to do this in the New Year. I want to be resolved to live for the glory of God, my pleasure in Him and the good of mankind generally. And I want to do this with a determined, vigorous, and biblically wise analysis of ways I can do it better.

What new ways can you think of to advance the glory of God, your pleasure in Him and the good of mankind in 2020? And don’t just think innovation. Perhaps what is “old” should become new again.

Profiles in Church History: John A. Broadus

John A. Broadus is arguably the most important preacher in the last 250 years. It is no small thing that his book on preaching continues to be printed so long after its original publishing. Serious students of preaching and pastors would do well to give close attention to his life and teachings. This paper will explore his life and ministry beginning with a short biographical sketch followed by some important theological convictions necessary to understanding Broadus’ preaching. Next, the strengths and weaknesses of his preaching approach will be highlighted. Lastly, I will consider an important blind spot in Broadus’ ministry that serves as a cautionary tale for pastors today.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 

John Broadus was born to a modest, but hard-working, farming family on January 24, 1827 in Culpepper County, Virginia. His parents were godly and had a tremendous impact on his life, particularly his father Major Edmund Broadus. Edmund was a man of great character and activity who provided John with deep spiritual roots. 1David S. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 13. Edmund, a farmer, a major in the Virginia militia, and a miller also found himself as the leader of the Whig party in the state and worked personally with Thomas Jefferson. He raised John in the Baptist church of Virginia and educated him in a subscription school, Black Hill Boarding School. 2Dockery, 13. During the last year of his schooling, John attended a prolonged meeting at Mt. Poney Baptist Church where he heard the preaching of Reverend Charles Lewis and Reverend Barnett Grimsley. 3Tom J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People in Forming a Baptist Identity (Fearn: Mentor, 2005), 294. The Lord used the earlier salvation and baptism of his sister to open Broadus’ eyes to his need for salvation and it was at this time that John trusted the Lord saying, “I came to cherish a belief, a humble hope in Christ . . .” 4John Albert Broadus, Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism, (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1892), 36. The stage was set for Broadus to make an inestimable impact on the world.

In 1846, Broadus began his education at the prestigious University of Virginia where, by all accounts, he was an “eager and dedicated student.” 5Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 15. Even as a young man, God began to work through Broadus to reach other students. He was diligent to serve others, attended church services, and was particularly evangelistic. In 1846, he finally surrendered to vocational ministry, a call he never again doubted. 6Dockery, 17. While at UVA, Broadus so distinguished himself as a student and scholar that he was chosen to deliver the graduation speech. 7Nettles, The Baptists, 245. After graduation, he tutored in Fluvanna County for a year before accepting a call to pastor in Charlottesville in September of 1851. Simultaneously, he accepted an associate professorship at UVA teaching Latin and Greek and soon became the campus chaplain.

Over the next few years, the idea of founding a Southern Baptist seminary began to gain traction as James Petigru Boyce worked to get it off the ground. After serving on a feasibility study committee, Broadus, along with Basil Manly Jr., agreed to leave his beloved home in Charlottesville and join the faculty at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary which opened in 1859 in Greenville, SC. 8Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 19. Reportedly Broadus and Manly Jr. both said to each other, “I’ll go if you will go.” 9Dockery, 18. This new endeavor would envelop the rest of Broadus’ life and work. He poured all that he was into the tremendously important work there, even turning down countless opportunities to go elsewhere. After the war, when the seminary was forced to move to Louisville, KY, Broadus moved as well and continued to teach. His first preaching class after the war contained only one blind student, and yet he still taught. In 1889, he became the president of the seminary following the death of Boyce. Coincidently, that was also the year he delivered the “lost” Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale. Already in bad health when assuming the presidency, Broadus never regained his full strength and eventually passed away on March 16, 1895. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported, “There is no man in the United States whose passing would cause more widespread sorrow than that of Doctor Broadus.” 10Dockery, 21.

THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS 

The theological convictions of Broadus must be understood in order to clearly capture Broadus as a preacher, theologian, and educator. Dr. Hershael York notes that the study of Broadus’ theology differs from many other historical preachers. Often, researchers must start with sermons and statements then “work backwards . . . inferring the underlying doctrinal positions.” 11Hershael W. York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” in A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), 216. That is certainly not the case here. The confessional statement of the seminary, the Abstract of Principles, provides a clear and robust explanation of the founder’s doctrinal positions and thus speaks volumes about the theological convictions undergirding Broadus’ preaching. 12York, 216.

The Abstract, which Broadus himself played a part in crafting, grew out of confessional statements used by Baptist associations in Philadelphia and Charleston, and the earlier Second London Confession. Leaving no room for theological maneuvering, the confession statement ensures that every professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is thoroughly orthodox. The confessional document has been appropriately described as “in line with historic orthodoxy at every point.” 13York, 217. Broadus’ signing of the document demonstrates his unwavering theological commitment to orthodox views of the Scriptures, the Trinity, the providence of God, election, regeneration, justification, sanctification, the ordinances, and much more. His preaching reflected these deep theological commitments. Throughout the history of the church, preaching has often been detached from orthodoxy. 14For a comprehensive overview of preaching see David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998). For Broadus, such preaching would have been not only unthinkable but would cease to be “preaching” in any real sense. These very convictions that drove him to preach, teach, and write extensively. Good preaching could help defend the church against the “subtle infidelity” of heterodox beliefs by educating the laity in Christian doctrine. 15Nettles, The Baptists, 306.

Far from shying away from doctrinal points, Broadus often dedicated whole sermons to doctrinal positions. 16John Albert Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, ed. Vernon L. Stanfield (New York: Harper, 1959), 91–97. See his sermon titled “The Necessity of Atonement.” When C.H. Toy, a professor at the seminary who eventually resigned, began to believe and teach a heterodox view of the Scriptures and evolution, Broadus rightly recognized the dangers of such theology, even while many other Baptists felt the departure to be a small thing. 17For a full recounting see Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 181–90. He continued to show affection and concern for Toy after he left the seminary but found that many had “little discernment” in their evaluation of the theological issues at stake. 18Nettles, The Baptists, 308. His preaching was powerful and effective precisely because of his commitment to the truth of the Bible. Preaching devoid of rich doctrinal truth will always be devoid of real spiritual power.

One aspect of his theological commitments that had a profound impact on his preaching was his total reliance on the authority of God’s Word. True preaching lays bare the text of Scripture. Broadus believed that the Bible did not merely “contain but is the Word of God.” 19William A. Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959), 80. His commitment to the absolute truthfulness and divine authority can be seen in his response to the C.H. Toy controversy was mentioned. Broadus stopped short of affirming verbal plenary inspiration, as Basil Manly Jr. did, simply because he was cautious in “theorizing” the mechanisms of inspiration. 20Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 33. In order to hand down this confidence in the Bible he included a section on the Scriptures in his catechism for children, writing, “‘Has it been proven that the inspired writers stated anything as true that was not true?’ He answers, ‘No; there is no proof that inspired writers made any mistakes of any kind.’” 21Nettles, The Baptists, 310. In the Word of God, Broadus found the basis and content for his sermons. In chapter one of his seminal work on preaching, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, he states,

It is manifest that to take a text gives a certain air of sacredness to the discourse. But more than this is true. The primary idea is that the discourse is a development of the text, and explanation, illustration, application of its teaching. Our business is to teach God’s Word…our undertaking is not to guide the people by our own wisdom, but to impart to them the teachings of God in his Word. 22John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), 22. From here out referred to as Treatise. Originally published in 1870, this is the only reprint of the first edition. There are over 50 in total but all references in this work refer to the reprint of the first edition.

For Broadus, preaching was important because the preacher, in expounding the Scriptures, speaks for God. Preaching is authoritative and powerful because the Word of God is authoritative and powerful. Even Broadus’ well-known use of rhetorical principles did not overshadow his desire to make meaning of the Word plain, in fact, Roger Duke notes that “nothing was more important than bringing clarity and plainness to the pulpit.” 23Roger D. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 81. His commitment to clarity and plainness flows directly from his commitment to the truthfulness and authority of the Word of God. This commitment followed him through the entirety of his life and ministry. The last words he spoke in a formal teaching setting so beautifully captured the essence of his ministry. At the conclusion of his last lecture in the English New Testament, student C.L. Corbitt recounts that he urged his students to be men “mighty in the Scriptures.” 24Nettles, The Baptists, 313.

Broadus was evangelistic in his preaching because he believed preaching was the primary means the Holy Spirit used to regenerate men. 25York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” 219. While he considered many other aspects of pastoral ministry important, nothing could surpass preaching. Preaching is unique to Christianity and sets it apart from the world’s other religions, even Judaism. Early in his treatise he asserts, “The great appointed means of spreading the good tiding of salvation through Christ is preaching—words spoken, whether to the individual or to the assembly. And this, nothing can supersede.” 26Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1. Printing can be a great tool for the minister, pastoral work is crucial, but both fall behind preaching in importance. 27Broadus, 1. Throughout the history of the church, faithful preaching has often accompanied great works of the spirit and tremendous revival. Broadus believed this and therefore gave his life to train preachers to be faithful stewards of the pulpit. When the pulpit is weak and anemic, the church will be weak and anemic. In his introduction to his volume Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus Vernon Stanfield attributes the power of his preaching to his “conscious purpose to lead his hearers to some spiritual decision.” 28Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 9. Broadus, one of the sharpest and most academically accomplished preachers of the 19th century, was used by God because he focused on bringing people to a response, namely trust in Christ. One will only begin to understand his preaching by grasping the foundational convictions that underlie it.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES IN PREACHING 

The preaching of Broadus abounds in strengths and has relatively few real weaknesses. In determining which strengths to highlight one must choose from an embarrassment of riches. The following strengths are highlighted for their particular helpfulness to this author, followed by one tepid weakness.

The use of rhetoric and eloquence in sermons has long confounded faithful preachers. In light of Paul’s seeming denunciation of eloquence in 1 Corinthians, what place does rhetoric have in preaching, if at all? Arguably, no pastor, preacher, or professor has answered this question better than Broadus. 29Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1–18. His Treatise is a tour de force of the appropriate and fitting use of rhetorical principles in preaching.  In analyzing the rhetoric of Broadus, Duke points out that Broadus learned not only from the classical rhetoricians, but that he benefited from those, like Augustine, who had already “adapted rhetoric for preaching.” 30Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 72. He was deeply influenced by Aristotle’s Canon’s of Rhetoric and one may recognize that he organized his Treatise around the work. 31Duke, 73. In the introduction to the Treatise, he defines eloquence as follows: “Eloquence is so speaking as not merely to convince the judgment, kindle the imagination, and move the feelings, but to give a powerful impulse to the will.” 32Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 3. When we understand that he viewed the aim of preaching as moving one to a decision for Christ, it’s not hard to understand why Broadus believed eloquence could serve the preacher and the sermon. One is hard-pressed to find a better discussion, or example, of the proper use of rhetoric and eloquence in preaching than John Broadus and his Treatise.

Broadus’ commitment to the full authority and truthfulness of the Word led him to allow the text itself to drive his sermons, making him a model for preachers in every age. Richard Melick, in measuring the preaching of Broadus against modern preaching theory, notes that he resisted “spiritualization and misrepresentation” with a strong “emphasis . . . on letting the text determine meaning.” 33Richard Melick, “New Wine in Broadus Wineskins?,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 120. In an age where many preachers were happy to give a cursory nod to the text, Broadus believed that faithfulness required tethering oneself to the passage. Chapter two of Treatise lays out both the importance and the obligation a preacher has to get the text right. He goes so far as to even provide examples of common misinterpretations. The responsibility of the preacher is clearly laid out. His duty is to “interpret and apply his text in accordance with its real meaning,” and is thus “bound to represent the text as meaning precisely what it does mean.” 34Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1. The actual words of the text should be studied carefully and in context in order that the preacher may not abuse the Scriptures; twisting the words or merely making them a “motto.” Modern preachers would do well to heed such wise advice, sticking close to the Scripture when they dare speak for God.

Another important strength to consider when studying the preaching of Broadus is his focus on clarity. There may have been no more important aspect of sermon preparation for him than to bring “clarity and plainness to the pulpit.” 35Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 81. If one understands his commitment to the Bible, this laser focus on clarity in preaching makes perfect sense. Augustine’s saying Veritas pateat, Veritas placeat, Veritas moveat (“Make the truth plain, make it pleasing, make it moving”) proved to be a guidepost for Broadus as he considered sermon structure and construction. Despite his familiarity and comfortability with advanced rhetorical technique, he was nevertheless fixated on being clear and plain. 36Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4.

A potential weakness one could identify in the preaching of Broadus is that he was not always as committed to what modern ministers consider “expository” preaching as his teaching may lead us to believe. In his ‘lost’ Yale lectures he argues that expository preaching is clearly the best and most appropriate model of preaching for the church. 37Mark M. Overstreet, “Now I Am Found: The Recovery of the ‘Lost’ Yale Lectures and Broadus’s Legacy of Engaging Exposition,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 165. In Treatise, Broadus defines expository preaching as a discourse that is focused on the exposition of a part Scripture. 38Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 265. That ‘part’ may be a whole passage or simply a short phrase. There he lays out not only the advantages to expository preaching but answers important objections. 39Broadus, 264. He skillfully presents the case for exposition in general but does not argue robustly for continuous exposition, i.e. a series of expositional sermons through a book. Many, if not most, present-day faithful expositors would argue for continuous exposition: walking consecutively through a book of the Bible. That is not what you will find when you examine the sermons of Broadus. For example, his sermons entitled “The Necessity of Atonement” from 1 John 1: 7 is a beautiful exposition of the doctrine of the atonement, but gives only a cursory nod to the actual text. 40Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 91–97. His own definition of expositions allows for this sort of sermon built on a single verse or short phrase, but would not be the ideal primary biblical diet for a congregation. One may ask after reading the sermon, were his listeners any more knowledgeable about 1 John 1:7 than before?

DISTURBING BLIND SPOT 

Despite his robust theology and his passionate preaching, there was still one area of his life that was not compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ: his support of antebellum slavery. In a landmark report, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary exposed its ugly history with racism and slavery. Unfortunately, none of the founders escape unscathed, even Broadus. What follows are just a few bare facts concerning Broadus’ relationship with slavery.

Broadus owned two slaves himself, and the entire founding faculty owned 55 between themselves. 41Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 5. He defended the moral righteousness of slaveholding. In 1863, he wrote and presented resolutions to the SBC to support the cause of the Confederacy. He served as a chaplain in the confederate army. 42Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 6. He not only believed but propagated the myth of black inferiority, even suggesting that the Seminary be moved to Lynchburg, VA because it was “in a white man’s country.” 43Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 26. I resonate deeply with the questions posed in the report by Dr. Albert Mohler, “How could our founders, James P. Boyce, John Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams, serve as such defenders of biblical truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the confessional convictions of this Seminary, and at the same time own human beings as slaves— based on an ideology of race—and defend American slavery as an institution?” 44Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 3.

After reading Broadus it is hard to imagine one who so eloquently preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus could justify owning another person. There is a lesson here to learn: take heed lest you fall. It is all too easy to find the blind spots of other men, especially dead men. If I am known at all in 200 years, what blind spots might a historian find in my life? If someone in the distant future were to read copies of 150 of my sermons would they be appalled at my sparse references to abortion in light of the massive blight that it is on our nation? I cannot currently answer that question. I am reminded, though, that I must constantly be seeking the Lord and asking for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. I desire to look, live, and serve like Jesus. The life of Broadus teaches us that it is possible to love the Lord and be used greatly by him, and yet still tragically miss clear gospel implications. But for the grace of God, there go I.

CONCLUSION 

Among evangelical preachers, Broadus stands alone in his service to the church. His Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons is unrivaled in its usefulness for students of preaching. Pastors and pastors-in-training can learn much from the wisdom and faithfulness of Broadus. May the church continue to benefit from the ministry of John Broadus for generations to come.

References   [ + ]

1. David S. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 13.
2. Dockery, 13.
3. Tom J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People in Forming a Baptist Identity (Fearn: Mentor, 2005), 294.
4. John Albert Broadus, Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism, (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1892), 36.
5. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 15.
6. Dockery, 17.
7. Nettles, The Baptists, 245.
8. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 19.
9. Dockery, 18.
10. Dockery, 21.
11. Hershael W. York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” in A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), 216.
12. York, 216.
13. York, 217.
14. For a comprehensive overview of preaching see David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998).
15. Nettles, The Baptists, 306.
16. John Albert Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, ed. Vernon L. Stanfield (New York: Harper, 1959), 91–97. See his sermon titled “The Necessity of Atonement.”
17. For a full recounting see Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 181–90.
18. Nettles, The Baptists, 308.
19. William A. Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959), 80.
20. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 33.
21. Nettles, The Baptists, 310.
22. John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), 22. From here out referred to as Treatise. Originally published in 1870, this is the only reprint of the first edition. There are over 50 in total but all references in this work refer to the reprint of the first edition.
23. Roger D. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 81.
24. Nettles, The Baptists, 313.
25. York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” 219.
26, 34. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1.
27. Broadus, 1.
28. Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 9.
29. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1–18.
30. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 72.
31. Duke, 73.
32. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 3.
33. Richard Melick, “New Wine in Broadus Wineskins?,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 120.
35. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 81.
36. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4.
37. Mark M. Overstreet, “Now I Am Found: The Recovery of the ‘Lost’ Yale Lectures and Broadus’s Legacy of Engaging Exposition,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 165.
38. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 265.
39. Broadus, 264.
40. Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 91–97.
41. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 5.
42. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 6.
43. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 26.
44. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 3.

Preaching in the New Testament — A Review

[Griffiths, Jonathan. Preaching in the New Testament: New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.]

Jonathan Griffiths is the lead pastor of the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa, Canada. He studied theology at Oxford and Cambridge where he earned his PhD in New Testament. He is the author of Hebrews and Divine Speech, Teaching 2 Timothy, and the editor of The Perfect Saviour: Key Themes in Hebrews. Griffiths also serves as a council member of The Gospel Coalition Canada.

SUMMARY

Griffiths introduces Preaching in the New Testament with the question, “What is preaching and why do we do it?” He admits that even for himself this was a hard question to answer biblically and that he was tempted to answer it pragmatically from its results throughout church history (1). However, preaching’s foundation should not be merely pragmatic, but biblical and theological. Therefore, Griffiths sets out to answer a series of questions pertaining to preaching using selected texts from the New Testament (4-5). First, is there an actual practice of preaching in the New Testament? If so, did this ministry of preaching cease at the end of the apostolic age? If it did not cease, how does it fit with other word ministries in the church? Lastly, is preaching different today from what happens in the Bible (2-3)?

Griffiths begins the book laying its foundation in the nature of God’s Word. According to Griffiths, the Bible is God’s inspired word (10). Through this word, God acts powerfully creating the world and resurrecting the dead (11). His word, when spoken, is also inseparable from his presence. Where God is found, he is speaking (13). Therefore, when a person speaks God’s words rightly, God speaks, acts, and is present in the speaking (16).

Griffiths proceeds to a study of the Greek verbs typically ascribed to preaching in the New Testament: evangelizomai, katangello, and kerysso (17). In relation to these words, Griffiths analyzes every use in the New Testament by asking who is speaking, who is the audience, and what is the content of what is spoken (19). Griffiths concludes, “As used in the New Testament, the verbs typically refer to the act of making a public proclamation, the agent is generally a person of recognized authority, and the substance of the proclamation is normally some aspect of Christ’s person and work, the implications of the Gospel or some other truth from God’s Word” (33).

Griffiths begins his exegesis with 2 Timothy 3-4 and its relationship to preaching. He concludes that preaching should persist beyond the apostolic age because the apostle Paul commanded Timothy, a member of the post-apostolic generation, to preach the Word after Paul’s death (53-55). Paul instructs Timothy that the content of preaching is the Word of God (55-57). In addition, preaching is not just to unbelieving crowds (as is often seen in Acts), but for the edification of the church since Timothy is commanded to preach to the Ephesian church (57-58). Lastly, Griffiths shows from 2 Timothy 3:17 that preaching is done by specially commissioned men who stand in the long prophetic line of authoritative speakers commission by God (58-60).

From Romans 10, Griffiths demonstrates that preaching is God’s special means of giving faith to sinners (68). Faith occurs through preaching because the words of the preacher are by nature the very words of Jesus (71-72). In addition, those who preach are those commissioned by God to fulfill this task (72). This is the continuation of the same tradition of proclamation seen throughout the Bible and continues into the messianic age as the means of the global spread of the Gospel (72).

Griffiths turns to the Corinthian letters. He argues that preaching as public proclamation is the central activity in Paul’s ministry. The content of Paul’s preaching is Christ crucified. In addition, the man who delivers this message is set aside for the labor of preaching like a farmer or soldier is set aside for their assigned duties. The preacher, therefore, is to be funded as if he was a farmer or soldier. In 2 Corinthians 1 Paul refers to his preaching ministry as a shared ministry with Timothy and Silvanus, two non-apostles, implying that preaching was not for the apostolic period alone but for the coming generations until Christ’s return (83). The proclamation ministry that they share happened in the context of the Corinthian congregation and was for the church’s growth into the image of Christ (91-92). Growth into Christ’s image happens because the Triune God is acting and speaking in the preaching (88-89).

From 1 Thessalonians, Griffiths demonstrates the same truths he’s already established. Certain men are called out by God to preach (98). These men go beyond the apostles to include the post-apostolic generations (98). The highlight of this chapter is the truth that God is the primary actor and speaker in preaching (100). The Thessalonians heard Paul’s preaching as the very word of God, and in doing so, were changed. The result of their faith is the further spread of the Gospel through these elect Thessalonians (101-102).

The last New Testament book Griffiths covers is Hebrews. He argues that Hebrews is a sermon manuscript written by a post-apostolic pastor. Its authorship further supports his understanding that preaching is to continue after the closing of the canon (106-107). This sermon, according the Griffiths, should shape our understanding of preaching in a variety of ways. First, it is for the gathering of Christians (104). Second, preaching is to be Christ-centered exposition of biblical texts that calls listeners to respond in faith and obedience (105-106). Third, the author was aware that preaching was God speaking from heaven (108). Fourth, God communicates a taste of heavenly Zion to churches when preaching happens (116). Fifth, God speaks with duel purposes in preaching, namely, to save and judge (110-111).

Griffiths concludes that preaching has a prominent place in the New Testament. It was at the heart of the ministries of Jesus and the apostles who commission post-apostolic preachers. Therefore, preaching was not intended to stop at the closing of the apostolic age but continue until the return of Christ (128). Preaching is not different by nature from what happens in the Bible since God is still speaking to his people by a human mouthpiece (122, 129). This is not done with new revelation (like a prophet), but as men preach from the Bible (127). Preaching, as it relates to the people of God, has its setting in the local church and is distinguished from other Word ministries of the church as the fountainhead from which the other Word ministries derive (130-133).

CRITICAL EVALUATION

Griffiths is right to say that defending preaching from church history and pragmatics is a house of cards that will not hold up when preaching falls on hard times (4). If we cannot give a reason from the Bible for why we preach, then there is really no point in preaching. This makes the questions Griffiths asks in the introduction particularly relevant for the Church today.

Griffiths’ exegesis affirms preaching as a biblical practice that is to continue today. This affirmation rose to the forefront by the end of the second chapter where Griffiths analyzed the uses of the Greek verbs for preaching in the New Testament. However, by the end of Griffiths’ exegesis of Hebrews, the answers were abundantly clear that preaching is God speaking through commissioned men, that preaching continues today, that preaching is distinguished from other Word ministries, and that the church is the primary context where preaching is to occur.

It is rather amazing that it only took 152 pages (133 not counting the bibliography) for Griffiths to accomplish his goal of defining preaching from the New Testament. Griffiths writes with lucid brevity while helping the reader see God’s astounding thoughts concerning preaching. Furthermore, people with no training in biblical Greek should not fear picking this book up and reading it. Griffiths is a clear guide into the original language of the New Testament.

Griffiths, I believe, is right that most pastors and congregants do not know what preaching is in its essence. Preaching is generally an assumed practice. In order for men to preach with a humble boldness and for churches to listen to preaching with life-changing, reverent fear they need to understand what preaching is in its essence. They must know that preaching is monologue from heaven and that God still speaks today in preaching. If they understand that biblical preaching is God speaking to a people through a human mouthpiece, everything will change.

When preachers realize that God is speaking in preaching, they will prioritize their sermon prep with more dependence on God knowing that preaching is the church’s primary means of discipleship. Preachers will be fearfully calculated with their words knowing why James said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Preachers will preach expository, text-driven sermons knowing that God will not speak to his people apart from his Word. Preachers will be more confident in their ministry’s success because they know that if they explain the text rightly and apply it to God’s people, God will do the rest. The realization that preaching is monologue from heaven will be fearful and freeing for preachers. These are just a few reasons why Griffiths’ book should be read by every pastor.

When a congregation realizes that God is speaking in preaching, they will prioritize the congregational gathering knowing that this is when God speaks to his people. They will begin to have proper expectations of their pastors, especially the main preacher, knowing that their primary job during the week is their preparation and declaration of God’s word. They will begin to pray for the life and doctrine of their pastors knowing that they will have to give an account of themselves to God and because their preaching has a direct influence on their sanctification and the regeneration of their loved ones. These are just a few reasons why Griffiths’ book should be read by every church member.

I do wonder about Griffiths’ understanding of the book of Hebrews. Griffiths argues that Hebrews is the earliest known sermon manuscript (104-105). He argues for this because the letter is different from other epistles as it lacks a normal salutation, the author’s use of first person plural, and its reference to being a “word of exhortation.” It’s not that I disagree with Griffiths’ interpretation, I just wish he had more proof. In other epistles the writers commonly exhort and encourage people to action like preachers, they often write in the first person plural, and their letters were meant to be read aloud before the congregations they were addressed to. Despite all of these similarities, we do not call their letters sermons.

Griffiths also argues that the book of Hebrews was written by a post-apostolic author who was probably a pastor of the church to which this letter was addressed (107). He then uses this understanding to argue for post-apostolic succession of preaching. Again, it’s not that I disagree with this interpretation, but I feel it lacks the necessary proof for such an assertion.

CONCLUSION

Preaching in the New Testament will thoroughly benefit the people of God—not only preachers, but laypeople as well. The book may look daunting for the person who has no training in biblical Greek, but you do not need training in Greek to grasp the central message and its manifold ramifications for the church. When Christians grasp what preaching is—monologue from God—it will completely change their understanding of the pulpit by helping them see the profound place of preaching in God’s economy.

The Mortification of the Pastor

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”  – Acts 20:28

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  – 1 Timothy 4:16

“It is a fearful thing to be an unsanctified professor, but much more to be an unsanctified preacher.” – Richard Baxter

***

At the recent Expositors Summit at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had the daunting task of lecturing on “The Mortification of the Pastor.” I chose this topic given the theme of the conference, namely, the pastor and purity. And I can think of no better way to promote purity than by killing sin.

There is a temptation in ministry to think you’ve arrived. After all, gospel ministers are constantly exhorting people to holy living while trying to live a life worthy of emulation. People look to us for sound doctrine and a life consistent with this teaching. And if we’re not careful, we might actually start to believe we have this whole sin thing under control.

But that would be very dangerous thinking.

Over every pastor’s desk should be the apostolic warning from 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Over the last decade, the landscape of evangelicalism has become littered with fallen pastors—men who failed to “take heed.” And the damage to Christ’s church is incalculable. I offer this essay as an exercise in taking heed so that pastors can make progress in holiness. As Charles Spurgeon warned, “For the herald of the gospel to be spiritually out of order in his own proper person is, both to himself and to his work, a most serious calamity; and yet, my brethren, how easily is such an evil produced, and with what watchfulness must it be guarded against!” 1Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954), 8.

To help us be still more watchful I will consider, first, the sanctification of the pastor; second, sanctification’s great enemy; third, the mortification of the pastor with some practical helps to see this work accomplished in our lives.

THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE PASTOR

Christians are being sanctified. This ongoing work can be understood more clearly against the backdrop of what Michael Horton and others have called “definitive sanctification.” Horton writes: “Before we can speak of our being put to holy use and growing in grace . . . we must see that sanctification is first of all God’s act of setting us apart from the world for himself.” 2The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 650. This definitive work of setting apart can be seen in biblical texts like John 15:16 where Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” The apostle Paul has definitive sanctification in mind when he declares, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The predestination and calling of a person are a definitive setting apart for salvation—a glorious truth also seen in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Christian is one who has been set apart for salvation in Christ.

But the Bible also speaks of sanctification in another way, a way that considers what is actually happening to a person who has been definitively set apart for God. Again, Horton is helpful when he writes about the inward transformation going on in the believer: “However, the New Testament . . . also speaks of this setting apart as an ongoing work within believers that renews them inwardly and conforms them gradually to the image of God in Christ. We are holy (definitive sanctification); therefore, we are to be holy (progressive sanctification).” 3The Christian Faith, 653.

More help in our understanding comes from J.I. Packer. He explains progressive sanctification in relation to regeneration or the new birth:

Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth. In regeneration, God implants desires that were not there before: desire for God, for holiness, and for the hallowing and glorifying of God’s name in this world; desire to pray, worship, love, serve, honor, and please God; desire to show love and bring benefit to others. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit “works in you to will and to act” according to God’s purpose; what he does is prompt you to “work out your salvation” (i.e., express it in action) by fulfilling these new desires (Philippians 2:12-13). Christians become increasingly Christlike as the moral profile of Jesus (the “fruit of the Spirit”) is progressively formed in them (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; 5:22-25). 4Concise Theology (Tyndale, 2001), 170.

More concisely, we have the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 35):

Q. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Every Christian pastor is being sanctified. By the Spirit of God, we are being enabled to “more and more” (progressively) die to sin and live a life worthy of the gospel. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if this happened every day with no struggle, toil, or pain; no hiccups or setbacks? But surely the pastor, of all people, knows this is not the case. Our sanctification is not uninterrupted. Indeed, it has a great enemy that must be accounted for.

SANCTIFICATION’S GREAT ENEMY

The apostle Paul introduces us to sanctification’s great enemy in Romans 7:21–25:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In v. 21 Paul says that he finds it “to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” He uses this ‘law’ language again in v. 23 when he says, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind.” By ‘law’ Paul means a ‘principle’ or ‘operational principle’. Indwelling sin is a contrary ‘law’ to the inclination to do good (an inclination Paul acknowledges that he has in vv. 21-22). And notice how this ‘law’ or ‘principle’ is always with us—it “dwells in my members,” Paul says. In other words, everywhere we go this law is with us waging war against our God-given desire to walk in righteousness. Unlike a jacket, I can’t leave this law at home or at the office. Where I go, it goes. I cannot get away from this enemy.

THE MORTIFICATION OF THE PASTOR

The pastor needs help against this great enemy. And great help comes from the seventeenth century in the name of John Owen.

An English Puritan, Owen was a scholar, pastor, and preacher. Among the magisterial sixteen volumes that comprise his works are titles such as The Glory of Christ (volume 1), Communion With God (volume 2), The Holy Spirit (volumes 3 and, appropriately, where we find his essay entitled, “Mortification of Sin”—27 pages of tough sledding and in the context of 285 pages on the doctrine of sanctification), and Temptation and Sin (volume 6 with its 648 pages dedicated to understanding the biblical teaching on temptation and sin).

J.I. Packer, recognizing that Owen dealt with topics at a depth out-of-step with our relatively shallow evangelicalism, explains that Owen “wrote for readers who, once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom of it, and who find exhaustiveness not exhausting but refreshing.” 5James Houston, editor, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (Bethany House, 1996), 18. Packer adds, “A Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is so shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin,” 24.

Taking our cues from John Owen, what is mortification? What does it mean to mortify sin?

To mortify means ‘to kill’. Owen calls mortification “the second part of sanctification.” 6The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 538. If sanctification is progressive holiness in the life of the believer, mortification is the progressive eradication of sin in the believer. Owen explains, “Indwelling sin in the believer is the old man that must be killed, with all his faculties, properties, wisdom, craft, subtlety, and strength.” 7Sin and Temptation, 154. He continues, “[mortification] is the weakening of sin’s indwelling disposition . . . it is the alacrity, vigor, and cheerfulness of the Spirit or new man contending against lust.” 8Sin and Temptation, 158. And to help us see that this “killing work” is ongoing, Owen reminds us that mortification “consists in a constant taking part with grace . . . against the principle, acts, and fruits of sin.” 9The Holy Spirit, 543. This is not a matter of on again, off again effort, but a constant cooperation with grace in seeking to destroy indwelling sin.

This is radical language—all this talk of mortifying, killing, and destroying sin. In our increasingly biblically illiterate churches, we may be tempted to think this is language exclusive to those “dour” Puritans and not the language of the Bible. But the Bible talks this way; the Bible is ruthless in its discussion of sin. When it comes to sin, the Bible doesn’t say to manage it, control it, befriend it, appease it, or merely avoid it. The Bible commands us to kill it.

Consider Romans 8:12-13, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The apostle says that the path of life is one where the deeds of the body are “put to death.” Paul repeats this teaching in Colossians 3:5-6, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Sin, the apostle warns, is idolatry and brings wrath. Therefore, put it to death. And this isn’t only the language of Paul, but of Jesus as well. In his earthly ministry, Jesus taught clearly on the reality of heaven and hell; eternal life and eternal death. The one who mortifies the flesh is the one who will inherit eternal life. The person who does not, will be condemned in hell forever. This is the startling teaching of our Lord in Mark 9:42-48:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

It’s texts like the above that led Owen to famously state, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.” 10Sin and Temptation, 160.

To more clearly understand what mortification is, it is helpful to understand what it is not. There are at least two misconceptions about mortification that need to be highlighted.

First, mortification is not sinless perfection. In other words, it is not the final elimination of sin in this life. No one less than the apostle Paul himself, no strange to the powerful sanctifying work of God in his life, acknowledged in Philippians 3:12–14, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” And in 1 John 1:8 we read, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (cf., James 3:2). The Bible nowhere holds out the hope of perfection in this life.

Second, mortification is more than mere behavior modification. Mortification is not pretending sin is removed or simply suppressing our sinful behavior through the “improvement of a quiet, controlled temperament.” 11Sin and Temptation, 155. Mortification is getting beyond the symptoms of sin (i.e., behavior) and taking aim at the root of sin—a root that lies in the heart. Believing as Jesus taught that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), the Christian prays like David in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Having defined mortification and clearing up two major misconceptions about what it is, we now want to ask, “How do we do it? How does a pastor (and any Christian for that matter) mortify the flesh?”

Inspired by John Owen, let me suggest eleven ways to make progress in mortification.

  1. Practice Self-Denial

The world says, “You just need a little me time.” If you said that to John Owen my guess is that he would have looked at you baffled and confused. He would have been perplexed because at the heart of the gospel is exactly the opposite message. Take, for example, Mark 8:34 where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” At the heart of discipleship is a denial of self. To not practice self-denial is, according to the apostle Paul, one of the marks of an enemy of the cross of Christ: “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). When your god is your belly you are living to satisfy your sinful passions and lusts, which is utterly contrary to the Christian life—and makes your heart a breeding ground for sin.

  1. Be Resolved That the Battle Never Ends in This Life

Back to Romans 8:12-13, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” All the verbs in this passage emphasize an active, ongoing effort. There is no cease-fire in this war—mortification is a habitual weakening of sin through constant contention against sin. Owen warns:

Sin never wavers, yields, or gives up in spite of all the powerful opposition it encounters from the law of the gospel. If we only believed this, we would be less careless in carrying around that implacable enmity with us. It is well that those who are vigilant should weaken its force within them. But how sad is the deception of those who deceive themselves into thinking they have no sin (1 John 1:8). 12Sin and Temptation, 19.

And because sin will always, to some degree, be active in us, Owen exhorts us to never “let sin alone”: “Sin not only still abides in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone.” 13Temptation and Sin vol. 6 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 11.

  1. Know There Can be Great Victories

Given the power of the gospel, some sins in this life can be eradicated. This is great motivation to engage in warfare against indwelling sin. Owen writes, “Mortification succeeds in varying degrees and may completely triumph if the sin in question is not lodged too deeply within the natural temperament.” 14Sin and Temptation, 158. We believe this to be true because Christians are nothing less than a new creation in Christ, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” As new creations in Christ we now, by the Spirit, “walk in newness of life.” 152 Cor. 5:16-17; Romans 6:4

  1. Beware Surprise Attacks

Sin loves to “come out of nowhere”—to spring up when we least expect it. This is what Owen called “involuntary surprisals.” He warns, “Sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep, when they are still.” 16Temptation and Sin, 11. Sin is quiet like an enemy is quiet before an ambush. One of sin’s strategies, according to Owen, is to induce a false sense of security as a prelude to a surprise attack. Therefore, the pastor must be vigilant and always at the ready to battle this merciless enemy. Recall how Jesus warned his sleepy disciples in the garden, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 17Matthew 26:41

  1. Understand the Deceitfulness of Sin

First, Owen would have us understand how deceit hides the consequences or full truth of sin: “We also see the danger of sin’s deception of the mind by examining the general nature of deceit. It consists in falsely presenting things to the mind in such a way that their true nature, causes, effects, or present conditions to the soul remain hidden. Thus, deceit conceals what should be exposed, whether it be circumstances or consequences.” 18Sin and Temptation, 37. Sin, in other words, presents only the desirable.

Second, Owen would have us understand the creeping nature of deceit: “Deceit also operates slowly, little by little, so that its manipulation is not exposed all at once. In the story of the Fall, Satan acts in a sequence of steps. First, he removes the objection of death. Next, he offers them great knowledge. Then he suggests that they become gods. Each step hides aspects of reality and only presents half-truths.” 19Sin and Temptation, 37.

Third, Owen would have us understand how deceit twists the truth. This is seen alarmingly in how sin deceives us into thinking grace is for licentiousness: “Here then is where the deceit of sin intervenes. It separates the doctrine of grace from its purpose.” 20Sin and Temptation, 41. The purpose of grace is holiness. But sin would have us believe it is for more sin. The apostle Paul addressed this heresy in Romans 6:1–2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Perhaps no other man in church history outside the Bible studied temptation and sin more than John Owen. We would do well to follow his lead for surely the spiritual shallowness in the evangelical church today is due in large part to our woefully shallow view of sin.

  1. Make No Provision for the Flesh

Romans 13:14 states it plainly, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is exactly what Jesus was teaching in Mark 9:43-48 when he called for spiritual amputation when it comes to sin.

The pastor must know himself and take pains to not put himself in a position of weakness. For the love of holiness, the pastor must ask himself questions like, “Should I watch that movie or show? Is this music good for my heart? Is social media edifying—is it promoting godliness in my life?” In every question of Christian liberty what guides the pastor is a longing to see Philippians 4:8–9 realized in his life:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

  1. Wield Your Spiritual Sword

In Ephesians 6:17 we’re told that part of God’s armor for us in the battle against the world the flesh and the devil is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This, of course, is how Jesus battled the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). If the Son of God used the Word of God to battle against temptation how much more should we? The pastor says with the psalmist, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” 21Psalm 119:9-11

  1. Replace Sin with Grace

By replacing sin with grace, we are killing sin by nurturing the virtue that counters it. It’s what we see the apostle describing in Colossians 3:5-17 with his commands to “put to death” and “put on.” The idea is to crowd out sin in our life by filling our hearts with the graces that are sin’s opposite. For example, we kill lust by practicing purity; we wage war on pride by practicing humility; we counter greed with generosity and contentment; we crucify self-centeredness by serving others; we destroy anger by pursuing peace.

  1. Stay in Community

Christians were saved to be in community—to be a vital member of Christ’s church. The commands of Hebrews 3:12-13 and 10:24-25 are equally true for pastors. After all, would you rather go to war on your own or with an army at your side? There is strength in (godly) numbers.

  1. Look to the Cross

We put sin to death only in the context of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin at the cross. Provision for our victory has been made in his victory. The banner over our war against indwelling sin is Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Indeed, we fight in the triumph of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14; Colossians 2:13-15). Therefore, we battle with the confidence that when we fail, we are not abandoned by our God. This is motivation to get up and get back to the frontlines knowing that the ultimate victory is assured.

  1. Depend on the Holy Spirit

This war is not fought in the flesh. Our only hope in mortification is to battle in the strength that God supplies. And that strength is himself. As we’ve seen, it is “by the Spirit” that we put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). Only as we “walk by the Spirit” will we “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Owen cautions, “All other ways of discipline are in vain. All other helps leave us helpless. Mortification is only accomplished ‘through the Spirit.’” 22Sin and Temptation, 153.

CONCLUSION

In one sense the reasons for a pastor falling are many. But in another sense the reason is single: a pastor falls when he fails to take heed. Another Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, knew this and, therefore, warned pastors in his day to take heed to themselves. What was needed in seventeenth century England is utterly relevant for our day:

Take heed to yourselves, for you have a depraved nature, and sinful inclinations, as well as others. If innocent Adam had need of heed, and lost himself and us for want of it, how much more need have we! Sin dwells in us, when we have preached ever so much against it; and one degree prepares the heart for another, and one sin inclines the mind to more. If one thief be in the house, he will let in the rest; because they have the same disposition and design. A spark is the beginning of a flame; and a small disease may cause a greater . . . . In us there are, at the best, the remnants of pride, unbelief, self-seeking, hypocrisy, and all the most hateful, deadly sins. And does it not then concern us to take heed to ourselves? 23The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974), 73.

The discipline of mortification is one way a pastor takes heed to himself. May our efforts to kill our indwelling sin in the power of the Holy Spirit bear much fruit in our day for the glory of God and the good of the churches we serve.

References   [ + ]

1. Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954), 8.
2. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 650.
3. The Christian Faith, 653.
4. Concise Theology (Tyndale, 2001), 170.
5. James Houston, editor, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (Bethany House, 1996), 18. Packer adds, “A Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is so shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin,” 24.
6. The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 538.
7. Sin and Temptation, 154.
8, 14. Sin and Temptation, 158.
9. The Holy Spirit, 543.
10. Sin and Temptation, 160.
11. Sin and Temptation, 155.
12. Sin and Temptation, 19.
13. Temptation and Sin vol. 6 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 11.
15. 2 Cor. 5:16-17; Romans 6:4
16. Temptation and Sin, 11.
17. Matthew 26:41
18, 19. Sin and Temptation, 37.
20. Sin and Temptation, 41.
21. Psalm 119:9-11
22. Sin and Temptation, 153.
23. The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974), 73.

Why Don’t Preachers Have “Walk-Up” Music?

If I were in the Major Leagues (playing second base for the Dodgers, of course), the music I’d have playing as I stepped to the plate would be a sample from “Start a Riot” by DUCKWRTH and Shaboozey. The thought of 56,000 “rioting” fans at Chavez Ravine as I walked up to the plate, music blaring, is certainly exhilarating. And it wouldn’t seem at all inappropriate. After all, this is a sports event and the athletes on each team are the attraction. Walk-up music is not out-of-place at a professional baseball game because fans are there to cheer on the players.

But this is not the case for the preacher.

Preachers in the pulpit are not the attraction. Christ is, his word and worth. Therefore, we make every effort to deflect attention from ourselves while putting it on the Lord. This is a conclusion born out of two biblical realities: the nature of revelation and the preacher’s vocation.

THE NATURE OF REVELATION

When I talk about Christian preaching, I’m talking about expository preaching. What exactly is expository preaching? Contrary to what many evangelicals may believe, Haddon Robinson was certainly right when he stated that expository preaching is more a philosophy than a method.

Expository preaching at its core is more a philosophy than a method. Whether we can be called expositors starts with our purpose and with our honest answer to the question: “Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to the Scriptures, or do you use the Scriptures to support your thought?” 1Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker Academic, 2013), 5.

The Christian preacher does not bend the Scriptures to make them say what we want them to say. The expositor submits all of his thoughts under the Scriptures. Any other approach to preaching puts our human minds in authority over the word of God. This the Christian preacher will not do.

As John Stott observed, expository preaching isn’t about style but substance. An expository preacher works to ensure that the content of every sermon is the Bible.

[Exposition] refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is ‘imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. 2John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans, 2017), 125-126.

Biblical exposition, says Bryan Chapell, “binds the preacher and the people to the only source of true spiritual change . . . . expository preachers are committed to saying what God says.” 3Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Baker Academic, 2005), 30. The expository preacher’s ultimate goal is to communicate not his own opinions or philosophies or speculations, but rather to “expose” to his listeners the will of God as revealed in the Word of God. Therefore, the expositor makes the Bible central in preaching.

We are committed to the centrality of the Bible in preaching because of what it is, namely, revelation from and about God. This is, in part, what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is more about God than it is about us. In the Bible God is revealing who he is, how he acts, what he demands of us, and where he is moving all of human history. The very nature of Scripture demands that we don’t see preachers like we do professional athletes. God is the attraction, not us.

THE PREACHER’S VOCATION

How should a preacher view himself? What is the essence of his vocation? To answer this question, consider 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

When we see a Christian preacher, we should be seeing a servant and steward. Both of these descriptions undermine the centrality of self. A servant by definition is focused not on self but someone else. Likewise, a steward is a caretaker of something not his own. A Christian preacher is a servant of Christ and a steward of the Scriptures. And this must look like something in the pulpit.

Servants and stewards don’t create a preaching event where we are the main attraction. That is, our eloquence, our attire, our props cannot be what people come to see. The Christian comes to see Jesus, but oftentimes he is pushed aside as many a preacher says in one form or another, “Look at me!” In contrast, servants and stewards say, “Look at Christ! Behold your God!” Indeed, servants and stewards don’t design the pulpit around themselves, but in a way that points his listeners to God because “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

The sports world is full of attention-grabbing athletes. Whether it’s Alex Morgan sipping tea or Steph Curry shimmying or Bryce Harper with an epic bat flip, professional athletes scream “look at me!” And in some ways, we get it; that’s the nature of entertainment. But the nature of preaching is far different. The preacher has no walk-up music and no walk-off celebration because the preaching event is not about us, but God. To him be the glory.

References   [ + ]

1. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker Academic, 2013), 5.
2. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans, 2017), 125-126.
3. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Baker Academic, 2005), 30.

Tribute to an Extraordinary Pastor

[Editor’s Note: Pastor Aaron Menikoff wrote the following tribute to one of his co-pastors at Mount Vernon Baptist Church to recognize his over three decades of faithful service. There is much in this tribute to inspire current and future pastors to faithful ministry in the local church. We at Some Pastors and Teachers want to join in highlighting Pastor Bryan Pillsbury’s “job well done” — for the glory of God and the good of the church.]

***

One of the reasons I am at Mount Vernon Baptist Church is because of Bryan Pillsbury. This week, a lot of the Christian world is abuzz because of a well-known pastor who left the faith. But I want to give thanks for a pastor who persevered, serving thirty-two years at Mount Vernon.

Bryan served alongside a total of four senior pastors, including me. He and his wife Paige raised five kids in the same church. Over the years, he did everything that was asked of him including holding down the fort during long interims without a preaching pastor. He proved to be a rock of stability during moments when the future of the church seemed uncertain. This kind of faithfulness is all-too-rare today.

When I came to MVBC in 2008, I didn’t know what lay ahead. But I knew I wasn’t alone. From day one, Bryan encouraged me. He overlooked my weaknesses (and sometimes my sin), and he fought hard to help me be well-received by a church he knew like the back of his hand.

Today is Bryan’s last day on staff. Hard to believe. I find it hugely ironic and appropriate that he’s spending the day talking about Jesus in the villages of La Florida on the outskirts of the city of San Juan on the island of the Dominican Republic. This evening he’ll be working through the Gospel of Mark, Christianity Explained, with Central Mennonite Church. That’s what Bryan loves more than anything—sharing the gospel that changed his life and equipping churches with God’s Word.

I know it sounds funny, I’m not a young man anymore, but today I feel like I’m losing my training wheels. Bryan would disagree, and he’s quick to remind me he’s not going anywhere (he and his family are staying in the ATL and at MVBC). But it’s not the same. Every young pastor should have a Bryan on staff when they begin their journey. I’ve been hugely blessed.

Bryan taught me to slow down and spend more time with people, to laugh harder, to tell more stories, to smile, to take risks on people with great potential, and to love people who leave.

The evangelical world probably won’t know Bryan isn’t going to be on staff at MVBC tomorrow. I get that. I also know most churches simply don’t have multiple members on staff. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the backbone of many churches isn’t always the guy standing behind the pulpit week in and week out, it’s those serving behind the scenes, opening the Word one-on-one, grieving at the hospital bed, helping a widow figure out how to get onto her computer, leading a small group through Systematic Theology, helping a daughter navigate a funeral home as she prepares to bury her mother, and making an international student feel at home.

Bryan and I have been on more than one missions trip together. I’ll never forget being in the home of a new missions partner in Central Asia. As we reflected on our time together, our partner said how much he appreciated our visit. He appreciated my questions and my counsel. But having Bryan, he said, was like having your favorite grandfather visit. That’s pretty much how everyone feels around Bryan—loved, wanted, appreciated, and cared for.

Bryan, when you get back from the jungle of La Florida today, after you wipe off the sweat from the dusty truck ride, clean up, and read this post, know you are loved, my friend. Thanks for serving side-by-side for so many years, and please keep serving in the days to come. I know you will.