I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the calling of a Christian communicator. This could be your duties as a writer, whether blogs or books or articles. Or it could be your task as a preacher or teacher, whether in small group, pulpit ministry, or classroom.
To communicate the truth of the good news of the gospel, in any form, is a high privilege and a sober calling. I’m always mindful of James 3, which outlines the seriousness of the calling and the negative and positive effect of the words we craft.
So I came up with five resolutions that we might consider:
1) I will communicate well to serve others, even if I never become famous. To seek a wider audience is not wrong. Ambition, properly exercised under the Lordship of Christ, is not evil, and is good. But it may be God’s will that my books never reach the NYT bestseller list. It may not be God’s will that I become a popular conference speaker and pastor a church in the Outreach top 200 list. God may be more glorified in my obscurity and I need to be okay with that, if after my best efforts, I achieve only a small modicum of what we call success. Regardless of the size of my audience, I’m called to fully exercise my gifts. I’m called to serve well those God has called me to serve.
2) If I do achieve fame, I won’t become an entitled jerk. If the Lord does grant me “success” or “fame”, will I leverage that to fulfill my own desires or will I use that to better serve others? God does indeed grant fame and fortune to some. The test is, “What will you do with that fame?” Will I become a diva, a star, a demanding selfish man who sees himself as above the rules? Or will I stay humble, soft, sensitive, serving? I must resolve now to refuse the entrapments of fame that sink so many men and women. I must not view others as means to my own satisfaction and pleasure. I must value relationships above advancement. I must not overly personalize criticism and own my ministry to an extent that I see people God loves as enemies instead of friends. I must forgive easily and repent quickly.
3) I’ll carefully weigh every word I speak or write, all to the glory of God. Will I leave a body of work I can be proud of? Will I never forget the exalted position I hold? Will I do one more tiresome edit to ensure that I’m communicating clearly? Will the words I write and the sermons I preach have lasting value? Will others be able to read them, years hence, and still find nuggets of gospel gold? I must approach sermons and books and articles and blogs less as a job to be done and more as brushstrokes on a canvas. I must endure that one more edit to ensure I’ve said what the Spirit has led me to say. I must avoid being flippant in the pulpit, lazy at the keyboard, overly casual in conversation. I must pray, as Paul did, for increasing clarity (Colossians 4:3-4).
4) I’ll never stop learning. Whatever success I gain, I must not regard that as confirmation of my own brilliance, as the end of the road of wisdom. I must stay humble. I must stay teachable. I must realize that the more knowledge I gain about God and His world, the more there is to know. I must not allow my mind to grow soft and unchallenged. Will I consider myself the expert at everything and thereby shut off the flow of wisdom? Or will I consider myself, always, to the end, a student, a learner, a pupil at the feet of Jesus? Will I continue to read and grow and learn and stretch? Or will I allow my own flawed opinions to grow hardened and calloused over time?
5) I’ll never lose the awe and wonder of communicating for God. To write or speak or teach or even whisper in the dark about the unsearchable riches of God’s grace is a high and lofty privilege. Nobody owes me a platform. Nobody owes me a book contract or pulpit or teaching position. Every new opportunity to minister is a privilege. The gift I’ve been given is not one of my own choosing or making, it’s been granted by God and can, at any time, be taken away. Any work of art I create should point, not to me, the simple intermediary, but to the Creator who designs the artist and commissions the art. May I never think that my life was my own idea, that my work was my own genius. May I always bow in humble gratitude to the One who formed me.
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One day Charles Spurgeon was walking with a fella down the street when they came upon a drunken man staggering in the alley. Spurgeon’s companion turned to him and said, “Isn’t that one of your converts?” Spurgeon quipped, “It must have been. He sure wasn’t one of the Lord’s.”
We laugh at this story because of Spurgeon’s quick wittedness but there must have been a ton of pain behind it. There are few things that dishearten and sadden a minister like knowing one “got away”.
The Lord spoke of those who would fall on bad soil. When you experience that first hand it is painful. It’s painful to see the one who shoots up quickly, giving hope to many people, and then just as quickly drifts away. When you’ve baptized this person, started discipling them, and even started dreaming about how the Lord might use them—it is such a blow when they drift away from Christ and the gospel.
This isn’t something new to the Church of today. John Newton and other ministers of his day experienced similar heartache. From his letters letters to fellow pastors, I think Newton would tell us at least 7 things about those who’ve turned away.
- Duty is our part; the care is His. We must keep faithfully preaching and discipling. It is not in our hands to keep sheep. Jesus will do this infallibly.
- Keep watch over yourself. The pain of seeing someone turn their back on Christ should stir us up to watch over our own souls.
- Know that God isn’t shocked. None can pluck from His hand. God isn’t shocked by apostasy. He foretold it in His Word.
- Teach your people to bank on what God has clearly said and not on impressions. Newton is tremendously helpful here. I’ve witnessed people say “the Lord failed me” simply because some impression that they thought was the Lord didn’t come through. Teach people to bank on the certain foundation of God’s Word and you’ll have less of this.
- Pray. Wait. Hope for the Best. We don’t know that those who turn away are turning away to their ruin. Keep praying for them, wait for them to return as the prodigal’s father did, and hope for the best to happen.
- Don’t mistake the unsteady growth of a new believer with apostasy. Sometimes new believers will hit Bunyan’s slough of despond. Let’s not mistake these early trials for outright apostasy.
- If they are true believers they will escape out of Satan’s hand. For a season it may appear that all your efforts are lost. But if they are true believers they will, by grace, squirm out of the hand of the enemy.
It’s painful when someone turns away. But let us continue to trust the Lord and keep our hands to the plow.
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The Cruciformed View of Wisdom and Power
Living in a pluralistic society where relativism is the norm it is inevitable someone is going to be offended. Those of us who live as witnesses of the Crucified Christ know all to well that mentioning the statement “Jesus is Lord” is a cultural “no-no.” If you announce this you’ll likely be labeled as “narrow-minded” or just simply someone who hasn’t progressed far enough into the changing culture. Christians must, so the argument goes, stop being judgmental and be more inclusive of others. It is unfortunate that many who claim to follow the Crucified One have bought into that argument. The word of the Cross that was once a scandalous proclamation has been simply reduced to a civilized opinion.
The message of Christianity will cause an offense. The truth claim that Jesus Christ, the Lord of the world, died in the place of sinners on a cross will ruffle the feathers of a secular world. I’m convinced one of the main reasons for this is – to be honest is the message of the cross is utter nonsense to those who don’t believe the gospel. I’ve been asked countless times, “Do you really believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead?” As if by believing in that truth claim, I’ve traded my critical thinking skills for a kindergarten fairytale. To believe in this truth, however, doesn’t require one to empty their mind. Instead, it will require one to surrender their preconceived ideas of power and wisdom.
Folly to the Perishing
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, ” For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is here that one begins to see the “madness” of the Christian message. Note that the “word of the cross” produces two effects: folly to the perishing and the power of God to those being saved. This message by application puts all of humanity into two categories: those perishing and those being saved. The classification is determined by one’s response to the message.
The first effect that is produced by the gospel is folly to the perishing. The context Paul is writing into is extremely important. The Apostle is writing to the churches in the city of Corinth. A city that was as Leon Morris said, “intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.” Greek wisdom and philosophy filled the minds of those who walked the streets of Corinth. It is here where we must see the cultural conflict with the gospel. The message of the cross in the Greco-Roman culture was complete madness. While there may have been a few Greco-Roman stories about gods dying and rising again it was ludicrous to suggest that a god would die a criminal’s death on a cross. To advocate “that the one pre-existent Son of the One True God, had appeared in very recent times in the out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness” as Martin Hengel concluded. The cross is a complete paradox. It doesn’t make any sense to those who are perishing – it is nonsense. This is why the message of the cross is hard for people to believe. Why in the world would God send His One and Only Son to die on a cross? It is this very point that circumvents our understanding of God and the way He reveals Himself to the world: the cross is the highest revelation of God’s wisdom, which stands in opposition to the wisdom of the world.
The Wisdom and Power of God
The cross challenges our understanding of power and wisdom. In a world that prides itself on human reasoning and strength the cross of Christ pushes against those ideas, redefining what true wisdom and power actually look like. It is in the message of the cross that the power of God is revealed. David Garland explains, “In this case, ‘power’, refers to the effectiveness of the cross to make God known to humankind, to accomplish salvation, to defeat evil, and to transform lives and values.” This salvation wrought in the death of Jesus reveals God’s power and wisdom. The question is asked, “Why in the world would God reveal Himself this way?” The answer is simple: God is wiser and stronger than us. The reality is as sophisticated and relational humans, we seek to save ourselves a different way; a way that doesn’t involve a bloody naked man on a cross. A way that was more civilized; a way that wouldn’t offend anyone. We would write and distribute our tracts proclaiming to all that good moral deeds and tolerance are the requirements for salvation. This is the wise thing to do. That wouldn’t offend anyone. That message is more inclusive.
Yet it is through the foolishness of the cross that God is shown wiser than man. It is in the weakness of the cross that God demonstrates He is stronger than man. We could say that God has “outsmarted” all of humanity by revealing His wisdom and power through the death of His Son on the cross. As we attempt to think of a better way to save ourselves, God has already provided the most powerful instrument of deliverance. The symbol that was once a scandal has now become the symbol of salvation. By Christ taking upon Himself the wrath of God, the sins of His people, and dying in their place, He revealed, His divine rescue mission for the world. The Crucified Christ redefines His people’s understanding of God and the way He works in the world. The all-supreme Son of God condescended to the lowest point of humiliation possible – dying on a cross in the place of sinners. The power and the wisdom of God are revealed in the Crucified Christ.
Cruciformity as a Way of Life
Since the cross redefines our understanding of power and wisdom we have a choice to make. Do we surrender to this biblical understanding or do we continue living our lives the way we always have? This is where the rub occurs. One can only know God through God’s wisdom. Human means – power and wisdom – to God fall short of obtaining salvation. Salvation comes through the exclusivity of the Crucified One. This message is the means through which God saves. Listen to Paul as he said “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God..” Garland once again said:
“the herald’s task is not to create a persuasive message at all, but to convey effectively the already articulated message of another. The message is God’s and it is conveyed by means that look weak, foolish, and unimpressive to the world. Carrying a placard announcing the crucified Messiah as the glory of God in simple unadorned words makes the herald look foolish in the eyes of the world. But such foolishness reveals that God, not the messenger, is to be credited for saving those who believe the message.”
The preaching of the cross is foolishness to the wisdom of the world. This ought to be a great encouragement to those communicating this message in a world that won’t understand in the first place. The means, message, and messenger are to be conformed to the Crucified One. This is the way of cruciformity, which is the practice of increasingly living our lives in conformity to the cross. In a world that proclaims its own form of power and wisdom, we must as people of cross, preach the foolish message as foolish people. It is through this foolishness that God reveals His wisdom. The offensiveness of the gospel in a pluralistic world is unchanging; even as the message is the power of the Crucified Christ to save, sanctify, sustain, and glorify His own people, for His glory.
 Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians TNTO (Downer Groves: Intervarsity Press, 1985), 22.
 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 6-7.
 David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 62.
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In part 1 of my advice on how to listen to a sermon, I said that listening to a sermon begins on the drive home Sunday afternoon and continues throughout the week. The Sunday sermon is a sacred part of our worship, but it’s not the only part of our worship. Worship is the act of ascribing value to God because He is infinitely worthy to receive it (Psalm 29:2). That happens in whatever we do what is good, righteous, holy and pure (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Phil. 4:8-9). You can worship with your work, play, and your rest. In order to listen to the sermon, you have to have more than two ears. You have to have a life centered on the worship of God. And this happens Monday through Saturday, as well as Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
For this final post, I want to list five things that we should do within the context of a worship gathering to effectively listen to a sermon:
1) Arrive to the building where the church gathers early instead of just ‘on time’. Most jobs require punctuality, why would we give our Lord anything less? Rushing out the door with screaming kids is the norm for many families (hey, it happens sometimes in our house!), but preparing your heart involves more than being on time, it involves calmness and focus. When we are rushed, we are distracted. And when we are distracted, our ears are plugged. Coming early helps settle our hearts, which in turn gives our ears an opportunity to listen with a fully-engaged mind. (Plus, who knows, you could be an encouragement to someone else by arriving early and talking with someone!) Get to bed early Saturday, get up Sunday for a hearty breakfast, and teach your kids the sacredness of the Lord’s Day (a lost thing in the 21st Century).
2) Sing loudly and boldly. Singing is a thoroughly biblical concept, and in singing we are consummating our joy. In other words, as C.S. Lewis once said, (I’m paraphrasing), the appointed consummation of joy is praise. We praise (sing, talk about, delight in, etc.) what we prize. You find a good restaurant with good food, what do you do? You tell people about it. It’s the same thing with God, though admittedly He is far greater than a double bacon cheeseburger. Even if you don’t “feel” like praising God because the joy just isn’t there, do it anyway, and the joy will follow. (Tell yourself how good God is until your heart bends to that truth). Even if you feel like you can’t sing, don’t be shy. No one is bothered by that. Sing to your heart’s content. And do it boldly, knowing that in that moment you’re fighting for joy and giving yourself over to God.
3) Pray that the Holy Spirit would take the sermon and ruin you with it. The sermon isn’t made to tickle your ears; it’s God’s means to display His glory so that the Church is edified and lost and weary souls are found and comforted. Prayer is the key part. Say a prayer before the worship gathering begins. Say a prayer during a song. Pray that God the Holy Spirit would allow your open-yet-discerning heart a chance for the Word to grow deep in your soul. Preaching is not a passive thing–it takes effort both on the preacher’s part, and the listener’s part. Most preachers spend a lot of time in study so as to convey the truth of the passage at hand, but it requires an attentive soul to receive it. There will be points that will afflict you (the Law), but gospel-centered preaching brings comfort (gospel), too. Ruining you means that it affects your soul towards repentance, not despair–a bolster of faith, not pride.
4) Take notes and discern. Be like the Bereans who checked what Paul said with Scripture (Acts 17:11). Have an open Bible (Study Bibles are great!) with notes on your phone or on a pad of paper. Not everyone learns with notes (I hardly took notes in seminary because I learn audibly by storing it in my mind), but if that’s you, don’t be shy. Listen to the points being emphasized. A good preacher will repeat himself and work hard to make sure the main thing is the main thing, emphasizing where emphasis is needed. Discern with your head, heart and hands. Flip quickly to other passages if the occasion calls for it, underline, highlight, and process. This helps you stay engaged instead of allowing your mind trail off.
5) Respond to the Word of God. At our church, we respond with communion and giving. We’ve sang to Jesus, heard about Jesus, and now we respond to Jesus. Not every sermon is going to give you three steps to “apply.” As John MacArthur once said, the preacher’s job is to give you the implications, it’s the Spirit’s job to apply it. If the Law and the gospel are given, and the passage is appropriately taught, the implications become extensive. “Practical Theology” is an oxymoron. All practice is theological, and all theology is practical. The Spirit applies it by either driving you to 1) confess something, leading to repentance, 2) do something, like make disciples, 3) believe something–sometimes our hearts are out of sync with the truth, so we need to respond with faith that Jesus is better, or 4) feel something–sometimes our feelings are out of whack, but with truth proclaimed, our feelings can be properly aligned. Responding takes the monergistic power of the Spirit as He guides you, so be diligent and work it out (Phil. 2:12).
Listening to the sermon requires more than just two ears. It requires a heart full of prayer, praise, faith, a mind free from distraction and renewed by truth, and hands diligently laboring for the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). While not exhaustive, I hope these couple of posts are an encouragement to you as you work hard at hearing the word of God.
Romans 10:13-15, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’”
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Yesterday I wrote about four things to look for when listening to a sermon. My aim was to get at the heart of what we should want from a sermon. This is difficult because some (it would seem) don’t even know why there should be a sermon let alone the what of one. From a personal perspective, I shared a few things (though not exhaustive) about what I’m looking for because it would seem that this is what Scripture wants to achieve with the proclamation of God’s Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
Having established the what part (Preaching is God’s means to display His worth, announce His news, save His sheep, and edify His people), I want to talk about the how of listening to a sermon. (I once quipped to my congregation that I was going to doing a sermon on how to listen to a sermon, but to this very day I have yet to do so. Maybe another time. For now, this will have to suffice!)
For part 1 here, I will start with this:
Listening to a sermon begins on the drive home Sunday afternoon and continues through the week.
I know what you’re thinking. Listening to a sermon begins after the sermon is already over? Yes. Well, sort of. Here’s what I mean.
After leaving the Sunday gathering, you’re heading home (or to lunch as it were), and your friend/spouse/child wants to talk to you about the morning. Instead of asking, “How was church?” (A man-centered, self-focused, consumeristic question), ask instead, “What do we do with the Word that was taught today?”* (e.g., James 1:22). How do we make disciples of all nations with this? How do I repent from my breaking of God’s Law, and believe the truth of the gospel? How do I take this and apply it so as to love God more and love my neighbor as myself?
In doing this, you’re preparing your heart for the Word to take root. And truthfully that ought to be the case from Sunday afternoon to Saturday evening. When we go to work Monday through Friday with soccer, dance, and little league during the week, as well as a missional community gathering, we are starting the process all over again by listening to the Spirit through the Word. Discipleship cannot happen in a 30-60 minute sermon. Important as the sermon is (I can’t stress this enough!), discipleship encompasses all of life as we live as a family of missionary servants by the power of the gospel and the ministry of the Spirit.
So what can you do before the sermon? First, read and meditate on God’s Word each day, perhaps even the passage/book being studied. Second, pray fervently each day; pray for your pastor(s), pray that the Spirit would make your heart believe, and pray for others. Finally, go to bed on time Saturday night(!), being diligent to keep your body rested (Why would you expect to have clarity of thought and be fully awake to listen to a sermon when you didn’t go to bed until 1am Sunday morning?).
A lot of this is preparation for the head, heart and hands. Cultivating the soil takes effort (Mark 4:1-20)–what are you doing this week to begin listening to the sermon.
Next Post: 5 Ways to Listen to the preaching of God’s Word
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Disclaimer: I don’t mean for the title of this blog post to sound so self-serving. “I want this, I want that, me, me and more me.” I’m not coming at it from that angle. I’m coming (hopefully) from the angle of Scripture and what we ought to want from the preaching of God’s Word. My goal in this post is to share four ways to approach listening to sermons.I should also mention that this is my approach to delivering sermons, as well as listening to sermons.
Though not exhaustive, here are four things to look for when listening to a sermon.
1) I want to hear from a man who has been set on fire by the text. Don’t get me wrong, I want information. I want to see the context and the text ,which means that I will have a Bible in my lap, ready to follow along and flip to another passage if need be. I want to not only see the text, but feel the text, too. I know that sounds silly, but I’m serious. I want the text to come alive. I want to know that the preacher has wrestled with it, and that the text has sunk deep-down into his soul. I don’t need stories, I need text. I don’t need jokes, I need gospel proclamation. I’m not looking around to see who this applies to, I’m looking at myself. I want to know that the text has infiltrated the preacher’s head, heart, and hands so that the same can happen for me.
2) I want to be confronted. I am expecting this. I want to be told how sinful I am because I’m in denial the rest of the week. I don’t mind being confronted with my sin, because I’m the chief of sinners anyway, and have nothing to hide (1 Tim. 1:15). I want the text to confront me. I need God’s Law to be a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105). I need to see how I fall short of God’s glory by seeing how holy and just God is, and how His Law is the perfect standard of righteousness. Don’t be shy in confronting sin, preacher, I need it. Let the Scripture cut me deep (Hebrews 4:12).
3) I want to be given good news. No matter the text, I want the gospel. After all, the gospel isn’t a footnote, it’s the font. I want desperately to not only know my sin (see point #2), but to see my Savior Tell me again and again how good the gospel is! Demonstrate for me how Jesus perfectly submitted himself to the Law, how He died a substitutionary death, how He stabbed death in the heart by rising from the dead, and how He rules as King of the universe right now. Tell me good news! I want to return to it, revel in it, marinate in it and find hope in it. I need to be reminded (1 Cor. 15:1), because I’m not looking for 5-steps to nowhere…I’m looking to be comforted. I long to hear the Story. Tell it again!
4) I want to leave impressed not at the preacher, but at the Savior. Don’t try and be funny when you’re not; don’t try and loosen the blow–just state the truth with boldness. I don’t need it to be sugar coated, nor do I care to have my best life now. I do not need entertainment; I need Jesus. Desperately. Help me process my desperation and show me that the gospel can bring comfort to my weary soul. I trust that the Spirit is at work during the sermon because preaching is, after all, God’s means for edifying the saints (Ephesians 4:12).
You should know something, preacher. During the singing, I’m praying for you. I’m asking God the Holy Spirit to assist you in magnifying Christ. Oh, and one last thing I want…
I want to know that the Father loves me, the Son was condemned for me, and that the Spirit in this very moment is challenging me so that I can walk away moved into holiness.
Keep preaching; when it’s popular, and when it’s not (2 Tim. 4:2). And be encouraged. We may not shout, “Amen!” but know that we’re out there, listening intently, holding on to your words knowing that preaching is God’s ordained means to reach His God-glorifying ends.
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