Why it’s not always best to preach expository sermons

OK, I realise this depends upon how you define “expository”. If you mean that when you preach, every sermon should allow a text (or more than one) to set the agenda for what is said, then I’d have to agree that every sermon should be expository.

“Expository” defined as the opposite of “thought for the day” or “context-driven” has to be right because it reflects the Bible’s presentation of preaching as coming as words “from God” not just “from the preacher’s head”. Expository as “exposing the sense of a Bible text” is (for me) a non-negotiable. That is surely true whether preaching evangelistically or to edify believers. All sermons should (in my view) be not only Christ-centred and gospel-rich (good news) but Bible-driven and derived from the Bible text they are based upon.

My argument with expository sermons here is not that expository sermons can be boring, either, though they can. “Exposing” the text can become a dry lecture that fills the mind and doesn’t speak to the heart or will. But if I am boring, it is not the fault of the Bible or its logic – DM Lloyd-Jones called this kind of preaching “logic on fire”, and it should be! Others* have convincingly and rightly listed the benefits of “expository” preaching in the true sense of the word.

But if you define “expository” more narrowly than that – as “preaching from the same book of the Bible in sequential order” then I’d argue that is not always wise as the long-term diet of a church family. The main diet, yes, but not the only. To say this may alarm those not from traditions like the Anglican one, where our lectionaries and feast days encourage us to mix it up. What about Charles Simeon and D.M. Lloyd-Jones, you asked, who (it is said) just “preached the Bible in order” and let the Word do the work?

Here are three reasons I can see for not always preaching the Bible “in order”:

  1. Biblical: The Bible doesn’t always work that way. I’m not arguing the textual critic point – that texts are out of order compared to their original composition – here. But some books of the Bible just to not lend themselves to preaching every part of a text in order. Maybe the text is repetitive (Revelation from Chapter 4 onwards, for example) and mirroring that in a sermon series is not going to do justice to the meaning. Maybe the text was not designed to be read aloud in sequential order in the way it is printed in our Bibles today (the Psalms, for instance, seem to be a collection of liturgical and pastoral songs to be sung, and who would argue we have to preach 1-150 in order, with no omission or cherry-picking?) Maybe the text was designed to be read for impact in one sitting, but expository preachers so often pride ourselves upon taking an inordinately long time to preach through a book (Romans, or Hebrews, are two letters many take years over, but I would put in the category of “read fast for impact and overall message”). Maybe the text lends itself to being linked with other similar ones that are not found in immediate proximity in the Bible (a series on the Parables, for instance).
  2. Pastoral: The people of God need help constructing a doctrinal framework for life. A member of our staff team recently asked why we do so many sermon series that don’t just “go through a Bible book in order”. The answer I gave is that the people of God need the preacher of God to help them see what the whole Word of God says about the mind and works of God. We might do this by digressing on doctrinal points when a text invites it (the Puritan John Owen did this when preaching through Hebrews) but that simply makes my point that only preaching what a text says is not always enough. We might also do it by preaching every text of the Bible over (say) a ten-year period, but how many church members will hear every sermon, and make the connections between them all? But we can certainly do this by preaching sermon series that teach “systematically” the truths of the Bible about God and the world. Over my seventeen years in my church we have typically included one or two series each year on themes such as Creation, God’s Attributes, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, The Church, Prayer, Personal Evangelism, A Theology of the City, Church Planting, Service and Ministry, Stewardship/Giving, Spiritual Disciplines, Desiring God, Seven Deadly Sins, Biblical view of Humanity, Temptation/idolatry.
  3. Apologetic: Seekers in our congregations need help grappling with big questions. These are stumbling blocks to hearing the gospel unless we address them. Some preachers find this comes more naturally than others (Tim Keller is especially good at connecting with the seeker and sceptic in his sermon series) but we all, I would argue, need to try. The obvious way is to pick up the big questions in one series every couple of years: The Meaning of Life, The Existence and Knowability of God, the Issue of Science and Faith, the Challenges of Religious Exclusivism, Hypocrisy and Extremism, the Problem of Suffering. We’ve also tried to connect with the non-believing culture when a public moment demands or offers an opportunity: debunking the Da Vinci Code when it was published, responding to publications from new atheists like Dawkins, or events like 9/11 or natural disasters. Such moments are on open door for the gospel.

So there are three reasons why I don’t always preach sermon series through a section of the Bible in order. I could add that evangelistic sermons are better done from texts that clearly portray the heart of the gospel, and that even great preachers like Spurgeon did not preach from the same book of the Bible each week at all, though his sermons brilliantly expound the texts he chose.  

I am sure there are lots more reasons why preachers should stick to preaching through a text in sequence, and lots more why we should keep mixing it up. Let me know your thoughts.

 

  • eg Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (IVP, 1996), Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Preaching (Baker, 1994), David Helm, Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014), William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, 1996), John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1983)

Are you making the most of your Sunday service sheet?

man-prayer-churchWe print a 2-3 line prayer at the top of our service sheet each Sunday, below the date and service title, and above the “Welcome” and opening song/hymn. It’s chosen or written by the preacher ahead of each service. Since I’ve not seen this done in other churches I visit, and it’s a bit different from just printing the “verse for the day”, I recently thought I should put down the thinking behind doing this. I guess this could be as effective if you have visuals/song words/liturgy on a screen, as well as, or instead of, a printed service sheet:

  1. I picked up the idea from a sabbatical visit to Redeemer Manhattan (the church of which Tim Keller is senior pastor) in 2015. They appeared to have, as a usual feature, an extensive prayer, poem or words of a hymn at the head of the service sheet before the “Welcome”. (They also had the musical melody lines for the songs and hymns printed, which may be intimidating for some of our congregations but raises the bar (no pun intended) for more musically-literate ones.)
  2. The purpose is to give those who arrive on time a moment to pray and reflect on the theme of the service that follows: a gospel moment, instead of just sitting staring into space. They also get to take the prayer home to use later.
  3. The reflections should therefore ideally be in the form of a prayer, not a theological statement or declaration. It’s not really the idea just to quote a key verse from the text. Put an “Amen” at the end.
  4. It may be appropriate to use a prayer from the Bible (one in the Bible text for the service, or from the Psalms or elsewhere) but if not, the preacher might use one from another source such as the BCP/CW, The Valley of Vision (short edits perhaps as many of these prayers are multiple lines), or any books of classic prayers and poems (Donne and Herbert can be very good here), or write one based on the text.
  5. If this is working well, the gold standard is that we should find that the reflection ends up being suitable for the preacher to use at the end of their sermon, or the congregation to say together at that point. This may not always be appropriate, but the link of reflection to sermon response is why we ask the preacher to provide the reflection.

Of course there are other ways to maximise the edificatory and gospel purpose of a printed service sheet or overhead screen (use of images, printing sermon outlines or key texts, etc). If you’ve got novel ones too, I’d like to hear from you.

 

Marriage tells “a better story” than the one told by the sexual revolution

“This is about that”. Kings Church Eastbourne has produced a wonderful short video on the gospel meaning of marriage: For a book-length treatment of this, see Ray Ortlund’s Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel. I’m preaching through Song of Songs in a few weeks and am thinking this video makes all the gospel and NT links to love and marriage that one would want to; in just a few minutes.

 

Divine infinity – a primer

From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we look at the divine attribute of infinity. ******* Lightstock There are a number of ways to categorize the attributes of God, but the most common way…

via Theological Primer: Divine Infinity — Kevin DeYoung

She is our mother

What is Mother’s Day about?

The celebration of our human mothers only goes back to 1914 in the USA, where it is celebrated on May 9th, the anniversary of the death of the mother of its American promoter, Anna Jarvis.

The custom of celebrating motherhood in Lent started here in 1920 when Constance Smith suggested that the Bible reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent would be a suitable pointer to thanking God for our mothers:

“But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26)

There is huge value in reminding ourselves annually of the care shown by our mothers and honouring them in this way through sending flowers, cards and Simnel cakes. The care shown by mothers also reminds us of the “brooding” of God’s Spirit over chaos before creation began (Genesis 1:2) and of Jesus’ longing to protect his own Jewish people in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). We celebrate motherhood as an image of God’s love creating life and protecting his children.

Mother’s Day (as it is known outside the Church) has largely ceased to be a religious occasion in the UK, as in the USA. Anna Jarvis regretted the growing commercialisation of the day, even to disapproving of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards. “A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

As we nonetheless continue to thank God for his gracious provision of motherhood, we can also reclaim the original meaning of that text for the Fourth Sunday of Lent about the Church. The Church, wonderfully composed of all in Christ from east to west, young to old, on earth and in glory, gathered around His throne, is our mother. For centuries Mothering Sunday has seen people gather at their local “mother” church or cathedral.

In the text from Galatians above Paul is making the point that God’s people are free in Christ. In the context, he draws the contrast between the children of Hagar, Abraham’s slavegirl, and the children of Sarah, his wife. He then makes a radical claim that those who see Jewish law, instead of faith in Christ, as the way to be right with God are not children of Sarah but of Hagar, because only those in Christ are free from sin and law. Those who are children of the promise by faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are free, children of God’s heavenly city Jerusalem. She is our mother.

I think it’s brilliant that in the middle of Lent we have this text. It reminds us that:

  • earthly mothers are remarkable, but belonging to our heavenly mother the Church matters even more
  • membership of God’s family rests not on what we do but on what Christ has done in fulfilling the Law of God, and paying the price on the Cross for us who broke it

Paul goes on in the remainder of Galatians to apply these truths by calling us who are free in Christ not to let ourselves become slaves either to law or to sin again.

Let’s pray that the Freedom message of Mothering Sunday will set many free to know and live for Christ, secure in our heavenly family as we honour our earthly one.

 

 

“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bishops, the Bible, and marriage

general-synod2

According to newspaper headlines about General Synod last week, the Church of England is in turmoil. True, in the sedate world of church committees, this amounts to a few teacups rattling. But there was a surprise.

The Bishops’ recent report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships was written after much “listening” to the views of church members and clergy. Going against powerful trends in secular culture which redefine marriage, it basically affirmed with commendable clarity the Biblical teaching that marriage is and remains a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and also recognised that gay people have at times been made to feel unwelcome in church, urging the Church to review its tone and pastoral care in this area.

The surprise was that whilst the Bishops and lay members supported the Report, the clergy members of the General Synod voted (by a narrow margin) not to “take note” of it. This refusal to “note” the report is a long way from the Church of England “moving towards gay marriage”, as some headlines had it. Yet some of those who spoke in the debate are apparently so determined to force the Church to change that Scripture can be ignored and the Church  divided towards that end.

Nonetheless it was widely acknowledged that one of the most moving and courageous speeches in the debate came from Sam Alberry, an evangelical minister who described his feeling of being bullied, first at school for being “gay”, and now at Synod for being same-sex attracted but faithful to Christ. His three-minute contribution is worth listening to here and starts at 1:07 into the recording.

Those who hold as I do that the Biblical teaching on marriage is based on Genesis 2:24 , “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV), do not do so because we are being difficult or “fundamentalist”. We believe in taking the Bible literally – in the sense of meaning what the “letters” or words in it mean. We believe in interpretation of the Bible using the best tools of  learning – but not to make a text mean what the author could never have meant. We believe in being aware of the culture behind a text – but not in changing the text to fit our culture. We believe in reading the Bible as a whole, taking note of its diversity – but not in using one part to contradict another.

At their consecration bishops affirm their commitment to the Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation, and to teaching the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. The Bishops should be honoured for doing their job and faithfully teaching what the Bible says about marriage and relationships.

None of this absolves the Church from repenting that at times we have made gay people feel unwelcome – and for that matter, singles, or unmarried parents. All of us equally need the grace of Christ and the love of the Church, and we can start sharing these things today. But if Genesis 2:24 marriage is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, not just a social convention, or a way to raise a family, but a sign of the union of Christ with His Bride the Church, it is surely right to defend its Biblical definition and value with every ounce of conviction that we have. Let’s pray for the bishops.