The Preacher’s Library

You used to be able to tell a lot about a preacher—and about his preaching—simply by walking into his library. If it was filled with catchy titles, how-to manuals, frothy experience-oriented fluff, as well as second-rate commentaries, you could know that isn’t the place to hang your hat as a church member. But things have changed. Now, a man can have an entire library on a computer’s disc that includes volumes that were once inaccessible, and with translations galore at his fingertips. It has become very hard to judge a man by his books (unless he‘s an old foggy like some of us), because all of the good stuff can be hidden away on a hard drive.

But, were you to be able to become aware of what he has on shelves and on disks—and how frequently the good stuff is used—you’d know what you used to know from visiting his library.

Preacher, we can’t tell anymore. That may be a blessing to all. But one thing is true: you know what your library (of both books and computer programs) is like, and of greater importance, you know how often you use the resources at your disposal. We don’t know, until we hear you preach. Then, over a period of time, we can surmise what kind of sources you are using and how hard you are working at exegesis.

What a preacher focuses on will determine what kind of ministry he has. Is it an exegetically-based ministry, or is a ministry of the popularization of modern themes? Do you really feed hungry sheep the bread of life, or do you hand over hand-me-downs from other preachers? Do you focus on sensational topics? Are you a prophecy hound? Do you always avoid the tough passages? Are your people being entertained—or are they learning? Do your people go away challenged, convicted, caring? Does your preaching edify? These should be matters of deep concern.

It has been historically true, and doubtless is and will continue to be true, that a man who is well read, who has good sources and uses them well, is more likely to have a fruitful and longer ministry than the one who doesn’t. He will tend to become a better exegete, he will be well-read in biblical and church history, he will be able to draw upon a wealth of systematic and practical theology, and his congregation will become the better for it. How does your library look, pastor?

Speaking of exegesis, how do you do it? Do you cobble together bits and pieces from various commentaries into some explanation of the preaching portion? Or do you do the hard work of figuring out for yourself what the passage says, using various commentaries to help you? Between these two approaches to the text, there is a large difference. That for which you have worked will come through in your preaching as authentic. That which has been cribbed from some commentator who did the work, will come through as inauthentic (unless, of course, you are an astute actor). Hard work requires using a goodly number of sources to help you come to valid decisions about a passage. But it doesn’t mean abusing them by mere copying. Are you guilty of this sin, preacher? If so, repent, and begin to do the right thing that you know, down deep, you ought to be doing. Rightly handling the Word of God is not only work, but a great responsibility.

Frame It!

Betty (my loving wife) paints. I’m not talking about refurbishing the exterior of the house but about the kind of painting that eventuates in pictures hanging on the wall. She’s good at it, so I like to listen to what she says about it. Recently, she told me, “A picture isn’t a picture until it’s framed.” Profound! She’s right. Putting a frame around a painting makes all the difference. It defines, delimits, focuses and sets off the thrust of the painting. Truly, it makes a picture out of a painting.

While there is much more to a painting than the frame—try hanging an empty one on the wall—the frame enhances the painting. It is a shame to see good work diminished by either no frame or a poor one that fails to complement the painting. A picture becomes a picture when it has a frame!

The same is true of a sermon. Many preachers never take the time required to frame their sermons. And even when they do, some choose frames that clash rather than blend with the sermon itself. What is a good sermon frame? It is one that directs the listener’s attention to the focal point of a biblical message. This may be done in any number of ways, but let me list just two.

First, a good sermon frame is one that limits. A painting with a frame is bordered on all sides. That is also true of a good sermon. It does not extend out in every direction covering all sorts of topics and ideas thrown together in some haphazard fashion. Rather, it confines the sermon to those elements that are central to the Scripture portion from which the preacher is speaking. A good frame holds one’s attention upon what is inside of it. Likewise, a good sermon frame restricts a preacher to the topic at hand. In that way a preacher helps his listeners to concentrate on the one thought of the passage rather than distracting them by extraneous ideas.

There are a number of ways in which preachers may fail to limit their messages. The may wander off onto tangents. Usually, these are chunks of thought that interest the preacher, but have little direct bearing on the main point of the passage. They are bits of information that have caught his attention, about which he thinks (usually wrongly) that the congregation will be as interested as he is. Better to jot them down and file them for future use when they do pertain to the truth of another message. Take it as an axiom that whatever doesn’t directly contribute to the message of the hour will detract from it.

Some preachers fail to frame messages when—unlike the writers of Scripture—they think that they must say everything about every subject. It can’t be done. The attempt is futile. Biblical writers don’t do it, so why would you think that you need to? What am I talking about? The idea that unless you treat every aspect of any subject you have failed to preach the truth. It took Paul years to preach “the whole counsel of God” at Ephesus; how do you think that you can do so in less time?

Jesus, for instance, told His disciples that when they would ask anything in His Name the Father would give it to them (John 16: 23). Now, apart from the fact that this promise was made to them in the context their future ministry, even if the passage can be applied to us in a secondary way, it fails to tell us everything about how to pray. Elsewhere, James says that we must pray rightly (not to satisfy our desires), that to be “effectual” it must be uttered by a “righteous” person, and that we must pray without doubting—in faith believing. We would have to refer to numerous passages about prayer in order to gather the entire scriptural doctrine of prayer. But neither Jesus nor James did any such thing. Nor do you have to do so. What you do need to do, instead, is to know and hold all aspects of prayer in the back of your mind when preaching about any one of them so that, some day, when you preach about the next aspect, you won’t contradict what you said in a previous message. In each biblical passage the writer (or speaker) has a particular point to make, so he didn’t go into all aspects of his subject. Nor should you!

Secondly, as an appropriate picture frame pulls the eye inward toward the object that the painter wants to emphasize, so too a good sermon frame helps to attract ear to the focal point of a message. A common thread running throughout the message may accomplish this. Like a ribbon tying up a package (to change the simile) a sermon frame packages truth. A word, phrase or example repeatedly referred to throughout the sermon will often accomplish the same thing. Or a matching introduction and conclusion-a match that keeps the main subject before the listener and summarizes it in the conclusion—is another way to appropriately frame truth. A question asked in the introduction, then raised again and again within the message, and answered only at the end also tends to frame things well.

In short, we may say that the scriptural message stands out most vividly in a sermon when it has been properly framed. Good preachers always do it. Go thou and do likewise!

Hating Preachers

Is it surprising that some preachers are hated? Well, it shouldn’t be. For people to hate them is nothing new. Listen to this passage:

Jehoshaphat asked, “Isn’t there a prophet of Yahweh here any more?  Let’s ask him.” The king of Israel said . . . “There is one man . . . but I hate him because he never prophesies good about me, but only disaster” ( 1 Kings 22:8, HCSB).

The king of Judah was right in seeking God’s will through a prophet; the king pf Israel was wrong in hating the prophet.  What a contrast!

Why did the latter hate the prophet? Because he did his job—he told the truth about the sins of the king and his people, and predicted God’s judgment upon them apart from repentance.

Today, we have no prophets (contrary to the views of a popular theological writer), but we have preachers who are as close to being prophets as anyone.  When they do their job (fulfill their calling from God) they will frequently have to warn about the consequences of sin against God. When they do, they are often disliked (or possibly even hated) by those who listen. But they are as foolish for doing so as king Ahab, who lost his life as a result (v. 37).

Fools don’t listen. Will you listen—or will you too prove yourself a fool? There are still some preachers who will preach the truth, even though not appreciated for it. If you are fortunate enough to have one in your congregation, listen to him; don’t hate him for telling you the truth. Obey the Word of God as he proclaims it from the Scriptures!

Shoddy Preaching

In chapter eight of his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

Though I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He used to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonished me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevailed on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagined, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confined himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.:

1.  Keeping holy the Sabbath day.
2.  Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures.
3.  Attending duly the public worship.
4.  Partaking of the Sacrament.
5.  Paying a due respect to God’s ministers.

These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more.

Shame on that Presbyterian minister! While due consideration of the unregenerate condition of Franklin 418CT9YYASLleading to his neglect of the church and the possibility of excuse making must be given; nevertheless, from his description of the situation one can glean enough information to conclude that his preacher missed a golden opportunity. And—note the fact—it was his shoddy preaching that drove Franklin away. If it was his desire to hear only morality rather than doctrine that “disgusted” him, one might make allowances for the unregenerate mind. But clearly, it seems that it was more than that. The preacher simply didn’t know how to preach. It sounds like he was a poor exegete who missed the point of the text and who was bent on lecturing people rather than preaching to them. Franklin’s assessment doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

The Word of the living God is not boring. It is not irrelevant. It is only poor preachers who make it seem so. What kind of preacher are you? How would Franklin have evaluated your sermon last week, preacher? In his book Preaching According to the Holy Spirit Jay offers solid help drawing from the preaching of the Apostles in the Book of Acts and from his own experience of over 50 years teaching pastors how to preach the Word. Order your own copy or purchase one for your pastor. He will thank you, and so will those who hear him preach.

For Whom Was It Written

Andrew W. Blackwood told us in class that, in his day, Calvin was known as much (if not more) for his sermons as for his theological writings.  His sermons were translated and sent all over the world. Unfortunately, most of them are lost. But from those that have survived a later generation that failed to appreciate him, we can learn one striking fact: Calvin preached contemporary sermons.

No, I don’t mean that he took up subjects of his day—surely he did so, as he exposed the errors of Romanism—but that isn’t what I mean. Rather, as you can see, from the very first sermon on Galatians where he declares his views on the subject, he intended to preach the Bible as though it were written for his congregation. I say written for, not written to. Of course, he was perfectly aware of the fact that it was an epistle to the Galatians, not to St. Peter’s church in Switzerland!

Well, then, what did he mean?  He meant that it was the Spirit’s intention from the outset to write through human authors to the church in all ages. Therefore, he argued, it should so be preached. That he believed enough to practice what he set forth is clearly seen in all of his extant sermons. He constantly spoke to his people as if the text were written to them. To hear him say, “Paul says to you . . .” gives you the idea.

This emphasis would go a long way toward combating the austere, cold, formalism of those who have learned to “academicize” preaching to three abstract points and a poem! How much richer, when the congregation hears the Scriptures preached as letters and books written for their edification!  Think about this. Read Calvin’s sermons and see for yourself what I am talking about. I am purposely not quoting a line or two from them, though originally that had been my intention.  Instead, I want you to enjoy the rich, contemporaneity of the sermons for yourself. You won’t be sorry.

Trouble—of Whose Making?

You may be disappointed with your pastor. There are any number of possible reasons for this. Some of them may lie at your doorstep; others at his. Some, at both. Here is one that you may not have considered. And it’s one that involves both you and the pastor as well. Let me read II Timothy 4:3—

A time is coming when they won’t put up with healthy teaching, but rather because they want their ears scratched, they will heap up teachers who are in keeping with their own desires.

Ha! That’s it! God punishes his people sometimes by giving them what they want.

If you want a preacher who whispers sweet nothings when he counsels you instead of zeroing in on your sin, you’ll probably call one like that. But when you get him, you’ll begin to complain about how he seems to be a glad-hander, and that families in the church are coming apart.

If you call a preacher because you liked his humorous illustrations and interesting stories, you probably will get one like that. But, again, it probably won’t be long before you get tired of that sort of thing rather than being fed healthy chunks of food from the Word. Thin, watered-down soup satisfies only so long. People don’t mature.

Of course, what’s even worse is if when you do call a superficial, back-slapping preacher rather than a faithful expositor of the Scriptures, you like these traits and are satisfied with what he gives you week by week.

Either way, Paul is warning about churches that, because they want the wrong thing in a preacher, are likely to get one who gives it to them.

What sort of preaching and counseling and ministry in general do you appreciate? Unless it is satisfying solid, healthy food from the Word—you and your church are in trouble. Preacher, are you willing to be that kind of teacher since so many are happy to call one who rarely challenges them with the truth? Shame on you. Double shame!

Double shame on the church as a whole for allowing such “preaching” to exist. Double shame on those who encourage it because, like some docile poodle, they like to have their ears scratched. If persecution comes to the American church—a likelihood in the not too distant future—it will be obvious which churches and pastors will stand up for the faith—and which will not. You cannot afford to settle for superficiality at either level.

I Heard It—Did You?

A rare thing happened the other day—I heard a good sermon. Let me briefly analyze it for you, noting some of the factors that made it good.

First, it was preaching; it was not a string of stories or a stodgy lecture. By that I mean, from start to finish, the sermon was directed to us. We were involved from the outset. The truth of the passage was presented as God’s message to us, not only to the members of a church long ago and far away in biblical times. God came alive to us as someone living, ruling, caring now—for us. The preacher made us concerned, and kept us concerned, about our families, our church, our community.

Next, what I heard was biblical preaching. What he preached was not an essay on some truth, not the ideas of politicians, media personalities, philosophers, theologians, or his own opinions, but what God said to us in Paul’s letter. Not only did he tell us what the preaching portion means, but he even showed us just how every point that he made comes from the passage. Because he did so, we were able to evaluate for ourselves whether the preacher’s conclusions about the text were accurate. Significantly, it was apparent that he had done his homework and that what he told us made sense. And, I believe others in the congregation, if asked, would agree with me that what he said about the text was accurate. He satisfied us that he was preaching what Paul had said. We went away understanding the passage and how everything in the sermon flowed from it. Consequently, we listened to his exhortations about our lives, not as the opinions of a man, but as a word from God to us. He preached, and his preaching was received, with an authority appropriate to the sort of message that it was. We left knowing that we had heard a proclamation from God.

Again, the sermon was interesting. The preacher did not cook the juice out of the passage, leaving hard, dry, burned-over abstract teaching. Nor did he serve it to us as a raw, bloody, uncooked chunk of meat. Like a fine chef, he knew just how to handle the passage, cooking it to a turn, garnishing and accenting it so that what he served was the text in full flavor. Its own nutritious juices were preserved, and where delicate nuances otherwise might be missed, he seasoned it with illustrations that brought them out. As he delivered it, the sermon sizzled!

Moreover, the sermon was well organized. There were points, sturdy as steel, under girding the whole, arranged in logical order. But the points did not protrude; he did not bore us with unnecessary firstlies, secondlies and thirdlies, he avoided details that added nothing to the central idea of the message, and—believe it or not—he did not bother us with distracting, forced alliteration. His entire focus in the sermon was on the intent of the Holy Spirit in the text. He kept moving ahead, avoiding all meaningless prefacing and repetition, instead skillfully thrusting each point straight into our hearts!

Now, I know that you will find it difficult to believe me when I tell you that, on top of everything else, that sermon was practical. Yes, it really was! It was carefully adapted to the particular congregation to which it was preached. And the preacher persisted in telling us not only what to do but how to do it. And sometimes, like his Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, he also told us how not to do it. It was plain that he had spent time thinking about what biblical principles mean in everyday living and had worked out biblically derived applications and implementations of each one.

What a sermon it was! You don’t hear many like it today. Indeed, because of this fact, you may wonder where it was preached and who preached it. You may ask, “Are cassette tapes available?” The answer is no. But I can tell you where I heard it—it was in a reverie while sitting in the Montreal airport that I heard that sermon, and the only record of it is the one that I am now sketching for you enroute to Moncton. But, is it doomed to remain merely a bare record, hidden away from the people of God in a pastoral journal sitting on your shelf? Why should it? Why don’t you bring it to life? Why don’t you preach it this Sunday to your congregation? Then, if you and scores of other preachers with you do so, thousands of people throughout the land will truly be able to say, “I heard a good sermon today!”—J.E.A.

It Makes No Difference

Many a preacher needs to pay close attention to God’s words to Ezekiel:

Speak My words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen . . .   (Ezekiel 2:7)

The Word of God must be proclaimed, and refusal to hear it is no excuse from preaching it. You may become discouraged, ready to throw in the towel and about to turn from the pulpit, but those are not excuses from preaching the message. Count on it—less and less people are going to listen to you. Our society has changed. You will be laughed at, ignored, or even outcast from your present post–but the Word must be preached regardless. Indeed, there will be less and less who will listen to the pure words of God (they’ll run to other venues where it is preached in conjunction with untruth or watered down teaching), but small though your church may become, hang in there and preach all the harder, clearer and more powerfully. God will bless—in one way or another.

Using the Original Languages in Preaching

“Why do I need to? After all, there was no time in the history of preaching when there were more good translations than now.”

The argument sounds good; but the objector misses the obvious fact that the more translation possibilities that he has to choose from, the more one needs to know (at least something about) the original languages; otherwise, when they differ (and they do), how does he know which is correct? From which should he preach? Which more faithfully represents the original text of the writers? This is a special problem today, when so many translators have determined to become interpretive in their renderings. The very wealth of modern options itself should (all the more) point up the need for an acquaintance with the original languages.

“Where can I get this knowledge?” Self-help books and typed language courses in both Greek and Hebrew exist. There are several good training opportunities offered on the internet these days. But (easiest) many Bible colleges, all conservative seminaries and a number of other schools provide courses in the original languages. Any pastor who has never had Greek or Hebrew (even if he doesn’t ever complete a seminary education) ought to take these courses.

“Why?” Well, not only to decide between translations, but:

  1. To be able to “get the feel” of a passage. English translations tend to trowel off the original tone of the writers. Only by becoming acquainted with the original can one restore this. This “feel” is essential to good preaching.
  2. To be able to use the best commentaries and read the better Bible helps (most of which refer to the original text. Without some knowledge of the languages, one cannot follow the reasoning behind the renderings suggested.
  3. To be able to evaluate other books that (again, not using the original) may be far afield in their interpretations and/or uses of many passages.
  4. Preaching that flows from the study of a passage in the original moves forward with a more sure-footed stride; other preaching often limps. A certain confidence derives from having examined the text for one’s self.

“But I’ll never be a Greek or Hebrew scholar.” Right! That is true of most pastors. And right there lies the problem. Many good men who could have profited from a sensible use of the original languages were turned off by seminary teachers who taught them the study of languages as if their life occupation would be to teach Classics or Semitics in a university. They never recommended short cuts (e.g., like forgetting all about the rules for Greek accents—learning these is an almost totally unnecessary chore. One can get along well with learning only those distinguishing accents that count). They tried to build up a conscience against using analytical lexicons and interlinear translations (two very valuable helps that no one should feel guilty about using freely). They talk negatively about such books as Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon and don’t tell students about Spiros Zodhiates’ crib for Machen’s grammar. All such “purism” is sheer nonsense. Who cares if a pastor leans on some Bagster help? Who cares how a person learns to get the right answers to his exegetical questions concerning the original languages so long as he gets them? Of course one should use the Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance if he finds it helpful. Why not?

With all that a busy pastor must do, it is only right for him to employ every available aid that he can afford, to keep his hand into the continued use of Hebrew and Greek. He would be a poor steward of time and energy if he did not. Many men have lost any language ability they once had because they believed (what they were told, or strongly led to think) that it was wrong to use anything but the naked text and the standard grammars and lexicons. Sheer, unadulterated nonsense! Pastor, if using an interlinear will help you get back to the Greek and Hebrew, use it—let me emancipate you from the chains of guilt forged in the hops of language teachers who never had to face the everyday problems of the pastorate. Use it! Use whatever is available. Indeed, every teacher of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary ought to take the time to compare and contrast these helps, giving his opinion about which is best (and why) and instructing pastors in the most effective and intelligent use of each.

Preach; preach from a study of the original text, and you will preach with confidence and joy.

 

Stories

Stories—Their use in preaching, SS classes, etc. can be good or bad, depending . . .

When they are used instead of going to the Bible as the source of belief and action, they are a real detriment. They become a source that may or may not be in accord with God’s Word. And when they are simply accepted as authoritative, exemplary, etc., people are usually led astray. If they are interesting, compelling or otherwise seemingly helpful, they are especially dangerous.

On the other hand, if they are used to illustrate some text that has just been faithfully exegeted they can clarify, they can illustrate, they can show how to follow its teaching, they can demonstrate how something is possible, or (sometimes) even prove something to be true.

Most speakers use stories (illustrations)—but how do you do so?????