Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Simply the Word

 God speaks through us whenever we plainly and modestly relate whatever He has already said in the Bible. Preachers are to expose God's message, simply and directly ... our bigger-than-life-or-death goal must be to expose God's Word. Expose what He says. Expose His message.  
Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation

It's easy to make ministry so complicated.

It's easy in the quest to make a point, to miss the point.

It's easy, in our preaching and teaching of God's Word, to leave people knowing more about what we think, and less about what God thinks.

Yes. So, so easy. And so, so deadly.

I have been challenged recently to step out of the way (as much as possible) and unleash the Word of God into people's lives. What does this mean? Simple - I will succeed when, and only when, I faithfully and accurately communicate to people what God has already said in His Word.

Isn't that refreshing? The key to giving life to people through our ministry is to recognize that it is God's Word that gives life, and that He is pleased to use our faithful exposition and application of that Word to His ends.
Preachers, too, can be encouraged to employ creativity, charisma, or any other such device, but such devices must remain lowly workers, unassuming eunuchs who usher palace visitors toward the royal throne of God's Word, always serving the message and never mastering it.

The plain and bare goal of preaching is to expose God's Word, and everything in the preacher's arsenal must unite toward that one end.
Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation

May I commend to you two recent books that have proven invaluable to me as I seek to grow as a minister of God's Word?

The first I have already quoted from above. Written by Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation (subtitled "How God's Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People) is a practical, encouraging, and stimulating consideration of the power and sufficiency of the Bible. I have profited greatly from it in the past few weeks. It can be purchased at ...


The second has been equally challenging, stimulating, and helpful. Taking God at His Word, the latest from Kevin DeYoung offers a fresh and accessible look into the doctrine of the Scripture. Its subtitle says it all - Why the Bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what that means for you and me. I recommend it highly! It can be purchased at ...


One last quote (this one from Taking God at His Word) ...
You can think too highly of your interpretations of Scripture, but you cannot think too highly of Scripture's interpretation of itself. You can exaggerate your authority in handling the scriptures, but you cannot exaggerate the Scripture's authority to handle you. You can use the Word of God to come to wrong conclusions, but you cannot find any wrong conclusions in the Word of God.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Recovering Well: 5 Things to Remember after Preaching a Bad Sermon

It's happened to the best of them. In fact, its probably happened to all of us more often that we would ever like to admit (or realize).

Come on. You know what I mean ...
  • The sermon flops.
  • The Bible study is a dud.
  • The facial expressions move from initial interest to confusion to boredom.
So ... what do we do? Here are 5 things to remember:

1. The promise never rested with you, but with the Word.
"For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout ... so 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."  Isaiah 55. 10-11
Just as the rain and snow are predictably effective, so is God's Word. It always accomplishes God's purposes. Notice the repeated word "shall":

" ... so shall my word be ..."
" ... it shall not return to me empty ..."
" ... it shall accomplish that which I purpose ..."
" ... it shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."

According to the dictionary, "'shall' is used before a verb in the infinitive to show something that is inevitable."

That's good to remember.

2. The power never belonged to you, but to God.
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us."   2 Corinthians 4.7
Its tempting to think that power in preaching is ours - our words, our preparation, our delivery. But it's not. It's about God and His power. 

And how does God display His power? He uses ... us. That's right, sinners like you and me. Simple jars of clay holding unbelievable treasure.

That's good to remember.

3. The proclamation was never about you, but about Jesus.
"And when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."  1 Cor. 2. 1-2
As I look at my struggle, its increasingly clear- I often care alot about how I appeared or was received, and often very little about how Jesus was proclaimed or received. 

In other words, in my little world a sermon is "bad" because I look bad, or I feel bad.

Perhaps, in God's providence, a "bad" sermon is a common occurrence to press us back to the point of our proclamation - Jesus. So ... if Jesus was proclaimed, if His work was portrayed, if His name was exalted, if His gospel was preached, then it wasn't a bad sermon!

That's good to remember.

4. The persuasion was never in your wisdom, but in God's Spirit.
"And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the power and Spirit, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."   1 Cor. 2. 3-5
What did Paul "bring to the table"? Weakness. Fear. Trembling. Much trembling.

Did it stop the Lord's purposes? Not at all. In fact, it was the Lord's purpose. Why? So that no one's faith would ever rest on the preacher (even Paul!) but would rest on God.

Feel weak in the pulpit? You're in good company. God is at work.

That's good to remember.

5. The passion was never to be in the performance, but in the gospel.
"Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."  Luke 10. 20
The disciples had just returned from a period of successful ministry. The preaching went well, the sick were healed, the demons were cast out. What a day!

Jesus' response? "Do not rejoice in those things. Your passion was never meant to be in your performance."

And Jesus pointed them to the only source of true passion - the gospel. "Your names are written in heaven."

Perhaps a bad sermon is a good gift from an all-wise God. It turns our hearts from our efforts and onto the grace of God in Christ.

That's good to remember.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Avoiding the Eeyore Syndrome - Forgetting the Past

We all know it.
We've often felt it.

Like a stray cloud on an otherwise sunny day, it can come up suddenly, blocking the warm rays, and making everything seem ... well, darker.

I call it the Eeyore Syndrome.

Of course, its been called by other names as well:
* Discouragement
* In a "funk"
* Feeling low
* Being "out of sorts"

It hits people in ministry often. Too often. And when it hits, it usually hits hard

It doesn't matter if you are a full-time missionary or pastor, a campus fellowship student leader, a youth group volunteer, or a Sunday school teacher. It doesn't discriminate between people based on age, maturity, or experience. 

And, it often sneaks up when we least expect it ...

* After a big "victory", just when the high is beginning to wear off;

* When you've prepared and prayed for the "event" (either a Bible study, a speaking opportunity, a class, some counseling time) and it seems like NOTHING happens. Nothing, that is, except blank stares and disinterested looks.

* You look ahead to the tasks and expectations before you and think, "There's no way I can do all of this!"

* As you consider your past (that is, your "qualifications"), you are prone to despair, "How can God use anyone like me?" 

In those moments (and seasons) of darkness, God's Word can bring great hope and light. As the lion of the gospel is unleashed on our minds and souls, we can experience the refreshment of true grace.

Over the next few weeks, I'd like to share some truths for those Eeyore days. 

Truth #1: My past does not determine my future. Jesus does.

You've done it, haven't you? You look in the rear-view mirror of your life and think, "Can God ever use someone like me? I mean, if people only knew what I did, and still continue to do ..."

When those thoughts enter my mind, the storm clouds begin to gather.
Every once in while, a quote reaches down, grabs my heart, and shakes it until gospel-hope sets in. This is one of them (it's longer, but it's so worth it)...
... this is one of the great discoveries of the Christian life (and I shall never forget the release which realizing this for the first time brought to me) - you and I must never look at our past lives, we must never look at any sin in our past life, in any way except that which leads us to praise God and to magnify His grace in Christ Jesus ...

If you look at your past and are depressed by it, if as a result you are feeling miserable as a Christian, you must do what Paul did. "I was a blasphemer" (1 Timothy 1.16) he said, but he did not stop at that. Does he then say, "I am unworthy to be a preacher of the gospel"? No! In fact, he says the exact opposite: " I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, because He judged me faithful, appointing me to His service." (1 Timothy 1.12) 

When Paul looks at the past and sees his sin he does not stay in a corner and say, "I am not fit to be a Christian, I have done such terrible things". Not at all! What it does to him, its effect on him, is to make him praise God. He glories in grace and says, "... and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 1.14)

This is the only way to look at your past.
Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression 
Isn't that great!

In spite of my past (all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my broken promises, all of my shameful thoughts & deeds), Jesus has judged me faithful, and appointed me to His service.


The apostle Paul wrote about it this way:

"If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. 
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."
2 Corinthians 5.17

".... Christ Jesus has made me His own ... so one thing I do: 
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 
I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 3. 12-14
In theological terms, this is the great doctrine of justification.

What it means, simply yet powerfully, is this: 

God has accepted the perfect righteousness of Jesus (read Romans 8. 1-11). Throughout His life, Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly, in every respect and in every circumstance. In His death, Jesus took the place of sinners, and bore the penalty for all Law-breakers (like you and me). The Law is fully satisfied. Justice has been met. God said He would punish the law-breaker, and He did. Period.

We are forgiven. Of everything. Forever.

But ... it gets even better!

God credits the perfect righteousness of Christ to us (read Romans 5. 1-5). God now regards us as righteous, and declares and pronounces us to be righteous before Him.

Thus, your past no longer "counts". Your "goodness" is no longer the issue. 

The rock-solid foundation of Christian salvation is this - Jesus was good enough, His past is perfect. And by faith you are in Him. Right now.

The key to avoiding the Eeyore Syndrome ...
Say farewell now once and forever to your past. Realize that it has been covered and blotted out in Christ. Say, "It is finished; it is covered by the Blood of Christ." This is your first step ... It is only then that true happiness and joy are possible for you. What you need is not resolutions to live a better life, or trying a little harder. No! You just begin to say:
"I rest my faith on Him alone
Who died for my transgressions to atone."
Martin Lloyd-Jones

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How Do We Really Change? (part 2)

We know things at two levels - through the knowledge of our minds, and thru the sense of our hearts. It's the difference between knowing a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and having them melt in our mouth. God has made us to know Him at both levels.

True change comes when we not only know Jesus with our minds, but behold Him with our hearts. When the promises of the gospel become real to us, when they finally melt in our mouths, we are transformed. 
Here's a question I often wrestle with - how do I change? I mean ... really change?

Now, I don't mean temporary, paste-on, peer-pressure "change" (like going on a diet for a week or two, or promising God I'll never lie, lust, or get angry again). That type of "change" is, well, pretty easy. I should know - I've been doing it most of my life.

And to tell you the truth - it's never worked!

No. I'm talking about the real thing. That's right! Real, honest-to-goodness, deep-down, life-altering, wow-you-are-a-different-person change!

It's clearly a promise of the gospel of Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5.17). BUT ... how does it happen?
Well, I think we all know how it doesn't happen. It doesn't happen by:

  • Trying even harder
  • Making more fervent promises
  • Wallowing in guilt just a bit longer   
If you are like me, those methods lead to pretty predictable results - more pride (if I succeed on my terms), more guilt (if I measure myself against God's standards) or more hopelessness (when I decide it's no longer worth the effort). 

So, how do we change? 

Read these amazing words from the apostle Paul (in 2 Corinthians 3. 16, 18):
When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed ... And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
 Wow! Did you catch it? What Paul writes is amazing!
  1. When we turn to Christ in repentance and faith, the veil is removed (if you want, check out vs. 14 - it refers to hardness of mind). We can now see Jesus clearly as He is portrayed in His Word;
  2. As we "see" Jesus (in the faithful preaching of the Word), we are able to behold the glory of the Lord. That's right, we can move from knowing to beholding, from understanding to tasting;
  3. As we behold the glory of Jesus, we become like Him (remember the principle: we become what we behold).
  4. This process is the empowered by the Spirit of God. It's His work in us! 
The key is focusing on Jesus. Beholding Jesus, in all of His glory.

Just to be clear - this is different than understanding theology (which is important). It's different than reading your Bible (which is vital).  It's different than being at the right meeting (which always helps).

It's moving from head knowledge to heart knowledge.
For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4.6) ... we see the face of Jesus as the Holy Spirit makes Him real to us through His Word ... We see in Christ a fullness to satisfy us forever. And the believing heart comes alive in this new awareness of Christ.   Raymond Ortlund
One last thought/example, and then more on this next week.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (by CS Lewis), I have always loved the scene in which Edmund is forgiven & restored by Aslan. Not just theoretically, but really. Read on (emphases mine)...
"You have a traitor there, Aslan," said the Witch. Everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had gotten past thinking about himself, after all he'd been through ... He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn't seem to matter anymore what the Witch said. "Well," said Aslan, "his offense was not against you."... Edmund was on the other side of Aslan, looking all the time at Aslan's face. He felt a choking feeling and wondered if he ought to say something; but a moment later he felt that he was not expected to do anything except to wait, and just do what he was told." 

So, let me ask you ...

In your preaching/teaching/leading, are you helping others to look past themselves, and focus their gaze on Jesus?

Do you long to gaze in wonder at the glory of Jesus in His death and resurrection for you? Do you love to tell the "old, old story of Jesus and His love"?

Have you tasted and seen that Jesus is good? Really good! Melt-in-your-mouth-for-all-eternity good!

It's the key to change. Real change.

What you've been longing for all your life is held out for you in the gospel. Have you tasted it?


Thursday, August 1, 2013

How Do We Really Change?

When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. But the Bible isn’t mainly about us, and what we are supposed to be doing — it’s about God, and what he has done!      Sally Lloyd Jones

It has confounded scholars since time began. The attempt to answer this particular question has filled scores of books and articles.  Entire curriculum have been crafted to address it. Yes, this one question has plagued skeptics and enticed thinkers for centuries.

Here's the question - how do we really change?

Now, I don't mean how do we change the "small" stuff, like ...
  • our mailing address
  • our hairstyle
  • or even our body shape?

No. I am referring to the change for which most of us desperately long. That deep, long-lasting, trend-surpassing, emotion-proof, weather-resistant, against-all-odds change that effects our very essence & nature. That change that transforms our desires, our affections, our knee-jerk responses, our fears, our worship, and even our dreams.

You know, REAL change. Transformation of the heart.

So ... how do we change? Really change?

Over the years, religion has proposed many answers. 
As a child, even though I was a Christian, I grew up thinking the Bible was filled with rules you had to keep (or God wouldn’t love you) and with heroes setting examples you had to follow (or God wouldn’t love you).  Sally Lloyd-Jones

Yes, religion has used various tools to elicit change ...
  • Fear and guilt
  • Appeals to self-effort
  • Concern for reputation 
  • Images of a stern and demanding deity
Sadly, the list is actually pretty long (and deep). In fact, its about as long (and deep) as the desire of our hearts to be our own saviors! And that's pretty long ... and deep!

Here's the problem - you see, religion can produce change! Well, sort of. BUT ... its short-term (and thus not enduring), surface-level (and thus not satisfying), and self-centered (and thus not God-glorifying).

No wonder so many of us often feel stuck with ourselves!

So ... how DO we really change?

The apostle Paul answers this question in his letter to the church at Corinth:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3.18
Amazing! By beholding Jesus as He is presented to us in the gospels, we are transformed into His image.

Could it be so simple?

First, a definition. What is "beholding"? Easy. What we "behold" is what (or who) we stare at, are preoccupied with, meditate upon, consider deeply. Its what grabs our gaze, rivets our attention, and stirs our souls.

The apostle Paul pens a profound truth - we become what we behold.

Behold yourself - with all of your overblown fears, entangling sins, and failed attempts at change - and you will become ... more like yourself!

Behold Jesus - in all of His revealed glory as He is displayed in God's Word - and you will become ... more like Jesus.

That is the work and promise of the Spirit. This is the key to real change!

So, as we preach and teach the Word of God, we must center our focus on Jesus. His perfect life, His atoning death, His glorious resurrection. We must, by the Spirit of God, turn people's heads from gazing at themselves (or anyone/anything else), and compel them to gaze upon Jesus.

Consider the words of John Owen in The Glory of Christ ...

The constant contemplation of the glory of Christ will give rest and satisfaction to the souls of those who behold Him. Our minds are apt to be filled with a multitude of perplexed thoughts – fears, cares, dangers, distresses, passions, and lusts ... filling us with disorder, darkness, and confusion.
To behold this glory of Christ is not an act of fancy or imagination ... but is rather the steady exercise of faith on the revelation and description made of this glory of Christ in the Scripture.
We will consider this in more depth in two weeks.

Until then, as you preach, teach, and lead, are those under your care more inclined to behold themselves, or to behold Jesus?

In other words, whose glory fills their (and our) minds and hearts. The "glory" of their (and our) own intentions and performance? The "glory" of their (and our) earthly heroes and compelling examples? Or the glory of Jesus?

You see, it's true. We become what we behold. 

What are you beholding?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What is the Point?

"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us ... The gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most (important) fact about any man is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God."
AW Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy

It seems like the most basic of questions. And yet, it's so easily missed.

Here it is: who (or what) is the Bible really about? Other ways to ask it ...
  • What (or who) is the main subject of the Bible?
  • What (or who) should be the center of attention?
  • When we spend time in God's Word (either personal, group Bible study, sitting under preaching), with what should our minds & hearts be occupied?
  • What is the point of the Bible?
I admit it - over the years I have found it so easy to make the Bible all about ... me! As I look back, I often labored under the misguided thinking that the point of the Bible was to help me understand me. My motivations, my fears, my dreams, my efforts to please and honor and serve God. I mean, after all, doesn't God exist to help me?!

This pattern was exposed when I would focus on these questions:
  1. What does this passage mean to you?
  2. How does this verse help you understand yourself more?
  3. What do you need to, how do you need to change, how do you need to grow?
Note the repeated word(s)?!

Now, in one sense there's nothing "wrong" with these questions. In fact, rightly understood, they are helpful! But ... it's easy to put the cart before the horse.

You see, over time the Bible became less the self-revelation of God, and more the personal revelation of me. No wonder the lion of God's Word remained leashed!
"There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God."
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

Isn't that amazing, and refreshing? The point of God's Word is ... God! The focus of God's Word is God! Its His book. He's the point!

So, let me ask you: when you spend time in God's Word, who are you more conscious of - you or God? When those under your care spend time in God's Word, who are they focused on - themselves or God? Who are they more inclined to rest on & trust in - themselves or God?

The most vital question that needs to be answered is, "Who is God?" Without a correct answer to that question, everything else is off balance.

All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God's works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God... The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.

Jonathan Edwards
The Dissertation Concerning the End For Which God Created the World

But ... how do we do this? How do we expose God as we read, teach, and preach the Bible? How do we shepherd in such a way that others rest on God more firmly, trust in God more fully, and fall in love with Him more completely?

In other words, how can we make sure that our ministry in the Bible is really all about Him?

Let's consider that in next week's post.

Until then, consider this: what's more pressing on your mind - your self-knowledge, or your God-knowledge?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Simply Powerful

"I opposed (many things), but never by force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip ... (the Word worked) ... never a prince or emperor did such damage. I did nothing. The Word did it all."
Martin Luther

I remember being taught, at a young age, that the pen was mightier than the sword. Honestly, it was hard for me to believe. How could an implement of scholars & students surpass the weapon of a warrior?

And then I grew up.

I discovered that, throughout history, words have toppled nations, inspired armies, and propelled movements. Like many of you, I have experienced the devastation of harsh condemnation, the soothing comfort of gentle encouragement, and the arresting honesty of a timely rebuke. The "innocent" childhood chant, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me", was unmasked as a dangerous deception. 

Yes, words are powerful.

But ... it gets even better!

The Bible says that though words are unbelievably powerful ('The tongue has the power of life & death', Proverbs 18.21), there is one "word" whose power surpasses all other words. 
  • This "word" can not only topple nations, it can invade & conquer hearts (2 Timothy 3. 14-17; Psalm 19. 7-9). 
  • This "word" can not only change thoughts, it can transform motivations, passions, and desires (1 Peter 1.22-25). 
  • This "word" can not only enable us to understand the world, but it actually understands us! Like a mirror, it reflects back to us an accurate self-portrait (see James 1. 22-25).
This "word" is the Word of God.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Hebrews 4. 12-13
This is why the goal of any preacher or teacher of God's Word, any Bible study leader, any discipler or mentor or counselor, any parent or spouse or friend is ... to unleash the Word of God.  To draw people's gaze back to God's Word. To focus their attention on the living Word of God. 

This goes beyond merely inspiring people with Christian slogans. This is more than dishing out pop psychology with some Christian phrases added for flavor. This is light years away from sharing our thoughts & experiences and hoping they "work."

After people spend time with you, or your ministry, what do they remember - your words and thoughts, or God's Word and His thoughts?

God's Word. Simply powerful.