Theological vision, and keeping the main thing the main thing


Center Church is shaping up to be one of the best books I’ve read on church ministry. This is in no small part due to its being (at least to this point) so drastically different from the other books available on the subject.

Rather than focusing on a doctrinal foundation or methodology, Tim Keller puts the emphasis on theological vision, which he defines as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and missions in a the of culture at a moment in history” (p. 20).

A clearly defined theological vision moves our doctrinal foundation from the abstract and informs the particulars of our methodology and allows us to keep the main thing the main thing:

Only one thing can handle being the main thing #centerchurch #fb

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What the gospel is not #CenterChurch #fb

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Simple, not singular

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When it comes to our desire to reach people, it’s our theological vision that keeps us from running off the rails, but also allows us to see how we can faithfully explain our singular message without embracing a simplistic one-size-fits-all mindset (which is the heart of good, biblical contextualization).

I’ll be posting a comprehensive review soon, but if you’re at all curious, I’d highly encourage ordering a copy from:

Success, Faithfulness, and Fruitfulness


One of the looming questions in Christian ministry is trying to figure out how to measure whether or not what you’re doing is “working” (I hope you’ll forgive the expression). Some look at it in terms of success, which really just means numbers.

  • How many people showed up?
  • How many baptisms were there?
  • How much are people giving?

And so on.

These aren’t bad metrics and can be an indicator of God’s working in a church’s ministry, but it’s not necessarily so as many critics of the church growth/seeker sensitive movement have made clear.

Others contrast this with the idea of faithfulness alone—that all you need is to be sound in your doctrine, godly in character and faithful in preaching and ministering to people. Again, good metrics, but as Tim Keller points out on the first page of his excellent new book, Center Church, a bit of an oversimplification as it risks ignoring the competency factor. Simply, you can be orthodox, godly, and faithful, but still not be good at what you do.

Keller offers a great third option: Fruitfulness. Here’s how he explains it:

As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as “fruit” when he desired to preach the gospel in Rome “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the “fruit” of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called “fruit” as well (Rom 15:28).

Paul spoke of the pastoral nurture of congregations as a form of gardening. He told the Corinthian Christians they were God’s field” in which some ministers planted, some watered and some reaped (1 Cor 3:9). The gardening metaphor shows that . . . [g]ardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skillful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups o fpeople have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, pp. 13-14)

This is a tremendously helpful corrective and one that I trust will be an encouragement to many who struggle in this regard. It completely changes how we evaluate what we do. It’s not a matter of just how faithful or godly a minister is, anymore than it’s about how many people are showing up on a Sunday morning. And best of all, it takes the wrong pressures off of pastors and leaders who are competent and faithful. “When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.”

That’s good news, isn’t it?

Do Not Stroke the Ear, Strike the Heart


The most pernicious and debasing evil of all is, a converting our sacred office into a medium for setting forth our own excellence — prostituting the glories of the cross for the indulgence of our own pride, drawing a veil over the glories of our adorable Master and committing a robbery against him, even in the professed business to exalt him. This is to lose sight of the great end of the Ministry — commending ourselves, instead of our Master, to the regard of our people. . . Our business is to make men think, not of our eloquence, but of their own souls; to attend, not to our fine language, but to their own everlasting interest. Our duty is . . . not to stroke the ear, but to strike the heart.

Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (as published in How Sermons Work by David Murray)


2 Things I Love (and 1 Thing I Don’t) About Preaching


This weekend I’m filling the pulpit on behalf of my friend Andrew Hall at Community Bible Church in Ilderton, Ontario. As I’ve been praying and preparing for this week’s message, I’ve been considering what I love and what I don’t love so much about preaching:

I get to worship God by serving others

I certainly don’t pretend to be the most gifted preacher in the world, but one of the best things about preaching is helping people see something in Scripture that they either haven’t seen before or reminding them of an important truth they can’t hear too many times. The last time I was at CBC, one of the best moments I had was a member of the congregation coming to see me after the service and sharing how the message helped her get some clarity on a difficult subject. This week, I’m preaching primarily on 2 verses (Jude 20-21) and I’m trusting that the Lord will bless my efforts to serve this congregation.

I get to worship God by doing something I love

Honestly, preaching is a lot of fun for me. It’s challenging, forces me to get out of my comfort zone (standing up in front of people isn’t my most favorite thing in the world), and allows me to invest time digging into the Word. Even though I’d probably say I’m a pretty average preacher in terms of ability, there’s few things more rewarding for me than this kind of practical worship of God.

As much as I love these things, there is at least one thing I don’t love about preaching:

Insecurity and temptations to please man

As much as I want to serve God and honor the text, it’s really tempting to seek the approval of others after preaching. I don’t know that any of us don’t like to hear that we’ve done a good job, but the danger for me is finding more value in that affirmation, rather than satisfaction in Christ.

That’s a bit of what I love (and don’t) about preaching. If you’re a preacher, what do you love about it? 

Theological Famine Relief and Christian Identity

Bridges 364

One of the things I’m so thankful for is the gift of beneficial resources God has blessed us with in North America. We have so many wonderful, God-glorifying books and resources at our finger tips and we should thank God for these things. But God has not given these things to us for our benefit alone. Thousands of pastors all around the world have virtually no access to any sort of theological education.

That’s why I’m incredibly excited about The Gospel Coalition’s International Outreach:

As God directs and equips, The Gospel Coalition’s international mission is to see thousands of congregations in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe receive solid biblical teaching from their leaders, because of new access to theological resources, both physical and digital, in helpful languages and formats. . . .

The focus of our work is in launching Relief Projects consisting of physical and digital resources in English, Spanish, Russian, French, and other languages. The scope of the need is larger than any single ministry can fill. We are looking for partners to help us cultivate relationships, develop and deliver resources, mobilize networks, and build support. We want to connect with donors, churches, translators, publishers, missions senders, and goers who sense a call to engage in Theological Famine Relief. You can help us to create and deploy these resources where they are most needed around the world.

One of the ways they’re seeking to equip pastors is with a terrific book from Cruciform Press (the publisher of my first two books and where I work part time handling some of their marketing): Who Am I?: Identity in Christ by Jerry Bridges (reviewed here).

This is a book all about who we are in Christ, one of the most critical things any Christian needs to understand. But, as my friend Tim Challies recently pointed out, it can take years (if ever) for many of us to “get” this, depending on the teaching we receive and the books we read. That’s where Bridges’ book serves as a wonderful gift to the Church, both here in North America and around the world, as he unpacks the following eight truths:

  1. I Am a Creature
  2. I Am in Christ
  3. I Am Justified
  4. I Am an Adopted Son of God
  5. I Am a New Creation
  6. I Am a Saint
  7. I Am a Servant of Jesus Christ
  8. I Am Not Yet Perfect

I can think of few resources outside of Scripture that would be a more helpful gift for pastors in need of Christ-exalting resources to increase their own understanding and share with their congregations.

Please consider helping The Gospel Coalition make 3000 copies of this wonderful book available to our brothers and sisters in the global church by donating to TGC’s relief project.

9 questions to ask when studying the Bible


One of the things I love about the Puritans is their commitment to the study of Scripture. When you read the works of the Puritans (and those heavily influenced by them), like Richard Baxter, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards and so many others, it’s clear that they thought deeply about the Scriptures and their application in a way that many of us—even the most committed—struggle to in the same fashion. According to Allan Harman in Matthew Henry – His Life and Influence, their approach basically took into consideration the following questions (I’ve included my own commentary with each):

1. What do these words actually mean?

This might seem incredibly obvious, but it’s worth noting that in periods prior to the Reformation, many Christian teachers interpreted Scripture allegorically (which is fine to do when the Scriptures themselves give you the freedom to do so). But one problem with this approach is that it can quickly lead to the obscuring of the author’s intended message. Whatever conclusions we come to about a text, we have to start with what the author originally intended his audience to hear.

2. What light do other Scriptures throw on this text?

No passage of Scripture should be interpreted in a vacuum. Doing so rarely leads to a right conclusion about the author’s intent in writing it and the passage’s application for us today. When we come across texts that seem to conflict with one another (say, for example, John 1:1 and Deut. 6:4), we need to remember that if the Bible is truly inspired by God, if God is its ultimate source, then, generally speaking, there is no apparent conflict that can’t be explained without jumping through too many hoops (even if it’s simply acknowledging the truth of Deut 29:29).

3. Where and how does it fit into the total biblical revelation?

Just as a passage of Scripture should be interpreted in light of the author’s original intent and other relevant passages of Scripture, we also have to be careful to make sure we’re clear on how it fits into the “big story” of the Bible.

4. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?

This is a wonderful diagnostic question for us because, just like the ones prior, it leads us closer to the point of all Scripture. This is where so much of our interpretation falls short today, where we put ourselves as the primary object of every text, where the Bible always and consistently puts God as primary and truths we learn about ourselves in the process are always in light of our understanding of God. If our understanding of a text isn’t first and foremost leading us to a greater understanding of the God who inspired it to be written, then we’re probably off in our interpretation.

5. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?

For me, this is probably the most crucial question—if as Jesus said, all Scripture is about Him (cf. Luke 22:37; 24:44; John 5:39), then it is our duty to make the connection to the gospel plain for our hearers and/or readers.

6. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure?

The Puritans were unrelenting about the need for application in teaching. And this is the first point reminds us that there is a response that the text demands. Our job is to find out what it is. The following questions drill deeper into this one.

7. For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?

All the truth contained within Scripture is there to train us in godliness that we may be equipped for every good work (cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17). Therefore, there’s always going to be a practical takeaway for us.

8. How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation?

This isn’t “what does the text mean to me” but “how does this text apply to my specific situation.” Some passages aren’t immediately applicable, and thus stand as “preventative medicine” for the day in which they are required.

9. To what present and human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?

This is the most important question we can ask when it comes to right application; there is no human condition that isn’t fundamentally addressed in the Word of God because it all stems from one root (the Fall). And ultimately, our primary response and application is always to repent and believe the gospel. Train-wrecked marriages, work issues, parenting… all of it can and is centered in the gospel, and that should be our primary call to application.

While these questions are quite simple, the answers we find by studying the Bible in light of them is extremely helpful.

What questions do you use to assist your study of Scripture?

“Wasted” Lives and Christian Calling

From our earliest years, we’re encouraged to pursue success—to find it in our hobbies, sports, education and, eventually, careers.

When I finished college, I had aspirations of being a successful and well paid graphic designer. (Don’t laugh—they didn’t tell us there was an abundance of designers and a dearth of job prospects.) Though I had a rough start to my career (long story), I eventually did start doing pretty well for myself.

Then I became a Christian. And Jesus told me to give it all up (cf. Mark 8:35).

So I left my job, joined the staff of a Christian ministry where I am employed to this day, took a fairly sizeable pay cut (and then took another household income reduction when Emily’s maternity leave ended) and then began to pursue the answer to a big question that’s been in the air for the better part of four years—one of calling.

Recently I’ve been reading Edmund Clowney’s little book, Called to the Ministry, and found his addressing of vocation particularly helpful:

Until we are ready to follow in the steps of that Saviour, discussions of Christian vocation are futile. Had vocational counselors interviewed Simon Peter, they would likely have directed him away from the fishing business. His gifts for leadership were wasted in a two-man fishing boat. But they would hardly have recommended a career in sectarian religious extremism, as a follower of the Nazarene. Devotion to such a cause could, and did, end in crucifixion.

From the twelve apostles to the Auca missionaries of our generation, the history of the Christian church is the history of “wasted” lives. The Christian may tabulate all the assets of his personality and take inventory of his preferences, but he casts all these at the feet of Christ. He is not seeking fulfillment but expendability. He counts not his life dear to himself, for he holds it in trust for Christ. His goal is beyond the grave; the crown of his high calling is in the hand of his risen Lord. (pp. 14-15)

This is the funny thing about the Christian life: while it’s important to use the gifts and abilities God has given each of us for His glory, we’re not called to find our fulfillment in the pursuit of such things. When I left my old job for this one, people—especially family—looked at me as though I had two heads. They didn’t get why I’d move to something where I’d be earning less. It seemed backwards.

And it is. But that’s the thing about the Christian life, and Christian ministry. Life and ministry for the believer are nothing less than counterintuitive.

Ministry is not typically the route to fame and fortune; those who pursue it as such are either naïve fools or devils from the pit. Ministry requires the giving up of our desires for such things.We think less of our fulfillment and more of our expendability for the cause of Christ. And in the process, with (as Clowney puts it) our goal being “beyond the grave” and “the crown of [our] high calling in the hand of [our] risen Lord,” we find our true fulfillment.

It might seem like a “wasted” life to some, but it’s one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

More Lessons I’m Learning from Other Preachers

I remember the first time I stepped into the pulpit. I was scared stiff. Sweaty palms, hands clenching my Bible and notes… but in the end, I did okay. Part of what helped was getting some help. The first meeting I ever had with our pastor was for him to give me some pointers. Then another friend took me under his wing, giving me the opportunity to get better.

Like writing, art, music, cooking or pretty much anything else, preaching takes practice. But it also takes a willingness to learn from others. A while back I shared a few lessons I learned from listening to other preachers. Here are a few more that I wanted to share:

1. There’s a difference between “speaking” and “preaching.”

Recently, I was at an event where I listened to a speaker discuss his vision for ministry and how he does life as a pastor. As I heard him speak, something felt off. He was clearly a gifted speaker, but as I listened, I kept thinking, “This is a man who is clearly a good leader, but he’s not a preacher.” He came across more as a CEO than a shepherd.

Perhaps it’s the context in which he was speaking that led to this, but something I’ve noticed about preachers is that what they say is rooted in God’s Word. Dever and Gilbert put it well when they wrote, “Anything that is not rooted in and tethered tightly to God’s Word is not preaching at all.” That’s the difference between speaking and preaching. Preaching is about God. Speaking is more often than not about me.

2. Preaching requires preparation.

Something I’ve become increasingly aware of in my own life is the propensity toward laziness. Once I get comfortable doing something, it’s easy to think I don’t need to put in all the work. I don’t need to practice or put together my notes in a timely fashion (timely, as in, giving myself enough time to prepare). I rely on natural ability rather than on careful, prayerful effort.

Maybe you’ve heard of this before, but I’ve found it helpful to think of raw ability in degrees of competence:

  • There are the consciously incompetent—you know you don’t know what you’re doing;
  • The unconsciously competent—you don’t know you know what you’re doing;
  • The consciously competent—you know you know what you’re doing; and
  • The unconsciously incompetent—you think you know what you’re doing, but not so much.

All of us, in whatever area we serve, move through these degrees of competence. I’ve seen it happen in the same day (and yes, it was me that did it). Those who know they don’t know much are usually the best learners and most open to criticism. The ones who think they’re awesome but aren’t tend to struggle with receiving critical feedback (in my experience at least).

Preaching requires a great deal of careful preparation. It might not take long to craft an outline or a manuscript (I’m actually getting pretty fast at this part), and some of us might be really quick on our feet, but we cannot afford to become undisciplined.

3. Preaching takes courage.

This weekend my own pastor preached another hard one, one that I shared some thoughts about very recently. Malachi’s a hard book, one that some might call a space-maker. As we’ve seen our church grow numerically, I can’t imagine the temptation that he and our elders must face. More people means our space issues become more pressing. More people in need of ministry means more leaders need to be developed. There are a lot of variables that I have no knowledge of whatsoever that come into play, but I can imagine it’s tempting to compromise on values to get things done. But preaching hard texts, ones that force people to feel the weight of their own sin, especially in the face of growth, takes courage.

Those are a few things I’m learning from other preachers—what about you?

Brothers, You are not Jewish Rabbis

Whether you’re an experienced or novice preacher, we would all be wise to take this advice from Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert to heart:

Your sermons should never be forty-five-minute morality lessons or best practices for living a better life. They should drive forward to the good news that King Jesus saves sinners through His life, death, and resurrection from the grave. In fact, we think that in every sermon you preach, you should include at some point a clear and concise presentation of the gospel. Tell people how they may be saved! I never want someone to come to my church, not just for a length of time but even for one single service, and be able to say they didn’t hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Brothers, you are not Jewish rabbis. You are not called to give sermons that merely tell people how to live rightly or better. Is teaching people to live rightly part of preaching the whole counsel of God? Yes, absolutely, depending on the text! Is that ever all there is to it? Absolutely not! One way or another, every text in the Bible points to Jesus, and you should follow where it points. . . . It’s easy to preach the Bible, especially the Old Testament, as if it were a book of fables—a series of stories that do little more than instruct us morally. But if we believe Jesus, we know those stories are doing much more than that; they are pointing us to Him. So whether we do it by following the story line or pointing out the themes, our job is to show our congregations how to see Jesus, even from the story of Ehud.

Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Kindle locations 1525, 1560)

4 Functions of Sound Doctrine

Recently, I wrote that one of the key functions of doctrine is that it divides. Because Jesus himself is the most divisive person ever to live, all doctrine that aligns with him will necessarily cause division. But that’s not all that doctrine does. Consider Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:6-16:

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [or doctrine]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Paul points to four truths about sound doctrine in this passage:

Sound doctrine prevents us from falling into irreverent and silly myths.

Man-centered, pop-psychology preaching that has little or nothing to do with the cross of Christ, and in fact makes a mockery of it, leads us to error. It makes us the Bible about us, which is always going to end badly. Sound doctrine will always point us back to Jesus. He is the point of Scripture. He is the Redeemer. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. If what we teach, whether in sermons, books, blogs, lectures or films, doesn’t make Him the point, then we’ve completely and utterly failed in our task.

Sound doctrine trains us in godliness.

Godliness holds promise for the present life and the life to come, says Paul. Good doctrine allows us to better understand who Jesus, and live out our lives in loving grateful response to Him as He truly is.

Sound doctrine will save you.

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers,” says Paul. The doctrine we proclaim tells others what we believe about Jesus, and if our proclamation is antithetical to Scripture, we have cause for concern. Therefore, we must keep a close watch on ourselves that we not fall into error.

Sound doctrine prevents confusion.

We are not ashamed of the hope that we have in Jesus. We need not fear that teaching sound doctrine—teaching the Scriptures—will return void. Isaiah 55:11 says, “O shall my word be that goes out from my mouth it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (emphasis added). God’s word always accomplishes God’s purposes. We need to stand in that confidence and not be afraid to proclaim the word of God!

When we fail to stress the importance of sound doctrine, when we fail to teach it, when we treat everything as “caught,” but not “taught,” where do we find ourselves?

Confusion. We find for ourselves teachers whose words are clever and sound nice, but they teach a different doctrine that does not agree with the sound words of Jesus. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4).

“Preach the word,” says Paul in 2 Tim 4:2. “Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” At all times, in all places, patiently, lovingly, confidently teach sound doctrine. Remind people that doctrine matters because what we teach about Jesus makes all the difference.

Division, Contending and Speaking the Truth in Love

The recent vote in North Carolina and this week’s generally unsurprising announcement from President Obama in support of same-sex marriage have Christians all abuzz. Some, lament the North Carolina decision saying they’re tired of the culture wars. Others have reminded us that there are good reasons that believers ought to continue to oppose gay marriage.

Younger Christians (and non-Christians) struggle to understand the uproar from their conservative forebearers. Rachel Held Evans is right to point this out. But just because homosexuality seems “normal” to the 30 and under crowd, it doesn’t mean that our response ought to be to throw their hands up in the air and sigh, “Can’t we all just get along?”

As Christians, we have an obligation to, as Jude calls it, “contend the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). So whether it’s a matter like gay marriage, the prosperity “gospel”, or the perpetual Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, to name but a few examples, we need to remember a few important truths that ought to guide our behavior as we contend for the faith:

1. Doctrine is intended to divide

There is a sense in which doctrine does divide. It can’t not by its very nature. Jesus himself—the Word of God made flesh—was and is the most divisive person to ever live. The people of his day were divided over his identity. They either didn’t know or refused to recognize him as the promised Messiah. Indeed, he himself said of his divisive nature, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division,” (Luke 12:51) and, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because Jesus caused division and because he was uncompromising in his exclusivity as “the truth,” doctrine that aligns with Jesus will cause division. This necessarily means that we will be at odds with others—friends, relatives, perhaps even other believers.

2. Contending does not mean being contentious

Christians are never to be a quarrelsome people with “an unhealthy craving for controversy” (1 Tim. 6:4; 2 Tim. 2:24). Instead, we are “to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1-2). The one who is contentious is looking for a fight; he loves controversy and debate. He builds men of straw simply to tear them down. But this person is one “who stirs up division . . . is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned,” wrote Paul. We are to have nothing to do with him—which also means that we must not be like him (Titus 3:10-11).

3. Don’t make doctrine more (or less) important than people

We are to speak the truth in love, not the truth or love. The Ephesian church deeply loved the truth of the gospel and that love overflowed toward “all the saints,” giving the apostle Paul cause to rejoice (Eph. 1:15). Yet, as we read in Revelation 2:2-5, it seems that, despite their rock-solid doctrine and their wealth of love for one another, their hearts had become cold to the things that had once burned so warm within them. Sam Storms writes:

What we see in the church at Ephesus, therefore, was how their desire for orthodoxy and the exclusion of error had created a climate of suspicion and mistrust in which brotherly love could no longer flourish. Their eager pursuit of truth had to some degree soured their affections one for another. It’s one thing not to “bear with those who are evil” (Rev. 2:2), but it’s another thing altogether when that intolerance carries over to your relationship with other Christ-loving Christians!1

We must not forget that there are people involved in every debate, both “those who are evil” and those who are, as Storms puts it, “Christ-loving Christians.” We must remember contending is an act of mercy on those who doubt and those who have been deceived. It’s much easier to view those with whom we disagree as being demons when they’ve more likely just been duped. But in doing so, we do them a great disservice and dishonor Christ in the process. There is a tension in contending that requires us to uphold both people and doctrine. We cannot contend without compassion anymore than we can contend without a love for the truth. “Doctrinal precision is absolutely necessary. But it isn’t enough. May God grant us grace to love others with no less fervor than we love the truth.”

I realize that the fight is exhausting—but we dare not give in and we dare not sit on the sidelines.

If we truly love Jesus and if we truly care about the well being of the Church then we must contend. “People’s eternal fate is at stake,” writes Robert Gundry. “With might and main [we] are to join in the fight.”2

4 Reasons to Preach Through Whole Books of the Bible

Preaching methods are a big topic right now in certain corners of evangelicalism. Should we preach through books of the Bible? Is topical okay? How should we approach topical sermons if we do them at all? These are questions that many of us have to deal wrestle with.

Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert are both strong advocates for the practice of preaching through entire books of the Bible. In their new book, Preach: Theology Meets Practicethey offer a number of practical considerations as to why our preaching ministries would benefit from taking up this practice. Here are four that I found particularly helpful:

1. Preaching through books helps you see the beauty of Scripture.

Many Christians—and those who preach to them—treat the Bible as if it’s a collection of wise sayings, the order of which doesn’t matter very much. It’s as if all of Scripture is the book of Proverbs or the sayings of Confucius. But most of the Bible isn’t like that at all. God inspired each of the books of the Bible with a certain internal logic and order. He inspired narrative and argumentation and prophetic cases against His people. The books build to climaxes, and they have elegant twists embedded here and there within them. Part of our job as preachers, therefore, is to help our people see the beauty of Scripture. We’re not just looking for “nuggets of wisdom” buried in useless iron ore; we want our people to see the majesty of the whole, and preaching through entire books helps us open their eyes to Scripture’s beauty. (Kindle location 1032)

2. Preaching through books forces you to preach uncomfortable portions of Scripture.

Few of us relish the thought of preaching on the Bible’s texts about divorce. It’s a touchy subject with multiple twists and turns in the teaching that are hard to get skeptical listeners to follow, and it’s frankly easier just to go to John 3:16 again than to plant yourself for a few weeks in Matthew 19! And yet it is in Scripture, and we are called to preach the whole counsel of God to our people. That’s where preaching entire books helps. After Matthew 18 comes Matthew 19. After 1 Corinthians 5 comes 1 Corinthians 6, and if you’ve established a pattern of preaching straight through books, you can’t avoid them. (Kindle location 1054)

3. Preaching through books confronts our fear of saying hard things.

One of the most crippling diseases for a preacher of God’s Word is a fear of saying hard things from the pulpit—a blanching at the thought of preaching something that might offend and a resulting tendency to stay away from hard passages of the Bible. Preaching through entire books works against that fear and tendency because it forces us to preach those hard passages when they appear. In fact, it can help turn our sinful fear of man against itself—think ju jitsu!—because we won’t want to face questions about our lack of courage if we skip from Matthew 18 to Matthew 20! . . . [P]reaching through those books also protects us from being “blamed” for preaching hard passages at particular times. (Kindle locations 1062, 1066)

4. Preaching through books encourages your growth as a preacher and a Christian.

Preaching through books forces you as a preacher—and therefore your church as well—to grapple with passages of Scripture with which you’re not already familiar. As a result, you learn new things; you grow in your knowledge of God and His Word; and you mature as a Christian and as a pastor. If you skip around the Bible in your preaching, you will likely gravitate toward passages you already have thought long and hard about, passages you know a lot about already. . . . Preaching our favorite passages, or the texts with which we’re most familiar, means that our growth as preachers and even as Christians will be stunted. There are treasures unknown in the text we encounter as we preach through books. (Kindle locations 1074, 1080)

Be Careful Offering Criticism To Your Pastor

Mondays are probably the worst day of the week for pastors and preachers. I don’t even do it full time, and I’ve experienced the roughness of Monday. Whenever I’m in the pulpit, I tend to experience an interesting combination of being energized and completely exhausted. Preaching the Word and seeing people “get” it is awesome—but by the time I get home, I’m ready for a roughly 100 hour nap. For me, it usually takes until mid-day Tuesday before I’m feeling back to normal.

Because I’m not in vocational pastoral ministry, one of the things I don’t have to deal too much with is criticism. I parachute in and out, so I don’t get criticized (at least, I don’t get to hear it in my inbox). But I’ve no doubt that many pastors dread looking at theirs on Monday.

It’s easy for us when we leave on Sunday morning to start picking apart the message. As we consider, it and weigh the pros and cons, sometimes the things that stick out as a negative start eating at us. And so maybe we fire off an email and feel a lot better, having got it off our chests.

Now, I’m not against criticism, obviously, but I’d be careful sending that email. As Mark Dever & Greg Gilbert point out in their book, Preach, your criticism of your pastor’s message “should always be gentle, even if they are firm.” Speak well, speak clearly if there’s something legitimate, but don’t fire off a long list of problems and fail to leave any room for encouragement.

Your pastor doesn’t need to hear how you don’t care for the Bible translation he used; he probably doesn’t need to be engaged on a lengthy debate on a nuance of a difficult to interpret text. You can probably cut him some slack if he preached a right message but made an unusual choice of text for his launch point.

If you must offer critique (and it is an “if”—many churches have an established sermon review process in place, so you may not need to worry about it), do so carefully, charitably and out of a desire to see your pastor improve. Tell him what you appreciated about the message, what God is teaching you through it and, if there’s something that is bothering you, ask about it in an open-ended way.

And… maybe wait until Tuesday to send that email. It might make Monday a little easier to get through.

Faithfulness is Obedience and Obedience is Success

Here’s a passage I’ve been continuing to chew on from Matt Chandler’s new book, The Explicit Gospel:

One of the things we don’t preach well is that ministry that looks fruitless is constantly happening in the Scriptures. We don’t do conferences on that. There aren’t too many books written about how you can toil away all your life and be unbelievably faithful to God and see little fruit this side of heaven. And yet God sees things differently. We always have to be a little bit wary of the idea that numeric growth and enthusiastic response are always signs of success. The Bible isn’t going to support that. Faithfulness is success; obedience is success.

What we learn about God’s call to Isaiah provides a strange sense of freedom. A hearer’s response is not our responsibility; our responsibility is to be faithful to God’s call and the message of the gospel. No, a hearer’s response is his or her responsibility. But one of the mistakes we can make in our focusing on individual response in the gospel on the ground is to lose sight of God’s sovereign working behind our words and actions and our hearer’s response. Receptivity and rejection are ultimately dependent upon God’s will, not ours.3 Paul reminds us, “[God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:15–16). From the ground, we say what we choose to say and hear what we choose to hear. From the air, our saying is clearly empowered—“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3)—and our hearing is clearly God-contingent—“having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Eph. 1:18).

You can find a whole bunch of verses about God’s moving and gathering large groups of people, which means if there’s numeric growth and much enthusiasm, we can’t say that it’s not a work of God or that God isn’t moving. I’m just saying that I guarantee you there’s some old dude in some town that most of us have never heard of faithfully preaching to nine people every week, and when we get to glory, we’ll be awed at his house. We’ll be awed at the reward God has for him. In the end, we have this idea being uncovered in Isaiah that God hardens hearts, that people hear the gospel successfully proclaimed and end up not loving God but hardened toward the things of God.

Matt Chandler (with Jared Wilson), The Explicit Gospel, pp. 75-76