A Sermon for the Ages

edwards

Every once in a while, it seems, you read something and know you’ll never forget it. That happened to me this week.

Yesterday, I finished a doctoral seminar on Jonathan Edwards at The Institution. One of the required readings was Edwards’ sermon entitled, “The Excellency of Christ.” Dr. Nettles (who led the seminar) said this sermon “is the best thing written in the English language.” “Hyperbole!” you cry. “Possibly,” I reply. But I’m prepared to join Dr. Nettles’ cause. For outside of Holy Scripture, I’ve never read anything so soul-stunning and holy-affections-generating as this message. Here is Edwards’ heart for Christ written in ink. Here is doctrinal preaching at its finest. Here is biblical meditation at its zenith. Here is a fearfully deep reach into the unsearchable riches of our Savior.

Consider this paragraph taken from Edwards’ encouragement “to accept of Jesus, and close with him as your Savior”:

And here is not only infinite strength and infinite worthiness, but infinite condescension, and love and mercy, as great as power and dignity. If you are a poor, distressed sinner, whose heart is ready to sink for fear that God never will have mercy on you, you need not be afraid to go to Christ, for fear that he is either unable or unwilling to help you. Here is a strong foundation, and an inexhaustible treasure, to answer the necessities of your poor soul, and here is infinite grace and gentleness to invite and embolden a poor, unworthy, fearful soul to come to it. If Christ accepts of you, you need not fear but that you will be safe, for he is a strong Lion for your defense. And if you come, you need not fear but that you shall be accepted; for he is like a Lamb to all that come to him, and receives then with infinite grace and tenderness. It is true he has awful majesty, he is the great God, and infinitely high above you; but there is this to encourage and embolden the poor sinner, that Christ is man as well as God; he is a creature, as well as the Creator, and he is the most humble and lowly in heart of any creature in heaven or earth. This may well make the poor unworthy creature bold in coming to him. You need not hesitate one moment; but may run to him, and cast yourself upon him. You will certainly be graciously and meekly received by him. Though he is a lion, he will only be a lion to your enemies, but he will be a lamb to you. It could not have been conceived, had it not been so in the person of Christ, that there could have been so much in any Savior, that is inviting and tending to encourage sinners to trust in him. Whatever your circumstances are, you need not be afraid to come to such a Savior as this. Be you never so wicked a creature, here is worthiness enough; be you never so poor, and mean, and ignorant a creature, there is no danger of being despised, for though he be so much greater than you, he is also immensely more humble than you. Any one of you that is a father or mother, will not despise one of your own children that comes to you in distress: much less danger is there of Christ’s despising you, if you in your heart come to him.

Read the whole sermon here and let me know what you think.

Christ in the Front, Not in the Footnotes

We Preach Christ

Preachers are covenant heralds of The King of King. “Him we proclaim.” We know “nothing except Christ and him crucified.” We declare “Jesus Christ as Lord.” “We preach Christ crucified.”

Or do we?

The Glory of Christ Front and Center

I’m not yet done with it, but Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters is routinely magnificent in its meditations on ministry.

For example, in chapter two Ferguson drives home the danger of separating the benefits of Christ from the person of Christ in preaching. He writes,

Wherever the benefits of Christ are seen as abstractable from Christ himself, there is a decreasing stress on his person and work in preaching and in the books that are published to feed that preaching. That is accompanied by a stress on our experience of salvation rather than on the grace, majesty, and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Is it possible that most preachers reading these pages own more books on preaching (and even on preaching Christ!) than they own on Christ himself?

If that is true (a survey would certainly be illuminating), we should probably ask a further question: Is it obvious to me, and of engrossing concern, that the chief focus, the dominant note in the sermon I preach (or hear), is ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’? Or is the dominant emphasis (and perhaps the greatest energies of the preacher) focused somewhere else, perhaps on how to overcome sin, or how to live the Christian life, or on the benefits to be received from the gospel? All are legitimate emphases in their place, but that pace is never center stage.

When I read that, I write in the margin, “Most convicting, Dr. Ferguson. Bless you.”

Don’t Put Him in the Footnotes of Your Sermon

In that paragraph quoted above Ferguson offers, in a footnote, an illustration for how we commonly let Christ’s benefits supersede a focus on Christ himself. He says,

This [separation] might be illustrated by the way in which, for example, John Owen’s work Of the Mortification of Sin has undoubtedly been read by many more younger ministers than either his Glory of Christ or Communion with God. That may be understandable because of the deep pastoral insight in Owen’s short work; but it may also put the practical cart before the theological horse. Owen himself would not have been satisfied with hearers who learned mortification without learning Christ. A larger paradigmatic shift needs to take place than only exchanging a superficial subjectivism for Owen’s rigorous subjectivism. What is required is a radical recentering in a richer and deeper knowledge of Christ, understood in terms of his person and work. There can be little doubt that Owen himself viewed things this way.

Christ the Center

Dear brother preacher, the Lord’s Day is right around the corner, and we must ask afresh, “Whom will we preach?” That’s the most important question, even more than, “What will we preach?” We preach Christ because Christ is the gospel. Let our preaching lift the chin of our congregation to consider Christ dead, buried, risen, and ascended to heaven. Let our preaching call for sinners to get into Christ. Let our preaching sound forth the sweetness of a Savior crushed in our place.

Let us not tear asunder Christ from His benefits. Let us preach the Benefactor who graciously gives His benefits to all who believe.

Hearing the Word Preached

On The Battleground of Preaching

At IDC, we provide an “Upcoming Sermons Card” each week that lists the scheduled sermon titles, texts, and preacher for the next six weeks. I’m increasingly convinced this little card may be one of the most underrated spiritual weapons we have in the IDC arsenal—for preaching (me speaking clearly and the church hearing faithfully) is the God-ordained means of tearing down hell’s gates.

So, like any good soldier of Christ, we want to prepare for the battle, and this card can do just that. You can place it in your Bible and make a point to read through the passage we will study a few times during the week. You can pray for the person scheduled to preach. You can read over the passage during dinner with your kids so they might be ready to receive God’s word. Kids, if you can read, you too can take the card, and read the passage on your own, writing down any questions you might have. We don’t want underestimate how much good and power floods into a church prepared for the battleground of worship.

What then are some practical and concrete encouragements for church members who want to prepare for this sermonic battleground? We turn, as we so often should, to the Puritans.

It’s Quite Elementary According to Watson

Earlier today I read Joel Beeke’s little booklet, Piety: The Heartbeat of Reformed Theology. At the end he offers a series of exhortations for growing in piety and—as it should be (Rom. 10:14-16)—faithfulness to hearing God’s word preached comes first. Beeke says, “The Puritans in particular relished good sermons. They attended church faithfully, took careful notes, and often talked and prayer their way through the sermon afterward with their children. These practices were the fruit of Puritan pastors teaching their people how to listen to sermons.”

Beeke then turns to the most excellent Thomas Watson and offers the following “Watsonian” encouragements for diligence in hearing God’s word preached:

  1. Prepare to hear the Word by bathing your soul in prayer.
  2. Come to the Word with a holy appetite and a tender, teachable heart.
  3. Be attentive to the preached Word.
  4. Receive with meekness the engrafted Word (James 1:21).
  5. Mingle the preached Word with faith.
  6. Strive to retain what has been preached and pray about the Word proclaimed.
  7. Put the word into practice; be doers of it.
  8. Beg the Spirit to accompany the Word with effectual blessing.
  9. Familiarize yourself with the Word by sharing it with others.

Thriving on the Battlefield

Faith comes by hearing; life comes from God’s word. Satan is prowling around at all times looking to eat up the seed or snatch it away from a light grip. Preaching is the cosmic battlefield of the ages. How are you helping your people to prepare for the battle?

He’s Got it Right

“It is our calling [as pastors] to woo and win souls to Christ, to set him forth to the people as crucified among them, to present him in all his attractive excellencies, that all hearts may be ravished with his beauty, and charmed into his arms by love.” — John Flavel

The Puritans & Preaching

Perhaps no individual has influenced me so profoundly as that modern-day Puritan Joel Beeke. He first introduced me to experiential preaching, the necessity of personal piety, the glory of prayer, and the vitality of the Holy Spirit.

A few months ago Beeke delivered the keynote messages at Westminster Theological Seminary’s 2015 Preaching Conference. The following two messages will edify any preacher and, I trust, stir him up the renewed earnestness in gospel ministry. The panel discussion at the end with The Mortification of Spin team (70,000 listeners every week!?!) is also quite useful. If you only listen to part of it make sure to listen to the first section where the brothers each share their call into ministry—most encouraging!

“The Priority of Preaching for the Puritans”

“Preaching Like the Puritans—or Not?”

Panel Discussion with Joel Beeke and Mortification of Spin

Preaching Unto Eternity

As A Dying Man

The few faithful readers of this here blog know that my planned dissertation subject for The Institution is the saintly Robert Murray M’Cheyne. This fall I’m spending my time combing through all the autobiographical and biographical material I can get my hands on. My friends, this has been a soul feast of epic proportions. Today I want to give you a glimpse into just one way M’Cheyne is shaping my pastoral ministry.

As A Dying Man on the Edge of Eternity

Like his Puritan forebears M’Cheyne’s perspective can—and should be—modified by the adjective “eternal.” He was a man consumed with heavenly realities and that consumption was visible to all. Consider just a few quotes from the young pastor on the subject of eternity:

  • “Live near to God, and all things will appear little to you in comparison with eternal realities.”
  • “A great part of my time is spent in getting my heart in tune for prayer. It is the link that connects earth with heaven.”
  • “As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell.”
  • “Life is vanishing fast. Make hast for eternity.”
  • “Make all your service tell for eternity; speak what you can look back upon with comfort when you must lie in silence.”
  • “Live for eternity.”
  • “Speak to your people as on the brink of eternity.”

That last quote leads me to ask, “How did M’Cheyne fit his soul to speak as one on the brink of eternity?” Bonar gives us an idea when he writes, “It was [M’Cheyne’s] manner, on a Saturday afternoon, to visit one or two of his sick who seemed near the point of death, with the view of being thus stirred up to a more direct application of the truth to his flock on the morrow, as dying men on the edge of eternity.”

Consistent views of eternity caused M’Cheyne’s preaching to pulsate with an unusual earnestness. It caused his life to bask in the glow of heaven. It’s a model full of, for me at least, stirring conviction. As I’ve read and meditated on this most ordinary pastor I’ve settled on a two-fold pattern for an eternity-shaped ministry. Allow to sketch out my admittedly preliminary thoughts on the matter.

Live Always in the Sight of Eternity

Thinking often of death and eternity need not be a morbid endeavor. In fact, it’s a most biblical one. As Moses said in Psalm 90, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Wisdom preaches the reality of death, the brevity of life, and the glory of seeing Christ face to face. Setting your mind on things above transforms the heart to live as one always ready. If the adage “you become what you behold” is correct, then we must behold the eternal beauty of Jesus Christ. Such a sight gives a depth of joy, a fullness of hope, and a reverence of Spirit uncommon in this world. And I for one want to be a most uncommon pastor. I raise my glass to the ordinary pastors who are peculiar—peculiar because the rays of heaven have so manifestly shined upon their faces.

Living always in the sight of eternity brings power not only to a life of holiness, but also to evangelism. As M’Cheyne said, “I feel that there are two things it is impossible to desire with sufficient ardor: personal holiness, and the salvation of souls.” Seeing the glory of Christ seated on the throne ought to promote in our hearts the sentiment towards lost people, “I want you to see Him who is your life!” It reminds us that not all with see Christ as Savior, multitudes will see Him for the first time as Judge and nothing could be more terrifying.

Speak Always with the Savor of Eternity

One amazing thing I’ve notice about M’Cheyne is how often people were transformed just by observing his heavenly manner of life. Could someone say the same thing about me?

But what is even more undeniable are how many took hold of heaven through his preaching. He preached as, Old Baxter said, “A dying man unto dying men.” The terrors of hell and glories of heaven became real through his words. Read through his sermons and I doubt you’ll escape the battle he waged for eternity when standing behind the pulpit. Heaven became real to his hearers—oh, to have heard him preach!

Something will season our preaching. I often wonder what exactly seasons mine. How I pray the savor might not be one of my personality, but one of eternity. Perhaps this is now why I pray before every sermon, “Help me to preach as a dying man unto dying men.”

How Should You Preach?

How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?

They that are called to labor in the ministry of the word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation. – Westminster Larger Catechism #159

Preaching Nourished by Prayer

The Pastor and Prayer

It’s a perennial question, “Where should you start a book on preaching?” You could give a brief theology of Scripture, survey its primacy in church history, or you could do something totally different like write a chapter on prayer. That’s exactly where Gary Millar and Phil Campbell begin their book Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake. That emphasis seems just right. That apostles did say they would devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). So, when a book self-consciously reflects this order my interest is automatically piqued.

Gary Millar takes five pages and fills them with punch and pith on the necessity of prayer if we are ever going to keep Eutychus awake. His sage counsel is summarized with these points: 1) resolve now to pray fervently for your own preach, and 2) make sure that your church prays together for the preaching.

Putting It Into Practice

To illustrate the power of the second point Millar recounts his experience at Gilcomston South Church. I found the example of this community stirring. May it do the same for you and lead to you place greater emphasis on prayer in your preaching ministry. Millar writes,

From 1988-1991 (when I was a theological student), I was part of a remarkable church family. Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen wasn’t a huge church. Nor was it a particularly ‘happening’ church. We met twice on a Sunday, had a midweek central Bible study and a Saturday night prayer meeting—and that was it. There was an organ, and we sang five hymns or psalms (often to Germanic minor tunes). The pastor, William Still, preached steadily through the Bible (this was still relatively novel at the time, even though he had been doing it for 40 years). But what set that church family apart was its very simple commitment to ‘the ministry of the word nourished by prayer’ (as Mr. Still would repeatedly say). I have never been part of a church family that had a greater sense of expectancy when we gathered to hear the Bible explained. And I have never been part of a church family where prayer was so obviously the heartbeat of everything that went on. And I have never been part of a church family where God was so obviously present week by week as he spoke through his word. And, it seems to me, there might just be a connection.

Of course ‘Gilc’ was, and is, just like any church family—full of flawed, messed-up people like you and me. But those of us who had the privilege of ‘passing through’ went on from there with an indelible sense that preaching and praying go together. It was just part of the DNA of the church family. The precious group of 50 or 60 people who met week by week at the Saturday night prayer meeting spend most of the two hours praying for the proclamation of the gospel elsewhere—in other churches in our city, in Scotland, and on every continent around the world, one by one. Eventually, someone would pray, ‘And Lord, spare a though for us in our own place tomorrow . . .’ and the others, who had been praying faithfully on their own all through the week for the preaching at Gilc, would murmur a heartfelt ‘Amen.’

What Do You Bleed?

basics-smAlistair Begg’s annual “Basics Conference” is, in my estimation, far too underrated as a pastors conference. Each year Begg invites a select number of pastors and scholars to encourage ministers in the work of preaching and prayer. If you’ve yet to feast on the resources from these conferences make sure to head over to Truth for Life and download mp3s to your heart’s delight.

A Pricking with Piper

Over the weekend I listed to a few messages from the 2009 Basics Conference that focused on preaching to stir minds, urge wills, and renew affections. During the panel discussion John Piper was asked, “What do you believe the number one challenge will be for pastors in the next ten years?” His answer started off with some simple wisdom, but a peroration was on the way to those of us who preach God’s word. Listen to the clip below and be challenge to consider what you bleed.

Piper’s Answer: Same thing it’s always been: staying red hot for God, knowing their Bible, preaching it faithfully. I don’t think the main things change, the forms of challenges change, but the main thing about keeping your heart for God and knowing this book well, and understanding the lay of the land that changes [so quickly] today. If I had message to pastors it would be read your Bible and pray a lot. And pray earnestly for God to open His word to you, and preach it faithfully. And, you know, if you live in the world and look at the internet, if you see advertisements you see what’s there . . . I don’t work real hard at being relevant, trying to know the latest anything, I don’t know the latest anything! Because as soon as it’s there it’s gone and I can’t stay on top of it. Some things are so eternally relevant; everyone’s gonna die, everybody’s gonna get sick, everybody who’s married is going to have a horrible experience, everybody who raises kids is going to suffer like crazy. I mean, there are a few basic things that all human beings all the time walk through. If you have something to say to about these half a dozen real big challenges in life the little things that change [will fade away.]

Look if you had asked me what little handful of doctrines are going to be on the front burner or something that would be another question. I really think I would just leave it there and encourage you . . . whatever is going to be red hot in the next ten years will be gone pretty quick and people will still be the same and their needs will still be the same. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be culturally stupid and keep your head in the sand, understand there is an internet, there are televisions, there is music in the world.

Here’s what I thought of the other day. We were in preaching class talking about Spurgeon and how you do allusions, [the stuff that comes] just off the cough in your default language. And you know Spurgeon, you prick him and he bleeds Bible, right? Well, prick a lot of young pastors today and they bleed movies. I just said to the guys, “He bleeds movies, he bleeds music, he bleeds TV . . .” I said, “That sounds hip, that sounds cool, but it’s thin and it won’t carry you thirty years, probably. And it won’t help people die. It won’t help them in their marriages crises.” There are just so many young pastors so eager to grow and attract a crowd that they bleed movies. And when those young twenty-somethings get married, have kids, lose their babies—that blood coming out out is just going to be thin. You won’t sound cool at a funeral! It probably will be weird at a wedding. We’ve just turned so much of Sunday morning into a hip, cool, and entertaining talk time in order to feel a certain way. People’s souls are going to languish under that.

So all of that just to say, go ahead and just so be saturated . . . with the Bible.

Don’t Rush

“My tendency to neglect or shorten prayer and reading of Scripture, in order to hurry on to study, is another subject of humiliation. [I should pray] also that I may preach not myself but Christ Jesus alone in the Spirit.” – Andrew Bonar