“The Preacher Who Takes Up Vos’ Biblical Theology…” (Clowney)

Preaching and Biblical Theology Over the past 15+ years I’ve come to a pretty strong conviction that an understanding of redemptive history is of utmost importance in the pulpit ministry.  Preaching that has no understanding of redemptive history is preaching that lacks.  There are nuances to this discussion of course.  I’m not an advocate of hyper redemptive-historical preaching.  And I believe there is a time and place in the pulpit for topical and doctrinal sermons as well as solid application.  Basically, my view is that the pulpit ministry should have a firm and balanced grasp of systematic theology and biblical theology, both of which should be generally evident in the preaching.  I like how Edmund Clowney spoke about this in his very good book, Preaching and Biblical Theology.

“There is…no opposition between biblical theology and systematic or dogmatic theology, though the two are distinct.  Systematic theology must draw from the results of biblical theology, and biblical theology must be aware of the broad perspectives of systematics. …The development of systematics is strictly thematic or topical.  …The development of biblical theology is redemptive-historical.”

Later Clowney mentioned Geerhardus Vos; I’ve always liked these paragraphs:

“The preacher who takes up Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ for the first time enters a rich new world, a world which lifts up his heart because he is a preacher.  Biblical theology, truly conceived, is a labor of worship.  Beside Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ should be set his little book of sermons, ‘Grace and Glory.’  There we hear a scholar preaching to theological students (the sermons were delivered in Princeton Seminary), but with a burning tenderness and awesome realism that springs from the grace and glory of God’s revelation, the historical actualization of his eternal counsel of redemption.”

Clowney then talked about the text and the pulpit.

“An old Dutch preacher has sagely observed that the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but rather the text must drive us to the pulpit.  In biblical theology that scriptural dynamic impels the preacher’s heart with unimagined strength.”

Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, p. 18-19.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Impossibility of Preaching Jesus Without A Creed (Vos)

A church without a creed is a church to avoid.  Why?  Because a big part of the Christian’s faith includes knowledge of biblical doctrine, factual truth-statements to which faith clings.  Geerhardus Vos said it quite well:

“Faith presupposes knowledge, because it needs a mental complex, person or thing, to be occupied about.  Therefore, the whole modern idea of preaching Jesus, but preaching Him without a creed, is not only theologically, not merely Scripturally, but psychologically impossible in itself.  In fact knowledge is so interwoven with faith that the question arises, whether it be sufficient to call it a prerequisite, and not rather an ingredient of faith.”

“The very names by means of which Jesus would have to be presented to people are the nuclei of creed and doctrine.  If it were possible to eliminate this, the message would turn to pure magic, but even the magic requires some name-sound and cannot be wholly described as preaching without a creed. …To be sure, mere knowledge is not equivalent to full-orbed faith, it must develop into trust, before it is entitled to that name.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 389.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Pastorate: More Than The Pulpit (Bridges)

The pulpit is only part of a pastor’s ministry.  Of course, it is a major and central part of the ministry, but the pulpit is not the only part.  A pastor also has pastoral work to do; this too is an essential part of his ministry.  I appreciate how Charles Bridges explained this.  It’s also convicting for me, and a good reminder for myself:

“Let us not think that all our work is done in the study and in the pulpit.  Preaching …derives much of its power from connection with the pastoral work; and its too frequent disjunction from it is a main cause of our inefficiency.”

In other words, a major cause of a minister’s inefficiency is a separation of the pulpit and day-to-day pastoring/shepherding.  Bridges continues,

“The Pastor and the Preacher combine to form the completeness of the sacred office, as expounded in our Ordination services and in Scriptural illustrations.”

As a rightly called and ordained minister, my goal then (with God’s help) is not just to be a good preacher, but to be a good pastor as well. As he goes on to explain, Bridges notes the biblical pattern for this balance and he gives some positive effects of the joining of the pulpit and the pastoral work.

One positive effect is how the joining of the pulpit and pastoral work preserves the church from schism and builds up Christian unity.  When the pulpit and the pastoral work are both flourishing, it will help keep a congregation united.

Another blessing from a balanced preaching and pastoral ministry is gaining the confidence and love of the flock:

A pulpit ministration may command attention and respect; but except the preacher convert himself into a Pastor, descending from the pulpit to the cottage, and in Christian simplicity ‘becoming all things to all people,’ there will be nothing that fastens on the affections – no ‘bands of love.’  The people cannot love an unknown and untried friend, and confidence without love is an anomaly. …We must constantly aim at nearer contact, and closer interest with them; winning their hearts as the way to win their souls….”

These are helpful notes for pastors!  It’s a good reminder for us to pray for this kind of balanced ministry, that we would be good preachers and good pastors.  This will bring God much glory and bring much good to his people.

The above quotes are found in part 5, chapter 1 of Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Learning How to Read Scripture from Jesus

Dennis Johnson has done some excellent work in the areas of Christ-centered preaching and Bible interpretation.  In one of his more recent books, Walking with Jesus through His Word (2015), he takes the time and space to explain how the central story line of Scripture is all about Jesus.  In this book, Johnson basically teaches readers how to find Christ in Scripture by using Scripture itself – specifically Christ’s teaching.  There’s more to it, but that’s a short summary.

One of the first texts Johnson digs into is Luke 24 – the Emmaus road story.  In this story, among other things, we learn that 1) “we need Jesus to open our minds and hearts” and 2) “we need Jesus to open the Scriptures”:

…Here is the first key to our seeing Christ in the entire Bible: We need him to open our minds, to ignite our hearts, to take away the foolishness and sluggishness and unbelief and low expectations with which we approach his holy written Word.  Since we need Jesus to do this for us, one indispensable key to walking with Jesus through the pages of Scriptures is simply this: Pray!  Face the sobering fact that, left to yourself, you will not ‘get’ what God designs to show you of his Son in his Word by your own research and ingenuity.  Pray that as you read the Word, his Spirit will remove the veil of misunderstanding that keeps you from seeing Jesus’ ever-increasing glory (2 Cor. 2:14-18)….

Not only do we need Jesus to open our minds and hearts, but we also need Jesus to open the Scriptures to us.  Luke 24 uses several words to describe the process by which Jesus disclosed the real meaning of Old Testament passages.  We read that he ‘interpreted’ to the two on the road in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (v. 27), and that they recalled how he had ‘opened to us the Scriptures’ (v. 32).  …In this way, Luke quietly shows that we not only need God’s Spirit to give us the grace to repent of our unbelief and spiritual sluggishness, but also need Jesus to teach us how to read the Bible, to show us a sound method of interpreting God’s written word that honors its origin and its authors…, its unity…, its variety…,and its purpose.”

I’ll come back and note more from this helpful book at a later time, God willing.  For now, if you’re looking for a solid Reformed resource on Christ-centered Bible interpretation, I very much recommend this one: Dennis Johnson, Walking with Jesus through His Word (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2015), p.19-20.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Truly Successful Preaching (Newton)

Sometimes we think that a successful preacher is one who is well-known, is the pastor of a large church, whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands, whose conferences are always sold out and books are bestsellers.  The truth is, these things don’t necessarily mean a preacher is successful in the biblical sense of the term.  Heretics and unorthodox preachers can have all these things!

What makes for a successful preacher, biblically speaking?  What is truly successful preaching?  Well, it doesn’t depend upon popularity, sermon download numbers, church size, or best-selling books and conferences.  John Newton described it well while discussing the sovereign grace of God in regenerating dead hearts:

“…We may observe the proper use and value of the preaching of the Gospel, which is the great instrument by which the Holy Spirit opens the blind eyes. Like the rod of Moses, it owes all its efficacy to the appointment and promise of God. Ministers cannot be too earnest in the discharge of their office; it behooves them to use all diligence to find out acceptable words, and to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Yet when they have done all, they have done nothing, unless their word is accompanied to the heart by the power and demonstration of the Spirit.”

Without this blessing, an apostle might labor in vain: but it shall be in a measure afforded to all who preach the truth in love, in simplicity, and in all humble dependence upon Him who alone can give success. This in a great measure puts all faithful ministers on a level, notwithstanding any seeming disparity in gifts and abilities. Those who have a lively talent that affects emotions, may engage the ear, and raise the natural passions of their hearers; but they cannot reach the heart. The blessing may be rather expected to attend the humble, than the talented speaker.”

These words – especially the ones I’ve emphasized –  are comforting for us preachers and applicable to everyone who hears the word proclaimed.   Don’t give pastors credit or fame; give it all to God!

John Newton, Works, volume 1 page 286-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Sermons: Writing and Preaching (Kim)

Preaching the Whole Counsel of God: Design and Deliver Gospel-Centered Sermons I don’t listen to too many online sermons.  Recently, however, I downloaded a sermon from a popular sermon hosting website since I had a long drive in front of me.  I simply downloaded one of the “popular” sermons on a text I was preaching in the future to help me start thinking about it.  To put it bluntly, the sermon was very bad.  It was full of speculation, abounding in moralism, and completely lacking any gospel or grace.  I was reminded that being popular doesn’t automatically mean true to the gospel!

To be fair, though I do try to preach Christ in every sermon, as well as avoid speculation and moralism, I don’t for a moment think my sermons are awesome or groundbreaking.   I’m always trying to learn more about good preaching.  As I mentioned here before, Julius Kim’s Preaching the Whole Counsel of God is a good help for preachers as they seek to preach Scripture in a Christ-centered, applicable way.  One section I recently read again is the part where Kim talks about the actual process of writing a sermon – specifically the subpoints.  Here are a few of his helpful principles for this part of sermon writing (which have to do with preaching as well):

Simple: Adopt simplicity over complexity.  Overloading your audience with information that is irrelevant will undermine your sermon.  Eliminate details that are not supportive and clear.  Use language that is universal; that is, it appeals and is accessible to all types of peoples, in all times and in all places.  Your goal is maximum comprehension through clarity….

Specific:  Express yourself with words and sentences that are distinct and focused on the main point.  When you are specific in your statements, hearers do not have to fill in the gaps.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  This requires you to be precise in your language, removing any ambiguity or mystery that may hinder your hearers’ comprehension….

Succinct: Aim for brevity both in the presentation of ideas and the length of sentences.  While being succinct will often be influenced by the message you want to get across, editing ruthlessly will always benefit both speaker and hearer.

Sympathetic:  Reveal your care and kindness throughout the sermon.  It may be obvious, but being a sympathetic preacher is important.  Much of your sensitivity and care will be shown in your delivery, but having sympathetic content is just as important.   …A pastor is one who laughs and cries with his sheep.  You are a shepherd first, preacher second.  Preaching should be viewed as one of the main tasks of the shepherd, not something that defines you.

Sensitive: Anticipate and answer the potential questions and objections that may arise in your hearers’ minds and hearts as you preach.  Good preachers make wise assumptions about what their hearers will be thinking and feeling at different moments in the sermon.  Put yourself in the shoes of the hearers, asking yourself, What would I be thinking at this point in the sermon?   …Predict interior questions and objections, propose answers to questions and objections in order to persuade and convict.

Kim did have a few more suggestions than these, but these are the ones I especially appreciated (and try to work on myself!).  If you’re a preacher and need another helpful book on preaching, I do recommend this book.  It’s a great tool for learning more about how to faithfully, clearly, and lovingly preach the Scriptures – and specifically the One who is at the center of the Scriptures!

The above quotes are found on pages 158-160 of Preaching the Whole Counsel of God by Julius Kim.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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