“Actually, it [how we teach redemptive history to 3 and 4 year olds] is a huge test of where ministers are. One of the things that has stuck me throughout the whole of my life, because I’ve lived in a world where ministers give children’s sermons, is how many evangelical ministers turn into legalists when they give children’s sermons. And its there, when they’re speaking to the children, that it becomes clear how little of the redemptive story they understand; how little they understand how the Gospel works, and how little they understand who Christ is.”
Sinclair Ferguson on teaching truth to little minds (at the 54:20 mark)
It was slightly unsettling how many of their suggestions hit home for me. And yet, there is a lot of good advice here as well.
Three things that really stood out to me:
- Stop preaching for your seminary professors.* Turn around, and let the gallery shape and influence you, but preach for your particular congregation.
- You are not in an audition, so quit seeking immediate praise for the job you’ve done. Start feeding the sheep.
- Content cannot trump communication… and if you’re passionless, you are changing the content, because you’re saying, “Its not important to me.”
Watch the whole thing:
*Side note: At first I disagreed with Tullian’s remark, because I think it is so important to preach with your profs and the “cloud of witnesses” in mind when preparing and delivering the Word of the Lord. But then his remarks from his editor clarified what he meant, and I really appreciate the illustration.
“If you decide to stand for Christ, you will not have an easy life…
…in the ministry.”
The sentence starts out making complete sense, and then throws me for a loop. And yet, it also rings very true.
We often hear that standing for Christ in this world will be difficult, but my automatic assumption is that it should for some reason be different in ministry. There, we think, there is where it will always be safe to stand for Christ.
J. Gresham Machen graciously disabuses us of this false assumption, and warns students/pastors in his own day of what they ought to expect if they stand fast for confessional Christianity. R. Scott Clark posts at the Heidelblog a selection from Machen’s 1929
articlesermon “The Good Fight of Faith.” This was Machen’s farewell sermon at Princeton, after the conservatives had lost the fight for the seminary, and just before Machen would organize Westminster that fall. I thought about simply quoting and linking to it, but I appreciated and resonated with it so much I had to say a few things first.
Machen clearly has been reading a lot of new pastor’s diaries when he makes the following astute observations:
- People will attack your ministry using the most pious platitudes.
“Let’s focus on Jesus and not dead doctrine.” “What about the experience of Christ in my heart?” “It doesn’t matter how much you know, it matters what you do/how much you care.” “Christianity isn’t preaching/ministry/truth, it is all about relationships.” All of those statements are heard on a daily basis to denigrate Word and Sacrament ministry, and yet Machen anticipates all of them by more than 80 years.
- Tolerance was getting fuzzy even in the ’20s.
It all depends on what you mean by tolerance as to whether it is a good thing or not. And Machen hits the nail on the head when he calls for honesty and integrity: “the Christian religion is intolerant to the core.”
- Only sovereign grace will keep you from a compromised ministry.
I assumed the challenge of ministry was to keep from sin and to clearly proclaim saving truth. That is true, but the Enemy has a thousand ways to compromise your ministry. Machen puts it eloquently: “All men will speak well of you if, after preaching no matter how unpopular a Gospel on Sunday, you will only vote against that Gospel in the councils of the church the next day…” Sermons and services and letters are fine, but don’t you dare follow through.
How do we apply the fact that Jesus made room in the Twelve for both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector? Certainly, it must remind us that Jesus’ invitation was to a wide and deep mercy in God. Simon, who was ready to take down the institutionalized, status quo, Roman occupation is at one end of the spectrum. On the other, Matthew earned his bread and maintained a social status feeding off of the very institution Simon was seeking to destroy. Both of them need salvation found in Christ alone.
So are these political opposites, with the application being Jesus calls neo-socialists as well as fascists? Democrats and Republicans? Or does Rome function more as an icon of the passing-away-world, and not politics per se? In this case, Simon is the ascetic, jihadist, fundamentalist; Matthew the cosmopolitan, worldly promoter of any/every zeitgeist. Or is there some other taxonomy that these two disciples map on to?
Plagiarism is an important issue for pastors to think over as well, it might be worthwhile for ministers to consider this issue. Especially since I would expect the temptation for a young pastor – struggling to get his sermon done and in awe of “celebrity pastors” – might look very different for an established veteran preacher – wanting to cull the best of borrowed sayings and sources over a long career.
One of the things a pastor and a congregation spend a lot of time on together is the sermon that is preached every Lord’s Day in the worship service. The minister spends time preparing and delivering the message, and the congregation spends time hearing it and living their lives based off of it. But have you ever thought about how to hear a sermon? How can we obey Jesus’ command to “be careful how you hear” (Luke 8:18)? Consider a few ideas with me:
- Believers should prepare themselves to hear. The Apostle Peter commands that we “desire the sincere milk of the Word like newborn babies,” and that one of the ways we prepare that spiritual “thirst” within us for God’s Word is by laying aside all sin (I Peter 2:1 – 2). Sin acts like wax in our ears, and keeps us from hearing the life-giving words we so desperately need. Do not allow Saturday night – or the week before Sunday – as an opportunity for sin, but instead lay aside sin by faith and focus on “thirsting” to hear from the Lord in the sermon.
- Believers should prepare through prayer. One of the best ways to create this spiritual thirst in preparing is through prayer. We say with the psalmist, “Lord, open my eyes, that I would behold wondrous things out of Your Law in the sermon this Sunday” (cf. Psalm 119:18). Ask God to reveal to you His will for your life in the sermon; do it every Sunday! The Apostle Paul asked the Ephesians to pray for him as he preached, and to do so constantly (Ephesians 6:18 – 19). We should pray this way for our Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and especially our ministers and elders.
- Believers should test the sermon against God’s Word. Paul praised the Bereans because they “searched the Scriptures daily” to see if Paul’s message lined up with Scripture (Acts 17:11). As Christians, we are to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). Ministers must not preach on their favorite topics, heart-warming stories, practical advice for better living, politics, or anything else – but only what the Lord says in Holy Scripture. A congregation can hold their minister accountable by carefully testing what he says.
- Believers should receive the sermon in a godly attitude. Continue reading
Last December my grandfather died, and I had the privilege of explaining the Scriptures for the service. The funeral was held at Bethel Ev. Free Church in Fairmont, MN. My sermon text was Psalm 37:23 – 24:
The steps of a man are established by the LORD,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the LORD upholds his hand.
You can find the video on the sermon page at the bottom.
The sovereignty and freeness of grace are the principles of laborious activity, not the allowance of Anitnomian ease. Thus the doctrines of the Gospel not only explain the nature and obligation, but are themselves the principles – nay the only principles – of holiness. We must live every moment by faith, and as we live, we shall love – overcome the world – crucify sin – delight in the service of God. No mere precepts will extirpate the natural love of sin, or infuse this new bias in the heart. The doctrine of faith alone effects this mighty change, by exhibiting Christ as the source of life, and detailing all the exercises of holy practice, flowing from that life…
It is the promise, and not the precept; it is encouragement, and exaction; it is grace, and not nature, which consecrates a course of moral beauty and blessing, and convinces the believer, that, whether grace is to be exercised or duty discharged, he is eminently ‘God’s workmanship,’ the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
Charles Bridges The Christian Ministry (265-66) emphasis original