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10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon. The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week.  I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.

I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.

Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.

Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.

Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocatea–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners.

While in seminary, I once heard a Presbyterian pastor preach the equivalent of three sermons in 55 minutes. I remember thinking, “If he finished now it will be a great sermon.” 40 minutes went by, and I thought, “If he finished his sermon now it will be all right.” After almost an hour I turned to my wife and said, “I pity his congregation.” Mistakes happen. Preachers lose track of time and people are generally very forgiving. But when this is a frequent occurrence it becomes a detriment. Preachers may turn into apologists for the Puritan era when they preached two-hour sermons. My response to this is very simple: “You are no John Owen!”

Question #4: Will my people hear a message about a great God or a convenient God? Sermons that do not lead people to serve God more faithfully have not fulfilled their purpose. The sermon needs to urge people to live more like their Lord and God. They can contemplate God, study or learn more about God (these are important), but if they leave uncertain as to how to serve their God more faithfully, the sermon has not pierced deeply enough. God’s people need to be consecrated by the Word of the Lord, pierced by the sword of the Spirit into action. Communicating only details about God can leave parishioners with a convenient God that demands knowledge but no sacrifice.

Question #5: What can I teach that will increase my people’s knowledge of the Bible? Every preacher must know: your people will remember between 1-5% of your preaching ministry throughout their lives. There is no statistic about this, the evidence is borne by daily experience. Exegesis of a verse in Hebrews will be forgotten perhaps before the sermon is over, but hermeneutical principles will remain if they are communicated succinctly. One common interpretational phrase I have used in many of my sermons is, “The Holy Spirit does not waste his breath.” This phraseb communicates that every detail of the text matters. I want my people to know in every sermon that every word in the Bible is meaningful and put in there for a reason. Many other principles will encourage God’s people to love their Bibles and learn more about it in their own studies and meditations. They may not remember my careful exegesis, but they will remember that the text is to be cherished.

Question #6: Do people follow me from point A to point B and C? I have heard my share of disconnected sermons over the years. Sermons need to have a message that is connected throughout. Themes and illustrations need to be connected to the central message. If illustrations have no purpose in the development of a sermon or if they are only used to get a laugh, people will inevitably leave confused and uncertain of the illustration’s purpose. Preachers need to be very aware of how point A connects to point B. Paragraphs need to smoothly transition, otherwise, you are beginning a new sermon altogether, and people are left wondering what the main point is. This is why manuscript preparation can help with transitional statements. On my last sermon, I repeated this phrase several times, “The future belongs to the child.” In fact, I generally title my sermons after my main point.

Question #7: Is this sermon going to connect to particular concerns of my people? I firmly believe that sermons need to connect in some way to everyone, from the young convert to the university professor. The more you preach, the more you begin to see people in your congregation with unique needs. When a pastor says “I have no one in mind when I preach,” he is likely ineffective in his preaching. Pastors are shaped by their conversations, counseling, and context. People I pray with and meet each week come to mind when I make applications. Of course, we need to be careful not to use the pulpit to deliver a privatized homily. A sermon on divorce the week after a congregant was divorced is unwise. Preachers need to consider the need of his own flock. For instance, “Does my congregation have a tendency to pride in their intellect or status?” A preacher is always preaching locally, though he can minister broadly. New Christians need to see their pastor’s words as applicable and rich to their own unique situation and this requires a good dose of wisdom and knowledge of particular needs in the congregation. Pastoral application becomes richer when there are pastoral encounters and engagement with the people. It is important to note also that we have our failures and shortcomings, but these should not keep us from addressing them corporately.c

Question #8: Is my argument persuasive? The sermon ought to leave the listener convinced that the Bible’s claim is right and true. Arguments can be phrased differently in every sermon. Some arguments will be demonstrably more persuasive than others. The preacher’s role is to give enough context and substance, so the main point becomes attractive. Persuasion is a difficult skill and needs to be considered again and again, which is why sermons need to be revised several times before they are delivered. One common problem is pastors trying to persuade people to death. Sermons are not commentaries. A preacher does not need to make his congregation turn to several Bible passages. A sermon is not an informal Bible study. Make your point. Make it desirable and succinct and move on.

Question #9: Where is the Gospel? A Gospel-less sermon is no sermon at all. Ask yourself, “Where is the Gospel?” Will my people be saved from their sins and misery after hearing this word? Will they find hope in Messiah Jesus? Will the broken-hearted see Jesus with greater joy? Will the single mom find refuge in Jesus and his Kingdom? Preachers cannot end a sermon in the desert. The Gospel is promised land. The sermonic journey takes the parishioner from darkness to light; death to resurrection.

Question #10: Is my application too general? Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” My closing question is a question about how my applications speak to my congregation. There are a thousand ways to speak the truth, but not many ways to speak the truth in love. Application is truth in love. Love your congregation by applying specifically and carefully. It is one thing to say Trust God, it is another to say, Believe his promises in the middle of your cancer. Generalities sometimes are inescapable, but try to escape them as much as possible when applying the Word. If there is one part of the sermon that deserves great concentration, it is in the application of the Word to God’s people. Pastors should read good counseling books. Pastors should know their people well in order to apply God’s truth in love (see #7).

You may consider each question every Sunday, and after some time these questions will be a natural part of your sermon preparation each week. Not all sermons are created equal. Just delivering content is not the goal of preaching. Preaching is an art, and we can all learn to grow.

  1. By this I mean sermons no longer than 30 minutes  (back)
  2. I think first used by James B. Jordan  (back)
  3. I hope to address pastoral fears in another post  (back)

Mother’s Day and Child-Birth

“The seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the servant.”

It was through the seed of a woman that Messiah came and bound evil. Our hope did not appear out of nothing. The Virgin Mary conceived our hope. In I Timothy, we have the cryptic words of St. Paul, who said, “Women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” This is a re-telling of Genesis 3: Women will be saved through the new Adam birthed from a mother’s womb. However, this salvation comes through faith, love, and holiness.

Moreover, I cannot think of a richer way to express the self-giving nature of motherhood, except through this triad of faith, love, and holiness. A mother’s faith is her salvation. Her love is her armor, and her holiness is her perseverance. Salvation comes through the glory of self-giving, even in the act of childbirth. It would demand the faith and love and holiness of millions of women through history to have confidence that a Messiah would arrive on earth through one of them.

We live in a day where motherhood is despised. We take a day to honor them, but truly what meager attempt to honor those who offer so much? Being a mother is now considered by many to be an interference in world economy. The United Nations began a decade ago an assault on motherhood saying that having children is keeping women from finding their fullest potential. As the world, the flesh, and devil go so go the United Nations. We need to realize that in our day any role that has been established by God will be confronted by evil, and such is the role of motherhood in our society.

So how shall we then live on this Mother’s day?

First, we live honoring our mothers. We rise and call her blessed day after day after day. Children, if you want to live a long and fruitful life, honor your mother with your words and actions.

Secondly, we care for our aging mothers. We have seen several examples at Providence of sons and daughters caring for their aging mothers until her last breath. This selfless act is refreshing in an age where many mothers die alone in their homes or nursing homes.

Thirdly, I encourage those of you whose children are no longer at home to function in a motherly role towards our young, soon-to-be mothers and wives. If there is ever a time when young ladies need the wisdom of our mature ladies, it is now.

Fourthly, for those who grieve today because of the recent/past death of a mother or a mother/figure, we grieve with you. When the ancient Israelites grieved the loss of a loved one, they told stories; be refreshed by the memories of your mothers.

Fifthly, for those who grew up without mothers, this can be a difficult day as they watch everyone celebrating their moms.  On this day, find comfort in the love of God. He spreads his wings over you as a mother cares for her own.

Finally, let’s together honor mothers and their love of Christ and the Church, our heavenly mother. Let’s sing their praises and shout at the mountaintops. Providence Church desires to be a place where diaper changing, doing the dishes, educating, singing while cooking a meal, writing a letter of thanks, kissing and hugging children, disciplining children, equipping younger mothers are all activities that are praised and not mocked. Happy Mother’s Day: Your labors in the Lord are not in vain!

 

The Stones will Cry Out

The Gospel narratives offer many different aspects of the Triumphal Entry. In Luke’s narrative, the disciples are singing the praises of Jesus at his coming, but the Pharisees are not pleased with their benediction.

In verse 39 of Luke 19, some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” In other words, “Stop them from pouring out adoration towards you.” As Matthew Henry writes, “Christ’s triumph and his disciples’ joyful praises of them, are the vexation of proud Pharisees, that are enemies to him and his kingdom.”[1] Luke is the only one to report this response of the Pharisees. Jesus is sharing honor with God, and the Pharisees despise it. Jesus responds in verse 40 with that powerful and memorable response: “If these people were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Some have viewed this statement to say that even if human beings do not praise God, the stones will do so. There is a sense in which this idea is true. When our Lord Jesus died, the gospels tell us that the earth shook, and the rocks were split, as if they uttered the praises of Christ.[2] In other words, the stones were witnesses of the sacrifice of Christ. But in this passage, it appears that Luke is drawing an allusion to Habakkuk 2. In Habakkuk, God tells Habakkuk that He will destroy Israel at the hands of the Babylonians. God will use a wicked nation to bring justice to His chosen people who have committed far greater idolatry. In Habakkuk 2 we read, “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” The stones refer to the stones of the temple. The temple represented God’s presence. The witness of the temple itself is against them. Jesus in Luke alludes to this passage. The prayer of Habakkuk is beginning to be answered. If my peoples are silenced, then the very stones will bring witness against you. Their house will oppose them.”[3] The stones will cry out in judgment. And indeed, they do cry out in AD 70 when the Romans armies surround the Holy City and bring God’s judgment upon apostate Israel.

In our day, we can be sure that if this nation does not accept Jesus in our midst, the stones will cry out in judgment against it. Christ will be honored. He will be praised. He will be adored. Justice will be vindicated and proclaimed whether through human witnesses or the witness of stones. God’s whole creation will bless the Blessed one, Jesus Christ.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible. Luke 19:39 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc5.Luke.xx.html

[2] Matthew 27:51. Matthew Henry found this idea plausible.

[3] Steve Wilkins. Sermon.

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 5

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 5

[5] “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

There is a tendency to view meekness as weakness.a The meek is not someone who capitulates over the face of threats. He doesn’t retreat and act as if it is all a lost cause. We need to re-orient our minds to how the Bible views these characteristics. Remember that the kingdom of God is upside down to those in the world; and in one sense, the way the people of God live is upside down in comparison to how the rest of the world lives. R.J. Rushdoony once wrote that meekness is strength that is tamed. The meek know that their strength comes from Yahweh; he trusts and places his trust in Yahweh to make the world right; he sees Jesus as the ultimate restorer of Israel and the world. The meek has been united to the kingdom of heaven and has a new Lord and Master. He is being built up in the strength and maturity of Christ, the King, but yet this strength is balanced by self-control. The meek does not use his strength to lord it over people or to belittle others inside or outside the kingdom, but he uses his strength as a means to reveal the power of God and his kingdom. Consider Moses. The Bible says he was the meekest man in all the earth (Num. 12:3). Moses was known for his strength. He led an army and shepherded a nation. And when he was accused by others he didn’t say: “Look at me; the all-powerful Moses; the rescuer of Israel, the destroyer of Egyptian forces.” No. Moses restrained his strength and humbled himself before God praying that God would vindicate him in light of his enemies. Are you beginning to see the picture?

The way God honors this controlled strength is by giving the heirs of the kingdom, the earth!

But why would God give us the earth? We are the heirs of the Abrahamic promise. In Romans 4, Paul says that the promise is that we will be the heirs of the world. This earth, this system, this land, this air, everything is given to us; to inherit and to embrace. This is our world, not the devil’s, it is our world given to us by the ruler of the world, Jesus Christ. And the way we begin to claim it and adorn it and fashion it according to the kingdom of heaven is by being meek.

Practically, this means controlling your strength. How often are we guilty of using our strength or our position of authority to deride or to put down another? How often have we used our strength or our position in life to abuse our authority? How do we as parents conquer our children and their hearts? Do we assert our authority or do we win them with the way of meekness? How we assert our authority without abusing our strength is precisely what it means to be meek. And if we are going to rule the earth as God’s army we need to begin by being meek.

Our Lord Jesus did precisely that. He could have come to earth and obliterated all those Pharisees who disagreed with Him. He could have used His angels to bring about perfect justice, but this is not the Christ we know. The Christ we know is the one who became meek for our sakes and because He inherited the earth in His death and resurrection, we too are called to follow in His steps.

[6] “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

The fourth beatitude, which concludes this first section, is a call for righteousness. What does it look like to pursue righteousness? It looks like keeping Yahweh’s commandments. After all, Jesus is the one who said that if you love me keep my commandments (Jn. 14:15). It is a call to righteous living. We should hunger to be more obedient to God. We should hunger to live the gospel of the kingdom. This is what distinguishes the people of the kingdom from those outside it. But not only is hungering and thirsting for righteousness a call to pursue maturity, it is also a call to hunger and thirst for the establishment of righteousness on earth. We don’t want to see the world spoiled and destroyed. We need to be as hungry and thirsty for righteousness on earth as we are hungry and thirsty for food and drink. We can’t be satisfied with what we have. In what sense have we lacked hunger and thirst for righteousness? How are you encouraging one another to hunger for righteousness? Is your living such that when others see you they develop a tremendous appetite for righteousness? These are the questions we need to ask.

As you begin to increase in hunger and thirst for righteousness you will find a deep satisfaction in the life of the kingdom. You will learn that this is the good life; the life worth living; a life of active participation in making earth more and more like heaven.

  1. Peter Leithart’s exposition of the Beatitudes are quite helpful in clearing some misunderstandings. Audio found at Reformation Covenant Church in Oregon.  (back)

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 2

Before we delve into the Beatitudes we are confronted with the first two verses, which establish the background for the Beatitudes.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Mountain and Mouth

There are two words that need to be stressed in these verses, and they are mountain and mouth. First, the gospel of Matthew is full of mountains. In fact, the first mountain we see is in Matthew four where Satan takes Jesus up on the mountain and offers him all authority if He only bows down and worships him. The last mountain is in Matthew 28 where Jesus gives forth his Commission to his disciples on a mountain. Jesus begins on a mountain in Matthew four being offered all authority and he ends in Matthew 28 with all authority in heaven and earth not because He submitted to the devil, but because He conquered the devil by giving His life through death.

And why are there so many allusions to mountains in the gospel? The simple answer is that Matthew is drawing our attention to that great mountain in the Old Covenant where Moses received the laws of Yahweh and instructed the people how to live and how to be a different people from the nations around them. Jesus is the greater/better Moses. Just as Moses gave Yahweh’s law to the people, so now Jesus, as the Law-giver, instructs his people how to live and consequently how to become a different people, a kingdom people different from all the other earthly kingdoms. The Sermon on the Mount is an extension of the laws of Moses; it was what Moses’ law always intended, but in Christ these laws are lived out in fullness, loyalty, and righteousness. The Sermon on the Mount is not a set of harsh, moralistic, legalistic rules to live by, they are life-transforming, grace-giving instructions from on high.

The second word to consider is the word mouth. It is important to see that these words are proceeding from the mouth of Jesus. In Deuteronomy 8 the people are told to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus rebukes Satan by pointing back to Deuteronomy, and now in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the one who speaks authoritatively. Jesus is affirming that He is Yahweh in the flesh. Just as Israel needed to live by the words of Yahweh, this new Israel—composed of Jews and Gentiles—need to live from the words that proceed out of the mouth of Jesus, the Christ. These words in verses 3-12 are the words of a new world order given by a new Moses to a new people.

An Honorable People

There are eight beatitudes in this sermon. Some have translated the word beatitude as happy or blessed, but a more accurate way of understanding this term is by translating it as honorable. These are value statements. The Beatitudes are not characteristics of a pitiful/shameful people, but these are characteristics of an honorable people; a people who have been exalted because of their dependence on God. Saint Peter says that if we humble ourselves before the Lord He will exalt us in due time.a The people of the kingdom are being honored and exalted when they live according to the laws of the kingdom.b These beatitudes are set against the shameful characteristics of those outside the kingdom. Jesus is saying, “How honorable are those who live under these gracious laws!”

Another element concerning the beatitudes is their poetic naturec. The first section, the first four beatitudes, contains 36 words; and the second section, the last four, also contains 36 words c forming a perfect poem. We are considering a piece of poetry as we look at the Beatitudes.

One final observation and a crucial one before we look in great detail in the next few posts. As we apply these beatitudes we must remember that these are not intended for those who want to be in the kingdom or as a way of getting in the kingdom, no; these are for those who are already in the kingdom seeking to expand and live out the ethic of the kingdom. We are not to see these as ways of getting in the kingdom, but as ways of living the kingdom out.

Part 1

  1. I Peter 5:6.  (back)
  2. K.C. Hanson’s analysis of “Honor and Shame in the Ancient World.  (back)
  3. Leithart writes: “12 is the number of Israel and 72 is the number of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.”  (back)
Heaven is not a perfect place

Heaven is not a perfect place

Note: It’s not very common to post writings from others on my own blog, but I have done it a few times in the past as a way of revealing my joy in exposing the profound observations of others. Tom is a dear friend, parishioner, and a capable student of the Bible. He took a single thought from a sermon of mine and developed it to something much better than I could have written.

Guest post by Tom Robertson

“…as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” –The Apostle Paul

“Heaven is the blueprint; earth the raw material.” Uri Brito

Uri Brito is the pastor (my pastor) at Providence Church in Pensacola. The quotation above comes from a sermon he preached a few Sundays ago. The Apostle Paul is familiar to you all. His words were written nearly 2000 years ago from an Ephesian prison. I believe Uri’s illustration may be a little unsettling to the average Christian, especially when compared with Paul’s description of Heaven as “gain” and “far better.” Now, no one believes Pastor Brito is talking about mere drawings and measurements. However, he is at a minimum suggesting that Heaven is a kind of starting point and not the finished product. After all, a blueprint is the plan, not the dwelling place. If this is true, then it follows that Heaven is imperfect. And this sounds a bit alarming.

A Place Where No Storm Clouds Rise?

Most of us – at least most of us in “the South” – grew up singing songs that promised we’d leave this world and fly to a place of eternal and undiminished joy. Our understanding was that Earth is toilsome, a place where we must spend “just a few more weary days.” We all thought Heaven to be a place where “no storm clouds rise”, where “joy shall never end”, “no tears ever come again.” Heaven was not a mere temporary lodging. Yet, scripture teaches that Christians will live in a new heavens and a new earth forever and ever. In fact, all things will be made new (Rev 21:5). We ourselves will be made new; our resurrected and glorified bodies will be fit to enjoy a renewed cosmos (Phil 3:21).

So, we will not live forever in Heaven. In fact, Heaven and Earth were never intended to exist forever as separate places. The plan was always for a unity (See Gen 1 and 2, Acts 4:21, Phil 3:20-21, Col 1:20, Rev 21 and 22). At the moment, however, we are in the midst of a cosmos which has undergone what C.S. Lewis described as The Great Divorce. When Adam sinned creation “fell”; Heaven and earth were “torn asunder” with all the resulting pain and consequences of a divorce.

The Coming Unity

It was Ephesians 1:9-10 – “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” – which occasioned Pastor Brito’s comment “Heaven is the blueprint; earth is the raw materials.” God’s plan, said my Pastor – said the Apostle Paul, no less – is to unite all things in Christ, both in heaven and on earth. It has always been the plan, which is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Neither Heaven nor Earth is meant to be alone.

Heaven is Imperfect

Does this mean that heaven is not a pleasant place? Certainly not! Paul’s confession, that to “die is” not only “gain”, but “far better” (Phil 1:21-23), settles that. To be sure, the comfortable accommodations of heaven are preferable to a sin-ravaged world. Yet, Heaven separated from Earth is imperfect – imperfect, but not defective. Neither was Adam defective. Yet, He was not perfect until joined to Eve. Just as it was not good for Adam to be alone, it is not good for Heaven or Earth to be alone. The ink pen resting on the desk is not defective, but when taken in hand, put to paper and employed by a master poet it becomes perfect. Similarly, Heaven will become perfect when it is intertwined with a gloriously liberated Earth.

So, until then, we are to do what we can to “heavenify” earth, so says my Pastor – “Heaven is the blueprint; earth the raw materials.” And if we happen to leave this Earth before Christ speaks into existence a new cosmos, we’ve been told by a reliable source that our temporary accommodations will be quite comfortable. For to depart and be with Christ is “far better” says Paul – far better, but not perfect.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Do you love Jesus? An Eucharistic invitation

Do you love Jesus? An Eucharistic invitation

“Because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8)

The worth of knowing Messiah as Lord is greater than any human deed. Nothing is compared to this relational, covenantal union we have with our Lord.

This reminds me of the story my mentor once told me of a bright seminary graduate who came before examination by the examining committee. He sat there at his desk full of confidence. His Greek New Testament and Hebrew Bible were wide open. He had passed his written exams with flying colors. The entire presbytery was eager to hear this genius relate the glories of theology in intricate ways. The examination began when an old seminary professor who was about to retire looked at the candidate and asked: “Young man, do you love Jesus?” Silence. More silence. Now the young scholar’s face turned into every imaginable color. Then more silence.

The old professor looked to the head of the examining committee and proposed that the examination be terminated and that the young man return again in six months. All agreed.

Brothers and sisters, as you come to eat and drink with one another, do not allow that simple question to be answered by your silence. Come and dine that your answer might be strengthened and not silenced.

10 Reasons to Sing the Psalms

10 Reasons to Sing the Psalms

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Many of us grew up in theological backgrounds where the psalms were known, but not sung. These theological backgrounds are anomalies throughout the history of the Church. E.F. Harrison observed that “Psalmody was a part of the synagogue service that naturally passed over into the life of the church.” Calvin Stapert speaks of the fathers’ “enthusiastic promotion of psalm-singing” which he says, “reached an unprecedented peak in the fourth century.” James McKinnon speaks of “an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm” for the psalms in the second half of the fourth century. Hughes Oliphint Old argued that Calvin appealed to the church historians (e.g. Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen) as well as the church fathers (e.g. Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom) for the singing of psalms. While the Reformers did not advocate the exclusive singing of Psalms they did express “a partiality for Psalms and hymns drawn from Scripture.” a 

The Reformer Martin Luther urged that Psalms be sung by congregations so that “the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music b. By the end of the 19th century, however, most hymnals produced had limited psalms to a couple of well-known pieces like Old One-Hundredth. Beyond that, scriptural references had all but disappeared. Terry Johnson summarized the state of psalmlessness:

This eclipse of psalmody in the late nineteenth century is quite unprecedented. The psalms, as we have seen, have been the dominant form of church song beginning with the Church Fathers, all through the Middle Ages, during the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, and into the modern era. By the beginning of the twentieth century the church had lost the voice through which it had expressed its sung praise for more than 1800 years. c

Though the last hundred years were not psalm-friendly, we have seen in the last 30 years a kind of revival of psalmody in the modern church, especially in the Reformed tradition. New hymnals, like the Cantus Christi, and many others are including old and new psalms ( metrical and chants).

So why should we sing the psalms? Aren’t the 19th century hymns and contemporary songs sufficient to fulfill the worship demands of the modern congregation?

The answer is a resounding no!

There are ten reasons I believe congregations should begin to sing psalms once again:

First, Psalm-singing is an explicit biblical command (Ps. 27:6). The Scriptures encourage us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). To have the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to invest in the rich beauty of the Psalter. How can we sing what we do not know? Is there a better way to internalize the word than to sing it?

Second, Psalm-singing was the ancient practice of the Church and it continued for 1,800 years. We honor our forefathers and our history when we sing their songs.

Third, Calvin observed that the psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror.” The psalms are satisfying to the human being. We are homos adorans; worship beings. God is not against emotions, he is against emotionalism. The Psalter is an emotional book. It provides comfort for the people of God at different stages of life. As a minister I have never once walked into a hospital room and been asked to read a text from Leviticus or Romans, but rather every time I have been asked to read a psalm (most often Psalm 23). The psalms reach deep inside our humanity in time of pain.

Fourth, singing the psalms builds our Christian piety. It is nurturing to our souls. It is God’s devotional book; God’s hymnal. Singing the psalms restores the joy of our salvation. Ask me what book of the Bible I would take to a desert island, and I will not hesitate to say “The Psalms.”

Fifth, the psalms are ultimately made for the body. You may sing the psalms on your own, but they reach their culmination when sung together. They are meant to be roared (Ps. 47:1), because they were written by the Lion of Judah. When we sing together we are both being edified and edifying one another. “We sing because in singing we join together in common breath and melody in a manner that no other medium can duplicate…We become an assembly unified in purpose and thought. And by our singing, we hear God’s Word for us, and the world hears it loud and clear.” d

Sixth, we should sing the Psalms because they re-shape us; they re-orient our attention. We are a people constantly being sanctified by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit has specifically inspired 150 psalms for our sanctification. How should we pray? How should we ask? How should we lament? The Psalms helps us to answer these questions, and thus shape us more and more after the image of Christ.

Seventh, by singing the Psalms we are worshiping the Spirit. The Spirit hovers, shapes, re-makes in the Bible. He is the music of God in the world. In an age when the Third Person of the Trinity has become the source of theological confusion, the Psalms keeps us focused on His role and purposes in history.

Eighth, we should sing the Psalms because our current songs are often cheap and shallow. The Psalms are rich and full of substance. If we wonder why the evangelical community is so powerless, one reason for this is its trivialized worship. Modern worship is often a pietistic exercise, which is manifested in poorly constructed and pessimistic theology. But the Psalms teaches us that God is full of mercy and powerful over all His enemies (Ps. 2). The Psalms are political statements. They are direct attacks on those who challenge the supremacy of King Jesus.

Ninth, the Psalms should be sung because our children need them. Our little ones need to know the God they worship in profound ways from their earliest days. We become what we worship, and so our children will become what we sing.

Tenth, you should sing the Psalms because the world needs them. The world does not need a weak Gospel. She sees plenty of it already. She needs to hear a Gospel of a God who delights in praise, who will not allow evil to go unpunished, and who prepares a table for us.

This may all sound daunting and strange. But I’d encourage you to take that first step. What first may appear to be strange may become a wonderful journey into praise and thanksgiving to the God from whom all blessings flow.

For more information on how to sing the psalms, or for resources, please contact me at uriesou@gmail.com.

  1. See Terry Johnson’s The History of Psalm Singing in the Church; I depended heavily on that article for the quotes on this paragraph  (back)
  2. Luther, Martin. Tischreden. No. 2545. Quoted in F. Blume et al., Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974  (back)
  3. Ibid.  (back)
  4. From the article: “Why do we sing the Psalms?”  (back)

Keep Yourselves from Idols

In one of the most lovely letters written in the Bible, I John– which we will be studying during Sunday School in July–the apostle encourages us by the example of Christ that our joy may be full. And then in chapter 5:21, which is the last verse of John’s first letter, we read this remarkable little exhortation: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

We will consider this in the sermon more fully, but before we bow down to the only true God, what idols are we carrying along with us, even this morning?

All those virtues that we treasure: love, trust, hope; all of them can be turned on their head. What do we truly love, hope, and trust in during times of pain? Who do we seek when our lives are turned upside down? If any of these answers do not find their joy ultimately in the God who is righteous and just (I Jn. 1:9), then we have not heeded John’s warnings.

Brothers and sisters, as we come and confess our sins this morning, confess that you have not loved, trusted, and hoped in God as you ought. Confess that you have sought other gods before him. Confess them, and be still, and know that He is God, and there is none other before him.

Prayer: God Almighty, Father, Son, and Spirit, strengthen us today by your great mercy and transform us into the image of your own beloved Son, whom we love, trust, and hope. Amen.