Add Another Facet of Saving Faith

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Throughout the Gospels and, also other Old and New Testament narrative sections, look for phrases that add to your congregants’ understanding of saving faith. These phrases provide an opportunity to explore what saving faith is and what it does. Like a cut diamond, saving faith and genuine Christianity contain many facets.

For instance, in Luke 20:27-40 Sadducees approach Jesus to ask Him about what life is like “in the resurrection” (a concept they don’t believe in). In the middle of Jesus’ answer, He states, “but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead…” (v. 35).

That phrase is one way to describe a genuine Believer or follower of Christ. This is what genuine saving faith creates: a person who is “considered worthy to attain to that age…” Saving faith takes people “of this age” (v. 34) and transforms them into those “considered worthy to attain to that age…”

It is tempting to spend the majority of sermon time on Jesus’ cryptic description of life in the resurrection. It demands much attention because any exposition has to come to grips with the revelation Jesus provides in vv. 35-36. Jesus corrects the Sadducees’ understanding. He wants them to know that “the dead are raised” (v. 37) and that God is “not the God of the dead, but of the living…” (v. 38).

Leave room, though, to answer the question Jesus doesn’t answer: How does a person become “considered worthy to attain to…the resurrection from the dead…”? That question inevitably delves into what saving faith is and does.

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion contains any phrases that explain a facet of genuine faith and Christianity. Over time, the cumulative effect of this kind of exegesis will help limit the number of surprises at the Judgment.

Preach well so God receives glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Keeping Your Sermon Balanced

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One difficult task we face each week is making sure our sermon does not get out of balance. That happens when we spend more time on an idea in the preaching portion than the preaching portion demands.

For instance, in Luke 20:19-26 we read Jesus’ response to a question posed by insincere religious leaders. Their question was, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”

After asking to see a coin and showing them Caesar’s inscription, Jesus gives His famous instruction: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Okay, which part of Jesus’ instruction do you think gets the most emphasis in a sermon? Which part of Jesus’ instruction do you think your congregants give the most attention to? Right, the give to Caesar part.

However, you know which one Jesus was emphasizing, especially in light of who He was talking to. The insincere religious leaders were not giving God what was God’s. I want to make sure our faith-family is giving to God the things that belong to Him. I want to make sure my sermon isn’t out of balance by focusing too much, for too long, on the Caesar part.

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion has places that tempt you to lose your balance, to spend too much space/time on a minor matter. Be sure you spend sufficient time on the more important concepts.

There are exceptions. It’s possible that your congregants may need more help with the minor matter because of their spiritual condition (think about a politically conservative congregation struggling to give proper honor to elected officials of another party). It’s also possible that the time of year or the current circumstances might call for an out of balanced approach (think about Jesus’ teaching during a major election, for instance).

Preach well for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

What’s Missing When Your Listeners Hear You Say, “Savior”

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In Luke 19:38 as Jesus makes His triumphal approach (I realized that the term, triumphal entry, was a bit premature because even in the next paragraph, He still hadn’t entered the city), the crowd yells, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In my experience, congregants do not automatically think ultimate authority when they think about Jesus. That’s partly because they are more familiar with the term, Savior. “Savior,” however, does not carry ultimate authority into their ears. It needs to.

While preaching through the Gospel of Luke, I was amazed at how often the authority of Jesus was highlighted. There is a large section in Luke 19:11–20:18, for instance, that centers on Jesus’ authority and reactions to His authority. At the beginning of chapter 20 comes the challenge, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”

I’m pretty sure we’ve got more than a handful of parishioners who don’t acknowledge the ultimate authority of King Jesus. They know He’s their Savior, but they don’t connect being saved with being obedient. That’s why they aren’t transformed into the image of Christ; that’s why the Church looks much like society in many respects.

So, before Sunday, see if the language in your sermon helps your listeners understand the ultimate authority of their Savior.

You might have to repeatedly add the concept of authority to any statements made about their Savior. Some, as you know, prefer the extended, “Lord and Savior,” or “the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s not a bad start. But I think that even “Lord” no longer carries ultimate authority like it did in the first century church.

Then, whenever your preaching portion contains imperatives (explicit or implicit), spend a moment emphasizing the identity and authority of King Jesus.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

How Evangelistic Encounters in the Gospels Speak to Christians

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It is important to remember that the evangelistic encounters we preachers encounter in the Gospels are designed to speak to Christians, not non-Christians (at least not primarily to non-Christians).

So, for instance, in Luke 19:1-10 Jesus meets Zacchaeus. In this narrative Zacchaeus becomes a Christian. Jesus announces in verse 9, “Today salvation has come to this house…”

It would be very easy to preach this narrative as an evangelistic sermon. You might reason that since it shows Zack getting saved, it should function well as a sermon geared toward seeing non-Christian listeners come to faith too.

I suggest two alternatives:

(1) Stick with the overall purpose of the Gospel and focus on the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Luke 19:1-10 does tell us about who Jesus is and what He came to do: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (v. 10). These narratives are a time to remind Christians what Jesus has done for them. In the process of doing so, any non-Christians overhearing worship have an opportunity to hear the Gospel and respond with saving faith.

(2) Focus attention on what the narrative says about what saving faith is. Zack’s reaction to Jesus helps us see that saving faith includes repentance. In a day when easy-believism continues to show itself in our congregations, we do our Lord and His people a great service by fleshing out what it means to believe. In verse 8 Zack says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Was that necessary? Could Zack have been saved without this radical change? Now, we all have an opportunity to assess whether our faith is working like Zack’s.

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion contains any information about becoming a Christian. Then, look for similar ways to show how that information speaks to Christians about their Savior and their relationship to Him.

Preach well for His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

“Meaning of verse uncertain”: What To Do When Biblical Data Is Difficult

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The title of this post comes from footnote “a” in the Jewish Study Bible for Genesis 4:7. The note simply states, “Meaning of verse uncertain.” I have no idea why the authors decided that note was necessary.

However, if you have practiced preaching through books of the Bible or even large sections of books of the Bible, then you have hit verses or phrases within verses that were difficult to interpret.

In his excellent little book, Reading The Bible Wisely, Briggs writes, “Alongside this doctrine [of the “clarity of Scripture”] I would like to set the difficulty of Scripture, which is not, to my knowledge an equally well-known theological position, but which can certainly be maintained alongside a view of ‘clarity'” (p. 54).

So, for instance, the JSB’s translation of Genesis 4:7 reads, “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door…” (uncertain verses in italics).

What’s a preacher to do when coming face to face with uncertain meaning?

  1. Place less focus on the lexical meaning of individual words (in this case, “uplift”). Scan the range of meaning provided by scholars, but don’t agonize too long there.
  2. Place more focus on the larger context. You already know how important context is to meaning. It’s especially important when dealing with difficult biblical data. Simply read the story of Cain and Abel and you’ll discover that Cain has the opportunity to be like his younger brother if he does right. Cain could gain God’s attention like Abel did, but Cain must do the right thing. “Uplift” has to have something to do with Cain’s status before God. Briggs writes, “Scripture is clear, let us say, on the macro level. On the micro level it is persistently difficult to pin down” (p. 66).
  3. Place most emphasis on what the passage is designed to do to the Church. Emphasize how Believers respond to this preaching portion as an act of worship.
  4. Be clear about the Gospel so Believers can believe before they obey.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid of partial interpretations. Virtually every Sunday I come away knowing I could have done more research and come to better conclusions (about some minutia). I am content with partial interpretations (without being satisfied with shoddy work!).

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion has a place where the footnote above would fit. If so, I hope these suggestions might help you preach with Spirit-given confidence in your partial interpretations.

Preach well for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

P.S. If you haven’t read Briggs (Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously. Revised Edition.), you’ll enjoy the 100-page paperback. It’s rare that a small book delivers such large insight.

Being Aware of Fluctuating Authority

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The image above is an attempt to show what might happen to a preacher’s authority during the sermon. The red line shows how our authority fluctuates while we communicate God’s Word. Below the line equals a loss of authority; above the line means the authority of God’s Word is coming through loud and clear.

I’m assuming that a preacher doesn’t have authority because he is preaching. Our authority comes from the combination of our office (we are soul-watchers according to Hebrews 13:17) and communicating God’s Word. There are minutes in the sermon when I may not be communicating God’s Word as much as I think I am. Think about sermon time devoted to…

  • illustrations
  • jokes
  • secondary applications (the Word teaches us to give financially, but I specify how and how much)

I’m only beginning to think this through. The issue may not be only authority versus no authority. It might be an issue of levels of authority (higher and lower). In this case, “pure” explanation of God’s Word might contain more authority than a funny illustration.

This has made me think carefully about how well I’m communicating God’s authoritative Word. Luke 4:32 records, “and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.”

In his book, Preaching: A Biblical Theology, Jason Meyer writes, “Scripture….is ‘God preaching’ in a complete and unqualified way because Scripture is free of error. Our preaching is not. A preacher cannot claim that people have heard from God simply because they have heard the preacher’s sermon!” (p. 239). We have to make sure sermon seconds are saturated with accurate explanation and application of God’s Word.

Before Sunday, look over your sermon notes and get a rough idea of how many minutes are over the line and how many are under the line.

Preach well for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

 

When Our Theology Gets in the Way of Meaning

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If I’m not careful, there are times when my semi-sound theology gets in the way of discovering the meaning of a preaching portion. For instance, in Luke 18:18 “a ruler” asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In my earlier years I would have followed many preachers I had heard and said something like, “Obviously, the ruler didn’t understand the Gospel because he asks, ‘what must I do…’ You don’t do anything. You can’t do anything!” However, jumping to that conclusion sends you away from Jesus’ teaching. Actually, Jesus doesn’t quarrel with this ruler’s wording at all.

In v. 22 Jesus proceeds to give the ruler one more thing to do, something he refused to do: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor…and come, follow me.”

So, if, because of your theology, you jump to the conclusion that the ruler asked Jesus the wrong question, you will have a difficult time with Luke 18:18-27. If you are going to jump to a conclusion, try this one: What Jesus told the ruler to do could not earn eternal life, but was a vital part of inheriting it. Like all good works, they are proof of genuine saving faith. Had the ruler said “yes” to Jesus’ instructions, he would have displayed evidence of being saved by grace and placing His faith in Jesus.

Before Sunday, see if your theology might be causing you to jump to conclusions that might be hurting your chances of discovering the meaning of your preaching portion. Is there any place where you might say, “God can’t be saying that because I know that (fill in the blank with the particular theology that seemingly cancels out the slice of meaning in question)”? It is risky because there may be times when I have to adjust my theology to the Bible. Imagine that!

Preach well for God’s glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:21).

Randal

Why the Question, Why?, Adds Theological Depth to Your Sermon

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In Luke 18:9 we read: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”

The “what” part of analysis might define self-righteousness as the feeling that we’re basically good and, therefore, acceptable to God. That’s certainly an important part of preaching Jesus’ parable.

We add theological depth to the sermon by asking why we feel that we’re basically good and, therefore, acceptable to God. During this segment of the sermon we delve into our depravity–how the human heart works.

That alone would be a good reason to move from “what” to “why.” For instance, I’ve met some non-Christians and some Christians who feel they are good because they compare themselves to others. I’ll never forget one person telling me they felt they were okay with God because they were better than Michael Jackson. I didn’t expect this from an elderly gentleman.

But there’s another reason to spend time talking about why we feel self-righteous. When we explore “why,” we create new angles from which to explain the Gospel to Christians. The bad news of the Gospel isn’t that only the “worst” people are condemned. The bad news of the Gospel tells us that “there is none righteous” period.

So, at some point in the sermon I might ask congregants: “How does faith in the Gospel move us from being self-righteous to being “one who humbles himself” (Luke 18:14)? I want them to see a connection between their faith in Christ and their ability to not be like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. I want them to see a connection between their faith in Christ and their ability to be like the tax collector who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion highlights sin. If so, along with explaining what the sin is, spend some time exploring why we commit that sin. You can do the same with righteousness too. What kind of attitude or action is being held up for us to emulate? Why do Christians do that? How does the Gospel create that righteousness?

Preach well for God’s glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Guest Post: 10 Pointers For Young Preachers

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This week’s post is from Peter Mead of the UK. For the past several months I’ve been reading and profiting from Peter’s blog, biblicalpreaching. I’ve enjoyed his humility, balance, and Christ-centered approach to preaching in church. Peter graciously agreed to write this guest post and I hope you’ll benefit from his insights. Even though I’m no longer considered a young preacher, his 10 pointers were extremely helpful. Enjoy!

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10 Pointers for Young Preachers

I am way too young to be called a sage, but I don’t get called young any more either. So while there is better advice to be found, here are some pointers from me for young preachers:

  1. Get to know God. Never settle for knowing about God. Make it your life’s greatest ambition to really know and love the God who loves you.
  1. Be a Bible person, not an issue person. It is tempting to let certain issues define your ministry, but these will shift over the years. Instead of choosing a pet issue, develop an infectious passion for the Bible.
  1. Determine never to be a glory thief. Decide now that showing-off has no place in your preaching. Always point listeners to Christ and not to yourself. God delights to lovingly give glory, but never steal it.
  1. Learn to discriminate feedback. People will praise a public speaker. You are more likely to lose your way through hyped up praise than through nasty criticism. Learn to pursue and process genuinely helpful feedback.
  1. Don’t let your homiletical skill get ahead of biblical and theological awareness. People will praise a public speaker, but they need a preacher who is biblically and theologically healthy.
  1. Don’t let your ministry profile get ahead of your character. Let your ministry move forward at God’s pace, otherwise you may get a profile too heavy for your character to bear.
  1. Be proactive, but not self-promotional. Look for opportunities to serve, to learn, and to grow, but be wary of leaving God behind as you chase “more strategic ministry.”
  1. Learn to read wisely. Invest time in reading quality rather than quantity, widely rather than just your favorite author, and selectively rather than getting stuck in books you no longer want to finish. Prioritize books over blogs!
  1. Do not journey alone. Preaching is often a lonely ministry. Prayerfully pursue mentors and prayer partners who can speak into your life. Find a string of Bible read-through partners and chase God together in His Word.
  1. Have a lifelong conversation with God. There are too many technically capable and theologically informed preachers that have no meaningful relationship with God.

Believing Your Sermons, Especially When They Don’t!

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Can you tell when your listeners don’t believe you? If you’re an expositor you could ask it this way: Can you tell when your listeners don’t believe God (because you’re telling them what God is saying)?

One of the values of preaching without notes or with few notes is that you have lots of time to look at your listeners. The only problem is that you get to see them not reacting to the message. Do you ever see this look on Sunday?

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It would be easier on us if we didn’t!

I see this most often when God’s Word asks for praise and thanksgiving. Probably I’m part of the problem. I’m from Maine and Mainers (not, “maniacs”) aren’t known for celebrating. Probably part of the problem is being in Lancaster County. Folks in the County aren’t famous for showing much emotion (okay, maybe for the Eagles, Steelers, Flyers, and Phillies). And then, we’re a fundamental kind of Bible Church. I often joke about what that does to our emotions.

But, as you know, much of the problem lies with our carnality. We simply are not gripped by God’s grace like we should be. We seldom relish our riches in Christ. But I need to.

It is important for me to believe my own sermons, especially when some congregants don’t. And I need to fight the urge to allow their look to pull me into the same lack of feelings. It’s a good thing I really believe this Word of God. Sometimes preachers have to believe for the congregants. And in doing so, sometimes God’s Spirit will prompt me to ask them, “Do you believe that?” Sometimes my question will actually help them realize they really do believe it, even though they haven’t been showing it.

Before Sunday, make sure you’re ready to react emotionally to God’s Word and be prepared to help your listeners do the same.

Preach well for His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal