A Preacher’s Decalogue

As a seminary professor, I am deeply grateful for how the new year has opened with seasoned pastors and teachers offering their wisdom for young (and not-so-young) preachers. For example, in “Advice to a Young Preacher” Peter Adam outlines fourteen indispensable principles for preachers, none more important than the first:

Learn to love the Bible. We love God, so we love His words. We know the mind of God from the mouth of God and we live by every word that comes from His mouth. Preacher, learn to love all of the Bible. Learn to meditate on it day and night. Fill your mind and heart and life with God’s truth. If God’s words are not in your mind, heart, and life, they will not be on your lips. Learn the self-discipline to avoid reading your ideas into the Bible. Whenever you read the Bible, don’t think, “I know what this means, so I don’t need to read it carefully.” There is always more to find, more to uncover.

Indeed, no man should preach who doesn’t love the Bible. Love for God and His words is the essential first ingredient in the making of a preacher.

Ferguson_Pastors_WTS_imageAlongside Peter Adam we have Sinclair Ferguson. In chapter 39 of his new book Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be, Ferguson offers his “Ten Commandments” for preachers. As Ferguson explains, these principles were born out of the question, “What ten commandments, what rules of preaching-life, do I wish someone had written for me to provide direction, shape, and ground gaining momentum in ministry along the way?”

Ferguson’s answer is worth reading and embracing given his over five decades of faithful pulpit ministry. He’s learned much through study and practice. This is wisdom from above.*

  1. Know your Bible better
    Ferguson writes: “As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality, and so on), who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow God’s word has not first invaded and gripped them.”
  2. Be a man of prayer
    Ferguson writes: “I mean this with respect to preaching — not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word.”
  3. Don’t lose sight of Christ
    Ferguson writes: “Know and therefore preach ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). That is a text far easier to preach as the first sermon in a ministry than it is to preach as the final sermon . . . . Paradoxically, not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified-centered preaching. Too often preaching on the Gospels takes what I whimsically think of as the ‘Find-Waldo-Approach’. The underlying question in the sermon is ‘Where are you to be found in this story?’ (Are you Martha or Mary, James or John, Peter, the grateful leper . . .?) The question ‘Where, who, and what is Jesus in this story?’ tends to be marginalized.”
  4. Be deeply trinitarian
    Ferguson writes: “. . . my concern here arises from a sense that Bible-believing preachers (as well as others) continue to think of the Trinity as the most speculative and therefore the least practical of all doctrines. After all, what can you ‘do’ as a result of hearing preaching that emphasizes God as Trinity? Well, at least inwardly if not outwardly, fall down in prostrate worship that the God whose being is so ineffable, so incomprehensible to my mental math, seeks fellowship with us!”
  5. Use your imagination
    Ferguson writes: “Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, and feel its power — and to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, and grips the mind, will, and affections, so that they not only understand the word preached but also feel its truth and power.”
  6. Speak much of sin and grace
    Ferguson writes: “Preaching on sin must unmask the presence of sin, and undeceive about the nature of sin, as well as underline the danger of sin. This is not the same thing as hammering a congregation against the back wall of the ‘sanctuary’ with a tirade! That requires little more than high levels of emotion. A genuine, ultimately saving, unmasking and undeceiving of the human heart is more demanding exegetically and spiritually. For what is in view here is the skilled work of a surgeon–opening a wound, exposing the cause of the patient’s sickness, cutting away the destructive malignancies, all in order to heal and restore to life.”
  7. Use ‘the plain style’
    Ferguson writes: “There are many ways this principle applies. Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and then you make it clear and express its power. True evangelical eloquence will take care of itself. Despite Charles Hodge’s reservations, Archibald Alexander was in general right in urging his students to pay attention to the power of biblical ideas and then the words used in preaching will take care of themselves.”
  8. Find your own voice
    Ferguson writes: “We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the ‘preaching suit’ they have borrowed doesn’t not actually fit them or their gifts. Instead of becoming the outstanding expository preacher, or redemptive-historical, or God-centered, or whatever our hero may be, we may tie ourselves in knots and endanger our own unique giftedness by trying to use someone else’s paradigm, style, or personality as a mould into which to squeeze ourselves. We become less than our true selves in Christ.”
  9. Learn how to transition
    Ferguson writes: “Many of us are weary of the pandemic of ‘how-to-ness’ we find in much contemporary preaching. It is often little better than psychology (however helpful) with a little Christian polish; it is largely imperative without indicative, and in the last analysis becomes self- and success-oriented rather than sin- and grace-oriented. But there is a Reformed and, more importantly, biblical, emphasis on teaching how to transition from the old ways to the new way, from patterns of sin to patterns of holiness. It is not enough to stress the necessity, nor even the possibility, of this. We must teach people how this happens.”
  10. Love your people
    Ferguson writes: “This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle: ‘What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as ur servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Cor. 4:5); ‘We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us’ (1 Thess. 2:8).”

*While the list is exhaustive the quotes from Ferguson are merely excerpts from the explanations he gives for each principle. 
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Technology and Preaching

The Street of Colors-X4

I recently had a student tell me that he preached in a church in Tennessee that had him speaking from a platform that turned into the equivalent of an IMAX experience for the congregation. The technology allowed him to “take” his listeners to places like outer space and the holy land of Israel with moving, high-definition digital images, changing weather patterns, and movie-theater quality sound.

As he was selling me on this experience and the value of it for all churches, I kept thinking to myself, “In all this noise, how could they hear a word he said?” But being distracted from my student’s words is not the biggest risk of using technology in preaching. The greater danger is missing God himself.

My theology of preaching understands the preaching exercise as nothing less than a monologue from heaven. In other words, the expositor (peaching as monologue from God requires exposition of biblical texts) is a messenger for God as he heralds the truth of any particular biblical passage. This, of course, is how the apostle Paul understands preaching when he describes preachers as “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). According to this text, God is actually appealing to the world through a human herald. Breathtaking.

What does all of this have to do with technology use in preaching? Everything.

Let me explain this with the help of Jean Twenge from an article she wrote for The Atlantic posted yesterday. In “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge chronicles the thinking of a 13-year-old girl regarding her smartphone use and that of her peers. At one point the girl (under the pseudonym “Athena”) admits her frustration over friends who do not listen to her when she’s trying to talk with them about something important to her:

In my conversations with teens, I saw hopeful signs that kids themselves are beginning to link some of their troubles to their ever-present phone. Athena told me that when she does spend time with her friends in person, they are often looking at their device instead of at her. “I’m trying to talk to them about something, and they don’t actually look at my face,” she said. “They’re looking at their phone, or they’re looking at their Apple Watch.” “What does that feel like, when you’re trying to talk to somebody face-to-face and they’re not looking at you?,” I asked. “It kind of hurts,” she said. “It hurts. I know my parents’ generation didn’t do that. I could be talking about something super important to me, and they wouldn’t even be listening.”

Once, she told me, she was hanging out with a friend who was texting her boyfriend. “I was trying to talk to her about my family, and what was going on, and she was like, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, whatever.’ So I took her phone out of her hands and I threw it at my wall.”

Most everyone today, I imagine, can relate to Athena’s experience. Many of us have felt the urge to grab someone’s phone and move it aside in an effort to make way for real, uninterrupted conversation.

Now, here’s the simple (and profound) point I want to make from this regarding preaching: if it really is God speaking through the preacher (which it is) then God forbid we miss one word he’s saying. And technology use (whether screens up on the stage or in a listener’s hand via smartphone or tablet) dramatically increases the risk of this happening. As an expositor I am delivering a message from the King. Therefore, when I’m preaching I want all eyes on me, not wandering into some starry abyss of high def images born along by a Hans Zimmer-like score. (Can you imagine coming into the presence of the King of glory and while he’s talking you look down at your smartphone to read a text? Do not expect him to take it lightly when you look up and say, “Wait, what was that? I missed what you said because I had to reply to a text real quick.” This would not end well for you.)

O preacher! Preach as if God really has spoken in the inspired Scriptures (all 66 books of the Bible), and with the conviction that he still speaks through what he has spoken! And as you listen to sermons by faithful expositors, do everything in your power to give the preacher your undivided attention. For in his words you’ll hear something infinitely greater than any text or tweet or chat — you’ll hear God himself.

[Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff]

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What do you long for?

Trey Ratcliff

What do people do who long for something? They run toward it. This struck me anew on my way back from a recent mission trip to Ethiopia. Upon arriving back in the states my heart was longing to see my family. When I saw them for the first time in 10 days I made a beeline to embrace Anna and the kids. Indeed, longing is not a weak emotion — longing moves you to run (either literally or metaphorically) toward the object of your affection.

As Christians we long for Christ. He is the object of our ultimate affection. Therefore, we design our lives around the single, earnest pursuit of Him. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). In other words, our lives are not about seeking “all these things,” but Christ.

There is an important implication of this understanding of the Christian life. Christianity is not primarily about running away from things, whether drugs or alcohol or pornography or greed or jealousy or anger or envy or strife. To be sure, we do flee that which is evil (cf., Romans 12:9), but only in the glorious pursuit of something greater, namely, Christ. In this sense, Christianity is not “defensive” in its posture. Rather, given that “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:14), we are marching forward in the unstoppable advance of the gospel.

This is the note the author to the Hebrews strikes in chapter 12. He says that one of the ways we “run with endurance the race set before us” is by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (vv. 1-2). The best runners in a race are not looking to their left or right or backwards, but ever forward to the goal. And in the race of faith that is our life, we fix our eyes on Jesus. For he is the longing of our hearts; he is the goal of our salvation.

So if you find yourself getting weary on your run, lift your head to heaven. Look to Jesus, the One who promises to finish the good work he’s begun in you. He will provide all the grace you need to finish your course so that you “receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

[Photo: Trey Ratcliff]

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Better Blessings

Like millions of Americans this week, my mind is on the Fourth of July holiday and what it represents: our freedom as a nation. This freedom is a precious thing, bought with the sweat, toil, and blood of countless Americans who initially fought to obtain it, as well as those who have fought to secure it in the centuries since that fateful day in 1776. This freedom is one of the great blessings of being an American.

Of course, political freedom is not the only blessing that comes with being an American. Having recently traveled to Ethiopia on a mission trip, I appreciate still more the blessings of the infrastructure our country enjoys, excellent medical care, sanitary conditions, general prosperity and relative peace. To be sure, we are blessed among nations. (To affirm this is not to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of our nation or to white-wash the atrocities of our past and present such as slavery/racism and abortion, to name just two.)

But even as I prize the many blessings of being an American, I am moved this Fourth of July to consider the infinitely greater blessings that come to us through the gospel, things like peace with God, our standing in grace, and the hope of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). These are the blessings that come to all people who have a citizenship not of this earth, but of heaven (Cf., Philippians 3:20). Blessings, that is, for all those who are justified before God in Christ. This is the breathtaking reality that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The Fourth of July is a wonderful time to count our blessings—as Americans and as Christians. Our national blessings are precious, but our blessings in Christ are of infinite worth.

Therefore as we celebrate our nation’s independence on Tuesday and recognize the many blessings that come to us as Americans, may I add to your patriotic playlist a song that speaks to the flow of better blessings?

Joy to the earth! the savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ we sing of joy to the world and of blessings that will never end. Now that’s worth celebrating, now and forever.

[Photo credit: stuckincustoms.]

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Family Meetings and God’s Faithfulness

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Family Meeting: this is what we call our congregational meetings at Cedar Creek Baptist Church, and I like it. I like it because it makes clear what we are, namely, the family of God off Bardstown Road in Fern Creek, Kentucky. By the grace of God we are an assembly of 300-plus children of God on our way to glory. Given this breathtaking reality it is fitting that we call our quarterly business meetings “family meetings.”

Yesterday’s Family Meeting was uniquely encouraging and it wasn’t because of the chicken and desserts (which were fantastic). It had to do with the commemoration of our 225th anniversary as a church. (I loved how one speaker — a friend of the church who’s husband was our interim pastor for a portion of the 1990s) opened her address with, “Congratulations on being as old as Kentucky.”) As we look to our future it was inspiring to consider God’s faithfulness in our past. Through various testimonies given by some of our senior saints, it was deeply encouraging to hear of Cedar Creek’s rich heritage in the Scriptures, prayer, outreach, and fellowship. A common thread with the speakers was the merging of Word and deed ministries over the years. The Bible has been studied and taught, countless prayers lifted up to the Lord, and faith working through love toward each other and the nations. In other words, the two great commandments of love to God and neighbor have been emphasized in our history.

And I want this to mark our future still more.

I love studying history so that we can better live out our futures. History is a great teacher: it teaches us by the positive and the negative. That is, from our study of the past we learn how to do things and how not to do things. Both lessons are immensely helpful if we’re humble enough to allow history to be our teacher. My guess is our church’s history is like every church’s history: there are both negative and positive lessons to learn. Thanks be to God that so much of our history teaches us by the positive.

So as we look with gratitude to our history as a church, we look with great confidence in God for our future. Why? Because great has been his faithfulness and great it will be!

***

On another greatly encouraging note I’m told that our Children’s Ministry broke a record for money raised for camp scholarships through our annual dessert auction: $1,188. God’s faithfulness on display through your generosity. Thank you!

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Life and Hot-Air Balloons

Hot-Air_Balloon

I’ve only been in a hot-air balloon once. And it was tied to the ground so I could only go so high and then no higher. But that was fine with me given that cutting the rope would have left me unanchored to the ground below, an idea that I wasn’t ready to embrace.

So much of the Christian life is like this: we don’t want to let go of control (our anchor) and fly at the will of our God.

Of course, behind this desire for control is our own “God-complex.” In our pride we think we can steer the course of our lives better than the Lord. We trust our own wisdom more than his. But this is the height of folly given our finite, imperfect wisdom when compared to the infinite, perfect wisdom of God. Indeed, God alone is all-wise and, therefore, we ought to unhesitatingly embrace his control over our lives.

Isaiah reminds us that God is “wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (28:29). And we know that in Jesus Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). This means that in the gospel Jesus Christ has become to us “wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). That is, in Christ God’s wisdom has become our wisdom. Breathtaking.

Because this is true we can “cut the rope” of control and trust God to guide us safely home — with all the twists and turns, dips and dives his infinite wisdom dictates.

And so as we fly according to the Lord’s perfect providence, we declare with the Apostle Paul,

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)

[image credit: stuckincustoms.com]

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Power and Peace

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
-Isaiah 26:3

trey-ratcliff-mount-cook-and-tepako

[stuckincustoms.com

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