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.

Getting Serious About A New Reformation

I pastor a small, historic church in a small, historic city. Our city’s history is important in the history of our land, and our church’s history is important in the history of our city.

Yet our church has seen better days, at least from outward appearances. We were once the lead church in the capital of our state. In the 1920’s we had one Sunday school class led by a state Supreme Court justice that was over 1,200 strong – and that was just one Sunday school class. We were a mega church before there was a definition for “mega-church”.

Today however we average in the 80’s in attendance.

God called me to this church at the same time he led the elders to a clarified vision of what the future of our church should look like. He led our elders to the conviction that we needed to seek God’s renewal promise, the remembering, repenting and recovering that is his promise first voiced to the Church in Ephesus (cf., Rev 2:5). In a nutshell, the Spirit convicted us that we were in need of reformation.

And we’ve been busy these past two years seeking the Spirit to keep his renewal promise. Foundationally God led us to seek the help of Dr. Harry Reeder and his From Embers to a Flame ministry. (I highly recommend these folks. They are much more biblically sound than some of us confessional-oriented folks might think at first glance.)

A part of our efforts in the “remembering” process has been to look back to our heritage in the Reformation. For the last four years this has meant holding a fellowship event (dinner, kids’ play, service activity, etc.) on Saturday night of Reformation weekend (last Saturday in October). Each year we build the festivities around one Church Father’s life and ministry. This year we celebrated John Knox. (Next year we’re celebrating Augustine.)

This year we were also blessed to add a preaching-teaching component to our Reformation Celebration. We invited Dr. R. Fowler White, VP of Academic Affairs for Ligonier Academy, and a regular contributor here, to come and speak to us. He and his wife drove from Orlando and spent Saturday and Sunday with us. Dr. White preached/taught four times for us, twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday.

Dr. White’s topic was the Holy Spirit’s use of the means of grace in the life of the Church. As you’ve studied the Reformation you’ll recognize the significance of this subject. For our church this topic has become a touchstone for our own reformation. Eschewing the means of man to grow churches, we’re returning to a simple reliance on the means of grace for the Spirit’s restoration of spiritual health. So while this is not an unfamiliar topic for us, it was an exciting expectation to see our understanding of how the Spirit keeps the renewal promise deepen.

And we were not disappointed.

I recommend to y’all, for your own and your church’s edification, Dr. White’s four sessions, which can be found here. Scroll down one full page length and look for the banner-title “Reformation Celebration Conference.” Each of the four sessions are linked there, with each preceded by a summary explanation of the session. (Note: a technical malfunction cut off the last point of Dr. White’s presentation in the second session. The summary paragraph highlights this last point.)

Given my current level of education and personal study it is usually the case that when I attend a conference oriented to the average layman I hear foundational points I already know repeated. This is not bad, as I tend to be one of those butter knives that still needs the file sharpening of repetition. Yet it is rare in such a conference that I hear anything so striking that it significantly advances my own understanding.

In the first session Dr. White gave an extended introduction to the whole series. In it he brought a biblical-theological focus to the question of the central message of the Bible, that while not all alone in its newness, nevertheless re-expressed seminal insights in a new and compelling formula. I won’t claim Dr. White is saying something that has never been said before. I will simply observe that when he was making the case for his point I experienced one of those moments where the Spirit opened the channels of my mind to be flooded with a fullness of the biblical background. It may not be new to some of you, yet this observation alone makes listening to Dr. White’s talks worth the time.

I am increasingly convicted that the Church in America is experiencing the same kinds of spiritual ills that were common in the Church right before the Reformation, indeed that were common in the OT Church right before our Savior’s advent. I expect more and more of you share this same conviction. (Sunday night Dr. Reeder summarized these as: 1) Biblical illiteracy, 2) spiritual impotency, 3) compromised leadership, 4) devaluation of the word, and 5) devaluation of word-ministry, preaching.)

The Reformation was not the history-changing eveny that it was because of one or two big men with one or two big ideas. No doubt the Reformation would never have been what it was without Luther and Calvin. Yet the real strength of the Reformation was not that the Spirit was poured out on a few, but on the many.

I want to challenge you to not fall prey to the “key man” fallacy, the idea that if anything big is going to happen we need to see a key leader arise. We already have that Key Leader immediately present by his Spirit. Instead, I challenge you to take serious God’s renewal promise and began stepping out in faith. Seek it first for your own life and your own family. Then seek it in your church. The Spirit who was so richly and abundantly poured out on Europe during the Reformation has not been exhausted. There is still infinitely plenty left of him to be poured out on us for our Reformation.

Let’s get serious about seeking a new reformation.

Posted by Reed DePace