The Problems with Preaching

I’m enjoying Bryan Chapell’s book, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power.  In the opening chapter Chapell talks about some recent and valid criticism of preaching and sermons.  One study on sermons found that
(1) Preachers tend to use complex, archaic language which the average person does not understand; (2) most sermons today are dull, boring, and uninteresting; (3) most preaching today is irrelevant; (4) preaching today is not courageous preaching; (5) preaching does not communicate; (6) preaching does not lead to change in persons; (7) preaching has been overemphasized.
Another study similarly stated that
(1) sermons often contain too many complex ideas; (2) sermons have too much analysis and too little answer; (3) sermons are too formal and too impersonal; (4) sermons use too much theological jargon; (5) sermons are too propositional, not enough illustrations; (6) too many sermons simply reach a dead-end and give no guidance to commitment and action.
Even though we might not agree with every point, these criticisms do hit home.  It often happens – and I’m speaking from experience(!) – that a man graduates from a solid Christian seminary where he learned the great doctrines of Scripture.  He comes to the pulpit with tons of doctrinal phrases, technical language, complex outlines, few illustrations, and little application.  The sermon is sound theologically and biblically, but it is more of a teaching lecture for the classroom than a sermon for real life.  Yes, I’m guilty!
This is exactly why Chapell wrote Using Illustrations to Preach with Power:
This book contends that preachers who properly develop and use life-situation illustrations in expository messages already possess a powerful corrective for the crisis in contemporary preaching. Such illustrations live where people live. They communicate meaning by common experience and, thus, do not allow biblical truths to fly over heads or reside in the surreal world of doctrinal jargon and abstract principle. Through this vehicle, true communication takes place and sermons themselves are filled with vibrant life.

I’ll come back to this book later.  I do recommend it for pastors who want to preach better sermons – sermons that explain the truth of the Word, illustrate the truth of the Word, and apply it for God’s glory and his people’s good!

Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, Rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 19-20.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Constructive Christian Criticism (Murray)

There are times when one Christian needs to address the bad habit, sin, or fault of another Christian.  Obviously there’s a wrong way to do it (many of us know this from experience!).  So how do we give constructive criticism in a good, Christian way?  I appreciate David Murray’s advice on this.  He wrote the following on constructive criticism:
1) It is Preceded by Praise.  For criticism to have any hope of accomplishing anything, it should be set in the wider context of praise.
2) It is Infrequent.  Some people think that a little bit of praise sprinkled here and there permits them to launch frequent nuclear missiles at their unfortunate targets.  [Some] recommend a praise-criticism ratio of at least 3:1 and ideally closer to 5:1.
3) It is Limited.  Effective criticism aims at one specific target and refuses to take potshots at anything else.  ‘And while we’re at it, let me tell you…’ Please don’t.
4) It Majors on Majors. If you’re going to criticize every fault and failing of everyone around you, you’re going to be very busy and very lonely.  The best of us are full of flaws.  We simply must learn to overlook minor faults in others.
5) It is Supported by Evidence.  Make sure that you’re criticizing what God criticizes, that you’re not basing everything on your preferences or prejudices. Also, can you prove it?  Don’t base it on feelings or suspicions.
6) Its Aim is Building, not Demolishing.  All criticism involves some element of demolition.  But its ultimate aim is to build something better, even beautiful, in its place.  If our motive is to leave a person’s life in smoldering ruins, we are doing the Devil’s work.  But if our am is a better person, we are in the business of constructive criticism.
7) It is Prayerfully Considered.  It is so easy to spout an ill-considered or unconsidered criticism in response to an immediate event or conversation.  That will rarely accomplish anything beneficial.  It is almost always advisable to take at least twenty-four hours and pray over it.
8) It is Dispassionate.  It is not a good recipe for constructive criticism if you’re tense, angry, red-faced, and have clenched fists.
9) It is from the Right Person.  The Bible is very clear about the need to respect our elders.  Usually that means we will rarely offer criticism to our superiors, or if we do, it will be with strict qualifications.  Let’s focus on those whom the Lord has committed to our responsibility.
10) It is Humble.  Being critical makes us feel intellectually and morally superior, and it also makes others think the same of us.  Pride is the motivation behind a lot of criticism.  And yet, pride makes criticism ineffective.  Have you ever changed as a result of an arrogant person pointing out your faults?  But when a person humbly comes alongside me and confesses his faults, then our ears and hearts are open.
There is a place for constructive criticism in the Christian life.  Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Prov. 27:26 NASB).  Constructive criticism must be done with love and genuine concern for the other person (as Murray rightly noted).  I recommend reading the full version of his list, which can be found on pages 137-139 of The Happy Christian by David Murray.
Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Hermit Crab Church (Wells)

Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (This is a re-post from July 2012)

In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells explains how many aspects of modernity and postmodernity have crept into the church to the point where any talk about sin is avoided and talk about self is central.  From watered down emotional praise songs to therapeutic sermons to the loss of reverence and awe in worship, Wells calls out the sins of the modern church.  This book is a sort of trumpet call for churches to repent of their worldliness and reform according to the word (rather than culture).  I appreciated these paragraphs near the end of the book.

“The wisdom common to many of our marketers is that, if it wants to attract customers, the Church should stick to a positive and uplifting message.  It should avoid speaking of negative matters like sin.  Not only so, but what has distinguished the Church in its appearance and functions should now be abandoned.  In order to be attractive to people today, church buildings should not look different from corporate headquarters, malls, or country clubs.  Crosses and robes should go; dress should be casual; hymns should be contemporary and empty of the theological substance by which previous generations lived, because this is incomprehensible today; pews should be replaced by cinema-grade seats, organs by synthesizers and drums, solemnity by levity, reflection by humor, and sermons by light dialogues and catchy readings.  The theory is that people will buy Christianity if they don’t have to deal with what the Church has traditionally been.”

“The best construction that can be put on this is that these market-driven churches have become like hermit crabs, which walk around concealed within a shell.  Hidden beneath the outer shell – the corporate style that disguises the churchly business that is supposed to be going on , the mall-like atmosphere in which faith is bought and sold like any other commodity, the relaxed, country club atmosphere – is the little animal who supposedly is really evangelical.  As it moves from rock pool to rock pool, all we can see are the little legs – the most minimal doctrinal substance – that protrude from under the shell.  Is this substance enough to sustain people amidst life’s fiery trials?  Is it enough to preserve biblical identity in these churches in the decades ahead?  I think not.”

Well said.  As you may have guessed, I highly recommend this book.  If your church is a hermit crab church, or if you’ve left one, or if you want to be sure your church doesn’t become a hermit crab church, get this book today (and give one to your pastor!).  Be prepared to be challenged, prodded, encouraged, and motivated to get back to Scripture and the historic Christian faith.

David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 201.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Media Gratiae (Means of Grace)

Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology In Reformed theology we talk about the ordinary means of grace.  How would we define “means of grace?”  Richard Muller answers this well:

media gratia: means of grace; i.e., Word and sacraments as the means by which the grace of God is operative in the church.  The term is used by both Lutheran and Reformed orthodox, although the Lutherans often substitute a stronger term, organa gratiae et salutis, instruments of grace and salvation.

The identification of Word and sacraments as media gratiae does not intend to exclude a general or common operation of grace but rather it indicates the function of both Word and sacraments in the regeneration (regeneratio) and sanctification (sanctificatio) of man as the instruments or objective channels of special or saving grace (gratia specialis).  Word and sacraments are thus instrumental both in the inception of salvation and in the continuance of the work of grace in the Christian life.

In addition, Word and sacraments are the sole officially ordained or instituted instruments or means of grace.  God has promised the presence of his grace to faithful hearers of the Word and faithful participants in the sacraments.  Thus the right preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments are the marks or identifying features of the true church (notae ecclesiae). Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, sv media gratiae

Because God has promised to bless those who with true faith hear his word and partake of his sacraments, Reformed churches stress the importance of corporate worship.  God speaks to us, blesses us, feeds us, helps us (etc.) through these means of grace, so we should want to be there every time he is graciously at work.  Louis Berkhof said it well:

“God has appointed them as the ordinary means through which He works His grace in the hearts of sinners, and their wilful neglect can only result in spiritual loss.”

Therefore, let us not forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25)!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Problem with the Islamic View of Paul (Qureshi)

Nabeel Qureshi’s soon-to-be released book, No God But One: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity, has an excellent section where Qureshi discusses the relationships between Paul and Christianity, Paul and Jesus, and Paul and the apostles.  Many critics of the NT – including Muslim scholars – say that Paul was the founder of Christianity, that Paul was deceptive, that Paul hijacked the church, that Paul made up things about Jesus, and so forth.  Here’s the helpful summary of Qureshi’s chapter on this topic:

“The common Muslim view of Paul has significant problems even when considered from an Islamic perspective.  First, what happened to the disciples?  How were they so easily overcome by Paul that either they were convinced by his trickery and followed him, or their voices were completely drowned out and there is no record of their dissent?  Was this outsider that much more powerful than Jesus that he was able to undo all of Jesus’ work and teachings?  As a Muslim, I never provided a model as to how this might have occurred, and I have never heard one after leaving Islam.”

“The problem becomes sharper when we revisit one of the Quranic verses that makes a promise to Jesus: ‘Indeed, I will cleanse you (Jesus) from those who disbelieve, and I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the day of resurrection’ (3.55).  Allah promises to make the disciples superior to the disbelievers, and Jesus would be made free from such disbelievers.  The Muslim view of Paul, that he overcame the disciples and hijacked Jesus’ message, seems to ignore the Quran’s promise to the disciples.”

“It would be helpful if the Quran had something to say about Paul, but it says absolutely nothing, never so much as mentioning his name.  Given the pivotal role Muslims often think Paul had in corrupting Christianity, the silence is deafening.  Why does the Quran not mention him?  Is it on account of the Quran’s omission that Muslims in the early and classical periods of Islam, such as Tabari and Qurtubi, saw Paul as a follower of Jesus?”

“In US criminal law, as in other places around the world, three aspects of a crime must be established before a suspect can be found guilty: a means, a motive, and an opportunity.  The Islamic view that Paul hijacked Christianity fails to secure any of these three.  Paul could not have had the means because Allah promised to make the disciples insuperable; there is no viable motive for Paul to deceive the church as his efforts earned him only persecution and a death sentence; and there is no model suggested that clarifies how Paul might have had an opportunity to overcome all the disciples and hijack the church.  Of course, not only should Paul be considered innocent until proven guilty, but so far as this investigation is concerned, there simply is no evidence to convict him.  Case closed.

Nabeel Qureshi, No God But One (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming), p. 205-6.

Shane Lems

Created for What? (Bucer)

In 1523, Reformer Martin Bucer wrote a treatise called “How to Live for Others and Not for Oneself.”  I liked the title of the treatise so much I had to read it!  It’s a good read; I’ve put a helpful excerpt below:

…I will use a clear text from St. Paul to show that people with true faith have become altogether different from what they were – new creatures in Christ, who can no longer live selfishly but are compelled to live for the benefit of others and the glory of God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:8–10).

See how clear it is that, if we believe, we are saved through faith, that is, we have everything that is necessary, not from ourselves and our good deeds but as a free gift from God? We are thus a work of God, created through Jesus Christ for doing good deeds, not however for ourselves but in the way God prepared them to become our way of life. These works are without question those which God everywhere commands, namely, deeds by which we serve our neighbors. God demands no other works from us, and Christ has taught us no others, alluding therefore frequently to the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6), and declaring that he will judge us accordingly.

If believers are a work of God created for deeds of that kind, they cannot ignore such deeds and pursue solely their own advantage. What God has created through Christ Jesus must be good and right and accomplish the purpose for which it is created, just as all other works and creatures of God attend to that for which they were created: birds to flying, fish to swimming, and humans to speaking. No creature or work of God can disregard that for which it was created unless prevented by an accident. Likewise, no true Christians and believers can live without doing good works unselfishly for all people according to their disposition.

Martin Bucer, How to Live for Others and Not for Oneself in Early Protestant Spirituality, ed. Scott H. Hendrix and Bernard McGinn, trans. Scott H. Hendrix, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009), 149–150.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

When Sin Turns into an Affliction (Bunyan)

Israel’s complaining and grumbling began early on in the wilderness years. In fact, if my count is correct, they complained around 5 times in the first year or so after God rescued them from Egypt.  In one instance of their grumbling, God gave Israel what they whined for: meat to eat.  In fact, God said to Israel, “You will eat it [meat] for a whole month until you gag and are sick of it” (Num. 11:20 NLT).

In their hearts, the people of Israel craved, coveted, and longed for the things of Egypt.  This was such a deep heart issue that they wouldn’t listen to God’s word nor would they remember his promise and his provision.  John Bunyan commented on this deep-rooted sinful craving:

But now, how shall this man be reclaimed from this sin? How shall he be brought, wrought, and made, to be out of love with it? Doubtless it can be by no other means, by what we can see in the Word, but by the wounding, breaking, and disabling of the heart that loves sin, and by that means making sin a plague and gall unto the heart.

Sin may be made an affliction, and as gall and wormwood to them that love it; but the making of sin so bitter a thing to such a man, will not be done but by great and sore means.

Bunyan also told a story of a little girl in his town who used to chew on dirty cigar butts she found on the ground.  Her parents tried everything to get her to stop eating the butts – from kind promises to discipline – but nothing worked.  Finally, since nothing else was working, they listened to their doctor.  They took a bunch of dirty cigar butts, mixed them with warm milk, and made the girl drink it.  She took a sip and it made her so sick that she vomited.  After that, she never touched a cigar butt again!  The point is that God sometimes does that to his children when they are infatuated with sin.

Bunyan then wrote,

You love your sin, and neither rod nor good words will as yet reclaim you. Well, take heed; if you will not be reclaimed, God will make you a potion of your sin, which shall be so bitter to your soul, so irksome to your taste, so loathsome to your mind, and so afflicting to your heart, that it shall break your heart with sickness and grief, till sin be loathsome to you. I say, thus he will do if he loves you; if not, he will allow you to go on in your sinful course, and will let you go on eating your tobacco-pipe heads!

In other words,

God can tell how to make that loathsome to you on which you most set your evil heart. And he will do so, if he loves you; else, as I said, he will not make you sick by smiting you nor punish you for or when you commit whoredom, but will let you alone till the judgment-day, and call you to a reckoning for all your sins then.

When our hearts are so in love with the things of this world, so enraptured by sin, sometimes God makes us drink that sin like a nasty elixir which makes us sick to the heart.  When that happens, we must learn from Israel’s mistake and repent!  And we must thank God for making us taste the bitterness of sin now so we can escape its bitterness in eternity.  Finally, we should ask God for forgiveness, for the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, for his Spirit to help us fight sin, and for contentment with the lot God has given us.

The above edited quotes are found in John Bunyan, The Acceptable Sacrifice, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 707.

Shane Lems