A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

Wise Words on Preaching

Timothy Ward concludes his wonderful book on Scripture with some wise words on preaching that I would like to share with folks.

Firstly, he notices that some pastors are so afraid of seeming too arrogant, authoritarian, or tyrannical in the pulpit that they seek to avoid any and all trappings of power in their sermons: “In sermons like these the preacher comes not proclaiming, declaring, exhorting and rebuking, but sharing, musing, reflecting and imagining” (157). He puts his finger directly on the problem with this: “The main problem with preaching in this ‘weak’ style is that it is not weak for any of the same reasons that the apostle Paul judged his own preaching to be weak” (157). His trenchant conclusion on this issue is very quotable indeed: “Preaching goes as tragically astray when it muses and reflects on those matters it should be proclaiming, as it does when it confidently proclaims what the preacher cannot know, because Scripture is silent” (158).

Secondly, Ward establishes a very clear, strong and beautiful connection of the Holy Spirit to the Word in preaching: “[W]hat the faithful preacher does, and what the Holy Spirit does with Scripture through him, is best described as a contemporary re-enactment of the speech act that the Spirit performed in the original authoring of the text” (emphasis original, 162). This should have a profound effect on the preacher himself: “The preacher should have grappled with the meaning of the text in his preparation, desiring the Spirit-given purpose of the biblical text to become real in in his own life. He should enter the pulpit as someone who has been chastened by the Spirit, or given new hope, or set out on a new course of action, or renounced a kind of behaviour, or had love rekindled in his heart, that is, responding faithfully to the speech act conveyed by the Scripture on which he is preaching” (164).

Thirdly, Ward connects the private reading of Scripture to the public preaching in an interesting and helpful way: “the healthiest way to relate the two is to think of the individual reading of Scripture as derivative of, and dependent on, the corporate reading and proclamation of Scripture in the Christian assembly” (171). What he means by that is that “good preaching exercises something of a ‘credal’ function in the local church” (172). It helps the people read their Bibles better.

Fourthly and lastly, Ward gives us a good argument for turning to commentaries a bit sooner in our preparation of sermons. This statement is worth quoting in full. Notice how balanced it is, with appropriate qualifications and limitations set on it:

There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answer’, as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later. My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start. For most Christians, who lack the time, resources and perhaps also the inclination to do the research themselves, good preaching will be a crucial means by which that historic consensus on Scripture’s meaning is conveyed to individual believers. For that, of course, the preacher needs to be, as he should be, well educated in biblical, historical and systematic theology. (paragraph break, LK) Nothing that I have just said denies outright that God can cause new light to break out from Scripture, enabling us to see truths in it that our forebears did not” (173-174).

What’s Your Point?

I am re-reading T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. It is a delightfully instructive and entertaining read. Our session is going to be going through it with the idea of studying how communication works, such that we can improve our teaching. The thesis of the book is relatively modest in scope. It does not claim to identify and solve all the problems with preaching today. Rather, Gordon claims to be identifying one major problem, and maybe the foremost problem. This problem has to do with the way in which the media, a primarily visual means of communication, has interfered with our ability to read texts well. He would go farther than that by saying that it has almost eradicated our ability to read texts well.

I agree completely with his thesis. However, I would like to point out something else, something less obvious, something deeper and less traceable, albeit still connected with Gordon’s analysis. I would argue that the almost complete division and separation among the disciplines of learning has resulted in ministerial candidates who do not offer the kind of well-rounded sermon that Gordon is promoting. What I typically find is that sermons these days are exegetical or systematic-theological or practical or historical or apologetic. This problem is not merely due to the fragmented way in which many seminaries teach the theological disciplines (though that may well be the main factor). It is also due to the colleges and high schools, which are usually oblivious to the problems that this Enlightenment-created phenomenon has produced. I realize that I am speaking somewhat generally, and that there are exceptions (specifically, most instructors and congregants desire the sermon to be practical, and so the practical aspect is often there alongside one of the other aspects; although, even here, the “practical” is usually truncated to mean “what is helpful to me at 9 AM on Monday”).

The effect this division among the disciplines has on preaching is profound, especially when aggravated by the factors that Gordon mentions. In the modern sermon, not only is there lack of unity in subject matter (“Point? What point?”), but there is also lack of unity in theological discipline (which is, ultimately, the viewpoint of the sermon). Most of the time, it seems that preachers will take one of the disciplines (their favorite) and preach from that viewpoint. As a result, their sermons are greatly truncated. What unites the theological disciplines, after all, is Scripture itself, as Abraham Kuyper so admirably says in his Principles of Sacred Theology (which ought to be required reading at every seminary in the last semester of study). It is like trying to pull a rope while grabbing only one of the strands: eventually the rope unravels.

Lawson’s Address

This is actually Lawson’s second address. His first address was a description of the contents of the new book on Spurgeon that Reformation Trust is publishing. That was an excellent address, but I did not write a summary of it. This lecture is entitled “Foolishness to the Greeks.”

The text is 1 Corinthians 1:18ff. Greek philosophy was very much a going concern. It came to Corinth from Athens. there were many differing philosophies on offer in the first century. The gospel Paul preached was in direct conflict with all the philosophies of the day. It was regarded as foolish. Furthermore, the messengers were also considered foolish. It is also a foolish method. In these three ways, Paul’s message is foolish to the Greeks.

The message was regarded as foolish. We are not just dogmatic about the cross: we are bulldogmatic about the cross! But it is nonsense to those who are perishing. Notice the present tense: they are currently dying from the inside out. We preach what seems like a contradiction: a crucified Christ. That’s like saying “freezer burn.” Or “Central Intelligence Agency” (LK) We preach a crucified conqueror, a slaughtered savior. This is foolishness to the world. But it is the only way. Why? Because God will have all the glory for Himself. We should therefore never try to make the foolishness of the cross appear to be brilliant to the world.

The messengers were also regarded as foolish. In verse 26 he shifts to the messenger, although this is not a shift of main subject. He is still plumbing the depths of why the world considers the message foolish. It is nott only because they think the message is foolish, but they also reject the messengers. God wanted to make sure that it was not because we were to have faith in the messenger. So God chose the foolish ones of the earth. Notice that God’s choice stands behind and before the calling. This is so encouraging, though. How could God use us? We didn’t make Who’s Who? We didn’t even make Who’s Not. God intentionally reached down to the bottom of the barrel. The only possible explanation left is that there has to be a God. We are all nobodies telling everybody about Somebody. If someone is intellectually elite, God will have to work quite a bit harder.

Lastly, the method God chooses is also regarded as foolish (chapter 2:1ff. “Lofty speech” refers to the style, and “wisdom” refers to the substance. We cannot come at this by saying that the method never changes the substance. Paul says that the method is important. It has be a cross-centered method. It has to be a straight-forward approach. This is in contrast to all the rhetoric that was so much loved in Athens and Corinth. Preaching is foolishness to the world. Everyone who tries to change the method God has established is trying to rely on man’s wisdom. Hence the vital importance of preaching in the church today.

The Bride of Christ

(Posted by Paige)

A friend and I were discussing this biblical metaphor this morning, and I thought to cast this question out to all of you as well: Do you think it is in keeping with biblical intent to speak of the marriage of God or Christ to individual believers as well as to the Church corporate?

In his preaching and writing, my friend will speak in terms of both individual and corporate marriage as rich expressions of God’s/Christ’s relationship of union with believers. I am not sure that he is wrong to do so, but I am personally less comfortable speaking of the individual’s “marriage relationship” with Christ (or calling the individual believer the “Bride” of Christ), simply because in both OT and NT usage God and Christ are never (as far as I can see) said to be “married” to individuals, but only to the corporate bodies of Israel or the Church (cf. Is. 62:3-5; Jer. 2; Eph. 5; Rev. 21). On the other hand, there are plenty of relational metaphors available in the Bible that express the individual’s relationship to God and Christ: child, sibling, friend, sheep, servant (even slave), soldier, citizen, etc.

Is the application to individuals of this “marriage” metaphor a fair implication of the corporate picture of Christ’s Bride, or do you think it is beyond the intent of the scriptural witness? If the latter, do you perceive any harmful or misleading influence in speaking this way?

If, on the other hand, you think it is a fair way to picture Christ’s union with the believer, how can it be framed in teaching and preaching so that the individual does not lose sight of the corporate nature of being the Bride of Christ?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Not Masses of Help?

Paul Levy over at Ref21 has written (quoting Ray Galea) that sermons that become chapters in a book lose their life. He says: “He’s right isn’t he? We’re probably a bit afraid to admit it but those vast volumes of commentaries which are just transcribed sermons are often hard work and not masses of help in preparation apart from when hunting for illustrations or we’re very short of time.” I would certainly waive the point when it comes to plagiarism. Pastors MUST preach their own sermons to their congregations for the very simple reason that no one else knows their congregations like they do. Only the local pastor can bring home the text to THAT congregation.

However, I wish to address a different point here. He says, basically, that commentaries made up of sermons are not masses of help in sermon preparation. I cannot say that I agree with this statement. For one thing, there are very few commentaries period which could be said to be “masses of help.” The question is this: what are one’s expectations on using a commentary? I find a commentary to be somewhat helpful if I underline anything in two or three pages. If I underline one thing per page, it is a very helpful commentary. If I underline 3-4 things per page, then it is a massively helpful commentary. How many massively helpful commentaries do I own? Not many, and I own many commentaries. My point is that reading commentaries is not like hitting up Fort Knox for gold. It’s like looking for needles in haystacks (this can certainly be said for the entire scholarly enterprise). I have not found sermonic commentaries to be less helpful than the other types of commentaries. In preaching on Romans, for instance, I have found Boice and Lloyd-Jones to be very helpful, even though I don’t underline on every page. Anything Iain Duguid writes on the OT is massively helpful, and they pretty much ALL originated as sermons. I would not like to see pastors reading fewer commentaries as a result of Paul’s statement, however much he might have been addressing a different point.

Amos As Preacher, Contrasted With Modern Social “Preaching”

I found Old’s discussion of Amos as preacher to be very engaging and helpful, especially as it focused on a book that we do not study very much, although it is a book that has undergone exceedingly extensive analysis since the 1960’s (60 commentaries have been written on this book in just the three decades of the 1960’s-1980’s).

Amos is generally regarded as the first of the writing prophets, the first whose words are recorded in literary form (p. 47). Old notes that “For the prophets, the word that they preached was as much the Word of God as the word that Moses preached.” In Amos’ case, it is clear from the opening words, wherein the prophecy is introduced as “the words of Amos,” but then immediately go on to say “The Lord roars from Zion” (p. 48).

Amos was not the “bubba” type sheep-herder that many have thought he was. Instead, the evidence of his own writing points to someone who was sophisticated, cultured, and wise (pp. 48-49). Maybe he was one of the elders in the gate (49). He could express himself clearly and with power, indicating some measure of practice with public speaking. And some of the book that bears his name records for us his public speaking, which can be labeled sermons.

Incidentally, we are treated to a helpful distinction between the Law and the Prophets, when Old writes, “The Law, the Decalogue, was understood as the Word of God in the most direct sense, too, but the Law, or at least the Decalogue, was apodictic. It applied to any place or time; regular pronouncement of it was sufficient. The prophetic oracle generally was understood to be the Word of God in every bit as direct a way, but it was sharpened and pointed to be shot like an arrow into a particular situation” (p. 49).

Another incidental discussion Old gives us is on the nature of the Word of God as preached, which, as the Reformers all stated, IS the Word of God. Muller has a very helpful distinction that helps us here (pp. 204-205 of volue 2 of PRRD) of immediate and mediate Word of God. What comes from God’s own mouth is immediate, and what comes from the preacher’s mouth is mediate. Nevertheless, both are said to be the Word of God (inasmuch as the preacher’s words agree with the text, of course).

Old notes that the targets of Amos’s preaching in the cows of Bashan has direct relevance to pampered women today (which is, of course, only one subset of all women), who tend enjoy the cosmetic luxuries of the culture, but care nothing for justice and righteousness. Amos’s thundering against them could very easily be applied to today’s Hollywood women.

Amos warns against syncretistic (read here “postmodern, inclusivistic, ecumenical”) worship in chapter 4. Old makes the very interesting observation that Amos 5-6 is a literary dirge for the whole Northern Kingdom, which at that time was prospering and well (p. 55)!

To close, Old has some choice comments for so-called “social” preachers, in his contrast to Amos:

In the strictest sense of the word, the Church has neither prophets nor apostles today; the canon of Scripture is closed. In a larger sense, however, both the word “prophet” and the word “apostle” are used today. Surely today’s ministers are called to be prophets as well as apostles, and surely the Church of today, as always, needs prophetic preachers. During the last half of the twentieth century, Americans have heard plenty of preaching that claims to be prophetic. We have had a whole generation of amateur social critics in our pulpits who thought they were following the example of Amos by denouncing everything from the Vietnam War to smoking marijuana. By a sort of typology they imagined that President Johnson or President Nixon, or President Reagan or President Clinton, was the contemporary Jeroboam. Few of these sermons even came close to those of Amos. Their social criticism may or may not have been justified, but that is not the point. The problem was that they imagined that one line of social criticism or another was the Word of God for our time. They used the prophets to justify some economic program or social ideology and thought they had done their job (pp. 58-59).

The Prophets Samuel and Elijah as Preachers

Continuing on in Old’s book, we come to an interesting distinction he notes from Roland de Vaux. This distinction is that “priests were concerned with the interpretation and application of the Word of God as it was revealed in the law of Moses, while the prophets were concerned with proclaiming the Word of God as God revealed that Word directly to the prophet” (p. 41). Undoubtedly, this is a bit simplistic, as there were preachers who also proclaimed a new word from the Lord. Ezra was one of these. However, the distinction is still helpful, as long as it is remembered that the preaching of the Word of God IS the Word of God (while it is faithful to the Word of God, of course).

What motivated prophets to say “Thus saith the Lord?” Old says that “It was not that they were so convinced of the truth of their interpretation of current events and so impassioned by the moral imperatives of what they thought ought to be done that they were willing to call their view the word of God in order to get people to listen. As they understood it, God had given them His Word” (p. 42).

Old asks the question what Samuel was doing in Shiloh with old Eli (p. 44). The answer was almost certainly that he (probably along with other boys) were “being taught the sacred traditions, both the written and the oral ones” (p. 44). In terms of the distinction noted above, Samuel also constitutes something of a crossover, since he combined both priestly and prophetic duties in one person. Given the fact that he was a judge, he also had a somewhat kingly function as well. Von Rad points comes to the conclusion that Samuel can best be regard as a preacher of the Law (Old Testament Theology, 2:7, referenced on p. 44 of Old).

When it comes to Elijah, he must be vigorously contrasted with the ecstatic Canaanite prophets (pp. 45-46). Elijah was something “much more profound.” Elijah mediated the Law to the people, especially in terms of the first and second commandments, as the incident on Mt. Carmel indicates. Both of these two prophets understood the necessity of preaching the Law of God to the people of God.

Connecting Preaching to Covenant Theology

I’ve decided to read through Hughes Oliphant Old’s entire set on the history of preaching. As I go along, I will note some of the more important insights from the set. Volume 1, interestingly enough, describes preaching in the Bible itself.

The first great insight I’ve come across so far is the very close connection there is between preaching and covenant theology. Old, depending on the work of Craigie, among others, has argued that the very nature of a covenant required the reading and the explanation of the covenant. In the ancient Near East, when a covenant was made between suzerain and vassal, the vassal was required to read the treaty regularly to his people, lest the people forget the nature of that covenant. Ancient Near Eastern treaties were always written down. The main reason for this was so that they would be read at solemn assembly to the people (p. 29). Old makes the point even more sharply when he says “Of the very essence of these treaties or covenants is that they are written down and regularly read and taught to the people in a public assembly” (p. 29, emphasis added). Old says, “If Craigie is right, then we have in the covenant theology of the Pentateuch the rationale for the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship – namely, that it is demanded by a covenantal understanding of our relationship to God and to each other” (p. 29). If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people.

Old goes on to describe what preaching looked like in the book of Deuteronomy. He observes three main elements in the preaching of Deuteronomy: remembrance, interpretation, and exhortation (p. 37). Retelling Israel’s story is absolutely essential, because God’s people are incredibly forgetful (see Deut. 4:9-14). A great deal of preaching should therefore be focused on helping people to remember what God has done in the past. Otherwise, our view of the future will get very dim indeed. The second element is interpretation (Deut. 1:5, for instance). This is obviously one of the main elements of any preaching. One simply has to explain the text. For the people need to hear what God means. Thirdly, there needs to be an exhortation for the people to do God’s will (Deut. 4:1, 6:4-6, 30:11,14).

I will conclude with this wonderful description of the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word (Old has the radiance on the face of Moses in the back of his mind as he writes these words):

God is a sacred fire, and to come near to him is to catch fire and glow with the same holy radiance. This begins to happen to us when we hear God’s Word. We are transformed after the image of Christ. It is through entering into that covenant that we enjoy his presence and through abiding in his presence that we are made holy (p. 25).

A Taste of a Good Book

T. David Gordon, who has written one of the best recent books on preaching, has given us now a sample of it in the latest issue of Tabletalk.

I’m going to be a bit rude here and suggest that much of what passes for preaching these days is nothing more than constipated, triviality-coma-inducing, stream-of-unconsciousness, bill-of-banality, navel-nuzzling, tritch-tratch twaddle. Someday ask me what I really think, and then I’ll tell you. Listen to Gordon and learn something. Of course, I always find it awkward to recommend a book entitled Why Johnny Can’t Preach to a preacher. However, I defy any preacher to read that book and not learn something from it.

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