A Pastor’s Call to Defend the Gospel

I wonder if Paul were to have written his letter to Titus today if it would make it into Preaching magazine.

Paul told Titus to do some very strong things in it. Some of the imperative verbs deal with the manner with which Titus should live and teach, but most of the imperative verbs are things Titus should do to or for the people he was pastoring. Just note how strong some of these are:

  • Rebuke (1:13)
  • Urge (2:6)
  • Declare (2:15)
  • Exhort (2:15)
  • Rebuke (2:15)
  • Let no one disregard you (2:15)
  • Insist on these things (3:8)
  • After warning him once (3:10)

When a pastor is faced with a situation where people are misunderstanding the gospel, not living in light of the gospel, rejecting the gospel, or perverting it, Paul’s call to pastors is to strongly defend its truth. This is not being hateful. It’s being intensely truthful. Strong verbs reflect the serious nature about which Titus was dealing.

You rarely hear Paul telling Titus (or Timothy for that matter) when defending the gospel to do things to and for their people like: coddle, stroke their egos, waffle, roll over, apologize, tip-toe. Can you imagine Paul writing a letter to a pastor today where the gospel was being threatened and saying something like, “Now, whatever you do, make sure no one is offended by this and absolutely everyone agrees with it before you teach it with any kind of authority. In fact, under no circumstances are you to make anyone feel like they are wrong–even if what they’re saying is absolute heresy! If anyone preaches a gospel contrary to the one I’ve taught you–no biggie!”

I’m not talking about a pastor beating his people up so he can get his way about the color of the carpet. There are wise and unwise ways to deal with those kinds of issues. But Paul’s admonition to Titus and Timothy and young pastors out there like you and me are very clear when it comes to defending the gospel: you do it strongly, clearly, without apology, and you do not let anyone get in the way of its truth. There will be people who do not like it, and who do not like you as a result. Those are scars you must be willing to bear. If my memory serves me right, there was another one who was willing to bear scars for the same cause.

The truth of the gospel is the only legitimate reason anyone has for living–the only true hope anyone has at all! In fact, if it’s not true and held as such, then your church is no longer a church and you are no longer a pastor. If we lose it, someone just go ahead and set off atomic bombs across the world and end this thing for us all. But because its true, you, pastor, must fight for it with your life. Be flexible about your philosophy, your preferences, and your style, but do not bend when the gospel is at stake. Be irrepressibly rigid.

When People Don’t Show Up

Ever since I began full-time ministry I’ve been struggling against finding my worth based on how many people show up. It doesn’t really matter what event it is: Bible study, hang out, worship service, whatever. If I’m heading it up, I feel more significant when more people come and I feel foolish when not many come and give lame excuses.

I know this isn’t right and that I shouldn’t think that way or feel that way, but it doesn’t mean the battle isn’t real.

I have picked up on something that lets me know my heart motivation is in this place. Whenever someone doesn’t come to a gathering and my initial reaction is sarcasm, I know I’ve succumbed to the lie again. Sarcasm for me is a nice way of being angry.

How do I know this is a sign I’m justifying myself based on attendance? Because the biblical response when someone is resistant to being part of the body of Christ isn’t anger, but Godly sorrow. Most of the time, I confess, I am not sorrowful that people aren’t interested in wanting to know Christ more through the class we’re offering or the program we’ve worked hard on. Most of the time I’m angry they’re more interested in going fishing than spending time with me.

That’s pride on my part. I don’t want to be that way.

And yet, I remember the truth about someone who died to justify me before God. I look to Him for freedom from my self-justification method, and ask for grace to have His heart toward those to whom He has called me to minister.

A Really Bad Way to Study the Bible

bible-SunlightThere are some really bad ways to read the Bible. Perhaps the most dangerous is reading the Bible to merely gain knowledge without seeking to know the God of the Bible. This kind of person wants to read the Bible, but doesn’t want the Bible to read him.

Martin Luther said,

The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.

Soren Kierkegaard, in a sermon from James 1, discussed this. Using the illustration of God’s Word being a mirror, he made a distinction between simply looking at the mirror and using the mirror to look at yourself. Simply looking at the mirror is a terrible way to read God’s Word. You can admire it and note how shiny or clear it is, but as long as you don’t use the mirror to look at yourself, you haven’t used it for its intended purpose.

What will be the result of people who read the Bible but don’t allow it to read them? What will people be like if they simply look at the mirror instead of using the mirror of God’s Word to look at themselves? Pharisaical, self-righteous people who are convinced they are right with God and see no need for Christ. Jesus calls them “white-washed tombs”–people who look good on the outside but are dead on the inside.

Don’t just read the Bible. Let the Bible read you.

What Preaching Is Not

peter-preachingWhat is preaching? I’ve thought and studied a lot about that. It’s an important question for a Christian. Why is it so important? Because preaching is the most important 25-45 minutes a church body spends together and is one of the few things that can change the world.

Martin Lloyd Jones said:

“The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also” (Preaching and Preachers, Jones, 17).

A lot of people claim to preach. Many others say they hear preaching every Sunday. But many of the people who claim they are preaching are doing something very different than others who also claim to be preaching.

Some Examples
For example: one man stands in front of a group of people on Sunday morning and shares compelling stories about loving one another, giving examples from society, his life, using poetry, video clips, and song lyrics. He also quotes a verse of Scripture about love. People leave feeling warm and encouraged, but without having been engaged with God’s Word. They know what to do, but they don’t know what God has said.

Another man reads a text of Scripture in front of a group of people, then proceeds to essentially say what the text makes him think of: other Scriptures, stories, examples from society, etc. The man hardly references his original text again and hasn’t thought once about what the original author intended to say to his original audience. Many of the things he says are good and true, but they’re just not found in the text he started with. People who agree with the statements leave happy and affirmed, but rarely challenged by being engaged with an appropriately applied passage. And the people who disagree with his talk, well, they just leave mad.

Still another man reads a text of Scripture and very meticulously points out original meanings of words and phrases, noting syntax, grammar, context, cross references and allusions throughout Scripture. There’s a lot of “What Paul is saying is . . . ” People leave more informed, certainly having confidence that their pastor “knows his Bible,” but haven’t seen what in the world the passage has to do with them.

None of these examples are preaching.

“Preaching is when the content and the intent of a passage of Scripture becomes the content and intent of a sermon.” Mike Bullmore

Why The Examples Aren’t Preaching
In the first example I made up, the content and intent of the sermon is only mildly influenced by Scripture. The preacher thought of what he wanted to say to the people, and then found a verse that went along with it. This is hardly letting the text drive the content or intent of the message. Maybe the talk was inspiring, and maybe God used it (who knows?). Maybe the talk was even necessary, but it was not preaching.

The second example seems more like preaching to some because this man is more likely to say “churchy” phrases many of us have heard growing up–true things even! And he says them with such power and conviction! “Homosexual behavior is sin!” We rightly reply, “Yes, that’s true. But what does that have to do with the text you just read?” This preacher doesn’t let the content or intent of the text guide him any more than the guy who plays videos from his iPad does. And it is still not preaching.

On to the third example. Those of us who have been to Bible College or seminary are even more likely to think this man is preaching, but sadly, he is not. This preacher does a good job at understanding the content and intent of the original author to the original audience, but he fails to make it his content and intent to his audience. This preacher says “Paul told them to repent” too much and doesn’t say “You must repent” enough. A “sermon” not directed and applied to contemporary hearers is not a sermon, it’s a NT grammar lesson. And a grammar lesson is not preaching.

What I’m Not Saying
I’m not saying I know everything about preaching. I’m very young and inexperienced and have a ton to learn!

I’m also not saying that the other kind of talks are bad or always inappropriate for every context. God can use the three examples I’ve listed, and I pray He does. These other kinds of talks aren’t bad, it just means they aren’t examples of preaching.

Another thing I’m not saying that in order for it to be preaching that it has to be verse-by-verse exposition. You can preach an entire book of the Bible in one sermon by applying the major themes of its content and intent to your congregation. Mark Dever does this. I have attempted to do this with the book of Jonah (emphasis on the word attempted). Or take Martin Lloyd Jones for example. Most of the sermons I’ve heard from him aren’t verse-by-verse exposition (which probably should be the main way preaching should happen IMO). Instead, many of his sermons are thematic–he’ll preach about what it means to have faith, for example. But even in that, he’s applying the content and intent of several passages that deal with the biblical concept of faith to his hearers–he makes the content and intent his content and intent. That’s different than saying whatever a verse makes you think about (like example #2 above)–which is what David Helms calls “impressionistic preaching” (like impressionist painters).

Fellow pastors, lets hone our skills and proclaim the text as well as we possible can, considering what it is we’re trying to accomplish from the pulpit every Sunday.