“Dear Lazy Preachers…” Sincerely, Martin Luther

Martin Luther regularly collected and published his sermons following the calendar of the church year. They were known as “postils,” and during his life they were some of his most read and beloved works. Luther himself was pleased with them but lamented that Luther-Preaching-in-Wittenbergsome “lazy” preachers read them word-for-word from the pulpit:

There are some lazy, no-good pastors and preachers who depend on these and many other good books that they can take a sermon out of. They don’t pray, study or read, pondering nothing in Scripture, just as if we need not read the Bible, using such books as a template and calendar to earn their living (LW 6281-85).

I appreciate Luther’s point, but I am conflicted. Let me explain.

On one hand, preaching verbatim another person’s sermon detracts from the essence of preaching: the pastor stands among his or her congregation and in the power of the Holy Spirit speaks the Word of the Lord as it is refracted through his or her unique humanity. That refraction, or mediation, is what makes preaching different, more even, than simply reading the Scriptures aloud. It affirms the goodness of creation as it is experienced in the preacher’s own humanity (docetism always lurks in the wings). So, beyond Luther’s point about the pastor’s engagement with the Scriptures through prayer in preparation for delivering a sermon (certainly right), there is also something distinctly human about preaching that is lost when a sermon from someone else is delivered.

Further, a sermon is spoken in the midst of the particular moment of a church’s life, a moment surely common to others but one that has never before occurred and never will again. The time in which a sermon is proclaimed is unique in the history of the cosmos: this pastor, in the midst of this congregation, at this moment in history!  The human and historical essence of preaching is depleted by preaching a sermon that is not native to a  community.

In Luther’s case the pastors forthrightly read his postils, but today it often happens without anyone’s knowledge. The son of a nationally known author and speaker told me that his father was once visiting a church and heard one of his sermons preached. Even the personal illustrations from his family’s life were used! I have also known several churches that removed their pastors for preaching sermons they found on the internet or borrowed from others. Pastors are under much pressure to perform in the pulpit, and the internet is an easy source of content.

On the other hand – hear me out – perhaps a pastor can rightly do what Luther lamented. Continue reading

A Ministry of Self-Forgetfulness and Simplicity

I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality.  Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive.  Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.

A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices.  For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister.  Murray relates the Doctor’s response:

‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).

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Owen on Preaching

For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74).  Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that.  Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.

First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’.  In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76).  Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’.  Put forcefully,

[A] man that preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.  And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself.  If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).

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The Prince of Preachers on Divine Immutability

From a sermon on Malachi 3:6:

Whatever the attributes of God were of old, that they are now; and of each of them we may sing “As it  was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”  Was he powerful?  Was  he the mighty God when he spake the world out of the womb of non-existence?  Was he the  Omnipotent when he piled the mountains and scooped out the hollow places for the rolling deep?  Yes, he was powerful then, and his arm is unpalsied now; he is the same giant in his might; the sap of  his nourishment is undried, and the strength of his soul stands the same for ever.  Was he wise when he constituted this mighty globe, when he laid the foundations of the universe?  Had he wisdom when he planned the way for our salvation, and when from all eternity he marked out his awful plans?  Yes, and he is wise now; he is not less skilful, he has not less knowledge; his eye which seeth all things is undimmed; his ear which heareth all the cries, sighs, sobs, and groans of his people, is not rendered heavy by the years which he hath heard their prayers.  He is unchanged in his wisdom; he knows as much now as ever, neither more nor less; he has the same consummate skill, and the same infinite forecastings.  He is unchanged, blessed be his name, in his justice.  Just and holy was he in the past; just and holy is he now.  He is unchanged in his truth; he has promised, and he brings it to pass; he hath said it, and it shall be done.  He varies not in his goodness, and generosity, and benevolence of his nature.  He is not become [sic] an Almighty tyrant, whereas he was once an Almighty Father; but his strong love stands like a granite rock, unmoved by the hurricanes of our iniquity.  And blessed be his dear name, he is unchanged in his love.  When he first wrote the covenant, how full his heart was with affection to his people.  He knew that his Son must die to ratify the articles of that agreement.  He knew right well that he must rend his beloved from his bowels, and send him down to earth to bleed and die.  He did not hesitate to sign that mighty covenant; nor did he shun its fulfilment.  He loves as much now as he did then; and when suns cease to shine, and moons to show their feeble light, he still shall love on for ever and for ever.  Take any one attribute of God, and I will write semper idem on it” (C. H. Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” in New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], pp. 2-3).

Preaching as Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Patrick Willson’s excellent reflections on preaching as theological interpretation of Scripture raise questions for me about the role of the historical-critical method for theological preaching:

The stimulating academic conversations regarding the theological interpretation of Scripture notwithstanding, theological interpretation occurs regularly in the ‘retail market’ of local congregations as the Scriptures are preached and taught. . . .

Preachers may have been the canaries in the exegetical coal mines gasping for breath well before Walter Wink announced “the bankruptcy” of the historical critical method. Perhaps they were too shy to say anything or were fearful no one would listen or they were embarrassed that they were not able to make the method produce the promised results. Pastors doing serious exegesis could determine with some accuracy “what the text meant” but struggled to discover preachable meanings. When understanding preaching as interpretation of Scripture seemed so unprofitable, homileticians helpfully provided alternatives – e.g. the volumes of therapeutic preaching and the “preaching as” books (“preaching as story-telling,” “preaching as poetry,” “preaching as performance art,” etc.). Recovering the notion of preaching as theological interpretation of Scripture promises nothing less than a renewal of vocation for preachers. (“A View from the Retail Market: The Promise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture for Preaching” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 2.2 (2008) 213-229.

One of the questions it raises (to me at least) is How do preachers go about learning to preach theologically, and when I say “theologically” I mean preaching that is drawing upon and intentionally in conversation with Christian doctrine (something nowadays found antithetical to preaching funded by the historical-critical method). Recent commentary series such as Eerdmans’ The Church’s Bible and IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture suggest one approach to answering the “how” question: apprenticeship to the Christian Tradition’s great theologian/preachers such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and Wesley.

Does anyone resonate with this?

How do we think about preaching?

Hey all, I’ve had some random thoughts lately about preaching and would like to hear from you. How do we delineate preaching, say, in comparison from teaching or lecturing? Has anyone read anything on preaching that has been really good? I’m not talking about any “how to” manuals here, but a real theology of churchly proclamation. What is the controlling mechanism for churchly proclamation? Is it simply its object, its being carried up by its object, the manner of its proclamation, etc.?

Praying for the Kingdom with Grace and Impatience

Not long ago I preached on the Lord’s Prayer, actually just its first line: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6.10). And I explored the question, “What is required of us to pray this?”

Murillo, Bartolome Esteban.La Cuisine des Anges.1646You can read a little of the sermon below, and I would be happy for your thoughts and interaction, but let me highlight first a couple resources I found quite rich. Telford Work’s book Ain’t Too Proud to Beg was a happy surprise and the most engaging book on the Lord’s prayer that I have read.  Timothy Bradshaw’s Praying as Believing: The Lord’s Prayer and the Doctrine of God  has not received the attention it deserves (small British publisher), yet it is a great example of first rate theology written for the church. Brueggemann’s collection of prayers, Awed to Heaven: Rooted to Earthecho the same impulse I see in the Lord’s prayer, an impulse that jostles me out of complacency toward a living awareness of the drastic incompleteness of the “time between the times”. A time that requires us to pray with grace and impatience.

To speak of God’s “grace” is to put feeble words in the service of describing the infinite goodness and love of God which reaches out to his creatures prior to their own reaching (Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 5:8). To speak of God’s grace is to speak of God’s capacity to initiate and complete his work of restoring a broken world and reconciling alienated people. As the kingdom of grace, it does not come because we pull it into the world, but because God unceasingly works toward its consummation with Christ’s return.

Yet, we get the wrong picture altogether if we forget the unique shape of God’s ongoing activity. God chose to create a world in which his ordinary, inadequate creatures – you and me – are invited to participate in the drama of God’s kingdom activity. He invites us to discover and play our role, a role that always follows after at a distance, but a genuine role nonetheless.

So we might say this: Continue reading