Latest Articles

Revelation: Achieving the Kingdom Goal

At Some Pastors and Teachers we want to resource pastors with great content. Highlighting important books is one way to do this. The following is an excerpt from Patrick Schreiner’s The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 121-123.

***

Revelation tells the story of a fallen tree burning in an eternal flame. The image is an apocalyptic vision of a destroyed kingdom juxtaposed with a victorious kingdom. In a similar way, Percy Shelley, in her sonnet “Ozymandias,” writes about a traveler seeing a statue in ruin and resting in the desert. The head of this figurine is described as,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.

On the pedestal of the statue are the words,

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 1Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, vol. 1 (London: Reeves & Turner, 1880), 376.

Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley’s poem speaks to the inevitable decline of all leaders and empires in contrast to their pretentions for greatness. The book of Revelation also juxtaposes the pride of the kingdoms of mankind with their eventual “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” 2Ibid. Each kingdom that sets itself up against God’s kingdom will be left shattered. Only one kingdom will remain.

The canon of Scripture culminates with the cry of an archangel. 3Or as Barker writes, “It is significant that the Bible begins (Genesis 1-2) and ends (Revelation 19-22) with royal motifs.” Kenneth L. Barker, “The Scope and Center of Old and New Testament Theology and Hope,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 306. Revelation describes an apocalyptic battle between the city of Babylon and the city of God. The kingdom was launched in Genesis, challenged from the very beginning, and then consummated in Revelation. From the garden, through Abraham and David, to Jesus, to the church, we are desperate to know how the story will end. Will the people of God be rescued? Will their King return? Will their cities be rebuilt? What will happen to the enemies of the King? Will the crucified and ascended King reveal himself again?

While the King planted his foot on the earth in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament made evident that all is not as it should be. The revelation to John on the island of Patmos concludes the story in a series of visions. The visions come in the form of letters to churches, bizarre narratives, and musical poetry, all with an apocalyptic focus—that is, pulling back the curtain of history. John’s vista is filled with dragons, beasts, blood, scorpions, and war.

Although modern readers regularly get confused by this writing style, “the goal of apocalyptic literature is not prediction, but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are.” 4James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 92. Apocalyptic literature is thus a way of seeing; a way of discerning God’s invading power in human events both presently and typologically in the future. Revelation is a book about the past, present, and future. It is an encouragement to Christians of all ages who wonder how the King will complete this kingdom story promised to Adam, Abraham, and David. John reveals the supernatural nature of this battle that has been waging between the seed of mankind and the seed of the Serpent from the time of Adam and Eve. The dragon and the woman are at war.

To use another image, the tree that is attempting to grow and fill the earth will meet the opposition of axes, fire, and rock, but God Almighty guarantees he will build a protective hedge around this tree so that it will fill the entire earth. Revelation continues the trio of kingdom themes that were inaugurated in the creation of the world, arguing that the kingdom goal is now achieved. John does so by revealing what is behind the scenes from multiple viewpoints (what some call “progressive recapitulation”). Therefore, we will also identify the consummation of the kingdom through recapitulating descriptions. The power of God and the Lamb is manifested in the judgment of the kingdom’s enemies. The people of the King are shielded and protected. The place of the kingdom is cleansed and prepared so that they might live with him forever and ever. Before this can happen, the dragon must be slain by the Lamb.

References   [ + ]

1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, vol. 1 (London: Reeves & Turner, 1880), 376.
2. Ibid.
3. Or as Barker writes, “It is significant that the Bible begins (Genesis 1-2) and ends (Revelation 19-22) with royal motifs.” Kenneth L. Barker, “The Scope and Center of Old and New Testament Theology and Hope,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 306.
4. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 92.

Penal Substitution and Gospel Proclamation

It is one thing to accept that a doctrine is true; it is quite another for it to shape the life and ministry of the church. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is a controversial doctrine in some circles. But those of us who affirm that it is a truly biblical doctrine need to grapple carefully with how it should shape and inform our ministry.

The purpose of this brief article is to argue that PSA should be at the heart of our proclamation of the gospel—at the heart of our regular preaching of the word of God. There are important reasons for this both at the level of theological integrity and at the level of pastoral practicality.

THEOLOGICAL REASONS FOR THE CENTRALITY OF PSA IN PREACHING

Preaching that is biblical in the truest sense must be sensitive to the wider storyline of Scripture and properly contextualized within biblical theology, consciously shaped by certain key biblical-theological truths. Among these is the basic truth that the God of the Bible is rightly angry because of sin and will judge sin. There is little need to spend time here outlining a biblical theology of God’s justice and his holiness. This basic truth is so woven into the storyline of Scripture that we would have to willfully disregard the essential shape of salvation history to avoid it.

The Bible’s storyline is bookended with this reality and saturated with it: Genesis tells us that God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden and judged them (and the world) for sin; Revelation tells us that a day is coming when he will execute his terrible judgment on the world. The fact that human sin incurs the judgment of God is the fundamental crisis of world history as far as the Bible is concerned. Any proclamation of the gospel that does not demonstrably flow from this biblical worldview and that fails to address this crisis is inadequate on a basic theological level.

Beyond this, and integrally related to it, preaching that is shaped by the wider storyline of Scripture must centre on the cross of Christ. There is a real sense in which true Christian preaching is nothing more and nothing less than the proclamation of Christ crucified. This was, of course, Paul’s conviction and his practice, as he so clearly affirmed in 1 Corinthians: ‘but we preach Christ crucified…’ (1:23); ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (2:2).

When we consider that both God’s judicial wrath and the cross of Christ are part of the very fabric of the Bible’s storyline, then the doctrine of PSA comes into clear focus – for it is at the cross that God addresses his own just anger at sin. There are, of course, many aspects to Christ’s achievement at the cross: he defeats Satan, he liberates his people from slavery to sin, he provides cleansing from defilement, and he achieves much more besides. Sometimes these (and other) aspects of his achievement are conceived as separate models of the atonement, among which PSA is simply another model on an equal footing (if indeed PSA is accepted as valid among the models).

But such a construal is inadequate and skewed. The theological reality is that all of the problems associated with sin relate to the fact that fallen humanity sits under the judgment of God; only with the propitiation of God’s just anger at sin can the other elements of the crisis of the Fall be dealt with. So, it is more adequate to think of PSA as standing at the heart of the achievement of the cross, with victory over Satan, release from bondage, cleansing from defilement (and so on) all radiating out from that reality and depending upon it.

Without probing that line of thought further, the basic implication is this: if we are to be truly and robustly biblical in our preaching, then our preaching must reflect the basic truth that God is rightly angry about sin and that, at the cross, Christ has fully borne and satisfied the judicial wrath that sinners deserve.

PASTORAL REASONS FOR THE CENTRALITY OF PSA IN PREACHING

For those convinced of the doctrinal centrality of PSA, there is a danger of forcing a rather predictable and repetitive presentation of PSA into every sermon out of a sense of doctrinal obligation. Certainly that can be quite unhelpful and off-putting for a congregation, and it can often represent poor exposition of a given passage of Scripture. However, if these truths are woven into the fabric of Scripture as suggested above, there should be natural ways in which a doctrine of the atonement, rooted in and related to PSA, will flow from all of Scripture. That is, there should be fresh and contextually distinctive ways of preaching Christ crucified from any passage of Scripture.

What will be the practical and pastoral benefits of a commitment to keeping PSA central to our preaching of Scripture? Or, to think of it from the other angle, what would be the loss and cost attached to a failure to do this? In pursuing this line of inquiry, three kinds of answer emerge very quickly.

First, keeping PSA central to our preaching preserves for us a gospel that actually saves. For preachers who are attuned to the real-life experiences and feelings of a congregation, there is an understandable tendency to major on the ways in which Jesus can meet people in their various needs. And, of course, the Lord Jesus is kind beyond measure, more concerned for us than we know, and more than able to meet every need.

But the danger for us preachers is that we will drift into preaching a gospel that purely addresses the felt needs of the congregation. And so the Jesus of our proclamation quickly becomes the great therapist, the great lifestyle coach and, if we are not very careful, the great purveyor of health and wealth. But if we keep clearly in mind the full-orbed biblical doctrine of the atonement, grounded in the crisis of sin and the judgment of God, then we will be preserved from proclaiming such a superficial gospel. We will be disciplined to proclaim the true gospel, wherein Christ addresses our deepest and most fundamental need and wherefrom untold blessings flow, both in time and in eternity.

Second, keeping PSA central to our preaching gives us (and our congregation) an appropriate sense of urgency. If the gospel we proclaim bypasses the wrath of God at sin and the reality of a judgment yet to come – if the gospel we proclaim is essentially a gospel that addresses felt needs – then there is little urgency attached to its proclamation and response. If we are to be frank and honest about the contemporary situation within evangelicalism (broadly defined), we must acknowledge that a great deal of preaching today minimizes or bypasses the realities of sin and judgment. And the result is a distinctive lack of urgency in gospel proclamation and gospel belief. The fruits of this, of course, are very tangible. Missions agencies will tell you that recruitment from North American churches for the mission field is a very great (and very concerning) challenge.

Many pastors and elder boards will tell you that finding gifted, godly and well trained pastors to join their staff is very difficult indeed. Many churches and para-church organizations will be quick to report how hard it is to raise funds for gospel work. And if the gospel that is proclaimed is a gospel that largely addresses felt needs, all this is entirely unsurprising.

But if we recover and proclaim a gospel that addresses the true ugliness of sin, the judicial anger of God, and the self-substitution of Christ for sinners to bear that anger – we will recover a gospel that preachers want to proclaim to congregations, that missionaries want to take to the ends of the earth, and that believers will want to support in costly and sacrificial ways. Others will, no doubt, argue that it is possible to retain a sense of urgency in proclamation and response while denying that at the cross Jesus bears and satisfies the judicial anger of God in our place. Perhaps – but I for one remain unconvinced.

Third, keeping PSA central to our preaching engenders true love for Christ. No doubt we could all agree that we do not love Jesus as we ought. If we truly know him, we do love him, of course. But our love is feeble and often grows cold. And so the preaching of the gospel must renew and deepen our love for our Saviour. It would be entirely appropriate to say that the heart of the preacher’s purpose should be to promote true and deepening love for Jesus among his people. But the degree to which preaching achieves this will depend very significantly on the content of that gospel. That much is obvious.

And so when we bring this basic observation to bear upon the present discussion of PSA, we have to consider what will be the effect of proclaiming or avoiding this doctrine. Remember, PSA tells us that Jesus bore the judicial wrath of the holy God in my place and for my sin, so that at the final Day, I might be spared that unspeakable experience. Standing behind the doctrine of PSA and undergirding it at every point are the character and work of the God of love, whose compassionate heart for sinners moved him to intervene through such extraordinary and costly means for our salvation (Romans 5:8).

If we really understand the doctrine of PSA and the loving God who deigned to save us in such a way, and if this truth is part of our regular diet in preaching, then surely we will be moved to love our Saviour in increasing measure. Indeed, what truth could possibly move our hearts to love him more?

Should the doctrine of PSA shape and inform our preaching, undergirding our proclamation of Christ crucified? The answer must be yes—both for the sake of our theological integrity and our pastoral effectiveness.

New Creations in the New Year

On a recent flight to Dallas I enjoyed reading the current issue of American Way, the monthly magazine of American Airlines. In this particular issue the cover story was about golf phenom Lexi Thompson. Her remarks about why she loves the game of golf were striking: “Every day I wake up and somethings different in my game: my swing, the weather. That’s the thing about golf. It’s always a challenge every time you wake up. That’s why I gravitated to it. What keeps me going is that you can never perfect it.”

What Thompson recognizes about golf we can apply to the Christian life. Indeed, what keeps us going—striving for growth in practical holiness—is that we will never perfect the Christian life this side of heaven. There is always room for improvement.

A GOD-GIVEN DESIRE FOR PERFECTION

Human beings have an inherent desire for perfection. After all, we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and have been given a mandate to exercise dominion over the earth for its improvement (Genesis 1:28). Both who we are and what we’ve been called to do create a desire for excellence in all things. And the Christian feels this perfectionist impulse acutely given our Lord’s command in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Apostle Paul echoes this when he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That is, live perfectly. To seek perfection, therefore, is not an inherently bad thing. However, a drive for perfection can go awry if not tempered with biblical realism about the fall and its consequences.

GLORIOUS RUINS  

One of the tragic consequences of the fall is that perfection in this life is impossible. In manifold ways we see every day how human beings “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is true for the Christian as well. We resonate with the Apostle Paul when he laments, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul knows that this life is marked by constant warfare against indwelling sin.

The Apostle John thinks likewise when he writes to Christians, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). John is clear: those who claim to have no sin not only deceive themselves, but make God a liar proving that the word of God is not in them. Christians live a life of vigilance against indwelling sin until that day when sin shall be no more.

The Puritan John Owen in his classic work On the Mortification of Sin in Believers describes what the Christian life requires, “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” Owen sees mortification as our life’s work—it is to be done “all [our] days” because perfection will not be realized this side of heaven.

A NEW CREATION IN CHRIST  

As I consider evangelicalism today, I do not think perfectionism is our greatest problem. More than perfectionism it can be argued that antinomianism is the greater threat (a theme I plan to take up in more detail in a future column). Even as the Bible is clear that perfection is not possible in this life God’s Word is equally clear that Christians are to grow in godliness. The theological reason for this has everything to do with what happens at regeneration: we are made new creatures in Christ. This is the astonishing truth Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

To be a new creation is the biography of every Christian. It is a promise for all those who are “in Christ”—that is, united by faith to the risen and exalted Lord. The term ‘new creation’ carries with it the idea of the sovereign, creative power of God. Paul invoked this idea earlier in the letter when he alluded to the power of God in creating light and applied it to the making of a Christian: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

What we learn is that Christianity is not moral tweaking. It is not simply “brushing off” our old selves, as if we’re merely dirty. Christianity is not ultimately about new habits or a new outlook, although it is those things. Christianity is about a complete and exhaustive overhaul. Nothing less than a new creation.

A Christian is one who has experienced the New Covenant promise of Ezekiel 36:26-27 where God proclaims what will be accomplished in Christ by the Spirit: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The Christian has been given a new heart and the very Spirit of God so that we now “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

The Apostle says that the “old has passed away.” With the cross of Christ we have the end of the old covenant as well as the end of the old life of those who are now in Christ. Our old life of godless, self-centered, fleshly living has been crucified!

And because the old has passed away we make it our aim to “put to death” everything that belonged to that old life: “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. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:5-10).

The Christian is one who takes constant inventory of his or her life and asks, “What in my life needs to be put to death?” Once something is identified we resolve to kill it. Indeed, we mobilize every means of grace at our disposal and wage war on the sin in our life!

The Christian life, however, is not only about what has passed away. It is also about what has come. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul is saying look, see, behold something breathtaking has come! We are now, if ever so faintly, beginning to display in our lives radiant colors of Christlikeness. In the power of the Holy Spirit we begin to “put on” Christlikeness: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).

It is true that we will not be perfect in this life. Life in a fallen world means that we will not be totally free from sin this side of heaven. But this truth does not lead us to despair. As Christians we have been untied to Christ by faith and given the Holy Spirit. Therefore we “make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9). And even as we stumble and falter at times, we rejoice with Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”

The Church of Misfit Toys

Outside the church (i.e., outside the visible, organized Christ-confessing covenant community, where the gospel is preached purely, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered purely, and where church discipline is used), the church often looks very different than it does to members. Those outside the church quite often assume that only those who have achieved a state of perfection are welcome in church. Let’s put that to rest immediately: the church most assuredly is not for the perfect. Were that the case, the church would be entirely empty as there are no perfected Christians this side of heaven. The only congregation of perfect people is what Reformed theologians call “the church triumphant” (i.e., that gathering of glorified believers in heaven). We get a picture of that congregation in the Revelation (e.g., chapter 4). The church as it exists in this world, in this life (called the “church militant”) is full of nothing but sinners, who manifest the effects of sin in every conceivable way. It has been that way from the moment sin entered the world.

The church, as it were, was sinless before the fall. Adam and Eve were created righteous and holy. There were two symbolic trees, one that pointed to life (the tree of life) and one that pointed to death (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Genesis 2:9,17). We were free to eat from the tree of life but forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We freely chose to disobey God and plunged ourselves into sin and death (Genesis 3:6,7). The effects (and affects) of sin were felt immediately (Genesis 3:16-17). The firstborn son murdered the second born (Genesis 4:1–16) and things declined from there. We could trace out the story of sin and corruption in the visible church from the beginning of the Scripture to the end. Even after the resurrection of Jesus, after the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church, it remained full of sinners. Two people died because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). The Apostle Paul had to address gross sexual immorality (see 1 Corinthians 5–6) and internal division in the Corinthian congregation (see most of 2 Corinthians). Our Lord himself addressed all manner of sin in his letters to the seven churches in the Revelation (chapters 2–3).

There has never been a time when the church, in this life, on this earth, was pure and without sin. There have been times, however, when the church has given the impression to her members and to others that only the perfect are welcome. She did that in the Middle Ages when many of their theologians concluded that we are right with God (justified) only to the degree we are holy (sanctified). The Eastern (Greek-speaking) churches in the same period came to speak of salvation as more in terms of gaining divinity rather than being justified and then, as a consequence, progressively sanctified.

In the Protestant Reformation the story was clarified to a great degree. Martin Luther (1483–1546) helped us see that Scripture teaches that all believers are at the same time sinful and declared righteous (simul iustus et peccator) by God, that, as Paul says, Christ justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).

After the Reformation much of the Protestant church lost that insight. It happened for a variety of reasons. There were movements that were dissatisfied with the Reformation understanding of Scripture but did not want to return to Rome. They imported some of the medieval ideas back into Protestant theology, piety, and practice. One of those was the doctrine of “entire perfection,” the notion that Christians can and should become entirely (perfectly) sanctified in this life. This idea was widely adopted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Those outside the church entirely tend to assume, because they know by nature that God is righteous and that they are not, that we need to become righteous before we enter the church. They either despair of ever becoming sufficiently righteous—as well they should—or have no interest in righteousness. Either way they completely misunderstand the church.

The church is not a collection of those who “have it all together” or who are entirely sanctified or who are, in themselves, entirely righteous. It is a collection of people who are exploring the Christian faith, who merely profess the Christian faith, and who actually believe the Christian faith. So, it is a mixed assembly. Further, all those who profess and believe the faith remain sinners all their lives. All Christians confess their sinfulness and their particular sins daily. The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). He wrote those words to Christians.

The church is not like a department store window display, where everything is perfectly and attractively arranged. It is much more like the Island of Misfit Toys (in the 1964 animated television show broadcast annually about this time). On the Island of Misfit Toys, all the toys were broken and needy. So it is with the church. Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

Those who think that all is well simply are not admitting the truth to themselves or to others. They are in denial. In their conscience, however, they know that they are sinful. One of the jobs of God the Holy Spirit is to show sinners, in their hearts, minds, and consciences, that they are so and that they need a Savior. Those who feel too sinful for church are not far from the Kingdom, which is for those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3-4). If the idea that the church is for the perfect is keeping you from attending, stop thinking that way. It is not true. The church is for sinners, who know their need, who are trusting in Jesus their Savior, who are struggling with sin, confessing it, repenting of it, and turning again to Jesus. The church is for misfit toys like you and me.

Jingle All the Way?

Each Christmas season I find myself moved again and again by the profound truths we sing about in some of our better Christmas songs. Take, for example, these lyrics from “Silent Night”:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

I thank God that I have not ceased to wonder at the mystery and reality of “Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.”

But as I said in a recent sermon, as much as I appreciate many of our popular Christmas hymns the songs of Scripture sing with a power beyond anything written by mere men and women. I’m thinking of songs like that of Zachariah in Luke 1:68-79. Because Zachariah wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his words are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). In other words, Zachariah’s song is truly heavenly.

Consider these God-breathed lyrics:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (Luke 1:68-75).

Redemption, faithfulness, mercy, rescue from enemies, holiness, righteousness, worship without fear: this is the song of heaven!

Can you hear it? Every note struck perfectly, every chorus in harmony, the indescribably beautiful crescendo that is leading to the ultimate climax of the ages when the trumpet will sound, and the angels will sing, and every tear is wiped away, and every wrong made right, and joy eternal becomes our only reality! This is the gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ–the good news of His life, death, and resurrection for sinners like us.

Tragically, millions of people this Christmas are settling for mere jingles when the symphony of God’s grace is sounding forth all around us. And I’m not talking about merely music. Instead of singing “the child born a King,” many people are singing about a new MacBook Air. Instead of singing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” many people are singing about vacation time. Instead of asking, “What child is this?” many people are asking, “What will I get for Christmas?”

Don’t misunderstand my point: it’s not wrong to give gifts and be excited to receive one. My concern is that we don’t miss the heart of Christmas in the midst of all the Christmas noise. In other words, don’t miss Handel’s Messiah for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” After all, this is the season when, “Hark, the herald Angels sing glory to the newborn King.”

Do you hear what I hear?

The Evangelist’s Mission

In 2017, George Barna reported on the state of evangelism. 1George Barna, “Survey: Christians are Not Spreading the Gospel” (20 November 2017). Found at http://www.georgebarna.com/research-flow/2017/11/30/survey-christians-are-not-spreading-the-gospel. The news is not good. Less than 40% of those who claim to be born again Christians believe they should share the gospel. Meanwhile, the percentage of young Americans who profess faith is shrinking.

The theology of many who claim Christ is more than a little unsettling. Nineteen percent of those who say they were saved by grace alone “strongly agree” one can be saved simply by being a good person. Furthermore, only 40% “strongly reject” this claim. That means 60% of those who say they’ve been saved by grace alone are open to the possibility God will save people on the basis of their good works.

A CONFUSED AND COMPLACENT CHURCH

What does all this mean? Far too many Christians are confused and complacent. They are confused about the most basic of things, like the definition of the gospel. They are confused about the most basic of duties, like the call to evangelize.

This is ironic because we live in a golden age of evangelical faith. Never in history have there been more resources to explain the meaning and implications of the gospel. Christians are to fight confusion, resist complacency, and take Jesus’ words to heart:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:14–16).

This essay is a plea for Christians to engage in the glorious work of gospel proclamation. God has given us a profound and beautiful message. It’s a message we are not to keep to ourselves.

The good news is that God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, came to earth and lived a perfect life. He never rebelled against his heavenly Father. He truly deserved God’s favor. Yet he went to the cross where he died the death of a criminal. He bore the wrath of God for everyone who would ever repent and believe in him. Jesus’ resurrection is evidence of his power to conquer sin and death. Through Christ, salvation is available to all who would trust in him alone—not in their baptism, not in their church attendance, not in their giving, but in Christ alone.

When this good news hits you, when it grips your soul and fills your heart, you will want to share it with others. Evangelism is most common when Christ is most treasured. We should all see ourselves as evangelists.

I’m using the word “evangelist” broadly. I’m not using it in any specialized sense. God has certainly raised up men and women who are uniquely gifted to spread the good news (Eph. 4:11). We can be thankful for Phillips (Acts 21:8) and Whitefields and Grahams.

But every Christian really is an evangelist. With the Great Commission on the forefront of our minds, let’s labor faithfully to make Christ known. Let’s discipline ourselves to share the gospel naturally, regularly, and with a sense of urgency. This is our mission.

SHARE THE GOSPEL NATURALLY

Evangelism should be a natural part of your everyday life. It’s tempting to leave evangelism to the professionals—apologists like Ravi Zacharias or pastors like me. But this would be unbiblical since God uses all Christians to spread the glory of his great name. Consider Paul’s words to his young disciple, Timothy:

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well (2 Tim. 1:3–5).

Lois and Eunice planted seeds of truth in Timothy’s heart. As God-fearing Jews, they taught him the Word of God. They may even have come to faith in Christ before Timothy and encouraged him with the gospel. Through the daily routine of family life together, they pointed Timothy to the Lord.

The most natural place to share the gospel is with our families. Most of us have a mom and dad, brothers and sisters. You may even have children or grandchildren. These are yourfamily members. It should be natural for you to point the people you love the most to the Savior.

I grew up in a non-Christian family, and I know how hard it can be to share Christ with those who knew me before I was a Christian. I appreciate how Randy Newman says evangelizing family members is hard but good work:

Our goal, whether talking to family members or anyone else, should not be for “comfortable evangelism” or “natural evangelism” or “easy evangelism,” but rather evangelism that heralds accurately and powerfully the goodness of the gospel—regardless of the difficulty for us in proclaiming it or the resistance from those who hear it. 2Randy Newman, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well (Crossway, 2011), 45.

Sharing the gospel with family members and close friends is difficult. When I’m visiting home, I strive to be bold and gentle. I often fail, but I pray for opportunities to powerfully herald the goodness of the gospel.

But whether it is with family members or others God placed around us, we should all try to share the gospel naturally. In other words, we should make every effort to share where we are, among the people in our sphere of influence. This could be our family, friends, co-workers, or our neighbors.

The church in Thessalonica did this well.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers,remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything (1 Thess. 1:2–8).

Paul preached the gospel, but the Thessalonians received it “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” The gospel overwhelmed them and filled them with joy. It’s like God wrote the gospel into their DNA.

In light of this, verse 8 makes complete sense, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” The church spoke up about Christ. They shared the gospel that saved them. It went everywhere, to the market, the workplace, and city hall.

But how did this happen? Did they schedule a revival? Did they hold a tent meeting? Did they plan a Family Fun Fall Festival? No. They were so overcome by who Jesus is and what he’s done that they talked about him, naturally, as part of their daily lives. They spoke so freely about Jesus that they gained a reputation, far and wide, as a people whose own lives had been changed by the gospel.

Do you share the gospel naturally, where you are, in the daily routine of your life?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with evangelistic events: a tent meeting, a door-to-door campaign, and contact evangelism on the city streets. I am simply pointing out God has given us relationships, and the mostnatural means of spreading the good news is opening yourself up to the very people God has put near you.

Barna found the most effective means of evangelism are family and friends. After that, it’s a gathered church; the church simply being the church by singing, preaching, and praying God’s Word.

Your home and your congregation are natural places for evangelism to happen.

Have you thought about opening your life and home to non-Christian friends and neighbors through the biblical practice of hospitality? God has put many people in your life who need Christ. They may be lonely, confused, and looking for meaning (even if they wouldn’t admit it). All your needs have been met in Christ. The unsearchable riches of Christ belong to you. You are a spiritual billionaire. Use hospitality to serve a spiritually impoverished neighbor.

Rosaria Butterfield became a Christian, in part, through the hospitality of believers. They welcomed her into their home. She describes Christian hospitality as a unique opportunity to welcome those who are on the fringes and alone.

We make gospel bridges into our home because we notice the people around us and their needs. We see people whom God has put into our lives—especially the difficult ones—as image bearers of a holy God and therefore deserving of our best. Hospitality is image-bearer driven not time, convenience, or calendar driven. If it were, none of it would happen. 3Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes With a House Key (Crossway, 2018), 63–64.

God uses our homes. He uses friends and family to lead people to Christ.

God also uses our gatherings. He uses the ordinary means of grace like preaching and singing to bring unbelievers within earshot of your testimony. Are you sensitive to the fact that God often brings unbelievers to your church gathering? Are you thoughtful to reach out to visitors, to seek to get to know them, to not assume they know Christ, but to gently and kindly see what they believe about our Savior?

Through hospitality in the home and the gatherings of the church, you have many natural opportunities to share the gospel.

SHARE THE GOSPEL REGULARLY

Christians love to count. Let me speak for my own tribe for a moment: Baptists love to count! We count how many decisions made for Christ, how many people baptized, how many missionaries sent, and how many churches planted. We are a counting people.

Counting is not inherently wrong, keeping records and tracking results has its place (though I would encourage you to read 2 Samuel 24 carefully). But let’s avoid equating physical, tangible results with spiritual success. The most faithful evangelists don’t always see the most fruit. Through Jonah’s preaching, the pagan city of Nineveh repented. Under Jeremiah’s preaching, the city of Jerusalem fell to Babylon. But who would argue Jonah was more faithful than Jeremiah?

As Christians, let’s be wary of using simple metrics to define spiritual success. Let’s strive to be faithful. In the context of evangelism, this means sharing the gospel regularly. Instead of counting the results, simply work on being consistent in your gospel proclamation.

Thankfully, we have in the apostle Paul a wonderful model. He shared the gospel regularly in the midst of great suffering.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again (2 Cor. 1:8–10).

Paul endured great pain in his evangelistic work throughout the Mediterranean. When he asks for prayer, he doesn’t request safety or healing. He wants God to change hearts, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11). This blessing is salvation granted through the ministry of Paul and his friends.

It was never easy for Paul to evangelize. He needed divine help. Paul always faced persecution. But in the midst of rejection, he shared the gospel regularly. He pled with churches to pray for regular, gospel opportunities.

  • Ephesians 6:9–10, Pray “also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
  • Colossians 4:3–4, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.”
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:1, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.”

In his overriding concern for the souls of men and women, Paul followed in the footsteps of his Savior. Jesus proclaimed good news. Paul couldn’t follow Jesus in every way; only Jesus could atone for the sins of his people. But Paul did everything he could to carry on the proclamation ministry of Christ. We should regularly share the gospel too.

I’m glad a girl by the name of Brenda took the opportunity to share the gospel with me. Many years ago, when I was still a teenager, I discovered she was a Christian. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t know any Christians; I thought they were a dying breed. I never noticed anyone praying before a meal, and I certainly didn’t think the smartest girl in my high school could be a Christian. When I found out about her faith, I asked her, “Do you think I’m going to hell?” She could have chickened out. She could have tried to change the topic. But instead, she said, “Yes, Aaron, if that’s how you live (in rebellion against God) and that’s what you believe (that Jesus is just a man), I think you’re going to hell.”

I don’t know if Brenda regularly shared the gospel, but she shared it with me. God used her words to bring me to saving faith in him. I want conversations like this to mark my life. And not because I’m a pastor, but because I’m a Christian. I want to share the gospel regularly because Jesus is more important to me than anything or anyone.

SHARE THE GOSPEL WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY

The fact that Brenda believed hell was a real place made me think hard about Jesus. Belief in hell will give you a sense of urgency. Hell isn’t easy to talk about, but it can’t be neglected, not by faithful Christians. And it would be foolish to try.

We can’t ignore hell because our non-Christian family and friends think about it. Not long ago, I went to my nephew’s high-school graduation party. My brother introduced me to a realtor at the party, a realtor who had recently found homes for two pastor-friends of mine. My brother, who is not a Christian, found this interesting. Small talk ensued, and the realtor commented on just how nice my friends are. My brother, not skipping a beat, blurted out, “Of course they’re nice; they have to be. If they’re not, they’ll burn in hell!” Awkward laughter followed. Our neighbors are thinking of hell, even if they consider it comic relief.

Hell is no laughing matter, and it’s the clear teaching of the Bible.

  • John the Baptist said Jesus would come both as Savior and Judge. Unbelievers, John said, would be burned like chaff in “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12).
  • Jesus referred to a place of judgment. He called it a “hell of fire” and a land where “the fire is not quenched” (Matt. 5:22 and Mark 9:48).
  • Jesus repeatedly warned hypocrites of hell. He called it a place of “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).
  • The earliest Christians carried on this teaching about hell. Paul referred to hell as a place where God’s vengeance is poured out against all who don’t know him and refuse to obey the gospel. He wrote of those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” (2 Thess. 1:8–10).
  • The author of Hebrews, likewise, predicted a day of reckoning: “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

Most people say they don’t know what will happen when we die. Many argue we simply cease to exist. Scores believe eternal bliss is everyone’s final destination—regardless of how they’ve lived or what they believe. But to fully side with Jesus, you must believe hell is real.

Hell is a real place of painful darkness where unrepentant sinners live eternally outside the beautiful and glorious presence of God. This life is our only opportunity to avoid hell. God has given us words to share, and they are words of life ordained by God to bring sinners to repentance and faith and everlasting life. It is crucial and urgent that we speak this gospel (Rom. 10:14–15).

Hell is not the only motivation for evangelism, and it isn’t even the best. Will Metzger argued God’s glory is the best motivator for evangelism: “The supreme motive in witnessing is to glorify God, to see his perfections manifested through the joyous praises of his redeemed people.” 4Will Metzger, Tell the Truth (IVP, 1984), 115. Amen! Yes, God’s glory should be our ultimate goal.

Still, I acutely feel the urgency of the evangelistic task when Hebrews 9:27 sinks into my bones: “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment.”

MOVING FORWARD

What practical steps can we take to move forward? How can we increasingly devote ourselves to the fulfillment of the Great Commission? Here are a few points of practical, pastoral instruction. There are, of course, a myriad of ways to make evangelism a priority. These are just a few suggestions. Please know each imperative must be undergirded by the reality of God’s sovereign grace.

  1. Love the lost. See people as image-bearers—valuable and worthy of dignity and respect. Want good for them. May the Holy Spirit give you a deep and real love for the lost.
  2. Devote one night each month to hospitality. Consider teaming up with someone else if that would help. Give over an evening to spend time in your home with unbelieving family members, co-workers, friends, or neighbors.
  3. Go on a local or international short-term mission trip at least once every three years. Jesus told us “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus cares for the nations, and so should we. The nations have come to Atlanta, where I serve, and many other US cities. Let’s work hard to reach them with the gospel. Plan now to give up some of your time and resources to go—across the city or even across the world.
  4. Read at least one book each year on the topic of evangelism. There are so many good books, and they can help keep evangelism on the front-burner of your heart.
  5. Pray with your church. Pray with for evangelistic opportunities as a congregation. Lock arms with brothers and sisters in praying for boldness. Let’s remind each other we aren’t just the church gathered on Sunday; we’re the church scattered throughout this city with a mission to share the gospel.
  6. Share the gospel at least once a week. What a good goal this is! If you take it seriously, it will lead you to pray hard for doors of opportunity to open and for the boldness you need to walk through those doors. Start the day by asking God to make a way for you to share the gospel today.
  7. Have the hard conversation. You probably know what I mean. Most of us have been putting off at least one spiritual conversation. It could be with a father, a grandmother, a co-worker, or a friend. Maybe the conversation (or, perhaps, a letter) could start like this: “I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to bring this up. I need to talk about something important. I’m bringing it up because I love you.” I can’t guarantee this conversation will go well! I can guarantee God put this person in your life for a reason.

These are a few, simple ways to devote yourself to a life of evangelism. Whatever the results, your efforts will not be in vain.

GOD WILL BE PRAISED

As you put this essay down, don’t fall into the trap of seeing evangelism as a sacrifice. It’s not a burden to be born. Evangelism is a joy. Be eager to talk about the God who loves you and saved you and will one day glorify you.

Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. He looked like a king, and his disciples cried out for joy. They began “to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37).

When the Pharisees heard this, they demanded the disciples close their mouths. But Jesus responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” It’s good to remember God will be praised. Period. Full stop. He will be praised.

God’s glory can’t be kept in a sealed envelope. His message will be delivered because his name will be exalted. And we, his church, are the means God has chosen to declare his praises. It’s not just that we have to evangelize; it’s that we get to.

Praise God he is so good, praiseworthy, and deserving of all worship. We have a great message about a great God who is a crucified and risen Savior. It is both our mission and our privilege to share this gospel naturally, regularly, and with a sense of urgency.

References   [ + ]

1. George Barna, “Survey: Christians are Not Spreading the Gospel” (20 November 2017). Found at http://www.georgebarna.com/research-flow/2017/11/30/survey-christians-are-not-spreading-the-gospel.
2. Randy Newman, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well (Crossway, 2011), 45.
3. Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes With a House Key (Crossway, 2018), 63–64.
4. Will Metzger, Tell the Truth (IVP, 1984), 115.

Why Johnny Can’t Preach – A Review

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

SUMMARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRITICAL EVALUATION

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

Charles Finney Does Not Live Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

1. @machenwarrior, October 30, 2018

Comfort, Not Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question & Answer 1

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

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

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

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

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

COMFORT COMES FROM A SECURE UNION WITH CHRIST

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

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

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

COMFORT COMES FROM JUSTIFICATION

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

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

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

COMFORT COMES FROM PRESERVATION

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

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

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

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

COMFORT COMES FROM OBEDIENCE

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

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

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

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

References   [ + ]

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

Millennial Perfectionism and the Social Media Covenant of Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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